OAS and Cuba, Obama and Democracy

Dear Friend:

Once again, we report on an enormously consequential week for Cuba policy.

Since you heard from us last…

In a compromise move, the OAS acted to lift its forty-seven year suspension of Cuba.   Cuba agreed to restart the migration talks initiated by President Clinton and broken off by President Bush.  El Salvador’s new president, Mauricio Funes, restored his country’s diplomatic recognition of Cuba, leaving “you know who” as the only nation in the region without formal ties to Havana.   Cuba replaced its Central Bank president amidst growing signs that the island’s economy is suffering the strains of the global financial crisis.  Closer to home, some businesses in Miami are forecasting an end to the embargo and are analyzing the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the table if the future means trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  And the Center for Democracy in the Americas sent a (“what gives?”) letter to the Treasury Department asking for an inquiry into actions cutting off Cubans and others from access to IM.

The OAS decision is really big news.  As we explain below, the outcome on the OAS suspension of Cuba’s membership is a compromise – while symbolic – between nations that pressed for Cuba’s unconditional reentry into the organization versus the position of the United States that initially required Cuba to make political reforms before a lifting of the suspension could be considered.

This compromise truly has something in it for everyone.  Cuba has spent months organizing the region diplomatically, and in the end, the U.S. was forced to accede to regional pressure to lift the suspension in a resolution that contained no specific political demands on Cuba.   Cuba got the result it wanted, and felt no reservations about declining in the end to seek a full restoration of its membership.  The United States was able to say that it blocked Cuba’s readmission, and it produced a diplomatic result that chips away at our positioning in the region as a force for Cuba’s isolation no matter what.   The hardliners in U.S. politics got to trot out their tired references to appeasement, but their shrill comments made them more marginalized than before.

Most important is this: what we may be seeing is an emerging shift in how the Obama Administration is pursuing long-standing U.S. goals for democratization and human rights in a fundamental way.

The OAS debate took place in the same week that President Obama made his historic speech about the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world.  That address contains words that demand to be read in a broader context.

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq.  So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people.  Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.  America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.  But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things:  the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.

What the Presidents seems to be saying is that pursuing democracy rather than imposing is not an abandonment of U.S. values, it is a more effective way of pursuing the same results.   In subtle and incremental ways, that has been the shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, where the administration’s actions in restoring Cuban-American travel and offering renewed migration talks have taken place unilaterally, without waiting for Cuban concessions.

This new approach – which sets aside conditionality, telling Cuba it must “earn privileges” like negotiations before they are offered -found its way into a statement by Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, when he spoke about the OAS compromise.

“The United States looks forward to the day when a democratic Cuba rejoins the inter-American system. Until then, we will seek new ways to engage Cuba that benefit the people of both nations and of the hemisphere.”

“Until then”….he said….”we will seek new ways to engage Cuba.”

This is just our interpretation.  They haven’t announced it, and either the administration or Cuba could do something to pull this new approach off course.  But if this is where the U.S. is heading it will make progress on Cuba – in fact, progress everywhere – a lot easier to obtain without, we say again, setting aside what we believe.

This week in Cuba news…


OAS lifts Cuba’s suspension after 47 years

The General Assembly of the OAS, meeting in Honduras, agreed on a compromise resolution that lifts Cuba’s 47-year old suspension from the organization, but defers to a date in the future for agreement on how Cuba might participate going forward consistent with the body’s “practices, proposals and principles.”

In the wake of the decision, Cuba affirmed its long-standing decision against resuming its membership but called the lifting of its suspension “a majority victory.”

The reversal of Cuba’s suspension from the OAS comes after months of diplomacy and a long campaign in the region during which states from Brazil to members of the ALBA-bloc called for Cuba’s reinstatement with the United States resisting those calls until Cuba complied with demands on democratic governance and human rights.

The compromise resolution read as follows:


1. That Resolution VI adopted 31 January 1962 at the Eighth Meeting of Consultation of the Ministers of Foreign Relations, by means of which the Government of Cuba was excluded from participating in the Inter-American System, is repealed by the Organization of American States.

2. That Cuba’s participation in the OAS will be the result of a process of dialogue initiated at the request of the Government of Cuba and in conformity with the practices, purposes and principles of the OAS.

The OAS action was something of a surprise following days of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and suggestions that the organization had deadlocked and would not act at all.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited the region to attend the inauguration of El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes and lobbied the OAS personally to require Cuba to make reforms as a precondition for reentry into the body, left the meeting to stand with President Obama in Cairo believing that inaction would be the final result and the best outcome given the alternatives.

A U.S. spokesman P.J. Crowley, briefing reporters before the vote, said an agreement was unlikely, and he called that “a clear sign of how the president’s approach to relations in the Americas is paying dividends.”

He said the main support for Cuba’s return came from “countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela; they’re the ones who have been trapped in the past,” while the United States was celebrating “that the OAS is, in fact, a community of democracies.”

But the U.S. ultimately relented, accepted the compromise that annulled the 1962 resolution suspending Cuba’s membership.

