Continued Official Uncertainty Over Cause of Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba     

There has been lots of news over the U.S. diplomats with medical problems from serving in Cuba. But there is still official uncertainty over the cause of those problems and resulting cooler Cuba relations with the U.S. and warmer relations with Russia.

U.S. Trying To Hide the Attacks?[1]

CBS News on October 10 reported that one of the 22 U.S. diplomats who has suffered from purported “sonic attacks” in Cuba had asserted that the U.S. was trying to hide the attacks.

In addition, this individual reportedly told CBS that the attacks had happened at the Embassy itself, their Havana quarters and hotels, that the State Department “pressured” some U.S. embassy officials who had been injured to remain on the island and “waited too long” to withdraw personnel and that the initial treatment by doctors in Havana and at the University of Miami Hospital in the U.S. was “superficial and incomplete.”

The State Department denied these allegations later the same day.[2] Its Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at a press briefing, said, “We have an ongoing investigation that’s being spearheaded out of the [U.S.] with our best investigators on that, so they continue to move ahead with that investigation. We still don’t know who is responsible and we still don’t know what is responsible for the injuries of our American staff.” (Emphasis added.)

Pressed by other reporters about the above comments by one of the victims and by the Department’s recent identification of only two Havana hotels where some of the attacks occurred, Nauert said the following:

  • “I was just speaking with one of our colleagues who served down there in Cuba and is recently back here in the [U.S.]. And I asked this person that very question: ‘How do you feel that we responded?’ And I’ve asked numerous of my colleagues that very question. . . . [W]e all care deeply about how our folks are doing down there. And I asked the question, ‘Do you feel supported by us? Do you feel that we were quick enough to respond?’ And the answer I got back was ‘yes.’ . . . it took a while to put this together, because the symptoms were so different.”
  • “But this person said to me once we figured out a pattern, . . . the State Department was extremely responsive. This person said to me that they . . . never felt the pressure to stay in Cuba, although they wanted to make it clear that they wanted to serve down there. These folks love what they’re doing, they feel a real dedication to . . .our mission down there in Cuba, the activities that they were involved with on behalf of the U.S. Government with local Cubans, and they were encouraged by the State Department to come forward, please get tested if you feel like you’ve had some sort of symptoms or something.”
  • “I don’t have the actual timeline in front of me that lays out when attacks took place at different locations, and I’m not even sure that that is something that we’re making public. But once we started to figure out what this was all about and started to investigate and realized that we were not able to protect our people, that’s when the Secretary made [the decision to reduce U.S. personnel at the Embassy in Havana].”

U.S. Government Statements About the Attacks and Relations with Cuba

On October 12 White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, provided a very unusual press briefing. Unusual because the chief of staff rarely, if ever, provides such a briefing. The apparent major reason for the briefing was to provide a platform for him to deny that he was quitting or being fired as chief of staff. In addition, in response to a reporter’s question, Kelly stated, “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats.”  But he provided no bases for that belief and was not challenged with additional questions by the journalists.[3] (Emphases added.)

Later that same day Kelly’s comment was interpreted (or qualified) by the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, who said, “General Kelly, when he said we believe that they can stop the attacks, I think what he was referring to was, one, we have the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations]. And under the Vienna Convention, . . . the Government of Cuba, has a responsibility to ensure the safety of our diplomatic staff. That didn’t happen. But there’s also another well-known fact, and that is that in a small country like Cuba, where the government is going to know a lot of things that take place within its borders, they may have more information than we are aware of right now.”[4] (Emphases added.)

The next day, October 13, President Trump addressed the 2017 Values Voter Summit.  It included the following comment: “We’re confronting rogue regimes from Iran to North Korea and we are challenging the communist dictatorship of Cuba and the socialist oppression of Venezuela. And we will not lift the sanctions on these repressive regimes until they restore political and religious freedom for their people.”[5] (Emphases added.)

Two days earlier (October 11) Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. in which he referred to meeting people from the Cuban communities here in the U.S., and had seen “the spirit of the Cuban exile community in this country firsthand.” On that same day, the Vice President continued. “President Trump announced a new policy to ensure that U.S. dollars will no longer prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the Cuban people. Under this administration, it will always be “Que viva Cuba libre![6] (Emphases added.)

