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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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