This Blogger’s Reactions to President Trump’s Reversal 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. Other posts discussed the reactions to this development in the U.S. and Cuba while this post will set forth this blogger’s reactions and recommendations.

Remember that despite all the hostile rhetoric in Trump’s announcement, he made only two changes to be implemented in subsequent regulations: (1) prohibit U.S. business transactions with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or security forces; and (2) prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in individual person-to-person travel to Cuba.

As a longstanding advocate for U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, I was dreading the long anticipated announcement of a new Cuba policy direction from the Trump Administration. Thus, I was somewhat relieved that there were only the two previously mentioned specific changes although I was distressed with Trump’s unfortunate resurrection of the rhetoric of the failed U.S. policies from 1959 until the December 17, 2014, announcement of a mutual decision to seek normalization.

Now U.S. citizens who favor normalization and reconciliation need to determine how to go forward. Here are my recommendations for such a strategy.

First, focus on overturning the new ban on individual person-to-person travel. That means supporting S.127– Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act—that is authored by Senator Jeff Flake with 54 cosponsors—and asking the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill as soon as possible. The same should be done for the parallel bill in the House (H.R.351—Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017) authored by Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., S.C.) with 22 cosponsors.

Second, advance the following new argument for such bills. The new Trump policy is internally inconsistent for the following reasons:[1]

  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel, by all accounts, will reduce the overall amount of U.S. travel to the island and thereby have substantial negative effects on Cuba’s emerging private sector, which has improved the living standards of many Cubans and is a force for change in Cuba and for friendlier relations with the U.S. Remember that President Trump and his supporters purportedly favor measures to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.
  • Forcing Americans who want to have a person-to-person experience in Cuba to do so only with established tour groups will mean “large tour groups [that] are too big for smaller bed-and-breakfast rentals, and their [Cuban] government-appointed guides tend to ply the well-trodden routes that bypass the new galleries, restaurants and night spots opened by enterprising Cubans and others.” This is a direct negative effect on Cubans’ standard of living, which Trump and his supporters do not want.
  • According to Andrea Gallina, an Italian entrepreneur who last year opened a high-end boutique hotel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse, “If independent American travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the bed-and-breakfasts. It’s also the construction crews, the private tour guides, the taxi drivers, the restaurants and the artists selling handicrafts.” Again, the Cubans now engaged in these private enterprises will be substantially disadvantaged.
  • The larger groups of American visitors will by necessity have to stay in hotels, most of which are state-owned, and travel in tour buses (again, state-owned), contrary to the other policy change announced by Trump.
  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel will increase the cost for Americans’ traveling to the island and thereby reduce the amount of such travel. As a result, the U.S. will lose the impact on Cubans of ordinary Americans, who often are the best ambassadors for the U.S., its government, people and values.

Third, continue to advocate for implementation of other normalization measures—adherence to the many agreements reached between the Obama Administration and Cuba; continued negotiation of the many unresolved issues that have accumulated over the last half century; commencement of international arbitrations over issues the parties cannot resolve by themselves; appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba; and ceasing the inflammatory rhetoric of both sides.

To date, there is a mixed record of the Trump Administration on two of these measures. The head of Cuba’s National Commission on Drugs states that the two countries are still cooperating to intercept drug smugglers while U.S. officials say “day-to-day cooperation on halting U.S.-bound human trafficking and narcotics has improved significantly since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 2015, with the two nations’ coast guards talking directly to each other and cooperating in real time on a regular basis.” On the other hand, the U.S. has halted high-level meetings on stopping the flow of narcotics through the Caribbean and general law-enforcement cooperation.[2]

Fourth, avoid entering into a debate about the recent rhetoric of President Trump or the Cuban Government and its Foreign Minister. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric suggests the possibility of additional reversals of President Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba, and thus we “normalizers” must be ready to combat any such additional reversals.

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[1] Miroff, Trump’s Cuba policy tries to redefine ‘good’ U.S. tourism. That includes putting visitors back on tour buses, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Kunović, Five things you need to know about Trump’s Cuba policy—and who it will hurt, Wash. Post (June 22, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, U.S., Cuba Still Cooperating on Stopping Drug Smugglers, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Says Regional Marijuana Liberalization Is Fueling Trafficking, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017).

Cuban Reactions to Trump’s Reversal 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.

Another post looked at U.S. reactions to this reversal. Now we look at Cuban reactions, and a subsequent post will set forth this blogger’s reactions.

Remember that despite all the hostile rhetoric in Trump’s announcement, he set forth only two changes to be implemented in subsequent regulations: (1) prohibit U.S. business transactions with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military of security forces; and (2) prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in individual person-to-person travel to Cuba.

The Cuban Government’s Reactions[1]

The Cuban Government’s lengthy statement made only passing references to these two measures. It said they were made “with the intentional objective of denying [Cuba] income,” of creating “additional obstacles to already restricted opportunities available to U.S. businesses to trade with and invest in Cuba” and of imposing “further restrictions on] the rights of U.S. citizens to visit our country.”

