Other Reactions to U.S. Ordering Removal of 15 Cuban Diplomats   

On October 3, the U.S. ordered the removal of 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. as discussed in a prior post while other posts looked at recent developments on these issues and on Cuba’s reaction to that U.S. decision and order. This post will discuss reactions from others.

Opposition to Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[1]

The harshest criticism of this decision along with others recently taken by the Trump Administration has been leveled by Harold Trinkunas, the deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Richard Feinberg, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.They say the following:

  • “This White House and its pro-embargo allies in Congress have opportunistically seized on these mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats to overturn the pro-normalization policies of a previous administration, using bureaucratic obstruction and reckless language when they cannot make the case for policy change on the merits alone.”
  • By taking these precipitous actions, Trinkunas and Feinberg argue, “this White House is doing exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke. Overt U.S. hostility [towards Cuba] empowers anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries. In addition, [the announced American travel restrictions and warning hurts] the privately-operated [and progressive] segments of the Cuban tourism sector, and . . . [thereby weakens] the emerging Cuban middle class.”
  • Furthermore, they say, “a breakdown in U.S.-Cuban relations allows Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin. By pushing Cuba away, the U.S. is pushing it towards other actors whose interests are not aligned with our own.
  • “Our partners in Latin America welcomed the change in U.S. policy towards Cuba in 2014 as a sign that the Cold War had finally ended in the Western Hemisphere. The [Trump] administration’s retreat from the opening towards Cuba alarms our friends in the Americas and calls into question the enduring value of U.S. commitments . . . . This pattern of reckless animus towards diplomacy comes at a cost to the international reputation of the U.S. with no apparent gain for our interests abroad.”
  • “U.S. hostility [also] risks damaging the coming transition to a new Cuban government after President Raul Castro steps down in early 2018 by strengthening the hand of anti-American hardliners who oppose further economic opening on the island.”
  • “It damages Cuban-Americans and their families by impeding travel and the flow of funding associated with their visits, and those of other American visitors, which have allowed the Cuban private sector to gain traction. It also damages U.S. relations with our partners in the region, who have long criticized what they see as senseless hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. And finally, the Trump administration’s approach serves to widen the door to U.S. geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia and Venezuela, to advance their interests in Cuba and in the region.”
  • “Many of our professional diplomats, both those stationed in Havana and those at the State Department, oppose the dramatic downsizing of the U.S. and Cuban missions. While all are concerned for the safety of U.S. personnel, the health incidents seem to be in sharp decline. The U.S. diplomats in Havana are proud of the gains in advancing U.S. interests in Cuba, and they wish to continue to protect and promote them.”

EngageCuba, the leading bipartisan coalition promoting U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, said, “”The diplomats and their families suffering from unexplained health issues deserve answers. If the U.S. government is serious about solving this mystery, they shouldn’t make it more difficult to cooperate with the Cuban government during this critical time of the investigation. This decision appears to be purely political, driven by the desire of a handful of individuals in Congress to halt progress between our two countries. Expelling Cuban diplomats will not solve this mystery; it will not improve the safety of U.S. personnel, but it will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island. We hope that the driving forces behind this decision are comfortable with their Cuban-American constituents being unable to visit their loved ones.”

This EngageCuba statement followed the one it issued about the reduction of staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It said, “”The safety and security of all diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and anywhere in the world, is the first priority of our country. Whoever is behind these serious and inexcusable attacks on American diplomats must be apprehended and brought to justice. We must be careful that our response does not play into the hands of the perpetrators of these attacks, who are clearly seeking to disrupt the process of normalizing relations between our two countries. This could set a dangerous precedent that could be used by our enemies around the world.

EngageCUBA continued, “It is puzzling that the Trump Administration would use this delicate time in the investigation to advise Americans against traveling to Cuba, given the fact that none of these attacks have been directed at American travelers. We are also concerned for the Cuban people, who will be impacted by this decision. Halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from traveling to Cuba will divide families and harm Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island.”

In conclusion, said EngageCUBA, “the U.S. and Cuba must redouble efforts to solve this mystery as quickly as possible in order to keep our embassy personnel safe and continue to move forward with strengthening relations between our two countries.”

A New York Times’ editorial similarly observed, “until there is concrete evidence about the source of the attacks, the Trump administration is wrong to expel Cuban diplomats from Washington. . . . Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s explanation that Cuba should be punished for failing to protect American diplomats presumes that Cuba was at least aware of the attacks, which the [U.S.] has neither demonstrated nor claimed. “Furthermore, “Until something more is known, punishing Havana serves only to further undermine the sensible opening to Cuba begun under Barack Obama. President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the détente — in June his government ordered restrictions on contacts with Cuba that have slowed the flow of visitors to the island, and last week the State Department warned Americans not to travel there, though there is no evidence that tourists are in danger. The sonic attacks on Americans are too serious to be used for cynical political ends.”

Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said: “The United States is using the confusion and uncertainty surrounding these events as justification to take a big step backwards in U.S.-Cuban relations. This doesn’t serve our national interests, or our diplomacy, and it most certainly doesn’t do anything to help advance human rights or a more open political climate in Cuba. This is an unfortunate decision that ought to be reversed.”

Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), the Chair of the Congressional Cuba Working Group, stated, “The Administration’s decision last week to withdraw all non-essential personnel from our embassy in Havana was concerning but understandable to ensure the safety of our foreign service staff on the island. Unfortunately, yesterday’s actions do not seem to advance our efforts of identifying a cause or culprit behind these ‘sonic attacks.’ Instead of sending us back down a path of isolation, we must foster open lines of communication as we continue the investigation to determine who must be held responsible for these attacks on Americans. We cannot lose sight of the fact that an improved and sustained relationship with Cuba brings us one step closer to ensuring the stability and security of the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, more guardedly said, “Although . . . [the] decision to expel Cuban diplomats brings parity between U.S. and Cuban embassy personnel levels, I am concerned that it may also stoke diplomatic tensions and complicate our ability to conduct a thorough investigation of these attacks. The U.S. should not take actions that could undermine our bilateral relations with Cuba and U.S. policies aimed at advancing our strategic national interests in the hemisphere.”

Although the most recent Cuba Travel Warning from the State Department strongly discouraged Americans from traveling to Cuba, “several cruise lines operating ships in and around Cuba have released statements pushing back on the warning, noting that no tourists have been harmed in these incidents.” Moreover, “several cruise companies had already announced significant expansion of their Cuba operations before the warning was issued.”

Approval of Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[2]

This latest U.S. announcement is what was recommended by a Wall Street Journal editorial and by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who immediately tweeted that this was “the right decision.” His subsequent press release Rubio stated, “I commend the US State Department for expelling a number of Cuban operatives from the US. No one should be fooled by the Castro regime’s claim it knows nothing about how these harmful attacks are occurring or who perpetrated them. I have called on the State Department to conduct an independent investigation and submit a comprehensive report to Congress. . . . All nations have an obligation to ensure the protection of diplomatic representatives in their countries. Cuba is failing miserably and proving how misguided and dangerous the Obama Administration’s decisions were.”[7]  He added, ““At this time, the U.S. embassy in Havana should be downgraded to an interests section and we should be prepared to consider additional measures against the Castro regime if these attacks continue.”

This news should also be welcomed by the Washington Post, whose recent editorial continued this newspaper’s hard line about U.S.-Cuba relations by refusing to believe Cuba’s denial of knowledge about the cause and perpetrator of the “attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana. It asserts “recent events suggest that the unpleasant reality of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship remains in place” and that “For decades, the Cuban state security apparatus has kept a watchful eye on everything that moves on the island, and informants lurk on every block. It begs disbelief that Cuba does not know what is going on. Unfortunately, this kind of deception and denial is all too familiar behavior.” Therefore, if “Cuba sincerely wants better relations with the United States, it could start by revealing who did this, and hold them to account.”[8]

This suspicion of Cuban involvement in the attacks received some corroboration by the Associated Press, which reports that six unnamed sources say that “many of the first reported cases [of attacks] involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy.” Moreover, of “the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed.” U.S. investigators, according to the AP, have identified “three ‘zones,’ or geographic clusters of attacks, [which] cover the homes where U.S. diplomats live and several hotels where attacks occurred, including the historic Hotel Capri.” Both the State Department and the CIA declined to comment to the AP. This report undoubtedly will fuel efforts to overturn normalization of relations between the two countries.[9]

Conclusion

I agree with Trinkunas and Feinberg, the recent decisions about Cuba by the Trump Administration do exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke: empower anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries; damage Cuba’s upcoming transition to a new government after Raúl Castro leaves the presidency early next year; and hurt and weaken the privately-operated and progressive segments of the Cuban tourism sector. In addition, those decisions weaken U.S. relations with most other governments in Latin America while damaging many Cuban and Cuban-American families seeking to maintain and increase their ties. Those decisions also allow Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela, all of which are hostile to the U.S., to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin.

