- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The advent of the Obama administration has certainly brought “change.” Largely overshadowed by the economy and other higher-profile international events is looming “change” in U.S. policy toward Cuba, spotlighted last week by the Organization of American States’ General Assembly meeting in Honduras.

President Obama and his team promised a new direction in Cuba policy during the election campaign and after taking office. Mr. Obama didn’t advocate simply lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba. That controversial move would arouse opposition in the Cuban-American community and on the right, particularly because Cuba’s leadership shift from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul last year has produced only cosmetic changes in Cuba’s half-century-old dictatorship - none of which would satisfy the requirements of the 1996 “Libertad” (Helms-Burton) Act.

Evincing openness to Cuba, Mr. Obama’s team quickly moved to relax some George W. Bush administration strictures on travel and remittance transfers to Cuba. It obviously was hoping for good will and breathing space - domestically and from Cuba’s allies and supporters abroad - while navigating the shoals of U.S. politics on Cuba to supplant our “Cold War” relationship with Cuba with a more “modern” one.

But in April, when Mr. Obama made his debut among Latin America’s leaders at the Western Hemisphere Summit in Trinidad, he found himself at a meeting effectively hijacked by Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba’s other friends, supporters and apologists in Latin America. Although the summit took place against the backdrop of the worst global economic crisis in 80 years, the most newsworthy focus of discussion was the U.S. embargo against Cuba and ending Cuba’s ostracism in the Western Hemisphere.

Why was the political fate of an economically insignificant, impoverished island 90 miles from Florida, run as a dictatorship by two murderous brothers for the past five decades, so all-important? Because Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Brazil’s Lula da Silva, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and assorted other voices in the chorus made it so - from Mr. Chavez’s gambit of “gifting” Mr. Obama with a 30-year-old anti-American book to the dais speeches excoriating the continuing U.S. embargo.

Since the Trinidad Summit, the OAS largely has been consumed with the issue of Cuba’s readmission. Cuba professes lack of interest in rejoining an organization it styles as a U.S. tool, and Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez feints at leaving the OAS to form a rival body with Cuba. But both obviously would welcome the vindication Cuba’s readmission would signify for the Castros and the defeat it would represent for U.S. policy.

The Cuba issue overshadowed last week’s OAS General Assembly in Honduras, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “failed to broker Cuba’s readmission to the OAS,” as news reporters have spun the story. As in Trinidad, on the eve of the meeting, the Cuban government and the Obama administration announced conciliatory initiatives: resumption of talks on immigration and on re-establishing direct postal service as well as other topics.

Once again, Cuba’s allies and apologists upped the ante. At the Honduras meeting, amazingly, the OAS members “by acclamation” adopted a resolution to vacate Cuba’s 1962 suspension from that body but to subject its future participation “to a process of dialogue” initiated “at the request of” the Cuban government “and in accordance with the purposes, principles and practices of the OAS.” The diplomatic rout of the historic U.S. position on this issue is covered by the fig leaf of “details to be worked out later” - but clearly in the cards is the imminent betrayal of those OAS “purposes, principles and practices” that’s bound to follow in the discussions with Cuba.

Mr. Obama’s approach to Cuba policy so far highlights two critically important issues. First is Cuba’s appalling record on democracy and human rights. Respect for those values is supposed to be defining for OAS members. The Castro brothers’ dictatorship remains undiluted. Democracy and human rights activists there are rounded up regularly and imprisoned. And Cuba continues to flagrantly violate the Inter-American Human Rights Charter as well as the U.N. Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that it only just signed in February of last year.

Why the sudden urgency of readmitting Cuba to the OAS? It’s time for “change” - and Mr. Obama’s is the first U.S. administration that has seemed likely to acquiesce, even if it would prefer to do so by degrees.

Second, why is the United States so completely on the diplomatic defensive on the Cuba issue? After all, Cuba has far more - and far more obvious - skeletons in its closet, literally, than does the United States. Why have Mr. Obama and his putative A-Team of national-security experts allowed themselves to be outflanked regularly and predictably by Cuba’s supporters and apologists, dictating the agenda and forcing the administration’s hand? A more conventional U.S. administration would be embarrassed and put on its guard by such encounters. But perhaps the Obama administration doesn’t really mind being stampeded by the likes of Mr. Chavez and Mr. Ortega into relenting 50 years of U.S. resistance to the Castro brothers’ brutal dictatorship.

G. Philip Hughes, senior director of the White House Writers Group, has served as director for Latin American Affairs and, later, executive secretary of the National Security Council and as U.S. ambassador in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

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