On Cuba, Obama must first think of Latin America – and democracy

The region's democracies need to be defended, as does US nurturing of liberty

How to deal with Cuba has vexed US presidents since communist Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Now it is President Obama's turn. But this time, more than US-Cuban ties are at stake.

In coming days, Mr. Obama's actions toward the island state will reveal if he will be an active democracy promoter in global affairs, much like presidents before him.

So far, he appears to be putting other US interests first. Obama has distanced himself from the "freedom agenda" of George W. Bush. His secretary of state has downplayed human rights in China. The US no longer expects democracy in Afghanistan. And no matter what the fate of Iraq's fragile elected government, US combat troops will likely exit there next year.

But the issue of Cuba could force Obama to become a champion of liberty, as he said he wanted to be during the 2008 campaign.

Cuba-watchers are waiting to see how much he will ease a US embargo on Cuba before an April 17 summit of Western Hemisphere leaders. Already, he has decided to allow family visits for Cuban-Americans and to ease their ability to send money to relatives. But will he also lift a ban on all American travel to the island, or only for certain people such as scholars? Will he end the entire trade embargo, or only parts of it?

Or will he be the first US president to lay out a road map for restoring relations with Havana by tying a gradual end in sanctions to Cuba taking steps toward democracy? That would be the best course.

Despite nearly 50 years of US sanctions, Cuba is hardly a democracy. But that wasn't the embargo's primary goal during the cold war. Rather, sanctions helped curtail Mr. Castro's ability to conduct mischief in other countries. Since then, the US has found sanctions against authoritarian regimes can bring mixed results in pushing a country to adopt either democracy or, at the least, a market economy that could eventually lead to democracy.

Cuba has done neither. Its dictatorship still cruelly punishes dissidents and its failed socialist policies have forced Cubans to live on less than a dollar a day. And while the rest of Latin America left their military dictators behind in the 1980s to embrace democracy as the best guardian of economic growth, they also left Cuba behind.

Since 1994, Cuba has been suspended from the Western Hemisphere club of democracies known as the Organization of American States. The coming OAS summit of 34 nations in Trinidad and Tobago won't have Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother and the current president, at the table, just as it won't have any military generals there either.

And Cuba itself is not on the OAS agenda, although much of Latin America is watching to see what Obama says or does about it.

Like NATO and the European Union, the OAS is a rare example of a "league of democracies" that helps protect liberty and promote security. Asia and Africa have regional groupings but they're far from self-reinforcing clubs of democracies.

Obama needs to keep the OAS firmly committed to political freedoms and rule of law. So far, most Latin American states have faltered in criticizing the erosion of democracy in Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez. But under the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, OAS members are obligated to demand basic rights in fellow states.

By carefully calibrating US actions toward Cuba to achieve freedom there, the Obama administration can send up a flare of concern to Latin America that it must continue to stand for democracy. Obama already sent a good signal to the region about rule of law. This month, the US indicted a Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, who is suspected of terrorist activities against the Castro regime.

It's unlikely that allowing American tourists to visit Cuba with their dollars or letting Midwest farmers sell grain there will compel Cubans to resist the Castro regime or Cuba's leadership to change its ways. The dictatorship has learned how to wall off outside influences.

Rather, Obama can lay out a plan for the Castro brothers to enjoy a slow easing of sanctions if they also move toward joining the region's liberty club.

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