On Wednesday, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, confirmed that he will travel to Cuba on February 22nd to accept, in person, the Oswaldo Payá award for his “outstanding performance in the defense of democracy.” The prize is presented by the Latin America Youth Network for Democracy, headed by Payá’s daughter, Rosa María.
This is a characteristically bold move by a Secretary General who, since assuming the post in May 2015, has defied expectations and attempted to push the envelope in his position. Under most of his predecessors the role was more bureaucrat than bully pulpit, but Almagro, a former minister of foreign affairs of Uruguay, has seized a uniquely public profile. He has been particularly vocal against growing democratic and human rights abuses in Venezuela, and is seen by many as the leading voice rallying for an international response against the Venezuelan crisis, the hemisphere’s most severe in decades.
In that sense, his acceptance of this prize—named for a Cuban dissident whose family claims was killed by the government—is in keeping with his past behavior. Almagro often makes a show of putting principles above political considerations.
Still, by going to Havana, instead of accepting the prize from abroad, Almagro is enabling the narrative that Cuba is his new target—a storyline that Rosa María Payá has encouraged. The move risks stoking conflict with Cuba and building tensions at a delicate moment for US-Latin American relations, and when the Cuban government—which has yet to comment on the award—feels uncertain and vulnerable. With the Trump administration, many in Cuba expect a return to a more hostile era with their northern neighbor (perhaps not without reason, as argued in a previous post). And while many hardliners may even relish new fights with its old adversary, the Cuban people would surely pay the price.
In that context, Almagro’s gambit puts Cuba in a tough position. If the Castro government shuts the ceremony down, or denies the Secretary General entry into the country, doing so could be used by the Trump administration to justify a hardened stance. At the same time, however, if they allow the event to go forward, they may fear looking weak and caving to Washington. In either scenario, the immediate outcome for the Cuban people could well be problematic. In the best of circumstances, his accepting the award could help draw attention to human rights issues in Cuba while putting the government on the defensive and opening a space for dissent. But, if the Cuban government’s past actions are any indication, this award ceremony could also have the opposite effect. The idea of the OAS Secretary General visibly supporting Cuban dissidents is sure to enrage and empower anti-US hardliners, only bolstering their arguments for putting off much-needed reforms. Political dissent, perhaps above all other issues, is of particular sensitivity. After all, Cuban officials even tried to prevent its dissidents from meeting with President Barack Obama. Dissidents were also not invited to the opening of the US Embassy in Havana because of pressure from the government.
For the OAS as an institution, Almagro traveling to Cuba comes with a complicated and long history. Relations with Cuba have been rocky ever since the island was expelled from the regional body in 1962 over its “Marxist-Leninist government,” which at the time was held as “incompatible with the principles and objectives of the inter-American system.” After the end of the Cold War, many Latin American countries publicly advocated for Cuba’s readmission. Although the suspension was finally lifted in 2009, Cuba has shown no interest in returning to the OAS.
Almagro himself noted this controversy when he assumed the role, saying that the OAS “should start with a mea culpa for expelling Cuba;” that “this still hurts many sensibilities and hurts my sensibilities today to know that Cuba was expelled from this organization.” He also argued that the OAS should “work to reestablish confidence in the organization” on the part of Cuba.
Going forward, this award ceremony may also undermine support for the organization on the part of other countries in Latin America, especially if tensions rise between the OAS and the Cuban government. Although few OAS member states—outside of Venezuela and its few remaining ideological allies—will likely criticize Almagro directly, most remain hesitant to engage in any open conflict with Cuba and will be unnerved by this trip.
One possible upside for Almagro and the OAS is that by accepting the award he may reassure the White House and Congress about working through and supporting the OAS—the organization faces considerable financial challenges, and is dependent on US funding. Both branches have, under the Trump administration, expressed new skepticism about US multilateral engagements and commitments abroad. Continuing to demonstrate independence and willingness to stand up to left-wing authoritarian governments in Cuba and Venezuela, even in the face of controversy, may in fact be the best way for Almagro to win friends among Republicans.
There is also a reasonable chance this award may go relatively unnoticed—with the Cuban government wisely choosing to look the other way and others refusing to pick a fight on their behalf. In that case, Almagro may have the best of both worlds: sticking to his principles while escaping any political fallout.
To be sure, Secretary General Almagro deserves credit for speaking his mind and taking a moral stand. His independence is clear and his support for democracy and human rights remains admirable. But, in this case and others, his principles are best combined with a clear strategy and consideration of the potential consequences. The last thing Almagro—like so many others who believe in democracy and human rights in the Americas—would want is that an awards ceremony ends up reinforcing Cuban hardliners, testing US-Cuban relations, or dimming the prospects for improving the well-being of the Cuban people.