Friday, June 5, 2009

Ball is now in Cuba's court

By DeWayne Wickham

The Obama administration — not Cuba — is the biggest beneficiary of the Organization of American States’ decision to revoke its 46-year suspension of Cuba from the hemispheric group.

The decision, which came as President Barack Obama was on the first leg of his five-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, is not likely to bring Cuba back into the organization anytime soon. Cuban President Raul Castro has denounced the OAS as a tool of American hegemony in the region and scoffs at the idea of rejoining the organization.

If Cuba decides to return to the OAS, it must agree to adhere to the organization’s democratic principles — a litmus test the Obama administration got the OAS to impose as a condition of Cuba’s readmittance.The OAS “showed flexibility and openness” in agreeing to lift its suspension of Cuba, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement shortly after the group voted by acclamation to end the ban.

“Cuba can come back into the OAS in the future if the OAS decides that its participation meets the purposes and principles of the organization, including democracy and human rights,” she said.

Clinton’s interpretation of the OAS action won’t have Fidelistas in Havana jumping for joy. But it will produce a measure of steam control for the Obama administration, which was being pressured by virtually every other OAS country to end its objection to Cuban membership.

With the OAS vote, the ball is now in Cuba’s court. If it doesn’t seek to return to the hemispheric group, it can’t accuse the United States of standing in its way without condemning the other 33 OAS nations for approving the terms of its re-entry. If it chooses to remain detached from the OAS after being invited back in, it risks losing support within the organization.

The Obama administration, by getting a rollback of the ban largely on its terms, has outflanked Cuba and its allies inside the OAS. Coming just weeks after he eased restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba, Obama’s embrace of the OAS action makes him look like the leader in efforts to ease America’s longstanding rift with the Castro regime.

Cuba’s response so far has been a muted call for talks on immigration, the renewal of direct mail service between the nations and cooperation against drug trafficking and terrorism.The Castro government will have to do much more to counter the impression that it clings to the Cold War rift that the Obama administration is trying to end.

It’s not enough to simply argue the limitations and insincerity of America’s outreach — though it is at times both. Cuba must counter Obama’s breakthrough actions with breakthrough actions of its own.The time is right to end America’s embargo of Cuba.

There’s strong support in Congress for this, but with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, Congress probably won’t pressure Obama to lift the embargo without some positive movement from Cuba.Many in Congress understand the embargo hasn’t worked. They know continuing to isolate the Caribbean island nation won’t produce democratic change. As with China and Vietnam, they understand that change — however slow — is more likely to come from engagement.

But as we have so often learned, “all politics is local.” The Democrat-controlled Congress and the Obama administration will be cautious in handling Cuba out of fear a misstep would be turned against them by Republicans desperate for an issue to break their fall.

The OAS vote improves the Obama administration’s standing abroad without causing it any significant political damage at home — and ratchets up the pressure on Cuba to act.

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