Professor LeoGrande’s Comments on the Strengthening Cuba-Russian Relationship    

A prior post discussed President Trump’s hostility towards Cuba as providing greater opportunities for Russia’s enhancing its relationship with Cuba. Now American University Professor William LeoGrande, a noted scholar about Cuba, placed the recent expansion of Cuba-Russia economic deals in a broader perspective.[1]

He says their rapprochement began in 2000 “when Putin “succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian president and began rebuilding Russia’s global influence by repairing relations with traditional allies.” The first step was “Putin’s 2000 trip to Havana, which resulted in expanded trade deals. . . . That was followed by Raul Castro’s 2009 visit to Moscow during which the two governments signed 33 cooperative agreements, including $354 million in credits and aid for Havana.“

Five years later, observes LeoGrande, “in July 2014, Putin visited the island again and agreed to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion in Soviet-era debt, with the remainder to be retired through debt-equity swaps linked to Russian investments. By the time Raul Castro returned to Moscow in 2015, Russia had signed agreements to invest in airport construction, the development of the Mariel port and metallurgy and oil exploration, and had also agreed to lend Cuba 1.2 billion euros—about $1.36 billion at the time—to develop thermal energy plants.”

In another pre-Trump deal, “in September 2016, Russia announced a new package of commercial agreements in which it will finance $4 billion in development projects focusing on energy and infrastructure, and Cuba will begin exporting pharmaceuticals to Russia.”

Beyond these expanded economic ties, LeoGrande emphasizes, “As Putin tries to restore Russia’s status as a global power, Cuba is an attractive partner right at the doorstep of the [U.S.]. A Russian presence in Cuba is a reminder to Washington that Moscow will respond in kind to the expansion of U.S. influence into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ in places like Ukraine. For Cuba, a closer relationship with Moscow serves as a counterweight to Washington’s renewed hostility under President Donald Trump.”

“Both Havana and Moscow refer to their relationship as a ‘strategic partnership’ that has diplomatic and military components. Diplomatically, Cuba supports Moscow’s positions on Ukraine, Syria and NATO expansion. Militarily, Russia is refurbishing and replacing Cuba’s aging Soviet-era armaments. Russian naval vessels visit Cuban ports, and Russia reportedly wants to establish a new military base on the island.”

The major obstacle to a more robust Cuba-Russia relationship is Cuba’s persistent lack of funds due to few goods for export and its dependence on tourism, remittances  and export of medical services to try to make up the difference.


LeoGrande’s comments re-emphasize for this blogger the utter stupidity from the standpoint of U.S. national security and economic interests of the Trump Administration’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba. The same lesson should also be evident from the European Union’s strengthening ties with Cuba symbolized by the visit to the island starting today by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, that will be discussed in a future post.


[1] LeoGrande, Cuba Looks More to Russia as the Prospects for Better U.S. Ties Fade Under Trump, World Politics Review (Jan. 2, 2018).

Senate Confirms Nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

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

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

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

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

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

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

Senate Debate and Vote

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another U.N. Condemnation of the U.S. Embargo of Cuba


U.N. General Assembly
U.N. General Assembly

On October 26, the United Nations General Assembly voted, 191 to 0 (with two abstentions), to adopt a resolution proposed by Cuba to condemn the United States embargo of Cuba. For the first time in the 25-year history of the annual vote on such resolutions, the U.S, rather than opposing the text, cast an abstention, prompting Israel to do likewise.[1]

This post will examine the resolution’s text, its presentation by Cuba, its support by other countries and the arguments for abstention offered by the U.S. and Israel. This post will then conclude with a brief discussion of reaction to the abstention in the U.S. Prior posts discussed the similar General Assembly resolutions against the embargo that were adopted in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

The Actual Resolution

The actual resolution, “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba” (A/RES/71/5 and A/71/L.3) had two principal operative paragraphs.

It reiterated “its call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures [like the U.S. embargo against Cuba] . . . in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation (¶ 2). It also urged “States that have and continue to apply such laws and measures to take the steps necessary to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible in accordance with their legal regime (¶ 3).

The resolution’s preamble reaffirmed “the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in their internal affairs and freedom of international trade and navigation, which are also enshrined in many international legal instruments” and recited the previous General Assembly resolutions against the embargo. It then welcomed “the progress in the relations between the Governments of Cuba and the [U.S.] and, in that context, the visit of the President of the [U.S.], Barack Obama, to Cuba in March 2016” while also recognizing “the reiterated will of the President of the [U.S.] to work for the elimination of the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba” and “the steps taken by the [U.S.] Administration towards modifying some aspects of the implementation of the embargo, which, although positive, are still limited in scope.”

Cuba’s Presentation of the Resolution

Bruno Rodriguez
Bruno Rodriguez

Speaking last in the debate, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, presented arguments for adopting the resolution. Here are extracts of that speech:

“[T]here has been progress [between Cuba and the U.S. since December 2014] in the dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest and a dozen agreements were signed [and] reciprocal benefits reported. Now just announced the vote of the US abstention on this draft resolution.”

“The [U.S.] president and other top officials have described [the embargo/blockade] as obsolete, useless to advance American’s interests, meaningless, unworkable, being a burden for [U.S.] citizens, . . . [harming] the Cuban people and [causing]. . . isolation to the [U.S.] and [have] called [for the embargo/blockade] to be lifted.”

“We recognize that executive measures [to reduce the scope of the embargo] adopted by the government of the [U.S.] are positive steps, but [have] very limited effect and scope. However, most of the executive regulations and laws establishing the blockade remain in force and are applied rigorously to this minute by U.S. government agencies.”

“Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has not approved any of the 20 amendments or legislative initiatives, with bipartisan support, . . . [for] eliminating some restrictions of the blockade or even all of this policy. [Moreover,] there have been more than 50 legislative initiatives that threaten to reinforce key aspects of the blockade, preventing the President [from] approving new executive or implementing measures already adopted.”

“It cannot be underestimated in any way the powerful political and ethical message that [action by this Assembly] . . . sends to the peoples of the world. The truth always [finds] its way. Ends of justice prevail. The abstention vote announced surely is a positive step in the future of improved relations between the[U.S.] and Cuba. I appreciate the words and the efforts of Ambassador Samantha Power.”

“[There] are incalculable human damages caused by the blockade. [There is no] Cuban family or industry in the country that does not suffer its effects on health, education, food, services, prices of goods, wages and pensions.” For example, the “imposition of discriminatory and onerous conditions attached to the deterrent effects of the blockade restrict food purchases and the acquisition in the U.S. market for drugs, reagents, spare parts for medical equipment and instruments and others.”

“The [embargo/] blockade also [adversely] affects the interests of American citizens themselves, who could benefit from various services in Cuba, including health [services].”

“The [embargo/] blockade remains a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights of all Cubans and qualifies as an act of genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. It is an obstacle to cooperation [in] international humanitarian areas.”

“The blockade is the main obstacle to economic and social development of our people. It constitutes a flagrant violation to international law, the United Nations Charter and the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace. Its extraterritorial application adds further to its violation of international law nature of magnitude.”

“Other causes, in addition to [the blockade/embargo] . . . , determine our economic difficulties: the unjust international economic order; the global crisis; the historical distortions and structural weaknesses caused by underdevelopment; high dependence on energy and food imports; the effects of climate change and natural disasters; and also . . . our own mistakes.”

“Between April 2015 and March 2016, the direct economic damage to Cuba by the blockade amounted to $4.68 billion at current prices, calculated rigorously and prudently and conservatively. The damages accumulated over nearly six decades reach the figure of $753 billion, taking into account depreciation of gold. At current prices, [that is] equivalent to just over $125 billion.”

“On 16 April 2016 President Raul Castro Ruz said, ‘We are willing to develop a respectful dialogue and build a new relationship with the [U.S.], as that has never existed between the two countries, because we are convinced that this alone . . . [will provide] mutual benefits.’ And last September 17, he said ‘I reaffirm the will to sustain relations of civilized coexistence with the [U.S.], but Cuba will not give up one of its principles, or make concessions inherent in its sovereignty and independence.’”

“The government of the [U.S.] first proposed the annexation of Cuba and, failing that, to exercise their domination over it. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution . . . [prompted the U.S. adoption of the embargo whose purpose] was ‘to cause disappointment and discouragement through economic dissatisfaction and hardship … to deny Cuba money and supplies, in order to reduce nominal and real wages, with the aim of causing hunger, desperation and overthrow of government. ‘”

“The [new U.S.] Presidential Policy Directive [states] that the Government of the [U.S.] recognizes ‘the sovereignty and self-determination of Cuba’ and [the right of] the Cuban people to make their own decisions about their future.’” It also states “the U.S. will not seek a ‘change of regime in Cuba.’”[2]

But the Directive also says “’the [U.S.] will support the emerging civil society in Cuba and encourage partners and non-governmental actors to join us in advocating in favor of reforms. While the United States remain committed to supporting democratic activists, [we] also [will] participate with community leaders, bloggers, activists and other leaders on social issues that can contribute to the internal dialogue in Cuba on civic participation.’ The Directive goes on to say: “The [U.S.] will maintain our democracy programs and broadcasting, while we will protect our interests and values, such as Guantanamo Naval Base … The government of the United States has no intention of modifying the existing lease agreement and other related provisions.’”

The Directive also asserts that Cuba “remains indebted to the [U.S.] regarding bilateral debts before the Cuban Revolution.”

The U.S. needs to “recognize that change is a sovereign matter for Cubans alone and that Cuba is a truly independent country. It gained its independence by itself and has known and will know how to defend [its] greatest sacrifices and risks. We are proud of our history and our culture that are the most precious treasure. We never forget the past because it is the way never to return to it. And we decided our path to the future and we know that is long and difficult, but we will not deviate from it by ingenuity, by siren songs, or by mistake. No force in the world can force us to it. We will strive to build a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation. We will not return to capitalism.”

Other Countries’ Statements of Support[3]

During the debate the following 40 countries expressed their support of the resolution:

  • Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic (for Commonwealth of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)), Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica (for Caribbean Community (CARICOM)), Mexico, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Uruguay and Venezuela (for Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)).
  • Africa: Algeria, Angola, Libya, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger (for African States), South Africa, Sudan and Tonga.
  • Middle East: Egypt, Kuwait (for Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC)) and Syria.
  • Asia: Belarus, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], India, Indonesia, Iran, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Russian Federation, Singapore (for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)), Thailand (for Group of 77 and China) and Viet Nam.
  • Europe: Slovakia (for European Union (EU)).

U.S. Abstention[4]

Samantha Power
Samantha Power

The U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, announced the U.S. abstention before the debate and voting on the resolution. Here are extracts of her speech about that vote.

“For more than 50 years, the [U.S.] had a policy aimed at isolating the government of Cuba. For roughly half of those years, U.N. Member States have voted overwhelmingly for a General Assembly resolution that condemns the U.S. embargo and calls for it to be ended. The [U.S.] has always voted against this resolution. Today the [U.S.] will abstain.”

“In December 2014, President Obama made clear his opposition to the embargo and called on our Congress to take action to lift it. Yet while the Obama Administration agrees that the U.S. embargo on Cuba should be lifted, . . . we don’t support the shift for the reason stated in this resolution. All actions of the [U.S.] with regard to Cuba have been and are fully in conformity with the U.N. Charter and international law, including applicable trade law and the customary law of the sea. We categorically reject the statements in the resolution that suggest otherwise.”

“But [today’s] resolution . . . is a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working – or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve. Instead of isolating Cuba, . . . our policy isolated the [U.S.], including right here at the [U.N.].”

“Under President Obama, we have adopted a new approach: rather than try to close off Cuba from the rest of the world, we want the world of opportunities and ideas open to the people of Cuba. After 50-plus years of pursuing the path of isolation, we have chosen to take the path of engagement. Because, as President Obama said in Havana, we recognize that the future of the island lies in the hands of the Cuban people.”[5]

“Abstaining on this resolution does not mean that the [U.S.] agrees with all of the policies and practices of the Cuban government. We do not. We are profoundly concerned by the serious human rights violations that the Cuban government continues to commit with impunity against its own people – including arbitrarily detaining those who criticize the government; threatening, intimidating, and, at times, physically assaulting citizens who take part in peaceful marches and meetings; and severely restricting the access that people on the island have to outside information.”

