The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

PCUSA

On June 23, 2016, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly voted (540 to 33) to include in its Book of Confessions the 1986 Confession of Belhar from South Africa.

Let us examine that Confession, its adoption by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions and the recent use of the Belhar Confession at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, a member of the PC(USA).

 The Confession of Belhar[1]

The Belhar Confession emerged from the era of apartheid in South Africa, 1948-1994. That doctrine and practice of racial segregation was embraced by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC) for whites and imposed upon its racially segregated offshoots: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) for colored or mixed-race people, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks and the Reformed Church in Africa for people of Indian descent.

After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, the 1964 convictions and imprisonments of anti-apartheid activists Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the 1976 condemnation of South Africa and apartheid by the United Nations, the Synod of the DRMC in 1978 concluded that apartheid was anti-evangelical and a structural and institutional sin.

Eight years later, in 1986, another Synod of the DRMC met in Belhar, a colored suburb of Capetown, South Africa, and adopted the Confession of Belhar. It has the following primary confessional statements:

  1. “We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.”
  2. “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.”
  3. “We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
  4. “We believe that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.”
  5. “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

Three of these statements also set forth additional detailed belief statements and rejections of any doctrine and ideology which:

  • “absolutizes  natural diversity or the sinful separation of people;”
  • “explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church;”
  • “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race or color;”
  • “would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”

The PC(USA)’s Adoption of the Belhar Confession [2]

As previously noted, on June 23, 2016 (30 years after the DRMC adoption of the Confession of Belhar), the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to add that Confession to the U.S. church’s Book of Confessions.

Rev. Godfrey Betha
Rev. Godfrey Betha

Immediately after the vote, the General Assembly was addressed by Rev. Godfrey Betha, the Vice Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which was formed by the DRMC and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks. Betha told the General Assembly, “It is important to seek solidarity with South Africa. We’ve come a long way with the PC(USA). We are grateful to have you as partners in service to the Lord. Today we offer gratitude, we salute you as the PC(USA) for your historic decision to adopt the Belhar Confession as a standard of faith for your church. I bow in humility to God and thankfulness to you … I’ll never forget this date.”

Betha added: “Your decision affirms that, like those other historic standards of faith, the Belhar Confession transcends its historic circumstances as a standard for faith in all places and times. Your decision affirms that Belhar does speak against ideological and theological attempts to justify specific historical forms of injustice. Your decision affirms to your church, [and] to all, when you come looking for the demon of racism, don’t come to us.”

Rev. Allan Boesak
Rev. Allan Boesak

Also present at the General Assembly was Rev. Allan Boesak, a co-author of the Confession of Belhar and the moderator of the DRMC when it was adopted in 1986. He said, “I thank God for what happened here tonight. I thank God for your faithfulness. I thank God for your acknowledgement of our common humanity in doing this … I thank God, and I thank you, and because of Jesus and because of God’s faithfulness, we shall overcome.”

Rev. Denise Anderson
Rev. T. Denise Anderson

At that point the commissioners linked hands throughout the plenary hall and spontaneously broke into “We Shall Overcome,” the famous song of the U.S. African-American civil rights movement, led by the General Assembly’s Co- Moderator, Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Pastor, Unity Presbyterian Church, Temple Hills, MD.

Earlier that same day, and before the General Assembly action, Boesak had addressed a breakfast meeting at the General Assembly. He said the Belhar Confession “stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document. We cannot yet foresee the consequences of the Confession. No other Confession has been so clear in its intentions: not only unity, but its foundationality; not just reconciliation, but its inescapability; not only justice, but its indivisibility.”

“Today is a defining moment for the PC(USA), as it was for the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 30 years ago as we finally adopted the Belhar Confession,” Boesak continued. “But the defining moment  was  not  just  the  adoption  of  the confession, as stunning as it was. In the years between 1982 and 1986, my friend and colleague and co-author Jaap Durand offered crucial prophetic insights that inspired and haunted the church in ways we couldn’t imagine in 1982, saying, ‘A  confession does not and cannot engage in mere trivialities. It can only be an extension of the ancient confession that Christ is Lord… I’m convinced that the Confession of Belhar will outlive apartheid and the heresy that formed it.’”

Recalling the struggles of black South Africans to remain faithful and pursue unity in light of terrible oppression, mass detention and cruel policies, Bosack said: “The church became directly involved in the efforts of freedom and justice in South Africa. The Jesus we worship and confess as Lord in the sanctuary is the Jesus we take into the street. Our people were slaughtered. Everyone was touched in one way or another.”

“By 1986 we saw no sense in, and had no desire for, unity with the white church, or with white people in general,” he said of the general despair that afflicted the DRMC. “But we had Belhar, [which] . . . understood [John] Calvin as he spoke of Holy Communion. ‘Christ has only one body of which he makes us all partakers.’”

Calling the unity of the church both a gift and command, Boesak said it was difficult in those years to find points of unity or reconciliation with those who were actively opposing the rights of black South Africans. The Belhar Confession, however, understood from Isaiah that God is not only a God of justice, but that God is a God of indivisible justice,” he said. “So against our self-absorbed instinct for self-absorbed victimhood, the black church confessed God as a God who wants to bring forth peace and justice in the world, and that God calls the church to follow in this, that the church must stand next to people in any form of need or injustice.”

This teaching of Belfar also challenged the DRMC when it faced the issue of the rights of LGBTQI and eventually affirmed those rights. Boesak said his denomination had “to face the consequences, not only with the white Dutch Reformed Church, but within itself.”

“In following Christ, the church must fight against those who use their privilege to oppress and put down any people,” he said. In asking the PC(USA) to “witness against any form of injustice,” Boesak turned his attention to Palestine, asking the denomination to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – similar to those used to end apartheid – to place economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation and expansion of territories. “Kairos Palestine is a cry from the heart of suffering,” he said. “Unless it rolls down for Palestinians, it will not roll down for others. Indivisible. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

In conclusion, Boesak said of Belhar and its broader implications: “It is a confession that stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document.”

The PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions

The Book of Confessions is a collection of confessions and creeds that declare to the church’s “members and to the world who and what [the church] is, what it believes and what it resolves to do.” Prior to the addition of the Belhar Confession, the Book contained 11 confessions and creeds starting with the Nicene Creed of 325 and ending with A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of 1983.[3]

According to the church’s Book of Order, These creeds and confessions are “subordinate standards . . . subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him” that “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions,” that “guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures,” that “summarize the essence of Christian tradition,” that “direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines” and that “equip the church for its work of proclamation.” They also give “witness to the faith of the church catholic” while identifying “with the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation:” “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”[4]

Westminster’s Recent Use of the Belhar Confession

One of Belhar Confession’s central themes was adapted for use by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church as its July 17, 2016, Call to Worship (in call and response mode):[5]

  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God longs to bring justice and peace among all people.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God teaches the church to do what is good and to seek the right.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God sees a day when all people – black, white, red, yellow, and brown – will live together in harmony.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God calls the church to follow Jesus, to lift up the poor, to heal those who hurt, to feed those who hunger, and to comfort those who grieve.”

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

[1] PCUSA, Confession of Belhar (English translation); PCUSA, The Belhar Confession (paper about the history of the Confession); PCUSA, 30 Days with the Belhar Confession: Reflections on Unity, Reconciliation and Justice (this book weaves together Scripture passages and the Confession’s timely themes of unity, reconciliation and justice; it is written by a diverse collection of scholars, theologians and church leaders and is a great resource for individuals, study groups or entire congregations wanting to familiarize themselves with the Confession through prayer and reflection; the Confession itself is included).

[2] PCUSA, Allan Boesak commends Belhar Confession (June 23, 2016); PCUSA, Belhar added to PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions (June 23, 2016); Duffield, Adopting Belhar, the 222nd General Assembly Makes History, Presbyterian Outlook (June 23, 2016). The Confession previously had been adopted by Namibia’s Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa, Belgium’s United Protestant Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, however, has not adopted the Confession in a manner acceptable to the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa and, therefore, has not merged into the latter.

[3] PCUSA, Book of Confessions.

[4] PCUSA, Book of Order, Ch. II (1983-85 edition).

[5] Westminster, Worship Bulletin (July 17, 2016).

 

 

Exploring Sub-Saharan African History

 I am currently taking a brief course, “Sub-Saharan African History to Colonialism,” to learn about such history “from many angles: anthropological, historical, geographic, cultural, and religious. From human origins through the populating of the continent, the great civilizations, the slave trades, to the beginning of European domination.” Offered by the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), the course’s instructor is Tom O’Toole, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University.

Why does this Euro-American septuagenarian take this course? Foremost, I know virtually nothing about this history and want to know more. I also realize that I have various direct and indirect connections with Africa.

The most immediate precipitating cause is reading the discussion of the names of African and African-American intellectuals and historical figures that were discovered at Howard University by African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and recounted in his book “Between the World and Me” and my realizing that I did not know virtually any of these people. This book also has prompted me to research and investigate my own notions of race, including my recent posts about statements from the American Anthropological Association about race’s non-scientific basis and historical and cultural background. Further posts about notions of race are forthcoming.

I learned more about one of these figures of African history this spring when my 10th-grade grandson wrote a History Day paper on Mansa Musa, who was a 14th century Emperor or King of Mali. Moreover, one of my sons knows more about this history from his having studied African history and Swahili at the University of Minnesota and from spending a semester in Kenya with a program of the National Outdoor Leadership School and then a week on his own living with a Maasai tribesman in that country.

Coates also legitimately castigates the U.S. history of slavery and its lasting impacts on our country. This has underscored my interest in the importation of slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. This was part of Lawrence Hill’s fascinating novel “The Book of Negroes” (“Someone Knows My Name”), about which I have written. Moreover, I have visited Matanzas, Cuba and Salvador, Brazil, which were major ports of importation of African slaves to work on sugar plantations in those countries.

I have a number of friends from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana) and visited Cameroon on a mission trip from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. There I learned about the country’s having been a German colony (Kamerun) in the 19th century and then having French and British administration under League of Nations mandates after Germany was stripped of its African colonies by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Forty-plus years later Cameroon became an independent country with the joinder of the Francophone and Anglophone territories. Yet life today in the country is still affected by the language and cultural differences from the French and British governance and less so by the previous 30-plus years of German rule.

I also have visited Namibia, Botswana and South Africa focused primarily on observing their magnificent wildlife and nature, but also the prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were imprisoned during the years of apartheid. In addition, I had the opportunity to see and hear Mandela speak at a 2003 celebration of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships held at Westminster Hall in London and to see him escorted through the Hall’s audience, only 10 feet from me and my wife, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The visit to South Africa also included stopping at Cecil Rhodes’ Cottage and Museum at Mulzenberg overlooking False Bay and the Indian Ocean at the southwest corner of the country. (My interest in Cecil Rhodes, the Founder of the Scholarships, and his 19th century involvement in South Africa and Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) stems from being a Rhodes Scholar who was “up” at Oxford, 1961-1963, and from my gratitude for being a beneficiary of his largess.)

While co-teaching international human rights law at the University of Minnesota Law School, I learned about the International Criminal Court, whose initial cases all came from Africa, thereby prompting some resistance from African leaders who thought this was anti-African discrimination. (I have written many blog posts about the ICC.) Previously I had been a pro bono lawyer for two Somali men’s successful applications for asylum in the U.S.

Other indirect connections are provided by three Grinnell College classmates. One became a professor of African history. Another served in Africa with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, where he met his English wife serving in a similar British program and where they both frequently return to participate in a project of preparing and distributing audio textbooks for blind students. The third classmate, also in the Peace Corps, served in Mali, where he was involved in smallpox eradication. In addition, one of my Grinnell roommates from Chicago now lives in South Africa.

All of these direct and indirect connections with Africa provided additional motivation to learn more about its history. In a subsequent post I will attempt to summarize the key points of this brief exploration of African history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Obama’s Eloquent Speech to the Cuban People

On March 22, U,s, President Barack Obama addressed the past and future of U.S.-Cuba relations in a lengthy and eloquent speech at Havana’s Alicia Alonso Grand Theater. The in-person audience of 1,000 included Cuban President Raúl Castro and other officials and U.S. officials and business people. By live television, the audience also included the Cuban people. {1]  Below are photographs of the exterior of the Theater and of President Castro and other Cuban officials in a balcony at the Theater for the speech.

Theater exterior

Castro + @ speech

 

 

 

 

Here we will examine the speech itself, and a subsequent post will look at the reactions to the speech in Cuba and the U.S.

Summary of the Speech

Obama recognized that the two countries shared many things, including being colonized by Europeans and helped by slaves from Africa as well as patriotism and pride, love of family and hope for our children.

The last 50 years, however, have caused many disruptions in our countries’ connections. We are like two brothers who have been estranged for years even as we share the same blood.

