When I asked Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos about the ongoing US-Latin American spat over Cuba’s absence in the 33-country Summit of the Americas that he will host in Cartagena this weekend, he gave an answer that many civil rights advocates find troublesome.
Referring to Cuba’s absence because of a US-backed rule stating that only democracies can attend inter-American summits — an issue that is likely to figure prominently during the discussions — Santos suggested that Washington and Latin American countries should re-evaluate their definitions of concepts such as freedom of the press, elections and democracy.
Under a clause of the Summit of the Americas Declaration of Quebec on April 22, 2001, which was adopted by consensus and is being invoked by the Obama administration today to oppose Cuba’s attendance, participating countries agreed that respect for the rule of law and democracy are “an essential condition of our presence at this and future summits.”
Now, Ecuador says it will boycott the Cartagena summit if Cuba is not invited. Several other Latin American countries have said they will attend but agree with Ecuador’s stand that Cuba should be there.
During a recent interview, I asked Santos which side is right. “It’s not only Ecuador that wants Cuba to be here,’’ he responded. “A majority of Latin American countries would want Cuba to be at the summit.” He added that the Cartagena summit should “discuss the way” in which Cuba could be present in the future.
Ok, but what about the summit’s democratic clause? And what about the US argument that if Cuba is invited, the summit would not only violate its own rules but would set a dangerous precedent for the elimination of agreements for the collective defence of democracy in the region?
“All of that is subject to discussion,” Santos said. He added that Colombia defends and will continue defending democratic principles, but stated that “each country has its own way of perceiving and defining, for instance, freedom of the press.”
There should be a “discussion’’ about concepts such as freedom of the press, he said, because “there are no values or positions that are totally static, frozen. These things evolve.”
Most human rights and pro-democracy advocates disagree. Fundamental rights are universal values, which were enshrined in the United Nations Charter after World War II to prevent totalitarian regimes from doing whatever they want without violating international rules, they argue.
Former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias says it would be wrong to open a discussion on Cuba’s interpretation of freedom of the press and democracy. Cuba “is a dictatorship that has left thousands of Cubans in cemeteries over the past 50 years for having dared to disagree with the government,’’ he says.
Added Arias: “There are things that remain valid over time, such as freedom and democracy. If Cuba wants to call what it has a democracy, that shouldn’t be acceptable. We must maintain the democratic clauses, and demand their compliance.”
Ricardo Trotti, an official with the Inter-American Press Association press freedom advocacy group, says that if countries leave the definition of fundamental freedoms up to each president’s interpretation, “we run the risk of legalizing the violations of the most fundamental human rights.’’
In diplomatic circles, many say that if Cuba had been invited to the Cartagena summit, it would have amounted to a further erosion of the region’s agreements for the defence of democracy. Latin America has already largely turned a blind eye to rigged elections in Nicaragua and crackdowns on independent media in Venezuela and Ecuador, they say.
If the summit’s democratic clause is weakened to invite Cuba, “we would lower the standards even further,” says Peter Romero, a State Department head of Latin American affairs during the Clinton administration.
My opinion: Santos is right in trying to find a way to bring Cuba back into the inter-American diplomatic community. But the way to do it is by inviting Cuba as an observer, and urging its military regime to accept some minimum standards of respect for civil, political and human rights in order to become a full member.
If the presidents at the Cartagena summit decide to change the rules and do away with the democratic clause, they will be setting a dangerous precedent for the collective acceptance of dictatorships throughout the region.
© The Miami Herald, 2012. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Media Services.