December 17, 2016 was the second anniversary of Presidents Obama and Castro’s joint announcement that their two countries had embarked on the path of normalization and reconciliation. The U.S. commemoration of this date was subdued. The White House held a small gathering that was not widely publicized .The Cuban government, on the other hand, apparently did not hold any such event. But two Cuban publications published sketchy comments on the anniversary.
On December 15, the Obama Administration hosted a private gathering across the street from the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. President Obama did not attend, but did send a letter to the 20 or so attendees encouraging them “to carry forward the work of strengthening our partnership in the years ahead.”
The gathering was addressed by Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor; Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the acting U.S. ambassador in Havana; and three high-level officials from the U.S. Commerce, State and Treasury departments. Another speaker was
José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban Ambassador in Washington. Also in attendance were U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and U.S. Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa, Florida, both Democrats.
Rhodes and DeLaurentis touted the administration’s accomplishments and, at different times, got emotional — Rhodes remembering support from Cuban-American friends in the wake of stinging criticism over his work, and DeLaurentis describing his work in Cuba, where he began and might end his diplomatic career, as the most rewarding of his life.
The attendees were Cuban Americans, Cuban government officials and business partners in Washington, including Miami entrepreneur Hugo Cancio, who publishes an arts magazine in Cuba; Felice Gorordo, founder of the Roots of Hope nonprofit; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; John McIntire, head of the Cuba Emprende Foundation; Miami attorney Ralph Patino; Giancarlo Sopo, founder of the CubaOne foundation, and Miami Foundation president and chief executive Javier Alberto Soto.
Another attendee, Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociology professor and Cuba expert, observed, “It was partly a celebration of what has been achieved, and a mourning” for the intense political fight that awaits.”
As Ric Herrero, former head of the pro-engagement Cuba Now group and the current president of Manos Americas, a social entrepreneurship nonprofit, put it, the gathering was “bittersweet. There was just a lot of gratitude toward the administration for their commitment to this cause and to everything they’ve done.” But they all were left with the questions: “What next? Where do we go from here? Because there is no certainty.”
Indeed, a chief concern among attendees was that Trump’s “volatile” personality could ignite a war of words with the Cubans, who have so far kept silent about the president-elect’s Cuba statements. On the other hand, attendees noted, Trump doesn’t have a clear political ideology, and could be more interested in showing up Obama on Cuba by negotiating more concessions. However, Rhodes said, “We would like nothing more than the new administration to succeed beyond what we did.”
Obama supporters at the meeting thought that Trump had a willingness to keep negotiating with Raúl Castro’s government and that U.S. regulatory changes, following a top-to-bottom policy review, could take time–so long, perhaps, that by then Castro might near his own retirement, scheduled for February 2018.
“We’re living through a lot of uncertainty, but there’s a pretty strong consensus that Trump is going to realize that turning back the clock is going to be very difficult,” said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group. “Returning to a failed policy doesn’t make any sense.”
However, at a December 16 “thank You” rally in Ordlando, Flordia, Trump told the crowd, “America will also stand with the Cuban people in their long struggle for freedom. Their support has been unbelievable. The Cuban people. We know what we have to do, and we’ll do it. Don’t worry about it.”
No Cuban commemoration event was found in searching Cuban public sources, Instead, two articles on the subject were found.
The CubaDebate article reviewed some of the key things that had happened since December 17, 2014, while reiterating Cuba’s fervent desire for the U.S. to end its embargo (blockade) and to return Guantanamo Bay to the island. It also alleged that President Obama had done “much less than he could, given the broad executive powers that he [allegedly]possesses and that [allegedly] would have allowed him to reduce the blockade to its minimum expression.”
Nevertheless, the article stated, on December 7, 2016, Josefina Vidal of the Cuban government reaffirmed Cuba’s willingness to continue this process and expressed its hope that President-elect Donald Trump will take into account, when he takes office on January 20, what has been achieved” over the last two years.
