U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Responds to Criticisms

On September 15, 2019, Dr. Peter Berkowitz, the Executive Director of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, published responses to criticisms that have been leveled against the Commission.[1] Here are those responses followed by this blogger’s reactions to same.                                    

Dr. Berkowtiz’s Responses to Criticisms

“The announcement of the . . . [Commission’s} existence and mandate immediately triggered a barrage of skepticism, indignation, and anger. The misunderstandings that the criticisms embody underscore the urgency of the commission’s work.”

Characterization of the Criticisms

“The very idea of human rights has come under fire from the left and the right for its supposedly sham universality. Hard-core progressives contend that human rights are nothing more than a vehicle for advancing Western imperialism and colonialism. Single-minded conservatives maintain that the essential function of human rights is to erode national sovereignty and promulgate progressive political goals around the world.”

“More measured and compelling objections focus on the excesses to which the human rights project has been exposed. The proliferation of rights claims has obscured the distinction between fundamental rights that are universally applicable and partisan preferences that are properly left to diplomacy and political give-and-take. International institutions charged with monitoring and safeguarding human rights sometimes include in their membership countries that flagrantly violate human rights and which wield international law as a weapon to undermine them. The growth of international institutions, courts, and NGOs dedicated to human rights has created a cadre of bureaucrats, judges, scholars, and activists. Many of these experts and advocates are dedicated to the cause of human rights and serve with distinction, but all face the temptation — typical of any professional community — of succumbing to special interests and self-serving agendas. And an overemphasis on universal rights can distract from other essentials of political life, including the discharge of responsibilities, the cultivation of virtues, and the caring for community.”

U.S. Role in Evaluating These Criticisms

“It’s especially important for the United States to respond thoughtfully to the confusion and controversy swirling around human rights because of our country’s founding convictions. The Declaration of Independence affirms “certain unalienable Rights” — these include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” — that inhere in all human beings. The Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, as a driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948 — the United States reaffirmed the nation’s founding conviction that all human beings deserve the rights and liberties secured by its Constitution. At the same time, the Constitution leaves to the American people and their elected representatives the discretion to determine the role in the country’s foreign policy played by the universal rights that Americans and non-Americans share.” (Emphasis added.)

Evaluation of Criticisms

Yet an array of scholars, pundits, former political officials, and organizations are up in arms about the commission. Their critiques are illuminating, though not entirely as they intended.”

First, critics charge that the Trump administration’s record advancing human rights renders it unfit to establish a commission to provide advice on human rights. Set aside that the administration has engaged Kim Jong-un in pursuit of peaceful dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program; imposed tough sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s belligerent Russia; supported a democratic transition in Venezuela; opposed Iran’s quest to impose a brutal hegemony throughout the Middle East; and convened in Bahrain an international forum attended by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, to discuss the economic reconstruction of the West Bank and Gaza and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Isn’t the State Department’s determination to improve understanding of the connections between America’s founding principles and the administration’s foreign policy a sign of the enduring significance it attaches to human rights?”

Second, critics detect a sinister ambition in Secretary Pompeo’s “distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments.” They worry that authoritarian countries around the world will conclude that the guiding purpose of the Commission on Unalienable Rights is to redefine human rights narrowly. But the American constitutional tradition turns on the difference between universal rights that are essential and unchanging and the contingent rights created by the consent of the governed that serve as a means to protecting citizens’ fundamental freedoms, and which are bound to vary from country to country.” (Emphasis added.)

Third, critics express dismay that the commission was charged with examining the reasoning by which claims about human rights are assessed, because they believe that the debate about the foundations and the meaning of human rights has all but ended. It has been asserted, for example, that codification of human rights by widely ratified international treaties (in many cases, though, not ratified by the United States) renders the commission’s work superfluous. This contention illustrates problems that gave rise to the panel. Contrary to the critics’ belief, a right does not become inalienable simply because an international treaty says so. And the refusal of the United States to ratify many such treaties demonstrates the persistence of questions about what counts as a human right and about the status of such rights in international law.” (Emphasis added.)

Fourth, critics have warned that the commission intends to strip members of various groups and communities of their rights. In fact, the commission proceeds from the premise that all persons — regardless of faith, nationality, race, class, and gender — share essential rights grounded in our common humanity.” (Emphasis added.)

Fifth, critics accuse the commission of lacking intellectual and political diversity. In fact, the political diversity and variety of intellectual perspectives represented compares quite favorably with the uniform political and intellectual outlook that informs so many of those who have condemned the commission.

“In one respect, the quick-out-of-the-gate criticisms of the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights have been highly constructive. By throwing into sharp relief the passion and perplexity that surround the discussion of human rights, the critics themselves unwittingly make the case for sober and deliberate reflection about the roots of human rights in the American constitutional tradition, and their reach in the conduct of America’s foreign affairs. That is precisely the task that Secretary Pompeo has directed the Commission on Unalienable Right to undertake, and which its members have proudly embraced.” (Emphasis added.)

This Blogger’s Reactions

Some of the highlighted portions of Berkowitz’s comments correctly observe that some of the criticisms expressed concern that the Commission was designed to reduce the scope of international human rights in accord with the political views of the Trump Administration, but Berkowitz fails to acknowledge statements by Secretary Pompeo that prompted these criticisms.

Berkowitz also acknowledges, as he should, that the U.S. “Constitution establishes the institutional framework that enables Americans to secure these fundamental rights through democratic self-government.” But he fails to note that the U.S. Declaration of Independence itself states, ““to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” immediately following its proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the U.S. Declaration itself implicitly recognizes that it does not secure the rights it proclaims because it does not create binding legal obligations. Instead the Declaration contemplates that the not yet established U.S. government subsequently will enact statutes that protect the unalienable rights, only three of which are specifically mentioned in the Declaration while alluding to a larger category of unalienable rights. These subsequent statutes are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights as Secretary Pompeo likes to say. [2]

Similarly the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from 1948, which the Commission, in other contexts, properly mentions in the same breath as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, does not create any binding legal obligations. Instead, the UDHR says, “every individual and every organ of society , keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure [these rights and freedoms] universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, the UDHR itself contemplated that there should be additional measures, including national legislation and international treaties, to secure the rights and freedoms articulated in the UDHR. Again, these are not “ad hoc” and lesser rights.(Emphasis added.)

In addition, the Commission’s Chair Mary Ann Glendon, the author of a leading book about the creation of the UDHR, has said that one of the principles of the UDHR’s framers was “flexible universalism.” The UDHR framers “understood that there would always be different ways of applying human rights to different social and political contexts, and that each country’s circumstances would affect how it would fulfill its requirements.” For example, . . . [UDHR’s] Article 22 provides: ‘Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.’ (Emphasis added.) Another example is Article 14, which states, ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution,’ but is silent on how that right should be protected. [3]

“Flexible universalism” also exists in human rights treaties that allow for their ratification by nation states with reservations for at least some of the treaty’s provisions. And, of course, a state may chose not to ratify a treaty and thereby not be bound by any of its provisions. Moreover, there are mechanisms for other states and international agencies to address these reservations and non-ratifications. For example, in the U.H. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, the Council and other states may, and do, make recommendations for states to withdraw reservations or ratify certain treaties. But these are only recommendations.[4]

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[1] Berkowitz, Criticisms Illustrate Need for State Dept. Human Rights Panel (Sept. 15, 2019). Dr. Berkowitz also serves this year on the Department’s Policy Planning Staff while on leave as Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of books and articles about constitutional government, conservatism, liberalism and progressivism, liberal education and Israel and the Middle East. He holds degrees from Swarthmore College (B.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (M.A.), and Yale University (PhD and JD). (Com’n Unalienable Rights, Member Bios.) 

[2] E.g., Another Speech About Unalienable Rights by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, dwkcommentareies.com (Sept. 7, 2019); Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 20, 2019).

[3] Human Rights Commentaries by Mary Ann Glendon, Chair of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 2, 2019). 

[4] E.g., U.N.’s Human Rights Council’s Final Consideration of Cameroon’s Universal Periodic Review, dwkcommentaries/com (Sept. 20, 2018); U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentareis.com. (Feb. 5, 2013) (U.S. ratification had five reservations, understandings, four declarations and a proviso).