Leaders from the region greeted the decision with enthusiasm.  President Mel Zelaya, hosting the gathering in Honduras, said “The Cold War has ended today in San Pedro Sula.”  Ecuador’s foreign minister, Fander Falconi, in announcing the decision, resisted the interpretation that conditions remained on Cuba’s readmission to the body, saying “This is a new proposal.  It has no conditions – of any kind….That suspension was made in the Cold War, in the language of the Cold War.  What we have done here is fix a historic error.”

Cuba did affirm its decision not to seek reentry into the OAS later in the week.  Speaking for Cuba’s government, the president of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcón, described the debate as a ” great victory for Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as for the people of Cuba.”

He added, however, that Cuba’s view of the OAS would not change: “I don’t know how many times we have said it: what happened yesterday does nothing to modify what Cuba thought yesterday, the day before yesterday, or today.”

Cuba’s chief antagonists in the U.S. Congress each released statements condemning the decision by the OAS, threatening to cut off U.S. funds to the organization, and denouncing the Obama administration for actions they called equivalent to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolph Hitler.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the OAS decision “an affront to the Cuban people and to all who struggle for freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights. Far from strengthening the OAS, today’s resolution flies in the face of the organization’s founding charter.  No U.S. taxpayer funds should go towards supporting this sham of an organization that once prided itself on its historic commitment to democracy and human rights.”

Senator Robert Menendez, the leader of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, called the result in Honduras “a sad day for the U.S., in which it has become evident that our leadership in the hemisphere has ebbed to this low. This is the result of a long-standing absence of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere and the continuing lack of a relevant Latin America agenda. Unless the Obama administration has a more expansive plan of engagement in the region, Cuba will continue to dominate the discussion and democratic principles will continue to erode. ”

Menendez is reportedly showing Senate colleagues a draft proposal that would eliminate U.S. funding for the OAS.

Releasing a joint statement, Representatives Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart said, “Today we witnessed an example of the Obama administration’s absolute diplomatic incompetence and its unrestricted appeasement of the enemies of the United States. The OAS is a putrid embarrassment. Today, the member states of the OAS, including the Obama administration, unanimously voted to violate the OAS Charter of 1948 and it’s Inter-American Democratic Charter of 2001. This action constitutes a grotesque and unmerited betrayal of the oppressed people of Cuba.”

Reflecting both the compromise decision taken by the OAS, and the Obama administration’s incremental steps away from five decades of U.S. diplomacy, Thomas Shannon, outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, noted that the U.S. will now engage Cuba in new and beneficial ways without requiring political reforms as a precondition for doing so.

Shannon said, “The United States looks forward to the day when a democratic Cuba rejoins the inter-American system. Until then, we will seek new ways to engage Cuba that benefit the people of both nations and of the hemisphere.”

William Leogrande, a Cuba expert at American University, told the Miami Herald that the resolution reflected a “perfect compromise.”

“What the U.S. achieved is not to isolate itself, not to create animosity but to set the stage for having a discussion about democracy and that was the best outcome the U.S. could have hoped for,” Leogrande said, noting that if the United States had failed to accept a compromise it would have left “with a resolution that made no mention of any underlying principles and with the creation of deep animosity toward the U.S.”

Countering those in the region, who interpreted the OAS action as a “snub” to the United States, Secretary of State Clinton said this:

Oh, not at all. In fact, this was a very good example of the kind of diplomatic engagement that we want to be involved with. Now, of course we had to make the case, and I did it very vigorously with many of my counterparts, that we believed that we needed to do exactly what I said. We couldn’t throw over the OAS, throw over democracy and human rights, which we have worked so hard on in the hemisphere, but we would welcome changes by the Cuban government. We really want to see the Cuban people brought back into the hemisphere and be part of what we hope will be a more prosperous and progressive future.

The Miami Herald was among the first to announce the OAS decision.  You can read its story here.

The Associated Press discussed the nature of the compromise.  You can read its story here.

Time Magazine summarized the back story leading to the OAS vote, and you can read its account here.

Voice of America covers Cuba’s reaffirmation of its decision not to seek OAS membership here.  The BBC also reports on Cuba’s reaction here.  The most detailed story on Cuba’s reaction was filed by IPS and can be read here.

The Christian Science Monitor considers the impact of the OAS decision on U.S. relations with the region here.

CBS News reports on the Cuban reaction here.

The full sound and fury of the anti-OAS reaction can be read (scroll down) here.

You can read the full text of Secretary Shannon’s remarks here.

Secretary Clinton’s interview on the President’s Cairo speech, the OAS and other matters can be read here.

Cuba agrees to restart immigration talks and more

Nearly overshadowed by the OAS decision was Cuba’s agreement, on the eve of the General Assembly meeting, to restart talks with the United States on migration, as President Obama recently offered, and its willingness to cooperate, as the Washington Post reported, on issues including terrorism, drug trafficking and the resumption of normal mail service.

The migration talks, started under President Clinton, were abruptly broken off during the first term of President George W. Bush.

