On June 3, as many recalled the 20th anniversary of China's
crushing of a fragile democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, 34
hemispheric leaders convened in Honduras for the annual gathering
of the Organization of American States (OAS). There they repealed a
1962 resolution that suspended communist Cuba from membership.
The repeal reportedly rids the OAS of a Cold War relic and opens
the door for the return of Cuba. The resolution's second clause,
however, said, "Cuba's participation in the OAS will result from a
process of dialogue started at the request of Cuba's government and
according to the practices, purposes and principles of the
The leftist president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, exclaimed,
"Fidel Castro said history will absolve me, and today history has
absolved him," referring to Castro's historic 1953 speech. Overall,
jubilation accompanied the OAS's repeal of the exclusion order,
giving the appearance that the Castros and Cuban communism had won
a great victory.
Administration officials differed. They argued that the beef is
in the second clause. "Today," announced Assistant Secretary of
State Thomas Shannon, "we removed an historical impediment to
Cuba's participation in the OAS, but we also established a process
of engagement with Cuba based on the core practices, principles,
and purposes of the OAS and the Inter-American system." He looked
forward to the day when a "democratic Cuba" would join the OAS.
Cuba, the Bolivarian Left, and the
The charge for Cuba's return to the OAS was led by leaders with
tarnished democratic credentials, notably Hugo Chávez of
Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Along with Bolivia, the
Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Cuba, they are members of the
Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Argentina, Ecuador,
and Paraguay are also closely affiliated with the ideological line
of their ALBA friends.
In Honduras, the ALBA view was reflected by Ortega. He lauded
the removal of a great "stain" on hemispheric relations and
indicated that the ALBA alliance intends to wage a campaign against
U.S. economic restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba. In short,
ALBA will pursue within the OAS a strategy that tries to isolate
and confront the U.S. rather than push for democratic changes long
overdue in Cuba.
Pressure for Cuba's return to the OAS is also the result of
efforts by other Latin American and Caribbean nations, even
friendly democratic ones. Many could not pass up an opportunity to
highlight past resentments against the U.S., rather than speak out
on Cuba's continued denial of political and economic liberties.
Many are beneficiaries of Cuba's medical diplomacy (i.e., dispatch
of Cuban doctors and health workers in large numbers) and
Venezuela's assistance and oil subsidies. Whether they will have
the courage to press for anything more than a cosmetic dialogue
with Cuba remains to be seen.
Yet it is unclear Cuba wants to join the OAS after 47 years in
the wilderness. In the past, Fidel Castro has relentlessly
disparaged the organization, calling it "an unburied cadaver." In
his "Reflections" on June 3, he again called it a "Trojan Horse."
White House National Security Council director for Latin America
Dan Restrepo correctly noted that Cuba must "swallow" its former
hostility to OAS. Even with the sugarcoating offered by other OAS
members, the pill may be too bitter.
Overall, Cuba and the ALBA group see little potential for
long-term gains within the confines of the OAS. The U.S. continues
to advance liberal democracy, rule of law, and individual freedoms
and expects OAS members to abide by democratic values, so future
clashes are inevitable.
The ALBA alliance and its supporters openly advocate creation of
a "for Latins only" regional organization if they cannot dominate
the OAS. They may not have reached critical mass yet for a
breakaway. They will press to attract additional members like El
Salvador or smaller Caribbean states. For now, Cuba is a lever to
sow disunity in the OAS.
Hollow Multilateralism Ahead
Bright visions for the future of the OAS emerged in the 1990s
after Latin Americans rid themselves of military and civilian
strongmen and restored electoral democracy. For a decade the states
of the Americas worked with reasonable harmony, making an enduring
commitment to democratic governance in the Inter-American
Democratic Charter of 2001.
The Bush Administration proposed adding teeth to the OAS
democratic charter by insisting that elected leaders must govern
democratically. Proposals for a review body to challenge
undemocratic actions by the likes of a Chávez or an Ortega
were rejected as too interventionist. Troublesome
developments--blatant electoral fraud in Nicaragua's municipal
elections in November 2008 and Chávez's ruthless assault on
the opposition in Venezuela--have failed to produce serious OAS
The OAS is moving from being a community of democracies to
becoming a contentious association of states. Political neutrality,
a horror of interventionism, and varying degrees of
anti-Americanism make it possible for the ALBA members to
effectively neutralize the OAS on key political issues.
The Administration argues that lifting the ban on Cuba will
strengthen the OAS. This point is subject to debate. The addition
of a contentious, totalitarian Cuba will inevitably weaken the
institution. A few will stick to demands for democratic change,
while others--perhaps a majority of members--will give Cuba a free
pass if it wants it.
- Add a third rail to Cuba policy. The Administration has
dealt with Cuba issues in the OAS and is opening limited talks with
the Cuban government. It must not be afraid to press forward with
direct contact with the Cuban people and with the democratic
movement on the island as a third pillar of engagement with
- Choose substance over symbolism in the OAS. The OAS will
be polarized and fractious for the foreseeable future. The
Administration should make clear that it will not sacrifice
democratic principles for the appearances of hemispheric unity,
because doing so risks losing the support of the American people
for the inter-American body.
Speaking in Cairo on June 4, President Obama said, "America
respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be
heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will
welcome all elected, peaceful governments--provided they govern
with respect for all their people." The context for the President's
speech was democracy in the Middle East, but for those on an island
90 miles from the U.S. frozen in a communist system, the message is
just as important and as timely as ever.
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for
Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign
Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage