Senators Express Deep Concern Over Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 23, 2019, a group of 22 Senators told Secretary of State Pompeo of their “deep concern” over the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights. [1]

The Senators said they “vehemently disagree” with the Secretary’s assertion that there was “confusion” over what human rights are. “The 1948 UN declaration of Human Rights begins by declaring that the recognition of the equal and inalienable rights ‘of all members of the human family is the foundation of the freedom, justice and peace.’ Moreover, widely ratified international treaties codify ‘inalienable’ rights.”

The letter continued, “it seems the administration is reluctant—or even hostile—to protected established internationally recognized definitions of human rights, particularly those requiring it to uphold protections for reproductive rights and the rights of marginalized communities, including LGBT persons. The [Secretary’s] assertion that decades of well-defined agreement on human rights has sown confusion over what rights are is simply an Orwellian twist to defend the indefensible.” In short, the Commission is “absurd, particularly from an administration that has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on protecting human rights across the world” by supporting “despotic governments abroad,” by “ignoring the devastating abuses and rights of children and families on our border” and by President Trump’s fawning “ over current abusers of human rights such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The senators also were concerned that the Commission’s membership was not fairly balanced, in accordance with federal law (41 C.F.R. Section 102-3.30). “The Commission’s chair and members are overwhelmingly clergy or scholars known to support discriminatory policies toward LGBT persons, hold views hostile to women’s rights and reproductive freedom, and/or support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

Finally the letter protested the Secretary’s failure to consult or obtain input from the Department’s career human rights experts.

This letter to Pompeo was organized by Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The letter was signed by the following Democratic presidential candidates: Kamala Harris (CA), Michael Bennet (CO), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Cory Booker (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Bernie Sanders (IN, VT). Other Democratic Senator signatories were Tammy Baldwin (WI), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Benjamin L. Cardin (MD), Christopher Coons (DE), Tammy Duckworth (IL), Patrick Leahy (VT), Edward J. Markey (MA), Jeffrey A. Merkley (OR), Patty Murray (WA ), Jack Reed (RI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Tina Smith (MN), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Ben Wyden (OR).

Conclusion

This blog, which is sceptical about the true purpose of this Commission, has published many posts about this Commission.

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[1] Letter, U.S. Senators to Secretary Pompeo (July 23, 2019); Lederman & Lee, human rights groups lead chorus of alarm over new Trump administration commission, NBC News (July 23, 2019); Budryk, Democrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new ‘unalienable rights’ commission, The Hill (July 24, 2019).

More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights

Yesterday’s post covered the formal launch of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are additional reactions to the Commission. [1]

Negative Reactions

 Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Mr. Pompeo’s argument for a new human rights panel was “absurd” and that the Trump administration “has taken a wrecking ball to America’s global leadership on promoting fundamental rights across the world.” Instead, “we need this President and this Secretary to actually champion human rights by standing up for America’s values and by using the framework that is already in place and which has been championed by prior administrations for decades, regardless of party.”

Representative Eliot Engel (Dem., NY). the Chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, stated, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. Decades ago, Congress created an entire bureau in the State Department dedicated to defending and reporting on human rights and advising the Secretary and senior diplomats on human rights and democratic development. Now the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.” Engel also noted that he had cosponsored a measure to prohibit funding for this new body that recently had been passed by the House.

The American Jewish World Service denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, said, “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

Rob Berschinski, the Senior Vice President for policy at Human Rights First and a former  deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Obama administration, said well-established principles for advancing human rights already existed and did not need to be revamped. He added that most of the 10 people named to the new commission viewed human rights largely through the lens of religious freedom. “At first blush,” he said, “the commission certainly seems to reinforce the perception that the administration and State Department under Secretary Pompeo uniquely emphasize religious freedom amongst universal rights.”

Another observer also voiced negative views of the Commission. “We don’t need this commission,” said Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary for DRL from 2009 to 2013. “What we need is for the U.S. government, the secretary of state and the president to abide by and uphold international human rights standards we already have adopted.”

Joanne Lin of Amnesty International said, “”If this administration truly wanted to support people’s rights, it would use the global framework that’s already in place. Instead, it wants to undermine rights for individuals, as well as the responsibilities of governments. This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.”

Positive Reactions

Daniel Philpott, a University of Notre Dame professor who was initially mentioned as a potential commission member, said that natural law reflects a concern that human rights have gone off the rails, in part because of abortion and claims about marriage rights. “The idea is these claims of human rights are not based upon natural law or the truth of the human person. In a sense, these are false claims to human rights. It brings down the cause of human rights in general. Why should we pursue other human rights if human rights can be anything one faction or party advocates them to be?”

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Chair of the new Commission, Mary Ann Glendon, opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. And Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, endorsed the Commission as an effort to “help further the protection of religious freedom, which is the foundation for all other human rights.”

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[1] Press Release: Menendez Questions Intent and Impact of Trump Admin’s New Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 8, 2019); Press Release, Engel Statement on State Department “Unalienable Rights” Commission (July 8, 2019); Wong & Sullivan, New Human Rights Panel Raises fears of a Narrowing U.S. Advocacy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019); Morello, State Department launches panel focused on human rights and natural law, Wash. Post (July 8, 2019); Visser, Mike Pompeo Unveils New Panel To Refocus U.S. Human Rights Priorities, Huffington Post (July 8, 2019); Oprysko, Mike Pompeo unveils panel to examine ‘unalienable rights,’ Politico (July 8, 2019); McBride, Pompeo Creates Commission on Human Rights, W.S.J. (July 8, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments

On May 22, 2019, the U.S. State Department announced its formation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights with two stated purposes. First, to provide the Secretary of State with “informed advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters . . . [and] fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Second, to help “guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings . . . [and] recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.” (Emphases added.)[1]

Although the Department has not yet provided many details about the Commission, there already has been positive and negative commentary about what this Commission might do.[2]

Now Politico reports that the Department is planning to launch the Commission next Monday, July 8, with the names of at least 10 of the body’s 15 members. Also it is being said that the Commission was developed “with almost no input from the . . . Department’s human rights bureau, .  . . [thereby] sidelining career government experts who have focused on human rights policy and history across numerous administrations.” There have been internal comments that the new body will at least consult one major international document—the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[3]

Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a letter of concern to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that was joined by Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Dick Durbin (Dem., IL), Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH) and Chris Coons (Dem., DE). They expressed “deep concern over the process and intent” of the new body.[4] Here are some of the key points of this letter:

  • “With deep reservations about the Commission, we request that you not take any further action regarding its membership or proposed operations without first consulting with congressional oversight and appropriations committees.” Of particular concern was the reference to ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights,’ terms which are “sometimes used in association with discrimination against marginalized populations” without mentioning “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any international human rights treaty the [U.S.] has signed or ratified.”
  • This letter also said that some of the rumored members of the Commission “are individuals known to support discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ people, hold views hostile to women’s rights, and/or to support positions at odds with U.S. treaty obligations.”

These are additional reasons for international human rights advocates to be concerned about this Commission and to be ready for its anticipated launching on July 8.

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[1] State Dep’t, Notice: Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, 84 Fed. Reg. 25109 (May 30, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019); State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019).

[2] For more details, see these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 16, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019).

[3] Toosi, Trump’s ‘natural law’ human rights panel readies for launch, Politico (July 3, 2019).

[4] Menendez Press Release, Menendez, Leahy, Durbin, Shaheen, Coons Raise Alarm over Trump Administration’s Plans to Redefine Human Rights through New Commission (June 12, 2019).

 

 

Senators Menendez and Rubio Call for Restoring U.S. Parole Program for Cuban Doctors

On January 9,  Cuba-American U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) offered S.Res. 14—Affirming that the Government of Cuba’s foreign medical missions constitute human trafficking.[1]

This proposed resolution, however, is based upon a false premise as will be shown in the final section of this post. First, we will examine this new resolution itself and the two Senators statements in support of the resolution and then the basics of the Cuban medical mission program and the former U.S. immigration parole program for Cuban medical professionals engaged in that program.

The Cuban Medical Mission Program[2]

According to a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, since Cuba since 1973 has been sending medical ‘brigades’ to foreign countries, “helping it to win friends abroad, to back ‘revolutionary’ regimes in places like Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua, and perhaps most importantly, to earn hard currency. [The] Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in June [2010] that Cuba had 37,041 doctors and other health workers in 77 countries. Estimates of what Cuba earns from its medical teams—revenue that Cuba’s central bank counts as ‘exports of services’—vary widely, running to as much as $8 billion a year.”

Again, according to the same Wall Street Journal article, Cuban doctors often desire such overseas assignments because they provide opportunities to earn significantly more money than at home. “When serving overseas, they get their Cuban salaries [of $25 per month], plus a $50-per-month stipend—both paid to their dependents while they’re abroad. . . . In addition, they themselves receive overseas salaries—from $150 to $1,000 a month, depending on the mission.” Many on-the-side also engage in private fee-for-service medical practice, including abortions. As a result, many of the Cubans are able to save substantial portions of their overseas income, which they often use to purchase items they could not have bought in Cuba like television sets and computers. Other desirable purchases are less expensive U.S. products that they can sell at a profit when they return to Cuba.

In more recent years, many of the Cuban medical missionaries have gone to Venezuela and Brazil, the latter of which late last year terminated the program and most of the Cubans returned to the island, while some remained in Brazil.

The U.S. State Department in its annual reports on human trafficking has alleged that Cuba’s use of Cuban medical personnel in its foreign medical mission program constitutes illegal forced labor.[3] This allegation will be rebutted in the last section of this post.

The Former U.S. Immigration Parole Program fo Cuban Medical Professionals[4]

On August 11, 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the Department of State, announced a program] that . . . would allow “Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the United States.”

Under the program “Cuban Medical Professionals” (i.e., health-care providers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers) are eligible if they meet the following criteria: (1) Cuban nationality or citizenship, (2) medical professional currently conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Government of Cuba, and (3) not otherwise ineligible for entry into the U.S. Spouses and/or minor children are also eligible for such parole.

The program “was the brainchild of Cuban-born Emilio González,” a former U.S. Army colonel, the director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008 and a “staunchly anti-Castro exile.” “He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking.’” The Cuban doctors, he says, work directly for health authorities in other countries and have no say in their assignments.

On January 12, 2017, in the final days of his president, President Obama terminated this program. The announcement said that the U.S. “and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people. By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people.  Cuban medical personnel will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.”

The Cuban government applauding the end of this program, said it “was part of the arsenal to deprive the country of doctors, nurses and other professionals of the sector, . . . and an attack against Cuba’s humanitarian and solidarity medical missions in Third World countries that need it so much. This policy prompted Cuban health personnel working in third countries to abandon their missions and emigrate to the [U.S.], becoming a reprehensible practice that damaged Cuba’s international medical cooperation programs.”

The termination of this program was welcomed by Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and representative Kathy Castor (Dem., FL), but criticized by Senators Rubio and Menendez with Rubio expressly calling for the then new Trump Administration to restore the program.

The Proposed New Resolution[5]

After multiple Whereas clauses, the proposed Resolution would declare that it is the sense of the Senate that:

  • “The Government of Cuba subjected Cuban  doctors and medical professional participating in the Mais Medicos program to state-sponsored human trafficking;
  • Cuban doctors participating in the MaisMedicos program should have been permitted to work under the same conditions as all other foreign 9 doctors participating in the program;
  • the Government of Cuba should compensate  Cuban doctors that participated in the Mais Medicos programs for the full amount of wages that were garnished by the Government of Cuba;
  • Foreign governments that sign agreements with the Government of Cuba or the for-profit Cuban Medical Services Trading Corporation (CMS) or other companies affiliated with the Government of Cuba to procure the services of Cuban professionals  directly assume risks related to participation in forced labor arrangements;
  • The Pan American Health Organization must immediately provide greater transparency about its participation in the Mais Medicos program and its agreement with the Government of Cuba and the for-profit Cuban Medical Services Trading Corporation (CMS);
  • The United States Department of State must downgrade Cuba to Tier 3 in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, given new evidence on Cuba’s foreign medical missions and the Government of Cuba’s longstanding failure to criminalize most forms of forced labor; and
  • the Department of State must re-establish the Cuban Medical Professionals Parole (CMPP) program.”

The Senators’ ‘Press Releases for the New Resolution[6]

The two Senators issued essentially identical press releases. Here is what Senator Menendez’s stated.

Senator Menendez condemned “ the Cuban regime for a program that sends tens of thousands of Cuban medical professionals to foreign countries to work under conditions that qualify as human trafficking.” In addition, he stated.“For 60 years, the Cuban regime has been finding new ways to exploit its people. Recent information from Brazil shows how the Cuban government profits from its state-sponsored foreign medical missions, which they sell as medical diplomacy but look a lot more like indentured servitude. This bipartisan resolution sheds additional light on the Cuban regime’s role in human trafficking, and is another call for greater accountability from Cuban officials, their overseas partners, and the international community.”

The press release also quoted Senator Rubio. ““It is outrageous, though not surprising, that the Cuban dictatorship continues to manipulate and traffic physicians in order to enrich itself. This form of forced labor should not go unnoticed by the international community. We must stand against the regime’s modern-day slavery scheme and support the doctors seeking justice after serving in these so-called international medical missions.”

Finally the press release stated that the “introduction comes after an investigative report by the Diario de Cuba recently revealed the indentured servitude of Cuban medical professionals described in Brazilian diplomatic cables detailing the terms of the Government of Cuba’s medical missions to Brazil. In 2016 alone, it is estimated that the Castro regime earned more than $8,000,000,000 from exporting the services of Cuban professionals, of which foreign medical missions represent the majority of the income.”

Analysis of the Merits of the Resolution[7]

The resolution is without merit and should be rejected. Why? Because the Cuban medical mission program is not illegal forced labor.

