U.S. Ending Its Cuban Medical Personnel Parole Program?

Previous posts have discussed the U.S. Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, whereby such professionals easily may obtain “parole” into the U.S. and thereafter acquire legal status to remain here, and why the U.S. should end it.[1]

On January 8, word came that the U.S. was considering doing just that. The source was Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor to President Obama who was part of the negotiating team that reached detente with Cuba a year ago after 18 months of secret talks. He told Reuters, “It’s an unusual policy, and I think as we look at the whole totality of the relationship, this is something that we felt was worth being in the list of things that we consider.”  Another senior administration official said such a decision was due early this year.[2]

Good news! Tell the Administration and your representatives in Congress that you support such a move!

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[1] E.g., New York Times Calls for End of U.S. Program for Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel (Nov. 23, 2014); New York Times Calls for End to Special U.S. Immigration Programs for Cubans (Dec. 21, 2015).

[2] Reuters, Exclusive: U.S. Considers Ending Program That Lures Cuban Doctors to Defect, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2016)

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

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

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

The next month (December 2012), as a prelude to his second term, Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope.” The President also concluded that “it would be a good fit to have someone who was known to be very close to the President [involved in such an effort on Cuba] because the Cubans are very wary of engagement and they want to know that the engagement is reaching the top. They felt like there [had] been several other efforts of engagement where it turned out . . . where they had conversations with the Americans, [but after] they reached a certain point . . . there was never follow through [by the U.S.]. . . . [In short, the Cubans] wanted someone . . . [involved for the U.S.] who were very close to the President and . . . they wanted it to be discreet.” Hence, the President designated Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor, to be in charge of this new effort to engage Cuba.

Thereafter, Mr. Rhodes sent a secret message to the Cuban government that the U.S. wanted “to initiate a dialogue about prisoners and other issues.” As we will see below, this created a fascinating contrast between the Administration’s public negative face on Cuba and its secret negotiations with the latter.

Obama’s Second Term, 2013

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barack Obama & Raul Castro
Barack Obama & Raul Castro

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

Obama’s Second Term, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Obama & Pope Francis
President Obama & Pope Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies

On the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside over that event.[1]

This post will focus on the ceremonial opening of the Cuban Embassy; subsequent posts will discuss the afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez as well as reactions to the reopening of the embassies.

Opening of Cuba’s Embassy

Cuban Embassy
Cuban Embassy (Photo by Andrew Hamik)

Cuba’s opening was celebrated in the morning by the raising of its flag in front of its former Interests Section building. It was the same flag that was removed 54 years ago when the two countries severed diplomatic relations.

The event was attended by more than 500 people, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in negotiations with Cuba after the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement; Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the State Department, who has participated in those negotiations; Jeffrey DeLaurentis, current charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Havana; Ben Rhodes, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor who led 18 months of behind-the-scenes secret negotiations with Cuban officials with the aim of restoring diplomatic ties; Wayne Smith, a Cuban expert who was forced to leave the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 1961 when the two countries broke diplomatic ties; U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem, VT), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) along with U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (Dem., CA), Donna Edwards (Dem., MD), Kathy Castor (Dem., FL), Karen Bass (Dem., CA) and Raul Grijalva (Dem., AZ).[2]

Afterwards Senator Klobuchar, the author of a bill to end the U.S. embargo (Freedom to Export to Cuba Act), said in a press release, “The opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC, marks an important step in modernizing our relationship with Cuba after more than 50 years of isolation. This evolution in our relationship with 11 million people 90 miles off of our shore was long overdue, and it is now time to not only open our own fully equipped and staffed embassy in Havana, but to lift the trade embargo once and for all. Passing my bipartisan bill to lift the embargo would benefit the people of both of our countries by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods.”[3]

Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s Speech

The attendees then went inside the Embassy, where they heard a speech by Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez. Here are excerpts from those remarks.

The Cuban flag now flying in front of the Embassy “embodies the generous blood that was shed, the sacrifices made and the struggle waged for more than one hundred years by our people for their national independence and full self-determination, facing the most serious challenges and risks. Today we pay homage to all those who died in its defense and renew the commitment of the present generations, fully confident on the newer ones, to serve it with honor.”

“We evoke the memory of José Martí, who was fully devoted to the struggle for the freedom of Cuba and managed to get a profound knowledge about the United States: In his “North American Scenes” he made a vivid description of the great nation to the North and extolled its virtues. He also bequeathed to us a warning against its excessive craving for domination [over Cuba] which was confirmed by a long history of disagreements.”

