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]

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[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.

Reactions to Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies and Other Issues Regarding U.S.-Cuba Normalization

As discussed in an earlier post, on the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside over that event. Another post, that afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; yet another post, recent comments about Cuba by the White House Press Secretary.

Now we look at the reactions to the significant issues raised by these events: (1) restoration of diplomatic relations; (2) future changes in Cuba; (3) future changes in Cuban human rights; (4) ending the U.S. embargo (or blockade) of Cuba; (5) altering or terminating Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.; (6) ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti; (7) ending USAID and other covert U.S. “democracy” programs in Cuba; (8) Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives; and (9) nominating and confirming the appointment of an U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

1. Restoration of U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations?

There has been substantial U.S. approval of the restoration of diplomatic relations.

According to the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), for instance, 12 public opinion polls conducted and released since January 1 show that “public support for the Cuba opening is strong, growing, and pervasive. Support for the new policy is bipartisan. It is significantly high among segments of voters — such as Hispanics — that candidates running for office increasingly care about. Most of all, the latest research shows that public support is rising. For example, support for ending the embargo was measured in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at 67%, and earlier this year by Gallup at 59% and by the Associated Press at 60%.”[1]

Moreover, CDA sees “evidence that public support for America’s new Cuba policy is exerting its force on policymakers in the U.S. Congress.” It points to last week’s action of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s approving amendments eliminating House measures that would impede normalization in various ways[2] and to Republican legislators—Senator Dean Heller (NV) and Representative Bradley Byrne (AL)–who recently joined the ranks of supporters of normalization.

Despite the vigorous opposition to normalization repeatedly expressed by Cuban-Americans in Congress—Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL) [3]—there has been little organized opposition to normalization in the Cuban-American community, especially in Florida.[4]

This assessment has been confirmed by prominent Cubans in the U.S. and on the island. Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-born Miami lawyer with a national law firm representing several U.S. and foreign clients seeking to do business in Cuba and a former hardliner himself, said, “It’s over and done in Miami. It died with a whimper.” Indeed, he added that President Obama’s new policy was now widely accepted by South Florida’s 1.5 million Cuban exiles. Similar views were expressed in the Miami Herald by Mike Fernandez, a healthcare millionaire and Bush supporter, who said, “Cuban-Americans everywhere, but especially the diaspora in South Florida, have been awakening to the reality that Cuba’s isolation was and is not a sustainable strategy. It’s time to accept change. Let us not heed those relatively few voices who would go on continuing to trap our minds in hatred.” Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat who is close to President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel, put it best. He said, “The genie is out of the bottle. And once it’s out, you’re not going to be able to put it back in.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), who is the author of a bipartisan bill to lift the embargo, said this must be done for the U.S. to avoid losing investment opportunities that will come with loosening of travel restrictions to the island. She said, “Once millions of American tourists are going, they will need places to stay and they will need food to eat. … So when they come, they are going to be starting to sleep in Spanish hotels and eat German foods because those countries will be able to supply what they need in the tourism industry, not to mention the computers and Wi-Fi and everything else.”[5]

James Williams, the President of Engage Cuba, a major bipartisan group promoting this normalization, issued a statement on the reopening of embassies. He said, “we begin a new chapter of engagement between our two countries. American diplomats will now be much better equipped to engage with the Cuban people and civil society. They will be in a stronger position to elevate issues of concern, like human rights, as well as expanding on areas of cooperation with Cuba.” He pointed out that the “vast majority of the American people, and 97% of the Cuban people support opening relations. We applaud both governments for taking this important step to move forward beyond the Cold War policies of the past and call on Congress to play a constructive role at this historic moment of transition.”[6]

John Dinges, Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and an expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, said for the U.S. “the new relationship with Cuba removed a stumbling block in relations with the entire region, where the US attitude [was] considered irrational and stupid.”[7]

However, others argue that this change is misguided and erroneous. For example, Edward Gonzalez, professor emeritus of political science at U.C.L.A., stated that “in the face of potentially destabilizing change and high expectations at home, Cuban officials are tightening state controls in the short term.” Moreover, “given the regime’s totalitarian proclivity and apparatus, the state’s repression of dissidents and civil society, and its control over the lion’s share of the island’s economy, it is likely to continue into the distant future.” Therefore, he continues, the new U.S. engagement with Cuba “makes the [U.S.] complicit in propping up the regime both economically and politically, while leaving Cuban society even more isolated and defenseless vis-à-vis the all-powerful, coercive state.”[8]

