Cuban President Raul Castro’s expected appearance this week at a regional summit for the Organization of American States (OAS) has alarmed critics of his regime who say the autocratic leader’s presence will undermine the group’s professed support for democratic values.
Castro is slated to make his first appearance at the OAS’ Summit of the Americas on Friday and Saturday in Panama. The group’s Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted in September 2001, states that members can be suspended if they take actions that undermine democracy. Member states are also expected to conduct "free and fair electoral processes."
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Castro will attend the summit despite being the unelected leader of an authoritarian regime. CNN reported that he will also "interact" with President Barack Obama following the latter’s decision to ease U.S. travel and commercial sanctions on Cuba and normalize relations between the two countries.
Jose Cardenas, a former National Security Council staffer on Latin America during the George W. Bush administration, said in an interview that it was "stunning to see the utter disregard for the Inter-American Democratic Charter" exhibited by Castro’s invitation to the summit.
"This isn’t something that just happens," he said, referring to the creation of the charter.
"To get all the countries of the hemisphere—except Cuba of course—to agree to a standard of democracy across the whole region and uphold the duty to defend it is something that takes years of work, years of planning. For all of the sudden it to be absolutely null and void—it’s a huge step backward for the region."
In an email statement on Monday, a State Department spokesperson said, "the United States is prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas."
"The Inter-American Democratic Charter states that the people of the Americas ‘have a right to democracy’ and the OAS Charter obliges governments to ‘promote and defend it,’" the spokesperson said. "The 2015 Summit should reflect our hemisphere’s commitment to support democracy, promote human rights and social inclusion, and empower an active, independent, and vibrant civil society."
"We welcome a respectful yet serious dialogue on these issues with all participating governments."
Obama defended his efforts to seek a rapprochement with Cuba in a Saturday interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.
"You take a country like Cuba," he said. "For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us."
"It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies."
OAS had previously banned Cuba from the group in 1962, but it adopted a resolution in 2009 allowing the country to rejoin. The Castro regime declined to do so until the opening afforded by its normalization of relations with the United States.
Cardenas said the Obama administration’s approval of Cuba’s inclusion at the summit is another example of U.S. officials being "asleep at the switch" amid worrying trends in the region. Governments in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua now all include leaders who, though democratically elected, have undermined state institutions to consolidate power.
The democratic reversal in the region will likely be pushed off the agenda at the summit, Cardenas said.
"It’s a summit that is devoid of substance, and it’s all abut this celebrity moment between Obama and Raul Castro," he said.