In 1996 in the midst of U.S. private aircraft flights near and over Cuba by Cuban-Americans opposed to the Cuban Revolution, two such planes were shot down by Cuban military planes, and three U.S. citizens and one U..S. resident were killed in the crash.
Now , on May 22, 2018, two Cuban-American politicians—U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL)—have asked President Trump to have the U.S. Department of Justice investigate whether the U.S. could and should indict Raul Castro, Cuba’s former President, for the deaths of the four Americans.
After looking at this request, we will examine what happened in 1966 and in two U.S. criminal cases about this incident. We conclude with an evaluation of the merits of this request
Rubio and Diaz-Balart’s Letter to President Trump
The letter urged the President “to direct the Department of Justice to review whether Raúl Castro should be indicted for the illegal and heinous act of shooting down in international waters two American civilian aircraft flown by Brothers to the Rescue [“BTTR”] on February 24, 1996.”
BTTR, according to Rubio and Diaz-Balart,, was “a humanitarian organization that operated rescue missions to search for Cubans who fled the island by sea.The journey from Cuba is treacherous, and many have perished in the attempt.”
This letter continued, “On February 24, 1996, the Cuban Air Force—unprovoked and without warning—shot-down two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue [“BTTR”] planes in international waters, murdering three American citizens, Carlos Costa, Armando Alejandre, Jr., and Mario de la Peña, as well as one United States legal permanent resident, Pablo Morales.”
Thereafter, the letter says, “a U.S. federal court [in Miami] indicted the head of the Cuban Air Force, General Rubén Martínez Puente, and the two MiG pilots, Lorenzo Alberto Pérez-Pérez and Francisco Pérez-Pérez, on charges of murder.”
The letter also says, “a member of the WASP spy ring ultimately was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder for his role in planning the shoot-down, and was sentenced to life in federal prison. Shamefully, the previous administration, as part of its appeasement policy, commuted his sentence and let him return to a hero’s welcome in Cuba. However, the Cuban operative ultimately responsible, then-Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Raúl Castro, was never indicted.”
The letter concludes, “Taking these bold actions would demonstrate to our adversaries that they cannot act with impunity against Americans, and that human rights abusers and criminals will be held accountable for their crimes. Most importantly, it would send a signal to the Cuban people that the United States will not permit their oppressors to operate without consequences.”
According to the trial evidence in one of the criminal cases mentioned by Rubio and Diaz-Balart, BTTR, an anti-Castro Cuban exile group in Miami, repeatedly and knowingly had violated Cuban airspace since 1994 with the following details:
In 1994 a BTTR flight flew near the Cuban coast with a television reporter who filmed Cuban military fighter jets circling, but not firing at the BTTR plane.
Later in 1994, another BTTR plane flew over Cuba near Guantanamo Bay and dropped BTTR bumper stickers, and again Cuba did not fire at the plane.
In 1995 BTTR announced that it would commit civil disobedience in Cuban waters, and in response the U.S. State Department issued a public warning that no one should violate Cuban waters and airspace. Nevertheless BTTR proceeded to send a boat into Cuban waters and a plane flew over Havana for 13 minutes dropping anti-Castro leaflets and religious medals. Again the Cuban military did not attack the BTTR plane.
Immediately afterwards the Cuban Government complained to the U.S. FAA and requested action to prevent violations of Cuban sovereignty and stated, “Any craft proceeding from the exterior that invades by force our sovereign waters could be sunk and any aircraft downed.” In response the U.S. State Department reiterated its warning that U.S. planes should not violate Cuban airspace and quoted the Cuban warning.
Nevertheless in January 1996 BTTR flew twice to Cuba and presumably over international waters dropped anti-Castro leaflets that landed in Havana. Again Cuba requested the U.S. to stop these flights.
On February 24, 1996, three light-civilian U.S. planes that were operated by BTTR flew from Miami to Havana. All three at one time were in international airspace close to Cuba’s territorial waters. One of them clearly flew into Cuban airspace, but was not shot down. The other two civilian planes were shot down by Cuban MIG fighters, killing three Cuban-American citizens and one non-U.S. citizen. Cuba defended its actions by contending that the planes were shot down within the territorial limits of Cuba whereas the U.S alleged that the downings had occurred over international airspace. According to one of the courts in the Cuban Five case, these two planes did not enter Cuban airspace and were shot down in international airspace, 4.8 and 9.5 miles (land miles or nautical miles?] from Cuban airspace.
The concept of national and international airspace is complicated. National airspace is the area or portion of the atmosphere above a country’s territory that is controlled by that country and above a country’s territorial waters, which generally is considered to be 12 nautical miles [or about 13.8 land miles] out from the coastline of the nation. All other airspace is known as ‘international airspace.’
