U.S. Willingness to Compromise Helped OAS Avoid Breakup Over Readmitting Cuba
Friday, June 5, 2009
For a few hours this week, the Organization of American States appeared about to splinter: Leftist Latin American governments squared off against the United States over whether Cuba should be allowed to rejoin the main forum for political cooperation in the hemisphere.
Nicaragua and Venezuela were threatening to quit the group unless Cuba was readmitted after a 47-year-old ban, diplomats said. And there was a possibility that members could put the issue to a vote, leaving the United States alone on the losing side, which would have caused a backlash in Congress.
Instead, after intense diplomacy that included President Obama's long-distance intervention, the OAS announced Wednesday that its 34 members had agreed to lift the 1962 ban on Cuba -- but not allow it to take its seat unless it met requirements on democracy and human rights.
"The member governments went to the edge of the abyss and walked back," said Ted Piccone, a Latin America specialist at the Brookings Institution.
The showdown illustrated how the Obama administration's effort to craft a new relationship with the hemisphere is being tested by its increasingly independent leaders. Many see Cuba as a test case of whether the United States is willing to shed its traditional role as regional heavyweight.
The United States compromised more than it ever had in the OAS on the Cuba issue, diplomats said, and mustered its most impressive diplomatic firepower to get a deal -- with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton leading the delegation and Obama calling Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
"The United States made an extraordinary effort in the search for consensus," said Roberto Flores Bermúdez, the Honduran ambassador to Washington.
In the end, some of the leftist countries bashing the United States over its Cuba policy sided with the Obama administration, rather than with Venezuela's populist leader Hugo Chávez, who has tried to form an anti-American bloc in the hemisphere.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya made a key phone call to Chávez urging him and his allies to accept the resolution, said a Latin American diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the negotiations. Clinton and a few other leaders had strongly urged Zelaya to work for the consensus, U.S. officials said.
Though Zelaya often supports Chávez, Honduras is a recipient of a $215 million U.S. development grant and sends much of its exports to the United States.
A top Cuban official, Ricardo Alarcón, told reporters yesterday that the OAS vote was "a major victory," according to the Reuters news agency. But Havana is not expected to return anytime soon to an organization it has blasted as a U.S.-dominated instrument.
Many countries had come to the OAS General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, prepared to readmit Cuba with few or no conditions. U.S. officials and human rights advocates worried that would set a dangerous precedent for the organization, whose members signed a Democratic Charter in 2001 committing them to elections and press freedoms.
During hours of negotiations Tuesday, U.S. diplomats insisted on requiring Cuba to agree to democratic reforms before it resumed full membership. Late Tuesday afternoon, Clinton left the talks to join Obama in Egypt, saying, "There is no consensus." She left her team to carry on.
Within a few hours, the countries tentatively agreed on somewhat softer language than the U.S. team had initially suggested. But after a small group of Venezuelan-led countries consulted with their capitals, they rejected the document, diplomats said.
"The feeling was, we're done," said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Then, on Wednesday morning, the Venezuelan-led group did an about-face, with no explanation.
Some Cuban American lawmakers in the United States have blasted the final agreement as too weak. But José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said it "changes the landscape, and the political context, to an opportunity for the region and the Obama administration to press the Cuban government collectively."