Moreover, Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, currently two of the many contenders for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, have said that if elected president in 2016, they would rescind the diplomatic relations. And Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AK) has pledged to “work to maintain and increase sanctions on the regime, block the confirmation of a new ambassador, demand the extradition of U.S. fugitives from justice, and hold the Castro regime accountable.”[9]

Secretary of State John Kerry in his July 20 interviews,[10] responded to these threats to rescind the relations with Cuba. Kerry said that whoever is elected president in 2016, including Marco Rubio, will have “the ability to make a decision [on whether or not to rescind the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba]. Congress, obviously, has an ability to have an impact on that.” [11] But I think it would be a terrible mistake [to rescind such diplomatic relations]. The vast majority of the American people believe this is a very good thing to do. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, we had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. We had diplomatic relations with then-called Red China. We have to have relationships with countries to do business. And American citizens get hurt when we don’t do that.” Moreover, Kerry added, “I believe . . . President [Obama] has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Kerry continued, “Given the fact there are so many Cuban Americans, people who have family in Cuba, to not have a relationship where we can advocate for people, advocate for human rights, advocate for fairness, for elections, for democracy, for travel, for engagement, and all these things that make a difference in the quality of life of Cubans would be a terrible, terrible mistake. So I think, as time goes on, people will see the benefits that come from this policy.”

2. Future Changes in Cuba?

As Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s July 20 statement and Secretary Kerry’s statements made clear and as both governments previously had recognized, the opening of the embassies did not mean the process of normalization had been completed. Indeed, it has just started.

Secretary Kerry, in his interviews, observed, There are “key issues in the normalization process, and . . . [Minster Rodriguez and I] both said today that it will be long and complex. . . . [T]he measure of progress and success is really going to come from what happens in the next months as we go through this early diplomatic rekindling of a relationship. My suspicion is that there’s a possibility it could move faster than people think, simply because I think the Cuban people want it. And as we are there doing diplomacy, more present, able to engage, we actually can work at these kinds of issues more effectively than we’ve been able to for the last 50, 60 years.”

Kerry added that if Cuba is “willing to embrace it, we can bring them a tremendous leap in their economy. We could bring a better standard of living to their people. We can bring technology. We can bring various modern instruments of education, of health delivery, of communications. And I believe that over time things will change . . . at a pace that will be acceptable and, frankly, helpful to Cuba.” Kerry also said, the U.S. wants to see “a true, deep engagement [by Cuba], a willingness to work through these issues. There’s so much that we can cooperate on right now. We want to cooperate on law enforcement, . . . the environment, . . . our visas, . . . health, education, the rights of people, . . . hemispheric issues and interests like the war in Colombia or the relationship with Venezuela.”

Although not in direct response to the reopening of the embassies, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro in his July 15 speech to Cuba’s legislature (the National Assembly of People’s Power)[12] asserted, “We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, which we have sovereignly chosen, with the majority support of the people, in the interest of constructing a prosperous and sustainable socialism, the essential guarantee of our independence.” (Emphases added.) He reiterated this theme near the end of his speech with these words: “Changing everything which must be changed is the sovereign and exclusive domain of Cubans. The Revolutionary Government is willing to advance in the normalization of relations, convinced that both countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, to our mutual benefit, beyond the differences we have and will have, thus contributing to peace, security, stability, development and equity in our continent and the world.” (Emphases added.)

A New York Times editorial said, “The full normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will take years and will be an arduous process. Issues that will be hard to resolve include the disposition of American property the Cuban government seized in the 1960s, and the fate of the United States Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, which the Cuban government considers an illegally occupied territory.”[13]

Professor Dinges offered a similar assessment of the future. He said, “’normal’ relations are not compatible with the [U.S.] travel ban, with [the U.S.] economic embargo, with a recent history of semi-clandestine operations by the [USAID] to promote economic and social discontent. I hope to see in the near future gestures of friendship and rapprochement. For the [U.S.], it is important to dismantle the Guantanamo prison, and the minimization of military forces at the base. On behalf of Cuba, a gesture of detente toward the Miami Cubans would not cost anything and could have huge benefits. . . . There is distrust, there is a long history of [U.S.] aggression [against Cuba]. . . . [He believes future] “changes will be economically, technically, diplomatically. It would be illusory to expect radical changes in political structures in Cuba. Equally unrealistic to think that the US will stop talking about democracy and human rights.”

