President Trump Condemns Cuba at the United Nations

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly.[1]  Most media attention has focused on his bellicose remarks about North Korea and Iran. But he also condemned Cuba and Venezuela. Here the focus is on the general theses he advanced, his comments about Cuba and reactions to the speech.

Trump’s Speech

His fundamental thesis was the U.S.’ “renewing this fundamental principle of sovereignty” and “our success depends on a coalition of strong, independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.” (Emphasis added.)

In short, the world needed strong, effective sovereign nations. As he stated, the U.S. does “not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is the foundation for cooperation and success.” (Emphasis added.)

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect. Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.  And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God. (Emphasis added.)

President Trump’s subsidiary premise was the assertion that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.”

On the other hand, this was not a universal action item for every sovereign nation. As he stated, “we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.  Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” (Emphasis added.)

“That is why in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” (Emphasis added.)

President Trump then went on at length about Venezuela’s problems, at least some of which he also sees in Cuba. In his words, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to the Speech[2]

Trump’s comments on sovereignty were criticized by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom: “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. . . .  This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience.”

Vali R. Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., said, “It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like.” Nasr added, “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

This speech generally did not get good reviews. For example, the editorial from the Guardian in London concluded that Trump “brought little clarity as to the wider strategy he contemplates. Threats and grandstanding are just bluster, not policy. Crises require a deftness the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate. He wants allies to back him, but seems oblivious that his lack of personal credibility is an obstacle to international cooperation. An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest. The president may want to speak of “principled realism”, but he is a reckless and dangerous leader, sitting, alas, in a most powerful position.”

These thoughts were echoed by a Guardian reporter, Julian Borger, who said the speech was full of “fulminations” of fear, especially his threat to “completely destroy North Korea,” which came just minutes after the U.N. Secretary General had told those at the Assembly and implicitly Trump himself, “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” More generally, “Trump punched yawning holes in his own would-be doctrine, singling out enemies, expressing horror at their treatment of their people and threatening interference to the point of annihilation. What was left . . . was a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”

The New York Times’ editorial said, “In all this fury, before a world body whose main purpose is the peaceful resolution of disputes, there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations.” “Mr. Trump’s dark tone and focus seemed a significant deviation [from previous U.S. presidents], not least his relentlessly bellicose approach to North Korea.” On the other hand, “Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging.”

The Washington Post editorial also criticized “Mr. Trump’s schoolboy taunts of ‘Rocket Man,’ his sobriquet for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his threats, if the United States is ‘forced to defend itself or its allies . . . to totally destroy North Korea.’ The leader of a powerful nation makes himself sound simultaneously weak and bellicose with such bluster.” This editorial also said “there was something discordant in using the United Nations podium to proclaim the virtue, essentially, of national selfishness over international cooperation and multilateral organization. No doubt Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia will welcome this aspect of Mr. Trump’s address. They, too, have insisted on the unassailable ‘sovereignty’ of their formidable states and demanded that others not lecture them about values such as democracy and human rights, which they fear and abhor.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump seemed to repudiate his own advocacy for human dignity and freedom when he said that “we do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government” — as if democracy should be optional under the U.N. Charter.”

Surprisingly the Post’s respected foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a generally favorable reaction to the speech. He said, “the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the [U.N.] . . .  was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations.”

The editorial by the Wall Street Journal generally approved of the speech, but thought that Trump gave too narrow a definition to “national interest” by failure to include respect for the rights of the nation’s own people. Trump’s concept of sovereignty “also leaves authoritarians too much room to claim dominant [regional] spheres of influence,” such as Chinese and Russian leaders in the South China Sea and Ukraine. In short, Trump needs to learn “there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on behalf of American values and interests if he wants to build a more peaceful world.”

The speech’s negative comments about Cuba were rejected by that country’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who  said that Trump “lacks the moral authority to criticize Cuba, a small and solidary country with extensive international cooperation.” Rodriguez also said in an interview with Telesur that the speech “was an unusual, aggressive, dominating, blatantly imperialist speech. Sovereignty [for Trump] means sovereignty for the United States, enslavement for all others; [it] completely ignores the concept of sovereign equality that inspires the [U.N.].” These comments were echoed by Cuba’s delegation to a Bilateral Commission meeting with the U.S.; the delegation said it protested “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements” by Trump at the U.N. Rodriguez also condemned the President’s aggressive comments against Venezuela and expressed Cuba’s solidarity with that country and its leaders. Granma, however, did publish the full text of the Trump speech.

Conclusion

There is much to criticize in the President’s speech. Foremost was his threat that the U.S. might have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” (Emphasis added)

His perceived need for “strong sovereign nations” totally ignores all the destruction and pain inflicted on the world by such nations throughout history. This emphasis also ignores the multilateral efforts, especially after World War II, to develop multilateral, international treaties and institutions, including the United Nations, to protect the world against the excesses of strong sovereign nations. Yes, like all human institutions, the U.N. is not perfect and can and should be improved. Although Trump had some kind words for the U.N. and the Marshall Plan after World War II, he said the U.S. could no longer enter into “one-sided alliances or agreements.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, in her September 20 speech to the General Assembly implicitly gave the proper retort to the main thesis of Trump’s speech, that strong sovereign states were the appropriate building blocks for the contemporary world.[3] She said the following:

  • “The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create and the values by which we stand. For it is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system. And it is this rules-based system which we have developed, including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and laws and conventions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables the global cooperation through which we can protect those values”
  • “If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples. So those of us who hold true to our shared values, who hold true to that desire to defend the rules and high standards that have shaped and protected the world we live in, need to strive harder than ever to show that institutions like this United Nations can work for the countries that form them and for the people who we represent.”
  • “This means reforming our United Nations and the wider international system so it can prove its worth in helping us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. And it means ensuring that those who flout the rules and spirit of our international system are held to account, that nations honor their responsibilities and play their part in upholding and renewing a rules-based international order that can deliver prosperity and security for us all.”

Trump’s comments on Cuba were a reprise of his June 2017 speech in Miami, Florida with severe criticism of Cuba that was enthusiastically received by the many older Cuban-Americans in the audience.[4] Both speeches, however, lacked nuance and failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, especially in health and education. It also is difficult to understand the basis for Trump’s assertion that the Cuban government was “destabilizing” or that it was “thoroughly corrupt.”

Both speeches also ignored the fact that Trump in June was only proposing to change two aspects of President Obama’s normalization policies: (a) banning U.S. persons from doing business with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or secret services and (b) banning U.S. citizens from going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel, the latter of which has been subjected to criticism in this blog.[5]

The U.N. speech also failed to acknowledge that simultaneously and incongruously in Washington, D.C. the U.S. and Cuba were holding the sixth session of their Bilateral Commission that was established in the Obama Administration as a means to discuss the many unresolved issues that had accumulated in the nearly 60 years of strained relations; this session will be discussed in a subsequent post.

President Trump’s U.N. speech boasted about the U.S. announcing “that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” This presumably refers to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, which no longer serves any legitimate purpose for the U.S. and which, therefore, should be unilaterally terminated by the U.S. Moreover, the embargo soon will be the subject of a General Assembly resolution that again will condemn that U.S. policy and again undoubtedly will be overwhelming adopted.[6]

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 19, 2017); Landler, Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Jaffe & DeYoung, In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, Reaction to Trump’s UN General Assembly Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, The Guardian view on Trump at the UN: bluster and belligerence, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Borger, A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Warmongers and Peacemakers at the U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump undermines his own advocacy for human dignity, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Ignatius, The most surprising thing about Trump’s U.N. speech, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump Shock at Turtle Bay, W.S.J. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister Condemns Trump’s Aggressive Address at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister in Telesur interview condemns Trump’s aggressive speech at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Calls Trump’s U.N. Address ‘Unacceptable and Meddling,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Statement by President Trump to the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, Granma (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017 (Sept, 20, 2017).

[4] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[5] Posts to dwkcommentaries,com: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 21, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies  (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017). Other posts have criticised the proposed ban on individual person-to-person travel to Cuba, E.g., Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration (July 19, 2017).

[6] Last year’s U.N. General Assembly resolution against the embargo is discussed in an earlier post. Other posts about the embargo are listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA .

In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

Previous posts have discussed the recent news that starting in late 2016 through March 2017 several U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba had been suffering various medical problems apparently associated with some kind of sonic device, that the U.S. with Cuban cooperation has been investigating these incidents and that the U.S. was not accusing the Cuban government of being responsible.[1]

On September 1, the U.S. State Department revealed that last month (this August) additional U.S. diplomats were suffering symptoms from a sonic “incident” in Cuba. The Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said that 19 Americans are now confirmed to have been affected, up from 16 reported last month. But the Department did not say exactly when last month the incidents took place or provide other details while also cautioning, “We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate” diplomats and their families. The U.S. investigation of these incidents is continuing and to date the Trump administration has not blamed the Cuban government.[2]

Also on September 1 the American Foreign Service Association, the labor union representing U.S. Foreign Service officers, said that based upon its contacts with 10 of the U.S. diplomats suffering from medical problems associated with their having served in Cuba the Association believes that they have been subjected to mysterious “sonic harassment attacks” that have caused  “mild traumatic brain injury [concussions]and permanent hearing loss, with such additional symptoms as loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption, and brain swelling.” Therefore, the Association “strongly encourages the Department of State and the U.S. Government to do everything possible to provide appropriate care for those affected, and to work to ensure that these incidents cease and are not repeated.”[3]

On August 30 CBS News reported that U.S. intelligence analysts believe the cause of the acoustic attack on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana starting late last year was an inaudible sound (ultra and infrasonic waves), and a Georgetown University ear surgeon said such sounds can damage hearing. Medical records show that U.S. victims have been diagnosed with hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury and likely nerve damage. CBS also reported that the two Cuban diplomats earlier expelled from the U.S. were intelligence officials.[4]

Although the U.S. Government to date has not blamed Cuba for these incidents, a Washington Post editorial has strongly suggested that Cuba is responsible, and Roberto Alvarez Quińones, a Cuban-American journalist, economist and historian living in Los Angeles, asserts that however the attacks occurred, Raúl Castro is responsible.[5]

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[1] Posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba (Aug. 23, 2017); At Least 16 U.S. Diplomats Who Had Served in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Aug. 24, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for American Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post).

[2] Gearan, State Department reports new instance of American diplomats harmed in Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Lederman (Assoc. Press), U.S.: Another health attack on diplomats in Cuba last month, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2017).

[3] Gearan, American diplomats suffered traumatic brain injuries in mystery attack in Cuba, union says, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Diplomats Union: Attacks in Cuba Caused Mild Brain Injury, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017).

[4] Dorsey, Infra- and ultrasonic waves thought to be responsible for Cuba attacks, CBS News (Aug. 30, 2017); CBS: US Intelligence points out that diplomats in Cuba were affected by ‘an inaudible sound,’ Diario de Cuba (Aug. 30, 2017).

[5]   Editorial, Don’t play down a sinister attack on diplomats in Cuba, Wash. Post (Aug. 24, 2017); Alvarez Quińones, Acoustic attack or not, Raul Castro is to blame, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 31, 2017).

 

The Trump Administration’s Record on Changing Federal Laws 

President Trump frequently boasts about his Administration’s claimed record of “legislative” accomplishments and his signing many “bills.” This claim is often seen as ridiculous since there have been no major bills passed by Congress so far since Trump’s inauguration.

Perhaps Mr. Trump is just loose with his language or does not really know the difference between legislation and regulations.

In any event, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump has examined another facet of changing federal law:  repealing or rescinding regulations by federal agencies or other executive branch actions. He discovered at least 45 such actions coupled with a request for readers to notify him of any others.[1] Here is a table of these actions:

Category Significant Examples Number
Economy Withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership; ending limits on states’ drug testing of those seeking unemployment benefits   8
Justice System Rescinded Obama effort to reduce mandatory minimum criminal sentences   4
Environment Withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement 17
Foreign Policy & Immigration Limit number of migrants & refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries   4
Education Withdrew federal protection for transgender students in schools   4
Other Rescinded rule banning gun sales to those deemed “mentally defective”   8
TOTAL   45

On MSNBC’s August 24th “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” Mr. Bump said Trump’s supporters wanted him to take these actions to dismantle the federal government and, therefore, they were pleased with this record. Connie Schultz, a Cleveland-based writer and journalist, also appearing on this show, pointed out that some of these changes in regulations were targeted on people applying for unemployment (ending limits on states’ drug testing of those seeking unemployment benefits) and on poor people of color (rescission of reduction of mandatory minimum sentences).[2]

In any event, we should thank Mr. Bump for doing this analysis and reminding us that significant things are happening in this administration without any action by the Congress.