Sound Recording[7]

The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of what some of the U.S. personnel in Cuba heard.  Says the AP, it “sounds sort of like a mass of crickets. A high-pitched whine, but from what? It seems to undulate, even writhe. Listen closely: There are multiple, distinct tones that sound to some like they’re colliding in a nails-on-the-chalkboard effect.”  The AP adds that it has “reviewed several recordings from Havana taken under different circumstances, and all have variations of the same high-pitched sound.”

Similar Problems at U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 1953-1976[8]

The BBC reports that in May 1953 U.S. officials at the Moscow embassy detected a microwave frequency that oscillated above the upper floors at certain times, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and that autumn some embassy workers felt inexplicably ill. At first it was dizziness, palpitations, headaches, blood pressure too high or too low. But no one understood what was happening.

In 1962, those who were still there or even those who had already left had more severe symptoms: sudden cataracts, alterations in blood tests or chromosomes. In 1965 the U.S. began what was known as the “Moscow Viral Study,” a multimillion-dollar operation in which scientists apparently looked for the potential exposure of workers to an unknown strain of a mysterious and potent virus. The eventual conclusion was the Soviets were “bombing” the U.S. embassy with very low-level microwaves, which the U.S. called the “S ENAL Moscow.” This persisted until April 1976.

Cubans Doubt[9]

From Cuba, the Associated Press reports that “the common reaction in Havana is mocking disbelief” about the attacks.

The same tone was struck by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first vice president who is widely expected to succeed Raul Castro when he steps down as president in February. He said, “A few spokespeople and media outlets have lent themselves to divulging bizarre nonsense without the slightest evidence, with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba’s impeccable behavior.”

Mass Hysteria?[10]

Journalists from the Guardian newspaper in London reported that “senior neurologists” say that ”no proper diagnosis is possible without more information and access to the 22 US victims,” but speculate that the diplomats’ ailments could have been caused by “mass hysteria.”

Cuba-Russia Relations[11]

According to the Miami Herald, “after the election of President Donald Trump, the pace of [Cuba’s] bilateral contact with Russia has been frantic,” even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats. Here are such examples:

  • Just days before Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ September 26 meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson at the State Department, the Minister met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering. The conversation was “confidential,” according to a press release issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
  • On July 26 Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal, the main negotiator with the U.S., went to Moscow and met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
  • Cuba’s ambassador to Russia has met with Ryabkov at least five times so far, this year.
  • Last December, just after the election of Mr. Trump, Russia and Cuba signed an agreement to modernize the Cuban army, and this year Russian officials — including military personnel — have made frequent visits to Havana.
  • In March, the Russian company Rosneft signed an agreement to ship 250,000 tons of crude oil and diesel to offset the decline in Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba.
  • Rosneft also has discussed other joint projects with Cuba for oil extraction and the possibility of modernizing the Cienfuegos refinery, operated jointly by Cuba’s CUPET and Venezuela’s PDVSA.
  • In April, Russia offered to fund $1.5 million in U.N. projects in Cuba for hurricane recovery and later pledged to support recovery efforts following damage caused by Irma.
  • In September, Cuban Vice President and Minister of Economy Ricardo Cabrisas signed a package of agreements with Russia in the energy, rail transport and elevator-supply sectors.
  • Recently, Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which has an office in Washington, and the Russian news agency Sputnik signed an official cooperation agreement.

These developments are no surprise to Richard Feinberg, an expert at Brookings Institution and a former U.S. policymaker for Latin America during Bill Clinton’s administration. He says, “[Vladimir] Putin’s message is not difficult to understand. [He] longs to regain the past imperial glory and relations with Cuba follow that same pattern.” Feinberg added, “From the point of view of the Cubans, they are looking to diversify their relationships. As closer economic relations with the U.S. do not seem likely for at least the next few years, they are looking for alternative allies, especially from countries with strong states like Russia and China that can offer favorable payment terms, something very welcome in an economy with poor international credit standards.”

Conclusion

In the above and the many other reports about the medical problems affecting some U.S. personnel serving in Cuba, I find it astounding that there still is official uncertainty about the cause or causes of the medical problems.

It also is astounding that no journalist or other commentator has publicly asked whether the U.S. has investigated whether the problems were caused by a secret and perhaps malfunctioning U.S. program or device and if so, to provide details. Such a possibility would help explain the delay in the U.S. public announcement of this set of medical problems and the apparent U.S. reluctance to share details of its investigation with Cuban investigators, all as discussed in previous posts to this blog. Moreover, this possibility would render various U.S. reactions—reducing the U.S. personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats and the latest U.S. travel warning—as cover ups and as excuses for additional tightening of U.S. screws on Cuba.

Moreover, Trump’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba, which are unjustified in and of themselves, have adverse effects on other important U.S. interests, including the prevention of increasing Russian influence in Latin America.

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[1] Cuba victim tells CBS News “complaints were ignored,” CBS News (Oct. 10, 2017); ‘Washington was trying to hide the acoustic attacks,’ says one of the victims, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 10, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—October 10, 2017.

[3]  White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff General John Kelly   (Oct. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, White House Says Cuba Could Stop Attacks on Americans, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-October 12, 2017.

[5] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the 2017 Values Voter Summit (Oct. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. to Maintain Cuba, Venezuela Sanctions Until Freedoms Restored: Trump, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[6] White House, Remarks by Vice President Mike Pence at National Hispanic Heritage Month Reception (Oct. 11, 2017)

[7] Assoc. Press, Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[8] Lima, The “Moscow Sign”, the mysterious Soviet Union bombardment of the US embassy, which lasted more than two decades during the Cold War, BBC News (Oct. 14, 2017).

[9] Assoc. Press, ‘Star Wars’ Fantasy? Cubans Doubt US Sonic Attacks Claims, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[10] Borger & Jaekl, Mass hysteria may explain ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, say top neurologists, Guardian (Oct. 12, 2017).

[11] Gámez, Amidst growing tensions with U.S., Cuba gets cozier with Russia, Miami Herald (Oct. 13, 2017).

U.N. Human Rights Council’s Sparring Over Cuban Human Rights

This September the U.N. Human Rights Council  in Geneva, Switzerland has encountered two items relating to Cuba: (a)  a Council reprimand of Cuba for its alleged punishing some of its citizens for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights and (b) Cuba’s human rights record.

The Council’s Reprimand

On September 20 the U.N. Human Rights Council reprimanded Cuba by putting it on a list of 29 states that have “punished people, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the UN on human rights.”  Such reprisals and intimidation include travel bans, asset-freezing, detention and torture.[1]

The  29 states on the list are Algeria, Bahrain, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Honduras, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. (The nine in bold along with 38 other U.N. members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly to serve on the Council.)

The report said the  following about Cuba:

“On 18 October 2016, some mandate holders raised with the [Cuban] Government allegations of harassment and reprisals against human rights defenders and members of the Cubalex Legal Information Center for their cooperation with the United Nations in the field of human rights (see A/HRC/34/75, CUB 3/2016). The allegations were mainly in relation to advocates’ cooperation with the Human Rights Council, its special procedures and the universal periodic review mechanism, and took the form of stop and questioning at the airport and harassment by immigration agents. Additionally, on 23 September 2016, the offices of Cubalex Legal Information Center were raided (CUB 3/2016).” (Report, Section V.B.5.)[2]

The Council’s Assistant Secretary-General, Andrew Gilmour, said, “There is something grotesque and entirely contrary to the Charter and spirit of the United Nations, and particularly this Council, that people get punished, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights,”

Complaint about Cuba’s Human Rights

On September 19, under the Council’s Agenda Item 4: “Human Rights Situations Requiring Council Attention,” a U.S. diplomat expressed U.S.’ deep concern about the human rights situation in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Russia, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo, (North Korea), China, DPRK (North Korea), Hong Kong, Belarus, Turkey, Venezuela and Cuba. (Emphasis added.)[3]

The diplomat’s statement about Cuba was very short: “We urge Cuba to release political prisoners and cease the harassment of civil society groups.” (Emphasis in original.)

The U.S. statement about Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, was longer. It said, “We condemn the Maduro regime’s repressive actions to violate human rights including by suppressing dissent and peaceful protests in Venezuela.  We call on it to dissolve the illegitimate Constituent Assembly and restore Venezuela’s democratic institutions; hold free, fair, and credible elections as soon as possible; and provide humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people.” (Emphasis in original.)

Cuba’s Response.

