Medical ‘Incidents’ Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Prompt U.S. To Reduce Staff at Havana Embassy and Urge Americans Not To Travel to Cuba

On September 29, following a week of news about the subject, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement, “Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba.”[1]

The Secretary’s Statement[2]

The Statement, after reviewing the “variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature” to 21 U.S. Embassy employees, asserted that on September 29, “the Department ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as well as all family members. Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our Embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”

The Statement added that the “decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel. We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”

Simultaneously the Department “issued a Travel Warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba and informing them of our decision to draw down our diplomatic staff. We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”

These action s were taken even though the ”Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure.”

This Statement was preceded by news reports that the U.S. would begin withdrawing roughly 60% of its staff from the Embassy and diplomats’ families. This was not seen as punishment for the Cuban government, but a means of protecting diplomats and their families from the strange attacks. On September 28, Heather Nauert said the Secretary was reviewing all options on “how to best protect our American personnel’ in Cuba. As a result, the U.S. will stop processing Cuban requests for visas at the Embassy.” [3]

Just prior to the issuance of this Statement, the Department held a press conference on that subject.[4] The following additional points were made:

  • “Until the Government of Cuba can assure the safety of U.S. Government personnel in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so as to minimize the number of U.S. Government personnel at risk of exposure. The remaining personnel will carry out core diplomatic and consular functions, including providing emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Cuba. Routine visa operations are suspended indefinitely. Short-term travel by U.S. Government officials to Cuba will also be limited to those involved with the ongoing investigation or who have a need to travel related to the U.S. national security or crucial embassy operations. The United States will not send official delegations to Cuba or conduct bilateral meetings in Cuba for the time being. Meetings may continue in the United States.”
  • “The governments of the United States and Cuba have not yet identified the responsible party, but the Government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba.”
  • The Department has “not ruled out the possibility of a third country as a part of the investigation, but that investigation continues.”
  • The “cooperation that the Cuban Government has given to our efforts to understand what is happening in these attacks to [has] been ongoing, and we expect it to continue.”
  • “The ordered departure will result in more than half of the embassy footprint being reduced.”
  • The Department does not “know the means, the methods, or how these attacks are being carried out, and so I could not characterize them as having stopped in August.”
  • “The staff who were affected at hotels were temporary duty staff at the embassy.”
  • The Department is not “aware of any incidents involving [our Cuban staff at the embassy] or attacks involving them.”
  • The U.S. “investigation continues, but at this moment we don’t have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. And so, I really can’t speculate on engagement or not by Cubans or other parties. The investigation’s ongoing and we will see where the facts lead us in terms of cause or source.”

Reactions to the Statement[5]

Before the issuance of the Statement, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, which is the union representing U.S. diplomats, opposed the then threatened withdrawal of staff from the Havana embassy. He said, “We have a mission to do. AFSA’s view is that American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game. We’re used to operating with serious health risks in many environments, whether it’s parasites that rip up our guts in Africa, exposure to Zika virus and dengue fever, or air pollution in China and India,”

Immediately afterwards, Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) said, “”Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalization process between the United States and Cuba. Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process. . . .We must do all we can do solve this mystery so that our embassy personnel can safely return as quickly as possible.” Representative James McGovern (Dem., MA) had a similar reaction:  the drawdown will make it “harder for Cuban and American families to travel and visit loved ones” and “America cannot afford a return to the failed Cold War isolationist policies that divided families for 50 years.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) did not express agreement or disagreement with the Statement, but instead said these actions did not go far enough. He initially tweeted, “”Shameful that @StateDept withdraws most staff from @USEmbCuba but Castro can keep as many as he wants in U.S.” In a subsequent longer statement, he said, “it is weak, unacceptable and outrageous for the U.S. State Department to allow Raul Castro to keep as many of his operatives in the U.S. as he wants. The Cuban government has failed its obligation under international treaties to keep foreign diplomats safe on its soil. The idea that Cuba knows nothing about how these attacks took place and who perpetrated them is absurd.  . . . Until those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice, the U.S. should immediately expel an equal number of Cuban operatives, downgrade the U.S. embassy in Havana to an interests section, and consider relisting Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

President Trump, ignoring the Department’s continued refusal to blame Cuba, did just that in a brief comment about the Statement when he said, Cuba “did some bad things in Cuba.”

Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, thought the U.S. decision for the Embassy to cease processing Cuban applications for visas to emigrate to the U.S. might violate its agreement with Cuba from the 1990s to issue 20,000 such visas a year if there is no third-country workaround for those visa applications,

The new U.S. travel warning against Americans traveling to the island did not scare tour companies, airlines, cruise ship operators and others in the travel industry. Many have said they will continue taking Americans to Cuba. Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours, said, “We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travelers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes. . . . . [The] experience that our travelers have had on the ground with the Cuban people has been nothing short of amazing. We have no reason to expect that these experiences will not continue.” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas, said that “consistent with U.S. law, our operations in Cuba will continue.”

Canada also has had some of its diplomats in Havana experience similar medical problems, but its Foreign Ministry said, “We continue to monitor the situation closely and we have no plans to travel advice or remove any staff.”

Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban diplomat who was in charge of U.S. relations until this year, called Washington’s reaction “hasty” and warned that it would “affect the bilateral relations, specifically the cooperation in matters of mutual interest.” But she said Cuba was committed to determining the cause of the symptoms experienced by the American diplomats.”

For ordinary Cubans, the Statement “stirred anxiety and dread.” The ban on Americans traveling to the island “dealt a harsh blow to Cubans who had hoped the nascent normalization of relations with the United States that began in late 2014 would usher in a period of economic growth and greater prosperity in the impoverished Communist nation.” In addition, the “decision to stop issuing visas in Havana indefinitely leaves thousands of Cubans in limbo. Washington typically grants 20,000 immigrant visas a year to reunite Cubans with relatives in the United States, and thousands more to enable students, academics and tourists to travel.” Harold Cárdenas, a popular Cuban blogger who recently started a master’s degree program in international relations at Columbia University, said, “The most immediate is it will perpetuate estrangement, not just political, but physical. There will be a price, and it will be paid by Cuban families.”

Secretary of State’s Prior Meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister[6]

Late afternoon on September 26, at Cuba’s request, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the State Department to discuss issues relating to the medical problems of U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba.

Afterwards the State Department said the conversation was “firm and frank” and that Tillerson raised “profound concern” about the diplomats’ safety and security. State Department spokeswoman Heather Neuter emphasized that Tillerson conveyed how serious the situation is and emphasized that Cuba is obligated under international law to protect foreign diplomats.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s lengthy post-meeting statement was the following:

  • The “Foreign Minister reiterated the seriousness, celerity and professionalism with which the Cuban authorities have taken on this issue. Following instructions from the top level of the Cuban government, a priority investigation was opened . . . [immediately after] these incidents were first reported and additional measures were adopted to protect the US diplomats and their relatives. This has been recognized by the representatives of the US specialized agencies who have travelled to Cuba as from June, whose visits have been considered as positive by the Cuban counterparts.”
  • He “reiterated . . . how important it was for the US authorities to cooperate, in an effective way, with the Cuban authorities in order to clarify these incidents, which are unprecedented in Cuba.”
  • He [also] “reaffirmed . . . that the decision and the argument claimed by the US Government to withdraw two Cuban diplomats from Washington were unwarranted and emphasized that Cuba strictly abides by its obligations under the Vienna Convention on the protection and integrity of diplomats, an area in which it keeps an impeccable record.
  • “He reaffirmed that the Cuban government has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any kind against diplomats. The Cuban government has never permitted nor will it ever permit the use of its territory by third parties for this purpose.”
  • He “stated that according to the preliminary results obtained by the Cuban authorities in their investigations, which have borne in mind the information given by the US authorities, there is no evidence so far of the cause or the origin of the health disorders reported by the US diplomats.”
  • “The Foreign Minister reaffirmed that the investigation to resolve this matter is still in progress and that Cuba has a keen interest in bringing it to closure, for which it is essential to count on the effective cooperation of the US authorities. He also stated that it would be regrettable that a matter of this nature is politicized and that hasty decisions not supported by conclusive evidence and investigation results are taken.”
  • Finally, “the Minister reiterated the willingness of Cuba to continue holding the bilateral dialogue on areas of common interest, based on respect and sovereign equality, despite the profound differences that exist between the two countries. “(Emphases added.)

Earlier that same day U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee “that it was a reasonable suspicion that Cuban authorities either were involved in the incidents or at least knew they were occurring . . . [since] Cuba keeps tight surveillance on American diplomats in the country and would be likely to know if something significant were happening to them.” However, he also admitted that with so much unknown, even that assumption is less than certain “and “as a U.S. government official, I don’t know that.”[7]

Suggested U.S. Responses to the “Attacks” on Diplomats in Cuba[8]

Although perhaps superseded by the previously mentioned Secretary’s Statement, an earlier editorial in the Wall Street Journal proposed that until Cuba offers a persuasive explanation of how these incidents occurred without Cuban collaboration, the U.S. should expel 19 Cuban diplomats from its embassy in Washington, D.C., which with the previous U.S. expulsions of two Cubans would equal the 21 Americans attacked in Cuba. If such a persuasive explanation is provided, then the Cuban diplomats could return to their posts. The Journal, however, is skeptical of such an explanation being provided in light of what it says is Cuba’s “long record of harassing U.S. government employees on the island.”

A more aggressive response suggestion has been offered by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC), a U.S. 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in 1992 to promote a nonviolent transition to a free and democratic Cuba with zero tolerance for human rights violations. It asserted the following:

  • “The unacceptability of the thesis that the perpetrator was a third party. In the circumstances of comprehensive surveillance (visual, physical, digital, phone, microphones) to which these diplomats are subject 24 by 7, it is impossible for third players to act in independent and undetected fashion for over nine months and in more than two dozen locations such as residences and hotel rooms.”
  • The unacceptability that these facts are diluted, minimized, and silenced by the Department of State and/or any other U.S. agency participating in this investigation.T
  • The unacceptability to allow the perpetrator to escape the scandal as well its political, diplomatic and financial consequences.
  • The unacceptability of diluting the legal responsibility of the perpetrator so that victims could not be compensated nor the truth identified.

Other News[9]

There has been other recent news regarding these issues.

First, a Miami television station reported that at least four additional U.S. diplomats who served in Cuba have been hurt by sonic attacks and that these incidents occurred inside the U.S. Embassy and at several Havana hotels, including the famous Hotel Nacional. This brings the total affected individuals to 25. (Presumably, under the Wall Street Journal’s rationale, if there is confirmation that 25 Americans who have been affected, there would be 23 additional Cubans expelled.)  However, the Miami Herald said that according to an unnamed State Department source, there are only 21 confirmed cases, not 25, and none of the attacks occurred at the U.S. Embassy; the same, more authoritative, message was provided at the previously mentioned September 29 press briefing.

Second, according to CNN, a senior U.S. official said that some of the 21 individuals previously counted as subjects of such attacks were targeted at least 50 times.

Third, an independent Cuban news outlet, Diario de Cuba, reports that among the Canadians similarly affected while serving in Cuba are “several children” from “more than five families of Canadian diplomats.”

 Conclusion

These medical “incidents” are deeply disturbing, and the U.S. and Cuba need to determine the cause(s) and perpetrator(s). The good news is that the U.S. is not rushing to judgment, that in the near term the U.S. is taking reasonable steps to protect its diplomats and families and that the U.S. and Cuba maintain diplomatic relations and are cooperating on these issues and other matters.

The new Travel Warning, however, goes too far when it starts, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba” and then admits that the “attacks” to date have been on “U.S. Embassy employees” and “have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.” Moreover, as discussed in prior blog posts, the small number of hotels to date have all been in Havana that have been used by U.S. Embassy employees on a short-term basis and U.S. citizens who are not connected with the Embassy have not been subjects of any of these “attacks.” As a result, the new Travel Warning should have made these facts clear and at most cautioned U.S. citizens about using certain Havana hotels while also telling them that many Cuban citizens are making their Havana homes available to foreign guests and that there have been no problems associated with the many other cities and towns on the island.

For those of us favoring continuation of the process of normalizing relations between the two countries, we must continue to oppose requests for the U.S. to take various actions against Cuba, including closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, all before there is a well-documented conclusion to the ongoing U.S. and Cuban investigations of this mystery.

Similarly, for the same reason we must oppose the suggestion from Senator Rubio, the Wall Street Journal and any others to expel Cuban diplomats equal to the number of U.S. diplomats affected by the “sonic attacks” or whatever else has caused medical problems.

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[1]  This blog has published the following posts about these issues: U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba (Aug. 23, 2017); At least 16 U.S. Diplomats Who Had Served in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Aug. 24, 2017) (comment to 8/24/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for Americans Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 8/24/17 post);  News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017); In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 2, 2017); Two More U.S. Diplomats Serving in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Sept. 13, 2017); More Mystery Surrounding “Medical Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Sept. 14, 2017); GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 16, 2017); U.S. Evaluating Whether To Close U.S. Embassy in Cuba (Sept, 18, 2017); Developments Regarding U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2]  Tillerson, Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Cuts Staff from Cuba Over Mysterious Injuries, Warns Travelers, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Slashes Cuba Embassy Staff, Warns Americans Not to Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[3]  Ordonez & Kumar, U.S. does not believe Cuba is behind sonic attacks on American diplomats, Miami Herald (Sept 26, 2017)

[4] Dep’t of State, Senior State Department Officials on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017).

[5]  Hudson, Trump’s Thinking About Pulling US Personnel from Cuba. US Diplomats that That’s A Bad Idea, BuzzFeedNEWS (Sept. 28, 2017); Leahy, Leahy REAX On The U.S. Withdrawal of Most U.S. Embassy Personnel And Their Families From CUBA (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. Rep. McGovern Statement on U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Travel Warning to Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Democrat derides Cuba decision as overreaction, Wash. Post (Sept. 29, 2017); Harpaz & Gomez, Travel industry sticking with trips to Cuba from US, Wash. Post (Sept.29, 2017); Rubio: State Department’s Response to Cuba Attacks ‘Weak, Unacceptable and Outrageous,’ (Sept. 29, 2017); White House, Remarks by President Trump in Press Gaggle Before Marine One Departure (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Trump Says Cuba ‘Did Some Bad Things’ Aimed at U.S. Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff from Cuba, N.Y.  Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Statement to the press by General Director for US Affairs, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro (Sept. 29, 2017); Londońo, Cubans Alarmed at U.S. Embassy Withdrawals and Travel Warning, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Cubans Are Heartbroken, Angry Can’t Seek U.S. Visas in Havana, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff From Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[6] Reuters, Tillerson to Meet Cuba’s Foreign Minister in Washington as Tensions Climb, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Cuba Says No Clues Yet to Who Attacked Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Warns U.S. Against Hasty Decisions in Mysterious Diplomats Case, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cuba Foreign Minister meets with US Secretary of State (Sept. 26, 2017).

[7] Id. The Under Secretary’s direct testimony concerned the redesign of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). (Dep’t of State, John J. Sullivan: Testimony Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sept. 26, 2017.

[8] Editorial, Cuba’s Sonic Attacks, W.S.J. (Sept. 25, 2017); FHRC, The responsibility for What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept 2017).

[9] Vela, Total number of Americans hurt in Cuba sonic attacks now at 25, Miami Television Channel 10 News (Sept. 25, 2017); Operand & Labatt, US diplomats, families in Cuba targeted nearly 50 times by sonic attacks, says US official, CNN (Sept. 24, 2017); There are children among Canadians affected by the so-called ‘acoustic attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 28, 2017).

 

 

 

The U.S. Senate’s Dysfunctional Confirmation Process

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

The Current Process

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

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

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

Committee’s Confirmation Hearing for Sessions

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

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

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

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

Committee’s Post-Hearing Proceedings for Sessions

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

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

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

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

Supplemental Committee Proceedings for Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Suggested Different Procedure

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Ends Special Immigration Benefits for Cubans

On January 12, the U.S. announced that it is ending, effectively immediately, the “dry foot” immigration policy for Cubans and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Policy. Below we will examine these cancelled policies, the U.S. announcement of the policy changes, Cuba’s announcement of the U.S. policy changes and reactions to the changes.

The Cancelled U.S. Policies[1]

The “dry feet” policy has allowed any Cuban who arrived on land (with “dry feet”) at a U.S. point of entry to come into the U.S. and, absent negative factors, qualify for U.S. permanent residency status after one year. This policy originated soon after the early years of the Cuban Revolution before the U.S. in 1967 had ratified the international treaty on refugees and before it had adopted in 1980 a statute implementing that treaty (the Refugee Act of 1980) and when the U.S. assumed that all Cubans arriving in the U.S. were fleeing persecution.

This policy originally included Cubans who were intercepted on the water by the U.S. Coast Guard. However, in response to the Cuban Government’s legitimate concerns about the personal safety of Cubans attempting to reach the U.S. on unsafe boats, the U.S. (Bill Clinton Administration) and Cuba on September 9, 1994, reached an agreement whereby the U.S. would return to Cuba its nationals who were intercepted at sea, i.e., who had “wet feet.”

The U.S. Cuban Medical Professional Parole Policy, which was adopted on August 11, 2006, allowed “Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the U.S.” It was available to “health-care providers who are sent by the [Cuban government] to work or study in third countries and who . . . are often denied exit permission by the Cuban Government to come to the [U.S.] when they qualify under other established legal channels to migrate from Cuba. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers are examples of groups that may qualify for the . . . program.”

U.S. Announcement of the Change[2]

 On January 12 President Obama announced that the U.S. “is ending the so-called “wet-foot/dry foot” policy, which was put in place more than twenty years ago and was designed for a different era.  Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the [U.S.] illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities.  By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries. The Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea.”

The President also said the U.S. is “ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. The [U.S.] and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people. By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people.  Cuban medical personnel will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.”[3]

This termination follows months of negotiations with the Cuban government over the latter’s agreeing to accept returning Cubans.

Nearly simultaneously with the President, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), issued a statement: “To the extent permitted by the current laws of our two countries, the [U.S.] will now treat Cuban migrants in a manner consistent with how it treats others; unauthorized migrants can expect to be removed unless they qualify for humanitarian relief under our laws.”  The Department also released a Fact Sheet and the Joint Statement of the two governments about the change. Johnson pointed out that Cuba will take back citizens as long as less than four years have passed between the time the migrant left Cuba and the start of the U.S. deportation proceedings.

These changes do not affect U.S. law regarding “refugees” fleeing persecution in their home countries. Thus, if a Cuban fears “persecution” upon returning to the island, then the individual may apply for asylum in the U.S. as a “refugee” under international and U.S. law if the individual can establish that he or she has a “well-founded fear” of “persecution” in Cuba “due to” his or her “political opinion, race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group.” (Statutory words are in quotes.) They may do so in the U.S. or at an U.S. embassy or consulate in another country.[4]

Cuban Announcement of the Change[5]

Welcoming this change, the Cuban Government stated, “After nearly a year of negotiation and encouraged by the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015, based on mutual respect and political will to strengthen these links and establish new understandings on various issues of common interest, [the two] governments were able to concretize this commitment that should contribute to the normalization of migration relations. . . .”

The U.S. “wet foot-dry foot” policy gave Cubans “preferential and unique treatment not received by citizens of other countries, so it was also an incitement to illegal departures. Its implementation and that of other policies led to migratory crises, kidnapping of ships and aircraft and the commission of crimes, such as trafficking in migrants, trafficking in persons, immigration fraud and the use of violence with a destabilizing extraterritorial impact on other countries of the region [that were] used [for] transit to arrive at American territory.”

This change will meant that the U.S., “consistent with its laws and international norms, shall return to the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of Cuba, consistent with its Laws and international norms, will receive all Cuban citizens, who . . . are detected by the competent authorities of the [U.S.] when they tried to enter or stay irregularly in that country, violating its laws.”

The U.S. “Parole Program for Cuban Medical Professionals, which was part of the arsenal to deprive the country of doctors, nurses and other professionals of the sector, . . . and an attack against Cuba’s humanitarian and solidarity medical missions in Third World countries that need it so much. This policy prompted Cuban health personnel working in third countries to abandon their missions and emigrate to the [U.S.], becoming a reprehensible practice that damaged Cuba’s international medical cooperation programs.”

It “will also be necessary for the U.S. Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.”

Unaffected are prior agreements “to prevent illegal departures by sea and to return to Cuba all persons who are intercepted in those acts or who enter the Guantánamo Naval Base. The Government of the United States will continue to guarantee regular migration from Cuba with a minimum of 20,000 people per year.”

“Both governments agreed to apply their migration laws in a non-selective manner and in accordance with their international obligations. They also undertook to prevent risky exits that endanger human life, to prevent irregular migration and to combat violence associated with such manifestations, such as trafficking and trafficking in persons.” In addition, “the parties will promote effective bilateral cooperation to prevent and prosecute those involved in trafficking in persons, as well as crimes associated with migratory movements, which endanger their national security, including the hijacking of aircraft and vessels.”

“In keeping with its international obligations and its legislation, the Government of the Republic of Cuba ratifies its commitment to guarantee regular, safe and orderly migration, as well as to fully comply with this new agreement for which the corresponding measures have been taken internally. It will continue to guarantee the right to travel and emigrate to Cuban citizens and to return to the country, in accordance with the requirements of immigration law.”

The Cuban Government also published the Joint Statement of the two governments as had DHS in the U.S.

At a press conference on January 12 Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official responsible for relations with the U.S., said that the joint “agreement recognizes the need to facilitate regular migration for the benefit of both countries, to prevent irregular migration and to prevent risky exits that endanger human life and to combat violence associated with this phenomenon and related offenses, such as trafficking in persons and trafficking in persons.”

Vidal was joined by Gustavo Machin, the Deputy Director of the United States Department of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, who summarized the joint agreement. He added that “Cuba will accept that persons who were included in the list of 2,746 Cuban citizens who migrated by the port of Mariel in 1980 [“the Mariel boat lift”] and were considered ineligible to remain in the [U.S.], . . and [those] who cannot now be returned will be replaced by other persons and returned to Cuba. Cuba will also consider receiving other Cuban citizens who are currently in the [U.S.], who violated [U.S.] laws and whom U.S. authorities have determined cannot remain in its territory.”

 Reactions to the Change[6] 

As to be expected, U.S. congressional response was mixed.

Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem, VT) said, “This is a welcome step in reforming an illogical and discriminatory policy that contrasted starkly with the treatment of deserving refugees from other countries.” Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) stated that eliminating the policy “is in our national interest. It is a win for taxpayers, border security, and our allies in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a move that brings our Cuba policy into the modern era while allowing the United States to continue its generous approach to those individuals and refugees with a legitimate claim for asylum.”

Representative Kathy Castor (Dem., FL) and co-author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.-442), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/01/12/representatives-emmer-and-castor-introduce-bill-to-end-embargo-of-cuba/ said, ““The end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy should be followed by congressional action to lift the outdated economic embargo and improve economic conditions for everyday Cubans. . . . I have witnessed how the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy created an uneven playing field for immigrants from other Caribbean nations who are also seeking the opportunity to pursue the American dream.    I have also seen Cubans who try to come here for short term visits to see family members negatively affected by ‘wet foot/dry foot.’  The change in policy today will help ensure that we can have safer and more orderly migration with all of our Caribbean neighbors.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) said that the incoming Trump administration should reverse the part of the executive order ending the medical parole system and that there should be assurances that Cubans “who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime [but] . . . are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum.”

Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who emigrated from Cuba as a child, decried the elimination of the medical parole programs, calling it a “foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude.”

According the Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), “Today’s announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.” He added, “The Obama administration seeks to pursue engagement with the Castro regime at the cost of ignoring the present state of torture and oppression, and its systematic curtailment of freedom.”

A positive view of the change was taken by Peter Kornbluh, a co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba,” which recounts the secret negotiations between the United States and Cuban governments that forged the policy of engagement. He said, “The exceptionalism of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy toward Cuba is a relic of the Cold War, and this decision by the administration is really its final effort to normalize an area of interaction between Cuba and the United States, migration, that is clearly in need of normalization.”

James Williams, the President of Engage Cuba, the leading coalition of private companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, said these changes are “a logical, responsible, and important step towards further normalizing relations with Cuba. The ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy has been an enduring problem that decades of hostility and isolation failed to solve. This change, which has long had strong bipartisan support, would not have been possible without the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.”

Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center, said that the number of Cubans entering the United States is actually much higher because tens of thousands more overstay their visitor visas and still others migrate legally. “This is a favor to Trump because it’s a tough measure to take, but it’s the right measure to take,” Mr. Peters said. “These are economic migrants coming here that, unlike any other nationality, get a big package of government benefits without any justification.”

Kevin Appleby of the Center for Migration Studies of New York praised the specific change, while questioning the broader rules covering asylum. “The good news is that it ensures equal treatment between Cubans and asylum-seekers from other nations,” he said. “The bad news is that our asylum system is broken and does not afford adequate due process and protection to those who need it.”

Support for this change of policy also was voiced by Pedro Freyre, the chair of the international practice group of the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Akerman LLP. He observed, “This partially closes Cuba’s escape valve and will put pressure on Cubans to move forward more rapidly with reforms.” For years, he said, the last resort for Cubans frustrated with the lack of opportunity on the island has been to hire a “lanchero,” or people smuggler and attempt to reach the U.S. “Now they will have to look inward to see what they can do to fix Cuba.” The same opinion was offered by Jorge Mas, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, who welcomed the change and said it would pressure the Cuban government to improve conditions on the island.

Average Cubans and opponents of the island’s communist leaders said they expected pressure for reform to increase with the elimination of a mechanism that siphoned off the island’s most dissatisfied citizens and turned them into sources of remittances supporting relatives who remained on the island. This point was emphasized by Benjamin Rhodes, White House Deputy National Security Advisor and a principal negotiator of the rapprochement, saying, “It’s important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change.”

Last year thousands of Cubans who were seeking to reach the U.S. border with Mexico and to come into the U.S. with “dry feet” created major logistical and financial problems for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama and to a lesser extent Colombia and Ecuador. This naturally upset the governments of those countries, especially when their citizens were not eligible for these U.S. immigration policies.

Therefore, these governments welcome the U.S. terminating the policies. El Salvador’s foreign ministry said, “There cannot be migrants of different categories.” Honduras said it would wait to see if the flow of Cubans actually declined.