In any event, the two planes that were shot down were at least very close to Cuban airspace after a history of such planes entering Cuban airspace and dropping leaflets and medals and potentially dropping bombs.
In September 1998 five Cuban men (“The Cuban Five”) were arrested in Miami and indicted for conspiracy to commit murder (of the four men killed on February 24, 1996); conspiracy to commit espionage; conspiracy to commit crimes against the U.S.; use of false identity and documentation; and being unregistered agents of a foreign government.
The Cuban Five, however, were not directly involved in any of the above BTTR incidents. They did not shoot down the private planes on February 24, 1996. They were not in any of the Cuban MIG fighter jets that were involved in that incident.
Instead, according to one of the court opinions in their criminal case, they were in the U.S. as agents of the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence and members of its Wasp Network that was organized for espionage in southern Florida. The Network was to gather and report information regarding operations of U.S. military facilities, U.S. political and law enforcement agencies and U.S. nongovernmental organizations supporting regime change in Cuba, including BTTR. To that end, the Five attempted to penetrate the Miami facility of the U.S. Military’s Southern Command while one of the Five obtained employment at the Key West U.S. Naval Air Station and reported information about the Station to the Cuban Government. Their mission also was to stop flights to Cuba by BTRR.
In November 2000, the trial of the Cuban Five started in federal court in Miami and ended in June 2001 with a jury verdict of the Cuban Five’s being guilty on all counts. As none of the Cuban Five had been directly involved in shooting down the airplane in 1996, the key legal issue on the conspiracy to commit murder charge was the U.S. legal principle of conspiracy. Under U.S. law (U.S.C. sec. 1117), “If two or more persons conspire to [murder], and one or more of such persons do any overt act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be punished by imprisonment for any term of years or for life.” In simple terms, the overt act of shooting down the plane is attributed or imputed to all members of the conspiracy even though some were not directly involved in that act.
In December 2001 (three months after 9/11), the Miami federal court sentenced the Cuban Five to lengthy sentences. In later 2009, after extensive appellate proceedings, the district court reduced the sentence of Guerrero from life to 262 months, of Labanino from life to 30 years and of Gonzalez from 19 years to 18 years.
Two of the Cuban Five subsequently completed their sentences and were returned to Cuba in 2013 and 2014. On December 17, 2014, as part of the U.S.-Cuba agreement to pursue normalization of relations, President Obama commuted the sentences of the other three Cubans to time served and released and returned them to Cuba. They are Antonio Guerrero, 56, a U.S. citizen; Ramón Labañino, 51; and Gerardo Hernández, 49.
Criminal Case Against General Martinez Puente and the Cuban Pilots
On August 21, 2003, Cuban General Rueben Martinez Puente, the head in 1996 of the Revolutionary Air Force of the Republic of Cuba, and the two Cuban jet-fighter pilots who shot down the two planes operated by BTTR (Lorenzo Alberto Perez-Perez and Francisco Perez-Perez) were indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami for conspiracy to kill the U.S. nationals in the February 1996 crash, four counts of murder and two counts of destruction of aircraft.
The three defendants in this case were and are Cuban citizens and apparently were in Cuba at the time of the indictment and have remained there. Thus, on Nov. 10, 2003, the district court entered an order transferring them to its Fugitive File “until such time as the defendants are apprehended.” That is the last entry in this case’s file.
For this blogger, the foregoing objective review of the evidence relating to the letter from Senator Rubio and Representative Diaz-Balart yields the following conclusions:
The BTTR was not “a humanitarian organization,” at least with respect to the private planes it had flown to Cuba.
The BTTR apparently did not “operate rescue missions to search for Cubans who fled the island by sea.”
Instead the BTTR, at least from 1994 through early 1996, operated to harass the government of Cuba by dropping anti-Castro leaflets over Cuba itself.
On February 24, 1996, the Cuban Air Force was provoked by the BTTR flights that day and previously.
Prior to July 24, 1996, the Cuban Government repeatedly sought the assistance of the U.S. Government to stop the BTTR flights to Cuba.
The U.S. Government, however, did not adequately attempt to stop BTTF flights to Cuba.
Yes, the U.S. in 2003 indicted the head of the Cuban Air Force and the two Cuban pilots of the jet fighter planes that shot down the two private planes flown by BTTR pilots on February 24, 1996, but nothing has happened in that case because the Cuban defendants have not been in the U.S.
Yes, the U.S. in 1998 indicted the Cuban Five for various crimes, even though they were not personally involved in the shooting down of the two BTTR planes on February 24, 1996, and they were convicted and sentenced to U.S. prison for long periods of time. By December 2014, two of them had completed their sentences, been released from U.S. prisons and returned to Cuba, and on December 17, 2014, the remaining three’s sentences were commuted to time served (16 years including pretrial detention) by President Obama and they also were released from U.S. prison and returned to Cuba while Cuba simultaneously released U.S. citizen Alan Gross and another man who had spied for the U.S. from a Cuban prison and returned them to the U.S.
