Will Obama Retreat on Democracy in Latin America?

President Barack Obama’s April 17 debut before the hemisphere’s main gathering of democratically elected leaders offers an important test of his administration’s commitment to longstanding bipartisan support for democracy abroad. So far, the signals are not encouraging.

No doubt, the president inherits an unfortunate legacy on this front. President George W. Bush’s over-the-top freedom agenda was seen by many as a veiled attempt, by military means or otherwise, to assert U.S. hegemony. At best, it was an overly ambitious and ham-handed effort to boost prospects for political reform in every corner of the world.

The more pragmatic Mr. Obama will take a different, more muted approach, bending U.S. advocacy on human rights to other concerns. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently suggested that in her February visit to Beijing, where she signaled to the Communist Party’s leaders that the United States would not let human rights get in the way of other priorities. But how far will this pragmatism go? Are we entering a new era in which the rights of the hundreds of millions of people who still live under authoritarian rule are relegated to third-tier status in the U.S. agenda?

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the good news is that most citizens not only have a secure voice and vote in how they are governed, but live in increasingly free societies. Freedom of the press is robust, civil society is active and independent judiciaries are slowly consolidating. Threats to these critical components of any democratic society emanate less from a restless military and more from heavily armed criminals who create havoc in once safe neighborhoods and target investigative journalists and honest judges with “plata o plomo” – money or lead.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this generally positive trend. Venezuela, under Hugo Chavez’s tutelage, has deteriorated badly on several indicators of democratic life and is no longer invited to the Community of Democracies, a global association of governments committed to fundamental practices of democracy and human rights. Not far behind is Nicaragua which, under Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, is reverting to old-style tactics of repressing the opposition and clamping down on dissent. Other states worth watching closely are Ecuador and Bolivia which, as they undertake dramatic reform to incorporate once marginalized groups, are vulnerable to civil conflict.

And then there is Cuba. Raul Castro will not be at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago because Cuba does not adhere to the inter-American system’s fundamental principles of democracy and human rights. That is as it should be. But Mr. Obama will face considerable pressure from his colleagues to fudge this bright line by engaging, rather than isolating Cuba, as they and nearly every other country has done. Indeed, the White House has already begun moving in this direction by easing restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island. Much more can and should be done in the coming months to continue this process of rapprochement between Washington and Havana. But lifting Cuba’s suspension as a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), as many are advocating, would be a step too far.

The governments of the region, as they emerged from years of military dictatorship in the 1980s, agreed to lock arms and resist any attempt to overthrow civilian constitutional rule. This joint approach has served the region well when such countries as Peru, Paraguay, Guatemala and Haiti faced political turmoil. The commitment to core democratic standards, expressed through the Inter-American Democratic Charter, is central to the region’s identity and compares well to the European model of integration based on common democratic values and forms of government.

All this progress is at risk if the region’s governments decide to lift Cuba’s suspension as a member of the OAS without preconditions. Unless the Castro regime takes serious steps toward meeting the region’s basic human rights standards, including rights to free speech, fair elections and due process for political prisoners, it should not be considered for renewed membership. The Obama Administration, which appears determined to open new paths of dialogue with difficult countries like Cuba, Iran and Syria, must be careful not to lower the bar so far that its own neighborhood loses its distinct identity as a community of democratic states.

President Obama, thus, should walk a fine line at the Summit gathering. He needs to lead by example by implementing human rights reforms at home while reminding his colleagues they share a common responsibility to follow and promote universal democratic standards. This must include encouraging the Castro government to adopt genuine political reforms before it can be welcomed back to the OAS, as well as strengthening the region’s collective defense of democracy in backsliding states. Anything less would surely set the human rights cause back for the region, and the world.