Secretary Pompeo Reiterates U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba

On or about November 16, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reiterated U.S. hostility towards Cuba in an interview by Carlos Alberto Montaner, an exiled Cuban author now living in Spain. Here are the key points of that interview. [1]

“Cuba is a foreign policy priority for the Trump Administration. The President’s National Security Memorandum of June 2017, which established our policy to support the Cuban people, while holding the Cuban regime accountable both for its human rights abuses in the country and for its destabilizing interference in other parts of the region, . . . was only the beginning. Since then, we have imposed more sanctions on the Cuban regime, including the elimination of an authorization for ‘fraternization’ group trips, the impediment of US passenger and recreational vessels, such as cruise ships, yachts and private planes, to travel to Cuba, and finish the scheduled American air transport service to all Cuban airports except Havana.”

“We take these measures because the Cuban people do not benefit greatly from such exchanges, the regime does. All these actions are designed to prevent US dollars from filling the pockets of the Cuban military, the same people who repress the Cuban people in the country, support Maduro in Venezuela and are aligned with Putin in Russia.”

“Cuba’s interference in Venezuela and other countries in the region is totally unacceptable. Particularly appalling is the participation of the Cuban military and intelligence services that support the despot Maduro, in exchange for shipments of Venezuelan oil. This oil belongs to the Venezuelan people, who are suffering greatly under the economic, political and humanitarian crisis that created Maduro’s corruption and mismanagement.”

“Maduro’s use of oil to pay for the intrusion and abuse of Cuba is a large-scale robbery and is illegal under Venezuelan law.”

“We continue to look for new ways to limit this illegal exchange. The United States is currently focusing on the tools of diplomacy and sanctions to generate pressure in order to achieve a democratic transition in Venezuela. We have made more than 200 designations related to Venezuela since 2017, under the Law on the Designation of Foreign Drug Trafficking Chiefs (Kingpin Act) and several presidential orders. These actions prevent Maduro’s illegitimate regime from using the US financial system for its corrupt and socially destructive economic practices, and impose a cost on the regime for its illicit practices, human rights violations and corruption.”

“The Cuban regime has made it clear that it not only supports, but is responsible for the power abuses of the Maduro regime. The United States remains determined to actively support a peaceful transition to democracy, freedom and the rule of law in Venezuela. President Trump has said that all options are on the table in Venezuela, including the military option, but in the State Department we are currently focused on deploying all our diplomatic and economic options to support the interim president Guaidó and the National Assembly in a peaceful restoration of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

“Certainly, the Cuban presence can be felt throughout the region. Ecuador recently expressed concern that Cubans were interfering in its sovereign territory, and we have seen how the Cuban regime has historically interfered in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela.”

Conclusion

Cuba, like every country in the world including the U.S., is legitimately subject to criticism on some of its actions and policies. But Cuba does not deserve this unceasing criticism from the U.S. Secretary of State.

Moreover, the Secretary fails to acknowledge that hostile policies and rhetoric by the much more powerful U.S. have forced Cuba to take certain actions to protect itself, like its increasing connections with Russia. The Secretary, who claims to be a Christian, should remember, and act in accordance with, these words from the Gospel of Matthew (7: 1-5 (NRSV):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s.”

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[1] Montaner, Pompeo: Washington seeks ‘new ways to limit illegal exchange’ between the regimes of Cuba and Venezuela, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 16, 2019).

 

 

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).

U.S. Reactions to Failure of Juan Guaidò’s Attempt To Take Over Control of Venezuela

Last week saw the failure of an attempt to take over the Venezuelan government by the country’s opposition leader and president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, and U.S. reactions to this development.

Failed Take Over[1]

On Tuesday morning (April 30),  Guaidó, with the support of his mentor (Leopoldo López), the director of the regime’s intelligence agency (Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera Manuel) and some low-ranking soldiers called for other officials and soldiers to join them in attempting to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power. Trump Administration officials—Trump himself plus Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton—publicly announced support for what they called “Operaciōn Libertad.”

By sunset that same day, however, it was clear that Mr. Guaidó had failed to persuade the military to rise up against Mr. Maduro. As a result, Leopoldo Lopez and family sought and obtained refuge in the Spanish Embassy while Figuera had fled the country.  The attempted takeover had failed.

Nevertheless, the following Saturday (May 3), Guaidó tried again to enlist Government officials and soldiers to join his movement. Again it failed.

In addition, by the end of the week, Venezuela’s Attorney General publicly announced that  everyone linked to the recent attempted coup had turned themselves into traitors to be prosecuted in accordance with the country’s constitution and laws. Already 18 arrest warrants have been issued, including one for Leopoldo Lopez in the Spanish Embassy.

