A Historic Decision on Cuba

Representatives of the 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere that make up the Organization of American States, or OAS, gathered in Honduras last Wednesday and voted to end Cuba’s suspension from the group. The historic vote brings the 47-year suspension to a close and marks a possible turning point in U.S.-Latin America relations.

The Obama administration’s willingness to accept Cuba’s reentry into the Inter-American system—provided Cuba agrees to embrace democratic principles—was overwhelmingly supported by the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. As a result, it was seen by many, including the President of Honduras José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, as an end to the Cold War mentality that dominated U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America for years after the war’s end. Now that Washington is no longer the main obstacle to Cuba’s reintegration into the OAS, it is up to Cuba to make the reforms necessary to respect the principles at the heart of the Inter-American system.

The vote allowing Cuba to reenter the OAS occurred after heated debate and intense negotiations among the organization’s member states. The United States made clear during the debate that it wants Cuba to make an unequivocal commitment to democratic norms and respect for human rights before reentering the Inter-American system. Washington threatened that without such a commitment, it would suspend its funding for the OAS, which accounts for approximately 60 percent of the organization’s budget.

Venezuela and Nicaragua countered the United States by arguing against imposing any conditions on Cuba whatsoever. The impasse threatened to fracture the organization, but last-minute negotiations between officials from both sides brought about a compromise. Cuba is allowed to reenter the group, but it must first initiate a dialogue with the organization and express its desire to rejoin the Inter-American system. Cuba must then participate in the organization “in conformity with the practices, purposes, and principles of the OAS.”

What’s missing here is specific reference to the organization’s 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, which calls on all member states to explicitly embrace democracy. But there is an implicit respect for the group’s 1966 Democratic Charter, which requires that all member states abide by essential elements of representative democracy. Cuba will therefore need to take solid steps toward embracing the democratic principles that form the basis of the Inter-American system―starting with the release of political prisoners.

The OAS has lifted Cuba’s suspension with the United States’ nod of approval. The ball now lies squarely in the Cuban government’s court to demonstrate its readiness and willingness to abide by the rules that govern the Inter-American system. Yet Cuba has basically said “thanks but no thanks.” The Cuban government released a statement through Cuban television hours after the vote’s results were made public clarifying that Cuba has not asked to return to the OAS and does not want to.

So where does this leave the OAS, the United States, Cuba, and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean?

The OAS’s ultimate composition remains undefined, but the vote may have helped move forward a symbolic reconciliation between the United States and the rest of the Americas. Now that Washington is no longer seen as the biggest impediment to Cuba’s reentry into the Inter-American system, the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean may be more willing to see President Barack Obama as making good on his promise to forge a new era of cooperation with the region. If so, the vote will mark a turning point in U.S.-Latin America relations. It could make a new era of partnership not only possible but perhaps real.

Stephanie Miller is currently a consultant on U.S.-Latin America relations and was formerly the Research Associate for the Americas Project at the Center.