State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task  Force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property 

This week the U.S. State Department has taken two actions regarding Cuba: (1) creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force and (2) granting another six-month extension of the right of U.S. persons to sue traffickers in U.S. property that was expropriated by the Cuban government.

U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force.

On January 23, the U.S. Department of State issued a terse announcement that it “is convening a Cuba Internet Task Force composed of U.S. government and non-governmental representatives to promote the free and unregulated flow of information in Cuba. The task force will examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access and independent media in Cuba.” The announcement also stated that the first public meeting of the Task force would be on February 7.[1]

This action was pursuant to President Trump’s June 16, 2017’s National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba that he dramatically signed at a public meeting in the Little Havana district of Miami, Florida. The purpose of that document was to announce various policies “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)[2]

More specifically Section 2 (d) of that Presidential Memorandum stated that the U.S. was to “Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services, free press, free enterprise, free association, and lawful travel.”

The creation of the Task Force was criticized by Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University. He said, “By casting the issue of internet access in an explicitly political frame, it will only create greater obstacles for those U.S. telecom companies that have made inroads toward partnerships with the Cuban side. Measures like these strengthen the hand of those in Cuba for whom the prospect (and reality) of external meddling justifies maximum caution with respect to internal reform.”

Cuba immediately registered strong objections to the creation of this Task Force with good reason.[3]

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, said, “In the past phrases like promoting “’freedom of speech’ and ‘expanding access to the internet in Cuba’ have been used by Washington as a pretext for schemes to destabilize the country using new technologies.”

One of Granma’s journalists, Sergio Gómez, declared, “If the administration of President Donald Trump intends to use new technologies to impose changes in the internal order of Cuba, he chose very old roads that have already demonstrated their ineffectiveness, without mentioning the obvious fact that they violate the laws of the affected country. even those of the United States.” Moreover, the “terrain chosen for the new aggression, Internet, clearly demonstrates what the true objectives of Washington are when it demands ‘ree access’  to the network in the countries that oppose it, while in its territory it maintains a tracking system and accumulation of data about what citizens do on the web.”

Gómez also asserted that the U.S. “shows a clear pattern of the use of social networks and the internet with objectives geopolitical and domination. All part of a doctrine of unconventional war designed to destabilize nations without the direct use of military forces, which has taken root after the failures in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In another article, Gómez added details about Cuba’s expanded Internet access apparently to reject the implicit premise of the U.S. announcement that Cuba was continuing to suffer from lack of such access. Gomez said, “Cuba, by sovereign decision and to the extent of its economic possibilities, is increasing the access of its citizens to the network of networks. According to information provided by specialist Rosa Miriam Alizada, ‘2017 will be remembered as the boom in the expansion of access to the network in our country, with 40% of Cubans connected to the Internet, 37% more than in 2010, and for the naturalization of the internet connection in urban spaces from one end of the island to the other.’”

Another Cuban journalist with a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Havana, Randy Alfonso Falcón, reported this was not the first time the U.S. had attempted to use the Internet regarding Cuba. On February 14, 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created the Global Internet Freedom Task Force for “maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas, especially in Cuba, Iran and China. The author also asserts that this general strategy was continued in the Obama administration.

Therefore, Falcón believes, “In the face of US action In the Cuban digital public space, our response cannot be merely defensive. We must look forward with a scientifically based vision that mobilizes responses and alternatives from Cuba to the extraordinary ideological and cultural confrontation that arises. Take by assault, from the knowledge, the tools of the new colonizers, build ours and endow them with symbols and emancipating essences.”

Suspension of Right To Sue Over Trafficking in Expropriated Property[4]

On January 24, the day after the creation of the Task Force, the State Department announced that once again it was suspending for six months the right to bring a legal action under Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (a/k/a the Helms-Burton Law).

That Title III in section 302 states, “any person that . . . traffics in property which was confiscated by the Cuban Government on or after January 1, 1959, shall be liable to any United States national who owns the claim to such property for money damages.”

Since its adoption in 1996, however, Title III has been suspended for consecutive six-month periods by orders of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. These suspensions have been made to avoid risking the alienation of U.S. setting legal precedents that contradict other principles of U.S. or international law and opening the door to a potential flood of claims.

John Kavulich, president of the United States-Cuba Economic and Trade Council, said last year that this clause could be “used as a surgical tool to pressure” governments and foreign companies to encourage the Government of Cuba to resolve the 5,913 certified claims that there is in the United States ,” for a total amount of $1.9 billion (with interest).

As previous posts have explained, Cuba recognizes its obligation under international law to pay reasonable compensation for expropriation of property owned by foreigners and in fact has done so for claimants from other countries. Thus, Cuba has conceded the major premise of any I.S. claim for damages for expropriation. In addition, this blog has suggested that the dispute over compensation for expropriation of property owned by Americans be submitted for resolution by an international arbitration tribunal. Presumably the only issue that might be disputed is the value of the property at the time of the expropriation and the amount of interest thereon.[5]

Conclusion

U.S. citizens who support U.S.-Cuba normalization now must see who is appointed to the Cuba Internet Task Force and what it proposes to do. For this blogger, the Task force is based on the erroneous premise that the U.S. may and should unilaterally decide what Internet facilities and access another country should have and unilaterally provide such facilities and technology.  Instead, the U.S. should seek to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries to cooperate on such issues.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force (Jan. 23, 2018); Reuters, State Department creates Cuba Internet Task Force (Jan.23, 2018); Torres, Trump administration wants to expand internet access in Cuba, Miami Herald (Ja. 23, 2018).

[2] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).   Surprisingly this Presidential Memorandum is no longer available on the White House website.

