Comments About Cuba by White House Press Secretary 

On the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside that event. Prior posts discussed the ceremonial opening of the Cuban Embassy and the joint press conference later that day at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. This post reviews the extensive July 20 comments about the U.S.-Cuba relationship by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.[1] A subsequent post will review the reactions to these events.

Emphasizing Secretary Kerry’s Comments

Josh Earnest
Josh Earnest

Earnest first underscored Secretary Kerry’s comments about the reopening of embassies by saying, “The [U.S.] welcomes today’s historic opening of the embassy of the [U.S.] in Havana, Cuba, and the opening of the Cuban embassy here in Washington, D.C.  Today’s openings are the result of respectful dialogue between the [U.S.] and the Republic of Cuba following the December 17th announcements by President Obama and President Raúl Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations between our two nations.”

“This is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past.  We look forward to working collaboratively to normalize relations with the Cuban government and the Cuban people after more than a half-century of discord.  Beginning today, U.S. diplomats in Havana will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island of Cuba, with the Cuban government, Cuban civil society, and even ordinary Cuban citizens.”

“We look forward to collaborating with the Cuban government on issues of common interest, including counterterrorism and disaster response, and we are confident that the best way to advance universal values like freedom of speech and assembly is through more engagement with the Cuban people.”

U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

The Press Secretary said he did “not have a specific commitment in terms of when [a nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Cuba] would be announced or who that person would be.  We certainly do believe that U.S. interests in Cuba would be best represented by somebody serving as the ambassador there.” Later in the conference, when pressed, he said despite anticipated resistance to the appointment of anyone to that position by some Senate Republicans, he expected such an a nomination to be made by the President.

The “current Chief of Mission is a gentleman named Jeffrey DeLaurentis.  He is somebody who had previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  He is somebody who has done two previous stints at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and somebody who has served in a wide variety of diplomatic roles, including as the political counselor to the U.S. Mission at the United Nations in Geneva, a political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Bogota, even did a stint here at the White House at the National Security Council.

So this is somebody . . . with a wide range of experience in a variety of roles, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in the ability of Ambassador DeLaurentis to represent U.S. interests on the island in Cuba.  But I certainly wouldn’t rule out that the President would nominate somebody to serve at the rank of ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Cuba.”

DeLaurentis’ “top agenda item will be to represent the interests of the [U.S.] on the island.  In some cases, that is going to involve making sure that U.S. businesses and U.S. individuals that are engaged in commercial activity on the island of Cuba, that their interests are represented and protected on the island.  That’s certainly one reason that we’ve seen some bipartisan support in Congress for this policy change.”

“But obviously diplomats who are working at the new U.S. embassy in Cuba will also have the ability to more freely travel throughout Cuba and to interact and engage the Cuban people and, yes, even some members of the political opposition.  And we believe that that will better represent the interest of the [U.S.] on the island.”

Cuban Human Rights.

The change in U.S. policy regarding Cuba “is consistent with the national security interests of the [U.S. and] . . . with the kinds of values that this President and previous Presidents have aggressively advocated all around the world.  Those values are the respect for the basic human rights that we hold dear in this country — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press.”

“It’s clear that Cuba has significant progress to make in all of those areas.  What’s also clear is that the previous [U.S.] . . . [did not] really make much progress [on these issues].  The President believed that a change was necessary.  And we’re hopeful that in the coming years we’ll start to see the kind of respect for basic human rights on the island of Cuba that the U.S.] has long advocated.”

[Moreover, an] overwhelming percentage of the Cuban people are supportive and optimistic about this change in policy because of a chance that is has to improve their prospects on the island nation of Cuba.”

“So the President is looking forward to these kinds of changes taking effect [so] that the Cuban people and the Cuban government start to enjoy the benefits and see the results from greater engagement with the [U.S.]”

“In the days after this agreement was announced back in December, a substantial number of individuals who had previously been held by the Cuban government for their political views were released.  And that’s an indication that the Cuban government is trying to at least change their reputation when it comes to these issues.“

“But we have got a long list of concerns.” In addition, “for a long time the U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba became a source of irritation in the relationship between the [U.S.] and other countries in the Western Hemisphere.  And by removing that source of irritation, the [U.S.] can now focus attention of . . . other countries in the Western Hemisphere on the Cuban government’s rather sordid human rights record.”

“And again, that is part of the strategy for seeking to engage the Cuban people more effectively, and bring about the kind of change that we would like to see inside of Cuba.”

U.S. Leverage To Effect Change in Cuba.

As a result of the change in U.S. policy regarding Cuba, the U.S. will “have the leverage of the other countries in the Western Hemisphere that now are no longer distracted by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. . . . In fact, . . . we’ve remove[d] that irritant and allowed the rest of the Western Hemisphere to focus more closely on the conduct and policies of the Cuban government. That certainly is a positive development.”

“[A]ny perceived leverage [for the U.S.] that was included in an embargo did not succeed in generating the kind of outcome that its most ardent advocates believe is important.  We didn’t see the kind of progress on human rights reforms that we would like to see while that embargo was in place.”

That is “why the President has called for the removal of the embargo and . . . to take steps to restore diplomatic ties between our two nations. [T]he policy of isolation . . . [has] failed and it was time to try a different approach to succeed in achieving the goal that we all share, which is a Cuba that thrives and a Cuban government that respects and even protects the basic human rights of their citizens.”

“[P]art of this agreement included ensuring that Cuban citizens have greater access to the Internet and greater access to information, and we believe that, equipped with that knowledge, that that’s a good thing for the Cuban people.”

“What is persuasive [about this enhanced U.S. leverage] is that most public polls indicate that upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban population actually support this policy change. . . . [This] is an indication that it’s not just the U.S. interests that are best served by this policy; it’s actually the interests of the Cuban people that are best served by this policy as well.”

This “is something that we can evaluate in the years to come.  I certainly am not going to make you wait 55 years to evaluate the success of this policy, but it’s clear that the previous policy could be evaluated over 55 years and it clearly did not bring about the kind of results that we’d like to see.”

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[1] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/20/15.

White House Press Secretary and Senate Majority Leader Offer Conflicting Comments About U.S.-Cuba Relations

Josh Earnest
Josh Earnest

On the afternoon of July 1, 2015, Josh Earnest, White House Press Secretary, held a press gaggle (an informal on-the-record briefing) en route to Nashville, Tennessee that involved many comments about U.S.-Cuba relations. The next day the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, addressed the same subject with conflicting comments. [1]

White House Press Secretary

1. Congressional Repeal of the Embargo Against Cuba

With respect to prospects for congressional repeal of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Earnest said, “I haven’t done any whip counts, but I do think that there is, at minimum, strong . . . bipartisan support in the [U.S.] Congress for lifting the embargo on Cuba.  This is a policy that the President is encouraging Congress to pursue, and I think it’s worth noting how misplaced the opposition to doing so is.”

“We actually see, based on publicly available data about the preferences and views of the Cuban people, that the overwhelming majority of them strongly support normalizing relations with the [U.S.] and deepening their engagement with the [U.S.]  And that takes a variety of forms.  That’s everything from establishing an embassy there, which we’ve obviously taken steps to do, but it involves expanded commerce between our two countries; it involves more Americans traveling to Cuba; and it involves Cubans having more access to information.”

“This is something that the Cuban people are hungry for.  And so all of those who claim to have the interests of the Cuban people at heart should be strongly supportive of a policy that the President has implemented that we know that the Cuban people overwhelmingly support.”

2.Conditions for U.S. Diplomats Travel in Cuba

After deferring to the State Department for details on the agreed-upon conditions for U.S. diplomats traveling in Cuba, Earnest did say, “We believe that sufficient progress was made in resolving some of those concerns to move forward with the opening of the [U.S.] embassy in Cuba.”

3. Response to Critics of Restoring Diplomatic Relations

With respect to critics of the restoration of diplomatic relations, Earnest said Senator Robert Menendez’s was wrong when he stated “that democracy and human rights take a backseat to a legacy initiative. . . .  The fact is the President has been very clear since mid-December when this was originally announced about what the goal of this policy change actually is.”

“For more than 50 years, the U.S. policy toward Cuba was an effort to isolate Cuba in the hopes that that isolation would bring about better protections for human rights, for basic personal liberties related to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech.  But yet, we saw very little change over the last [50-plus] years.  And the President believed it was time for us to consider a new approach, and to try a new strategy for bringing about the kind of change that we would like to see in Cuba.”

“[T]hose who are concerned about ensuring that the rights and preferences of the Cuban people are protected and even advanced should be strongly supportive of the President’s policy, because the Cuban people are strongly supportive of the President’s policy. . . .  Every available shred of evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people actually do support this policy change and that the vast majority of the Cuban people actually do believe that it will allow their ambitions to be realized, and that by having greater engagement with the American people, having greater access to the U.S. government, having greater access to publicly available information — this is what the Cuban people believe is in their best interest.”

“The President believes that this also happens to be a policy that has important benefits for the [U.S.].  There are important economic opportunities for U.S. businesses on the island nation of Cuba.  We have seen that the change in our policy toward Cuba has strengthened our relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere.  For a long time, we saw that the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was actually an impediment to our ability to build strong relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve actually seen that by removing that impediment, we’ve been able to deepen our ties with other countries in the Western Hemisphere and, as a consequence, actually increase international attention on the failures of the Cuban government to protect the basic human rights of the Cuban people.”

“The President believes strongly that this approach is clearly within the best interest of the United States, but also in the best interest of the Cuban people in allowing them to achieve their ambition of having a country that is integrated, that is free, where they can freely express their political views.”

4. Appointment of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

“We haven’t laid out a timeline yet for when an announcement of an ambassadorial nomination would be made.  But obviously that would be another step in normalizing our relations with Cuba, would be to appoint an ambassador to lead the U.S. Embassy in Havana…. I’m confident that will be a venue for robust debate about how the policy changes that the President announced back in December aren’t just clearly in the best interests of the American people, they’re clearly in the best interests of the Cuban people, as well.”

“For obvious reasons, it would be our strong preference that once an ambassador has been nominated, for that individual to be treated fairly by the [U.S.] Senate and confirmed in bipartisan fashion so that they can represent the interests of the United States on the island nation of Cuba.”

Senate Majority Leader

Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Mitch McConnell

On July 2, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep., KY), the Senate Majority Leader, gave a speech to a local chamber of commerce in his home state of Kentucky in which he made negative comments about President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and promised Senate resistance to that policy.

He called Cuba “a thuggish regime” that is “a haven for criminals” fleeing prosecution in the United States. “I’m having a hard time figuring out what we got out of this, you know? You would think that the normalization of relations with Cuba would be accompanied by some modification of their behavior. I don’t see any evidence at all that they are going to change their behavior. So I doubt if we’ll confirm an ambassador, they probably don’t need one.”

Moreover, McConnell noted that many of the restrictions placed on Cuba would require congressional legislation, “and we’re going to resist that.”

His negative views were echoed by some of his fellow Republican Senators, especially Cuban-Americans Marco Rubio (FL) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), by John Boehner (Rep., OH), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and by Republican presidential candidates, especially Jeb Bush.

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[1] This post is based upon White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Nashville, TN, 7/1/15; Fran, Top Republican doubts Senate will confirm ambassador to Cuba, Wash. Post (July 2, 2015); Carney, Cruz: Cuba embassy a ‘slap in the face’ to Israel, The Hill (July 1, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update on Congressional Actions Regarding Cuba 

A June 12th post reviewed the status of appropriations bills relating to Cuba in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now we look at what happened last week in Congress on these and other measures.

National Defense Authorization Act FY 2016[1]

On June 18, the Senate passed its version of the spending authorization for the Department of Defense for Fiscal Year 2016.

The White House threatened to veto the bill. The main bone of contention is the bill’s continuation of sequestration of funds and use of so-called budget gimmicks. The White House opposes also opposes the bill because it contains language that it claims would make it hard to shutter the U.S. prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It calls the process for winning congressional approval of closing Guantánamo “unnecessary and overly restrictive.”

The same day, however, Senator John McCain (Rep., AZ) said that Defense Secretary Aston Carter had pledged to come forward to Congress with a plan to close the Guantanamo prison facility. Even if the administration hands over a plan to close the facility, however, it’s unclear if it could get passed through Congress. McCain’s proposal divided Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he faces opposition from House lawmakers.

