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U.S. Is Urged to Ease Off Cuba to Improve Relations in the Hemisphere

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has threatened to cut off U.S. funding for the Organization of American States if it approves a measure readmitting Cuba.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has threatened to cut off U.S. funding for the Organization of American States if it approves a measure readmitting Cuba. (By Mike Derer -- Associated Press)

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

The U.S. government is fighting an effort to allow Cuba to return to the Organization of American States after a 47-year suspension. But the resistance is putting it at odds with much of Latin America as the Obama administration is trying to improve relations in the hemisphere.

Eliminating the Cold War-era ban would be largely symbolic, because Cuba has shown no sign of wanting to return to the OAS, the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere. But the debate shows how central the topic has become in U.S. relations with an increasingly assertive Latin America. The wrangling over Cuba threatens to dominate a meeting of hemispheric foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, scheduled for Tuesday in Honduras.

"Fifty years after the U.S. . . . made Cuba its litmus test for its commercial and diplomatic ties in Latin America, Latin America is turning the tables," said Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. Now, she said, Latin countries are "making Cuba the litmus test for the quality of the Obama administration's approach to Latin America."

President Obama has taken steps toward improving ties with Cuba, lifting restrictions on visits and money transfers by Cuban Americans and offering to restart immigration talks suspended in 2004. But he has said he will not scrap the longtime economic embargo until Havana makes democratic reforms and cleans up its human rights record. Ending the embargo would also entail congressional action.

Obama is facing pressure to move faster, both from Latin American allies and from key U.S. lawmakers. Bipartisan bills are pending in Congress that would eliminate all travel restrictions and ease the embargo.

Cuba has sent mixed signals about its willingness to respond to the U.S. gestures.

Latin American leaders say that isolating Cuba is anachronistic when most countries in the region have established relations with communist nations such as China. The OAS secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, has called the organization's 1962 suspension of Cuba "outdated" -- noting it is based on the island's alignment with a "communist bloc" that no longer exists. However, he has suggested that OAS members could postpone Cuba's full participation until it showed democratic reforms.

Cuban exile organizations and some U.S. lawmakers are strongly opposed to readmitting the island.

"If we invite Cuba back in, in spite of their violations, what message are we sending to the rest of the hemisphere -- that it's okay to move backwards away from democracy and human rights, that there will be no repercussions for such actions?" Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban American, demanded in a speech. He threatened to cut off U.S. funding for the OAS -- about 60 percent of its budget -- if the measure passed.

Clinton said last week that Cuba should be readmitted only if it abided by the OAS's Democratic Charter, a set of principles adopted in 2001 that commits countries to hold elections and to respect human rights and press freedoms.

Most Latin American countries broke relations with Cuba after its 1959 revolution. Nearly all have restored diplomatic ties, and the United States will soon be the only holdout in the hemisphere.

The Cuba ban could be lifted by a two-thirds vote of the OAS foreign ministers on Tuesday. However, the organization generally works by consensus, and several countries have indicated they do not want a showdown with the United States.

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