President Barack Obama’s Second-Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, It is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements and actions about Cuba. Prior posts examined his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008; his campaign for the the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008; his first presidential term, 2009-2013; and his presidential re-election campaign of 2012. Now we look at the first two years of his second presidential term, 2013-2014. [1]

In November 2012, as we have seen in a prior post, President Obama won reelection with 48% of the Cuban-American vote.

The next month (December 2012), as a prelude to his second term, Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope.” 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 . . . where they had conversations with the Americans, [but after] they reached a certain point . . . there was never follow through [by the U.S.]. . . . [In short, 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 Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor, 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.” As we will see below, this created a fascinating contrast between the Administration’s public negative face on Cuba and its secret negotiations with the latter.

Obama’s Second Term, 2013

President Obama's Oath of Office, Jan. 2013
President Obama’s Oath of Office,    Jan. 2013
U.S. Capitol for President Obama's Inauguration, Jan. 2013
U.S. Capitol for President Obama’s Inauguration, Jan. 2013

 

 

 

 

 

On January 21, 2013, President Obama was inaugurated for his second term as President. Most of his Inaugural Address was focused on domestic concerns, but he did say, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully—not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” He made no reference to Cuba.

That same month, January 2013, we recently have come to know, Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s top Latin American adviser, went to Miami and met with a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and with young Cuban-Americans, the latter of whom helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo. (Zuniga in 2001 as a State Department staffer contributed to its National Intelligence Estimate that officially concluded, for the first time, that the embargo of Cuba had been a failure.)

On April 19, 2013, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses . . .: abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government; government threats, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly; and a record number of politically motivated and at times violent short-term detentions.”

By April 2013, however, we now know that the White House was ready to proceed with the Cubans by quietly proposing back-channel talks after learning that Havana would be receptive. Obama initially froze out the State Department on these developments in part due to concern that its “vested interests” would still be bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful.

On May 29, 2013, the plight of Alan Gross again emerged as a distracting element when a federal district court dismissed his lawsuit against the U.S. for $60 million alleging the government and its private contractor sent him on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection or even a clear sense of the Cuban laws that ultimately led to his arrest and detainment. Experts said the dismissal had been widely expected because of a rule barring lawsuits against the American government based on consequences suffered in foreign countries.[2]

The next day (May 30, 2013) the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba “has committed to adopting and implementing” anti-money laundering recommendations by an international group; but Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives.

In any event, the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations started in June 2013 in Ottawa, Canada. The Cubans opened with harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes, age 37, responded, “Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place. We want to hear and talk about the future.” The Cubans in these initial sessions also insisted on an exchange of the remaining three of “The Cuban Five” in U.S. prison for U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, in Cuban prison. Obama refused such a deal because Washington denied Gross was a spy and because Obama did not want a three-for-one trade. As a result by the end of 2013, the negotiations had stalled.

On December 3, 2013, Alan Gross’ imprisonment again surfaced as an important issue when his wife read a public letter from him to President Obama asking, “Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government, the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare, has abandoned me.” A White House spokesman responded by saying Mr. Obama had “personally engaged foreign leaders and other international figures to use their influence with Cuba” to free Mr. Gross.[3]

Barack Obama & Raul Castro
Barack Obama & Raul Castro

That same month, December 2013, something publicly happened that we now know had a positive effect on the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations. At the funeral for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on December 15th, President Obama met and shook hands with President Raùl Castro, which at the time some in the U.S. criticized. Moments after the handshake Obama addressed the funeral gathering, talking about Mandela’s demonstrating the need for trust and reconciliation and forgiveness. Some at the time wondered whether his remarks might also apply to the apparently frozen diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, but White House officials declined to offer any explanation of the handshake or confirm that there had been a discussion about whether to offer [an explanation].” [4]

Obama’s Second Term, 2014

In early January 2014 the U.S. and Cuba, with public notice, resumed negotiations from the prior July about migration, which the State Department said “does not represent any change in policy towards Cuba” and which journalists saw as “a signal of the longtime Cold War foes’ recent willingness to engage in areas of mutual interest but unlikely to be a harbinger of a major thaw in relations.” Afterwards Cuba said, “”The meeting took place in a respectful environment. An analysis was made of the status of compliance with the migration accords in force between both countries, including the actions taken by both parties to combat illegal migration and aliens smuggling.”[5]

At the January 2014 secret negotiation session in Toronto, said Mr. Rhodes, “the Cubans started [with just want[ing] their people back—the three Cubans who were imprisoned in the [U.S.] – [in exchange for their release of Alan Gross.] In response the U.S. proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – Cuba’s releasing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for the U.S. who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, and thereby enabling the U.S. to claim it was a true “spy swap” and giving it political cover. But the Cubans dis not immediately agree to release Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the U.S.

