On May 1, 2022, President Joe Biden traveled to Minneapolis to deliver his eulogy of Walter Mondale at the latter’s memorial service. Here are the highlights of the President’s remarks. 
“I’m moved to be with you here today . . .[to] honor one of the great giants in American history. And that’s not hyperbole. Fritz was a giant in American political history.”
“I speak of a friend of five decades, about . . . the light of [our] friendship and what it meant to me personally, to my family.”
“Fritz and I first met in one of the darkest moments of my life. [After I had been elected for the first time to the U.S. Senate in 1972 and before I was sworn in,] I was at the U.S. Senate on December 18th to hire staff when I received a phone call from my fire department in Delaware [and was told,] ‘You got to come home. There’s been an accident. . . .Your wife and daughter are dead, and your two boys may not make it.’ Fritz and Joan . . . embraced me and came to the hospital to see my boys. They [and others] helped me find my purpose in a sea of darkness and pain. [They urged me to stay in the Senate for at least six months and then decide whether to stay in the Senate or not.]”
“My life changed again five years later. No man deserves one great love in his life, let alone two, but I met and married Jill Biden. I had to ask her five times. But being a spouse of a Senator who was relatively well known, because of the celebrity of how I got there and the accident, and inheriting two beautiful young boys wasn’t easy.”
“Once again, Fritz and Joan were there spreading the light. Joan was one of the first people to reach out to Jill, and it meant the world to us.”
“Fritz was a master legislator who shone a light on those who needed it most. The desire to lift up others stemmed from his youth, from his service as a corporal in the U.S. Army, and those early days organizing for Hubert Humphrey in parts of Minnesota that Democrats didn’t win.”
“Fritz learned early the power of bringing people together. And I know for Fritz, no moment was brighter than when he joined forces with an African American senator from Massachusetts, Senator Edward Brooke, and they passed the Fair Housing Act. When the Act passed, Fritz spoke on the Senate floor [and said,] ‘The words ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ will mean more to millions of our fellow Americans [today with this legislation]. That was Fritz spreading . . . the light of our country, to families who had never truly known its warmth.”
“At every stage of our lives, at every inflection point, Fritz and Joan . . . were there for Jill and me and my family —on a personal level.”
“In 2008 Barack Obama called me after it was clear he was the de facto nominee and said he’d liked me to join him on the ticket, at least consider it; could he do a background check on me. And I said, ‘No thanks, Barack.’ [But he said,] ‘there’s only one other person I’m considering.’ I said, ‘Barack, I don’t want to be Vice President.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because [the VP is] basically just standby equipment. I can help you a lot more as a senator. I’ll do everything I can. I’ll campaign throughout the country for you.’”
Barack responded, ‘Look, would you go home and talk it over with your family? Just talk it over.’”
“So I did. I called Jill from the train on my cell phone. And when I got home, .. . the first person I called was Fritz before the family gathered in the back porch. And I asked, ‘Fritz, what should I do?’ And he went into great detail. As a matter of fact, he sent me a long memorandum he prepared for President Carter when they were deciding how their relationship would work. He told me, in essence, that the vice presidency holds no inherent power. None. Zero. The Vice President is merely — and it’s true — a reflection of your relationship with the President of the United States.”
“About seven years ago, I joined Fritz at a forum in his honor at George Washington University. Fritz recounted that his greatest strength wasn’t his expertise in a particular policy area; it was the genuine personal relationship he built with President Jimmy Carter — a relationship built on real affection and trust.They sat down for lunch together every week. Fritz said to me, ‘Make sure you get a commitment from Barack: Once a week, you have lunch to discuss whatever is on either of your minds.’”
“He was the first Vice President to have an office in the West Wing, just a few steps away from the Oval Office.”
“That was the true strength of the vice presidency, he said, a strength that Barack and I replicated in our time in office and what Kamala and I are doing today. And she sends her regards to the whole family. She called me before I got in the plane.”
“It was Fritz who lit the way. [At] his core, Fritz embraced everybody with a belief that everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity — everybody. Dignity. Not just the right to vote, dignity.”
“He was loved by the American people because he reflected the goodness of the American people, especially the people of Minnesota. You know, every senator wears on his or her sleeve the state they serve. But the love Fritz had for the people of Minnesota ran deeper than that. He loved you all, and you loved him back — it was obvious — because Fritz reflected the very best qualities of this state: the warmth and optimism that you reflect.”
“At every turn, Fritz reflected the light of this nation, who we are and what we can be. He called me [after] I had said [at my] inauguration that we’re the most unique nation in all of history. We’re the only nation founded on an idea. Every other nation in the world is based on geography, ethnicity, religion, race. We’re founded on an idea. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.’ And it goes on.”
“Fritz believed that in his gut. I watched him every day for over 35 years in the Senate and when he was Vice President. He united people, sharing the same light, the same hopes. Even when we disagree, he thought that was important.”
“I’ll never forget, on a personal level, what it meant to have a friend like Fritz. Less than four years after losing Eleanor to brain cancer and just a year after losing Joan, Fritz was there to help me again when Jill and I lost our son Beau to brain cancer after a year in Iraq.”
“I’ll never forget how Fritz reflected so much love and light into our family — again, at our darkest moments — nor will I forget coming here to Minneapolis eight years ago to say goodbye to Joan.”
“Most of you remember that Fritz went to the Mayo Clinic for quadruple bypass the very next day. He had delayed the surgery so he could be with all of us to reflect her light. And he put off treating his own heart because, as all you know, his heart belonged to Joan.”
“As I’ve said many times — I say to the family, seeing your mom and dad together reminded me of that great line from Christopher Marlowe’s poem: ‘Come live with me and be my love, and we shall all the pleasures prove.’ You can tell when a couple has been together a long time. So each looks at the other with love — deep love.”
“It’s been said that memory is the power to gather roses in winter. Well, Ted and William, your dad blessed you with an endless garden of those memories and, most of all, the memory of two extraordinary loves: a love of more than 58 years he spent together with your mom, and a love of 51 years with your sister, Eleanor. In his farewell letter, Fritz wrote that he was eager to rejoin Joan and Eleanor, two unbreakable loves.”
“Jill Biden wanted to do a garden at the Vice President’s Residence so that every family that ever had lived there would have stones [engraved with the names of] the couple and their children. When I called Fritz to tell him about it, he came over to the [White House]. He asked if he could go inside. I said, ‘Of course.’ He wanted to walk up to the third floor. [There he] stopped in front of a door and opened it and just stared. After a few minutes, he came down and said, ‘That was Eleanor’s room. I so miss her.’”
“Well, they’re all together now, for all time.”
“Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.’ There is no doubt that the institution of the Senate and the institution of the Vice President reflect the profound legacy of Fritz Mondale. But it’s not a lengthened shadow; it’s his light. And it’s up to each of us now to reflect that light that Fritz was all about, to reflect Fritz’s goodness and grace, the way he made people feel no matter who you were.”
“Just imagine what our nation could achieve if we followed Fritz’s example of honor, decency, integrity, literally just the service to the common good. There would be nothing — nothing, nothing, nothing beyond our reach.”
“I hope we all can be Fritz’s mirror, continue to spread his light. Because you know he was one of the finest men you’ve ever known, one of the most decent people I ever dealt with, and one of the toughest, smartest men I’ve ever worked with.”
“You were lucky to have had him. Look at things, he was lucky to have had you.”
“God bless you, my dear friend. Among the greatest of all Americans.”
“The highest compliment, my Grandfather Finnegan used to say, you can give a man or a woman — he was a good man.”
James wrote to the believers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”
It is a great honor to be back in Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple — an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance — John Robert Lewis.
To those who have spoken to Presidents Bush and Clinton, Madam Speaker, Reverend Warnock, Reverend King, John’s family, friends, his beloved staff, Mayor Bottoms — I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom.
Now, this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible.
John Lewis — the first of the Freedom Riders, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of this state and this district for 33 years, mentor to young people, including me at the time, until his final day on this Earth — he not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work.
Which isn’t bad for a boy from Troy. John was born into modest means — that means he was poor — in the heart of the Jim Crow South to parents who picked somebody else’s cotton. Apparently, he didn’t take to farm work — on days when he was supposed to help his brothers and sisters with their labor, he’d hide under the porch and make a break for the school bus when it showed up. His mother, Willie Mae Lewis, nurtured that curiosity in this shy, serious child. “Once you learn something,” she told her son, “once you get something inside your head, no one can take it away from you.”