3. Future Changes in Cuban Human Rights?

Probably the leading U.S. desire for future changes in Cuba is with respect to human rights. For example, in one of his July 20 interviews, Kerry said Cuba does not “want [domestic] interference, but they know we’re not going to stop raising human rights issues. We made that very clear. . . . [W]e’re not giving up the DNA of the [U.S.], which is a deep commitment to human rights, to the values of democracy, freedom of speech, and so forth. So those . . . will be on the agenda. But on the other hand, the great step forward here is that neither of us . . . [is] taking one of our issues of contention and making it a showstopper. We want to engage, and when you get to that point, that’s what begins to break down the barriers.”

Kerry also told Andrea Mitchell, “There’s been a little bit of give . . . [by Cuba] with respect to some agreement on human rights. And I think that over time the elections discussion and the more pointed human rights issues are going to be very much part of the discussion. They are in every country where we have an embassy and an ambassador. We are fearless in our determination to walk in and talk to the authorities and give them a shared our sense of the problems that exist.”

According to the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were 2,822 politically related detentions in the first six months of 2015, less than half the 5,904 registered in the same period last year. Many of those detained this year, however, report being treated more roughly, however.[14]

The previous source also reports, “more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have come to Cuba since February without meeting with opposition groups that once were an obligatory stop for congressional delegations.” This was apparently due to “Cuban officials . . . [having] made clear that if Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba” and to U.S. assessment that “talking with Cuban leaders is clearly the most promising way to promote reform on the island.”

On the issue of Cuban human rights, I submit that there is an enormous cognitive dissonance in the minds of U.S. opponents of normalization. Here are the reasons for that conclusion:

  • First, any objective student of history has to conclude that the U.S., especially since the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, has committed and threatened serious acts of hostility towards Cuba, including the embargo, the 1961 U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, the 1962 threatened bombing of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the embargo of the island and CIA attempts to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. Moreover, U.S. hostility toward Cuba started at least in 1898 when it intervened in Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. Indeed, Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ July 20 speech referred to the late 19th century warning by José Marti of the U.S. “excessive craving for domination [over Cuba].”
  • Second, Cuba, therefore, has good reason to be fearful of the much larger and more powerful U.S. and as a result to take steps to protect itself against such perceived threats by restricting dissent. What would you do if you were in the Cubans’ shoes? It, therefore, will take time for Cuba to develop a sense of trust of the U.S. and as a result modify its restrictions on free speech and assembly.
  • Third, the self-proclaimed advocates of Cuban human rights like Rubio and Jeb Bush do not appear to be aware of the first two points. In addition, they apparently do not appreciate that their very hostility towards Cuba and normalization, purportedly on the ground of promoting Cuban human rights, instead contributes to Cuban skepticism about the good intentions of the U.S. and to the prolonging of Cuba’s restrictions on free speech and other civil liberties.

4. Ending the U.S. Embargo of Cuba?

Ending the embargo or blockade, of course, is a key demand by Cuba, and President Obama has asked the Congress to do just that. As discussed in previous posts, various bills to end the embargo have been introduced in this Session of the Congress, and supporters of normalization or reconciliation of the two countries, like this blogger, urge the Congress to approve such bills as soon as possible.

Such congressional action is in the U.S. national interest because the embargo has failed for over 50 years to produce positive change in Cuba, the embargo clearly has harmed or damaged the island’s economy, and Cuba has insisted on its removal as a key requirement for full normalization of relations.

In addition, there are at least two additional reasons for ending the embargo that this blogger has not seen mentioned in all the public discussion of this issue.

  • First, last October at the U.N. General Assembly Cuba alleged that the damage to Cuba from the embargo or blockade totaled $1.1 trillion, and the longer the embargo remains in effect that number will only increase. For a U.S. business this would require at least a footnote to its balance sheet identifying this as a contingent liability and explaining whatever reasons the business has for challenging the claim or the alleged amount of the claim. The rational action for such a business would be to terminate the conduct allegedly causing the damage, especially when it is not producing some benefit to the business.
  • Second, because of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement of last December, other countries, especially the European Union and its members, are accelerating their efforts to obtain beneficial trade arrangements with Cuba. In short, the longer the U.S. waits to end the embargo, the further behind the U.S. will be with respect to competitors from around the world seeking to do business with Cuba.