I must also note my surprise that at the two recent State Department press briefings no journalist followed up on the previously mentioned Associated Press report that the initial U.S. diplomats who reported medical problems were U.S. intelligence agents to ask whether that report was valid and other related questions.

All who support the continuation of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation should oppose these moves by the Trump Administration.

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[1] Trinkunas & Feinberg, Reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America’s interests, The Hill (Oct. 5, 2017);  EngageCuba, Statement on U.S. Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats in Washington (Oct. 3, 2017); Engage Cuba, Statement on U.S. Cuts to Havana Embassy & Travel Alert (Sept. 29, 2017); Editorial, Cuba and the Mystery of the Sonic Weapon, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017) (this editorial also noted that the reported medical problems “are real and serious” and that “Cuba’s repressive government must be the prime suspect”); WOLA, U.S. Plan to Expel Two-thirds of Cuban Embassy Needlessly Sets Back U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 3, 2017); Emmer Statement on Administration’s Decision to Remove Cuban Diplomats from Washington, D.C. (Oct. 4, 2017); Cardin Questions Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats amidst Attacks on U.S. Personnel in Cuba (Oct. 3, 2017); Morello, U.S. will expel 15 Cuban diplomats, escalating tensions over mystery illnesses, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2017); Gomez, U.S. orders 15 Cuban diplomats to leave; Cuba blames Washington for deteriorating relations, Miami Herald (Oct. 3, 2017); Glusac, Despite Travel Warning, Cruises to Cuba Continue, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[2] Rubio Press Release, Rubio commends State Department’s Expulsion of Cuban Operatives (Oct. 3, 2017); Editorial, Cuba plays dumb in attacks on American diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2017); Assoc. Press, APNewsBreak: Attacks in Havana Hit US Spy Network in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2017).

 

President Trump Condemns Cuba at the United Nations

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly.[1]  Most media attention has focused on his bellicose remarks about North Korea and Iran. But he also condemned Cuba and Venezuela. Here the focus is on the general theses he advanced, his comments about Cuba and reactions to the speech.

Trump’s Speech

His fundamental thesis was the U.S.’ “renewing this fundamental principle of sovereignty” and “our success depends on a coalition of strong, independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.” (Emphasis added.)

In short, the world needed strong, effective sovereign nations. As he stated, the U.S. does “not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is the foundation for cooperation and success.” (Emphasis added.)

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect. Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.  And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God. (Emphasis added.)

President Trump’s subsidiary premise was the assertion that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.”

On the other hand, this was not a universal action item for every sovereign nation. As he stated, “we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.  Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” (Emphasis added.)

“That is why in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” (Emphasis added.)

President Trump then went on at length about Venezuela’s problems, at least some of which he also sees in Cuba. In his words, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to the Speech[2]

Trump’s comments on sovereignty were criticized by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom: “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. . . .  This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience.”

Vali R. Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., said, “It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like.” Nasr added, “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

This speech generally did not get good reviews. For example, the editorial from the Guardian in London concluded that Trump “brought little clarity as to the wider strategy he contemplates. Threats and grandstanding are just bluster, not policy. Crises require a deftness the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate. He wants allies to back him, but seems oblivious that his lack of personal credibility is an obstacle to international cooperation. An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest. The president may want to speak of “principled realism”, but he is a reckless and dangerous leader, sitting, alas, in a most powerful position.”

These thoughts were echoed by a Guardian reporter, Julian Borger, who said the speech was full of “fulminations” of fear, especially his threat to “completely destroy North Korea,” which came just minutes after the U.N. Secretary General had told those at the Assembly and implicitly Trump himself, “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” More generally, “Trump punched yawning holes in his own would-be doctrine, singling out enemies, expressing horror at their treatment of their people and threatening interference to the point of annihilation. What was left . . . was a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”

The New York Times’ editorial said, “In all this fury, before a world body whose main purpose is the peaceful resolution of disputes, there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations.” “Mr. Trump’s dark tone and focus seemed a significant deviation [from previous U.S. presidents], not least his relentlessly bellicose approach to North Korea.” On the other hand, “Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging.”

The Washington Post editorial also criticized “Mr. Trump’s schoolboy taunts of ‘Rocket Man,’ his sobriquet for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his threats, if the United States is ‘forced to defend itself or its allies . . . to totally destroy North Korea.’ The leader of a powerful nation makes himself sound simultaneously weak and bellicose with such bluster.” This editorial also said “there was something discordant in using the United Nations podium to proclaim the virtue, essentially, of national selfishness over international cooperation and multilateral organization. No doubt Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia will welcome this aspect of Mr. Trump’s address. They, too, have insisted on the unassailable ‘sovereignty’ of their formidable states and demanded that others not lecture them about values such as democracy and human rights, which they fear and abhor.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump seemed to repudiate his own advocacy for human dignity and freedom when he said that “we do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government” — as if democracy should be optional under the U.N. Charter.”

Surprisingly the Post’s respected foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a generally favorable reaction to the speech. He said, “the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the [U.N.] . . .  was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations.”

The editorial by the Wall Street Journal generally approved of the speech, but thought that Trump gave too narrow a definition to “national interest” by failure to include respect for the rights of the nation’s own people. Trump’s concept of sovereignty “also leaves authoritarians too much room to claim dominant [regional] spheres of influence,” such as Chinese and Russian leaders in the South China Sea and Ukraine. In short, Trump needs to learn “there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on behalf of American values and interests if he wants to build a more peaceful world.”

The speech’s negative comments about Cuba were rejected by that country’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who  said that Trump “lacks the moral authority to criticize Cuba, a small and solidary country with extensive international cooperation.” Rodriguez also said in an interview with Telesur that the speech “was an unusual, aggressive, dominating, blatantly imperialist speech. Sovereignty [for Trump] means sovereignty for the United States, enslavement for all others; [it] completely ignores the concept of sovereign equality that inspires the [U.N.].” These comments were echoed by Cuba’s delegation to a Bilateral Commission meeting with the U.S.; the delegation said it protested “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements” by Trump at the U.N. Rodriguez also condemned the President’s aggressive comments against Venezuela and expressed Cuba’s solidarity with that country and its leaders. Granma, however, did publish the full text of the Trump speech.

Conclusion

There is much to criticize in the President’s speech. Foremost was his threat that the U.S. might have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” (Emphasis added)

His perceived need for “strong sovereign nations” totally ignores all the destruction and pain inflicted on the world by such nations throughout history. This emphasis also ignores the multilateral efforts, especially after World War II, to develop multilateral, international treaties and institutions, including the United Nations, to protect the world against the excesses of strong sovereign nations. Yes, like all human institutions, the U.N. is not perfect and can and should be improved. Although Trump had some kind words for the U.N. and the Marshall Plan after World War II, he said the U.S. could no longer enter into “one-sided alliances or agreements.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, in her September 20 speech to the General Assembly implicitly gave the proper retort to the main thesis of Trump’s speech, that strong sovereign states were the appropriate building blocks for the contemporary world.[3] She said the following:

  • “The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create and the values by which we stand. For it is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system. And it is this rules-based system which we have developed, including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and laws and conventions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables the global cooperation through which we can protect those values”
  • “If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples. So those of us who hold true to our shared values, who hold true to that desire to defend the rules and high standards that have shaped and protected the world we live in, need to strive harder than ever to show that institutions like this United Nations can work for the countries that form them and for the people who we represent.”
  • “This means reforming our United Nations and the wider international system so it can prove its worth in helping us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. And it means ensuring that those who flout the rules and spirit of our international system are held to account, that nations honor their responsibilities and play their part in upholding and renewing a rules-based international order that can deliver prosperity and security for us all.”

