Will OAS decision to readmit Cuba change US-Latin America relations?

Cuba has shown no desire to rejoin. Socialist states like Venezuela and Nicaragua say they want to form an association that excludes the US.

The surprise decision yesterday by the Organization of American States (OAS) to reopen its doors to Cuba is being touted as a political and diplomatic victory by both Washington and Latin America's left.

But analysts claim it's unlikely the move to reverse the 1962 ban on Cuba's OAS membership will lead to a "new dawn" in US-Latin American relations, as several politicians have waxed poetically. In fact, many observers have noted, Cuba has shown no signs of wanting to rejoin the club.

"The OAS decision is unlikely to hasten democratic change in Cuba; the Cuban government, after all, has repudiated the OAS and its core principles," says Latin America watcher Michael Shifter, who is with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

Latin American analysts agree.

Nicaragua's Aldo Díaz Lacayo, a Sandinista political pundit and former Nicaraguan ambassador, said the resolution doesn't mean Cuba will rush to rejoin the OAS, which he calls a "half-dead organization" that "continues to be for and by the US."

Wednesday's resolution, Mr. Díaz says, "Was, simply, the US finally accepting reality, because it had no other option."

Though US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had argued that Cuba was not ready to be allowed back into the OAS until it makes progress on democratic governance and human rights issues, the US eventually compromised by agreeing to annul the 47-year-old resolution suspending Cuba's membership.

Latin America applauds

That decision that was heartily applauded by the rest of Latin America, but for different reasons.

Some nations said the new consensus represents a pragmatic and flexible US administration that is able to change with the times. Leftist leaders in the region hailed it as a "defeat" for Uncle Sam and historic retribution "for the historic people of Cuba."

Honduran President Mel Zelaya called the decision a "wise rectification" on the part of the OAS, and an important historic recognition of the validity of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

"Fidel Castro said history will absolve me, and today history has absolved him," Mr. Zelaya said, referring to the Cuban leader's famous 1953 speech.

Smaller Caribbean nations were among those who applauded the loudest for the spirit of consensus in the OAS. The delegate from the island of Grenada went so far as to suggest that had such a similar spirit of consensus existed in 1983, the US invasion of his Caribbean island could have been avoided.

But what does it mean in practical terms?

Yet despite the celebration on both sides, there already appears to be disagreement over what the decision means in practical terms.

Washington apparently thinks the resolution means Cuba can rejoin the organization on the terms that it be held accountable to its democratic charter, which some hope would act as a tool for political reform.

But the left-leaning bloc of countries belonging to the Venezuelan-inspired Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), say the reversal of Cuba's membership ban carries no conditions.

In the meantime, both sides are singing victory.

"Of course, ALBA countries will claim that this is a big victory for them and a big defeat for the US, but, in the end, one would think that the language employed, while fuzzy, obliges Cuba to subscribe to the Inter-American Democratic Charter," says Kevin Casas-Zamora, a Latin America analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "In practical terms, however, this may turn out to be a hollow victory for any country insofar as Cuba has shown no interest in joining the OAS."

Planning an alternative association

Indeed, despite the ALBA countries' celebration of Wednesday's "historic triumph," the socialist bloc is already planning its exit strategy from the OAS.

ALBA leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega have argued that Latin American countries need to break from the OAS and form a new "alternative" association of countries that would exclude the US.

ALBA is currently made up of Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and is actively seeking new recruits. Manuel Coronel Kautz, Nicaragua's deputy foreign minister, explained recently that ALBA has an expansionist strategy aimed at accumulating enough members to form its own alternative body of nations.

"Our own OAS, our own organization – not one where the empire is managing all the decisions," Mr. Coronel said.

The proposal of the alternative OAS was reportedly first suggested by Ecuador's President Rafael Correa,. But it has been passionately championed by Mr. Chávez, who repeated the call for an alternative regional body last night from Caracas, and Mr. Ortega, who again this week blasted the OAS an "instrument of the empire."

Ortega, a historic foe of the United States and leading defender of Cuba, acknowledged yesterday's OAS decision as a "positive gesture" by the Obama administration and "a small light" of hope for the future.

But in broader terms, Ortega said, the Obama administration has not delivered upon the change it promised during the campaign, and instead represents the same foreign policies "inherited" from the Bush administration.

For real change to occur in the Americas, Ortega argued, the US needs to start by lifting the 47-year-old embargo on Cuba.

"There is one country that is isolated from the concert of the Americas, and that is the United States, which hasn't normalized relations with Cuba and maintains an economic embargo," Ortega said.

US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Thomas Shannon prefers to frame Wednesday's decision in the context of President Obama's promise for a new chapter in US relations with Cuba and Latin America.

But so far, Latin American analysts say, that chapter hasn't been written.

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