In early June, the Organization of American States (OAS) in its General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, approved an historic resolution on Cuba and created a pathway for that country to rejoin the OAS as member in good standing. This resolution was agreed to by consensus from all 34 member nations. It bridged a historic divide in the Americas and reaffirmed a shared commitment to democracy and fundamental rights for its citizens. U.S. diplomacy, the people of Cuba and the whole hemisphere are the beneficiaries of this achievement.
The history that led to this step is well known. In 1962, in the midst of the Cold War, the OAS voted to exclude Cuba, which joined the organization in 1948, from participating in the Inter-American system because it had proclaimed its allegiance to Marxist-Leninist doctrine and was fomenting and participating in subversive activities in the hemisphere. While this unprecedented action by the OAS signaled its determined opposition to the spread of communism, the ouster of a member state was controversial from the start. Three decades later, the Soviet Union’s demise and the withering of the Cuban regime’s campaign to export violence accelerated the long-simmering movement to lift Cuba’s exclusion. The U.S. took the position that Cuba must first demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles and practices and adhere to the terms of the Inter-American Democratic Charter adopted by the OAS in 2001.
As preparations began for this year’s OAS General Assembly, the Cuba issue loomed over the proceedings. There were real concerns that the battle over Cuba’s status would crash the meeting, harm the organization itself and damage prospects for multilateral diplomacy in the hemisphere. The U.S. and other member states were faced with a dilemma: although the historical underpinnings of the 1962 resolution had vanished, Cuba remained an anomaly in a region in which all other countries accept democracy as their form of government. Cuba was not a democracy; it suppressed the rights of its citizens and of a free society; and it rejected a market-based economy. As such, it continued to defy the central values that define the inter-American system today.
The central problems for the U.S. were: first, how to address the widespread determination within the inter-American community to lift the 1962 suspension unconditionally; and, second, how to create a structure for dialogue and a process that could lead to Cuba’s reincorporation into the OAS. In the months leading up to the OAS General Assembly, the atmosphere grew increasingly tense when various member states, and in particular some of the countries in the Alianza Bolivariana para las Americas (ALBA), circulated proposals that the 1962 resolution be lifted but demanded no action on Cuba’s part to adopt the core principles of the OAS.
The U.S. proposed an alternative. At a working group meeting held parallel to the General Assembly proceedings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a text that lifted the 1962 suspension, but conditioned Cuba’s renewed participation on a commitment to the democratic principles of the Inter-American system. Her agile negotiations with the foreign ministers were an impressive demonstration of the U.S. commitment to renew multilateralism in the hemisphere, making clear that Washington’s primary interest was in upholding the collective processes and democratic values of the hemisphere. By linking a change in Cuba’s status to reaffirmation of the basic principles of the Inter-American system, the U.S. performed a type of diplomatic ju-jitsu. The ALBA countries found themselves in a corner: if they refused to reaffirm their own long-standing commitment to these principles, they would be forced to maintain the 1962 sanction. After calling for a 10-minute recess from the working group, then deliberating for more than 14 hours, they finally accepted the wording drafted by the U.S. that had the support of more than 25 other members.
Recapping the delicate history of these negotiations underlines why the final resolution was so important to the hemisphere, and to reinforcing the work of the OAS. The U.S. had ensured that Cuba’s full participation could only be achieved through a process started at the request of the government of Cuba itself and carried forward “in accordance with the established practices, purposes and principles of the OAS.” The language explicitly conditions re-admission on the democratic and human rights strictures of the OAS, and by implication, adherence to the Inter-American Democratic Charter and the scrutiny of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. To move to the next step, Cuba must first demonstrate a commitment to democracy, human rights, self-determination, non-intervention, security, and development. With these strictures, the OAS was compelled to move at a careful and deliberate pace on Cuba’s reinstatement. More important, the resolution made clear that the burden of rejoining lies on Cuba itself.
The debates in San Pedro Sula demonstrated what consensus can achieve. The resolution acknowledged the near-unanimous sentiment around the room that it was time to remove a Cold War relic, while at the same time focusing attention on where it belonged—on the present reality of Cuba rather than its past.
Although the divisions within the Americas are often portrayed as ideological and intractable, the OAS decision showed they can be bridged with the right kind of statesmanship. Belying fears that the OAS was a broken instrument, the organization showed once again its value to the hemisphere. Even those countries that had threatened to withdraw or cease to participate in any meaningful way if their demands were refused, continued to stay engaged. Resolution by consensus, a long-standing practice of the OAS, carried the day. The prospect of Cuba’s reintegration and the precedent of inclusive decision making bode well for the challenges ahead.