Nelson Mandela’s Decade of Democracy Article (April 2004)

As we have seen, the fifth and last concert in South Africa by the Minnesota Orchestra was in Johannesburg, which is where Nelson Mandela in 1964 was arrested and charged for four major crimes that he attacked in a lengthy statement to the court in the Rivonia Trial. Now we examine his April 2004 newspaper article on South Africa’s first decade of democracy. Another connection with that city occured in June 2004, when he announced his retirement from public affairs that will be discussed in a later post.

Decade of Democracy Article [1]

In April 2004, Mandela wrote the following article in The Sunday Times about his country’s first decade of democracy:

“Freedom in our lifetime was a slogan of hope, encouragement, sustenance and inspiration to generations of our freedom fighters, anti-apartheid activists and the masses of our people suffering oppression, exploitation and degradation.”

“A struggling people and their liberation movements have to hold on to the hope of freedom even under the most difficult circumstances, against the greatest odds and in the darkest hours. We, the people of South Africa and the freedom movements of our people, have suffered many moments and eras of deep despondency when it must have appeared that the so much longed for emancipation was never to be attained, at least not in our various and respective lifetimes.”

“Measure that against centuries of colonial rule and dispossession. Against decades of apartheid rule, the most structured form of racial domination and discrimination the world has known after the Second World War.”

“A decade may in mere measurable terms seem to be nothing in human history. As a people, we South Africans know this decade of living together in peace, in the acknowledgement of our common humanity, in the democratic accommodation of our differences within our national unity to be a human achievement that in its impact and magnitude transcends and belies the brevity of its years.”

“I have so often heard us being described by people across the globe as a miracle nation. We were expected by the world to self-destruct in the bloodiest civil war along racial grounds. Not only did we avert such racial conflagration; we created amongst ourselves one of the most exemplary and progressive non-racial and non-sexist democratic orders in the contemporary world.”

“Perhaps we do not always appreciate the magnitude of that achievement and its inspiration for a late-twentieth and early twenty-first century world yearning and searching for hope and meaning. For once history and hope rhymed, a famous poet reminded me and us, speaking of the miracle of our transition and the wonder of our democracy.”

“This first decade was one of laying foundations, of early building, of consolidation. Much of it had, by the nature of our divided history, to consist of breaking down, of un-doing. The government over which I was chosen to preside had to take stock and come to an understanding of the structures and rules that governed our nation and our lives under the perversion of apartheid; to initiate the process of de-legislation and re-legislation; to create a new system of legislation and regulation governed by the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.”

“That government – the government of national unity – was in itself, by its mere nature, a celebration and demonstration of the will and the capacity of the South African people and their elected leaders to make democracy work. It brought together three historically antagonistic political movements in a co-operative venture to make our country succeed, to establish and consolidate our democracy, to unite our people in their diversity.”

“When I reflect on this first decade of our democracy and more particularly for the moment on those first foundational five years, I have to pay tribute to the wisdom and the considered rationality of the leaders of those participating parties and all the members of that first Cabinet. They all will have opportunity and reason in their inevitable memoirs to reflect and report on my moments of impatience, anger, folly and irrationality, I suppose; what will remain with me is the memory of collegiality, shared patriotism and the pride of country.”

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[1] Nelson Mandela Foundation, Decade of Democracy (Sunday Times April 2004).

 

Obama: “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World”

On July 17, the day before the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birthday, Barack Obama delivered the 16th annual  Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa to a crowd of 15,000 in a football (soccer) stadium (the Wanderers Stadium) and to a worldwide livestream audience of millions, including this blogger. The lecture’s title: “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World.” [1] Below are photographs of a poster for the lecture and of Obama giving the lecture.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lecture[2]

The lecture weaved the life and legacy of Mandela into an overview of world history from his birth in 1918 to the late 20th century and early 21st century to the current situation. Here is an abridged version of that lecture; the full text is available on the websites listed in the last footnote.

The World of 1918

The lecture started with a dramatic picture of  the changes in the world from 1918, the year of Mandela’s birth, when there “was no reason to believe that a young black boy at this time, in this place, could in any way alter history.”

The World of the Late 20th Century

The lecture then moved to the “the remarkable transformations” of the world by the end of the 20th century and Mandela’s “long walk towards freedom and justice and equal opportunity . . . [which] came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.”

When Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, It “seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit – that all that was crumbling before our eyes. And then as Madiba guided this nation through negotiation painstakingly, reconciliation, its first fair and free elections; as we all witnessed the grace and the generosity with which he embraced former enemies, the wisdom for him to step away from power once he felt his job was complete, . . .  we understood it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.”

“And during the last decades of the 20th century, the progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate. It doesn’t mean that vision was always victorious, but it set the terms, the parameters; it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress, and it continued to propel the world forward. Yes, there were still tragedies – bloody civil wars from the Balkans to the Congo. Despite the fact that ethnic and sectarian strife still flared up with heartbreaking regularity, despite all that as a consequence of the continuation of nuclear détente, and a peaceful and prosperous Japan, and a unified Europe anchored in NATO, and the entry of China into the world’s system of trade – all that greatly reduced the prospect of war between the world’s great powers. And from Europe to Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, dictatorships began to give way to democracies. The march was on. A respect for human rights and the rule of law, enumerated in a declaration by the United Nations, became the guiding norm for the majority of nations, even in places where the reality fell far short of the ideal. Even when those human rights were violated, those who violated human rights were on the defensive.”

The World of the Early 21st Century

In more recent years, however, “we now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.” We have to recognize that “the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away” while “around the world, entire neighborhoods, entire cities, entire regions, entire nations have been bypassed. In other words, for far too many people, the more things have changed, the more things stayed the same.”

“The result of all these trends has been an explosion in economic inequality. . . . In every country just about, the disproportionate economic clout of [many of] those at the top has provided these individuals with wildly disproportionate influence on their countries’ political life and on its media; on what policies are pursued and whose interests end up being ignored. . . . A decent percentage [of them, however,] consider themselves liberal in their politics, modern and cosmopolitan in their outlook.”

“But what’s nevertheless true is that in their business dealings, many titans of industry and finance are increasingly detached from any single locale or nation-state, and they live lives more and more insulated from the struggles of ordinary people in their countries of origin.” Nevertheless, “too often, these decisions are also made without reference to notions of human solidarity – or a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities by the decisions that are made.”

“Which is why, at the end of the 20th century, while some Western commentators were declaring the end of history and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash – a backlash that arrived in so many forms. It announced itself most violently with 9/11 and the emergence of transnational terrorist networks, fueled by an ideology that perverted one of the world’s great religions and asserted a struggle not just between Islam and the West but between Islam and modernity, and an ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t help, accelerating a sectarian conflict.”

“Within the United States, within the European Union, challenges to globalization first came from the left but then came more forcefully from the right, as you started seeing populist movements – which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing government constraints on their business interests – these movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside of the urban cores; fears that economic security was slipping away, that their social status and privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray as they did.”

“Perhaps more than anything else, the devastating impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in which the reckless behavior of financial elites resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people all around the world, made all the previous assurances of experts ring hollow – all those assurances that somehow financial regulators knew what they were doing, that somebody was minding the store, that global economic integration was an unadulterated good. . . . But the credibility of the international system, the faith in experts in places like Washington or Brussels, all that had taken a blow.”

The Current World Situation

A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I am simply stating the facts. Look around. Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries now are looking at China’s model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good? The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.” (Emphases added.)

“So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads – a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?”

“Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down – should we see that hope that we had as naïve and misguided? Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history – where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out?”

I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.], and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good.” (Emphasis added.)

“I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.”

“The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.” (Emphasis added.)

“The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history.”

“The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together – eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war.”

“The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.”

“We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way. So if we’re truly to continue Madiba’s long walk towards freedom, we’re going to have to work harder and we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past. And so in the brief time remaining, let me just suggest a few guideposts for the road ahead, guideposts that draw from Madiba’s work, his words, the lessons of his life.” (Emphasis added.)

Guideposts for the Future

“First, Madiba shows those of us who believe in freedom and democracy we are going to have to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people.” (Emphasis added.)

“I don’t believe in economic determinism. Human beings don’t live on bread alone. But they need bread. And history shows that societies which tolerate vast differences in wealth feed resentments and reduce solidarity and actually grow more slowly; and that once people achieve more than mere subsistence, then they’re measuring their well-being by how they compare to their neighbors, and whether their children can expect to live a better life. And when economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, history also shows that political power is sure to follow – and that dynamic eats away at democracy. Sometimes it may be straight-out corruption, but sometimes it may not involve the exchange of money; it’s just folks who are that wealthy get what they want, and it undermines human freedom.” (Emphases added.)

“Madiba understood this. This is not new. He warned us about this. He said: ‘Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and the powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and the weaker, [then] we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.’ So if we are serious about universal freedom today, if we care about social justice today, then we have a responsibility to do something about it. And I would respectfully amend what Madiba said. I don’t do it often, but I’d say it’s not enough for us to protest; we’re going to have to build, we’re going to have to innovate, we’re going to have to figure out how do we close this widening chasm of wealth and opportunity both within countries and between them.” (Emphases added.)

“How we achieve this is going to vary country to country, and I know your new president is committed to rolling up his sleeves and trying to do so. But we can learn from the last 70 years that it will not involve unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism. It also won’t involve old-style command-and-control socialism form the top. That was tried; it didn’t work very well. For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive market-based systemone that offers education for every child; that protects collective bargaining and secures the rights of every worker that breaks up monopolies to encourage competition in small and medium-sized businesses; and has laws that root out corruption and ensures fair dealing in business; that maintains some form of progressive taxation so that rich people are still rich but they’re giving a little bit back to make sure that everybody else has something to pay for universal health care and retirement security, and invests in infrastructure and scientific research that builds platforms for innovation.” (Emphases added.)

“You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, ‘Well, let me help out and let a few of the other folks – let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees, let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s okay. I can afford it.’ What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself.”

“It involves promoting an inclusive capitalism both within nations and between nations. And as we pursue, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals,[3] we have to get past the charity mindset. We’ve got to bring more resources to the forgotten pockets of the world through investment and entrepreneurship, because there is talent everywhere in the world if given an opportunity.”

“When it comes to the international system of commerce and trade, it’s legitimate for poorer countries to continue to seek access to wealthier markets. . . . It’s also proper for advanced economies like the United States to insist on reciprocity from nations like China that are no longer solely poor countries, to make sure that they’re providing access to their markets and that they stop taking intellectual property and hacking our servers.”

“While the outsourcing of jobs from north to south, from east to west, while a lot of that was a dominant trend in the late 20th century, the biggest challenge to workers in countries like mine today is technology. And the biggest challenge for your new president when we think about how we’re going to employ more people here is going to be also technology, because artificial intelligence is here and it is accelerating, and you’re going to have driverless cars, and you’re going to have more and more automated services, and that’s going to make the job of giving everybody work that is meaningful tougher, and we’re going to have to be more imaginative, and the pact of change is going to require us to do more fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements, to protect the economic security and the dignity that comes with a job. It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose. And so we’re going to have to consider new ways of thinking about these problems, like a universal income, review of our workweek, how we retrain our young people, how we make everybody an entrepreneur at some level. But we’re going to have to worry about economics if we want to get democracy back on track. ‘

“Second, Madiba teaches us that some principles really are universal – and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth.” (Emphasis added.)

 “Now, it’s surprising that we have to affirm this truth today: . . . that black people and white people and Asian people and Latin American people and women and men and gays and straights, that we are all human, that our differences are superficial, and that we should treat each other with care and respect. . . . We’re seeing in this recent drift into reactionary politics, that the struggle for basic justice is never truly finished. So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down. . . . we have to resist the notion that basic human rights like freedom to dissent, or the right of women to fully participate in the society, or the right of minorities to equal treatment, or the rights of people not to be beat up and jailed because of their sexual orientation . . .  [do not] apply to us, that those are Western ideas rather than universal imperatives.” (Emphasis added.)

“Again, Madiba, he anticipated things. He knew what he was talking about. In 1964, before he received the sentence that condemned him to die in prison, he explained from the dock that, ‘The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world.’ In other words, he didn’t say well, those books weren’t written by South Africans so I just – I can’t claim them. No, he said that’s part of my inheritance. That’s part of the human inheritance. That applies here in this country, to me, and to you. And that’s part of what gave him the moral authority that the apartheid regime could never claim, because he was more familiar with their best values than they were. He had read their documents more carefully than they had. And he went on to say, “Political division based on color is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one color group by another.”

“What was true then remains true today. Basic truths do not change. It is a truth that can be embraced by the English, and by the Indian, and by the Mexican and by the Bantu and by the Luo and by the American. It is a truth that lies at the heart of every world religion – that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we see ourselves in other people. That we can recognize common hopes and common dreams. And it is a truth that is incompatible with any form of discrimination based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. And it is a truth that, by the way, when embraced, actually delivers practical benefits, since it ensures that a society can draw upon the talents and energy and skill of all its people.” (Emphases added.)

Embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have to abandon our unique ethnic and national and religious identities. Madiba never stopped being proud of his tribal heritage. He didn’t stop being proud of being a black man and being a South African. But he believed, as I believe, that you can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage. In fact, you dishonor your heritage. It would make me think that you’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. . . . people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of. Madiba knew that we cannot claim justice for ourselves when it’s only reserved for some. Madiba understood that we can’t say we’ve got a just society simply because we replaced the color of the person on top of an unjust system, so the person looks like us even though they’re doing the same stuff, and somehow now we’ve got justice. That doesn’t work. It’s not justice if now you’re on top, so I’m going to do the same thing that those folks were doing to me and now I’m going to do it to you. That’s not justice. ‘I detest racialism,’ he said, ‘whether it comes from a black man or a white man.’” (Emphases added.)

“Now, we have to acknowledge that there is disorientation that comes from rapid change and modernization, and the fact that the world has shrunk, and we’re going to have to find ways to lessen the fears of those who feel threatened. In the West’s current debate around immigration, for example, it’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter; whether you’re a citizen or not is going to matter to a government, that laws need to be followed; that in the public realm newcomers should make an effort to adapt to the language and customs of their new home. Those are legitimate things and we have to be able to engage people who do feel as if things are not orderly. But that can’t be an excuse for immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion. There’s got to be some consistency. And we can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child. (Emphases added.)

“Third, Madiba reminds us that democracy is about more than just elections.” (Emphasis added.)

“When he was freed from prison, Madiba’s popularity – well, you couldn’t even measure it. He could have been president for life. Am I wrong? Who was going to run against him? I mean, Ramaphosa [the current South African president] was popular, but, . . . he was too young. Had he chose, Madiba could have governed by executive fiat, unconstrained by check and balances. But instead he helped guide South Africa through the drafting of a new Constitution, drawing from all the institutional practices and democratic ideals that had proven to be most sturdy, mindful of the fact that no single individual possesses a monopoly on wisdom. No individual – not Mandela, not Obama – [is]  entirely immune to the corrupting influences of absolute power, if you can do whatever you want and everyone’s too afraid to tell you when you’re making a mistake. No one is immune from the dangers of that.” (Emphasis added.)

“Mandela understood this. He said, ‘Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded.’ He understood it’s not just about who has the most votes. It’s also about the civic culture that we build that makes democracy work.”

“So we have to stop pretending that countries that just hold an election where sometimes the winner somehow magically gets 90 percent of the vote because all the opposition is locked up or can’t get on TV, is a democracy. Democracy depends on strong institutions and it’s about minority rights and checks and balances, and freedom of speech and freedom of expression and a free press, and the right to protest and petition the government, and an independent judiciary, and everybody having to follow the law.” (Emphasis added.)

“And yes, democracy can be messy, and it can be slow, and it can be frustrating. I know, I promise. But the efficiency that’s offered by an autocrat, that’s a false promise. Don’t take that one, because it leads invariably to more consolidation of wealth at the top and power at the top, and it makes it easier to conceal corruption and abuse. For all its imperfections, real democracy best upholds the idea that government exists to serve the individual and not the other way around. And it is the only form of government that has the possibility of making that idea real.” (Emphasis added.)

“So for those of us who are interested in strengthening democracy, . . . it’s time for us to stop paying all of our attention to the world’s capitals and the centers of power and to start focusing more on the grassroots, because that’s where democratic legitimacy comes from. Not from the top down, not from abstract theories, not just from experts, but from the bottom up. Knowing the lives of those who are struggling.” (Emphasis added.)

“As a community organizer, I learned as much from a laid-off steel worker in Chicago or a single mom in a poor neighborhood that I visited as I learned from the finest economists in the Oval Office. Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it’s lived in our communities, and that’s what we should expect from our leaders, and it depends upon cultivating leaders at the grassroots who can help bring about change and implement it on the ground and can tell leaders in fancy buildings, this isn’t working down here.” (Emphases added.)

“To make democracy work, Madiba shows us that we also have to keep teaching our children, and ourselves . . . to engage with people not only who look different but who hold different views.” (Emphasis added.)

“Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. . . . But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you – because they’re white, or because they’re male – that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.” (Emphasis added.)

“Madiba, he lived this complexity. In prison, he studied Afrikaans so that he could better understand the people who were jailing him. And when he got out of prison, he extended a hand to those who had jailed him, because he knew that they had to be a part of the democratic South Africa that he wanted to build. ‘To make peace with an enemy,’ he wrote, ‘one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.’”

“So those who traffic in absolutes when it comes to policy, whether it’s on the left or the right, they make democracy unworkable. You can’t expect to get 100 percent of what you want all the time; sometimes, you have to compromise. That doesn’t mean abandoning your principles, but instead it means holding on to those principles and then having the confidence that they’re going to stand up to a serious democratic debate. That’s how America’s Founders intended our system to work – that through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and proof it would be possible to arrive at a basis for common ground.”  (Emphases added.)

“And I should add for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. . . . You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation. . . . I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, well, it’s not going to work, you can’t get everybody to cooperate, or they might say it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution. At least I can have a debate with them about that and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries, that you can leapfrog old technologies. I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is.” (Emphases added.)

“Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” (Emphases added.)

We also see “the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. . . . the denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation; and we have to insist that our schools teach critical thinking to our young people, not just blind obedience.” (Emphasis added.)

“My final point: we have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of hope.”

“It is tempting to give in to cynicism: to believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back; that the pendulum has swung permanently. Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the 90s, now you are hearing people talk about end of democracy and the triumph of tribalism and the strong man. We have to resist that cynicism.”

“Because, we’ve been through darker times, we’ve been in lower valleys and deeper valleys. Yes, by the end of his life, Madiba embodied the successful struggle for human rights, but the journey was not easy, it wasn’t pre-ordained. The man went to prison for almost three decades. He split limestone in the heat, he slept in a small cell, and was repeatedly put in solitary confinement. And I remember talking to some of his former colleagues saying how they hadn’t realized when they were released, just the sight of a child, the idea of holding a child, they had missed – it wasn’t something available to them, for decades.”

“And yet his power actually grew during those years – and the power of his jailers diminished, because he knew that if you stick to what’s true, if you know what’s in your heart, and you’re willing to sacrifice for it, even in the face of overwhelming odds, that it might not happen tomorrow, it might not happen in the next week, it might not even happen in your lifetime. Things may go backwards for a while, but ultimately, right makes might, not the other way around, ultimately, the better story can win out and as strong as Madiba’s spirit may have been, he would not have sustained that hope had he been alone in the struggle, part of buoyed him up was that he knew that each year, the ranks of freedom fighters were replenishing, young men and women, here in South African, in the ANC and beyond; black and Indian and white, from across the countryside, across the continent, around the world, who in those most difficult days would keep working on behalf of his vision.” (Emphasis added.)

“What we need right now . . . is that collective spirit. And, I know that those young people, those hope carriers are gathering around the world. Because history shows that whenever progress is threatened, and the things we care about most are in question, we should heed the words of Robert Kennedy – spoken here in South Africa, he said, ‘Our answer is the world’s hope: it is to rely on youth. It’s to rely on the spirit of the young.’[4]

“So, young people, who are in the audience, who are listening, my message to you is simple, keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice. Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world. Mandela said, ‘Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.’ Now is a good time to be aroused. Now is a good time to be fired up.”

“For those of us who care about the legacy that we honor here today – about equality and dignity and democracy and solidarity and kindness, those of us who remain young at heart, if not in body – we have an obligation to help our youth succeed. Some of you know, here in South Africa, my Foundation is convening over the last few days, two hundred young people from across this continent who are doing the hard work of making change in their communities; who reflect Madiba’s values, who are poised to lead the way.”

These young people “will give you hope. They are taking the baton, they know they can’t just rest on the accomplishments of the past, even the accomplishments of those as momentous as Nelson Mandela’s. They stand on the shoulders of those who came before, including that young black boy born 100 years ago, but they know that it is now their turn to do the work.”

“Madiba reminds us that: ‘No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.’ ’Love comes more naturally to the human heart, let’s remember that truth. Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on earth so that in 100 years from now, future generations will look back and say, ‘they kept the march going, that’s why we live under new banners of freedom.’”(emphasis added.)

Comments on the Lecture[5]

Various  journalists saw the speech, which did not mention President Trump by name, as “a sharp rebuke” of him. Here are some of comments in Obama’s  speech that support that  interpretation:

  • A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment . . .is now on the move. . . at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.”
  • “Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”
  • “The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.”
  • So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down.”
  • While it is “not wrong” to want to protect the country’s borders or expect that immigrants assimilate, it cannot ”be an excuse for immigration policies based on race or ethnicity or religion.”
  • “We can enforce the law while respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. For a mother with a child in her arms, we can recognize that could be somebody in our family, that could be my child.”
  • “You can be proud of your heritage without denigrating those of a different heritage.. . . You’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put somebody else’s heritage down. . . . people who are so intent on putting people down and puffing themselves up [show] that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of.”
  • For democracy to work “we have to actually believe in an objective reality. . . . You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation.
  • “Too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up.. . . We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. . . . They just keep on lying.”
  • “We also see the promotion of anti-intellectualism and the rejection of science from leaders who find critical thinking and data somehow politically inconvenient. . . . The denial of facts runs counter to democracy, it could be its undoing, which is why we must zealously protect independent media; and we have to guard against the tendency for social media to become purely a platform for spectacle, outrage, or disinformation.”

Before the lecture, one of Obama’s aides, Benjamin Rhodes, said, that it was the former President’s “most important public address since leaving the White House in 2017. It gives him an opportunity to lift up a message of tolerance, inclusivity and democracy at a time when there are obviously challenges to Mandela’s legacy around the world.”

Rhodes added, “”At the current moment . . . , values that we thought were well-established — the importance of human rights, respect for diversity — in many parts of the world those values are under threat. Mandela’s life is an inspiring example of how we can overcome obstacles to promote inclusive democracy and an equitable society with tolerance of others.”

“In the U.S. and around the world, many see recent developments that run counter to Mandela’s legacy. This [was] a globally minded speech, highlighting global trends and focusing on how, in his life, Mandela embodied perseverance. It will be aimed at young people in Africa and also around the world to show that we have been through darker times before and we can overcome these challenges to keep Mandela’s vision alive.”

Conclusion

 As an admirer of Mandela[6] and Obama, I was thrilled to see and hear Obama deliver a lengthy and illuminating speech, especially his comments on the world’s current situation. Those words are challenges to everyone who values  knowledge, intelligence and  honesty about the many problems now facing the U.S. and the rest of the world. As he said, each of us has a responsibility to something to promote social justice. He also reminds us to have a better understanding of those who are adversely affected by the many changes in the world.

Obama’s lecture also made we wonder whether it would be possible for all of the living former presidents (Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Carter) to promulgate a joint statement about the need for every president to be informed about the serious issues and prudent in making decisions on these issues and about President Trump’s demonstrated incompetence as president.

These thoughts were reinforced by the recent comments of Bret Stephens, a New York Times conservative columnist. After admitting that he has supported “some of the [current] administration’s controversial foreign policy decisions,” he urges Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton to resign because “Trump’s behavior in Helsinki is . . . another vivid reminder of his manifest unfitness for office. That’s true whether the behavior is best explained as a matter of moral turpitude or mental incompetence — of his eagerness to accept the word of a trained liar like Vladimir Putin over the consensus assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, or of his inability to speak coherently at a critical moment in his presidency. The president’s pathetic suggestion on Tuesday that he misspoke by failing to use a double negative also reminds that, knave or fool, he’s a congenital liar.”[7]

==================================

[1] Nelson Mandela Foundation, Barack Obama to deliver the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture (April 23, 2018); Assoc. Press, Obama to Make Rare High-Profile Speech on Mandela’s Legacy, N.Y. Times (July 16, 2018); Nelson Mandela Foundation, Press release: Obama calls on the world to be Madiba’s Legacy (July 17, 2018).

[2] National Public Radio, Transcript: Obama’s Speech at the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture (July 17, 2018); Read the Transcript of Obama’s Speech Defending Democracy, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2018).

[3] In September 2015 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the 17 Sustainable Developments Goals (and 169 targets) to transform the world by 2030 with respect to povertyhungerhealtheducationclimate changegenderequalitywater, sanitationenergyurbanizationenvironment and social justice. (Sustainable Development goals, Wikipedia.)

[4] See The Tragic Extinguishment of the Eloquence of Robert F. Kennedy, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 29, 2017).

[5] Haag, Obama Warns of ‘Strongman Politics’ After Trump’s Meeting with Putin, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2018); Meldrum (Assoc. Press), Obama gives Trump sharp rebuke in Mandela address on values, StarTribune (July 17, 2018); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Obama Notes Politicians’ ‘Utter Loss of Shame,’ N.Y. times (July 17, 2018); Wintour, Obama criticizes ‘strongman politics’ in a coded attack on Trump, Guardian (July 17, 2018).

[6] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Nelson Mandela Was Inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution (May 18, 2018); Nelson Mandel Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes (May 20, 2018); Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial (June 21, 2011).

[7] Stephen, Resign, Mike Pompeo. Resign, John Bolton. N.Y. Times (July 19, 2018).

President Obama’s Challenging Commencement Address at Howard University

On May 7 President Barack Obama delivered a fascinating and challenging commencement address at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University for over 2,100 graduates with bachelor, masters, Ph.D. and professional degrees and an audience of over 25,000.[1] Below are photographs of President Obama during his address and of the graduates and audience at Howard.

