Secretary of State-Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba     

Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson

In his opening statement at the January 11 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination, Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson made the following comments about U.S. policies regarding Cuba:[1]

  • “And we must adhere to standards of accountability. Our recent engagement with the government of Cuba was not accompanied by any significant concessions on human rights. We have not held them accountable for their conduct. Their leaders received much, while their people received little. That serves neither the interest of Cubans or Americans.”

Later in response to questions by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a Cuban-American and a noted opponent of normalization, Tillerson said he would advise the president to veto any legislation codifying President Obama’s thaw with Cuba, at least until the Trump administration can conduct its own review of that policy. In addition, Tillerson said the current U.S. normalization policy has not benefited most Cubans.

Tillerson specifically added that he would also advise Trump to veto any measures to lift the Cuban embargo, and “examine carefully the criteria” under which Cuba was taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, to determine “whether or not that de-listing was appropriate.”

Tillerson did not commit to indefinitely maintaining the above positions, instead deferring to the results of the new administration’s forthcoming review to determine its long-term Cuba policy.

Tillerson underscored that the United States “cannot ignore the law” and must comply with measures such as the Helms-Burton Act, which codified the embargo in 1996, and stated that economic restrictions must remain in force until the Cuban government complies with certain conditions, among them that the Castro family leaves power. Any modification of that legal basis on the policy toward Cuba “should be done by Congress,” according to Tillerson, who committed to strictly enforcing the law.[2]

The obvious follow-up question that I believe was not asked is whether one of the objectives of the promised review of U.S. policies regarding the island will be recommending changes to relevant statutes.

Responding to a question by Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American opposed to normalization, Tillerson said that advancing human rights and democracy in Cuba and returning to justice U.S. fugitives like Joanne Chesimard, convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper, would be a condition of any further engagement with Cuba.

Conclusion

This hearing was bad news and good news for advocates of normalization like this blogger.

The good news is Tillerson’s prediction that the new administration will conduct a review of existing U.S. policies regarding Cuba before making any changes in them.As previoulsy stated, this review should include recommendations to Congress for changes in existing statutes on the subject.

The bad news is the series of suggestions that many of the normalization policies will be cancelled.

Although I agree that so far Cuba has not made significant concessions on human rights, I disagree with the implicit conclusion from this statement: the U.S. needs to demand Cuban concessions on human rights as a condition for the U.S. making any further economic “concessions” to the island. This is the policy that was followed for over 50 years before December 17, 2014, without the desired result.

I also disagree with his prospective recommendation of a veto of any legislation ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba. In addition, I reject his implication that the U.S. May 2015 rescission of its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” was not justified. As explained in earlier posts, the embargo is unjustified and counterproductive for the U.S. while  previous “terrorism” designations were ridiculous and unjustified and the rescission was fully consistent with the law and the facts and was implicitly endorsed by Congress’ failure to approve a joint resolution countermanding the rescission. [3]

Finally I disagree with Tillerson’s testimony that the Cuban “people have received little” from U.S.-Cuba engagement or normalization. As previously stated in various posts, the increased remittances from families and friends in the U.S. to others in Cuba, all made possible by the Obama Administration’s loosening of U.S. restrictions, have been a major source of funding for the expansion of family-owned businesses on the island. That expansion has helped to reduce the portion of the Cuban economy controlled by state-owned enterprises and has increased the income and well being of Cuban entrepreneurs and their employees, who are and will be a significant force for further modification of the Cuban economic and political system.[4]

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[1] Secretary of State Designate Rex Tillerson: Senate Confirmation Hearing Opening Statement (Jan. 11, 2017); Rex Tillerson Confirmation Hearing: Live Coverage, W.S.J. (Jan. 11, 2017); U.S. Senate For. Rel. Comm., Nomination Hearing for Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson (Jan. 11, 2017) (video); Demirjian, Tillerson says Trump is prepping to review Obama’s Cuba policy, Wash, Post (Jan. 11, 2017); Menendez, Secretary of State Nom Rex Tillerson gives commitment to justice during Senate confirmation hearing (Jan. 11, 2017); Kasperowicz, Tillerson would recommend veto of bill ending Cuba embargo, Wash. Examiner (Jan. 11, 2017).

[2] Of greater interest to most of the media about this hearing was Rubio’s challenging questions to Tillerson about whether he favored sanctions against Russia and whether he thought Putin was a war criminal. (E.g., Sanger & Flegenheimer, In Rocky Hearing, Rex Tillerson Tries to Separate From Trump, N.Y. Times (Jan, 11, 2017).)  Were such questions about Russia merely a Rubio ploy to solidify Tillerson’s opposition to Cuba normalization?

[3] See posts listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” and “Cuba State Sponsor of Terrorism?” sections of List of posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.

[4] See posts listed in the “Cuban Economy” section of List of posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.

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

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, It is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements and actions about Cuba. Prior posts examined his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008; his campaign for the the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008; his first presidential term, 2009-2013; and his presidential re-election campaign of 2012. Now we look at the first two years of his second presidential term, 2013-2014. [1]

In November 2012, as we have seen in a prior post, President Obama won reelection with 48% of the Cuban-American vote.

The next month (December 2012), as a prelude to his second term, Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope.” The President also concluded that “it would be a good fit to have someone who was known to be very close to the President [involved in such an effort on Cuba] because the Cubans are very wary of engagement and they want to know that the engagement is reaching the top. They felt like there [had] been several other efforts of engagement where it turned out . . . where they had conversations with the Americans, [but after] they reached a certain point . . . there was never follow through [by the U.S.]. . . . [In short, the Cubans] wanted someone . . . [involved for the U.S.] who were very close to the President and . . . they wanted it to be discreet.” Hence, the President designated Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor, to be in charge of this new effort to engage Cuba.

Thereafter, Mr. Rhodes sent a secret message to the Cuban government that the U.S. wanted “to initiate a dialogue about prisoners and other issues.” As we will see below, this created a fascinating contrast between the Administration’s public negative face on Cuba and its secret negotiations with the latter.

Obama’s Second Term, 2013

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

 

 

 

 

 

On January 21, 2013, President Obama was inaugurated for his second term as President. Most of his Inaugural Address was focused on domestic concerns, but he did say, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully—not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” He made no reference to Cuba.

That same month, January 2013, we recently have come to know, Ricardo Zuniga, Obama’s top Latin American adviser, went to Miami and met with a representative of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation and with young Cuban-Americans, the latter of whom helped confirm the waning influence of older Cuban exiles who have traditionally supported the half-century-old embargo. (Zuniga in 2001 as a State Department staffer contributed to its National Intelligence Estimate that officially concluded, for the first time, that the embargo of Cuba had been a failure.)

On April 19, 2013, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses . . .: abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government; government threats, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly; and a record number of politically motivated and at times violent short-term detentions.”

By April 2013, however, we now know that the White House was ready to proceed with the Cubans by quietly proposing back-channel talks after learning that Havana would be receptive. Obama initially froze out the State Department on these developments in part due to concern that its “vested interests” would still be bent on perpetuating a confrontational approach. Even Secretary of State John Kerry was informed of the talks only after it appeared they might be fruitful.

On May 29, 2013, the plight of Alan Gross again emerged as a distracting element when a federal district court dismissed his lawsuit against the U.S. for $60 million alleging the government and its private contractor sent him on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection or even a clear sense of the Cuban laws that ultimately led to his arrest and detainment. Experts said the dismissal had been widely expected because of a rule barring lawsuits against the American government based on consequences suffered in foreign countries.[2]

The next day (May 30, 2013) the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba “has committed to adopting and implementing” anti-money laundering recommendations by an international group; but Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives.

In any event, the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations started in June 2013 in Ottawa, Canada. The Cubans opened with harangues about the embargo and other perceived wrongs. Rhodes, age 37, responded, “Look I wasn’t even born when this policy was put in place. We want to hear and talk about the future.” The Cubans in these initial sessions also insisted on an exchange of the remaining three of “The Cuban Five” in U.S. prison for U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, in Cuban prison. Obama refused such a deal because Washington denied Gross was a spy and because Obama did not want a three-for-one trade. As a result by the end of 2013, the negotiations had stalled.

On December 3, 2013, Alan Gross’ imprisonment again surfaced as an important issue when his wife read a public letter from him to President Obama asking, “Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government, the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare, has abandoned me.” A White House spokesman responded by saying Mr. Obama had “personally engaged foreign leaders and other international figures to use their influence with Cuba” to free Mr. Gross.[3]

Barack Obama & Raul Castro
Barack Obama & Raul Castro

That same month, December 2013, something publicly happened that we now know had a positive effect on the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations. At the funeral for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on December 15th, President Obama met and shook hands with President Raùl Castro, which at the time some in the U.S. criticized. Moments after the handshake Obama addressed the funeral gathering, talking about Mandela’s demonstrating the need for trust and reconciliation and forgiveness. Some at the time wondered whether his remarks might also apply to the apparently frozen diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, but White House officials declined to offer any explanation of the handshake or confirm that there had been a discussion about whether to offer [an explanation].” [4]

Obama’s Second Term, 2014

In early January 2014 the U.S. and Cuba, with public notice, resumed negotiations from the prior July about migration, which the State Department said “does not represent any change in policy towards Cuba” and which journalists saw as “a signal of the longtime Cold War foes’ recent willingness to engage in areas of mutual interest but unlikely to be a harbinger of a major thaw in relations.” Afterwards Cuba said, “”The meeting took place in a respectful environment. An analysis was made of the status of compliance with the migration accords in force between both countries, including the actions taken by both parties to combat illegal migration and aliens smuggling.”[5]

At the January 2014 secret negotiation session in Toronto, said Mr. Rhodes, “the Cubans started [with just want[ing] their people back—the three Cubans who were imprisoned in the [U.S.] – [in exchange for their release of Alan Gross.] In response the U.S. proposed – to the Cubans’ surprise – Cuba’s releasing Rolando Sarraff, a spy for the U.S. who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 1995, and thereby enabling the U.S. to claim it was a true “spy swap” and giving it political cover. But the Cubans dis not immediately agree to release Sarraff, a cryptographer who Washington says helped it disrupt Cuban spy rings in the U.S.

At this January meeting Rhodes “started talking . . . about how we wanted to change the relationship. And then they started talking about some of the things that they were considering doing in terms of their own system.” However, “the idea of reestablishing diplomatic relations was not something that was . . . immediately attractive to them. . . . [T]hey’re very comfortable in a position of being an opposition to the[U.S.]. They have built the legitimacy in part [for] much of their approach around the fact that they’re resisting [purported] American aggression. So it was not a no-brainer by any stretch of the imagination for the Cubans to agree to a process of normalization and to an establishment of diplomatic relations.”

Nevertheless, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “came to the view of in the discussions . . . that if we were going to take these very difficult steps of having this prisoner exchange where we get a Cuban intelligence asset of ours and Alan Gross to be released [and] they would get these three Cubans, . . . we needed to broaden the scope of what we are talking about.” The two countries “would have one opportunity to make a big move together and . . . we should try to do as much as we could in that space. And that led to them taking certain confidence-building measures like the release of . . . political prisoners [on a list] that we provided to them, [and] that led to . . . this discussion of setting out a process of normalization . . . [and] to a discussion of establishing diplomatic relations and sending a signal to the world that essentially we are willing to leave the past behind.”

At the same time, according to Rhodes, the U.S. “made very clear in every meeting, we’re going to have differences with your political system. We are going to find much to criticize, we are going to continue [the U.S.] democracy program, we’re going to continue [to criticize] your human rights practices. It doesn’t mean we like everything you do, but we are going to get farther by engaging with this government and opening up Cuba so that there can be more business, more American travel, more engagement between the American and Cuban people. That holds out a lot greater promise to promote the things we care about than the alternative.”

Also at this secret January session in Toronto, the Cubans gratefully remarked that President Obama had treated President Castro with respect at the Mandela funeral the prior month by shaking Raúl’s hand and that no [prior U.S. president or other official had] done that before. Rhodes responded by saying “not only was it the appropriate thing to do–you see someone why would you snub them and not shake his hand. If the Cubans have the right to be any place, it’s certainly at the funeral of Nelson Mandela who[m] they helped in many ways.”

In early February 2014 reporters for Reuters concluded that U.S. relations with Cuba were “at their best in almost two decades, but President Barack Obama seems unwilling or unable to confront a well-organized anti-Cuba lobby and push for further progress.”[6] Reuters obviously did not know about the secret negotiations then going on.

On February 27, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013, and again it had a negative assessment of Cuba: it is “an authoritarian state” with the following “principal human rights abuses: . . . abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical violence, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.”

While the U.S. proposal for Cuba’s release of Sarraff was still on the table, but not yet accepted by Cuba, President Obama held a secret White House meeting in February 2014 with certain lawmakers, including Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin. Obama stressed his opposition to a straight Gross-Cuban Three trade and Durbin “raised the possibility of using the Vatican and the Pope as intermediaries.” Thereafter Senator Leahy confidentially persuaded two unnamed Roman Catholic cardinals to ask Pope Francis to raise Cuba and the prisoners when the Pontiff was scheduled to hold a private audience with Obama on March 27th.

President Obama & Pope Francis
President Obama & Pope Francis

That private papal audience did occur on March 27, and immediately afterwards, as discussed in a prior post, the Vatican reported that “during the cordial meetings [with President Obama], views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” We now know that this was an allusion to their discussion about U.S.-Cuba relations.

Also immediately after that private audience President Obama made comments that in retrospect also alluded to their conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”

Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis secretly sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement.

On April 2, 2014, Alan Gross’s name started to appear in the news again as he commenced a hunger strike in his Cuban prison “to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal. Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this standoff so that I can return home to my wife and daughters.” Later that month he terminated his hunger strike, and his U.S. lawyer reported that Gross had lost most vision in his right eye, walks with a limp due to hip problems, has lost a tooth and is 110 pounds lighter than at the time of his arrest. Moreover, Gross says in another year he will be dead if he stays in the Cuban prison. Later in June he was threatening to commit suicide.[7]

On April 30, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2013. Again Cuba was a designated “state sponsor of terrorism,” but the asserted grounds were very weak: there was no indication Cuba “provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups;” Cuba continued to provide support to certain U.S. fugitives. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry retorted that it “energetically rejects the manipulation of a matter as sensitive as international terrorism by turning it into an instrument of policy against Cuba and it demands that our country be definitively excluded from this spurious, unilateral and arbitrary list.”[8]

Another public distraction emerged in April 2014 with the Associated Press reports of a  covert or “discreet” program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that created in Cuba a social media effort to encourage communications among dissidents. Four months later the AP reported about other USAID programs in Cuba with similar aims. [9]

In June 2014 the Pope sent additional private letters to Obama and Castro calling on them to resolve the cases of Alan Gross and the three Cubans in U.S. prison and also encouraging the two countries to pursue a closer relationship. The letter from Pope Francis, U.S. officials said after December 17th, “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented. The Pope, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a secret deal.

As the Vatican put it in its press statement on December 17th, “In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to . . . [the two presidents] and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”

Francis’ involvement also provided Obama with potential political coverage against any future criticism by Cuban-American (and Roman Catholic) Senators Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and others.

In the meantime, the U.S. public stance towards Cuba remained unchanged. In early October 2014, Cuba publicly stated it had not received any indication the Obama administration might change U.S. policy toward Cuba despite increasing support within the United States for closer ties. We now know that this was a false report designed to conceal their ongoing secret negotiations.[10]

On October 28, 2014, the U.N. General Assembly again condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba by a vote of 188 to the 2 negative votes cast by the U.S. and Israel. At this session Cuba asserted that the embargo had damaged its economy in the total amount of $1.1 trillion.

Also in October 2014 the New York Times began what became a series of editorials through mid-December 2014 that called for normalization of the two countries’ relations, commended Cuba for its medical teams in West Africa that were fighting Ebola, called for prisoner exchanges and criticized the USAID programs in Cuba, the U.S. special immigration status for Cuban medical personnel and the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” while reiterating its advocacy of normalization. One wonders whether the Times had advance tips or inklings that the Obama Administration soon would be announcing a major shift in U.S. policies toward Cuba and whether the Times was preparing the country for the changes.

Behind the scenes in October 2014 (before the U.S. mid-term elections) the deal was secretly finalized in Rome, where the U.S. and Cuban teams met separately with Vatican officials, then all three teams together. According to the Vatican’s press statement on December 17th, “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”

In early December Rhodes and Zuniga secretly met the Cubans again at the Vatican to nail down logistics for the December 17 announcements of prisoner releases, easing of U.S. sanctions, normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba’s freeing of 53 political prisoners.

Pressures for an announcement as soon as possible at the end of 2014 were several. The health of Alan Gross was reportedly declining in a Cuban prison, and President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry legitimately believed that reconciliation would be destroyed if he died in that prison. Delaying the announcement also ran the risk of a leak of the existence of the secret negotiations that would upset, if not destroy, the reconciliation. Less immediate was the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April 2015 with the U.S. needing to have a positive position on host country Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the Summit.

In addition, U.S. domestic political considerations pointed towards a December announcement before the Republican-controlled 114th Congress opened in early January and as soon as possible (the next day) after the adjournment of the 113th so that there would be no resulting interference with the completion of the many items of unfinished business of the current Congress. December also is the traditional time for exercise of presidential clemency (pardons and commutation of sentences), the latter of which was used for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17th.

As noted in a prior post, President Obama as part of his December 17th announcement of rapprochement with Cuba acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”

Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his December 17th remarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”

Immediately after the December 17th announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro, Pope Francis publicly expressed his “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The Pontiff also said, “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

This initiative with Cuba, recently said Rhodes, is an example of what he called “the Obama doctrine and our whole foreign policy. We have to reposition the United States to be able to lead in this century. . . . We have been trying steadily to reposition the [U.S.], to refocus on the Asia-Pacific through the TPP agreement to withdraw that resource allocation and put in place a more sustainable counterterrorism policy that doesn’t eliminate risk but manages it and aims to prevent attacks on the [U.S.].

Conclusion

The Obama Administration’s conducting 24-months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government without any leak is an amazing accomplishment. One example of this lack of outside knowledge is a 2014 book by Chuck Todd, NBC’s noted Washington political reporter who reportedly knows everything that is going on, that says, “There has been little effort to engage or open Cuba, even as the end of the Castro brothers’ regime approaches. In fact, Cuba’s a great example of Obama’s famous caution. While he has been unusually critical of American policy toward Cuba, he won’t use his executive power to make a change.”[11] Sorry, Chuck, you were so very wrong.

These negotiations were without preconditions, just as then candidate Obama had urged when he was campaigning for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2007-2008. Here too he was hit with charges that such a strategy was misguided and naive. But, I submit, it is the only rational strategy after 50-plus years of trying the opposite approach when, in my opinion, many of what we in the U.S. see as Cuban human rights violations are Cuba’s understandable defensive reactions to a long record of U.S. hostility and aggression against Cuba.

While all of this was going on, U.S. public opinion polls showed increasing support for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, and new groups supporting normalization or reconciliation were emerging. Especially in 2014, on the other hand, the Obama Administration was compelled to react to news about the USAID’s purported pursuit of Cuban democracy through various “discreet” or covert programs. Guantanamo Bay also kept in the news with disputes about detainee transfers and Obama’s continuing efforts to close its detention facility. Of course, strident cries objecting to any normalization or reconciliation continued to come from Senators Rubio, Cruz and Menendez and from Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

After the December 17 announcement, as recounted in many subsequent posts, the two countries engaged in publicly announced negotiations on many subjects; the U.S. loosened regulations about U.S. trade with, and travel to, the island; the U.S. rescinded its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism;” many U.S. politicians and business officials traveled to Cuba to observe and discuss future prospects; and bills were introduced in Congress to end the U.S. embargo and restrictions on travel to the country while die-hards in that body offered measures to try to prevent or stall normalization and reconciliation. As everyone recognizes, however, the job of normalization is just starting.

As President Obama put it in his January 20, 2015, State of the Union Address to the Congress, the American people and the world,“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership.  We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.  That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.  And around the globe, it is making a difference.”

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.  When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new. And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere.  It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba.  It stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.  And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

“As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.  And after years in prison, we are overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs.  Welcome home, Alan [, who was in the public gallery with First Lady Michelle Obama].  We’re glad you’re here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Barack Obama’s First-Term Record Regarding Cuba, 2009-2013    

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, it is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements about Cuba. Prior posts examined his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008 and his campaign for the presidency as the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008. Now we discuss his first presidential term, 2009-2013.[1] Subsequent posts will look at his reelection campaign in 2012 and his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.

As we saw in a prior post, Barack Obama and Joe Biden won the November 4, 2008 election with 69.5 million votes (52.9% of the total) to John McCain and Sarah Palin’s 59.9 million votes (45.7%). In the key state of Florida, Obama-Biden had 51.0% of the popular vote against McCain-Palin’s 48.4%. The electoral votes were Obama and Biden, 365; McCain and Palin, 173. Soon thereafter several head of states congratulated Obama while also calling for the U.S. to end its sanctions against Cubs.

Obama’s First Term, 2009

President Obama's Oath of Office with Michelle Obama
President Obama’s Oath of Office with Michelle Obama
Crowd @ Obama Inaugural 2009
Crowd @ Obama Inaugural 2009

 

 

 

 

 

Obama was inaugurated as President on January 20, 2009. His Inaugural Address first mentioned that “we are in the midst of crisis. . . . Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened. . . . [T]he challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.” There was no mention of Latin America or Cuba.[2]

On February 25, 2009, the Department of State released its 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” that “continued to deny its citizens their basic human rights and committed numerous, serious abuses.”

In April 2009 Obama fulfilled the pledge he made in his acceptance of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination by lifting travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans while also authorizing U.S. telecommunications companies to contract with Cuba for improved television, radio and telephone service and Internet access.

That same month (April 2009) Obama told a journalist, “Cuba has to take some steps, send some signals that when it comes to human rights, when it comes to political rights, when it comes to the ability of Cubans to travel.” In Obama’s opinion, the previously mentioned U.S. changes called for Cuba to “send signals that they’re interested in liberalizing.”

This U.S. desire or demand for Cuban reciprocity was not well received in Havana. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro declared, “The blockade [embargo] remains intact. . . . Cuba has not imposed any sanction on the [U.S.] or its citizens. Therefore, it is not Cuba that should make gestures.” Nevertheless, “We are willing to discuss everything with the [U.S.] government, on equal footing; but we are not willing to negotiate our sovereignty or our political and social system, our right to self-determination or our domestic affairs.”[3]

Later that same month (April 2009), Obama attended the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Latin American presidents applauded the previously mentioned U.S. changes while simultaneously pressing Obama on the need to reintegrate Cuba into the inter-American community. Obama responded by reiterating his commitment to engagement, “The [U.S.] seeks a new beginning with Cuba.”

Also in April 2009, the U.S. Department of State issued its Country Reports on Terrorism 2008. Again Cuba was listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The next month, May 2009, the U.S. proposed to Cuba that they resume bilateral consultations on migration. Cuba agreed, and the talks took place that July. Cuba presented a draft accord to curb people smuggling and indicated an interest in also discussing cooperation on counterterrorism, counter-narcotics operations and hurricane preparation. Although no such formal agreement was reached, both sides agreed it was a productive consultation.

In June 2009 at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), Latin American members moved to repeal the 1962 resolution suspending Cuba’s OAS membership. Facing defeat on this proposal, the U.S. negotiated a compromise: repeal the suspension if Cuba accepts “the practice, purposes, and principles of the OAS,” impliedly including the commitment to democracy in the Santiago Declaration of 1991.

In August 2009 Bill Richardson, then the Governor of New Mexico, was in Cuba on a trade mission, and at a meeting with Cuban officials was led to believe that Cuba wanted to move forward with the U.S. although Richardson said Cuba needed to reciprocate with some gestures. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Rodriguez made it clear that Cuba would not make any concessions to win better relations with the U.S. and that the U.S. blockade (embargo) was unilateral and should be lifted unilaterally.

In September 2009 an U.S. Assistant Secretary of State was in Cuba for discussions about restoring direct mail service. Over five days, she met with Cuban officials in the Justice, Agriculture, Health and Interior ministries and academics at the University of Havana as well as bloggers and dissidents. Much to the consternation of Cuban authorities, one of the bloggers was Yoani Sánchez, now an international celebrity. Nevertheless, Cuba’s Assistant Foreign Minister (Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, now the Minister of that agency) told the U.S. official that Cuba wanted to show her their desire “to move forward in our relationship,” requiring “confidence building” as a “way forward.”

By the Fall of 2009 the White House was frustrated by Cuba’s failure to respond to the U.S. relaxing of travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans. As a result, Obama asked Spain’s Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to have Spain’s Foreign Minister carry a back-channel message to President Rául Castro that if Cuba did not take steps of liberalization, neither could Obama and that the U.S. understands things cannot change overnight, but in the future it will be clear that this was the moment when changes began.

Castro responded with a proposal for a secret channel of communication between the two countries to discuss Cuban steps that might address the U.S. concerns. The U.S., however, at this time rejected the idea for a secret channel. (As we will see below, in December 2012, such a secret channel was opened.)

On December 3, 2009, the process of normalization was thrown off track by Cuba’s arrest of U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, who was bringing communications and computer equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community as an employee of a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Two weeks later President Castro told Cuba’s National Assembly that the U.S. alleged desire for a new relationship was “a huge propaganda campaign staged to confuse the world. The Truth is that the instruments for the policy of aggression to Cuba remain intact and that the U.S. government does not renounce its efforts to destroy the Revolution.”

By the end of 2009, therefore, things looked bleak for further normalization. Moreover, the press of many other foreign policy challenges for the U.S. pushed Cuba far down the list of priorities for the Obama Administration.

Obama’s First Term, 2010.

The arrest and jailing of Alan Gross continued to disrupt the relations of the two countries in 2010. The U.S. denied that Gross had done anything wrong and that his release from a Cuban jail was necessary for any improvement in the relationship.

The Gross arrest, however, prompted the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate USAID’s Cuba democracy programs in 2010 and to develop a plan to reorient the Cuba program toward supporting genuine links between the two countries. These changes in the program were briefed for Cuban diplomats, who said it would smooth the way for the release of Gross.

On March 11, 2010, the Department of State released its 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” that continued to deny its citizens their basic human rights, including the right to change their government, and committed numerous and serious abuses.”

In the meantime, Spain on its own initiative in May 2010 encouraged Rául Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega to discuss Cuba’s lifting the ban on public demonstrations by the Ladies in White, the female relatives of political prisoners, and to the release of political prisoners. In July 2010 this resulted in the government’s agreement to release 52 such prisoners, including everyone who had been arrested in 2003, and those who wished to go into exile would be welcomed by Spain. Eventually the government released 127 such prisoners.

In June 2010 Cardinal Ortega, with the consent of the Cuban government, went to Washington, D.C. to inform them of the then planned prisoner release. The Cuban government believed this prisoner release was a major concession and should “pressure U.S. political leaders to respond with other gestures of good will toward Cuba.” Ortega also told U.S. officials that Castro was ready to talk with the U.S. directly about every issue and that it would be a mistake for the U.S.to maintain the status quo until Cuba became a democracy. ”Everything should be step by step,” the Cardinal said. “It’s not realistic to begin at the end. This is a process. The most important thing is to take steps in the process.”

Obama, however, insisted that first Cuba had to release Alan Gross from prison before the U.S. could do more. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called the Cuban prisoner release a “positive sign,” but Obama said nothing.

In August 2010 Bill Richardson returned to Cuba on another trade mission and met with officials to try to obtain Gross’ release from prison. Richardson felt encouraged, but did not obtain the release.

Also in August 2010 the Department of State issued its Country Reports on Terrorism 2009, which again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

To try to rescue the stalled discussions, an Assistant Secretary of State met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister at the U.N. in October 2010. Rodriguez opened the meeting with a lengthy recitation of Cuba’s historical grievances against the U.S. and refused to engage in discussions about the future. “It was a terrible meeting,” said the U.S. official.

Soon after this terrible meeting, Rodriguez met again with Bill Richardson at the U.N. The Foreign Minister wanted the U.S. to know that Gross was merely a symptom of the troubled relationship, not its heart. Rodriguez also wanted the U.S. to know that Cuba had asked its supporters to tone down their criticism of Obama during the debate on the resolution to condemn the U.S. blockade (embargo) and that Castro had decided to improve ties with the U.S., but that the U.S. had not reciprocated. In addition, Rodriguez stressed the need for the U.S. to make progress on the case of the Cuban Five in U.S. prison.

Also in October 2010, John Kerry, then Senator and the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met Rodriguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, to discuss the U.S. democracy programs and Alan Gross, and an informal deal for his release seemed to be on track. However, the Administration abandoned the proposed changes in the Cuba democracy programs after objections from New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The Obama Administration was unwilling to wage a political fight with Menendez. This resulted in the Cuban government concluding that the Administration could not be trusted.

Earlier in 2010 advocates for lifting U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba launched a major campaign over opposition from Senator Menendez and others. During his June trip to Washington Cuba’s Cardinal Ortega urged members of Congress to allow freer travel in light of Pope John Paul II’s injunction that Cuba “open itself to the world and . . . the world open itself to Cuba.” The resistance from Menendez and Miami Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, however, prevented any congressional action to eliminate or reduce restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. Apparent indifference from President Obama also contributed to nothing happening in Congress on this issue.

Instead, at Obama’s direction, the Administration worked on a more limited expansion of travel through new regulations on “people-to-people” educational travel, but in August-September 2010 opposition by Menendez and Wasserman Schultz forced the Administration to shelf the new regulations.

Obama’s First Term, 2011

In mid-January 2011, on a late Friday before a holiday weekend, the Administration finally released the new regulations on expanded “people-to-people” educational travel. Cuba’s Foreign Minister said these regulations were “positive,” but they had “a very limited scope and do not change the policy against Cuba.”

In March 2011 Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President, went to Cuba at the invitation of Rául Castro. Before Carter left, Cuban officials made it clear that Gross would not be granted freedom. Carter met with Cardinal Ortega to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s dialogue with the government, with blogger Yoanni Sánchez, dissidents, former prisoners, relatives of the Cuban Five in U.S. prison and with Alan Gross. Foreign Minister Rodriguez stressed the importance of the Cuban Five case for Cuba. Over dinner with Rául Castro, Carter emphasized that Gross’ imprisonment was a serious obstacle to improving relations and urged his release on humanitarian grounds. Castro said there was no consensus in the Cuban government on the Gross case, but reiterated Cuba’s willingness to engage in wide-ranging talks with the U.S., “without preconditions,” and “on equal terms with full respect for our independence and sovereignty.” Any topic could be discussed. “We are ready.”

Before his departure, Carter said the U.S. should fully normalize relations with Cuba immediately; Cuba should allow full freedom of speech, assembly, travel; the U.S. embargo should be ended; Cuba should be removed from the terrorism list; the Cuban Five should be released from U.S. prison; and Alan Gross should be released from Cuban jail. Rául Castro, standing nearby, quipped, “I agree with everything President Carter said.”

Upon Carter’s return to the U.S., he had a cool meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, and the next day the Administration advised Congress it was requesting $20 million of funding for the democracy promotion programs in Cuba.

On April 8, 2011, the Department of State released its 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” that “denied citizens the right to change their government. In addition, the following human rights abuses were reported: harassment, beatings, and threats against political opponents by government-organized mobs and state security officials acting with impunity; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including selective denial of medical care; arbitrary detention of human rights advocates and members of independent organizations; and selective prosecution and denial of fair trial.”

In August 2011 the Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2010, which again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

 Obama’s First Term, 2012

On May 24, 2012, the Department of State released its 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; the 27-page chapter on Cuba described it as a “totalitarian state” whose “principal human rights abuses were: abridgement of the right of citizens to change their government; government threats, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent citizens from assembling peacefully; and a significant increase in the number of short-term detentions, which in December rose to the highest monthly number in 30 years.”

In July 2012 the Department of State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, which again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

During the latter part of 2012 Obama and Biden were engaged in their campaign for re-election against Republican nominees Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, which will be covered in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, in September 2012 Bill Richardson made another trip to Cuba after Cuba’s Supreme Court had affirmed Alan Gross’ conviction. The State Department gave him a list of things the U.S. was prepared to do if Gross were pardoned and released from prison. Most were possibilities, rather than commitments. The others were commitments, but already had been announced by the U.S.

The Richardson trip got off to a bad start when he leaked word of it to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who reported that the Governor had been invited by the Cuban government to negotiate the release of Gross. To the Cubans, this looked like an attempt to force their hand. Later the Cuban Foreign Minister told Richardson “One, you won’t get Gross; two, you won’t see Rául; and three, you won’t even see Gross.” An angry Richardson held a press conference to announce that he would not leave Cuba until he saw Gross, who was a “hostage” held by the Cubans. An angry Cuban government responded that Gross’ release was never on the table, that Richardson was aware of that position, that his request to see Gross was impossible after Richardson’s slanderous statements and that Cuba was a sovereign country that did no accept blackmail, pressure or posturing.

At the time nothing of consequence regarding Cuba is believed to have happened during the two months after the November 2012 election, in which Obama and Biden won re-election.

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes

However, over the last seven months, we have learned that in December 2012 after his re-election President Obama held a long meeting with aides in the White House situation room to establish priorities for the second term. According to Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor who played a central role in shaping Cuba policy and who participated in that meeting, the aides all knew that Obama always had thought that the decades-long U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba through the embargo and other measures made no sense, and at the end of the discussion, Obama instructed aides to make Cuba a priority and “see how far we could push the envelope.”[4]

Moreover, at this December 2012 meeting the President also concluded that “it would be a good fit to have someone who was known to be very close to the President [involved in such an effort on Cuba] because the Cubans are very wary of engagement and they want to know that the engagement is reaching the top. They felt like there [had] been several other efforts of engagement where it turned out to be kind of “Lucy with the football,” where they had conversations with the Americans, [but after] they reached a certain point . . . there was never follow through [by the U.S.]. We can debate whether it was the Cubans’ fault or not, but that was their perception. So . . . [the Cubans] wanted someone . . . [involved for the U.S.] who were very close to the President and . . . they wanted it to be discreet.” Hence, the President designated Mr. Rhodes to be in charge of this new effort to engage Cuba.

Thereafter, Mr. Rhodes sent a secret message to the Cuban government that the U.S. wanted “to initiate a dialogue about prisoners and other issues.”

Obama’s First Term, January 2013

Nothing of consequence regarding Cuba was believed to have happened during the rest of President Obama’s first term, which ended on January 20, 2013, although the exact dates of the secret discussions with Cuba in 2013 are not yet known.

Conclusion

After fulfilling a campaign pledge In April 2009 to lift travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans while also authorizing U.S. telecommunications companies to contract with Cuba for improved television, radio and telephone service and Internet access, President Obama’s desire to seek normalization with Cuba was thwarted by Cuba’s December 2009 arrest and subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Alan Gross. The rest of Obama’s first term regarding Cuba seemed, at the time, concentrated on unsuccessful efforts to obtain Gross’ release. Now, however, we know that at the end of the first term a new and secret effort to engage with Cuba was launched.

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[1] This post and the subsequent posts about Obama’s prior statements about Cuba are not based upon comprehensive research. The primary research tool was online searching of the New York Times for articles mentioning “Obama and Cuba” for the relevant time period although the details have been lost in the process of editing this post. Therefore, this blogger especially welcomes comments with corrections and additions. Ultimately after public release of many Obama Administration documents after the completion of his presidency, scholars will undertake a detailed examination of those documents and provide their assessments of his record regarding Cuba.

[2] Transcript: Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address (Jan. 20, 2009).

[3] At about the same time (April 2009), the U.S. Interests Section in Havana turned off its external streaming electronic news billboard, and Cuba replaced the black flags on poles outside the Section with Cuban flags.

[4] Reuters, How Obama Outmaneuvered Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2015); Rhodes, The Obama Doctrine: America’s Role in a Complicated World, Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29, 2015).

Cuba Still “State Sponsor of Terrorism” in State Department Report for 2014

Terrorism reportOn June 19, 2015, the U.S. Department of State released its “Country Reports on Terrorism 2014.” Such annual reports are required by federal statute to cover the prior calendar year.[1]

Tina S. Kaidanow, U.S.Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, gave a special briefing on this report. She pointed out that “the number of terrorist attacks [worldwide] in 2014 increased 35 percent, and total fatalities increased 81 percent compared to 2013, largely due to activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. More than 60 percent of all attacks took place in five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria. And 78 percent of all fatalities due to terrorist attacks also took place in five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. The increase in total fatalities was in part a result of certain attacks that were exceptionally lethal.”

The Ambassador then provided broader context by discussing the terrorism committed in 2014 by al-Qaida, ISIL, Boko Haram and the civil war in Syria and of the need for the U.S. to have partners “to disrupt terrorist plots and degrade terrorist capabilities . . . [and to] help counter the spread of violent extremist recruitment and address the conditions that make communities susceptible to violent extremism. We must do more to address the cycle of violent extremism and transform the very environment from which these terrorist movements emerge.”

The U.S. last year, the Ambassador emphasized, provided “ counterterrorism assistance . . . in the fields of rule of law and countering recruitment, . . . a wide array of expertise and programmatic support for our partners to help them identify and disrupt the financing of terrorism, strengthen aviation and border security, and sharpen their law enforcement and crisis response tools to respond to the terrorist threat.” In addition, the U.S. engaged “in robust diplomacy, expanding our partnerships, building bilateral and regional capabilities, and promoting holistic and rule-of-law based approaches to counter terrorism and violent extremism.”

The report’s chapter on “State Sponsors of Terrorism” noted that such a state has been determined by the Secretary of State “to have . . . [a] government [that] has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. Once a country is designated, it remains a State Sponsor of Terrorism until the designation is rescinded in accordance with statutory criteria.” For 2014 there were four such states: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Here is what was said about Cuba for 2014:

  • “Cuba was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982. Though not within the timeframe covered by this report, on April 14, 2015, President Obama submitted to Congress the statutorily required report and certifications indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, including the certification that Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six-months; and that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. The required 45-day Congressional pre-notification period expired, and the Secretary of State made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, effective on May 29, 2015.” [2]
  • “In recent years, Cuba has taken a number of steps to fully distance itself from international terrorism and has taken steps to strengthen its counterterrorism laws. In 2013, Cuba made a commitment to work with the Financial Action Task Force to address its anti-money laundering/counterterrorism finance (AML/CFT) deficiencies. Since that time, Cuba has made significant progress in establishing the framework necessary to meet international AML/CFT standards by, for example, adequately criminalizing money laundering and terrorist finance and establishing procedures to identify and freeze terrorist assets, among other legal and regulatory actions.”
  • “Throughout 2014, Cuba supported and hosted internationally recognized negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Government of Colombia aimed at garnering a peace agreement. Safe passage of FARC members provided in the context of these talks has been coordinated with representative of the governments of Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, and Norway, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross. There is no credible evidence that the Government of Cuba has provided specific material support, services, or resources, to members of the FARC, or the National Liberation Army (ELN), outside of facilitating the internationally recognized peace process between those organizations and the Government of Colombia.”
  • “The Government of Cuba does continue to allow approximately two dozen members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty Organization (ETA) to remain in the country. The Cuban government provided assurances that it would never permit the ETA members living in Cuba to use Cuban territory for that organization’s activities against Spain or any other country. There is no available information that the Government of Cuba allowed any of these ETA members to plan, finance, lead, or commit acts of international terrorism while residing in Cuba.”
  • “The Government of Cuba does continue to harbor fugitives wanted to stand trial or to serve sentences in the [U.S.] for committing serious violations of U.S. criminal laws, and provides some of these individuals limited support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care. Although Cuba continues to refuse to return certain individuals that fled to Cuba in the past, it has been more cooperative with the [U.S.] in recent years. In 2014, the Government of Cuba engaged in talks with U.S. officials in reference to some of these fugitives still residing in Cuba.”

Conclusion

There is nothing surprising in the Report’s discussion of Cuba. The report is statutorily required to cover the prior calendar year, and Cuba’s designation of state sponsorship was not rescinded until May 29, 2015. Therefore, it had to be included in this report as such a sponsor, and the discussion is fully consistent with that subsequent rescission.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Terrorism 2014 (June 19, 2015); U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing at the Release of Country Reports on Terrorism 2014 (June 19, 2015); Gordon & Schmitt, Iran Still Aids Terrorism and Bolsters Syria’s President, State Department Finds, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2015).

[2] A prior post discussed the April 14, 2015, presidential notification of such rescission to the Congress and another post, the May 29, 2015, official rescission of Cuba as such a sponsor. Earlier posts covered the legal and political issues regarding such rescission and the U.S. already having conceded many reasons why Cuba had provided assurances that it will not support future acts of international terrorism.

Assessment of the Status of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Three recent articles in Cuba’s state-controlled media offer the Cuban government’s assessment of the current status of U.S. reconciliation. The lead article was Cuban journalists’ interview of Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s lead diplomat for the negotiations with the U.S. This post will summarize these three articles [1] and then offer an evaluation of Cuba’s assessment.