The U.S. parole program for Cuban medical personnel was and is also unjustified. Cuban students receive their medical education without any tuition. As a result, it is only reasonable to require such students, after receiving their medical degrees, to “give back” by serving on a Cuban foreign medical mission for which they are paid more than they would have earned in Cuba. Yes, the Cuban government is paid more for their services on such missions by foreign governments than the medical personnel are paid by the Cuban government, but that also is reasonable and appropriate. The contention that such service is illegal forced labor or semi-slavery is absurd.

  • First, the State Department reports admit that there is conflicting information and allegations on the foreign medical mission work. Coercion is alleged by “some participants” and unnamed “other sources.” On the other hand, the reports admit that the Cuban government denies these allegations, and instead the Government and “some participants” assert the postings are “voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” The reports also concede there is conflicting information on whether other means, including withholding Cuban passports, are used to coerce or force participants to remain in the program.
  • Second, there apparently has not been any fair adjudicative process to determine which of these conflicting sets of information is valid.
  • Third, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman. He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.
  • Fourth, According to Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party’s newspaper, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” The Granma article included the reflection of four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions and who treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.
  • Fifth, this reports do not cite to the relevant legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim. Most pertinent is Article 2(2) of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which states, in part, ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, as a previous post noted, a respected international journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, recently reported that Cuban medical doctors serving on the island now earn $67 per month, but $500 per month when serving on a foreign medical mission.

The $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.

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[1] Resolution by Bob Menéndez and Marco Rubio asks to restore the US refugee program for Cuban doctors, DiariodeCuba Cuba (Jan. 10, 2019); Menéndez: the Cuban regime and its foreign partners ‘must be held accountable’ for the exploitation of doctors, DiariodeCuba (Jan. 10, 2019). 

[2]  See New York Times Calls for End of Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 22, 2014). 

[3] See these posts to dwkcommentaries: U.S. Upgrades Cuba in State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug. 7, 2015); U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Report on Human Trafficking (July 2, 2016); Cuba’s Unchanged Status in U.S. State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug. 15, 2017).

[4] Ibid;  U.S. Ends Special Immigration Benefits for Cubans, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 13, 2017). 

[5] S. Res. 14- a resolution  affirming that the Government of Cuba’s foreign medical missions constitute human trafficking. (Jan. 9, 2019); Sen. Menendez, Press Release: Senators Menendez, Rubio Introduce Senate Resolution Condemning Castro Regime’s Forced Labor of Cuban Doctors (Jan. 10, 2019);CubanSen. Rubio, Press Release: Rubio, Menendez Introduces [sic] Resolution Condemning Castro Regime’s forced Labor of Cuban Doctors (Jan. 10, 2019).

[6] Ibid.

[7] See posts listed in the “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical (CUBA).

Cuban Ladies in White Win Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize

At a May 17 New York City gala dinner, the Cato Institute awarded its $250,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to Cuba’s Ladies in White.[1] This award, the political reaction to the award, Cato’s other positions on Cuba and Cato’s background raise interesting issues as discussed below.

The Award

The Institute’s announcement of this prize said the following:

  • “The Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) have a simple message: The political prisoners of Cuba are our sons, our brothers, and our husbands. They must not be forgotten.”
  • “Every Sunday, the Ladies in White gather, or attempt to gather, for Mass at Saint Rita de Casia Church in Havana, followed by a procession down Fifth Avenue. They wear white to symbolize the peaceful nature of their protest, and each wears a photograph of a loved one who is in prison. For this the authorities have constantly harassed them and organized mob violence against them.”
  • “The movement began on March 18, 2003, when journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez was arrested in his home in Havana and sentenced to 20 years in prison for criticizing the regime of Fidel Castro. His case drew worldwide attention, with Amnesty International calling him a prisoner of conscience and demanding his release. Around 75 others were arrested at the same time, in an incident that has been called the Black Spring. All have since left prison, though not unconditionally, with the majority having had to leave Cuba. Since that time, sporadic arrests of journalists, lawyers, and other intellectuals have continued in Cuba, belying the myth that with normalized relations, Cuba’s human rights record would improve. If anything, it has deteriorated.”
  • “Two weeks after Maseda was arrested, his wife Laura Pollán Toledo brought together a group of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the imprisoned to pray for their loved ones. They have continued to gather each Sunday, and the movement has since spread to other churches throughout Cuba. Although they are not a political party and do not have an overtly political program, they seek freedom of expression for all and the release of prisoners of conscience in Cuba. In recognition of their courage, the Ladies in White were the 2005 recipients of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded by the European Parliament. The Cuban government prohibited them from attending the award ceremony in Strasbourg, France.”
  • “In 2015 Berta Soler, one of the leaders of the group, told the U.S. Senate, “Our aspirations are legitimate…. Our demands are quite concrete: freedom for political prisoners, recognition of civil society, the elimination of all criminal dispositions that penalize freedom of expression and association and the right of the Cuban people to choose their future through free, multiparty elections. We believe these demands are just and valid. Even more importantly, for us they represent the most concrete exercise of politics, a step in the direction of democratic coexistence. Cuba will change when the laws that enable and protect the criminal behavior of the forces of repression and corrupt elements that sustain the regime change.”
  • “As the first step, the Ladies in White demand the release of all political prisoners. The outlook for many of the prisoners is grim; prison conditions are deplorable, visits are rare, and even their mail is intercepted by the authorities. And the Ladies themselves have faced increasing police harassment and arrest in recent years, as the Cuban government tries to hide-but not correct-its habit of quashing dissent. Laura Pollán died in 2011 under gravely suspicious circumstances. But the movement she founded continues: The Ladies in White will meet, pray, and bear witness every Sunday until Cuba’s political prisoners are freed.”

