June 6, 2009
On Wednesday, the Organization of American States overcame objections from the U.S. State Department, and voted to allow back into the group. The precise terms put conditions on Cuba's attainment of full membership rights on progress toward greater freedom and democracy, however, so the United States salvaged at least a token concession in the historic reversal. It was 47 years ago that Castro's regime was banned from the OAS, as punishment for supporting revolutionary movements in Venezuela and Colombia. It is supremely ironic that Venezuela, which for three decades was a bastion of middle-class democracy in Latin America, a bulwark against Castroism, has now fallen in step with Cuba and was the main force behind getting Cuba back into the OAS.
The OAS was holding its 39th General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The issue became extremely heated because Nicaragua and Venezuela threatened to quit the OAS unless Cuba was readmitted. As of Tuesday, it appeared that a complete breakdown would come about, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said they were at an impasse. She led the U.S. delegation in the negotiations, and President Obama (heading for the Middle East) made a personal call to Brazil's President "Lula" da Silva. Finally, they agreed that Cuba must take concrete steps if it is to regain full voting rights in the OAS; in effect, it is "on probation." Another key part of the compromise was the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who persuaded Hugo Chávez to accept the resolution. (He is a moderate leftist who is in favor of CAFTA and trade with the U.S., and his country is a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid.) Anything less than those stipulations on Cuba would have been difficult to reconcile with the "Democratic Charter" which was signed by OAS members in 2001, pledging themselves to uphold free elections and journalism. As See the Washington Post noted, "leftist countries who have been bashing the United States over its Cuba policy sided with the Obama administration, rather than with Venezuela's populist leader Hugo Chávez..."
That raises the interesting question of how the issue would have been resolved if John McCain had been elected president. The Republican candidate campaigned strongly in favor of free trade with Latin America, while Barack Obama largely ignored that region. But since he is much closer ideologically to the emerging leftist mainstream in that region, the U.S. government can exert greater influence than otherwise. It's an interesting paradox.
But as for the central question of how to handle Cuba, the OAS decision was probably inevitable. President Obama has begun steps to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and he is not exactly a champion of individual freedom, so it would have been strange for his administration to work overtime to block Cuba's entry. Even though the symbolic victory for the Left may seem discouraging to some, I think a tactical retreat under the current circumstances was probably wise. As the United States switches back and forth between nice-guy "good cop" Democrats and tough "bad cop" Republicans in the White House, other countries learn that they can work with us and achieve common objectives. If Cuba "behaves" well under the aging "younger" Castro, Raul, then the U.S. concession on the OAS will pay off. If not, political forces in the United States (especially Miami!) and elsewhere will scream bloody murder over what may turn out to be a betrayal of the cause of freedom.