The Atrocious Benghazi Hearing

Hillary Clinton @ Hearing
Hillary Clinton @ Hearing

Yesterday I watched the opening and the closing of the hearing held by the House Select Committee on Benghazi to interrogate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I could not watch any more because of my disgust at the conduct of the Committee members, both Republicans and Democrats.[1]

As a retired lawyer, I kept wanting to say that most of the questions were objectionable as argumentative, assume facts not in evidence, multiple, irrelevant or repetitive.

If I had been in the witness chair, I would have wanted to scream in protest.

Yes, I know that a congressional hearing is not in charge of a judge to rule on objections. I know that not all Congressmen and women have legal education and experience. I know that even those who have that education and experience do not use it. I know that such hearings are not designed to gain admissible evidence, but instead are opportunities for Congressional Representatives to show off to certain constituencies.

The whole process is disgusting and atrocious.

I am a Democrat who had been hoping to be able to support Joe Biden for president in 2016. With his refusal to run, I am now a backer of Hillary.

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[1] E.g., Shear & Schmidt, At Benghazi Hearing, Shouting Match Over Hillary Clinton’s Emails, N.Y. times (Oct. 22, 2015).

 

Additional Details About U.S.-Cuba Secret Discussions Leading up to the December 17, 2014, Public Announcement of Rapprochement

A prior post covered the surprising December 17, 2014, announcement of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement while another post discussed the initial public information about the preceding secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations about normalization; yet another post integrated that information into previous public information about U.S.-Cuba relations in President Obama’s second presidential term, 2013-2014.

Now Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. both leading scholars on the relationship between the two countries, have added the following additional details about such previous secret discussions:[1]

  • In response to the January 2010 devastating Haiti earthquake, the U.S. and Cuba engaged in unprecedented cooperative disaster relief in that country.
  • Thereafter in 2010-2012 two top State Department officials—Cheryl Mills, the Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Julissa Reynoso, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs—had secret discussions with Cuban officials that initially focused on Cuba’s releasing U.S. citizen Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and the U.S.’ allowing the wives of two of the Cuban Five to visit their husbands in U.S. prisons.
  • By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross, but the U.S. was not prepared to do so. Instead, as a show of good faith, the U.S. arranged for the wives of two of the Cuban Five to secretly visit their husbands in U.S. prisons while Cuba permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband in a military hospital in Havana.
  • In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: “We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.”
  • This May 2012 memo arrived soon after Clinton and President Obama had returned from that April’s Sixth Summit of the Americas where they had been chastised by heads of states furious over the U.S. stance on Cuba. Afterwards Clinton “recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”
  • After his reelection in November 2012, President Obama approached Massachusetts Senator John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state and raising a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba and also had long opposed the US economic embargo of the island.
  • During the U.S.-Cuba secret discussions in Canada in 2013=2014 that were discussed in a prior post, The U.S. was not willing to talk about the USAID programs or the status of Guantán­amo Bay. Cuba, on the other hand, was not willing to discuss human rights or U.S. fugitives living in their country.
  • In September 2013 Senator Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) suggested to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that the U.S. should see about getting Pope Francis involved in helping the two countries resolve their differences.
  • In February 2014, Senator Patrick Leahy had his staff collaborate with former White House counsel, Greg Craig, to draft a 10-page memo of options “to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement [for President Obama].” The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord.
  • Apparently also in or about February 2014, Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the Pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., the White House also “got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss” Cuba at the upcoming upcoming March private audience with the Pope.
  • In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of a newly formed coalition for changing U.S. policies regarding Cuba, met with Cardinal Seán O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. The advocates of change explained the recent trends, the conversations with President and others in the administration and Congress and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the Pope to President Obama would be significant in moving the process forward. A letter from Senator Leahy was given to Cardinal O’Malley urging him to focus the Pope’s attention on the “humanitarian issue” of the prisoner exchange.
  • During this same time period, Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the Pope to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.
  • At the private audience later that month (March 27), Obama told the Pope that the U.S. had something going with Cuba and that it would be useful if the Pope could play a role.” (Other details about the audience were provided in a prior post.) A few days later, Francis summoned Cardinal Ortega to enlist his help.
  • On May 1, 2014, Leahy, along with Senators Carl Levin (Dem., MI) and Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) and Representatives Chris Van Hollen (Dem., MD) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA) met in the Oval Office with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The legislators urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. “You said you were going to do this,” McGovern reminded the president. “Let’s just do it!” Obama had a non-committal response,”We’re working on it” and gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.
  • On May 19, 2014, the previously mentioned coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the U.S. policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering; Cuban-American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company; and John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence. The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to “develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.”
  • During the summer of 2014 the Pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders“to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.”
  • To safeguard his communications, the Pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the two presidents’ hands. After delivering the Pope’s letter to Raúl Castro, Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission to deliver the other letter to Obama. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with President Obama was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the Pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick, therefore, left Cuba empty-handed.
  • Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough at the White House to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the President. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, U.S. officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the President on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the Pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to “help in any way.”
  • In October 2014, at the Pope’s invitation, the two sides met at the Vatican and hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. The U.S. representatives, Rhodes and Zuniga, also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba. Cuban officials said that while they had no intentionof changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The Pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.
  • On October 12, the New York Times published an editorial calling for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba and for a new relationship between the two countries; it turned out to be the first of a series of editorials on various aspects of the relationship.[2] These editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, a new member of the Editorial Board and a native of Colombia. He talked to administration officials, Senator Leahy’s office, and the new coalition, but recently said, “There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.”
  • On November 6, 2014, Obama’s National Security Council met to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.