Obama at Howard

cmmencement-banner

 

 

 

Although the primary addresses for the speech were the predominantly African-American Howard graduates and audience, it also is a message for every U.S. citizen and others. The following extensive excerpts of that speech will be used in a subsequent post to evaluate two prominent contemporary African-American men—Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The President’s Address[2]

Commendation of Howard University

Not surprisingly Obama opened with commendation of Howard University, a federally chartered, private, doctoral university, classified as a high research activity institution. With an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, its undergraduate, graduate, professional and joint degree programs span more than 120 areas of study within 13 schools and colleges.

“The Freedman’s Bureau,” he said, “established Howard [in 1867] just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation; just two years after the Civil War came to an end.  They created this university with a vision — a vision of uplift; a vision for an America where our fates would be determined not by our race, gender, religion or creed, but where we would be free — in every sense — to pursue our individual and collective dreams.”

“It is that spirit that’s made Howard a centerpiece of African-American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story.  This institution has been the home of many firsts:  The first black Nobel Peace Prize winner [Ralph Bunche].  The first black Supreme Court justice [Thurgood Marshall]. But its mission has been to ensure those firsts were not the last.  Countless scholars, professionals, artists, and leaders from every field received their training here.  The generations of men and women who walked through this yard helped reform our government, cure disease, grow a black middle class, advance civil rights, shape our culture.  The seeds of change — for all Americans — were sown here.”

Comparison of 1983 and 2016

“America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college [1983]. “

“I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress.  Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible.  I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action — because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel.”

“We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.  This is one area where things have gotten worse.  When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars.  Today, there are about 2.2 million.  Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”

Charge to the Graduating Class 

Obama then delivered a long, three-point charge to the graduating class.

“First , . . . be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.  One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. . . . There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”

“You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black Panther.”  Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both.  You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.”

“Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African-Americans — and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement.  We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options.  We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”

“And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African-Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. . . . People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky.  That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did.  So don’t have an attitude.  But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it.”

[Three]. “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . .Not just awareness, but action.  Not just hashtags, but votes.”

“[C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.  . . . I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this.  It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened — white, black, Democrat, Republican — to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.”

“But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough.  It requires changes in law, changes in custom. . . . Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.”

“And your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.  It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote.  There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting.  This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote.  And there’s a reason for that.  There’s a legacy to that.”

“Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. . . . [J]ust vote.  It’s math.  If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not that complicated.”

“And you don’t have excuses.   You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote.  You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot.  Other people already did that for you. Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it.  What’s your excuse?  When we don’t vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves — right when we need to use the power that we have; right when we need your power to stop others from taking away the vote and rights of those more vulnerable than you are — the elderly and the poor, the formerly incarcerated trying to earn their second chance.”

“So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it’s time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired.  It’s your duty. . . .   That’s how we change our politics — by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us.  It is not that complicated.  Don’t make it complicated.”

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well.  In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”

“[Y]ou need allies in a democracy.  That’s just the way it is.  It can be frustrating and it can be slow.  But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse.  That’s not just true in this country. . . . Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.”

“And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.  This is hard to explain sometimes.  You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.  If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.  And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.  And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair.  And that’s never been the source of our progress.  That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.”

“But . . . [those who participated in the political process] made things better.  And you know what, I will take better every time.  I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.”

“Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said: ‘Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.’  Think about that.  That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.”

“Engage.  If the other side has a point, learn from them.  If they’re wrong, rebut them.  Teach them.  Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.  And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life.  That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair.  Nobody promised you a crystal stair.  And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.”

“James Baldwin once wrote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”

“Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else faced down challenges for us.  We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us. . . . [T]hat is the story of America.  A story whispered by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma, the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln.  The prayer of immigrants who set out for a new world.  The roar of women demanding the vote.  The rallying cry of workers who built America.  And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom.”

============================================

[1] Holston, Obama Embodies Blackness, Confidence, Hope at Howard University’s 148th Commencement, The Hilltop (May 7, 2016).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Howard University Commencement Ceremony (May 7, 2016).

 

 

Presidents Obama and Castro Speak and Meet at United Nations

Over the last week Cuban President Raúl Castro has made two speeches at the United Nations in New York City as has U.S. President Barack Obama. Afterwards the two of them with advisors held a private meeting at the U.N. with subsequent comments by their spokesmen. Here is a chronological account of these events.

President Castro’s September 26th Speech[1]

 

On September 26, President Raúl Castro 11131154waddressed the U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development, as shown in the photograph to the right. In his remarks he said, ”The reestablishment of diplomatic relations Between Cuba and the United States of America, the opening of embassies and the policy changes announced by President Barack Obama . . . constitute a major progress, which has elicited the broadest support of the international community.”

However, he added, “the economic, commercial and financial blockade [by the U.S.] against Cuba persists bringing damages and hardships on the Cuban people, and standing as the main obstacle to our country’s economic development, while affecting other nations due to its extraterritorial scope and hurting the interests of American citizens and companies. Such policy is rejected by 188 United Nations member states that demand its removal.”

More generally Castro condemned “the pervasive underdevelopment afflicting two-thirds of the world population” and the widening “gap between the North and the South” and “wealth polarization.”

Thus, he argued, “If we wish to make this a habitable world with peace and harmony among nations, with democracy and social justice, dignity and respect for the human rights of every person, we should adopt as soon as possible concrete commitments in terms of development assistance, and resolve the debt issue.” Such a commitment, he said, would require “a new international financial architecture, removal of the monopoly on technology and knowledge and changing the present international economic order.”

Nevertheless, according to President Castro, Cuba will continue to help other developing nations despite its limited capabilities and “shall never renounce its honor, human solidarity and social justice” that “are deeply rooted in our socialist society.”

President Obama’s September 27th Speech[2]

635789669053394239-AFP-544774880

On September 27, President Obama addressed the same U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development without touching on U.S.-Cuba relations. Instead he concentrated on the purpose of the Summit– sustainable development. (His photograph is to the left.)

He started by rejecting the notion that “our efforts to combat poverty and disease do not and cannot work, that there are some places beyond hope, that certain people and regions are condemned to an endless cycle of suffering.” Instead, he asserted, “the global hunger rate has already been slashed.  Tens of millions of more boys and girls are today in school.  Prevention and treatment of measles and malaria and tuberculosis have saved nearly 60 million lives.  HIV/AIDS infections and deaths have plummeted.  And more than one billion people have lifted themselves up from extreme poverty — one billion.”

Nevertheless, much remains to be done, according to Obama, and the nations at this Summit “commit ourselves to new Sustainable Development Goals, including our goal of ending extreme poverty in our world.  We do so understanding how difficult the task may be.  We suffer no illusions of the challenges ahead.  But we understand this is something that we must commit ourselves to.  Because in doing so, we recognize that our most basic bond — our common humanity — compels us to act.”

In this work, President Obama stated, the U.S. “will continue to be your partner.  Five years ago, I pledged here that America would remain the global leader in development, and the United States government, in fact, remains the single largest donor of development assistance, including in global health.  In times of crisis — from Ebola to Syria — we are the largest provider of humanitarian aid.  In times of disaster and crisis, the world can count on the friendship and generosity of the American people.”

Therefore, Obama said, he was “committing the United States to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals” and to “keep fighting for the education and housing and health care and jobs that reduce inequality and create opportunity here in the United States and around the world.” This effort will include other “governments, more institutions, more businesses, more philanthropies, more NGOs, more faith communities, more citizens.” Moreover, the “next chapter of development must also unleash economic growth — not just for a few at the top, but inclusive, sustainable growth that lifts up the fortunes of the many.”

President Obama concluded by noting these obstacles to achieving these goals: bad governance; corruption; inequality; “old attitudes, especially those that deny rights and opportunity to women;” failure to “recognize the incredible dynamism and opportunity of today’s Africa;” war; and climate change

President Obama’s September 28th Speech[3]

 In a wide-ranging speech on international affairs, President Obama commented on U.S. relations with Cuba. He said, “I also believe that to move forward in this new era, we have to be strong enough to acknowledge when what you’re doing is not working. For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people. We changed that. We continue to have differences with the Cuban government. We will continue to stand up for human rights. But we address these issues through diplomatic relations, and increased commerce, and people-to-people ties. As these contacts yield progress, I’m confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore. Change won’t come overnight to Cuba, but I’m confident that openness, not coercion, will support the reforms and better the life the Cuban people deserve, just as I believe that Cuba will find its success if it pursues cooperation with other nations.”

Later in the speech, Obama added these words: “Think of the Americans who lowered the flag over our embassy in Havana in 1961 — the year I was born — and returned this summer to raise that flag back up. (Applause.) One of these men said of the Cuban people, “We could do things for them, and they could do things for us. We loved them.” For 50 years, we ignored that fact.

These comments were in the context of the following more general discussion of international affairs by President Obama: “We, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards. We live in an integrated world — one in which we all have a stake in each other’s success. We cannot turn those forces of integration. No nation in this Assembly can insulate itself from the threat of terrorism, or the risk of financial contagion; the flow of migrants, or the danger of a warming planet. The disorder we see is not driven solely by competition between nations or any single ideology. And if we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences.”

“No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy, we understand the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone.” So too, in words that could be aimed at Cuba and others, “repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow. You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. You can try to control access to information, but you cannot turn a lie into truth. It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it’s technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.”

In a similar vein, Obama said, “The strength of nations depends on the success of their people — their knowledge, their innovation, their imagination, their creativity, their drive, their opportunity — and that, in turn, depends upon individual rights and good governance and personal security.”

Finally, according to Obama, we must “defend the democratic principles that allow societies to succeed” with a recognition that “democracy is going to take different forms in different parts of the world. The very idea of a people governing themselves depends upon government giving expression to their unique culture, their unique history, their unique experiences. But some universal truths are self-evident. No person wants to be imprisoned for peaceful worship. No woman should ever be abused with impunity, or a girl barred from going to school. The freedom to peacefully petition those in power without fear of arbitrary laws — these are not ideas of one country or one culture. They are fundamental to human progress.”

“A government that suppresses peaceful dissent is not showing strength; it is showing weakness and it is showing fear. History shows that regimes who fear their own people will eventually crumble, but strong institutions built on the consent of the governed endure long after any one individual is gone.”

“That’s why our strongest leaders — from George Washington to Nelson Mandela — have elevated the importance of building strong, democratic institutions over a thirst for perpetual power. Leaders who amend constitutions to stay in office only acknowledge that they failed to build a successful country for their people — because none of us last forever. It tells us that power is something they cling to for its own sake, rather than for the betterment of those they purport to serve.”

“Democracy — inclusive democracy — makes countries stronger. When opposition parties can seek power peacefully through the ballot, a country draws upon new ideas. When a free media can inform the public, corruption and abuse are exposed and can be rooted out. When civil society thrives, communities can solve problems that governments cannot necessarily solve alone. When immigrants are welcomed, countries are more productive and more vibrant. When girls can go to school, and get a job, and pursue unlimited opportunity, that’s when a country realizes its full potential.”

President Castro’s September 28th Speech[4]

On September 28, Cuban President Raúl Castro in his address to the U.N. General Assembly essentially reiterated his comments of two days earlier about U.S.-Cuba relations with these words: ‘After 56 years, during which the Cuban people put up a heroic and selfless resistance, diplomatic relations have been reestablished between Cuba and the United States of America.”

“Now, a long and complex process begins toward normalization that will only be achieved with the end of the economic, commercial and financial blockade; the return to our country of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base; the suspension of radio and TV broadcasts, and subversion and destabilization attempts against the Island; and, when our people are compensated for the human and economic damages they continue to endure.”

“As long as the blockade remains in force, we will continue to introduce the Draft Resolution entitled ‘Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America on Cuba.’ To the 188 governments and peoples who have backed our just demand, here, and in other international and regional forums, I reaffirm the eternal gratitude of the Cuban people and government for your continued support.” [5]

The rest of this Castro speech argued that the U.N. has failed in its 70 years of existence to fulfill the lofty purposes of its Charter. The speech also noted Cuba’s solidarity with its Caribbean brothers, African countries, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Republic of Ecuador, the people of Puerto Rico, the Republic of Argentina, the Brazilian people and President Dilma Rouseff, the Syrian people and the Palestinian people. Castro also supported the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On the other hand, Castro reaffirmed Cuba’s “rejection of the intention to expand the presence of NATO up to the Russian borders, as well as of the unilateral and unfair sanctions imposed on that nation” and Cuba’s condemnation of NATO and European countries’ efforts to destabilize countries of the Middle East and Africa that have led to the recent migrant crisis in Europe.

In conclusion, Castro said, “the international community can always count on Cuba to lift its sincere voice against injustice, inequality, underdevelopment, discrimination and manipulation; and for the establishment of a more equitable and fair international order, truly focused on human beings, their dignity and well-being.”

The Presidents’ Meeting[6]

Obama &Castro

The two presidents with their advisors held a 30-minute private meeting at the U.N. on Tuesday, September 29. The photograph at the left shows them shaking hands.

The U.S. delegation consisted of Secretary of State, John Kerry; National Security Adviser, Susan Rice; National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Mark Feierstein; and the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., Samantha Power.

Cuba’s delegation was composed of the Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez; Consultant, Alejandro Castro Espin (the son of President Raúl Castro); Vice President of Cuba’s Defense and Security Committee, Juan Francisco Arias Fernández; Cuba’s Director General of U.S. Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Josefina Vidal; and Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas.

White House’s Comments on the Meeting[7]

On a September 29 flight from New York City to Washington, D.C., White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in response to a journalist’s question, said, “I know that the two leaders had an opportunity to discuss some of the regulatory changes that have been announced in the last couple of weeks on the part of the [U.S.]. The State Department is leading civil aviation coordination talks in Cuba right now.  And these are all additional steps that are moving toward more normal relations between our two countries.”

“The President, as he always does, . . . reaffirmed our commitment to seeing the Cuban government do a better job of not just respecting, but actually proactively protecting, the basic human rights of the Cuban people.”

We “continue to believe that deeper engagement and deeper people-to-people ties, deeper economic engagement between the [U.S.] and Cuba will have the effect of moving the government and the nation in a positive direction.”

Thereafter the White House released the following written statement about the meeting: “President Obama met today with President Raul Castro of Cuba to discuss recent advances in relations between the United States and Cuba, as well as additional steps each government can take to deepen bilateral cooperation. The two Presidents discussed the recent successful visit of Pope Francis to both countries.  President Obama highlighted U.S. regulatory changes that will allow more Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba, while helping to improve the lives of the Cuban people.  The President welcomed the progress made in establishing diplomatic relations, and underscored that continued reforms in Cuba would increase the impact of U.S. regulatory changes.  The President also highlighted steps the United States intends to take to improve ties between the American and Cuban peoples, and reiterated our support for human rights in Cuba.”

Cuban Foreign Minister’s Press Conference[8]

Soon after the presidential meeting, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez held a press conference at the U.N. In his opening statement, he said that in a “respectful and constructive” atmosphere, the two presidents exchanged their views on the recent visit of Pope Francisco to Cuba and the United States, as well as issues on the bilateral agenda established between the two countries.

“The presidents agreed on the need to continue working on the set bilateral agenda, which includes areas of mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation and in third countries such as Haiti, the development of dialogue on issues of bilateral and multilateral interest and resolving outstanding issues between two states.”

President Castro affirmed Cuba’s desire to build a new relationship with the U.S. based on respect and sovereign equality, but reiterated that to have normal relations the U.S. had to lift the blockade, which is causing damage and hardship to the Cuban people and affects the interests of American citizens.

Castro also confirmed that Cuba on October 27 would introduce in the General Assembly a resolution condemning the embargo (blockade). Said the foreign Minister, the blockade is “a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights of all Cubans and harms all Cuban families, even Cubans living outside Cuba.” Cuba fully expects this year’s resolution to once again have overwhelming support.

The Foreign Minister said the return of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba is a high priority element in the process of normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, as a vindication of Cuban people.

At another point he added that “we are very proud of the accomplishments of Cuba on human rights and that human rights are universal, not subject to political selectivity or manipulation of any kind. ” Cuba guarantees the full exercise of political rights and civil liberties, and economic, social and cultural rights. We have many concerns with the situation on human rights in the world, particularly in the U.S. and Western Europe, as illustrated by the current immigration refugee crisis. The pattern of racial discrimination and police brutality against African Americans in the [U.S.] is really serious.

Conclusion

Cuba reiterated its insistence on ending the U.S. embargo as an essential condition for normalization of relations, an objective shared by President Obama and this blog. [9] We now await the U.N. General Assembly’s debate and anticipated approval on October 27 of another resolution condemning the embargo and whether the U.S. will, for the first time, abstain on the vote.

Cuba continues to assert that the U.S. lease of Guantanamo Bay is illegal, but its saying so does not make it so. Previous blog posts have discussed this contention and do not find it persuasive and, therefore, suggested the two countries submit the dispute for resolution to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands.[10]

The same means has been suggested in this blog for resolving the disputes about whether or not Cuba has been damaged by the embargo (blockade) and the amount of such alleged damages as well as the amount of damages to U.S. interests by Cuba’s expropriation of property in the early years of the Cuban Revolution.

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[1] Cuba Ministry Foreign Affairs, Raul Castro: Unacceptable levels of poverty and social inequality persist and even aggravate across the world (Sept. 26, 2015); Reuters, Cuba’s Castro Slams U.S. Trade Embargo at United Nations, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Embargo ‘Main Obstacle’ to Cuba’s Development: Castro, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2015) (video)

[2] White House, Remarks by President on Sustainable Development Goals (Sept. 27, 2015).