These same points were essentially repeated in the article in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. It also added the following points:
Obama had acknowledged for the first time that the U.S. policy of “aggression” [“hostility” would be more diplomatic] against Havana was a failure and had ended up isolating the U.S. itself. It also alleged that the U.S. methods were changing, but not its objective – regime change in Cuba.
The U.S. still has a ban on US investment in Cuba, except in the area of telecommunications.
The Cuban state sector, where more than 75% of the labor force is employed, remains deprived of selling its products to the U.S. with the sole exception of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.Also, Cuban imports of goods produced in the U.S. that the state-owned enterprise can make are very restricted.
Although several months ago the US approved the use of the U.S. Dollar by Cuba in its international transactions, it has not yet been possible to make deposits in cash or payments to third parties in that currency, due to international banks’ fears of fines by the U.S.
The U.S. has not yet ended Radio and TV Marti programs aimed at Cuba.
Over the last week Cuban President Raúl Castro has made two speeches at the United Nations in New York City as has U.S. President Barack Obama. Afterwards the two of them with advisors held a private meeting at the U.N. with subsequent comments by their spokesmen. Here is a chronological account of these events.
On September 26, President Raúl Castro addressed the U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development, as shown in the photograph to the right. In his remarks he said, ”The reestablishment of diplomatic relations Between Cuba and the United States of America, the opening of embassies and the policy changes announced by President Barack Obama . . . constitute a major progress, which has elicited the broadest support of the international community.”
However, he added, “the economic, commercial and financial blockade [by the U.S.] against Cuba persists bringing damages and hardships on the Cuban people, and standing as the main obstacle to our country’s economic development, while affecting other nations due to its extraterritorial scope and hurting the interests of American citizens and companies. Such policy is rejected by 188 United Nations member states that demand its removal.”
More generally Castro condemned “the pervasive underdevelopment afflicting two-thirds of the world population” and the widening “gap between the North and the South” and “wealth polarization.”
Thus, he argued, “If we wish to make this a habitable world with peace and harmony among nations, with democracy and social justice, dignity and respect for the human rights of every person, we should adopt as soon as possible concrete commitments in terms of development assistance, and resolve the debt issue.” Such a commitment, he said, would require “a new international financial architecture, removal of the monopoly on technology and knowledge and changing the present international economic order.”
Nevertheless, according to President Castro, Cuba will continue to help other developing nations despite its limited capabilities and “shall never renounce its honor, human solidarity and social justice” that “are deeply rooted in our socialist society.”
On September 27, President Obama addressed the same U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development without touching on U.S.-Cuba relations. Instead he concentrated on the purpose of the Summit– sustainable development. (His photograph is to the left.)
He started by rejecting the notion that “our efforts to combat poverty and disease do not and cannot work, that there are some places beyond hope, that certain people and regions are condemned to an endless cycle of suffering.” Instead, he asserted, “the global hunger rate has already been slashed. Tens of millions of more boys and girls are today in school. Prevention and treatment of measles and malaria and tuberculosis have saved nearly 60 million lives. HIV/AIDS infections and deaths have plummeted. And more than one billion people have lifted themselves up from extreme poverty — one billion.”
Nevertheless, much remains to be done, according to Obama, and the nations at this Summit “commit ourselves to new Sustainable Development Goals, including our goal of ending extreme poverty in our world. We do so understanding how difficult the task may be. We suffer no illusions of the challenges ahead. But we understand this is something that we must commit ourselves to. Because in doing so, we recognize that our most basic bond — our common humanity — compels us to act.”
In this work, President Obama stated, the U.S. “will continue to be your partner. Five years ago, I pledged here that America would remain the global leader in development, and the United States government, in fact, remains the single largest donor of development assistance, including in global health. In times of crisis — from Ebola to Syria — we are the largest provider of humanitarian aid. In times of disaster and crisis, the world can count on the friendship and generosity of the American people.”