Cubans who had left their homeland and were now trying to reach U.S. soil when the decision was announced lamented the policy change. “It has fallen on us like a bucket of water because were never thought that at this point and with so little time before Obama leaves office that his government would make this horrible decision,” said Eugenia Diaz Hernandez, a 55-year-old Cuban in Panama whose voyage with her daughter and granddaughter had taken her through Guyana, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. “We are adrift.” Another Cuban, Jose Enrique Manreza, who ran a soda warehouse in Havana, is now stranded in Mexico, after selling his house and belongings in Cuba to raise $10,000 for his journey to reach the U.S. “Imagine how I feel, after I spent six days and six nights running through rivers and jungles in the humidity.”

Conclusion

This policy change, in my opinion, was long overdue. I pray and hope that the incoming Trump Administration will not reverse this change.

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

[1] U.S. Dep’t of State, Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (Jan. 26, 2009)  See generally posts listed in the “Cuba Migration to U.S.” and “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: Cuba.

[2] White House, Statement by the President on Cuba Policy Changes (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Statement by Secretary Johnson on the Continued Normalization of Our Migration Relationship with Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Fact Sheet: Changes to Parole and Expedited Removal Policies Affecting Cuban Nationals (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Joint Statement [of U.S. and Cuba regarding changes in U.S. immigration policies] (Jan. 12, 2017); Reuters, Obama Administration Ends Special Immigration Policy for Cubans, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, Obama Ends Visa-Free Path for Cubans Who Make It to U.S. Soil, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Caldwell & Pace (AP), Obama making change to Cuban immigration policy, Wash. Post (Jan. 12, 2017); DeYoung, Obama ending ‘wet-foot, dry foot’ policy allowing Cubans reaching U.S. soil to stay and receive residency, Wash. Post (Jan. 12, 2017); Davis & Robles, Obama Ends Exemption for Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Lee, Schwartz & Córdoba, U.S. Ends ‘No-Visa’ Era for Cuban Emigrés, W.S. J. (Jan. 12, 2017).

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

[4] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Art. I (A); 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(42)See generally the following dwkcommentaries.com blog posts: Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011); Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011);Teaching the International Human Rights Course (July 1, 2011).

[5] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Declaration of Revolutionary Government (Jan. 12, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Joint Declaration Cuba-United States (Jan. 12, 2017); Cuba ratifies its commitment to regular, safe and orderly migration, Granma (Jan. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, Havana Hails End to Special US Immigration Policy for Cubans, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).

[6] Flake Statement on Elimination of Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy (Jan. 12, 2017); Menendez Statement on Latest Cuba Policy Changes (Jan. 12, 2017); Rubio Comments on Obama Administration Changes to Cuba Policy (Jan. 12, 2017);Castor, Statement on Ending “Wet Foot/DryFoot” (Jan. 12, 2017); Engage Cuba Statement on Administration ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy Announcement (Jan. 12, 2017);Ben Rhodes: ‘There is bipartisan support’ for Congress to repeal the Adjustment Act, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 13, 2017); Wheaton, Obama’s shift on Cuban immigrants could put Trump in a bind, Politico (Jan. 12, 2017); Reuters, Cubans on Road to U.S. Distraught About Newly Closed Border, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).

 

 

 

Subdued Commemoration of Second Anniversary of U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement    

December 17, 2016 was the second anniversary of Presidents Obama and Castro’s joint announcement that their two countries had embarked on the path of normalization and reconciliation. The U.S. commemoration of this date was subdued. The White House held a small gathering that was not widely publicized .The Cuban government, on the other hand, apparently did not hold any such event. But two Cuban publications published sketchy comments on the anniversary.

White House Commemoration[1]

On December 15, the Obama Administration hosted a private gathering across the street from the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. President Obama did not attend, but did send a letter to the 20 or so attendees encouraging them “to carry forward the work of strengthening our partnership in the years ahead.”

The gathering was addressed by Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor; Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the acting U.S. ambassador in Havana; and three high-level officials from the U.S. Commerce, State and Treasury departments. Another speaker was

José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban Ambassador in Washington. Also in attendance were U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and U.S. Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa, Florida, both Democrats.

Rhodes and DeLaurentis touted the administration’s accomplishments and, at different times, got emotional — Rhodes remembering support from Cuban-American friends in the wake of stinging criticism over his work, and DeLaurentis describing his work in Cuba, where he began and might end his diplomatic career, as the most rewarding of his life.

The attendees were Cuban Americans, Cuban government officials and business partners in Washington, including Miami entrepreneur Hugo Cancio, who publishes an arts magazine in Cuba; Felice Gorordo, founder of the Roots of Hope nonprofit; former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; John McIntire, head of the Cuba Emprende Foundation; Miami attorney Ralph Patino; Giancarlo Sopo, founder of the CubaOne foundation, and Miami Foundation president and chief executive Javier Alberto Soto.

Another attendee, Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociology professor and Cuba expert, observed, “It was partly a celebration of what has been achieved, and a mourning” for the intense political fight that awaits.”

As Ric Herrero, former head of the pro-engagement Cuba Now group and the current president of Manos Americas, a social entrepreneurship nonprofit, put it, the gathering was “bittersweet. There was just a lot of gratitude toward the administration for their commitment to this cause and to everything they’ve done.” But they all were left with the questions: “What next? Where do we go from here? Because there is no certainty.”

Indeed, a chief concern among attendees was that Trump’s “volatile” personality could ignite a war of words with the Cubans, who have so far kept silent about the president-elect’s Cuba statements. On the other hand, attendees noted, Trump doesn’t have a clear political ideology, and could be more interested in showing up Obama on Cuba by negotiating more concessions.  However, Rhodes said, “We would like nothing more than the new administration to succeed beyond what we did.”

Obama supporters at the meeting thought that Trump had a willingness to keep negotiating with Raúl Castro’s government and that U.S. regulatory changes, following a top-to-bottom policy review, could take time–so long, perhaps, that by then Castro might near his own retirement, scheduled for February 2018.

“We’re living through a lot of uncertainty, but there’s a pretty strong consensus that Trump is going to realize that turning back the clock is going to be very difficult,” said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group. “Returning to a failed policy doesn’t make any sense.”

However, at a December 16 “thank You” rally in Ordlando, Flordia, Trump told the crowd, “America will also stand with the Cuban people in their long struggle for freedom. Their support has been unbelievable. The Cuban people. We know what we have to do, and we’ll do it. Don’t worry about it.”[2]

Cuban Observance

No Cuban commemoration event was found in searching Cuban public sources, Instead, two articles on the subject were found.[3]

The CubaDebate article reviewed some of the key things that had happened since December 17, 2014, while reiterating Cuba’s fervent desire for the U.S. to end its embargo (blockade) and to return Guantanamo Bay to the island. It also alleged that President Obama had done “much less than he could, given the broad executive powers that he [allegedly]possesses and that [allegedly] would have allowed him to reduce the blockade to its minimum expression.”

Nevertheless, the article stated, on December 7, 2016, Josefina Vidal of the Cuban government reaffirmed Cuba’s willingness to continue this process and expressed its hope that President-elect Donald Trump will take into account, when he takes office on January 20, what has been achieved” over the last two years.

These same points were essentially repeated in the article in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. It also added the following points:

  • Obama had acknowledged for the first time that the U.S. policy of “aggression” [“hostility” would be more diplomatic] against Havana was a failure and had ended up isolating the U.S. itself. It also alleged that the U.S. methods were changing, but not its objective – regime change in Cuba.
  • The U.S. still has a ban on US investment in Cuba, except in the area of telecommunications.
  • The Cuban state sector, where more than 75% of the labor force is employed, remains deprived of selling its products to the U.S. with the sole exception of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.Also, Cuban imports of goods produced in the U.S. that the state-owned enterprise can make are very restricted.
  • Although several months ago the US approved the use of the U.S. Dollar by Cuba in its international transactions, it has not yet been possible to make deposits in cash or payments to third parties in that currency, due to international banks’ fears of fines by the U.S.
  • The U.S. has not yet ended Radio and TV Marti programs aimed at Cuba.

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

[1] Mazzei & Torres, Muted White House celebration marks Obama Cuba anniversary, Miami Herald (Dec. 17, 2016).

[2] Lemmongello, Trump thanks Florida at Orlando rally, Orlando Sentinel (Dec. 116, 2016).

[3] Cuba-US: After two years, much remains to be done, CubaDebate (Dec. 17, 2016); Gomez, The keys of December 17, Granma (Dec. 16, 2016).

