Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the Chilean capital Santiago, has appealed to regional foreign ministers to take a stand against Cuba's crackdown against dissidents. There is resistance within the Organization of American States to taking up the issue, without also dealing with the U.S. economic embargo against the Fidel Castro government.
Mr. Powell's policy address to the OAS General Assembly included some of the Bush administration's strongest criticism of the Cuban crackdown, and an appeal to OAS member countries to stand together against the "depredations of the hemisphere's only dictatorship."
Seventy-five prominent Cuban dissidents were given long prison terms in April on subversion and treason charges, and three men were executed after a summary trial for trying to hijack a ferry boat to the United States.
Deploring the crackdown by the Castro government, the Secretary of State said the Cuban people "increasingly look" to the OAS for help in defending their fundamental freedoms, and reminded delegates of their commitments under the group's 2001 declaration of support for hemisphere-wide democratization.
"The Inter-American Democratic Charter declares that the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy. It does not say that the peoples of the Americas, except Cuba, have a right to democracy. I commend the OAS members who stood by their principles and the Cuban people in supporting the recent declaration on human rights in Cuba on the floor of the [OAS] Permanent Council. My government looks forward to working with our partners in the OAS to find ways to hasten the inevitable democratic transition in Cuba," Mr. Powell said.
The declaration condemning Cuba, sponsored by Canada, Chile and Uruguay, was presented in the OAS Permanent Council last month, but it has been signed by only half the organization's 34-member countries.
Most Caribbean member states have not signed the measure, arguing among other things, that Cuba's human rights record should not be debated, as long as the Castro government is suspended from the OAS, which it has been for 40 years.
A senior OAS official told reporters many members of the organization are ready to debate the issue of Cuba, but in a balanced way that includes the U.S. economic embargo and efforts to isolate the communist government in Havana.
In his policy speech, Mr. Powell also welcomed the agreement late last month for an August 19 referendum on the political future of controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He congratulated OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria for his months of work in mediating the accord, and said the United States is committed to working with the OAS and the so-called "group of friends" of Venezuela to bolster implementation of the agreement.
Mr. Powell announced a million dollar U.S. special grant, on top of $70 million in U.S. humanitarian aid to Haiti this year, to assist a special OAS mission trying to improve security conditions for long-delayed elections there.
He said the government of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has failed to fulfill OAS resolutions for an electoral solution to the Caribbean country's political impasse. He said if it has not laid the necessary groundwork for elections by September, then the OAS should "re-evaluate" its role in that country.
The OAS ministers have agreed to call a special summit-level meeting of the organization, to be held in Mexico in November, to deal with threats to the region's democratic institutions posed by the protracted economic slump and financial crises in key member states including Argentina.