Wake up, Congress!

5. Altering or Terminating the Cuba-U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

As previously noted, Foreign Minister Rodriguez at the July 20 reopening of the Cuban Embassy and at the subsequent joint press conference with Secretary Kerry reiterated Cuba’s request or desire to have its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. terminated and the territory returned to Cuba. Although the Foreign Minister did not set forth any alleged legal basis for this claim, he did mention that the 1906 lease occurred during a period of U.S. military occupation of the island that “led to the usurpation of [this] piece of Cuban territory”and thereby suggested that the lease was unfairly or coercively obtained.

Interestingly Rodriguez did not mention a previous legal theory advanced by the Fidel Castro regime: that the lease purportedly runs in perpetuity and, therefore, is illegal under Cuban law. Nor did Rodriguez mention another theory for ending the lease: the U.S. operation of a prison/detention facility at Guantanamo that allegedly is not permitted by the lease and, therefore, the U.S. has breached the lease.[15]

At that same joint press conference, Secretary Kerry immediately rejected U.S. willingness to return Guantanamo to Cuba. However, there were caveats in his comment: he said, At this time, there is no discussion and no intention on our part at this moment to alter the existing lease“ and “I can’t tell you what the future will bring but for the moment that is not part of the discussion on our side.” (Emphasis added.) This was reiterated, with similar qualifications, on July 22 by National Security Advisor Susan Rice at a White House press conference.[16] She said, “We’ve been clear that we’re not, at this stage, at all interested in changing the nature of our understanding and arrangements on Guantanamo.  And they may choose to raise it, but we’ve been equally clear that, for us, that’s not in the offing at the present.” (Emphasis added.) Do these caveats indicate an U.S. willingness in the future to discuss altering or even terminating the lease? I could understand a lease amendment increasing the amount of the rent and perhaps making administrative changes, but would be surprised if the U.S. would be willing to discuss termination of the lease and returning Guantanamo to Cuba.[17]

Although Cuba has not mentioned the U.S. operation of a detention facility at Guantanamo and the alleged U.S. torture of some of the detainees as a reason for Cuba’s desire to have the territory returned, it should be noted that President Obama has been trying to close that facility since the start of his first term.

On July 22, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed “that the administration is, in fact, in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress. That has been something that our national security officials have been working on for quite some time, primarily because it is a priority of the President.  He believes it’s in our clear national security interest for us to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” Earnest also said the President has decided to veto a defense spending bill now being negotiated in Congress if it includes provisions that would make it harder to close the prison.[18]

A few more details about the plan to close the detention facility were offered on July 25 by Lisa Monaco, one of Obama’s top national security aides, who said that such a plan was nearing completion. It will call for the U.S. to step up the transfers of 52 detainees cleared for resettlement in other countries and for the transfer to U.S. “Supermax” or military prisons for trials or continued military detention of at least some of the other 64 detainees still at Guantanamo who are deemed too dangerous to release. Efforts will be made to reduce the size of the latter group through “periodic review boards” that have been used to clear others for transfer.[19]

6. Ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti?

Another Cuban request is for the U.S. to stop its radio and TV broadcasts aimed at Cuba (Radio and TV Marti), again mentioned on July 20 by Minister Rodriguez. On July 22 National Security Advisor Rice stated, apparently in response to this request, the U.S. ”will continue to say and do what we think is appropriate to advance our interests in human rights and democracy in Cuba. . . . we’re not going to change just because the Cuban government may wish that we did.”

7. Ending USAID and Other Covert U.S. “Democracy” Programs in Cuba?

Prior posts have discussed recent “discreet” or covert programs in Cuba operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through private contractors purportedly to promote democracy in Cuba and the latter’s objections to same. Rodriguez in his July 20 speech did not specifically mention such programs, but did so indirectly by objecting to the U.S. seeking “obsolete and unjust goals” (i.e., regime change) by “a mere change in the methods.”

These prior posts have expressed this blogger’s objections to such USAID programs. The New York Times has done the same.

8. Cuba Returning U.S. Fugitives?

Although not specifically mentioned last week by Secretary Kerry or Minister Rodriguez, the issue of Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives remains a top priority for many in Congress and in the U.S. generally. On July 24 Representative Jerry McNerney (Dem., CA) raised the issue with respect to Charles Hill, who is the sole surviving member of a group who hijacked an airliner in 1971; Hill and two others were fleeing charges relating to the killing of a New Mexico state trooper. McNerney, who was on that hijacked airliner, wants Hill to be returned to the U.S.[20]

9. Nominating and Confirming U.S. Ambassador to Cuba?

With respect to congressional threats to not provide funds for the U.S. embassy in Cuba and to not confirm an ambassador to that country, Kerry observed, “it always matters when Congress is sort of stepping in the way of something being able to . . . be fully effected. . . . [W]hy are they going to do that? Are they going to do that because the [old] policy [purportedly] has been so successful? Are they going to do that because they can show so much change that’s taken place in the last 60 years that this is a crazy path? . . . [It] just doesn’t make sense to prevent our diplomats from carrying the message . . . [of human rights and democracy]. To not be able to meet with more people in Cuba to know what is going on is a huge cutoff of opportunity. So I just think it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face and it’s a shame.”

Kerry also said, “Well, it depends on whom, obviously, the next president is, and we don’t know that now. So you can’t bet on it that way. You have to do what you think is right. You have to do what’s appropriate and make the difference. Nobody can guard against every eventuality of the future. But I believe the President has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Conclusion

The time has come for all U.S. citizens to support full normalization of our relations with Cuba!

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[1] Center for Democracy in Americas, Flag Poles to Public Opinion Polls—Is Congress (Finally) Getting the Message (July 24, 2015)

[2] The Senate Committee on July 23 voted, 18 to 12, to lift the “decades-long ban on travel to Cuba . . . . to block enforcement of a law prohibiting banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. . . . [and] to lift restrictions on vessels that have shipped goods to Cuba from returning to the U.S. until six months have passed.” A journalist asserted, “The panel’s votes reflect growing sentiment, even among some GOP conservatives, to ease the five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island, which have failed to move the Castro regime toward democracy.” (Assoc. Press, GOP-Controlled Senate Panel Votes to Life Cuba Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015); Davis, Senate Panel Takes Small Step Toward Easing Travel Restrictions with Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015); Shabad, GOP-led Senate panel votes to lift travel ban to Cuba, The Hill (July 23, 2015).) This move in the Senate Appropriations Committee is part of a Democratic Senators’ strategy of attacking House riders in appropriation bills that imperil U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. (Shabad, Dems show their hand in budget poker, The Hill (July 26, 2015),)

[3] Menendez, Menendez Statement on Cuban Embassy Opening (July 20, 2015;    Ros-Lehtinen, Opening of Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. Harms Our National Security, Says Ros-Lehtinen (July 20, 2015); Diaz-Balart, Embassy in Washington, D.C. Will Represent the Castros, Not the Cuban People (July 20, 2015).

[4] Reuters, Cuban-American Resistance to Diplomatic Thaw Proves Tepid, N.Y.Times (July 21, 2015); Assoc. Press, Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Diplomatic Ties With Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015); Reuters Video, Cubans enthusiastic about reopening of U.S. embassy in Havana, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015).

[5] Klobuchar, News Release: Klobuchar: Opening of Cuban Embassy Marks Next Chapter in Relationship (July 20, 2015).

[6] Engage Cuba, Statement from Engage Cuba on Official Opening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies (July 20, 2015).

[7] Elizalde, John Dinges on Cuba-US relations: ‘I’m optimistic,’ CubaDebate (July 23, 2015)

[8] Gonzalez, Letter to Editor: Effects of Our Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015)

[9] Carney, GOPer doubles down on pledge to block Obama on Cuba, The Hill (July 20, 2015).

[10] Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio (July 20, 2015); Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News (July 20, 2015).

[11] This blogger disagrees with Kerry’s saying Congress had a role in deciding to recognize a foreign government; such a congressional role appears to be unconstitutional in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that the president has the exclusive constitutional authority to recognize foreign governments.

[12] Speech presented by Army General Raúl Castro Ruz: ‘We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, CubaDebate (July 15, 2015.

[13] Editorial, Formal Restoration of Diplomatic Ties with Cuba Is Just a Beginning, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2015).  The Washington Post, on the other hand, continued its opposition to normalization with Cuba with an editorial that focused on the human rights problems in Cuba and urging our diplomats to concentrate on those issues. (Editorial, U.S. diplomats in Cuba would do well to focus on human rights, Wash. Post (July 20, 2015).) As Secretary Kerry emphasized in his remarks, the U.S. continues to concentrate on those issues.