“We [,however,] recognize the areas in which the Cuban government has made significant progress in advancing the welfare of its people, from significantly reducing its child mortality rate, to ensuring that girls have the same access to primary and secondary school as boys.”

“But none of this should mean that we stay silent when the rights of Cuban people are violated, as Member States here at the [U.N.] have too often done. That is why the [U.S.] raised these concerns directly with the Cuban government during our [recent] historic dialogue on human rights . . ., which shows that, while our governments continue to disagree on fundamental questions of human rights, we have found a way to discuss these issues in a respectful and reciprocal manner.[6] We urge other Member States to speak up about these issues as well.”

“As President Obama made clear when he traveled to Havana, we believe that the Cuban people – like all people – are entitled to basic human rights, such as the right to speak their minds without fear, and the right to assemble, organize, and protest peacefully. Not because these reflect a U.S.-centric conception of rights, but rather because they are universal human rights – enshrined in the U.N. Charter and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which all of our 193 Member States are supposed to respect and defend. Rights that are essential for the dignity of men, women, and children regardless of where they live or what kind of government they have.”

The U.S. concedes that it “has work to do in fulfilling these rights for our own citizens. And we know that at times in our history, U.S. leaders and citizens used the pretext of promoting democracy and human rights in the region to justify actions that have left a deep legacy of mistrust. We recognize that our history, in which there is so much that makes us proud, also gives us ample reason to be humble.”

“The [U.S.] believes that there is a great deal we can do together with Cuba to tackle global challenges. That includes here at the [U.N.], where the decades-long enmity between our nations has at best been a distraction – and at worst, an obstacle – to carrying out some of the most important work of this institution and helping the world’s most vulnerable people.”

U.S. Reactions[7]

Engage Cuba, a U.S. national coalition of private companies, organizations and state and local leaders working to lift the embargo, said, “Year after year, the international community has condemned our failed unilateral sanctions that have caused great economic hardship for the people of Cuba and continue to put American businesses at a competitive disadvantage. The fact that the Administration and Israel abstained from voting for the first time ever demonstrates the growing recognition that the U.S. embargo on Cuba is a failed, obsolete policy that has no place in today’s international affairs.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), on the other hand, blasted the abstention, saying the Obama administration had failed to honor and defend U.S. laws in an international forum. Similar negative reactions were registered by Senators Ted Cruz (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Republican Representatives from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

As an U.S. citizen-advocate for ending the embargo as soon as possible, I am pleased with the U.S. abstention and agree with Ambassador Power that this vote does not mean the U.S. agrees with the resolution’s stated reasons.

Moreover, too many in the U.S. believe the Cuban damages claim from the embargo is just a crazy Cuban dream, but I disagree. Given the amount of the claim, Cuba will not someday tell the U.S. to forget it. A prior post, therefore, suggested that the two countries agree to submit this and any other damage claims by both countries for resolution by an independent international arbitration panel such as those provided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.


[1] U.N. Press Release, U.S. abstains for first time in annual UN vote on ending embargo against Cuba (Oct. 26, 2016).

[2] A prior post replicated the Presidential Policy Directive while another post provided reactions thereto.

[3] U.N. Press Release, General Assembly Plenary (Oct. 26, 2016); The defeat of the blockade is the world’s largest moral and political victory for the people of Cuba against the empire, Granma (Oct. 26, 2016) (Venezuela’s statement); Today not only do we vote against the blockade, we voted for hope, Granma (Oct. 26, 2016) (Bolivia’s statement).

[4] Ambassador Power, Remarks at a UN General Assembly Meeting on the Cuban Embargo (Oct. 26, 2016).  Israel, which also abstained, merely said that it welcomed the improved U.S.-Cuba relations and hoped it would lead to a new era in the region.

[5] A prior post reviewed President Obama’s eloquent speech in Havana to the Cuban people.

[6] A prior post reviewed the limited public information about the recent human rights dialogue.

[7] Ordońez, For 1st time, U.S. changes its position on U.N. resolution blasting Cuba trade embargo, InCubaToday (Oct. 26, 2016); Engage Cuba, Press Release: Engage Cuba Praises First Ever Unanimous Passage of United Nations Resolution Condemning the Cuban Embargo (Oct. 26, 2016); Lederer & Lee, US abstains in UN vote on Cuba embargo for the first time, Wash. Post (Oct. 26, 2016); Rubio, Rubio: Obama Admin Ignoring U.S. Law on Cuba Embargo, Giving More Concessions to Castro Regime at U.N. (Oct. 26, 2016).

An Impressionistic View of the Russian Federation

Jill Dougherty
Jill Dougherty

On October 17, Jill Doherty, a Russia expert and frequent traveler to that country, painted a verbal impressionistic portrait of today’s Russian Federation.

Russia today is weak militarily and economically, primarily due to low world prices for oil and gas and also to sanctions against Russia. This also makes Russia weak militarily with forced reductions in military budgets. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999, knows that, but is nonetheless determined to put Russia back on the world stage.

He has done so by injecting Russia into the Syrian conflict and Middle East affairs.[1] He has created conflicts on Russia’s perimeter with Georgia and Ukraine. He is pleased that Russia is at the center of the U.S. presidential campaign: “they may not love us, but they fear us.” He hates Hillary Clinton, whom he deems responsible for demonstrations against Russia’s parliamentary election in 2011. [The original version of this post erroneously said it was the 2012 Russian presidential election.] With respect to Trump, Putin flatters him and plays to his ego just as he did in Germany when he recruited people for the KGB.

Putin is galled by expressions of Western triumphalism over the USSR. He has a big sense of resentment against the West and quickly reacts to Western slights against Russia. Earlier this month Russia withdrew from a nuclear security agreement regarding plutonium with the U.S. Even more recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation of Russia and Syria. Russia immediately responded by suspending talks with the U.S. over reducing violence in Syria, deploying sophisticated antiaircraft weapons in Syria and redeploying long-range ballistic missiles to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.[2] Putin also talked about installing military bases in Cuba, but Doherty believes this is bluster to upset the U.S. in its pursuit of normalization with Cuba.

Russia now has an ability to criticize the West and its faith in liberal democracy. Russia sees Trump as saying just that while Europe is turning away migrants and falling apart. Robotics and artificial intelligence are increasing threats to jobs in the West. Putin believes that Russia provides a moral compass for the world with its socially conservative values.

Putin does not want to invade the Baltic states nor war with the U.S. Many Russians today, however, expect such a war in the near future. They talk about Russian military prowess, including nuclear weapons. They are buying emergency supplies of food and candles.

Russia’s relations with China are very important to Russia, which knows China could “eat its lunch.” China sees Russia as very weak, but an important source of energy for China. Russia also worries about China’s activities in central Asia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia was very weak and chaotic with fears of a civil war with nuclear weapons. But the USSR did not dissolve in important ways. Thereafter Russia was challenged to create a new national identity. Yeltsin even had a commission to do just that, but it never completed the task. Putin, however, has done so. These are the main elements of that identity: Russian tsarism; Russian culture (the great composers, musicians, authors, playwrights and ballet dancers and choreographers); Russian bravery in the Great War for the Fatherland (World War II); the Russian Orthodox Church and its social conservatism; and modern technological accomplishments and talents.

Doherty’s mention of the contemporary importance of the Russian Orthodox Church reminded me of the 2014 Russian film, “The Leviathan,” which shows the Church’s complicity in a local government’s corruption and the absence of law; it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Advice for next U.S. President? Do not expect to reset U.S.-Russia policies; Putin does not want that. Instead he looks for U.S. weaknesses and then reacts. He strives to be unpredictable. Do not insult or denigrate him or Russia. Try for disarmament and trade. Continue space cooperation and encourage scientific cooperation in the Arctic. Stop Russian aggression against former USSR countries. Help Ukraine economically. Putin’s presidential term ends in 2018, but it is very difficult to predict what will happen then.

Putin does not trust a lot of people and relies on a small circle of advisers. He is very popular with the people, especially the young people.

Putin had seen chaos before: he was from Leningrad, where during World War II his mother almost died of starvation, and his older brother died of dysentery at age three. After the war, Putin served the KGB in Germany and Russia and saw more chaos.