The release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17, 2014, was part of the praiseworthy overall U.S.-Cuba agreement to embark on the path of normalization of relations. It was not, as the Rubio/Diaz-Balart letter states, part of the shameful “appeasement policy.”
There never has been any contention that Raúl Castro was involved in any way in the downing of the two BTTR planes in February 1996. Instead Rubio and Diaz-Balart allege that at the time Raúl was Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and thus presumably in overall charge of everything involving the Cuban Air Force.
now nearly 87 years old and no longer Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro is still Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and has retired to Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island. Presumably he will not be coming to the U.S. in the future, especially if he were to be indicted as Rubio and Diaz-Balart suggest.
In short, the suggestion that Castro be indicted is a cheap, unfounded political trick only designed to continue to stroke the egos of the Cuban-Americans in Florida who cannot forget and forgive the past. The U.S. should not waste time and money on such a wild-goose chase.
 Indictment, U.S. v. Martinez Puente, No. 03-20685 CR-Seitz (S.D. FL Aug, 22, 2003) Notice to Transfer to Fugitive Status, U.S. v. Martinez Puente, No. 03-20685 CR-Seitz (S.D. FL Nov. 10,, 2003); Criminal Docket, U.S. v. Martinez Puente, No. 03-20685 CR-Seitz (S.D. FL ) [searched on May 26, 2018].
The first anniversary of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, on December 17, 2015, was not marked by any ceremony in either country. Instead, public statements were issued by the White House, the U.S. State Department, the de facto U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Jeffrey De Laurnetis. U.S. Senators and Representatives, Cuban officials and others. Nothing new or surprising was said in any of them.
On the anniversary date, President Obama released a statement on the subject. He said that during this year “we have taken important steps forward to normalize relations between our countries” that were detailed in the previously released FACT SHEET discussed below. The President continued, “We are advancing our shared interests and working together on complex issues that for too long defined—and divided—us. Meanwhile, the United States is in a stronger position to engage the people and governments of our hemisphere. Congress can support a better life for the Cuban people by lifting an embargo that is a legacy of a failed policy.” Nevertheless, “Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey.”
The earlier White House FACT SHEET. listed the following eleven significant steps of normalization this past 12 months:
U.S. “removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List;”
“re-establishment of diplomatic relations and opening of embassies; “
Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Cuba;
the establishment of the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Steering Commission, which has produced a working relationship to protect the environment and manage marine protected areas in Cuba, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico; an expansion of counternarcotics cooperation, increased cooperation to prevent smuggling; an understanding to re-establish direct postal services between the two countries; and commencement of discussions on property claims;
the commencement of talks to improve Cuban human rights;
cooperation on medical relief to Haiti;
easing of restrictions on U.S. citizens travel to Cuba, resulting in a 54% increase of such travel;
easing of U.S. restrictions on commerce with Cuba;
easing of U.S. restrictions on telecommunications and internet commerce with Cuba, resulting in several private business transactions to do just that;
discussions to increase cooperation regarding security of trade and travel flows;
U.S. support of Colombia-FARC peace talks monitored by Cuba; and
The Administration’s continued advocacy for congressional ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who participated in the secret talks that led to the rapprochement, said, “We went into this with no illusions that the Cubans were going to radically change their political system overnight, but our belief has been that greater engagement, greater people-to-people ties, greater commercial activity does open up space for the Cuban people. Part of what we are doing is raising people’s expectations, and that’s appropriate.”
Rhodes added, We reject this notion that our opening is a form of concession, because the opening is the whole point — we think it’s in our interest to have people traveling down to Cuba and doing business there. There’s a natural momentum to these things.”
President Obama himself last week stated that he hopes to visit Cuba during his last year in office, but only if enough progress has been made in bilateral relations, he is able to meet with political dissidents, and if he can possibly “nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.” In response, Josefina Vidal, an official in Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, said Obama would be welcome, but “Cuba has always said … it is not going to negotiate matters that are inherent to its internal system in exchange for an improvement in or the normalization of relations with the United States.” 
The U.S. would like change to happen “more quickly” and to see “increased access information online.” In addition, the U.S. hopes that Cuba “will give their citizens more space so they can exercise freely their civil and political rights.”
The U.S. and Cuba “very soon” will start a pilot program for renewed direct mail service.
U.S.-Cuba negotiations on direct commercial flights between the two countries are near a successful conclusion “ very, very soon.” The discussions on damage claims have just started, but their resolution remains a “top [U.S.] priority for normalization.”
For progress on Cuban economic issues, the U.S. believes the April 2016 congress of the Communist Party of Cuba will be important.
