Signs of Possible Increased U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba

A recent post discussed challenges about Cuba facing the Trump Administration this April: President Trump’s attendance at the Summit of the Americas in Peru and the U.S. reaction to Cuba’s election of the new President of the Council of State.

Recent developments have added to the apprehension that these and other events may be occasions for more U.S. hostility towards Cuba.

Future U.S. Actions Regarding the Summit of the Americas[1]

In a letter last week to the Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Rick Scott, Florida Governor and rumored U.S. Senate candidate this year, called for the exclusion of Cuba at the upcoming Summit. This request was due to the “oppression and misery” that the Cuban people have suffered for more than 60 years. “For six decades, the sovereignty of the Cuban people has been taken hostage by a brutal dictatorship that has imprisoned, tortured and murdered innocent people to preserve their regime.”

Another reason for such exclusion, according to Scott, was the recent electoral process on the island as a “fraudulent effort to carry out the so-called elections as the dictatorship moves towards a dynastic succession.” In short, “Obama’s policy is a tragedy for the Cuban people, and a top priority for America’s next President to reverse.”

The Governor’s request was reiterated by the Cuban Resistance Assembly and anticipated this last February by Freedom House’s Director Carlos Ponce when he said that Castro’s attendance at the 2015 Summit in Panama was “a great spectacle that did not represent an advance in democracy and human rights on the island.” In fact, it included the regime sending “violent groups to threaten  and persecute the Cuban leaders of civil society who participated.”

Future U.S. Reaction to Election of New President of Cuba

In addition to Governor Scott’s criticism of this year’s Cuban electoral process, the previous post about challenges to the Trump Administration mentioned that on March 9 Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and five Florida Republican U.S. Representatives sent a letter to President Trump urging him to “denounce Castro’s successor as illegitimate in the absence of free, fair, and multiparty elections, and call upon the international community to support the right of the Cuban people to decide their future.”

On March 14, Congressman Curbelo added this statement for his reasons for such criticism: “It’s  clear the Cuban people are ready for a new beginning. Now more than ever they need the support and solidarity of the American people, the American government and its diplomats, and all freedom loving people throughout the world. Given the absence of free, fair, multiparty elections this past weekend, I continue to urge President Trump to declare Raul Castro’s successor as illegitimate.”[2]

New Officials in Trump Administration

 President Trump has nominated or appointed two officials who have a history of hostility towards Cuba–Mike Pompeo and John Bolton– while another appointee, Carlos Trujillo, may hold such views.

Secretary of State Nominee Mike Pompeo[3]

President Trump has nominated Mike Pompeo, the current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as the next Secretary of State, a position that requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

In 2015, when Pompeo was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he co-sponsored a bill, the Cuban Military Transparency Act, to prevent any U.S. financial transaction with companies managed by the Cuban military that did not become law, but was implemented last year by a President Trump executive order.

In June 2017 Pompeo and Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) met at CIA headquarters with several members of the Brigade 2506, which is a CIA-sponsored group of Cuban exiles formed in 1960 to attempt the military overthrow of the Cuban government headed by Fidel Castro and which in 1961 carried out the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion landings.

John Bolton, National Security ‘Advisor[4]

On March 23 President Trump appointed as his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who over many years consistently has been hostile to U.S.-Cuba normalization. Here are examples of his views on this subject:

  • As Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, Bolton in 2002 accused Cuba of developing biological weapons in collaboration with U.S. adversaries and said Cuba remained a “terrorist” threat to the U.S. Bolton’s disputed claims were shown to be baseless in the 2004 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that while Cuba had the technical capability to produce biological agents, there was no evidence of any biological weapons development.
  • Bolton criticized the rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. in December 2014, calling the decision to pursue normalized relations “an unmitigated defeat for the United States.”
  • In July 2015, just after the U.S. decided to resume full diplomatic relations with Cuba, he published an article saying that this decision “untethered our foreign policy from any discernible American interests.”  In short, Bolton said, “Obama’s policy is a tragedy for the Cuban people, and a top priority for America’s next President to reverse.”

Unsurprisingly Senator Marco Rubio applauded the appointment of Bolton as “an excellent choice.”

Cuba immediately responded in Granma, saying  Bolton  had “a very dark past in relation to Cuba” with strong ties to “the ultra-right of Cuban origin in Florida.” This appointment “comes in the midst of a new campaign against Cuba in which pretexts and evidence have been used without scientific evidence to justify unilateral measures that affect hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the [Caribbean] and hinder the exchange on issues of mutual interest.”