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[1] Bump, What Trump has undone, Wash. Post (Aug. 24, 2017).

[2]  The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, MSNBC (Aug. 24, 2017).

 

 

U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversals of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                   

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now we look at U.S. reactions to this change of policy. Subsequent posts will examine Cuban reactions and conclude with this blogger’s opinions on the subject.

 Overall Assessment of Changes[1]

As many sources have pointed out, the announced changes do not affect most of the important elements of Obama’s normalization policies. The U.S. will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and operate the U.S. Embassy in Havana (while Cuba continues to operate its Embassy in Washington). U.S. airlines and cruise ships will continue service to the island. Cuban-Americans can still send money (remittances) to relatives and travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government (with restrictions against credit for sales). There was no change to next year’s budget for the State Department that eliminated the undercover or covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. will continue to reject the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil “with dry feet,” but was terminated late last year by President Obama; Trump’s speech endorsed this termination as designed to protect Cubans who were exposed to dangerous journeys by land to the U.S. Various bilateral arrangements facilitating cooperation on multiple issues were not mentioned and, therefore, are not directly affected by this announcement. Nor did the announcement say that the U.S. would reinstate its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The prohibition of U.S. businesses having interactions with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban government or military presents more of a problem because such entities are involved in all sectors of the economy. According to Cuban economists, the government conglomerate (GAESA) boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings.

U.S. Businesses Reactions[2]

Many U.S. businesses opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island.” Others with similar views include ENGAGECuba, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, National Farmers Union and the National Foreign Trade Council.

These business opponents were supported by non-business groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office of Latin America, Church World Service and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The changes will have negative impacts on U.S. jobs and income. The increase in U.S. trips to Cuba has helped the U.S. hospitality industry with Delta Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others flying to at least six Cuban cities daily and Carnival cruise lines taking American citizens to port in Havana. All told, the group Engage Cuba estimates that restricting the rights of United States citizens to travel and invest in Cuba would cost the American economy $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs.

U.S. hotel businesses also expressed concern about the potential impact of the change on the island’s hotels.  The Gran Hotel Manzana, for example is managed by a Swiss company (Kempinski Hotels) but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company. An U.S. company, Marriott International, through its subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Would they be off-limits for American travelers or would they fall under a vaguely promised grandfather clause for existing deals? Or would the change force American travelers to Cuban hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan? There is even speculation that the change economically benefited Mr. Trump by neutralizing rival hotel companies’ ability to gain an early advantage over the Trump hotels, which previously had expressed interest in developing hotels on the island.

Congressional Reactions[3]

Many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have expressed opposition to the changes.

Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who’s been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill while also being the author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.442—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said Trump’s new Cuba policy “will hurt the United States economically, making it harder for our nation’s farmers to access new markets and cutting the knees out from under our travel and manufacturing industries.” Emmer also said the new policy will not keep the American homeland safe and could threaten new bilateral agreements with Havana to combat human trafficking, illicit drugs and cyber crimes.

Representative Rick Crawford, (Rep., AR), the author of a bill to promote U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (H.R.525—Cuba Agricultural Exports Act), said Trump’s shift is more than just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would benefit from greater access to Cuba’s agricultural import market. He said Trump’s policy may put U.S. national security at risk as strategic competitors move to fill the vacuum the uncoupling could create. “Further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast,” Crawford said.

Senator Jeff Flake, (Rep., AZ), a frequent critic of Trump and the author with 54 cosponsors of a bill to facilitate Americans travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act), stated that any policy change “that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people.” Therefore, Flake called for the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill. Flake also warned that returning to a “get tough” policy hurts everyday Cubans whose livelihoods are increasingly rooted in travel and tourism.

Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.472—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said that “putting America first means exporting what we produce to countries across the globe.” He said he remains focused on finding ways to “increase trade with Cuba rather than cut off relationships that have the potential to create new jobs, bring in revenue and boost our national economy.”

Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR) said Trump’s policy moves the U.S. backward.” It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” Boozman said under the latter approach, “we not only trade goods, but ideas.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.1286– Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017), said the new policy was “a setback in U.S. – Cuba relations at a time when 73 percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba, not less. These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism, which will also hurt the Cuban people. Earlier today I joined Minnesota officials and business leaders who are traveling to Cuba next week to send the message that America wants to continue doing business in Cuba. We need to build on the bipartisan momentum we have created by restoring relations with Cuba, not make it harder for Americans to travel and do business there.”

The five-day Minnesota trip referenced by Senator Klobuchar is being led by its Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, accompanied by various state government officials and leaders of agricultural groups. Their objectives are to build relationships with Cuba and promote Minnesota agricultural exports to the island.

In Cuba Lt. Gov. Smith said, “There is no denying the actions Trump took . . . [on June 16] are a real setback. But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.” In the meantime, she said she was glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations. Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade. Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

Other Americans’ Reactions[4]

Many other Americans have expressed their opposition to the changes.

One is Rena Kraut, a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra, which visited Cuba in 2015.[5] She talked about the importance of encouraging Americans to visit Cuba and the “ability [of artists] to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.” Inspired by the Orchestra’s trip, she has founded Cayo, a non-profit that is organizing a youth orchestra for American and Cuban young people “to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together.”

Published letters to the Editor of the New York Times were generally critical of the change. Luis Suarez-Villa, professor emeritus at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “American policy toward Cuba has been hijacked by a clique of Cuban-American politicians who have sold their support in Congress to President Trump.” Suarez-Villa also berated the “punishing, 55-year-old embargo perpetrated by the world’s most powerful nation — accompanied by innumerable acts of economic sabotage, espionage, attempted assassination and military aggression.” Stephen Gillespie of San Francisco, California wrote, “Mr. Trump seems to hate oppressive regimes that convert private property into public goods for the benefit of the people, but he loves oppressive regimes that convert public goods into private property for the benefit of a few rich friends.”

Miriam Pensack, an editorial assistant at The Intercept and a former researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, wrote, “Carried out under the unlikely banner, for Trump, of human rights and democracy, the shift is instead more likely to re-impose hardships on ordinary Cubans — the very same people Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart claim to champion.”

William LeoGrande, who teaches government at American University and co-authored the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, observed, “When Americans go down there, a lot of them stay in private homes, they eat in private restaurants, they take private taxis, and they pay private tour guides that guide them around the city. That’s money directly into the hands of ordinary Cubans.” He added, ““It’s hard to believe that human rights are really anything more than just an excuse. This is really more a matter of political horse trading than it is a matter of foreign policy.”

A contrary view in the New York Times’ collection of letters came from Medford, New York’s Eugene Dunn, who stated, “Kudos to President Trump for demanding that Cuba finally turn over a parade of criminals who have sought sanctuary on the Communist island for decades. Finally we have a titanium-spined president who isn’t afraid to use America’s military and economic might as leverage over these tin-pot dictators who under previous administrations made us the laughingstock of the world.”

The Cuban-Americans at the president’s event in Little Havana are enthusiastic supporters of the new policy as are many other Republican voters in the U.S.

Editorialists’ Reactions[6]

 The New York Times’ editorial condemned the Trump Administration’s approach. The Times said it was “the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy” and was likely to cause “Cuban-American relations . . . to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.” Moreover, Trump’s stated concern for Cuban human rights was especially galling from a “president [who] has been so disdainful of these rights . . . [and who has] embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.”

The editorial from the Los Angeles Times was similar. It stated that the new policy was “based on a disingenuous argument. The putative reason for the change is that Cuba still violates the human rights of its own people, including jailing dissidents and independent journalists. But hasn’t the Trump administration been moving the U.S. away from its focus on human rights around the world?” Instead, said the Los Angeles newspaper, “What’s really happening is that Trump has let the anti-Castro sect in Congress take the wheel on this issue, no doubt for cynical political reasons. Remember that Trump broke with his Republican rivals during the campaign and supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. Then he flipped and disparaged the policy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it unless Cuba met fresh demands on human rights, including the ‘freeing of political prisoners.’”

An editorial from the Washington Post, however, gave the change a weak endorsement. It said, it was “little more than a policy tweak” and “a little more impatience about democracy [in Cuba with the Trump policy] isn’t such a bad thing.”

Although the Wall Street Journal has not offered an editorial on this change, its columnist on Latin American issues and a critic of normalization, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, welcomed Trump’s changes to U.S. policy regarding Cuba even though it was only “an important symbolic change . . . [whose] effects are likely to be minimal.” Instead she argues that Cuba needs a “high-profile truth project” to take “ an honest look at the historical record that acknowledges the regime’s many crimes against humanity.” She refers to the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project that has documented 934 executions mostly in the Escambray” Mountains, circa 1959-1964, in addition to 607 executions of political prisoners, most of whom are believed to have been captured in the Escambray. This Project is the work of the Free Society Project, Inc., a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization with a board of Cuban-Americans.

Minnesota’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune, opined that Trump was “unraveling years of work to build ties with a strategically placed neighbor. Instead, he’s choosing a misguided return to strict embargos on travel and trade that failed to achieve U.S. aims for more than half a century.” The editorial endorsed the efforts to promote Cuba normalization by Minnesota’s U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) while commenting that Cuba “holds a strategic allure” for other nations “that could threaten American security.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, AP FACT CHECK: Not Much New in Trump’s Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Rolls Back Some, Not All, Changes in US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017).

[2] Burnett, Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Military’s Tentacles Reach Deep Into Economy, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017); Harwell & O’Connell, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, Wash. Post (June 15, 2017); Sabatini, Trump’s Imminent Cuba Problem, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017).

 

[3] Assoc. Press, Republicans Divided as Trump Reverses Some Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Press Release: Emmer: President’s Misguided Cuba Directive Undercuts Human Rights & Threatens National Security (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Crawford Opposes Cuba Policy Shift (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Flake Statement on Renewed Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Sen. Moran Statement on Administration’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Boozman, Statement on President Trump’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Klobuchar Statement on Changes to Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Golden, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to lead Minnesota trade trip to Cuba, StarTribune (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Minnesota lieutenant governor visits Cuba, StarTribune (June 20, 2017); Reuters, Minnesota Will Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017)

[4] Kraut, Trump Is Wrong to Pull Back from Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Letters to Editor, Trump’s reversal of U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2017); Pensack, Trump To Reverse Obama Openings to Cuba Under the False Flag of Human Rights, The Intercept (June 16, 2017).

[5] Previous posts about the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are listed in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[6] Editorial, A Cynical Reversal on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Trump just reopened the Cold War with Cuba. His excuse is disingenuous, L.A. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift, It’s just a policy tweak, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Editorial, Trump’s Cuba retreat hurts U.S. and Minnesota, StarTribune (June 19, 2017); O’Grady, Cubans Need a Truth Commission, W.S.J. (June 18, 2017).

The U.S. Senate’s Dysfunctional Confirmation Process

The recent squabble over new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony at his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee highlights the dysfunctionality of that process. After examining the current process as used for Sessions, suggestions will be made for an improved process.

The Current Process

Every member of the committee is allotted a set number of minutes to make statements and ask questions. The committee chair (now a Republican) opens followed by the ranking member of the other political party (now a Democrat). Then a member of the majority party (Republican) is granted the same privilege before returning to someone from the minority party (Democrat). The committee members also are permitted to submit written questions to the nominee after the hearing.

As a result, the time and ability to ask follow-up questions is severely limited and indeed is sidelined by the structure of the hearing.

In addition, the senators are used to making political speeches and hogging the limelight. Some are not lawyers by training or have forgotten how to ask questions designed to elicit useful information. These facts also adversely affect the ability of a hearing to obtain pertinent information from the nominee.

Committee’s Confirmation Hearing for Sessions

The above problems were exemplified at Mr. Sessions January 10 confirmation hearing by his responses to questions from Minnesota’s Senator Al Franken and New Hampshire’s Senator Patrick Leahy:[1] Here are those exchanges:

  • Franken:CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say quote, ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’
  • “Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
  • Sessions:“Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
  • Leahy: “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
  • Sessions: “No.”

Franken’s question was clearly too verbose and difficult to understand and was focused on what Sessions would do in the future as Attorney General if there were evidence that the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government during the campaign. Sessions’ volunteering that he did not have communications with the Russians during the campaign is now shown to be incorrect, but it was not responsive to the question.

Leahy’s question is better, but is still limited to contacts with Russian government officials “about the 2016 election.” Thus, Sessions’ flat “No” may or may not be truthful in light of subsequent disclosures that he had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S.

