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Clinton faces possible Cuba 'minefield' on trip south

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton risks walking into what one analyst calls a Latin American minefield over ties with Cuba when she visits El Salvador and neighboring Honduras this week.
AFP | By HT Correspondent, Washington
UPDATED ON MAY 31, 2009 07:25 AM IST

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton risks walking into what one analyst calls a Latin American minefield over ties with Cuba when she visits El Salvador and neighboring Honduras this week.

The issue will hover over Monday's inauguration of new Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes in San Salvador and could cause a rift at the Organization of American States (OAS) general assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Tuesday.

US officials could not even rule out the possibility of Clinton's skipping the OAS meeting altogether if negotiators fail to agree on terms for bringing Cuba back within the 35-member organization's fold.

The United States wants Cuba to free political prisoners and respect political freedoms for it to participate fully in the OAS, saying it is holding the body to the democratic principles enshrined in its own 2001 charter.

Other OAS members say that Cuba can be nudged toward democracy once inside the OAS.

Many members point out that the reason for Cuba's suspension in 1962 -- its role in the Cold War-era Soviet bloc -- does not apply today as the bloc no longer exists.

Even though Cuba itself rejects the OAS, analysts said, many countries want to use the issue to either push for a lifting of the decades-old US embargo on Havana or for their own private agendas, such as to embarrass the United States.

Since a popular US President Barack Obama took office in January, he has raised hopes among many of his southern neighbors that he will soon lift the embargo, even if he insists that Cuba first undertake democratic reforms.

"This is going to be a complicated challenge for her (Clinton) to deal with," said Michael Shifter, an analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

"I sense the Obama people are a little bit nervous. I think they're aware that it's a minefield, Cuba," said Shifter who pointed to the risk of a rift within the OAS.

And Clinton's stop in San Salvador "creates a certain dynamic," Shifter said, because the presence of a Cuban leader at the inauguration will mark the start of El Salvador's own moves toward full diplomatic ties with Cuba.

It will expose the US position even more because, under the previous US-backed right-wing government, El Salvador was the last Latin American countries not to have normal relations with Cuba, he said.

Shifter said he has heard that Cuban President Raul Castro is attending, but AFP was unable to confirm the information.

Asked if Clinton would meet with the Cubans at the inauguration, a senior US official said on the condition of anonymity: "We're not at the stage right now where the secretary would meet with Cuban officials."

Shifter said the OAS secretary general, Jose Miguel Insulza, as well as radical leftist Venezuela, Nicaragua and host country Honduras were driving the agenda to have Cuba readmitted to the OAS.

Instead of having Cuba as the burning issue, he said, the Obama team would have preferred to highlight a new era of US cooperation with leftist but pragmatic democratic governments like those in El Salvador, Brazil and Chile.

Her visit to San Salvador is symbolic of the shift because Funes brought to power the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation, former leftist guerrillas who fought the US-backed right-wing government in the 1980s civil war.

Chris Sabatini, an analyst with the Council of Americas, said the new administration is trying to show that the "tent of democracy is broad" even while a few leftist radicals remain in the region.

"It is an attempt to not so much isolate them (radicals) but to create a positive pole in the hemisphere of democrats that can't be easily labeled as just pro-US, but range across the ideological spectrum," he said.

Sabatini also expected the consensus-driven OAS to come to some agreement on the Cuba issue, saying the current debate amounted to a "tempest in a teapot" and a distraction to important human rights issues.

On rare occasions, the OAS can vote on an issue, however.

A senior US State Department official told reporters late on Friday "it's hard to say" when asked if a consensus would be reached.

Nor could he exclude the possibility that Clinton might have to skip the meeting. "I can't answer that question," he said.

Spokespeople at the OAS headquarters told AFP on Saturday that no resolution had been reached and that the senior diplomats were leaving Washington this weekend to continue their negotiations on the Cuba document in Honduras.

Clinton is due to depart for El Salvador on Sunday.

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