U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

In July 2018, the U.S. State Department held the first ever Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.[1] At the event’s conclusion, the State Department issued various documents that are discussed below.

The Potomac Declaration [2]

After quoting Article 18 regarding religious freedom of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Potomac Declaration asserted, “This right is under attack all around the world. Almost 80 percent of the global population reportedly experience severe limitations on this right. Persecution, repression, and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, or non-belief are a daily reality for too many. It is time to address these challenges directly.” Therefore, the Chairman of the Ministerial (Secretary Pompeo) declared: the following:

  • “Every person everywhere has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith.
  • Religious freedom is universal and inalienable, and states must respect and protect this human right.
  • A person’s conscience is inviolable. The right to freedom of conscience, as set out in international human rights instruments, lies at the heart of religious freedom.
  • Persons are equal based on their shared humanity. There should be no discrimination on account of a person’s religion or belief. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. Citizenship or the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms should not depend on religious identification or heritage.
  • Coercion aimed at forcing a person to adopt a certain religion is inconsistent with and a violation of the right to religious freedom. The threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adopt different beliefs, to recant their faith, or to reveal their faith is entirely at odds with freedom of religion.
  • Religious freedom applies to all individuals as right-holders. Believers can exercise this right alone or in community with others, and in public or private. While religions do not have human rights themselves, religious communities and their institutions benefit through the human rights enjoyed by their individual members.
  • Persons who belong to faith communities and non-believers alike have the right to participate freely in the public discourse of their respective societies. A state’s establishment of an official religion or traditional faith should not impair religious freedom or foster discrimination towards adherents of other religions or non-believers.
  • The active enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief encompasses many manifestations and a broad range of practices. These can include worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Parents and legal guardians have the liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
  • Religion plays an important role in humanity’s common history and in societies today. The cultural heritage sites and objects important for past, present, and future religious practices should be preserved and treated with respect.”

The Potomac Plan of Action [3]

The lengthier Plan of Action also was issued by the Chairman of the Ministerial. It states as follows:

Defending the Human Right of Freedom of Religion or Belief

States should increase collective advocacy and coordination to promote and protect religious freedom and to counter the persecution of individuals because of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Condemn strongly acts of discrimination and violence in the name of or against a particular religion or lack thereof and press for immediate accountability for those responsible for such violence, including state and non-state actors.
  • Protect members of religious communities, dissenting members, and non-believers from threats to their freedom, safety, livelihood, and security on account of their beliefs.
  • Respect the liberty of parents to provide their children religious and moral education in conformity with their own conscience and convictions and to ensure members of religious minority communities and non-believers are not forcibly indoctrinated into other faiths.
  • Protect the ability of religious adherents, institutions, and organizations to produce in quantities they desire religious publications and materials, as well as to import and disseminate such materials.
  • Increase international understanding of how suppression of religious freedom can contribute to violent extremism, sectarianism, conflict, insecurity, and instability.
  • Ensure false accusations of “extremism” are not used as a pretext to suppress the freedom of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice their faith, or otherwise limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
  • Eliminate restrictions unduly limiting the ability of believers and non-believers to manifest their faith or beliefs in observance and practice, either alone or in community with others, through peaceful assembly, worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Speak out bilaterally, as well as through multilateral fora, against violations or abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Confronting Legal Limitations

States should promote religious freedom and bring their laws and policies into line with international human rights norms regarding freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief and ensure individuals can freely change beliefs, or not believe, without penalty or fear of violence, and encourage the repeal of provisions penalizing or discriminating against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief.
  • Encourage any state-managed registration systems for official recognition of religious communities be optional (rather than mandatory) and not unduly burdensome, so as to help facilitate the free and legal practice of religion for communities of believers.
  • Allow religious communities to establish freely accessible places of worship or assembly in public or private, to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structures, to train their religious personnel and community members, and to select, appoint, and replace their personnel in accordance with their beliefs without government interference.
  • Repeal anti-blasphemy laws, which are inherently subjective, and often contribute to sectarianism and violent extremism. Enforcement of such laws unduly inhibits the exercise of the rights to freedoms of religion, belief, and expression and leads to other human rights violations or abuses.
  • Recognize that respect for religious freedom can afford space to religious actors to engage in constructive efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, terrorism and conflict, and to collaborate with non-religious actors on the same.
  • Encourage the development of conscientious objection laws and policies to accommodate the religious beliefs of military age persons and provide alternatives to military service.