 

Presidential Nomination of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

 

Jeffrey DeLaurentis
Jeffrey DeLaurentis

On September 27 U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba. If the nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he would be the first to fill that position in over 50 years.[1]

President Obama said, “Jeff’s leadership has been vital throughout the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and the appointment of an ambassador is a common sense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries.” He “is already working with Cuba on issues that advance U.S. national interests, such as law enforcement, counternarcotics, environmental protection, combatting trafficking in persons, expanding commercial and agricultural opportunities, and cooperation in science and health.  He engages broadly with the Cuban people and expresses the United States’ strong support for universal values and human rights in Cuba.”[2]

Moreover, according to Obama, “Having an ambassador will make it easier to advocate for our interests, and will deepen our understanding even when we know that we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government. He is exactly the type of person we want to represent the United States in Cuba, and we only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an ambassador.”

This nomination was supported by Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), who said, the nominee “is a career diplomat who is universally respected by his peers, and by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, for his intellect, his integrity, and his thoughtfulness. . . . We need an ambassador who knows Cuba, who is respected by the Cuban government, and who will stand up for U.S. interests and values. Jeff is that person.”[3]

Another supporter of the nomination, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), Sen. expects great difficulty in obtaining Senate confirmation of the nominee. He said, “Given the fight we had to go through just to approve our Mexican ambassador (Roberta Alexander) just because of her ties to the Cuba negotiations, I can just imagine what might be coming here.”[4]

Indeed, the prospects of the Republican-controlled Senate’s confirmation of this nomination in the remaining months of the Obama presidency, however, are not promising. Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, observed, “”The committee was notified of the nomination [on September 27] but has not yet received the appropriate paperwork to begin its work. However, it is highly unlikely that an ambassador to Cuba would be approved in the lame-duck [session ending on December 31, 2016].”[5]

For example, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) said the nomination should not advance. “Just like releasing all terrorists from Guantánamo and sending U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Iranian regime, rewarding the Castro government with a U.S. ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the president that needs to be stopped. This nomination should go nowhere until the Castro regime makes significant and irreversible progress in the areas of human rights and political freedom for the Cuban people, and until longstanding concerns about the Cuban regime’s theft of property and crimes against American citizens are addressed.”[6]

Rubio’s opposition was anticipated. Indeed, a key Obama aide, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor, Benjamin Rhodes, said after the belated announcement of this nomination that the Administration did not want such opposition to an earlier nomination to distract the Administration from other U.S. priorities in pursuing normalization of affairs with Cuba, such as establishing diplomatic relations, ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as state sponsor of terrorism, the President’s March 2016 trip to the island and various bilateral meetings to work on various issues.[7]

In the meantime, Cuba welcomed the nomination while also complaining that President Obama has not done all he could do to loosen U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba.[8]

Since August 2014 DeLaurentis has served as the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Interests Section (and after July 2015 the U.S. Embassy) in Havana. He also served in the U.S. Interests Section in Havana as Consular Officer, 1991-93, and as Political-Economic Section Chief, 1999-2002. In his diplomatic career beginning in 1991 he has held many other important positions and holds the rank of ambassador.[9]

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

[1] Davis, Obama Nominates First Ambassador to Cuba in Over 50 Years, N.Y. Times (Sept, (7, 2016); Reuters, Obama Names U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Setting Up Confirmation Fight, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2016); Assoc. Press, Obama Names Career Diplomat as US Ambassador to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2016); White House, Presidential Nominations Sent to Senate (Sept. 28, 2016).

[2] White House, President Obama Announces Another Key Administration Post (Sept. 27, 2016).

[3] Leahy, Statement on the Nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis (Sept. 28, 2016)  Leahy’s statement also contains a lengthy rebuttal of the opposition to the nomination voiced by Senator Marco Rubio.

[4] Schwartz, Obama Nominates First U.S. Ambassador to Cuba in 50 Years, W.S.J. (Sept. 27, 2016).

[5] Reuters, U.S. Senator: ‘Unlikely’ Cuba Ambassador Will Be Approved This Year, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016).

[6] Rubio, Rubio: President Obama’s Nomination of Ambassador to Castro Regime Should Go Nowhere (Sept. 27, 2016).

[7] Ordoñez & Torres, Did Marco Rubio scare the White House away from nominating an ambassador to Cuba? InCubaToday (Sept. 28, 2016).

[8] Reuters, Cuba Ambassador Nomination but Says Obama Can Do More, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016)

[9] U.S. Embassy to Cuba, Biography of DeLaurentis.

Commemorating the First Anniversary of U.S.–Cuba Rapprochement

The first anniversary of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, on December 17, 2015, was not marked by any ceremony in either country. Instead, public statements were issued by the White House, the U.S. State Department, the de facto U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Jeffrey De Laurnetis. U.S. Senators and Representatives, Cuban officials and others. Nothing new or surprising was said in any of them.

White House[1]

On the anniversary date, President Obama released a statement on the subject. He said that during this year “we have taken important steps forward to normalize relations between our countries” that were detailed in the previously released FACT SHEET discussed below. The President continued, “We are advancing our shared interests and working together on complex issues that for too long defined—and divided—us. Meanwhile, the United States is in a stronger position to engage the people and governments of our hemisphere. Congress can support a better life for the Cuban people by lifting an embargo that is a legacy of a failed policy.” Nevertheless, “Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey.”

The earlier White House FACT SHEET. listed the following eleven significant steps of normalization this past 12 months:

  • U.S. “removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List;”
  • “re-establishment of diplomatic relations and opening of embassies; “
  • Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Cuba;
  • the establishment of the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Steering Commission, which has produced a working relationship to protect the environment and manage marine protected areas in Cuba, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico; an expansion of counternarcotics cooperation, increased cooperation to prevent smuggling; an understanding to re-establish direct postal services between the two countries; and commencement of discussions on property claims;
  • the commencement of talks to improve Cuban human rights;
  • cooperation on medical relief to Haiti;
  • easing of restrictions on U.S. citizens travel to Cuba, resulting in a 54% increase of such travel;
  • easing of U.S. restrictions on commerce with Cuba;
  • easing of U.S. restrictions on telecommunications and internet commerce with Cuba, resulting in several private business transactions to do just that;
  • discussions to increase cooperation regarding security of trade and travel flows;
  • U.S. support of Colombia-FARC peace talks monitored by Cuba; and
  • The Administration’s continued advocacy for congressional ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who participated in the secret talks that led to the rapprochement, said, “We went into this with no illusions that the Cubans were going to radically change their political system overnight, but our belief has been that greater engagement, greater people-to-people ties, greater commercial activity does open up space for the Cuban people. Part of what we are doing is raising people’s expectations, and that’s appropriate.”

Rhodes added, We reject this notion that our opening is a form of concession, because the opening is the whole point — we think it’s in our interest to have people traveling down to Cuba and doing business there. There’s a natural momentum to these things.”

President Obama himself last week stated that he hopes to visit Cuba during his last year in office, but only if enough progress has been made in bilateral relations, he is able to meet with political dissidents, and if he can possibly “nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.” In response, Josefina Vidal, an official in Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, said Obama would be welcome, but “Cuba has always said … it is not going to negotiate matters that are inherent to its internal system in exchange for an improvement in or the normalization of relations with the United States.” [2]

U.S. State Department [3]

The U.S. would like change to happen “more quickly” and to see “increased access information online.” In addition, the U.S. hopes that Cuba “will give their citizens more space so they can exercise freely their civil and political rights.”

The U.S. and Cuba “very soon” will start a pilot program for renewed direct mail service.

U.S.-Cuba negotiations on direct commercial flights between the two countries are near a successful conclusion “ very, very soon.” The discussions on damage claims have just started, but their resolution remains a “top [U.S.] priority for normalization.”

For progress on Cuban economic issues, the U.S. believes the April 2016 congress of the Communist Party of Cuba will be important.

“Safe, legal, and orderly [Cuban] migration remains a priority of the U.S.,” which has “done our best to comply” with accords with Cuba on that subject. But “the Administration at this point has no plans to alter our current migration policy toward Cuba and Cubans,” including the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The U.S. continues to encourage Cubans to go to the U.S. Embassy in Havana “for the several available avenues for legal migration to the U.S.” In addition, the U.S. is “encouraging governments in the region to find . . . coordinated and comprehensive solutions that focus on preventing the loss of life and ensuring that human rights of all migrants are respected and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.”

Jeffrey DeLaurentis[4]

Mr. DeLaurentis, via teleconference from Havana, said, “A year ago President Obama “made it clear that our aspiration for the Cuban people remains that they enjoy a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic society.”

“Over the course of the past year, we have made good progress and come a long way. Our two countries have engaged in historic dialogue on a wide range of issues. We have discussed concrete objectives on civil aviation, direct transportation of mail, the environment, regulatory changes, and counter-narcotics and have either reached understandings on those topics or continue to narrow our differences in ways that suggest we could soon conclude such understandings.”

“One of the President’s goals in announcing the new approach to Cuba was to promote increased authorized travel, commerce, and the flow of information to the Cuban people. In that regard, we have seen an increase in authorized travel by U.S. citizens by over 50 percent. Our regulatory changes help promote a Cuban private sector that now accounts for at least one in four Cuban workers. And Cuba recently signed roaming agreements with two U.S. companies that promote the flow of information. But more could be done on the Cuban side to take advantage of new openings.”

