Last Wednesday, to much fanfare, the Organization of American States' (OAS) annual meeting of the hemisphere's foreign ministers issued a resolution calling for a dialogue to readmit Cuba to the region's premier diplomatic body. Despite all the atmospherics, the statement sealed the OAS's irrelevance and the most promising chapter in the regional organization's history.
Both sides in last week's theater are claiming victory. On the pro-Cuba side, the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua wasted no time in sending their foreign ministers to declare the resolution that overturned the 1962 rationale for Cuba's suspension—as a Marxist-Leninist government—as a blow to the U.S.'s embargo policy. In a parallel media blitz, U.S. officials rushed to say that the consensus agreement did not readmit Cuba into the OAS, but only called for dialogue in line with "practices, proposals and policies of the OAS."
The latter is supposedly a reference to the human rights and democracy requirements for membership, set out in a number of OAS documents including the 2001 Inter-American Demoratic Charter—heralded at one time as the greatest achievement of the OAS. Now, unfortunately, it's relegated to an oblique reference. Despite the U.S.'s efforts to put the best face on this, the reality is that the final document failed to include explicit mention of the issues detailed in the charter, such as respect for human rights and democracy—topics that the U.S. had insisted be included.
Reality? Nobody really cares—though Latin American citizens should be outraged at the hijacking of the OAS for such silliness. Even Fidel Castro declared that Cuba doesn't want to belong to the "vile OAS." And who can blame him?
Here we are in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades. Governments throughout the region are struggling to ensure that the economic gains of the last decade and the new middle class aren't wiped out by the global slowdown, tight credit and declining remittances. Add to this the concerns about crime, security and climate change and you have issues worthy of the collected attention of the region's foreign ministers.
By allowing its agenda at the general assembly to be dominated by the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua, the OAS allowed itself to be used for cheap symbolism and a counterproductive, knee jerk-need to stiff arm the U.S.—irrespective of the administration in power.
Four years ago, in June 2005, members of the administration of George W. Bush traveled to another OAS General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, with a mandate to draw attention to legitimate human rights abuses in Venezuela and Cuba. The near-universal reaction to their efforts was that the administration had a tin ear to the real concerns of Latin Americans: poverty, inequality and economic growth.
How sad that four years later, the same governments that complained about their efforts allowed Cuba to dominate the agenda again , only now they didn't do it to defend human rights.
It's true that the U.S. does need a frank debate about its policy toward Cuba. But last week's OAS vote was not it and only undermined the OAS's own credibility
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.