These additional details about the over two years of previously secret negotiations should be merged with the earlier post about President Obama’s Second Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014. Together they demonstrate the diplomatic skill of that Administration in achieving this historic breakthrough that will benefit both countries.

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[1] Kornblu & LeoGrande, Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship with Cuba, Mother Jones (July 2015)  This information will be incorporated in a new edition of their book: Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana that will be published this October by the University of North Carolina Press.

[2] Previous posts covered the other Times editorials that commended Cuba’s foreign medical missions (Oct. 19), recommended normalization (Oct. 26) and prisoner exchanges (Nov. 3) and criticized USAID programs on the island (Nov. 10), the U.S. Cuban medical parole program (Nov. 17) and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (Dec. 15).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Obama’s Lack of Comments About Cuba During His Reelection Campaign of 2012

 

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

On April 4, 2011, Obama had an unusual way of formally announcing he would be running for reelection in 2012. He did so with an understated two-minute Internet video titled “It Begins With Us,” which features his supporters talking about the need to re-elect him and in which he does not appear. No mention of Cuba was made.

As the incumbent president, Obama secured the Democratic nomination with no serious opposition at its national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. On September 5, 2012, he was re-nominated, and the following night he accepted the nomination. In his acceptance speech he said the election “will be a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future. Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known.”

Obama in his acceptance speech asked all citizens “to rally around a set of goals for your country, goals in manufacturing, energy, education, national security and the deficit, real, achievable plans that will lead to new jobs, more opportunity and rebuild this economy on a stronger foundation. That’s what we can do in the next four years, and that is why I am running for a second term as president of the United State.” Obama also talked about various problems around the world, but made no mention of Cuba.

His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, previously had been nominated at its national convention on August 28 with his acceptance on August 30.

The campaigns focused heavily on domestic issues: debate centered largely around sound responses to the Great Recession in terms of economic recovery and job creation. Other issues included long-term federal budget issues, the future of social insurance programs, and the Affordable Care ActForeign policy was also discussed including the phase-out of the Iraq War, the size of and spending on the military, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and appropriate counteractions to terrorism.

The two main presidential candidates held three debates, all in October (3rd, 16th and 22nd).

In the first debate on October 3 the candidates “quarreled aggressively over tax policy, the budget deficit and the role of government, with each man accusing the other of being evasive and misleading voters.” Romney, for example, accused Obama of failing to lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930’s while Obama implored Americans to be patient. On a basic level it was a clash of two ideologies, the president’s Democratic vision of government playing a supporting role in spurring economic growth, and Mr. Romney’s Republican vision that government should get out of the way of businesses that know best how to create jobs.” There was practically no mention of foreign issues, and not a word about Cuba.

The second debate on October 16 again dealt primarily with domestic affairs, including taxes, unemployment, job creation, the national debt, energy and energy independence, women’s rights and immigration. But this debate also touched on foreign policy, especially the then recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Again, no mention of Cuba.

