Cuba denies entry to OAS Secretary General

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro during an OAS gathering in June 2016.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro during an OAS gathering in June 2016. AP

Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro on Wednesday denounced the Cuban government’s refusal to issue him a visa for entry to the island to receive a democracy award named in honor of the late government opponent Oswaldo Payá.

The award was to be issued by the Latin America organization Jóvenes por la Democracia (Youth for Democracy), which is headed by Payá’s daughter and renowned activist Rosa María Payá.

“My trip to Cuba was no different than others I have made to attend similar events in Latin America organized by civil society,” Almagro posted in Spanish on Twitter, adding that the reason he could not receive the Oswaldo Payá award in Cuba was because his visa request was denied.

Almagro said, in a letter to Rosa María Payá, that the Cuban consulate in Washington informed him that he would not be granted a visa to enter Cuba as secretary of the OAS (Organization of American States) nor would he be allowed to enter with his Uruguayan passport because the reason for his visit constituted “an unacceptable provocation.”

In his letter, Almagro said that “an analysis as superficial as alarmist, seems to have warned about the danger that my visit and the ceremony announced could have for the future of Cuba-United States relations, and the welfare of the Cuban people as it could motivate a hardened attitude by the government toward groups” that do not support it.

Almagro added that “it would be quite ridiculous that after 67 years of revolution, both the well-being of the Cuban people and bilateral relations with the United States depended on this ceremony.”

The OAS Secretary General pointed out that he has attended similar events by civil society organizations “without the government supporting them, but without censoring them because they are part of the tolerance of democratic systems and values.” He also asserted that his “only interest ... is and will be to facilitate Cuba's rapprochement with the values ​​and principles of the Inter-American system.”

Cuba's ban as a member of the OAS was lifted in 2009 but Raúl Castro's government has repeatedly stated that it would not be part of the organization.

Beyond Almagro, other dignitaries and members of the Jóvenes por la Democracia group also were denied entry to the island, said Payá who, like her father, promotes holding a plebiscite on the political system in Cuba.

The ceremony ultimately was held around 11 a.m. at the Payá home in the El Cerro neighborhood of Havana, without the participation of Almagro and other guests, and under a strong police presence, social activists reported. About 50 people attended, including European and U.S. diplomats, several news agencies reported.

Almagro also shared on social media networks his concern about potential reprisals against organizers of the event.

If the intention of the Cuban government was to avoid a conflict by restricting attendance to the event, the denial of entry to Almagro, former Chilean Minister Mariana Aylwin and former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, generated an outcry across the region.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray stated that Calderón's presence in Cuba does not affect the Cuban people or government. “We lament the decision,” he posted on Twitter.

Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda characterized Havana’s action as “highly hostile against Mexico” in statements to Televisa. The Mexican government maintains close relations with Cuba and its President Enrique Peña Nieto was even invited to give an eulogy at the funeral of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera posted a video condemning the Cuban government for its decision to prevent the entry of visiting politicians and activists.

“This demonstrates not only that the Cuban government has no respect for freedom, democracy and human rights, but also signifies an affront to all Chileans.”

Ricardo Lagos, also a former president of Chile, said that Cuba’s refusal to allow entry to Aylwin was “unacceptable.” Alwyin was to attend the ceremony to pay tribute to his father, former President Patricio Aylwin.

Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, issued a communiqué on behalf of a democracy organization he heads (Internacional de Partidos Demócratas de Centro), protesting the Cuban government’s action and reiterating the group’s “position in favor of respect for human rights and liberties of Cuban (government) opponents.”The communiqué also called for the release of Eduardo Cardet, the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement who has been imprisoned for nearly three months and is regarded as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International.

Payá posted a message attributed to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in which she expressed her hope that the Secretary General of the OAS could travel to Cuba “without interference” and receive the prize that carries the name “of one of the world's great proponents of peaceful struggle for democracy.”

The Cuban Embassy in Chile, meanwhile, issued its own declaration calling the event, “A serious international provocation against the Cuban government... perpetrated by an illegal anti-Cuban group that acts against the constitutional order and that provokes the repudiation of the population, with the collusion and financing of politicians and foreign institutions, in order to generate internal instability and, at the same time, affect our diplomatic relations with other countries.”

In the statement, the embassy affirms that “in a discreet and constructive manner, it made all the efforts in its reach, to inform, to dissuade and to prevent that the provocation” be carried out.

In Miami, Ophelia Acevedo, Oswaldo Payá’s widow and mother of Rosa María, said she feared for the life of her daughter and the other event organizers who are promoting the CubaDecide (CubaDecides) campaign in and outside of the island. Acevedo lives in Miami with her daughter, who traveled to Havana specifically for the award ceremony.

“We know what the Cuban government is capable of doing,” Acevedo said, a reference to the family belief that the deadly car accident that killed her husband in 2012 was orchestrated by the government.

“We have seen their level of intolerance, arrogance and contempt for others,” she said. “They feel attacked because other personalities in the world recognize not only the Oswaldo Payá award, but also because in Cuba there are people who think differently and have different alternatives.”

Cuba correspondent Mario J. Pentón contributed to this report.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres