President Barack Obama’s First-Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2009-2013    

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, it is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements about Cuba. Prior posts examined his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008 and his campaign for the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008. Now we discuss his first presidential term, 2009-2013.[1] Subsequent posts will look at his reelection campaign in 2012 and his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.

As we saw in a prior post, Barack Obama and Joe Biden won the November 4, 2008 election with 69.5 million votes (52.9% of the total) to John McCain and Sarah Palin’s 59.9 million votes (45.7%). In the key state of Florida, Obama-Biden had 51.0% of the popular vote against McCain-Palin’s 48.4%. The electoral votes were Obama and Biden, 365; McCain and Palin, 173. Soon thereafter several head of states congratulated Obama while also calling for the U.S. to end its sanctions against Cubs.

Obama’s First Term, 2009

President Obama's Oath of Office with Michelle Obama
President Obama’s Oath of Office with Michelle Obama
Crowd @ Obama Inaugural 2009
Crowd @ Obama Inaugural 2009

 

 

 

 

 

Obama was inaugurated as President on January 20, 2009. His Inaugural Address first mentioned that “we are in the midst of crisis. . . . Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened. . . . [T]he challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.” There was no mention of Latin America or Cuba.[2]

On February 25, 2009, the Department of State released its 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” that “continued to deny its citizens their basic human rights and committed numerous, serious abuses.”

In April 2009 Obama fulfilled the pledge he made in his acceptance of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination by lifting travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans while also authorizing U.S. telecommunications companies to contract with Cuba for improved television, radio and telephone service and Internet access.

That same month (April 2009) Obama told a journalist, “Cuba has to take some steps, send some signals that when it comes to human rights, when it comes to political rights, when it comes to the ability of Cubans to travel.” In Obama’s opinion, the previously mentioned U.S. changes called for Cuba to “send signals that they’re interested in liberalizing.”

This U.S. desire or demand for Cuban reciprocity was not well received in Havana. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro declared, “The blockade [embargo] remains intact. . . . Cuba has not imposed any sanction on the [U.S.] or its citizens. Therefore, it is not Cuba that should make gestures.” Nevertheless, “We are willing to discuss everything with the [U.S.] government, on equal footing; but we are not willing to negotiate our sovereignty or our political and social system, our right to self-determination or our domestic affairs.”[3]

Later that same month (April 2009), Obama attended the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Latin American presidents applauded the previously mentioned U.S. changes while simultaneously pressing Obama on the need to reintegrate Cuba into the inter-American community. Obama responded by reiterating his commitment to engagement, “The [U.S.] seeks a new beginning with Cuba.”

Also in April 2009, the U.S. Department of State issued its Country Reports on Terrorism 2008. Again Cuba was listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The next month, May 2009, the U.S. proposed to Cuba that they resume bilateral consultations on migration. Cuba agreed, and the talks took place that July. Cuba presented a draft accord to curb people smuggling and indicated an interest in also discussing cooperation on counterterrorism, counter-narcotics operations and hurricane preparation. Although no such formal agreement was reached, both sides agreed it was a productive consultation.

In June 2009 at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), Latin American members moved to repeal the 1962 resolution suspending Cuba’s OAS membership. Facing defeat on this proposal, the U.S. negotiated a compromise: repeal the suspension if Cuba accepts “the practice, purposes, and principles of the OAS,” impliedly including the commitment to democracy in the Santiago Declaration of 1991.

In August 2009 Bill Richardson, then the Governor of New Mexico, was in Cuba on a trade mission, and at a meeting with Cuban officials was led to believe that Cuba wanted to move forward with the U.S. although Richardson said Cuba needed to reciprocate with some gestures. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Rodriguez made it clear that Cuba would not make any concessions to win better relations with the U.S. and that the U.S. blockade (embargo) was unilateral and should be lifted unilaterally.

