Inside the OAS's Cuba Conundrum

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HAROLD ESCALONA / epa / Corbis

Cuban President Raúl Castro

Latin American leaders usually have few qualms about lecturing the U.S. on what they regard as the folly of its Cuba policy, especially of late. Reintegrating Cuba has become a priority issue for many if not most of the region's governments, who see it as a way to break with the Cold War politics and U.S. hegemony that burdened the region in the 20th century. Calls for Washington to lift its 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba have rarely been louder, especially since President Barack Obama, who is popular in Latin America, seems to be opening the door to dialogue with Havana. And last year, regional powerhouse Brazil ushered Cuba into the Rio Group, Latin America's major multilateral organization. (See TIME's photo history of Fidel Castro's years in power.)

But as representatives of the 35 member states of the Organization of American States (OAS), including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gather this week in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for its general assembly, the region's powers themselves are grappling with their own powerfully symbolic diplomatic dilemma: how to readmit communist Cuba while adhering to an OAS charter whose rules require democratic government.

It may seem easy at first to argue that Cuba's 1962 suspension from the hemispheric multilateral organization, like the embargo, is a Cold War relic, one that might have been understandable during the Cuban missile crisis but makes little sense two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. (It's also hypocritical, Cuba backers say, since brutal right-wing dictatorships like Augusto Pinochet's Chile were never suspended.) But that case is undermined by the OAS's 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter — approved on 9/11 — which mandates that members adhere to democratic norms like multiparty elections and free speech. OAS officials say privately that even human-rights groups that deplore the embargo have warned the organization not to betray the 2001 charter. "This time, the U.S. position is actually much closer to the default position of the OAS," says Daniel Erikson, a senior associate at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington and the author of The Cuba Wars, "while it's countries like Nicaragua and Honduras that look like they're trying to paint outside the lines." (Read TIME's brief history of U.S.-Cuba relations.)

The OAS's task in San Pedro Sula is to find a compromise between proposals put forth in recent days by Nicaragua and Honduras, whose leftist governments are calling for the immediate lifting of the suspension, and the Obama Administration, which says now that it too supports readmitting Cuba but only if Havana takes "the concrete steps necessary to meet those [democratic] principles," Clinton told Congress recently. On Sunday, ahead of the OAS gathering, State Department officials reportedly confirmed that Cuba had accepted Washington's recent offer to restart talks on legal immigration and mail service, talks that were suspended by the Bush Administration in 2004.

Diplomats tell TIME that major Latin broker countries like Brazil are stepping in now to help hammer out a deal palatable to both Washington and Havana — one that would probably demand a lesser gesture of democratic commitment on Cuba's part, like the release of political prisoners. But they also suggest that the General Assembly may end up deciding to simply hold a yearlong "dialogue" on the matter, to allow the U.S. and Cuba to ease into a compromise that would be unveiled in 2010.

For all the diplomatic wrangling over Cuba's OAS membership, it's not at all clear that the island nation has any real interest in rejoining the organization. Cuban President Raúl Castro and his brother, former President Fidel Castro, insist they won't accept any conditions. "We do not wish to be part of" the OAS, Fidel wrote this month, calling its criticism of Cuba's human-rights record "pure garbage." What the OAS should decide in San Pedro Sula, he added, "is to expel the U.S. and start from scratch with a new organization that will defend the interests of Latin America and the Caribbean." It's most likely a disingenuous stance — it's hard to imagine Cuba not re-entering the OAS if its members do vote to rescind the suspension — but it does reflect growing skepticism in Latin America about the 61-year-old OAS's relevance, especially as the region, politically and economically, becomes more independent of the U.S.

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, a moderate socialist and former Chilean foreign minister nicknamed El Panzer for his tanklike drive, has actually strengthened the OAS's influence since being elected secretary-general in 2005 — the first winning candidate, in fact, who wasn't regarded as "Washington's man." Last year, for example, he played a key role in quieting war drums in the Andes when a crisis broke out among Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela over leftist guerrillas and territorial sovereignty. But he also took heat last fall for what critics called an all too OAS-like soft response to credible charges of widespread, government-orchestrated vote fraud that erupted after elections in Nicaragua. As a result, how Insulza handles the Cuba question this week will have a lot to say about how much importance the OAS carries in the new century.

Privately, Obama Administration officials acknowledge that Washington's own influence inside the OAS has shrunk since the Cold War, despite the fact that the U.S. is still the group's No. 1 financial backer, and they concede that the OAS could vote this week to readmit Cuba without U.S. approval, though it would be rare for the organization not to forge a consensus on the matter first. (New Jersey's Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez has threatened to cut off U.S. funding to the OAS if it lifts the suspension.) Still, "the OAS's historic journey to become a region that defines itself democratically is not something that can be lightly walked away from," says a senior State Department official. If the OAS can pull off the feat of honoring its charter while not walking away from Cuba, the U.S. and Latin America may have found some crucial common ground.

See TIME's photos of Fidel Castro in the jungle.

Read TIME's story on Cuban reforms.