Obama Overtures to Cuba Overtaken as OAS Votes to Engage Regime

June 4, 2009
By Viola Gienger and Helen Murphy

President Barack Obama unlocked the door to ending Cuba’s diplomatic isolation by easing travel barriers and offering talks on migration issues. Latin American nations yesterday forced it wide open.

The region’s governments voted to lift Cuba’s 47-year-old expulsion from the Organization of American States without meeting the U.S. demand that the Castro regime first ease its crackdown on political dissent.

The island nation’s return to the regional political forum was “a rallying cry” for Latin America, said Ted Piccone, head of the Cuba project at the Brookings Institution policy group in Washington. “They decided to push the U.S. very hard on this.”

The outcome demonstrated frustration that Obama hasn’t yet engaged more directly with Cuba and moved to lift the U.S. trade embargo on most goods, a symbol of the decades-old divide with the communist neighbor. Administration officials have said Cuba first must reciprocate for decisions such as lifting U.S. curbs on family support payments and travel to the island by making improvements on human rights.

Obama’s “approach so far hasn’t been credible, and I think the OAS was reacting to that,” said Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982. U.S. officials “keep talking about a new attitude and a new approach but have taken virtually no important steps to change things.”

U.S. Praise

The U.S. described the OAS action on Cuba as an acceptable compromise that upholds the group’s principles. While the resolution requires Cuba to request and negotiate re-entry based on OAS standards for democracy and human rights, it doesn’t set forth explicit conditions for Cuba to rejoin, as the U.S. had originally sought.

Representatives of the 34 member countries in the OAS, including the U.S., reached the agreement by acclamation during a plenary session of the group’s general assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

American officials cast the “multiple steps” required for participation as an improvement over initial demands by some OAS countries to allow Cuba’s return without any conditions.

“I am pleased that everyone came to agree that Cuba cannot simply take its seat and that we must put Cuba’s participation to a determination down the road,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

Cuba, the only country in the hemisphere that isn’t a democracy, was suspended from the multilateral body because of its links to the Soviet Union and communism at the height of the Cold War. The OAS decision yesterday puts President Raul Castro’s government in the position of having to ask for re- admission. Castro succeeded his brother Fidel last year.

‘Offends Us’

“It even offends us that it’s supposed that we want to join the OAS,” Fidel Castro wrote in a “reflection” published April 14. “One day, many countries will ask forgiveness for having been a part of it.”

Clinton said June 1 as she was leaving the summit that she couldn’t muster support for a U.S. proposal to allow Cuba’s membership to go forward only after the country met democratic standards. Negotiations continued late into the night and again yesterday.

“The final proposal didn’t include the explicit reference the U.S. wanted on human rights and political prisoners, which means it was less aligned with the U.S. than it had wanted,” said Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Council of the Americas in New York.

Rift Avoided

The compromise by acclamation might have saved the organization, which seeks consensus and would have seen the requirement of a vote as divisive, Brookings’ Piccone said.

“In any good diplomatic negotiation, you have maybe an imperfect result but that everyone can live with,” he said.

The decision shows the growing autonomy of Latin American countries from the sway of the U.S., especially with the erosion of American influence since the war in Iraq, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

“Latin America has a lot of leverage, and the U.S. is no longer the bandleader that can designate the tune,” Birns said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who have chastised the U.S. as arrogant and colonialist, celebrated the OAS decision. Chavez called it “a great triumph” and said the U.S. was forced to “retreat.”

The OAS decision may add weight to Latin American leaders who have been urging the U.S. to renew ties with Cuba and even lift the trade embargo, a step Obama has said he isn’t ready to take.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the lifting of the embargo is inevitable.

“It will happen, it’s irreversible,” Lula told reporters in San Jose, Costa Rica, yesterday. “There’s no explanation today, nowhere in the world, for the embargo to Cuba.”