The last debate on October 22 was to be devoted to foreign policy, and it did have discussions about the attack on Benghazi, Iran’s nuclear program, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, relations with Israel and Pakistan, the War on Terror, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the size and scope of the U.S. military, and relations and trade with China. There also were further comments about domestic policy issues, such as job creation, the federal deficit and education. Again, there was no mention of Cuba.

On November 6, 2012, Obama was re-elected for his second term as President of the United States. He won 65,916,000 popular votes (51.1%) and 332 electoral votes to Romney/Ryan’s 60,934,000 (47.2%) and 206 electoral votes. Nationally the Democratic ticket overwhelmingly won the Hispanic vote, 71% to 27% for the Republicans. Obama and Biden also won the key state of Florida, 50.0% versus 49.1% for Romney and Ryan, with nearly 50% of the state’s Cuban-Americans going for the Obama ticket.

In his victory speech in Chicago, President Obama proclaimed, “Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.”

Conclusion

 Unless it was due to my limited research, there was no mention of U.S. policy regarding Cuba during this presidential election. This is not too surprising in light of the primacy of domestic economic issues in 2012, the problems in the Middle East and the Administration’s apparent lack of attention to Cuba since Cuba’s arrest of Alan Gross in December 2009 and its subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Gross.

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[1] This post and the subsequent posts about Obama’s prior statements about Cuba are not based upon comprehensive research. The primary research tool was online searching of the New York Times for articles mentioning “Obama and Cuba” for the relevant time period. Therefore, this blogger especially welcomes comments with corrections and additions. Ultimately after public release of many Obama Administration documents after the completion of his presidency, scholars will undertake a detailed examination of those documents and provide their assessments of his record regarding Cuba. This post is based upon the following: Shear, Obama Begins re-Election Facing New Political Challenges, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2011) President Obama’s Full Remarks From the Democratic National Convention, N.Y. Times (Sept. 6, 2012); Zeleny & Rutenberg, Obama and Rommey, in First Debate, Spar Over Fixing the Economy, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2012); Baker, A Clash of Philosophies, N.Y. Times (Oct. 4, 2012); Transcript of the Last Debate, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2012); Baker & Cooper, Sparring Over Foreign Policy, Obama Goes on the Offensive, N.Y. Times (Oct. 22, 2012); President Obama’s Election Night Speech, N.Y. Times (Nov. 7, 2012); Wikipedia, 2012 Democratic National Convention; Wikipedia, Barack Obama presidential campaign, 2012; Wikipedia, 2012 Republican National Convention; Wikipedia, United States presidential election debates, 2012; Wikipedia, United States presidential election, 2012; Jonathan Alter, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (Simon & Schuster; New York; 2013); Daniel Belz, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the future of elections in America (Viking; New York; 2013).

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, 2009

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Obama’s First Term, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes

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

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

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

Obama’s First Term, January 2013

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barack Obama’s Comments About Cuba During His Campaign for the Democratic Party’s Presidential Nomination, 2007-2008

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, it is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements about Cuba.[1] This post will examine his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008.[2] Future posts will look at his 2008 presidential campaign; his first presidential term (including his 2012 presidential election campaign), 2009-2013; and his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.

Barack Obama's Announcement Speech April 2007
Barack Obama’s Announcement Speech February 2007

On February 10, 2007, at theI llinois State Capitol in Springfield Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Almost all of his speech was about domestic issues with the exception of his pledge to end the war in Iraq and “bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.” There was no mention of Cuba.

Later that month (February 2007) the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof asked Obama,   “Is the [Cuba] embargo a failure?” Obama responded, “I think we’ve got a potential opportunity with Castro’s health waning to reopen the debate. We probably shouldn’t be overly optimistic that it’s going to change overnight. And I think it’s important that the United States isn’t too heavy-handed post-Castro in swooping [in] and suggesting that somehow Cuba’s going to change immediately. I do think that it opens up the conversation among not just the United States but among Cubans both in the U.S. and in Cuba about breaking down some of the restrictions on travel and commerce….I don’t think we automatically ease those restrictions simply because Castro has died. What I think is that with Castro’s death there are going to be a new set of players, I think it’s going to be important for us to do an entire reevaluation of our strategy towards Cuba. And I think the aim should be to create a more open relationship….But that is still going to be contingent on having some desire on the part of the Cuban government to initiate that process as well.”

In the CNN/YouTube debate with Hillary Clinton in July 2007, Obama was asked, “’Would you be willing to meet, separately, without preconditions, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Obama replied, ‘I would,’ and added that it was a “disgrace that the Bush administration had refused on principle to do so.”

The Obama campaign team anticipated that the Clinton campaign would seize on Obama’s willingness to meet, without preconditions, with leaders of so-called rouge regimes. Obama, however, welcomed this attack and told his aides “we will not back down on this one bit.” This position was supported by polling in Iowa, the early caucus state, and showed that Obama represented change and Hillary did not.

Indeed, as anticipated, immediately after the debate, Hillary Clinton charged that Obama was too soft on talking with such countries. The Obama campaign responded that Mr. Obama would pursue “tough diplomacy,” but also use carrots like leader-to-leader talks.”

On August 21, 2007, Obama wrote an op-ed article in the Miami Herald “calling for ‘unrestricted rights’ for Cuban Americans to visit and send money to family in Cuba.” The following Saturday he campaigned in Miami’s Little Havana and told the crowd at a rally, “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years, and we need to change it.” He went on to promise to end restrictions on remittances and family travel for Cuban-Americans, to revive “people-to-people” educational and cultural exchanges and to engage Cuba on issues of mutual interest. Such engagement, he said, offered the best hope for promoting “a democratic opening in Cuba,” which is the “foremost objective of [U.S.] policy.”

At a December 1, 2007, televised Iowa debate among the Democratic candidates for their presidential nomination, Obama agreed with Mrs. Clinton, John Edwards and Joe Biden that the U.S. should not normalize relations with Cuba while Fidel Castro was still in power. Only Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich were in favor of working for change with Fidel.

On February 19, 2008, the outside world provided a new circumstance for the candidates to react to. Fidel Castro resigned as President of Cuba due to poor health, and his brother, Raúl Castro,  became Acting President and five days later (February 24, 2008) the President upon election by Cuba’s National Assembly.

In the meantime in a February 21, 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton in Austin, Texas, Obama made extensive comments about the U.S. and Cuba. He said, “The starting point for our policy in Cuba should be the liberty of the Cuban people. And I think we recognize that that liberty has not existed throughout the Castro regime. And we now have an opportunity to potentially change the relationship between the United States and Cuba, after over half a century. I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation. It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda and . . . that [the] agenda [included] human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time.” His other points about Cuba were the following:

  • More generally “it is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that’s where diplomacy makes the biggest difference.”
  • “One other thing that I’ve said as a show of good faith, that we’re interested in pursuing potentially a new relationship, what I’ve called for is a loosening of the restrictions on remittances from family members to the people of Cuba as well as travel restrictions for family members who want to visit their family members in Cuba. And I think that initiating that change in policy as a start and then suggesting that an agenda get set up is something that could be useful, but I would not normalize relations until we started seeing some of the progress that Senator Clinton talked about.”
  • When challenged that he had had a different position on Cuba in 2003, Obama responded, “I support the eventual normalization [with Cuba], and it’s absolutely true that I think our [Cuba] policy has been a failure. . . . [D]uring my entire lifetime . . . you essentially have seen a Cuba that has been isolated but has not made progress when it comes to the issues of political rights and personal freedoms that are so important to the people of Cuba. So I think that we have to shift policy. I think our goal has to be ultimately normalization, but that’s going to happen in steps.”
  • “[T]he first step . . . is changing our rules with respect to remittances and with respect to travel. And then I think it is important for us to have the direct contact not just in Cuba, but I think this principle applies generally. [As] John F. Kennedy once said, . . . we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate. And this moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down, . . . is one that we should try to take advantage of.”

Immediately after this Democratic candidates debate, Senator John McCain, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, jumped in with his criticism of Obama. McCain said, “Not so long go Senator Obama favored complete normalization of relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Last night, he said that as president he’d meet with the imprisoned island’s new leader ‘without preconditions.’ So Raul Castro gets an audience with an American president, and all the prestige such a meeting confers, without having to release political prisoners, allow free media, political parties, and labor unions, or schedule internationally monitored free elections. Instead, Senator Obama says he would meet Cuba’s dictator without any such steps in the hope that talk will make things better for Cuba’s oppressed people. Meet, talk, and hope may be a sound approach in a state legislature, but it is dangerously naive in international diplomacy where the oppressed look to America for hope and adversaries wish us ill.”

Obama’s campaign promptly retorted, ““John McCain would give us four more years of the same Bush-McCain policies that have failed U.S. interests and the Cuban people for the last fifty years. My policy will be based on the principle of liberty for the Cuban people, and I will seek that goal through strong and direct presidential diplomacy, and an immediate change in policy to allow for unlimited family visitation and remittances to the island. In November, the American people will have a clear choice: a new direction versus more war in Iraq, more not talking to leaders we don’t like, and more of a Cuba policy that has failed to achieve freedom for the Cuban people. I am confident that the American people will choose the promise of the future over the failed policies and predictable political attacks of the past.”

President George W. Bush echoed some of McCain’s criticisms of Obama at a February 28, 2008 press conference. Bush called Cuba’s new President, Rául Castro, a “tyrant,” who was “nothing more than an extension of what his brother [Fidel] did, which was to ruin an island, and imprison people because of their beliefs.” Bush also rejected Obama’s willingness to meet with the new Cuban leader because it would “send the wrong message. It’ll send a discouraging message to those who wonder if America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners, it’ll give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.”

John McCain continued his criticism of Obama’s stance on Cuba on March 6, 2008. According to McCain, he would meet with Cuban leaders “as soon as the political prisoners are free … and free elections have been held. Then I would sit down with any freely elected president or leader of Cuba. But until that day came I would not in any way, as Senator Obama wants to do, legitimize an individual who has been responsible for education, repression, political prisons and a gulag. I don’t think that it would be appropriate to legitimize someone like Raul Castro by quote, sitting down with him. And under no circumstance would I do it.’’

On May 20, 2008, this line of criticism was reiterated by McCain. At a rally in Miami, he said, “Now Senator Obama has shifted positions and says he only favors easing the embargo, not lifting [it]. He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro. These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators — there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy.”

Responding from a campaign stop in Oregon the next day (May 21, 2008), Obama said, “with Fidel Castro stepping down from the presidency” and his brother Raul now in that post, “I think it’s a good time for us to reassess our Cuba policy. Cuba is a dictatorship that does not respect human rights or the free exercise of religion.” On the other hand, Obama argued, “our Cuba policy was shaped when I was born and basically hasn’t changed for 46 years.” Since that policy of political and economic isolation “hasn’t worked,” he added, it is now time to “try different things.” Mr. Obama spoke of the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba if diplomatic contacts prove fruitful. But he also argued that “it is important to send some signals right now,” recognizing that “our relationship may be at a moment of transition right now.” In particular, Mr. Obama indicated that he favors lifting restrictions both on visits by Cuban-Americans to their families on the island and on the money they send back to those relatives.

Two days later (May 23, 2008) Obama appeared in Miami before the Cuban American National Foundation, the most prominent of the anti-Castro Cuban exile groups. Obama said he would meet with the Cuban leader, Rául Castro, “at a time and place of my choosing.” After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, “it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.” Obama also said that if elected president he would immediately lift the bans on family travel to Cuba and the limits on how much money people can send to their relatives in the communist nation. But he “will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.”

Three months later, August 25 to 28, the Democratic Party held its National Convention in Denver, Colorado, where it adopted its national platform and officially nominated its candidates for President and Vice President. Obama was nominated on August 27, when his former opponent, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, interrupted the official roll call to move that Obama be selected by acclamation. U.S. Senator Joe Biden also was nominated for Vice President that same night, following which he accepted the nomination.

Barack Obama @ Democratic Party's National Convnetion 2008
Barack Obama @ Democratic Party’s National Convention 2008
Barack Obama @ Democratic Party's National Convention 2008
Barack Obama @ Democratic Party’s National Convention 2008

 

On August 28 Obama accepted his nomination in a speech at INVESCO Field before a record-setting crowd of 84,000 people in attendance plus additional millions on national and international television. The speech concentrated on his visions for the future of the U.S. economy and better lives. He did not mention Cuba or any other foreign policy issue other than his promise to end the war in Iraq.

Conclusion

Obama in his campaign for the nomination consistently asserted that he favored discussions or negotiations with Cuba and other rogue states “without preconditions.” That, in fact, is what he did in the 2013-2014 secret negotiations with Cuba that led to the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba.