Trump’s comments on Cuba were a reprise of his June 2017 speech in Miami, Florida with severe criticism of Cuba that was enthusiastically received by the many older Cuban-Americans in the audience.[4] Both speeches, however, lacked nuance and failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, especially in health and education. It also is difficult to understand the basis for Trump’s assertion that the Cuban government was “destabilizing” or that it was “thoroughly corrupt.”

Both speeches also ignored the fact that Trump in June was only proposing to change two aspects of President Obama’s normalization policies: (a) banning U.S. persons from doing business with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or secret services and (b) banning U.S. citizens from going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel, the latter of which has been subjected to criticism in this blog.[5]

The U.N. speech also failed to acknowledge that simultaneously and incongruously in Washington, D.C. the U.S. and Cuba were holding the sixth session of their Bilateral Commission that was established in the Obama Administration as a means to discuss the many unresolved issues that had accumulated in the nearly 60 years of strained relations; this session will be discussed in a subsequent post.

President Trump’s U.N. speech boasted about the U.S. announcing “that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” This presumably refers to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, which no longer serves any legitimate purpose for the U.S. and which, therefore, should be unilaterally terminated by the U.S. Moreover, the embargo soon will be the subject of a General Assembly resolution that again will condemn that U.S. policy and again undoubtedly will be overwhelming adopted.[6]

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 19, 2017); Landler, Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Jaffe & DeYoung, In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, Reaction to Trump’s UN General Assembly Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, The Guardian view on Trump at the UN: bluster and belligerence, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Borger, A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Warmongers and Peacemakers at the U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump undermines his own advocacy for human dignity, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Ignatius, The most surprising thing about Trump’s U.N. speech, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump Shock at Turtle Bay, W.S.J. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister Condemns Trump’s Aggressive Address at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister in Telesur interview condemns Trump’s aggressive speech at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Calls Trump’s U.N. Address ‘Unacceptable and Meddling,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Statement by President Trump to the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, Granma (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017 (Sept, 20, 2017).

[4] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[5] Posts to dwkcommentaries,com: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 21, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies  (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017). Other posts have criticised the proposed ban on individual person-to-person travel to Cuba, E.g., Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration (July 19, 2017).

[6] Last year’s U.N. General Assembly resolution against the embargo is discussed in an earlier post. Other posts about the embargo are listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA .

U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversals of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                   

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now we look at U.S. reactions to this change of policy. Subsequent posts will examine Cuban reactions and conclude with this blogger’s opinions on the subject.

 Overall Assessment of Changes[1]

As many sources have pointed out, the announced changes do not affect most of the important elements of Obama’s normalization policies. The U.S. will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and operate the U.S. Embassy in Havana (while Cuba continues to operate its Embassy in Washington). U.S. airlines and cruise ships will continue service to the island. Cuban-Americans can still send money (remittances) to relatives and travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government (with restrictions against credit for sales). There was no change to next year’s budget for the State Department that eliminated the undercover or covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. will continue to reject the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil “with dry feet,” but was terminated late last year by President Obama; Trump’s speech endorsed this termination as designed to protect Cubans who were exposed to dangerous journeys by land to the U.S. Various bilateral arrangements facilitating cooperation on multiple issues were not mentioned and, therefore, are not directly affected by this announcement. Nor did the announcement say that the U.S. would reinstate its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The prohibition of U.S. businesses having interactions with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban government or military presents more of a problem because such entities are involved in all sectors of the economy. According to Cuban economists, the government conglomerate (GAESA) boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings.

U.S. Businesses Reactions[2]

Many U.S. businesses opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island.” Others with similar views include ENGAGECuba, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, National Farmers Union and the National Foreign Trade Council.

These business opponents were supported by non-business groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office of Latin America, Church World Service and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The changes will have negative impacts on U.S. jobs and income. The increase in U.S. trips to Cuba has helped the U.S. hospitality industry with Delta Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others flying to at least six Cuban cities daily and Carnival cruise lines taking American citizens to port in Havana. All told, the group Engage Cuba estimates that restricting the rights of United States citizens to travel and invest in Cuba would cost the American economy $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs.

U.S. hotel businesses also expressed concern about the potential impact of the change on the island’s hotels.  The Gran Hotel Manzana, for example is managed by a Swiss company (Kempinski Hotels) but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company. An U.S. company, Marriott International, through its subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Would they be off-limits for American travelers or would they fall under a vaguely promised grandfather clause for existing deals? Or would the change force American travelers to Cuban hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan? There is even speculation that the change economically benefited Mr. Trump by neutralizing rival hotel companies’ ability to gain an early advantage over the Trump hotels, which previously had expressed interest in developing hotels on the island.

Congressional Reactions[3]

Many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have expressed opposition to the changes.

Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who’s been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill while also being the author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.442—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said Trump’s new Cuba policy “will hurt the United States economically, making it harder for our nation’s farmers to access new markets and cutting the knees out from under our travel and manufacturing industries.” Emmer also said the new policy will not keep the American homeland safe and could threaten new bilateral agreements with Havana to combat human trafficking, illicit drugs and cyber crimes.

Representative Rick Crawford, (Rep., AR), the author of a bill to promote U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (H.R.525—Cuba Agricultural Exports Act), said Trump’s shift is more than just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would benefit from greater access to Cuba’s agricultural import market. He said Trump’s policy may put U.S. national security at risk as strategic competitors move to fill the vacuum the uncoupling could create. “Further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast,” Crawford said.

Senator Jeff Flake, (Rep., AZ), a frequent critic of Trump and the author with 54 cosponsors of a bill to facilitate Americans travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act), stated that any policy change “that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people.” Therefore, Flake called for the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill. Flake also warned that returning to a “get tough” policy hurts everyday Cubans whose livelihoods are increasingly rooted in travel and tourism.

Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.472—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said that “putting America first means exporting what we produce to countries across the globe.” He said he remains focused on finding ways to “increase trade with Cuba rather than cut off relationships that have the potential to create new jobs, bring in revenue and boost our national economy.”

Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR) said Trump’s policy moves the U.S. backward.” It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” Boozman said under the latter approach, “we not only trade goods, but ideas.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.1286– Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017), said the new policy was “a setback in U.S. – Cuba relations at a time when 73 percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba, not less. These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism, which will also hurt the Cuban people. Earlier today I joined Minnesota officials and business leaders who are traveling to Cuba next week to send the message that America wants to continue doing business in Cuba. We need to build on the bipartisan momentum we have created by restoring relations with Cuba, not make it harder for Americans to travel and do business there.”

The five-day Minnesota trip referenced by Senator Klobuchar is being led by its Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, accompanied by various state government officials and leaders of agricultural groups. Their objectives are to build relationships with Cuba and promote Minnesota agricultural exports to the island.

In Cuba Lt. Gov. Smith said, “There is no denying the actions Trump took . . . [on June 16] are a real setback. But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.” In the meantime, she said she was glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations. Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade. Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

Other Americans’ Reactions[4]

Many other Americans have expressed their opposition to the changes.

One is Rena Kraut, a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra, which visited Cuba in 2015.[5] She talked about the importance of encouraging Americans to visit Cuba and the “ability [of artists] to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.” Inspired by the Orchestra’s trip, she has founded Cayo, a non-profit that is organizing a youth orchestra for American and Cuban young people “to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together.”

Published letters to the Editor of the New York Times were generally critical of the change. Luis Suarez-Villa, professor emeritus at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “American policy toward Cuba has been hijacked by a clique of Cuban-American politicians who have sold their support in Congress to President Trump.” Suarez-Villa also berated the “punishing, 55-year-old embargo perpetrated by the world’s most powerful nation — accompanied by innumerable acts of economic sabotage, espionage, attempted assassination and military aggression.” Stephen Gillespie of San Francisco, California wrote, “Mr. Trump seems to hate oppressive regimes that convert private property into public goods for the benefit of the people, but he loves oppressive regimes that convert public goods into private property for the benefit of a few rich friends.”

