By Marcela Sanchez | Washington Post
With the eyes of the world turned to Iraq, Cuban leader Fidel Castro last week arrested dozens of dissidents on the island for conspiring against the Cuban Revolution with the “imperialist” enemy to the North.
The wave of arrests, the most severe such crackdown in more than six years, seemed a direct attempt to squash recent progress by the Cuban opposition in challenging Havana’s authority. It also was Castro’s way of thumbing his nose at recent U.S. efforts to bolster dissidents by providing them with radios, computers and copying machines.
Castro’s latest antics provide an ideal opportunity for Latin American leadership, just a week after diplomatic failure on Iraq left many governments in the region frustrated and uneasy about the fate of hemispheric cooperation. When Mexico and Chile did not stand behind the United States at the United Nations Security Council in favor of immediate military action in Iraq, many feared—and continue to fear—a U.S. backlash.
Forceful condemnation of the arrests in Cuba by a united regional front would help counter those who say Latin America lost relevance in the world last week. It also would make the case for the effectiveness of multilateral action toward Cuba, as opposed to the unilateral U.S. approach, which has been largely ineffective, when not counterproductive.
So far, however, Latin America has been silent. Officials from Brazil, Chile and Mexico said in interviews this week that Cuba simply is not among their top priorities. That has been the case for years.
Geographically and politically, Cuba is indeed closer to the United States than to most of Latin America. And because of lingering distrust of U.S. meddling in the region, many governments, particularly weak ones, reject intervening in other countries’ affairs.
There is a third and perhaps more profound factor that has kept Latin America from doing much about Cuba in the past, and may keep it from acting now. It is the notion that in the decades-old U.S.-Cuba standoff, everyone is expected to side either with the United States and its economic and military might, or with Cuba and its maverick but ideologically influential leader. Faced with choosing between Caribbean or Northern wrath, most have opted to stand aside.
At the Organization of American States, for instance, the topic of Cuba has been taboo for years. Washington has made every effort to stymie any debate on Cuba, fearing that such discussion would almost certainly unleash criticism of its now 40-year old economic embargo on the island. In the 1990s when OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria dared to suggest that members of the OAS begin a “dispassionate” discussion about reintegrating Cuba into the Americas, U.S. officials made their rage clear behind closed doors.
Castro, for his part, has also been equally hardheaded. He has sought to embarrass any Latin American government that dared to criticize his human rights record. He has accused them of “licking the Yankees’ boots” or worse, and even aired a recording of a private telephone conversation with Mexican President Vicente Fox in a bid to discredit him.
In such an environment, Latin American reluctance to act is understandable. But today it should no longer be acceptable. If, in fact, the international order changed dramatically when the first bombs fell on Baghdad last week, Latin America runs the risk of becoming even more marginalized if it awaits the fallout with its arms crossed.
Latin America did show initiative on one matter involving Cuba. For the first time last year, the perennial U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution condemning violations in Cuba was sponsored by a Latin American nation, Uruguay, and supported by most of the Latin American members.
That issue will resurface at the commission over the next few weeks, and Latin American governments will be hard-pressed not to support such a resolution in light of Castro’s crackdown last week. Less predictable and more indicative of Latin American maturity will be the result of another scheduled vote—to re-elect Cuba to a seat on the commission.
The Bush administration is convinced that Castro’s country has no place there. But Latin American leaders are also convinced that expelling Cuba would only isolate it more, leaving no venue for constructive engagement. Therefore, Latin American leaders could up the ante for Castro by conditioning their support for re-election on a goodwill gesture from him, such as the release of those arrested.
More is at stake here than the future of the Cuban dissidents, those behind bars and those outside. If Latin America helps secure their release and freedom, it will have taken an important step to gain relevance for itself and for the values of common interests in the region, and common action as well.