Cuba and the Inter-American system: A smoldering "fire"

Early in March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to tell Raul Castro that he could not invite him to the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias due to a lack of hemispheric consensus. Once back in Bogota, Mr. Santos said that Colombia had "put out a fire" and pledged to discuss Cuba's participation in the inter-American system at the summit in order to prevent this issue from flaring up again before the next presidential conference scheduled for 2015 in Panama.

The Colombian decision triggered reactions from both Cuba and the US. It's hard to say whose discourse was more anachronistic. The statements made by Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez read as an impassioned harangue to the revolutionary Tricontinental of 1966. Hillary Clinton's responses to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen before the House Foreign Affairs Committee appeared to be addressing a rest home for Cuban-Americans who landed in Miami in 1962. Instead of adopting a conflict resolution approach, Cuba and the US traveled back to the Cold War, to a multilateral inter-American system that no longer exists. With one swipe, they erased five decades of changes in the hemispheric balance of power and the adoption of standards such as ideological pluralism, non-intervention and democratic governance.

What about President Santos' statements? He whispered what the OAS should say loud and clear : 1) Cuba is welcome in the inter-American system, without humiliating conditions, but with the requirement of respect for the civil and political, economic, cultural and social rights of its people as those rights are enshrined by the UN Universal Declaration, 2) The US should contribute to that purpose by lifting the "immoral, illegal and counterproductive" sanctions - ​​to use the words of Pope John Paul II- which are themselves violations of Cubans' and Americans'  human rights, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Contrary to the Cuban discourse, which presents the inter-American standard of democratic governance as the outcome of Washington’s imposition, the inter-American Democratic Charter was promoted in 2001 by most Latin American and Caribbean countries (Chile, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil) and the Liberal government of Canada. According to Latinobarómetro surveys, most citizens of the region consider representative democracy to be a right. Cuban diplomacy will have an uphill battle if Foreign Minister Rodriguez insists on using sovereignty as a pretext for not accepting the Universal Declaration paradigm. The old-fashioned notion of geographical Latin American nationalism is anachronistic at a time when the second largest Hispanic population is in the United States.

If the exclusion of Cuba has not caused a Latin American boycott of the VI Summit of the Americas, it is not because the US has imposed its will with "threats." Rather it is because 1) many Latin American governments believe that the limited reforms in Cuba and its lack of interest in joining the inter-American system do not justify this radical step. 2) Given Obama’s flexible approach to dialogue, most countries in the region prefer to discuss the Cuban issue constructively with the US President in Cartagena. Most Latin American leaders would like to see Obama reelected and then push for a more comprehensive approach to the region, at a time when he would have more flexibility to deal with Cuba without the pressure of winning the swing state of Florida.

By stating his interest in attending the summit only two months in advance, President Raul Castro made a positive gesture a bit too late. Since it is of utmost importance for Cuba to build a constructive relationship with the hemisphere, the Cuban Foreign Ministry should go the extra mile by sending the following message to the Cartagena summit: 1) Although Cuba is not applying for full membership in the OAS, Havana is willing to collaborate on fighting common threats such as organized crime, illegal drug trafficking and international terrorism, while promoting and accepting inter-American conventions in these areas. 2) Cuba is willing to participate in a respectful dialogue with the countries of the region on human rights and democracy that respects its sovereignty and recognizes the special conditions of emergency related to the US embargo against the island.

It is important not to lose sight of strategy trying to score points in what it is relatively minor diplomatic battle. Latin America should put the issue of Cuba’s participation in the inter-American system on the table; nobody should host any doubt that the United States is isolated in its sanctions policy. That said, this disagreement should be expressed with civility without giving Obama’s republican opponents the chance to say that “the president cannot even manage our own backyard.” The worst scenario would be a histrionic clash with Hugo Chavez talking to his electoral base in the lead up to Venezuela’s December elections and Obama playing tough guy for some Florida voters that most likely would never vote for him anyway.

The Obama Administration should behave with the dignity of a democratic super-power. Instead of answering to the House Foreign Affairs Committee with her tail between her legs, Secretary Clinton should remind Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen of all the problems caused by subordinating US national interests to the agenda of the Cuban-American right. Every time the State Department testifies before Congress regarding hemispheric relations, it must recall that, in the view of the region's leaders, promoting inter-American democratic governance is antithetical and counterproductive to supporting the embargo against Cuba.

Although President Obama will go to the November election in Florida without an uncomfortable photo with Raul Castro, the US has won only a Pyrrhic victory. The identification of the unpopular US embargo with the refusal to allow Cuba’s participation in the Summit of the Americas, once again hurts the credibility of the OAS. Washington’s reluctance to dialogue with Cuba at the summit of the Americas has provided the ALBA nations with political ammunition to repeat that the OAS only serves to unilaterally impose US interests. In a hemisphere that increasingly demands diplomacy and multilateral monitoring of political processes, nothing good for democracy will come out of a weakened OAS.


Dawn Gable contributted to this article.