Miriam Pensack, an editorial assistant at The Intercept and a former researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, wrote, “Carried out under the unlikely banner, for Trump, of human rights and democracy, the shift is instead more likely to re-impose hardships on ordinary Cubans — the very same people Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart claim to champion.”

William LeoGrande, who teaches government at American University and co-authored the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, observed, “When Americans go down there, a lot of them stay in private homes, they eat in private restaurants, they take private taxis, and they pay private tour guides that guide them around the city. That’s money directly into the hands of ordinary Cubans.” He added, ““It’s hard to believe that human rights are really anything more than just an excuse. This is really more a matter of political horse trading than it is a matter of foreign policy.”

A contrary view in the New York Times’ collection of letters came from Medford, New York’s Eugene Dunn, who stated, “Kudos to President Trump for demanding that Cuba finally turn over a parade of criminals who have sought sanctuary on the Communist island for decades. Finally we have a titanium-spined president who isn’t afraid to use America’s military and economic might as leverage over these tin-pot dictators who under previous administrations made us the laughingstock of the world.”

The Cuban-Americans at the president’s event in Little Havana are enthusiastic supporters of the new policy as are many other Republican voters in the U.S.

Editorialists’ Reactions[6]

 The New York Times’ editorial condemned the Trump Administration’s approach. The Times said it was “the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy” and was likely to cause “Cuban-American relations . . . to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.” Moreover, Trump’s stated concern for Cuban human rights was especially galling from a “president [who] has been so disdainful of these rights . . . [and who has] embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.”

The editorial from the Los Angeles Times was similar. It stated that the new policy was “based on a disingenuous argument. The putative reason for the change is that Cuba still violates the human rights of its own people, including jailing dissidents and independent journalists. But hasn’t the Trump administration been moving the U.S. away from its focus on human rights around the world?” Instead, said the Los Angeles newspaper, “What’s really happening is that Trump has let the anti-Castro sect in Congress take the wheel on this issue, no doubt for cynical political reasons. Remember that Trump broke with his Republican rivals during the campaign and supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. Then he flipped and disparaged the policy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it unless Cuba met fresh demands on human rights, including the ‘freeing of political prisoners.’”

An editorial from the Washington Post, however, gave the change a weak endorsement. It said, it was “little more than a policy tweak” and “a little more impatience about democracy [in Cuba with the Trump policy] isn’t such a bad thing.”

Although the Wall Street Journal has not offered an editorial on this change, its columnist on Latin American issues and a critic of normalization, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, welcomed Trump’s changes to U.S. policy regarding Cuba even though it was only “an important symbolic change . . . [whose] effects are likely to be minimal.” Instead she argues that Cuba needs a “high-profile truth project” to take “ an honest look at the historical record that acknowledges the regime’s many crimes against humanity.” She refers to the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project that has documented 934 executions mostly in the Escambray” Mountains, circa 1959-1964, in addition to 607 executions of political prisoners, most of whom are believed to have been captured in the Escambray. This Project is the work of the Free Society Project, Inc., a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization with a board of Cuban-Americans.

Minnesota’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune, opined that Trump was “unraveling years of work to build ties with a strategically placed neighbor. Instead, he’s choosing a misguided return to strict embargos on travel and trade that failed to achieve U.S. aims for more than half a century.” The editorial endorsed the efforts to promote Cuba normalization by Minnesota’s U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) while commenting that Cuba “holds a strategic allure” for other nations “that could threaten American security.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, AP FACT CHECK: Not Much New in Trump’s Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Rolls Back Some, Not All, Changes in US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017).

[2] Burnett, Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Military’s Tentacles Reach Deep Into Economy, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017); Harwell & O’Connell, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, Wash. Post (June 15, 2017); Sabatini, Trump’s Imminent Cuba Problem, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017).

 

[3] Assoc. Press, Republicans Divided as Trump Reverses Some Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Press Release: Emmer: President’s Misguided Cuba Directive Undercuts Human Rights & Threatens National Security (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Crawford Opposes Cuba Policy Shift (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Flake Statement on Renewed Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Sen. Moran Statement on Administration’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Boozman, Statement on President Trump’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Klobuchar Statement on Changes to Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Golden, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to lead Minnesota trade trip to Cuba, StarTribune (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Minnesota lieutenant governor visits Cuba, StarTribune (June 20, 2017); Reuters, Minnesota Will Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017)

[4] Kraut, Trump Is Wrong to Pull Back from Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Letters to Editor, Trump’s reversal of U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2017); Pensack, Trump To Reverse Obama Openings to Cuba Under the False Flag of Human Rights, The Intercept (June 16, 2017).

[5] Previous posts about the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are listed in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[6] Editorial, A Cynical Reversal on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Trump just reopened the Cold War with Cuba. His excuse is disingenuous, L.A. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift, It’s just a policy tweak, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Editorial, Trump’s Cuba retreat hurts U.S. and Minnesota, StarTribune (June 19, 2017); O’Grady, Cubans Need a Truth Commission, W.S.J. (June 18, 2017).

Trump Administration Reportedly Planning Reversal of Some Aspects of U.S. Normalization of Cuba Relations   

Next Friday, June 16, in Miami, President Trump reportedly will announce certain changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba. These changes will be the result of an overall review of such policies that has been conducted from the first days of this administration. Not surprisingly the review process has revealed conflicts between leaders of various federal departments favoring continuation of normalization, on the one hand, and political opponents of normalization from Florida, on the other hand. Supposedly the political cover for the rumored over turning at least some of the normalization is the U.S. desire to combat human rights problems on the island.[1]

While President Trump reportedly still has overall support from most Republicans in the Senate and House, on June 8, seven Republican Congressmen sent the president a letter urging continuation of normalization with Cuba. They were Representative Tom Emmer (MN), who is the Chair of the House Cuba Working Group, along with Jack Bergman (MI), James Comer (KY), Rick Crawford (AR), Darin LaHood (IL), Roger Marshall (KS), and Ted Poe (TX). The letter made the following points:

  • “Given Cuba’s proximity, it is a natural partner for strategic cooperation on issues of immediate concern. Since the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, the [U.S.] and Cuba have signed nine formal bilateral agreements that have improved efforts to combat human trafficking, illicit drug trade, fraud identification, and cybercrime. A rollback of Cuba policy would threaten these efforts and in turn, the safety of the American people.”
  • “More concerning, if we fail to engage politically and economically, our foreign competitors and potential adversaries will rush to fill the vacuum in our own backyard. For instance, Russia is already strengthening its ties with Cuba, supporting infrastructure investment and resuming oil shipments for the first time this century. China is also expanding its footprint in Cuba as well. China is now Cuba’s largest trading partner and heavily invested in providing telecommunications services, among other investments, on the island.”
  • “Reversing course would incentivize Cuba to once again become dependent on countries like Russia and China. Allowing this to happen could have disastrous results for the security of the [U.S.]. Alternatively, we can counter the growing threat of foreign influence in our region by engaging with our island neighbor. We can empower the Cuban people by providing high quality American goods and supporting Cuba’s growing private sector through increased American travel.”
  • “We urge you to prioritize U.S. national security and not return to a policy of isolation that will only serve to embolden adversarial foreign power in the region.”

This letter was personally delivered to the White House on June 8 by Representative Emmer and three of the other signers of the letter. Afterwards Emmer told Reuters, “My hope is that when the administration is done with their review, they don’t let one or two voices overwhelm what is in the interest of the United States.”

For advocates of normalization, like this blog, this policy review reportedly has bad news and good news regarding U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba, U.S. business with Cuban state or military enterprises, Americans travel to Cuba and U.S. “democracy promotion” programs on the island.

U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

Good news: severing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba seems very unlikely.

Business with Cuban State or Military Enterprises

Bad News. Reuters says the Administration is considering “tightening restrictions on U.S. firms doing business with Cuban state or military enterprises. Such a restriction could have far-reaching consequences for existing deals, such as the one last year by Starwood Hotels and Resorts last year to manage hotels in Cuba — one of which is owned by the military conglomerate Gaviota — and effectively freeze future ones, since the military in Cuba has a hand in virtually every element of the economy.”