At this January meeting Rhodes “started talking . . . about how we wanted to change the relationship. And then they started talking about some of the things that they were considering doing in terms of their own system.” However, “the idea of reestablishing diplomatic relations was not something that was . . . immediately attractive to them. . . . [T]hey’re very comfortable in a position of being an opposition to the[U.S.]. They have built the legitimacy in part [for] much of their approach around the fact that they’re resisting [purported] American aggression. So it was not a no-brainer by any stretch of the imagination for the Cubans to agree to a process of normalization and to an establishment of diplomatic relations.”

Nevertheless, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “came to the view of in the discussions . . . that if we were going to take these very difficult steps of having this prisoner exchange where we get a Cuban intelligence asset of ours and Alan Gross to be released [and] they would get these three Cubans, . . . we needed to broaden the scope of what we are talking about.” The two countries “would have one opportunity to make a big move together and . . . we should try to do as much as we could in that space. And that led to them taking certain confidence-building measures like the release of . . . political prisoners [on a list] that we provided to them, [and] that led to . . . this discussion of setting out a process of normalization . . . [and] to a discussion of establishing diplomatic relations and sending a signal to the world that essentially we are willing to leave the past behind.”

At the same time, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “made very clear in every meeting, we’re going to have differences with your political system. We are going to find much to criticize, we are going to continue [the U.S.] democracy program, we’re going to continue [to criticize] your human rights practices. It doesn’t mean we like everything you do, but we are going to get farther by engaging with this government and opening up Cuba so that there can be more business, more American travel, more engagement between the American and Cuban people. That holds out a lot greater promise to promote the things we care about than the alternative.”

Also at this secret January session in Toronto, the Cubans gratefully remarked that President Obama had treated President Castro with respect at the Mandela funeral the prior month by shaking Raúl’s hand and that no [prior U.S. president or other official had] done that before. Rhodes responded by saying “not only was it the appropriate thing to do–you see someone why would you snub them and not shake his hand. If the Cubans have the right to be any place, it’s certainly at the funeral of Nelson Mandela who[m] they helped in many ways.”

In early February 2014 reporters for Reuters concluded that U.S. relations with Cuba were “at their best in almost two decades, but President Barack Obama seems unwilling or unable to confront a well-organized anti-Cuba lobby and push for further progress.”[6] Reuters obviously did not know about the secret negotiations then going on.

On February 27, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses: . . . abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”

While the U.S. proposal for Cuba’s release of Sarraff was still on the table, but not yet accepted by Cuba, President Obama held a secret White House meeting in February 2014 with certain lawmakers, including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin. Obama stressed his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade and Durbin “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.” Thereafter Senator Leahy confidentially persuaded two unnamed Roman Catholic cardinals to ask Pope Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when the Pontiff was scheduled to hold a private audience with Obama on March 27th.

President Obama & Pope Francis
President Obama & Pope Francis

That private papal audience did occur on March 27, and immediately afterwards, as discussed in a prior post, the Vatican reported that “during the cordial meetings [with President Obama], views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” We now know that this was an allusion to their discussion about U.S.-Cuba relations.

Also immediately after that private audience President Obama made comments that in retrospect also alluded to their conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”

Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis secretly sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement.