“Safe, legal, and orderly [Cuban] migration remains a priority of the U.S.,” which has “done our best to comply” with accords with Cuba on that subject. But “the Administration at this point has no plans to alter our current migration policy toward Cuba and Cubans,” including the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The U.S. continues to encourage Cubans to go to the U.S. Embassy in Havana “for the several available avenues for legal migration to the U.S.” In addition, the U.S. is “encouraging governments in the region to find . . . coordinated and comprehensive solutions that focus on preventing the loss of life and ensuring that human rights of all migrants are respected and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.”
Mr. DeLaurentis, via teleconference from Havana, said, “A year ago President Obama “made it clear that our aspiration for the Cuban people remains that they enjoy a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic society.”
“Over the course of the past year, we have made good progress and come a long way. Our two countries have engaged in historic dialogue on a wide range of issues. We have discussed concrete objectives on civil aviation, direct transportation of mail, the environment, regulatory changes, and counter-narcotics and have either reached understandings on those topics or continue to narrow our differences in ways that suggest we could soon conclude such understandings.”
“One of the President’s goals in announcing the new approach to Cuba was to promote increased authorized travel, commerce, and the flow of information to the Cuban people. In that regard, we have seen an increase in authorized travel by U.S. citizens by over 50 percent. Our regulatory changes help promote a Cuban private sector that now accounts for at least one in four Cuban workers. And Cuba recently signed roaming agreements with two U.S. companies that promote the flow of information. But more could be done on the Cuban side to take advantage of new openings.”
“A year ago, we had very limited engagement with the Cuban Government. Now we are in open conversation on issues that matter to the United States.” This includes working “together to combat transnational crime, protect our shared ecosystem, and create opportunities for the people in both nations to thrive.”
“However, we still have areas of disagreement. . . . such as property claims, fugitives, and human rights.. . . Still, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of our embassy have given us a more effective platform through which to promote U.S. interests and values on those and all bilateral issues. It is worth recalling [that] Secretary Kerry noted during the flag-raising ceremony in August – normalization will not happen overnight.”
“The President last year called on the Cuban Government to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. The Administration has taken a number of steps within the President’s authority to support a growing private sector in Cuba and strengthen people-to-people ties. The President has called on Congress to end the embargo.”
U.S. Senators and Representatives
Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), both of whom have been to Cuba several times this past year, sent a letter to President Obama urging further loosening of U.S. travel, export and financial restrictions with Cuba. 
On the other hand, Cuban-American Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, both of whom have been persistent critics of normalization, offered objections to what they saw as failed policies.”
On December 17 Cuba’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that concluded, “To achieve normal relations between the two countries, the [U.S.] must remove, without any conditions, the economic, commercial and financial blockade which for decades the U.S. has maintained against Cuba. Nor can one speak of normalization, while the illegally occupied Guantanamo Naval Base and other policies of the past that are harmful to the sovereignty of Cuba are not removed.“
Earlier, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations’ Director General for the United States, said, “We can say that Cuba and the United States have made progress in their relations, with a marked difference from the preceding stage,” She noted progress in the political and diplomatic fields with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of embassies and the removal of the island from the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism. She also highlighted the personal meetings between the leaders of Cuba and the U.S.
More specifically she said the two countries were close to concluding an agreement for civil aviation and had expanded or created cooperation in search and rescue; the fight against drug trafficking; migration; port maritime security, application and enforcement of the law; and health.
On the other hand, she commented, there is more to do. The U.S. needs to end the embargo, return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, stop “subversive programs and illegal broadcasting” as well as abolish its special immigration policies regarding Cubans.
Vidal concluded that “even with the differences that exist between our countries, better links will only bring benefits to both countries and their peoples. We really believe that a model of civilized coexistence is the best contribution that we can leave the present and future generations of Cuba, the U.S. and the entire region.
Everyone, supporters and critics of normalization, agrees that change has been slow and that much more needs to be done to facilitate a complete normalization. Nevertheless, as two experts on this relationship recognize, there has been progress.
Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba specialist and senior research fellow at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, observed, “It was just pure fantasy to think, as it has been for the last 60 years, that the United States could directly shape the nature of the Cuban political system. It feels like we’re getting excited about tiny steps, but those tiny steps, against the backdrop of the thicket of laws and regulations that have produced a ‘no’ as the answer to any question, and now we’re figuring out how to get to ‘yes’ — that’s progress.”
Scott D. Gilbert, a Washington-based lawyer who helped negotiate Cuba’s release last year of Alan Gross, said, “When you stand back and look at this against the backdrop of almost 60 years of complete adversity, complete lack of dialogue, absolute distrust, it’s been a remarkable year. But there is frustration and disappointment on both sides that more deals haven’t gotten done. It’s a process that still needs a lot of work.”