Such restrictions would cost U.S. manufacturing and chemical companies through January 2021 (the end of the term for the Trump presidency) an estimated $929 million, adversely affecting 1,359 jobs. In addition, imposing new restrictions on U.S. agricultural and medical exports to Cuba, for the same time period, are estimated to cost the U.S. an additional $3.6 billion and 3,087 jobs.

On the other hand, there also is internal resistance in the Administration to making it more difficult for U.S. businesses and agricultural interests to do business with Cuba. Similar resistance exists in Congress as evident with various pending bills to end the U.S. embargo of the island, in whole or in part, as discussed in an earlier post.

Americans Travel to Cuba[2]

Bad News. There are rumors that the Administration may cut back on the ability of Americans to travel to the island. Again, however, there are pending bills in Congress that would prevent this.

Presumably, however, the Trump Administration would be hesitant to adopt measures that would be harmful to U.S. travel companies. U.S. cruise operators and airlines, for example, are estimated to lose around $712 million in annual revenues under enhanced travel restrictions with resulting risks to U.S. employment in these businesses. Especially at risk are jobs in south Florida involved in the cruise business. Through January 2021 (the period for the current term of the U.S. presidency), these costs are estimated at $3.5 billion, adversely affecting 10, 154 jobs.

These adverse effects were echoed at an early June aviation industry conference by Alexandre de Juniac, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association: “Restricting the network of aviation and access to Cuba would be bad news for aviation. Generally we welcome the extension of access to any country by plane.”

In addition, making it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba would adversely affect the relative prosperity of the island’s emerging private enterprise sector, which acts as a counterweight to the state-owned enterprises and as a force for liberalization of various aspects of Cuban society and government. According to Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition of businesses and others supporting normalization, Cuba’s private business sector currently accounts for 1/3 of Cuba’s workforce, has greatly expanded Cubans’ earning potential, has gained a larger share of the island’s food service industry, is providing almost 1/3 of all rooms available for rent in Cuba, and through tech entrepreneurs is helping to modernize the economy.[3]

Just recently some of the Cuban entrepreneurs have formed the Association of Businessmen to help, advice, train and represent the members of the private sector. The group applied in February for government recognition. The official deadline for a government response has passed without approval or rejection, thereby leaving the group in the peculiar status known in Cuba as “alegal” or a-legal, operating unmolested but vulnerable to a crackdown at any time.

U.S. “Democracy Promotion” Programs in Cuba

Good News. As noted in a prior post, the Administration’s proposed Fiscal 2018 State Department budget eliminates funding for the so-called covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

However, it also has been reported that the president is weighing an increase in funding for USAID programs that promote democracy in Cuba, initiatives that the Castro government has long condemned as covert efforts to overthrow it.

Cuban Human Rights[4]

A White House spokesman, Michael Short, recently observed, “As the President has said, the current Cuba policy is a bad deal. It does not do enough to support human rights in Cuba. We anticipate an announcement in the coming weeks.”

This issue also was highlighted in a recent article by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, which severely criticized the U.N. for electing human rights violators, like Cuba, to membership on the Human Rights Council. Cuba’s government, she said, “strictly controls the media and severely restricts the Cuban people’s access to the Internet. Political prisoners by the thousands sit in Cuban jails.” Therefore, she was proposing that “membership on the Council must be determined through competitive voting to keep the worst human rights abusers from obtaining seats.”

However, at a Council meeting in Geneva on June 6, Ambassador Haley did not mention Cuba in a short statement to emphasize the U.S. “strong conviction to the protection and promotion of human rights” and the importance of the Council’s “resolutions [that] can give hope to people who are fighting for justice, democracy, and human rights, and they can pave the way for accountability.”

Later that same day in Geneva at what she described as a Council “side-event,” she spoke about “Human Rights and Democracy in Venezuela.” As the title of her remarks suggest, she focused on that country’s current abuses of human rights and democracy and complained about Venezuela’s being a [Council] member in good standing . . . [and using] that membership to block any meaningful discussion of its human rights violations. The . . . Council has no excuse. It cannot consider itself the world’s leading human rights organization and continue to ignore the violations and abuses that are occurring in Venezuela.” Although Cuba is a strong ally of Venezuela and frequently dismisses the latter’s critics, Ambassador Haley made not mention of Cuba in these remarks.

Cuba, however, returned to her remarks later the same day, June 6, at Geneva’s

Graduate Institute, where her focus was the Council’s failure “to act properly – when it fails to act at all – it undermines its own credibility and the cause of human rights. It leaves the most vulnerable to suffer and die. It fuels the cynical belief that countries cannot put aside self-interest and cooperate on behalf of human dignity. It re-enforces our growing suspicion that the Human Rights Council is not a good investment of our time, money, and national prestige.”[5]

One example of the Council’s failure, she said, was Cuba, where “the government continues to arrest and detain critics and human rights advocates. The government strictly controls the media and severely restricts the Cuban people’s access to the Internet. Political prisoners by the thousands continue to sit in Cuban jails. Yet Cuba has never been condemned by the . . . Council. It, too, is a member country.”

In addition, according to Haley, Cuba uses its membership in the Council as proof that it is a supporter of human rights, instead of a violator. The Cuban deputy foreign minister called Cuba’s 2016 re-election to the Human Rights Council, “irrefutable evidence of Cuba’s historic prestige in the promotion and protection of all human rights for Cubans.

Whatever the merits of the U.S. allegations about Cuban human rights, reversing any aspect of the current status of normalization, in this blogger’s opinion, will not cause Cuba to change its own policies and practices. Instead, any reversal may well harden Cuban resistance to change and provide opportunities for other countries, like Russia and China, to enhance their relations with Cuba. Finally such reversals are hypocritical in light of the recent U.S. embrace of Saudi Arabia with a poor human rights record.

Conclusion

A New York Times editorial summed up this controversy by criticizing the rumored return to the “hard-line sanctions-based approach [that] was in place for more than 50 years after the 1959 revolution and never produced what anti-Castro activists hoped would be the result, the ouster of Cuba’s Communist government in favor of democracy. Isolating Cuba has become increasingly indefensible.”[6]

In contrast, said the editorial, “Mr. Obama’s opening to Havana has enabled the freer flow of people, goods and information between the two countries, even as significant differences remain over human rights. It has produced bilateral agreements on health care cooperation, joint planning to mitigate oil spills, coordination on counternarcotics efforts and intelligence-sharing. In April, Google’s servers went live in Cuba and thus it became the first foreign internet company to host content in one of the most unplugged nations on earth. Mr. Obama’s approach also encouraged Latin American countries to be more receptive to the United States as a partner in regional problem-solving.”

All U.S. supporters of normalization need to express their opinions to the White House, the U.S. State Department and members of Congress.

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[1] Rumors of Upcoming Trump Administration Rollback of U.S. Normalization of Relations with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (May 25, 2017); Reuters, Trump Administration Nearing Completion of Cuba Policy Review: Sources, N.Y. Times (May 30, 2017); Davis, Trump Considers Rolling Back Obama’s Opening With Cuba, N.Y. Times (May 31, 2017); Mazzei, Gomez, Kumar & Ordońez, How Cuba policy, and its inevitable drama, ensnared Trump’s White House, Miami Herald (June 1, 2017); Trump Reversing Cuba Policy Would Cost $6.6 Billion, Over 12k Jobs, Engage Cuba (June 1, 2017); Reuters, Trump Expected to Unveil New Cuba Policy as Early as Next Friday: Sources, N.Y. Times (June 9, 2017); Mazzei, Trump to reveal Cuba policy in Miami Next Friday, Miami Herald (June 9, 2017); Reuters, Some Republican Lawmakers Urge Trump Not to Reverse Cuba Opening, N.Y. Times (June 9, 2017); Letter, Representative Tom Emmer and six other Republican Congressmen to President Trump (June 8, 2017);Werner, Many in GOP unshaken by Comey’s testimony against Trump, StarTribune (June 10, 2017).

[2] Reuters, U.S. Travel Sector to Suffer if Trump Reverses Cuba Detente: Report, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017); Glusac, How a Shift in U.S. Policy could Affect Travel to Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuban Entrepreneurs Start first Private Business Group, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017); Reuters, U.S.-Cuba Policy Looms at Aviation Industry Conference, N.Y. Times (June 7, 2017).

