Reuters recently uncovered documents and other information disclosing how Cuba in 2008 began to assist its close ally Venezuela in suppressing dissent within the latter’s military. 
The precipitating event for this assistance was the December 2007 Venezuelan referendum that unexpectedly defeated a proposal that would have enabled President Hugo Chavez repeatedly to run for re-election. 
In response to this referendum defeat, Chavez in early 2008 turned to his friend and ally, Fidel Castro, who said that Chavez needed to ensure absolute control of his country’s military and proposed what became in May 2008 two agreements between the two countries that allowed Cuba’s armed forces to:
Establish the Coordination and Liaison Group of the Republic of Cuba (GRUCE) of eight Cuban “military experts” to send Cuban advisors to inspect and train Venezuelan soldiers. This training included questioning soldiers about their political beliefs so that they could be the “tip of the spear” in the fight against “traitors.”
Review and restructure parts of the Venezuelan military and oversee its “assimilation” and “modernization.”
Provide in Havana up to three months of espionage training for groups of up to 40 Venezuelan intelligence agents to enable them to infiltrate and control the Venezuelan military.
Restructure the Venezuelan intelligence service’s mission from spying on foreign rivals to surveilling the country’s own soldiers, officers and even senior commanders and preparing the Venezuelan intelligence agents to “discover and confront the subversive work of the enemy.”
Implementation of the Agreements
The Venezuelan intelligence service now known as the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence, or DGCIM developed a system for strict surveillance of Venezuelan military personnel that included the following:
DGCIM agents, often dressed in black fatigues, were embedded in military barracks to compile dossiers on perceived troublemakers and report any signs of disloyalty.
The DGCIM also began tapping the phones of officers, including senior military commanders, to listen for conspiracies.
DGCIM agents interrogated suspected disloyal troops and officials, often aided by torture.
DGCIM arrested many soldiers and officials for disloyalty, and today 200 to 300 individuals are in detention.
Now there are at least 1,500 DGCIM agents.
The implementation of these agreements, say experts, has enabled the Venezuelan military to stand by Chavez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, and help “him weather an economic meltdown, widespread hunger and crime, and the emigration of more than 4 million people – more than 10 percent of Venezuela’s population in recent years.” In short, that implementation has “proven crucial for Maduro’s survival as president.”
To date, I have not seen any Cuban or Venezuelan response to this Reuters article. Is there another side to this account?
 In February 2009, however, another referendum approved an amendment to the constitution that enabled Chavez to run for and commence to serve another presidential term starting in January 2013 that was shortened by his death in March 2013.
On August 10 Amnesty International released a video that purportedly shows Cameroonian soldiers executing unarmed people in the country’s Far North region sometime before May 2016.
According to the organization’s Ilaria Allegrozzi, “This shocking video shows armed men lining people up face down or sitting against a wall and shooting them with automatic weapons. A second round of shooting ensures no survivors. Here is yet more credible evidence to support the allegations that Cameroon’s armed forces have committed grave crimes against civilians, and we are calling for an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation. Those suspected to be responsible for these abhorrent acts must be brought to justice.”
Cameroon’s ambassador to the U.S., Henri Etoundi Essomba, told The Washington Post that he was unaware of the latest video, so he could not comment directly on it, but he said, “No one can condemn Cameroon on video without making sure that what [they are seeing] is supporting reality. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone in the sense that people are willing to portray the country in the darkest way possible.”
In Cameroon Tchiroma Bakary, a government spokesman, told Reuters that the latest video could be investigated, but that there is an ongoing “denigration” campaign attempting to tarnish President Paul Biya ahead of October elections. Biya, who has led the country since 1982, is running for reelection. “We are in an electoral period and it’s conducive to this kind of thing,” he told Reuters. “People want to discredit the army and president.”
On May 15, the first First Joint European Union (EU)-Cuba Council meeting will take place in Brussels, Belgium to start the process for the EU providing 40 million Euros for projects in Cuba.
The parties will sign their first Financial Agreement to establish the framework for the implementation of a bilateral program in the area of renewable energies for which the EU will contribute up to €18 million (U.S. $ 21.5 million). This will pave the way for a second Financial Agreement later in the year for a program in support of renewable energy and sustainable food security in Cuba, with an EU contribution of €19.65 million (U.S.$ 23.5 million).
These financial accords are the result of the two parties’ Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA), most parts of which have been provisionally applied since last November 1. The PDCA defines general principles and objectives for the relationship between the EU and Cuba and provides the following framework for accompanying the reform process in Cuba:
“Political dialogue: addressing issues, such as human rights, small arms and disarmament, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, migration, drugs, fight against terrorism, sustainable development, etc.;
Cooperation and sector policy dialogue: including areas, such as governance, civil society, human rights, social and economic development, environment as well as regional cooperation;
Trade and trade cooperation: dealing with principles of international trade and covering cooperation on customs, trade facilitation, technical norms and standards, sustainable trade and investment.”
According to the EU, three high-level dialogues already have been held to exchange views on basic principles of human rights, to identify areas to cooperate or share best practices. The two parties also will launch dialogues focused on sustainable development, non-proliferation, arms control, and unilateral measures. The last will include the U.S. embargo on the Island.
The PDCA also provides for the possibility of suspension in the event of a serious violation of human rights commitments.
Ramón Jáuregui, president of the Euro-Latin American Assembly (a transnational non-governmental body of 150 legislators from Europe and Latin America to improve their governments’ relations), said, “Cuba needs an economic opening, it needs cooperation, it needs energy, it needs investments, it needs to improve its GDP to improve the quality of life of Cubans. [The EU] “can be a loyal partner” of Havana with the agreement and “through this opening and this collaboration, [Cuba] will have no choice but to take successive democratic steps.”