Alan Gross himself stated, “Our relations will not be normalized for some years to come, will not be totally normalized. But I believe that both governments are working towards that, We need to be patient to see this relationship evolve.” He specifically wants to see the U.S. end its embargo of Cuba, which is “stupid” and a “complete and utter failure.”
Jeanne Lemkau, a clinical psychologist and professor emerita of family medicine, commented on her 12th trip to Cuba, this October, to the central and eastern part of the island. She saw a creative example of the Cuban entrepreneurial initiative: a young man peddling shoes from a carefully arranged display on the top of a jeep chassis, snuggly parked next to his house. In addition, she saw many people using laptops and mobile phones; homes freshly painted in lovely Caribbean colors, a luxury that was once far beyond the resources of most Cubans; beautifully renovated hotels; and recently cleaned streets.
As a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, I too have mixed feelings on this first anniversary. I am glad that one year ago both countries decided to pursue normalization, that the previously mentioned steps towards normalization have been taken and that the normalization process is continuing. On the other hand, I am especially disappointed that the U.S. has not yet ended its embargo of the island and its special immigration benefits for Cubans.
A prior post covered the surprising December 17, 2014, announcement of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement while another post discussed the initial public information about the preceding secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations about normalization; yet another post integrated that information into previous public information about U.S.-Cuba relations in President Obama’s second presidential term, 2013-2014.
Now Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. both leading scholars on the relationship between the two countries, have added the following additional details about such previous secret discussions:
Thereafter in 2010-2012 two top State Department officials—Cheryl Mills, the Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Julissa Reynoso, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs—had secret discussions with Cuban officials that initially focused on Cuba’s releasing U.S. citizen Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and the U.S.’ allowing the wives of two of the Cuban Five to visit their husbands in U.S. prisons.
By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross, but the U.S. was not prepared to do so. Instead, as a show of good faith, the U.S. arranged for the wives of two of the Cuban Five to secretly visit their husbands in U.S. prisons while Cuba permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband in a military hospital in Havana.
In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: “We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.”
This May 2012 memo arrived soon after Clinton and President Obama had returned from that April’s Sixth Summit of the Americas where they had been chastised by heads of states furious over the U.S. stance on Cuba. Afterwards Clinton “recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”
After his reelection in November 2012, President Obama approached Massachusetts Senator John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state and raising a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba and also had long opposed the US economic embargo of the island.
During the U.S.-Cuba secret discussions in Canada in 2013=2014 that were discussed in a prior post, The U.S. was not willing to talk about the USAID programs or the status of Guantánamo Bay. Cuba, on the other hand, was not willing to discuss human rights or U.S. fugitives living in their country.
In September 2013 Senator Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) suggested to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that the U.S. should see about getting Pope Francis involved in helping the two countries resolve their differences.
In February 2014, Senator Patrick Leahy had his staff collaborate with former White House counsel, Greg Craig, to draft a 10-page memo of options “to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement [for President Obama].” The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord.
Apparently also in or about February 2014, Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the Pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., the White House also “got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss” Cuba at the upcoming upcoming March private audience with the Pope.
In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of a newly formed coalition for changing U.S. policies regarding Cuba, met with Cardinal Seán O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. The advocates of change explained the recent trends, the conversations with President and others in the administration and Congress and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the Pope to President Obama would be significant in moving the process forward. A letter from Senator Leahy was given to Cardinal O’Malley urging him to focus the Pope’s attention on the “humanitarian issue” of the prisoner exchange.
During this same time period, Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the Pope to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.
At the private audience later that month (March 27), Obama told the Pope that the U.S. had something going with Cuba and that it would be useful if the Pope could play a role.” (Other details about the audience were provided in a prior post.) A few days later, Francis summoned Cardinal Ortega to enlist his help.
On May 1, 2014, Leahy, along with Senators Carl Levin (Dem., MI) and Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) and Representatives Chris Van Hollen (Dem., MD) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA) met in the Oval Office with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The legislators urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. “You said you were going to do this,” McGovern reminded the president. “Let’s just do it!” Obama had a non-committal response,”We’re working on it” and gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.
On May 19, 2014, the previously mentioned coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the U.S. policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering; Cuban-American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company; and John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence. The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to “develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.”
During the summer of 2014 the Pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders“to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.”
To safeguard his communications, the Pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the two presidents’ hands. After delivering the Pope’s letter to Raúl Castro, Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission to deliver the other letter to Obama. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with President Obama was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the Pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick, therefore, left Cuba empty-handed.
Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough at the White House to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the President. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, U.S. officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the President on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the Pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to “help in any way.”
In October 2014, at the Pope’s invitation, the two sides met at the Vatican and hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. The U.S. representatives, Rhodes and Zuniga, also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba. Cuban officials said that while they had no intentionof changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The Pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.