[3] 5 Facts About Cuba’s Private Sector, EngageCUBA (Feb. 24, 2017).

[4] Assoc. Press, Trump Faces Tough Task Unwinding Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2017); Haley, The U.N. Human Rights Council whitewashes brutality, Wash. Post (June 2, 2017); Haley, Remarks at a Human Rights Council Side Event: “Human Rights and Democracy in Venezuela (June 6, 2017); Haley, Remarks at the U.N. Human Rights Council (June 6, 2017); Cumming-Bruce, U.S. Stops short of Leaving U.N. Human Rights Council, N.Y. Times (June 6, 2017).

[5] Haley, Remarks at the Graduate Institute of Geneva on “A Place for Conscience: the Future of the United States in the Human Rights Council,” (June 6, 2017).

[6] Editorial, Undoing All the Good Work on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 5, 2017).

Additional Reactions to End of U.S. Immigration Benefits for Cubans

There have been extensive White House comments as well as others’ reactions to the January 12 end of special U.S. immigration benefits for Cubans–“dry foot/wet foot” and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—that was discussed in a prior post. Now we look at additional White House comments and the extensive reactions—positive and negative—regarding this change.

White House Comments[1]

There were two additional sets of White House comments about the change. On the early evening of January 12 and hours after the announcement of the change, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, an unidentified senior DHS official and Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, conducted a lengthy conference call with the press on the subject. At the next day’s press briefing White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made comments on the subject. Here is a summary of new points that were made at these events.

Press Conference Call

Johnson: “Going forward, if a Cuban migrants arrives here illegally, the Cuban government has agreed to accept that person back . . . if . . . the time [between] a Cuban migrant leaves Cuba . . . and the time that we commence a deportation proceeding against the individual is less than four years.”

The “reason for the four-year period is . . . a law in Cuba (enacted in response to the [U.S.] Cuban Adjustment Act) that essentially says that if a person has left Cuba, after two years they are considered to have effectively migrated from Cuba.  In the course of our negotiations, the Cuban government agreed [to change that period from two to four years].” In addition, Cuba has agreed to accept other Cubans “on a case-by-case basis.”

“Ultimately, we seek to get to a place fully consistent with the international law under which the Cubans will agree to accept everyone back who is ordered deported by our country.”

“This is the ending of a policy that was put in place 20 years ago.  This is not the enactment of a policy that can be repealed by a subsequent administration. So I wouldn’t characterize it as creating a policy that could be repealed [by the Trump administration].”

Rhodes: “What we’ve seen in recent years is a continued uptick in Cuban migrants coming to the [U.S.].  We attribute that to a variety of factors — one, that Cuba has liberalized its own exit policies with respect to Cubans leaving the country; two, the change in our policy — the normalization of relations that began on December 17, 2014 — I think created an expectation in Cuba that this change might take place and therefore people were motivated to migrate.  Also, though, the increase in resources available to the Cuban people, particularly through our remittance policies, also made it more possible for Cubans to travel.”

“There has been a steady increase to some 40,000 Cubans granted parole in fiscal year 2015; 54,000 roughly in fiscal year 2016.  And what we had also seen is a growing number of Cubans who had begun a journey to try to reach the United States who were in a variety of Central American countries . . . creating both humanitarian challenges and strains within those countries as large numbers of Cubans were essentially stuck there and then facing a very difficult and dangerous — journey to our southern border in some cases.”

“Ultimately . . . we’d like to see people be able to increase their economic prospects within Cuba.  That is why we have taken steps to open up a greater commercial and people-to-people relationship, and have encouraged the Cuban government to pursue economic reforms.  That, ultimately, is the best way to ensure opportunity for the Cuban people going forward.”

“The Cuban Adjustment Act is the legislative architecture around these policies.  That provides preferences including adjusted status, green card status, and certain benefits to Cubans who are paroled into the country. . . . We do believe it would be the appropriate step for Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

“We did not want to speculate publicly about the likelihood of this change for fear of inviting even greater migration flows.”

“On the congressional point, while we did not have regular updates on what were very sensitive negotiations, we have over the course of the last year or so, frankly, heard from members of Congress, from both parties, who were expressing increasing concern about the migration flows.  In fact, in some cases, we were being urged to do something about it.  And we’ve also heard increasing interest and even pieces of legislation being introduced that seek to amend or repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, whether it’s the benefits provided under the Cuban Adjustment Act or the act itself.  So this is an issue that we’ve discussed with members of Congress from both parties, and around this announcement of course we’re doing many notifications to those interested members. . . . It was clear to us that Congress was taking a greater interest in this issue, given the uptick in migration flows and the strain that was placing on certain communities.”

“[E]arly in the post-revolution history, it was very clear that the overwhelming number of Cubans who came to the [U.S.] and ended up doing incredible things here in the [U.S.] absolutely had to leave for political purposes, or very much were leaving for political purposes.  I think increasingly over time, the balance has tilted towards people leaving for more traditional reasons in terms of seeking economic opportunity and, frankly, having not just the benefits of “wet foot, dry foot” and the adjusted status, but also literal benefits under the Cuban Adjustment Act.  That’s not to say that they’re not still people who have political cause to leave Cuba.  And as we do with any other country, political asylum continues to be an option for those individuals.  But we have seen the balance shift to more similar reasons in terms of people pursuing economic opportunity.”

“[U]ltimately the best future for Cuba is one that is determined by the Cuban people, both in terms of their economic livelihoods and in terms of their political future. . . . [It is] important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change and becoming entrepreneurs, and being more connected to the rest of the world. . . . [We] believe that this change is in service of creating more incentive for there to be the economic reforms that need to be pursued on the island in terms of opening up more space for the private sector, allowing foreign firms to hire Cubans, so that they can be responsive to the economic aspirations of their people. So in the long run, the best way for Cubans to have this opportunity is for them to be able to pursue it at home through an economy that has continued to pursue market-based reforms.”

We “believe very strongly, in this administration, of course, that our Cuba opening is the best way to incentivize that economic reform; that as more Americans travel, as more Americans do business, as there are greater commercial ties, that ultimately is going to create more opportunity for people in Cuba, as well as creating opportunities for Americans.  And so that’s very much the approach we’d like to see continued going forward, and ultimately the one that has the best opportunity to deliver results to the Cuban people.”

The “Cubans will be treated like everybody else.  People from anywhere can issue a claim of asylum; that does happen frequently. There’s not going to be a separate queue for Cubans.  So just like any other migrant who reaches our border, they have certain claims that they can pursue, but they’ll be treated as other individuals from other countries are.”

Press Briefing

At the January 13 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made the following extensive comments about the change:

“This policy change was codified in an executive agreement between the U.S. government and the government in Cuba.  As even some of the incoming administration’s nominees have noted, there’s a tradition of subsequent Presidents observing and adhering to the executive agreements that were put in place by the previous President unless, of course, a specific decision is made to change the policy.”

“President-elect Trump . . . on January 20th . . . [will] be able to exercise all of the executive authority that are invested in the presidency at his discretion.  We believe that there is a strong case to be made about normalizing relations between our two countries, and this is just the latest step in that process to ensure that we are treating Cuban migrants the same way that we treat migrants from other countries.”

The “response to this announcement . . . is indicative of how public opinion is changing on these issues, including in the Cuban-American community.” There is “a growing majority of Americans who agree about the direction that the President [Obaama] has moved the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

“[T]he migrants from Cuba will be treated in the same way that migrants from other countries are, which is to say legitimate claims for refugee status or for asylum will be subject to due process, which means that their claims will be evaluated.  And if they have legitimate claims for asylum, then that will be granted. But that will be adjudicated through the regular process . . . that migrants from other countries go through as well.”

“There was . . . a successful effort to brief the incoming administration shortly before this policy change was made public.”

It “takes time to negotiate these kinds of executive agreements, particularly with a country like Cuba that does not have a long history of negotiating these kinds of agreements with the United States.  For more than 50 years, the United States pursued a policy of diplomatic isolation with Cuba.  And so it’s only over the course of the last year or so that we’ve had the kind of diplomatic opening that will allow us to have these kinds of conversations.  So, negotiating these kinds of executive agreements takes time, but as soon as this agreement was completed, we announced it right away.”

