By Karen DeYoung | Washington Post Staff Writer
SANTIAGO, Chile, June 9—Secretary of State Colin L. Powell today challenged Western Hemisphere nations to work with the United States toward the goal of ending 43 years of Communist control in Cuba.
“My government looks forward to working with our partners in the OAS to find ways to hasten the inevitable democratic transition in Cuba,” Powell told foreign ministers from the Organization of American States at their annual general assembly here.
The OAS long has been reluctant to deal with the issue of Cuba, which it suspended from membership in 1962. To the extent that there has been a majority view in the 35-nation body, it has coalesced around disapproval of a U.S. trade embargo and restrictions on the travel of American citizens to the island.
But the Bush administration sees Cuban President Fidel Castro’s widely denounced crackdown on political activists this spring as an opportunity to persuade other countries to join it in increasing economic and political pressure on Castro’s government.
Although the administration failed last month in an effort to win an OAS resolution denouncing Cuba, the European Union last week agreed to scale back ties with the Castro government to protest the arrests and lengthy prison sentences given to 75 political dissidents and independent journalists.
Asked at a news conference here this evening whether the United States planned to make Cuba the next target of a pre-emptive military attack, Powell said, “There are no plans to take preventive or pre-emptive action with respect to Cuba.” Instead, he said, he was looking for at least verbal disapproval. “If we would call ourselves a community of democracies, we have a responsibility to speak out,” Powell said.
Powell’s mention of Cuba provided one of the few moments of even mild controversy during the two-day meeting, where the agenda is focused on the failure of Latin America’s relatively new commitment to democracy and free markets to produce substantive returns for its citizens.
Although elected governments have replaced self-selected autocrats and military juntas throughout the region and state-owned economies have been privatized, poverty and social ills have increased, public corruption remains endemic, and the economic growth of the 1990s has ground to a complete halt.
“New democracies created with high hopes can founder if the lives of ordinary citizens do not change for the better,” Powell said, echoing the remarks of many of his fellow foreign ministers. “We know that corruption will squander a nation’s treasure and more importantly, it will undermine public trust. And extremists will feed on frustration and fears about the future.”
Many of Powell’s colleagues, however, blame the administration for at least part of the problem, complaining that President Bush’s early promise to make the region a U.S. foreign policy priority failed to materialize.
“Because of 9/11 and everything that happened after that, we are not a priority any more,” said a senior OAS diplomat, referring to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Hopes that a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement would be completed on schedule by 2005 have also begun to fade. Several of the most contentious issues, including agricultural subsidies, are tied to larger World Trade Organization negotiations that are unlikely to be completed by the deadline for the hemispheric pact.
A completed bilateral trade agreement with Chile had languished on Bush’s desk for weeks as the administration expressed its displeasure with Chile’s failure to pledge its U.N. Security Council vote to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The agreement finally was signed in Miami on Friday.
Powell, who held a private meeting today with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, said that U.S. “disappointment” with Chile’s U.N. stand was now behind them. “Chile is a democracy,” he said, and is “free to make its own choices.” He and Lagos, Powell said, “spent most of our time talking about the future.”
The State Department had considered canceling Powell’s general assembly attendance rather than squeeze the OAS in between two trips to the Middle East, where he is due to return late this week. But Powell told reporters traveling here with him Sunday that he was “particularly anxious” to attend “after all the attention we’ve spent on Iraq and the Middle East and elsewhere.”