general_jos_miguel_insulza.jpgPORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD — Cuba should be reincorporated to the Organization of American States as the first step to its path to democracy, the hemispheric organization's secretary general said Thursday on the eve of the Fifth Summit of the Americas.

''I want to be clear: I want Cuba back in the Interamerican system,'' OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said in an interview with The Miami Herald. "I think it was a bad idea in the first place. . . . Cuba is a member of the OAS. Its flag is there.''

Insulza's statement came as President Barack Obama told CNN en español that if Cuba starts taking steps toward freedom, a ''thawing of relations'' would come next.

Cuba was suspended from the OAS in 1962. The reason: its alliance with the Soviet Union.

The hemispheric organization's top leader said that since the grounds for Cuba's suspension are outdated and were a ''bad idea in the first place,'' the hemisphere's last remaining communist nation should be welcomed back, despite an OAS clause that says the people of the Americas "have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.''

Nearly three dozen heads of government began arriving in this capital city Thursday for the three-day summit, which opens Friday. The 34 regional leaders are expected to tackle issues from energy to crime and the global economic crisis. The first of the hemispheric gathering was held 15 years ago in Miami.

But this is the first time that pressure has been so strong to bring Cuba back in the fold.

Cuba is not even officially on the summit agenda, but the topic looms large, as more and more Latin American leaders make it clear that they believe Cuba's time of isolation is over.

The timing coincides with the new administration of Obama, who on Monday gave Cuban Americans the right to travel freely and send money to relatives to the island. On Thursday, Obama hinted that further steps toward normalized relations could take place if Havana made changes of its own.

''What we're looking for is some signal that there are going to be changes in how Cuba operates that assures that political prisoners are released, that people can speak their minds freely, that they can travel, that they can write and attend church, and do the things that people throughout the hemisphere can do and take for granted,'' Obama told the news network. "And if there's some sense of movement on those fronts in Cuba, then I think that we can see a further thawing of relations and further changes.''

Insulza called Washington's lifting of restrictions for Cuban Americans an important step. But, he added, the OAS General Assembly should repeal the outdated resolution that suspends member states with Soviet alliances.

He said once the resolution is revoked, Cuba would regain its membership, even though the organization in 2001 adopted rules that embrace democracy. In the past, Insulza has said discussions should begin to reincorporate Cuba, but it was the first time his position was so unequivocal.

''I am concerned that we still have standing a resolution that punishes a country for being a member of the Soviet-Chinese axis, for being Marxist Leninist and several other things from the cold war,'' he said. "By repealing that resolution we begin a process, we begin a discussion.''

Insulza said the OAS' democratic charter does not prevent Cuba from rejoining the organization. If the democratic charter is going to be held against Cuba, then that would require a separate suspension on those grounds, he said.

But retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro has already rejected the notion of reintegration to the hemispheric organization. In a column published this week, he decried both Insulza and the OAS.

''Insulza claims that, to enter the OAS, Cuba first has to be accepted by that institution. He knows that we don't even want to hear the infamous name of that institution,'' Castro wrote. "It has not provided a single service to our people; it is the incarnation of betrayal. If you add up all the aggressive actions in which it was an accomplice, they amount to hundreds of lives and tens of bloody years.''

Castro's brother Raúl, who replaced him as president 14 months ago, spent the day in the Venezuelan city Cumaná with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is having his own pre-summit meeting with his closest allies just a few miles from Trinidad.

Chávez said he would veto the final declaration due to be issued by this weekend's summit. The declaration is essentially an agreement signed by the 34 member nations of the OAS to outline necessary actions needed to advance common issues in the hemisphere.

The document, Chávez said, was written "as if time had not passed.''


Pictured above is OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.