[3] Reuters, Quotes from President Obama’s U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2015); President Obama’s Speech to the United Nations General Assembly 2015, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2015); White House, Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 28, 2015).

[4] Raúl at the United Nations: The International community can always count on Cuba’s voice in the face of injustice, Granma (Sept. 28, 2015); Full text [of Castro’s speech], Granma (Sept. 28, 2015); Reuters, At U.N., Castro Says U.S. Must End Embargo to Have Normal Cuba Ties, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2015); Assoc. Press, Raúl Castro Addresses General Assembly, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2015) (video); Goldman, At the U.N., Raúl Castro of Cuba Calls for End to U.S. Embargo, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2015).

[5] A prior post reviewed last year’s General Assembly’s condemnation of the embargo.

[6] Assoc. Press, U.S., Cuba Leaders Meet for 2nd Time in This Year, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2015); Reuters, Obama, Castro Meet as They Work on Thawing U.S.-Cuba Ties, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2015); Cuba and U.S. Presidents meet, Granma (Sept. 30, 2015)

[7] White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Washington, D.C., 9/29/15; White House, Readout of the President’s Meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro (Sept. 29, 2015).

[8] Reuters, Cuban Minister on Obama-Castro Meeting, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2015) (video); Bruno Rodriguez: The blockade is a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights, Granma (Sept. 30, 2015).

[9] This blog has discussed the initial bills to end the embargo in the House and Senate as well as later bills to do the same in the Senate and House.

[10] Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims (April 4, 2015); Resolution of Issues Regarding U.S.-Lease of Guantanamo Bay (April 6, 2015); Does Cuba Have a Right to Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay? (April 26, 2015).

Email to President Obama Objecting to Covert or “Discreet” U.S. Government Programs Purportedly Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba

On January 7, 2015, I sent the following email to U.S. President Barack Obama with copies to Secretary of State John Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Al Franken and Representative Keith Ellison.

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On December 17th I was overjoyed to hear the great news about your decision to embark upon a path of reconciliation with Cuba. That same day I sent you an email expressing my congratulations and thanks for this important decision. I also wrote the following blog posts to the same effect:

Now, however, I must express my profound disappointment in your Administration’s apparent decision to continue the covert or “discreet” USAID and other programs that purport to foster democracy and human rights on the island. It is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in October, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.” My blog post expands on these points: Rejection of Criticism of Cuban Cancellation of Open-Microphone Event and Arrests of Its Organizers (Jan. 6, 2015), .

Please, Mr. President, stop such programs as soon as possible. Instead, raise issues of democracy and human rights in direct meetings with Cuban government officials, as you have said your Administration would do.

Rejection of Criticism of Cuba’s Cancellation of Open-Microphone Event in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and Arrests of Its Organizers

Tania Bruguera
  Tania Bruguera

On December 30th Cuban authorities cancelled an open-microphone event at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and detained or arrested its organizers. The principal detainee was Tania Bruguera, a Cuban citizen who lives on the island and in Miami, Florida and who is a performance artist. She intended to provide an open-microphone for any attendee to give a one-minute statement on his or her opinions and recommendations for Cuba’s future.

This cancellation and related arrests have provoked strong condemnation from the U.S. Department of State and major U.S. newspapers. Initially I was persuaded by such condemnations and worried that they would foster U.S. political resistance to recent U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. After further investigation, however, I have come to reject such harsh condemnations. In order to understand this conclusion, this post will examine what happened in Havana, the reactions from the State Department and western newspapers and then the reasons why I reject such condemnations.

Cuban Events Relating to the Open-Mike Performance[1]

Plaza_de_la_Revolution

Plaza3

On December 30th Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was planning to stage an open-microphone event, “Yo tambien exijo,” [I also demand],” in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the huge public square usually reserved for large government-sponsored events.[2] (The photo on the top shows an empty Plaza while the other one has a large crowd in attendance.) She planned to give any attendee a one-minute platform to discuss his or her opinions about, and recommendations for, Cuba’s future. She told the U.S. National Public Radio that she wanted “people in the street [to] come and share . . . [their] doubts, [their] happiness – whatever [they] think right now about what is happening in Cuba, and what is the idea of Cuba that [they] want?”

Bruguera was proceeding with these plans even though her application for a permit had been denied and even though the Government’s National Fine Arts Council had told her that it would not be providing her with institutional support for the event as proposed because it “would negatively impact public opinion, in a key time of negotiation between the Cuban government and the government of the United States.”

On December 30th the Council issued a public statement documenting its decision not to support the event. It said, “Under current circumstances, it is unacceptable performing this purported performance in the symbolic space of the Plaza of the Revolution, especially considering the extensive media coverage and manipulation that has been in the media broadcasters counterrevolution.”

The Council, however, also stated that Bruguera had rejected its suggestions on conducting the event subject to the following conditions: (a) move the event to the National Museum of Fine Arts, a prestigious cultural institution in the field of visual arts; (b) the Museum would be freely open to diverse people of dissimilar social sectors; (c) the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative;” and (d) the performance would be limited to 90 minutes.

Just hours before the planned event, Cuban police detained, on public disorder charges, Bruguerea and at least three leading dissidents: Antonio Rodiles, the head of Citizens Demand for Another Cuba; Eliezer Avila, the leader of the opposition group Somos Mas; and Reinaldo Escobar, a senior editor of a dissident website 14medio.com. Escobar’s spouse, Blogger Yoani Sanchez, was also detained at her home by police. There were reports that up to 50 members of the political opposition were detained.

Ms. Bruguera was released the next afternoon along with most of the political dissidents. She then announced she would hold a news conference and public gathering on the Malecón, Havana’s coastal highway, at the memorial to the Maine, the American battleship that sank in Havana Harbor in 1898. Cuban agents, however, stopped her en route to the gathering and took her away for interrogation. She was told she could not leave Cuba “for two or three months” while the case was being processed. Again she was released.

However, on January 1, 2015, she was arrested again along with several dissidents when they went to a jail to demand the release of 15 additional dissidents who had been arrested on the day of the planned event. The next day (January 2) she was released.

Reactions to the Cancelation and Arrests

On December 30th, the U.S. Department of State issued a Press Statement saying the U.S. was “deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists . . . [and] strongly condemn[ed] the Cuban government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom expression, and intimidate citizens.”

The Statement added, “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are internationally recognized human rights, and the Cuban government’s lack of respect for these rights, as demonstrated by today’s detentions, is inconsistent with Hemispheric norms and commitments. We urge the Government of Cuba to end its practice of repressing these and other internationally protected freedoms and to respect the universal human rights of Cuban citizens.”

The Statement concluded that the U.S. has “always said we would continue to speak out about human rights, and as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions, just like their fellow members of civil society throughout the Americas are allowed to do.”

Also on December 30th Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson tweeted “Freedom of expression remains core of US policy on #Cuba; we support activists exercising those rights and condemn today’s detentions.”

These views were shared by the New York Times’ December 30th editorial, “Cuba Turns Off Critics’ Open Mike.” It said, “By stifling critical voices, the Cuban government is showing its unwillingness to tolerate basic freedoms most citizens in the hemisphere enjoy.”

The Times’ editorial continued, “This move, unfortunately, will amplify the criticisms of those who opposed Mr. Obama’s historic shift on Cuba policy. Heavy-handed tactics by the Castro government will give them ammunition next year, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, to stymie the Obama administration’s steps to ease the embargo through executive authority and dim the prospects of legislative change to pare back the web of sanctions Washington imposes on Cuba. That result would be a shame and, in the long run, self-defeating for Havana.”

The editorial on the same subject by the Washington Post, which earlier opposed the December 17th reconciliation, was in the same vein. It stated, “[T]he Castro regime has been left free to continue stifling dissent, while reaping the economic and political benefits of Mr. Obama’s ‘engagement.’ Raúl Castro declared in a speech shortly after the agreement was announced that the Communist political system would remain unchanged. Two weeks later, not one of the 53 political prisoners the White House said would be freed — about half of the total identified by human rights activists — has been reported released.”

The Washington Post editorial concluded, “Cubans who seek basic freedoms continue to be arrested, harassed and silenced, while the regime celebrates what it portrays as ‘victory’ over the United States. If support for the Cuban people and American values is supposed to be the point of this process, then it is off to a very poor start.”

People opposed to the resumption of relations with Cuba were quick to hold up the arrests as a sign that the Castro government had no intention of pursuing political change and would reap only economic benefits from Mr. Obama’s moves. For example, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a Cuban-American, tweeted, “Castro govt. arrests of activists in #Havana exposes the folly of new Obama #CubaPolicy.”

