Ostracism or Reconciliation? Cuba, the U.S. and the Organization of American States

A fateful moment may be at hand in the future of the Inter-American movement
The fate of the Organization of American States (OAS) will be put into doubt this week during its meeting in Honduras, with the prospect of Cuba’s reentry into the organization after nearly fifty years of a U.S.-led suspension looming over the agenda.

A magical airport for Haiti won the Cuban vote for the U.S.
In 1962, President Kennedy’s ambassador to the OAS, DeLesseps Morrison, a rabid anti-communist, pushed a resolution through the organization suspending Cuba’s membership in the Western Hemisphere’s most important regional institution. Given the lack of overwhelming regional backing for such a move against Cuba at the time, this was no easy task. In fact, in order to convince Haitian President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier to support the U.S. initiative to bar Cuba from the OAS, Ambassador Morrison had to bribe the reprehensible Haitian dictator by promising to fund the construction of a new airport in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.1

Haiti was thus won over to provide the last of the necessary fourteen votes to suspend Cuba from the organization. (In enlisting the assistance of one dictatorship to expel another, Washington demonstrated its selective indignation at authoritarianism.)

Nearly fifty years later, Latin America has moved away from grumblingly submitting to the United States’ policy of ostracism towards including Cuba in the ranks of most other regional institutions, including the Rio Group. After the FMLN’s candidate Mauricio Funes took office today in El Salvador, he restored diplomatic relations between Cuba and El Salvador, leaving the United States as the only state in the Americas without normalized relations with Cuba. After fifty years, it could be said with irony that the U.S.’ Cuba policy has left Washington, and not Havana, isolated from the rest of the Americas. Even ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee Republican Richard Lugar has criticized the embargo as an “ineffective” measure that “has failed to achieve its stated purpose of ‘bringing democracy to the Cuban people.'”2

Washington’s shifting stance toward moderation after the rejection of its Cuba policy
OAS members other than the United States have been calling, with increasing force, for an end to Cuba’s suspension from the organization – a policy as outdated as Washington’s embargo against the island. Both Nicaragua and Honduras are submitting proposals for Cuba to be readmitted to the OAS, and they have the support of many other Latin American nations. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is threatening to pull Venezuela from the OAS if Cuba is not granted membership, which would be profoundly threatening to the status quo due to Chavez’s significant influence in much of the region. If Venezuela leaves, several of ALBA’s members could very well follow. Barack Obama claimed in April that he would like to have “an equal partnership” with Latin American leaders. This will be an important opportunity for him to demonstrate his willingness to follow through on that claim, remembering the Brazilian foreign minister’s observation that the road to rehabilitated relations with Latin America runs through Havana.3

However, Barack Obama must attempt to balance this international pressure against powerful domestic interests, which will be no small feat. Some U.S. politicians insist that Cuba should not be allowed back into the OAS at this time, arguing that the OAS’ Inter-American Democratic Charter, which mandates that all member states hold multiparty elections and allow for free speech, precludes Cuba’s admissibility. The Castros have been in power for sixty years and Cuba today holds an estimated two hundred political prisoners. Senator Bob Menendez has threatened to cut off the OAS’ funding if Cuba is allowed into the organization. Such an imperious action could pose a death knell to the functioning of the OAS, which relies heavily on U.S. budget: the US supplies sixty percent of the OAS’ funding.4 Additionally, many (although a diminishing number of) Cuban exiles and their families living in Miami vehemently oppose Cuban re-integration into the OAS.

At least partially in response to the mounting push to reinstate Cuba’s OAS membership, the Obama administration and the State Department have put forward a plan for the possible gradual reintegration of Cuba into the organization. Although it is consistent with Obama’s general approach of instituting dialogue before changes, it still imposes familiar Cold War-era conditions on Cuba and in no way guarantees its eventual reentry. This is in stark contrast to the Hugo Chavez-sponsored Nicaraguan proposal which calls for an apology for Cuba’s 1962 expulsion. Somewhere in between these two drafts lies the more open-ended Honduran proposal advocating reconciliation between Cuba and the OAS on terms to be determined by these two entities.5

A matter of membership
However, there is little existing evidence that Cuba wishes to be reclaim its seat at the OAS. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla has said that as long as the OAS remains merely an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, Cuba does not need to be part of it.6 Rodriguez believes that “One way or another, the OAS is totally anachronistic; it serves other interests, and we feel that our path, Cuba’s path, is one of Latin American and Caribbean integration, without a presence from outside the continent.”7

It could be argued that Cuba would be more interested in joining a regional body specifically concerned with issues that affect Latin America, which doesn’t cater to a U.S. agenda. In fact, Cuba might prefer to increase its participation in organizations that exclude the United States.8

Whether or not the recently formed Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) with its accompanying South American Defense Council (CSD) can be that organization is being questioned by some, given the difficulties that have been encountered over agreeing on UNASAUR’s leadership during its first year of existence.9 Cuba is also a member of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), which certainly does not include the U.S. However, ALBA is neither an all-inclusive Latin American organization nor a representative one, and its limited membership would restrict its function on a broader regional level, particularly since most of its members are politically progressive and tend to be ideological purists.

Is the OAS worth it?
Nevertheless, many liberal intellectuals believe that Latin America needs a supranational entity (along the lines of the European Union) to facilitate regional cooperation and promote regional interests without the traditional overbearing guidance of U.S. interests.10 In other words, Latin America may now need a U.S.-free Organization of American States.

This is not to entirely diminish the value of what the OAS has accomplished. In fact, in the past, COHA has argued that the OAS can and should coexist with other regional organizations that do and do not include the United States, depending upon the function of the body under discussion. Rather than dismantle the OAS, it might behoove Latin America to maintain multiple, and sometimes parallel, regional institutions that function on different levels and that are tailored to cater to different categories of issues and functions.

The possibility of rejection
Furthermore, it would not be in Cuba’s best interest to pridefully reject the OAS’ offer of reconciliation. The OAS is still a venue for discussion and cooperative initiatives. Cuba may be able to go on without being part of the organization – it certainly has for the last fifty years – but such a rejection might offend the countries that have been pushing so ardently for the reversal of the 1962 decision.

Not only would there be repercussions for the future of relations between Cuba and its sympathizers, but Havana’s refusal to rejoin the OAS also would have the potential to impede what progress was being made between Cuba and the U.S. towards gradual normalization, in effect, poisoning the well. In April of this year, President Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to visit family or sending money home. This past Saturday, Havana notified the U.S. that it had accepted a May 22 overture by Washington to resume the talks on immigration that had been suspended by George W Bush in 2003. There is also a growing possibility of cooperation on issues of terrorism, drug trafficking, hurricane relief, and even the postal service.11 A rejection of prospects for constructive engagement in a spreading arc of reconciliation could be of epochal importance. Such negativism on Cuba’s part could also damage the almost high esteem in which it now finds itself.

It remains to be seen, however, which approach the OAS will take to the reintegration of Cuba. Extraordinarily enough – given its long and bitter history – this question may be resolved in the next seven days in San Pedro Sula. While the United States certainly will not apologize for bribing the Haitian government into voting to suspend Cuba in 1962, neither will it be able to continue to impose its punitive conditions on Cuba, and, by extension, the rest of the hemisphere.

Latin America has learned to live without an ever-brooding U.S. presence as a result of the distraction offered by Iraq throughout the past decade. This has enabled the region to develop new institutions, a wider array of friendships and the ability to benefit from soaring commodity prices for much of that period. As a result, the United States has lost much of its clout, not to mention the ability, with impunity, to again build airports in Latin America in order to bribe a majority of OAS member-states into voting against Cuba in 2009.

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