[14] Assoc. Press, Cuban Dissidents Feel Sidelined as Focuses on State Ties, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015).

[15] A prior post suggested that Cuba’s best argument for terminating the lease was the U.S. operation of the prison/detention facility. However, Dr. Michael Strauss, an expert on this lease, asserts that at least in 2002 Cuba offered to facilitate U.S. transportation of detainees to Guantanamo; such conduct should weaken, if not demolish, such an argument for Cuba. (Strauss, Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo Bay, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 546 (2013).)

[16] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/22/15.

[17] A prior post discussed these issues about the Guantanamo lease and recommended that the parties submit any unresolved disputes about the lease to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.

[18] Assoc. Press, White House Finishing Up Latest Plan for Closing Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015) Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015).

[19] Reuters, Some Guantanamo Inmates Would Go to U.S. Under New Plan: Obama Aide, N.Y. Times (July 26, 2015)

[20] Hattem, House Dem demands fugitives in Cuba be returned to the U.S., The Hill (July 24, 2015). A prior post explored the issues regarding extradition under a U.S.-Cuba treaty on the subject and recommended submitting any unresolved disputes about extradition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.

Comments About Cuba by White House Press Secretary 

On the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside that event. Prior posts discussed the ceremonial opening of the Cuban Embassy and the joint press conference later that day at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. This post reviews the extensive July 20 comments about the U.S.-Cuba relationship by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.[1] A subsequent post will review the reactions to these events.

Emphasizing Secretary Kerry’s Comments

Josh Earnest
Josh Earnest

Earnest first underscored Secretary Kerry’s comments about the reopening of embassies by saying, “The [U.S.] welcomes today’s historic opening of the embassy of the [U.S.] in Havana, Cuba, and the opening of the Cuban embassy here in Washington, D.C.  Today’s openings are the result of respectful dialogue between the [U.S.] and the Republic of Cuba following the December 17th announcements by President Obama and President Raúl Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations between our two nations.”

“This is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past.  We look forward to working collaboratively to normalize relations with the Cuban government and the Cuban people after more than a half-century of discord.  Beginning today, U.S. diplomats in Havana will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island of Cuba, with the Cuban government, Cuban civil society, and even ordinary Cuban citizens.”

“We look forward to collaborating with the Cuban government on issues of common interest, including counterterrorism and disaster response, and we are confident that the best way to advance universal values like freedom of speech and assembly is through more engagement with the Cuban people.”

U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

The Press Secretary said he did “not have a specific commitment in terms of when [a nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Cuba] would be announced or who that person would be.  We certainly do believe that U.S. interests in Cuba would be best represented by somebody serving as the ambassador there.” Later in the conference, when pressed, he said despite anticipated resistance to the appointment of anyone to that position by some Senate Republicans, he expected such an a nomination to be made by the President.

The “current Chief of Mission is a gentleman named Jeffrey DeLaurentis.  He is somebody who had previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.  He is somebody who has done two previous stints at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and somebody who has served in a wide variety of diplomatic roles, including as the political counselor to the U.S. Mission at the United Nations in Geneva, a political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Bogota, even did a stint here at the White House at the National Security Council.

So this is somebody . . . with a wide range of experience in a variety of roles, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in the ability of Ambassador DeLaurentis to represent U.S. interests on the island in Cuba.  But I certainly wouldn’t rule out that the President would nominate somebody to serve at the rank of ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Cuba.”

DeLaurentis’ “top agenda item will be to represent the interests of the [U.S.] on the island.  In some cases, that is going to involve making sure that U.S. businesses and U.S. individuals that are engaged in commercial activity on the island of Cuba, that their interests are represented and protected on the island.  That’s certainly one reason that we’ve seen some bipartisan support in Congress for this policy change.”

“But obviously diplomats who are working at the new U.S. embassy in Cuba will also have the ability to more freely travel throughout Cuba and to interact and engage the Cuban people and, yes, even some members of the political opposition.  And we believe that that will better represent the interest of the [U.S.] on the island.”

Cuban Human Rights.

The change in U.S. policy regarding Cuba “is consistent with the national security interests of the [U.S. and] . . . with the kinds of values that this President and previous Presidents have aggressively advocated all around the world.  Those values are the respect for the basic human rights that we hold dear in this country — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press.”

“It’s clear that Cuba has significant progress to make in all of those areas.  What’s also clear is that the previous [U.S.] . . . [did not] really make much progress [on these issues].  The President believed that a change was necessary.  And we’re hopeful that in the coming years we’ll start to see the kind of respect for basic human rights on the island of Cuba that the U.S.] has long advocated.”

[Moreover, an] overwhelming percentage of the Cuban people are supportive and optimistic about this change in policy because of a chance that is has to improve their prospects on the island nation of Cuba.”

“So the President is looking forward to these kinds of changes taking effect [so] that the Cuban people and the Cuban government start to enjoy the benefits and see the results from greater engagement with the [U.S.]”

“In the days after this agreement was announced back in December, a substantial number of individuals who had previously been held by the Cuban government for their political views were released.  And that’s an indication that the Cuban government is trying to at least change their reputation when it comes to these issues.“

“But we have got a long list of concerns.” In addition, “for a long time the U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba became a source of irritation in the relationship between the [U.S.] and other countries in the Western Hemisphere.  And by removing that source of irritation, the [U.S.] can now focus attention of . . . other countries in the Western Hemisphere on the Cuban government’s rather sordid human rights record.”

“And again, that is part of the strategy for seeking to engage the Cuban people more effectively, and bring about the kind of change that we would like to see inside of Cuba.”

U.S. Leverage To Effect Change in Cuba.

As a result of the change in U.S. policy regarding Cuba, the U.S. will “have the leverage of the other countries in the Western Hemisphere that now are no longer distracted by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. . . . In fact, . . . we’ve remove[d] that irritant and allowed the rest of the Western Hemisphere to focus more closely on the conduct and policies of the Cuban government. That certainly is a positive development.”

“[A]ny perceived leverage [for the U.S.] that was included in an embargo did not succeed in generating the kind of outcome that its most ardent advocates believe is important.  We didn’t see the kind of progress on human rights reforms that we would like to see while that embargo was in place.”

That is “why the President has called for the removal of the embargo and . . . to take steps to restore diplomatic ties between our two nations. [T]he policy of isolation . . . [has] failed and it was time to try a different approach to succeed in achieving the goal that we all share, which is a Cuba that thrives and a Cuban government that respects and even protects the basic human rights of their citizens.”

“[P]art of this agreement included ensuring that Cuban citizens have greater access to the Internet and greater access to information, and we believe that, equipped with that knowledge, that that’s a good thing for the Cuban people.”

“What is persuasive [about this enhanced U.S. leverage] is that most public polls indicate that upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban population actually support this policy change. . . . [This] is an indication that it’s not just the U.S. interests that are best served by this policy; it’s actually the interests of the Cuban people that are best served by this policy as well.”

This “is something that we can evaluate in the years to come.  I certainly am not going to make you wait 55 years to evaluate the success of this policy, but it’s clear that the previous policy could be evaluated over 55 years and it clearly did not bring about the kind of results that we’d like to see.”

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[1] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/20/15.

White House Press Secretary and Senate Majority Leader Offer Conflicting Comments About U.S.-Cuba Relations

Josh Earnest
Josh Earnest

On the afternoon of July 1, 2015, Josh Earnest, White House Press Secretary, held a press gaggle (an informal on-the-record briefing) en route to Nashville, Tennessee that involved many comments about U.S.-Cuba relations. The next day the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, addressed the same subject with conflicting comments. [1]

White House Press Secretary

1. Congressional Repeal of the Embargo Against Cuba

With respect to prospects for congressional repeal of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Earnest said, “I haven’t done any whip counts, but I do think that there is, at minimum, strong . . . bipartisan support in the [U.S.] Congress for lifting the embargo on Cuba.  This is a policy that the President is encouraging Congress to pursue, and I think it’s worth noting how misplaced the opposition to doing so is.”

“We actually see, based on publicly available data about the preferences and views of the Cuban people, that the overwhelming majority of them strongly support normalizing relations with the [U.S.] and deepening their engagement with the [U.S.]  And that takes a variety of forms.  That’s everything from establishing an embassy there, which we’ve obviously taken steps to do, but it involves expanded commerce between our two countries; it involves more Americans traveling to Cuba; and it involves Cubans having more access to information.”