Trump Administration’s Public Reactions[2]

Before the attempted takeover Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had focused on Russia’s alleged influence over Maduro and repeated that all options, including U.S. military intervention, were still on the table, while President Trump had issued a tweet attacking Cuba for supporting Maduro and promising new economic sanctions on the island.

Immediately after the events of April 30, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, publicly accused the Venezuelans minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino López, and two other regime leaders of backing out after having promised to remove Mr. Maduro and support Mr. Guaidó.

On Friday, May 3, President Trump added to this U.S. discombobulation with  a long telephone conversation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on several topics. Afterwards Trump apparently accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia “is not looking at all to get involved [in Venezuela], other than he’d like to see something positive happen.” Trump added, “”And I feel the same way. We want to get some humanitarian aid. Right now people are starving.” (This statement was obviously contradicted by what Secretary Pompeo and Bolton had been saying and by the Kremlin’s subsequent statement that Putin in his telephone conversation had condemned “outside interference in . . . [Venezuela’s] internal affairs” and added that “attempts to change the government in Caracas by force undermine prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.”)

Nevertheless, on Sunday, May 5, Secretary Pompeo appeared on several national television programs to reiterate the old and now discredited Administration talking points about Venezuela, which he reprised with journalists on his flight later on Sunday to Finland for the Arctic Council Ministerial.

On  ABC’s “This Week”, for example, Pompeo rejected the notion that there had been faulty U.S. intelligence over the apparent failure of Juan Guiadó’s call for a removal of Maduro. The Secretary said, Oh, no, not at all. This is the Venezuelan people attempting to re-establish their democracy. The United States has joined with them. We have supported the National Assembly’s choice. Juan Guaido is the interim president of the country. . . . [These] things sometimes have bumpy roads, to be sure, but Maduro can’t feel good. He’s ruling for the moment, but he can’t govern. There is enormous poverty, enormous starvation, sick children that can’t get medicine. . . . This is not someone who can be part of Venezuela’s future, and whether that change takes place today or tomorrow or a week from now, one can’t predict.”

Pompeo continued on ABC, “Our mission is to work with a large coalition, now 50 countries-plus, who are determined to restore democracy and then ultimately a productive economy to Venezuela. What we can do is provide support, get support from the Organization of American States, the Lima Group, the entire region, that understands that restoring democracy for the Venezuelan people is an imperative, and get them all to work together so that we get the outcome we’re looking for.”

In response to the ABC journalist’s direct question of whether “a U.S. military invasion of Venezuela  [was] really an option?’” Pompeo said, “Oh, make no mistake, we have a full range of options that we’re preparing for. That’s part of what we were doing on Friday [May 3] was making sure that when this progresses and a different situation arises that the President has a full-scale set of options: diplomatic options, political options, options with our allies, and then ultimately a set of options that would involve use of U.S. military. We’re preparing those for him so that when the situation arises, we’re not flat-footed.”

Another direct question on the ABC program was posed as to whether the President believes that he can intervene militarily without getting congressional authorization Pompeo responded, “I don’t want to speak to that. The president has his full range of Article 2 authorities, and I’m very confident that any action we took in Venezuela would be lawful.”General Joseph Dunford

Trump Administration’s Internal Reactions[3]

On May 1 the White House held an emergency session of senior national security advisors for discussion about Venezuela. Their discussions apparently included an “intense debate . . . over whether the U.S. military should be used to raise pressure on Maduro, with senior Pentagon officials warning an armed intervention would be counterproductive.” This meeting included Admiral Craig Faller, Commander of the Southern Command, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other senior officials, including Marine General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats;  National Security Advisor John Bolton and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Another meeting occurred on Friday, May 3 with the same people.

The Southern Command reportedly has “given the White House an array of options for potential military action. . . . [including] U.S. naval exercises or deployments of warships outside Venezuelan waters, delivery of humanitarian aid into the country, and more military contacts with neighboring countries to try to enlist their support for joint action.” Admiral Craig Faller, the current head of Southern Command, said the Pentagon was also “carefully looking at plans” to expand an embargo on Cuba, as Trump suggested in a tweet this week, to erode Havana’s support for Maduro’s government.”

Evaluation of U.S. Policies Regarding Venezuela[4]

A former senior administration official with deep knowledge of the region described the failed coup as “ the Bay of Pigs II” — a reference to the failed U.S.-backed attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961.

Several analysts have said that “the Trump administration has misread the dynamics of the Venezuela crisis. They said the White House underestimated Maduro’s resilience and fostered unrealistic expectations about the ease of regime change, partly by trusting apparently duplicitous Venezuelan military officials.” One of them, Michael Shifter, president of the nonpartisan Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that specializes in Latin America, said, “They have made a series of terrible miscalculations,”

Shifter added,“The Trump administration’s repeated ultimatums, hints of military intervention and threats to blockade Cuba, all of which could backfire by eroding broad international diplomatic support for the anti-Maduro forces, and by goading the Venezuelan armed forces to rally around [Maduro].”

Another expert on Venezuela in the Washington Office on Latin Ameera, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization, David Smilde, said, “This is characteristic of the neoconservatives who are running foreign policy now. They think they can huff and puff and put forth strong rhetoric … and the foe will back down. But time and again, that doesn’t happen. The sociology of authoritarian governments is far more complex.”

A New York Times editorial correctly summed up the current status. U.S. military intervention, “repeatedly cited as a possibility by Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo, remains a terrible idea. However invested the Trump administration is in the ouster of Mr. Maduro, a direct intervention would find little support across a region with bad memories of American meddling, and would brand Mr. Guaidó as an American lackey.”

A different conclusion was reached by a Washington Post editorial. After reciting some of the Maduro regime’s horrible policies and actions, the editorial said, “Therefore, whatever its ultimate outcome or, indeed, its strategic wisdom, Tuesday’s uprising is not a ‘coup attempt,’ as the Maduro regime, echoed by too many people abroad, calls it. Rather, it is the latest in a series of legitimate and, for the most part, nonviolent efforts by Venezuelans, both civilian and military, to throw off an oppressive, toxic regime so that they can freely elect a legitimate government. Supporters of freedom and democracy should stand in solidarity with Mr. Guaidó and the many thousands of Venezuelans now bravely asserting their rights.” However, the editorial concluded, “By working closely with these [six South American nations that are backing Guaidó. . .  , and not by intervening militarily, the Trump administration may increase the chances that Mr. López’s declaration Tuesday — “It’s time to conquer freedom” — proves out.”

Conclusion

These recent events should put the kibosh on the  Southern Command’s “plan” of February 2018 for military invasion of Venezuela, as discussed in a prior post. One can only hope that another result could be the diminution of the influence  or actual ouster, of John Bolton as National Security Advisor.

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[1] Venezuela Crisis: Guaidó Calls for Uprising as Clashes Erupt, N.Y. Times (April 30, 2019); Zuñiga, Faiola & McCoy, Venezuela’s Maduro denies Pompeo’s claim that he sought to escape to Cuba after day of clashes left 1 dead, dozens hurt, Wash. Post (April 30, 2019); Reuters, Trump Threatens ‘Full’ Embargo on Cuba Over Venezuela Security Support, N.Y. Times (April 30, 2019); Rogers, Trump, Seeking to Put Pressure on Maduro, Threatens Full Embargo of Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 30, 2019); Gearon & DeYoung, Trump threatens ‘complete embargo’ and ‘highest-level sanctions’ against Cuba over Venezuela, Wash. Post (April 30, 2019); Shifter & Binetti, Juan Guaidó’s Uprising Failed. What’s Next for Venezuela?, N.Y. Times (May 3, 2019); Fayola, How a plot filled with intrigue and betrayal failed to oust Venezuela’s president, Wash. Post (May 3, 2019); Venezuelan justice will act with weight against coup, says prosecutor, CubaDebate (May 4, 2019).

[2] Landler, Trump Says He Discussed the “Russian Hoax” in a Phone Call with Putin, N.Y. Times (May  3, 2019); Ballhaus & Salama, Trump & Putin Discuss Venezuela, North Korea, Mueller Report, W.S.J. (May 3, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo] Interview With Jonathan Karl of ABC’s This Week (May 5, 2019); Demirjian & Sonne, Pompeo won’t promise to consult Congress about potential military intervention in Venezuela, Wash. Post (May 5, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Interview With Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday (May 5, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Interview With Margaret Brennan of CBS Face the Nation (May 5, 2019); State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Remarks to Traveling Press on Plane (May 6, 2019).