On April 2, 2014, Alan Gross’s name started to appear in the news again as he commenced a hunger strike in his Cuban prison “to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal. Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this standoff so that I can return home to my wife and daughters.” Later that month he terminated his hunger strike, and his U.S. lawyer reported that Gross had lost most vision in his right eye, walks with a limp due to hip problems, has lost a tooth and is 110 pounds lighter than at the time of his arrest. Moreover, Gross says in another year he will be dead if he stays in the Cuban prison. Later in June he was threatening to commit suicide.[7]

On April 30, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2013. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry retorted that it “energetically rejects the manipulation of a matter as sensitive as international terrorism by turning it into an instrument of policy against Cuba and it demands that our country be definitively excluded from this spurious, unilateral and arbitrary list.”[8]

Another public distraction emerged in April 2014 with the Associated Press reports of a  covert or “discreet” program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that created in Cuba a social media effort to encourage communications among dissidents. Four months later the AP reported about other USAID programs in Cuba with similar aims. [9]

In June 2014 the Pope sent additional private letters to Obama and Castro calling on them to resolve the cases of Alan Gross and the three Cubans in U.S. prison and also encouraging the two countries to pursue a closer relationship. The letter from Pope Francis, U.S. officials said after December 17th, “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented. The Pope, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a secret deal.

As the Vatican put it in its press statement on December 17th, “In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to . . . [the two presidents] and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”

Francis’ involvement also provided Obama with potential political coverage against any future criticism by Cuban-American (and Roman Catholic) Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and others.

In the meantime, the U.S. public stance towards Cuba remained unchanged. In early October 2014, Cuba publicly stated it had not received any indication the Obama administration might change U.S. policy toward Cuba despite increasing support within the United States for closer ties. We now know that this was a false report designed to conceal their ongoing secret negotiations.[10]

On October 28, 2014, the U.N. General Assembly again condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba by a vote of 188 to the 2 negative votes cast by the U.S. and Israel. At this session Cuba asserted that the embargo had damaged its economy in the total amount of $1.1 trillion.

Also in October 2014 the New York Times began what became a series of editorials through mid-December 2014 that called for normalization of the two countries’ relations, commended Cuba for its medical teams in West Africa that were fighting Ebola, called for prisoner exchanges and criticized the USAID programs in Cuba, the U.S. special immigration status for Cuban medical personnel and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” while reiterating its advocacy of normalization. One wonders whether the Times had advance tips or inklings that the Obama Administration soon would be announcing a major shift in U.S. policies toward Cuba and whether the Times was preparing the country for the changes.

Behind the scenes in October 2014 (before the U.S. mid-term elections) the deal was secretly finalized in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together. According to the Vatican’s press statement on December 17th, “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”

In early December Rhodes and Zuniga secretly met the Cubans again at the Vatican to nail down logistics for the December 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.

Pressures for an announcement as soon as possible at the end of 2014 were several. The health of Alan Gross was reportedly declining in a Cuban prison, and President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry legitimately believed that reconciliation would be destroyed if he died in that prison. Delaying the announcement also ran the risk of a leak of the existence of the secret negotiations that would upset, if not destroy, the reconciliation. Less immediate was the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April 2015 with the U.S. needing to have a positive position on host country Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the Summit.

In addition, U.S. domestic political considerations pointed towards a December announcement before the Republican-controlled 114th Congress opened in early January and as soon as possible (the next day) after the adjournment of the 113th so that there would be no resulting interference with the completion of the many items of unfinished business of the current Congress. December also is the traditional time for exercise of presidential clemency (pardons and commutation of sentences), the latter of which was used for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17th.

As noted in a prior post, President Obama as part of his December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”

Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his December 17th remarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”

Immediately after the December 17th announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro, Pope Francis publicly expressed his “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The Pontiff also said, “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

This initiative with Cuba, recently said Rhodes, is an example of what he called “the Obama doctrine and our whole foreign policy. We have to reposition the United States to be able to lead in this century. . . . We have been trying steadily to reposition the [U.S.], to refocus on the Asia-Pacific through the TPP agreement to withdraw that resource allocation and put in place a more sustainable counterterrorism policy that doesn’t eliminate risk but manages it and aims to prevent attacks on the [U.S.].

Conclusion

The Obama Administration’s conducting 24-months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government without any leak is an amazing accomplishment. One example of this lack of outside knowledge is a 2014 book by Chuck Todd, NBC’s noted Washington political reporter who reportedly knows everything that is going on, that says, “There has been little effort to engage or open Cuba, even as the end of the Castro brothers’ regime approaches. In fact, Cuba’s a great example of Obama’s famous caution. While he has been unusually critical of American policy toward Cuba, he won’t use his executive power to make a change.”[11] Sorry, Chuck, you were so very wrong.

