Jorge G. Castañeda
Where Cuba Doesn’t Belong
The OAS Is for Democracies Only.
Published May 30, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Jun 8, 2009
In 1962, at a special meeting of the Organization of American States, the Uruguayan resort of Punta del Este became famous for something more than just luxury condos, restaurants and hotels, and catering to the Argentine aristocracy during the holiday season. At that meeting, Cuba was suspended from the regional body, with the Cold War pretext that its espousal of "Marxism-Leninism" and an alliance with the Soviet Union were incompatible with membership in the hemispheric club and its organizations.
But this week, the OAS will hold its annual General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and there is every reason to believe that the secretary-general, the Chilean José Miguel Insulza, and the hard-left nations of Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and their associates in South America and the Caribbean, will attempt to repeal the 1962 resolution. There is also every reason to believe that this suspension of the suspension will be approved, despite doubts and suspicions about Cuba in many countries, including the United States and Canada.
Technically, one could argue that there is no valid legal reason to maintain the Cold War resolution, and that could give the Obama administration, the Canadians and democratic Latin American governments the cover they need to go along with the far-left countries and the secretary-general and not find themselves all alone confronting the rest of the member states. But going from simply and symbolically repealing the nearly half-century-old resolution to actually readmitting Cuba to the OAS would not help the cause of democracy in Latin America if Havana does not comply with the conditions that the rest of the hemisphere's nations have established for belonging to the American concert.
In 2001, nations in the region came together to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which states explicitly that representative democracy is a condition for belonging to the OAS, and defines it as "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," "periodic, free and fair elections based on secret balloting," separation of powers between truly independent branches of government and a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations. Needless to say, Cuba meets none of these conditions, and thus any attempt to invite Cuba back to the OAS should founder.
Yet it is possible that now or soon, the hard-left countries will try to move on readmitting Cuba, and that they will win this fight. The democracies of Latin America are not likely to reject the attempt, even if Cuba continues to insist it does not want to return to the organization. Readmission would mean access for the Cubans to Inter-American Development Bank resources that they desperately want, and many Latins would like to help the island. And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, if they were scared of isolation in Honduras regarding repeal, will also fear voting alone against 32 Latin Americans regarding admission to the OAS.
Once the hard left sees that Obama prefers to go along today, they will push for more concessions tomorrow. And at some point, Obama will be forced to make the ultimate choice: reinstate Cuba in the OAS without democracy and respect for human rights, or vote alone with the Canadians. Many observers think Obama, who has promised to begin "repairing relations with the neighbors," would cave. This would be a mistake, both for the United States and for Latin democracies.
The defense of democracy and human rights in Latin America has never been an easy thing. The conflict between universal values and national sovereignty has always confounded the region, for good and bad reasons. Right-wing authoritarian dictatorships (most of the time) and left-wing authoritarian regimes (much less frequently, since there have been fewer of them) have invoked nonintervention and nationalism as a defense against their domestic and foreign enemies; democrats have been scared of pushing for an intrusive regional legal structure, fearing association with Washington.
The hemisphere has advanced enormously on this front over the past quarter century, and the international covenants protecting these values are one explanation for the prevalence of democracy everywhere in Latin America, with the exception of Cuba. But the new, hard-left regimes today have their own definitions of human rights and democracy, and they do not match the charters and covenants that guide the OAS.
The United States should, on its own, lift the embargo on Cuba, and vote for the repeal resolution in Honduras if it has no choice, but should make it perfectly clear, not so much to its enemies as to its friends, that it expects them to reject any notion of Cuban readmission unless the island meets the requirements as they stand. Why? Because if history is any guide, in the not-so-distant future, certain countries will unfortunately succumb to new authoritarian temptations and human-rights violations in Latin America. One of the few arms with which to resist them will be the legal framework built up over the years. One hopes there is somebody in Washington who understands this.