In September 2009 an U.S. Assistant Secretary of State was in Cuba for discussions about restoring direct mail service. Over five days, she met with Cuban officials in the Justice, Agriculture, Health and Interior ministries and academics at the University of Havana as well as bloggers and dissidents. Much to the consternation of Cuban authorities, one of the bloggers was Yoani Sánchez, now an international celebrity. Nevertheless, Cuba’s Assistant Foreign Minister (Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, now the Minister of that agency) told the U.S. official that Cuba wanted to show her their desire “to move forward in our relationship,” requiring “confidence building” as a “way forward.”

By the Fall of 2009 the White House was frustrated by Cuba’s failure to respond to the U.S. relaxing of travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans. As a result, Obama asked Spain’s Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to have Spain’s Foreign Minister carry a back-channel message to President Rául Castro that if Cuba did not take steps of liberalization, neither could Obama and that the U.S. understands things cannot change overnight, but in the future it will be clear that this was the moment when changes began.

Castro responded with a proposal for a secret channel of communication between the two countries to discuss Cuban steps that might address the U.S. concerns. The U.S., however, at this time rejected the idea for a secret channel. (As we will see below, in December 2012, such a secret channel was opened.)

On December 3, 2009, the process of normalization was thrown off track by Cuba’s arrest of U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, who was bringing communications and computer equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community as an employee of a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Two weeks later President Castro told Cuba’s National Assembly that the U.S. alleged desire for a new relationship was “a huge propaganda campaign staged to confuse the world. The Truth is that the instruments for the policy of aggression to Cuba remain intact and that the U.S. government does not renounce its efforts to destroy the Revolution.”

By the end of 2009, therefore, things looked bleak for further normalization. Moreover, the press of many other foreign policy challenges for the U.S. pushed Cuba far down the list of priorities for the Obama Administration.

Obama’s First Term, 2010.

The arrest and jailing of Alan Gross continued to disrupt the relations of the two countries in 2010. The U.S. denied that Gross had done anything wrong and that his release from a Cuban jail was necessary for any improvement in the relationship.

The Gross arrest, however, prompted the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate USAID’s Cuba democracy programs in 2010 and to develop a plan to reorient the Cuba program toward supporting genuine links between the two countries. These changes in the program were briefed for Cuban diplomats, who said it would smooth the way for the release of Gross.

On March 11, 2010, the Department of State released its 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” that continued to deny its citizens their basic human rights, including the right to change their government, and committed numerous and serious abuses.”

In the meantime, Spain on its own initiative in May 2010 encouraged Rául Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega to discuss Cuba’s lifting the ban on public demonstrations by the Ladies in White, the female relatives of political prisoners, and to the release of political prisoners. In July 2010 this resulted in the government’s agreement to release 52 such prisoners, including everyone who had been arrested in 2003, and those who wished to go into exile would be welcomed by Spain. Eventually the government released 127 such prisoners.

In June 2010 Cardinal Ortega, with the consent of the Cuban government, went to Washington, D.C. to inform them of the then planned prisoner release. The Cuban government believed this prisoner release was a major concession and should “pressure U.S. political leaders to respond with other gestures of good will toward Cuba.” Ortega also told U.S. officials that Castro was ready to talk with the U.S. directly about every issue and that it would be a mistake for the U.S.to maintain the status quo until Cuba became a democracy. ”Everything should be step by step,” the Cardinal said. “It’s not realistic to begin at the end. This is a process. The most important thing is to take steps in the process.”

Obama, however, insisted that first Cuba had to release Alan Gross from prison before the U.S. could do more. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called the Cuban prisoner release a “positive sign,” but Obama said nothing.

In August 2010 Bill Richardson returned to Cuba on another trade mission and met with officials to try to obtain Gross’ release from prison. Richardson felt encouraged, but did not obtain the release.

Also in August 2010 the Department of State issued its Country Reports on Terrorism 2009, which again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

To try to rescue the stalled discussions, an Assistant Secretary of State met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister at the U.N. in October 2010. Rodriguez opened the meeting with a lengthy recitation of Cuba’s historical grievances against the U.S. and refused to engage in discussions about the future. “It was a terrible meeting,” said the U.S. official.