The December 17, 2014, joint announcement of our two governments seeking restoration of normal relations was prompted by the U.S. recognition that its policies, including the embargo, were not working and needed to change and that the U.S. needed to help the Cuban people. Obama was in Cuba to end the last remnant of the Cold War and to declare that Cuba need not fear the U.S.

Even though the U.S. was not seeking to force change on Cuba, Obama stated that there were important universal rights that were as important for Cubans as they were for U.S. citizens: equality before the law; right to education, food and housing; freedom from arbitrary arrests; rights to practice their religious faith, assemble, organize, protest peacefully, criticize the government and elect their government leaders. Here is a photograph of President Obama giving the speech.

Obama speech

Text of the Speech

Here then is the actual text of his speech with an opening quotation from a poem by Cuba’s revered national poet, Jose Marti, that offered friendship and peace to both his friend and his enemy, “’Cultivo una rosa blanca’ [I plant a white rose]. Today, as the President of the United States of America, I offer the Cuban people el saludo de paz [the greeting of peace].”

“Havana is only 90 miles from Florida, but to get here we had to travel a great distance — over barriers of history and ideology; barriers of pain and separation.  The blue waters beneath Air Force One once carried American battleships to this island — to liberate, but also to exert control over Cuba.  Those waters also carried generations of Cuban revolutionaries to the United States, where they built support for their cause.  And that short distance has been crossed by hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles — on planes and makeshift rafts — who came to America in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, sometimes leaving behind everything they owned and every person that they loved.”

“Like so many people in both of our countries, my lifetime has spanned a time of isolation between us.  The Cuban Revolution took place the same year that my father came to the United States from Kenya.  The Bay of Pigs took place the year that I was born. The next year, the entire world held its breath, watching our two countries, as humanity came as close as we ever have to the horror of nuclear war.  As the decades rolled by, our governments settled into a seemingly endless confrontation, fighting battles through proxies.  In a world that remade itself time and again, one constant was the conflict between the United States and Cuba.”

“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

“I want to be clear:  The differences between our governments over these many years are real and they are important.  I’m sure President Castro would say the same thing — I know, because I’ve heard him address those differences at length.  But before I discuss those issues, we also need to recognize how much we share.  Because in many ways, the United States and Cuba are like two brothers who’ve been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood.”

“We both live in a new world, colonized by Europeans.  Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa.  Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave-owners.  We’ve welcomed both immigrants who came a great distance to start new lives in the Americas.”

“Over the years, our cultures have blended together. Dr. Carlos Finlay’s work in Cuba paved the way for generations of doctors, including Walter Reed, who drew on Dr. Finlay’s work to help combat Yellow Fever.  Just as Marti wrote some of his most famous words in New York, Ernest Hemingway made a home in Cuba, and found inspiration in the waters of these shores.  We share a national past-time — La Pelota [baseball]– and later today our players will compete on the same Havana field that Jackie Robinson played on before he made his Major League debut. And it’s said that our greatest boxer, Muhammad Ali, once paid tribute to a Cuban that he could never fight — saying that he would only be able to reach a draw with the great Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson.”

“So even as our governments became adversaries, our people continued to share these common passions, particularly as so many Cubans came to America.  In Miami or Havana, you can find places to dance the Cha-Cha-Cha or the Salsa, and eat ropa vieja [shredded pork or beef].  People in both of our countries have sung along with Celia Cruz or Gloria Estefan, and now listen to reggaeton or Pitbull. Millions of our people share a common religion — a faith that I paid tribute to at the Shrine of our Lady of Charity in Miami, a peace that Cubans find in La Cachita.”

“For all of our differences, the Cuban and American people share common values in their own lives.  A sense of patriotism and a sense of pride — a lot of pride.  A profound love of family.  A passion for our children, a commitment to their education.  And that’s why I believe our grandchildren will look back on this period of isolation as an aberration, as just one chapter in a longer story of family and of friendship.”

“But we cannot, and should not, ignore the very real differences that we have — about how we organize our governments, our economies, and our societies.  Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy.  Cuba has a socialist economic model; the United States is an open market.  Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual.”

“Despite these differences, on December 17th 2014, President Castro and I announced that the United States and Cuba would begin a process to normalize relations between our countries. Since then, we have established diplomatic relations and opened embassies.  We’ve begun initiatives to cooperate on health and agriculture, education and law enforcement.  We’ve reached agreements to restore direct flights and mail service.  We’ve expanded commercial ties, and increased the capacity of Americans to travel and do business in Cuba.”

“And these changes have been welcomed, even though there are still opponents to these policies.  But still, many people on both sides of this debate have asked:  Why now?  Why now?”

“There is one simple answer:  What the United States was doing was not working.  We have to have the courage to acknowledge that truth.  A policy of isolation designed for the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century.  The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them.  And I’ve always believed in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘the fierce urgency of now’ — we should not fear change, we should embrace it.”

“That leads me to a bigger and more important reason for these changes:  Creo en el pueblo Cubano.  I believe in the Cuban people. This is not just a policy of normalizing relations with the Cuban government.  The United States of America is normalizing relations with the Cuban people.”

“And today, I want to share with you my vision of what our future can be.  I want the Cuban people — especially the young people — to understand why I believe that you should look to the future with hope; not the false promise which insists that things are better than they really are, or the blind optimism that says all your problems can go away tomorrow.  Hope that is rooted in the future that you can choose and that you can shape, and that you can build for your country.”

“I’m hopeful because I believe that the Cuban people are as innovative as any people in the world.”

“In a global economy, powered by ideas and information, a country’s greatest asset is its people.  In the United States, we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: it’s called Miami.  Here in Havana, we see that same talent in cuentapropistas [self-employed workers], cooperatives and old cars that still run.  El Cubano inventa del aire. [Cubans invented the air.]”

“Cuba has an extraordinary resource — a system of education which values every boy and every girl. And in recent years, the Cuban government has begun to open up to the world, and to open up more space for that talent to thrive.  In just a few years, we’ve seen how cuentapropistas  can succeed while sustaining a distinctly Cuban spirit.  Being self-employed is not about becoming more like America, it’s about being yourself.”

“Look at Sandra Lidice Aldama, who chose to start a small business.  Cubans, she said, can ‘innovate and adapt without losing our identity…our secret is in not copying or imitating but simply being ourselves.’”

“Look at Papito Valladeres, a barber, whose success allowed him to improve conditions in his neighborhood.  ‘I realize I’m not going to solve all of the world’s problems,’ he said.  ‘But if I can solve problems in the little piece of the world where I live, it can ripple across Havana.’”

“That’s where hope begins — with the ability to earn your own living, and to build something you can be proud of.  That’s why our policies focus on supporting Cubans, instead of hurting them.  That’s why we got rid of limits on remittances — so ordinary Cubans have more resources.  That’s why we’re encouraging travel — which will build bridges between our people, and bring more revenue to those Cuban small businesses. That’s why we’ve opened up space for commerce and exchanges — so that Americans and Cubans can work together to find cures for diseases, and create jobs, and open the door to more opportunity for the Cuban people.”

“As President of the United States, I’ve called on our Congress to lift the embargo. It is an outdated burden on the Cuban people.  It’s a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba.  It’s time to lift the embargo.  But even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba. It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba.  A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba.  Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries that Cubans can earn.  The Internet should be available across the island, so that Cubans can connect to the wider world and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history.”

“There’s no limitation from the United States on the ability of Cuba to take these steps.  It’s up to you.  And I can tell you as a friend that sustainable prosperity in the 21st century depends upon education, health care, and environmental protection.  But it also depends on the free and open exchange of ideas.  If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential.  And over time, the youth will lose hope.”

“I know these issues are sensitive, especially coming from an American President.  Before 1959, some Americans saw Cuba as something to exploit, ignored poverty, enabled corruption. And since 1959, we’ve been shadow-boxers in this battle of geopolitics and personalities. I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”

“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba.  What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people.  We will not impose our political or economic system on you.  We recognize that every country, every people, must chart its own course and shape its own model.  But having removed the shadow of history from our relationship, I must speak honestly about the things that I believe — the things that we, as Americans, believe.  As Marti said, ‘Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.’”

“So let me tell you what I believe.  I can’t force you to agree, but you should know what I think.  I believe that every person should be equal under the law. Every child deserves the dignity that comes with education, and health care and food on the table and a roof over their heads. I believe citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights. I believe that every person should have the freedom to practice their faith peacefully and publicly. And, yes, I believe voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

“Not everybody agrees with me on this.  Not everybody agrees with the American people on this.  But I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they are the rights of the American people, the Cuban people, and people around the world.”

“Now, there’s no secret that our governments disagree on many of these issues.  I’ve had frank conversations with President Castro.  For many years, he has pointed out the flaws in the American system — economic inequality; the death penalty; racial discrimination; wars abroad.  That’s just a sample.  He has a much longer list. But here’s what the Cuban people need to understand:  I welcome this open debate and dialogue. It’s good.  It’s healthy.  I’m not afraid of it.”

“We do have too much money in American politics.  But, in America, it’s still possible for somebody like me — a child who was raised by a single mom, a child of mixed race who did not have a lot of money — to pursue and achieve the highest office in the land.  That’s what’s possible in America.”

“We do have challenges with racial bias — in our communities, in our criminal justice system, in our society — the legacy of slavery and segregation.  But the fact that we have open debates within America’s own democracy is what allows us to get better.  In 1959, the year that my father moved to America, it was illegal for him to marry my mother, who was white, in many American states.  When I first started school, we were still struggling to desegregate schools across the American South.  But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials.  And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States.  That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”

“I’m not saying this is easy. There’s still enormous problems in our society.  But democracy is the way that we solve them.  That’s how we got health care for more of our people.  That’s how we made enormous gains in women’s rights and gay rights.  That’s how we address the inequality that concentrates so much wealth at the top of our society.  Because workers can organize and ordinary people have a voice, American democracy has given our people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and enjoy a high standard of living.”

“Now, there are still some tough fights.  It isn’t always pretty, the process of democracy.   It’s often frustrating.  You can see that in the election going on back home.  But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now.  You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is President, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist. Who would have believed that back in 1959?  That’s a measure of our progress as a democracy.”

“So here’s my message to the Cuban government and the Cuban people:  The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution — America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world — those ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy.  Not because American democracy is perfect, but precisely because we’re not.  And we — like every country — need the space that democracy gives us to change.  It gives individuals the capacity to be catalysts to think in new ways, and to reimagine how our society should be, and to make them better.”

“There’s already an evolution taking place inside of Cuba, a generational change.  Many suggested that I come here and ask the people of Cuba to tear something down — but I’m appealing to the young people of Cuba who will lift something up, build something new.  El futuro  de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo Cubano. [The future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people.]”

English “And to President Castro — who I appreciate being here today — I want you to know, I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States.  And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people — and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.  In fact, I’m hopeful for the future because I trust that the Cuban people will make the right decisions.”

“And as you do, I’m also confident that Cuba can continue to play an important role in the hemisphere and around the globe — and my hope is, is that you can do so as a partner with the United States.”

“We’ve played very different roles in the world.  But no one should deny the service that thousands of Cuban doctors have delivered for the poor and suffering. Last year, American health care workers — and the U.S. military — worked side-by-side with Cubans to save lives and stamp out Ebola in West Africa.  I believe that we should continue that kind of cooperation in other countries.”

“We’ve been on the different side of so many conflicts in the Americas.  But today, Americans and Cubans are sitting together at the negotiating table, and we are helping the Colombian people resolve a civil war that’s dragged on for decades. That kind of cooperation is good for everybody.  It gives everyone in this hemisphere hope.”

“We took different journeys to our support for the people of South Africa in ending apartheid.  But President Castro and I could both be there in Johannesburg to pay tribute to the legacy of the great Nelson Mandela. And in examining his life and his words, I’m sure we both realize we have more work to do to promote equality in our own countries — to reduce discrimination based on race in our own countries.  And in Cuba, we want our engagement to help lift up the Cubans who are of African descent, who’ve proven that there’s nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance.”

“We’ve been a part of different blocs of nations in the hemisphere, and we will continue to have profound differences about how to promote peace, security, opportunity, and human rights.  But as we normalize our relations, I believe it can help foster a greater sense of unity in the Americas — todos somos Americanos [we are all Americans].”

“From the beginning of my time in office, I’ve urged the people of the Americas to leave behind the ideological battles of the past.  We are in a new era.  I know that many of the issues that I’ve talked about lack the drama of the past.  And I know that part of Cuba’s identity is its pride in being a small island nation that could stand up for its rights, and shake the world. But I also know that Cuba will always stand out because of the talent, hard work, and pride of the Cuban people.  That’s your strength. Cuba doesn’t have to be defined by being against the United States, any more than the United States should be defined by being against Cuba.  I’m hopeful for the future because of the reconciliation that’s taking place among the Cuban people.”