Last month Sweden’s Minister of International Cooperation Isabella Lövin, told her Parliament that Cuba’s civil society and democratic movement have a legitimate role in the discussions on the implementation of the Association Agreement and Political Dialogue. 
The 28 EU countries are the main foreign investor in Cuba (mainly in the sectors of tourism or construction), according to the European Commission, which in 2017 had 471 million euros of imports of Cuban goods in 2017 (mostly agricultural products, beverages, tobacco and mineral fuels) 2,094 million euros of EU exports to the island.
The previously mentioned EU-Cuba conference in Belgium will take place the day before Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, Switzerland, and at the latter session Cuba undoubtedly will raise its agreement with the EU for dialogues about human rights.
This EU-Cuba agreement on dialogue about human rights is similar to the human rights dialogues that were conducted by Cuba and the U.S. during the Obama Administration and that apparently are now suspended in the Trump Administration.
It also is interesting that no report about the conference in Belgium was found in the major U.S. newspapers that cover foreign affairs (New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal) or in the major news organizations (Reuters and the Associated Press) for U.S. news organizations.
 The contrasting U.S. approaches to Cuba on human rights are covered in many posts in the following sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA: “U.S. (Obama) & Cuba (Normalization)– 2014 and 2015 and 2016 and 2017” and “U.S. (Trump) & Cuba, 2016-2017 and 2018.”
For the First Quarter of 2018, Cuban Tourism Ministry’s commercial director, Michel Bernal, told a news conference in Havana that Cuba had a 7% decline in foreign tourists. The reporting of this press conference by Reuters of London and by Cuban sources has interesting differences.
First is the reduction of U.S. tourists, which was only 56.6% of what it was for the same quarter in 2017. Director Bernal said that this decline was attributable to the U.S. restrictions and warning on travel to Cuba that were imposed by the Trump Administration.
Another reason for the overall decline was unjustified foreigners worries about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma last September and that has been largely repaired.
The overall decline has hurt Cuba’s private sector (the self-employed sector in Cuban terms) that operates bed-and-breakfasts, private restaurants and guides.
The primary source of information for Cubans is the hard-copy issues of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. There also are Cuba’s Internet sources: Cubadebate and Diario de Cuba.
Granma did not mention the overall 7% decline in tourism for the first quarter of 2018. Instead it stressed (a) that the “growth of the Cuban tourist industry . . . is a sign of the confidence of the sector in the security and stability of the Greater Antilles;” and (b) Cuba’s recent receipt of “the Excellence Award as the safest country for tourism during the XXXVIII International Trade Fair -Fitur 2018, which took place in January in Madrid.”
Granma did acknowledge that Mr. Bernal had mentioned there had been a “slowdown caused mainly by hurricanes Irma and Maria,” but that Cuba still expected five million tourists this year. Also mentioned was what it called the U.S. “’unjustified ‘travel alert, ‘which tells the citizens of that country “’to reconsider travel to Cuba.”‘ The measure of aggression it tried to justify with the supposed risk of suffering ‘acoustic attacks’ on which, after months of research, there is no evidence or scientific evidence.”
This report mentioned the 7% overall decline in the first quarter, the projection of 2 million foreign visitors through May and 5 million for the entire year.
It also reported that the largest number of visitors were Canadians followed by Cubans living abroad. In third place were “American visitors, who because of the blockade imposed by their government cannot travel to the island as tourists and whose arrivals decreased at the end of 2017 due to the passage of Irma, in addition to the restrictive measures promoted in September  by the President Donald Trump. [The reduction of American visitors also was] influenced by travel alerts to Cuba, issued by the State Department after the alleged incidents that occurred in previous months in which officials of the US Embassy in Havana were implicated.”
Cubadebate is a Cuban website published by the Circle of Cuban Journalists against Terrorism , in which Cuban journalists and other nationalities collaborate. It aims to be “a space for information and exchange on topics related to subversion actions and defamatory campaigns organized against Cuba.” It is published in seven languages, including Spanish and has become the most visible digital medium on the Cuban website.
A more detailed report of the press conference appeared in Diario de Cuba. It had the 7% decline of tourists in the first quarter. It also said that after Canadians and Cubans living abroad, “US visitors appear in third place, despite measures taken by President Donald Trump, late last year, which included a travel alert to its citizens after the symptoms experienced by diplomatic personnel in Havana.”
Although this blogger has not been able to ascertain much information about this source, it is believed to originate outside Cuba, probably in the U.S., and is believed to be affiliated with Cubanet, which describes itself as an independent source of Cuban news since 1994.
It is not surprising that the number of American visitors to Cuba has declined and that it is attributable in substantial part to the Trump Administration’s harsh rhetoric against Cuba the new U.S. regulations about Americans’ travel to Cuba and the new State Department Travel Advisory about Cuba.
Americans, however, should recognize that there are still 12 categories for legal travel to Cuba by Americans, that the new State Department Travel Advisory for Cuba does not ban travel to the island and instead suggests Americans reconsider any plans to travel to the island and that the asserted basis for the Department’s urging Americans to reconsider is the reported adverse health incidents experienced by some U.S. diplomats who were staying in only two hotels in Havana (Hotels Nacional and Capri). Moreover, Americans also should recognize that visitors to Cuba, especially from the U.S., help to support the privately owned bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, tour guides and others, which now has nearly 30% of the Cuban economy and which is a potential force for changes in Cuba.
In short, as a three-time traveler to Cuba, I urge my fellow Americans: go to Cuba and have a great time!