Advocating for Equal Rights and Protections for All, Including Members of Religious Minorities

States should promote the human rights of members of religious minorities, dissenting members from the majority faith, and non-believers, including freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Treat all persons equally under the law – regardless of an individual’s religion, beliefs or religious affiliation, or lack thereof – and ensure law enforcement officials take measures to protect all persons, including members of religious minorities, from harm or discriminatory acts on account of their faith or beliefs.
  • Prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in access to justice, employment, education and housing, in personal status and family laws, and in access to opportunities for expression in public forums.
  • Ensure that all people, including religious minority community members, are free from forced conversions, and are entitled to and receive equal protection under the law without discrimination.
  • Respond quickly to physical assaults on persons and the destruction or vandalizing of holy sites or property based on religion or belief, and hold those responsible accountable.
  • Encourage teaching about the value of intra- and inter-faith understanding and collaboration, and promote a general understanding of world religions to reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes.
  • Foster religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities, including migrant workers, to practice their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.
  • Encourage authorities to denounce and condemn public discrimination and crimes targeting individuals on account of their religion or belief or lack thereof.

Responding to Genocide and other Mass Atrocities

States should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other necessary means to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including when based on religious convictions. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Take immediate action to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.
  • Condemn messages or narratives that promote violence against the holders of certain religious or other beliefs or that foster intra- and inter-religious tensions, whether by government officials or non-state actors.
  • Take steps to support investigative efforts and work to preserve evidence and document suspected crimes when reports of atrocities arise, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing.
  • Hold accountable those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, mass atrocities, and ethnic cleansing and related crimes, and employ mechanisms to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.
  • Consider the needs of survivors and families of survivors of atrocities and provide them assistance and resources to help rebuild and heal traumatized communities and individuals in post-conflict areas.
  • Work with willing victims and survivors of mass atrocities to develop and disseminate communications and educational efforts about their experiences, recovery and resilience.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

States should increase efforts to protect and preserve cultural heritage, including that of threatened minority religious communities, particularly in conflict zones, and to preserve cultural heritage sites, even those of communities whose members have dwindled or emigrated to other countries. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Adopt and implement policies that introduce or improve inventory lists of cultural sites and objects that promote respect for and protect heritage, including places of worship and religious sites, shrines, and cemeteries, and that take appropriate protective measures where such sites are vulnerable to vandalism or destruction by state or non-state actors.
  • Safeguard heritage sites, and help other governments do so, by offering technical assistance and professional training to relevant officials, as well as provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger.
  • Assist impacted communities to secure, protect, repair and/or stabilize their cultural heritage sites.
  • Encourage participation by the local population in the preservation of their cultural heritage, and engage members of religious communities and others, including their leadership, with training on ways to protect their cultural heritage from damage and/or looting.
  • Assist with efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of significance to multiple communities in a conflict zone so as to foster intra- and inter-faith relations and rebuild trust.
  • Raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the significance and history of cultural heritage, by working with and through religious actors and other community leaders.

Strengthening the Response

States should take actions to respond to threats to religious freedom that continue to proliferate around the world. In that spirit, states should consider endorsing the Potomac Declaration and work to:

  • Extend financial support to assist persons persecuted for their religious freedom advocacy, affiliation or practice, or for being a non-believer and support the capacity-building work of religious freedom advocacy organizations, and encourage private foundations to increase funding to such causes.
  • Strengthen rule-of-law, fair trial guarantees, and the institutional capacity to protect religious freedom and other human rights.
  • Provide additional diplomatic resources through the creation of special ambassadorial positions or focal points in foreign ministries, and support collective action through such groupings as the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
  • Train and equip diplomats in the meaning and value of religious freedom and how to advance it.
  • Recommit annually to promoting religious freedom for all, by establishing August 3, the first day of ISIS’s Sinjar massacre targeting Yezidis, as a nationally or internationally recognized day of remembrance of survivors of religious persecution.
  • Allow and support civil society organizations and religious actors in their efforts to advocate for, and organize on behalf of, religious freedom, pluralism, peace and tolerance and related values.
  • Facilitate the creation of domestic forums, or utilize existing groups, where religious groups, faith-based organizations and civil society can meet to discuss concerns about religious freedom at home and abroad, as well as through bodies at the regional level.
  • Encourage government ministries and officials to engage with and listen to the domestic forums regularly, and implement relevant suggestions when possible.
  • Encourage national economic investment projects that foster collaboration and trust building across different communities and demonstrate the economic, societal and individual benefits of respect for religious freedom and pluralism.
  • Train and support religious community actors, including religious actors, to build resilience to and prevent violent extremism and terrorism, which negatively affect religious freedom, by disseminating alternative messages, engaging at-risk community members, and implementing intra- and inter-faith partnerships.