Now the Senate and House have to confer and negotiate a bill that can pass both chambers. One of the major challenges are the different provisions regarding the Guantanamo detention facility and detainees:

  • The Senate’s version of the bill provides the President with a path to close the prison in Guantanamo if Congress signs off on the plan.
  • The House version does not include an option for closing the prison, but instead would maintain restrictions on transferring prisoners. The House bill also adds additional certification requirements, bans detainees from being transferred to “combat zones” and blocks any transfers of prisoners to the United States including for medical purposes.

Intelligence Authorization Act, FY 2016 (H.R.2596)[2]

On June 16 the House passed, 247-178, the Intelligence Authorization Act FY 2016 (H.R.2596). It outlines policy for 16 federal intelligence agencies, including the CIA and .the National Reconnaissance Agency. After the vote, John Boehner (Rep., OH), the Speaker of the House, said, “This bill sustains and strengthens our capabilities to combat terrorism, cyberattacks, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, while making every taxpayer dollar count.”

The bill’s sections 321 would ban the transfer of certain Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.; section 322 would ban the construction or modification of U.S. facilities to house certain Guantanamo detainees; and section 323 would ban transfer of Guantanamo detainees to combat zones. Sections 331 and 333 would require certain reports to Congress regarding such detainees.

Rep. Adam Schiff (Dem., CA), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, criticized the bill’s banning the government from transferring such detainees to the U.S. or a recognized “combat zone.” Schiff said, “We are not safer because of Guantanamo’s existence. In fact, it makes us more vulnerable by drawing more recruits to the jihad.” Moreover, the definition of “combat zone,” Schiff added, is “so broad as to include allies and partners such as Jordan.” An amendment from Schiff to eliminate the new restrictions failed 176-246.

Before the vote, the White House said, “While there are areas of agreement with the committee, the administration strongly objects to several provisions of the bill,” and “If this bill were presented to the president, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the president that he veto it.”

Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016[3]

On June 17 the House Appropriations Committee approved the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016 on a straight party-line vote, 30 to 20.The Committee’s press release states the bill provides $20.2 billion in funding for “critical national programs to enforce U.S. laws , maintain a fair and efficient judicial system, and help small businesses grow” while reducing or eliminating lower-priority programs and cutting “poor-performing agencies—including an $838 million reduction to the Internal Revenue Service.”

One of the most controversial provisions of the bill was the temporary blocking of the newly implemented net neutrality rules, which was criticized by the White House without a threat of a veto.

As noted in a prior post, according to the Committee’s press release, the bill contains prohibitions on (a) “travel to Cuba for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program;” (b) “importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government;” and (c) “financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service.” I, however, am still unable to find these provisions in the bill. I solicit comments identifying these provisions.

In the Committee Rep. Nita Lowey (Dem., NY), the top Democrat of the full committee, offered an amendment that would have removed what she called “20 veto-bait riders” or policy provisions, including these Cuba-related measures. The proposal was blocked on a party-line vote.

Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (S.299)[4]

A prior post discussed the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 that was introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ). In addition, it now has 44 cosponsors: 36 Democrats, 6 Republicans and 2 Independents.

A recent New York Times editorial endorsed the lifting the ban on travel to Cuba. It said, “The ban — the only travel prohibition American citizens are currently subjected to — never made sense, and it’s particularly misguided in an era of broadening engagement between the United States and Cuba.” Now, “the trajectory is unmistakable. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Cubans on the island and Americans favor engagement. Congress should wait no longer to do its part.”

Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489)[5]

On June 3 Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) introduced the Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489) with seven cosponsors (Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Orrin Hatch (Rep., UT), Tom Cotton (Rep., AR), Ted Cruz (Rep., TX), Cory Gardner (Rep., CO), David Vitter (Rep., LA), Mark Kirk (Rep., IL). It was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

The bill would prohibit a U.S. person from engaging in any financial transaction with or transfer of funds to: the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba or the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba (or any of their subdivisions); a senior member of such Ministries; any agency, instrumentality, or other entity that is more than 25% owned, or that is operated or controlled by, such a Ministry; or any individual or entity for the purpose of avoiding a prohibited financial transaction or transfer of funds that is for the benefit of that individual or entity. Excluded from these bans are the sale to Cuba of agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices; remittances to an immediate family member; or assistance in furtherance of democracy-building efforts for Cuba.

The bill would also require (a) the U.S. Attorney General to coordinate with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) in order to pursue the location and arrest of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, including current and former members of the Cuban military and (b) the U.S. President to provide reports on the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba and the return of property that has been confiscated by the Government of Cuba.

In his press release about the bill, Senator Rubio said, ““It is not in the interest of the United States or the people of Cuba for the U.S. to become a financier of the Castro regime’s brutality. The Cuban Military Transparency Act would prevent U.S. dollars from getting into the hands of the Cuban military and would demand accountability from the Obama Administration regarding fugitives of American justice in Cuba, the return of stolen and uncompensated property and the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas opposes this bill. It admits “that in Cuba, a socialist state with a largely state-owned economy, the military is invested in state-owned businesses, and several of those . . . are dominant players in Cuba’s tourist industry. Given the military’s broad role in Cuba’s economy, any expenditure by U.S. travelers and businesses – including the cost of hotel rooms, telephone calls, airport taxes, the hotel occupancy tax, sales taxes on tourist purchases, resort fees – could be prohibited presumptively unless the traveler or company could persuade [the U.S. Treasury agency] they spent their money in Cuba some other way.” But “how could they prove the negative? Who in Cuba will hand out the forms that say “that hotel room” or “that painting” or “that serving of ropa vieja” didn’t come from an enterprise owned or controlled by Cuba’s military?”

Therefore, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the true purpose of this bill is “to shame, harass, and try to stop every American from visiting Cuba or seeking to do business in Cuba, and to return U.S. policy to its pre-December 17, 2014 goal of starving the Cuban economy and the Cuban people along with it.”

Conclusion

These latest congressional developments reinforce the need for continued vigilance by supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation to pay attention to what is happening in Congress and to continue to express their opinions on these issues to their representatives in that body and to the larger community.