“We’ve been able to make it through this date thanks to the firm and wise leadership of Fidel Castro Ruz, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, whose ideas we will always revere with utmost loyalty. We now recall his presence in this city, in April of 1959, with the purpose of promoting fair bilateral relations, as well as the sincere tribute he paid to Lincoln and Washington. The purposes that brought him to this country on such an early time [of the Cuban Revolution] are the same that have pursued throughout these decades and coincide exactly with the ones that we pursue today.”

“This ceremony has been possible thanks to the free and unshakable will, unity, sacrifice, selflessness, heroic resistance and work of our people and also the strength of the Cuban Nation and its culture.”

“I bring greetings from President Raúl Castro, as an expression of the good will and sound determination to move forward, through a dialogue based on mutual respect and sovereign equality, to a civilized coexistence, even despite the differences that exist between both governments, which makes it possible to solve bilateral problems and promote cooperation and the development of mutually beneficial relations, just as both peoples desire and deserve.”

“We know that this [rapprochement] would contribute to peace, development, equity and stability in the continent; the implementation of the purposes and principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter and in the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, which was signed at the Second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States held in Havana.”

“Today, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the re-opening of embassies complete the first stage of the bilateral dialogue and pave the way to the complex and certainly long process towards the normalization of bilateral relations.”

“The challenge is huge because there have never been normal relations between the United States of America and Cuba, in spite of the one and a half century of intensive and enriching links that have existed between both peoples.”

“The Platt Amendment, imposed [on Cuba by the U.S.] in 1902 under a military occupation, thwarted the liberation efforts that had counted on the participation or the sympathy of quite a few American citizens and led to the usurpation of a piece of Cuban territory in Guantánamo. Its nefarious consequences left an indelible mark in our common history.”

“In 1959, the [U.S.] refused to accept the existence of a fully independent small and neighboring island and much less, a few years later, a socialist Revolution that was forced to defend itself and has embodied, ever since then, our people’s will.”

“I have referred to history to reaffirm that today an opportunity has opened up to begin working in order to establish new bilateral relations, quite different from whatever existed in the past. The Cuban government is fully committed to that.”

“Only the lifting of the economic, commercial and financial blockade which has caused so much harm and suffering to our people; the return of the occupied territory in Guantánamo; and the respect for Cuba’s sovereignty will lend some meaning to the historic event that we are witnessing today.”

“Every step forward will receive the recognition and the favorable acceptance of our people and government, and most certainly the encouragement and approval of Latin America and the Caribbean and the entire world.

“We reaffirm Cuba’s willingness to move towards the normalization of relations with the [U.S.] in a constructive spirit, but without any prejudice whatsoever to our independence or any interference in the affairs that fall under the exclusive sovereignty of Cubans.”

[For the U.S.] to insist in the attainment of obsolete and unjust goals, only hoping for a mere change in the methods to achieve them will not legitimize them or favor the national interest of the [U.S.] or its citizens. However, should that be the case, we will be ready to face the challenge.”

“We will engage in this process, as was written by President Raúl Castro in his letter of July 1st to President Obama, “encouraged by the reciprocal intention of developing respectful and cooperative relations between our peoples and governments. From this Embassy, we will continue to work tirelessly to promote cultural, economic, scientific, academic and sports relations as well as friendly ties between our peoples.”

“We would like to convey the Cuban government’s respect and recognition to the President of the [U.S.] for urging the U.S. Congress to lift the blockade as well as for the change of policy that he has announced [last December], but in particular for the disposition he has showed to make use of his executive powers for that purpose.”

“We are particularly reminded of President Carter’s decision to open the respective Interests Sections back in September of 1977.” We also “express our gratitude to the members of Congress, scholars, religious leaders, activists, solidarity groups, business people and so many U.S. citizens who worked so hard for so many years so that this day would come.”

“To the majority of Cubans residing in the [U.S.] who have advocated and called for a different kind of relation of this country with our Nation, we would like to express our recognition. Deeply moved, they have told us that they would multiply their efforts and will remain faithful to the legacy of the patriotic emigration that supported the ideals of independence.”

“We would like to express our gratitude to our Latin American and Caribbean brothers and sisters who have resolutely supported our country and called for a new chapter in the relations between the [U.S.] and Cuba, as was done, with extraordinary perseverance, by a lot of friends from all over the world.”