As a boy, John listened through the door after bedtime as his father’s friends complained about the Klan. One Sunday as a teenager, he heard Dr. King preach on the radio. As a college student in Tennessee, he signed up for Jim Lawson’s workshops on the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience. John Lewis was getting something inside his head, an idea he couldn’t shake that took hold of him — that nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience were the means to change laws, but also change hearts, and change minds, and change nations, and change the world.
So he helped organize the Nashville campaign in 1960. He and other young men and women sat at a segregated lunch counter, well-dressed, straight-backed, refusing to let a milkshake poured on their heads, or a cigarette extinguished on their backs, or a foot aimed at their ribs, refused to let that dent their dignity and their sense of purpose. And after a few months, the Nashville campaign achieved the first successful desegregation of public facilities in any major city in the South.
John got a taste of jail for the first, second, third … well, several times. But he also got a taste of victory. And it consumed him with righteous purpose. And he took the battle deeper into the South.
That same year, just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of interstate bus facilities was unconstitutional, John and Bernard Lafayette bought two tickets, climbed aboard a Greyhound, sat up front, and refused to move. This was months before the first official Freedom Rides. He was doing a test. The trip was unsanctioned. Few knew what they were up to. And at every stop, through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus and into the bus station. And John and Bernard had no idea what he might come back with or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them. There were no camera crews to record events. You know, sometimes, we read about this and kind of take it for granted. Or at least we act as if it was inevitable. Imagine the courage of two people Malia’s age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own, to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression.
John was only twenty years old. But he pushed all twenty of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention, and generations of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans.
Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate — he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mug shot taken again and again, marched again and again on a mission to change America.
Spoke to a quarter million people at the March on Washington when he was just 23.
Helped organize the Freedom Summer in Mississippi when he was just 24.
At the ripe old age of 25, John was asked to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery. He was warned that Governor Wallace had ordered troopers to use violence. But he and Hosea Williams and others led them across that bridge anyway. And we’ve all seen the film and the footage and the photographs, and President Clinton mentioned the trench coat, the knapsack, the book to read, the apple to eat, the toothbrush — apparently jails weren’t big on such creature comforts. And you look at those pictures and John looks so young and he’s small in stature. Looking every bit that shy, serious child that his mother had raised and yet, he is full of purpose. God’s put perseverance in him.
And we know what happened to the marchers that day. Their bones were cracked by billy clubs, their eyes and lungs choked with tear gas. As they knelt to pray, which made their heads even easier targets, and John was struck in the skull. And he thought he was going to die, surrounded by the sight of young Americans gagging, and bleeding, and trampled, victims in their own country of state-sponsored violence.
And the thing is, I imagine initially that day, the troopers thought that they had won the battle. You can imagine the conversations they had afterwards. You can imagine them saying, “Yeah, we showed them.” They figured they’d turned the protesters back over the bridge; that they’d kept, that they’d preserved a system that denied the basic humanity of their fellow citizens. Except this time, there were some cameras there. This time, the world saw what happened, bore witness to Black Americans who were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans. Who were not asking for special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them a century before, and almost another century before that.
When John woke up, and checked himself out of the hospital, he would make sure the world saw a movement that was, in the words of Scripture, “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” They returned to Brown Chapel, a battered prophet, bandages around his head, and he said more marchers will come now. And the people came. And the troopers parted. And the marchers reached Montgomery. And their words reached the White House — and Lyndon Johnson, son of the South, said “We shall overcome,” and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law
The life of John Lewis was, in so many ways, exceptional. It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals. What a radical ideal. What a revolutionary notion. This idea that any of us, ordinary people, a young kid from Troy can stand up to the powers and principalities and say no this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just. We can do better. On the battlefield of justice, Americans like John, Americans like the Reverends Lowery and C.T. Vivian, two other patriots that we lost this year, liberated all of us that many Americans came to take for granted.
America was built by people like them. America was built by John Lewises. He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom; when we do form a more perfect union — whether it’s years from now, or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries — John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.
And yet, as exceptional as John was, here’s the thing: John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do. I mentioned in the statement the day John passed, the thing about John was just how gentle and humble he was. And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him — this idea that any of us can do what he did if we are willing to persevere.
He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. So many of us lose that sense. It’s taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, that we can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to other people. That we’re better off if we are above other people and looking down on them, and so often that’s encouraged in our culture. But John always saw the best in us. And he never gave up, and never stopped speaking out because he saw the best in us. He believed in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves. As a Congressman, he didn’t rest; he kept getting himself arrested. As an old man, he didn’t sit out any fight; he sat in, all night long, on the floor of the United States Capitol. I know his staff was stressed.
But the testing of his faith produced perseverance. He knew that the march is not yet over, that the race is not yet won, that we have not yet reached that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character. He knew from his own life that progress is fragile; that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history, of our own history, with their whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again.
Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting — by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.
Now, I know this is a celebration of John’s life. There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I’m talking about it. John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we are seeing circulate right now.
He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power. And that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it; that democracy isn’t automatic, it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it, it’s hard. And so he knew it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure, of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are. He said that as long as he had breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy. That as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy — not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation — then we are going to have to be more like John. We don’t have to do all the things he had to do because he did them for us. But we have got to do something. As the Lord instructed Paul, “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Just everybody’s just got to come out and vote. We’ve got all those people in the city but we can’t do nothing.
Like John, we have got to keep getting into that good trouble. He knew that nonviolent protest is patriotic; a way to raise public awareness, put a spotlight on injustice, and make the powers that be uncomfortable.
Like John, we don’t have to choose between protest and politics, it is not an either-or situation, it is a both-and situation. We have to engage in protests where that is effective but we also have to translate our passion and our causes into laws and institutional practices. That’s why John ran for Congress thirty-four years ago.
Like John, we have got to fight even harder for the most powerful tool we have, which is the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act is one of the crowning achievements of our democracy. It’s why John crossed that bridge. It’s why he spilled his blood. And by the way, it was the result of Democratic and Republican efforts. President Bush, who spoke here earlier, and his father, both signed its renewal when they were in office. President Clinton didn’t have to because it was the law when he arrived so instead he made a law that made it easier for people to register to vote.
But once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, some state legislatures unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder, especially, by the way, state legislatures where there is a lot of minority turnout and population growth. That’s not necessarily a mystery or an accident. It was an attack on what John fought for. It was an attack on our democratic freedoms. And we should treat it as such.
If politicians want to honor John, and I’m so grateful for the legacy of work of all the Congressional leaders who are here, but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better.
By making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance.
By adding polling places, and expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are someone who is working in a factory, or you are a single mom who has got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot.
By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico. They are Americans.
By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering — so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around.
And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.
And yet, even if we do all this — even if every bogus voter suppression law was struck off the books today — we have got to be honest with ourselves that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise; that too many of our citizens believe their vote won’t make a difference, or they buy into the cynicism that, by the way, is the central strategy of voter suppression, to make you discouraged, to stop believing in your own power.
So we are also going to have to remember what John said: “If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.” As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold, I’m hopeful but we cannot casually abandon them at the ballot box. Not when few elections have been as urgent, on so many levels, as this one. We cannot treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy.
Like John, we have to give it all we have.
I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. I met him when I was in law school. He came to speak and I went up and I said, “Mr. Lewis, you are one of my heroes. What inspired me more than anything as a young man was to see what you and Reverend Lawson and Bob Moses and Diane Nash and others did.” And he got that kind of — aw shucks, thank you very much.
The next time I saw him, I had been elected to the United States Senate. And I told him, “John, I am here because of you.” On Inauguration Day in 2008, 2009, he was one of the first people that I greeted and hugged on that stand. I told him, “This is your day too.”
He was a good and kind and gentle man. And he believed in us — even when we don’t believe in ourselves. It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was on Zoom. I am pretty sure that neither he nor I set up the Zoom call because we didn’t know how to work it. It was a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who had been helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And afterwards, I spoke to John privately, and he could not have been prouder to see this new generation of activists standing up for freedom and equality; a new generation that was intent on voting and protecting the right to vote; in some cases, a new generation running for political office.
I told him, all those young people, John — of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — John, those are your children. They learned from your example, even if they didn’t always know it. They had understood, through him, what American citizenship requires, even if they had only heard about his courage through the history books.
“By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, Black and white … have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Dr. King said that in the 1960s. And it came true again this summer.
We see it outside our windows, in big cities and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.
And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.
What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while, and show us the way.
God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise.
I agree with the Washington Post columnist, Jennifer Rubin, that Obama’s eulogy “provided presidential gravitas” and a “timely affirmation that the United States is in a constant state of rebirth and is not the province of one race or religion.” In addition, Obama reminded us that Lewis “knew from his own life that progress is fragile, that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history. Of our own history.” In short, Lewis “vindicated the faith in our founding. The idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo. . . . What a radical idea. What a revolutionary notion.”