 Given the new requirement for U.S. person-to-person travel to be with an organized group, one organizer of such groups worthy of consideration is the Center for Cuban Studies based in Brooklyn, N.Y. It specializes in small groups with different themes such as African Roots of Cuban Culture, Art & Architecture and Cuba in Transition. In addition, for groups between 4 and 20 persons, it will create customized journeys.
As has been discussed in previous posts, in recent years Cuba has seen a growing private sector of its economy. For example, the number of Cubans working with self-employment licenses rose to 567,982 people in mid-2017, compared with 157,731 in 2010. In response to this growth the Cuban government over the last year has imposed various restrictions on this sector. 
Although President Raúl Castro at the 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba criticized the lethargy of many of the state-owned enterprises and praised the innovations of the growing private sector, Cuba has been struggling with the challenges of creating and managing a mixed economy. The biggest challenge for the regime has been the increasing wealth of those in the private sector and thus the rising economic inequality on the island. 
New Draft Economic Regulations 
Now Reuters reports that a “draft of new Cuban economic regulations proposes increasing state control over the private sector and curtailing private enterprise.”
The 166-page document “would allow homes only one license to operate a restaurant, cafeteria or bar. That would limit the number of seats per establishment to 50. Many of Havana’s most successful private restaurants currently hold several licenses enabling them to have a seating capacity of 100 or more.”
This draft, which is dated Aug. 3, 2017, and signed by Marcia Fernández Andreu, deputy chief of the secretariat of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, states that it ”strengthens control at a municipal, provincial and national level.” In addition, it provides that enforcement against infractions will be more “rigorous.”
The draft apparently was recently sent to provincial and national organs of administration for consultation. Its leak is suspected to gauge public opinion and could lead to revisions.
Even before this new draft was released, the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group had warned that the recent Cuban restrictions on the private sector would generate an annual “flight of local capital abroad” of between 280 and 350 million dollars. Those restrictions also probably would be a negative factor for new foreign investment on the island. 
In addition, the new proposed regulations probably would prompt some younger Cubans to lose hope of change in their country and prompt their desire to emigrate, thereby exacerbating Cuba’s problems associated with an aging and declining population.
Finally for the very reasons that Raúl Castro advanced at the recent Party Congress, the proposed regulations could adversely affect Cuba’s employment opportunities and gross national product.
The Cuban government has not yet released 2016 data on the country’s gross domestic product, exports, money supply and debt even though in June-July 2017 it did release other statistical information. The government even failed to respond to a Reuters question in January 2018 as to when this 2016 information would be released. 
Many speculate that this omission is deliberate to facilitate the Cuban government’s claims in late December 2017 that the economy grew in 2017 by 1.6% when Moody’s and the Economist’s Intelligence Unit had projected that the Cuban recession continued in 2017, while the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) had projected Cuba would have for 2017 an anemic growth of 0.5%.
“The abnormal delay in macroeconomic indicators for 2016 casts doubt on the official estimate of GDP growth in 2017,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago , professor emeritus of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and author of numerous books on Cuba’s economy. This opinion was echoed by an anonymous Cuban economist, who said, “Whenever things are bad the response from the government is to hide information.”
On November 26 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), whose recent history was discussed in a prior post, held its first conference. Of the 41 members, all but Qatar were there. Here is a summary of that conference.
The Crown Prince said this meeting sends “a strong signal that we are going to work together and coordinate together to support each other. . . . The biggest danger of this terrorism and extremism is the tarnishing of the reputation of our beloved religion. . . . We will not allow this to happen. Today, we start the pursuit of terrorism and we see its defeat in many facets around the world especially in Muslim countries. . . . We will continue to fight it until we see its defeat.”
The Crown Prince also offered his condolences to Egypt, which suffered an attack on Friday by militants on a mosque in northern Sinai that killed 305 people. “This is indeed a painful event and it is a recurrent and strong reminder of the dangers of this terrorism.”
The Military Commander General of IMCTC, Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen (retired) Raheel Sharif, addressed the defense ministers of the members and insisted that the sole objective of the alliance “is to counter terrorism and it is not against any country or any sect.” He also said the Muslim world was the biggest victim of terrorism and in the last 6 years alone, more than 70% of all deaths attributed to terrorism had occurred in Muslim countries. (Emphasis added.)
In addition, Sharif said while all individual states were making efforts against the menace of terrorism, the required level of synergy and resources was lacking, but that IMCTC would support its partners mainly through intelligence sharing and capacity building. “The fight against the faceless enemy with extremist ideology is complex and challenging, requiring collaboration.”
Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khurrum Dastagir emphasized that while agreeing to be part of the coalition, Pakistan had all along stated that it would not allow its troops to participate in any military action outside the country, nor would it become part of any initiative aimed at any other Islamic country. This was its attempt to avoid annoying Saudi Arabia while maintaining ties with Iran, which is not a IMCTC member.
Dr. Mohammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, said, “This meeting confirms the resolve of an Islamic consensus, one that takes its true meaning from the Islamic values of peace, tolerance and moderation.”
“The ideological path within this alliance represents a crucial element in this battle. It hits extremism at its core. This constitutes the real conflict in defeating and overcoming terrorism, since this terrorism hasn’t been based on a political or military interest, but rather is founded on an extremist ideology.”
Dr. Al-Issa said historical facts and scientific records of Islamic heritage prove with certainty that Islam has welcomed peace by all means. “Peace has become an integral part of its teachings, and a central term in its vocabulary.”
“The ideological decline leading to extremist stances started with the abbreviation of sacred texts, the distortion of their meanings, and the failure to comply with the precepts of their interpretation. This is compounded by the phenomenon of groupthink, the manipulation of popular emotions that are devoid of conscious thinking, the flawed readings of facts and events, and the psychological conditions of some people, all of which result in a significant impact on the rising trend of extremism.”
Addressing delegates on the Communications pillar of the IMCTC, Dr Mohammad Al Momani, Jordan’s Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications, said: “Perhaps one of the most important roles that various media outlets in the Arab and Islamic countries should assume is to refute the false allegations and the major fabrications that terrorist groups use to justify their global crimes”
“In addition to refuting these allegations, the role of the media should be to proactively broadcast and produce truthful content that cherishes the true values of Islam, with all its lofty human dimensions. The media should sow these seeds in the minds of young people and future generations, to make them protective shields for their societies against plans aimed at destroying the Nation and eradicating its history.”
Dr Ahmed al-Kholifey, Governor of the Saudi Central Bank, discussed the on-going Counter financing efforts. “Terrorist organizations execute their finance operations through official and non-official sectors, using fake names and businesses. Thus, . . . [it is important to strengthen] international cooperation to combat these crimes that threaten our security and our societies and future generations.”
“The establishment of the Counter Terrorism Financing Center of Excellence within the [IMCTC] is a pioneering project and a cornerstone in supporting and assisting member countries to combat terrorism financing. [The Center] will contribute to strengthening mechanisms of cooperation and enhancing the human resources capabilities of Coalition countries regarding the methods of countering terrorism financing.”
IMCTC Acting Secretary General, Lt. Gen. Abdulelah Al-Saleh, outlined the coalition’s strategy, governance, activities and future plans.
This meeting concluded with the adoption of the following Declaration:
Combating Terrorism in the Ideology Domain
The Ministers affirmed their determination to work with every possible means to confront extremism and terrorism, in all their ideological notions and perceptions, to reveal their truth. Furthermore, they plan to expose extremist misuse of legitimate texts and events through delusion, allegation, false methods and deceit. The Ministers are aware of the terrorists’ blind obsession, false thoughts, and misinterpretations of religious texts, and are acutely aware of the perils posed by ideological extremism, its ability to spread, and its profound impact on individuals and society.
The Ministers uphold their determination to address terrorism through education and knowledge, to highlight correct Islamic concepts, and to establish the truth of moderate Islam, which is consistent with human nature and common values, and peaceful and just coexistence with the global community that ensures security and prosperity.
Combating Terrorism in the Communications Domain
The Ministers emphasize the crucial role played by the media, and the importance of embracing this channel in fighting terrorism and exposing its agenda. We will work with the media to counter terrorist propaganda, by destroying its foundations to reduce its influence. Cognizant of the seriousness of terrorist actions and its dangerous impacts, they commit to prevent the terrorists from delivering their message using the media.
The Ministers stress the importance of empowering the media to combat extremist ideology from any source, counter terrorist propaganda and symbols of extremist thought, and expose terrorist methods used to promote their deviant ideas. The Ministers commit to direct media efforts to present the terrorists’ true nature and exposing their beliefs that call for death and destruction, and dismantling mechanisms for propagation.
The Ministers stress the importance of investing in digital media platforms to raise awareness among members of society and prevent them from succumbing to terrorist messaging.
Combating Terrorism in the Counter Terrorist Financing Domain
The Ministers emphasize the importance of draining the sources of terrorist financing and cutting off any financial support for its operations and activities. This can be achieved by coordinating efforts and accelerating necessary measures and procedures to combat terrorist funding and shutting down the flow permanently. Monetary policies, legislation and financial controls must be developed and enforced, and improve compliance to align with international standards.
The Ministers called for increased coordination and technical and security cooperation in the exchange of data and information, and the transfer of knowledge and expertise, in areas focused on combating the financing of terrorism.
The Ministers stressed the importance of ensuring the adequacy and effectiveness of systems and procedures to block terrorist financing. Increased levels of awareness of the various ways terrorists finance their operations must be enhanced, in order to find the best and most successful solution to eliminate terrorist financing.
Combating Terrorism in the Military Domain
The Ministers stressed the importance of the military role in combating the threat of terrorism, enhancing security and peace in the Coalition member countries and contributing to regional and international security and peace.
The Ministers emphasize the importance of providing the necessary military capabilities to ensure that terrorist organizations are weakened, dismantled, eliminated and deprived of the opportunity to reorganize. Within the framework of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, the participation of the coalition states will be defined in accordance with each country’s capabilities and resources, as well as in accordance with each country’s desire to participate in a given military operation.
The Ministers agreed on the importance of the role of the IMCTC Counter Terrorism Center in coordinating and integrating military efforts, the exchange of information and intelligence, and conducting training courses and joint exercises.
The Coalition Working Mechanism
To secure the Center headquarters for the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh, provided that Saudi Arabia will meet the Coalition’s needs and complete all necessary legal and regulatory requirements to enable it to carry out the tasks entrusted to its care.
His Highness the Chairman of the IMCTC Ministers of Defense Council will appoint the Secretary General (President of the Center) and the Military Commander of the Coalition. The Chairman will approve the Center’s procedural rules, annual budget and regulations. The Chairman will make arrangements for the Coalition member countries to nominate their delegates to the Center. The Chairman will enable the Coalition to initiate partnerships with international organizations, highlighting its role in the fight against terrorism internationally. The Chairman will take relevant decisions he sees fit for achieving the Coalition’s objectives.
The Inaugural Meeting of the IMCTC Ministers of Defense Council will meet annually and whenever necessary, under the chairmanship of His Royal Highness, to follow up on the strategies, policies, plans and programs to achieve the IMCTC’s objectives, and to review the reports submitted by the IMCTC Counter Terrorism Center, in order to pursue concerted efforts in various areas to combat terrorism.
