U.S. National Security Advisor Announces New U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba

On November 1, immediately after the U.N. General Assembly’s overwhelming condemnation of the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba that was discussed in a prior post, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in a speech at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower announced new sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The same day in an interview by the Miami Herald, Bolton made other assertions about the U.S. and Cuba.

Bolton’s Speech[1]

Bolton opened by saying the U.S. was “confronted once again with the destructive forces of oppression, socialism, and totalitarianism” and “the perils of poisonous ideologies left unchecked, and the dangers of domination and suppression.”

Now this administration “will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores,. . . [and] will not reward firing squads, torturers, and murderers.” Instead the U.S. “will champion the independence and liberty of our neighbors . . . [and] will stand with the freedom fighters” against the “Troika of Tyranny in this Hemisphere—Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”

“This Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.” The “Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan people suffer in misery because socialism has been implemented effectively. “

Bolton’s harshest rhetoric was reserved for the regime in Havana, which he accused of silencing “dissidents and suppressing every kind of freedom know to man.” There, “a brutal dictatorship under the façade of a new figurehead continues to frustrate democratic aspirations, and jail and torture opponents.”

“In Cuba, we continue to stand firmly with the Cuban people, and we share their aspirations for real, democratic change. Members of this administration will never take a picture in front of an image of Che Guevara, as Barack Obama did.. . . [The] National Revolutionary Police force [is] the agent of oppression of the Cuban people. This oppression of dissidents and suppressing every kind of freedom known to man is what typifies the regime in Havana.”

“Under this administration, there will no longer be secret channels of communication between Cuba and the United States.” (this suggests the elimination of various bilateral meetings on various subjects in Havana and Washington that were started in the Obama Administration and so far continued by the Trump Administration.[2])

“The [U.S.] will not prop up a military monopoly that abuses the citizens of Cuba.” The current U.S. “policy includes concrete actions to prevent American dollars from reaching the Cuban military, security, and intelligence services. . . .[We] have been tightening sanctions against the Cuban military and intelligence services, including their holding companies, and closing loopholes in our sanctions resolutions. In this respect, I believe that within days the administration will add over two dozen additional entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military and intelligence services to the restricted list of entities with which financial transactions by U.S. persons are prohibited. And I believe even more will come as well. The Cuban military and intelligence agencies must not profit from the United States, its people, its travelers, or its businesses.” (Nearly 200 agencies, companies and hotels already on the list.[3])

“In response to the vicious attacks on Embassy Havana, we have also scaled back our embassy personnel in Cuba. This President will not allow our diplomats to be targeted with impunity. And we will not excuse those who harm our highest representatives abroad by falsely invoking videos, or concocting some other absurd pretext for their suffering.”

“We will only engage with a Cuban government that is willing to undertake necessary and tangible reforms—a government that respects the interests of the Cuban people.”

Bolton even may have hinted at U.S. efforts to topple the governments in these three countries when he said, “We are an impatient people too and it’s time to see the people of those three countries have free governments.”

Bolton’s Interview[4]

In an interview the same day by the Miami Herald, Bolton again addressed the subject of U.S. diplomats who have suffered medical problems that surfaced while they were stationed in Cuba. “I think it’s very important that somebody must be held accountable for what happened to our diplomats. It’s a fundamental principle of how America operates in the world, that Americans abroad do not get harmed with impunity,”

“There is no conceivable theory [whether] it was accidental or somehow caused by some equipment malfunction” that absolves Cuba, Bolton said. “We are continuing to be concerned for the safety of our personnel. We are not satisfied with the performance of the government of Cuba respecting their security, so we are going to take a very careful look at that and make some decisions.”

Bolton also said the Administration was “seriously” considering new measures against the Cuban government, including allowing Cuban exiles whose properties were confiscated by the Castro government to file lawsuits in U.S. courts against foreign companies currently using those properties. (A provision of the Helms-Burton law that allows such lawsuits has been regularly suspended every six months by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Failure to suspend it again would allow the lawsuits to be filed.[5])

Other measures under consideration include insisting that Cuban workers on U.S. companies’ projects on the island be hired directly so that the workers  get to keep all of the wages paid by the companies, rather than have the Cuban government skim significant portions of those wages.

The U.S., said Bolton, opposes any increase of Russian involvement in Cuba and that hopefully the next time President Trump meets Putin that message will be communicated.

Reactions to Bolton’s comments[6]

Cuba immediately condemned Bolton’s harsh comments about the island., saying that the new sanctions were a futile attempt to change Cuban policies and would only further isolate the U.S. internationally.

“We energetically reject these measures which will impact the economy and country’s development on top of the impact of the economic blockade,” the Director of U.S. affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, said at a Havana press conference. “They will fail. They will not break the will of Cubans.”

In particular, the Cuban official attacked the possibility of the U.S.’ allowing  U.S. citizens whose property was seized by the Cuban government to sue foreign companies that have invested in the properties on the island. Fernandez de Cossio said such a measure would be unprecedented and violate international law, further isolating the U.S. “There is no possibility whatsoever for people who abandoned Cuba and abandoned property in Cuba to come back and claim them,” he said.

However, Cuba reiterated its openness “to having a frank, professional, open and respectful dialogue with the U.S. Cuba is open to discussing any topic, if it’s based in respect.”

Conclusion

Given Bolton’s long record of hostility towards Cuba, this speech and interview are not surprising. Yet as the Vox article stated, they sound “like a renewal of America’s Cold War stance toward Latin America, [when] US spent decades opposing, and in some cases fighting, communist forces. From Nicaragua to Guatemala to Chile, [and when] the US used its power to squash many left-leaning movements in the region mostly because of its opposition to the Soviet Union.”

Needless to say, John Bolton’s service as National Security Advisor, in this blogger’s opinion, is an unmitigated disaster on many levels, including these recent comments about U.S. policies regarding Cuba and other countries in Latin America. Yes, there are U.S.-Cuba disagreements, but the proper way to address, and hopefully resolve, them is through the ongoing, respectful bilateral meetings.

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[1] White House, Remarks by National Security Advisor Ambassador John R. Bolton on the Administration’s Policies in Latin America (Nov. 2, 2018); Ward, John Bolton just gave an “Axis of Evil” speech about Latin America, Vox (Nov. 1, 2018); Assoc. Press, US vows tough approach to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 1, 2018); U.S. National Security Advisor talks Venezuela, Russia and Cuba relations, and the alleged attacks on U.S. personnel in Cuba, Miami Herald (Nov. 1, 2018); Rogin, Bolton promises to confront Latin America’s ‘Troika of Tyranny,’ Wash. Post (Nov. 1, 2018); Gaouette, Bolton praises Brazil’s far-right leader, slams Latin America’s ‘troika of tyranny,’ CNN (Nov. 1, 2018); Rodriguez, Bolton praises Brazil’s Bolsonaro as a ‘like-minded’ partner, Politico (Nov. 1, 2018); Wemer, John Bolton Takes Latin American “Troika of Tyranny” to Task, Atlantic Council (Nov. 1, 2018); McBride, Trump Administration Tightens Sanctions Against Cuba, Venezuela, W.S.J. (Nov. 1, 2018).

[2] See these posts to dwkcommentaries: U.S. and Cuba’s Efforts To Continue Normalization (December 9, 2016); Recent U.S.-Cuba Developments (June 15, 2018); U.S. and Cuba Continue To Hold Dialogues on Common Issues (July 12, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated with Cuba as of November 9, 2017).

[4] Gámez Torres, Bolton: Somebody must be held accountable in Cuba attacks, Miami Herald (Nov. 1, 2018).

[5]   E.g., State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task Force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property , dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 25, 2018).

[6]  Assoc. Press, Cuba Condemn[s] US’s Latest Tough Talk About the Island, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2018); Reuters, Cuba Lashes Out at Trump Administration Over New Sanctions, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2018).

 

 

 

Does Cuba Have a Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

Whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. is an important issue that has been addressed by Michael J. Strauss, an expert in international relations with a specialty in territorial leases by states. [1] A prior post referred to his 2013 article that touched on this topic, and this post is based upon his more extensive discussion of the issue in his 2009 book and a 2014 article. His book also helps clarify the history regarding the amount of the rent charged to the U.S. under the lease. [2]

Does Cuba have a legal right to terminate the lease?

As the lease does not grant Cuba an express right of termination and as there has been no decision by a court or arbitrator on the validity of any other purported termination right, no definitive answer can be given as to whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate the lease. At least the following four theories have been suggested for such a result.

First, after the Revolution, Cuba asserted that the lease was perpetual and, therefore, invalid. For example, a 1970 book by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted, “The contract for the lease in perpetuity . . . lacks existence and juridical validity because it is faulty in its essential elements: a) radical incapacity of the government of Cuba to cede a piece of national territory in perpetuity; b) for the same reason, the object and the reason are illegal; c) consent was wrested through irresistible and unjust moral violence.” (Book at 104, 171.)

Strauss, however, rejects the notion that the lease is perpetual. As noted in the prior post, the lease does not have a set termination date, unlike most U.S. leases (commercial and residential) and most leases “at the state level” (or “are otherwise open to termination by various means”). (Book at 106.) The absence of a termination date, however, does not mean that the lease is perpetual as most perpetual “leases [at the state level] . . . tend to explicitly [so] specify.” (Book at 107.)

Moreover, “the lease has had clearly stated conditions by which it can be ended.” The original 1903 lease was for “the time required for the purposes of [U.S.] coaling and naval stations.” And the 1934 treaty, reconfirming the lease, provided that it could be terminated by U.S. abandonment of Guantanamo Bay or by mutual agreement. (Book at 108, 215, 233.)

In addition, on two occasions after the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. has considered terminating the lease. One was in U.S. internal discussions about ways to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but that idea was rejected internally and not publicly disclosed. (Book at 109-12.) The second was the idea’s incorporation in section 201 of the Helms-Burton (Libertad) Act of 1996 requiring the U.S. in order to provide assistance to a hoped-for free and independent Cuba to “be prepared to enter into negotiations . . . to return the [U.S.] Naval Base at Guantanamo to Cuba or to renegotiate the present agreement under mutually agreeable terms.” (Book at 112-14, 249-50.)

A second legal theory for Cuba’s termination of the lease is a fundamental change in circumstances (rebus sic stantibus) from the lease’s negotiation and signing in 1903 to today. This theory is covered by Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and was discussed in the prior post. Strauss discusses the views on this issue by international legal scholars and notes the reluctance of international tribunals to invoke this ground. Another difficulty with this theory is the passage of time (over 112 years). As a result, Strauss does not see it as a winning approach for Cuba. (Book at 114-19.) Related to this theory is the 1970 argument by Cuba that the purpose of the lease had ceased to exist: the purpose of the 1903 lease (enable the U.S. to maintain Cuba’s independence and protect its people) was negated by the 1934 treaty’s emphasis on friendly relations between the two countries and that treaty’s purpose was negated by the hostile relations after the Cuban Revolution. (Book at 171.)

A third legal theory, also discussed in the prior post, would be the argument that the lease was procured by “the threat of force or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the [U.N.] Charter” under Article 52 of said Vienna Convention. That Convention, however, provides in Article 4 that it can be used only by states that are parties to the Convention and only after they became parties, and Cuba became such a party on September 9, 1998. Moreover, the U.N. was not in existence when the lease was signed in 1903. Nor, says Strauss, has “a new peremptory norm of general international law emerged” on this issue that could be a basis for a Cuban claim of a right to terminate the lease. (Book at 119-21.) This theory was put forward in 1970 as part of an argument advanced in a book by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. (Book at 171.)