“From this country José Martí organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party to conquer freedom, all the justice and the full dignity of human beings. His ideas, which were heroically vindicated in his centennial year, continue to be the main inspiration that moves us along the path that our people have sovereignly chosen.”

Opening of U.S. Embassy

 With the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana not happening until August 14, the changes there were subtler. There was no raising of the U.S. flag. There was no changing of the sign on the building. The U.S. diplomats who previously worked in the Interests Section now worked in the Embassy. A future post will review the ceremonial opening of the Embassy, now scheduled for August 14.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Ahmed & Davis, U.S. and Cuba Reopen Long-Closed Embassies, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2015); Schwartz, Embassies Reopen, as U.S., Cuba Restore Ties, W.S.J. (July 20, 2015); Ayuso, ‘Mojito diplomacy’ as Cuba reboots US relations in reopened embassy, El Pais (July 21, 2015); Gómez, Cuban flag waves in U.S. capital, Granma (July 20, 2015); Gómez, The flag day, Granma (July 21, 2015).

[2] The famous Cuban-American jazz pianist and a resident of Minnesota, Nachito Herrera, was invited to attend the opening of the Cuban Embassy, but unfortunately had to decline because of previously scheduled performances at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis with his new group The Universals, featuring saxophonist Mike Phillips, who has worked with Prince and Stevie Wonder; Cuban drummer Raul Pineda; Senegal bassist Cheikh Ndoye; and violinist Karen Briggs. (Bream, On special day for Cuba, Nachito Herrera gets emotional at the Dakota, StarTribune (July 21, 2015).) As previously noted in this blog, Nachito has frequently performed at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

[3] A similar press release was issued by Senator Leahy.

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, 2009

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Obama’s First Term, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, January 2013

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

New Details About U.S. Secret Normalization Negotiations with Cuba

A prior post referred to the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations that resulted in the December 17, 2014, announcements by presidents Obama and Castro that the two countries were embarking on a process of re-establishing diplomatic relations and resolving many issues that have accumulated over the last 50 years. Another post described the involvement of Pope Francis in these negotiations.

Now Reuters reports the following new details about these subjects.

Originally the breakthrough was thought to be the result of such secret negotiations over the prior 18 months (or since June 2013). Now, says Reuters, the process really began in December 2012 when President Obama after reelection with 48% of the Cuban-American vote instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope,” according to Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor who played a central role in shaping Cuba policy.

The next month, January 2013, Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s top Latin American adviser, went to Miami and met with a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and with young Cuban-Americans, the latter of whom helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo.

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

In any event, the secret negotiations started in June 2013 in Ottawa, Canada. The Cubans opened with harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes, age 37, responded, “Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place … We want to hear and talk about the future.”

The Cubans in these initial sessions also insisted on an exchange of the remaining three of “The Cuban Five” in U.S. prison for U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, in Cuban prison. Obama refused such a deal because Washington denied Gross was a spy and because Obama did not want a three-for-one trade. As a result by the end of 2013, the negotiations had stalled.

At a January 2014 negotiating session in Toronto, however, the U.S. proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – Cuba’s releasing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for the U.S. who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, and thereby enabling the U.S. to claim it was a true “spy swap” and giving it political cover. But the Cubans dis not immediately agree to release Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the U.S.

While the Sarraff proposal was still on the table, but not yet accepted by Cuba, President Obama held a White House meeting in February 2014 with certain lawmakers, including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin. Obama stressed his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade, and Durbin “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.”

Thereafter Senator Leahy persuaded two unnamed Roman Catholic cardinals to ask Pope Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when he was scheduled to hold a private audience with Obama in March.

At that private audience, as reported in a prior post, Francis and Obama did discuss the U.S.-Cuba situation, and the Pope in June sent letters to Obama and Castro urging reconciliation and the prisoner exchange. Francis’ involvement also provided Obama with political coverage against future criticism by Cuban-American Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and others.

In October 2014 (before the U.S. mid-term elections) the deal was finalized in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together.

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

 

 

 

 

Strobel, Spetalnick & Adams, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and cut a Cuba Deal, Reuters (Mar. 23, 2015),

 

 

 

Reuters, , N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015), How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal

http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/03/23/us/politics/23reuters-cuba-usa-insight.html