The Ministers intend to redouble their efforts to promote joint action in operations, programs and initiatives within the framework of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition; and in line with the IMCTC’s organizational structure and mechanisms.
It is important to remember the comment by General Sharif that the IMCTC was not against any country or sect. In other words, it was not against Iran or Shīīte Muslims. Nevertheless, there are great tensions today between Sunni Saudi Arabia, the leader of IMCTC, and Iran, the largest Shia country in the world.
As noted in the previous post, Iran is not a member of IMCTC, and according to a New York Times journalist, “After years of cynicism, sneering or simply tuning out all things political, Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor. The changing attitude, while some years in the making, can be attributed to two related factors: the election of President Trump and the growing competition with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sectarian rival, for regional dominance.” These Iranians “watched in horror when . . . [President Trump] sold more than $100 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and participated in a traditional war dance in Riyadh. And they are alarmed at the foreign policy moves of the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whom they see as hotheaded and inexperienced.” In short, Iran now shows “widespread public support for the hard-line view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted and that Iran is now a strong and capable state capable of staring down its enemies.”
As a U.S. citizen who is interested in world affairs, I am amazed and disappointed that according to my research, there has been only one article in the U.S. press about the IMCTC and this important meeting in Saudi Arabia. This was a brief Associated Press article cited in footnote 1, while there was nothing from Reuters, the other major independent source of world news for the U.S. press.
Roger Cohen movingly has reflected on life and death in his New York Times column, “Do Not Go Gentle.” Although I had read many of his earlier columns, this one stopped me to ponder its thoughts and to explore some of his other columns and biography and then to share the results of that investigation in this blog post.
“Do Not go Gentle”–Excerpts
“Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.”
“For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.”
“I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me. . . . When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”
In contrast, “the most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.”
“As Ecclesiastes [3: 1-8] has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.”
“None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
A “friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: ‘You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.’ It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.”
“Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.”
“My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: ‘I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.’”
“The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.”
Many of his columns for the Times are online, and a hunt-and-peck incomplete search of that collection uncovered the following four columns for inclusion in this blog post. I am confident that a more thorough search would produce other thoughtful columns.
In May 2015 Cohen’s spending time at an unnamed airport prompted ruminations about status anxiety, “The Great Unease.” It included the following: “By comparison, having little or less [material possessions] seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.”
The column ended with the following: “The Chinese say: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.’ Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom.”
“As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility. It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.”
“Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89. Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option. So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.”
“Yet as Faulkner observed, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, ‘The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.’”
“Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”
His June 2015 column, “Mow the Lawn,” starts with comments about his youngest child’s graduating from a London school and getting ready to start college in the U.S., but includes these words of wisdom:
“Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
“I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.”
This column about mowing the lawn also quoted from a commencement speech he had given:
“’Everyone has something that makes them tick. The thing is it’s often well hidden. Your psyche builds layers of protection around your most vulnerable traits, which may be very closely linked to your precious essence. Distractions are also external: money, fame, peer pressure, parental expectation. So it may be more difficult than you think to recognize the spark that is your personal sliver of the divine. But do so. Nothing in the end will give you greater satisfaction — not wealth, not passion, not faith, not even love — for if, as Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude.’”
“’No success, however glittering, that denies yourself will make you happy in the long run. So listen to the voice from your soul, quiet but insistent, and honor it. Find what you thrill to: if not the perfect sentence, the beautiful cure, the brilliant formula, the lovely chord, the exquisite sauce, the artful reconciliation. Strive not for everything money can buy but for everything money can’t buy.’”
“In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”
The column, “Young Lives Interrupted,” from November 2015 starts with comments on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and ends with these words:
“It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.”
“What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.”
“There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.”
Born in London in 1955, Cohen graduated with honors at Westminster School, a top “public” school in English parlance. He then attended the University of Oxford and graduated with a B.A. (and later M.A.) in History and French in 1977.
That same year he moved to Paris to teach English and to write for Paris Metro, after which he started working for Reuters, which transferred him to Brussels. In 1983 he joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal in Rome and later Beirut. The New York Times was his next and current employer, 1990-present, and he has served as a columnist for the paper since 2009. He also occasionally writes for the New York Review of Books.
Cohen has published these books: (a) In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (with Claudio Gatti) (1991); (b) Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (1998); (c) Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped in the Nazis’ Final Gamble (2005); (d) Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (2008); and (e) The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family (2015).
Cohen’s father, Sydney Cohen, a doctor, was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Roger’s mother June also was born in South Africa and accompanied Sydney to the U.K. She died in 1999.
One of Roger Cohen’s columns, “The Battle to Belong,” from January 2015, told a moving account of his parents’ lives with these more general observations: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.” A more expansive exploration of his own family history is found in his book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family.
Thank you, Roger Cohen, for sharing your thoughts with the world. You help us to understand and accept the truths expressed long ago in Ecclesiastes.
Recognize and rejoice in the fragility and beauty of life. Engage in acts of spontaneous generosity, surprise visits and idle conversation. See life as a succession of everyday tasks that should be well performed and that will provide happiness.
As we think about our ever-lengthening pasts, do so with balance and the realization that every one of us is haunted most by what we have failed to do. When you have these realizations, endeavor to remedy those failures.
Also accept the cycle of birth and death and see death as the shadow that gives shape to existence, the urgency to love and the brilliance to life. You too may find that the dead whisper words of encouragement and consolation.
These words are worth pondering by all of us. I look forward to reading his future columns as well as diving into the collection of his columns in the Times.
In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, It is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements and actions about Cuba. Prior posts examined his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008; his campaign for the the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008; his first presidential term, 2009-2013; and his presidential re-election campaign of 2012. Now we look at the first two years of his second presidential term, 2013-2014. 