The Cuban statement instead is devoted to objecting to what it calls “the hostile rhetoric” of President Trump’s announcement of the changes, which recalls “the era of open confrontation with our country” and which “constitutes a setback in relations between the two countries.” The U.S. President justified these policy changes “with alleged concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba and the need to rigorously enforce [U.S. embargo] blockade laws, conditioning its lifting, as well as any improvement in bilateral relations, on our country making changes elemental to our constitutional order.”[2]

However, said the Cuban Government, the U.S. embargo or blockade “causes harm and deprivation to the Cuban people and constitutes an undeniable obstacle to our economy’s development, but also impacts the sovereignty and interests of other countries, generating international condemnation.”

Moreover, these U.S. policy changes “contradict the majority support of the U.S. public, including the Cuban émigré community in that country, for the lifting of the [embargo] blockade and normal relations between Cuba and the [U.S.’]” Instead these policy changes “favor [the] political interests of an extremist minority of Cuban origin in the state of Florida, which for small-minded reasons do not desist in their pretensions to punish Cuba and its people, for exercising the legitimate, sovereign right to be free and take control of their own destiny.”

“The government of Cuba denounces the new measures to tighten the [embargo] blockade, which are destined to failure, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the past, and which will not achieve their purpose of weakening the Revolution, or breaking the Cuban people, whose resistance to aggression of any kind or origin has been proven over almost six decades.”

“The government of Cuba rejects the manipulation of the issue of human rights for political purposes, and double standards in addressing it. The Cuban people enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms, and have achieved accomplishments of which they are proud, and which are only a dream for many of the world’s countries, including the . . . [U.S.], such as the right to health, education, social security, equal pay for equal work, the rights of children, the right to food, peace and development. With its modest resources, Cuba has contributed, as well, to the expansion of human rights in many places around the world, despite the limitations imposed given its condition as a blockaded country.”

“The [U.S.] is in no position to teach [Cuba] a lesson. We have serious concerns about [the U.S.] respect for and protection of human rights in [the U.S. and other countries].”

“Upon confirming the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations, Cuba and the [U.S.] affirmed the intention to develop respectful, cooperative ties between the two people and governments, based on the principles and purposes enshrined in the United Nations Charter . . . .: the inalienable right of every state to choose its own political, economic, social, and cultural system, without interference of any kind; and on equality and reciprocity, which constitute irrevocable principles of international law.”

“The government of Cuba reiterates its willingness to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation in areas of mutual interest, as well as the negotiation of pending bilateral issues with the government of the [U.S.]. Over the last two years, it has been demonstrated that . . . the two countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, respecting differences and promoting all that benefits both nations and peoples, but it cannot be expected that, in order to do so, Cuba will make concessions which compromise our independence or sovereignty, nor accept conditions of any type.”

Cuban Foreign Minister’s Reactions[3]

The following Monday in Paris, France, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, re-emphasized these points at a press conference. Again, he made only passing references to the two specific changes in U.S. policy. He said they “reinforce the ban on U.S. citizens traveling as tourists to Cuba, and restrict their civil liberties; they limit the freedom of U.S. citizens to travel.”

He said President Trump’s announcement in Miami was “a grotesque Cold War-era spectacle” before an audience of terrorists that was “an affront to the Cuban people, to the people of the world, and to the victims of international terrorism across the globe.” The announcement “marks a step back in bilateral relations, as has been recognized by countless voices within and outside of the [U.S.], the majority of which out rightly reject the announced changes” and will adversely affect [U.S.] relations . . . with Latin America and the Caribbean, and will severely damage the credibility of its foreign policy.”

“These frankly unpopular measures ignore overwhelming support for the lifting of the [embargo] blockade and the normalization of relations with Cuba by members of the U.S. Congress, many of whom are Republicans; the country’s business sector; various civil society organizations; the Cuban émigré community; the press; social networks; and public opinion in general.”

These changes “will restrict the freedoms of U.S. citizens, cost [U.S.] taxpayers more money, reduce the opportunities of [U.s.] companies and business people against their competition, [and] lose {u.S.] income and jobs.”

These U.S. changers “also ignore the overwhelming majority view of the Cuban people, who wish to have a better relationship with the people of the U.S. They will cause human harm and deprivation; they will affect Cuban families. They will bring economic damage not only to state-owned enterprises in Cuba, but also to [Cuban] cooperatives [privately owned businesses], and will especially harm self-employed or private workers. They will also harm and increase discrimination against Cuban émigrés settled in the [U.S.].”

These U.S. changes will “reinforce our patriotism, our dignity, our determination to defend national independence by all means, in the spirit of José Martí, Antonio Maceo and Fidel Castro Ruz.”