[3] Washington creates Internet Task Force to promote subversion in Cuba, Granma (Jan. 24, 2018); Gomez, The United States takes up failed policies towards Cuba, Granma (Jan. 23, 2018); Gomez, United States creates a new Task Force on the Internet for subversion in Cuba, Granma (Jan. 24, 2018).  See also posts cited in the “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba” section of List of Posts to the List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, United States Determination of Six Months’ Suspension Under Title III of Libertad (Jan. 24, 2018); Provision that allows Cuban Americans to sue for confiscated property in Cuba is suspended, Miami Herald (Jan. 24, 2018); Trump suspends for another six months the clause of the Helms Burton that allows expropriation lawsuits, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 24, 2018); Falcón, The US strategy for Cuba in the digital public space, CubaDebate (Jan, 24, 208).

[5]  See Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2015); Resolving U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 13, 2015).

 

 

Pre-Veto Controversies Regarding the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)         

A prior post reviewed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) (S.2040) that was passed by Congress on September 28, 2016, with sufficient votes to override President Obama’s veto of the bill. Now we look at the pre-veto legislative history of JASTA and controversies over the bill.

Legislative History

S.2040 was introduced in the U.S. Senate on September 16, 2015, by Senator John Cornyn (Rep., TX) with 12 Republican and 12 Democrat cosponsors. Without any hearings on the bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 28, 2016, passed an amendment as a substitute for the original bill, and on February 3, 2016, the Committee Chair, Senator Charles Grassley (Rep., IA), reported the bill to the Senate without a written report.[1]

On May 17, 2016, the Senate unanimously passed the JASTA bill with limited debate.[2] On the Senate floor Senator Cornyn offered a substitute amendment and stated that the U.S. Code already had an exception to sovereign immunity for certain acts of terrorism [28 U.S.C. § 1605A], but “it does not extend to terrorist attacks on our homeland by countries and organizations that have not already been designated as state sponsors of terrorism. This [bill] makes some small changes in that legislation that first passed in 1976 to expand the scope of that [provision] to allow the families of the 9/11 tragedy to seek justice in our courts of law.” The bill has been limited to “injury in the United States.” The bill requires injuries caused by “acts of terrorism,” and excludes “acts of war.” Cornyn also discussed the secondary liability provision of the bill.[3]

Immediately following Cornyn that day, Senator Chuck Schumer (Dem., NY), a cosponsor of the bill, emphasized the bill’s provision allowing the Department of Justice to seek a stay of any lawsuit under this exception. Following the Senate’s passage of the bill, Senator Schumer issued a statement praising this action as correcting erroneous court decisions granting immunity to “foreign actors who finance and enable terrorism on a massive scale” and allowing “terrorism victims, like victims of the September 11th attacks [and of any other acts of terrorism on U.S. soil after 9/11] the opportunity to pursue [financial damage claims against] foreign states who sponsor terrorism in federal court.”[4]

On October 23, 2015, an identical companion bill (H.R.3815) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Peter King (Rep., NY) with 31 Republican and 30 Democrat cosponsors. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which did not hold any hearings on the bill. On September 9, 2016, the Senate companion bill (S.2040) was agreed to and passed by a voice vote in the House.[5]

 Pre-Veto Controversies Over JASTA

The Senate passage of JASTA, on May 17, 2016, was despite lobbying against the bill by Administration officials and warnings by the Saudi government that if the legislation passed, that country might begin selling off up to $750 billion in U.S. Treasury securities and other assets in the U.S. before they faced the danger of being frozen by American courts.[6]

In the midst of this congressional consideration of JASTA, on July 15, 2016, the Senate/House Select Intelligence Committee published the previously classified 28 pages regarding possible connections between Saudi Arabia and 9/11 from the Committee’s “Report on Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.”

A journalist said that these 28 pages set forth “a wide-ranging catalog of meetings and suspicious coincidences. It details contacts between Saudi officials and some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, checks from Saudi royals to operatives in contact with the hijackers and the discovery of a telephone number in a Qaeda militant’s phone book that was traced to a corporation managing an Aspen, Colo., home of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington.” The 28-pages also said, ”It was not the task of this Joint Inquiry to conduct the kind of extensive investigation that would be required to determine the true significance of any such alleged connections to the Saudi Government. . . [But the Committee found no evidence that the] “Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded” Al Qaeda.[7]

Some former September 11 Commission staff members, however, pointed out that the wording in the group’s final report did not rule out the possibility that lower ranking Saudi officials had assisted the hijackers.

On the same day (July 15, 2016) of the release of the 28-pages of the Senate report, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “This information, even as it’s now publicly available, does not change the assessment of the U.S. government [as stated in these 28 pages] that there’s no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded al Qaeda. . . . And the 9/11 Commission was able to draw on the information that’s been declassified today as they wrote their report.  They were able to do follow-up interviews and to further investigate those leads.  Those leads didn’t really turn up anything as it relates to specific evidence about the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funding al Qaeda.”[8]

Press Secretary Earnest also stated, “based on the analysis that’s been conducted by our lawyers here in the U.S. government, the way that this [proposed] law [JASTA] is written could open up U.S. companies and even potentially U.S. personnel to vulnerabilities when they’re engaged in actions or doing business or conducting official government work overseas. There is an important principle related to sovereign immunity.  And when you’re the most powerful country in the world, you’re invested in the idea of sovereign immunity, given how deeply the United States is involved in so many other countries.”

On September 9 (the same date as the House passage of JASTA) the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration had been lobbying against the bill for months and that according to Jack Goldsmith, a professor of law at Harvard and a former official in the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush, “Congress itself could have investigated lingering questions about 9/11, but instead is delegating those tasks to the unelected judiciary. The costs of the law will be borne by courts, which are an awkward place to ascertain Saudi responsibility for 9/11, and especially the president, who will have to deal with the diplomatic fallout with Saudi Arabia and other nations.”