On November 1, immediately after the U.N. General Assembly’s overwhelming condemnation of the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba that was discussed in a prior post, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in a speech at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower announced new sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The same day in an interview by the Miami Herald, Bolton made other assertions about the U.S. and Cuba.
Bolton opened by saying the U.S. was “confronted once again with the destructive forces of oppression, socialism, and totalitarianism” and “the perils of poisonous ideologies left unchecked, and the dangers of domination and suppression.”
Now this administration “will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores,. . . [and] will not reward firing squads, torturers, and murderers.” Instead the U.S. “will champion the independence and liberty of our neighbors . . . [and] will stand with the freedom fighters” against the “Troika of Tyranny in this Hemisphere—Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”
“This Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.” The “Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan people suffer in misery because socialism has been implemented effectively. “
Bolton’s harshest rhetoric was reserved for the regime in Havana, which he accused of silencing “dissidents and suppressing every kind of freedom know to man.” There, “a brutal dictatorship under the façade of a new figurehead continues to frustrate democratic aspirations, and jail and torture opponents.”
“In Cuba, we continue to stand firmly with the Cuban people, and we share their aspirations for real, democratic change. Members of this administration will never take a picture in front of an image of Che Guevara, as Barack Obama did.. . . [The] National Revolutionary Police force [is] the agent of oppression of the Cuban people. This oppression of dissidents and suppressing every kind of freedom known to man is what typifies the regime in Havana.”
“Under this administration, there will no longer be secret channels of communication between Cuba and the United States.” (this suggests the elimination of various bilateral meetings on various subjects in Havana and Washington that were started in the Obama Administration and so far continued by the Trump Administration.)
“The [U.S.] will not prop up a military monopoly that abuses the citizens of Cuba.” The current U.S. “policy includes concrete actions to prevent American dollars from reaching the Cuban military, security, and intelligence services. . . .[We] have been tightening sanctions against the Cuban military and intelligence services, including their holding companies, and closing loopholes in our sanctions resolutions. In this respect, I believe that within days the administration will add over two dozen additional entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military and intelligence services to the restricted list of entities with which financial transactions by U.S. persons are prohibited. And I believe even more will come as well. The Cuban military and intelligence agencies must not profit from the United States, its people, its travelers, or its businesses.” (Nearly 200 agencies, companies and hotels already on the list.)
“In response to the vicious attacks on Embassy Havana, we have also scaled back our embassy personnel in Cuba. This President will not allow our diplomats to be targeted with impunity. And we will not excuse those who harm our highest representatives abroad by falsely invoking videos, or concocting some other absurd pretext for their suffering.”
“We will only engage with a Cuban government that is willing to undertake necessary and tangible reforms—a government that respects the interests of the Cuban people.”
Bolton even may have hinted at U.S. efforts to topple the governments in these three countries when he said, “We are an impatient people too and it’s time to see the people of those three countries have free governments.”
In an interview the same day by the Miami Herald, Bolton again addressed the subject of U.S. diplomats who have suffered medical problems that surfaced while they were stationed in Cuba. “I think it’s very important that somebody must be held accountable for what happened to our diplomats. It’s a fundamental principle of how America operates in the world, that Americans abroad do not get harmed with impunity,”
“There is no conceivable theory [whether] it was accidental or somehow caused by some equipment malfunction” that absolves Cuba, Bolton said. “We are continuing to be concerned for the safety of our personnel. We are not satisfied with the performance of the government of Cuba respecting their security, so we are going to take a very careful look at that and make some decisions.”
Bolton also said the Administration was “seriously” considering new measures against the Cuban government, including allowing Cuban exiles whose properties were confiscated by the Castro government to file lawsuits in U.S. courts against foreign companies currently using those properties. (A provision of the Helms-Burton law that allows such lawsuits has been regularly suspended every six months by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Failure to suspend it again would allow the lawsuits to be filed.)
Other measures under consideration include insisting that Cuban workers on U.S. companies’ projects on the island be hired directly so that the workers get to keep all of the wages paid by the companies, rather than have the Cuban government skim significant portions of those wages.
The U.S., said Bolton, opposes any increase of Russian involvement in Cuba and that hopefully the next time President Trump meets Putin that message will be communicated.
Cuba immediately condemned Bolton’s harsh comments about the island., saying that the new sanctions were a futile attempt to change Cuban policies and would only further isolate the U.S. internationally.
“We energetically reject these measures which will impact the economy and country’s development on top of the impact of the economic blockade,” the Director of U.S. affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, said at a Havana press conference. “They will fail. They will not break the will of Cubans.”
In particular, the Cuban official attacked the possibility of the U.S.’ allowing U.S. citizens whose property was seized by the Cuban government to sue foreign companies that have invested in the properties on the island. Fernandez de Cossio said such a measure would be unprecedented and violate international law, further isolating the U.S. “There is no possibility whatsoever for people who abandoned Cuba and abandoned property in Cuba to come back and claim them,” he said.
However, Cuba reiterated its openness “to having a frank, professional, open and respectful dialogue with the U.S. Cuba is open to discussing any topic, if it’s based in respect.”
Given Bolton’s long record of hostility towards Cuba, this speech and interview are not surprising. Yet as the Vox article stated, they sound “like a renewal of America’s Cold War stance toward Latin America, [when] US spent decades opposing, and in some cases fighting, communist forces. From Nicaragua to Guatemala to Chile, [and when] the US used its power to squash many left-leaning movements in the region mostly because of its opposition to the Soviet Union.”
Needless to say, John Bolton’s service as National Security Advisor, in this blogger’s opinion, is an unmitigated disaster on many levels, including these recent comments about U.S. policies regarding Cuba and other countries in Latin America. Yes, there are U.S.-Cuba disagreements, but the proper way to address, and hopefully resolve, them is through the ongoing, respectful bilateral meetings.
In the Summer of 2018 the Minnesota Orchestra is producing a multifaceted celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela.
It started with a July 20 concert entitled “Celebrating Mandela at 100” at its home Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
The next day, July 21, was the free International Day of Music in and near Orchestra Hall with many African and local musicians. That night the Orchestra presented a ticketed concert in the Hall.
On July 31 Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the famous South African vocal group, will sing their songs at Orchestra Hall.
August 8 through 18 will find the Orchestra in South Africa for concerts in Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Johannesburg. This will be the first U.S. professional orchestra to visit the country. The concert in Soweto on August 17 will be recorded and broadcast the same day in Minnesota by Minnesota Public Radio.
Future posts will discuss at least some of these concerts and events. Previous posts have touched on various aspects of Mandela’s life and Barack Obama’s Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg on July 17, 2018.
As an U.S. and Minnesota citizen and admirer of Mandela and the Orchestra, I am proud that our Orchestra is engaging in such an energetic enterprise.
On July 17, the day before the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birthday, Barack Obama delivered the 16th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa to a crowd of 15,000 in a football (soccer) stadium (the Wanderers Stadium) and to a worldwide livestream audience of millions, including this blogger. The lecture’s title: “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World.”  Below are photographs of a poster for the lecture and of Obama giving the lecture.
The lecture weaved the life and legacy of Mandela into an overview of world history from his birth in 1918 to the late 20th century and early 21st century to the current situation. Here is an abridged version of that lecture; the full text is available on the websites listed in the last footnote.
The World of 1918
The lecture started with a dramatic picture of the changes in the world from 1918, the year of Mandela’s birth, when there “was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time, in this place, could in any way alter history.”
The World of the Late 20th Century
The lecture then moved to the “the remarkable transformations” of the world by the end of the 20th century and Mandela’s “long walk towards freedom and justice and equal opportunity . . . [which] came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.”
When Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, It “seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit – that all that was crumbling before our eyes. And then as Madiba guided this nation through negotiation painstakingly, reconciliation, its first fair and free elections; as we all witnessed the grace and the generosity with which he embraced former enemies, the wisdom for him to step away from power once he felt his job was complete, . . . we understood it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.”
“And during the last decades of the 20th century, the progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate. It doesn’t mean that vision was always victorious, but it set the terms, the parameters; it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress, and it continued to propel the world forward. Yes, there were still tragedies – bloody civil wars from the Balkans to the Congo. Despite the fact that ethnic and sectarian strife still flared up with heartbreaking regularity, despite all that as a consequence of the continuation of nuclear détente, and a peaceful and prosperous Japan, and a unified Europe anchored in NATO, and the entry of China into the world’s system of trade – all that greatly reduced the prospect of war between the world’s great powers. And from Europe to Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, dictatorships began to give way to democracies. The march was on. A respect for human rights and the rule of law, enumerated in a declaration by the United Nations, became the guiding norm for the majority of nations, even in places where the reality fell far short of the ideal. Even when those human rights were violated, those who violated human rights were on the defensive.”