Nevertheless, Rodriguez “reiterate[d] Cuba’s willingness to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation in areas of mutual interest and to negotiate pending bilateral issues with the [U.S.], on the basis of equality and absolute respect for our independence and sovereignty. As demonstrated by the advances achieved in the last two years, Cuba and the [U.S.] can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, respecting the profound differences between our governments and promoting all that benefits both countries and peoples.”

Yet, “Cuba will not make concessions essential to its sovereignty and independence, will not negotiate its principles or accept conditions, as it has never done, never, throughout the history of the Revolution. As the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba establishes, we will never negotiate under pressure or threats.”

In response to journalists’ questions, the Foreign Minister made the following additional comments:

  • “Regarding the issue of the so-called ‘U.S. fugitives in Cuba,’ I can reaffirm that, under our national law and international law and the Latin American tradition, Cuba has granted political asylum or refuge to U.S. civil rights fighters. Of course these people will not be returned to the United States, which lacks the legal, political, and moral foundation to demand this.” (This has been Cuba’s consistent position as this issue was raised in negotiations with the Obama Administration before and after the December 17, 2014, announcement of the two countries embarking on the path of normalization.)
  • “U.S. citizens who committed crimes in Cuba, such as the hijacking of aircraft, were sentenced by Cuban courts and served long prison terms in Cuba. By unilateral decision, and in an act of goodwill, the Cuban government in recent years has returned to the United States 12 U.S. citizens who were fugitives from the U.S. justice system.”
  • “President Trump consistently said throughout the election campaign that he . . . would seek . . . a better deal with our country. For Cuba, “a better deal would mean lifting the [embargo] blockade, returning the territory of the Guantánamo Naval Base [to Cuba], accepting the concept of mutual compensation that would greatly benefit certified U.S. property owners, due to the nationalizations of the 1960s.”
  • “The blockade [embargo] is a piece of the Cold War; it is criminal, genocidal, according to the Geneva Convention on Genocide. It is absolutely unjust and arbitrary. It is a crude, systematic violation, flagrant and systematic, of the human rights of all Cubans, hurting Cuban families, causing damage and deprivation. On the other hand, the blockade [embargo] infringes on the interests of U.S. citizens, of its companies, of its business people, and also constitutes a violation of the civil liberties and political rights of U.S. citizens who are prohibited from traveling to Cuba.”
  • It “would seriously damage the very interests of the [U.S.] and of its citizens, if the U.S. government prevented or disassociated itself from cooperation with Cuba, which is a neighboring country and contributes to stability in the region, to the solution of regional and hemispheric problems, which has been a victim of, and actively fights, international terrorism, as well as drug trafficking; trafficking in persons; cyber-crime; against the use of digital media from one country to surreptitiously attack another; against crimes of fraud, money laundering, in which, necessarily, the interests of the continent’s countries coincide.”
  • “I can reaffirm that Cuba will attend to, honor, the agreements signed, and I reiterate our willingness to negotiate and sign new cooperation agreements in other areas. Because our way of thinking is to respect, in a civilized manner, the great differences which exist between our governments, but to advance in all that can benefit the two peoples, in our national interest and that of the Cuban people.”
  • “It is clear that the measures being implemented by the U.S. government will harm the Cuban people, and especially harm sectors with which the U.S. government has expressed the most interest in building relations. In Cuba, it would be impossible to hurt the state sector of the economy without seriously hurting the cooperative sector, the self-employed, or small private businesses, in particular in the areas that some of these measures address, like the ban on individual travel by U.S. citizens under ‘people-to-people’ licenses.”
  • “[T]hese measures, no doubt, [also] prejudice U.S. interests. The paradox is strange, because the U.S. President has said that his priority is the U.S. citizenry, the creation of jobs, seeking opportunities for U.S. companies and businesses, making them more competitive. With these measures, he is doing exactly the opposite.”

Cuba’s rejection of the rhetorical demands by President Trump has elicited the strong support of Russia, which has maintained close ties with Havana and in March signed a deal to ship oil to Cuba for the first time in over a decade. Russia said that Trump was “returning us to the forgotten rhetoric of the Cold War.”

Cuban Citizens’ Reactions[4]

In addition to the Cuban government, Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurs oppose the change in the U.S. travel rules. They have grown and prospered as Americans over the last two years have flocked to the island on airlines, patronizing thousands of private bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants. For example, Camilo Diaz, a 44-year-old waiter in a restaurant in Havana, said, “When [Trump’s] cutting back on travel, he’s hurting us, the Cuban entrepreneurs. We’re the ones who are hurt.” A similar opinion was voiced by

Havana resident Marta Deus, who recently set up an accountancy firm and courier service, to cater to the emerging private sector. She said, “We need clients, business, we need the economy to move and by isolating Cuba, they will only manage to hurt many Cuban families and force companies to close.”

This obvious adverse impact on Cuba’s emerging private businesses is also obviously adverse to the U.S. interest in encouraging this sector that promotes economic gains for many Cubans and that constitutes a growing counter-weight to the Cuban state controlling everything. The change also promises to increase the cost of Americans going to Cuba because hotels are more expensive than the new, small b&bs.