[3] Wilkinson & Cloud, White House scrambles on Venezuela after major setback, Los Angeles Times (May 2, 2019); Assoc. Press, Shanahan, Pompeo and Bolton Meet on Venezuela, N.Y. Times (May 3,2019); Specia, Five Things You Need to Know to Understand Venezuela’s Crisis, N.Y. Times (May 3, 2019).

[4] See n. 3 supra; Editorial, A Treacherous Stalemate in Venezuela, N.Y. Times (May 2, 2019); Editorial, Don’t call it a coup. Venezuelans have a right to replace an oppressive, toxic regime, Wash. Post (April 30, 2019).

Russia Is Identified as Suspect of Harming U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

On September 11, 2018, NBC News exclusively reported that U.S.intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia is “the main suspect” for causing the medical problems of the 26 U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba. In addition, NBC reports that “the victims [also] include multiple CIA officers, at least one member of the U.S. military, and representatives of other agencies.”[1]

This conclusion is reported to be “is backed up by evidence from communications intercepts, known in the spy world as signals intelligence.” This prompted the U.S. investigation to turn to “the Air Force and its directed energy research program at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the military has giant lasers and advanced laboratories to test high-power electromagnetic weapons, including microwaves. . .  Although the U.S. believes sophisticated microwaves or another type of electromagnetic weapon were likely used on the U.S. government workers, they are also exploring the possibility that one or more additional technologies were also used, possibly in conjunction with microwaves.”

NBC News further reports that although “the U.S. believes sophisticated microwaves or another type of electromagnetic weapon were likely used on the U.S. government workers, they are also exploring the possibility that one or more additional technologies were also used, possibly in conjunction with microwaves, officials and others involved in the government’s investigation say.”

On August 14, “the U.S. convened officials from the Energy Department, the National Institute of Health, the State Department and the Canadian government at the Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, according to State Department medical officials. U.S. experts attending a neurotrauma conference in Toronto were linked in by videoconference as [University of Pennsylvania] physicians presented their most recent technical findings. But the summit ended with no new medical revelations”

“The strong U.S. suspicion that Russia is behind the incidents means that Cuba’s government is no longer considered the likely culprit. Still, officials did not rule out the possibility that the Cuban intelligence services may have offered the Russians some level of cooperation or tacit consent.”

Nevertheless, NBC News said the evidence “is not yet conclusive enough, however, for the U.S. to formally assign blame to Moscow.”

Indeed, on September 11, Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokesperson, in response to a journalist’s question, said the following: [2]

  • “We have seen . . . a firestorm of reports out there today assigning blame to the Russian Government according to some unnamed U.S. Government officials. I would caution you all to be very skeptical of those officials’ statements right now. As you should be aware, the investigation continues into what has caused. . . – what we have called health attacks on our State Department employees who have been working in Cuba. There is no known cause, no known individual or group believed to be responsible at this time. We are looking into it. Our position has not changed. The investigation is ongoing. We have not assigned any blame and we continue to look into this, so I want to be very clear about this.”

Relevant to the NBC News report is the increase of Cuba-Russia cooperation on various matters in recent years. A noted U.S. expert on Cuba, Professor William LeoGrande, provided the following summary of the recent Cuba-Russia rapprochement:[3]

  • In 2000 “when Putin “succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian president,” Putin  “began rebuilding Russia’s global influence by repairing relations with traditional allies.” The first step was “Putin’s 2000 trip to Havana, which resulted in expanded trade deals. . . .”
  • “Raul Castro in 2009 visited Moscow during which the two governments signed 33 cooperative agreements, including $354 million in credits and aid for Havana.“
  • In July 2014, Putin visited the island again and agreed to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion in Soviet-era debt, with the remainder to be retired through debt-equity swaps linked to Russian investments.
  • When Raul Castro returned to Moscow in 2015, Russia had signed agreements to invest in airport construction, the development of the Mariel port and metallurgy and oil exploration, and had also agreed to lend Cuba 1.2 billion euros—about $1.36 billion at the time—to develop thermal energy plants.”
  • In September 2016, Russia announced a new package of commercial agreements in which it will finance $4 billion in development projects focusing on energy and infrastructure, and Cuba will begin exporting pharmaceuticals to Russia.