On October 12, the New York Times published an editorial calling for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba and for a new relationship between the two countries; it turned out to be the first of a series of editorials on various aspects of the relationship. These editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, a new member of the Editorial Board and a native of Colombia. He talked to administration officials, Senator Leahy’s office, and the new coalition, but recently said, “There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.”
On November 6, 2014, Obama’s National Security Council met to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.
These additional details about the over two years of previously secret negotiations should be merged with the earlier post about President Obama’s Second Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014. Together they demonstrate the diplomatic skill of that Administration in achieving this historic breakthrough that will benefit both countries.
 Previous posts covered the other Times editorials that commended Cuba’s foreign medical missions (Oct. 19), recommended normalization (Oct. 26) and prisoner exchanges (Nov. 3) and criticized USAID programs on the island (Nov. 10), the U.S. Cuban medical parole program (Nov. 17) and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (Dec. 15).
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. 
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
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.
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.
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].” 
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.”
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.” 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.
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.
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.”
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. 
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.
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 17thremarks 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.].
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.” 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.”
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; his campaign for the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008; and his first presidential term, 2009-2013. Now we examine his presidential reelection campaign of 2012. A subsequent post will examine his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.
On April 4, 2011, Obama had an unusual way of formally announcing he would be running for reelection in 2012. He did so with an understated two-minute Internet video titled “It Begins With Us,” which features his supporters talking about the need to re-elect him and in which he does not appear. No mention of Cuba was made.
As the incumbent president, Obama secured the Democratic nomination with no serious opposition at its national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. On September 5, 2012, he was re-nominated, and the following night he accepted the nomination. In his acceptance speech he said the election “will be a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future. Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known.”
Obama in his acceptance speech asked all citizens “to rally around a set of goals for your country, goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security and the deficit, real, achievable plans that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation. That’s what we can do in the next four years, and that is why I am running for a second term as president of the United State.” Obama also talked about various problems around the world, but made no mention of Cuba.
His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, previously had been nominated at its national convention on August 28 with his acceptance on August 30.
The campaigns focused heavily on domestic issues: debate centered largely around sound responses to the Great Recession in terms of economic recovery and job creation. Other issues included long-term federal budget issues, the future of social insurance programs, and the Affordable Care Act. Foreign policy was also discussed including the phase-out of the Iraq War, the size of and spending on the military, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and appropriate counteractions to terrorism.
The two main presidential candidates held three debates, all in October (3rd, 16th and 22nd).
In the first debate on October 3 the candidates “quarreled aggressively over tax policy, the budget deficit and the role of government, with each man accusing the other of being evasive and misleading voters.” Romney, for example, accused Obama of failing to lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930’s while Obama implored Americans to be patient. On a basic level it was a clash of two ideologies, the president’s Democratic vision of government playing a supporting role in spurring economic growth, and Mr. Romney’s Republican vision that government should get out of the way of businesses that know best how to create jobs.” There was practically no mention of foreign issues, and not a word about Cuba.
The second debate on October 16 again dealt primarily with domestic affairs, including taxes, unemployment, job creation, the national debt, energy and energy independence, women’s rights and immigration. But this debate also touched on foreign policy, especially the then recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Again, no mention of Cuba.
The last debate on October 22 was to be devoted to foreign policy, and it did have discussions about the attack on Benghazi, Iran’s nuclear program, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, relations with Israel and Pakistan, the War on Terror, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the size and scope of the U.S. military, and relations and trade with China. There also were further comments about domestic policy issues, such as job creation, the federal deficit and education. Again, there was no mention of Cuba.
On November 6, 2012, Obama was re-elected for his second term as President of the United States. He won 65,916,000 popular votes (51.1%) and 332 electoral votes to Romney/Ryan’s 60,934,000 (47.2%) and 206 electoral votes. Nationally the Democratic ticket overwhelmingly won the Hispanic vote, 71% to 27% for the Republicans. Obama and Biden also won the key state of Florida, 50.0% versus 49.1% for Romney and Ryan, with nearly 50% of the state’s Cuban-Americans going for the Obama ticket.
In his victory speech in Chicago, President Obama proclaimed, “Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”
Unless it was due to my limited research, there was no mention of U.S. policy regarding Cuba during this presidential election. This is not too surprising in light of the primacy of domestic economic issues in 2012, the problems in the Middle East and the Administration’s apparent lack of attention to Cuba since Cuba’s arrest of Alan Gross in December 2009 and its subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Gross.
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. 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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
On March 26 Cuba announced that the U.S. and Cuba will commence their negotiations regarding human rights on March 31 in Washington, D.C.; this was covered in a prior post.
