U.S. Cuba Policy

Eighteen years ago, the Soviet Union fell apart.  Nine years ago, the  People’s Republic of China became a member of the World Trade Organization  (WTO) with President Bill Clinton’s blessing.  However, new realities dawn  slowly in Washington’s sclerotic diplomatic circles. It was only this month  that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acquiesced in reversing the 1962  expulsion of Cuba from the Organization of American States (OAS).[1]

Cuba had been kicked out for consorting with the Soviet Union and the  People’s Republic of China, leading OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel  Insulza to remark recently,   “One of the countries has disappeared and the  other is buying a lot of U.S. Treasuries. Please, if they’re going to be  excluded, let’s come up with some better criteria.”[2]

The OAS meeting June 2-3 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, lifted the  expulsion but gave Clinton a face-saving out by deciding that Cuba would  have to apply for readmission.  This allowed Clinton to claim that the OAS  backed the perpetual US demand that Cuba make concessions on elections,  human rights and capitalism[3] even though the new resolution contains no  specific requisites.

Legal niceties

Failing to destroy the Cuban revolution at the Bay of Pigs in April  1961, President John F. Kennedy turned to the OAS. Without adopting Fidel  Castro’s description of the OAS as “the collector of all the garbage from 60  years of treason against the peoples of Latin America,”[4] it is only a  modest exaggeration to say that the invasion violated practically every word  of the organization’s 1948 charter.

On strictly legal grounds, one might have thought the OAS foreign  ministers meeting at Punta del Este, Uruguay in January 1962 would have  taken action against the United States for the invasion. Instead, they  expelled the invasion victim for its Marxist-Leninist associations.

The resolution (Exclusion of the Present Government of Cuba from  Participation in the Inter-American System) declares Cuba’s government  “incompatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American  system.” [5]  Castro has said that it is the other way around; that the OAS  is incompatible with Cuba and Latin America,[6] but no matter.

Another resolution urges members, “in light of the subversive offensive  of Sino-Soviet Communism, with which the Government of Cuba is publicly  aligned.to take those steps that they may consider appropriate for their  individual and collective self-defense.”

The expulsion resolution passed by a vote of 14 in favor, one (Cuba)  against with six abstentions. Mexico and Ecuador, two abstaining members,  argued that expulsion was not authorized by the OAS charter. Neither, of  course, was armed invasion of a member state, but those are legal niceties.  The US side was helped by Haiti, which openly sought a bribe in exchange for  its vote. The Haitian dictatorship of François Duvalier was apparently  compatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American system.

The following month, Kennedy proclaimed the embargo (blockade) against  Cuba.  He carefully based his authority to do so on the clause giving him explicit permission “to take those steps that they may consider appropriate”– the very words his own government had lobbied and bribed to  get from the Punta del Este meeting.[7] With that legal cover drawn back, it  seems that President Barack Obama is left with a blockade that is illegal  even under the OAS’s patched and manipulated charter.

Making the charter fit

Nothing in the 1948 charter actually supports the incompatibility  claim, but over the years, the United States has persuaded members to ignore  the charter and adopt language suitable for use against Cuba.

Since the early 1990s, the US has insisted on an OAS agenda that concentrated on democracy promotion, the free market, wars on drugs and  terrorism, human rights and protection from social upheaval.  It is an agenda more in line with US global policies than with the other members’ concerns about poverty, debt burden, unequal terms of trade and disastrous neoliberal policies.

In 1992, the United States got the OAS to amend the charter to  retroactively authorize the 1962 expulsion.  In 2001, the OAS adopted the  Democratic Charter, which closely followed the formula President George W.  Bush announced earlier that year at the Summit of the Americas making  democracy and the free market requisites for OAS membership. The amended  charter also required members to hold periodic multi-party elections based  on universal suffrage. This requirement eventually led to the current US  hypocrisy of condemning elected progressive presidents as dangerous  populists.

Reviewing this history, Granma International observed that the United  States had perfected, “on a hemispheric level a collection of  interventionist instruments, which. have essentially been used to prevent  popular movements from acquiring power and influence.. Basically, they serve  as guarantors of the capitalist status quo as an instrument of control over  the continent by the United States.[8]

Delegates to an OAS meeting in 2003 agreed to a sweeping Declaration on  Security, which turned poverty, natural disasters, economic crises and even  HIV/AIDS into potential security threats to the United States. Some  delegates mistakenly thought these were threats to the people who were poor  or sick, but the United States prevailed.

How to expel populism

Much of this concern about national security was based on an  understandable fear that the brutality of US neoliberal economic policies  and interventionism was likely to result in popular unrest, which the United  States would need to combat with a multinational response.

However, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was rebuffed the following  year when he pressed the OAS for a regional military force with powers of  intervention to protect free-market economies from the scourge of   “populism,” an amorphous concept suggesting that too much electoral  democracy was a dangerous thing.

Of all the dreary arguments about democracy that US officials have  offered to keep Cuba out of the OAS, the version from Roger Noriega is  probably the most cynical. While US Ambassador to the OAS in 2002, Noriega  cited the failed attempt to oust Venezuela’s elected President Hugo Chavez  in April of that year as an example of the importance of democracy and why  allowing the un-democratic Cuba back into the OAS was “unthinkable.”  Without mentioning the Bush administration’s role in the attempted coup or  its prompt approval of it, Noriega said the “interruption of the democratic  order” in Venezuela showed the need for vigilance and even intervention  under the OAS charter to restore democracy.[9]

Actually, the Bush administration was thinking of an OAS action in  Venezuela, not to protect democracy but to get rid of the government it  produced.  If one thinks of the April coup as Bush’s Venezuelan Bay of Pigs,  the next steps seemed to parallel Kennedy’s use of an OAS resolution as  legal cover for further aggression.

Bush’s 2005 plan to secure a legal justification for some future action  against Chavez under OAS auspices goes like this:  First, send Secretary of  State Condoleezza Rice to tell Insulza that if he wants to be secretary  general he must first publically utter the words “democratically elected  governments must govern democratically.” Second, repeat the sentence  everywhere as if it did not come from Rice.  Third, get the OAS to put the  sentence in a resolution about the need to monitor levels of democracy  everywhere and to intervene if they drop below tolerable limits.

Step three never happened because the OAS denounced the  must-govern-democratically resolution at a 2005 meeting in Ft. Lauderdale,  Florida. The Declaration of Florida resolved only to encourage democracy and  to oppose intervention.[10]

The Bush attempt to rewrite the charter defining certain kinds of  democracies incompatible with the Inter American system is a measure of US  policy’s descent into incoherence.   It was one thing to raise the fear of a  Sino-Soviet tide sweeping the Hemisphere, all because of Fidel Castro, but  it is another to tell OAS states that their democracies are simply not good  enough.

Presenting her case for intervention against democratic governments  that do not meet unspecified standards, Secretary Rice told an interviewer,  “We do not believe that what is happening in this hemisphere is a Left-Right  split, but rather there is a split between those who govern democratically  and those who do not.[11]

Could she not have added another split – between those who govern  democratically and those who govern more democratically?

U.S.less OAS

The consensus reached at San Pedro Sula points in two directions for  the United States. Following the lead of congressional blowhards, the United  States could reduce or cut off funds to the OAS, which account for over half  of its operating revenue. That could lead to what some Latin Americans  leaders such as Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador have  suggested – an OAS without the United States.

The other possibility, more in keeping with Obama’s instinct for  all-inclusive solutions, is for the United States to welcome Cuba back into  the OAS relying on Cuba’s stated intention never to return. Perhaps Mrs.  Clinton could ask for an OAS resolution ordering Cuba to return on penalty  of expulsion.

Whatever the outcome, the Obama administration has lost control of the  OAS as a mechanism for furthering its policies on Cuba and the “populist”  states.  This is vastly different from what seemed the unassailable  authority of US anti-Castroism in the mid-1990s.

With the shootdown by Cuban fighters of two Brothers to the Rescue  planes in 1996, the United States appeared to have an endless supply of fuel  for its invective against Cuba. However, even as Bill Clinton signed the  subsequent Helms-Burton Act – a detailed blueprint for ending the Cuban  revolution — there was talk of the OAS reversing the 1962 expulsion.

Cesar Gaviria, then OAS secretary general, thought that the shootdown  made reconciliation within the OAS impossible.[12]  While the incident may  have given the Clinton and Bush administrations the impression that the  shootdown would turn everyone against Cuba for good, Latin American members  of the OAS were more focused on the extra-territorial nature of Helms-Burton  and voted unanimously to condemn it later the same year.

That 1996 vote signaled the inevitable end of US sway over the  organization thirteen years before the San Pedro Sula meeting.  Since the  1990s, the US suffered continuous OAS parliamentary defeats. The United  States was unable to get condemnation of Hugo Chavez; to get support against  Venezuela’s candidacy for a seat on the Security Council; to get increased  multilateral sanctions against Cuba under Bush’s Plan for Assistance to a  Free Cuba; and it was unable to install its candidate, Mexican Foreign  Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, as secretary general in 2005.

