- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A diplomatic tug-of-war over Cuba’s outcast status in the Organization of American States takes center stage at the group’s meeting this week in Honduras, testing U.S. efforts to engage the communist nation. Numerous Latin American countries are pushing to reverse the 1962 expulsion of Cuba from the 34-country group, although the Cuban government insists it has no interest in returning.

An OAS official told the Associated Press that a decision on clearing the way for Cuba to rejoin the group could be postponed unless there is a consensus. In that event, Tuesday’s meeting could produce a statement supporting efforts to find a solution. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived in El Salvador on Sunday, is scheduled to attend.

In a positive development in U.S.-Cuban relations, a State Department official said Sunday that Cuba has agreed to resume talks with the administration on legal immigration of Cubans to the United States and on direct mail service.

Cuba has also proposed exploring cooperation on fighting terrorism and drug trafficking, and on hurricane and other disaster preparedness, according to the official, who said the Cubans had informed the administration on Saturday of its willingness to talk.

The official spoke shortly before Mrs. Clinton left Washington for San Salvador, where she met Sunday with foreign and trade ministers from 16 nations in the region before Monday’s inauguration of El Salvador’s new president, Mauricio Funes.

U.S. officials say they are ready to support lifting the resolution that suspended Cuba from the OAS, but want to tie readmission to democratic reforms in Cuba. Nicaragua, backed by Venezuela, Bolivia and others, favors an approach that would declare Cuba’s expulsion an error and remove all legal hurdles to it regaining its membership.

Diplomats at OAS headquarters in Washington have tried frantically to forge a compromise. Nicaragua has threatened to press for a vote on its proposal.

Albert R. Ramdin, the OAS’ assistant secretary general, sought to play down the prospect of a final agreement on Cuba’s status. “Theoretically we can always vote, but in practical political terms it seems that it’s not an option,” Mr. Ramdin said in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the meeting site.

A vote could put the U.S. on the spot. Although the OAS generally operates by consensus, a two-thirds majority vote, or 23 countries, is all that’s needed for a resolution to pass.

One senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations would not rule out the possibility that Mrs. Clinton might skip the meeting unless there was a compromise acceptable to the U.S. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

The administration is committed to a set of principles the OAS approved in 2001 that enshrines democracy as a right of all people in the Western Hemisphere.

The meeting comes at a delicate time in President Obama’s outreach to Cuba. Already, his administration has lifted travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba.

Cuban leader Raul Castro and his ailing brother, Fidel, have reacted coolly to the easing of restrictions and demanded an end to the decades-old U.S. embargo on the island.

U.S. officials have ruled that out — and Cuba’s return to the OAS — until Cuba makes moves toward democratic pluralism, releases political prisoners and respects fundamental rights.

But Cuba’s Communist Party daily Granma ended a three-day denunciation of the OAS on Friday by saying Cuba “does not need the OAS. It does not want it, even reformed. We will never return to that decrepit old house of Washington.”

Some in the OAS, notably the socialist presidents of Nicaragua and Venezuela, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez, maintain that neither the United States nor the OAS can dictate what Cuba has to do to return.

When foreign ministers meet on Tuesday in San Pedro Sula, the U.S. will be the only country in the hemisphere without full diplomatic relations with Cuba. El Salvador, the only other OAS member without such ties, had planned to restore them on Monday when Mr. Funes takes office.

Mr. Funes is the first Salvadoran president from the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

The FMLN is the second former Central American foe of the United States to take power democratically since Nicaragua elected Sandinista leader Mr. Ortega in 2006.

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