Therefore, Obama said, he was “committing the United States to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals” and to “keep fighting for the education and housing and health care and jobs that reduce inequality and create opportunity here in the United States and around the world.” This effort will include other “governments, more institutions, more businesses, more philanthropies, more NGOs, more faith communities, more citizens.” Moreover, the “next chapter of development must also unleash economic growth — not just for a few at the top, but inclusive, sustainable growth that lifts up the fortunes of the many.”
President Obama concluded by noting these obstacles to achieving these goals: bad governance; corruption; inequality; “old attitudes, especially those that deny rights and opportunity to women;” failure to “recognize the incredible dynamism and opportunity of today’s Africa;” war; and climate change
In a wide-ranging speech on international affairs, President Obama commented on U.S. relations with Cuba. He said, “I also believe that to move forward in this new era, we have to be strong enough to acknowledge when what you’re doing is not working. For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuba policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people. We changed that. We continue to have differences with the Cuban government. We will continue to stand up for human rights. But we address these issues through diplomatic relations, and increased commerce, and people-to-people ties. As these contacts yield progress, I’m confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore. Change won’t come overnight to Cuba, but I’m confident that openness, not coercion, will support the reforms and better the life the Cuban people deserve, just as I believe that Cuba will find its success if it pursues cooperation with other nations.”
Later in the speech, Obama added these words: “Think of the Americans who lowered the flag over our embassy in Havana in 1961 — the year I was born — and returned this summer to raise that flag back up. (Applause.) One of these men said of the Cuban people, “We could do things for them, and they could do things for us. We loved them.” For 50 years, we ignored that fact.
These comments were in the context of the following more general discussion of international affairs by President Obama: “We, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards. We live in an integrated world — one in which we all have a stake in each other’s success. We cannot turn those forces of integration. No nation in this Assembly can insulate itself from the threat of terrorism, or the risk of financial contagion; the flow of migrants, or the danger of a warming planet. The disorder we see is not driven solely by competition between nations or any single ideology. And if we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences.”
“No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy, we understand the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone.” So too, in words that could be aimed at Cuba and others, “repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow. You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. You can try to control access to information, but you cannot turn a lie into truth. It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it’s technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.”
In a similar vein, Obama said, “The strength of nations depends on the success of their people — their knowledge, their innovation, their imagination, their creativity, their drive, their opportunity — and that, in turn, depends upon individual rights and good governance and personal security.”
Finally, according to Obama, we must “defend the democratic principles that allow societies to succeed” with a recognition that “democracy is going to take different forms in different parts of the world. The very idea of a people governing themselves depends upon government giving expression to their unique culture, their unique history, their unique experiences. But some universal truths are self-evident. No person wants to be imprisoned for peaceful worship. No woman should ever be abused with impunity, or a girl barred from going to school. The freedom to peacefully petition those in power without fear of arbitrary laws — these are not ideas of one country or one culture. They are fundamental to human progress.”
“A government that suppresses peaceful dissent is not showing strength; it is showing weakness and it is showing fear. History shows that regimes who fear their own people will eventually crumble, but strong institutions built on the consent of the governed endure long after any one individual is gone.”
“That’s why our strongest leaders — from George Washington to Nelson Mandela — have elevated the importance of building strong, democratic institutions over a thirst for perpetual power. Leaders who amend constitutions to stay in office only acknowledge that they failed to build a successful country for their people — because none of us last forever. It tells us that power is something they cling to for its own sake, rather than for the betterment of those they purport to serve.”
“Democracy — inclusive democracy — makes countries stronger. When opposition parties can seek power peacefully through the ballot, a country draws upon new ideas. When a free media can inform the public, corruption and abuse are exposed and can be rooted out. When civil society thrives, communities can solve problems that governments cannot necessarily solve alone. When immigrants are welcomed, countries are more productive and more vibrant. When girls can go to school, and get a job, and pursue unlimited opportunity, that’s when a country realizes its full potential.”
On September 28, Cuban President Raúl Castro in his address to the U.N. General Assembly essentially reiterated his comments of two days earlier about U.S.-Cuba relations with these words: ‘After 56 years, during which the Cuban people put up a heroic and selfless resistance, diplomatic relations have been reestablished between Cuba and the United States of America.”