The fourth legal theory for a Cuban claim to a right to terminate would be based on alleged U.S. breach of the lease. This is covered by Article 60 of said Vienna Convention and is limited to a “material breach,” which for present purposes is “the violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.” Strauss discussed two possible grounds for this theory:

  • The lease restricts U.S. use of Guantanamo Bay to a “coaling station” or a “naval station,” and Cuba would have to argue and prove that the U.S. has exceeded those uses. Strauss is skeptical of such a general argument because the U.S. consistently has opted for a broad interpretation of these limitations with Cuba’s tacit agreement and because it should be difficult to satisfy the definition of “material” breach. However, the U.S. use of Guantanamo as a facility for detention of alleged terrorists after 9/11 and the U.S.’ alleged violations of the human rights of such detainees would be a stronger claim reinforced by consistent Cuban objections to such uses and by the remote possibility that Cuba could be subject to liability for any human rights violations at the Base. (Book at 121-23, 144-55, 174; Cuba Responsibility.)
  • In Article III of the second part of the 1903 lease the U.S. “agrees that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within [Guantanamo].” The U.S. has clearly breached this provision by having a McDonald’s Restaurant and a bowling alley on the site, but it is difficult to see such ventures as a “material breach” of the lease. A stronger argument for such a claim could be built on the U.S.’ more recently having private-contractor employees participate in the interrogation and alleged abuse of detainees. Such an argument also ties in with the assertion that the U.S.’ use of Guantanamo as a detention facility and its alleged abuse of detainees constitutes a material breach of the lease. But do such breaches affect the object and purpose of the lease and thus constitute a material breech? (Book at 123; Private Sector; Cuba Responsibility.)

The Amount of the Rent

The original 1903 lease called for annual rent of $2,000 in gold coin for Guantanamo Bay and Bahía Honda without a breakdown for the two territories. Because the Guantanamo Bay territory constituted 94.5% of the total territory, the rent hypothetically could be divided on that basis, resulting in annual rent for Guantanamo of $1,890. This amount, argues Strauss, was “considerably higher than what any other party would have paid in 1903 for renting the same territory.” In other words, the rent was a material element, not a token or trivial amount. (Book at 126.)

In 1916, however, the U.S. presumably abandoned Bahía Honda, and the rent remained at $2,000 in gold coin, which in Strauss’ judgment was still in excess of the fair market value of the Guantanamo territory. (Book at 127.)

In 1933, at the start of the Great Depression, the U.S. left the gold standard, and the next year (1934), the U.S. Dollar was devalued with “the value of old U.S. gold dollars being fixed at $1.693125 in legal U.S. currency. The annual rent of $2,000 in gold for Guantanamo Bay, when converted at this rate, became $3,386.25. This was the amount the [U.S.] began paying annually to Cuba, by U.S. government check, starting in 1934.” This change was made unilaterally by the U.S. without a signed agreement with Cuba, which acquiesced in the change. (Book at 127-30.)

Similar changes were made unilaterally by the U.S. in 1973 with an increase of the annual rental check to $3,676.50 (based upon a 1972 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar) and in 1974 to $4,085 (based upon a 1973 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar). (Book at 130-31.) [3]

As mentioned in a prior post, since 1974 the $4,085 figure has continued to be used by the U.S. for the annual rental checks that have not been cashed by Cuba since the Cuban Revolution take-over of the government in 1959 (except for the first one in 1959). (Book at 136-37).

As Strauss recognizes, the rental amount has never been adjusted to reflect ever changing fair market values of the territory. As a result, the annual rental for at least the half-century after the Cuban Revolution has become a token payment. (Book at 131-32.)

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[1] Strauss is Lecturer in International Relations at the Centre d’Etudes Diplomatiques et Stratégiques, Paris, specializing in territorial leases as phenomena of international relations and international law for resolving sovereignty disputes. Prior to entering academia, he was an international journalist and served as bureau chief for Agence France-Presse’s AFX News in Paris, Knight-Ridder Financial News in Madrid, and Dow Jones News Service in Geneva. He took his Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy from the above Centre and his M.Sc. in Journalism from Columbia University, where he was an International Fellow in the School of International Affairs. He is the author of The Viability of International Leases in Resolving International Sovereignty Disputes: A Comparative Study.

[2] The Strauss article that was cited in the prior post is Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013) [hereafter “Cuba Responsibility”].  This post is based upon Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay (Praeger International 2009) [hereafter “the Book”] and U.S. Socialism in Cuba: Implications of Prohibiting the Private Sector at Guantanamo Bay, 24 Am. Soc’y for Study of Cuban Economy 129 (2014) [hereafter “Private Sector”]

[3] The earlier post erroneously asserted the $4,085 rental fee started in the mid-1930’s.