The Times also quoted Pierre Lellouche, a member of the French Parliament, who said he would pursue legislation that would permit French citizens to sue the United States with cause. “I have sympathy with the notion of hitting those countries which actively support terrorism.” But the American bill “will cause a legal revolution in international law with major political consequences.” Even the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee expressed some hesitancy over the bill. He said, “We were able to get some changes to make it less damaging to potential dangers over time. We as a nation have got more to lose on sovereignty issues than any other nation in the world. If the White House actually vetoes this, I think there will be whole levels of discussion.”[9]

Senator John Cornyn, the author of the bill, however, started a barrage of comments urging President Obama to sign the bill by saying on September 9, “the families of those lost in attacks like that on September 11th should have every means at their disposal to seek justice. . . . I hope the President will sign it into law.”  On the Senate floor on September 12 Cornyn said: “It’s important for us to send a message that that evil shall not prevail. . . . [The] victims [of 9/11] and their families still don’t have the ability to get justice from the people, including the governments, who helped fund those terrorist attacks. And that’s where the bill . . . [JASTA] comes into play because if this legislation is signed by the President, it will become the law of the land . . . to make sure that these families who are still grieving and still don’t have closure will be able to seek justice in a court of law against the people who killed their loved one on September 11th.” Cornyn on September 13 threatened an override of a presidential veto of the bill.[10]

President Obama, however, did not sign the bill into law. Instead, On September 23, he vetoed the bill as will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] Library of Congress, THOMAS: S.2040 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act . Going back to 2009, earlier versions of this law were introduced, but I have not examined the history of those versions. If a reader of this post has done so, please elaborate in a comment to this post.

[2] Cong. Record S2845-48 (May 17, 2016); Mazzetti, Senate Passes Bill Exposing Saudi Arabia to 9/11 Legal Claims, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2016).

[3] U.S. Cong. Rec. S2845-2848 (May 17, 2016).

[4] Schumer, Schumer Announces Passage of Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Bill—Urges House to Quickly Pass Legislation Allowing American Families To Seek Justice After 9/11 Attacks (May 17, 2016); Schumer, Schumer Urges House To Swiftly Pass JASTA Bill; Law Would Allow Victims To Seek Justice for Terrorist Acts on U.S. Soil, Senator Says American Families Deserve Their Day in Court (Sept. 7, 2016).

[5] Cong. Record H5239-44 (Sept. 9, 2016); Library of Congress, THOMAS: H.R.3815 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.

[6] See n.2 supra.

[7] Mazzetti, In 9/11 Document, View of a Saudi Effort to Thwart U.S. Action on Al Queda, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016);    House/Senate Select Comm., 28 Pages of the 2002 Congressional Inquiry into the Sept. 2011 Attacks, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016).

[8] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest (July 15, 2016).

[9] Steinhauer, House Passes Bill Allowing 9/11 Lawsuits Against Saudi Arabia; White House Hints at Veto, N.Y. Times (Sept. 9, 2016).

[10] Cornyn, Cornyn Calls on President to sign 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 9, 2016);Cornyn, Cornyn: American People Support 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 12, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Don’t Keep 9/11 Families Waiting (Sept. 13, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn Presses White House to Act on 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 19, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Stop Stalling on 9/11 Bill (Sept. 20, 2016).

 

 

Wall Street Journal Publishes President Obama’s Plea for a Senate Hearing and Vote on Nomination of Merrick Garland to U.S. Supreme Court

On July 17 the Wall Street Journal, which usually is opposed to President Obama, published President Obama’s plea for a U.S. Senate hearing and vote on the President’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.[1] Here is what the President wrote.

“For more than 40 years, there has been an average of just over two months between a president’s nominating someone to the Supreme Court and that person’s receiving a hearing in Congress. It has now been more than four months since I nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—and Congress left town for a seven-week recess without giving him a hearing, let alone an up-or-down vote.”

“This is much more serious than your typical case of Washington dysfunction. And if we allow it to continue, the consequences of congressional inaction could weaken our most important institutions, erode public trust and undermine our democracy.”

“Every Supreme Court nominee since 1875 who hasn’t withdrawn from the process has received a hearing or a vote. Even when the nominee was controversial. Even when the Senate and the White House were held by different parties.”

“But Chief Judge Garland isn’t controversial. He has more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in our history. He is widely respected by people of both political parties as a man of experience, integrity and unimpeachable qualifications. The partisan decision of Senate Republicans to deny a hearing to a judge who has served his country with honor and dignity is not just an insult to a good man—it is an unprecedented escalation of the stakes. It threatens the very process by which we nominate judges, regardless of who our next president is. And it should concern every American who cares about the rule of law and upholding the institutions that make our democracy work.”

“Here’s why. Historically, when a president nominates a Supreme Court justice—regardless of when in the presidential term this occurs—the Senate is obligated to act. Senators are free to vote their conscience. But they vote. That’s their job.”

“If Republicans in the Senate refuse even to consider a nominee in the hopes of running out the clock until they can elect a president from their own party, so that he can nominate his own justice to the Supreme Court, then they will effectively nullify the ability of any president from the opposing party to make an appointment to the nation’s highest court. They would reduce the very functioning of the judicial branch of the government to another political leverage point.”

“We cannot allow the judicial confirmation process to descend into an endless cycle of political retaliation. There would be no path to fill a vacancy for the highest court in the land. The process would stall. Court backlogs would grow. An entire branch of government would be unable to fulfill its constitutional role. And some of the most important questions of our time would go unanswered.”

“This is troubling for two reasons. First, a functioning judiciary—at every level—is essential to the business of the nation. For example, last month, a deadlocked Supreme Court was unable to reach a decision on several major issues, leaving the law itself in limbo. Across the country, judicial vacancies are leaving some lower courts so overwhelmed they can barely make it through their dockets. Twenty-nine judicial emergencies have been declared by lower courts across the country. This has real implications for jurisprudence, real financial costs to the judicial system and real consequences in the lives of people awaiting the outcomes of those cases.”