This campaign position was based upon the assumption that the nearly 50-years of U.S. policy regarding Cuba was a failure and needed to be changed. This, in fact, is what he said in the December 17th announcement and the July 1st announcement of re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

In this campaign Obama advocated liberalizing U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba and U.S. citizens’ remittances to Cubans. This, in fact, is what he did in early 2009 and in 2014.

Obama in this campaign also talked about the importance of the U.S. pressing Cuba on human rights, releasing of political prisoners and opening up the Cuban press. This, in fact, since December 17 these subjects are being discussed with Cuba.

There, however, was one discordant note in this campaign. On May 23, 2008, Obama said he would maintain the embargo whereas in the December 17, 2014, announcement he called for Congress to end the embargo.

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[1] This post and the subsequent posts about Obama’s prior statements about Cuba are not based upon comprehensive research. The primary research tool was online searching of the New York Times for articles mentioning “Obama and Cuba” for the relevant time period. Therefore, this blogger especially welcomes comments with corrections and additions.

[2] This post is based on the following: David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win (Viking; New York; 2009); Assoc. Press, Ill. Sen. Barack Obama’s Announcement Speech, Wash. Post (Feb, 10, 2007); Kristof, Obama on the Issues (and his Grandfather’s Wives), N.Y. Times (Mar. 5, 2007); Seelye, Clinton-Obama Commander Duel, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2007); Falcone, 2008: Obama Speaks, N.Y. Times (Aug. 21, 2007); Traub, Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2007); Healy, Though Caucuses Loom, Democrats Tone It Down, N.Y. Times (Dec. 1, 2007); McKinley, Fidel Castro Resigns as Cuba’s President, N.Y. Times (Feb. 19, 2008); Transcript: Democratic Debate in Austin, Texas, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2008); Phillips, McCain Hits Obama on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2008); McKinley, Raúl Castro Named Cuba’s New President, N.Y. Times (Feb. 24, 2008); Stout & Knowlton, Bush Calls Surveillance Bill an ‘Urgent Priority,’ N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2008); Stolberg, Bush Criticizes Democrats Running for President on Trade, Iraq and Cuba, but Not by Name, N.Y. Times (Feb. 29, 2008); Cooper, Vice Presidential Tea Leaves and a Dig at Obama, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2008); Luo, McCain Now Hammers Obama on Cuba, N. Y. Times (May 20, 2008); Rohter, Obama to Address Cuban Group, Marking Shift from GOP Alliances, N.Y. Times (May 22, 2008); Zeleny, Obama Discusses Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (May 23, 2008); Zeleny, Obama, in Miami, Calls for Engaging with Cuba, N.Y. Times (May 24, 2008); Wikipedia, 2008 Democratic National ConventionTranscript: Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech, N.Y. Times (Aug. 28, 2008).

 

 

 

What Happens When Jesus Calls?

 

Westminster Sanctury
Westminster Sanctuary
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen
Rev. Dr. Timothy   Hart-Andersen

The subject of vocation returned to Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church on February 9th. A prior post examined the service’s music on the subject while another set forth the Scriptures for the day: Psalm 27 and Matthew 4:12-23.[1]

The sermon that day was “What Happens When Jesus Calls?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, the Senior Pastor.Here are excerpts from that sermon.

“If the question is what happens when Jesus calls, the answer may be that when Jesus calls we take a good, long, hard, deep look at what we perceive to be the purpose of our lives. That may suggest a job change, or not; perhaps a shift in careers, or not; it may mean finally discovering our life’s vocation.

The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee have that kind of experience with Jesus when he comes calling. His goal is not that they abandon their chosen vocation arbitrarily, but, rather, to rethink it. He never asks them to stop fishing; he asks them to rethink how and why they are doing it. In fact, Jesus even says to them that they’ll continue in the same line of work – only now they’ll be ‘fishing for people.’ He wants them to ponder who they are and what their focus ought to be in life.

 When Jesus calls, it occasions an examination of our purpose in life, no matter what work we’re engaged in. In the story of Jesus calling the fishermen at least two things happen.

First, Jesus comes looking for them. The call is his idea, not theirs. They were minding their own business when he shows up and invites them to rethink their lives. We don’t have to take the first step toward Jesus; he comes for us, if we’re ready. This is what the psalmist refers to in writing, ‘Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Wait for the Lord.’

So often we think the business of faith depends on us; but it’s a gift from God, not an achievement we attain through hard work and hours of effort. Jesus comes looking for us.

