Freedom on the Defensive

Sunday, May 31, 2009

"THE PEOPLES of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it." So reads the first sentence of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was adopted on Sept. 11, 2001, by the Organization of American States and signed by all 34 active member countries. Founded in 1948, the OAS defines its two top purposes as "to strengthen peace and security on the continent" and "to promote and consolidate representative democracy." So with the organization's annual assembly set to open Tuesday in Honduras, you'd think a principal item of business would be the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Venezuela, where would-be strongman Hugo Chávez has ordered up criminal investigations against most of his leading opponents -- jailing one and driving another into exile -- and is threatening to shut down the last opposition broadcast television network.

Not a chance. Far from facing the sanctions that the democratic charter authorizes, Mr. Chávez will be helping to lead a charge aimed at lifting the 1962 suspension of Cuba's OAS membership -- a campaign that enjoys the support of almost every government in the region. No, Cuba doesn't come close to meeting the requirements of the democratic charter -- in fact, its totalitarian domestic regime has remained essentially unaltered during the last 47 years. Nor do Raúl and Fidel Castro wish to rejoin the OAS; like Mr. Chávez, the Castros would prefer to form a new regional organization that excludes the United States.

Nonetheless, Latin American governments from Mexico to Argentina have chosen to make Cuba's readmission the centerpiece of this year's assembly. It's a cheap and popular way to please leftist constituencies at home -- and to pressure the Obama administration, which has unilaterally lifted several sanctions against Cuba but not what remains of the economic embargo. Sadly, even democratic governments such as Brazil and Chile are unwilling to stand by the pledge they made just eight years ago -- they, too, are clamoring to restore Cuba's membership while remaining silent about Venezuela.

Mr. Obama has proclaimed his wish to set U.S.-Latin relations on a new footing; he shook Mr. Chávez's hand at a recent hemispheric summit and has refrained from criticizing the crackdown in Venezuela. That seems to have emboldened leftist leaders to press their own agenda at the OAS. The administration has been trying to finesse the issue: Last week it proposed that the suspension be lifted but that Cuba's reinstatement be linked to steps toward democracy. When that proposal failed to gain traction, U.S. diplomats joined a working group trying to hammer out a compromise. But most likely the administration is fighting an unwinnable battle. By signaling that it cares more about "partnership" with Latin American governments than defending democracy and human rights, it has allowed support for those principles to crumble at the very institution founded to defend them.

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