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

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.

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."

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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.

"Latin America is unified around the desire to see Cuba reincorporated into the inter-American system and a desire for the US to lift the embargo on Cuba," says Daniel Erikson, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, and author of the recently published book "The Cuba Wars."

Latin American leaders have stepped up their protest after this year's change in power in Washington. "The Bush administration was so confrontational in its approach of isolating Cuba that the desire to see a policy change had been suppressed for the last eight years," says Mr. Erikson. "The Obama administration is now dealing with this wave of outcry from Latin America on the Cuba issue."

The new rules announced will give the US a diplomatic edge as the OAS meeting begins, handing the region proof that it is not as entrenched in its positions as previous administrations. "This is Washington trying to position itself so it can say to Latin America, 'look we are taking steps; we are moving forward,'" says Mr. LeoGrande.

US stance on Cuba's democracy shared by many

Still, the US position on Cuba's reforms might not be the fringe, says Mr. Erikson. Because of Cuba's record on stifling political dissent and failing to hold fair elections, many agree with a US position that says Cuba should only be allowed membership once it fulfills a 2001 OAS charter mandate to ensure democracy. "We have said that we look forward to the day when Cuba, if it so wishes, can rejoin the OAS," Ms. Clinton said. "We believe that membership in the OAS comes with responsibilities and that we must all hold each other accountable."

That position is backed by various players. "Cuba needs to produce some significant changes toward freedom and democracy to be included in the OAS," says Omar Lopez, the human rights director at the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) in Miami.

Otherwise, many say, the OAS will violate its own charter. Human Rights Watch on Monday called for the OAS to reject any vote in favor of Cuba's admission. "OAS members have made an explicit commitment to promote human rights and the rule of law in the region," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "Cuba should not be considered a full member of the OAS – not because of its government's political ideology, but rather because of its flagrant violation of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter."

Cuba says it 'does not need the OAS'

As the debate swirls, Cuba has said it has no desire to join the regional body. Granma, the Communist Party newspaper in Cuba, said on Friday that Cuba "does not need the OAS. It does not want it, even reformed. We will never return to that decrepit old house of Washington."

Lifting its suspension would require that two-thirds of members vote in favor of a resolution. Because compromise is unlikely, says Erikson, he expects calls for more dialogue, either because countries are too divided on the issue or a resolution becomes too watered down.

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