President Carter, in a strong restatement of his commitment to human rights, told the foreign ministers of Latin America yesterday that all governments must be accountable "to the conscience of the world."
Speaking to the annual meeting here of the Organization of American States (OAS) Carter went out of his way to emphasize that he has not forgotten the human-rights policy that was a hallmark of his first months in office.
In an apparent reply to charges that his administration has downgraded concern for human rights in favor of other foreign policy considerations, Carter said countries that practice repression can expect retaliation from the United States.
"My government will not be deterred from our open and enthusiastic policy of promoting human rights," he warned. "We prefer to take actions that are positive, but where countries persist in serious violations of human rights, we will continue to demonstrate that there are costs to the flagrant disregard of international standards."
Carter's comments on human rights highlighted a speech in which he touched on almost the entire range of U.S.-Latin America relations. However, there was one subject of major interest to the hemisphere that was not mentioned anywhere in the president's address.
That involved the Carter administration's running dispute with Cuban President Fidel Castro over Cuba's military involvement in Africa. To the surprise of many OAS delegates, Carter made only one oblique reference to the kind of charges Washington has been leveling against Cuba.
Speaking about the need to avoid regional violence by "ensuring that all nations respect the territorial integrity of others," Carter added: "The intrusion of foreign military forces into local disputes can only undermine this cause."
Cuba's membership in the OAS was suspended in 1962 as the result of U.S. pressure, and, the sources said, some U.S. officials, primarily in the White House, had proposed attempting to use the current meeting as a vehicle for an OAS censure of Cuba for its African activities.
In preparing for the meeting, the sources added, the United States had prepared a tentative censure motion and had explored the possibility of getting their OAS members to introduce it.
However, the sources continued, that approach had been opposed by other administration officials, principally those dealing with Latin American affairs within the State Department, as potentially counterproductive.
These officials were described as arguing that an attack on Cuba - either in Carter's speech or through a censure motion - would be resented by most OAS members as an attempt to drag them into East-West disputes.
Reliable sources said the decision to soft-pedal the U.S.-Cuba dispute had been made after considerable discussion within the administration. At one point during the preparation of the speech, the sources said, consideration has been given to making explicit reference to Cuban activities in Africa, and some of the early drafts submitted for Carter's consideration had contained language to that effect.
At issue, the sources added, was an internal administration debate about whether the OAS meeting, attended by 26 hemisphere foreign ministers of their representatives, is an appropriate forum in which to press a U.S. campaign to isolate Cuba from other countries of the Third World.
Castro's relations with most other hemispheric countries have improved considerably in recent years, in some cases becoming quite warm. As a result, the sources said, those officials advocating a soft line argued that a censure move would be supported only by the rightist dictatorships within the OAS. Their argument prevailed in the approach finally taken by the White House.
Instead, Carter chose to put their heaviest emphasis on human rights, a position he summed up by saying "Where basic human rights are concerned, all of our governments must be accountable not only to our own citizens, but to the conscience of the world."
Although he mentioned no names, his words underscored the fact that human rights abuses are a major concern in Latin America, where the majority of people live under dictatorships.
"We realize that the path from authoritarian to democratic rule can be a difficult and demanding one," Carter said. "But we will continually support and encourage political systems that allow their people to participate freely and democratically in the decision that affect their lives."