“A year ago, we had very limited engagement with the Cuban Government. Now we are in open conversation on issues that matter to the United States.” This includes working “together to combat transnational crime, protect our shared ecosystem, and create opportunities for the people in both nations to thrive.”

“However, we still have areas of disagreement. . . . such as property claims, fugitives, and human rights.. . . Still, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of our embassy have given us a more effective platform through which to promote U.S. interests and values on those and all bilateral issues. It is worth recalling [that] Secretary Kerry noted during the flag-raising ceremony in August – normalization will not happen overnight.”

“The President last year called on the Cuban Government to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. The Administration has taken a number of steps within the President’s authority to support a growing private sector in Cuba and strengthen people-to-people ties. The President has called on Congress to end the embargo.”

U.S. Senators and Representatives

Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), both of whom have been to Cuba several times this past year, sent a letter to President Obama urging further loosening of U.S. travel, export and financial restrictions with Cuba. [5]

On the other hand, Cuban-American Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, both of whom have been persistent critics of normalization, offered objections to what they saw as failed policies.”[6]

Cuban Officials[7]

On December 17 Cuba’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that concluded, “To achieve normal relations between the two countries, the [U.S.] must remove, without any conditions, the economic, commercial and financial blockade which for decades the U.S. has maintained against Cuba. Nor can one speak of normalization, while the illegally occupied Guantanamo Naval Base and other policies of the past that are harmful to the sovereignty of Cuba are not removed.“

Earlier, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations’ Director General for the United States, said, “We can say that Cuba and the United States have made progress in their relations, with a marked difference from the preceding stage,” She noted progress in the political and diplomatic fields with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of embassies and the removal of the island from the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism. She also highlighted the personal meetings between the leaders of Cuba and the U.S.

More specifically she said the two countries were close to concluding an agreement for civil aviation and had expanded or created cooperation in search and rescue; the fight against drug trafficking; migration; port maritime security, application and enforcement of the law; and health.

On the other hand, she commented, there is more to do. The U.S. needs to end the embargo, return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, stop “subversive programs and illegal broadcasting” as well as abolish its special immigration policies regarding Cubans.

Vidal concluded that “even with the differences that exist between our countries, better links will only bring benefits to both countries and their peoples. We really believe that a model of civilized coexistence is the best contribution that we can leave the present and future generations of Cuba, the U.S. and the entire region.

Others

Everyone, supporters and critics of normalization, agrees that change has been slow and that much more needs to be done to facilitate a complete normalization. Nevertheless, as two experts on this relationship recognize, there has been progress.

Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba specialist and senior research fellow at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, observed, “It was just pure fantasy to think, as it has been for the last 60 years, that the United States could directly shape the nature of the Cuban political system. It feels like we’re getting excited about tiny steps, but those tiny steps, against the backdrop of the thicket of laws and regulations that have produced a ‘no’ as the answer to any question, and now we’re figuring out how to get to ‘yes’ — that’s progress.”[8]

Scott D. Gilbert, a Washington-based lawyer who helped negotiate Cuba’s release last year of Alan Gross, said, “When you stand back and look at this against the backdrop of almost 60 years of complete adversity, complete lack of dialogue, absolute distrust, it’s been a remarkable year. But there is frustration and disappointment on both sides that more deals haven’t gotten done. It’s a process that still needs a lot of work.”[9]

Alan Gross himself stated, “Our relations will not be normalized for some years to come, will not be totally normalized. But I believe that both governments are working towards that, We need to be patient to see this relationship evolve.” He specifically wants to see the U.S. end its embargo of Cuba, which is “stupid” and a “complete and utter failure.”

Jeanne Lemkau, a clinical psychologist and professor emerita of family medicine, commented on her 12th trip to Cuba, this October, to the central and eastern part of the island. She saw a creative example of the Cuban entrepreneurial initiative: a young man peddling shoes from a carefully arranged display on the top of a jeep chassis, snuggly parked next to his house. In addition, she saw many people using laptops and mobile phones; homes freshly painted in lovely Caribbean colors, a luxury that was once far beyond the resources of most Cubans; beautifully renovated hotels; and recently cleaned streets.[10]

Conclusion

As a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, I too have mixed feelings on this first anniversary. I am glad that one year ago both countries decided to pursue normalization, that the previously mentioned steps towards normalization have been taken and that the normalization process is continuing. On the other hand, I am especially disappointed that the U.S. has not yet ended its embargo of the island and its special immigration benefits for Cubans.

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[1] White House, Statement of the President on the Anniversary of Cuba Policy Changes (Dec. 17, 2015); Obama, Statement by President Obama on the anniversary of the changes in policy toward Cuba, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015); White House, FACT SHEET: One-Year Anniversary of the President’s Policy of Engagement with Cuba (Dec. 16, 2015); Davis, Year After Cuba-U.S. Thaw, Obama Says Change Will Take Time, N.Y. Times (Dec. 16, 2015). Assoc. Press, Marking Anniversary, Obama Says Long Journey for US, Cuba, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015); Reuters, Obama Says U.S., Cuba Continue to Have Differences, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015).

[2] Reuters, Obama Says May Visit Cuba in 2016 if Citizens Enjoy More Freedoms, N.Y. Times (Dec. 14, 2015); Reuters, Cuba Says Obama Welcome to Visit but Not to Meddle, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015).http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/12/17/world/americas/17reuters-cuba-usa.html

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Background Briefing on the Progress Made Toward the Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Dec. 15, 2015).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Special Briefing by Jeffrey DeLaurentis on the One-Year Anniversary of the President’s Policy of Engagement with Cuba (Dec. 15, 2015).

[5] Flake, Flake, Leahy Urge President to Expand U.S. Engagement with Cuba on Anniversary of Renewed Relations (Dec. 16, 2015); Schwartz, Senators Urge Obama Administration to Further Loosen Cuba Rules, W.S.J. (Dec. 16, 2015).

[6] Ros-Lehtinen, One Year Later, Obama’s Cuba Policy Has Proven To Be A Sham and Cubans Are No Closer To Freedom and Democracy, Says Ros-Lehtinen (Dec. 16, 2015); Diaz-Balart, One Year Later: The Results of Obama’s Concessions to the Castros (Dec. 17, 2015).

[7] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Editorial: The lifting of the blockade is essential for a normal relationship (Dec. 17, 2015); Gomez, Josefina Vidal assures that Cuba and the U.S. have made progress, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015); Elizalde, Josefina Vidal: Significant progress has been recorded between Cuba and the US, CubaDebate (Dec. 16, 2015). Granma also published commentaries on the first anniversary by the Cuban Five, Gomez et al., A year in which freedom fits all, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015). Another article provided commentary on the embargo. Gomez, A year later, the blockade is still there, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015).

[8] Davis, One Year After Cuba-U.S. Thaw, Obama Says Change Will Take Time, N.Y. Times (Dec. 16, 2015).

[9] Assoc. Press, American Marks 1 Year Since Being Freed From Cuban Prison, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015).

[10] Lemkau, Observations of an ever-evolving Cuba, LAWG (Dec. 16, 2015).

 

 

Kerry’s Meeting with Cuban Dissidents Gets Rave Reviews

A prior post discussed preliminary information about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s August 14 meeting with Cuban dissidents and others at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires. The other attendees included representatives of the Engage Cuba coalition for normalization; its members (the Center for Democracy in the Americas, #CubaNow, Procter & Gamble, the American Society of Travel Agents, Cuba Study Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America); notable members of Congress, including Senators Klobuchar, Flake, and Leahy; leaders of the American business community; and Cuban independent entrepreneurs.

Further information about that meeting has been added by Ernesto Londoño, the member of the New York Times Editorial Board who was the main force behind last year’s series of editorials urging normalization of U.S. ties with Cuba, and by Engage Cuba.[1]

YoaniSanchez

Londoño reports that Cuban dissidents are very pleased with such normalization and with the August 14 ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He referred first to the article in The Atlantic by Yoani Sanchez that was mentioned in the prior post.

This was confirmed in an email to him from Sanchez. With respect to the meeting with Kerry, she said “People hugged and greeted each other like they were at the baptism of a creature that had a rough, problematic gestation, and has finally come to life. It’s been many years since I’ve witnessed a moment like that, surrounded by so many happy people.” Moreover, Kerry ”left a “profound impression” on them, with his listening carefully to their concerns and brainstorming about ways to expand Internet access on the island.

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Another dissident at the meeting was José Daniel Ferrer, a former political prisoner who is head of the Patriotic Union for Cuba, the largest and most active opposition group on the island. He said he was heartened by the meeting with Mr. Kerry, whom he described as realistic and supportive. “His speech [at the meeting] was good and clear. Many of us are grateful for his remarks, including that the situation in Cuba would improve if we had a genuine democracy.”