Reacting to Cuba’s decision, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, on issues including terrorism, drug trafficking and even mail service, she was “very pleased” with the developments and hoped they would be well received by other Latin American countries. “We’ve made more progress in four months than has been made in a number of years,” she said, “and we need to work together to continue that kind of progress, keeping in mind the legitimate aspirations and the human rights of the people of Cuba.”

Recommendations to re-engage with Cuba on matters of mutual interest were made in a report this year by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and in a recent Congressional hearing chaired by Congressman John Tierney.  The Obama administration’s action to conduct direct talks with Cuba’s government represents a sharp departure from the previous administration’s policy of isolating Cuba.

The New York Times covered Cuba’s decision to agree to the talks here.

The CDA’s report, “9 Ways for US to talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” where resuming migration talks and other ideas for engagement, is available for download here.


“Austerity Bites”

Reports filed in the Financial Times and by the Reuters News Agency bring attention to “the toughest austerity measures” imposed by Cuba’s government on its people “since the post-Soviet crisis of the 1990s.”

Cubans are confronting electrical power blackouts, mandatory cut-offs of air conditioning in government offices, longer waits for public transportation, and fifty percent reductions in lunch portions as Cuba’s government took steps to deal with a “growing economic squeeze.”

Reuters said the measures “followed two weeks of warnings by the Communist-run government that it could not meet rising electricity demand due to a cash crunch that has forced it to restructure debt and put off payments to foreign businesses.”

According to the news agency, austerity measures included:

  • Mandatory reduction in energy consumption
  • Cuts in bus and train schedules
  • Reduced food allocations
  • Sharp reductions in the acquisition of meat from foreign sources

These steps were taken by Cuba’s government to address a range of economic problems stemming from the global financial crisis, to the reductions in the world price of nickel and tourism activity, prime sources of Cuba’s income.

Rafael Hernandez, editor of Temas Magazine, said that Raul Castro faced not only the international financial crisis, but “an inefficient domestic economic model due to its extreme centralisation and waste, where a dysfunctional bureaucracy resistant to change has prospered.”

Central Bank president steps down

Reuters and the AP also reported that Francisco Soberon Valdes, who held the cabinet-level post for nearly 15 years and shaped the Caribbean country’s monetary policy, was stepping down immediately as Cuba’s Central Bank president.

Soberon, age 64, has been replaced by Ernesto Medina, who heads Banco Financiero Internacional, one of Cuba’s biggest banks.

Francisco Soberon, 64, has been replaced by Ernesto Medina, who heads Banco Financiero Internacional, one of Cuba’s biggest banks, according to an official announcement read on the evening news. It did not say when the move had taken effect.

When Fidel Castro became seriously ill in 2006 and delegated his responsibilities to his brother Raúl, he also created a team to handle social programs of high priority, the Jornada reported. That team was comprised of Carlos Lage, Felipe Pérez Roque and the outgoing Soberón.


Last week, we reported on actions by Microsoft and possibly other IM providers to cut off Cubans and other citizens of countries under U.S. sanctions from using their Instant Messaging service.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas sent a letter to the Treasury Department urging an inquiry to determine if they are “cutting off access to IM because they think U.S. sanctions require them to do so, or because the Treasury Department has told them to do so.”

Reporting on the controversy can be read here and here.

Stepping into a breach created by U.S. policy, Venezuela has vowed to spend $70 million to lay an undersea cable to Cuba that will provide enhanced access to voice, Internet, and television services to the island, the Associated Press reported.

President Obama’s decision to eliminate restrictions on the right of Cuban-Americans to travel to the island, visit their relatives, and provide them financial support, is already having an economic impact here in the United States.

Cuba Travel Services Inc. has announced that it will resume direct flights to the island from Los Angeles that it discontinued in 2004 following the crack down on travel by President George W. Bush.  An article about the resumption of flights can be read here.

According to a report filed by the NBC News bureau in Havana, a group of twelve U.S. athletes joined 240 athletes from fifteen other countries in a two-day track and field meet for the America’s cup.

Around the Region:

A peaceful transfer of power took place this week in El Salvador when Mauricio Funes, the victorious candidate of the FMLN, was sworn into office as President following decades of rule by the ARENA party.  The vote was an extraordinarily development in El Salvador’s political history, as the party representing the rebels who fought a civil war against El Salvador’s government, will now be in charge of the nation’s executive branch for the first time.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was a guest at the swearing in ceremony.

Upon taking office, President Funes signed a document restoring full diplomatic ties with Cuba’s government, leaving the United States as the only country in the Western Hemisphere with ties to Havana.

A report on President Funes’ inauguration and action on Cuba can be read here.

Secretary Clinton published an op-ed about El Salvador and the significance of this moment for the region, which can be read here.

Recommended Reading:

The full text of President Obama’s Cairo speech can be read here.

An editorial on the OAS battle was published by the Boston Globe and it can be read here.

Miami businesses are looking forward to the day the embargo is lifted and consider the impact on the local economy.  Their findings?  Miami’s business will gain if the United States unilaterally lifts its trade embargo on Cuba, but the city could face “unfair” competition from state-subsidized Cuban cigar, citrus and rum exports.

You can read coverage of this issue here and here.

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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