In November 2012, as we have seen in a prior post, President Obama won reelection with 48% of the Cuban-American vote.
The next month (December 2012), as a prelude to his second term, Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope.” The President also concluded that “it would be a good fit to have someone who was known to be very close to the President [involved in such an effort on Cuba] because the Cubans are very wary of engagement and they want to know that the engagement is reaching the top. They felt like there [had] been several other efforts of engagement where it turned out . . . where they had conversations with the Americans, [but after] they reached a certain point . . . there was never follow through [by the U.S.]. . . . [In short, the Cubans] wanted someone . . . [involved for the U.S.] who were very close to the President and . . . they wanted it to be discreet.” Hence, the President designated Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor, to be in charge of this new effort to engage Cuba.
Thereafter, Mr. Rhodes sent a secret message to the Cuban government that the U.S. wanted “to initiate a dialogue about prisoners and other issues.” As we will see below, this created a fascinating contrast between the Administration’s public negative face on Cuba and its secret negotiations with the latter.
Obama’s Second Term, 2013
On January 21, 2013, President Obama was inaugurated for his second term as President. Most of his Inaugural Address was focused on domestic concerns, but he did say, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully—not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” He made no reference to Cuba.
That same month, January 2013, we recently have come to know, Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s top Latin American adviser, went to Miami and met with a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and with young Cuban-Americans, the latter of whom helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo. (Zuniga in 2001 as a State Department staffer contributed to its National Intelligence Estimate that officially concluded, for the first time, that the embargo of Cuba had been a failure.)
On April 19, 2013, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses . . .: abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government; government threats, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly; and a record number of politically motivated and at times violent short-term detentions.”
By April 2013, however, we now know that the White House was ready to proceed with the Cubans by quietly proposing back-channel talks after learning that Havana would be receptive. Obama initially froze out the State Department on these developments in part due to concern that its “vested interests” would still be bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful.
On May 29, 2013, the plight of Alan Gross again emerged as a distracting element when a federal district court dismissed his lawsuit against the U.S. for $60 million alleging the government and its private contractor sent him on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection or even a clear sense of the Cuban laws that ultimately led to his arrest and detainment. Experts said the dismissal had been widely expected because of a rule barring lawsuits against the American government based on consequences suffered in foreign countries.
The next day (May 30, 2013) the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba “has committed to adopting and implementing” anti-money laundering recommendations by an international group; but Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives.
In any event, the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations started in June 2013 in Ottawa, Canada. The Cubans opened with harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes, age 37, responded, “Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place. We want to hear and talk about the future.” The Cubans in these initial sessions also insisted on an exchange of the remaining three of “The Cuban Five” in U.S. prison for U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, in Cuban prison. Obama refused such a deal because Washington denied Gross was a spy and because Obama did not want a three-for-one trade. As a result by the end of 2013, the negotiations had stalled.
On December 3, 2013, Alan Gross’ imprisonment again surfaced as an important issue when his wife read a public letter from him to President Obama asking, “Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government, the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare, has abandoned me.” A White House spokesman responded by saying Mr. Obama had “personally engaged foreign leaders and other international figures to use their influence with Cuba” to free Mr. Gross.
That same month, December 2013, something publicly happened that we now know had a positive effect on the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations. At the funeral for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on December 15th, President Obama met and shook hands with President Raùl Castro, which at the time some in the U.S. criticized. Moments after the handshake Obama addressed the funeral gathering, talking about Mandela’s demonstrating the need for trust and reconciliation and forgiveness. Some at the time wondered whether his remarks might also apply to the apparently frozen diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, but White House officials declined to offer any explanation of the handshake or confirm that there had been a discussion about whether to offer [an explanation].” 
Obama’s Second Term, 2014
In early January 2014 the U.S. and Cuba, with public notice, resumed negotiations from the prior July about migration, which the State Department said “does not represent any change in policy towards Cuba” and which journalists saw as “a signal of the longtime Cold War foes’ recent willingness to engage in areas of mutual interest but unlikely to be a harbinger of a major thaw in relations.” Afterwards Cuba said, “”The meeting took place in a respectful environment. An analysis was made of the status of compliance with the migration accords in force between both countries, including the actions taken by both parties to combat illegal migration and aliens smuggling.”
At the January 2014 secret negotiation session in Toronto, said Mr. Rhodes, “the Cubans started [with just want[ing] their people back—the three Cubans who were imprisoned in the [U.S.] – [in exchange for their release of Alan Gross.] In response the U.S. proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – Cuba’s releasing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for the U.S. who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, and thereby enabling the U.S. to claim it was a true “spy swap” and giving it political cover. But the Cubans dis not immediately agree to release Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the U.S.
At this January meeting Rhodes “started talking . . . about how we wanted to change the relationship. And then they started talking about some of the things that they were considering doing in terms of their own system.” However, “the idea of reestablishing diplomatic relations was not something that was . . . immediately attractive to them. . . . [T]hey’re very comfortable in a position of being an opposition to the[U.S.]. They have built the legitimacy in part [for] much of their approach around the fact that they’re resisting [purported] American aggression. So it was not a no-brainer by any stretch of the imagination for the Cubans to agree to a process of normalization and to an establishment of diplomatic relations.”
Nevertheless, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “came to the view of in the discussions . . . that if we were going to take these very difficult steps of having this prisoner exchange where we get a Cuban intelligence asset of ours and Alan Gross to be released [and] they would get these three Cubans, . . . we needed to broaden the scope of what we are talking about.” The two countries “would have one opportunity to make a big move together and . . . we should try to do as much as we could in that space. And that led to them taking certain confidence-building measures like the release of . . . political prisoners [on a list] that we provided to them, [and] that led to . . . this discussion of setting out a process of normalization . . . [and] to a discussion of establishing diplomatic relations and sending a signal to the world that essentially we are willing to leave the past behind.”