“I know that for some Cubans on the island, there may be a sense that those who left somehow supported the old order in Cuba.  I’m sure there’s a narrative that lingers here which suggests that Cuban exiles ignored the problems of pre-Revolutionary Cuba, and rejected the struggle to build a new future.  But I can tell you today that so many Cuban exiles carry a memory of painful — and sometimes violent — separation.  They love Cuba.  A part of them still considers this their true home. That’s why their passion is so strong.  That’s why their heartache is so great.  And for the Cuban-American community that I’ve come to know and respect, this is not just about politics. This is about family — the memory of a home that was lost; the desire to rebuild a broken bond; the hope for a better future the hope for return and reconciliation.”

“For all of the politics, people are people, and Cubans are Cubans.  And I’ve come here — I’ve traveled this distance — on a bridge that was built by Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.  I first got to know the talent and passion of the Cuban people in America.  And I know how they have suffered more than the pain of exile — they also know what it’s like to be an outsider, and to struggle, and to work harder to make sure their children can reach higher in America.”

“So the reconciliation of the Cuban people — the children and grandchildren of revolution, and the children and grandchildren of exile — that is fundamental to Cuba’s future.”

“You see it in Gloria Gonzalez, who traveled here in 2013 for the first time after 61 years of separation, and was met by her sister, Llorca.  ‘You recognized me, but I didn’t recognize you,’ Gloria said after she embraced her sibling.  Imagine that, after 61 years.”

“You see it in Melinda Lopez, who came to her family’s old home.  And as she was walking the streets, an elderly woman recognized her as her mother’s daughter, and began to cry.  She took her into her home and showed her a pile of photos that included Melinda’s baby picture, which her mother had sent 50 years ago.  Melinda later said, ‘So many of us are now getting so much back.’”

“You see it in Cristian Miguel Soler, a young man who became the first of his family to travel here after 50 years.  And meeting relatives for the first time, he said, ‘I realized that family is family no matter the distance between us.’”

“Sometimes the most important changes start in small places. The tides of history can leave people in conflict and exile and poverty.  It takes time for those circumstances to change.  But the recognition of a common humanity, the reconciliation of people bound by blood and a belief in one another — that’s where progress begins.  Understanding, and listening, and forgiveness. And if the Cuban people face the future together, it will be more likely that the young people of today will be able to live with dignity and achieve their dreams right here in Cuba.”

“The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict; struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation.  It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind.  It is time for us to look forward to the future together — un future de esperanza [a future of hope].  And it won’t be easy, and there will be setbacks.  It will take time.  But my time here in Cuba renews my hope and my confidence in what the Cuban people will do.  We can make this journey as friends, and as neighbors, and as family — together.  Si se puede.  Muchas gracias. [Yes we can. Many thanks.]”

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

[1] White House, Remarks by President Obama to the People of Cuba (March 22, 2016); Agence France-Press, President’s Full Speech in Cuba, N.Y. times (Mar. 22, 2016) (complete video of speech); Davis, Obama in Havana Speech, Says Cuba Has Nothing To Fear from U.S., N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Reuters, Obama Challenges Communist-Led Cuba With Call for Democracy, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Assoc. Press, In Cuba, Obama Calls for Burying ‘Last Remnant of Cold War,’ N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2016); Eliperin & DeYoung, Obama addresses the Cuban nation: “It is time now for us to leave the past behind,’ Wash. Post (Mar. 22, 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Barack Obama’s Second-Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, It is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements and actions about Cuba. Prior posts examined his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008; his campaign for the the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008; his first presidential term, 2009-2013; and his presidential re-election campaign of 2012. Now we look at the first two years of his second presidential term, 2013-2014. [1]

In November 2012, as we have seen in a prior post, President Obama won reelection with 48% of the Cuban-American vote.

The next month (December 2012), as a prelude to his second term, Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope.” 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 . . . where they had conversations with the Americans, [but after] they reached a certain point . . . there was never follow through [by the U.S.]. . . . [In short, 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 Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor, 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.” As we will see below, this created a fascinating contrast between the Administration’s public negative face on Cuba and its secret negotiations with the latter.

Obama’s Second Term, 2013

President Obama's Oath of Office, Jan. 2013
President Obama’s Oath of Office,    Jan. 2013
U.S. Capitol for President Obama's Inauguration, Jan. 2013
U.S. Capitol for President Obama’s Inauguration, Jan. 2013

 

 

 

 

 

On January 21, 2013, President Obama was inaugurated for his second term as President. Most of his Inaugural Address was focused on domestic concerns, but he did say, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully—not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” He made no reference to Cuba.

That same month, January 2013, we recently have come to know, Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s top Latin American adviser, went to Miami and met with a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and with young Cuban-Americans, the latter of whom helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo. (Zuniga in 2001 as a State Department staffer contributed to its National Intelligence Estimate that officially concluded, for the first time, that the embargo of Cuba had been a failure.)

On April 19, 2013, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses . . .: abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government; government threats, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly; and a record number of politically motivated and at times violent short-term detentions.”

By April 2013, however, we now know that the White House was ready to proceed with the Cubans by quietly proposing back-channel talks after learning that Havana would be receptive. Obama initially froze out the State Department on these developments in part due to concern that its “vested interests” would still be bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful.

On May 29, 2013, the plight of Alan Gross again emerged as a distracting element when a federal district court dismissed his lawsuit against the U.S. for $60 million alleging the government and its private contractor sent him on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection or even a clear sense of the Cuban laws that ultimately led to his arrest and detainment. Experts said the dismissal had been widely expected because of a rule barring lawsuits against the American government based on consequences suffered in foreign countries.[2]

The next day (May 30, 2013) the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba “has committed to adopting and implementing” anti-money laundering recommendations by an international group; but Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives.

In any event, the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations started in June 2013 in Ottawa, Canada. The Cubans opened with harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes, age 37, responded, “Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place. We want to hear and talk about the future.” The Cubans in these initial sessions also insisted on an exchange of the remaining three of “The Cuban Five” in U.S. prison for U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, in Cuban prison. Obama refused such a deal because Washington denied Gross was a spy and because Obama did not want a three-for-one trade. As a result by the end of 2013, the negotiations had stalled.