Issues of Cuban human rights that probably will be put on the agenda for further discussions were first examined in a prior post about the recent speech on this subject by Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla.
In Cuba’s March 26thannouncement of the upcoming talks, Pedro Luis Pedroso, Cuba’s Deputy Director General of Multilateral Affairs and International Law, referred to “the recognition Cuba received at the last Universal Periodic Review [UPR] by the U.N. Human Rights Council, where the international community praised and commended Cuban achievements in areas such as education, health and access to cultural rights, and the contribution the island has made in those same areas in other countries.”
Therefore, this post will look at that UPR of Cuba while another post will discuss the latest U.S. State Department report on Cuban human rights (the one issued in 2014 for 2013).
The Nature of the UPR Process 
In order to assess the recent UPR of Cuba, we first must understand the UPR process, which provides the opportunity for each of the 193 U.N. members, on a periodic basis, to declare what actions it has taken to improve its human rights and to fulfill its human rights obligations.
The UPR process includes a report on all human rights issues from the subject country, compilations of information about the country from various U.N. organizations and from “stakeholders” (non-governmental organizations), a public interactive session of the Human Rights Council about the country, a report by a working group about the proceedings that includes conclusions and recommendations, the subject country’s responses to those conclusions and recommendations and a subsequent evaluation of the UPR by the Council.
It is exceedingly important, however, to know that these conclusions and recommendations are merely a systematic compilation or listing of all those that had been offered by all of the countries participating in the UPR. Hence, there is a lot of duplication and overlapping in this part of the report, which is not similar to an independent judicial body’s reaching certain findings and conclusions based upon an evaluation of often conflicting evidence. Indeed, the Working Group’s report expressly states that the conclusions and recommendations “should not be construed as endorsed by the Working Group as a whole.” In short, there is no overall “grade” of a country’s human rights performance by the Working Group or by the Council as a whole.
Most Recent UPR of Cuba 
The most recent UPR of Cuba occurred in 2013.
1. The Report of the Working Group.
The key document in figuring out what happened in this UPR is the “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review—Cuba” that was issued on July 8, 2013. It has the following standard structure, after a brief Introduction:
I. Summary of the proceedings of the review process
A. Presentation by the State under review
B. Interactive dialogue and response by the State under review
II. Conclusions and Recommendations
The “interactive dialogue.” This section of this report states that there was such a dialogue about Cuba involving 132 delegations at the session on May 1, 2013, and sets forth a brief summary of that dialogue in 144 numbered paragraphs. One example is paragraph 31, which states, “ Nicaragua highlighted the commitment of Cuba to human rights despite the blockade, and condemned the [U.S.] convictions against five Cubans.”
The only reference to U.S. comments in this dialogue is in paragraph 77, which states the U.S. “raised concerns for impediments to multiparty elections and freedom of expression and referred to Alan Gross and Oswaldo Paya.” Cuba, according to paragraph 111, responded to this U.S. comment by saying that “freedom of the press was guaranteed in Cuba“ and by “reiterated[ing its] . . . willingness . . . to continue talks with the [U.S.] . . . on the situation of Mr. Gross and of other individuals who were held in detention in Cuba and in the [U.S.].” 
Conclusions and Recommendations. This section starts with the following statement: “The recommendations formulated [by all the countries participating] during the interactive dialogue and listed below will be examined by Cuba, which will provide responses in due time, but no later than the twenty-fourth session of the Human Rights Council in September 2013” (para. 170). This section of the Report is concluded by this statement: “All conclusions and/or recommendations contained in the present report reflect the position of the submitting State(s) and/or the State under review. They should not be construed as endorsed by the Working Group as a whole” (para. 171).
The actual conclusions and recommendations are summarized in 292 numbered subparagraphs of the Report. Those offered by the U.S. are for Cuba to “allow for independent investigations into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero” (para. 170.138) , to “release Alan Gross and imprisoned journalists such as Jose Antonio Torres immediately” (para. 170.187)  and to “eliminate or cease enforcing laws impeding freedom of expression” (para. 170.176).
2. Cuba’s Responses to the Recommendations.
In response to the U.S. recommendations and 20 others from other countries, Cuba said they “do not enjoy [its] support . . . on the grounds that they are politically biased and based on false premises; they derive from attempts to discredit Cuba by those who, with their hegemonic ambitions, refuse to accept the Cuban people’s diversity and right to self-determination. These proposals are inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation and respect demanded by the UPR process.” Moreover, said Cuba, they “are incompatible with constitutional principles and national legislation, and whose content is contrary to the spirit of cooperation and respect that should predominate at the UPR.” 
