Crossroads on Cuba: Will Democracy or Sovereignty Prevail?

The annual meeting of the hemisphere’s foreign ministers typically does not garner much attention, let alone attendance by the Secretary of State. But this week’s gathering in San Pedro Sula, Honduras is likely to be different. Thanks to a surging movement led by Nicaragua and Venezuela, Cuba’s readmission to the world’s oldest regional organization, the Organization of American States (OAS), is on the agenda. The question of Cuba’s suitability for membership in an organization that defines promoting and defending democracy as one of its core purposes presents a defining moment for Latin America as much as the United States. Will the region remain bound by its common commitment to representative democracy as an essential condition for membership? Or will its desire to cement a new relationship with Cuba – and to punish the United States for its overbearing and failed approach — overrule such concerns?

The case for Cuba’s readmission is inspired by a sense of sympathy for Havana’s socioeconomic accomplishments in the face of a unilateral (and in the view of many, unjustified) embargo imposed over 40 years ago by Washington in the grip of the Cold War. It evokes the classic story of David v. Goliath with Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega standing in for the little guy. Never mind that Cuba’s Castro brothers explicitly deny any interest in re-joining the OAS and regularly denounce it as a mischievous tool of the United States. The longstanding hostility toward U.S. policy on Cuba has reached a boiling point, with the vast majority of the region’s democratic governments, including Chile and Brazil, demanding that Cuba’s 1962 suspension for exporting Marxist-Leninism to the region be revoked immediately, without conditions.

This puts the Obama Administration in an awkward spot. After President Obama’s widely hailed debut at the region’s summit of democratically elected leaders in Trinidad, the White House script was supposed to be about pragmatically looking forward and moving beyond the stale ideological debates of the past. Cuba policy is ripe for such a new approach. The decision to allow free flow of family travel and allowances to the island signaled Mr. Obama’s intention to turn the page on a contentious domestic and foreign policy issue and to lay the ground for a new policy of constructive but critical engagement with Havana. Unfortunately, the region’s governments have run out of patience. They argue that the only way to begin a dialogue with Cuba is to make a goodwill gesture of lifting the antiquated exclusion rule and then deal with the thorny democracy issues later.

Secretary Clinton was right when she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that Cuba can re-enter the OAS if it abides by the human rights principles set forth in the OAS Charter and its companion Inter-American Democratic Charter. “Any effort to admit Cuba into the OAS is really in Cuba’s hands,” she said. “They have to be willing to take the concrete steps necessary to meet those principles.” The U.S. delegation has put forward a resolution that would authorize a dialogue with Cuba on its eventual readmission in a manner consistent with the organization’s standards on democracy and human rights. If approved at this week’s gathering, it would facilitate the design of a roadmap leading toward Cuba’s return to the community of democracies. It would be led by the region’s own governments and would be conducted in a spirit of mutual respect, frank dialogue and a willingness to identify creative means for bringing the Cuban people closer to the American family.

The real question is whether the rest of the region is willing to stand behind the commitments it has made over many years to make democracy, or at least representative democracy practiced through free and fair elections, “a necessary condition for countries’ participation and a foundation for all of its activities,” as the organization’s website puts it. Even Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, who favors lifting Cuba’s suspension without conditions, has said that the Democratic Charter “must be adhered to unconditionally.” Now these words are being put to their greatest test.

Unfortunately, lifting Cuba’s suspension without conditions would neuter the democratic norms of the region in the name of defending sovereignty. Proponents even go so far as dismissing human rights reports, including of the organization’s own human rights commission, which this year noted yet again that Cuba systematically denies its citizens the fundamental right to having a say in how they are governed. This is the type of tactic seen in other parts of the world where repressive governments are quick to defame independent human rights monitors and deny any role for international human rights law. It is particularly disturbing to witness a region of democratically elected governments once ruled mainly by military dictators so quickly abandon the core human rights norms they fought for for so long.

The United States can certainly do much more in opening avenues for serious dialogue with Havana and should not wait for reciprocal steps in areas where important security and economic interests are concerned. Latin and Caribbean governments in fact are way ahead in that department. But they in turn must find a way to join the United States in moving beyond the divisions of the past while protecting regional solidarity on human rights, and with it the Cuban people’s aspiration of living in freedom. The OAS has a role to play, but it must find a compromise, one that would allow rapprochement with Cuba without throwing out its core principles. The future of the organization depends on it.