The same day (September 19), Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the Council, Ambassador Pedro L. Pedroso Cuesta, made the following longer response:[4]

  • “Is it politicization, double standards and selectivity, [all] bad practices, that will end up prevailing in the work of the Human Rights Council? Many of us hope not.”
  • “However, what we have heard in the debate of this theme, as well as in others last week, suggests that some promote that this is the way to go by this body.”
  • “Several countries continue to seek to stand as paradigms for the promotion and protection of human rights and use this and other agenda items to criticize other countries, while xenophobia, racism and intolerance increase in their own territories to a highly worrying level.”
  • “How can one think they are seriously concerned about human rights situations in countries of the South, when they promote wars and interventions against them, and then ignore or keep their hands off the suffering they caused with these actions to citizens whose rights are supposedly sought to improve?”
  • “Why do they oppose implementing the right to development and thereby improve the situation of millions of people living in poverty?”
  • “Cuba rejects manipulation for political ends and double standards in the treatment of human rights. The accusations against my country made by the [U.S.] representative, as well as unfounded, are inconsistent with the need to promote an objective, non-politicized and non-discriminatory debate on human rights issues.”
  • “I must also draw attention to the fact that such statement, centered on the alleged violations of others, aims at ignoring all human rights violations occurring in its territory, and the deep international concern caused by the language of exclusion that appears in that country.”
  • “We demand the cessation of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba for more than 55 years. The measures of June 16 to reinvigorate this blockade are doomed to failure, and will not achieve their purpose of weakening the Revolution or bending the Cuban people.”
  • “We reiterate our solidarity with the Venezuelan Government and people and call for an end to all interference in the internal affairs of that country. We demand respect for the legitimate right of the Venezuelan people to continue building the social model that drives the Bolivarian Revolution.”
  • “Let us not let the failure of the defunct Commission on Human Rights repeat itself in the Council. It is our duty to work for cooperation and respectful dialogue to prevail, and politicization, selectivity and double standards disappear once and for all.”

As mentioned in a previous post, U.S. Vice President MIke Pence at the U.N. Security Council Meeting  on September 20 complained about Cuba and certain other countries being members of the U.N. Human Rights Council in light of what he said was its oppression and repression, a charge rejected by Cuba at that same meeting and by Cuba’s Foreign Minister at the General Assembly on September 22.   https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/09/24/u-s-cuba-relations-discussed-in-u-n-proceedings/

Conclusion

These developments at the Council do not involve the potential imposition of sanctions of any kind on Cuba. Instead they are, I believe, verbal sparring on an international stage. (If I am missing some potential sanctions, please advise in a comment to this post.)

I have not seen any Cuban response to the Council’s reprimand. In any event, Cuba as soon as possible should end any harassment of Cubalex Legal Information Center and any of its officers and employees.

Any reforms of the Human Rights Council would seem to lie with the General Assembly, which I assume would only do so after significant study, analysis and voting, and I am unaware of any such study being proposed or conducted.

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[1] U.N. Human Rts. Council, Report of the Secretary-General: Cooperation with the United Nations, Its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights (# A/HRC/36/31, Sept. 15, 2017)(Advance unedited version); U.N. Human Rts Council, Oral presentation by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights of the Report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights (No. 36/31 Sept. 20, 2017); U.N. Human Rts Council, Report highlights rising reprisals against human rights defenders cooperating with the UN (Sept. 20, 2017); Reuters, Record Number of States Punishing Human Rights Activism: U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2] See earlier post to dwkcommentaries: Cuban Police Search and Seize Property of Independent Legal Center (Oct. 7, 2016) (CUBALEX is the Center in question); More Cuban Arrests of Dissidents ( Dec. 2, 2016) (arrest of Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, who is ‎affiliated with Cubalex).

[3] U.S. Mission Geneva, Statement by the United States of America (Sept. 19, 2017).

[4] Cuba rejects manipulation of human rights issue in Geneva, Granma (Sept. 21, 2017).

Bleak Economic Prospects for Cuba

 Although Cuba has reported a 1.1% increase of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the first six months of 2017, the prospects for the rest of the year are bleak.[1] Here are the problems:

  • Possible deepening of Venezuelan crisis and further reduction of its oil exports to Cuba.
  • Possible increased cost of oil from Russia, Angola, Algeria and other suppliers in the Caribbean.
  • Possible reduction of American travel to the island.
  • During the first half of this year Cuba paid $ 2.306 billion on its external debt and still has to catch up on current payments to foreign suppliers.
  • Decreased Cuban nickel production and drops in international prices for this commodity.
  • Reduced sugar production.
  • Elusive foreign investment on the island, and complicated, lengthy Cuban process for approval of same.
  • Recent Cuban government measures to control and stifle the country’s private sector.

