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(Washington, DC) - The Organization of American States should not lift the suspension of Cuba as a participating full member until it ends its systematic denial of fundamental freedoms for Cubans, Human Rights Watch said today.

Members of the OAS could vote to end the suspension of Cuba's membership, in place since 1962, as early as June 2 or 3, 2009, when a meeting of the General Assembly will be held in Honduras.

"OAS members have made an explicit commitment to promote human rights and the rule of law in the region," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Ending Cuba's suspension would make a mockery of this pledge."

In 2001, OAS members signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which committed governments to an active defense of democracy in the region.

Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. For nearly five decades, the Cuban government has enforced political conformity with criminal prosecutions, long- and short-term detentions, mob harassment, physical abuse, and surveillance. These abuses have persisted since the handover of power from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro in July 2006.

Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962 because its Marxist-Leninist government was deemed "incompatible" with the inter-American system. Lifting its suspension would require the support of a two-thirds majority.

"Cuba should not be considered a full member of the OAS - not because of its government's political ideology, but rather because of its flagrant violation of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter," said Vivanco.

A report released in May 2009 by the OAS's human rights body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, found that in Cuba: "Restrictions on political rights, freedom of expression and dissemination of ideas have created, over a period of decades, a situation of permanent and systematic violations of the fundamental rights of Cuban citizens."

Fidel Castro dismissed the report as "pure garbage," and Raul Castro said in May that the OAS should disappear altogether.

Human Rights Watch urged members of the OAS to work together to forge a common strategy that will pressure the Cuban government to restore the fundamental rights to free expression, privacy, association, assembly, movement, and due process of law.

"Instead of lowering the region's bar to accommodate Cuba, the OAS should press Cuba to raise its respect for human rights to meet a higher collective standard," said Vivanco. "We need constructive engagement with Cuba - not tacit acceptance."

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