On December 3, 2013, Alan Gross’ imprisonment again surfaced as an important issue when his wife read a public letter from him to President Obama asking, “Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government, the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare, has abandoned me.” A White House spokesman responded by saying Mr. Obama had “personally engaged foreign leaders and other international figures to use their influence with Cuba” to free Mr. Gross.[3]

Barack Obama & Raul Castro
Barack Obama & Raul Castro

That same month, December 2013, something publicly happened that we now know had a positive effect on the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations. At the funeral for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on December 15th, President Obama met and shook hands with President Raùl Castro, which at the time some in the U.S. criticized. Moments after the handshake Obama addressed the funeral gathering, talking about Mandela’s demonstrating the need for trust and reconciliation and forgiveness. Some at the time wondered whether his remarks might also apply to the apparently frozen diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, but White House officials declined to offer any explanation of the handshake or confirm that there had been a discussion about whether to offer [an explanation].” [4]

Obama’s Second Term, 2014

In early January 2014 the U.S. and Cuba, with public notice, resumed negotiations from the prior July about migration, which the State Department said “does not represent any change in policy towards Cuba” and which journalists saw as “a signal of the longtime Cold War foes’ recent willingness to engage in areas of mutual interest but unlikely to be a harbinger of a major thaw in relations.” Afterwards Cuba said, “”The meeting took place in a respectful environment. An analysis was made of the status of compliance with the migration accords in force between both countries, including the actions taken by both parties to combat illegal migration and aliens smuggling.”[5]

At the January 2014 secret negotiation session in Toronto, said Mr. Rhodes, “the Cubans started [with just want[ing] their people back—the three Cubans who were imprisoned in the [U.S.] – [in exchange for their release of Alan Gross.] In response the U.S. proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – Cuba’s releasing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for the U.S. who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, and thereby enabling the U.S. to claim it was a true “spy swap” and giving it political cover. But the Cubans dis not immediately agree to release Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the U.S.

At this January meeting Rhodes “started talking . . . about how we wanted to change the relationship. And then they started talking about some of the things that they were considering doing in terms of their own system.” However, “the idea of reestablishing diplomatic relations was not something that was . . . immediately attractive to them. . . . [T]hey’re very comfortable in a position of being an opposition to the[U.S.]. They have built the legitimacy in part [for] much of their approach around the fact that they’re resisting [purported] American aggression. So it was not a no-brainer by any stretch of the imagination for the Cubans to agree to a process of normalization and to an establishment of diplomatic relations.”

Nevertheless, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “came to the view of in the discussions . . . that if we were going to take these very difficult steps of having this prisoner exchange where we get a Cuban intelligence asset of ours and Alan Gross to be released [and] they would get these three Cubans, . . . we needed to broaden the scope of what we are talking about.” The two countries “would have one opportunity to make a big move together and . . . we should try to do as much as we could in that space. And that led to them taking certain confidence-building measures like the release of . . . political prisoners [on a list] that we provided to them, [and] that led to . . . this discussion of setting out a process of normalization . . . [and] to a discussion of establishing diplomatic relations and sending a signal to the world that essentially we are willing to leave the past behind.”

At the same time, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “made very clear in every meeting, we’re going to have differences with your political system. We are going to find much to criticize, we are going to continue [the U.S.] democracy program, we’re going to continue [to criticize] your human rights practices. It doesn’t mean we like everything you do, but we are going to get farther by engaging with this government and opening up Cuba so that there can be more business, more American travel, more engagement between the American and Cuban people. That holds out a lot greater promise to promote the things we care about than the alternative.”

Also at this secret January session in Toronto, the Cubans gratefully remarked that President Obama had treated President Castro with respect at the Mandela funeral the prior month by shaking Raúl’s hand and that no [prior U.S. president or other official had] done that before. Rhodes responded by saying “not only was it the appropriate thing to do–you see someone why would you snub them and not shake his hand. If the Cubans have the right to be any place, it’s certainly at the funeral of Nelson Mandela who[m] they helped in many ways.”

In early February 2014 reporters for Reuters concluded that U.S. relations with Cuba were “at their best in almost two decades, but President Barack Obama seems unwilling or unable to confront a well-organized anti-Cuba lobby and push for further progress.”[6] Reuters obviously did not know about the secret negotiations then going on.

On February 27, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses: . . . abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”

While the U.S. proposal for Cuba’s release of Sarraff was still on the table, but not yet accepted by Cuba, President Obama held a secret White House meeting in February 2014 with certain lawmakers, including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin. Obama stressed his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade and Durbin “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.” Thereafter Senator Leahy confidentially persuaded two unnamed Roman Catholic cardinals to ask Pope Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when the Pontiff was scheduled to hold a private audience with Obama on March 27th.

President Obama & Pope Francis
President Obama & Pope Francis

That private papal audience did occur on March 27, and immediately afterwards, as discussed in a prior post, the Vatican reported that “during the cordial meetings [with President Obama], views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” We now know that this was an allusion to their discussion about U.S.-Cuba relations.

Also immediately after that private audience President Obama made comments that in retrospect also alluded to their conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”

Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis secretly sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement.

On April 2, 2014, Alan Gross’s name started to appear in the news again as he commenced a hunger strike in his Cuban prison “to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal. Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this standoff so that I can return home to my wife and daughters.” Later that month he terminated his hunger strike, and his U.S. lawyer reported that Gross had lost most vision in his right eye, walks with a limp due to hip problems, has lost a tooth and is 110 pounds lighter than at the time of his arrest. Moreover, Gross says in another year he will be dead if he stays in the Cuban prison. Later in June he was threatening to commit suicide.[7]

On April 30, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2013. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry retorted that it “energetically rejects the manipulation of a matter as sensitive as international terrorism by turning it into an instrument of policy against Cuba and it demands that our country be definitively excluded from this spurious, unilateral and arbitrary list.”[8]

Another public distraction emerged in April 2014 with the Associated Press reports of a  covert or “discreet” program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that created in Cuba a social media effort to encourage communications among dissidents. Four months later the AP reported about other USAID programs in Cuba with similar aims. [9]

In June 2014 the Pope sent additional private letters to Obama and Castro calling on them to resolve the cases of Alan Gross and the three Cubans in U.S. prison and also encouraging the two countries to pursue a closer relationship. The letter from Pope Francis, U.S. officials said after December 17th, “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented. The Pope, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a secret deal.

As the Vatican put it in its press statement on December 17th, “In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to . . . [the two presidents] and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”

Francis’ involvement also provided Obama with potential political coverage against any future criticism by Cuban-American (and Roman Catholic) Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and others.

In the meantime, the U.S. public stance towards Cuba remained unchanged. In early October 2014, Cuba publicly stated it had not received any indication the Obama administration might change U.S. policy toward Cuba despite increasing support within the United States for closer ties. We now know that this was a false report designed to conceal their ongoing secret negotiations.[10]

On October 28, 2014, the U.N. General Assembly again condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba by a vote of 188 to the 2 negative votes cast by the U.S. and Israel. At this session Cuba asserted that the embargo had damaged its economy in the total amount of $1.1 trillion.

