Administration Calls OAS Overture to Cuba A Diplomatic Victory, But Critics Call It A Sham

By Patrick Goodenough | June 4, 2009 | 4:39 AM EDT

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shares a laugh with Honduras President Manuel Zelaya during the 39th General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Honduras on Tuesday, June 2, 2009. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

( – Latin American leftists hailed the Organization of American States’ decision on Wednesday to scrap a 47-year-old resolution expelling Cuba, and the Obama administration also sought to portray the move as a victory.
Not convinced, critics in Congress responded by threatening to cut off funding for the OAS. The U.S. contributes almost 60 percent of the Washington-based organization’s assessed budget.
The administration has stressed in recent weeks that OAS membership would require Cuba’s communist government to take “concrete steps” to move towards democracy, release political prisoners and respect human rights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Tuesday reaffirming that stance at the group’s general assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras
On the other side of the debate, Cuba’s allies, led by Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador, pressed for its return without any preconditions.
Clinton left the meeting late Tuesday, saying there was no consensus on the matter.

Organization of American States representatives attend a general assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Wednesday, June 3, 2009, the day the OAS agreed to revoke a 1962 measure suspending Cuba. (AP Photo)

But on Wednesday, representatives of the organization’s 34 member countries agreed unanimously to revoke the measure suspending Cuba. The resolution adopted in Uruguay in January 1962 said that the adherence by any OAS member “to Marxism-Leninism is incompatible with the inter-American system” and that the alignment of any government in the Americas “with the communist bloc breaks the unity and solidarity of the hemisphere.”
Wednesday’s decision will not automatically bring Cuba back into the organization. Its re-entry – if it wishes to return and requests permission to do so – will be “the result of a process of dialogue … and in line with the practices, purposes and principles of the OAS.”
The language allowed the State Department to paint the decision as a diplomatic victory: Key principles enshrined in OAS documents include democracy and human rights.
“Many member countries originally sought to lift the 1962 suspension and allow Cuba to return immediately, without conditions,” Clinton said in a statement released by the State Department.
“Others agreed with us that the right approach was to replace the suspension – which has outlived its purpose after nearly half a century – with a process of dialogue and a future decision that will turn on Cuba’s commitment to the organization’s values,” she said.
“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 – if it ever chooses to seek reentry.”
In a telephonic briefing, senior administration officials also presented the outcome as a victory for multilateral diplomacy.
“The United States and other countries from various parts in the hemisphere fought, defended, and prevailed in saying that this was not an automatic process,” said Dan Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council.
“Simply put, for Cuba to return to the organization, the organization has to agree that Cuba is abiding by the same rules that everybody else is abiding by,” he said. “That is a historic achievement.”
‘Second-class citizens’
Neither Havana’s allies nor some of its strongest critics read the agreement that way, however.

Cuban President Raul Castro reviews an honor guard in Havana on Wednesday, June 3, 2009. (AP Photo)

Ecuador’s foreign minister, Fander Falconi, said the decision “doesn’t call for any kind of conditions.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hailed the decision as a triumph and a “beginning of a new age,” saying Latin American countries had shown that they were not U.S. “colonies.”
”We are not any more those peoples who are dragged and devastated by the U.S. empire,” the state-run news agency ABN quoted him as saying.
Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Ray Walser called the move “a serious and sobering rebuff” to the Obama administration and to “anyone interested in democracy in the Americas.”
Roger Noriega, a former ambassador to the OAS and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the decision had effectively declared 11 million Cubans to be the hemisphere’s second-class citizens.
“Their regime is the only government in the Americas that does not have to honor its agreements or respect the essential rights of their people,” he said.
Noriega said he believed Clinton had done an effective job in Honduras, but that the U.S. delegation had “embarrassed her after her early departure by surrendering the principle that Cuba should be held accountable to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
“I wish she had stayed at the assembly to demonstrate President Obama’s commitment to a serious dialogue with the region,” he said.
The Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted at a special meeting in Peru on September 11, 2001, says in its first article that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”
A later article provides for the suspension of a member state, by a two-thirds vote, where there has been an “unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order of a member state.”
In the U.S. Congress, critics of the Castro regime deplored the OAS decision.
“Far from strengthening the OAS, today’s resolution flies in the face of the organization’s founding charter,” said Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“No U.S. taxpayer funds should go towards supporting this sham of an organization that once prided itself on its historic commitment to democracy and human rights,” she said.
Ros-Lehtinen and five other members of Congress – four Republicans and a Democrat – co-sponsored legislation introduced in the House Wednesday that would withhold U.S. funding for the OAS in the event Cuba is readmitted.
“For the members of the OAS to even consider at this time readmitting this brutal dictatorship to their organization is feckless, irresponsible, and anti-democratic,” said Rep. Connie Mack, another Florida Republican, who introduced the bill.
“As we’ve seen time and again, the OAS has allowed itself to become hijacked by a select number of its members who want to prevent the spread of freedom, security and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere.”
Earlier, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign assistance programs, had said U.S. funding to the OAS should be cut if Cuba is allowed to return.
On Wednesday, Menendez said the OAS decision comprised “absurdly vague language that we can expect will be the source of constant disagreement moving forward.”
“It allows for loose interpretation of what should be a clear set of fundamental democratic principles and standards regarding human rights, and we are already seeing this interpretation play out,” he said.
Alluding again to the funding issue, Menendez said he would closely watch how the process unfolds, and that “a lack of commitment to democracy and human rights at the OAS will bring a debate into the U.S. Congress about how much we are willing to support the OAS as an institution.”
In its budget justification for fiscal year 2010, the State Department has requested $47.1 million for the OAS, a 59.4 percent share of total member contributions.
It lists “democratic transition in Cuba” among future OAS priorities and says the withdrawal of U.S. funding “could severely compromise OAS programs that advance U.S. strategic objectives.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow