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Cuba and the OAS

It's past time for Cuba to rejoin the Organization of American States. But the U.S., and surprisingly Cuba itself, remain against the move.

June 03, 2009

Cuba was booted out of the Organization of American States in 1962 over Fidel Castro's embrace of Marxism-Leninism and his alignment with the Soviet Union. Today, as OAS foreign ministers meet in Honduras for their annual assembly, two countries are opposed to the island's return to the regional organization: the United States and, apparently, Cuba itself.

The United States is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has not restored full diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the Obama administration argues that Cuba should not be allowed to reenter the 34-member OAS before taking steps toward democratization. To do so, the administration says, would be to violate the organization's own charter obligating it to promote and defend democracy. Cuba counters that it doesn't want to join, even if allowed, because the Washington-based OAS caters to a U.S. agenda.

But the rest of Latin America says it is time to end Cuba's isolation and rebuild hemispheric unity. The region's predominantly left-of-center governments also clearly see this as an opportunity to demonstrate their independence from the United States and to hold President Obama to his word to act in consultation with his allies.

Cuba's readmission to the OAS is overdue, its absence more a Cold War relic than a statement of modern diplomacy. But a short delay may be useful if it allows the Obama administration and Cuban President Raul Castro's government more time to tend to the bilateral relationship first. Already in the five months since Obama took office, the administration has relaxed travel restrictions on Cuban Americans and limits on remittances to Cuba. The two governments have agreed to resume negotiations over mail service and migration rules that broke down in 2003. Cuba said it would consider helping the United States fight terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as working together on hurricane disasters. Those are encouraging developments and may foreshadow further progress.

That's essential because Cuba remains an outlier nation. It is the only country in the hemisphere whose leaders are unelected. It has quashed freedom of expression and political dissent, and jailed its opponents -- human rights abuses that cannot be ignored in the pursuit of normal diplomatic relations. But exclusion from the OAS has not brought relief from those miseries. Engagement, not isolation, will bring change to Cuba. We want to see the U.S. trade embargo lifted so that more U.S. businesses and goods may make their way to Cuba. All Americans should be allowed to travel to the island, to engage with Cubans and exchange ideas. And the multilateral OAS, with Cuba as a member, can serve as an instrument to nudge the country toward democracy.

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