As for the expulsion, Peter Boehm, Canadian representative to the OAS,  said in 1998 that the US would be the lone holdout if a vote were to take  place on Cuba’s readmission.[13]

As Cuba’s stock rose, there was a noticeable decline in the organization’s  relevance.  Peter Hakim, president of the Inter American Dialogue, thought  in 1998 that the OAS was becoming marginalized. “Gaviria and his associates  recognized that the only significant role remaining for the OAS is to manage  the Summit of the Americas process and prepare the agenda and materials for  the sessions.”[14]

Systems failures

What is happening to the OAS should be put into the larger picture of  foreign policy systems failures. When Secretary Clinton walked out on the  San Pedro Sula meeting rather than loose a vote on Cuba, she ratified the  loss of control over the organization, while claiming to have won a victory.

The administration’s obtuseness on Cuba, on the changes taking hold in  Latin America and on its own isolation may be a case of post-diplomatic  stress disorder when you consider the failure of other US control systems in  recent years. Latin America has rejected the neoliberal Washington  Consensus, with is destructive Word Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs.  It has helped take the UN human rights mechanism out of US hands supporting  Cuba and other states unpopular in Washington on the reformed UN Human  Rights Commission. It has demanded reform of the atavistic UN Security  Council; and it has repeatedly condemned the US blockade of Cuba.

Where once US ambassadors operated as proconsuls in the region, today,  “populist” states like Bolivia kick them out.  Multilateral organizations  such as the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América  (ALBA), which helped to destroy the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA),  are being proposed as alternatives to the OAS. Telesur threatens to compete  with CNN. The Banco del Sur is being capitalized to act as an alternative to  the US-controlled multilateral financial institutions. Cuba is getting rid  of Microsoft and beginning to export refined oil products and Venezuela has  banned Coca Cola Zero.

Viewing the wreckage, the Obama administration seems to believe that it  was just a matter of not paying enough attention to the region, something  that could be fixed by going to summits and admitting to occasional  “mistakes.”

The solution to the Cuba problem should have been easy for a new  (Obama) administration: define the policy as a fossilized curiosity and drop  it. This could not be done, however, because the administration has not come  to grips with the tectonic shifts in global power relations. As Brazil,  Bolivia, Venezuela and others sign trade contracts and all manner of deals  with China, India, Iran and Russia, the administration sees it in  military/security terms as an incursion into President James Monroe’s sphere  of influence.

China begins reducing its Treasury bond purchases and recycling  unwanted dollars into the IMF. It calls for using the IMF’s Special Drawing  Rights (SDRs) or another basket of currencies to replace the dollar as the  international reserve currency. Obama responds by sending his treasury  secretary to Beijing where he is laughed at for claiming that the dollar is  strong and stable.

In the same vein, Secretary Clinton goes to Honduras boasting that  Cuba must accept US demands or remain outside of the OAS.   Prior to her  trip, she told a Senate hearing that if Cuba did not make the changes, “I  cannot foresee how Cuba can be a part of the OAS and I certainly would not  be supporting in any way such an effort to admit it.”[15]

The Obama administration has been in a disorderly retreat since the  Aril summit in Trinidad and Tobago and the San Pedro Sula meeting, hoping to  avoid being overtaken by the forces of Latin American unification. A week  before the June meeting, facing defeat on the issue of Cuba’s ostracism from  the OAS, the administration announced its wiliness to resume the routine  talks on immigration that Bush had unilaterally suspended. Like his earlier  reversal of Bush’s restrictions on family travel to Cuba, Obama seemed to  think the latest policy tweak was a policy change — another US volley  keeping “the ball in Cuba’s court.”   Surely, for the US to resume  compliance with earlier understandings does not amount to a concession for  which the other party now owes it something in return.

Robert Sandels and Nelson P. Valdes wrote this essay for CounterPunch and Cuba-L Direct.


[1] Thirty-ninth Regular Session of the General Assembly, San Pedro Sula,  Honduras.

[2]  Current Affairs, 03/31/09.

[3]  Department of State, Secretary’s Remarks: OAS Resolution, 06/03/09.

[4]  EFE, 04/15/09.

[5]  Final Act, Eighth Meeting of Consultation of the Ministers of Foreign  Relations, Punta delEste, Uruguay, 01/22/62.

[6] May Day speech,  05/01/73.

[7]  Proclamation.

[8] Granma International (Havana), 05/31/09.

[9]  Notimex, 05/06/02.

[10] OAS, Declaration of Florida, 06/08/05,  <www.oas.org/XXXVGA/docs/DEC.%20FL%20FINAL.doc>.

[11] Interview with Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State,  06/06/05.

[12] Reuters, 05/31/97.

[13]  Notimex, 05/30/98.

[14] Ibid., 06/15/98.

[15] The New York Times, 05/22/09.




Robert Sandels writes on Cuba and Mexico. Nelson P. Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of New Mexico.