Soon after this terrible meeting, Rodriguez met again with Bill Richardson at the U.N. The Foreign Minister wanted the U.S. to know that Gross was merely a symptom of the troubled relationship, not its heart. Rodriguez also wanted the U.S. to know that Cuba had asked its supporters to tone down their criticism of Obama during the debate on the resolution to condemn the U.S. blockade (embargo) and that Castro had decided to improve ties with the U.S., but that the U.S. had not reciprocated. In addition, Rodriguez stressed the need for the U.S. to make progress on the case of the Cuban Five in U.S. prison.

Also in October 2010, John Kerry, then Senator and the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met Rodriguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, to discuss the U.S. democracy programs and Alan Gross, and an informal deal for his release seemed to be on track. However, the Administration abandoned the proposed changes in the Cuba democracy programs after objections from New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The Obama Administration was unwilling to wage a political fight with Menendez. This resulted in the Cuban government concluding that the Administration could not be trusted.

Earlier in 2010 advocates for lifting U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba launched a major campaign over opposition from Senator Menendez and others. During his June trip to Washington Cuba’s Cardinal Ortega urged members of Congress to allow freer travel in light of Pope John Paul II’s injunction that Cuba “open itself to the world and . . . the world open itself to Cuba.” The resistance from Menendez and Miami Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, however, prevented any congressional action to eliminate or reduce restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. Apparent indifference from President Obama also contributed to nothing happening in Congress on this issue.

Instead, at Obama’s direction, the Administration worked on a more limited expansion of travel through new regulations on “people-to-people” educational travel, but in August-September 2010 opposition by Menendez and Wasserman Schultz forced the Administration to shelf the new regulations.

Obama’s First Term, 2011

In mid-January 2011, on a late Friday before a holiday weekend, the Administration finally released the new regulations on expanded “people-to-people” educational travel. Cuba’s Foreign Minister said these regulations were “positive,” but they had “a very limited scope and do not change the policy against Cuba.”

In March 2011 Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President, went to Cuba at the invitation of Rául Castro. Before Carter left, Cuban officials made it clear that Gross would not be granted freedom. Carter met with Cardinal Ortega to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s dialogue with the government, with blogger Yoanni Sánchez, dissidents, former prisoners, relatives of the Cuban Five in U.S. prison and with Alan Gross. Foreign Minister Rodriguez stressed the importance of the Cuban Five case for Cuba. Over dinner with Rául Castro, Carter emphasized that Gross’ imprisonment was a serious obstacle to improving relations and urged his release on humanitarian grounds. Castro said there was no consensus in the Cuban government on the Gross case, but reiterated Cuba’s willingness to engage in wide-ranging talks with the U.S., “without preconditions,” and “on equal terms with full respect for our independence and sovereignty.” Any topic could be discussed. “We are ready.”

Before his departure, Carter said the U.S. should fully normalize relations with Cuba immediately; Cuba should allow full freedom of speech, assembly, travel; the U.S. embargo should be ended; Cuba should be removed from the terrorism list; the Cuban Five should be released from U.S. prison; and Alan Gross should be released from Cuban jail. Rául Castro, standing nearby, quipped, “I agree with everything President Carter said.”

Upon Carter’s return to the U.S., he had a cool meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, and the next day the Administration advised Congress it was requesting $20 million of funding for the democracy promotion programs in Cuba.

On April 8, 2011, the Department of State released its 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” that “denied citizens the right to change their government. In addition, the following human rights abuses were reported: harassment, beatings, and threats against political opponents by government-organized mobs and state security officials acting with impunity; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including selective denial of medical care; arbitrary detention of human rights advocates and members of independent organizations; and selective prosecution and denial of fair trial.”

In August 2011 the Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2010, which again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

 Obama’s First Term, 2012

On May 24, 2012, the Department of State released its 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the 27-page chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” whose “principal human rights abuses were: abridgement of the right of citizens to change their government; government threats, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent citizens from assembling peacefully; and a significant increase in the number of short-term detentions, which in December rose to the highest monthly number in 30 years.”

