Cuba, the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the OAS Race

  • The United States successfully presented a resolution to the UN Human Rights Commission criticizing Cuba’s human rights record. This year’s document, deemed as “mild,” passed with 21 votes supporting it, 17 against and 15 abstentions.
  • Even though such resolutions on Cuba have been presented since 1990, a hemispheric consensus on them has never emerged. While some Latin American governments back the criticism, others oppose it, seeing it as a cynical manipulation of a serious human rights issue in order to promote the isolation of the island and to justify the decades-old embargo.
  • Cuba’s status as a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) has been suspended since 1962, but the island maintains a voice in regards to the future of the hemispheric body which will no doubt continue to be heard in the forthcoming weeks through friendly surrogates. Mexico’s unsuccessful bid to head the OAS, in particular, was negatively affected by the coincidence of the Geneva Commission with the latter stages of the OAS race, to Mexico’s disadvantage.
  • The Fox government has faced a series of difficult choices in recent weeks. Abstention on the Cuba vote would not seem feasible due to the “softness” of this year’s resolution and the government’s publicized commitment to the promotion of human rights. Its desire to please the U.S. was another important element to further encourage voting for the resolution. Even though Mexico eventually voted in favor of the resolution, this decision generated even bigger problems for Fox than risking the internal approval of his foreign policy initiatives, including the Bush administration’s lukewarm support of Derbez’s candidacy.
  • Last Tuesday, at the 61st meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the U.S. put forth a resolution on the situation of human rights in Cuba. This year’s resolution—co-sponsored by the European Union—was described as “mild.” The U.S., prudently bowing to reality, was only able to press for the extension of a UN expert’s tenure dedicated to examining human rights observances in Cuba and reporting back to the Commission. It does not even ask for the Cuban government to receive the UN monitor (which it always refuses to do) nor does it cite specific violations. Ever since 1990, when the first of such resolutions were presented, the Cuban government has consistently deemed them as a U.S. scheme to promote the international isolation of the island. Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque led a campaign to oppose the approval of this new resolution, even going so far as to give false assurances that Washington would fail to gather enough support to pass the resolution.

    A Region Divided
    Latin American members on the Commission were divided on the Cuba vote, as was the case in previous reunions. Last year Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay chose to abstain, arguing that the passing of the resolution was in fact not about human rights and thus refused to add their efforts to the condemnation of Cuba. Of the 12 Latin American nation-states on this year’s Commission, only Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico voted in favor of the resolution. With the exception of Cuba, which opposed it, the others abstained. Argentina and Brazil maintained their respective abstentions from last year and were additionally joined by Peru, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Strikingly, the division on the Cuba vote reflects a similar division as shown in the OAS race.

    The vote on Cuba seems to have become a reference point for Latin American governments to characterize their ideology, as leftist and left-of-center countries have traditionally abstained or voted against the resolutions. These governments have also tended to underscore their diplomatic ties to Cuba, an attestation to their degree of independence in foreign policy making.

    The Cuba vote has been a controversial matter since the beginning of the Fox administration in 2000. Traditionally, with Mexico voting in favor of the anti-Havana resolutions for the last three years, Mexico had endeavored to act as a bridge between the U.S. and Cuba, reliably denouncing the embargo while striving to maintain correct ties with Havana. It is important to recall that Mexico was one of the few countries in the hemisphere to oppose the suppression of Cuba’s membership in the OAS in 1962, at the behest of the Kennedy administration. The Fox government publicly has decried the pragmatism lying behind Mexico’s abstention vote. Since Mexico had opened its doors to international scrutiny, it supported the principle that other countries should do so as well. As a result, Mexico’s international stance on human rights went from defensive to offensive. Voting for the resolutions on Cuba was justified as the only policy compatible with the Fox government’s pledge to promote human rights internally and abroad and this was the rationale given to opponents within Mexico of the Fox axiom.