Doherty is a former thirty-year CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent and former public policy scholar at the Kennan Institute. She holds a B.A. in Slavic languages from the University of Michigan and a M.A. from Georgetown University.

Her presentation at the University of Minnesota was sponsored by Global Minnesota, the University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication and Minneapolis’ Museum of Russian Art.


[1] E.g., Rosner, Israel Knows That Putin Is the Middle East’s New Sheriff, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).

[2] E.g., Kramer, Vladimir Putin Exits Nuclear Security Pact, Citing ‘Hostile Acts’ by U.S., N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Gordon & Sengupta, John Kerry Calls for War Crimes Investigation of Russia and Assad Government, N.Y. Times (Oct. 7, 2016); MacFarquhar, Behind Putin’s Combativeness, Some See Motives Other Than Syria,   N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2016); Sengupta, A Senior Russian Envoy’s Take on Relations with the United States: ‘Pretty Bad,’ N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).


Cuba’s Foreign Minister Advocates Cuban Interests at the U.N.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez

On September 22, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parilla, addressed the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.[1] The next day he repeated some of the themes of this speech while talking at a meeting at the U.N. of the G77 + China, the intergovernmental organization of 134 U.N.-member developing countries that promotes their collective economic interests, their joint negotiating capacity on such issues and South-South cooperation for development.[2]

 Foreign Minister’s Speech to the U.N. General Assembly

“The statistics could not be more eloquent. 80% of the world population owns only 6% of the wealth, while the richest 1%, enjoys half the heritage of the planet. No less than 795 million people suffer from chronic hunger. 18,000 children die daily because of poverty. More than 660 million use non-potable water and 780 million adults and 103 million young people are illiterate.”

“The huge nuclear and conventional arsenals and annual military spending of 1.7 billion million dollars, belie those who claim that there are no resources to eliminate poverty and underdevelopment.”

“The waves of refugees into Europe, caused by underdevelopment and NATO interventions, show the cruelty, the oppressive nature, inefficiency and unsustainability of the current international order . . . .”

“2015 was also the worst in terms of climate change, with increasing global temperatures, melting of polar ice, the ocean levels and volume growth emission of greenhouse gases. . . . While it is expected that the industrialized countries will make progress in fulfilling the obligations assumed with the ambiguous Paris Agreement, only tangible data on financing and technology transfer to developing countries may justify hopes of survival of the human species.”

“Peace and development are the raison d’être of the [U.N.] For the human species, it is imperative and urgent . . . to create a culture of peace and justice as the basis of a new international order. . . . For peaceful coexistence among States, it is essential to respect the [U.N.] Charter and international law.”

“The UN must [combat] unilateralism and . . . be thoroughly reformed in order to democratize it and bring it closer to the problems, needs and aspirations of peoples in order to make it capable of [moving] the international system towards peace, sustainable development and respect for all human rights for all. The reform of the Security Council, both in its composition and its working methods, is a task that can no longer be postponed. Strengthening the General Assembly and rescuing [its] functions that have been usurped by the Security Council should guide the search for a more democratic and efficient organization.”

Rodrigues also supported the rights of the people of Palestine, the Sahara, the Syrian Arab Republic, Russia (and against NATO), Venezuela, Colombia (and their agreement to end the conflict with the FARQ), Brazil (and against “the parliamentary coup d’eta against President Rousseff”) and Puerto Rico.

He praised Cuban medical personnel who are “working in [61 countries in] all continents . . . for the life and health of humans” and criticized the U.S. Parole Program for Cuban Medical Personnel that seeks to interfere with such beneficial medical programs.

On the other hand, he recognized that “just over a year has passed since the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States and the reopening of embassies.” Since then “there has been some progress in our bilateral ties, especially in diplomatic affairs, dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest, as reflected in the high-level visits, including the visit of President Barack Obama, and the dozen agreements signed on issues that can bring benefits to both countries and throughout the hemisphere.

However, “the reality is that the [U.S. embargo] blockade remains in force, continues to cause serious damage and hardship to the Cuban people and continues to hamper the functioning of the economy and its relations with other countries. Executive measures adopted by the [U.S.}, although positive, are insufficient.” Therefore, the Cuban government “will present [this October] to the Assembly the draft resolution entitled ‘Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Tax by the United States of America against Cuba.’”