The keynote speaker at the gala dinner was Brazilian Judge, Sergio Moro, who become a household name in his country thanks to Operation Car Wash, the massive scandal in which he has sent some of Brazil’s most powerful politicians and business elite to jail for corruption.

U.S. Political Reaction to the Award[2]

Just before Cato’s dinner, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley met with representatives of Cuba’s Ladies in White at the U.N. and with a photo tweeted, “Congratulations to the Ladies in White for your Milton Friedman award for advancing liberty. The US stands behind you in your fight against the Cuban government for the rights of its people.” Here is that photo of Ambassador Haley with members of the group.

The prior day four U.S. Senators– Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), Bill Nelson (Dem., FL), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Ted Cruz (Rep., TX)– introduced a resolution congratulating the Ladies in White on receiving the prestigious award, expressing solidarity with the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people and calling on the Cuban regime to allow members of Las Damas de Blanco to travel freely both domestically and internationally. The press release continued, “the dissident group, which routinely faces brutal beatings and imprisonment from the Cuban regime, peacefully gathers and marches in white clothes every Sunday in Havana carrying a picture of their loved ones in one hand and a white gladiolus in the other.”

Subsequent Incidents Involving the Ladies in White[3]

On Sunday, May 20, the Ladies in White who were on the street were arrested and soon thereafter released except for Marieta Martinez. And the next Tuesday, May 22, their leader, Berta Soler, was arrested outside the group’s Havana headquarters.  Another member, Cecilia Guerra, was also arrested outside the headquarters and immediately released. In addition, two others, Maria Carolina Labrada and Deysi Artiless,  were arrested at their homes.

Cato Institute’s Other Positions on Cuba[4]

Cato Institute’s Handbook for Policymakers, 8th Edition (2017), surprisingly for this reader, recommended repeal of two key statutes authorizing the embargo– the Helms-Burton Law of 1996 and the Torricelli Act of 1992–and ending “all remaining sanctions that prevent U.S. companies from trading and investing in Cuba.” This, it said, would leave the Cold War in the past, and eliminate unintended consequences of a flawed policy. In short, it said, “U.S. policy toward Cuba should focus on national security interests, not on transforming Cuban society or micromanaging the affairs of a transitional government.”

These positions were reiterated in a June 2017 article by a Cato senior fellow, just after President Trump in his Miami speech announced cutbacks in policies for U.S. travel to the island. The article asserted, “The presidential campaign is over. President Trump should do what is best for both the American and Cuban people, and end economic restrictions on the island. Freedom eventually will come to Cuba. Flooding the island with foreign people and money would make that day arrive sooner.”

Cato Institute Background[5]

The Cato Institute describes itself as “a public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues. It accepts no government funding. Instead, it receives approximately 80 percent of its funding through tax-deductible contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations, and the sale of books and publications.”

Founded in 1974 in Wichita, Kansas as the Charles Koch Foundation by Charles Koch, who is one of the wealthiest persons in the world and who with his brother David runs Koch Industries that supports many so-called conservative causes. In 1976 the Foundation moved to Washington, D.C. and adopted its current name in recognition of Cato’s Letters, a series of essays published in 18th- century England that presented a vision of society free from excessive government power. Cato says “those essays inspired the architects of the American Revolution. And the simple, timeless principles of that revolution — individual liberty, limited government, and free markets — turn out to be even more powerful in today’s world of global markets and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined. Social and economic freedom is not just the best policy for a free people, it is the indispensable framework for the future.”