“Now, a long and complex process begins toward normalization that will only be achieved with the end of the economic, commercial and financial blockade; the return to our country of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base; the suspension of radio and TV broadcasts, and subversion and destabilization attempts against the Island; and, when our people are compensated for the human and economic damages they continue to endure.”
“As long as the blockade remains in force, we will continue to introduce the Draft Resolution entitled ‘Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America on Cuba.’ To the 188 governments and peoples who have backed our just demand, here, and in other international and regional forums, I reaffirm the eternal gratitude of the Cuban people and government for your continued support.” 
The rest of this Castro speech argued that the U.N. has failed in its 70 years of existence to fulfill the lofty purposes of its Charter. The speech also noted Cuba’s solidarity with its Caribbean brothers, African countries, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Republic of Ecuador, the people of Puerto Rico, the Republic of Argentina, the Brazilian people and President Dilma Rouseff, the Syrian people and the Palestinian people. Castro also supported the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On the other hand, Castro reaffirmed Cuba’s “rejection of the intention to expand the presence of NATO up to the Russian borders, as well as of the unilateral and unfair sanctions imposed on that nation” and Cuba’s condemnation of NATO and European countries’ efforts to destabilize countries of the Middle East and Africa that have led to the recent migrant crisis in Europe.
In conclusion, Castro said, “the international community can always count on Cuba to lift its sincere voice against injustice, inequality, underdevelopment, discrimination and manipulation; and for the establishment of a more equitable and fair international order, truly focused on human beings, their dignity and well-being.”
The two presidents with their advisors held a 30-minute private meeting at the U.N. on Tuesday, September 29. The photograph at the left shows them shaking hands.
The U.S. delegation consisted of Secretary of State, John Kerry; National Security Adviser, Susan Rice; National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Mark Feierstein; and the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., Samantha Power.
Cuba’s delegation was composed of the Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez; Consultant, Alejandro Castro Espin (the son of President Raúl Castro); Vice President of Cuba’s Defense and Security Committee, Juan Francisco Arias Fernández; Cuba’s Director General of U.S. Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Josefina Vidal; and Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas.
On a September 29 flight from New York City to Washington, D.C., White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in response to a journalist’s question, said, “I know that the two leaders had an opportunity to discuss some of the regulatory changes that have been announced in the last couple of weeks on the part of the [U.S.]. The State Department is leading civil aviation coordination talks in Cuba right now. And these are all additional steps that are moving toward more normal relations between our two countries.”
“The President, as he always does, . . . reaffirmed our commitment to seeing the Cuban government do a better job of not just respecting, but actually proactively protecting, the basic human rights of the Cuban people.”
We “continue to believe that deeper engagement and deeper people-to-people ties, deeper economic engagement between the [U.S.] and Cuba will have the effect of moving the government and the nation in a positive direction.”
Thereafter the White House released the following written statement about the meeting: “President Obama met today with President Raul Castro of Cuba to discuss recent advances in relations between the United States and Cuba, as well as additional steps each government can take to deepen bilateral cooperation. The two Presidents discussed the recent successful visit of Pope Francis to both countries. President Obama highlighted U.S. regulatory changes that will allow more Americans to travel to and do business with Cuba, while helping to improve the lives of the Cuban people. The President welcomed the progress made in establishing diplomatic relations, and underscored that continued reforms in Cuba would increase the impact of U.S. regulatory changes. The President also highlighted steps the United States intends to take to improve ties between the American and Cuban peoples, and reiterated our support for human rights in Cuba.”
Soon after the presidential meeting, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez held a press conference at the U.N. In his opening statement, he said that in a “respectful and constructive” atmosphere, the two presidents exchanged their views on the recent visit of Pope Francisco to Cuba and the United States, as well as issues on the bilateral agenda established between the two countries.
“The presidents agreed on the need to continue working on the set bilateral agenda, which includes areas of mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation and in third countries such as Haiti, the development of dialogue on issues of bilateral and multilateral interest and resolving outstanding issues between two states.”
