By GINGER THOMPSON | New York Times
In a new gesture toward Cuba, the Obama administration signaled willingness on Friday to reopen a channel with Havana that was closed under President George W. Bush by scheduling high-level meetings on migration between the two countries.
The move comes as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to fend off pressure from her Latin American counterparts to take an even bolder step by endorsing a proposal that would reintegrate Cuba into the Organization of American States.
The question of how far the new administration is willing to go toward engagement with Cuba carries fresh urgency two months after President Obama lifted restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island. Even before the administration indicated its new approach, in a letter delivered to Cuban officials, it was clear the reaction at home and abroad could pose political challenges.
Robert Pastor, who was a chief Latin America adviser to President Jimmy Carter, called the offer to resume talks on migration “a very important step toward beginning a new dialogue between the United States and Cuba.”
Three members of Florida’s congressional delegation — Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz Balart — issued a joint statement that denounced the administration for opening talks with a dictator.
They said President Bush had suspended the talks because the Cuban government refused to give exit visas to Cubans who had been had given permission to enter the United States.
“The Obama administration should first insist that the Castro dictatorship complies with the accord before renewing talks,” the legislators wrote. “Regrettably, this constitutes another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the dictatorship.”
Mr. Pastor said he believed the administration was hoping to communicate both to Havana and to the rest of the region that President Obama was serious about beginning a new chapter in relations with Cuba, adding, “I think it will certainly assuage those who had questioned whether the United States was moving forward.”
With a regional meeting in Honduras little more than a week away, a new confrontation was already brewing between the Obama administration and most Latin American governments over Cuba, the one country in the Western Hemisphere that remains uninvited to the gathering of the Organization of American States.
At a June 2 meeting in San Pedro Sula, the majority of the organization’s members are expected to propose a resolution that would revoke the 47-year-old provision used to expel Cuba, citing its alliance with “the communist bloc” that broke “the unity and solidarity of the hemisphere.”
Such a proposal would represent a daring departure for Latin American governments, which have long considered the 1962 ban a cold war relic but now are seizing on the Obama administration’s openness to some engagement with Cuba.
With a keen sense, however, of the domestic political problems any changes in relations with Cuba could create, the Obama administration is trying to draw firm limits to any engagement. Senator Robert Menendez , the New Jersey Democrat who is chairman of the committee that approves foreign assistance programs, has said he would withhold American funding to the O.A.S. — which amounts to about 60 percent of its budget — if it invited Cuba back into the organization.
And this week, administration officials echoed his position, reiterating a long-term American determination to keep Cuba out of the organization unless Havana demonstrated a willingness to adopt the democratic principles that are a part of its charter.
“Any effort to admit Cuba into the O.A.S. is really in Cuba’s hands,” Mrs. Clinton told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Cuba, Mrs. Clinton said, must be willing to “take the concrete steps necessary,” to comply with the charter’s democratic principles.
“If Cuba is not willing to abide by its terms,” Mrs. Clinton said, “I cannot foresee how Cuba can be a part of the O.A.S. and I certainly would not be supporting in any way such an effort to admit it.”
In an interview, Jose Miguel Insulza, the organization’s secretary general, said the proposal to lift a 1962 provision was not aimed at immediately reincorporating the Communist-run country. In fact, he pointed out that Havana has spoken as strongly against joining the organization — which it disparages as a tool of the United States — as the United States has spoken about keeping it out.
However, Mr. Insulza, a Chilean, said that the provision banning Cuba was forged in an international context that no longer exists. It is the context, he said, that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and fueled military dictatorships — and President Fidel Castro’s stranglehold on power.
Today the only dictatorship in the hemisphere is Cuba. Every nation in the region has diplomatic relations with Cuba, except the United States. Washington’s isolation of the island for nearly five decades has failed to lead to free and fair elections.
It is time, Mr. Insulza said, to try a new way.
“The effect I want to produce is to repeal a provision that is from another place and time,” he said, “and to begin a process of dialogue with Cuba.”
Differences over Cuba threaten to upstage all other matters to be discussed by the hemisphere much the way they did in April during the Summit of the Americas. Prior to that meeting, President Obama lifted the restrictions on travel and remittances, hoping to appease calls from the region for an end to the embargo.
Mr. Obama told his Latin American counterparts the United States had demonstrated its willingness to move away from past policies, and that the next move was Cuba’s to make. Latin American leaders, however, made clear they wanted the United States to do more.
“I think the region is ready to close the old chapter and start a new chapter with Cuba,” said Flavio Dario Espinal, a former ambassador from the Dominican Republic. “There has never before been this kind of confluence of opinions. But the key thing is going to be finding a way to break the ice.”
Numerous polls have shown a majority of Cuban Americans support some kind of diplomatic engagement with Cuba, but there remain powerful political forces — led by the likes of Senator Menendez — who will not tolerate significant changes in policy without changes in Havana.
Meanwhile in Cuba, President Raúl Castro has said he is willing to have talks with the United States on any issue, but Fidel Castro, whose illness forced him from office but not completely from power, has criticized the Organization of American States, and written that Cuba, “does not want to be part of that institution.