Other Reactions to U.S. Ordering Removal of 15 Cuban Diplomats   

On October 3, the U.S. ordered the removal of 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. as discussed in a prior post while other posts looked at recent developments on these issues and on Cuba’s reaction to that U.S. decision and order. This post will discuss reactions from others.

Opposition to Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[1]

The harshest criticism of this decision along with others recently taken by the Trump Administration has been leveled by Harold Trinkunas, the deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Richard Feinberg, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.They say the following:

  • “This White House and its pro-embargo allies in Congress have opportunistically seized on these mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats to overturn the pro-normalization policies of a previous administration, using bureaucratic obstruction and reckless language when they cannot make the case for policy change on the merits alone.”
  • By taking these precipitous actions, Trinkunas and Feinberg argue, “this White House is doing exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke. Overt U.S. hostility [towards Cuba] empowers anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries. In addition, [the announced American travel restrictions and warning hurts] the privately-operated [and progressive] segments of the Cuban tourism sector, and . . . [thereby weakens] the emerging Cuban middle class.”
  • Furthermore, they say, “a breakdown in U.S.-Cuban relations allows Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin. By pushing Cuba away, the U.S. is pushing it towards other actors whose interests are not aligned with our own.
  • “Our partners in Latin America welcomed the change in U.S. policy towards Cuba in 2014 as a sign that the Cold War had finally ended in the Western Hemisphere. The [Trump] administration’s retreat from the opening towards Cuba alarms our friends in the Americas and calls into question the enduring value of U.S. commitments . . . . This pattern of reckless animus towards diplomacy comes at a cost to the international reputation of the U.S. with no apparent gain for our interests abroad.”
  • “U.S. hostility [also] risks damaging the coming transition to a new Cuban government after President Raul Castro steps down in early 2018 by strengthening the hand of anti-American hardliners who oppose further economic opening on the island.”
  • “It damages Cuban-Americans and their families by impeding travel and the flow of funding associated with their visits, and those of other American visitors, which have allowed the Cuban private sector to gain traction. It also damages U.S. relations with our partners in the region, who have long criticized what they see as senseless hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. And finally, the Trump administration’s approach serves to widen the door to U.S. geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia and Venezuela, to advance their interests in Cuba and in the region.”
  • “Many of our professional diplomats, both those stationed in Havana and those at the State Department, oppose the dramatic downsizing of the U.S. and Cuban missions. While all are concerned for the safety of U.S. personnel, the health incidents seem to be in sharp decline. The U.S. diplomats in Havana are proud of the gains in advancing U.S. interests in Cuba, and they wish to continue to protect and promote them.”

EngageCuba, the leading bipartisan coalition promoting U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, said, “”The diplomats and their families suffering from unexplained health issues deserve answers. If the U.S. government is serious about solving this mystery, they shouldn’t make it more difficult to cooperate with the Cuban government during this critical time of the investigation. This decision appears to be purely political, driven by the desire of a handful of individuals in Congress to halt progress between our two countries. Expelling Cuban diplomats will not solve this mystery; it will not improve the safety of U.S. personnel, but it will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island. We hope that the driving forces behind this decision are comfortable with their Cuban-American constituents being unable to visit their loved ones.”

This EngageCuba statement followed the one it issued about the reduction of staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It said, “”The safety and security of all diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and anywhere in the world, is the first priority of our country. Whoever is behind these serious and inexcusable attacks on American diplomats must be apprehended and brought to justice. We must be careful that our response does not play into the hands of the perpetrators of these attacks, who are clearly seeking to disrupt the process of normalizing relations between our two countries. This could set a dangerous precedent that could be used by our enemies around the world.

EngageCUBA continued, “It is puzzling that the Trump Administration would use this delicate time in the investigation to advise Americans against traveling to Cuba, given the fact that none of these attacks have been directed at American travelers. We are also concerned for the Cuban people, who will be impacted by this decision. Halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from traveling to Cuba will divide families and harm Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island.”