These negotiations were without preconditions, just as then candidate Obama had urged when he was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008. Here too he was hit with charges that such a strategy was misguided and naive. But, I submit, it is the only rational strategy after 50-plus years of trying the opposite approach when, in my opinion, many of what we in the U.S. see as Cuban human rights violations are Cuba’s understandable defensive reactions to a long record of U.S. hostility and aggression against Cuba.

While all of this was going on, U.S. public opinion polls showed increasing support for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, and new groups supporting normalization or reconciliation were emerging. Especially in 2014, on the other hand, the Obama Administration was compelled to react to news about the USAID’s purported pursuit of Cuban democracy through various “discreet” or covert programs. Guantanamo Bay also kept in the news with disputes about detainee transfers and Obama’s continuing efforts to close its detention facility. Of course, strident cries objecting to any normalization or reconciliation continued to come from Senators Rubio, Cruz and Menendez and from Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

After the December 17 announcement, as recounted in many subsequent posts, the two countries engaged in publicly announced negotiations on many subjects; the U.S. loosened regulations about U.S. trade with, and travel to, the island; the U.S. rescinded its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism;” many U.S. politicians and business officials traveled to Cuba to observe and discuss future prospects; and bills were introduced in Congress to end the U.S. embargo and restrictions on travel to the country while die-hards in that body offered measures to try to prevent or stall normalization and reconciliation. As everyone recognizes, however, the job of normalization is just starting.

As President Obama put it in his January 20, 2015, State of the Union Address to the Congress, the American people and the world,“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership.  We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.  That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.  And around the globe, it is making a difference.”

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.  When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new. And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere.  It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba.  It stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.  And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

“As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.  And after years in prison, we are overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs.  Welcome home, Alan [, who was in the public gallery with First Lady Michelle Obama].  We’re glad you’re here.”

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

[1] 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. Now a preliminary assessment is possible based upon the following: William M. LeoGrande & Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (Univ. North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill, NC; 2014);  President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address (Jan. 21, 2013); Shear, Obama Reaches Out to Cuba’s Leader, but the Meaning May Elude Grasp, N.Y. Times (Dec. 10, 2013). Initial information about the secret negotiations is found in Reuters, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015) and Rhodes, The Obama Doctrine: America’s Role in a Complicated World, Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29, 2015).

[2] Cave, American Contractor Held in Cuba Loses a Lawsuit, N.Y. Times (May 29, 2013);

[3] Reuters, Contractor Jailed in Cuba Appeals to Obama to Press for Release, N.Y. Times (Dec. 3, 2013).\.

[4] Hauser, The Distraction of a Handshake in South Africa, N.Y. Times (Dec.10, 2013).

[5] Assoc. Press, U.S., Cuba to Hold Migration Talks in Havana, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2014); Reuters, Cuba, U.S. Meet on Migration in Latest Sign of a Thaw (Jan. 9, 2014); Assoc. Press, US Official: Cuba Migration Talks Productive, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2014).

[6] Reuters, U.S. Policy Change on Cuba Stalled by Obama, N.Y. Times (Feb. 6, 2014)

[7] Assoc. Press, American Imprisoned in Cuba Begins Hunger Strike, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2014); Assoc. Press, Lawyer: US Man Held in Cuba Seeks to Go Home Soon, N.Y. Times (April 23, 2014); Reuters, American Jailed in Cuba Plans Suicide, Lawyer Says, N.Y. Times (June 25, 2014).

[8] Reuters, Cuba Calls Terrorism Designation by U.S., Absurd, Manipulative, N.Y. Times (May 1, 2014).

[9] The USAID programs were discussed in posts on April 4, 9 and 9 and August 12, 13 and 14.

[10] Reuters, Havana Sees No Sign Obama Will Change U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2014). A previous post criticized U.S. “stupidity” and “cowardice” in making this designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

[11] Chuck Todd, The Stranger: Obama in the White House at 484 (Little Brown & Co.; New York; 2014).

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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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