“Second, treating the Supreme Court like a political football makes the American people more cynical about democracy. When the Supreme Court becomes a proxy for political parties, public confidence in the notion of an impartial, independent judiciary breaks down. And the resulting lack of trust can undermine the rule of law.”

“So here’s an idea. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate could agree to give Chief Judge Garland a hearing when they return from their extended recess, while also committing to give every future qualified Supreme Court nominee a hearing and a vote within an established time frame. It’s a good idea that my predecessor, President George W. Bush, suggested during his time in office. This reasonable proposal would prevent the confirmation process from breaking down beyond repair, and help restore good faith between the two parties.”

“In my travels around the world as president, I have seen how hard democracy is—how it takes more than a proclamation or even an election. Democracies depend on the institutions we build, the rules upon which the nation is founded, and the traditions, customs and habits of heart that guide our behavior and ensure that political differences never override the founding ideals that bind us. And it is on us—all of us—to preserve and protect them.”

“Now we need Congress to act. We need senators to demonstrate that, once again, America has the capacity to rise above disagreements and maintain a fidelity to the values that, for 240 years, have made this extraordinary experiment a success. That’s what the American people deserve—and it’s what makes ours the greatest country the world has ever known.”

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[1] President Obama, Merrick Garland Deserves a Vote—For Democracy’s Sake, W.S.J. (July 17, 2016).

University Students Investigate Jim Crow-Era Killings

Students at Atlanta’s Emory University are investigating Jim Crow-era murders of blacks in Georgia. They then publish their results online. This is the focus of Emory’s “The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.” Similar projects exist at least three other universities. Important federal legislation and actions by the U.S. Department of Justice provide important background for such efforts. These subjects will be explored in this post.

Emory’s Project[1]

The Project was started in 2011 as an interdisciplinary Civil Rights Cold Cases class examining incidents that occurred in Georgia. In January 2015, it launched a website, coldcases.emory.edu, that is the joint product of more than fifty students’ work during seven semesters of the course.

The Emory class is taught by Hank Klibanoff, the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, and by Brett Gadsden, Associate Professor of African American Studies.

Professor Gadsden said the class is run like “a research seminar, with intense focus on individuals’ lives and attention to the historical context in which these folks lived. These stories come alive for students. They aren’t just presenting cases or telling the stories of lowly black victims. They are really trying to understand what happened, what the circumstances were, what happened to the people, how they lived, how they died, who killed them, and why, but understanding these victims’ deaths as a part of the historical record.”

The students prepare both a ten-page academic paper on their topic of choice and a condensed article for publication on the website. Gadsden emphasizes that the students are “writing for the professors, for each other, and also for a public of both academics and non-academics. They are accountable to the descendants of the lost, and that comes with a special responsibility—one that the students embrace.”

The recent Wall Street Journal article about Emory’s project tells the moving story of the students’ investigation of the September 8, 1948, killing by two white men of Isaiah Nixon, a black man who had voted that same day in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary election. One of the white men was charged with murder, but was acquitted in a one-day trial by an all-white jury. Afterwards the accessory-to-murder charge against the other white man was dropped. The Emory students’ investigation led them to conclude that Nixon had been murdered because he had voted in that primary election.

The students also discovered Nixon’s grave in a Georgia cemetery and invited his daughter, Dorothy Nixon Williams, who at age 6 had witnessed the murder of her father, to visit the grave last week with them and her son. Now 73 years old, Dorothy said when seeing the grave, “Lord have mercy,” sobbing into her son’s shoulder. Professor Klibanoff commented, “Isaiah Nixon matters; his life matters and his death and disappearance from history matter. What matters more is his reappearance now and I think that is miraculous.” At the conclusion of the visit, Dorothy said her anger over her father’s murder “now is completely released.”

Other Similar Projects

Similar projects are being conducted by Northeastern University School of Law, Syracuse University College of Law and Louisiana State University.

Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project investigates “the role of state, local and federal law enforcement agencies and courts in protecting activists and their work. [The Project] examines the geo-politics that led to the large-scale breakdown of law enforcement, the wide-spread repression against the movement’s participants, and the reforms that have been initiated to rectify these abuses. The project engages teachers and students across the university and is directed by faculty from the School of Law and the College of Criminal Justice.” [2]

Syracuse’s Cold Case Justice Initiative was established in 2007 by Syracuse law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald to investigate “racially motivated murders that occurred during the Civil Rights era and [to advocate] on behalf of the victims and their families to get justice for the crimes. The program works with law students to conduct research, identify victims and find new information that could assist law enforcement in resolving cases. The Initiative as of has identified [nearly 200] cases from the civil rights era they believe warranted further investigation by federal authorities.”[3]

Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication started its Cold Case Project in 2010 to investigate Civil Rights-era hate murders in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Since then nearly three-dozen students, comprised mainly of seniors and graduate students, have worked on such cases. Their “primary focus is to bring closure to African-American communities which have lingered decades without fully knowing what federal agents learned about the deaths of family members and friends.” Jay Shelledy, who is in charge of the Project, said FBI agents at the time did their best to solve these vicious killings, but were thwarted by intimidated witnesses, Klan-sympathizing local lawmen and white juries which refused to convict whites of murdering blacks.[4]

In February 2015 the LSU Project launched a searchable website detailing heretofore sealed FBI investigative findings in a dozen such murders. It contains more than 150,000 pages of FBI findings, resulting stories, photographs and letters from the U.S. Department of Justice to the victims’ next of kin. Many thousands of additional pages of FBI case files are pending release under FOIA requests; when released, they will be added to the digital database.

