US committed to new approach for hemisphere

Other News Materials 1 June 2009 06:20 (UTC +04:00)

A diplomatic tug-of-war over Cuba's outcast status in the Organization of American States takes center stage at the group's meeting this week in Honduras, testing U.S. efforts to engage the communist nation, AP reported.

Numerous Latin American countries are pushing to reverse the 1962 expulsion of Cuba from the 34-country group, although the Cuban government insists it has no interest in returning.

An OAS official told The Associated Press that a decision on clearing the way for Cuba to rejoin the group could be postponed unless there is a consensus. In that case, Tuesday's meeting could produce a statement supporting efforts to find a solution. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived in El Salvador on Sunday, is scheduled to attend.

Clinton said Sunday the Obama administration was committed to a "new approach to the hemisphere and to Cuba" and was "very pleased" Havana has accepted a U.S. proposal to resume suspended immigration talks and restore direct mail links between the two countries.

"We have said that we look forward to the day when Cuba, if it so wishes, can rejoin the OAS," she said, adding, however, that "we believe that membership in the OAS comes with responsibilities and that the we must all hold each other accountable."

U.S. officials say they are ready to support lifting the resolution that suspended Cuba from the OAS, but want to tie its readmission to democratic reforms. Nicaragua, backed by Venezuela, Bolivia and others, favors an approach that would declare Cuba's expulsion an error and remove all legal hurdles to Cuba's regaining its membership.

"We believe that this is not just about the past, but it is about the future," Clinton said. "It is not just about a resolution that was passed nearly a half-century ago, it is about the larger question of Cuba's future in the inter-American system in the 21st century."

Clinton made the comments to reporters in San Salvador after meeting with foreign and trade ministers from 16 nations in the region and before attending Monday's inauguration of Salvadoran president-elect Mauricio Funes ahead of the OAS meeting.

Diplomats at OAS headquarters in Washington have tried frantically to forge a compromise. Nicaragua has threatened to press for a vote on its proposal.

Albert R. Ramdin, the OAS' assistant secretary general, sought to play down the prospect of a final agreement on Cuba's status. "Theoretically we can always vote, but in practical political terms it seems that it's not an option," Ramdin said in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the meeting site.

A vote could put the U.S. on the spot. Although the OAS generally operates by consensus, a two-thirds majority vote, or 23 countries, is all that's needed for a resolution to pass.

One senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations would not rule out the possibility that Clinton might skip the meeting unless there was a compromise acceptable to the U.S. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

The administration is committed to a set of principles the OAS approved in 2001 that enshrines democracy as a right of all people in the Western Hemisphere.

The meeting comes at a delicate time in President Barack Obama's outreach to Cuba. Already, his administration has lifted travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family on the island. Cuba has consented to restarting immigration talks and expressed a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on fighting terrorism and drug trafficking, and on hurricane disaster preparedness.

Cuban leader Raul Castro and his ailing brother Fidel have reacted coolly to the easing of restrictions and demanded an end to the decades-old U.S. embargo on the island.

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

But Cuba's Communist Party daily Granma ended a three-day denunciation of the OAS on Friday by saying Cuba "does not need the OAS. It does not want it, even reformed. We will never return to that decrepit old house of Washington."

Some in the OAS, notably the socialist 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.

When 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, planned to restore them on Monday when Funes takes office.

Funes is the first Salvadoran president from the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

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. It's one more lurch to the left in Latin America.