In recent months, Cuban authorities have continued to harass, temporarily detain, and slander dissident leaders, Mr. Ferrer said. “Repression has increased, but not because the new policy is weak and paves the way for that, no,” he said. “Repression has increased because every day there’s more activism and courage and the regime fears it will lose control.”

Ferrer’s group has put videos on You Tube showing its leaders delivering aid packages to destitute Cubans and holding meetings. Others in the group are helping Cubans getting online at new Wi-Fi hot spots. Ferrer said, “There are many people who want to connect but have no idea how. We suggest sites based on their interests and we tell them about the unlimited possibilities the Internet brings.”

Engage Cuba said that they met Cuban entrepreneurs engaged in event planning, supplying promotional packaging, designing fashions and creating mobile apps. These interactions reinforced Engage Cuba’s efforts to identify opportunities to support these entrepreneurs by connecting them with counterparts in the U.S. and the coalition’s commitment to help unleash the potential of the Cuban economy by working with Congress to end the travel ban and lift the trade embargo. While we continue to work with Congress.

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[1] Londoño, Cuban Dissidents Buoyed in a New Era, N.Y. Times (Aug, 24, 2015), ; Email, Engage Cuba to supporters, Living History: Cubans And Americans Embark On A Better Future (Aug. 24, 2015).

 

U.S. Secretary of State Speaks to the Cuban People

On August 14, 2015, the U.S. formally opened its Embassy in Havana, Cuba with the raising of the American flag and a program featuring remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that were telecast and broadcast live throughout the island.[1] Thus, his message, in one sense, was directed to the Cuban people, and the words in bold in the following remarks were especially addressed to them.

John Kerry @ U.S. Embassy in Havana
John Kerry @ U.S. Embassy in Havana
Secretary & U.S. Flag at Havana Embassy
Kerry & U.S. Flag at Havana Embassy

Kerry’s Remarks

Kerry started by recognizing that “this is truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities” and that Presidents Obama and Castro had made “a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow.”

The U.S. needs to recognize that “U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged. Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition in Cuba. It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have, in a short term, a transformational impact. After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape. Responsibility for the nature and quality of governance and accountability rests, as it should, not with any outside entity; but solely within the citizens of this country.”

“But the leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people – should also know that the United States will always remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms. . . .[We] will continue to urge the Cuban Government to fulfill its obligations under the UN and inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas.”

“And indeed, we remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”

We “believe it’s helpful for the people of our nations to learn more about each other, to meet each other. That is why we are encouraged that travel from the United States to Cuba has already increased by 35 percent since January and is continuing to go up. We are encouraged that more and more U.S. companies are exploring commercial ventures here that would create opportunities for Cuba’s own rising number of entrepreneurs, and we are encouraged that U.S. firms are interested in helping Cuba expand its telecommunications and internet links, and that the government here recently pledged to create dozens of new and more affordable Wi-Fi hotspots.”

“The restoration of diplomatic ties will also make it easier for our governments to engage. After all, we are neighbors, and neighbors will always have much to discuss in such areas as civil aviation, migration policy, disaster preparedness, protecting marine environment, global climate change, and other tougher and more complicated issues. Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk, and talk can deepen understanding even when we know full well we will not see eye to eye on everything.”

“We are all aware that . . . the overall U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place and can only be lifted by congressional action – a step that we strongly favor. For now, the President has taken steps to ease restrictions on remittances, on exports and imports to help Cuban private entrepreneurs, on telecommunications, on family travel, but we want to go further. The goal of all of these changes is to help Cubans connect to the world and to improve their lives. And just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban Government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade, access information online. The embargo has always been something of a two-way street – both sides need to remove restrictions that have been holding Cubans back.”

Kerry also thanked “leaders throughout the Americas who have long urged the United States and Cuba to restore normal ties [and] the Holy Father Pope Francis and the Vatican for supporting the start of a new chapter in relations between our countries.”

He then paid “tribute to the people of Cuba and to the Cuban American community in the United States. Jose Marti once said that ‘everything that divides men…is a sin against humanity.’ Clearly, the events of the past – the harsh words, the provocative and retaliatory actions, the human tragedies – all have been a source of deep division that has diminished our common humanity. There have been too many days of sacrifice and sorrow; too many decades of suspicion and fear. That is why I am heartened by the many on both sides of the Straits who . . . have endorsed this search for a better path.”

“We have begun to move down that path without any illusions about how difficult it may be. But we are each confident in our intentions, confident in the contacts that we have made, and pleased with the friendships that we have begun to forge. And we are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors – time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”

Conclusion

In attendance at the ceremony were Embassy staff, including Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the charge d’affaires; other U.S. federal government officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in recent negotiations with Cuba; other countries’ diplomats; U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Barbara Boxer (Dem., CA), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ); [2] U.S. Representatives Karen Bass (Dem., CA), Steve Cohen (Dem., TN), Barbara Lee (Dem., CA) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA); [3] and James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, and Zane Kerby, President & CEO of American Society of Travel Agents.

Also in attendance was a Cuban delegation, including Josafina Vidal, who led the Cuban team in those negotiations; and Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the new Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. [4]

Another highlight of the ceremony was the beautiful reading of a beautiful poem, “Matters of the Sea” or “Cosas del Mar,” by the Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. Afterwards Kerry walked around old Havana, met privately with Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, participated in a joint press conference with Rodriguez and met with Cuban dissidents at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires These other events of the day will be discussed in subsequent posts.

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[1] Gordon, Kerry Strikes Delicate Balance in Havana Trip for Embassy Flag-Raising, N.Y. Times (Aug. 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, A Festive Flag-Raising, Then Tough Talk on U.S.-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2015);  DeYoung, In historic Cuba visit, Kerry presides over raising of U.S. flag over embassy in Havana, Wash. Post (Aug.14, 2015); Granma, Official reopening ceremony will take place today, Granma (Aug. 14, 2015); Parazza, Bécquer & Gomez, The challenge of building a future without forgetting the past, Granma (Aug. 15, 2015). A video of the ceremony also has been archived.

[2] Separate press releases celebrating the formal opening of the U.S. Embassy were issued by Senators Leahy, Boxer, Klobuchar and Flake. Back in the U.S. Senator Marco Rubio denounced the opening of the Embassy.

[3] Representatives Cohen, Lee and McGovern issued press releases welcoming the reopening of the Embassy in Havana.

[4]  Dr.Cabañas visited Minnesota last October and was mentioned in a prior post.

Additional Details About U.S.-Cuba Secret Discussions Leading up to the December 17, 2014, Public Announcement of Rapprochement

A prior post covered the surprising December 17, 2014, announcement of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement while another post discussed the initial public information about the preceding secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations about normalization; yet another post integrated that information into previous public information about U.S.-Cuba relations in President Obama’s second presidential term, 2013-2014.

Now Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande. both leading scholars on the relationship between the two countries, have added the following additional details about such previous secret discussions:[1]