According to LeoGrande, “Both Havana and Moscow refer to their relationship as a ‘strategic partnership’ that has diplomatic and military components. Diplomatically, Cuba supports Moscow’s positions on Ukraine, Syria and NATO expansion. Militarily, Russia is refurbishing and replacing Cuba’s aging Soviet-era armaments. Russian naval vessels visit Cuban ports, and Russia reportedly wants to establish a new military base on the island.”

Conclusion

Interestingly as of the early morning of September 12, this blogger has not found any published reactions to the NBC News report from Russian or Cuban governments. Nor has there been other reporting or comments from U.S. officials or U.S. or international news organizations.

Be on the outlook for reactions to the NBC News report.

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[1] NBC News, U.S. Officials suspect Russia in mystery ‘attacks’ on diplomats in Cuba, China (Sept. 11, 2018); Reuters, Russia the Main Suspect in U.S. Diplomats’ Illness in Cuba: NBC, N.Y. Times (sept, 11, 2018).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—September 11, 2018.

[3] Professor LeoGrande ‘s Comments on the Strengthening Cuba-Russian Relationship, dwkcommentaries (Jan. 3, 2018). See also Trump’s Hostility Towards Cuba Provides Opportunities for Russia, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 19, 2017).

Professor LeoGrande’s Comments on the Strengthening Cuba-Russian Relationship    

A prior post discussed President Trump’s hostility towards Cuba as providing greater opportunities for Russia’s enhancing its relationship with Cuba. Now American University Professor William LeoGrande, a noted scholar about Cuba, placed the recent expansion of Cuba-Russia economic deals in a broader perspective.[1]

He says their rapprochement began in 2000 “when Putin “succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian president and began rebuilding Russia’s global influence by repairing relations with traditional allies.” The first step was “Putin’s 2000 trip to Havana, which resulted in expanded trade deals. . . . That was followed by Raul Castro’s 2009 visit to Moscow during which the two governments signed 33 cooperative agreements, including $354 million in credits and aid for Havana.“

Five years later, observes LeoGrande, “in July 2014, Putin visited the island again and agreed to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion in Soviet-era debt, with the remainder to be retired through debt-equity swaps linked to Russian investments. By the time Raul Castro returned to Moscow in 2015, Russia had signed agreements to invest in airport construction, the development of the Mariel port and metallurgy and oil exploration, and had also agreed to lend Cuba 1.2 billion euros—about $1.36 billion at the time—to develop thermal energy plants.”

In another pre-Trump deal, “in September 2016, Russia announced a new package of commercial agreements in which it will finance $4 billion in development projects focusing on energy and infrastructure, and Cuba will begin exporting pharmaceuticals to Russia.”

Beyond these expanded economic ties, LeoGrande emphasizes, “As Putin tries to restore Russia’s status as a global power, Cuba is an attractive partner right at the doorstep of the [U.S.]. A Russian presence in Cuba is a reminder to Washington that Moscow will respond in kind to the expansion of U.S. influence into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ in places like Ukraine. For Cuba, a closer relationship with Moscow serves as a counterweight to Washington’s renewed hostility under President Donald Trump.”

“Both Havana and Moscow refer to their relationship as a ‘strategic partnership’ that has diplomatic and military components. Diplomatically, Cuba supports Moscow’s positions on Ukraine, Syria and NATO expansion. Militarily, Russia is refurbishing and replacing Cuba’s aging Soviet-era armaments. Russian naval vessels visit Cuban ports, and Russia reportedly wants to establish a new military base on the island.”

The major obstacle to a more robust Cuba-Russia relationship is Cuba’s persistent lack of funds due to few goods for export and its dependence on tourism, remittances  and export of medical services to try to make up the difference.

Conclusion

LeoGrande’s comments re-emphasize for this blogger the utter stupidity from the standpoint of U.S. national security and economic interests of the Trump Administration’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba. The same lesson should also be evident from the European Union’s strengthening ties with Cuba symbolized by the visit to the island starting today by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, that will be discussed in a future post.

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[1] LeoGrande, Cuba Looks More to Russia as the Prospects for Better U.S. Ties Fade Under Trump, World Politics Review (Jan. 2, 2018).

Reactions to New U.S. Regulations About U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Cuban Entities  

On November 8, the Trump Administration announced new regulations regarding U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba and Americans transactions with certain Cuban entities, all as discussed in yesterday’s blog post. Here are initial reactions to that announcement in the U.S. and in Cuba.

