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Will potential US-Cuba thaw dominate OAS meeting?

This week's meeting of the Organization of American States could pave to way to Cuba's reentry into the group after nearly 50 years – and toward lifting the US embargo.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 2009

Mexico City

When leaders meet Tuesday for the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Honduras, Cuba's possible readmission to the regional body after a nearly 50-year suspension is expected to top the agenda.

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Some regional leaders, mostly left-leaning ones, are calling for a resolution to drop the suspension, arguing that it's a cold war relic. The US, Cuba's No. 1 foe, says that it is open to Cuba's membership as long as the island nation fulfills its obligations to guarantee democracy under a 2001 OAS charter. It could, in theory, go to a vote in the next two days, but most analysts say they believe this week's meeting will merely pave the way for a future compromise.

Still, it underscores the desire on the part of many Latin American countries to engage with Cuba and to force the US to listen to the regional consensus. "This whole issue is as much a symbolic issue about how the US deals with Latin America as it is an issue about Cuba," says William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington. "Historically the US did whatever it wanted in the hemisphere and got away with it. Now Latin America is insisting that the US respect its point of view and play as an equal."

Is a thaw in the works?

The OAS meeting comes as relations between the US and Cuba advance toward a thaw. Over the weekend, Cuba said it accepted a US proposal to restart talks on migration and the resumption of mail service between the two countries.

Though most say that an end to the decades-old embargo on Cuba is far from imminent, hopes of a more functional relationship with Cuba have been high since Fidel Castro officially stepped down as the country's leader last year and with the election of President Barack Obama.

Before the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad and Tobago this spring, the Obama administration announced its first relaxation of rules toward Cuba, including easing both travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans and limits to remittances.

The administration reached out to Cuba regarding the migration rules on May 22, after talks broke down in 2003. Cuba said it would also reconsider aiding the US in its fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as hurricane disaster preparation.

'Committed to a new approach'

"President Obama and I are committed to a new approach," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the start of her Central America trip this week. "We believe we have made more progress in four months than has been made in a number of years."

In some ways, they have no choice but to change course, as Latin American leaders put pressure on the US. With the inauguration of left-leaning President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, who restored that country's full diplomatic relations with Cuba on Monday, the US remains alone in its severed ties.