Second, Jesus meets them right where they are. He looks for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. Those four fishermen had no apparent special gifts that made them uniquely attractive candidates to become disciples.

The Church will be built not of princes and priests and power brokers, but of common people who are just like anyone else. Those fishermen went from their boats to become the inner circle of Jesus and later to lead the early Church. Nothing about them suggested that they would be suited for this work. Jesus meets us right where we are.

The call Jesus extends to the fishermen changes them. We who want to follow Jesus without making much in the way of change in our lives, be it in how we conduct our business, or how we spend our time, or how we use our resources, are missing the whole point of Christianity. Faith transforms us. The old life is gone; a new life has begun.

Understanding what it means to be called, to have a vocation, is at the heart of the Presbyterian way of Christianity. Writing in the 16th century, John Calvin said.

  •  ‘The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his (or her) calling. For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once.’

 Calvin may be giving us a peek inside his own personality and psychological make-up when he names the ‘great restlessness’ of human nature. But many of us know precisely what Calvin refers to when he laments the way we flit about from one scheme to another as we seek to find what we’re supposed to be doing in life. Especially today, it’s difficult to know what direction to pursue when our vocation in ten years – or even in one year – may not even exist right now.

‘Therefore,’ Calvin goes on to say, ‘Each individual has his (or her) own kind of living assigned to him (or her) by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he (or she) may not heedlessly wander throughout life.’ (John Calvin; Institutes, III.x.6.)

‘Our own kind of living assigned to us so that we might not heedlessly wander throughout life.’

These days the average person will hold between 10 and 15 jobs in a lifetime. I was heading in that direction myself until I finally gave into the nagging sense of call to serve the church. I started seminary at age 27; by that time I had made several exploratory attempts – at least three – to test one career or another, None of them was right. I was having a hard time finding the ‘kind of living assigned to me.’ I was wandering.

Finding my vocation, my calling, depended on my feeling at home in what I was doing. I resisted accepting the call to ministry as long as I could, but in each vocation I tested – teacher, academic scholar, social service worker– I felt as if I were a stranger, as if were not quite at home. Frankly, it also had to do with needing to be sure it was my call and not something I was doing to please someone else – my parents, in particular. [2]

When I was in my mid-20’s, some 15 years later, with my life in a time of upheaval, I began, finally, to consider what I had avoided all those years: whether or not I was called into ministry. I wrestled hard with the decision– for nine months, in a kind of gestating process, I prayed and listened.

And one September Saturday morning, as I was in the bath tub, it came to me that I needed to go to seminary. The water was making a deep connection, I realized later, between baptism and vocation.

Ordained ministry was the one possibility that didn’t leave me feeling as if I were a stranger. It felt like home.

I was finding my vocation, not what my parents wanted me to do, but what I felt called to do.

Think back on your own employment history; you may be surprised how many different jobs you’ve held or careers you’ve tried, but that may or may not have anything to do with the ‘heedless wandering’ Calvin was concerned about. Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less about what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives, and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever work we do.

Nothing more thrills a pastor than to see changes happening in the lives of parishioners. I’ve seen hard-charging business leaders switch to non-profit careers because they feel called to serve the community in a new way. I’ve seen teachers give themselves over utterly to their students because they sense a call to live like that. I’ve watched retired people discover new ways to serve and follow Jesus in their later years. I’ve seen young adults light up as they discover their vocation and pursue it with determination.

When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination; that’s what those fishermen learned that day. Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.

The occasion of a memorial service – any memorial service, not only that of a much-loved public figure [like Joan Mondale][3] – invites us to reflect not only on the life of the one who has died, but also on the life you and I lead.

Someday it will be we about whom they will be speaking. What will they say? What will be the summary of the highest priorities of our lives? What will they say was the central theme of our lives?

Thanks be to God.”


[1] The bulletin, a copy of the sermon and an audio and video recording of the service are available online as are the ones for the January 26th service about vocation. Prior posts have discussed that service’s (a) Prayer of Confession; (b) an anthem beginning with the words “God be in my head;” (c) passages from the Bible’s book of Acts and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments concerning the vocations of Tabitha, Peter, Lydia and Paul; (d) a passage from Paul’s epistle from a Roman prison and the sermon’s drawing on them for comments about the preacher’s and her people’s vocations; (e) a hymn, “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord;” (f) another hymn, “Give Thanks, O Christian People;” and (g) an anthem, “Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go.” Clicking on “Westminster Presbyterian Church” in the Tag Cloud at the top right of the blog will give you all of the posts about the church in reverse chronological order of posting.