International Religious Freedom Fund [4]

With the U.S. providing coverage for all personnel, administrative and overhead expenses, all of the funds contributed by others would fund the following program activities:

  • Supporting initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief. This encompasses activities such as advocacy initiatives, awareness campaigns, public messaging, community inclusion efforts, conflict prevention
  • Providing assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief for individual needs including, assistance to address threats of violence; medical needs resulting from violent assault; and replacement of equipment damaged or confiscated as a result of harassment.

Other Actions of the Ministerial [5]

The Ministerial also issued statements about Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups; Iran; Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious freedom Repression; China; Burma; and Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws.

According to the Secretary of State before its convening, this Ministerial was to “reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial . . . . . . Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for. [The Ministerial] will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

At the conclusion of this Ministerial, the Secretary of State emphasized that “President Trump has directed his administration to advance and defend the rights of religious freedom at home and abroad, because religious freedom is a universal God-given right to which all people are entitled. It is also an essential building block for all free societies. Ensuring religious freedom around the world is a key priority of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.”

After describing what happened at the Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo complimented Vice President Pence’s announcement of the U.S. Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response, and the U.S. International Religious Freedom Fund. Pompeo also announced that the Department was creating a ten-day International Victor Leadership Program for those “working on the frontiers of religious freedom issues” around the world and a three-day workshop Boldline “to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships that promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” Also announced was the then upcoming Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action for religious freedom.

Conclusion

 Although as a member of a Presbyterian Church I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, I approached the investigation of this Ministerial with some skepticism and fear that it was a device to promulgate what I would regard as a right-wing approach to religion and Christianity.

However, the above account of the work of the first Ministerial does not support such skepticism.Nor does the latest State Department annual report on international religious freedom insofar as it cites to the relevant international standards on the subject. Whether or not its gathered “evidence” or analysis of same meets the same standard is another issue for another day. [6]

Later this month the State Department will hold its second such Ministerial [7] for like-minded governments that have a demonstrated record of advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or governments that have taken significant and meaningful steps to do so; and survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs. This Ministerial will have the following agenda:

  • Discuss opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally, including how such freedom, international development and humanitarian aid can work together.
  • Discuss best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.
  • Identify global challenges to religious freedom; develop innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and share new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Invitations will be extended to

This blog will examine this second Ministerial’s work to see if there is any reason to change a favorable opinion about its work. As always, this blog invites reasoned pro and con comments, especially for topics or perspectives that were overlooked.

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[1] According to the State Department’s Diplomatic Dictionary, a “ministerial” is a “ formally arranged meeting of ministers of various states, such as the Defense or Foreign Ministers of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

[2] State Dep’t, Potomac Declaration (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, Potomac Plan of Action (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Fund: Fact Sheet (July 27, 2018).

[4] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Iran (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on China (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Burma (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws (July 26, 2018).

[5] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019).

[6] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019)

[7] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, 16-18 July 2019 (June 21, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019).

 

No Mention of Cuba in U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Terrorism

On July 19, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. One of its chapters lists these three countries as “state sponsors of terrorism:” Iran, Sudan and Syria. Other chapters discuss the terrorism records of most countries in the world.[1]

This Reports document, however, made no mention of Cuba or statement as to the reasons for this omission.[2] This was in sharp contrast to previous reports for the years 1981-2013, that listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (i.e., the government of a country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”) and the removal of Cuba from that category for 2014 and 2015.

At the press briefing on the latest Reports, a journalist asked whether Secretary of State Tillerson himself had made the decision not to put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors since at his Senate confirmation hearing he had testified that he “wanted to examine the criteria under which Cuba was removed from the list” in 2015 for the year 2014.[3]

The State Department official responded: “Cuba was removed, and there is no requirement within the report for an individual chapter on every single country around the world. We produce chapters in the Country Reports based upon material, frankly, to include in the report. So it was assessed that there was not sufficient information there to provide a report this year on Cuba, but it was removed from the state sponsor list previously.”