Expressing a contrary opinion is Jose Daniel Ferrer, who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country’s largest dissident group. He said, “When the Obama administration stopped condemning human rights violations in Cuba, the regime here said ‘look we can do this and nothing happens, so we can continue repressing more forcefully.’” Other dissidents agree repression has worsened but say rolling back the detente, which will hurt ordinary Cubans, is not the solution.

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[1] Revolutionary Government Statement: Any strategy directed toward changing Cuba’s constitutional order is condemned to failure, Granma (June 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Government Says Trump Will Not Weaken ‘the Revolution,’ N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Russia Says Trump Is Using ‘Cold War Rhetoric’ on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 18, 2017); Reuters, Russia Criticizes U.S. for ‘Anti-Cuban’ Approach, Says It Sides with Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 18, 2017).

[2] The prior post about the U.S. announcement of the limited changes to U.S. policy did not discuss or quote President Trump’s full-blown condemnation of many Cuban policies and practices and U.S. past and current efforts to change those policies and practices. The full text and summaries of that speech are available in the following: White House, Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba (June 16, 2017); DeYoung & Wagner, Trump announces revisions to parts of Obama’s Cuba policy, Wash. Post (June 16, 2017); Davis, Trump Reverses Pieces of Obama-Era Engagement with Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Announces Rollback of Obama’s Cuba Policy, W.S.J. (June 16, 2017).

[3] Rodriguez, Cuba will not make concessions essential to its sovereignty and independence, nor will it negotiate its principles or accept conditions, Granma (June 20, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba Highlights Strong Rejection to Trump’s Policy, (June 19, 2017); Live Press Conference of the Cuban Foreign Minister (+ Video), Granma (June 19, 2017); Ahmed, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Calls Trump’s New Policy a ‘Grotesque Spectacle,’ N.Y. Times (June 20, 2017). The day after his press conference, Foreign Minister Rodriguez repeated some of these comments in an interview by a Russian press agency. (‘Total regress’: Trump would blame Havana for climate change, if he believed in it—Cuban FM to RT, Russia Today (June 20, 2017).)

[4] Reuters, Reuters, Cubans Fret New Trump Policy Will Dampen Tourism Boom, N.Y. Times (June 14, 2017); Miroff, In booming old Havana tourist quarter, Trump speech puts Cubans in a bad mood, Wash. Post (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cubans Say Crestfallen That Trump Rolling Back Détente, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017).

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).

President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies

On June 16 in the Little Havana district of Miami, Florida, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. With a flourish at the end of his speech, Trump signed the National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba to document the new policy. Back in Washington, D.C. the White House issued a Fact Sheet and a Background Briefing and the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About the New Policy.

An examination of these documents, however, reveals that there is more smoke than fire to the changes. Most of the preexisting normalization policies and actions are not affected, and the changes that were made by executive action can be overturned by federal legislation.

Subsequent posts will review U.S. and Cuban reactions to these changes before providing this blogger’s reactions and recommendations.

National Security Presidential Memorandum[1]

The Memorandum’s purpose in grandiose language is “to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. . . . [to] channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society [and to condemn abuses by the Cuban regime]. . . . [The] Administration will continue to evaluate its policies so as to improve human rights, encourage the rule of law, foster free markets and free enterprise, and promote democracy in Cuba.” (Section 1)

The Memorandum in section 2 then states the Administration’s policy shall be to:

  • “(a) End economic practices that disproportionately benefit the Cuban government or its military, intelligence, or security agencies or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people.
  • (b) Ensure adherence to the statutory ban on tourism to Cuba.
  • (c) Support the economic embargo of Cuba described in [federal statutes] . . . (d) Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services, free press, free enterprise, free association, and lawful travel.
  • (e) Not reinstate the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy, which encouraged untold thousands of Cuban nationals to risk their lives to travel unlawfully to the [U.S.].
  • (f) Ensure that engagement between the [U.S.] and Cuba advances the interests of the [U.S.] and the Cuban people. . . . [including] advancing Cuban human rights; encouraging the growth of a Cuban private sector independent of government control; enforcing final orders of removal against Cuban         nationals in the [U.S.]; protecting the national security and public health and safety of the [U.S.], including through proper engagement on criminal cases and working to ensure the return of fugitives from American justice living in Cuba     or being harbored by the Cuban government; supporting [U.S.] agriculture and protecting plant and animal health; advancing the understanding of the [U.S.] regarding scientific and environmental challenges; and facilitating safe civil  aviation.”

The Memorandum in section 3 concludes with detailed directions for implementation.

White House Fact Sheet[2]

The White House Fact Sheet on this policy change stated the following as its objectives: (1) “Enhance compliance with United States law—in particular the provisions that govern the embargo of Cuba and the ban on tourism; (2) Hold the Cuban regime accountable for oppression and human rights abuses ignored under the Obama policy; (3) Further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people; and (4) Lay the groundwork for empowering the Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty.”