I take pride in the strong support for such reconciliation in the State of Minnesota, so far away from Cuba. A recent article in MINNPOST explored this apparently strange phenomenon. Eric Schwartz, Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a non-native Minnesotan, believes there are three main reasons for this fact. First, two of Minnesota’s biggest industries — agriculture and medical devices — have massive potential exports to Cuba. Second, Minnesota’s lack of a large Cuban-American community and its distance from the island mean our lawmakers are not subject to the same pressures as representatives from states like Florida and New Jersey. Third, many of Minnesota’s federal legislators are reasonable people.

I concur in that opinion, but believe Schwartz has missed the fundamental reason for strong Minnesota support for this reconciliation. Many people in this State are interested in what goes on in the world and are actively engaged with the rest of the world through their churches like Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Center for Victims of Torture, Advocates for Human Rights, the Minnesota Cuba Committee and various programs at the University of Minnesota and through Minnesotans’ welcoming immigrants and refugees from around the world, especially from Somalia, Viet Nam and Laos, and through major multinational corporations headquartered here like Cargill, which is leading the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba,3M, Medtronic and General Mills.

I was pleased to read about the change of heart of a prominent Cuban-American Republican who was U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush Administration, Carlos Gutierrez. In an op-ed essay in the New York Times, he said,” it is now time for Republicans and the wider American business community to stop fixating on the past and embrace a new approach to Cuba.” He added, “Some of my fellow Cuban-Americans insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy. I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.”

Gutierrez concluded, “America must look to the future instead — and pursue this opportunity to assist Cubans in building a new economy. There is a lot of work to do, and progress will be slow. However, the business community and my fellow Cuban-Americans and Republicans should not ignore the possibilities ahead. The Cuban people need and deserve our help.”

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[1] Matishak, White House threatens to veto Senate’s defense spending bill, The Hill (June 18, 2015); Carney, McCain expects Pentagon plan on closing Guantanamo, The Hill (June 18, 2015);Carney, Five challenges for the defense bill (June 21, 2015).

[2] This section of the post is based upon Hattem, House passes intel bill over White House objections, The Hill (June 16, 2015).

[3] This section of the post is based upon the following: House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Approves Fiscal Year 2016 Financial Services Bill (Jun 17, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Financial Services Appropriations Act FY 2016 (June 9?, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Report: Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill, 2016, No. 114- —( 2015);Trujillo, House panel advances rider to block Internet rules, The Hill (June 7, 2015); Trujillo, Obama administration knocks net neutrality riders in funding bill, The Hill (June 17, 2015)  Shabad, Bill with $838M IRS cut advances in House, The Hill (June 17, 2015).

[4] Library of Congress THOMAS, S.299 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (Cosponsors)

[5] This portion of the post is based upon the following: Library of Congress THOMAS, Cuban Military Transparency Act; Rubio, Press Release: Senators Introduce Bill To Deny Resources To Castro’s Military and Security Services (June 3, 2015); Center for Democracy in Americas, The Cuban Military Not So Transparent Act (June 19, 2015).

U.S. Supreme Court Decision Bolsters Obama Administration’s Normalizing Relations with Cuba

On June 8, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court, 6 to 3, decided that the U.S. President had the exclusive power in the U.S. Government to recognize foreign nations and governments. The Court, therefore, declared unconstitutional an Act of Congress that allowed U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to have their U.S. passports identify Israel as their birthplace. (Zivotofsky v. Kerry, No. 13-628.)

This decision has major implications for the ongoing Obama Administration to normalize relations with Cuba with respect to existing law as well as current congressional Republican efforts to halt or hinder that normalization.

Zivotofsky v. Kerry

The Facts

Since the U.S. official recognition of the State of Israel in 1948, every U.S. president consistently has not acknowledged any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. Instead, the Executive Branch has maintained that “‘the status of Jerusalem . . . should be decided not unilaterally but in consultation with all concerned.’” Moreover, this issue of sovereignty is of great sensitivity in Arab-Israeli relations and negotiations. Therefore, the consistent policy and practice of the U.S. Department of State has been

to record the place of birth on a U.S. passport as the “country [having] present sovereignty over the actual area of birth” and to record the place of birth for citizens born in Jerusalem as “Jerusalem.”

In 2002, Congress passed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003,116 Stat. 1350. Section 214 of the Act is titled “United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel,” and its subsection (d) allows U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list their place of birth as “Israel.”

When President George W. Bush signed the Act, he issued a statement declaring that section 214 would, “if construed as mandatory rather than advisory, impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to formulate the position of the United States, speak for the Nation in international affairs, and determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states.” Therefore, since then the State Department has not changed the previously described policy and practice regarding U.S. passports, the statute would not be honored.

When the State Department rejected the request on behalf of U.S. citizen Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky, who was born in Jerusalem, to have his passport designate Israel as his birthplace, his guardians sued to enforce Section 214. Thus, the issue for the Supreme Court was whether Section 214 was constitutional.[1]

The Opinion of the Court [2]

The opinion of the Court by Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged the international sensitivity of the issue. It said, “A delicate subject lies in the background of this case. That subject is Jerusalem. Questions touching upon the history of the ancient city and its present legal and international status are among the most difficult and complex in international affairs.” Moreover, “Jerusalem’s political standing has long been, and remains, one of the most sensitive issues in American foreign policy, and indeed it is one of the most delicate issues in current international affairs.”

The opinion then started with key constitutional provisions regarding foreign affairs. The key was Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which directs that the President “shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” After consulting the writings of international legal scholars at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the Court concluded that it is “a logical and proper inference, then, that a Clause directing the President alone to receive ambassadors would be understood to acknowledge his power to recognize other nations.” This conclusion also was supported by the President’s other constitutional powers to make treaties, by and with the Advice and Consent of two-thirds of two-thirds of the Senators present (Art. II, §2, cl. 2.) and the power to “nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, . . . [to] appoint Ambassadors” as well as “other public Ministers and Consuls.”

These provisions and other considerations led the Court to conclude that “the text and structure of the Constitution grant the President the power to recognize foreign nations and governments” and that this power is exclusively the President’s. “Put simply, the Nation must have a single policy regarding which governments are legitimate in the eyes of the United States and which are not. Foreign countries need to know, before entering into diplomatic relations or commerce with the United States, whether their ambassadors will be received; whether their officials will be immune from suit in federal court; and whether they may initiate lawsuits here to vindicate their rights. These assurances cannot be equivocal.”