New U.S. Ambassador to OAS[5]

Last week the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of Carlos Trujillo as the new U.S. Ambassador to OAS. I have not discovered Trujillo’s views about U.S. policy towards Cuba and the OAS relationship with the island, but given his background and support by Senator Rubio, I suspect that he too is hostile towards the Cuban government.

Conference at Florida International University[6]

Recently Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., participated in a conference at the Florida International University in Miami that was organized by Senator Rubio and some of his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives.One of the topics of the meeting was how to improve democracy in Cuba and Venezuela. Before the meeting, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart said, “The Castro regime continues its decades-long oppression of the Cuban people, while providing illicit support to other sham regimes in the region, including those in Venezuela and Nicaragua.  By promoting democracy, civil society and human rights in our hemisphere, we promote stability and prosperity among our neighbors, and strengthen friendships with allies.”

New U.S. Federal Government Budget[7]

The budget approved by the United States Congress last week, which will allow government financing until mid-2018, includes $ 20 million for promotion of democracy in Cuba, scholarships to promote leadership among young Cubans and improving Cuba’s access to the internet. Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, says these are funds to “promote a supposed regime change in Cuba.”

On the other hand, Congress did not adopt a proposed amendment to the budget that would have restricted funding for the U.S. Embassy in Havana to pre-Obama Administration levels. This congressional rejection was applauded by Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition of private companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba. It said, “By eliminating this senseless budget provision, Congress has averted a foreign relations debacle that would have upended progress on law enforcement cooperation, migration, and commercial ties. We commend the bipartisan majority of lawmakers that fought to preserve our diplomatic engagement with Cuba. Slashing embassy funding would hurt Cuban Americans and the Cuban people, and turn back the clock to a discredited counter-productive Cold War policy that failed for over 55 years.”

Conclusion

Although not surprising, these developments are unfortunate for those of us who advocate for increased normalization between the two countries. We must continue to be vigilant in resisting any and all Trump Administration hostility towards Cuba.

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[1] Rick Scott asks the OAS to exclude Raúl Castro from the Summit of the Americas, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 24, 2018).

[2] Press Release, Curbelo: Following Another Empty Voting Exercise on the Island, the Cuban People Need Support and Solidarity (Mar. 14, 2018).

[3] Falćon, Foreign Policy of the United States: the extremists circle closes, CubaDebate (Mar. 26, 2018); CIA, The Bay of Pigs Invasion; Brigade 2506, Wikipedia.

[4] Bolton, Obama’s outrageous Cuba capitulations, N.Y. Daily News (July 13, 2015); Center for Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief: 3/23/18; The regime complains of a possible worsening of relations with Washington after the appointment of Bolton, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 24, 2018).

[5] The Senate confirms Carlos Trujillo as US ambassador to the OAS, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 23, 2018); Press Release, Rubio Welcomes Confirmation of Carlos Trujillo to Serve as U.S. Ambassador to OAS (Mar. 23, 2018).

[6] Press Release, Diaz-Balart, South Florida Members of Congress Host Ambassador Haley for Latin American State of Affairs Discussion (Mar. 2, 2018).

[7] Washington releases funds for subversion in Cuba and border wall in Mexico, Granma (Mar. 25, 2018); Press Release, Engage Cuba Applauds Defeat of Budget Provision to Slash Funding for U.S. Embassy in Havana (Mar. 23, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The U.S. Has Conceded Many Reasons Why Cuba Has Provided Assurances That It Will Not Support Future Acts of International Terrorism

As mentioned in a prior post, the U.S. since December 17, 2014, has been investigating whether it may rescind the Department of State’s designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” under provisions of Section 6 (j) (4) of the Export Administration Act (50 U.S.C. § 2405(j)(4)). That statute allows any president to make such a rescission by submitting to Congress, at least 45 days in advance, “a report justifying the rescission and certifying that (i) the government concerned has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period; and (ii) the government concerned has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

Cuba has been put into the “State Sponsor” designation every year since 1982, and this blogger has read and reviewed all of the State Department annual terrorism reports that are available online (1996-2013). The five most recent reports (2009-2013) have been subjected to detailed analysis in blog posts with the conclusion that said designations of Cuba are absurd, ridiculous, stupid and cowardly. Those are the posts covering the reports for 2009201020112011 (supplement)2012,  2013, 2013 (supplement).