Also in October 2014 the New York Times began what became a series of editorials through mid-December 2014 that called for normalization of the two countries’ relations, commended Cuba for its medical teams in West Africa that were fighting Ebola, called for prisoner exchanges and criticized the USAID programs in Cuba, the U.S. special immigration status for Cuban medical personnel and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” while reiterating its advocacy of normalization. One wonders whether the Times had advance tips or inklings that the Obama Administration soon would be announcing a major shift in U.S. policies toward Cuba and whether the Times was preparing the country for the changes.

Behind the scenes in October 2014 (before the U.S. mid-term elections) the deal was secretly finalized in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together. According to the Vatican’s press statement on December 17th, “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”

In early December Rhodes and Zuniga secretly met the Cubans again at the Vatican to nail down logistics for the December 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.

Pressures for an announcement as soon as possible at the end of 2014 were several. The health of Alan Gross was reportedly declining in a Cuban prison, and President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry legitimately believed that reconciliation would be destroyed if he died in that prison. Delaying the announcement also ran the risk of a leak of the existence of the secret negotiations that would upset, if not destroy, the reconciliation. Less immediate was the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April 2015 with the U.S. needing to have a positive position on host country Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the Summit.

In addition, U.S. domestic political considerations pointed towards a December announcement before the Republican-controlled 114th Congress opened in early January and as soon as possible (the next day) after the adjournment of the 113th so that there would be no resulting interference with the completion of the many items of unfinished business of the current Congress. December also is the traditional time for exercise of presidential clemency (pardons and commutation of sentences), the latter of which was used for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17th.

As noted in a prior post, President Obama as part of his December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”

Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his December 17th remarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”

Immediately after the December 17th announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro, Pope Francis publicly expressed his “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The Pontiff also said, “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

This initiative with Cuba, recently said Rhodes, is an example of what he called “the Obama doctrine and our whole foreign policy. We have to reposition the United States to be able to lead in this century. . . . We have been trying steadily to reposition the [U.S.], to refocus on the Asia-Pacific through the TPP agreement to withdraw that resource allocation and put in place a more sustainable counterterrorism policy that doesn’t eliminate risk but manages it and aims to prevent attacks on the [U.S.].

Conclusion

The Obama Administration’s conducting 24-months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government without any leak is an amazing accomplishment. One example of this lack of outside knowledge is a 2014 book by Chuck Todd, NBC’s noted Washington political reporter who reportedly knows everything that is going on, that says, “There has been little effort to engage or open Cuba, even as the end of the Castro brothers’ regime approaches. In fact, Cuba’s a great example of Obama’s famous caution. While he has been unusually critical of American policy toward Cuba, he won’t use his executive power to make a change.”[11] Sorry, Chuck, you were so very wrong.

These negotiations were without preconditions, just as then candidate Obama had urged when he was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008. Here too he was hit with charges that such a strategy was misguided and naive. But, I submit, it is the only rational strategy after 50-plus years of trying the opposite approach when, in my opinion, many of what we in the U.S. see as Cuban human rights violations are Cuba’s understandable defensive reactions to a long record of U.S. hostility and aggression against Cuba.

While all of this was going on, U.S. public opinion polls showed increasing support for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, and new groups supporting normalization or reconciliation were emerging. Especially in 2014, on the other hand, the Obama Administration was compelled to react to news about the USAID’s purported pursuit of Cuban democracy through various “discreet” or covert programs. Guantanamo Bay also kept in the news with disputes about detainee transfers and Obama’s continuing efforts to close its detention facility. Of course, strident cries objecting to any normalization or reconciliation continued to come from Senators Rubio, Cruz and Menendez and from Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

After the December 17 announcement, as recounted in many subsequent posts, the two countries engaged in publicly announced negotiations on many subjects; the U.S. loosened regulations about U.S. trade with, and travel to, the island; the U.S. rescinded its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism;” many U.S. politicians and business officials traveled to Cuba to observe and discuss future prospects; and bills were introduced in Congress to end the U.S. embargo and restrictions on travel to the country while die-hards in that body offered measures to try to prevent or stall normalization and reconciliation. As everyone recognizes, however, the job of normalization is just starting.

As President Obama put it in his January 20, 2015, State of the Union Address to the Congress, the American people and the world,“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership.  We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.  That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.  And around the globe, it is making a difference.”

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.  When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new. And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere.  It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba.  It stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.  And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

“As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.  And after years in prison, we are overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs.  Welcome home, Alan [, who was in the public gallery with First Lady Michelle Obama].  We’re glad you’re here.”

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

[1] 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. Now a preliminary assessment is possible based upon the following: William M. LeoGrande & Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (Univ. North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill, NC; 2014);  President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address (Jan. 21, 2013); Shear, Obama Reaches Out to Cuba’s Leader, but the Meaning May Elude Grasp, N.Y. Times (Dec. 10, 2013). Initial information about the secret negotiations is found in Reuters, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015) and Rhodes, The Obama Doctrine: America’s Role in a Complicated World, Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29, 2015).

[2] Cave, American Contractor Held in Cuba Loses a Lawsuit, N.Y. Times (May 29, 2013);

[3] Reuters, Contractor Jailed in Cuba Appeals to Obama to Press for Release, N.Y. Times (Dec. 3, 2013).\.

[4] Hauser, The Distraction of a Handshake in South Africa, N.Y. Times (Dec.10, 2013).

[5] Assoc. Press, U.S., Cuba to Hold Migration Talks in Havana, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2014); Reuters, Cuba, U.S. Meet on Migration in Latest Sign of a Thaw (Jan. 9, 2014); Assoc. Press, US Official: Cuba Migration Talks Productive, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2014).

[6] Reuters, U.S. Policy Change on Cuba Stalled by Obama, N.Y. Times (Feb. 6, 2014)

[7] Assoc. Press, American Imprisoned in Cuba Begins Hunger Strike, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2014); Assoc. Press, Lawyer: US Man Held in Cuba Seeks to Go Home Soon, N.Y. Times (April 23, 2014); Reuters, American Jailed in Cuba Plans Suicide, Lawyer Says, N.Y. Times (June 25, 2014).

[8] Reuters, Cuba Calls Terrorism Designation by U.S., Absurd, Manipulative, N.Y. Times (May 1, 2014).

[9] The USAID programs were discussed in posts on April 4, 9 and 9 and August 12, 13 and 14.

[10] Reuters, Havana Sees No Sign Obama Will Change U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2014). A previous post criticized U.S. “stupidity” and “cowardice” in making this designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

[11] Chuck Todd, The Stranger: Obama in the White House at 484 (Little Brown & Co.; New York; 2014).

Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial

In July 2003 the Rhodes Trust[1] hosted gala celebrations of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships. My wife and I were privileged to be there.

Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall
Palace of Westminster

The main event was held in London’s Westminster Hall, which is part of the Palace of Westminster. Other parts of the Palace are the Chambers for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. When it was built in 1097, the Hall at 240 feet by 68 feet was the largest hall in Europe; in the reign of King Richard II it obtained a clear-span wood-beam roof. Here were held the trials of King Charles I, Sir William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and the Earl of Strafford, all of whom were condemned to death. The Rhodes event in 2003 was the first (and, I think, still the only) time it had ever been used for a non-state occasion.[2]

As we were standing in a queue to go through security to enter the Hall, a BBC reporter quizzed me about the significance of the relatively few Rhodes Scholars who were in the George W. Bush Administration. I, however, declined to see any significance to that fact other than to note that Scholars usually were interested in trying to improve people’s lives through government programs.

The audience of over 1,000 Rhodes Scholars and their spouses were treated to interesting speeches from Lord Waldegrave, the Chairman of the Rhodes Trustees;[3] “Nicky” Oppenheimer, the Chairman of DeBeers, the diamond mining company started by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa in the 19th century;[4] Bill Clinton, the former U.S. President; Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of the U.K.; and Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa.[5]

Lord Waldegrave commented on the recent creation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, a joint venture of the Rhodes Trustees and the Nelson Mandela Foundation to support aid and education in South Africa. An overarching theme of the centennial was the closing of the circle by joining together the controversial 19th century white entrepreneur (Rhodes) and the 20th century post-apartheid black South African leader (Mandela).[6]

Oppenheimer drew chuckles from the audience when he said that he was confident that the Founder (Cecil Rhodes), looking down from above, or perhaps looking up from below, would be proud of the accomplishments of his Scholars.

Tony Blair & Bill Clinton

Clinton joked that it was a sign of progress that all of the politicians that day felt safe in the Hall where King Charles I and Sir Thomas More had been tried and condemned to death. He and the other Scholars, he said, had been “enriched, enlarged and changed” by their time at the University of Oxford, and many of them had made “great contributions across the globe in public service, the arts, the sciences, business, the military, religion and other fields.” Clinton also applauded the new Mandela Rhodes Foundation to “bring some of Rhodes’ wealth back to its origins to help build a new South Africa.”[7]

Blair, putting his glasses into his breast pocket, said that President Mandela had just told him that he never reads a speech so Blair reciprocated by saying he would not read the speech that the Foreign Office had written for him. Blair recalled that when he was a student at Oxford, an Australian or New Zealand Rhodes Scholar had encouraged Blair to go into politics. Blair said that Mandela “is a person who, probably more than any other political figure, certainly in my lifetime, establishes the triumph of hope over injustice.” Blair also challenged the international community to do more to tackle the scourge of HIV and AIDS in Africa and the developed world to lift tariffs to help African exports.

Nelson Mandela

Mandela gave the concluding speech. He noted that Rhodes had made his fortune in South Africa and imagined that he would endorse the “decision to develop human capacity in modern-day South Africa, enabling that country to continue being a competitive presence in the world as it was in those fields within which he operated during his times.” Indeed, Mandela said, he was “certain, Cecil John Rhodes and I would have made common cause.”[8]

When all the speeches were finished, everyone on the speakers’ stage walked the over 200-feet length of the hall through the audience. Mandela, then nearly 85 years old, was frail, and to help him make the long walk, his right arm was held by Tony Blair; his left, by Bill Clinton. They brought tears to our eyes as they passed six feet from us on their journey through the Hall.

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery, London

My wife and I then joined many others walking down Whitehall to the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square. In the Gallery’s Tudor Rooms Rhodes Scholars from the early 1960’s gathered for conversation, drinks and music from a string quartet.

Other groups of Scholars met in other parts of the Gallery and in the Banqueting Hall on Whitehall.

Dinner at Worcester College

We then went by train to Oxford, where each college held special black-tie dinners honoring their Rhodes Scholars.

Worcester College put out all the college silver and crystal for its Rhodes Scholar dinner. Everyone had an assigned place for the main courses and a different place for dessert. For the main course I was seated across the table from Julian Ogilvie Thompson, a South African Rhodes Scholar who was a director and former executive of DeBeers and the Anglo American gold and diamond mining company.[9]

After dinner I talked with David Kendall, who was at Worcester, 1966-68, and who in 1993 began legal representation of President and Mrs. Clinton in various matters, including the 1998-99 impeachment proceedings against Mr. Clinton.[10] David and I had met in the Spring of 1966, just after he had been elected as a Rhodes Scholar from Indiana’s Wabash College. Illinois Governor Otto Kerner had studied at Cambridge University and that Spring hosted a Cambridge-Oxford Boat Race Dinner at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. I joined a group that bused to Springfield from Chicago for the dinner, and David was a special guest on the bus and at the dinner.

Conclusion

These spectacular events reminded me of how fortunate I was to have been selected as a Rhodes Scholar and to have had the amazing experience of an Oxford education. Thank you, Cecil Rhodes.


[2] Wikipedia, Palace of Westminster, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_Westminster.

[3] Wikipedia, William Waldegrave, Baron Waldegrave of North Hill, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Waldegrave,_Baron_Waldegrave_of_North_Hill.

[4]  Wikipedia, Nicky Oppenheimer, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicky_Oppenheimer; Wikipedia, DeBeers, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Beers.

[5] Russell, Mandela celebrates 100 years of Rhodes, (July 3, 2003), http://www.independent.co.uk; Johnson, Mandela, Clinton Celebrate with new Rhodes-Mandela Foundation (July 6, 2003), http://africanamerica.org.

[6] Earlier the Rhodes Trust had held centenary celebrations in South Africa.

[7] Bill Clinton, Speech: Rhodes Trust Centenary Celebration (July 2, 2003), http://www.clintonfoundation.org. I previously noted Clinton’s acknowledging his family’s embarrassment that he had not earned an Oxford degree in his two years at Oxford while congratulating his daughter Chelsea’s Oxford degree that summer. (See Post: Reading PPE at Oxford (June 6, 2011).

[8] Nelson Mandela, The Patron’s Founding Speech (July 2, 2003), http://db.nelsonmandela.org/speeches/pub_view.asp?pg=item&ItemID=NMS1073&txtstr=westminster.

[10]  David Kendall Biography, http://www.wc.com/dkendall