Rejection of the Condemnation

As a long-time member of the American Civil Liberties Union and as a pro bono attorney in one of its important free speech cases, I am a strong believer in the importance of free speech. Therefore, I initially concurred in the State Department and New York Times’ condemnation of Cuba’s cancellation of this event and related arrests, and I worried that this controversy might cause the U.S. to abandon the recently announced U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

On the other hand, I was and continue to be troubled by the State Department and most of the articles about this event not mentioning the Cuban Fine Arts Council’s willingness to support the event in another location and with certain limits. This action by the Arts Council suggests at a minimum that the State Department and western media are over-reacting to these events and unfairly rushing to judgment.

These U.S. critics also forget that governmental authorities in the U.S. sometimes determine that it is not appropriate to stage a protest at a particular time and place. It just happened in my home state of Minnesota at the Mall of America (MOA) on a big shopping day (December 20th). Although MOA officials had told the organizers that it was against its policies for them to hold a “Black Lives Matter” protest at the Mall on that day,[3] they did so anyway as this video shows. After 2,000 to 3,000 protesters flooded a Mall rotunda and held “die-ins” in front of several nearby businesses, riot-gear-clad police officers arrested 25 for trespass, peacefully dispersed the crowd and tried to block people from re-entering the rotunda. Afterwards the local city attorney announced plans “to file additional charges against ‘ringleaders’ of the protest and to seek restitution for the costs of 250 police at the event and lost sales during the two to three hours when more than 75 stores in the mall were closed.” On January 5th some of the protesters spoke against such prosecution at a city council meeting. This story obviously is not yet over.

In addition, there is a report that raises the much more serious question of whether the event was an idea of Cubans acting by themselves. According to the Wall Street Journal, an opponent of reconciliation with Cuba, at the scheduled time for the event, “Cuban cellphones received mysterious messages from a Florida area code offering cheap beer to all those gathering on the plaza.” This was confirmed in an interview by U.S. National Public Radio with Marc Frank, a U.S. journalist who was one of about a dozen people at the Plaza at the time of the planned event. He said, “text messages were sent from somewhere in Miami to a lot of cell phones here, including mine, basically saying that there’s going to be an event at the Plaza de la Revolución, and there’d be free beer.” Frank added that “Tania is an artist, lives some in Cuba and mainly in Miami, . . . [but] she’s not really well-known in Cuba at all.”[4]

These messages about free beer in the Plaza from a Miami telephone number raise the question of whether the event was actually being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or another U.S. government agency or by Cuban-Americans opposed to the reconciliation of the two countries.

As discussed in prior posts, USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) had funded via a private contractor at least three covert (or as the agency prefers to say “discreet”) programs in Cuba to promote civil society and dissent or regime change, all without the prior knowledge or consent of the Cuban government. One was for U.S. citizen Alan Gross to take communications equipment to Cuba, for which he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for violating its laws.[5] Another such USAID program via a private contractor unsuccessfully tried to create a Cuban social media program Yet another used Central Americans to promote purported HIV informational efforts on the island. The final one that has been discovered so far by journalists again via a private contractor attempted to infiltrate the Cuban rap-artist community.

These USAID programs were sharply criticized in a November New York Times editorial, as discussed in an earlier post. The editorial said, ““Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

Instead, the Times’ November editorial argued, “The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.” Moreover, “Washington should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

Perhaps the Times forgot this editorial when it more recently lambasted the Cuban actions over the “open-microphone” event.

In any event, the U.S. government apparently has not learned the lesson outlined by the Times in October because the USAID website, which says it was last updated on December 16 (the day before the announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation), still contains general information about its Cuba programs to “[p]romote human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In addition, on December 22, 2014 (five days after that announcement), the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued a Public Notice of its “Request for Statements of Interest: Program Fostering Civil, Political and Labor Rights in Cuba.” The Bureau’s prospective funding of $11 million would be used for typically funded proposals, the Bureau said, like “[o]rganizational assistance to Cuban civil society to improve management, strategic planning, sustainability, and collaboration of local civil society groups; [o]ff-island trainings, short-term fellowships, or engagement; [d]istribution of software that would be easily accessible in an open society; . . . [and] ]a]ssistance mechanisms designed to provide independent Cuban civil society with tools, opportunities, and trainings that civil society counterparts in open societies can access.”

Both the USAID and State Department statements read as if they are promoting programs in Cuba without the knowledge, cooperation or agreement of the Cuban government. This is contrary to President Obama’s statement in his nationally televised speech on December 17th, in which he said the U.S. would “raise those differences [with the Cuban government] directly . . .[such as] democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement [with the Cuban government].” He added, “no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there.”

Similar thoughts were expressed the same day in the White House’s FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course on Cuba.” It said, “We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.” It also stated, “The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba, and we will encourage reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials.”

Although President Obama apparently was talking about encouraging the Cuban government to expand the Cuban people’s rights to express different opinions on what their government should do, a prior post shows some ambiguity in these statements that could allow the continuation of the USAID and State Department’s covert or “discreet” efforts to promote regime change.

If the open-microphone event, in fact, was orchestrated by USAID or some other U.S. government agency, it is Orwellian. Such programs purport to promote democracy and human rights with undemocratic and non-human rights means. Such programs are publicly mentioned—in very general terms—on U.S. government websites yet are conducted covertly or “discreetly” on the island. Such programs are hostile to a country with which the U.S. purportedly is attempting to build a normal and respectful diplomatic relationship. These programs also logically motivate Cuban authorities to be vigilant in reacting to events like the “open-microphone” one.

In other words it is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in November, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

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[1] This account of the planned event and the arrests by the Cuban government is based on articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street JournalGuardian, Los Angeles Times,  National Public Radio, the Cuban Fine Arts Council and again the New York Times.

[2] The Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world; it measures 72,000 square meters (774,936 square feet) and has been the site for crowds of 1 million for major speeches by Fidel Castro and for a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. The idea that the open-microphone event might create such a large crowd should have been seen as ridiculous by everyone, including the Cuban authorities, and a small gathering like the 12 or so that showed up on the 30th would have demonstrated the over-reaction of the those authorities in shutting it down and the State Department and western media in attacking the shut-down.

[3] Before the protest the local city (Bloomington) sent a letter to the protest organizers warning that the city would enforce the mall’s private-property rights under the authority of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that held the MOA was a private entity with the right to exclude demonstrators.

[4] The Director of Security Operations at Telecommunications Company of Cuba reported that since December 21st Cuba had been receiving electronic messages calling for participation in an event with Tania Bruguera. These messages came from a platform “Wake Cuba,and these messages were similar to previous ones paid for by USAID.  Another Cuban source states that some Cuban email addresses were hacked and used to send emails to Cubans about this event.

[5] Gross on December 17th was released from Cuban prison and returned to the U.S.

Additional Details About White House’s Announcement of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

White House
White House

On December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama in a nationally televised speech announced the historic agreement with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations as one part of a reconciliation with Cuba. That same day the White House website had (a) “FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course in Cuba;” (b) “Background Conference Call on Policy Changes in Cuba and Release of Alan Gross;” and (c) “Readout of the Vice President’s Calls to the Presidents of Colombia and Mexico on the Administration’s Cuba Policy Changes.”

After reviewing these documents, the post will conclude with observations on some of the points raised in these documents.

“FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course in Cuba”

The introduction to the FACT SHEET, among other things, said, “It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. . . . It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.  We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.  With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities.” (Emphasis added.)

The FACT SHEET then provided the following “Key Components of the Updated Policy Approach:”

“Establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba-

  • The President has instructed the Secretary of State to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were severed in January 1961.
  • In the coming months, we will re-establish an embassy in Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between our two governments as part of the normalization process.  As an initial step, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs will lead the U.S. Delegation to the next round of U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks in January 2015, in Havana.
  • U.S. engagement will be critical when appropriate and will include continued strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba and other measures aimed at fostering improved conditions for the Cuban people. (Emphasis added.)
  • The United States will work with Cuba on matters of mutual concern and that advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, counternarcotics, environmental protection, and trafficking in persons, among other issues.” (Emphasis added.)

“Adjusting regulations to more effectively empower the Cuban people-

  • The changes announced today will soon be implemented via amendments to regulations of the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce.   Our new policy changes will further enhance our goal of empowering the Cuban population.
  • Our travel and remittance policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information and opportunities for self-employment and private property ownership, and by strengthening independent civil society. 
  • These measures will further increase people-to-people contact; further support civil society in Cuba; and further enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people.  Persons must comply with all provisions of the revised regulations; violations of the terms and conditions are enforceable under U.S. law.”

“Facilitating an expansion of travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law-

  • General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines. 
  • Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services. 
  • The policy changes make it easier for Americans to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers and provide other support for the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector.  Additional options for promoting the growth of entrepreneurship and the private sector in Cuba will be explored.”