One of the reasons why those designations are not justified is a collection of U.S. admissions in these very reports that in essence say that Cuba already “has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future,” one of the statutory grounds for rescission of the designation. Here are at least some of those admissions, the details of which can be found in the previously mentioned blog posts:

  • In 2001 (after 9/11) Cuba “signed all 12 UN counterterrorism conventions as well as the Ibero-American declaration on terrorism.” After 9/11, “the Cuban government and official media publicly condemned acts of terrorism by al-Qa’ida and affiliates.”
  • “Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world.”
  • “There was no evidence that Cuba had sponsored specific acts of terrorism,” and “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”
  • In 2010 the Government of Cuba was “aware of the border integrity and transnational security concerns posed by such transit and investigated third country migrant smuggling and related criminal activities. In November [2010], the [Cuban] government allowed representatives of the [U.S.] Transportation Security Administration to conduct a series of airport security visits throughout the island.”
  • In 2010 “the Cuban government continued to aggressively pursue persons suspected of terrorist acts in Cuba.”
  • In 2010 the Government of Cuba “maintained a public stance against terrorism and terrorist financing.”
  • There was “no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba” and “no evidence of direct financial support for terrorist organizations by Cuba.”
  • Cuba has adopted laws permitting the tracking, blocking, or seizing terrorist assets (Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism and Instruction 19 of the Superintendent of the Cuban Central Bank).
  • After the multilateral “Financial Action Task Force (FATF) identified Cuba as “having strategic AML/CFT [Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism] deficiencies,” Cuba in 2012 “became a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America against Money Laundering [GAFISUD], a FATF-style regional body. With this action, Cuba has committed to adopting and implementing the FATF Recommendations.” Thereafter Cuba “officially engaged with the FATF and has also attended [the meetings of the relevant regional organizations] CFATF [Caribbean Financial Action Task Force] and GAFISUD.”

Although not mentioned in the U.S. reports, FATF in June 2014 said, “ Cuba has made significant progress to improve its AML/CFT regime.” Four months later (October 2014), “FATF welcomes Cuba’s significant progress in improving its AML/CFT regime and notes that Cuba has established the legal and regulatory framework to meet its commitments in its action plan. . . . Cuba therefore is no longer subject to the FATF’s monitoring process. . . . Cuba will work with GAFISUD to further strengthen its AML/CFT regime.”

Also not mentioned in the U.S. terrorism reports was the CIA’s judgment in August 2003 that ‘We have no credible evidence, however, that the Cuban government has engaged in or directly supported international terrorist operations in the past decade, although our information is insufficient to say beyond a doubt that no collaboration has occurred.”

In addition to these U.S. admissions, Cuba publicly has stated that its “territory has never been and never will be utilized to harbor terrorists of any origin, nor for the organization, financing or perpetration of acts of terrorism against any country in the world, including the [U.S.]. . . .  The Cuban government unequivocally rejects and condemns any act of terrorism, anywhere, under any circumstances and whatever the alleged motivation might be.”

Although not mentioned in the U.S. reports, in 2002, the government of Cuba proposed to the U.S. the adoption of a bilateral agreement to confront terrorism, an offer that it reiterated in 2012, without having received any response from the U.S.

 Conclusion

As a result, I am confident that the Department of State’s investigation will conclude that Cuba “has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future,” one of the statutory grounds for rescission of the designation; that the other ground–Cuba “has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period”—will be satisfied; and that the President will decide, presumably this June, to rescind the designation effective 45 days thereafter.

Then the focus will shift first to Congress to see whether it will adopt a joint resolution against the rescission. If it does, presumably President Obama will veto the joint resolution. Then focus would return to Congress to see if there are the necessary two-thirds votes in each chamber to override the veto.

U. S. citizens supporting the U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should follow this issue closely and lobby their Senators and Representatives to oppose any measure to countermand a presidential decision for rescission.

Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)

We have provided a general overview of the latest international religious freedom reports from the U.S. Department of State and from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and another post analyzed the State Department’s report on that freedom in Cuba.[1] Now we contrast and compare the Commission’s shorter and less detailed report on that subject for Cuba.[2]

Positive Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report had a few good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba.

First, it did not include Cuba in its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC), i.e.,  those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

Second, it recognized that “[p]ositive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year.” (Emphasis added.)

The Commission endorsed the State Department reports “that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces.”

The Commission also stated that the Cuban government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations. Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve,” marked by Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba.

Negative Aspects of Religious Freedom in Cuba

The report also commented on what it saw as negative aspects of religious freedom in Cuba.

Some of the criticisms echo the State Department’s report regarding the Cuban government’s system for registering religious groups, limiting certain activities to such registered groups, restricting permits for construction or repair of religious buildings, limiting access to state media and denying permission for religious processions outside religious buildings. The Commission, however, fails to mention the Department’s qualifications that these purported restrictions of religious freedom are not enforced in practice.

The Commission mentions the Cuban government’s arrest and detention of human rights/democracy activists that prevented them from attending church services, as did the Department’s report. As noted in my prior post, however, these arrests and detentions, in my opinion, are blots on Cuba’s general human rights record, not that for its religious freedom.