Conclusion

The non-inclusion of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in this latest report, in this blogger’s opinion, is the proper conclusion and perhaps is a sign that the Trump Administration’s rhetoric about Cuba is louder and stronger than its bite. Let us hope.

Moreover, the statement that the State Department did not have sufficient information about Cuban counterterrorism efforts to include Cuba in the latest report is disingenuous. From December 2014 through January 19, 2017 (the last full day of the Obama Administration), the U.S. and Cuba held discussions about their respective counterterrorism efforts, and on January 16, 2017 the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Law Enforcement that provided for cooperation on various matters, including “the fight against terrorism.” These discussions, although not a matter of public information, must have provided the U.S. with significant information about Cuba’s counterterrorism efforts.[4]]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 (July 19, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Release: State Department Releases Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 (July 19, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing: Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell on the Release of Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 (July 19, 2017).

[2] Welsh, State Department drops Cuba entirely from annual detail of terrorist activity, McClatchy (July 19, 2017).

[3] Previous State Department reports about Cuba and terrorism have been discussed in posts to this blog. See posts listed in the “Cuba: State Sponsor of Terrorism?” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries: United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue (May 19, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Counterterrorism Cooperation (June 10, 2016); President Obama Issues Presidential Policy Directive—United States-Cuba Normalization (Oct. 14, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Continue to Implement Normalization of Relations (Jan. 17, 2017).

 

 

U.S. Announces Agreement To Restore Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

On July 1, 2015, the U.S. and Cuba announced an agreement to restore diplomatic relations. This post will discuss the U.S. announcement and reactions.[1] A subsequent post will do the same for the Cuban announcement and reactions.

U.S. Announcement

President Obama & Vice President Biden
President Obama & Vice President Biden

In the White House’s Rose Garden, President Obama announced the plans to reopen the embassies. Here is what he said:

  • “More than 54 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the United States closed its embassy in Havana.  Today, I can announce that the United States has agreed to formally re-establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba, and re-open embassies in our respective countries.  This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people, and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.”
  • “When the United States shuttered our embassy in 1961, I don’t think anyone expected that it would be more than half a century before it re-opened.  After all, our nations are separated by only 90 miles, and there are deep bonds of family and friendship between our people.  But there have been very real, profound differences between our governments, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be trapped by a certain way of doing things.”
  • “For the United States, that meant clinging to a policy that was not working.  Instead of supporting democracy and opportunity for the Cuban people, our efforts to isolate Cuba despite good intentions increasingly had the opposite effect -– cementing the status quo and isolating the United States from our neighbors in this hemisphere.  The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn’t working, we can -– and will –- change.”
  • “Last December, I announced that the United States and Cuba had decided to take steps to normalize our relationship.  As part of that effort, President Raul Castro and I directed our teams to negotiate the re-establishment of embassies.  Since then, our State Department has worked hard with their Cuban counterparts to achieve that goal.  And later this summer, Secretary Kerry will travel to Havana formally to proudly raise the American flag over our embassy once more.”
  • “This is not merely symbolic.  With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people.  We’ll have more personnel at our embassy.  And our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island.  That will include the Cuban government, civil society, and ordinary Cubans who are reaching for a better life.”
  • “On issues of common interest –- like counterterrorism, disaster response, and development -– we will find new ways to cooperate with Cuba.  And I’ve been clear that we will also continue to have some very serious differences.  That will include America’s enduring support for universal values, like freedom of speech and assembly, and the ability to access information.  And we will not hesitate to speak out when we see actions that contradict those values.”
  • “However, I strongly believe that the best way for America to support our values is through engagement.  That’s why we’ve already taken steps to allow for greater travel, people-to-people and commercial ties between the United States and Cuba.  And we will continue to do so going forward.”
  • “Since December, we’ve already seen enormous enthusiasm for this new approach. Leaders across the Americas have expressed support for our change in policy; you heard that expressed by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil yesterday.  Public opinion surveys in both our countries show broad support for this engagement. . . .
  • “Here in the United States, we’ve seen that same enthusiasm.  There are Americans who want to travel to Cuba and American businesses [that] want to invest in Cuba.  American colleges and universities . . . want to partner with Cuba.  Above all, Americans who want to get to know their neighbors to the south. And through that engagement, we can also help the Cuban people improve their own lives.”
  • “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward.  I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same.  I’ve called on Congress to take steps to lift the embargo that prevents Americans from travelling or doing business in Cuba.  We’ve already seen members from both parties begin that work.  After all, why should Washington stand in the way of our own people?”
  • “Yes, there are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation.  But it’s long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn’t work.  It hasn’t worked for 50 years.  It shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life worse for the Cuban people.”
  • So I’d ask Congress to listen to the Cuban people.  Listen to the American people.  Listen to the words of a proud Cuban-American, Carlos Gutierrez, who recently came out against the policy of the past, saying, ‘I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.’”
  • “Of course, nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight. But I believe that American engagement — through our embassy, our businesses, and most of all, through our people — is the best way to advance our interests and support for democracy and human rights.  Time and again, America has demonstrated that part of our leadership in the world is our capacity to change.  It’s what inspires the world to reach for something better.”
  • “A year ago, it might have seemed impossible that the United States would once again be raising our flag, the stars and stripes, over an embassy in Havana.  This is what change looks like.”
  • “In January of 1961, the year I was born, when President Eisenhower announced the termination of our relations with Cuba, he said:  It is my hope and my conviction that it is ‘in the not-too-distant future it will be possible for the historic friendship between us once again to find its reflection in normal relations of every sort.’  Well, it took a while, but I believe that time has come.  And a better future lies ahead.”
Secretary John Kerry
Secretary John Kerry

