Latin American Countries Press Clinton Over Cuba Policy at OAS Meeting

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras, June 2 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was confronted Tuesday with a barrage of criticism about U.S. policy toward Cuba, as Latin American countries pressed to readmit the island nation to the Organization of American States after a 47-year ban.

The diplomatic tug of war underscored how U.S. isolation of Cuba, long a hot-button topic in the United States, has emerged as a barrier in the Obama administration's outreach efforts.

Every nation in the hemisphere but one -- the United States -- has reestablished full diplomatic relations with the island's communist government, and most members of the OAS, the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere, want to readmit Cuba.

Clinton told reporters that the Obama administration was "pretty much by itself" in insisting that Cuba be allowed to return only if it abided by the democratic principles enshrined in OAS documents, such as elections and freedom of the press.

By the end of the day, she said, U.S. diplomats had "moved the debate very dramatically," but there was still no consensus in the organization about what to do. "If there's no action, that's fine with us," she said, shortly before leaving Honduras for Egypt. U.S. diplomats stayed behind to continue negotiating.

The meeting highlighted the declining U.S. role in Latin America, as countries there have diversified their political and economic relations and a growing number of leftist parties have come to power.

U.S. officials admitted privately that there might be enough votes to readmit Cuba with few or no conditions -- an outcome that would be embarrassing for Washington. That outcome seemed unlikely, however, because several key foreign ministers, including Clinton, were leaving the talks Tuesday night.

The fight over Cuba was largely symbolic, because that country's leaders have shown little interest in returning to the OAS. But Latin American governments view U.S. policies toward the island as a symbol of its historical clout in the region.

The push to lift the ban on Cuba came from U.S. adversaries in the region, including Nicaragua and Venezuela, as well as from countries governed by moderate leftists, such as Brazil.

In a speech opening the conference, Manuel Zelaya, the leftist president of Honduras, lashed out at the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba and the OAS decision in 1962 to banish Cuba.

"We have to fix the error of '62," he said. "We can't leave this assembly without repairing this infamy against the people."

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a onetime leftist guerrilla, said at a news conference that the 1962 decision against Cuba was no longer valid because it was made when most Latin American and Caribbean governments were "stuck with tyrannies, dictatorships, that were instruments of domination of U.S. policy."

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