Fight over Cuba to dominate OAS meeting

A fight over Cuba's possible readmission into the Organization of American States is set to dominate the group's meeting this week in Honduras and may put Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in an uncomfortable position, AP reported.

With numerous Latin American countries pushing to reverse the 1962 expulsion of the communist island nation from the bloc, the Obama administration's willingness to engage with Cuba will be tested at the session that Clinton plans to attend on Tuesday.

U.S. officials say they are ready to support lifting the resolution that suspended Cuba from the 34-country group but they insist on tying the island's readmission to democratic reforms under a charter the organization adopted in 2001.

Nicaragua, backed by Venezuela, Bolivia and others, wants a more dramatic approach that would declare Cuba's expulsion an error and remove all legal hurdles to it regaining its membership, even though the Cuban government has said it is not interested in rejoining.

Diplomats at OAS headquarters in Washington have been trying frantically to forge a compromise ahead of the meeting. Nicaragua has threatened to press for a vote on its proposal.

This could put the U.S. on the spot because although the OAS generally operates by consensus, a two-thirds majority vote, or 23 countries, is all that is needed for a resolution to pass. OAS sources say they believe that threshold can easily be met.

One senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations would not rule out the possibility that Clinton might decide to cancel her attendance at the OAS meeting if a compromise acceptable to the United States was not reached. But he said he was hopeful that one could be achieved.

The official said the Obama administration wants to replace a "historical impediment" to Cuba's OAS membership with a "modern" one, referring to the Inter-American Democratic Charter that enshrines democracy as a right of all people in the western hemisphere.

"We do not believe that the OAS should be walking away from that achievement in an effort to woo a country which has not shown any interest in returning to the OAS," the official said. "We want to create a democratic pathway (for Cuban membership) that looks forward, not backward."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

The meeting comes at a delicate time in President Barack Obama's outreach to Cuba, which has already seen the lifting of travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba and an offer to resume immigration talks that were suspended by the Bush administration in 2003.

Cuban leader Raul Castro and his ailing brother Fidel have not yet officially responded to the request to restart the migration talks and have reacted coolly to the easing of sanctions by demanding an end to the decades-old U.S. embargo on the island.

U.S. officials have ruled out an end to the embargo and Cuba's return to the OAS until Cuba makes moves toward democratic pluralism, releases political prisoners and respects fundamental rights.

"We would welcome the day when Cuba is able to join the OAS but ... it's really up to Cuba whether or not they join the OAS," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Friday.

"They have to take certain concrete steps in order to meet democratic principles that define OAS membership," he said.

But others in the OAS, notably the leftist presidents of Nicaragua and Venezuela, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez, maintain that neither the United States nor the OAS can dictate what Cuba has to do to return.

And, the United States has become increasingly isolated in its view.

By the time the foreign ministers meet on Tuesday in San Pedro Sula, the U.S. will be the only country in the hemisphere without full diplomatic relations with Cuba. El Salvador, the only other OAS member without such ties, plans to restore them on Monday when its new president takes office.

Clinton will attend the inauguration in San Salvador of president-elect Mauricio Funes, the first Salvadoran president from the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN.

The FMLN is the second former Central American foe of the United States to take power democratically since Nicaragua elected Sandinista leader Ortega in 2006, and another lurch to the left in Latin America.

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