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U.S. Seeks United Action Against Cuba

The Organization of American States is urged to defend democracy. But support for Castro remains strong in much of Latin America.

June 10, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday prodded Western Hemisphere neighbors to join the United States in taking a stand against Cuban President Fidel Castro for his crackdown on dissidents.

At the annual summit of the Organization of American States, Powell said Cubans increasingly look to the 34-member group "for help in defending their fundamental freedoms against the depredations of our hemisphere's only dictatorship." He said the United States looks forward to working with OAS partners "to find ways to hasten the inevitable democratic transition in Cuba."

The OAS has gone to great lengths to stay out of the divisive issue of Cuba for the 44 years since its communist revolution. But U.S. officials are seeking to take advantage of worldwide disapproval of Castro's 3-month-old crackdown to get the organization to commit itself.

Powell said Sunday that he also hoped to win more help on the issue from the European Union, which has an important trade relationship with Cuba. The EU last week announced limited sanctions against Havana, including limits on government visits.

Fearing the growing momentum of the dissident movement, Castro's government convicted 75 dissidents in March and jailed them for terms of up to 28 years. He denounced them as subversive counterrevolutionaries who were collaborating with U.S. officials on the island.

His government in April also executed three Cuban men who hijacked a ferry in an unsuccessful attempt to flee to the United States.

Last month, Canada, Chile and Uruguay sought to enlist the support of OAS members for a declaration that condemned Castro's actions. Seventeen OAS members signed, but the other 17 declined and the measure was withdrawn.

Support for Castro continues to be strong in many parts of Latin America. The Caribbean countries, which Castro has courted, continue to strongly resist any effort at censure, as does Brazil.

In his comments, Powell argued that Castro's crackdown violates the Inter-American Democratic Charter that OAS members signed in September 2001. He said the charter "declares that the people of the Americas have a right to democracy; it does not say that the people of the Americas except Cubans have a right to democracy."

As democracies, the governments have no choice but to come out strongly against what Cuba has done, either collectively or individually, he argued.

A senior OAS official, who asked to remain unidentified, said he did not believe that the organization would support joint action against Cuba unless it also brought an easing of the long-standing American trade and travel embargo on Cuba, of which many members disapprove.

"Members want to talk about Cuba in a balanced way" that involves "not only human rights, but also isolation of Cuba and the embargo," he said.

At the same time, this official predicted that the United States may be able to enlist some members in joint action against Cuba if U.S. officials approach them individually.

Powell's three-day trip to South America is his first since the war against Iraq, and it comes at a time when the Bush administration is seeking to overcome perceptions that it has neglected the hemisphere since Sept. 11 riveted its attention.

Latin American officials have complained that the United States has not done enough for the region in the last two years as its economy, strong in the early 1990s, has stumbled badly.

"We are not a priority anymore," lamented the senior OAS official.

Argentine officials have been particularly upset at what they consider the hands-off attitude of the United States as their economy continued a slide. They compare it unfavorably with the big aid package the Clinton administration gave Mexico in the 1990s.

Officials of the new administration of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner have said they will not follow the United States' lead automatically. And they signaled their coolness by inviting Castro to Kirchner's inauguration, where he got a warm welcome from the Argentine public.

The Bush administration's only representative at the Kirchner inauguration was Mel Martinez, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Powell said Sunday that with a brief trip to Buenos Aires on Tuesday, he intended to do some "diplomatic garden tending, as they say."

He said he would tell Kirchner that "the United States stands ready to help" Argentina with its economic difficulties and would invite Kirchner to come to Washington to meet with Bush.

Powell's trip was also intended as a gesture of support toward Chile.

The country has been a strong political and economic partner, but it had a falling out with the Bush administration after it refused to support the Iraq war in the United Nations Security Council. On Friday, however, U.S. and Chilean officials signed a free trade agreement at a ceremony in Miami.

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