02/17/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2012

U.S. Should Speak Up for Democracy in the Region

Democracy is not a fragile flower, as Ronald Reagan told the British Parliament 30 years ago, but it does require tending. What was true in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and also the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring is equally true in the Americas, where democracy has been the norm for a generation.

Despite this, leaders of countries including Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua are working to have Cuba's Raúl Castro invited to the next Summit of the Americas in Colombia. If he is not, they are threatening to boycott the summit.

Now is when the steady voice of the United States in conjunction with other like-minded hemispheric nations is critically needed to tend the democratic garden in the Americas. Washington should embrace this manufactured crisis in order to stand for the fundamental point -- enshrined by the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed by all hemispheric governments attending the 2001 summit -- that representative democracy is an expectation for full participation in hemispheric affairs and that true democracy requires more than an election from time to time; it also includes respect for fundamental freedoms.

Aspects of regional democracy have arguably deteriorated in the 10 years that the democracy charter has been in force. The charter was conceived to respond to earlier threats to democracy in the region, primarily military coups. But now the principal threat comes from leaders who seek to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening democratic institutions.

In some nations, press freedoms are under attack. Electoral manipulation is re-emerging as a problem and independent, impartial election monitors are the targets of abuse and obfuscation. Corruption continues to challenge state institutions. Rule of law is uncertain. Even the inter-American human rights apparatus is under assault.

The United States has largely muted the concerns it has had about threats to regional democracy for some time, fearing not without reason that overtly raising these issues serves only to isolate Washington in the hemisphere. Without the United States taking the lead, however, other nations are disinclined to raise their own voices, to the extent they even view these issues in the same way.

Having just traveled to Cuba where she reviewed a Cuban honor guard, for example, Brazil's president spoke only of democracy and human rights in the context of the U.S. presence at Guantánamo. For its part, the Organization of American States is subject to the consensus of its member states which sharply disagree on these issues.

The countries attempting to make Cuba the issue at the summit are working to undercut the key pillar upholding the hemispheric agenda, simultaneously diverting attention from their own deficits of democracy, while complicating the politics surrounding a summit hosted by a close friend of the United States. They should be called out. If they decide to protest by boycotting the summit, that is their prerogative. Voluntarily staying away from the summit would remove rejectionists, allowing the remaining nations to get on with the business at hand.

At the same time, the announcement of economic reforms by Raúl Castro's government is changing the narrative, slowly but surely, and this is likely to increase calls from the region for changes to U.S. policy. Much like the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, Castro is engaged in his own perestroika not to end the revolution but to save it. Creative diplomacy including the upcoming papal trip to Cuba in March would put the onus back where it belongs -- on Havana not Washington, on true political freedoms not tepid economic reforms.

The United States should be clear well in advance of the summit: Economic reforms may be underway, but until Castro is willing to tear down the wall of oppression by releasing political prisoners, allowing Cuban citizens including blogger Yoani Sánchez to leave the island voluntarily, releasing American Alan Gross, freeing the practice of religion, and taking other measures consistent with broader democratic values and personal freedoms, there can be no seat at the table set for democratically-elected leaders.

Democratic principles may sometimes be difficult or unpopular to defend, but in Latin America, as elsewhere, they are precious and well worth the fight.

Originally published in the Miami Herald.