Background for These Projects

These projects have been stimulated and assisted by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 2006, the Department began its Cold Case Initiative—a comprehensive program to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago. The effort was reinforced in 2008 with the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that authorized the Department to investigate unsolved civil rights murders before 1970. This statute had been introduced in 2007 by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and unanimously passed by both houses of Congress in 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush.[5]

As of May 2015, the Department reported to Congress that it had concluded 105 of 113 relevant cold cases involving 126 victims, but that “very few prosecutions have resulted from these exhaustive efforts.” (The single case that went to court involved Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler after a civil rights protest in 1965. In 2010, at age 77, Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in prison.)[6]

This was due, said the report, for many reasons. Federal statutory law limits the Department’s ability to prosecute civil-rights era cases at the federal level. There is a five-year statute of limitations on federal criminal civil-rights charges that existed prior to 1994. The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy, which prevents the re-trial of someone for an offense for which he or she was previously found not guilty. In addition, cold cases can be difficult to prosecute because “subjects die, witnesses die or can no longer be located, memories become clouded, evidence is destroyed or cannot be located.”

This statute is due to expire in 2017, and efforts are being made to lobby for its extension.

Conclusion

These projects are significant and inspiring. First, they complement and should be coordinated with the amazing justice advocacy of Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative that was discussed in a prior post. Second, these projects are excellent examples of a mode of teaching an important subject that should be included in this blogger’s reflections on modes of teaching and learning as set forth in another earlier post.

We all should give thanks to Emory, Northeastern, Syracuse and Louisiana State University for their leadership in this important work.

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[1] McWhirter, College Class Investigates Jim Crow-Era Killings, W.S. J. (Jan. 24, 2016),; Lameiras, Cold Cases Project helps student uncover history of civil rights era crimes, Emory Mag. (May 25, 2015); Emory Libraries, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases; Justice, Emory student research debuts on Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases website (Jan. 7, 2015); Emory Univ., Special Topics Seminar: Cold Cases (description of seminar and tentative list of readings).

[2] Northeastern Univ. School of Law, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. An earlier version of this post erroneously included Northwestern University College of Law’s important Wrongful Conviction Center, and I thank Professor Hank Klibanoff for pointing out this error.

[3] Joiner, Inside the Effort to Solve Civil Rights Crimes Before It’s Too Late, Time (Oct. 15, 2015).

[4] LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project; Lemoine, Cold Case, LSU Gold (Fall 2011); LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project website released (Feb. 25, 2015).

[5] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Cold Case Initiative.

[6] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General’s Sixth Annual Report to Congress Pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 (May 2015).

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory “Case for Reparations”

840The June 2014 issue of The Atlantic devotes 20 black-bordered pages to “The Case for Reparations” as the lead and cover article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, its national correspondent.

This is a serious subject by an author who has been obtaining some prominence or notoriety this year occasioned by his best-selling book, “Between the World and Me,” which was discussed in a previous post.

Moreover, on September 28, 2015, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its prestigious Fellows or “genius” grants to Coates and asserted that he “brings personal reflection and historical scholarship to bear on America’s most contested issues . . . without shallow polemic and in a measured style.” In “The Case for Reparations,” according to the Foundation, “Coates grapples with the rationalizations for slavery and their persistence in twentieth-century policies like Jim Crow and redlining . . . [and] compellingly argues for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations. [The article is] deeply felt and intensely researched.”

I, therefore, was expecting a serious discussion of this important issue.

Instead, I was profoundly disappointed in the analysis as well as the quality of the research and writing of this article and strongly disagree with MacArthur’s glowing commentary on the article.

Coates’ Discussion of Reparations

Coates mentions that certain scholars have discussed how reparations might be implemented. One, he says, suggested multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference between white and black per capita income and then presumably paying that difference to each African American each year for a decade or two. Another, Coates reports, proposed a program of job training and public works for all poor people. (P. 69) But Coates does not endorse either one.

Instead Coates hides in generalizations. He says reparations means “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” and “a revolution of American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history” (p.70).

On the last page of the article (p. 71) Coates becomes more specific by advocating congressional adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations that has been offered by Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI) for the last 25 years. Without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by Conyers, Coates states, “No one can know what would come out of such a [study and] debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of back people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”

This is not, as MacArthur suggests, a compelling argument “for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations.”

The Conyers’ Bill

An examination of the Conyers bill itself does not buttress the claimed genius of the Coates article. In the current session of Congress this bill is H.R.40: The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. A quick examination of the Library of Congress THOMAS website reveals that the bill (in sections 4, 5 and 7) would establish a commission of seven members (three to be appointed by the U.S. President, three by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and one by the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate) to hold hearings and issue a report of its findings and recommendations.

The key to the bill is section 2(a), which would make the following factual findings that Coates takes most of 20 pages to elucidate:

“(1) approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865;

(2) the institution of slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the Government of the United States from 1789 through 1865;

(3) the slavery that flourished in the United States constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans’ life, liberty, African citizenship rights, and cultural heritage, and denied them the fruits of their own labor; and

(4) sufficient inquiry has not been made into the effects of the institution of slavery on living African-Americans and society in the United States.”

Section 2(b) of the bill  then states the commission would examine and report on these factual predicates plus the “de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants from the end of the Civil War to the present, including economic, political, and social discrimination.” With such factual determinations the commission would be charged to “recommend appropriate ways to educate the American public of the Commission’s findings” and “appropriate remedies.”

Representative Conyers’ website  contains a discussion of the bill that at least alludes to the following challenging sub-issues that would face such a commission and that are not examined by Coates: “whether an apology is owed, whether compensation is warranted and, if so, in what form and who should be eligible.”