In conclusion, said EngageCUBA, “the U.S. and Cuba must redouble efforts to solve this mystery as quickly as possible in order to keep our embassy personnel safe and continue to move forward with strengthening relations between our two countries.”

A New York Times’ editorial similarly observed, “until there is concrete evidence about the source of the attacks, the Trump administration is wrong to expel Cuban diplomats from Washington. . . . Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s explanation that Cuba should be punished for failing to protect American diplomats presumes that Cuba was at least aware of the attacks, which the [U.S.] has neither demonstrated nor claimed. “Furthermore, “Until something more is known, punishing Havana serves only to further undermine the sensible opening to Cuba begun under Barack Obama. President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the détente — in June his government ordered restrictions on contacts with Cuba that have slowed the flow of visitors to the island, and last week the State Department warned Americans not to travel there, though there is no evidence that tourists are in danger. The sonic attacks on Americans are too serious to be used for cynical political ends.”

Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said: “The United States is using the confusion and uncertainty surrounding these events as justification to take a big step backwards in U.S.-Cuban relations. This doesn’t serve our national interests, or our diplomacy, and it most certainly doesn’t do anything to help advance human rights or a more open political climate in Cuba. This is an unfortunate decision that ought to be reversed.”

Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), the Chair of the Congressional Cuba Working Group, stated, “The Administration’s decision last week to withdraw all non-essential personnel from our embassy in Havana was concerning but understandable to ensure the safety of our foreign service staff on the island. Unfortunately, yesterday’s actions do not seem to advance our efforts of identifying a cause or culprit behind these ‘sonic attacks.’ Instead of sending us back down a path of isolation, we must foster open lines of communication as we continue the investigation to determine who must be held responsible for these attacks on Americans. We cannot lose sight of the fact that an improved and sustained relationship with Cuba brings us one step closer to ensuring the stability and security of the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, more guardedly said, “Although . . . [the] decision to expel Cuban diplomats brings parity between U.S. and Cuban embassy personnel levels, I am concerned that it may also stoke diplomatic tensions and complicate our ability to conduct a thorough investigation of these attacks. The U.S. should not take actions that could undermine our bilateral relations with Cuba and U.S. policies aimed at advancing our strategic national interests in the hemisphere.”

Although the most recent Cuba Travel Warning from the State Department strongly discouraged Americans from traveling to Cuba, “several cruise lines operating ships in and around Cuba have released statements pushing back on the warning, noting that no tourists have been harmed in these incidents.” Moreover, “several cruise companies had already announced significant expansion of their Cuba operations before the warning was issued.”

Approval of Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[2]

This latest U.S. announcement is what was recommended by a Wall Street Journal editorial and by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who immediately tweeted that this was “the right decision.” His subsequent press release Rubio stated, “I commend the US State Department for expelling a number of Cuban operatives from the US. No one should be fooled by the Castro regime’s claim it knows nothing about how these harmful attacks are occurring or who perpetrated them. I have called on the State Department to conduct an independent investigation and submit a comprehensive report to Congress. . . . All nations have an obligation to ensure the protection of diplomatic representatives in their countries. Cuba is failing miserably and proving how misguided and dangerous the Obama Administration’s decisions were.”[7]  He added, ““At this time, the U.S. embassy in Havana should be downgraded to an interests section and we should be prepared to consider additional measures against the Castro regime if these attacks continue.”

This news should also be welcomed by the Washington Post, whose recent editorial continued this newspaper’s hard line about U.S.-Cuba relations by refusing to believe Cuba’s denial of knowledge about the cause and perpetrator of the “attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana. It asserts “recent events suggest that the unpleasant reality of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship remains in place” and that “For decades, the Cuban state security apparatus has kept a watchful eye on everything that moves on the island, and informants lurk on every block. It begs disbelief that Cuba does not know what is going on. Unfortunately, this kind of deception and denial is all too familiar behavior.” Therefore, if “Cuba sincerely wants better relations with the United States, it could start by revealing who did this, and hold them to account.”[8]

This suspicion of Cuban involvement in the attacks received some corroboration by the Associated Press, which reports that six unnamed sources say that “many of the first reported cases [of attacks] involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy.” Moreover, of “the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed.” U.S. investigators, according to the AP, have identified “three ‘zones,’ or geographic clusters of attacks, [which] cover the homes where U.S. diplomats live and several hotels where attacks occurred, including the historic Hotel Capri.” Both the State Department and the CIA declined to comment to the AP. This report undoubtedly will fuel efforts to overturn normalization of relations between the two countries.[9]

Conclusion

I agree with Trinkunas and Feinberg, the recent decisions about Cuba by the Trump Administration do exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke: empower anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries; damage Cuba’s upcoming transition to a new government after Raúl Castro leaves the presidency early next year; and hurt and weaken the privately-operated and progressive segments of the Cuban tourism sector. In addition, those decisions weaken U.S. relations with most other governments in Latin America while damaging many Cuban and Cuban-American families seeking to maintain and increase their ties. Those decisions also allow Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela, all of which are hostile to the U.S., to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin.

I must also note my surprise that at the two recent State Department press briefings no journalist followed up on the previously mentioned Associated Press report that the initial U.S. diplomats who reported medical problems were U.S. intelligence agents to ask whether that report was valid and other related questions.

All who support the continuation of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation should oppose these moves by the Trump Administration.

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[1] Trinkunas & Feinberg, Reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America’s interests, The Hill (Oct. 5, 2017);  EngageCuba, Statement on U.S. Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats in Washington (Oct. 3, 2017); Engage Cuba, Statement on U.S. Cuts to Havana Embassy & Travel Alert (Sept. 29, 2017); Editorial, Cuba and the Mystery of the Sonic Weapon, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017) (this editorial also noted that the reported medical problems “are real and serious” and that “Cuba’s repressive government must be the prime suspect”); WOLA, U.S. Plan to Expel Two-thirds of Cuban Embassy Needlessly Sets Back U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 3, 2017); Emmer Statement on Administration’s Decision to Remove Cuban Diplomats from Washington, D.C. (Oct. 4, 2017); Cardin Questions Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats amidst Attacks on U.S. Personnel in Cuba (Oct. 3, 2017); Morello, U.S. will expel 15 Cuban diplomats, escalating tensions over mystery illnesses, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2017); Gomez, U.S. orders 15 Cuban diplomats to leave; Cuba blames Washington for deteriorating relations, Miami Herald (Oct. 3, 2017); Glusac, Despite Travel Warning, Cruises to Cuba Continue, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[2] Rubio Press Release, Rubio commends State Department’s Expulsion of Cuban Operatives (Oct. 3, 2017); Editorial, Cuba plays dumb in attacks on American diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2017); Assoc. Press, APNewsBreak: Attacks in Havana Hit US Spy Network in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2017).

 

Yet More News Regarding the Medically Affected U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

There are more developments regarding the actions and reactions associated with the medically affected U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba.

The U.S. State Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at an October 4 Press Briefing, responded to Cuba’s criticism of not obtaining sufficient U.S. information about the medical problems of some of its personnel in Cuba. She said the U.S. was “engaged in an investigation, [and] we, as Americans, need to keep a tight hold on a lot of information. We don’t want that information to leak. . . . That information could potentially leak to other parties . . . who may or may not be involved. So, providing information on the investigation could tip off what I’ll just call the bad guys who are responsible for this. We don’t know who or what is responsible. So . . . we wouldn’t want to tip off the bad guys to any information that we have on the investigation. Again, I’m not calling the Cubans – saying that about the Cubans in general, but we wouldn’t want this type of information to leak.” She added, “the investigation is ongoing. The investigation has not yet been resolved, so there is limited information that we can provide at this point.”[1]

On October 5, the Cuba embassy in Washington reported that its 15 diplomats who were ordered for expulsion included all who handled dealings with U.S. businesses. One of them said, “due to this decision, the activities developed by the Economic and Trade Office of the Embassy… will be seriously affected.” Such activities are usually the first step in the process for U.S. companies when they submit trip proposals, seek out counterparts at state-owned enterprises in the centralized economy and obtain business travel visits to travel to Cuba. In addition, the reduction in staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana will make it more difficult for U.S. companies to find their way in Cuba.[2]

Scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba. “I’d say it’s fairly implausible,” said Jurgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany and an expert on acoustics. At frequencies higher than 20,000 Hertz, beyond human hearing, ultrasound can damage tissue if produced with enough power, but  “ultrasound cannot travel a long distance,” said Jun Qin, an acoustic engineer at Southern Illinois University. The further the sound goes, the weaker it gets. And, noted Dr. Garrett, humidity in a place like Havana would weaken it still more. Infrasound — low-frequency sound that cannot be heard by humans—on the other hand, is even more unlikely. A report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2002 noted that the military had tried to weaponize infrasound, but had not succeeded because it was hard to focus the wavelengths. The primary effect of infrasound on humans “appears to be annoyance,” the report concluded.[3]

Also on October 4, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed hearing on “Ordered Departure of Personnel from U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba.”[4] with an unnamed Senior Official from the CIA plus these three “Briefers” from the State Department: (a) Mr. Christian J. Schurman; Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State And Assistant Director For International Programs; Bureau Of Diplomatic Security with responsibility for “evaluating, managing, and mitigating security threats to, as well as the direction of resources for, more than 240 diplomatic posts within the International Programs Directorate;” (b) Mr. John S. Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary; Bureau Of Western Hemisphere Affairs;and (c ) Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director; Bureau Of Medical Services. Since the hearing was close, we do not yet know what happened.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Oct. 4, 2017)

[2] Reuters, U.S. expulsion of Cuban Diplomats Includes All Business Officers, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[3] Zimmer, A ‘Sonic Attack’ on Diplomats in Cuba? These Scientists Doubt It, N.Y. times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[4] Senate Foreign Relations Comm., CLOSED/TS: Ordered Departure of Personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (Oct. 4, 2017).

 

Cuba’s Unchanged Status in U.S. State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking        

The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, among other things, establishes a definition of “human trafficking” and requires the Department of State to issue annual reports on such conduct in every country of the world.

The latest such report was issued on June 27, 2017.[1] Upon its issuance Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that the preamble to the Act states, “The purpose of this act is to combat trafficking in persons, a contemporary manifestation of slavery, whose victims are predominantly women and children, to ensure just and effective punishment of traffickers, and to protect the victims. As the 21st century begins, the degrading institution of slavery continues throughout the world.” Other remarks were provided by Ivanka Trump, Advisor to the President; and Susan Coppedge, Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.[2]

Background

“The Department places each country in this Report onto one of four tiers, as mandated by the TVPA. This placement is based not on the size of the country’s problem but on the extent of governments’ efforts to meet the TVPA’s minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.”

The top tier (Tier 1) consists of “governments [according to the Department’s judgment that] fully meet the [Act’s] . . . minimum standards.” However, that ranking “does not mean that a country has no human trafficking problem or that it is doing enough to address the problem. Rather, a Tier 1 ranking indicates that a government has acknowledged the existence of human trafficking, has made efforts to address the problem, and meets the TVPA’s minimum standards. Each year, governments need to demonstrate appreciable progress in combating trafficking to maintain a Tier 1 ranking. Indeed, Tier 1 represents a responsibility rather than a reprieve. A country is never finished with the job of fighting trafficking.” The latest report has 36 countries, including the U.S., in Tier 1.

Tier 2 consists of those countries “whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to meet those standards.” For the latest report 80 countries were placed in Tier 2.

Tier 2 Watch List this year has 68 countries, including Cuba, “whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND: (a) the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; (b) there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or (c) the determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was focused on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”

Tier 3 this year has 23 “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. There also are 3 countries that are not ranked and instead labeled as Special Cases.

In 2015 there was criticism by some senators about that year’s upgrading of Cuba and Malaysia. Subsequently that same year the previously mentioned State Department Office agreed to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prior to releasing future reports in an effort to prevent any inappropriate influence over the country rankings recommended by the TIP office. As a result on June 21, 2017, Ambassador Coppedge did just that.[3]

Report Regarding Cuba

“The Government of Cuba does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated significant efforts during the reporting period by prosecuting and convicting sex traffickers; providing services to sex trafficking victims; releasing a written report on its antitrafficking efforts; and coordinating anti-trafficking efforts across government ministries. In addition, the government investigated indicators of trafficking exhibited by foreign labor brokers recruiting Cuban citizens. However, the government did not demonstrate increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. The penal code does not criminalize all forms of human trafficking. The government did not prohibit forced labor, report efforts to prevent forced labor domestically, or recognize forced labor as a possible issue affecting its nationals in medical missions abroad. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Cuba was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore, Cuba is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year.”

The Report then goes on to provide the State Department’s recommendations for Cuba; assessments of the island’s prosecution, protection and prevention of trafficking; and its Trafficking Profile.

Reactions[4]

On July 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the 2017 report with testimony from Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, whose opening statement did not mention Cuba, and from Ambassador Coppedge. [5]

The statement on the new report from Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American, merely referenced a bill he had introduced to reform the State Department’s process for publishing its annual TIP reports, and re-published his statement about the 2015 report that criticized its granting a waiver to downgrading Cuba.

Surprisingly Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), another Cuban-American and a fierce critic of the “promotion” of Cuba to Tier 2 Watch List in 2015, issued a statement about the latest trafficking report that said nothing about Cuba’s continued placement in that category.

Earlier in 2017 Senator Menendez along with cosponsors Senators Rubio, Tim Kaine (Dem., VA), Cory Gardner (Rep., CO), Rob Portman (Rep., OH) and Christopher Coons (Dem., DE) introduced the Trafficking in Persons Report Integrity Act  (S.377), which would reform the State Department’s annual trafficking reports. The press release by Rubio said the bill was prompted in part by “The past two TIP reports . . . [containing] unwarranted, politically-driven upgrades of countries with deplorable human trafficking records, like Cuba and Malaysia.”[6] However, as of August 15, 2017, no actions had been taken on the bill.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Trafficking in Persons 2017 (June 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks at the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report Launch Ceremony (June 27, 2017).

[3] Sen. Corker, Press Release: Corker Takes Part in State Department Launch of 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 27, 2017).

[4] Menendez, Sen. Menendez Reacts to the 2017 TIP Report (June 27, 2017); Rubio, Rubio Statement on State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (June 27, 2017).

[5] Senate For. Relations Comm., Hearing to review the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 13, 2017);  Sen. Corker, Press Release: Corker Opening Statement at Hearing on 2017 State Department Trafficking in Persons Report (July 13, 2017); Deputy Sec. State Sullivan, Opening Statement Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, July 13, 2017.

[6] Press Release, Rubio, Menendez Reintroduce Legislation to Reform State Department Human Trafficking Report (Feb. 14, 2017).

U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson Criticizes Aspects of U.S.-Cuba Normalization          

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on June 13 criticized at least some aspects of U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba. He did so during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing over the State Department’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 (October 1, 2017—September 30, 2018) that is 30% less than the current budget, including a total elimination of funding for so-called democracy promotion programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). [1]

The Committee Chair, Bob Corker (Rep., TN), said that he knew President Trump would announce certain changes to Cuba policy this Friday in Miami and asked Mr. Tillerson to explain these upcoming changes. The Secretary responded as follows:

  • “The general approach is to allow as much of this continued commercial and engagement activity to go on as possible because we do see the sunny side…we see the benefits of that to the Cuban people. But on the other hand, we think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior in the regime in Cuba, its treatment of people, and it has little incentive today to change that. In fact, our concern is they may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of all of this, which just again promotes the continuance of that regime. As we’re developing these business relationships and as we’re enjoying the benefits of the economic and development side, are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime? Our view is we are.”

Senator Corker said he understood that American businesses are eager to operate in Cuba, but cited Cuba’s continuing shortcomings in free expression and other civil liberties. The Senator added, “I do hope we end up with a policy that, over time, will cause the Cuban people themselves to be able to reach their aspirations. It’s a country that has incredible potential.”

Tillerson also said the Obama policy of engagement had “financially benefited the island’s government in violation of U.S. law” and that Cuba “must begin to address human rights challenges” if it wants the U.S. to continue such normalization. Tillerson acknowledged that normalization has led to an increase in U.S. visitors and U.S. business ties. However, Tillerson added: “We think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba …. and it has little incentive today to change that.”

Tillerson agreed that moves toward more normal relations with the United States have helped some Cubans lift themselves out of poverty and provided opportunities for U.S. companies. But, he observed, there is a “dark side” to relations with Cuba, noting that the government in Havana continues to jail political opponents and harass dissidents. “We are supportive of the continued economic development, as long as it is done in full compliance with our existing statutes to not provide financial support to the regime,” Tillerson said. “That’s the focus of our current policy review.”

The State Department’s proposed budget’s elimination of so called “democracy promotion” programs for Cuba and other countries through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) drew the attention of Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American and fierce critic of U.S.-Cuba normalization. He said, ““I am appalled that you have completely zeroed out Democracy Assistance for countries including Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. As brave citizens continue to risk their lives advocating for the basic freedoms we enjoy here, this budget sends a message that the United States is no longer on their side, and abandoning the pursuit of justice. It effectively withdraws American leadership around the world, pushing the door open for Russia and China to increase their scope of influence.”

As a result, Menendez asked Tillerson, “Does this administration believe that support of democracy and human rights is a reflection of American leadership and values?” After Tillerson said “Yes,” Menendez asked, “How can you say that then when the budget completely zeros out assistance for democracy assistance?” Tillerson then tried to avoid the question by saying that other parts of the budget could be used for the task.”

More generally at the hearing Committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, expressed great skepticism over the proposed budget’s 30% reduction. Senator Corker said he and his staff had quit trying to analyze the details of the proposed budget because such an effort was “a total waste of time” as the proposed budget “is not going to be the budget that we’re going to deal with. It’s just not.” Another member, Senator Lindsay Graham (Rep., SC) became almost “derisive” as he contrasted global needs with the proposed budget that, he said, was putting the lives of U.S. diplomats at risk.

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[1] Rumors of Upcoming Trump Administration Rollback of U.S. Normalization of Relations with Cuba, dwkcommenetaries.com (May 25, 2017): Reuters, Tillerson Signals Tough Trump Administration Stance on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 13, 2017); Harris, Will Cuts Hurt Diplomacy? Tillerson Tries to Ease Senate’s Worries, N.Y. Times (June13, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Plans Rollback of Obama Cuba Policy, W.S.J. (June13, 2017); Press Release: Corker Credits Secretary Tillerson for Unprecedented Outreach (June 13, 2017); Press Release: Menendez Pushes Tillerson on Cuts to State Department Human Rights (June 13, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, FY 2018 Budget Testimony (June 13, 2017).

 

Senate Confirms Nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

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

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

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

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

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

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

Senate Debate and Vote

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, May Present a Challenge for Supporters of U.S.-Cuba Normalization

Nikki Haley, now the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., has dropped hints that she may present a challenge to supporters of U.S.-Cuba normalization. The first was in her testimony regarding Cuba before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[1] The second was in her initial appearance at the U.N. on January 27.

Appearance Before Senate Foreign Relations Committee

On January 18, 2017, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held Nikki Haley’s confirmation hearing, and at the hearing or thereafter in writing she provided the following testimony regarding Cuba.

  1. Question: “Do you agree that the U.S. should help support private entrepreneurs in Cuba with training or other assistance, so they can build businesses, market their products and services, and compete with state-owned enterprises?”

Answer: “Unfortunately, Cuba does not have private entrepreneurs and working independently is not a right but a privilege granted only to supporters of the regime.”

Analysis: “That’s just wrong, as the BBC and a million other reputable sources confirm.”

  1. Question: “Do you agree that after more than half a century the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve any of its principal objectives?”

Answer: “We should be clear about a few things. The goal of the embargo was never to cause regime change, but rather to raise the costs of the Cuban government’s bad behavior.”

Analysis: “That was a whopper, as this Voice of America op-ed, and a vast historical record shows.”

  1. Question: “Will you continue the recent practice of abstaining to the UN General Resolution pertaining to the statutory U.S. embargo on Cuba?”

Answer: “No.”

Analysis: “Too bad. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech when the U.S. abstained on the embargo resolution last year was a truly great moment.”

  1. Question: “Do you support continued diplomatic relations with Cuba?

Answer: She submitted an 85-word response that according to the CDA, didn’t directly answer the question.

On January 24, the Committee approved her nomination, 11-2 (with negative votes from Democratic Senators Coons (DE) and Udall (NM)).

Action by the Senate

The full Senate followed suit the same day, 96-4 (with negative votes from Coons and Udall plus Democrat Senator Heinrich (NM) and Independent Senator Sanders (VT)) .[2]

The Committee Chair, Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN) supported the nomination with this statement: “Governor Haley is a fierce advocate for American interests. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues. I believe that experience will serve her well, and I strongly support her nomination.” He added, “I believe she knows the United Nations needs reform and change. We have a right to demand value for our money. I think our nominee has said she will demand that. . . . Experience shows that when we have strong U.S. leadership at the U.N. we can get results. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. . . . I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues.”

The nomination also was supported by Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD), the Committee’s Ranking Member, who said, ““What Governor Haley lacks in foreign policy and international affairs experience, she makes up for in capability, intelligence, and a track record of building coalitions in South Carolina. Her nomination was surprising to many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but I have been impressed by her forthrightness on core American values, her willingness to admit what she does not know, and her commitment to seeking the facts and speaking truth to power, whether within the Trump Administration or with an intransigent Russia and China in the Security Council.”

Ambassador Haley’s Initial Appearance at the U.N.

Ambassador Haley @ U.N.
Ambassador Haley @ U.N.

On January 27, only three days after her confirmation, she made her very first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly and delivered a blunt warning to every nation in the world. She said, “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business. Our goal with the administration is to show value at the U.N., and the way we’ll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our back as well. For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names; we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”[3]

Conclusion

First, her lack of knowledge regarding Cuba may not be surprising since her prior experience has been in state government, but it is a troubling sign that she may not be committed to normalization.

Second, her statement that she would not abstain on the forthcoming U.N. General Assembly resolution against the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba is also troubling by itself. It is even more troubling when coupled with her recent statement at the U.N. that the U.S. would be taking the names of those countries that do not have the U.S.’ back and responding accordingly. That suggests that the U.S. may seek to take some kind of action against virtually every country in the world that supports that resolution.

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[1] Ctr. Democracy in Americas, Cuba News Blast (Jan. 27, 2017).

[2] Press Release, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approved Nomination of Nikki Haley to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Votes to Confirm Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Cardin Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate Confirms Trump’s Nominee for US Ambassador to UN, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2017); Carney, Senate confirms Trump’s UN ambassador, The Hill (Jan. 24, 2017).

[3] Sengupta, Nikki Haley Puts U.N. on Notice: U.S. Is ‘Taking Names,’ N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017).

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.