– Cuba was admitted into the Rio Group last November, an ad hoc Western Hemispheric organization that doesn’t include the United States
– The island nation’s entry will expand Cuba’s role in the region and represents another bypassing of the spirit and letter of the U.S. embargo against Cuba
– The Castro regime may be less likely to revoke newly announced reforms in the future, since the island increasingly is projecting itself internationally
It comes as no surprise that after decades of playing the role of hemispheric hegemon, the United States at the same time has created a critical mass that has inadvertently resulted in a backlash throughout Latin America. Founded in 1986, the Rio Group was created in response to the prevailing U.S. dominance in the region that helped spawn during this period a number of organizations with an autonomy-minded agenda. After its inception, the Rio Group came to consist of 23 Latin American and Caribbean states, and had two primary concerns. The first, exemplified by U.S. exclusion from the organization, was to ensure that Latin Americans nations had control over their own international affairs. Hemispheric groups, most notably the Organization of American States (OAS), were heavily dominated by the United States’ interests throughout the 20th century.
A secondary reason behind the creation of the Rio Group was to help mediate the American backed Contra wars of the 1980s and guerilla violence in Central America. The Rio Group was originally formed as the Contadora Group. The group had some measured success in demilitarizing guerilla groups in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. While the Contadora member nations did not promote an anti-U.S. point of view, it became clear shortly after its inception, that the group would not be a tool of the United States. The member nations denounced Washington’s use of unilateral force to protect its interests. In another blow to U.S. dominance of the region, the group recognized the democratically-elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. By looking out for their own interests within the region, Contadora Group nations inevitably ended up working counter to U.S. paramountcy that had been so dominant for nearly a century. Thanks to the independent manner of its member nations, the Contadora Group acted as a de facto precursor to the Rio Group, which went on to become an autonomous force in the hemisphere.
In November 2008, Cuba joined the Rio Group in what many declared as a monumental step towards regional integration. The move signaled the continued decline of the United States’ standing in Latin America, as illustrated by the steady rise of left-leaning governments, trade and aid organizations, such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), and major diplomatic spats with Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia. Additionally, Cuba’s eventual membership in the Rio Group represented a stunning triumph for Havana’s political legitimacy – Havana had become a bonafide and authenticated regional player after six decades of isolation. While Cuba’s new role is of unquestionable benefit to the island, it could pose an element of risk in that it may breed complacency in the regime and discourage the Castro government from making the necessary political and social concessions that would promote democratic values and reform some of the more Stalinist aspects of the economy.
Shared Strategies of the Rio Group
Members of the Rio Group seek to form political consensus on a number of issues, beginning with harmonizing foreign policy goals and cultivating proceedings to bring about hemispheric security. The Rio Group has been successful in achieving these goals through various means. In 1991, the five Andean states of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela signed the Cartagena Declaration on Renunciation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which created a nuclear weapon-free zone in the northern part of the continent.1 Another important initiative implemented through the Rio Group was the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which expanded upon the Cartagena Declaration by prohibiting nuclear weapons throughout all of Latin America and the Caribbean. While Cuba was not a member of the group when the treaty was signed, it ratified the treaty to show its solidarity with the region. In addition to the aforementioned weapon bans, the Rio Group has also advocated for greater regional representation in the United Nations, arguing for “greater efficiency, transparency, and democracy in the Security Council.” 2 While the Rio Group has yet to specify how this will be accomplished, there is little doubt that the nations of Latin America believe it is time that their region play a larger role in global organizations, including but not limited to, the United Nations.
The Western Hemisphere’s Evolving Mindset
Cuba’s entry into the Rio Group is significant in that it demonstrates Latin American nations are beginning to insist upon alternatives both when it comes to the application of neoliberal processes and U.S. dominance when it comes to governing the implementation of practical applications. Cuba would not have been able to join the Rio Group without support from other left-leaning nations such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Nor would the island have been able to be inducted had the United States been a participating member. Furthermore, Cuba’s entry shows that Latin American nations are taking a less judgmental stance when it comes to dealing with governments that do not necessarily align with their own. At the same time, right-wing countries with ties to the United States, such as Colombia, El Salvador and Peru are becoming fewer in numbers. Taking hemispheric realities into account is an important move and represents a clean break from many of the past policies of this country, which repeatedly had undermined, both covertly and overtly, governments who did not align themselves ideologically with its view and voice when it came to the disposition of its power and more concerned with their own national interests and world view. Meanwhile, it has become increasingly clear that Latin American nations are beginning to formulate their policies with less concern for what the U.S. reaction may be.
The positive aspects of Cuba’s inclusion in the Rio Group are not limited to ramifications generated by ferment in international policy making. Rather, by entering and adding its approach to the mix, Cuba is becoming a part of an evolving region markedly different from its past. This is most often seen through newly developing trade blocs, and, although the Rio Group is not currently a notable economic force, the rash of connections that Cuban officials have entered into during casual as well as formal meetings is bound to increase Cuba’s trade. Moreover, since Latin America increasingly demonstrates that it will no longer automatically follow Washington’s every turn, the United States may be forced to make unprecedented political and economic concessions to its neighbors in the future. This change in attitude would be extremely beneficial to many nations who have failed in the past to affect the direction of U.S.-Latin American relations over the past two centuries.