“This is something that the Cuban people are hungry for.  And so all of those who claim to have the interests of the Cuban people at heart should be strongly supportive of a policy that the President has implemented that we know that the Cuban people overwhelmingly support.”

2.Conditions for U.S. Diplomats Travel in Cuba

After deferring to the State Department for details on the agreed-upon conditions for U.S. diplomats traveling in Cuba, Earnest did say, “We believe that sufficient progress was made in resolving some of those concerns to move forward with the opening of the [U.S.] embassy in Cuba.”

3. Response to Critics of Restoring Diplomatic Relations

With respect to critics of the restoration of diplomatic relations, Earnest said Senator Robert Menendez’s was wrong when he stated “that democracy and human rights take a backseat to a legacy initiative. . . .  The fact is the President has been very clear since mid-December when this was originally announced about what the goal of this policy change actually is.”

“For more than 50 years, the U.S. policy toward Cuba was an effort to isolate Cuba in the hopes that that isolation would bring about better protections for human rights, for basic personal liberties related to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech.  But yet, we saw very little change over the last [50-plus] years.  And the President believed it was time for us to consider a new approach, and to try a new strategy for bringing about the kind of change that we would like to see in Cuba.”

“[T]hose who are concerned about ensuring that the rights and preferences of the Cuban people are protected and even advanced should be strongly supportive of the President’s policy, because the Cuban people are strongly supportive of the President’s policy. . . .  Every available shred of evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people actually do support this policy change and that the vast majority of the Cuban people actually do believe that it will allow their ambitions to be realized, and that by having greater engagement with the American people, having greater access to the U.S. government, having greater access to publicly available information — this is what the Cuban people believe is in their best interest.”

“The President believes that this also happens to be a policy that has important benefits for the [U.S.].  There are important economic opportunities for U.S. businesses on the island nation of Cuba.  We have seen that the change in our policy toward Cuba has strengthened our relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere.  For a long time, we saw that the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was actually an impediment to our ability to build strong relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve actually seen that by removing that impediment, we’ve been able to deepen our ties with other countries in the Western Hemisphere and, as a consequence, actually increase international attention on the failures of the Cuban government to protect the basic human rights of the Cuban people.”

“The President believes strongly that this approach is clearly within the best interest of the United States, but also in the best interest of the Cuban people in allowing them to achieve their ambition of having a country that is integrated, that is free, where they can freely express their political views.”

4. Appointment of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

“We haven’t laid out a timeline yet for when an announcement of an ambassadorial nomination would be made.  But obviously that would be another step in normalizing our relations with Cuba, would be to appoint an ambassador to lead the U.S. Embassy in Havana…. I’m confident that will be a venue for robust debate about how the policy changes that the President announced back in December aren’t just clearly in the best interests of the American people, they’re clearly in the best interests of the Cuban people, as well.”

“For obvious reasons, it would be our strong preference that once an ambassador has been nominated, for that individual to be treated fairly by the [U.S.] Senate and confirmed in bipartisan fashion so that they can represent the interests of the United States on the island nation of Cuba.”

Senate Majority Leader

Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Mitch McConnell

On July 2, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep., KY), the Senate Majority Leader, gave a speech to a local chamber of commerce in his home state of Kentucky in which he made negative comments about President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and promised Senate resistance to that policy.

He called Cuba “a thuggish regime” that is “a haven for criminals” fleeing prosecution in the United States. “I’m having a hard time figuring out what we got out of this, you know? You would think that the normalization of relations with Cuba would be accompanied by some modification of their behavior. I don’t see any evidence at all that they are going to change their behavior. So I doubt if we’ll confirm an ambassador, they probably don’t need one.”

Moreover, McConnell noted that many of the restrictions placed on Cuba would require congressional legislation, “and we’re going to resist that.”

His negative views were echoed by some of his fellow Republican Senators, especially Cuban-Americans Marco Rubio (FL) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), by John Boehner (Rep., OH), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and by Republican presidential candidates, especially Jeb Bush.

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[1] This post is based upon White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Nashville, TN, 7/1/15; Fran, Top Republican doubts Senate will confirm ambassador to Cuba, Wash. Post (July 2, 2015); Carney, Cruz: Cuba embassy a ‘slap in the face’ to Israel, The Hill (July 1, 2015).