The other 20 numbered recommendations that were so summarily rejected by Cuba related to protecting human rights defenders, including journalists, against abusive criminal prosecutions, harassment and intimidation (Czech Republic, Austria, Australia, Germany, Hungary); release of all political prisoners (Czech Republic, Belgium, Slovenia, Poland), end indefinite extensions of preliminary criminal investigations (Belgium); improve freedom of expression (Romania, Estonia, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, France, Canada); repeal laws relating to “pre-criminal social dangerousness” (Ireland); end repression, investigate acts of repudiation and protect targets of intimidation and violence (Netherlands); and end Internet censorship (Australia, Germany).
Cuba, however, did accept 230 of the recommendations while noting, “Many of these . . . have already been complied with, or are in the process of implementation , or are included among future national priorities.” Therefore, these items “will be implemented in accordance with our capabilities and in step with the evolution of the circumstances within which Cuba is pursuing its aim of complete social justice.”
The remaining 42 recommendations were “noted” by Cuba as matters to be examined with the understanding that its “process of ratifying an international instrument is very rigorous;” that is stands ready “to continue cooperating with . . . the UN System’s human rights machinery;” that it is “philosophically opposed to the death penalty: and wants to eliminate it when suitable conditions exist;” that it has an “extensive and effective” system for resolving human rights complaints; that its “system of criminal justice . . . ensures fair and impartial hearings and full guarantees to the accused;” Cuba is working at expanding internet access; and “the right to freedom of expression and assembly . . . [is] enshrined in the Constitution and . . . national legislation.”
3. Human Rights Council’s Evaluation of this UPR. As paragraph 170 of the Report of the Working Group provided, the Council was to review the UPR of Cuba at its session in September 2013 after Cuba had submitted its response to the conclusions and recommendations. That Cuban response was just summarized, and the Council on September 20, 2013, reviewed this UPR and approved, without a vote, a resolution “to adopt the outcome of the universal periodic review of Cuba, comprising the report thereon of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review . . ., the views of Cuba concerning the recommendations and/or conclusions made, and its voluntary commitments and replies presented before the adoption of the outcome by the plenary to questions or issues not sufficiently addressed during the interactive dialogue held in the Working Group.” 
Criticism of the Recent UPR of Cuba
It must also be noted that an observer has alleged that Cuba “corrupted and abused” this UPR process by prompting the submission of many “fraudulent” stakeholder NGOs; there was a total of 454 submissions regarding Cuba compared with the next highest, 48 on Canada. As a result, says this observer (UN Watch), “numerous statements of praise taint the UN’s official summary” of stakeholders’ submissions. UN Watch also alleges that the compilation of information from U.N. agencies was unfairly slanted in favor of Cuba. 
Another observer (International Service for Human Rights) reported that during the UPR of Cuba, 132 countries, at 51 seconds each, took the floor to ask questions and make recommendations. As a result, Cuba received 293 recommendations, the highest number that a State under review has ever received at the UPR, but 121 of them started with the verb ‘continue,’ thus requiring minimal action to be taken by Cuba. 
I do not know whether any of NGO stakeholders at this UPR were “fraudulent,” as alleged, but it does appear that Cuba “stacked” the process to minimize the time available to authentic critics of its human rights record and to maximize the time available to its supporters. It also appears as if Cuba rejected recommendations for improving many foundational human rights.
In any event, because the UPR process does not involve a truly independent fact-finder to assess the human rights record of Cuba or any other country in such a process, I reject the assertion by Cuba’s Deputy Director General of Multilateral Affairs and International Law, Pedro Luis Pedroso, that Cuba obtained a laudatory evaluation of its human rights record by the U.N. Human Rights Council. In short, I think this UPR is irrelevant to Cuba’s human rights issues.
 Details about the UPR process are provided on the Council’s website. The process involves a “working group,” which is composed of all 47 members of the Council.
 As discussed in a prior post, Alan Gross was released from a Cuban prison on December 17, 2014, and returned to the U.S. as part of the U.S.-Cuba agreement to re-establish normal diplomatic relations.
 Paya was a Cuban political activist, a leader of the political opposition to the to the Cuban government. He was the founder and organizer of the Varela Project, which collected enough signatures to present to the government a request for changes in legislation. He was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Human Rights of the European Parliament in 2002. On July 12, 2012, Paya was killed in an automobile crash in Cuba under suspicious circumstances; Harold Cepero, a youth leader, was also killed in the crash. Many people believe they were murdered by government agents.
 Torres, a correspondent for the Cuban government newspaper, Granma, wrote an article about alleged mismanagement of a Santiago Cuba aqueduct project and of the installation of the Cuba-Venezuela fibre-optic cable. Afterwards he was charged and convicted of spying and sentenced to 14 years in prison and cancellation of his university degree in journalism.
 Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review—Cuba: Addendum: Views on conclusions and/or recommendation, voluntary commitments and replies presented by the State under review [Cuba] (Sept. 2013).