Image: Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, Honduras President Manuel Zelaya
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP
Sec. of State Hillary Clinton meets with Honduras' President Manuel Zelaya, who called the U.S. embargo of Cuba a grave injustice.
updated 6/3/2009 8:28:22 PM ET 2009-06-04T00:28:22

The Organization of American States on Wednesday lifted a decades-old ban on Cuba's participation in the group and cleared the way for the island's return despite initial U.S. objections.

The vote by acclamation to revoke a 1962 measure suspending Cuba from the hemispheric group toppled an enduring landmark of the Cold War, and made clear that Latin American nations are forging a more independent relationship with the United States.

"The Cold War has ended this day in San Pedro Sula," said Honduran President Manuel Zelaya immediately following the announcement. "We begin a new era of fraternity and tolerance."

The action doesn't mean Cuba will return to the 34-member body that helps coordinate policies and mediates disputes throughout the Americas. Cuban officials have repeatedly insisted they have no interest in returning to an organization they consider a tool of the United States.

But it does map out a new, more collegial relationship between the U.S. and Latin American countries, and could help nascent U.S. efforts to start a dialogue with Cuba after more than four decades without diplomatic relations.

Restoring ties with Cuba
After El Salvador this week became the hemisphere's latest nation to restore ties with Cuba, the OAS move further draws the island back into the hemispheric fold after its Cold War isolation.

"This is a moment of rejoicing for all of Latin America," Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Fander Falconi told reporters after the session. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega called the vote "news of hope."

If Cuba later decides to join the group, the agreement calls for "a process of dialogue" in line with OAS "practices, proposals and principles" — a veiled allusion to agreements on human rights and democracy that the U.S. has insisted upon.

Robert A. Pastor, a longtime foreign policy adviser on hemispheric affairs, called the final resolution a good compromise.

Requesting Cuba to seek a dialogue with the OAS "offers an avenue toward maintaining the Inter-American Democratic Charter," said Pastor, a professor at American University in Washington. "One hopes that the U.S. will expedite its negotiations with Cuba and Cuba begins a dialogue with the OAS on a wide range of issues."

'A putrid embarrassment'
But U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the vote only appeased Cuba.

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"Now we know where the priorities of the OAS lie," the Cuba-born Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "Rather than upholding democratic principles and fundamental freedoms, OAS member states, led by the OAS Secretary General, could not move quickly enough to appease their tyrannical idols in Cuba.

"Today's decision by the OAS is an affront to the Cuban people and to all who struggle for freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights," she added.

U.S. Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, also Cuba-born Florida Republicans, called the vote "a putrid embarrassment" and said it showed the Obama Administration's "absolute diplomatic incompetence and its unrestricted appeasement of the enemies of the United States."

The decision was made by consensus, meaning the United States accepted it, though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had lobbied personally for requiring Cuba to make democratic reforms and improve respect for human rights.

Clinton applauds final vote
"Many member countries originally sought to lift the 1962 suspension and allow Cuba to return immediately, without conditions," Clinton said in a statement issued by the State Department in Washington.

"Others agreed with us that the right approach was to replace the suspension which has outlived its purpose after nearly half a century with a process of dialogue and a future decision that will turn on Cuba's commitment to the organization's values," she added.

Clinton herself left the meeting before the final vote. The meeting dragged on so long Tuesday night that she did not even have time to deliver a prepared speech of 1,500 words before flying out of Honduras to join President Barack Obama in Egypt.

Battle ahead
The U.S. won Cuba's suspension from the hemispheric body in January 1962. It was just nine months after Fidel Castro first publicly described Cuba's system as socialist and after a disastrous U.S.-backed exile invasion of the country flopped at the Bay of Pigs.

The OAS found that Cuba's "adherence ... to Marxism-Leninism is incompatible with the inter-American system."

But in recent years, with the Cold War fading and left-of-center governments spreading in the Americas, Cuba's isolation melted away. Every country in the hemisphere except for the United States has re-established relations with Cuba and the U.S. embargo of Cuba is deeply unpopular throughout the region.

Membership in the OAS gives a country a voice in hemispheric agreements on major issues. The OAS has often tried to mediate solutions to political conflicts and it has offshoots that coordinate health policies and protect human rights.

Although the U.S. ultimately claimed the vote as a victory for American diplomacy, the rancor at the meeting before Clinton left showed that "the era of the U.S. calling the shots has ended," said Daniel P. Erikson, a Cuba specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

Erikson also noted that "there is some wiggle room" in the conditions.

"I think there will be a battle in the coming days to see how to define the practices and principles of the OAS and whether Cuba is meeting them," he said.

Cuba's government has repeatedly said it has no interest in returning to the 34-member organization.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro wrote in state newspapers on Wednesday that the OAS should not exist and historically has "opened the doors to the Trojan horse" — the U.S. — to wreak havoc in Latin America.

Cuba ally and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called the vote "a great victory" but also raised concerns that Washington continues to dominate the OAS and suggested that "a new organization of Latin American and Caribbean countries must be created."

The Obama administration has hoped its recent overtures to the Cuban government would overcome widespread resentment in the Americas over Washington's long history of isolating Havana.

U.S. officials have lifted restrictions on money transfers and travel to the island by Americans with family there and are resuming long-stalled immigration and postal service talks.

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana credited Obama for making Wednesday's decision possible.

"This resolution should be understood as a renewed spirit of dialogue," Taiana said.

More on   El Salvador   |  Cuba   |  Hillary Clinton

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