Mr. Trump “certainly seems to be motivated by financial interests in some pretty important ways; he has over his professional career.  So I think he’ll find . . . [the economic argument for normalization] persuasive, particularly when you consider that there were reports that his company was negotiating with Cuba for exactly those kinds of agreements.  So he obviously recognizes the economic opportunity that’s there.  There’s more than a hundred flights every day between the [U.S.] and Cuba.  That’s cancelling a lot of flights if he wants to roll back this policy.  And I can’t imagine that the U.S. airline industry is going to be particularly pleased by that kind of development.”

“There are thousands of Americans that have an opportunity to travel to Cuba, and they’ve had an opportunity to enjoy their time there, learn a little bit more about the country, enhance ties between our two countries, and they’ve been able to return to the United States with all of the cigars and rum that they could pack into their suitcase if they choose to.  I don’t think those Americans are going to be particularly pleased to see that policy rolled back.”

For “more than 50 years, there was a policy of diplomatic isolation in place that had no material impact in improving the human rights situation in Cuba.  If anything, it got worse.  This policy has been in place for about a year.  And is there more that we would like to see the Cuban government do with regard to protecting human rights?  We absolutely would.  But our view is that the ability of the United States to advocate for those kinds of improvements is enhanced when we deepen the ties between our two countries.  When there are more Americans that are traveling to Cuba, when there is more communication going back and forth between Cuba and the United States, when there are more Cuban Americans that have an opportunity to visit family and send money to family in Cuba, all that is going to promote freedom.  That’s going to promote our values.”

“There has not been nearly as much an improvement in human rights in Cuba as we would like to see.  But the [normalization] policy has been in place for a little over [two years].”

We also have removed “an impediment to our relationship with countries throughout Latin America that have important relationships with Cuba.  For most of the last 50 years, those countries in Latin America didn’t apply that much pressure to Cuba about their human rights situation, and [instead] were focused on the [U.S.] and our failed policy of trying to isolate them.  Now that that impediment has been removed, it’s not just the [U.S.] that’s encouraging the Cuban government to improve their human rights situation, but you’ve got countries throughout the Western Hemisphere that are making the same argument.  So all we have done is to increase pressure on the Cuban government to improve the human rights situation there, and, at the same time, the American people have enjoyed a number of material benefits, including monetary benefits, that I do think will be persuasive to the incoming President as he determines what policy he believes is best with regard to the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

Positive Reactions[2]

 A New York Times editorial applauded the ending of this policy, which was “misguided for several reasons. It encouraged Cubans to embark on perilous, and often deadly, journeys on rafts across the Florida straits and across borders in South and Central America. It exacerbated Cuba’s brain drain, particularly after 2006 when Washington created a pathway for medical professionals abroad to defect by applying for visas at American embassies. And it unjustifiably gave Cubans preferential treatment while Haitians and Central Americans who were fleeing far more desperate circumstances were deported.”

This policy, says the Times, “has served as an escape valve, giving a way out to tens of thousands of Cubans who were frustrated by the island’s authoritarian government. Young Cubans have grown up regarding immigration to the [U.S.] as an option that has become a core part of the Cuban psyche.”

Now, the Times continues, there probably will be “pent-up dissatisfaction [that may] embolden more Cubans to press for economic changes and political freedoms as the era of rule by Raúl Castro draws to an end [in early 2018]. This would be hard and risky in a police state that stifles dissent by rewarding loyalists, punishing critics and sowing division among groups agitating for change. Eliécer Ávila, a prominent opposition leader, said, ““In the long run, I feel this will be beneficial by putting pressure on us to take responsibility for our homeland. The fundamental problem here is not the laws of other countries but the reality we live with.”

The Times concluded,  “should be clear to . . . [President-elect Trump’s] team that rolling back the recent progress would be foolish.”

A Washington Post editorial reached the same conclusion as the Times while emphasizing that the “dry foot/wet foot” policy “not only induced discontented Cubans to make a dangerous journey, but also relieved pressure on the regime to meet their legitimate demands at home. In recent years, the policy has also led to various scams, such as Medicare fraud perpetrated by Cubans who quickly settled in South Florida and then returned to the island with ill-gotten money.”

The incoming Trump administration was urged by the Washington Post “to treat [Cuban asylum] claims with the generosity they deserve while noting that the U.S. continuing “to set aside 20,000 immigrant visas per year to Cubans [was] an unusually high number properly reflective of Cuba’s unusually repressive system.”

Jon Anderson in the New Yorker points out that the change “should also help curtail a gruesome people-trafficking network that, over the past two years, has bled tens of thousands of Cubans of what little money they have in order to make it to the United States. Many of the migrants have sold their homes to obtain the cash to pay the traffickers who smuggle them through different countries before they reach the United States. One of the networks funnels people through a Mafia-controlled section of Colombia on an arduous and dangerous trek, sometimes lasting as much as three weeks, through the Darién jungle into Panama. Numerous Cubans, as well as other nationalities, have been robbed, raped, and killed along the way. In Mexico, an unavoidable part of any overland journey to the U.S. border from the south, Cubans fall prey to traffickers linked to the violent drug gangs there, at times with corrupt police involvement.”

Representative Albio Sires (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American, said that “in recent years [some Cubans] used [the dry foot/wet foot policy] to reap economic rewards by sending money back to the island or even going back themselves to visit. While I am sympathetic to the plight of all the Cuban people, this program was designed for those asylees and refugees that were forced to flee. Money sent back to the island has no choice but to pass through the hands of the regime that for years has been using this program to fill their coffers.” He, however, questioned the timing of this change with an incoming president who has made many “hateful and disparaging remarks about refugees, minorities and immigrants.”

Negative Reactions[3]

Cuban-American representatives in Congress registered their typical negative reactions to U.S. normalization with Cuba: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL); Carlos Curbello (Rep., FL); and Mario Diaz-Balart. Representative Curbello, however, admitted that the old wet-foot/dry-foot policy had been “grossly abused and exploited by many Cuban nationals, while also inadvertently bolstering the Cuban regime. A change to this policy was inevitable. I remain firmly committed to supporting the victims of persecution in Cuba while ending all abuses of America’s generosity.”

 A negative opinion also was registered by Carlos Eire, a Cuban-American who arrived in the early 1960’s as a “Peter Pan” kid and who now is an author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.He argues that many Cubans saw the December 17, 2014 announcement of rapprochement . . . [as] new support from the [U.S. that] could prolong the life of the Castro regime indefinitely and allow it to rule despotically; and . . . [as a sign] how Cubans would no longer continue to be viewed by the [U.S.] as an oppressed people.” The January 12 termination of ‘dry foot/wet foot’ “has completed . . . [Obama’s] utter betrayal of the Cuban people — a legacy move set in motion two years ago [and] has burdened Trump with a no-win situation with the potential to seriously tarnish or weaken his presidency right from the start.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on January 12 released a statement from the Chair of its Migration Committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas. Expressing disappointment over the “sudden policy change,” he said, “While we have welcomed normalizing relations with Cuba, the violation of basic human rights remains a reality for some Cubans and the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy helped to afford them a way to seek refuge in the United States.”

The Bishop added, “Cuban Americans have been one of the most successful immigrant groups in U.S. history. The protections afforded them were a model of humane treatment.” This change “will make it more difficult for vulnerable populations in Cuba, such as asylum seekers, children, and trafficking victims, to seek protection. . . . My brother Bishops and I pledge to work with the outgoing and incoming administrations to ensure humane treatment for vulnerable populations, from Cuba and elsewhere, seeking refuge in the United States.”

The Cuban Observatory on Human Rights (OCDH), criticizing the change, said thatmany Cubans do not want or can not live in their own country” and that Cuba has not guaranteed “there will be no reprimand or violations of the human rights of” the Cubans the U.S. returns to the island.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Miami-based Democracy Movement, believes the change “will not stop the Cubans leaving the island, because in Cuba ‘there is a tyranny’ that will create more deaths (of rafters) in the Florida Straits.”

Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue: “Freedom is going to have to be sought now inside Cuba.” It is “sad” that Cubans have always bet on escaping from Cuba rather than fighting for freedom within their country.