The World of the Early 21st Century
In more recent years, however, “we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.” We have to recognize that “the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away” while “around the world, entire neighborhoods, entire cities, entire regions, entire nations have been bypassed. In other words, for far too many people, the more things have changed, the more things stayed the same.”
“The result of all these trends has been an explosion in economic inequality. . . . In every country just about, the disproportionate economic clout of [many of] those at the top has provided these individuals with wildly disproportionate influence on their countries’ political life and on its media; on what policies are pursued and whose interests end up being ignored. . . . A decent percentage [of them, however,] consider themselves liberal in their politics, modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook.”
“But what’s nevertheless true is that in their business dealings, many titans of industry and finance are increasingly detached from any single locale or nation-state, and they live lives more and more insulated from the struggles of ordinary people in their countries of origin.” Nevertheless, “too often, these decisions are also made without reference to notions of human solidarity – or a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities by the decisions that are made.”
“Which is why, at the end of the 20th century, while some Western commentators were declaring the end of history and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash – a backlash that arrived in so many forms. It announced itself most violently with 9/11 and the emergence of transnational terrorist networks, fueled by an ideology that perverted one of the world’s great religions and asserted a struggle not just between Islam and the West but between Islam and modernity, and an ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t help, accelerating a sectarian conflict.”
“Within the United States, within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements – which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing government constraints on their business interests – these movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside of the urban cores; fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.”
“Perhaps more than anything else, the devastating impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in which the reckless behavior of financial elites resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people all around the world, made all the previous assurances of experts ring hollow – all those assurances that somehow financial regulators knew what they were doing, that somebody was minding the store, that global economic integration was an unadulterated good. . . . But the credibility of the international system, the faith in experts in places like Washington or Brussels, all that had taken a blow.” The Current World Situation
“A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I am simply stating the facts. Look around. Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries now are looking at China’s model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good? The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.” (Emphases added.)
“So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads – a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?”
“Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down – should we see that hope that we had as naïve and misguided? Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history – where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out?”
“I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.], and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good.” (Emphasis added.)
“I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.”
“The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.” (Emphasis added.)
“The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history.”
“The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together – eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war.”
“The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.”
“We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way. So if we’re truly to continue Madiba’s long walk towards freedom, we’re going to have to work harder and we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past. And so in the brief time remaining, let me just suggest a few guideposts for the road ahead, guideposts that draw from Madiba’s work, his words, the lessons of his life.” (Emphasis added.)
Guideposts for the Future
“First, Madiba shows those of us who believe in freedom and democracy we are going to have to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people.” (Emphasis added.)
“I don’t believe in economic determinism. Human beings don’t live on bread alone. But they need bread. And history shows that societies which tolerate vast differences in wealth feed resentments and reduce solidarity and actually grow more slowly; and that once people achieve more than mere subsistence, then they’re measuring their well-being by how they compare to their neighbors, and whether their children can expect to live a better life. And when economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, history also shows that political power is sure to follow – and that dynamic eats away at democracy. Sometimes it may be straight-out corruption, but sometimes it may not involve the exchange of money; it’s just folks who are that wealthy get what they want, and it undermines human freedom.” (Emphases added.)
“Madiba understood this. This is not new. He warned us about this. He said: ‘Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and the powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and the weaker, [then] we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.’ So if we are serious about universal freedom today, if we care about social justice today, then we have a responsibility to do something about it. And I would respectfully amend what Madiba said. I don’t do it often, but I’d say it’s not enough for us to protest; we’re going to have to build, we’re going to have to innovate, we’re going to have to figure out how do we close this widening chasm of wealth and opportunity both within countries and between them.” (Emphases added.)
“How we achieve this is going to vary country to country, and I know your new president is committed to rolling up his sleeves and trying to do so. But we can learn from the last 70 years that it will not involve unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism. It also won’t involve old-style command-and-control socialism form the top. That was tried; it didn’t work very well. For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive market-based system – one that offers education for every child; that protects collective bargaining and secures the rights of every worker that breaks up monopolies to encourage competition in small and medium-sized businesses; and has laws that root out corruption and ensures fair dealing in business; that maintains some form of progressive taxation so that rich people are still rich but they’re giving a little bit back to make sure that everybody else has something to pay for universal health care and retirement security, and invests in infrastructure and scientific research that builds platforms for innovation.” (Emphases added.)
“You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, ‘Well, let me help out and let a few of the other folks – let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees, let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s okay. I can afford it.’ What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself.”
“It involves promoting an inclusive capitalism both within nations and between nations. And as we pursue, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals, we have to get past the charity mindset. We’ve got to bring more resources to the forgotten pockets of the world through investment and entrepreneurship, because there is talent everywhere in the world if given an opportunity.”
“When it comes to the international system of commerce and trade, it’s legitimate for poorer countries to continue to seek access to wealthier markets. . . . It’s also proper for advanced economies like the United States to insist on reciprocity from nations like China that are no longer solely poor countries, to make sure that they’re providing access to their markets and that they stop taking intellectual property and hacking our servers.”
“While the outsourcing of jobs from north to south, from east to west, while a lot of that was a dominant trend in the late 20th century, the biggest challenge to workers in countries like mine today is technology. And the biggest challenge for your new president when we think about how we’re going to employ more people here is going to be also technology, because artificial intelligence is here and it is accelerating, and you’re going to have driverless cars, and you’re going to have more and more automated services, and that’s going to make the job of giving everybody work that is meaningful tougher, and we’re going to have to be more imaginative, and the pact of change is going to require us to do more fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements, to protect the economic security and the dignity that comes with a job. It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose. And so we’re going to have to consider new ways of thinking about these problems, like a universal income, review of our workweek, how we retrain our young people, how we make everybody an entrepreneur at some level. But we’re going to have to worry about economics if we want to get democracy back on track. ‘
“Second, Madiba teaches us that some principles really are universal – and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth.” (Emphasis added.)
“Now, it’s surprising that we have to affirm this truth today: . . . that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human, that our differences are superficial, and that we should treat each other with care and respect. . . . We’re seeing in this recent drift into reactionary politics, that the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished.So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down. . . . we have to resist the notion that basic human rights like freedom to dissent, or the right of women to fully participate in the society, or the right of minorities to equal treatment, or the rights of people not to be beat up and jailed because of their sexual orientation . . . [do not] apply to us, that those are Western ideas rather than universal imperatives.” (Emphasis added.)
“Again, Madiba, he anticipated things. He knew what he was talking about. In 1964, before he received the sentence that condemned him to die in prison, he explained from the dock that, ‘The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world.’ In other words, he didn’t say well, those books weren’t written by South Africans so I just – I can’t claim them. No, he said that’s part of my inheritance. That’s part of the human inheritance. That applies here in this country, to me, and to you. And that’s part of what gave him the moral authority that the apartheid regime could never claim, because he was more familiar with their best values than they were. He had read their documents more carefully than they had. And he went on to say, “Political division based on color is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one color group by another.”
“What was true then remains true today. Basic truths do not change. It is a truth that can be embraced by the English, and by the Indian, and by the Mexican and by the Bantu and by the Luo and by the American. It is a truth that lies at the heart of every world religion – that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognize common hopes and common dreams. And it is a truth that is incompatible with any form of discrimination based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. And it is a truth that, by the way, when embraced, actually delivers practical benefits, since it ensures that a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people.” (Emphases added.)
“Embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have to abandon our unique ethnic and national and religious identities. Madiba never stopped being proud of his tribal heritage. He didn’t stop being proud of being a black man and being a South African. But he believed, as I believe, that you can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage. In fact, you dishonor your heritage. It would make me think that you’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. . . . people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of. Madiba knew that we cannot claim justice for ourselves when it’s only reserved for some. Madiba understood that we can’t say we’ve got a just society simply because we replaced the color of the person on top of an unjust system, so the person looks like us even though they’re doing the same stuff, and somehow now we’ve got justice. That doesn’t work. It’s not justice if now you’re on top, so I’m going to do the same thing that those folks were doing to me and now I’m going to do it to you. That’s not justice. ‘I detest racialism,’ he said, ‘whether it comes from a black man or a white man.’” (Emphases added.)
“Now, we have to acknowledge that there is disorientation that comes from rapid change and modernization, and the fact that the world has shrunk, and we’re going to have to find ways to lessen the fears of those who feel threatened. In the West’s current debate around immigration, for example, it’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter; whether you’re a citizen or not is going to matter to a government, that laws need to be followed; that in the public realm newcomers should make an effort to adapt to the language and customs of their new home. Those are legitimate things and we have to be able to engage people who do feel as if things are not orderly. But that can’t be an excuse for immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion. There’s got to be some consistency. And we can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child. (Emphases added.)
“Third, Madiba reminds us that democracy is about more than just elections.” (Emphasis added.)
“When he was freed from prison, Madiba’s popularity – well, you couldn’t even measure it. He could have been president for life. Am I wrong? Who was going to run against him? I mean, Ramaphosa [the current South African president] was popular, but, . . . he was too young. Had he chose, Madiba could have governed by executive fiat, unconstrained by check and balances. But instead he helped guide South Africa through the drafting of a new Constitution, drawing from all the institutional practices and democratic ideals that had proven to be most sturdy, mindful of the fact that no single individual possesses a monopoly on wisdom. No individual – not Mandela, not Obama – [is] entirely immune to the corrupting influences of absolute power, if you can do whatever you want and everyone’s too afraid to tell you when you’re making a mistake. No one is immune from the dangers of that.” (Emphasis added.)
“Mandela understood this. He said, ‘Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded.’ He understood it’s not just about who has the most votes. It’s also about the civic culture that we build that makes democracy work.”
“So we have to stop pretending that countries that just hold an election where sometimes the winner somehow magically gets 90 percent of the vote because all the opposition is locked up or can’t get on TV, is a democracy. Democracy depends on strong institutions and it’s about minority rights and checks and balances, and freedom of speech and freedom of expression and a free press, and the right to protest and petition the government, and an independent judiciary, and everybody having to follow the law.” (Emphasis added.)
“And yes, democracy can be messy, and it can be slow, and it can be frustrating. I know, I promise. But the efficiency that’s offered by an autocrat, that’s a false promise. Don’t take that one, because it leads invariably to more consolidation of wealth at the top and power at the top, and it makes it easier to conceal corruption and abuse. For all its imperfections, real democracy best upholds the idea that government exists to serve the individual and not the other way around. And it is the only form of government that has the possibility of making that idea real.” (Emphasis added.)
“So for those of us who are interested in strengthening democracy, . . . it’s time for us to stop paying all of our attention to the world’s capitals and the centers of power and to start focusing more on the grassroots, because that’s where democratic legitimacy comes from. Not from the top down, not from abstract theories, not just from experts, but from the bottom up. Knowing the lives of those who are struggling.” (Emphasis added.)
“As a community organizer, I learned as much from a laid-off steel worker in Chicago or a single mom in a poor neighborhood that I visited as I learned from the finest economists in the Oval Office. Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it’s lived in our communities, and that’s what we should expect from our leaders, and it depends upon cultivating leaders at the grassroots who can help bring about change and implement it on the ground and can tell leaders in fancy buildings, this isn’t working down here.” (Emphases added.)
“To make democracy work, Madiba shows us that we also have to keep teaching our children, and ourselves . . . to engage with people not only who look different but who hold different views.” (Emphasis added.)
“Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. . . . But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you – because they’re white, or because they’re male – that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.” (Emphasis added.)
“Madiba, he lived this complexity. In prison, he studied Afrikaans so that he could better understand the people who were jailing him. And when he got out of prison, he extended a hand to those who had jailed him, because he knew that they had to be a part of the democratic South Africa that he wanted to build. ‘To make peace with an enemy,’ he wrote, ‘one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.’”
“So those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can’t expect to get 100 percent of what you want all the time; sometimes, you have to compromise. That doesn’t mean abandoning your principles, but instead it means holding on to those principles and then having the confidence that they’re going to stand up to a serious democratic debate. That’s how America’s Founders intended our system to work – that through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and proof it would be possible to arrive at a basis for common ground.” (Emphases added.)
“And I should add for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. . . . You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation. . . . I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, well, it’s not going to work, you can’t get everybody to cooperate, or they might say it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution. At least I can have a debate with them about that and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries, that you can leapfrog old technologies. I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is.” (Emphases added.)
“Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” (Emphases added.)
We also see “the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. . . . the denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation; and we have to insist that our schools teach critical thinking to our young people, not just blind obedience.” (Emphasis added.)
“My final point: we have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of hope.”
“It is tempting to give in to cynicism: to believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back; that the pendulum has swung permanently. Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the 90s, now you are hearing people talk about end of democracy and the triumph of tribalism and the strong man. We have to resist that cynicism.”
“Because, we’ve been through darker times, we’ve been in lower valleys and deeper valleys. Yes, by the end of his life, Madiba embodied the successful struggle for human rights, but the journey was not easy, it wasn’t pre-ordained. The man went to prison for almost three decades. He split limestone in the heat, he slept in a small cell, and was repeatedly put in solitary confinement. And I remember talking to some of his former colleagues saying how they hadn’t realized when they were released, just the sight of a child, the idea of holding a child, they had missed – it wasn’t something available to them, for decades.”
“And yet his power actually grew during those years – and the power of his jailers diminished, because he knew that if you stick to what’s true, if you know what’s in your heart, and you’re willing to sacrifice for it, even in the face of overwhelming odds, that it might not happen tomorrow, it might not happen in the next week, it might not even happen in your lifetime. Things may go backwards for a while, but ultimately, right makes might, not the other way around, ultimately, the better story can win out and as strong as Madiba’s spirit may have been, he would not have sustained that hope had he been alone in the struggle, part of buoyed him up was that he knew that each year, the ranks of freedom fighters were replenishing, young men and women, here in South African, in the ANC and beyond; black and Indian and white, from across the countryside, across the continent, around the world, who in those most difficult days would keep working on behalf of his vision.” (Emphasis added.)
“What we need right now . . . is that collective spirit. And, I know that those young people, those hope carriers are gathering around the world. Because history shows that whenever progress is threatened, and the things we care about most are in question, we should heed the words of Robert Kennedy – spoken here in South Africa, he said, ‘Our answer is the world’s hope: it is to rely on youth. It’s to rely on the spirit of the young.’
“So, young people, who are in the audience, who are listening, my message to you is simple, keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice. Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world. Mandela said, ‘Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.’ Now is a good time to be aroused. Now is a good time to be fired up.”
“For those of us who care about the legacy that we honor here today – about equality and dignity and democracy and solidarity and kindness, those of us who remain young at heart, if not in body – we have an obligation to help our youth succeed. Some of you know, here in South Africa, my Foundation is convening over the last few days, two hundred young people from across this continent who are doing the hard work of making change in their communities; who reflect Madiba’s values, who are poised to lead the way.”
These young people “will give you hope. They are taking the baton, they know they can’t just rest on the accomplishments of the past, even the accomplishments of those as momentous as Nelson Mandela’s. They stand on the shoulders of those who came before, including that young black boy born 100 years ago, but they know that it is now their turn to do the work.”
“Madiba reminds us that: ‘No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.’ ’Love comes more naturally to the human heart, let’s remember that truth. Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on earth so that in 100 years from now, future generations will look back and say, ‘they kept the march going, that’s why we live under new banners of freedom.’”(emphasis added.)
Various journalists saw the speech, which did not mention President Trump by name, as “a sharp rebuke” of him. Here are some of comments in Obama’s speech that support that interpretation:
A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment . . .is now on the move. . . at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.”
“Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”
“The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.”
“So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down.”
While it is “not wrong” to want to protect the country’s borders or expect that immigrants assimilate, it cannot ”be an excuse for immigration policies based on race or ethnicity or religion.”
“We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child.”
“You can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage.. . . You’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. . . . people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up [show] that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of.”
For democracy to work “we have to actually believe in an objective reality. . . . You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation.
“Too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up.. . . We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. . . . They just keep on lying.”
“We also see the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. . . . The denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation.”
Before the lecture, one of Obama’s aides, Benjamin Rhodes, said, that it was the former President’s “most important public address since leaving the White House in 2017. It gives him an opportunity to lift up a message of tolerance, inclusivity and democracy at a time when there are obviously challenges to Mandela’s legacy around the world.”
Rhodes added, “”At the current moment . . . , values that we thought were well-established — the importance of human rights, respect for diversity — in many parts of the world those values are under threat. Mandela’s life is an inspiring example of how we can overcome obstacles to promote inclusive democracy and an equitable society with tolerance of others.”
“In the U.S. and around the world, many see recent developments that run counter to Mandela’s legacy. This [was] a globally minded speech, highlighting global trends and focusing on how, in his life, Mandela embodied perseverance. It will be aimed at young people in Africa and also around the world to show that we have been through darker times before and we can overcome these challenges to keep Mandela’s vision alive.”
As an admirer of Mandela and Obama, I was thrilled to see and hear Obama deliver a lengthy and illuminating speech, especially his comments on the world’s current situation. Those words are challenges to everyone who values knowledge, intelligence and honesty about the many problems now facing the U.S. and the rest of the world. As he said, each of us has a responsibility to something to promote social justice. He also reminds us to have a better understanding of those who are adversely affected by the many changes in the world.
Obama’s lecture also made we wonder whether it would be possible for all of the living former presidents (Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Carter) to promulgate a joint statement about the need for every president to be informed about the serious issues and prudent in making decisions on these issues and about President Trump’s demonstrated incompetence as president.
These thoughts were reinforced by the recent comments of Bret Stephens, a New York Times conservative columnist. After admitting that he has supported “some of the [current] administration’s controversial foreign policy decisions,” he urges Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton to resign because “Trump’s behavior in Helsinki is . . . another vivid reminder of his manifest unfitness for office. That’s true whether the behavior is best explained as a matter of moral turpitude or mental incompetence — of his eagerness to accept the word of a trained liar like Vladimir Putin over the consensus assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, or of his inability to speak coherently at a critical moment in his presidency. The president’s pathetic suggestion on Tuesday that he misspoke by failing to use a double negative also reminds that, knave or fool, he’s a congenital liar.”
The world this year rightfully commemorates the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela, who survived nearly 27 years in South African prisons to become the President of his country and to end its apartheid system with grace and humility.
Also should be remembered was Mandel’s “special fondness for Fidel Castro, who had inspired the African National Congress (ANC) radicals with his daring revolution in 1959 [and] Cuba’s intervention in Angola. Mandela and his colleagues saw Cuba as “a dangerous model; a freak victory, but they were fired by the story of how Castro and Che Guevara, with only ten other survivors from their ship the Granma had mustered a guerilla army of 10,000 in eighteen months, and had marched on Havana in January 1959.” For Mandela, “Castro, not the Party, . . . had realized the moment of revolution had come. He would never lose his admiration for Castro.” Mandela’s “chief defiance of the Western World was his championing of the two American bête noirés [persons one especially dislikes], Libya’s Muammar] Qadaffi and Castro.”
That was why only a year-and-a-half after his release from prison, Mandela went to the city of Matanzas in Cuba to give an emotional speech on July 26, 1991, which is Cuba’s national independence day, with Fidel in attendance as shown in the photograph below.
Mandela thanked Fidel and Cuba for helping the ANC to defeat Angolan invaders of South Africa in 1988. That defeat, Mandela said, “enables me to be here today.” Here are just a few of his other tributes to Cuba that day:
“Today this is revolutionary Cuba, internationalist Cuba, the country that has done so much for the peoples of Africa. The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.”
“From its earliest days the Cuban revolution has itself been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gains made in the Cuban revolution.”
“We admire the achievements of the Cuban revolution in the sphere of social welfare. We note the transformation from a country of imposed backwardness to universal literacy. We acknowledge your advances in the fields of health, education, and science.
We “are moved by your affirmation of the historical connection to the continent and people of Africa. Your consistent commitment to the systematic eradication of racism is unparalleled.”
In response, Fidel in his three-hour speech without notes called Mandela “one of the most extraordinary symbols of this era” by explaining that “apartheid is capitalism and imperialism in its fascist form.”
In July 1991 I was totally unaware of the Mandela-Fidel connection and of Mandela’s speech in the city of Matanzas. It only was in the first decade of the 21st century that I learned of the existence of that city as a result of going there on three mission trips to visit its Versalles Redeemer Presbyterian-Reformed Church, which is a partner of my Minneapolis church, Westminster Presbyterian Church. Now I have friends from that city. 
I was somewhat surprised to find that Mandela’s speech has no mention of Matanzas as a major port of entry for African slaves to work on sugar plantations, especially in the first half of the 19th century. As a result, it is said, due to the high number of both slaves and, importantly, free Afro-Cubans in Matanzas, the retention of African traditions is especially strong there. Perhaps that is the reason Fidel chose this celebration to be in that city. The city’s San Severiino Museum has an exhibit about Cuba’s slave trade.
 Details about the commemoration are available on the website of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. One of the events is the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on July 17, 2018, which this year will be given by former U.S. President Barack Obama and will be covered in a future post to this blog.
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. A prior post examined his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008. This post will discuss his campaign for the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008. Future posts sill look at his first presidential term (including his 2012 presidential election campaign), 2009-2013; and his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.
Remember, as discussed in a prior post, that on August 28, 2008, Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. A week later (September 4th) Senator John McCain accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
In the next two months leading to the presidential election on November 4th, the two candidates met in three debates on September 26 and October 7 and 15.
The New York Times thought the first debate on September 26 “was generally a relief from the campaign’s nastiness. Both John McCain and Barack Obama worked to strike a more civil and substantive tone. And Americans could see some differences between the candidates on correcting the regulatory disasters that led to the Wall Street crisis, on how to address the country’s grim fiscal problems and on national security. There were also differences in the candidates themselves. Mr. McCain fumbled his way through the economic portion of the debate, while Mr. Obama seemed clear and confident. Mr. McCain was more fluent on foreign affairs, and scored points by repeatedly calling Mr. Obama naïve and inexperienced.” However, there was no discussion about Cuba.
During the second debate on October 7 McCain criticized Obama for saying he would speak, without preconditions, to the leaders of countries like Pakistan (and presumably Cuba). McCain said he would deal with leaders of foes the way Theodore Roosevelt did: “talk softly, but carry a big stick. Senator Obama likes to talk loudly.” Again, no direct discussion about Cuba.
Throughout the last debate on October 15, reported the New York Times, “Mr. McCain offered voters what amounted to a reprise of all the attacks that have been lodged at Mr. Obama over the past year, by Mr. Obama’s Democratic and Republican opponents, Ms. Palin, Republican leaders and, at times, Mr. McCain.” But again no discussion about Cuba.
Moreover, said the Times, “the split-screen visual contrast [in the last debate] between the two men – Mr. McCain often appearing coiled and annoyed, Mr. Obama seeming at ease and smiling – was striking, and may not be what Mr. McCain was looking for a time when Mr. McCain’s favorable ratings have been falling, and when many voters say they think Mr. McCain is spending more time attacking than saying what he would do as president.”
On October 23, the New York Times endorsed Obama. It said, “After nearly two years of a grueling and ugly campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has proved that he is the right choice to be the 44th president of the United States.” The only mention of Cuba in that editorial was this: “Both candidates have renounced torture and are committed to closing the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”
In the election on November 4, 2008, Barack Obama and Joe Biden obtained 69.5 million votes (52.9% of the total) while John McCain and Sarah Palin received 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.
In his victory speech to an open-air crowd of thousands at Chicago’s Grant Park,Obama siad, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” He went on, “I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you.” His conclusion was the following: “This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”
After Obama and Joe Biden won the November 2008 election, several head of states congratulated Obama while also calling for the U.S. to end its sanctions against Cuba.
In contrast with the campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, there was practically no mention of Cuba or of Obama’s proposed policies regarding that nation in the presidential race. Surprisingly the emphasis in the nomination campaign on Obama’s willingness to meet, without preconditions, leaders of states like Cuba almost disappeared in the campaign for the presidency.
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. This post will examine his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008. Future posts will look at his 2008 presidential campaign; his first presidential term (including his 2012 presidential election campaign), 2009-2013; and his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.
On February 10, 2007, at theI llinois State Capitol in Springfield Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Almost all of his speech was about domestic issues with the exception of his pledge to end the war in Iraq and “bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.” There was no mention of Cuba.
Later that month (February 2007) the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof asked Obama, “Is the [Cuba] embargo a failure?” Obama responded, “I think we’ve got a potential opportunity with Castro’s health waning to reopen the debate. We probably shouldn’t be overly optimistic that it’s going to change overnight. And I think it’s important that the United States isn’t too heavy-handed post-Castro in swooping [in] and suggesting that somehow Cuba’s going to change immediately. I do think that it opens up the conversation among not just the United States but among Cubans both in the U.S. and in Cuba about breaking down some of the restrictions on travel and commerce….I don’t think we automatically ease those restrictions simply because Castro has died. What I think is that with Castro’s death there are going to be a new set of players, I think it’s going to be important for us to do an entire reevaluation of our strategy towards Cuba. And I think the aim should be to create a more open relationship….But that is still going to be contingent on having some desire on the part of the Cuban government to initiate that process as well.”
In the CNN/YouTube debate with Hillary Clinton in July 2007, Obama was asked, “’Would you be willing to meet, separately, without preconditions, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Obama replied, ‘I would,’ and added that it was a “disgrace that the Bush administration had refused on principle to do so.”
The Obama campaign team anticipated that the Clinton campaign would seize on Obama’s willingness to meet, without preconditions, with leaders of so-called rouge regimes. Obama, however, welcomed this attack and told his aides “we will not back down on this one bit.” This position was supported by polling in Iowa, the early caucus state, and showed that Obama represented change and Hillary did not.
Indeed, as anticipated, immediately after the debate, Hillary Clinton charged that Obama was too soft on talking with such countries. The Obama campaign responded that Mr. Obama would pursue “tough diplomacy,” but also use carrots like leader-to-leader talks.”
On August 21, 2007, Obama wrote an op-ed article in the Miami Herald “calling for ‘unrestricted rights’ for Cuban Americans to visit and send money to family in Cuba.” The following Saturday he campaigned in Miami’s Little Havana and told the crowd at a rally, “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years, and we need to change it.” He went on to promise to end restrictions on remittances and family travel for Cuban-Americans, to revive “people-to-people” educational and cultural exchanges and to engage Cuba on issues of mutual interest. Such engagement, he said, offered the best hope for promoting “a democratic opening in Cuba,” which is the “foremost objective of [U.S.] policy.”
At a December 1, 2007, televised Iowa debate among the Democratic candidates for their presidential nomination, Obama agreed with Mrs. Clinton, John Edwards and Joe Biden that the U.S. should not normalize relations with Cuba while Fidel Castro was still in power. Only Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich were in favor of working for change with Fidel.
On February 19, 2008, the outside world provided a new circumstance for the candidates to react to. Fidel Castro resigned as President of Cuba due to poor health, and his brother, Raúl Castro, became Acting President and five days later (February 24, 2008) the President upon election by Cuba’s National Assembly.
In the meantime in a February 21, 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton in Austin, Texas, Obama made extensive comments about the U.S. and Cuba. He said, “The starting point for our policy in Cuba should be the liberty of the Cuban people. And I think we recognize that that liberty has not existed throughout the Castro regime. And we now have an opportunity to potentially change the relationship between the United States and Cuba, after over half a century. I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation. It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda and . . . that [the] agenda [included] human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time.” His other points about Cuba were the following:
More generally “it is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that’s where diplomacy makes the biggest difference.”
“One other thing that I’ve said as a show of good faith, that we’re interested in pursuing potentially a new relationship, what I’ve called for is a loosening of the restrictions on remittances from family members to the people of Cuba as well as travel restrictions for family members who want to visit their family members in Cuba. And I think that initiating that change in policy as a start and then suggesting that an agenda get set up is something that could be useful, but I would not normalize relations until we started seeing some of the progress that Senator Clinton talked about.”
When challenged that he had had a different position on Cuba in 2003, Obama responded, “I support the eventual normalization [with Cuba], and it’s absolutely true that I think our [Cuba] policy has been a failure. . . . [D]uring my entire lifetime . . . you essentially have seen a Cuba that has been isolated but has not made progress when it comes to the issues of political rights and personal freedoms that are so important to the people of Cuba. So I think that we have to shift policy. I think our goal has to be ultimately normalization, but that’s going to happen in steps.”
“[T]he first step . . . is changing our rules with respect to remittances and with respect to travel. And then I think it is important for us to have the direct contact not just in Cuba, but I think this principle applies generally. [As] John F. Kennedy once said, . . . we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate. And this moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down, . . . is one that we should try to take advantage of.”
Immediately after this Democratic candidates debate, Senator John McCain, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, jumped in with his criticism of Obama. McCain said, “Not so long go Senator Obama favored complete normalization of relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Last night, he said that as president he’d meet with the imprisoned island’s new leader ‘without preconditions.’ So Raul Castro gets an audience with an American president, and all the prestige such a meeting confers, without having to release political prisoners, allow free media, political parties, and labor unions, or schedule internationally monitored free elections. Instead, Senator Obama says he would meet Cuba’s dictator without any such steps in the hope that talk will make things better for Cuba’s oppressed people. Meet, talk, and hope may be a sound approach in a state legislature, but it is dangerously naive in international diplomacy where the oppressed look to America for hope and adversaries wish us ill.”
Obama’s campaign promptly retorted, ““John McCain would give us four more years of the same Bush-McCain policies that have failed U.S. interests and the Cuban people for the last fifty years. My policy will be based on the principle of liberty for the Cuban people, and I will seek that goal through strong and direct presidential diplomacy, and an immediate change in policy to allow for unlimited family visitation and remittances to the island. In November, the American people will have a clear choice: a new direction versus more war in Iraq, more not talking to leaders we don’t like, and more of a Cuba policy that has failed to achieve freedom for the Cuban people. I am confident that the American people will choose the promise of the future over the failed policies and predictable political attacks of the past.”
President George W. Bush echoed some of McCain’s criticisms of Obama at a February 28, 2008 press conference. Bush called Cuba’s new President, Rául Castro, a “tyrant,” who was “nothing more than an extension of what his brother [Fidel] did, which was to ruin an island, and imprison people because of their beliefs.” Bush also rejected Obama’s willingness to meet with the new Cuban leader because it would “send the wrong message. It’ll send a discouraging message to those who wonder if America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners, it’ll give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.”
John McCain continued his criticism of Obama’s stance on Cuba on March 6, 2008. According to McCain, he would meet with Cuban leaders “as soon as the political prisoners are free … and free elections have been held. Then I would sit down with any freely elected president or leader of Cuba. But until that day came I would not in any way, as Senator Obama wants to do, legitimize an individual who has been responsible for education, repression, political prisons and a gulag. I don’t think that it would be appropriate to legitimize someone like Raul Castro by quote, sitting down with him. And under no circumstance would I do it.’’
On May 20, 2008, this line of criticism was reiterated by McCain. At a rally in Miami, he said, “Now Senator Obama has shifted positions and says he only favors easing the embargo, not lifting [it]. He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro. These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators — there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy.”
Responding from a campaign stop in Oregon the next day (May 21, 2008), Obama said, “with Fidel Castro stepping down from the presidency” and his brother Raul now in that post, “I think it’s a good time for us to reassess our Cuba policy. Cuba is a dictatorship that does not respect human rights or the free exercise of religion.” On the other hand, Obama argued, “our Cuba policy was shaped when I was born and basically hasn’t changed for 46 years.” Since that policy of political and economic isolation “hasn’t worked,” he added, it is now time to “try different things.” Mr. Obama spoke of the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba if diplomatic contacts prove fruitful. But he also argued that “it is important to send some signals right now,” recognizing that “our relationship may be at a moment of transition right now.” In particular, Mr. Obama indicated that he favors lifting restrictions both on visits by Cuban-Americans to their families on the island and on the money they send back to those relatives.
Two days later (May 23, 2008) Obama appeared in Miami before the Cuban American National Foundation, the most prominent of the anti-Castro Cuban exile groups. Obama said he would meet with the Cuban leader, Rául Castro, “at a time and place of my choosing.” After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, “it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.” Obama also said that if elected president he would immediately lift the bans on family travel to Cuba and the limits on how much money people can send to their relatives in the communist nation. But he “will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.”
Three months later, August 25 to 28, the Democratic Party held its National Convention in Denver, Colorado, where it adopted its national platform and officially nominated its candidates for President and Vice President. Obama was nominated on August 27, when his former opponent, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, interrupted the official roll call to move that Obama be selected by acclamation. U.S. Senator Joe Biden also was nominated for Vice President that same night, following which he accepted the nomination.
On August 28 Obama accepted his nomination in a speech at INVESCO Field before a record-setting crowd of 84,000 people in attendance plus additional millions on national and international television. The speech concentrated on his visions for the future of the U.S. economy and better lives. He did not mention Cuba or any other foreign policy issue other than his promise to end the war in Iraq.
Obama in his campaign for the nomination consistently asserted that he favored discussions or negotiations with Cuba and other rogue states “without preconditions.” That, in fact, is what he did in the 2013-2014 secret negotiations with Cuba that led to the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba.
This campaign position was based upon the assumption that the nearly 50-years of U.S. policy regarding Cuba was a failure and needed to be changed. This, in fact, is what he said in the December 17th announcement and the July 1st announcement of re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
In this campaign Obama advocated liberalizing U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba and U.S. citizens’ remittances to Cubans. This, in fact, is what he did in early 2009 and in 2014.
Obama in this campaign also talked about the importance of the U.S. pressing Cuba on human rights, releasing of political prisoners and opening up the Cuban press. This, in fact, since December 17 these subjects are being discussed with Cuba.
