From issue: The Environment (Fall 2009)

Hard Talk

The OAS: Should it readmit Cuba?

Yes: Hector Morales; No: Carlos Alberto Montaner.

In this issue:
Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian

Cuba Hasn't Been Given a Free Pass

Hector Morales

The OAS: Should it Readmit Cuba? Yes

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.

The OAS should not have lifted the 1962 suspension of Cuba's membership.

Carlos Alberto Montaner

The OAS: Should it Readmit Cuba? No

This June, the Organization of American States (OAS) revoked a 1962 resolution that expelled the Cuban government on the grounds of its political and military links to the former Soviet Union. Many supporters of revocation argued the decision was overdue: after all the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the OAS had long since outgrown one of the key roles envisioned for it in 1948 as an instrument of Washington’s Cold War strategy.

But this was not about fixing a diplomatic anachronism. It came about as a result of a battle waged by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his unsavory allies—Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa—aimed at awarding a moral and political victory to the Cuban government and a proportional defeat to “Yankee imperialism.”

The Cuban leadership appeared not to care about the debate, claiming that whatever the outcome, they weren’t interested in returning to that “rotten whorehouse or ministry of colonies” called the OAS. The statement only underscored the fact that the campaign led by Chávez was not based on concern for changing Cuba’s status as part of a constructive effort to augment continental solidarity. It was nothing but artillery fired at Washington with the objective of humiliating the new administration.

Why did President Barack Obama’s government lend itself to a move conceived to damage the U.S.’s image and interests? One theory is that the OAS is no longer what it once was and that its purpose now is to strengthen the democratic governments using the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed on September 11, 2001, in Lima, Peru. For that reason, Washington agreed to revoke the resolution but explained that such action did not automatically open the doors of the OAS to Cuba, because the island had to submit to the spirit and letter of the Democratic Charter.

In Havana, Caracas and the other twenty-first-century capitals of socialism around the hemisphere, officials celebrated the new defeat inflicted on “the Empire.” But, to maintain moral consistency and defend American interests, the Obama administration should have pushed instead to replace the 1962 resolution with a resolution affirming that Cuban membership in the OAS was conditional on its acceptance of the spirit and letter of the Charter.

That would have satisfied the need to put an end to a formal anachronism, without succumbing to Chávez’ bullying and provocation. Of course, that would have obligated U.S. diplomacy to wage a hard battle against Chavismo—a task that does not seem to elicit the slightest enthusiasm in the State Department.

Therein lies the heart of the matter. Seen from the American perspective, Chávez and his accomplices are seemingly insignificant, low-intensity enemies with whom the U.S. trades intensely (10 percent of U.S. crude oil imports come from Venezuela). The most convenient way to treat them, therefore, is to avoid them—the way one avoids a drunken and oafish neighbor.

Is this perspective reasonable? While Chávez may be more interesting from an anthropological than a political standpoint, it isn’t obvious that he is more of a “nuisance” than a “danger.”

The fact is, Chávez and Chavismo are a danger to U.S. security in at least two fundamental aspects: by turning Venezuela into a haven for the transit of cocaine into the U.S. as the U.S. General Accounting Office acknowledged in a July 2009 report, and into a circuit of political coordination for other sworn enemies of the U.S. such as Iran and North Korea.

It is true that a power as great and powerful as the United States has little to fear from the actions of Chavismo, but the prudent approach is to at least understand what its enemies do and why they do it. Chávez and Fidel Castro came to the conclusion early this century that Venezuela and Cuba had been given the difficult but honorable task of fighting against Yankee imperialism and capitalism, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The aggressive behavior of the Soviet Union after World War II led to U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s famous recommendation of containment, which shaped U.S. Cold War strategy for most of the latter half of the twentieth century. It is time that something similar be done to counter this new anti-Western outbreak.

However, it should no longer be a battle between Washington and the Caracas-Havana axis but one between those nations that respect individual rights and true democracy (like the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia) and those that tend toward authoritarianism. This new group of democracies must then design a strategy to defend against the authoritarian-leaning populist backlash seen in parts of the region.

Low-intensity enemies are enemies just the same. Taking them seriously is an inescapable act of common sense.

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