Nevertheless, the Court said in dicta, “many decisions affecting foreign relations—including decisions that may determine the course of our relations with recognized countries— require congressional action. Congress may ‘regulate Commerce with foreign Nations,’ ‘establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,’ ‘define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations,’ ‘declare War,’ ‘grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal,’ and ‘make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.’” (U. S. Const., Art. I, §8.) “In addition, the President cannot make a treaty or appoint an ambassador without the approval of the Senate.” (Art. II, §2, cl. 2.) “The President, furthermore, could not build an American Embassy abroad without congressional appropriation of the necessary funds.” (Art. I, §8, cl. 1.) (Emphasis added.) [3] Under basic separation-of-powers principles, it is for the Congress to enact the laws, including ‘all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution’ the powers of the Federal Government.”(§8, cl. 18)

This point about congressional power was underscored by the Court when it said “it is essential the congressional role in foreign affairs be understood and respected. For it is Congress that makes laws, and in countless ways its laws will and should shape the Nation’s course. The Executive is not free from the ordinary controls and checks of Congress merely because foreign affairs are at issue. It is not for the President alone to determine the whole content of the Nation’s foreign policy.” (Citations omitted.)

Reactions to the Court’s Decision

The White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, released a statement embracing the decision as it “reaffirms the long-established authority of the President to recognize foreign states, their governments, and their territorial boundaries” and “upholds the President’s long-standing authority to make these sensitive recognition determinations as part of his conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy.”

Alan Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service Law, George Washington University Law School and the author of an amicus brief in the case in support of the Zivotofsky family, saw possible implications of the case for the current conflicts over Cuba policy between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress. Morrison said, President Obama “might announce that he has recognized the Castro-led Cuban government, with no worry about an effort of Congress to override him.” Congress, on the other hand, “might decide to up the ante by . . . using the power of the purse, especially as part of a bill that the president must sign to keep the government from shutting down.”[4]

Indeed, the Center for Democracy in the Americas asserts that this decision invalidates a major portion of the Helms-Burton Act, which “arrogates to the Congress a lot of authority for determining when – and under what circumstances – the United States can resume normal relations [with Cuba]. The law says . . . [only] when the government in Cuba fits the definition of a government in transition or a democratically-elected government can the President recognize Cuba, trade with Cuba, negotiate with Cuba over Guantanamo, allow Cuba to enter the World Bank or other financial institutions, etc.”[5]

In addition, at least three pending bills in Congress would appear to be unconstitutional under this recent Supreme Court decision as they would impose congressional preconditions to a presidential normalization and re-establishment of diplomatic relations: H.R.1782 (Cuba ceasing to violate human rights of its citizens), H.R.2466 and S.1388 (Administration plan for resolving all U.S. claims for property expropriated by Cuba).[6]

There also is at least one pending bill that would bar use of appropriated funds to construct a U.S. Embassy in Havana or expand the present facility housing the U.S. Interests Section there; that is the Department of State’s Appropriations Act FY 2016 that is still before the House Appropriations Committee.[7] That certainly would inhibit the operation of such a facility, but the Court in dicta in Zivotofsky said, ““The President, furthermore, could not build an American Embassy abroad without congressional appropriation of the necessary funds.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, this pending bill would seem to be within Congress’ prerogative, but the Administration always could make a request for a supplemental appropriation to convert the building to an embassy.

There are many bills imposing restrictions on U.S. changes affecting the prison or detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Cuba that, in my opinion, unnecessarily would limit the Administration’s desire to close that facility as well as its discussions with Cuba about the lease of that territory to the U.S., but would not run afoul of the Zvotofsky decision. In the House they are H.R.240, H.R. 401, H.R.654, H.R.1689, H.R.1735, H.R.2029, H.R.2578 and H.R.2685; in the Senate, S.165, S.778 and S.1376.[8]

Other pending bills similarly would impede reconciliation, but would not be barred by the Zvotofsky case. They are H.R.2323 (maintain Ratio and TV Marti), H.R.2577 (ban travel to Cuba on or over expropriated U.S. property), H.R.2578 (no exports to Cuban military and intelligence personnel and their families) and Department of Treasury Appropriations Act FY 2016 pending in the House Appropriations Committee (no imports of expropriated property and no financial transactions with Cuban military personnel).

Conclusion

Maybe this legal discussion is beside the point.

There are reports that the U.S. and Cuba by early July will re-establish diplomatic relations, and on June 13, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) predicted the opening of both a Cuban embassy in Washington and a U.S. embassy in Havana will occur in the very near future. “Nothing has been set, but it’s imminent,” he said. Flake’s comments were made just after a meeting in Havana with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Josafina Vidal, Cuba’s lead negotiator with the U.S., and Cuba’s First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel. [9]

If this happens, any new legislation to impose preconditions to recognition would be moot and litigation over the constitutional issue would take years to resolve. In any event, however, the Zvotofsky decision bolsters the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalization and reconciliation with Cuba.

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[1] The case originally was dismissed by the district court on the grounds that the petitioner lacked standing and that the case presented a nonjusticiable political question. The court of appeals affirmed on the political question ground while reversing on the standing ground. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment and remanded for the circuit court to decide whether the statute was constitutional. Upon remand the circuit court decided that the statute was unconstitutional, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in this recent decision..

[2] Mr. Justice Thomas filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Chief Justice Roberts filed a separate dissenting opinion, and he along with Mr. Justice Alito joined the dissenting opinion of Mr. Justice Scalia. Analysis of these opinions will be left to others. The opinion of the Court and these other opinions are briefly discussed in Liptak, Supreme Court Backs White House on Jerusalem Passport Dispute, N.Y. Times (June 8, 2015).

[3] On commentator saw the highlighted mention of congressional power to withhold funds for building an embassy as a reference to a possible future congressional refusal to appropriate funds to convert the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to a U.S. Embassy.

[4] Morrison, Symposium: President wins in Zivotofsky: Will there be another battle? SCOTUSblog (June 9, 2015).