President Castro affirmed Cuba’s desire to build a new relationship with the U.S. based on respect and sovereign equality, but reiterated that to have normal relations the U.S. had to lift the blockade, which is causing damage and hardship to the Cuban people and affects the interests of American citizens.
Castro also confirmed that Cuba on October 27 would introduce in the General Assembly a resolution condemning the embargo (blockade). Said the foreign Minister, the blockade is “a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights of all Cubans and harms all Cuban families, even Cubans living outside Cuba.” Cuba fully expects this year’s resolution to once again have overwhelming support.
The Foreign Minister said the return of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba is a high priority element in the process of normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, as a vindication of Cuban people.
At another point he added that “we are very proud of the accomplishments of Cuba on human rights and that human rights are universal, not subject to political selectivity or manipulation of any kind. ” Cuba guarantees the full exercise of political rights and civil liberties, and economic, social and cultural rights. We have many concerns with the situation on human rights in the world, particularly in the U.S. and Western Europe, as illustrated by the current immigration refugee crisis. The pattern of racial discrimination and police brutality against African Americans in the [U.S.] is really serious.
Cuba reiterated its insistence on ending the U.S. embargo as an essential condition for normalization of relations, an objective shared by President Obama and this blog.  We now await the U.N. General Assembly’s debate and anticipated approval on October 27 of another resolution condemning the embargo and whether the U.S. will, for the first time, abstain on the vote.
Cuba continues to assert that the U.S. lease of Guantanamo Bay is illegal, but its saying so does not make it so. Previous blog posts have discussed this contention and do not find it persuasive and, therefore, suggested the two countries submit the dispute for resolution to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands.
The same means has been suggested in this blog for resolving the disputes about whether or not Cuba has been damaged by the embargo (blockade) and the amount of such alleged damages as well as the amount of damages to U.S. interests by Cuba’s expropriation of property in the early years of the Cuban Revolution.
A prior post reported about the planned meetings in Havana of a delegation of congressional Democrats led by Senator Patrick Leahy. Now we have news of what happened on their three-day trip.
Here is a photo of the delegation in Havana (left to right): Representative Chris Van Hollen, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Representative Peter Welch and Senator Patrick Leahy. (Senator Richard Durbin is the other member of the delegation.)
On Saturday, January 17th, they “met with officials from Cuba’s Culture Ministry in order to discuss possible Cuban participation in the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, a summer celebration of traditional art and culture on Washington’s National Mall.
On Sunday, January 18th, they met with more than a dozen dissidents including critics of the 18-month-old secret negotiations that led to last month’s announcement. All but two of them expressed support for the opening.
One of these two, Antonio Rodiles, said it “was a friendly meeting, they heard the different positions, but the senators are very much in favor of Obama’s measures and want to hear that we agree.” Rodiles, however, criticized the Obama administration for failing to win enough guarantees of reform from the Cuban government. “I said the process [of negotiating the U.S.-Cuba accords] took place without transparency or taking the full range of opinions into account.”
Another dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, a Cuban non-governmental organization tracking political detentions, said that the Cubans at the meeting “had delivered a list of 24 long-term prisoners whom they wanted to see released in addition to the 53 on the Obama administration’s list.”
On Monday, January 19th, the U.S. delegation met “for several hours with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, who told the legislators that Cuba welcomed President Obama’s loosening of the U.S. trade embargo, which would permit more travel to Cuba and economic links including exports of telecommunications equipment and wholesale goods for use by the country’s small private sector.” According to Leahy, Rodriguez is “open to every issue from trade to communications. He talked about the travel back and forth, medical issues. Name an issue, he’s involved.” (To the right is a photo of this meeting.)
Also participating in this meeting were Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, and Cuba’ chief diplomat at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, the latter of whom visited Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church last October.
The U.S. legislators also had hoped to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro, but that did not happen apparently because the Americans had met with Cuban dissidents on Sunday.