The current 19 members of Cato’s Board are the following:

John A. Allison, Former President & CEO, Cato Institute; Retired Chairman & CEO, BB&T (the 10th-largest U.S. financial services holding company);

Carl Barney, Chairman, Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Scientologist and very wealthy operator of for-profit colleges;

Baron Bond, Executive Vice President, The Foundation Group LLC, a real estate management, investment, and development company whose biography appears on the website for the Atlas Society named after Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged;”

Rebecca Dunn, Trustee, DUNN Foundation, which says it “believes that liberty and opportunity should be enjoyed by the people of this Nation, envisions a world where the use of force by coercive public or private institutions no longer threatens our freedoms and celebrates entrepreneurial innovations that further these purposes;”

Robert Gelfond, wealthy CEO and Founder, Macro Quantitative Strategies (MQS);

Peter N. Goettler, President & CEO, Cato Institute, former officer of Barclays Capital and on board of Atlas Network and advocate of libertarian organizations in several foreign countries;

David C. Humphreys, President & CEO, TAMKO Building Products, Inc. and a “massive” Republican donor;

James M. Kilts, wealthy Partner, Centerview Capital Holdings, an investment banking firm, and former CEO, The Gillette Company;

James M. Lapeyre, Jr., President, Laitram, LLC, a diversified global manufacturer and officer of The Atlas Society;

Ken Levy, Levy Family Fund and businessman;

Robert A. Levy, Chairman, Cato Institute, founder of a major provider of investment information and software and successful attorney in Supreme Court ban on Washington, D.C. gun ban;

Preston Marshall, President/CEO, Rusk Capital Management and friend of the Koch brothers;

Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, President and CEO, MediaSpeak Strategies, staffer on 2008 McCain/Palin campaign and former director of the Washington, D.C. office of Koch Industries;

Lewis E. Randall, Former Director, E*Trade Financial, a financial services company;

Howard S. Rich, real estate investor and Chairman, U.S.Term Limits and other libertarian-oriented political initiatives;

Donald G. Smith, President, Donald Smith & Co., Inc., an investment advisory firm;

Nestor R. Weigand, Jr., Chairman and CEO, JP Weigand & Sons, Inc., a full-service real estate firm;

Jeffrey S. Yass, Managing Director, Susquehanna International Group, LLP, a global trading and technology firm;

Fred Young, Former Owner, Young Radiator Company, and major supporter of conservative groups and candidates.

The members of the International Selection Committee for the 2018 Prize were Leszek Balcerowicz, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Poland; Janice Rogers Brown, Former Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Vicente Fox. Former President, Mexico; Sloane Frost, Chairwoman, Board of Directors, Students for Liberty; Peter N. Goettler, President and CEO, Cato Institute; Herman Mashaba. Executive Mayor, Johannesburg, South Africa; Harvey Silverglate, Co-founder, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; Donald G. Smith, President, Donald Smith & Company Inc.; and Linda Whetstone, Chair, Atlas Network.

 Conclusion

The preceding account of the history of the Ladies in White tells an impressive story of alleged Cuban suppression of dissent, free speech and assembly and freedom of religion. The Cuban government, however, disagrees and is believed to assert that these women are not religious activists and dissenters, but trouble-makers for hire by the CIA or U.S. Agency for International Development or private groups in the U.S.

Which account is true? We need to hear more from the Cubans and U.S. journalists or private investigators who have investigated the activities of the Ladies in White.

The creation of the Cato Institute (f/k/a Charles Koch Foundation) by Charles Koch and the changing of its name perhaps to conceal or minimize its Koch origins raise questions about its objectivity and fairness.

Cato’s 19-member Board has 17 white, very successful and wealthy men and two white women who apparently are married to very successful and wealthy white men. This too raises questions about the board’s objectivity and fairness.

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[1] Cato Institute, The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty: Las Damas de Blanco, Winner of the 2018 Milton Friedman Prize; Whitefield, Cuba’s Ladies in White win $250,000 prize for advancing liberty, Miami Herald (May 17, 2018).

[2] U.S. Miss. to UN, Tweet: Congratulations to the Ladies in White (May 17, 2018); Press Release, Rubio, Menendez, Nelson, Cruz Introduce Resolution Honoring ladies in White for Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty (May 16, 2018).

[3] The regime stops Berta Soler and deploys operations in the homes of other Ladies in White, Diario de Cuba (May 22, 2018).

[4] Cato Institute, CATO Handbook for Policymakers—Relations with Cuba,  8th Edition (2017); Bandow, Trump Panders on Cuba, Preferring Cold War over Progress, Cato Inst. (June 23, 2017).

[5]  Cato Institute, About Cato; Cato Institute, Wikipedia.

U.S. Senate Hearing on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 9, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.” The Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues was chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a noted critic of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relation, who said the purpose of the hearing was “to establish the facts surrounding the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and conduct oversight over the State Department’s handling of the attacks.”[1]

The witnesses were three officials of the U.S. State Department: Mr. Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Mr. Todd Brown, Diplomatic Security, Assistant Director, International Programs; and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services.