In July 2012 the Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, which again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

During the latter part of 2012 Obama and Biden were engaged in their campaign for re-election against Republican nominees Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, which will be covered in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, in September 2012 Bill Richardson made another trip to Cuba after Cuba’s Supreme Court had affirmed Alan Gross’ conviction. The State Department gave him a list of things the U.S. was prepared to do if Gross were pardoned and released from prison. Most were possibilities, rather than commitments. The others were commitments, but already had been announced by the U.S.

The Richardson trip got off to a bad start when he leaked word of it to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who reported that the Governor had been invited by the Cuban government to negotiate the release of Gross. To the Cubans, this looked like an attempt to force their hand. Later the Cuban Foreign Minister told Richardson “One, you won’t get Gross; two, you won’t see Rául; and three, you won’t even see Gross.” An angry Richardson held a press conference to announce that he would not leave Cuba until he saw Gross, who was a “hostage” held by the Cubans. An angry Cuban government responded that Gross’ release was never on the table, that Richardson was aware of that position, that his request to see Gross was impossible after Richardson’s slanderous statements and that Cuba was a sovereign country that did no accept blackmail, pressure or posturing.

At the time nothing of consequence regarding Cuba is believed to have happened during the two months after the November 2012 election, in which Obama and Biden won re-election.

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes

However, over the last seven months, we have learned that in December 2012 after his re-election President Obama held a long meeting with aides in the White House situation room to establish priorities for the second term. According to Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor who played a central role in shaping Cuba policy and who participated in that meeting, the aides all knew that Obama always had thought that the decades-long U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba through the embargo and other measures made no sense, and at the end of the discussion, Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope.”[4]

Moreover, at this December 2012 meeting the President also concluded that “it would be a good fit to have someone who was known to be very close to the President [involved in such an effort on Cuba] because the Cubans are very wary of engagement and they want to know that the engagement is reaching the top. They felt like there [had] been several other efforts of engagement where it turned out to be kind of “Lucy with the football,” where they had conversations with the Americans, [but after] they reached a certain point . . . there was never follow through [by the U.S.]. We can debate whether it was the Cubans’ fault or not, but that was their perception. So . . . [the Cubans] wanted someone . . . [involved for the U.S.] who were very close to the President and . . . they wanted it to be discreet.” Hence, the President designated Mr. Rhodes to be in charge of this new effort to engage Cuba.

Thereafter, Mr. Rhodes sent a secret message to the Cuban government that the U.S. wanted “to initiate a dialogue about prisoners and other issues.”

Obama’s First Term, January 2013

Nothing of consequence regarding Cuba was believed to have happened during the rest of President Obama’s first term, which ended on January 20, 2013, although the exact dates of the secret discussions with Cuba in 2013 are not yet known.

Conclusion

After fulfilling a campaign pledge In April 2009 to lift travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans while also authorizing U.S. telecommunications companies to contract with Cuba for improved television, radio and telephone service and Internet access, President Obama’s desire to seek normalization with Cuba was thwarted by Cuba’s December 2009 arrest and subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Alan Gross. The rest of Obama’s first term regarding Cuba seemed, at the time, concentrated on unsuccessful efforts to obtain Gross’ release. Now, however, we know that at the end of the first term a new and secret effort to engage with Cuba was launched.

=========================================================

[1] This post and the subsequent posts about Obama’s prior statements about Cuba are not based upon comprehensive research. The primary research tool was online searching of the New York Times for articles mentioning “Obama and Cuba” for the relevant time period although the details have been lost in the process of editing this post. Therefore, this blogger especially welcomes comments with corrections and additions. Ultimately after public release of many Obama Administration documents after the completion of his presidency, scholars will undertake a detailed examination of those documents and provide their assessments of his record regarding Cuba.

[2] Transcript: Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address (Jan. 20, 2009).

[3] At about the same time (April 2009), the U.S. Interests Section in Havana turned off its external streaming electronic news billboard, and Cuba replaced the black flags on poles outside the Section with Cuban flags.

[4] Reuters, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015); Rhodes, The Obama Doctrine: America’s Role in a Complicated World, Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29, 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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