The Fact Sheet then stated the following “Summary of Key Policy Changes:”

  • “The new policy channels economic activities away from the Cuban military monopoly, Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA), including most travel-related transactions, while allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba. The new policy makes clear that the primary obstacle to the Cuban people’s prosperity and economic freedom is the Cuban military’s practice of controlling virtually every profitable sector of the economy. President Trump’s policy changes will encourage American commerce with free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector.”
  • “The policy enhances travel restrictions to better enforce the statutory ban on United States tourism to Cuba.  Among other changes, travel for non-academic educational purposes will be limited to group travel.  The self-directed, individual travel permitted by the Obama administration will be prohibited.  Cuban-Americans will be able to continue to visit their family in Cuba and send them remittances.”
  • “The policy reaffirms the United States statutory embargo of Cuba and opposes calls in the United Nations and other international forums for its termination. The policy also mandates regular reporting on Cuba’s progress—if any—toward greater political and economic freedom.”
  • “The policy clarifies that any further improvements in the United States-Cuba relationship will depend entirely on the Cuban government’s willingness to improve the lives of the Cuban people, including through promoting the rule of law, respecting human rights, and taking concrete steps to foster political and economic freedoms.”

Significantly this Fact Sheet did not contain actual new regulations to implement the policy changes. Instead, “the Treasury and Commerce Departments [were directed] to begin the process of issuing new regulations within 30 days.  The policy changes will not take effect until those Departments have finalized their new regulations, a process that may take several months.  The Treasury Department has issued Q&As that provide additional detail on the impact of the policy changes on American travelers and businesses.”

White House Background Briefing[3]

The prior day the White House conducted a background briefing on this policy change for journalists.

In addition to presaging the chances noted above, it stated that the new policy was the result of “a full review of U.S. policy toward Cuba [led by the] National Security Council . . . [under the leadership of] General McMaster, [that] engaged in a thorough interagency review process, including more than a dozen working-level meetings, multiple deputies meetings, and principal meetings.  This interagency process included . . . the Treasury Department, the State Department, Commerce Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Transportation. . . .”

“Additionally, during this process, the President met with members of Congress who are experts on Cuba policy and have been leaders in formulating Cuba policy, from a legislative perspective, for years.  These members also worked with us hand-in-glove in providing technical guidance and policy suggestions as we continued to formulate the policy and went through multiple drafts.”

“The President and other principals also met with members on both sides of the aisle in this process, and even, additionally, were sharing thoughts with those who have, I think, been advocates — in particular, agricultural trade with Cuba.”

U.S. Treasury Department FAQs[4]

The June 16th FAQs emphasize that the Department’s changes will become effective only upon its issuance of amendments to its Cuban Assets Control Regulation, which are expected in a couple of months.

The upcoming amendments will end individual people-to-people travel. But still permissible will be group people to-people travel: “educational travel not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program that takes place under the auspices of an organization that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact. Travelers utilizing this travel authorization must maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba. An employee, consultant, or agent of the group must accompany each group to ensure that each traveler maintains a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.”

“The announced policy changes will not change the authorizations for sending remittances to Cuba.”

Vice President Pence and President Trump’s Speeches Announcing the Change[5]

Trump’s speech was a full-blown condemnation of many Cuban policies and practices and U.S. past and current efforts to change those policies and practices that went far beyond the limited changes previously mentioned. He was introduced by Vice President Pence, who reiterated some of the same rhetorical devices regarding Cuba.

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[1] White House, National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017).

[2] White House, Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017).

[3] White House, Background Briefing on the President’s Cuba Policy (June 15, 2017).

[4] U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions on President Trump’s Cuba Announcement (June 16m 2017); U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba (Jan. 6, 2017).

[5] White House, Remarks by the Vice President on the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017); White House, Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba (June 16, 2017); DeYoung & Wagner, Trump announces revisions to parts of Obama’s Cuba policy, Wash. Post (June 16, 2017); Davis, Trump Reverses Pieces of Obama-Era Engagement with Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Announces Rollback of Obama’s Cuba Policy, W.S.J. (June 16, 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).

Rumors of Upcoming Trump Administration Rollback of U.S. Normalization of Relations with Cuba

As reported in prior posts, the Trump Administration presumably has been conducting an overall review of U.S. policies regarding Cuba.[1] Although the completion of that review has not been publicly announced, there are rumors that in mid-June the Administration will be announcing a rollback of at least some of the various normalization measures announced by the Obama Administration starting on December 17, 2014.

Rumored Reversals

Even though U.S.’ Cuba policies have not had much public attention in these days of focus on revelations of Trump campaign connections with Russia, the pro-U.S.-embargo lobby apparently has used support for the Administration’s non-Cuba legislation (e.g., health care) to extract promises from Trump on rolling back the present policies. High on the list of rumored roll backs are limiting people-to-people U.S. travel to technical categories and stopping any U.S. trade or licenses that would be associated with “military” entities of the Cuban government.

