The Cuba exception

Andres Martinez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

The images were decidedly retro and jarring in their distant familiarity, as if a grainy old family film long left in the attic had been brought out for a screening. In defense of la patria, army troops overpowered el palacio at dawn and placed el presidente on an airplane to be flown into exile, still wearing his pajamas. Sunday’s coup in Honduras followed a script once so familiar it acquired cliche status, material even for a Woody Allen sendup.

Military coups are supposed to be a thing of the past in Latin America, where the consolidation of political stability and electoral democracy has been a landmark achievement over the last two decades. But events in Tegucigalpa over the weekend reminded us that this achievement remains somewhat tenuous. There is nothing inevitable about democracy in Latin America, it turns out.

In this case, outside reaction to the political drama in Honduras (which has its nuances, to be sure, including an ousted president who had been acting in defiance of his nation’s Supreme Court) has been swift and energetic. The Organization of American States, the Obama administration, leftist allies of ousted President Manuel Zelaya (a close friend of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez) and other world leaders have rightly condemned the army’s intervention and called for the return of Zelaya, invoking among other things the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed in Lima, Peru, on Sept. 11, 2001.


That’s the proper reaction. But the attempted coup also serves to unmask the hypocrisy surrounding Cuba’s possible return to the Organization of American States and to full participation in the Inter-American community. Indeed, some of the very same regional players now urging a united front on behalf of democracy in Honduras are the same leaders who in recent months have been eager to embrace Cuba and give the tropical gulag nation a pass on its lack of democracy and basic civil liberties, citing explicit principles of nonintervention and implicit nostalgia for anti-gringo revolutionary lore. This despite the fact that the Inter-American Charter makes democracy a precondition to full-fledged membership in the OAS.

Fidel Castro himself, a man known for his mischievous sense of irony, penned a column in the newspaper Granma on Sunday calling events in Honduras a “test for the OAS.” But the real test is whether Latin America’s leading democratic leaders heed the cautionary tale. If leaders such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet don’t become more forceful advocates of democracy and human rights in the region, they will be encouraging a continued rollback of democratic gains -- be it a corruption of the rule of law by populist demagoguery from the left or military coups from the right. You can’t carve out a Cuba exception to hemispheric rules without expecting others to exempt themselves as well.

For the region’s democratic gains to take root, Latin America’s major democracies will have to start standing up to the Castro brothers. Cuba has been the canary in this coal mine for a while now, seeing as how the region had seemingly overcome right-wing military threats to democratic norms. A willingness to speak out against right-wing coups does appear to trump sovereignty concerns, as it should. It is no coincidence that the Inter-American Democratic Charter was passed on 9/11. That date, after all, already lived in infamy in Latin America as the date on which Chile’s military deposed Salvador Allende in 1973.

But when it comes to Cuba, complacency about what has been gained takes hold, as Latin American leaders have been reluctant in that case to apply their values and shared commitment to democracy, partly out of fear of appearing to be a tool of American imperialism. This is one of several reasons the unilateral U.S. embargo on the island nation is so counterproductive (another being that it has failed over decades to accomplish anything).

The sooner the embargo is lifted, the sooner Washington can prod major Latin American democracies to press Cuba for democratic change. An end to the U.S. embargo is not the same as welcoming Cuba into the community of Latin American democracies, and critics in this country of Washington’s failed approach shouldn’t fall into the trap of also giving Havana’s communist tyrants a pass for their behavior.

Uncle Sam has a storied history of hypocrisy in the hemisphere -- decrying Cuba’s lack of freedoms while cozying up to right-wing dictatorships. That’s why it was artful of the Obama administration this month to have gone along with the OAS repeal of its Cold War-inspired 1962 anti-Cuban resolution, at a conference in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Repeal did not make Cuba free to join the Inter-American community; it still needs to embrace the hemisphere’s democratic values and commitment to human rights.

The reluctance among Latin American leaders to hold Cuba accountable is disheartening. Although U.S. diplomats skillfully threaded the needle in San Pedro Sula early this month, ceding ground without going along with an unconditional readmission of that country to the OAS, leaders like Bachelet and Lula irresponsibly fly off to Havana to bask in the Cold War relic’s romantic associations, treating the Castros like esteemed counterparts. The left now matches Washington’s former selectivity in doling out moral judgments, invoking a transnational legal commitment to democracy in the case of Honduras (and briefly during the failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002) but disregarding it in the case of Cuba.

Such selective championing of freedom could prove fatal to the cause in the region, by further emboldening autocratic forces on both left and right.