 U.S. Reactions[1]

Engage Cuba, a major coalition supporting U,S,-Cuba normalization, released a lengthy statement criticizing the new regulations. It said they “create a more convoluted, confusing and counterproductive approach to Cuba policy. This ‘Keystone Cops’ Cuba policy hurts those it claims to help and helps those it claims to hurt.” In addition, this action has “fumbled our Cuba policy right into the hands of Vladimir Putin. While the Cuban people and U.S. businesses lose out, reverting back to our policy of isolation is a gift to the Kremlin. Russia is quickly expanding its foothold in Cuba, looking to regain its once diminished sphere of influence in our backyard. Abandoning Cuba and allowing Russia to fill a leadership vacuum is undoubtedly a threat to our national security.

Moreover, according to Engage Cuba, “These new regulations are a kick in the gut to Cuban entrepreneurs who are struggling to support their families. Americans are significantly contributing to the growth of Cuba’s private sector. Today’s announcement will only make it harder for Americans to travel to Cuba and support the growing private sector.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), a leading advocate for normalization, said the new regulations “are reminiscent of the Cold War and what one would expect of a paranoid totalitarian government, not a democracy like ours. [They are] onerous and petty restrictions on what private American citizens can do in Cuba — an impoverished neighbor that poses not the slightest threat to the United States. Far from promoting human rights in Cuba, these new regulations will hurt fledgling entrepreneurs and the rest of the Cuban people by discouraging Americans from traveling there.”

Senator Diane Feinstein (Dem., CA) tweeted that “isolating the Cuban people did not serve US interests before and certainly will not now.”

Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), who is the author of a pending bill for freedom to travel to Cuba, said the new regulations were “outdated and an unfair limitation of American freedom.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a major force for harsh U.S. measures about Cuba, had a luke-warm reaction to the new U.S. regulations. He criticized the State Department for failure to include on the Cuba Restricted List “several entities and sub-entities that are controlled by or act on behalf of the Cuban military, intelligence or security services They Gran Caribe Hotel Group and Cubanacan,” which are owned by the tourism ministry, not the military.

Rubio asserted that “individuals within the bureaucracy who support the former administration’s Cuba policy continue to undermine President Trump.” Similar views were expressed by Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL)

Cuba Reactions[2]

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat in the 2015-16 bilateral negotiations, said the new rules were a “serious reversal” in ties between the two countries. She believed the new regulations were unjustified and a great political nuance. They adversely will affect U.S. businessmen, who will lose interesting business opportunities existing on the island today, as opposed to their competition. At the same time, they will harm the Cuban economy, both the state and the private sector.

The U.S. category travel for ‘Support for the Cuban People,’ she said,’ does not “hide its subversive background, such as the one that encourages travelers to carry out activities to justify the U.S. legality of their visits to Cuba. These activities include maintaining contacts with the Cuban people, supporting what the U.S. defines as civil society and promoting their independence from the Cuban State.” She also said the U.S.’ Cuba Restricted List is an “arbitrary list that is made up of “a diversity of Cuban entities supposedly linked, in an unfounded manner, to the defense and national security sector.”

Conclusion

 This blogger sides with the critics of the new regulations.

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[1] Engage Cuba Statement on New Cuba Sanctions (Nov. 8, 2017); Leahy, BREAKING: Leahy REAX To New Treasury Dept. Regs. Restricting Travel & Transactions By American Citizens In Cuba (Nov. 8, 2017); Rubio Statement on New Regulations to Implement the President’s Policy to Empower the Cuban People (Nov. 8, 2017); Rubio: ‘Bureaucrats’ to blame for softening Trump Cuba policy,’ Miami Herald (Nov. 8, 2017); Diaz-Balart: Regulations Are First Step Towards Implementing POTUS’ Cuba Policy (Nov. 8, 2017); Ros-Lehtinen Responds To Announcement of New Cuba Regulations (Nov. 8, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, The Latest: Cuba Says New Trump Rules Mark Reversal for Ties, N.Y. Times (Nov. 8, 2017); Gomez, Washington deepens retreat of relations with Cuba (+ Video), Granma (Nov. 9, 2017); Measures restrict rights of the Americans and will damage the Cuban economy: Josefina Vida (+ Video), CubaDebate (Nov. 8, 2017).