Resolution for Rectification of Misdeeds Against African-Americans

More importantly, Coates’ article does not mention a resolution (H.Res.194) adopted in 2008 by the U.S. House of Representatives that has lengthy factual preambles about the evils of slavery and Jim Crow. [1] The House in H.Res.194 more importantly also:

  1. “acknowledges that slavery is incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal;”
  2. “acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;”
  3. “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and  their ancestors who suffered under slavery and  Jim Crow; and”
  4. “expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.”

Yes, this is only a resolution by only one chamber of the Congress, but it is closer to the result apparently being advocated by Coates than the Conyers’ bill.

U.S. Presidential Statements About Slavery

H.Res.194 in a preamble asserts that “on July 8, 2003, during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave port, President George W. Bush acknowledged slavery’s continuing legacy in American life and the need to confront that legacy when he stated that slavery `was . . . one of the greatest crimes of history . . . The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destiny is set: liberty and justice for all.”[2]

In another preamble H.Res.194 asserts, “President Bill Clinton also acknowledged the deep-seated problems caused by the continuing legacy of racism against African-Americans that began with slavery when he initiated a national dialogue about race.”

Neither of these presidential statements is mentioned by Coates, both of which support his opinion favoring reparations.

Caribbean States’ Reparations Claims

Apparently at least 14 states in the Caribbean are preparing claims for reparations for slavery against their former colonial rulers: Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron recently rejected that reparations idea.[3]

Again there is no mention of these claims by Coates even though they lend credence to his advocacy of similar reparations in the U.S.[4]

Litigation Over Contracts for Deed

Coates leads the article with a lengthy discussion of problems faced by blacks on the west side of Chicago in the 1960’s in financing purchases of homes and as a result being forced to do so on contracts for deed with unscrupulous sellers (pp. 56-59). Coates then enthusiastically endorses these black purchasers’ bringing a federal lawsuit against the sellers for reparations (or money damages). On the next page (p.60), however, Coates tells the reader, without any citation of source, that in 1976 the black plaintiffs lost a jury trial supposedly due to anti-black prejudice of the jury and even later in the article (p.67) he says that as a result of the lawsuit some of the plaintiffs were allowed to own their homes outright while others obtained regular mortgages.

Coates, however, fails to mention that according to a secondary source from the University of Illinois-Chicago, the west-side case went to trial in the Spring of 1976, and in November 1979, the jury decided that the sellers had taken advantage of the buyers for higher profits, but that the sellers were so ruthless they would have cheated anyone, not only blacks, and, therefore, the jury rejected the racial discrimination claim, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers decided not to appeal this decision.

That same secondary source reports that a related case from the south side of Chicago went to trial in 1972 before a federal district judge with a jury. At the close of the evidence, the court directed a verdict against the plaintiffs saying that they had not proved a prima facie case of discrimination. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial. That new trial occurred in 1979, without a jury, before a district judge who decided in favor of the defendants, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Clyde Ross was prominently mentioned at the start of the Coates’ article about the housing discrimination that led to the above litigation, and after the publishing of the Coates article, Ross said in an interview, “I don’t know why we would even discuss [reparations] . . .when that would never happen. It involves taking money, property, from other people, from the people with power and wealth. How could that ever come to be? In theory, yes it is a good idea, but it’s better to be practical. I support equality under the law. I just want to be able to pay off a mortgage knowing that I am getting the same deal as the white guy. That’s all I ask.”

Coates also did not uncover in his research the successful Minnesota lawsuit in the 1920’s by a black couple against white landlords who after accepting contract-for-deed payments for 25 years denied the couple possession of the Minneapolis house on the false assertion that their payments were only rent. The couple’s attorney, by the way, was Lena Olive Smith, the state’s first black female lawyer who became the leader of the city’s NAACP branch in the 1930s.

Conclusion

I am not a scholar of race relations in the U.S. or of reparations generally or in the U.S. specifically. The above discussion of facts that apparently were not discovered by Coates was based upon this blogger’s perfunctory Internet searching.

The Coates article also is difficult to read because of the lack of an introduction and conclusion and of any headings or subdivisions amidst the parade of often densely packed paragraphs that do not follow in a logical order.[5]

This blogger as a retired lawyer might be seen as engaging in an inappropriate  lawyerly criticism of the Coates’ article. But Coates presumably is advocating for others to embrace the conclusion that reparations are a necessary response to a major societal problem. As an advocate, he should write to be more persuasive.

This blogger as a white American is supportive of civil and human rights generally and is willing to consider a well-written and documented case for U.S. reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. Unfortunately the Coates article does not do that. It needs additional research and a major rewrite. (As always, I invite others’ comments of agreement or disagreement.)

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[1] U.S. House of Reps., 110th Cong., 2nd Sess.,  H.Res.194 (July 29, 2008)..As February 23, 2007, was the bicentennial of the British Parliament’s abolition of slave trading, the 110th U.S. Congress (2007-2009) had 150 bills and resolutions that mentioned the word “slavery,” but this blog has not “drilled down” to determine their details.

[2] President Bush Speaks at Goree Island in Sengal (July 8, 2003)

[3] E.g., Search for “slavery,” Guardian; Bilefsky, David Cameron Grapples with Issue of Slavery Reparations in Jamaica, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cameron Provides Caribbean Aid, Rejects Slavery Reparations, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Room for Debate: Are Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Reparations Due?, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2015).

[4] Coates does mention Massachusetts’ granting a 1783 petition for reparations by a black freewoman; 17th and 18th century Quakers’ granting reparations; the 1987 formation of a National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America; the 1993 NAACP’s endorsement of reparations; a lawsuit for reparations brought by Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. (without mentioning its details or outcome); and Germany’s reparations to Israel for the Holocaust (pp. 61, 70-71).