At the same time, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “made very clear in every meeting, we’re going to have differences with your political system. We are going to find much to criticize, we are going to continue [the U.S.] democracy program, we’re going to continue [to criticize] your human rights practices. It doesn’t mean we like everything you do, but we are going to get farther by engaging with this government and opening up Cuba so that there can be more business, more American travel, more engagement between the American and Cuban people. That holds out a lot greater promise to promote the things we care about than the alternative.”
Also at this secret January session in Toronto, the Cubans gratefully remarked that President Obama had treated President Castro with respect at the Mandela funeral the prior month by shaking Raúl’s hand and that no [prior U.S. president or other official had] done that before. Rhodes responded by saying “not only was it the appropriate thing to do–you see someone why would you snub them and not shake his hand. If the Cubans have the right to be any place, it’s certainly at the funeral of Nelson Mandela who[m] they helped in many ways.”
In early February 2014 reporters for Reuters concluded that U.S. relations with Cuba were “at their best in almost two decades, but President Barack Obama seems unwilling or unable to confront a well-organized anti-Cuba lobby and push for further progress.” Reuters obviously did not know about the secret negotiations then going on.
On February 27, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses: . . . abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”
While the U.S. proposal for Cuba’s release of Sarraff was still on the table, but not yet accepted by Cuba, President Obama held a secret White House meeting in February 2014 with certain lawmakers, including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin. Obama stressed his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade and Durbin “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.” Thereafter Senator Leahy confidentially persuaded two unnamed Roman Catholic cardinals to ask Pope Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when the Pontiff was scheduled to hold a private audience with Obama on March 27th.
That private papal audience did occur on March 27, and immediately afterwards, as discussed in a prior post, the Vatican reported that “during the cordial meetings [with President Obama], views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” We now know that this was an allusion to their discussion about U.S.-Cuba relations.
Also immediately after that private audience President Obama made comments that in retrospect also alluded to their conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”
Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis secretly sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement.
On April 2, 2014, Alan Gross’s name started to appear in the news again as he commenced a hunger strike in his Cuban prison “to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal. Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this standoff so that I can return home to my wife and daughters.” Later that month he terminated his hunger strike, and his U.S. lawyer reported that Gross had lost most vision in his right eye, walks with a limp due to hip problems, has lost a tooth and is 110 pounds lighter than at the time of his arrest. Moreover, Gross says in another year he will be dead if he stays in the Cuban prison. Later in June he was threatening to commit suicide.
On April 30, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2013. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry retorted that it “energetically rejects the manipulation of a matter as sensitive as international terrorism by turning it into an instrument of policy against Cuba and it demands that our country be definitively excluded from this spurious, unilateral and arbitrary list.”
Another public distraction emerged in April 2014 with the Associated Press reports of a covert or “discreet” program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that created in Cuba a social media effort to encourage communications among dissidents. Four months later the AP reported about other USAID programs in Cuba with similar aims. 
In June 2014 the Pope sent additional private letters to Obama and Castro calling on them to resolve the cases of Alan Gross and the three Cubans in U.S. prison and also encouraging the two countries to pursue a closer relationship. The letter from Pope Francis, U.S. officials said after December 17th, “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented. The Pope, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a secret deal.
As the Vatican put it in its press statement on December 17th, “In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to . . . [the two presidents] and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”
Francis’ involvement also provided Obama with potential political coverage against any future criticism by Cuban-American (and Roman Catholic) Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and others.
In the meantime, the U.S. public stance towards Cuba remained unchanged. In early October 2014, Cuba publicly stated it had not received any indication the Obama administration might change U.S. policy toward Cuba despite increasing support within the United States for closer ties. We now know that this was a false report designed to conceal their ongoing secret negotiations.
On October 28, 2014, the U.N. General Assembly again condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba by a vote of 188 to the 2 negative votes cast by the U.S. and Israel. At this session Cuba asserted that the embargo had damaged its economy in the total amount of $1.1 trillion.
Also in October 2014 the New York Times began what became a series of editorials through mid-December 2014 that called for normalization of the two countries’ relations, commended Cuba for its medical teams in West Africa that were fighting Ebola, called for prisoner exchanges and criticized the USAID programs in Cuba, the U.S. special immigration status for Cuban medical personnel and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” while reiterating its advocacy of normalization. One wonders whether the Times had advance tips or inklings that the Obama Administration soon would be announcing a major shift in U.S. policies toward Cuba and whether the Times was preparing the country for the changes.
Behind the scenes in October 2014 (before the U.S. mid-term elections) the deal was secretly finalized in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together. According to the Vatican’s press statement on December 17th, “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”
In early December Rhodes and Zuniga secretly met the Cubans again at the Vatican to nail down logistics for the December 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.
Pressures for an announcement as soon as possible at the end of 2014 were several. The health of Alan Gross was reportedly declining in a Cuban prison, and President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry legitimately believed that reconciliation would be destroyed if he died in that prison. Delaying the announcement also ran the risk of a leak of the existence of the secret negotiations that would upset, if not destroy, the reconciliation. Less immediate was the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April 2015 with the U.S. needing to have a positive position on host country Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the Summit.
In addition, U.S. domestic political considerations pointed towards a December announcement before the Republican-controlled 114th Congress opened in early January and as soon as possible (the next day) after the adjournment of the 113th so that there would be no resulting interference with the completion of the many items of unfinished business of the current Congress. December also is the traditional time for exercise of presidential clemency (pardons and commutation of sentences), the latter of which was used for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17th.
