- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009



In just a few days, President Obama will make his Latin American debut, participating in a 34-nation hemispheric Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. It promises to be a propitious opportunity for the new administration to highlight its emerging new policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.

The meeting's theme is human prosperity, and the leaders no doubt will discuss the global economic crisis. As is customary, the heads of state also will address a host of other matters, such as climate change and poverty, key concerns for Mr. Obama. Yet the proverbial fly in the ointment promises to be Cuba.

Though Latin American leaders avoid talking about Cuba in forums where the U.S. president participates, this may be different. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced his intent to use the summit to promote Cuba's readmission into the Organization of American States (OAS) and the inter-American system.

Most visibly, a parade of Latin American heads of state have descended on Havana to get their photos taken with Cuba's dear leader Fidel Castro before he passes to another world. Many Latin American presidents calculated that the new administration would radically change Cuba policy. On Monday, the White House announced the lifting of restrictions of Cuban-American travel and remittances, but the changes fall short of expectations.

The White House denied the measures were meant to quell pressure from Latin America. However, Jeffrey S. Davidow, the White House special adviser on the summit, previewed the policy changes last week by emphasizing that Cuba should not be a topic of discussion at the summit. He noted, “It is not our intention to have difficulties with any of these countries.” Admitting Cuba's current regime into the OAS and the summits would erode one of the fundamental tenets on which the inter-American system is premised - representative democracy. Doing so before a major political change in Cuba would reward the region's only totalitarian government and its worst human rights violator, sending a signal to Cuba's oppressed people that the OAS has little regard for them and their right to elect their leaders, applying one standard for Cuba and another for everyone else. The OAS itself recognizes that ” … representative democracy is an indispensable condition for stability, peace and development in the region.”

Furthermore, allowing Cuba's regime into the OAS would be destructive to the increasingly weakened Inter-American Democratic Charter and the OAS itself. Including the Cuban regime in the summit process would reverse a long-standing policy against dictatorships, rooted in the region's history and agreed to by all leaders (including Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez) at the 2001 Quebec City Summit of the Americas.

The impetus to admit Cuba coincides with Mr. Chavez's efforts to erode the importance of the OAS, the Democratic Charter and the summit process. Mr. Chavez has repeatedly denigrated the OAS and its secretary-general, threatened to withdraw and openly used other regional forums to undermine the OAS and the summits.

From a practical perspective, Cuba's entry would create an opening to overturn well-established consensus on a range of issues, from democratic governance and human rights to security cooperation and property rights. This would suit Mr. Chavez and his allies just fine because Cuba's totalitarian nature would set a new low for the hemisphere - a standard they certainly could meet. Other fragile democracies need not worry about respecting civil and political rights.

The United States should welcome discussion about Cuba at the summit because the Democratic Charter offers a hemispheric road map for the return of a democratic Cuba - one that respects fundamental freedoms - to the OAS. Mr. Obama should not oppose Cuba's entry; instead, he should insist that adherence to the principles and practices of the Democratic Charter needs to be a prerequisite for Cuba's admission.

The Democratic Charter offers a prescription, not made in Washington, but one forged by all member states in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, 2001. As the OAS acknowledged during the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, ” … adherence to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, as the standard that enables observance and defense of democratic values and principles, strengthens and is a key element for member states' full participation in the inter-American system.”

The United States also should strongly encourage the OAS to formulate a plan to help Cuba make a transition to democracy and come into full compliance with the Democratic Charter.

At the summit, Mr. Obama needs to clearly outline U.S. commitment to the unconditional release of all political prisoners; respect for fundamental rights, including political and civil rights of the Cuban people; and the development of a pathway toward internationally supervised free and democratic elections. These objectives transcend political parties and have been advocated in one form or another by every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.

These conditions are consistent with the obligation of the OAS to promote and defend democracy and would send a powerful signal from the new U.S. president to Latin American leaders. After all, beyond the lifting of all sanctions, Latin America has no other policy to deal with the current repression or potential changes on the island.

The Obama administration should use its political capital, get on the offensive and protect the democratic norms that the hemisphere has struggled to put together. On Cuba, it should work privately, with courageous regional leaders, to strategize on areas of agreement. We could agree to disagree on lifting all U.S. sanctions but work with Latin America to formulate an approach toward Cuba that puts the Inter-American Democratic Charter at the center of the debate and thereby pressures the Cuban regime to open up political space.

Ironically, if Mr. Obama does not clearly and affirmatively outline his intentions to support the cause of freedom in Cuba, he will allow others to “Cubanize” the summit and hijack the agenda. That is something his advisers say they desperately want to avoid.

Joaquin E. Ferrao was a senior policy adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs in 2005-09. He has served both in the Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs and as alternate representative to the Organization of American States.

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