Conclusion

This blogger remains persuaded that the “dry foot/wet foot policy is not justified, at least in recent years. Now many, if not most, Cubans wanting to come to the U.S. are motivated by an entirely understandable desire to improve their financial circumstances. That same desire exists in many people from many countries throughout the world. There is no special reason why Cubans should be preferred over all these other people.

As Secretary Johnson, Deputy National Security Advisor Rhodes and Press Secretary Earnest emphasized, if the Cubans are fleeing Cuban persecution for their political opinions, then they may and should submit an application, under U.S. and international law, for political asylum.

The U.S. parole program for Cuban medical personnel is also unjustified. Cuban students receive their medical education without any tuition. As a result, it is only reasonable to require such students, after receiving their medical degrees, to “give back” by serving on a Cuban foreign medical mission for which they are paid more than they would have earned in Cuba. Yes, the Cuban government is paid more for their services on such missions by foreign governments than the medical personnel are paid by the Cuban government, but that also is reasonable and appropriate. The contention that such service is illegal forced labor or semi-slavery is absurd.[4]

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[1] White House, On-the-Record Press Call [by Jeh Johnson and Benjamin Rhodes] on Cuba Policy Announcement (Jan. 12, 2017); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/13/17.

[2] Editorial, Ending a Misguided Cuban Migration Policy, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017); Editorial, Obama’s latest step on Cuba actually seems necessary and proper, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); Anderson, Obama’s Last Big Cuba Move, New Yorker (Jan. 13, 2017); Congressman Sires Statement on the Administration’s Decision to End “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” (Jan. 12, 2017).

[3] Ros-Lehtinen Statement on Latest Obama Concession to Castro Regime: Elimination of Wet Foot/Dry Foot and Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (Jan. 12, 2017); Diaz-Balart, Have You No Shame, President Obama? (Jan. 12, 2017); Curbelo Comments on DHS Announcement Regarding End of Wet-Foot Dry-Foot Policy (Jan. 12, 2917); Eire, Wet foot, dry foot, wrong foot, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); USCCB Migration Chairman Expresses Disappointment over Abrupt End of “Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy—Policy Has Long Benefited Cuban Migrants and Refugees (Jan. 12, 2017); OCDH Position on the Elimination of the Policy of “Dry Feet/Wet Feet (Jan. 13, 2017);Reactions: Obama’s policies have been ‘a betrayal of Cubans,’ says Mario Díaz-Balart, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 13, 2017).

[4] See posts listed in the “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical (CUBA).

Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings?

A prior post provided a positive review of Roger Cohen’s comments about life and death in his New York Times columns. While reaffirming that assessment, his selected comments in that review do not directly express a sense of vocation. Perhaps there are other columns that do just that. If so, I would appreciate someone pointing them out.

Vocation is at least a Christian concept that may not be familiar to Cohen, who is Jewish. Here then are my thoughts on vocation from prior posts.[1]

Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church in a recent sermon presented the challenge of vocation or calling this way: “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Vocation also has been discussed by, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said the word ‘vocation’ “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, vocation implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group. Moreover, some people discover a vocation when they respond affirmatively to someone else’s invitation or request to do something. Others embark on a vocation that they choose by themselves. I have experience with both of these.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.

The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors.

My latest vocation is researching and writing posts for this blog to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, to share my knowledge of international human rights law and other subjects and to attempt to articulate an intelligent exposition and exploration of important issues of Christian faith. It is my way of doing evangelism.

I imagine that Roger Cohen must have a similar sense of vocation about his writing columns for the New York Times regarding international and domestic political topics and living and dying even if he does not articulate this personal endeavor as a vocation. His new column, The Rage of 2016, is certainly a passionate and despondent reflection on what is happening in our world these days. It ends with the following:

  • “The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.”

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[1] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen movingly has reflected on life and death in his New York Times column, “Do Not Go Gentle.”  Although I had read many of his earlier columns, this one stopped me to ponder its thoughts and to explore some of his other columns and biography and then to share the results of that investigation in this blog post.

“Do Not go Gentle”–Excerpts

“Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.”

“For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.”

“I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me. . . . When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”

In contrast, “the most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.”

“As Ecclesiastes [3: 1-8] has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.”

“None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A “friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: ‘You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.’ It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.”

“Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.”

“My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: ‘I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.’”

“The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.”

“The dead whisper to us, they console us, they admonish us. Love more, love better. Do not . . . go gentle into that good night.

Other Columns

Many of his columns for the Times are online, and a hunt-and-peck incomplete search of that collection uncovered the following four columns for inclusion in this blog post. I am confident that a more thorough search would produce other thoughtful columns.

In May 2015 Cohen’s spending time at an unnamed airport prompted ruminations about status anxiety, “The Great Unease.” It included the following: “By comparison, having little or less [material possessions] seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.”

The column ended with the following: “The Chinese say: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.’ Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom.”

Another May 2015 column, “The Presence of the Past, ” contained these observations about how we experience the past:

  • “As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility. It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.”
  • “Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89. Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option. So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.”
  • “Yet as Faulkner observed, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, ‘The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.’”
  • “Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”

His June 2015 column, “Mow the Lawn,” starts with comments about his youngest child’s graduating from a London school and getting ready to start college in the U.S., but includes these words of wisdom:

  • “Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
  • “I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.”

This column about mowing the lawn also quoted from a commencement speech he had given:

  • “’Everyone has something that makes them tick. The thing is it’s often well hidden. Your psyche builds layers of protection around your most vulnerable traits, which may be very closely linked to your precious essence. Distractions are also external: money, fame, peer pressure, parental expectation. So it may be more difficult than you think to recognize the spark that is your personal sliver of the divine. But do so. Nothing in the end will give you greater satisfaction — not wealth, not passion, not faith, not even love — for if, as Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude.’”
  • “’No success, however glittering, that denies yourself will make you happy in the long run. So listen to the voice from your soul, quiet but insistent, and honor it. Find what you thrill to: if not the perfect sentence, the beautiful cure, the brilliant formula, the lovely chord, the exquisite sauce, the artful reconciliation. Strive not for everything money can buy but for everything money can’t buy.’”
  • “In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”

The column, “Young Lives Interrupted,” from November 2015 starts with comments on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and ends with these words:

  • “It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.”
  • “What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.”
  • “There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.”

Cohen’s Biography[1]

Born in London in 1955, Cohen graduated with honors at Westminster School, a top “public” school in English parlance. He then attended the University of Oxford and graduated with a B.A. (and later M.A.) in History and French in 1977.

That same year he moved to Paris to teach English and to write for Paris Metro, after which he started working for Reuters, which transferred him to Brussels.  In 1983 he joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal in Rome and later Beirut. The New York Times was his next and current employer, 1990-present, and he has served as a columnist for the paper since 2009. He also occasionally writes for the New York Review of Books.

Cohen has published these books: (a) In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (with Claudio Gatti) (1991); (b) Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (1998); (c) Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped in the Nazis’ Final Gamble (2005); (d) Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (2008); and (e) The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family (2015).

Cohen’s father, Sydney Cohen, a doctor, was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Roger’s mother June also was born in South Africa and accompanied Sydney to the U.K. She died in 1999.

One of Roger Cohen’s columns, “The Battle to Belong,” from January 2015, told a moving account of his parents’ lives with these more general observations: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.” A more expansive exploration of his own family history is found in his book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family.

Conclusion

Thank you, Roger Cohen, for sharing your thoughts with the world. You help us to understand and accept the truths expressed long ago in Ecclesiastes.

Recognize and rejoice in the fragility and beauty of life. Engage in acts of spontaneous generosity, surprise visits and idle conversation. See life as a succession of everyday tasks that should be well performed and that will provide happiness.

As we think about our ever-lengthening pasts, do so with balance and the realization that every one of us is haunted most by what we have failed to do. When you have these realizations, endeavor to remedy those failures.

Also accept the cycle of birth and death and see death as the shadow that gives shape to existence, the urgency to love and the brilliance to life. You too may find that the dead whisper words of encouragement and consolation.

These words are worth pondering by all of us. I look forward to reading his future columns as well as diving into the collection of his columns in the Times.

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[1] Roger Cohen’s biography may be found in the New York TImes, Wikipedia and Jewage.