The same day Secretary of State John Kerry from Vienna, Austria also discussed the plans, including his intent to travel to Havana for the opening of the embassy later this month. His statement included the following:

  • “Later this summer, as the President announced, I will travel to Cuba to personally take part in the formal reopening of our United States Embassy in Havana. This will mark the resumption of embassy operations after a period of 54 years. It will also be the first visit by a Secretary of State to Cuba since 1945. The reopening of our embassy . . . is an important step on the road to restoring fully normal relations between the United States and Cuba. Coming a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, it recognizes the reality of the changed circumstances, and it will serve to meet a number of practical needs.”
  • “The United States and Cuba continue to have sharp differences over democracy, human rights, and related issues, but we also have identified areas for cooperation that include law enforcement, safe transportation, emergency response, environmental protection, telecommunications, and migration. The resumption of full embassy activities will help us engage the Cuban Government more often and at a higher level, and it will also allow our diplomats to interact more frequently, and frankly more broadly and effectively, with the Cuban people. In addition, we will better be able to assist Americans who travel to the island nation in order to visit family members or for other purposes.”

In addition, the State Department conducted a special briefing by a senior official on this historic development. This individual said, “We’re confident that our embassy in Havana will be able to operate similar to other embassies operating in restrictive environments. We will be able to meet and exchange opinions with a variety of voices and views both within the government and outside. We’ll be able to engage a broad range of Cuban civil society and citizens.” The conditions for “access to diplomatic facilities, travel of diplomats, and the level of staffing . . . are acceptable for carrying out the core diplomatic functions necessary for implementing the President’s new policy direction on Cuba.” There were not any agreed “constrains or restrictions” on the exact types of programs or facilities that each of our embassies conducts.

According to the State Department spokesperson, there will be future discussions or negotiations with Cuba over human rights, telecommunications, health issues, fugitives, law enforcement, U.S. claims for property expropriation, Cuban claims for damages under the embargo and U.S. broadcasts to the island. Until there is a nomination and confirmation of an ambassador, Jeffrey DeLaurentis will be the charge d’affaires and will lead the embassy.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis & Marcelinio Medina
Jeffrey DeLaurentis & Marcelinio Medina

Also earlier the same day Cuba’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that the head of the US Interests Section in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, had delivered to the Acting Foreign Minister, Marcelino Medina, a letter from President Obama to Army General Raul Castro confirming “the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of embassies in the respective countries” on or after July 20. Here is the text of that letter:

  • “I am pleased to confirm, after high-level talks between our two governments, and in accordance with international law and practice, that the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba decided to restore diplomatic relations and permanent diplomatic missions in our respective countries 20 July 2015. This is an important step forward in the normalization process, which started last December, with regard to relations between our two countries and peoples.”
  • “In making this decision, the United States are encouraged by the mutual intention to enter into friendly and cooperative relations between our two peoples and governments, consistent with the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, in particular those relating to equality sovereign states, the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means, respect for the territorial integrity and political independence of States, respect for the equal rights and self-determination of peoples, non-interference in internal affairs States as well as promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.”
  • “The United States and Cuba are parties to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, signed in Vienna on April 18, 1961, and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, signed in Vienna on April 24, 1963. I am pleased to confirm the understanding the United States that the above conventions apply to diplomatic and consular relations between our two countries.”