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[1] Economists: The picture could complicate Cuba even further this second semester, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 19, 2017).

Cuban Reactions to Trump’s Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies

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

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

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

The Cuban Government’s Reactions[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuban Foreign Minister’s Reactions[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuban Citizens’ Reactions[4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

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

Business with Cuban State or Military Enterprises

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

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

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

Americans Travel to Cuba[2]

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. “Democracy Promotion” Programs in Cuba

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

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

Cuban Human Rights[4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The U.S. Senate’s Dysfunctional Confirmation Process

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

The Current Process

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

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

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

Committee’s Confirmation Hearing for Sessions

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

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

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

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

Committee’s Post-Hearing Proceedings for Sessions

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

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

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

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

Supplemental Committee Proceedings for Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Suggested Different Procedure

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate Confirms Nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

On January 23 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a straight party-line vote, 11 to 10, approved the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. [1]  On February 1 the full Senate did the same, 56 to 43, which was the largest negative vote for confirmation for this position in the Senate’s history. [2]

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Committee, said the following:[3]=

  • “I personally have no doubt that Rex Tillerson is well-qualified. He’s managed the world’s eighth largest company by revenue with over 75,000 employees. Diplomacy has been a critical component of his positions in the past, and he has shown himself to be an exceptionally able and successful negotiator who has maintained deep relationships around the world.”
  • “The other absolute standard we apply to each of these nominees who come before us is to ensure they have no conflicts of interest related to their position.”
  • “The non-partisan director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) recently stated that Mr. Tillerson is making ‘a clean break’ from Exxon and is free of these conflicts. He has even gone so far to say that Mr. Tillerson’s ethics agreement ‘serves as a sterling model for what we would like to see from other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost.’”
  • “I believe inquiries into Mr. Tillerson’s nomination have been fair and exhaustive. His hearing lasted over eight hours, and he’s responded to over 1,000 questions for the record. I’m proud of the bipartisan process, which is in keeping of the tradition of this committee that we pursued this, regarding his nomination, and I think that while our opinions and votes today may differ, that the process has been very sound.”

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., RI), voting against confirming this nomination, said the following:[4]

  • “I believe Mr. Tillerson’s demonstrated business orientation and his responses to questions during the confirmation hearing could compromise his ability as Secretary of State to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years. I will therefore not be supporting his nomination with my vote in Committee or on the Senate floor.”
  • “The United States plays a unique and exceptional role in world affairs.  Our values are our interests, as I said at Mr. Tillerson’s hearing. And our leadership in supporting democracy, universal human rights, unencumbered civil society, and unabridged press and religious freedoms is indispensable if these ideas and ideals are to be real and tangible in the world.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson equivocated on these self-evident truths under direct questioning, repeatedly prioritizing narrow business interests ahead of these core national security interests.  The power of the Secretary of State to call out wrong, to name and shame, and to fight each day on behalf of the American people and freedom-seeking people the world over is an enduring symbol to the oppressed and the vulnerable that the United States has their back.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to characterize Russia and Syria’s atrocities as war crimes, or Philippine President Duterte’s extrajudicial killings as gross human rights violations. And he was not willing to dismiss with unqualified clarity a registry for any ethnic or religious group of Americans.”
  • “I also believe Mr. Tillerson misled the Committee regarding his knowledge of ExxonMobil’s [well documented] lobbying on U.S. sanctions [against “some of the worst human rights abusers in the world such as Sudan, Syria, and Iran”]. Additionally, ExxonMobil’s stance on U.S. sanctions against Russia for their illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine in 2014 was well known at the time . . . . This is why it is particularly concerning that Mr. Tillerson indicated during questioning that he was not willing to recuse himself from matters relevant to ExxonMobil for the entire duration of his term.”
  • “While I was pleased that Mr. Tillerson said that he would support the laws I have written to hold accountable human rights abusers globally and in Russia specifically, and that America should have a seat at the table when discussing climate change with the international community, merely being willing to uphold the law or being willing to participate in global diplomacy are simply the necessary prerequisites for the job, not sufficient cause for confirmation.”
  • “On Russia more broadly, I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place. . . . He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Russia attacked us through cyber warfare and has committed even greater atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and Eastern Europe. They must be held accountable and our bipartisan legislation is an important tool to do so.”
  • “Strangely, he was quick to caution about easing sanctions on Cuba because it would benefit a repressive regime, but seemed indifferent to doing business with Russia knowing that that business helped finance their ongoing violations of international norms.”
  • “Finally, America deserves a Secretary of State who will take advantage of every smart power tool in America’s diplomatic arsenal before recommending the use of force. I was therefore disturbed when Mr. Tillerson signaled during the hearing he would have recommended using force sooner when asked about real-world scenarios. The Secretary of State must be the consistent voice in any Administration that ensures the President has exhausted all diplomatic efforts before we put our brave men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Senate Debate and Vote