    Mexico’s Change of Heart: Defensive to Offensive
    Although one might not easily recognize it, the U.S. has applauded this stance as the best it could obtain when it asked for the Mexican endorsement of this year’s resolution. U.S. ambassador Tony Garza went so far as to publish an article in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma, praising the Fox government on its commitment to human rights and citing as “an example,” its recent leadership within the Geneva Commission. Having backed the Mexican candidate to head the OAS during the second round of voting, after its initial preference, former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores dropped out of the race, the U.S. expected that Mexico would coordinate its vote on Cuba with Washington’s strategy.

    The coincidence of the Geneva Commission, roughly happening at the same time as the race to elect the next Secretary General of the OAS, posed a dilemma for the Fox government. Its human rights platform and its desire to please the U.S. strongly encouraged a fourth consecutive vote for the Cuba resolution. The “mildness” of this year’s document would, in other circumstances, have made the decision even easier by eliminating the possibility of abstention. However, the Fox administration faced bigger problems than risk appearing inconsistent or provoking the U.S. into withdrawing its support for Mexico’s minister of foreign affairs, Luis Derbez, to head the OAS. In reaction to the Mexican vote in Geneva, the Cuban government could choose to play a wild card that would pose a threat to Mexico’s own political stability.

    Already significantly deteriorated, Mexico-Cuba relations have gone from bad to worse since 2000. The lowest point hit was last year when Mexico expelled the Cuban ambassador and accused the Castro government of intervening in Mexico’s national affairs. This move was in response to the government’s detention and deportation of Mexican-Argentine businessman Carlos Ahumada, who was implicated in an intricate political scandal in Mexico involving some of the country’s most notorious politicians and government officials. Although the ambassadors were soon reinstalled, lasting wounds have certainly not healed.

    Fox Administration’s Decision: The OAS Race or the Cuba Resolution?
    Cuba’s influence in the Caribbean is widely recognized. In the latter phase of his ultimately successful campaign, Chilean candidate Minister Jose Miguel Insulza declared his willingness to “revise” Cuba’s suspension from the OAS. The Cuban lobby, adding to that of Brazil and Venezuela, certainly diminished Derbez’s chances to gather further incremental support in the Caribbean, where he had noted that more votes were needed to ensure victory. However, the Fox government chose to act on “principle” and be an “example,” as celebrated by Ambassador Tony Garza, and voted in favor of the Cuba resolution in Geneva. Thus, Mexico has placed itself at serious political risk.

    The Cuban government claims to possess some 40 hours of video footage containing Ahumada’s embarrassing declarations. Although the Mexican government repeatedly has asked for its return, Cuba’s position, as declared last October by ambassador to Mexico, Jorge Bolaños, is that there is no hurry to hand over the videos and that the government is entitled to act according to its own interests in deciding the matter. Most analysts are united in their conclusions that the videos could prove to be extremely harmful to the Fox administration. Some have speculated that they contain proof of a strategy on the part of the federal government to remove Mexico City’s leftist Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the presidential race. Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign affairs minister and now independent candidate for the presidency, has stated that “there is something in those videos” that could well allow La Habana to blackmail the Fox government if it chose to do so. It is reasonable for Castañeda to breed such thoughts because he himself got into a dicey situation while in office whereby his desire to accommodate the U.S. vis-à-vis Mexico, deeply offended Havana without providing notable advantages for Mexico.

    The PRI and PAN members of the Mexican Congress recently voted to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity from prosecution on charges of ignoring a court ruling in the El Encino land dispute. Lopez Obrador`s supporters have denounced the decision as an act of political manipulation to prevent the current leader in the polls from running for the presidency in 2006. The affair, spurring much criticism in Mexico as well as abroad, while calling into question the legitimacy of Mexico’s democracy, eventually resulted in the Attorney General’s resignation as a result of the mounting political polarization. It is in this climate that a Cuban decision to disclose more of Ahumada’s video-documented declarations could prove to be particularly damaging to the Fox administration. Because of Mexico’s condemning vote in Geneva, Cuba is likely to retaliate in some manner at a later point.