[5] The online version of the article added headings I through X, but most of them are quotations from sources in the sections, requiring the reader to dive into the sections to discover their significance. Another post discusses Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic (Oct. 2015), which also has chapter headings, most of which do not help the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More about Coates:

 

Brooks: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

Ltrs re column: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/17/david_brooks_scolds_ta_nehisi_coates_i_think_you_distort_history/

 

http://crooksandliars.com/2015/07/dont-be-fooled-all-forelock-tugging-david

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/david-brooks-nyt-ta-nehisi-coates

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-american-dream

 

http://jezebel.com/listening-to-ta-nehisi-coates-whilst-snuggled-deep-with-1718506352

 

http://www.alternet.org/media/david-brooks-relies-ignorant-white-privilege-attack-ta-nehisi-coates-new-book

 

http://townhall.com/columnists/marknuckols/2015/07/17/tanehisi-coates-cheers-deaths-of-911-rescuers-david-brooks-apologizes-for-being-white-n2026881

 

http://aaihs.org/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-and-the-master-narrative-of-american-history/

 

http://www.citypaper.com/arts/books/bcp-072915-books-coates-gunnery-20150724-story.html

 

https://www.thewrap.com/new-york-times-columnist-david-brooks-blasted-for-white-privilege-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates/

 

http://flavorwire.com/528823/the-american-dream-david-brooks-loves-so-much-is-rich-white-americas-greatest-tool-of-social-control

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

U.S. Supreme Court Decision Bolsters Obama Administration’s Normalizing Relations with Cuba

On June 8, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court, 6 to 3, decided that the U.S. President had the exclusive power in the U.S. Government to recognize foreign nations and governments. The Court, therefore, declared unconstitutional an Act of Congress that allowed U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to have their U.S. passports identify Israel as their birthplace. (Zivotofsky v. Kerry, No. 13-628.)

This decision has major implications for the ongoing Obama Administration to normalize relations with Cuba with respect to existing law as well as current congressional Republican efforts to halt or hinder that normalization.

Zivotofsky v. Kerry

The Facts

Since the U.S. official recognition of the State of Israel in 1948, every U.S. president consistently has not acknowledged any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. Instead, the Executive Branch has maintained that “‘the status of Jerusalem . . . should be decided not unilaterally but in consultation with all concerned.’” Moreover, this issue of sovereignty is of great sensitivity in Arab-Israeli relations and negotiations. Therefore, the consistent policy and practice of the U.S. Department of State has been

to record the place of birth on a U.S. passport as the “country [having] present sovereignty over the actual area of birth” and to record the place of birth for citizens born in Jerusalem as “Jerusalem.”

In 2002, Congress passed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003,116 Stat. 1350. Section 214 of the Act is titled “United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel,” and its subsection (d) allows U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list their place of birth as “Israel.”

When President George W. Bush signed the Act, he issued a statement declaring that section 214 would, “if construed as mandatory rather than advisory, impermissibly interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to formulate the position of the United States, speak for the Nation in international affairs, and determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states.” Therefore, since then the State Department has not changed the previously described policy and practice regarding U.S. passports, the statute would not be honored.

When the State Department rejected the request on behalf of U.S. citizen Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky, who was born in Jerusalem, to have his passport designate Israel as his birthplace, his guardians sued to enforce Section 214. Thus, the issue for the Supreme Court was whether Section 214 was constitutional.[1]

The Opinion of the Court [2]

The opinion of the Court by Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged the international sensitivity of the issue. It said, “A delicate subject lies in the background of this case. That subject is Jerusalem. Questions touching upon the history of the ancient city and its present legal and international status are among the most difficult and complex in international affairs.” Moreover, “Jerusalem’s political standing has long been, and remains, one of the most sensitive issues in American foreign policy, and indeed it is one of the most delicate issues in current international affairs.”

The opinion then started with key constitutional provisions regarding foreign affairs. The key was Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which directs that the President “shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” After consulting the writings of international legal scholars at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the Court concluded that it is “a logical and proper inference, then, that a Clause directing the President alone to receive ambassadors would be understood to acknowledge his power to recognize other nations.” This conclusion also was supported by the President’s other constitutional powers to make treaties, by and with the Advice and Consent of two-thirds of two-thirds of the Senators present (Art. II, §2, cl. 2.) and the power to “nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, . . . [to] appoint Ambassadors” as well as “other public Ministers and Consuls.”

These provisions and other considerations led the Court to conclude that “the text and structure of the Constitution grant the President the power to recognize foreign nations and governments” and that this power is exclusively the President’s. “Put simply, the Nation must have a single policy regarding which governments are legitimate in the eyes of the United States and which are not. Foreign countries need to know, before entering into diplomatic relations or commerce with the United States, whether their ambassadors will be received; whether their officials will be immune from suit in federal court; and whether they may initiate lawsuits here to vindicate their rights. These assurances cannot be equivocal.”

Nevertheless, the Court said in dicta, “many decisions affecting foreign relations—including decisions that may determine the course of our relations with recognized countries— require congressional action. Congress may ‘regulate Commerce with foreign Nations,’ ‘establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,’ ‘define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations,’ ‘declare War,’ ‘grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal,’ and ‘make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.’” (U. S. Const., Art. I, §8.) “In addition, the President cannot make a treaty or appoint an ambassador without the approval of the Senate.” (Art. II, §2, cl. 2.) “The President, furthermore, could not build an American Embassy abroad without congressional appropriation of the necessary funds.” (Art. I, §8, cl. 1.) (Emphasis added.) [3] Under basic separation-of-powers principles, it is for the Congress to enact the laws, including ‘all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution’ the powers of the Federal Government.”(§8, cl. 18)

This point about congressional power was underscored by the Court when it said “it is essential the congressional role in foreign affairs be understood and respected. For it is Congress that makes laws, and in countless ways its laws will and should shape the Nation’s course. The Executive is not free from the ordinary controls and checks of Congress merely because foreign affairs are at issue. It is not for the President alone to determine the whole content of the Nation’s foreign policy.” (Citations omitted.)

