Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Summit Fails to Reach Accord on Cuba

June 4, 2009
Summit Fails to Reach Accord on Cuba

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Thirty-four members of the Organization of American States gathered here Tuesday to argue over whether to readmit Cuba. By the end of the day, the United States had failed in an attempt to broker a deal that would have lifted the ban on Havana.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged from talks with the foreign ministers of nine North and South American countries after an unsuccessful struggle to hash out a compromise that would have granted Cuba membership, provided its regime accepted democratic principles.

“There is no consensus, and there is no agreement to take any action,” Mrs. Clinton said to reporters just before leaving Honduras to fly to Cairo for President Obama’s speech to the Islamic world on Thursday.

A few hours later, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., an assistant secretary of state, confirmed that the talks had broken off — all but guaranteeing that the organization would not agree on how to treat Cuba.

On one level, it seems a sterile debate: Cuba has said often and loudly that it does not want to rejoin the organization. But on a deeper level, the meeting has showcased Latin America’s resurgent political left, which has seized on Cuba as an issue with which to press the United States.

It has also dramatized the challenges that Mr. Obama will face as he seeks to engage old American foes, on his own timetable. While a few Latin American leaders praised Mr. Obama’s overtures to Cuba, his cautious steps seemed only to redouble their calls to go farther and faster.

One after another, the leaders stepped forward to demand that the 47-year-old suspension of Cuba’s membership be lifted immediately. Several condemned it as a relic of the cold war.

“We cannot leave San Pedro Sula without correcting that other day that will live in infamy,” said President José Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, referring to the organization’s meeting in 1962 at which Cuba was banned.

“Our brothers and sisters in Cuba,” Mr. Zelaya said, “have been suffering for so long as a result of the blockade that has been imposed by one of the most powerful economies in the world.”

Mrs. Clinton said the Obama administration wanted to turn the page with Cuba, too. But the United States has insisted that the Cuban government demonstrate it is ready to uphold the democratic principles enshrined in a 2001 charter adopted by the Organization of American States.

The United States first proposed a resolution that would maintain the ban on Cuba, but would lay out a path for Havana to be reinstated. Nicaragua argued for lifting the suspension without conditions, while two other resolutions by Honduras and other countries sought to find a middle ground.

American negotiators have since agreed to lift the suspension, but to make Cuba’s participation contingent on its adherence to democratic principles. They would also require Cuba to petition for membership.

“We think we’ve succeeded in raising a lot of questions in the minds of O.A.S. members,” Mrs. Clinton said. But she added, “Since we don’t agree with the bare-bones proposal, if there’s no action, that’s fine with us, because we think action has to be better thought out.”

American officials did not rule out that Nicaragua and Venezuela might force a vote on readmitting Cuba without any conditions. And they might be able to round up a majority of members.

That would be a stinging repudiation of the United States, which supplies 60 percent of the financing for the O.A.S., and of the Obama administration, which has made reaching out to Cuba one of its diplomatic hallmarks.

Mrs. Clinton seemed tired but satisfied, she said, that the United States had moved the debate “very dramatically.”

Whatever the outcome, the debate over Cuba has provided a pretext for left-wing leaders — both fresh faces and old stalwarts — to take aim at the United States. Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether they were complaining about Cuba’s exclusion or other old grievances against the United States.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, a former guerrilla leader, described the Cuban ban as an act of American imperialism. And indeed Cuba today derides the organization as a tool of Washington.

While Mr. Ortega said Mr. Obama had “shown good will,” he said the president was trapped by the policies of his predecessors. “The O.A.S. continues to be an instrument of domination of the United States,” he said. “That’s why this meeting took on a very deep meaning.”

Mrs. Clinton made this trip to reach out to Latin America’s new leaders. On Monday, she attended the presidential inauguration of a leftist leader in El Salvador, Mauricio Funes. Some analysts question why this debate had to play out at the Organization of American States, especially since it could have kept busy with issues like the economic crisis battering the region.

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