  • In response to the January 2010 devastating Haiti earthquake, the U.S. and Cuba engaged in unprecedented cooperative disaster relief in that country.
  • Thereafter in 2010-2012 two top State Department officials—Cheryl Mills, the Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Julissa Reynoso, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs—had secret discussions with Cuban officials that initially focused on Cuba’s releasing U.S. citizen Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and the U.S.’ allowing the wives of two of the Cuban Five to visit their husbands in U.S. prisons.
  • By September 2011, the Cubans had explicitly proposed swapping the Cuban Five for Alan Gross, but the U.S. was not prepared to do so. Instead, as a show of good faith, the U.S. arranged for the wives of two of the Cuban Five to secretly visit their husbands in U.S. prisons while Cuba permitted Judy Gross regular visits with her husband in a military hospital in Havana.
  • In May 2012, Clinton received a memo from her team that stated: “We have to continue negotiating with the Cubans on the release of Alan Gross but cannot allow his situation to block an advance of bilateral relations…The Cubans are not going to budge. We either deal with the Cuban Five or cordon those two issues off.”
  • This May 2012 memo arrived soon after Clinton and President Obama had returned from that April’s Sixth Summit of the Americas where they had been chastised by heads of states furious over the U.S. stance on Cuba. Afterwards Clinton “recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”
  • After his reelection in November 2012, President Obama approached Massachusetts Senator John Kerry about replacing Clinton as secretary of state and raising a new approach to Cuba. Kerry was receptive. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had been a vocal critic of the USAID democracy promotion programs that financed Gross’ secret missions to Cuba and also had long opposed the US economic embargo of the island.
  • During the U.S.-Cuba secret discussions in Canada in 2013=2014 that were discussed in a prior post, The U.S. was not willing to talk about the USAID programs or the status of Guantán­amo Bay. Cuba, on the other hand, was not willing to discuss human rights or U.S. fugitives living in their country.
  • In September 2013 Senator Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) suggested to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that the U.S. should see about getting Pope Francis involved in helping the two countries resolve their differences.
  • In February 2014, Senator Patrick Leahy had his staff collaborate with former White House counsel, Greg Craig, to draft a 10-page memo of options “to secure Mr. Gross’ release, and in so doing break the logjam and change the course of U.S. policy towards Cuba, which would be widely acclaimed as a major legacy achievement [for President Obama].” The document, dated February 7, laid out a course of action that would prove to be a close match with the final accord.
  • Apparently also in or about February 2014, Leahy sent a confidential message to Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, asking him to encourage the Pope to help resolve the prisoner issue. Drawing on the close ties between Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., the White House also “got word to the Vatican that the president was eager to discuss” Cuba at the upcoming upcoming March private audience with the Pope.
  • In early March 2014, a small group of Cuba policy advocates, including representatives of a newly formed coalition for changing U.S. policies regarding Cuba, met with Cardinal Seán O’Malley in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. The advocates of change explained the recent trends, the conversations with President and others in the administration and Congress and indicated this was a historic moment, and a message from the Pope to President Obama would be significant in moving the process forward. A letter from Senator Leahy was given to Cardinal O’Malley urging him to focus the Pope’s attention on the “humanitarian issue” of the prisoner exchange.
  • During this same time period, Leahy personally delivered a similar message to Cardinal McCarrick and arranged for yet another to be sent to Cardinal Ortega in Havana. There now were three cardinals urging the Pope to put Cuba on the agenda with Obama.
  • At the private audience later that month (March 27), Obama told the Pope that the U.S. had something going with Cuba and that it would be useful if the Pope could play a role.” (Other details about the audience were provided in a prior post.) A few days later, Francis summoned Cardinal Ortega to enlist his help.
  • On May 1, 2014, Leahy, along with Senators Carl Levin (Dem., MI) and Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) and Representatives Chris Van Hollen (Dem., MD) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA) met in the Oval Office with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The legislators urged Obama to press for Gross’ release and replace the policy of hostility with one of engagement. “You said you were going to do this,” McGovern reminded the president. “Let’s just do it!” Obama had a non-committal response,”We’re working on it” and gave no hint of the back-channel diplomacy then well underway.
  • On May 19, 2014, the previously mentioned coalition released an open letter to Obama signed by 46 luminaries of the U.S. policy and business world, urging the president to engage with Cuba. The signatories included former diplomats and retired military officers—among them former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering; Cuban-American business leaders like Andres Fanjul, co-owner of a Florida-based multinational sugar company; and John Negroponte, George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence. The same day, not coincidentally, the conservative US Chamber of Commerce announced that its president, Tom Donohue, would lead a delegation to Cuba to “develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector.”
  • During the summer of 2014 the Pope wrote forceful, confidential letters to Obama and Raúl Castro, imploring the two leaders“to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.”
  • To safeguard his communications, the Pope sent both letters via papal courier to Havana—with instructions to Cardinal Ortega to personally deliver the message into the two presidents’ hands. After delivering the Pope’s letter to Raúl Castro, Ortega then sent his top aide to Washington to advance his clandestine diplomatic mission to deliver the other letter to Obama. But arranging a secret face-to-face meeting with President Obama was easier said than done. Alerted to the problem, Cardinal McCarrick conferred with White House officials, who enlisted his help as a secret back-channel go-between. In early August, McCarrick traveled to Cuba carrying a note from Obama that asked Ortega to entrust McCarrick with delivering the Pope’s letter to the White House. But Ortega’s papal instructions were to deliver the message himself. McCarrick, therefore, left Cuba empty-handed.
  • Back in Washington, McCarrick worked with McDonough at the White House to arrange a secret meeting for Ortega with the President. On the morning of August 18, Ortega gave a talk at Georgetown University—providing a cover story for his presence in Washington—and then quietly went to the White House. (To make sure the meeting did not leak, U.S. officials kept Ortega’s name off the White House visitor logs.) Meeting with the President on the patio adjacent to the Rose Garden, Ortega finally completed his mission of delivering the Pope’s sensitive communication, in which he offered to “help in any way.”
  • In October 2014, at the Pope’s invitation, the two sides met at the Vatican and hammered out their final agreement on the prisoner exchange and restoring diplomatic relations. The U.S. representatives, Rhodes and Zuniga, also noted Obama’s intention to ease regulations on travel and trade, and to allow US telecom companies to help Cuban state enterprises expand internet access. They acknowledged these initiatives were aimed at fostering greater openness in Cuba. Cuban officials said that while they had no intentionof changing their political system to suit the United States, they had reviewed the Americans’ list of prisoners jailed for political activities and would release 53 of them as a goodwill gesture. The Pope agreed to act as guarantor of the final accord.
  • On October 12, the New York Times published an editorial calling for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba and for a new relationship between the two countries; it turned out to be the first of a series of editorials on various aspects of the relationship.[2] These editorials were the work of Ernesto Londoño, a new member of the Editorial Board and a native of Colombia. He talked to administration officials, Senator Leahy’s office, and the new coalition, but recently said, “There was really no collusion or formal cooperation in what they were doing and what we were doing. The Times simply saw an opportunity to push the policy it advocated forward. We figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.”
  • On November 6, 2014, Obama’s National Security Council met to sign off on the details. Later that month, the negotiating teams convened one last time in Canada to arrange the logistics of the prisoner exchange.

These additional details about the over two years of previously secret negotiations should be merged with the earlier post about President Obama’s Second Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014. Together they demonstrate the diplomatic skill of that Administration in achieving this historic breakthrough that will benefit both countries.

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[1] Kornblu & LeoGrande, Inside the Crazy Back-Channel Negotiations That Revolutionized Our Relationship with Cuba, Mother Jones (July 2015)  This information will be incorporated in a new edition of their book: Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana that will be published this October by the University of North Carolina Press.

[2] Previous posts covered the other Times editorials that commended Cuba’s foreign medical missions (Oct. 19), recommended normalization (Oct. 26) and prisoner exchanges (Nov. 3) and criticized USAID programs on the island (Nov. 10), the U.S. Cuban medical parole program (Nov. 17) and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (Dec. 15).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Barack Obama’s Second-Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2013-2014

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. [1]

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

President Obama's Oath of Office, Jan. 2013
President Obama’s Oath of Office,    Jan. 2013
U.S. Capitol for President Obama's Inauguration, Jan. 2013
U.S. Capitol for President Obama’s Inauguration, Jan. 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.[2]

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.[3]

Barack Obama & Raul Castro
Barack Obama & Raul Castro

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].” [4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6] 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.

President Obama & Pope Francis
President Obama & Pope Francis

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.[7]

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.”[8]

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. [9]

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.[10]

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 17th remarks 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.].

Conclusion

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.”[11] 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.”

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[1] Ultimately after public release of many Obama Administration documents after the completion of his presidency, scholars will undertake a detailed examination of those documents and provide their assessments of his record regarding Cuba. Now a preliminary assessment is possible based upon the following: William M. LeoGrande & Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (Univ. North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill, NC; 2014);  President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address (Jan. 21, 2013); Shear, Obama Reaches Out to Cuba’s Leader, but the Meaning May Elude Grasp, N.Y. Times (Dec. 10, 2013). Initial information about the secret negotiations is found in Reuters, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015) and Rhodes, The Obama Doctrine: America’s Role in a Complicated World, Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29, 2015).

[2] Cave, American Contractor Held in Cuba Loses a Lawsuit, N.Y. Times (May 29, 2013);

[3] Reuters, Contractor Jailed in Cuba Appeals to Obama to Press for Release, N.Y. Times (Dec. 3, 2013).\.

[4] Hauser, The Distraction of a Handshake in South Africa, N.Y. Times (Dec.10, 2013).

[5] Assoc. Press, U.S., Cuba to Hold Migration Talks in Havana, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2014); Reuters, Cuba, U.S. Meet on Migration in Latest Sign of a Thaw (Jan. 9, 2014); Assoc. Press, US Official: Cuba Migration Talks Productive, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2014).

[6] Reuters, U.S. Policy Change on Cuba Stalled by Obama, N.Y. Times (Feb. 6, 2014)

[7] Assoc. Press, American Imprisoned in Cuba Begins Hunger Strike, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2014); Assoc. Press, Lawyer: US Man Held in Cuba Seeks to Go Home Soon, N.Y. Times (April 23, 2014); Reuters, American Jailed in Cuba Plans Suicide, Lawyer Says, N.Y. Times (June 25, 2014).

[8] Reuters, Cuba Calls Terrorism Designation by U.S., Absurd, Manipulative, N.Y. Times (May 1, 2014).

[9] The USAID programs were discussed in posts on April 4, 9 and 9 and August 12, 13 and 14.

[10] Reuters, Havana Sees No Sign Obama Will Change U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2014). A previous post criticized U.S. “stupidity” and “cowardice” in making this designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

[11] Chuck Todd, The Stranger: Obama in the White House at 484 (Little Brown & Co.; New York; 2014).