Cuba Is Back
Cuba Is Back
By Jorge Castaneda
MEXICO CITY ? After 47 years, the Organization of American States, at
its annual General Assembly, has repealed its suspension of Cuba's
The so-called ALBA countries (the Spanish acronym for the so-called
Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), which includes Cuba,
Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Dominica, and Ecuador, were
able partly to outwit ? and partly to “out-blackmail" ? Canada, the
United States, and the Latin American democracies in getting Cuba
The OAS did, however, lay down two conditions. Cuba must explicitly
request reinstatement, and a dialogue must be initiated in accordance
with the premises of the OAS Charter and other basic OAS documents, and
in consonance with the principles on which those documents are based ?
most importantly, democracy and respect for human rights.
Like many diplomatic compromises, the outcome left everyone a bit happy
and a bit disappointed. Everyone could claim victory, and no one was
obliged to acknowledge defeat.
But those compromises are like statistics or skimpy swimsuits: what they
show is less important than what they hide. Two fundamental
considerations come to mind, and their ramifications in “up-for-grab"
countries in Latin America, such as El Salvador, are particularly
The first consideration involves the ALBA countries' conduct of foreign
policy. Given that the smaller countries do not act independently of
Venezuela, and that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez does not act
without Cuba's guidance on weighty matters such as these, it is now
clear that the Cubans and their allies will cut U.S. President Barack
Obama no slack on Latin American issues.
They could have easily let the OAS assembly go by, giving the new
American president more time to prepare his Congress and public opinion
for a delicate balancing act. The key issue here is how to lift the now
almost 50-year old U.S. embargo on trade, investment, and travel to Cuba
unilaterally, while portraying it as the result of a negotiation.
The ALBA countries decided they would concede nothing to Obama, and
attempt, instead, to back him into a corner: either the U.S. would go
along with the new OAS consensus, angering both parts of the
Cuban-American lobby and the human rights community by abandoning
principles and commitments, or the U.S. would have to act alone (perhaps
with Canada by its side), leaving it totally isolated in Latin America ?
the last thing Obama wants.
The ALBA group pushed hard for a vote, or a compromise on its terms,
which it could then flaunt to the world and to domestic public opinion.
Obama had no choice but to go along.
The second consideration is that this behavior will continue. The reason
seems clear enough: Cuba needs international aid desperately, and there
are not too many places where it can find it. Hopes that Brazil and
China would provide cash to Cuba have been dashed by the international
financial crisis and geopolitics.
And Chavez, despite the recent increase in oil prices, can no longer
afford to subsidize Cuba as he did during the boom years. So it seems
that the Cubans are hoping to find resources elsewhere, and the only
possibility, as remote as it seems, is the Inter-American Development Bank.
In principle, IDB membership requires OAS membership, and therein may
lie the reason why Cuba insisted so strongly on returning, and why it
was ultimately disappointed in not obtaining unconditional re-admission.
It will nonetheless attempt to have its allies push for some sort of
association with the IDB, while at the same time radicalizing its stance
elsewhere, as it is now doing in El Salvador.
Indeed, the new Salvadoran president, Mauricio Funes, was elected on the
ticket of the FMLN, the party that succeeded the old, hard-left
guerrilla group of the 1980s and 1990s. He is a moderate, modern leftist
who has openly identified himself with Brazilian President Lula and
Barack Obama, as opposed to Chavez.
But his party is as close to Cuba and Venezuela as one can get. In a
showdown over the composition of the cabinet just before his
inauguration on June 1, the FMLN old guard won, threatening to take the
conflict to the streets. The Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans will
not cut Funes any slack, either, believing that history is on their
side, and that now is the time to force every issue in sight.
They are probably right, up to a certain point, because the second
lesson from the OAS assembly concerns the behavior of the Latin American
democracies, mainly Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. They tried to
accommodate the U.S. (it is rumored that Obama phoned Lula and asked for
his help), but were nonetheless unwilling to break with Cuba and
Venezuela to side openly with the U.S.
They will not do so any time soon, on any issue that may spring up, if
it means confrontation with the ALBA countries. Fidel Castro knows this,
and will take advantage of the democracies' diluted commitment to human
rights and democracy.
In each country where conflict is present or emerging (Bolivia,
Guatemala, El Salvador, Paraguay, and Ecuador) the hard-left will push
hard, the democracies will look the other way, and Obama will either
give in (as at the OAS) and pay a domestic political price, or step back
from Latin America, for fear of appearing isolated. A magnificent
opportunity for a new start in U.S.-Latin American relations will have
Jorge Castaneda, former foreign minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is a
global distinguished professor of politics and Latin American studies at
New York University. For more stories, visit Project Syndicate
Cuba Is Back (23 June 2009)