As noted in a prior post, President Obama as part of his December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”
Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his December 17thremarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”
Immediately after the December 17th announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro, Pope Francis publicly expressed his “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The Pontiff also said, “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”
This initiative with Cuba, recently said Rhodes, is an example of what he called “the Obama doctrine and our whole foreign policy. We have to reposition the United States to be able to lead in this century. . . . We have been trying steadily to reposition the [U.S.], to refocus on the Asia-Pacific through the TPP agreement to withdraw that resource allocation and put in place a more sustainable counterterrorism policy that doesn’t eliminate risk but manages it and aims to prevent attacks on the [U.S.].
The Obama Administration’s conducting 24-months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government without any leak is an amazing accomplishment. One example of this lack of outside knowledge is a 2014 book by Chuck Todd, NBC’s noted Washington political reporter who reportedly knows everything that is going on, that says, “There has been little effort to engage or open Cuba, even as the end of the Castro brothers’ regime approaches. In fact, Cuba’s a great example of Obama’s famous caution. While he has been unusually critical of American policy toward Cuba, he won’t use his executive power to make a change.” Sorry, Chuck, you were so very wrong.
These negotiations were without preconditions, just as then candidate Obama had urged when he was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008. Here too he was hit with charges that such a strategy was misguided and naive. But, I submit, it is the only rational strategy after 50-plus years of trying the opposite approach when, in my opinion, many of what we in the U.S. see as Cuban human rights violations are Cuba’s understandable defensive reactions to a long record of U.S. hostility and aggression against Cuba.
While all of this was going on, U.S. public opinion polls showed increasing support for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, and new groups supporting normalization or reconciliation were emerging. Especially in 2014, on the other hand, the Obama Administration was compelled to react to news about the USAID’s purported pursuit of Cuban democracy through various “discreet” or covert programs. Guantanamo Bay also kept in the news with disputes about detainee transfers and Obama’s continuing efforts to close its detention facility. Of course, strident cries objecting to any normalization or reconciliation continued to come from Senators Rubio, Cruz and Menendez and from Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.
After the December 17 announcement, as recounted in many subsequent posts, the two countries engaged in publicly announced negotiations on many subjects; the U.S. loosened regulations about U.S. trade with, and travel to, the island; the U.S. rescinded its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism;” many U.S. politicians and business officials traveled to Cuba to observe and discuss future prospects; and bills were introduced in Congress to end the U.S. embargo and restrictions on travel to the country while die-hards in that body offered measures to try to prevent or stall normalization and reconciliation. As everyone recognizes, however, the job of normalization is just starting.
As President Obama put it in his January 20, 2015, State of the Union Address to the Congress, the American people and the world,“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now. And around the globe, it is making a difference.”
“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new. And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere. It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba. It stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”
“As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we are overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan [, who was in the public gallery with First Lady Michelle Obama]. We’re glad you’re here.”
A prior post referred to the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations that resulted in the December 17, 2014, announcements by presidents Obama and Castro that the two countries were embarking on a process of re-establishing diplomatic relations and resolving many issues that have accumulated over the last 50 years. Another post described the involvement of Pope Francis in these negotiations.
Now Reuters reports the following new details about these subjects.
Originally the breakthrough was thought to be the result of such secret negotiations over the prior 18 months (or since June 2013). Now, says Reuters, the process really began in December 2012 when President Obama after reelection with 48% of the Cuban-American vote instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope,” according to Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor who played a central role in shaping Cuba policy.
The next month, January 2013, Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s top Latin American adviser, went to Miami and met with a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and with young Cuban-Americans, the latter of whom helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo.
By April 2013, the White House was ready to proceed with the Cubans by quietly proposing back-channel talks after getting notice that Havana would be receptive. Obama initially froze out the State Department on these developments in part due to concern that its “vested interests” would still be bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful.
In any event, the secret negotiations started in June 2013 in Ottawa, Canada. The Cubans opened with harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes, age 37, responded, “Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place … We want to hear and talk about the future.”
The Cubans in these initial sessions also insisted on an exchange of the remaining three of “The Cuban Five” in U.S. prison for U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, in Cuban prison. Obama refused such a deal because Washington denied Gross was a spy and because Obama did not want a three-for-one trade. As a result by the end of 2013, the negotiations had stalled.
At a January 2014 negotiating session in Toronto, however, the U.S. proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – Cuba’s releasing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for the U.S. who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, and thereby enabling the U.S. to claim it was a true “spy swap” and giving it political cover. But the Cubans dis not immediately agree to release Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the U.S.
While the Sarraff proposal was still on the table, but not yet accepted by Cuba, President Obama held a White House meeting in February 2014 with certain lawmakers, including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin. Obama stressed his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade, and Durbin “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.”
Thereafter Senator Leahy persuaded two unnamed Roman Catholic cardinals to ask Pope Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when he was scheduled to hold a private audience with Obama in March.
At that private audience, as reported in a prior post, Francis and Obama did discuss the U.S.-Cuba situation, and the Pope in June sent letters to Obama and Castro urging reconciliation and the prisoner exchange. Francis’ involvement also provided Obama with political coverage against future criticism by Cuban-American Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and others.
In October 2014 (before the U.S. mid-term elections) the deal was finalized in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together.
In early December Rhodes and Zuniga met the Cubans again to nail down logistics for the December 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.
Strobel, Spetalnick & Adams, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and cut a Cuba Deal, Reuters (Mar. 23, 2015),
Reuters, , N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015), How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal