Signs of Possible Increased U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba

A recent post discussed challenges about Cuba facing the Trump Administration this April: President Trump’s attendance at the Summit of the Americas in Peru and the U.S. reaction to Cuba’s election of the new President of the Council of State.

Recent developments have added to the apprehension that these and other events may be occasions for more U.S. hostility towards Cuba.

Future U.S. Actions Regarding the Summit of the Americas[1]

In a letter last week to the Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Rick Scott, Florida Governor and rumored U.S. Senate candidate this year, called for the exclusion of Cuba at the upcoming Summit. This request was due to the “oppression and misery” that the Cuban people have suffered for more than 60 years. “For six decades, the sovereignty of the Cuban people has been taken hostage by a brutal dictatorship that has imprisoned, tortured and murdered innocent people to preserve their regime.”

Another reason for such exclusion, according to Scott, was the recent electoral process on the island as a “fraudulent effort to carry out the so-called elections as the dictatorship moves towards a dynastic succession.” In short, “Obama’s policy is a tragedy for the Cuban people, and a top priority for America’s next President to reverse.”

The Governor’s request was reiterated by the Cuban Resistance Assembly and anticipated this last February by Freedom House’s Director Carlos Ponce when he said that Castro’s attendance at the 2015 Summit in Panama was “a great spectacle that did not represent an advance in democracy and human rights on the island.” In fact, it included the regime sending “violent groups to threaten  and persecute the Cuban leaders of civil society who participated.”

Future U.S. Reaction to Election of New President of Cuba

In addition to Governor Scott’s criticism of this year’s Cuban electoral process, the previous post about challenges to the Trump Administration mentioned that on March 9 Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and five Florida Republican U.S. Representatives sent a letter to President Trump urging him to “denounce Castro’s successor as illegitimate in the absence of free, fair, and multiparty elections, and call upon the international community to support the right of the Cuban people to decide their future.”

On March 14, Congressman Curbelo added this statement for his reasons for such criticism: “It’s  clear the Cuban people are ready for a new beginning. Now more than ever they need the support and solidarity of the American people, the American government and its diplomats, and all freedom loving people throughout the world. Given the absence of free, fair, multiparty elections this past weekend, I continue to urge President Trump to declare Raul Castro’s successor as illegitimate.”[2]

New Officials in Trump Administration

 President Trump has nominated or appointed two officials who have a history of hostility towards Cuba–Mike Pompeo and John Bolton– while another appointee, Carlos Trujillo, may hold such views.

Secretary of State Nominee Mike Pompeo[3]

President Trump has nominated Mike Pompeo, the current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as the next Secretary of State, a position that requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

In 2015, when Pompeo was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he co-sponsored a bill, the Cuban Military Transparency Act, to prevent any U.S. financial transaction with companies managed by the Cuban military that did not become law, but was implemented last year by a President Trump executive order.

In June 2017 Pompeo and Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) met at CIA headquarters with several members of the Brigade 2506, which is a CIA-sponsored group of Cuban exiles formed in 1960 to attempt the military overthrow of the Cuban government headed by Fidel Castro and which in 1961 carried out the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion landings.

John Bolton, National Security ‘Advisor[4]

On March 23 President Trump appointed as his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who over many years consistently has been hostile to U.S.-Cuba normalization. Here are examples of his views on this subject:

  • As Under Secretary of State for Arms Control, Bolton in 2002 accused Cuba of developing biological weapons in collaboration with U.S. adversaries and said Cuba remained a “terrorist” threat to the U.S. Bolton’s disputed claims were shown to be baseless in the 2004 National Intelligence Estimate, which found that while Cuba had the technical capability to produce biological agents, there was no evidence of any biological weapons development.
  • Bolton criticized the rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. in December 2014, calling the decision to pursue normalized relations “an unmitigated defeat for the United States.”
  • In July 2015, just after the U.S. decided to resume full diplomatic relations with Cuba, he published an article saying that this decision “untethered our foreign policy from any discernible American interests.”  In short, Bolton said, “Obama’s policy is a tragedy for the Cuban people, and a top priority for America’s next President to reverse.”