During the debate, supporters stressed Tillerson’s qualifications and the importance of confirming the president’s choice or this important position.

The affirmative vote of 56 was recorded by all 52 Republican senators plus three Democrats (Heitkamp (ND), Manchin (WV) and Warner (VA)) and Independent King (ME).

The negative vote of 43 was registered by  the other 42 Democrat senators and Independent Sanders (VT).

Conclusion

In the meantime, there have been at least four major developments linked to the future role of the State Department and its new Secretary.

First, a White House post, “America First Foreign Policy,” has no specific references to Cuba. But it does have this helpful general statement: In “pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”

Second, the White House has informed at least 13 career Foreign Service officers in charge of the State Department’s bureaus responsible for policy, security and other matters that they will not be retained in those positions. A Department spokesman said, “These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments, but of limited term.” However, as Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration and a longtime diplomat, said, “Normally the outgoing person would stay in the job until his or her successor is confirmed. What you don’t want to have is a vacuum without senior leadership.”[5]

Third, the Trump Administration on January 27 issued an executive order banning admission into the U.S. of all refugees worldwide and all immigrants from seven states with majority-Muslim populations while simultaneously welcoming Christian immigrants from those same countries. This immediately prompted lawsuits in federal courts across the country with a federal court in Seattle on February 3 issuing a temporary restraining order against implementation of the executive order and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit the next morning denying the Government’s motion to stay the lower court’s order.[6]

Fourth, in another immediate reaction to that executive order, over 900 State Department diplomats prepared and submitted a dissent cable objecting to that same executive order because of its impact on “green card holders, visa holders, visa seekers, the young, the old, and the sick.” [7]

On the periphery perhaps of the above turmoil is whether the Trump Administration will abandon or alter the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalisation of relations with Cuba. As noted in a prior post, the Administration recently stated it has commenced an overall review of U.S. policies regarding Cuba, which in the abstract sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Previous statements by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson, however, suggest that a significant retreat is on its way, a development that would be very troubling to this blogger and other supporters of normalisation.[8]

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[1] Flegenheimer, Mike Pompeo Is Confirmed to Lead C.I.A., as Rex Tillerson Advances, N.Y. Times (Jan. 23, 2017); Schor, Senate panel approves Tillerson nomination, Politico (Jan. 23, 2017); Cama, Senate panel votes to confirm Tillerson, The Hill (Jan. 23, 2017); Demirjian & Sullivan, Tillerson approved by Senate panel as secretary of state, Wash. Post (Jan. 23, 2017).

[2] Harris, Rex Tillerson Is Confirmed as Secretary of State Amid Record Opposition, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc Press, Senate Confirms Tillerson To Be   Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate roll vote for Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb., 1, 2017).

[3] Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approves Nomination of Rex Tillerson to Be Secretary of State (Jan. 23, 2017).

[4]Cardin, Cardin Statement on Tillerson Vote (Jan. 23, 2016).

[5] Gearan, Trump administration choosing to replace several senior State Department officials, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2017); Schwartz, Facing Replacement, Top State Department Officials Resign, W.S.J. (Jan. 26, 2017).

[6] E.g., Full Executive Order Text: Trump’s Action Limiting Refugees Into the U.S., N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017); Ländler, Appeals Court Rejects Request to Immediately Restore Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Trump’s Early Moves Spark Alarm, Resistance, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Biddle, New Memo from State Department Dissent Chanel Describes Anguish of Spurned Refugees, The Intercept (Jan. 31, 2017).

[8] These posts to dwkcommentaries.com have discussed preliminary indicators for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations: The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under the Trump Administration (Dec. 22, 2016); Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Jan. 23, 2017).