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.
Little did the famous comedian Groucho Marx realize that he was talking about today’s dysfunctional U.S. Senate when many years ago he sent a telegram to a club stating, “PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.”
Frustration over the current ways of the Senate is often listed as a major reason why many long-time, respected members of the Senate recently have resigned or announced they are not running for re-election in 2014. In addition, both major political parties are having difficulty recruiting qualified candidates to run for the Senate in that election for the same reason.
Recently the popular former Montana Governor, Brian Schweitzer, who is the Democratic Party’s best hope of retaining the Senate seat now held by Democrat Max Bachus, announced that he was not running for the Senate next year. A major reason for this decision, he said, was Washington’s being a “dysfunctional . . . sinkhole” where “most of the people . . . are frauds.”
One of the major reasons for these negative views, which I share, is the Senate’s rules permitting filibusters of pending legislation and judicial and executive nominations. They are, in my opinion, an abomination and unconstitutional as has been discussed in prior posts.
Yet again these rules have been in the recent news because of threatened Republican filibusters of certain presidential nominations and of the July 16th compromise that allows those rules to remain in place in exchange for the Republicans not filibustering seven pending executive nominations.
I am pleased that these pending nominations will receive an up-or-down vote by the Senate. On the other hand, I am disappointed that so much time and attention is spent on this ridiculous side show and that the filibuster rules are still in place.
I am not alone in despairing the current dysfunctionality of the Senate and more generally the federal government. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News public opinion poll, only 17% had confidence in our national government while only 10% had confidence in the U.S. Congress according to the latest Gallup poll.
Reversing this horrible public distrust of the federal government is important to Gerald F. Seib, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal. He suggests the following as important means to that end:
Fix the federal governmental system. The “rules of the Senate need to be changed to curtail the ability of a minority of Senators, or sometimes a single one, to make progress grind to a halt.” In addition, “States need to stop drawing congressional districts that ensure deep and paralyzing polarization by making so dark red or dark blue that only the most ideologically rigid candidates bother to run.”
Modernize the federal government so it is more useful in our everyday lives. For this proposition, Seib praised a recent speech by President Obama which said he had “directed the Cabinet to develop an aggressive management agenda . . . that delivers a smarter, more innovative, and more accountable government for its citizens.” The President also noted that last year he had “asked Congress for the authority to reorganize and consolidate the federal bureaucracy” and that his Administration had found more efficient “ways to deliver the services that citizens expect in smarter, faster, and better ways.”
Manage the deficit. Although Seib says eliminating the deficit any time soon would be bad for the economy and should not be done, the public needs to sense that the problem is “being tamed intelligently.”
I merely say, “Amen, Brother.”
 A prior post chuckled over the humorous correspondence between Groucho and Joseph Welch, the attorney for the U.S. Army in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Senate.
Maureen Dowd of the New York Times on April 21st criticized President Barack Obama. She said “he still has not learned how to govern” and “doesn’t know how to work the system.” The next day a similar critique was made in the Times by two “reporters”–Michael Shear and Peter Baker–that used the bullying President Lyndon Johnson as a model of what a president should do in these circumstances.
I disagree with these criticisms, and my letter to that effect was published in the Times on April 24th. I said,
“Maureen Dowd asserts that President Obama ‘still has not learned how to govern.’ I disagree.
Last week the Senate, by a good majority, voted in favor of expanded background checks and making straw purchases and gun trafficking a federal crime. Those votes were attributable, in part, to strong advocacy by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
The true outrage lies in two places.
First is the Senate’s filibuster rule, which is being used by the Republicans to require a supermajority vote of 60.
Second is the Republican senators’ determination to prevent Mr. Obama from accomplishing anything. Remember Mitch McConnell’s statement in the last Congress that his top priority was to stop Mr. Obama’s re-election.”
This letter was a synopsis of my post, The Outrageous, Dysfunctional U.S. Senate, and my previous blog posts criticizing the Senate’s filibuster rule and the Republican Senators’ obstructionism.
Two columnists for the Washington Post–Greg Sargent and Jonathan Bernstein–also have taken vigorous exception to the opinions of Maureen Dowd and Messrs. Shear and Baker.
Sargent sees this recent criticism of Obama as focusing on his alleged failure “to put enough pressure on red-state Democratic Senators like Mark Begich.” However, says Sargent, even if all four of the red-state Democrats [who voted against the measure instead] had voted for the measure, it still would not have passed because of the 60-vote requirement of the Senate’s filibuster rule. Moreover, if these four Democrats “were basing their vote in the calculation that they need to achieve distance from the president and signal cultural affinity with their red state constituents, as many have speculated, any open pressure [by Obama] would only make the vote harder for them.”
The plain conclusion for Sargent was “the Republican Party — and the 60 vote Senate — are the prime culprits in the killing of [the bi-partisan background-check bill].”
Bernstein has had enough of others comparing Obama to President Lyndon Johnson. Bernstein pointed out the following reasons why such a comparison is inappropriate:
The situation for Johnson was very different. He had huge majorities in both chambers of Congress, and in the aftermath of a presidential assassination, there was a strong national desire for unity and action.
In the mid-1960s, political parties were much weaker and not as polarized as today.
Although Johnson faced filibusters on key civil rights legislation, he did not face filibusters on every single thing he proposed. Nor did he have to fight a dedicated partisan opposition over every judicial and executive branch nomination.
Obama, on the other hand, to get anything through the Senate needs the votes of Republicans, every one of whom has strong partisan incentives to oppose him. Johnson really never faced anything like that.
“Generally, the political science literature on presidential persuasion emphasizes how little presidents are able to accomplish when it comes to swaying votes in Congress.
“Johnson wasn’t just any president; he was a president who had been a very effective Senate Majority Leader. He came to the White House with years of relationships with many senators; to the extent he was successful, it’s probably not something that’s easy for anyone else to duplicate.”
“Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.”
I, therefore, continue to be a strong supporter of our President and a severe critic of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate (and the House of Representatives too).