The hearing started with lengthy opening statements by Rubio and the Ranking Member, Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), both very critical of the Department’s response to these incidents or “attacks.” [2] The hearing itself focused on the following four topics:: (1) the nature of the injuries; (2) the cause of the injuries; (3) the perpetrator of the “attacks;” and (4) the State Department’s appointment of an accountability review board.

  1. The Nature of the injuries

 While the symptoms may vary, all 24  of the medically-confirmed cases  have described some combination of the following symptoms: sharp ear pain, dull headaches, tinnitus (ringing in one ea), vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea, extreme fatigue. Some have been diagnosed with mild brain injuries similar to what might happen from a concussion.

  1. The cause of the injuries[3]

In early July, the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department convened a panel of academic experts to review case histories and the test results up to that point. And they arrived at [the following] consensus: ‘the patterns of injuries were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

Mr. Brown said investigators are considering possible causes other than a sonic attack, including a viral attack. He also said the possibility that someone deliberately infected people with a virus has not been ruled out. Dr. Rosenfarb testified that evidence suggest that( this is “not an episode of mass hysteria.”

Brown also said he would not rule out a sound component entirely. He said there had been an “acoustic element” associated with the sensations and feelings experienced by diplomats who fell ill. He said it’s possible the sound masked some other technology that caused the damage.

Dr. Rosenfarb said investigators are confident that something indeed caused medical harm to the Americans.

“Perplexing” was a frequent word in this discussion.

  1. Perpetrator(s)

Senator Rubio in a Fox News interview before the hearing said Havana is one of the most tightly controlled cities in the world. “There is no way you can conduct sophisticated attacks targeting American government officials in Havana without the Cuban government at least knowing about it.” [4] He repeated this opinion or conclusion at the start and at the end of the hearing.

  1. Accountability Review Board

Senator Rubio obtained admissions from the witnesses that a “serious injury” of at least one U.S. diplomat in Cuba happened no later than May 2017 and that the Secretary of State had not appointed an accountability review board within 60 days thereafter, as required by statute, and indeed had not yet done so.[5]

Acting Secretary Palmieri tried to remedy this apparent breach by testifying that Secretary Tillerson on December 11, 2017, had decided to convene such a Board and that the statutory required notice to Congress was “forthcoming.”

The same question came up later the same day at the Department’s Press Gaggle, [6] when the Department spokesperson, Under Secretary I. Steven Goldstein, initially said, “We are going to create, as we’ve said previously, an accountability review board, and I would expect that we would have the announcements of the chair and the members of the board available for release within the next week.” He then was pressed with a reporter’s question about Senator Rubio’s apparent contention that the Department and the Secretary had violated the law by not making an earlier appointment of such a board. Goldstein had the following response:

  • “We don’t agree with [the allegation that the law was violated].The assistant secretary today made clear [at the hearing], and we have said too, that it took us time to get the investigation in place. The investigation is continuing, and we believe that we . . . had the authority to determine when the accountability review board should be set in place. I think let’s not lose focus here. There’s 24 people that had injuries, and those people are receiving treatment, and we’ve had over 20 conversations with the people of Cuba. . . . [The] government investigators have been down four times; they’re going down again within the next few weeks. And so our primary goal at the present time is to find out why this occurred, to prevent it from happening again in Cuba and the embassy of Cuba or in any other place where American citizens are located.”
  • “It took time to set up the . . . board because we were hopeful that we would be able to know what occurred. . . . [T]his investigation has taken longer than we anticipated, . . . but it is now time to go forward. . . . I expect the names [for the Board] to be announced over the next several days.”

Conclusion

Only five of the nine subcommittee members attended the hearing, and the members will be submitting written questions to the witnesses, and there will be classified briefing of the subcommittee. Thus, the complete record will not be available until later. [7]

At the conclusion of the hearing, Rubio said that the following were two established facts: (1) 24 Americans had been harmed while in Cuba and (2) the Cuban government at least knew who was responsible for causing such harm. “The idea that someone could put together some sort of action against them, 24 of them, and the Cuban government not know who did it, it’s just impossible,” Mr. Rubio said. He noted that the Americans in Havana became sick just after Mr. Trump’s election, and speculated that rogue government officials from either Cuba or Russia had sought to create friction between Havana and the new administration in Washington.

Under Secretary Goldstein voiced a similar opinion by saying, “We believe that the Cuban government knows what occurred. So what we’d like to them to do is tell us what occurred.”