This rumored reversal is happening even though all federal administration agencies support further negotiations with Cuba for better relations, especially in the areas of illegal immigration, national security, human trafficking, environment, trade, commerce, healthcare. These agencies influence have been hampered because there is no one in charge of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department.

These unfortunate changes were hinted in President Trump’s statement on the May 20th so-called Cuban Independence Day when he said:[2]

  • “Americans and Cubans share allegiance to the principles of self-governance, dignity, and freedom. Today, we remember patriots like José Martí, who devoted himself to making Cuba an economically competitive and politically autonomous nation. He reminds us that cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in the hearts of Cubans, and that unjust persecution cannot tamper Cubans’ dreams for their children to live free from oppression. The Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human rights, and my Administration is committed to achieving that vision.” (Emphasis added.)

Trump’s statement, not unexpectedly, was not well received in Cuba. Later the same day an “Official Note” was read on Cuban state television describing Trump’s message as “controversial” and “ridiculous,” especially on May 20, which Cuba sees as the date in 1902 when Cuba became a “Yankee neo-colony” or de facto U.S. protectorate after its status as a Spanish colony ended. More specifically May 20, 1902, was the date the Platt Amendment was added to the Cuban Constitution and 11 days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the U.S. and Spain ending the so-called Spanish-American War.[3] Cuba’s true Independence Day is January 1, 1959, the date the Cuban Revolution took over the government of the island.[4]

Resistance to Reversals

There, however, is resistance to any such rumored reversals.

First, the Trump Administration itself recently submitted its proposed Fiscal 2018 budget for the State Department that does not include any funds for the so-called Cuba “democracy promotion” programs by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).[5] In a letter accompanying this budget request, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the request “acknowledges that U.S. diplomacy engagement and aid programs must be more efficient and more effective, and that advancing our national security, our economic interests, and our values will remain our primary mission.” These undercover or covert USAID programs, in this blogger’s opinion, are unjustified and counterproductive and should have been cancelled a long time ago.[6]

Second, another voice for resistance within the Trump Administration is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who is a Trump appointee. On May 17 he appeared before the House Agriculture Committee. In response to a question by Representative Rick Crawford (Rep., AR) about his bill, Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R.525), that would eliminate the U.S. requirement for Cuban cash payments upfront to purchase U.S. agricultural exports, Perdue said, “I think that’s something I would be supportive of if folks around the world need private credit to buy our products, and I’m all for that. [7]

Third, a May 24 letter to President Trump advocated the maintenance of the current U.S. policies regarding U.S. travel to Cuba. It came from a group of over 40 U.S. travel service providers that offer legal, authorized travel to Cuba. It asserted that the recent increase of such travel “has had a significant impact on our businesses by increasing our revenue and allowing us to hire more American employees. Additionally, it has helped the Cuban private sector, and fostered strong relationships between Americans and Cuban religious organizations and humanitarian programs.” The impact on Cuba’s private sector was emphasized: “Many U.S. travelers visiting Cuba stay in privately run B&Bs, dine at private restaurants, hire independent taxis and purchase goods and services from entrepreneurs. They are greatly supporting the growth of the Cuban private sector.”[8]

Fourth, another force for resistance to any such roll back is Cuban Ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, who along with other Cuban diplomats has been traveling to many parts of the U.S. and conveying Cuba’s best wishes for better relations with the U.S. and how such relations will benefit many Americans. I well remember the visit he and his wife made to Minneapolis in 2014 before he had the title of Ambassador and his low-key, pleasant and intelligent discussion of the many issues facing our two countries.  More recently he has been to Harvard University and Montana State University and visiting mayors, governors, legislators and ordinary Americans in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Montana, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Louisiana, the Washington suburbs and Florida. At the University of Louisville, the Ambassador said, “We are ready and open to work with the Trump administration, and we believe that we can build a future of cooperation with the United States in many subjects, although we recognize that there are many areas in which we will not agree.”[9]

Conclusion

Now is the time for all U.S. supporters of normalization to engage in public advocacy of these policies and to urge their U.S. Senators and Representatives to oppose any rollback of normalization.

We also need to express our support of those who have introduced bills in this Session of Congress to end the embargo and to expand Americans’ freedom to travel to Cuba:

  • Senator Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2017 (S.275);
  • Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (S.472)(end the embargo);
  • Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.351);
  • Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), Cuba Trade Act of 2017 (H.R.442)(end the embargo);[10]
  • Representative Kevin Cramer (Rep., ND), Cuba DATA Act (H.R.498);
  • Representative Rick Crawford (Rep., AR), Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R.525); and
  • Representative Jose Serrano, (Dem., NY), Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2017 (H.R.572), Baseball Diplomacy Act (H.R.573), Cuba Reconciliation Act (H.R.574).