Unsurprisingly Senator Marco Rubio applauded the appointment of Bolton as “an excellent choice.”

Cuba immediately responded in Granma, saying  Bolton  had “a very dark past in relation to Cuba” with strong ties to “the ultra-right of Cuban origin in Florida.” This appointment “comes in the midst of a new campaign against Cuba in which pretexts and evidence have been used without scientific evidence to justify unilateral measures that affect hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the [Caribbean] and hinder the exchange on issues of mutual interest.”

New U.S. Ambassador to OAS[5]

Last week the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of Carlos Trujillo as the new U.S. Ambassador to OAS. I have not discovered Trujillo’s views about U.S. policy towards Cuba and the OAS relationship with the island, but given his background and support by Senator Rubio, I suspect that he too is hostile towards the Cuban government.

Conference at Florida International University[6]

Recently Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., participated in a conference at the Florida International University in Miami that was organized by Senator Rubio and some of his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives.One of the topics of the meeting was how to improve democracy in Cuba and Venezuela. Before the meeting, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart said, “The Castro regime continues its decades-long oppression of the Cuban people, while providing illicit support to other sham regimes in the region, including those in Venezuela and Nicaragua.  By promoting democracy, civil society and human rights in our hemisphere, we promote stability and prosperity among our neighbors, and strengthen friendships with allies.”

New U.S. Federal Government Budget[7]

The budget approved by the United States Congress last week, which will allow government financing until mid-2018, includes $ 20 million for promotion of democracy in Cuba, scholarships to promote leadership among young Cubans and improving Cuba’s access to the internet. Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, says these are funds to “promote a supposed regime change in Cuba.”

On the other hand, Congress did not adopt a proposed amendment to the budget that would have restricted funding for the U.S. Embassy in Havana to pre-Obama Administration levels. This congressional rejection was applauded by Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition of private companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba. It said, “By eliminating this senseless budget provision, Congress has averted a foreign relations debacle that would have upended progress on law enforcement cooperation, migration, and commercial ties. We commend the bipartisan majority of lawmakers that fought to preserve our diplomatic engagement with Cuba. Slashing embassy funding would hurt Cuban Americans and the Cuban people, and turn back the clock to a discredited counter-productive Cold War policy that failed for over 55 years.”

Conclusion

Although not surprising, these developments are unfortunate for those of us who advocate for increased normalization between the two countries. We must continue to be vigilant in resisting any and all Trump Administration hostility towards Cuba.

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[1] Rick Scott asks the OAS to exclude Raúl Castro from the Summit of the Americas, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 24, 2018).

[2] Press Release, Curbelo: Following Another Empty Voting Exercise on the Island, the Cuban People Need Support and Solidarity (Mar. 14, 2018).

[3] Falćon, Foreign Policy of the United States: the extremists circle closes, CubaDebate (Mar. 26, 2018); CIA, The Bay of Pigs Invasion; Brigade 2506, Wikipedia.

[4] Bolton, Obama’s outrageous Cuba capitulations, N.Y. Daily News (July 13, 2015); Center for Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief: 3/23/18; The regime complains of a possible worsening of relations with Washington after the appointment of Bolton, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 24, 2018).

[5] The Senate confirms Carlos Trujillo as US ambassador to the OAS, Diario de Cuba (Mar. 23, 2018); Press Release, Rubio Welcomes Confirmation of Carlos Trujillo to Serve as U.S. Ambassador to OAS (Mar. 23, 2018).

[6] Press Release, Diaz-Balart, South Florida Members of Congress Host Ambassador Haley for Latin American State of Affairs Discussion (Mar. 2, 2018).

[7] Washington releases funds for subversion in Cuba and border wall in Mexico, Granma (Mar. 25, 2018); Press Release, Engage Cuba Applauds Defeat of Budget Provision to Slash Funding for U.S. Embassy in Havana (Mar. 23, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Cuba

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

Business with Cuban State or Military Enterprises

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

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

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

Americans Travel to Cuba[2]

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. “Democracy Promotion” Programs in Cuba

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

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

Cuban Human Rights[4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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