[2] Rev. Hart-Andersen’s father–Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen–was an esteemed Presbyterian minister, who died last year.

[3] The prior day Rev. Dr. Hart-Andersen had presided at the memorial service at Westminster for long-time member and former Second Lady Joan Mondale, with remembrances from friends and acquaintances, including Vice President Joe Biden and former President Jimmy Carter. Included in the 1,000 people at the service were her husband and former Vice President Walter Mondale, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (who is a Westminster member), two U.S. Senators, half the Minnesota congressional delegation, several mayors, brass and strings from the  Minnesota Orchestra, the Macalester College Choir and Pipe Band, gospel musicians, and a Japanese solo vocalist Another 5,000 people, including this blogger, attended via the live-stream video, which is available online.

Evaluations of President Obama

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times on April 21st criticized President Barack Obama. She said “he still has not learned how to govern” and “doesn’t know how to work the system.” The next day a similar critique was made in the Times by two “reporters”–Michael Shear and Peter Baker–that used the bullying President Lyndon Johnson as a model of what a president should do in these circumstances.

I disagree with these criticisms, and my letter to that effect was published in the Times on April 24th. I said,

  • “Maureen Dowd asserts that President Obama ‘still has not learned how to govern.’ I disagree.
  • Last week the Senate, by a good majority, voted in favor of expanded background checks and making straw purchases and gun trafficking a federal crime. Those votes were attributable, in part, to strong advocacy by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
  • The true outrage lies in two places.
  • First is the Senate’s filibuster rule, which is being used by the Republicans to require a supermajority vote of 60.
  • Second is the Republican senators’ determination to prevent Mr. Obama from accomplishing anything. Remember Mitch McConnell’s statement in the last Congress that his top priority was to stop Mr. Obama’s re-election.”

This letter was a synopsis of my post, The Outrageous, Dysfunctional U.S. Senate, and my previous blog posts criticizing the Senate’s filibuster rule and the Republican Senators’ obstructionism.

Two columnists for the Washington Post–Greg Sargent and Jonathan Bernstein–also have taken vigorous exception to the opinions of Maureen Dowd and Messrs. Shear and Baker.

Sargent sees this recent criticism of Obama as focusing on his alleged failure “to put enough pressure on red-state Democratic Senators like Mark Begich.” However, says Sargent, even if all four of the red-state Democrats [who voted against the measure instead] had voted for the measure, it still would not have passed because of the 60-vote requirement of the Senate’s filibuster rule. Moreover, if these four Democrats “were basing their vote in the calculation that they need to achieve distance from the president and signal cultural affinity with their red state constituents, as many have speculated, any open pressure [by Obama] would only make the vote harder for them.”

The plain conclusion for Sargent was “the Republican Party — and the 60 vote Senate — are the prime culprits in the killing of [the bi-partisan background-check bill].”

Bernstein has had enough of others comparing Obama to President Lyndon Johnson. Bernstein pointed out the following reasons why such a comparison is inappropriate:

  1. The situation for Johnson was very different. He had huge majorities in both chambers of Congress, and in the aftermath of a presidential assassination, there was a strong national desire for unity and action.
  2. In the mid-1960s, political parties were much weaker and not as polarized as today.
  3. Although Johnson faced filibusters on key civil rights legislation, he did not face filibusters on every single thing he proposed. Nor did he have to fight a dedicated partisan opposition over every judicial and executive branch nomination.
  4. Obama, on the other hand, to get anything through the Senate needs the votes of Republicans, every one of whom has strong partisan incentives to oppose him. Johnson really never faced anything like that.
  5. “Generally, the political science literature on presidential persuasion emphasizes how little presidents are able to accomplish when it comes to swaying votes in Congress.
  6. “Johnson wasn’t just any president; he was a president who had been a very effective Senate Majority Leader. He came to the White House with years of relationships with many senators; to the extent he was successful, it’s probably not something that’s easy for anyone else to duplicate.”
  7. “Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.”

I, therefore, continue to be a strong supporter of our President and a severe critic of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate (and the House of Representatives too).