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[1] The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under the Trump Administration, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 22, 2016); More Reasons To Believe There Is a Dim Future for U.S.-Cuba Normalization, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 2, 2017); Three Experts Anticipate Little Change in U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 10, 2017); Washington Post Endorses Continued Normalization with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 11, 2017); Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 12, 2017); Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan 23, 2017); Lobbying the Incoming Trump Administration To Continue Normalization with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 18, 2017); Cuban Entrepreneurs Express Frustration and Confidence, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 28, 2017); Uncertainty Over Future Cuba Policies of Trump Administration, dwkcommentaries.com   (Apr. 5, 2017).

[2] White House, Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Cuban Independence Day (May 20, 2017).

[3] The U.S. 1898 entry into Cuba’s Second War of Independence and establishment of the de facto protectorate lasting until 1934 was reviewed in a prior post.

[4] Torres, Havana lashes out against Trump’s Mary 20 message to the Cuban people, Miami Herald (May 22, 2017); Sánchez, There is no future without the past, Granma (May 23, 2017).

[5] Whitefield, No USAID funds for Cuba in Trump budget proposal, Miami Herald (May 24, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Administration Proposes 32% Cut to State Department Budget, W.S.J. (May 23, 2017); Secretary Tillerson, Letter Regarding State Department’s Budget Request (Fiscal 2018) (May 23, 2017).

[6] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[7] USDA Secretary Perdue Supports Bill to Expand Ag Exports to Cuba, Engage Cuba (May 18, 2017);

[8] Over 40 Leading U.S. Travel Companies and Associations Urge President Trump Not to Roll Back U.S. Travel to Cuba, Engage Cuba (May 24, 2017).

[9] Whitefield, Cubans become the road warriors of D.C. diplomatic corps, Miami Herald (May 22, 2017).

[10] Representatives Emmer and Castor Introduce Bill To End Embargo of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 12, 2017).

 

The U.S. Senate’s Dysfunctional Confirmation Process

The recent squabble over new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony at his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee highlights the dysfunctionality of that process. After examining the current process as used for Sessions, suggestions will be made for an improved process.

The Current Process

Every member of the committee is allotted a set number of minutes to make statements and ask questions. The committee chair (now a Republican) opens followed by the ranking member of the other political party (now a Democrat). Then a member of the majority party (Republican) is granted the same privilege before returning to someone from the minority party (Democrat). The committee members also are permitted to submit written questions to the nominee after the hearing.

As a result, the time and ability to ask follow-up questions is severely limited and indeed is sidelined by the structure of the hearing.

In addition, the senators are used to making political speeches and hogging the limelight. Some are not lawyers by training or have forgotten how to ask questions designed to elicit useful information. These facts also adversely affect the ability of a hearing to obtain pertinent information from the nominee.

Committee’s Confirmation Hearing for Sessions

The above problems were exemplified at Mr. Sessions January 10 confirmation hearing by his responses to questions from Minnesota’s Senator Al Franken and New Hampshire’s Senator Patrick Leahy:[1] Here are those exchanges:

  • Franken:CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say quote, ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’
  • “Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
  • Sessions:“Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
  • Leahy: “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
  • Sessions: “No.”

Franken’s question was clearly too verbose and difficult to understand and was focused on what Sessions would do in the future as Attorney General if there were evidence that the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the campaign. Sessions’ volunteering that he did not have communications with the Russians during the campaign is now shown to be incorrect, but it was not responsive to the question.

Leahy’s question is better, but is still limited to contacts with Russian government officials “about the 2016 election.” Thus, Sessions’ flat “No” may or may not be truthful in light of subsequent disclosures that he had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S.

Committee’s Post-Hearing Proceedings for Sessions

After the hearing, Senator Franken submitted 20 such questions with many subparts, but none concerned Russia. Senator Leahy also submitted 37 such questions, again with many subparts. Other written questions came from four of the 11 Republican committee members and from all of the other seven Democratic members.[2]

One of Leahy’s question (No. 22) concerned Russia with subparts about the U.S. intelligence community’s report about Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016, and Sessions said he had not reviewed the report, “but have no reason not to accept the [report’s] conclusions.”

Another subpart (e) of that Leahy question stated: “Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Sessions response: “No.” (Emphases added.)

This written question from Leahy comes closer to asking the appropriate foundation question, but it was still limited to contacts “about the 2016 election,” which provided Sessions with a basis to interpret that limitation and to say “no” if any such contacts were not about the election as so interpreted.