The U.S. may be pressured into easing relations with Cuba due to the shear volume of nations increasing their diplomatic ties with the island nation. Since 2008, numerous heads of state have visited Cuba. These have included Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lula of Brazil, Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, and Hu Jintao of China. No longer can Washington’s politicians say that the rest of the hemisphere, nor the world, supports their policies towards Cuba. Rather, Cuba has slowly been integrated into various regional institutions, including the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance in 1982, the Latin American Integration System in 1998, ALBA in 2004, and a free trade agreement with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in 2008. These are in addition to the recently formed UNASUR, the South American Defense Council, and the Ibero-American Summit.
Raising Eyebrows for All the Wrong Reasons
Critics of recent developments would argue that while accepting Cuba into the Rio Group may be beneficial for the island, these member nations essentially are condoning authoritarian tendencies of the Castro regime. Despite technically being elected by the National Assembly of People’s Power in February 2008, Raul Castro was the only candidate listed on the ballot. Lack of political opposition is a clear sign that would-be dissidents have grounds to be concerned over of the repercussions from running against the incumbent party. In fact, Cuba ultimately offers such limited political freedom that one would be hard-pressed to find anyone running for office who is not a member in good standing of the Communist Party. While a 1992 constitutional reform allowed other parties to exist, they are still not permitted to campaign or be publicly active. Furthermore, several of the alternative parties subscribe to some variant of the left-leaning ideology tolerated in Cuba and do not represent a major threat to the all-embracing Partido Comunista de Cuba. Those who do oppose the government are at a high risk of being apprehended and questioned for their dissident viewpoints. A recent Human Rights Watch report concluded that there are more than 200 political prisoners in Cuba.3 Other estimates are closer to 85.
Cuba’s constitution is in conflict with a number of the liberties spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the island-nation signed in 1948. Of course, this charter was signed prior to the Cuban Revolution, during the presidency of Ramón Grau, so some may argue that Cuba is not tied to the declaration today. The 1976 Cuban Constitution declares that, “Citizens have freedom of speech and of the press in keeping with the objectives of a socialist society.” Thus, private citizens and especially journalists face the risk of state-sponsored repression if they portray the government in a negative light. In fact, the state controls the media and uses it to portray the ruling party in unqualified positive terms. This control, in essence, acts contrary to the entire concept of freedom of the press. In terms of freedom of association, Amnesty International states that “All human rights, civil and professional associations and unions that exist today in Cuba outside the officialdom of the state apparatus and mass organizations controlled by the government are barred from having legal status.”4 The Rio Group’s admission of Cuba, despite some demonstrable human rights abuses, has raised some eyebrows when it comes to the legitimacy of reasoning such an approach. The response to this line of reasoning seems to be that it is hoped that Cuba will be tutored from within and that association with democratic ideas can be good for the nation in opening it and transforming its ethos, but that Cuba also has much to teach as well as learn when it comes to seeking viable economic and political options.
While Cuba’s entrance into the Rio Group has the capacity to influence both international and domestic affairs on the island, the likelihood remains that substantial change will be somewhat limited due to the reclusive and viscous nature of the Castro government. More so than most nations, Cuba’s internal issues are relatively slowed by external events. The Castro regime has made relatively few changes in the past fifty years, and only with the recent transfer of power have any modest rights been institutionalized. Furthermore, the Rio Group has been active in sectors that generally do not directly impact the domestic well-being of nations.
While the organization has made tremendous strides in slowing the proliferation of weapons in the hemisphere, these programs will not change the average citizen’s life like other more targeted economic or social programs in Latin America have. These have included the export of Cuban doctors to nations such as Haiti and Venezuela to provide medical assistance. Nonetheless, after being expelled from the OAS in 1962 for being politically “incompatible” with the other member nations in a scenario scripted by U.S. intelligence services, Cuba is being welcomed back into Latin America with open arms; President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela believes Cuba, “is essentially the heart and the dignity of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean…Cuba always should have been returned to its place. Now we are complete.”
The implications of Cuba’s new relationship with the Rio Group remain to be seen, but it appears that Latin America has begun to slowly and steadily challenge Washington’s leadership role in the hemisphere. While the region may not be high up on President Obama’s priority list, the president would be wise to recognize these changes and adjust U.S. policy accordingly, allowing for a more cooperative atmosphere instead of one in which the United States acts as a hemispheric policeman turned by issues which have prevented him from doing an honest job. Hopefully Washington’s policymakers will heed the words of Cuban Foreign Minister Celso Amorin, who recently declared, “U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America goes through Cuba.”
1.Goldblat, Jozef. Arms control the new guide to negotiations and agreements. London: Sage Publications, 2002. 149.
2. Inventory of Nonproliferation Organizations and Regimes. Rep. 23 Jan. 2009. Center for Nonproliferation Studies. 25 Feb. 2009 .
3. 2008 World Report: Cuba. Rep. Human Rights Watch.
4. Cuba: Fundamental freedoms still under attack. Rep. 17 Mar. 2006. Amnesty International. .
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Adam Kott
March 23rd, 2009