After the hearing, Cuba’s diplomat who has been intimately involved in U.S.-Cuba relations , Josefina Vidal, said  the hearing was chaired by two Senators (Rubio and Menendez)  “both with a vast record of work against better relations between Cuba and the United States, and the promoters of all kinds of legislative and political proposals that affect the interests of the Cuban and American peoples, and only benefit an increasingly isolated minority that has historically profited from attacks on Cuba.” She continued:

  • “From [the hearing’s] very title “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” it was evident that the true purpose of this hearing . . . was not to establish the truth, but to impose by force and without any evidence an accusation that they have not been able to prove.”
  • “The State Department does not have any evidence that allows it to affirm that there have been attacks against its diplomats in Havana, or that Cuba may be responsible, or have knowledge of the actions of third parties.”
  • “I categorically reiterate that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats. Cuba never has, and never will, perpetrate such acts, nor has it or will it permit third parties to act against the physical integrity of any diplomat, without exception. The Cuban government is aware of its responsibilities and fulfils them exemplarily.”
  • “I affirm that the investigation carried out by Cuban authorities, the results of which the State Department and specialized agencies of the United States have had ample and systematic access to, has shown that there is no evidence at all regarding the occurrence of the alleged incidents and no attack of any kind has occurred.”
  • “Nothing presented by the government of the United States throughout this period, including today, provides evidence that the health problems reported by its diplomats have their origin or cause in Cuba.”
  • “We reject the politicization of this matter and the unjustified measures adopted by the United States government, with a high cost for our population, Cuban émigrés and the U.S. people. We also condemn the political manipulation of these events by anti-Cuban elements, who seek to aggravate the bilateral atmosphere, with the sole purpose of returning to a an era of confrontation, with negative consequences for both countries and the region.”
  • “Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country for Cubans, for foreigners, for accredited diplomats and for the millions of people who visit us every year, including U.S.”[8]

This blogger’s opposition to Senator Rubio’s hostile approach to Cuba has been expressed in a prior post. That approach is against U.S. economic and strategic interests. It provides openings to Russia and the EU, for example, to pursue various developments with Cuba while the U.S. stands on the sidelines. Moreover, that approach contradicts Rubio’s stated desire to support Cuba’s emerging private sector and the Cubans investing and working in that sector.

Senator Rubio also erroneously stated that it is a fact that Cuba has one of the world’s most pervasive surveillance systems in the world and, therefore, has to know if some third-party has perpetrated attacks on U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats. At most that is an allegation or theory, which has been denied by Cuba. Rubio also ignores that whatever security and surveillance system Cuba has undoubtedly is prompted, at least in part, by the long history of U.S. hostility towards the Cuban Revolution, including covert or undercover efforts to promote regime change on the island. Moreover, in its responses to the medical problems of some of its diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. repeatedly has emphasized Cuba’s obligation under the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect other countries diplomats on the island, an obligation that presumably requires Cuba and other nations, including the U.S., to have some idea as to the whereabouts of  those diplomats.

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[1]  Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee Hearing: Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight (Jan. 9, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Won’t Send Americans Back to Embassy in Havana Yet: U.S. Officials, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, In Wake of ‘Attacks,’ Tillerson Not Returning Staff to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Considers Whether Virus Might Explain Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan, 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Says ‘Viral Attack’ Among theories in Cuba Illnesses, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Harris, U.S. to Open Formal Inquiry on Americans Sickened in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018). In the days before the hearing, disputes erupted over what happened to the diplomats, as discussed in a prior post. (See also posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.)

[2] Press Release, TOMORROW: Rubio Chairs Hearing on Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 8, 2017); Press Release, Menendez Opening Statement at Cuba Hearing (Jan. 9, 2018).

[3] Some Canadian diplomats in Cuba have suffered similar injuries or effects, but on January 10, a Canadian official said Canada has not reached any conclusions on the cause(s) of such ailments. Reuters, No Conclusion on Cause of Health Symptoms at Embassy in Cuba-Canada Official, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2018).

[4] Press Release, Rubio Presses State Department on Response to Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 9, 2018).

[5] The State Department has a statutory obligation to “convene an Accountability  Review Board” . . .  not later than 60 days after the occurrence of an incident [of] . . . .any case of serious injury.” The Department also has an obligation to “promptly notify the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of the incident” of the convening of such a board. (22 U.S.C. §4831.) U.S.

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Gaggle (Jan. 9, 2018).

[7] The subcommittee members in attendance were Senators Rubio and Tom Johnson (Rep., WI), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ),), another Cuban-American critic of normalization; Tom Udall (Dem., NM); and Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH). The absentees were Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), a supporter of normalization who was just in Cuba; Cory Gardner (Rep., CO); Johnny Isakson (Rep., GA); and Tim Kaine (Dem., VA). Two of these absentees (Flake and Gardner) and Menendez were attending the simultaneous White House conference on immigration.

[8] Vidal, Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country, Granma (Jan. 10, 2018).