- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

SANTIAGO, Chile — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell challenged Organization of American States foreign ministers yesterday to join the United States in finding ways to “hasten the inevitable democratic transition in Cuba.”

Mr. Powell told his 34 colleagues from Latin America and the Caribbean that any such steps would be consistent with the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, approved in 2001.

The charter, Mr. Powell said in a speech, “declares that the people of the Americas have a right to democracy. It does not say the peoples of the Americas except Cubans have a right to democracy.”

The Cuba issue has generally been off-limits for the OAS, which is holding its annual meeting of foreign ministers here. The United States has done little over the decades to encourage an active role for the OAS.

OAS reluctance to tackle the issue was reflected in the tepid response of member states asked sign a U.S.-backed declaration earlier this spring criticizing the Cuban crackdown on activists for democracy.

Seventeen OAS members signed the declaration while 17 others declined. Most of the opposition came from Caribbean countries, which say any OAS action toward Cuba would be inappropriate because Fidel Castro’s government is not in a position to defend itself.

The Cuban government was excluded from the OAS in the early 1960s on grounds that the country’s communist system was incompatible with hemispheric principles.

Mr. Powell criticized the March crackdown on Cuban dissidents, saying these activists were merely seeking to “act on their basic human rights.”

He also protested the “harsh sentences” handed down.

The European Union and the United States have reacted sharply to the crackdown. The European Union has said it is cutting back on high-level visits to Cuba and reducing ties in other areas.

The Cuban government insists the activists were subversives who collaborated with the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. The government staged an anti-American rally Saturday in the Cuban capital.

The principal theme of the OAS meeting is strengthening democracy in the hemisphere.

En route here Sunday, Mr. Powell said he does not believe the opposition of Chile and Mexico in the U.N. Security Council to the Iraq war will affect U.S. relations with the two over the long term.

“Wounds heal. Sometimes they leave scars, sometimes they don’t,” he said. “I don’t see any lasting scars here.”

Mr. Powell planned meetings yesterday with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria.

Today, Mr. Powell makes a brief visit to Argentina, where he will meet with the newly installed president, Nestor Kirchner.

“The United States stands ready to help,” Mr. Powell said, alluding to Argentina’s economic difficulties. “I really want to listen to him as he tells me about his plans, his aspirations, what he hopes for his administration.”

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