Although the U.S. can easily change the plaque on its building in Havana to one proclaiming that it is the Embassy of the United States of America, the State Department has said it needs $6.6 million to retrofit the building to make it suitable as an embassy. This may require a supplemental appropriation by Congress.

The U.S. will need an Ambassador to Cuba, and such an appointment needs to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In the meantime, as just noted, the U.S. has a capable career diplomat running the interests section, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who will be in charge.

Reactions to the Announcement

The announcement of re-establishment of diplomatic relations drew widespread praise. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) stated, “It’s long past time for U.S. policy toward Cuba to be associated with something other than five decades of failure. It is difficult to overstate the importance of resuming diplomatic relations ‎with Cuba, in furthering our own national interests, benefiting our relations in the region, and encouraging a positive future for the Cuban people. I am confident that this move will lead to increased travel and contact between U.S. citizens and everyday Cubans, to the benefit of both.” Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), a co-sponsor of a bill to expand U.S. travel to Cuba and the author of a bill to lift the trade embargo, said, “This is the first step that must happen in order to lift the embargo.” Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy (VT) and Benjamin Cardin (MD) issued similar positive statements.

Engage Cuba, a bipartisan public policy organization dedicated to coalescing and mobilizing American businesses, non-profit groups and concerned citizens for the purpose of supporting the ongoing U.S.‐Cuba normalization process and enacting legislation to reform U.S. travel and trade restrictions with Cuba, issued a statement of support. It said, “We applaud this important step in bringing the U.S. and Cuba closer together, and urge Congress to hasten the day when American travelers and companies have the freedom to engage with one of our nearest neighbors. Opening embassies in Washington and Havana is an important step toward the day when Americans can make their own decisions on where they travel, and our businesses can compete with the rest of the world. We are making history by making it clear that America’s engagement isn’t a concession, it is a show of strength and the best way to promote our values and create opportunities for both Americans and the Cuban people.”

Moreover, said Engage Cuba, “A vast majority of the American people – and 97% of the Cuban people – support re-establishing diplomatic relations. Today is a great day for the American and Cuban people who seek a brighter future for their two countries. After 54 years of a failed Cold war policy, better days finally lie ahead.”

A similar supportive statement came from the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), which is “devoted to changing U.S. policy toward the countries of the Americas by basing our relations on mutual respect, fostering dialogue with those governments and movements with which U.S. policy is at odds, and recognizing positive trends in democracy and governance” and which is a member of Engage Cuba. CDA stated, “”This is a moment we have been working toward for many years. The restoration of diplomatic relations between our countries is a major achievement that will help to heal decades of mistrust and will open opportunities for the U.S. and Cuba to collaborate on issues of mutual interest like immigration, environmental conservation, and regional trade. We applaud the tireless work of Cuban and U.S. diplomats, policymakers, academics, and activists who have helped make this possible. We are ready to work with all our allies to defend these positive steps initiated by President Obama and to move forward with removing the embargo once and for all.”

The day before this announcement, President Obama held a joint press conference at the White House with the visiting President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff.[2] In his opening remarks, Obama said, “As President, I’ve pursued a new era of engagement with Latin America where our countries work together as equal partners, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.  As we saw at the recent Summit of the Americas, the United States is more deeply engaged in the region than we’ve been in decades, and I believe the relationship between the United States and Latin America is as good as it’s ever been.  We’re focused on the future — what we can accomplish together.”

After he had reviewed the many ways that Brazil and the U.S. cooperate, Obama commented, “And finally, we’re working together to uphold democracy and human rights across Latin America.  I very much appreciate President Rousseff and Brazil’s strong support for our new opening toward Cuba.  I updated Dilma on our progress, including our work to open embassies in Havana and Washington.  And I believe that Brazil’s leadership in the region, as well as its own journey to democracy and a market economy can make it an important partner as we work to create more opportunities and prosperity for the Cuban people.”

In her response President Rousseff remarked about “the importance for Latin America of the recent decision made by President Obama and by President Raul Castro, even with the partnership with Pope Francis to the effect of opening up relations with — or resuming relations with Cuba, a very decisive milestone and point in time in U.S. relations with Latin America.  It is really about putting an end to the lingering vestiges of the Cold War.  And it ultimately elevates the level of the relations between the U.S. and the entire region. May I acknowledge the importance of that gesture to all of Latin America and also to world peace at large.  It is an important example of relations to be followed.”

These thoughts were echoed in the subsequent Joint Communique by the two presidents: “President Rousseff praised President Obama’s policy changes towards Cuba, and the Leaders agreed that the latest Summit of the Americas (held in Panama, on April 10 and 11, 2015) demonstrated the region’s capacity to overcome the differences of the past through dialogue, thereby paving the way for the region as a whole to find solutions to the common challenges facing the countries of the Americas.”

As anticipated, however, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a Cuban-American, immediately issued a press release condemning the agreement.[3] It said:

  • “Throughout this entire negotiation, as the Castro regime has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people, the Obama Administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession. The administration’s reported plan to restore diplomatic relations is one such prized concession to the Castro regime. It remains unclear what, if anything, has been achieved since the President’s December 17th announcement in terms of securing the return of U.S. fugitives being harbored in Cuba, settling outstanding legal claims to U.S. citizens for properties confiscated by the regime, and in obtaining the unequivocal right of our diplomats to travel freely throughout Cuba and meet with any dissidents, and most importantly, securing greater political freedoms for the Cuban people. I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

Conclusion

I am glad that my recent concern about the delay in announcing resumption of diplomatic relations has been alleviated. This is an important development in the            reconciliation of our country with Cuba. Now all advocates for reconciliation need to notify their senators and representatives to oppose any of the measures put forward by Senator Rubio and others to try to block this important move.

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[1] This portion of the post is based upon the following: White House, Statement by the President on the Re-Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with Cuba (July 1, 2015); Letter from Barack Obama [to] Raúl Castro, Granma (July 1, 2015); Letters between Obama and Castro to restore diplomatic relations, el Pais (July 1, 2015); Kerry, Statement on Cuba (July 1, 2015); State Dep’t, Special Briefing on Re-Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with Cuba (July 1, 2015); Baker & Davis, U.S. and Cuba Reach an Agreement to Reopen Embassies, Officials Say, N.Y. Times (June 30, 2015); Schwartz, Córdoba & Lee, U.S., Cuba Reach Agreement to Establish Full Diplomatic Relations, W.S.J. (June 30, 2015); Center for Democracy in Americas, Press Release: CDA Applauds Announcement That U.S. And Cuba Will Reopen Embassies (June 30, 2015); Minister for Foreign Affairs will receive †he Head of †he Section of Interests of the United States, Granma (July 1, 2015); Ayuso, Cuba and the United States announced the reopening of embassies on Wednesday, El Pais (July 1, 2015); Flake, Re-Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with Cuba (June 30, 2015); Engage Cuba, Press Release: Statement from Engage Cuba on Announcement that U.S., and Cuban Embassies Will Re-open (July 1, 2015); Rubio, Rubio Comments On Obama Re-Establishing Diplomatic Relations With Cuba (July 1, 2015)

[2] This portion of the post is based upon the following: White House, Remarks by President Obama and President Rousseff of Brazil in Joint Press Conference (June 30, 2015); White House, Joint Communique by President Barack Obama and President Dilma Rousseff (June 30, 2015); Harris, Leader of Brazil Visits Amid Home Turbulence, N.Y. Times (June 30, 2015).

[3] Senator Rubio in a letter to Secretary Kerry in June “vowed to oppose the confirmation of any ambassador until issues like human rights, fugitive terrorists and billions of dollars of outstanding claims were resolved.” The Senator said it is “important that pro-democracy activities not be sacrificed in the name of ‘diplomacy’ just so that we can change the name of a building from ‘Interest Section’ to ‘Embassy,’ ” Similar negative press releases came from other Cuban-Americas in the Congress: Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Republican Representatives from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.