- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Next week, leaders from Latin American and the Caribbean will assemble in a jovial atmosphere in undemocratic Cuba to effectively bury the Inter-American Democratic Charter. That historic document, signed by all countries in the Western Hemisphere (excepting, of course, Cuba) on the fateful day of September 11, 2001, set the unprecedented standard that, "The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it."
Today, almost 13 years later, the charter has been rendered meaningless — and, worse, no one seems to care.
Perhaps the Organization of American States (OAS) — which proudly features the charter on its website — would have a comment on the utter incongruity of regional leaders supposedly obligated to promote and defend democracy summiteering in Cuba? Well, to find Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza you would have to ring him up in his hotel in Havana, as he is Gen. Raúl Castro’s "Special Guest" for the summit — the first OAS secretary-general to travel to Cuba since it was expelled from the group in 1962.
Officially, the 32 regional leaders and representatives will be attending a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an organization championed by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and expressly formed to exclude the United States and Canada. Castro is winding down his year as CELAC’s "President," a title awarded him despite the fact that CELAC mandates "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms" to participate as a member.
Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has reported how the Castro regime is preparing for its guests’ arrival:
"The clandestine and officially ‘unpresentable’ Havana has been warned that it must be quiet, very quiet. The beggars are being held until the Summit is over, the pimps warned to maintain control over their girls and boys, while members of the political police visit the homes of the opposition. The illegal market is also being held in check. ‘Calm down, let’s have a little calm,’ the police repeat in a threatening tone."
Still, Cuba’s brave dissident community has announced plans for a parallel forum on democracy in Havana to run concurrent with the CELAC summit. According to the Miami Herald, however, "[b]arring last-minute surprises," summit participants "will skip the international diplomatic practice of meeting with opposition leaders or independent civil society groups during their trip to Cuba."
But as one dissident told the Herald, "My message for the visiting leaders would be that they shouldn’t make themselves accomplices of the Castro brothers’ dictatorship…. They should instead side with the Cuban people, so that the government gets the message that it has to change."
Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s administration has undercut the U.S. position to speak out about a regional summit in Havana, since a senior State Department official just traveled there earlier this month for what he called "respectful and thoughtful" discussions with the regime.
What the travesty in Cuba demonstrates is that the cult of Hugo Chávez still hangs over the region like a plague. It is not enough anymore for the serious leaders of the region to continue to politely indulge the antics of the loudmouthed, blame-placing populists and their retrograde agendas. Wallowing in historical grievance, vitiating the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and playing to people’s worst instincts may be an effective mix for maintaining political power, but it is a terrible way to develop a 21st-century economy. Other regions of the world are moving quickly and with purpose to develop their economies by embedding them in the international trading system. If the adults in Latin America don’t step up soon, the region will only continue to lose valuable time to compete.