Another negative, according to the Commission, are the alleged Cuban government’s arrests and beatings on four occasions of evangelical pastors and the alleged targeting of the Apostolic Reformation and Western Baptist communities. We, however, do not know all the facts of these alleged events, and even if true as stated by the Commission, they do not, in my opinion, justify the Commission’s overall evaluation of Cuban religious freedom.[3]

That overall evaluation includes Cuba as one of eight countries on the Commission’s “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

Cuba has been on this Watch List since 2004.[4] Its inclusion yet again, in my opinion, is due to sheer long-term blinders on U.S. perceptions of Cuba, not to an objective analysis of the facts.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy 

In accordance with its authorizing statute,[5] the Commission made the following recommendations for U.S. policy with respect to Cuban religious freedom:

  • press the Cuban government to “stop arrests and harassment of clergy and religious leaders;  cease interference with religious activities and the internal affairs of religious communities; allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally; revise government policies that restrict religious services in homes or on other personal property; and hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of non-violent religious practitioners;”
  • “use appropriated funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists from harassment and arrest by supporting the development of new technologies, while also immediately distributing proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship;”
  • “increase the number of visas issued to Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to the United States to interact with co-religionists;” and
  • “encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocks, to ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

I note first that if Cuba properly were excluded from the Watch List, there would be no basis for the Commission’s making any recommendations with respect to Cuba.

With respect to the recommendations themselves, the first one seems like an excessive concern with formalities since in practice these restrictions are not enforced. Has the U.S. updated all of its statutes and regulations to conform them to what happens in the real world?

The third recommendation should be noncontroversial, and I agree the U.S. should grant tourist visas for Cuban religious representatives to visit the U.S.

I also have no problem with the fourth recommendation, but believe that most other countries and regional blocks would not see the alleged violations of freedom of religion or belief that the Commission sees.

The second recommendation, however, raises significant problems and is objectionable.

It is difficult to know exactly what is meant by recommending the U.S. use its funds to advance Internet freedom and protect Cuban activists, to develop new technologies and to distribute proven and field-tested programs to counter censorship.

To me, it sounds like a recommendation for surreptitious efforts at regime change. Remember that the U.S. in 1961 supported an armed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, that the U.S. through the CIA had plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, that the U.S. for over 50 years has had an embargo of Cuba and that the George W. Bush Administration had a Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba that produced a de facto U.S. plan for such a regime change.

Another, and more powerful, reason for being at least skeptical of this second recommendation is the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, who is now in Cuban prison after conviction in 2009 for–as the Cubans see it– being part of a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communication systems out of the control of authorities.” As an employee of an USAID contractor, Mr. Gross went to Cuba on multiple occasions purportedly to establish wireless networks and Internet connections for non-dissident Cuban Jewish communities and to deliver certain communications equipment to Cubans for that purpose.

In 2012 Mr. Gross and his wife sued USAID and the contractor for allegedly failing to give him better information and training for his dangerous work, and this month (May 2013) the Grosses and the contractor reached a settlement for dismissal of the case against the corporation in exchange for an undisclosed monetary payment by the contractor.

In short, this second recommendation is not designed to improve religious freedom in Cuba.

Conclusion

The State Department’s more balanced recent report on Cuban religious freedom, in my opinion, is better grounded in reality than the Commission’s. While I believe the U.S. should encourage and promote religious freedom around the world, including Cuba, the recommendations by the Commission are unjustified and counterproductive and evidence the same bias against Cuba that we see in other aspects of U.S. policy towards Cuba.[6]


[1] The prior post also reviewed the religious makeup of the Cuban people and many other details on the subject that will not be repeated here.

[2] Prior posts examined the Commission reports for Cuba for 2010 and 2011(comment to prior post). A subsequent post will discuss the unusual structure of the Commission.

[3] The Commission’s heavy emphasis on the relatively few alleged wrongs against evangelical pastors and its ignoring the positive developments in religious freedom for “registered” religious groups like the Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists demonstrate a totally inappropriate and unjustified bias in a purported nonpartisan U.S. agency of our federal government. Such a bias is not new. It also was present in the George W. Bush Administration’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which regarded unnamed evangelical Christian groups as the only “authentically independent” religious groups that could be used by the U.S. to build a “free” Cuba.  The Cuban Council of Churches, on the other hand, was seen by this U.S. commission as “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches” and, therefore, was not to be used by the U.S.

[4]  The other seven countries on the Commission’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

[5]  That statute charges the Commission with the responsibility of “making  . . . policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress with respect to [Cuban] religious freedom.” (International Religious Freedom Act of 1988, § 202(a)(2); id. § 202(b); id. § 202(c).