Latin America and the U.S. Grapple with the OAS’s Cuba Conundrum

Latin America and the U.S. Grapple with the OASs Cuba Conundrum

Latin American leaders usually have few qualms about lecturing the U.S. on what they regard as the folly of its Cuba policy, especially of late. Re-integrating Cuba has become a priority issue for many if not most of the region’s governments,
who see it as a way to break with the Cold War politics and U.S. hegemony
that burdened the region in the 20th century. Calls for Washington to lift
its 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba have rarely been louder,
especially since President Barack Obama, who is popular in Latin America,
seems to be opening the door to dialogue with Havana. And last year regional
powerhouse Brazil ushered Cuba into the Rio Group, Latin America’s major
multilateral organization.

But as representatives of the 35 member states of the Organization of American States, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gather this week in San Pedro Sula, Honduras for its general assembly, the region’s powers themselves are grappling with their own powerfully symbolic diplomatic dilemma: how to readmit communist Cuba while adhering to an OAS charter whose rules require democratic government.

It may seem easy at first to argue that Cuba’s 1962 suspension from the hemispheric multilateral organization, like the embargo, is a Cold War relic, one that might have been understandable during the Cuban missile crisis but
makes little sense two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. But that case is undermined by
the OAS’s 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter — approved on 9/11 — which
mandates that members adhere to democratic norms like multiparty elections
and free speech. OAS officials say privately that even human-rights
groups that deplore the embargo have warned the organization not to betray
the 2001 charter. “This time the U.S. position is actually much
closer to the default position of the OAS,” says Daniel
Erikson, a senior associate at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington,
D.C., and the author of The Cuba Wars, “while it’s
countries like Nicaragua and Honduras that look like they’re trying to paint
outside the lines.”

The OAS’s task in San Pedro Sula is to find a compromise between proposals
put forth in recent days by Nicaragua and Honduras, leftist governments which
are calling for the immediate lifting of the suspension; and the Obama
Administration, which says now that it too supports readmitting Cuba but
only if Havana takes “the concrete steps necessary to meet those
[democratic] principles,” Clinton told Congress this month. On Sunday, ahead of the OAS gathering, State Department officials reportedly confirmed that Cuba had accepted Washington’s recent offer to restart talks on legal immigration and mail service, talks that were suspended by the Bush Administration in 2004.

Diplomats tell TIME that major Latin broker countries like Brazil are
stepping in now to help hammer out a deal palatable to both Washington and
Havana — one that would probably demand a lesser gesture of democratic
commitment on Cuba’s part, like the release of political prisoners. But they
also suggest that the general assembly may end up simply deciding to hold a
year-long “dialogue” on the matter to allow both the U.S. and Cuba to ease
into a compromise that would be unveiled in 2010.

For all the diplomatic wrangling over Cuba’s OAS membership, it’s not at all clear that the island nation has any real interest in rejoining the organization. Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother, former
President Fidel Castro, insist they won’t accept any conditions. “We do not wish
to be part of” the OAS, Fidel wrote this month, calling its criticism of
Cuba’s human-rights record “pure garbage.” What the OAS should decide in San
Pedro Sula, he added, “is to expel the U.S. and start from scratch with a
new organization that will defend the interests of Latin America and the
Caribbean.” It’s most likely a disingenuous stance — it’s hard to imagine
Cuba not reentering the OAS if its members do vote to rescind the
suspension — but it does reflect growing skepticism in Latin America about
the 61-year-old OAS’s relevance, especially as the region, politically and
economically, becomes more independent of the U.S.

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, a moderate socialist and former Chilean foreign minister nicknamed
El Panzer for his tank-like drive, has actually strengthened the OAS’s
influence since being elected Secretary General in 2005 — the first winning candidate, in fact, who
wasn’t regarded as “Washington’s man.” Last year, for example, he played a
key role in quieting war drums in the Andes when a crisis broke out between
Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela over leftist guerrillas and territorial
sovereignty. But he also took heat last fall for what critics called an all
too OAS-like soft response to credible charges of widespread, government-orchestrated vote fraud that erupted after elections in
Nicaragua. As a result, how Insulza handles the Cuba question this week will
have a lot to say about how much importance the OAS carries into the new

Privately, Obama Administration officials acknowledge that Washington’s own
influence inside the OAS has shrunk since the Cold War, despite the fact
that the U.S. is still the group’s No. 1 financial backer, and they
admit the OAS could vote this week to readmit Cuba without U.S. approval, though it would be rare for the organization not to forge a consensus on the matter first. Still, “the OAS’s
historic journey to become a region that defines itself democratically is
not something that can be lightly walked away from,” says a senior State
Department official. If the OAS can pull off the feat of honoring its charter while not walking away from Cuba, the U.S. and Latin America may have found some crucial common ground.

See TIME’s photos of Fidel Castro in the jungle.
Read TIME’s story on Cuban reforms.