Reactions to the Court’s Decision

The White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, released a statement embracing the decision as it “reaffirms the long-established authority of the President to recognize foreign states, their governments, and their territorial boundaries” and “upholds the President’s long-standing authority to make these sensitive recognition determinations as part of his conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy.”

Alan Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service Law, George Washington University Law School and the author of an amicus brief in the case in support of the Zivotofsky family, saw possible implications of the case for the current conflicts over Cuba policy between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress. Morrison said, President Obama “might announce that he has recognized the Castro-led Cuban government, with no worry about an effort of Congress to override him.” Congress, on the other hand, “might decide to up the ante by . . . using the power of the purse, especially as part of a bill that the president must sign to keep the government from shutting down.”[4]

Indeed, the Center for Democracy in the Americas asserts that this decision invalidates a major portion of the Helms-Burton Act, which “arrogates to the Congress a lot of authority for determining when – and under what circumstances – the United States can resume normal relations [with Cuba]. The law says . . . [only] when the government in Cuba fits the definition of a government in transition or a democratically-elected government can the President recognize Cuba, trade with Cuba, negotiate with Cuba over Guantanamo, allow Cuba to enter the World Bank or other financial institutions, etc.”[5]

In addition, at least three pending bills in Congress would appear to be unconstitutional under this recent Supreme Court decision as they would impose congressional preconditions to a presidential normalization and re-establishment of diplomatic relations: H.R.1782 (Cuba ceasing to violate human rights of its citizens), H.R.2466 and S.1388 (Administration plan for resolving all U.S. claims for property expropriated by Cuba).[6]

There also is at least one pending bill that would bar use of appropriated funds to construct a U.S. Embassy in Havana or expand the present facility housing the U.S. Interests Section there; that is the Department of State’s Appropriations Act FY 2016 that is still before the House Appropriations Committee.[7] That certainly would inhibit the operation of such a facility, but the Court in dicta in Zivotofsky said, ““The President, furthermore, could not build an American Embassy abroad without congressional appropriation of the necessary funds.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, this pending bill would seem to be within Congress’ prerogative, but the Administration always could make a request for a supplemental appropriation to convert the building to an embassy.

There are many bills imposing restrictions on U.S. changes affecting the prison or detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Cuba that, in my opinion, unnecessarily would limit the Administration’s desire to close that facility as well as its discussions with Cuba about the lease of that territory to the U.S., but would not run afoul of the Zvotofsky decision. In the House they are H.R.240, H.R. 401, H.R.654, H.R.1689, H.R.1735, H.R.2029, H.R.2578 and H.R.2685; in the Senate, S.165, S.778 and S.1376.[8]

Other pending bills similarly would impede reconciliation, but would not be barred by the Zvotofsky case. They are H.R.2323 (maintain Ratio and TV Marti), H.R.2577 (ban travel to Cuba on or over expropriated U.S. property), H.R.2578 (no exports to Cuban military and intelligence personnel and their families) and Department of Treasury Appropriations Act FY 2016 pending in the House Appropriations Committee (no imports of expropriated property and no financial transactions with Cuban military personnel).

Conclusion

Maybe this legal discussion is beside the point.

There are reports that the U.S. and Cuba by early July will re-establish diplomatic relations, and on June 13, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) predicted the opening of both a Cuban embassy in Washington and a U.S. embassy in Havana will occur in the very near future. “Nothing has been set, but it’s imminent,” he said. Flake’s comments were made just after a meeting in Havana with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Josafina Vidal, Cuba’s lead negotiator with the U.S., and Cuba’s First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel. [9]

If this happens, any new legislation to impose preconditions to recognition would be moot and litigation over the constitutional issue would take years to resolve. In any event, however, the Zvotofsky decision bolsters the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalization and reconciliation with Cuba.

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[1] The case originally was dismissed by the district court on the grounds that the petitioner lacked standing and that the case presented a nonjusticiable political question. The court of appeals affirmed on the political question ground while reversing on the standing ground. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment and remanded for the circuit court to decide whether the statute was constitutional. Upon remand the circuit court decided that the statute was unconstitutional, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court in this recent decision..

[2] Mr. Justice Thomas filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Chief Justice Roberts filed a separate dissenting opinion, and he along with Mr. Justice Alito joined the dissenting opinion of Mr. Justice Scalia. Analysis of these opinions will be left to others. The opinion of the Court and these other opinions are briefly discussed in Liptak, Supreme Court Backs White House on Jerusalem Passport Dispute, N.Y. Times (June 8, 2015).

[3] On commentator saw the highlighted mention of congressional power to withhold funds for building an embassy as a reference to a possible future congressional refusal to appropriate funds to convert the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to a U.S. Embassy.

[4] Morrison, Symposium: President wins in Zivotofsky: Will there be another battle? SCOTUSblog (June 9, 2015).

[5] Center for Democracy in Americas, Is The Supreme Court Passport Decision A Threat to Helms-Burton? We think so (June 12, 2015).

[6] These bills are discussed in the May 26, 2015 post.

[7] This bill is discussed in the June 12, 2105 post.

[8] These and the subsequently mentioned bills are discussed in the posts of May 26 and 28 and June 2, 10 and 12.

[9] Reuters, Exclusive: U.S.-Cuba Deal Expected in Early July to Restore Ties, Reopen Embassies, N.Y. times (June 13, 2015); Assoc. Press, Republican Senator Sees US Embassy in Cuba coming Soon, N.Y. Times (June 13, 2015). Accompanying Senator Flake on this Cuba trip were Republican Senators Susan Collins (ME) and Pat Roberts (KS).