In the meantime, “the Cuban government [will continue to develop] a respectful dialogue with the [U.S.] Government, knowing that remains a long way to go to move towards normalization, which means building an entirely new bilateral relations [model].” For this to be possible some day, it will be imperative that the blockade [be] . . . lifted” and that the territory [allegedly] illegally occupied by the Naval Base of the United States in Guantanamo” be returned to Cuba.

“The Cuban people continues [to be engaged in updating [its] economic and social model . . . in order to build an independent, sovereign, socialist, prosperous and sustainable nation.”

 Foreign Minister’s Speech at Meeting of G-77+ China

Rodriguez emphasized what he called “the historical debt owed to the nations of the South by the industrialized countries that built their wealth from centuries of colonialism, slavery and plundering of natural resources. This debt needs to be settled by [the industrialized countries] paying [the nations of the South] with financial flows and technology transfers.”

“The external [financial] debt [of the South] must be abolished because it already has been paid many times.”

The Cuban Foreign Minister of Cuba also advocated a direct and active participation of the South in global decisions.

He reiterated Cuba’s allegations against the U.S. economic, commercial and financial embargo (blockade) despite the recent rapprochement between the two governments. More will be heard on this subject when Cuba this October presents its annual resolution against the embargo to the General Assembly


There really was nothing new in these remarks, but it is heartening to hear again that Cuba continues to pursue normalization with the U.S. and to updating its economic and social model in order to build a more prosperous society.


[1] Rodriguez, The UN must be defended [against] unilateralism and at the same time, it must be deeply reformed to democratize, Granma (Sept. 22, 2016); At UN, Cuba cites progress in US relations, but with embargo still in force, ‘there is a long way ahead,” UN News Centre (Sept. 22, 2016).

[2] Our country wants to settle historical debt to the South, Granma (Sept. 23, 2016).

Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians

arc_tw_graphic_1027152-b39f6fe5On January 3, 2016, a group of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra played a beautiful and successful concert to benefit Syrians displaced in their own country.[1] Here is a poster for the concert with photographs of (a) Erin Keefe, the Orchestra’s Concertmaster, with Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra’s Music Director; and (b) Beth Rapier and Tony Ross, Cellists with the Orchestra and the originators of the idea for the concert.

The concert raised over $75,000 for the Minneapolis-headquartered American Refugee Committee (ARC) to support its efforts to help the 7.6 million Syrians who have been forced to relocate within their own country because of the war.[2] There ARC with the aid of heroic Syrians works to:

  • help improve the physical conditions of make-shift shelters where people have fled;
  • build and repair water and sanitation infrastructure, helping to prevent disease;
  • provide youth mentoring and support services;
  • reconnect orphaned children with family members;
  • counsel victims of abuse and trauma; and
  • provide children the opportunity to play and have fun.

Other contributions for this cause would be appreciated; just go to ARC’s website [] and do so.

The concert was opened by the Minnesota Orchestra Brass Quintet. They played several numbers, including Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” and “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” the Broadway musical. The Quintet members were Douglas Wright, trombone; Robert Doerr and Charles Lazarus, trumpet; Steven Campbell, tuba; and Michael Gast, horn.

Then Osmo Vänskä, an accomplished clarinetist in addition to being a great conductor, played the clarinet in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s beautiful Clarinet Concerto in A Major (K 622), which was composed shortly before Mozart’s death in 1791. Vänskä was backed by 18 members of the Orchestra.[3]

Osmo and Tony

audience DSC02485





Above are photographs of Vänskä playing the concerto and of the audience of over 900 in the beautiful and modern sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina, Minnesota.

The program ended with Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky’s difficult String Sextet in D minor (Op.70). It was titled “Souvenir de Florence” because the composer sketched one of the work’s principal themes while visiting Florence, Italy in 1890. The violinists were Erin Keefe and Cecilia Belcher; violaists, Tom Turner and Sabrina Thatcher; and cellists, Ross and Rapier. Ross thought the piece might be Tchaikovsky’s greatest.

The concert had principal support from St. John’s Episcopal Church of Minneapolis and Our Lady of Grace along with 24 other Christian, Jewish and Islamic congregations from the Twin Cities.