[5] Center for Democracy in Americas, Is The Supreme Court Passport Decision A Threat to Helms-Burton? We think so (June 12, 2015).

[6] These bills are discussed in the May 26, 2015 post.

[7] This bill is discussed in the June 12, 2105 post.

[8] These and the subsequently mentioned bills are discussed in the posts of May 26 and 28 and June 2, 10 and 12.

[9] Reuters, Exclusive: U.S.-Cuba Deal Expected in Early July to Restore Ties, Reopen Embassies, N.Y. times (June 13, 2015); Assoc. Press, Republican Senator Sees US Embassy in Cuba coming Soon, N.Y. Times (June 13, 2015). Accompanying Senator Flake on this Cuba trip were Republican Senators Susan Collins (ME) and Pat Roberts (KS).

 

 

 

More House Republican Efforts To Impede U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives continue inserting into appropriation bills provisions to impede U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. Here are three more.

Department of Defense Appropriation Act, 2016 [1]

On June 11, the House passed, 278-149, the Department of Defense Appropriation Act, 2016 (H.R.2685). According to the Appropriations Committee press release, the bill would provide $578.6 billion to fund “critical national security needs, military operations abroad, and health and quality-of-life programs for the men and women of the Armed Forces and their families.”

The bill also would bar the use of funds (i) “to transfer, release, or assist in the transfer or release to or within the United States, its territories, or possessions Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or [other non-U.S. citizens or non-members of U.S. Armed Forces at Guantanamo Bay Cuba on or after June 24, 2009] (Section 8100); (ii) “to construct, acquire, or modify any facility in the United States, its territories, or possessions to house any [such] individual” (Section 8101); and (iii) “to transfer any individual detained at . . . Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody or control of the individual’s country of origin, any other foreign country, or any other foreign entity except in accordance with section 1035 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014” (Section 8102).

Also on June 11 the Senate Appropriations Committee approved, 27-3, its defense- funding bill for $575.9 billion. Although only three Democrats voted against the bill, the Democrats’ leaders said they would block the bill on the floor because it continues the sequestration of funding, which they oppose. However, the committee did vote 18-12 to adopt a measure by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Dem, NH) to express the sense of the Senate that the budget caps should be lifted.

Moreover, Democratic senators are threatening to block consideration of all spending bills unless the Republicans agree to a budget summit. In addition, the White House is threatening to veto any such measure that has the sequestration caps.

A motion to amend the bill was offered by Democratic Senators Dick Durbin (IL) and Diane Feinstein (CA) to allow the Obama administration to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to maximum-security prisons in the U.S., but it was defeated, 14-16.
Durbin argued that it cost $3.2 million per year to house a detainee at the Cuban prison, versus $70,000 at a super-max facility in the U.S. while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a retired Air Force colonel and a 2016 presidential candidate, argued the funding for Guantánamo is “money well spent” and hoped “we fill the damn place up.”

The White House has threatened a veto of these bills over insufficient funding and the above provisions relating to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

State Department Appropriations Act FY 2016 [2]

On June 11 the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the appropriations bill for the State Department and Foreign Operations for FY 2016. It would provide nearly $47.8 billion, which is 11% ($869 million) less than the White House’s request.[3]

The bill contains provisions that impede U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. The main one is Section 7045 (c)(3)(A) (pp. 175-76), that would bar the use of funds (i) “for the establishment or operations of a United States diplomatic presence, including an Embassy, Consulate, or liaison office, in Cuba beyond that which was in existence prior to December 17, 2014;” or (ii) “to facilitate the establishment or operation of a diplomatic mission of Cuba, including an Embassy, Consulate, or liaison office, in the United States beyond that which was in existence prior to December 17, 2014.”[4]

There are still other references to Cuba in the bill. Section 7045 (c)(1) allocates $30 million “to promote democracy and strengthen civil society in Cuba: Provided, That no funds shall be obligated for business promotion, economic reform, entrepreneurship, or any other assistance that is not democracy-building as expressly authorized in the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity (LIBERTAD)Act of 1996 and the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) of 1992.” Section 7045 (c)(2) prohibits use of certain funds to establish any organization to carry out the existing broadcasting and related programs for Latin America and the Caribbean region or to alter the structure of Cuba Broadcasting. Others are Section 7007 (p. 64)(no funds for “assistance or reparations for the governments of Cuba, North Korea, Iran or Syria”); and Section 7015 (f) (p. 76-81)(no funds for assistance to Cuba and certain other countries).

Reacting to the Committee’s previous release of a draft of the bill, the White House budget director Shaun Donovan said the funding level “will pose a significant constraint on USAID and the Department of State’s ability to conduct diplomatic engagement. Taken together, these cuts would impede our ability to conduct effective diplomacy and development, essential components of our national security,” Donovan also criticized the ban on funds for a new embassy in Havana. He said it would interfere with the executive branch’s ability “to make the best decisions consistent with our national security.”

The bill also has a provision to withhold 15 percent of the State Department’s operational funds, unless it turns over documents faster to the congressional panel investigating the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Treasury Department Appropriations Act FY 2016[5]

On June 10 the Appropriations Committee released the draft Financial Services Bill FY 2016. According to the Committee’s press release, the bill allocates $20.2 billion for the Treasury Department, the Judiciary, the Small Business Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and several other agencies. It purportedly prioritizes “critical national programs to enforce U.S. laws, maintain a fair and efficient judicial system, and help small businesses grow.” It also “reduces or eliminates lower-priority programs and cuts funding to poor-performing agencies—including an $838 million reduction to the Internal Revenue Service.”

The Committee’s press release also discloses that the bill contains prohibitions on (a) “travel to Cuba for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program;” (b) “importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government;” and (c) “financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service.” I searched, but could not find these provisions in the 156-page draft bill, and I solicit comments to identify these provisions. Here is an outline of the bill to assist in such an endeavor

Title Pages Subject
I 2-27 Department of Treasury
II 27-41 Executive Office of the President
III 42-50 Judiciary
IV 51-61 District of Columbia
V 61-96 Independent Agencies
VI 96-111 General Provisions—This Act
VII 111-146 General Provisions—Government-Wide
VIII 146-156 General Provisions—District of Columbia
IX 156 Additional General Provision

The draft bill on June 11 was submitted for markup to the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, but so far no information is available about the result of that markup. It will be before the full Committee for markup on June 17th.

Conclusion

I already have expressed my disgust at these anti-reconciliation measures and at the tactic of including them in appropriations bills and thereby running the risk of partial or complete government shutdown if the President vetoes some or all of such bills.

Therefore, all supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should contact their representatives and senators to urge them to seek to eliminate these provisions. Contact information for senator and representatives is available online.

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[1] Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2016 (H.R. 2685); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: House Appropriations Committee House Releases Fiscal 2016 Defense Bill (May 19, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: House Passes Fiscal Year 2016 Defense Appropriations Bill (June 11, 2015); Matishak & Wong, OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House passes defense spending bill, The Hill (June 11, 2015); Assoc. Press, House Passes Defense Spending Bill, N.Y. Times (June 11, 2015).

[2] House App. Comm., Draft Bill Making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes (June 2, 2015); House App. Comm, Press Release: Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2016 State and Foreign Operations bill, (June 2, 2015); Reuters, U.S. House Panel Seeks to Ban Funding for U.S. Embassy in Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Approves Fiscal Year 2016 State and Foreign Operations Bill (June 11, 2015); Matishak, Funding bill advances despite criticism of Benghazi provision, The Hill (June 11, 2015), Shabab, WH budget chief: GOP spending bill would interfere with diplomacy, The Hill (June 10, 2015); Assoc. Press, House Panel Oks Bill Punishing State Over Benghazi Response, N.Y. Times (June 11, 2015).

[3] A prior post discussed the draft of this bill.

[4] The above prohibited use of funds would “not apply if the President determines and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that the government in Cuba has met the requirements and factors specified in section 205 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (22 U.S.C. 6065).” (Section 7045 (c )(3)(B).)

[5]  House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2016 Financial Services Bill (June 10, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., A Bill Making appropriations for financial services and general government for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016 and for other purposes (June 10, 2015);  Shabad, House Republicans propose $838 million cut to IRS, The Hill (June 10, 2015).

 

More Details on Remaining Issues for Re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations 

Two of the remaining issues for re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, as briefly mentioned in a prior post, are (1) the U.S. offering of journalism courses to Cubans at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and (2) U.S. democracy-promotion programs in Cuba. Here are additional details about these issues.

 U.S. Journalism Courses

According to an Associated Press article,[1] the free courses cover the ABCs of journalism: how to craft a news story, write a headline and check sources. Taught via video link by professors from the International Media Center at Florida International University, there is no obvious attempt to politicize the material. John Caulfield, a retired diplomat who was in charge of the Interests Section in 2011-14, said the journalism program stays clear of politics. “It’s a very open, transparent program. What we were doing was not ideologically driven except for the fact I guess that part of our ideology is that people should have a right to free expression.”

Cuban attendees confirm the lack of an U.S. agenda for criticizing the Cuban government. One said, “”If the conversation even got close to political, the professor would say, ‘Stop, stop, stop,'”

Cuba has complained in the past about the courses. In 2013, the Cuban Foreign Ministry delivered a diplomatic note of protest, which was followed by a critical story in the official newspaper Granma. There also have been reports of Cuban attendees being roughed up, detained and having equipment stolen by security agents.

More recently President Raúl Castro mentioned the journalism courses as an obstacle to re-establishment of diplomatic relations. He said, ““What most concerns me is that they [people at the U.S. Interests Section] continue doing illegal things. For example, graduating independent journalists.”

The U.S. Department of State, however, has said, “The United States continuously works to promote free expression around the world through bilateral engagement, public diplomacy programming, and multilateral diplomacy,” the State Department said. “This includes support to independent journalists around the world, particularly in closed countries where freedom of the press is lacking or independent journalists are under threat.”

State Department and USAID Democracy Programs

The State Department website states that in the Western Hemisphere the Bureau of Democracy, Human rights and Labor “currently supports over 33 democracy, human rights, and labor programs. . . . Current funding for such programs in [the Western Hemisphere] exceeds $35 million. Program topics include forensic assistance, combating violence against women and children, increasing civic participation of indigenous groups, and supporting free press.”

The latest information about such programs in Cuba on the Department’s website says, the Bureau “has a robust Cuba program that focuses on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”  Another Department web page states, “U.S. programs in Cuba include humanitarian support to political prisoners and their families, human rights and democracy promotion, and facilitating the free flow of information to, from and within the island.”

All such democracy programs of the Department would be appropriated nearly $2.265 billion for FY 2016 in Section 7032 (pp. 110-12) of the House Appropriations Committee’s pending appropriations bill for the Department. The programs, as defined in subsection (c ), are not subject to the prior approval by any foreign government, under subsection (e).[2]

Presidential Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, at the June 1st White House press briefing, was asked whether the U.S. would continue in Cuba the democracy-promotion programs of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

After referring specific questions about those programs to those two government agencies, the Press Secretary said, “[T]he U.S. government will continue to invest in efforts to strengthen the engagement between our two countries, between our two governments, and even between the citizens of our two countries.” The new U.S. approach to Cuba, he added, will “give the Cuban people greater exposure to the kind of values and lifestyle that we so deeply value in this country; and that by promoting that kind of engagement, we can actually place additional pressure on the Cuban government to do a better job of living up to the values and the protection of basic universal human rights that we hold so dear in this country.”

Therefore, said the Press Secretary, the U.S. “is going to go and promote our values around the world . . . [as] something that we’ve been engaged in for quite some time in a variety of countries.  And we’re certainly going to continue to do that in a place like Cuba that so frequently tramples those kinds of values.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, US Journalism Courses Rile Cuba Amid Effort to Heal Rift, N.Y. Times (June 3, 2015).

[2] House App. Comm., Draft Bill Making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes (June 2, 2015)

 

 

What is Wrong with the White House’s Plan for Democracy in Cuba?

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[This is a re-posting of a blog post by Zuleika Rivera, an Intern at the Latin American Working Group (April 08, 2014), http://lawg.org/action-center/lawg-blog.]