Facilitating remittances to Cuba by U.S. persons

  • Remittance levels will be raised from $500 to $2,000 per quarter for general donative remittances to Cuban nationals (except to certain officials of the government or the Communist party); and donative remittances for humanitarian projects, support for the Cuban people, and support for the development of private businesses in Cuba will no longer require a specific license.
  • Remittance forwarders will no longer require a specific license.”

“Authorizing expanded commercial sales/exports from the United States of certain goods and services-

  • The expansion will seek to empower the nascent Cuban private sector.  Items that will be authorized for export include certain building materials for private residential construction, goods for use by private sector Cuban entrepreneurs, and agricultural equipment for small farmers.  This change will make it easier for Cuban citizens to have access to certain lower-priced goods to improve their living standards and gain greater economic independence from the state.”

“Authorizing American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba-

  • Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined.”

Facilitating authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba-

  • U.S. institutions will be permitted to open correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions to facilitate the processing of authorized transactions.
  • The regulatory definition of the statutory term “cash in advance” will be revised to specify that it means “cash before transfer of title”; this will provide more efficient financing of authorized trade with Cuba.
  • U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use by travelers to Cuba.
  • These measures will improve the speed, efficiency, and oversight of authorized payments between the United States and Cuba.”

“Initiating new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely-

  • Cuba has an internet penetration of about five percent—one of the lowest rates in the world.  The cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitantly high, while the services offered are extremely limited.
  • The commercial export of certain items that will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States and the rest of the world will be authorized.  This will include the commercial sale of certain consumer communications devices, related software, applications, hardware, and services, and items for the establishment and update of communications-related systems.
  •  Telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba.”

“Updating the application of Cuba sanctions in third countries-

  • U.S.-owned or -controlled entities in third countries will be generally licensed to provide services to, and engage in financial transactions with, Cuban individuals in third countries.  In addition, general licenses will unblock the accounts at U.S. banks of Cuban nationals who have relocated outside of Cuba; permit U.S. persons to participate in third-country professional meetings and conferences related to Cuba; and, allow foreign vessels to enter the United States after engaging in certain humanitarian trade with Cuba, among other measures.”

“Pursuing discussions with the Cuban and Mexican governments to discuss our unresolved maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mexico-

  • Previous agreements between the United States and Cuba delimit the maritime space between the two countries within 200 nautical miles from shore.  The United States, Cuba, and Mexico have extended continental shelf in an area within the Gulf of Mexico where the three countries have not yet delimited any boundaries.
  • The United States is prepared to invite the governments of Cuba and Mexico to discuss shared maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico”

“Initiating a review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism-

  • The President has instructed the Secretary of State to immediately launch such a review, and provide a report to the President within six months regarding Cuba’s support for international terrorism.  Cuba was placed on the list in 1982.”[1]

“Addressing Cuba’s participation in the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama-

  • President Obama will participate in the Summit of the Americas in Panama.  Human rights and democracy will be key Summit themes.  Cuban civil society must be allowed to participate along with civil society from other countries participating in the Summit, consistent with the region’s commitments under the Inter-American Democratic Charter.  The United States welcomes a constructive dialogue among Summit governments on the Summit’s principles.” (Emphasis added.)

“Unwavering Commitment to Democracy, Human Rights, and Civil Society

A critical focus of our increased engagement will include continued strong support by the United States for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba.  The promotion of democracy supports universal human rights by empowering civil society and a person’s right to speak freely, peacefully assemble, and associate, and by supporting the ability of people to freely determine their future.   Our efforts are aimed at promoting the independence of the Cuban people so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state. (Emphasis added.)

The U.S. Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba to provide humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and support the free flow of information in places where it is restricted and censored.  The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba, and we will encourage reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials. (Emphasis added.)

The United States encourages all nations and organizations engaged in diplomatic dialogue with the Cuban government to take every opportunity both publicly and privately to support increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba. 

Ultimately, it will be the Cuban people who drive economic and political reforms.  That is why President Obama took steps to increase the flow of resources and information to ordinary Cuban citizens in 2009, 2011, and today.  The Cuban people deserve the support of the United States and of an entire region that has committed to promote and defend democracy through the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”

Background Conference Call 

On December 17 two hours before President Obama’s speech to the nation, the White House conducted an hour-long “background” conference call with journalists and seven unnamed senior administration officials regarding these matters.

Among other things, one of the officials said the U.S. expects that “we’ll continue to have strong differences, particularly on issues related to democracy and human rights.  The [U.S.] will continue to promote our values.  We will continue to support civil society in Cuba.  We’ll continue our democracy programming.” In President Obama’s December 16th telephone call with President Raúl Castro, Obama “made clear his intent . . . to continue our advocacy for human rights in Cuba.”

A State Department official stated the U.S. would not reduce its “emphasis on human rights, on democracy, on the importance of civil society. . . . In fact, our emphasis on human rights will be just as strong and we believe more effective under this policy.  We will engage directly with the Cuban government on human rights.”

For example, the State Department official stated a U.S. diplomat in Havana “will be meeting with members of Cuban society and dissidents later today to walk them through the President’s initiatives of today, and to emphasize to them, as well, that their efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights in Cuba not only won’t be forgotten in these initiatives, but will, in fact, take center stage.”

In response to a question as to whether there were discussions with Cuba about “USAID programs that have been pretty controversial in Cuba,” an administration official said U.S. “democracy programming . . . did factor into the discussions [with Cuba].  The Cubans do not like our democracy programming.  They consistently protest those initiatives. . . . [The U.S., however,] made clear that we’re going to continue our support for civil society for the advancement of our values in Cuba.  [This] . . . was an issue of difference that we will continue to have with Cuba, and we fully expect them to raise those issues just as we will raise issues with the Cubans about democracy and human rights.  However, we’re going to do that through a normal relationship.  We’re going to do that through our embassy in Havana.  We’re going to do that through contacts between our various agencies.”[2]

Vice President Biden’s Telephone Calls with Presidents of Colombia and Mexico

The White House reported that Vice President Joe Biden made telephone calls about the new initiatives with Cuba  to President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and to President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico. After outlining the agreement, Biden told each of them that President Obama intended to attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama next April “as long as Cuban civil society is allowed to participate and human rights and democracy are on the agenda.” In the call to President Nieto, Biden said that the U.S. would initiate discussions with Cuba and Mexico about the unresolved maritime boundary of the Gulf of Mexico.

Conclusion

I concur in most of the FACT SHEET’s assertions about democracy and human rights that suggest that the U.S. will engage and work with the Cuban government to improve the Cuban people’s political, social and economic rights and that the U.S. no longer will seek to impose such rights or values on the Cuban people through covert or “discreet” programs. These statements are the following:

  • (i)  “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.  We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.  With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities.”
  • (ii)  “U.S. engagement will be critical when appropriate and will include continued strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba and other measures aimed at fostering improved conditions for the Cuban people.”
  • (iii) “A critical focus of our increased engagement will include continued strong support by the United States for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba.  The promotion of democracy supports universal human rights by empowering civil society and a person’s right to speak freely, peacefully assemble, and associate, and by supporting the ability of people to freely determine their future.   Our efforts are aimed at promoting the independence of the Cuban people so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state.”
  • (iv) The U.S. “will encourage [such] reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials.”

Other statements in the FACT SHEET, however, seems to undercut this benign interpretation: (i) “The U.S. Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba to provide humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and support the free flow of information in places where it is restricted and censored.  The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba. . . .” (ii) “The U.S. Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba to provide humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and support the free flow of information in places where it is restricted and censored.  The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba.” [3]

According to the FACT SHEET, “President Obama will participate in the Summit of the Americas in Panama.  Human rights and democracy will be key Summit themes.  Cuban civil society must be allowed to participate along with civil society from other countries participating in the Summit.” The account of the Vice President’s telephone calls, however, seems to add that President Obama intends to attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama next April “as long as Cuban civil society is allowed to participate and human rights and democracy are on the agenda.” I was surprised and disappointed to read that there was a precondition to Obama’s attending the summit: Cuba’s allowing members of its civil society to attend and participate in the Summit. While it may be a good idea to have civil society representatives from all countries, including Cuba, attend and participate, I think it unwise for the U.S. to provide Cuba with a veto on Obama’s attendance if it does not have such representatives there. I hope that this interpretation of the Vice President’s remarks is unfounded.

I am unaware of the details of the dispute about the maritime boundaries of the Gulf of Mexico, but assume that it relates to oil or other resources under the Caribbean.

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[1] Prior posts discussed the legal and political issues of rescinding the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and the U.S.’ previous concessions that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not commit future acts of terrorism.

[2] On December 20th Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew co-authored an article in the Miami Herald. It said the U.S. would have “continued strong support for improved human-rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba” and would “continue to implement programs to promote positive change in Cuba.”

[3] The previous democracy/human rights programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State will be part of a subsequent post about the recent controversy about Cuba’s cancellation of n “open-microphone” event and arrests of its organizers.