[1] Royce,  Minnesota Orchestra musicians unite for concert to aid Syrian refugees, StarTribune (Dec. 23, 2015); Program, Chamber Music Concert for Refugees Inside Syria (Jan. 3, 2016).

[2] ARC, Syria Relief.  As explained in a prior post, one of the international legal requirements for refugee status is an individual’s being outside his or her home country. Therefore, the beneficiaries of this concert, Syrians who have not left their own country, are technically not “refugees,” but rather “internally displaced people” or “IDP’s” in international relief jargon. But they are just as deserving of our compassion as those Syrians who have fled their country, perhaps more so because those who stay are trying to live in the midst of the war.

[3] A prior post described Vânskä’s playing the clarinet in a Havana music club after the Orchestra’s second concert in Cuba last May. Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba trip Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2015).























U.S. Process for Screening Refugees

The U.S. process for screening refugees only commences after representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees screens and determines that an individual meets the international standard for refugees: an individual who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [1]

Once an individual is determined to be a “refugee” by that U.N. agency and is designated for resettlement in the U.S., the U.S. commences its process for screening such an individual before he or she is permitted to come to the U.S. On November 19, 2015, Mr. Simon Henshaw, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, gave a special briefing on that U.S. process. [2] Here is what he had to say.

The U.S. “remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American people from terrorists, just as we are committed to providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people. We do not believe these goals are mutually exclusive or that either has to be pursued at the expense of the other.”

“All refugees go through the most intensive security screening of any travelers to the [U.S.]. It includes multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense. A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel until all required security checks have been completed and cleared.”

“Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of security screening. . . . We prioritize admitting the most vulnerable Syrians, including female-headed households, children, survivors of torture, and individuals with severe medical conditions. We have, for years, safely admitted refugees from all over the world, including Syrian refugees, and we have a great deal of experience screening and admitting large numbers of refugees from chaotic environments, including where intelligence holdings are limited.” In addition, the Government continues “to examine options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified.”

The “Department of Homeland Security has full discretion to deny admission before a refugee comes to the U.S. When in doubt, DHS denies applications on national security grounds and the individual never travels to the [U.S.]. Their decisions are guided by the key principle directed by the President and affirmed throughout the U.S. Government that the safety and security of the American people must come first. The U.S. Government has the sole authority to screen and decide which refugees are admitted to the [U.S.]. Security checks are a shared responsibility between the State Department and DHS.”

“All available biographical and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of law enforcement, intelligence community, and other relevant databases to help confirm a refugee’s identity, check for any criminal or other derogatory information, and identify information that could inform lines of questioning during the interview. DHS conducts extensive in-person interviews of all refugee applicants. Biographic checks against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, known as CLASS, which includes watch list information, are initiated at the time of a prescreening carried out by State Department contractors.”

“In addition, the State Department requests security advisory opinions from the law enforcement and intelligence communities for those cases meeting certain criteria. Biometric checks are coordinated by USCIS [U.S. Customs and Immigration Service] using mobile fingerprint equipment and photographs at the time of the interview.[3] These fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the FBI, the integrated automated fingerprint identification system, and screened and enrolled in DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System, which is known as IDENT.”

“Through IDENT, applicant fingerprints are screened not only against watch list information, but also for previous immigration encounters in the [U.S.] and overseas, including cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy. The classified details of the refugee . . . security screen process are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees.”

“The U.S. welcomed 1,682 vulnerable Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2015, and the President has directed his team to make preparations to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2016. Measured against more than four million Syrian refugees currently hosted in the Middle East, this is a modest but an important contribution to the global effort to address the Syrian refugee crisis.”

In addition, it has been widely reported that the U.S. screening of an individual Syrian refugee typically takes at least two years.


This account of the screening process should provide assurances to the American public that no additional procedures are necessary and that the recent bill to do that as passed by the House of Representatives is unnecessary.


[1] Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011).

[2] State Dep’t, Special Briefing: Refugee Screening Process (Nov. 19, 2015).

[3] The mobile units for screening Syrian refugees currently are located in Turkey and Jordan with another unit planned for Lebanon.