Supplemental Committee Proceedings for Sessions

The truthfulness of Sessions’ responses to these questions was called into question by a March 1 Washington Post report that he had had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. in this time period. Indeed, this report prompted Senator Franken to state that Sessions had misled the American public about his contacts with Russian officials and that he should reappear before the committee to answer “tough questions” on this subject.[3]

The Attorney General, however, immediately responded to these concerns. On March 1 his spokesperson said that he did have the two meetings with the Ambassador that were referenced in the Washington Post article, but that they were in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump supporter, and that there was no discussion about issues regarding the presidential campaign. The next day Sessions said his hearing testimony was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time” although he was “taken aback” by Franken’s question and was focused on its reference to possible contacts between Trump campaign surrogates and Russian officials. “In retrospect,” he said, “I should have slowed down and said I did meet one Russian official a couple times, and that would be the ambassador.” Sessions also said that the September meeting at his office with the Ambassador included two of the Senator’s senior staffers, that the two principals talked about a trip the Senator made to Russia in 1991, terrorism and Ukraine, that the conversation became “a little bit . . . testy” and that the Senator declined the Ambassador’s invitation to lunch. In addition, on March 2 Sessions recused himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”[4]

The Judiciary Committee Chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA), resolved this controversy by rejecting the request by the Democratic committee members for another public hearing and by offering Sessions an opportunity to supplement his testimony in writing.

Sessions did so on March 6 with the following statement after repeating the previously quoted Franken question and Sessions’ answer:[5]

  • “My answer was correct. As I noted in my public statement on March 2, 2017, I was surprised by the allegations in the question, which I had not heard before. I answered the question, which asked about a “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” honestly. I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian Ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them.”
  • “As I discussed publicly on March 2, 2017, I spoke briefly to the Russian Ambassador at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2016. This was at the conclusion of a speech I had made, when I also met and spoke with other ambassadors. In September 2016, I met with the Russian Ambassador at my Senate office in the presence of members of my professional Senate staff. I do not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador, or any other representative of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion.”

Sessions then responded to two questions posed in a March 3 letter by the Democratic members of the committee. The first asked why he had not supplemented the record to note any contact with the Russian Ambassador before its public disclosure. Sessions said, “Having considered my answer responsive, and no one having suggested otherwise, there was no need for a supplemented answer.” The second question asked why he had not recused himself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” Sessions said the scope of [his] recusal as described in the Department’s [March 2] press release would include any such matters. This should not be taken as any evidence of the existence of any such investigation or its scope. Suffice it to say that the scope of my recusal is consistent with the applicable regulations, which I have considered and to which I have adhered.”

After the submission of this Sessions’ letter, Committee Chair Grassley released the letter as an attachment to a press release announcing that there “are no plans to ask Sessions to come before the committee before an annual oversight hearing, as is customary.” Grassley also stated, ““I appreciate Attorney General Sessions’ quick action to clear up confusion about his statement and I look forward to confirming the team who can help him carry out the functions of the department, like going after sex offenders, protecting Americans against terrorists and criminal activity, and stopping drug traffickers.”  Grassley added that Sessions had recused himself as he said he would in his hearing testimony in sharp contrast to the failure of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to do so with respect to investigation of Hillary Clinton’s personal email server and classified information found on it.[6]

A Suggested Different Procedure

The squabble over Sessions’ testimony regarding contacts with Russians could have been eliminated by a procedure whereby an attorney on the committee staff with experience of interrogating witnesses would do the questioning on selected topics, rather than having only the senators on the committee do so. The following is a better way of asking Sessions about whether he had any contact with Russian officials:

  • On February 28, 2016, you endorsed Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.[7] Correct? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • On and after February 28, 2016, to the present, have you had any communications, oral or written, with any Russians? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • Identify all such communications by their date, location and the names of the Russians.
  • For all such communications, identify any other persons present, the length of the communications or meetings, state the substance of the communications and identify all documents (including, but not limited to, letters, memoranda, agendas, notes, audio and/or video recordings) regarding or reflecting the communications.

Conclusion

Although this Senate procedure is flawed and should be changed, a prominent New York Times’ columnist, Nick Kristof, asserts, “there has been too much focus on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not enough on Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager” with respect to connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Instead Kristof identifies specific facts or “dots” to support his suspicion “that Trump’s team colluded in some way with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election” and supports a full and fair investigation to determine whether that suspicion is validated.[8]

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[1] Carroll, In context: What Jeff Sessions told Al Franken about meeting Russian officials, PolitiFact (March 2, 2017).

[2] U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Nomination of Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, to be Attorney General (Feb. 28, 2017).

[3] Entous, Nakashima & Miller, Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2017); Franken, Sen. Franken’s Statement on Report That Attorney general Jeff Sessions Misled American Public under Oath During Confirmation Hearing about His Contact with Russian Officials (Mar. 2, 2017); Demirjian, O’Keefe, Horwitz & Zapotosky, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from any probe related to the 2016 presidential campaign, Wash. Post (Mar. 2, 2017).

[4] Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General Sessions Statement on Recusal (Mar. 2, 2017).

[5] Letter, Sessions to Grassley & Feinstein (Mar. 6, 2017); Assoc. Press, Sessions Clarifies Testimony on Russia, Says He Was Honest, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2017).

[6] Grassley, Grassley: Attorney General Clears Confusion on Hearing Testimony (Mar. 6, 2017).

[7] Stokols, Sen. Jeff Sessions endorses Trump, Politico (Feb. 28, 2016).

[8] Kristof, Connecting Trump’s Dots to Russia, N.Y. Times (Mar. 9, 2017).