There, however, was one discordant note in this campaign. On May 23, 2008, Obama said he would maintain the embargo whereas in the December 17, 2014, announcement he called for Congress to end the embargo.
 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. Therefore, this blogger especially welcomes comments with corrections and additions.
On May 12, President Obama held a confidential conversation in the White House with Uruguay’s president, Jose Mujica, the former Tupamaro guerrilla leader. The meeting was a fateful one. Did they discuss Uruguay’s becoming the first Marijuana Republic? Perhaps. Did they discuss the US-Cuba diplomatic impasse of 55 years? Most certainly, because three weeks later at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Uruguay the delegates reaffirmed a decision to officially invite Cuba to a summit in Panama next May.
The Obama administration will have to accept Cuba’s recognition by the OAS this spring or sit sheepishly in isolation. Fifty years ago, the OAS voted 15-4 to terminate all diplomatic relations and trade with revolutionary Cuba. Uruguay was one of the four dissenters in those days, when the revolutionary Mujica was underground, and has not changed its position over time. One doesn’t need gray hairs to observe that the US policy towards Cuba is obsolete and counter-productive. Ten years ago, then state Senator Barack Obama called for diplomatic recognition. Hillary Clinton recently revealed her support for recognizing Cuba as secretary of state. Recent polls, even in Florida, show majorities in favor of normalization. Inner circles in both countries are trying to explore a rapprochement, wary of pitfalls and domestic critics.
The most important recent change in US policy is the lifting of the travel ban on Cuban-Americans visiting the island. As many as 500,000 travel back and forth every year, visiting family, sharing dialogue, spending millions in remittances. On the Cuba side, all agree that Raul Castro has opened significant space for private investment and entrepreneurs once condemned as counter-revolutionary. Businesslike bilateral talks are underway about issues of mutual interest, from currency exchanges to potential oil spills.
The biggest obstacle, from the Cuban view, is a persistent US program of covert “democracy promotion” – or, regime change – aimed at subverting the Cuban government by funding dissident networks in Cuba. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”, is how US Sen. Patrick Leahy recently described the leaked revelations about a secret social media “Cuban twitter” program called ZunZuneo, after a Cuban hummingbird. One among fifty years of subversion projects, ZunZuneo was launched in 2009 after Obama spoke of building a new relationship. Its sponsor was the US Agency for International Development [AID], even after an AID contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba for distributing communications equipment in violation of Cuban law.
Gross, now serving a 15 year sentence, is at the center of the heightened tensions now threatening normalization. Gross, 65, is widely reportedly in poor health and threatening to take his own life if he’s not released by next year. Should that occur, according to one top US official, it would end any hope of Cuba winning the return of one of its agents, Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban Five who were captured in DATE while surveilling anti-Castro Cubans flying into Cuban airspace to drop propaganda materials. When two exile pilots were shot down by the Cubans after warnings conveyed directly to the US government, the Five were imprisoned on conspiracy and espionage charges. Two have served their time in federal prisons and returned to Cuba. Two others will finish their terms shortly, leaving Gerardo Hernandez facing a double life sentence.
Prisoner swaps have occurred before, for example in 1978-79 when President Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro orchestrated the release of Puerto Rican nationalists who were imprisoned for shooting up the US House of Representatives in 1954. Although the releases were described as unrelated, the Puerto Ricans were pardoned and returned to their island while separately the US received a group of its agents held in Cuban prisons.
It would be logical therefore to swap Gross for Gerardo Hernandez, even if arranged separately, but nothing seems logical about the US-Cuban deadlock. According to interviews with participants, such a staged swap finally was being considered a few weeks ago – until the fiasco of the Obama administration’s trade of five Taliban officials for the return of the American POW, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl. Republicans, some Democrats and the mainstream media complained that the five-for-one deal favored the Taliban, and then the issue became inflamed by hazy reports that Bergdahl had abandoned his Afghan base and was perhaps “anti-war.”
The Obama team was flat-footed in their response, failing to notify even their top Congressional allies. That failure violated a legal requirement that Congress be informed thirty days before any such deal, an obstacle that most likely would have killed the swap. But Democratic leaders were furious at not even being informed of the move.
That’s why Alan Gross remains behind bars in Cuba with no deal for his release remotely possible. With the Gross matter unresolved, the entire process of normalization could go off track.
Many in Washington view the Cubans as too stubborn in the Gross case. But the Cubans have been burned by unfulfilled promises and miscommunications many times over the decades, and leaving Gerardo Hernandez behind is unacceptable to them – just as Obama argued that leaving Pfc. Bergdahl behind was out of the question.
The Cuban dilemma is that if anything should happen to Gross they will never see Gerardo back and a rapprochement could slip away. It may sound shocking to many Americans, but the death of Alan Gross in a Cuban prison would serve the interests of some in the anti-Castro Cuban lobby that is deeply threatened by the prospects of normalization. The death of Gross would serve the narrative that Castro’s Cuba operates a heartless gulag, ignoring the many proven examples of Cuban exile terrorism directed from Miami against Cuban civilians, like the 73 Cubans killed in an airline bombing in 1976. Cuban exiles have been a perfect examples of the “cancer on the presidency”, the metaphor once used by Nixon aide John Dean. They were the lead conspirators in the 1972 Watergate break-in, and the 1976 assassinations of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronnie Moffett, on embassy row in Washington DC. Their violent attacks on Cuba from a Miami enclave are too numerous to document.
Cuba will make its own decision for its own reasons in the Gross case, and may have to make it soon. Since the Obama administration fears any appearance of a quid pro quo in the wake of the Bergdahl fiasco, should Cuba expect nothing in exchange for the release of Gross as a humanitarian gesture? That might depend on the initiative of the many in the US Congress who recognize that it’s long past time for a better relationship with Cuba. They could, for example, communicate private guarantees of White House action. They could try deleting the $20 million in federal funds for “democracy programs” in the wake of the ZunZuneo scandal. They could send a letter to Obama requesting Cuba’s removal from the list of four countries designated as “terrorist” states, which hampers Cuba’s access to financial capital. They could urge the president to lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba or spending US dollars there, thus undermining the current embargo. If they can’t do anything in response to a release of Gross, they could watch the prospect of normalization drift away.
Another recent crisis may shadow the US-Cuban process, revealing the complications of the impasse.. A long-planned improvement of relations between Russia, Cuba and Latin America is underway just at the moment when clouds of the Cold War are darkening the horizon over the Ukraine. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has just forgiven ninety percent of Cuba’s $30 billion debt owed to Russia for three decades, fueling the anti-communist suspicions of the Cuban Right. The arrangement is helpful to Cuba’s economy, long embargoed by the US, and adds a new counterweight against the US pressures on Cuba. If initial reports that Russia re-establishing a spy base on the island, that might chill the relationship further. Cuba, of course, has a sovereign right to accept a Russian base, especially as US regime change programs continue.
Whatever the spillover from the Bergdahl affair and the growing Russian-American conflict, however, nothing can stop the clock ticking towards 2015 when Obama has to decide whether to join the Organization of American States in restoring Cuba to equal membership. If that’s what the president’s confidential White House meeting with Uruguay’s Mujica in May was all about, the process of normalization may yet survive the remaining obstacles to resolution after five long decades.
On February 6th at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama affirmed that we are “all children of a loving God; brothers and sisters called to make His work our own. But in this work, as Lincoln said, our concern should not be whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.”
It was important, Obama said, that “as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion. . . . [This] freedom safeguards religion . . . [and] religion strengthens America. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.”
In addition, the President declared, “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” Therefore, the U.S. must take steps to challenge the threats to that freedom around the world. “We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love. Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, . . . even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God. Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess — for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.”
Specific criticisms for violations of religious freedom were directed by the President at China, Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and North Korea.
The President also made a personal confession of his own religious faith. He said, God had “directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. . . . [The] church fed me . . .[and] led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior . . . [and] to Michelle — the love of my life — and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters [and] to public service. And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”
Earlier this year the President, proclaiming January 16th as Religious Freedom Day, emphasized that “America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”
A similar statement about Religious Freedom Day was made by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. She said, “Protecting freedom of religion is a cornerstone of American foreign policy, carried out by prioritizing accountability for religiously-motivated violence, urging governments to adopt legal protections for religious minorities, and promoting societal respect for religious diversity. And at the United Nations, we work with our partners to fight for the world’s religious minorities, including adoption of the landmark Human Rights Council resolution calling on member states to combat intolerance, violence, and discrimination based on religion.”
 The New York Times and Washington Post issued reports on the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Earlier posts have discussed the work on international freedom of religion by the U.S. Department of State and by the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.