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ZunZuneo or the “Cuban Twitter” continues to dominate headlines as details regarding U.S. Agency of International Development’s (USAID) failure to inspire a “Cuban Spring” through a “discreetly” funded social networking platform remain unclear. The  Associated Press (AP) first broke the story on April 3, 2014 outlining the parameters of the USAID and Creative Associates International program to develop a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cell phone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its restrictions of the internet. The idea behind the development of the social media platform, according to AP, was to create a credible news source for Cubans on the island. ZunZuneo drew more than 40,000 followers and gathered data (such as location, cell phone numbers) on its users which was hoped to be used for political purposes. According to the AP, the social network managers hoped to use this information to trigger “smart mobs” that would protest the current Cuban government and generate a “Cuban Spring,” head nodding to the “Arab Spring,” a series of protests and uprisings that swept through a handful of Arab countries from 2010-2013.

How did the United States successfully keep ZunZuneo a secret for so long? USAID used shell companies and foreign banks in the Cayman Islands, United Kingdom, Spain and Costa Rica in order to conduct its programs. USAID contracted with Washington Software Inc who was given $3.2 million to text subscribers of TV and Radio Marti. They were required to send 24,000 messages a week and no fewer than 1,800 an hour. They were also required to create an account and give full access to the Authorized Representative for the contracting officer, the government’s technical experts who are responsible for developing and managing the technical parts of a contract. USAID subcontractor, Creative Associates, received $6.5 million to carry out work in Cuba and later another received $11 million from USAID. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors gave to Mobile Accord $60,000, and USAID also gave Mobile Accord $1.69 million to help run ZunZuneo. Similarly, the New America Foundation was given $4.3 million in 2012 under the Open Technology Institute; their role in the program, if any, remains unclear.

Soon after its creation in 2010, ZunZuneo gathered a lot of followers; and when famous Colombian-born singer Juanes hosted his “Peace Concert” in Cuba’s revolutionary plaza, the ZunZuneo took the opportunity to begin collecting data on Cubans. They polled all of their users on their general thoughts on the concert line-up; and as Cubans innocently answered, ZunZuneo gathered their data. In 2010 when ZunZuneo was at its height, they asked a Denver-based mobile company to join in (Mobile Accord). In their article, the Associated Press mentions a Mobile Accord memo that indicates that they were fully aware of their involvement, stating, “There will be absolutely no mention of the United States government involvement. If it is discovered that the platform is, or ever war, backed by the United States government, not only do we risk the channel being shut down by Cubacel [Cuba’s cell phone provider], but we risk the credibility of the platform as a source of reliable information, education, and empowerment in the eyes of the Cuban people.”

At this point Creative Associates had moved all corporations abroad and had made sure there was no money trail leading back to the United States. By 2011 Creative Associates was thinking of expanding their program and had agreed that the management team should not find out the United States government was involved. At this time they asked Mobile Accord to become independent from the United States government; but that became increasingly more difficult to do, as revenue from text messages was not enough. Finally, in September 2012 the program had to be cut, and it disappeared mysteriously from the Cuban landscape.

The White House has said that the program was not covert because they had disclosed the program to Congress and the program was intended to foster the free flow of information amongst Cubans on the island. Congress denies ever knowing about the program. The legality of this program is also in question since according to U.S. law any covert action by a federal agency must have presidential authority and Congress should also be notified. USAID has said that it is a “congressionally mandated and congressionally supported effort” and that it was reviewed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). But the GAO report does not list any programs by name or any specifics about what programs were being carried out. It only says that USAID is conducting programs with “greater focus on information technology to support independent bloggers and developing social network platforms.”

Similar to the White House, USAID said this was a discreet, not covert program. USAID came out with its own statement claiming that much of what was reported is false. While ZunZuneo doesn’t portray the full scope of the Obama Administration’s plan towards democracy promotion in Cuba, it is certainly the ugly side of it.

ZunZuneo proved it had little success in promoting freedom of expression on the island to support a more open civil society through a covert, or “discreet” program; and when compared to the White House’s policy to facilitate cross-cultural communication through people-to-people exchanges, ZunZuneo’s success diminishes to zero. In 2011 President Obama took a big step towards “promoting democracy” in Cuba by easing restrictions on travel for U.S. citizens to Cuba. While Cuba remains a sovereign state with its own political system, the legacy of U.S. policy towards Cuba doesn’t recognize this. The Obama Administration has taken steps to engage Cuba in a different way but still under the guise of “democracy promotion.” The President has liberalized travel regulations for purposeful travel as a way to empower and engage civil society in Cuba and in the United States. Its success was immediate: in 2011 73,500 U.S. citizens traveled legally to Cuba, and in 2012 that number increased to more than 98,000. Since the easing of restrictions, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued more than 250 people-to-people licenses, nine charter companies have been set up and there are more than 20 active travel service providers. People-to-people travel has led to authentic interactions between Cubans and U.S. citizens, which has deconstructed the Cold War image of Cuba as the enemy and presented a more accurate Cuban reality. Current regulations have allowed researchers and students to travel to Cuba, to study Cuba “on the ground,” and come back to the United States ready to share their experiences of a different Cuba, a Cuba that is changing.

People-to-people travel has created a new class of ambassadors: citizen ambassadors that in their exchanges on the island promote the core values of democracy. The exchange of ideas between real people via a different brand of “democracy promotion,” program, such as people-to-people travel, is what will inform Cubans about “democracy,” not spam social messaging. The Obama Administration should focus on initiatives such as un-restricted travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens, and high level dialogue with the Cuban government to talk about a variety of issues of common interest. These tactics will not only save money from unknowing taxpayers, but educate about U.S. ideals and realities by real people who are not trying to destroy Cuba, in a much clearer, less secret, non-covert manner. Rather than staining USAID’s reputation around the world, and smearing the Obama Administration as cold war re-enactors, the time is long overdue to sever our ties with difficult-to-clarify, “discreet” democracy promotion programs.

ZunZuneo proved to be a failure; the 53-year-old economic embargo on Cuba, another failure, and the list could go on. Cuba is not our enemy, rather our neighbor; and we should begin to treat them as such. Behind closed doors, judgments can be passed; but in the world arena, we should be “keeping up with the Joneses”—the 188 countries that annually vote in the UN General Assembly to end the embargo—and begin on the path toward a respectful, normal relationship with Cuba.