Current Status of Negotiations

Several days after the failure of the countries to reach an agreement about re-establishing diplomatic relations, Vidal remained optimistic. In the five months since the December 17th announcement of rapprochement and the mutual release of certain prisoners, she thought there had been progress in the process of normalization of relations. The removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism was to happen by the end of May, as it in fact did on May 29th, and Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington, D.C. has obtained a U.S. banking relation that was necessary for the effective operation of the Section and of a future Cuban embassy. [2]

In addition, for about the last two years, she added, the countries have been discussing and progressing on “technical” matters, including collaboration on infectious diseases, narcotics trafficking, immigration (including the U.S. “wet foot/dry foot” policy under its Cuban Adjustment Act) and their respective enforcement of their own domestic laws with visitors from the other country.

Moreover, said Vidal, the Cuba-U.S. interactions “are respectful, they are professional. We are treating each other as equals, on a foundation of respect and total reciprocity.”

Also supportive of reconciliation of the two countries have been visits to Cuba by U.S. federal and state government officials and U.S. business groups. [3]

 Re-establishment of Diplomatic Relations

Although the parties had not reached agreement on the details of re-establishing diplomatic relations at their negotiations in Washington, D.C. on May 21-22, Vidal suggested that progress had been made on these details, which conceivably could be resolved through direct communications without another negotiating session.

The remaining issues, she said, focused on the future “conduct of diplomats” and “the functioning of a diplomatic mission,” all under the U.N. Charter and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which both parties recognize as establishing or confirming the international law on the subjects. More specifically, Vidal said, “We must talk about the number of people, what kind of staff” the embassies will have or “what type of rank these officials [are] going to have” and “what privileges and immunities.” [4]

These comments by Vidal (and by Jacobson in the footnote) suggest that the provisions of the Vienna Convention provide flexibility and thus room for negotiation on the details of the functioning of the two countries’ embassies and diplomats. Indeed, that assumption is confirmed by the following relevant provisions of the Convention:

  1. Under Article 7, “the sending State may freely appoint the members of the staff of the mission. In the case of military, naval or air attachés, the receiving State may require their names to be submitted beforehand, for its approval.” However, Article 11 provides “the receiving State may require that the size of a mission be kept within limits considered by it to be reasonable and normal, having regard to circumstances and conditions in the receiving State and to the needs of the particular mission” and also “may equally, within similar bounds and on a non-discriminatory basis, refuse to accept officials of a particular category.”
  1. With respect to diplomatic personnel’s travel and conduct, Article 26 states, “Subject to its laws and regulations concerning zones entry into which is prohibited or regulated for reasons of national security, the receiving State shall ensure to all members of the mission freedom of movement and travel in its territory.” However, Article 41 provides, “Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.” In addition, Article 41 states, “The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State.”

Vidal’s concern about the “conduct of diplomats” and “the functioning of a diplomatic mission” was an allusion to Cuba’s objection to certain recent covert or secret or “discreet” programs by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) allegedly to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba and to public seminars for Cuban journalists at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana that will be discussed below.

 Future Issues for Discussion and Resolution

According to the Vidal interview, Cuba has presented to the U.S. the following “preliminary list” of other issues that need to be discussed and resolved for full normalization of relations: (a) the U.S. “lifting of the blockade [embargo];” (b) “the return of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base;” (c) “an end to illegal broadcasts by Radio and Televisión Marti;” (d) an “end to [U.S.] programs which were originally conceived to promote regime change” in Cuba and which for fiscal year 2016 have requests for funding of $20 million, especially in light of President Obama’s statement at the recent Summit of the Americas that the purpose of U.S. policy regarding Cuba was not regime change; [5] (e) “compensation for our country and our people for the damages caused by U.S. policy [primarily the embargo or blockade] over 50 years; ” and (f) restitution of Cuba’s frozen funds in the U.S.

The U.S., on the other hand, say the Cubans, has identified at least one issue for discussion in the second phase of negotiations: “compensation for the properties [of U.S. nationals] which were nationalized in Cuba at the beginning of the Revolution.” [6]

Moreover, Vidal said, the parties have not yet discussed how these issues would be discussed or resolved: “if a mechanism [such as commissions or groups] will be created;” or whether the issues would be discussed as a whole or separately.

According to the Gomez article in Granma, “the greatest challenge facing Cuba and the United States is establishing a relationship of civilized co-existence based on respect for their profound differences.”

 Conclusion

The Obama Administration and this blogger concur in the need for the U.S. to end the embargo (or “blockade” in Cuba’s view), which requires action by the U.S. Congress. Prior posts have discussed pending bills in the Senate and House of Representatives to do just that and urged U.S. citizens to press both chambers to pass such bills. Another post recommended submitting Cuba’s claim for money damages ($1.2 trillion as of last October) from the embargo/blockade to the Permanent Court of Arbitration where the U.S. can mount counter-evidence and arguments.

With respect to Guantanamo Bay, as discussed in a prior post, Cuba’s continually saying that the U.S. is “illegally” occupying the territory does not make it so and I do not think the U.S. would ever agree to such a legal conclusion. If Cuba continues to assert that contention, as I expect that it will, then the parties should submit the dispute for resolution by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The New York Times editorial board and this blogger agree with Cuba’s contention that the U.S. improperly has mounted covert, secret or “discreet” and ill conceived USAID programs to promote regime change in Cuba and that the U.S. should cease any and all such programs. Instead, it should propose joint-programs to the Cuban government for enhancement of Cuban human rights and democracy, and if and only if the Cubans agree, then the programs could proceed. (These issues were discussed in posts of 4/4/14, 4/9, 4/9, 8/12, 8/13 and 8/14).

The U.S. claims for money damages for compensation for Cuba’s expropriation of property owned by U.S. nationals and interests will obviously be discussed, as stated above, and in the likely event that the parties will not agree to the amount of such compensation, that too should be submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

In this process of working on the many issues that have accumulated over the last 50-plus years, both sides must recognize, as I think they do, the need to build mutual trust during the initial stages of diplomatic relations and, if all goes well, to the possible future relaxation of any restrictions. It does not help the process for bystanders, like Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, to loft scathing and premature criticisms of the process and to attempt to create new legislative roadblocks and impediments to that process.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Josefina Vidal discusses recent talks in Washington, Granma (May 26, 2015); Gómez, Seven key points, Granma (May 25, 2015); Cańedo, Cuba-United States after 17D [December 17], Cubadebate (May 25, 2015).

[2] Immediately after the May 21-22 negotiations in Washington, D.C., Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson, the U.S.’ lead diplomat, shared Vidal’s optimism. Jacobson said, “This round of talks was highly productive. . . . We have made significant progress in the last five months and are much closer to reestablishing relations and reopening embassies. . . . [W]e have gotten much closer than we were each time we talk. . . . I remain optimistic that we will conclude, but we still have a few things that need to be ironed out and we’re going to do that as quickly as possible.” On the other hand, according to Jacobson, “I’m also a realist about 54 years that we have to overcome.”

[3] These visits have included congressional trips in January, February (Senate and House), and May, and a visit by a major business delegation in March.

[4] Assistant Secretary Jacobson in her comments after the latest round of negotiations concurred that the Vienna Convention established the parameters for the functioning of the countries’ embassies and conceded that “there [is] a range of ways in which our embassies operate around the world in different countries. We expect that in Cuba, our embassy will operate within that range and so it won’t be unique. It won’t be anything that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. There are various circumstances in which embassies operate in somewhat restrictive environments. . . .[W]e have confidence that . . . our embassy will be able to function so that our officers can do their jobs as we expect them to do worldwide, but in highly varying locations around the world. So I have every expectation that it will fall within the range of other places where we operate.”

[5] Cuba correctly points out that USAID, on the one hand, proclaims on its public website that its Cuba programs “Provide humanitarian assistance (basic foodstuff, vitamins and personal hygiene supplies) to political prisoners and their families; Promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as support for independent civil society by strengthening leadership skills and providing opportunities for community organizing; and Facilitate information flow to, from and within the island” and that through four named private “partners” it has spent and will spend a total of $14.2 million for these programs for the three fiscal years ending 9/30/15 and an additional $20 million in Fiscal Year 2016.  USAID, on the other hand, has carried out these programs unilaterally, without the prior knowledge or consent, of the Cuban government. In addition, the U.S. Department of State at its Interests Section in Havana has hosted seminars for journalists and a Public Information Center with a lending library and Internet-enabled computers available to Cubans and others. Assistant Secretary Jacobson said at the May 22nd press conference, “[W]e have continued to request funds from Congress for various activities in support of the Cuban people [and] that those programs have changed over time since they began in 1996” and they might be changed in the future.

[6] A prior post discussed the issue of Cuba’s compensating U.S. owners of property expropriated in the Cuban Revolution. Moreover, the U.S. already has identified at least the following additional issues for further discussion and negotiation: extradition of persons for crimes in their home country (2/24/15 post) and Cuban human rights and democracy (posts of 3/27, 3/28, 3/29, 3/30 and 4/1), and such discussions already have been commenced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Rescinds Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”    

As anticipated, today, May 29, the U.S. officially rescinded its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”[1]

The official Department of State announcement noted that “on April 8, 2015, the Secretary of State completed the review of [that designation] and recommended [rescission] to the President” and that “on April 14, the President submitted to Congress the statutorily required report indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind . . . [the designation], including the certification that Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six-months; and that Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”

The announcement further stated that the “45-day Congressional pre-notification period has expired [today, May 29], and the Secretary of State has made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, effective today, May 29, 2015.”

In conclusion, the announcement said, “The rescission . . . reflects our assessment that Cuba meets the statutory criteria for rescission. While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission.”

This decision is an important step in President Obama’s effort to normalize relations between the two countries.

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[1] This post is based on the following: Dep’t of State, Rescission of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (May 29, 2015); Davis, U.S. Removes Cuba from State-Sponsored Terrorism List, N.Y. Times (May 29, 2015); Tharoor, After 33 Years, the U.S. drops Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Here’s what it means, Wash. Post (May 29, 2015); Cuba removed from list of state sponsors of terrorism, Granma (May 29, 2015). Previous posts have examined legal and political issues relating to rescission, the president’s decision to rescind and congressional acceptance of rescission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Congressional Delegations Visit Cuba

Two more congressional delegations visited Cuba this week.[1]

Senator Tom Udall’s Delegation

Senator Mark Udall
Senator Mark Udall

On May 25th U.S. Senator Tom Udall (Dem., NM), the author of a bill to expand U.S. telecommunications trade with Cuba (S.1389),[2] led a delegation of fellow Democrats on a visit to Cuba: Senator Al Franken (MN)[3] and Congressmen Raul Grijalva (AZ)[4] and John Larson (CT),[5] all of whom support ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Their visit included a meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, as well as meetings with Cuba’s Ministries of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment and Agriculture as well as self-employed members of small cooperatives and investors from foreign countries.

At a May 27th press conference in Havana at the end of their trip, Senator Udall noted that the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” would end in two days (May 29th) and asserted his belief that “it will be a matter of weeks when we have restored diplomatic relations.”

Senator Udall said that there is growing bipartisan support for separate pieces of legislation that would permanently end a ban on travel, allow trade in agricultural goods and enable U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies to provide services and devices in Cuba.”Today in the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, the majority of both Democrats and Republicans are in favor of the travel ban being lifted.” Although he was optimistic about bills eliminating the U.S. embargo/blockade, he added, “I do not think “it will happen tomorrow.”

In response to a question, Udall defended most of U.S. initiatives to “spread democracy,” but criticized such projects when they seek to “undermine governments.”

Senator Franken observed that the majority of the American people support eliminating the embargo, as shown in recent surveys. Even in Florida, most of the public agrees with a change in this policy towards Cuba. Yet a “very small minority” in Congress still backs continuing the embargo, said Franken, and “there is work to be done” to overcome their objections.

Franken also stressed the need to obtain compensation for Cuba’s expropriation of property owned by U.S. interests at the beginning of the Revolution. In response to a question about the issue of returning Guantanamo to Cuba, he said it was not “a salient issue at this time” and that he did not have a “strong opinion” on the naval base, though he supports closing its detention center for terrorism suspects.

Congressman Grijalva said the cultural, artistic and scientific exchanges are vital for normalization, but those that tend towards subversion must be analyzed and set aside. He stressed the statement of President Barack Obama that the U.S. was “not in the business of regime change” in Cuba.

 Representative Mark Sanford’s Delegation

Rep. Mark Sanford
Rep. Mark Sanford

Three days later, May 28, the Foreign Minister met with another delegation led by Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), the author of a bill to expand U.S. travel to Cuba (H.R.664), with Bradley Byrne (Rep., AL), Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), Earl Carter (Rep., GA) and Don Beyer (Dem., VA).

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Assoc. Press, US Senator in Cuba Says Normal Relations ‘Weeks Away,’ N.Y. Times (May 27, 2015); Fox, US Senator in Cuba says normal relations ‘weeks away,’ Wash. Post (May 27, 2015); Gomez, US lawmakers in Havana must lift the blockade, Granma (May 27, 2015); Cuban Foreign Minister receives US Congressmen, Cubadebate (May 28,2015).

[2] A prior post about pending bills supporting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation identified Senator Jeff Flake as the author of the bill. Now the THOMAS website identifies Flake as a cosponsor and Senator Udall as the author, and the latter issued a press release to that effect, calling the bill The Cuba Digital and Telecommunications Advancement Act — or Cuba DATA Act.

[3] Franken’s press release before the trip stressed the trip was “to explore ways the U.S. and Cuba can expand trade opportunities . . .[and] ways the [U.S.] can further open relations with Cuba through trade and tourism.” Franken said, “Expanding trade opportunities with Cuba could be of enormous benefit to many Minnesota industries, including our medical technology industry, agricultural producers and our energy sector.”

[4] Grijalva’s press release before the trip emphasized that it would focus on “ways the [U.S.] can further open relations with Cuba through trade and tourism and by expanding opportunities for cultural exchange.” Another purpose was exploring “opportunities for U.S. companies to participate in the expansion of telecommunications infrastructure; expanding ecotourism; and marine conservation efforts.”

[5] Larson’s pre-trip press release was virtually the same as Grijalva’s.