Committee’s Post-Hearing Proceedings for Sessions

After the hearing, Senator Franken submitted 20 such questions with many subparts, but none concerned Russia. Senator Leahy also submitted 37 such questions, again with many subparts. Other written questions came from four of the 11 Republican committee members and from all of the other seven Democratic members.[2]

One of Leahy’s question (No. 22) concerned Russia with subparts about the U.S. intelligence community’s report about Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016, and Sessions said he had not reviewed the report, “but have no reason not to accept the [report’s] conclusions.”

Another subpart (e) of that Leahy question stated: “Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Sessions response: “No.” (Emphases added.)

This written question from Leahy comes closer to asking the appropriate foundation question, but it was still limited to contacts “about the 2016 election,” which provided Sessions with a basis to interpret that limitation and to say “no” if any such contacts were not about the election as so interpreted.

Supplemental Committee Proceedings for Sessions

The truthfulness of Sessions’ responses to these questions was called into question by a March 1 Washington Post report that he had had at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. in this time period. Indeed, this report prompted Senator Franken to state that Sessions had misled the American public about his contacts with Russian officials and that he should reappear before the committee to answer “tough questions” on this subject.[3]

The Attorney General, however, immediately responded to these concerns. On March 1 his spokesperson said that he did have the two meetings with the Ambassador that were referenced in the Washington Post article, but that they were in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump supporter, and that there was no discussion about issues regarding the presidential campaign. The next day Sessions said his hearing testimony was “honest and correct as I understood it at the time” although he was “taken aback” by Franken’s question and was focused on its reference to possible contacts between Trump campaign surrogates and Russian officials. “In retrospect,” he said, “I should have slowed down and said I did meet one Russian official a couple times, and that would be the ambassador.” Sessions also said that the September meeting at his office with the Ambassador included two of the Senator’s senior staffers, that the two principals talked about a trip the Senator made to Russia in 1991, terrorism and Ukraine, that the conversation became “a little bit . . . testy” and that the Senator declined the Ambassador’s invitation to lunch. In addition, on March 2 Sessions recused himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”[4]

The Judiciary Committee Chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA), resolved this controversy by rejecting the request by the Democratic committee members for another public hearing and by offering Sessions an opportunity to supplement his testimony in writing.

Sessions did so on March 6 with the following statement after repeating the previously quoted Franken question and Sessions’ answer:[5]

  • “My answer was correct. As I noted in my public statement on March 2, 2017, I was surprised by the allegations in the question, which I had not heard before. I answered the question, which asked about a “continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” honestly. I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian Ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them.”
  • “As I discussed publicly on March 2, 2017, I spoke briefly to the Russian Ambassador at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2016. This was at the conclusion of a speech I had made, when I also met and spoke with other ambassadors. In September 2016, I met with the Russian Ambassador at my Senate office in the presence of members of my professional Senate staff. I do not recall any discussions with the Russian Ambassador, or any other representative of the Russian government, regarding the political campaign on these occasions or any other occasion.”

Sessions then responded to two questions posed in a March 3 letter by the Democratic members of the committee. The first asked why he had not supplemented the record to note any contact with the Russian Ambassador before its public disclosure. Sessions said, “Having considered my answer responsive, and no one having suggested otherwise, there was no need for a supplemented answer.” The second question asked why he had not recused himself from “Russian contacts with the Trump transition team and administration.” Sessions said the scope of [his] recusal as described in the Department’s [March 2] press release would include any such matters. This should not be taken as any evidence of the existence of any such investigation or its scope. Suffice it to say that the scope of my recusal is consistent with the applicable regulations, which I have considered and to which I have adhered.”

After the submission of this Sessions’ letter, Committee Chair Grassley released the letter as an attachment to a press release announcing that there “are no plans to ask Sessions to come before the committee before an annual oversight hearing, as is customary.” Grassley also stated, ““I appreciate Attorney General Sessions’ quick action to clear up confusion about his statement and I look forward to confirming the team who can help him carry out the functions of the department, like going after sex offenders, protecting Americans against terrorists and criminal activity, and stopping drug traffickers.”  Grassley added that Sessions had recused himself as he said he would in his hearing testimony in sharp contrast to the failure of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch to do so with respect to investigation of Hillary Clinton’s personal email server and classified information found on it.[6]

A Suggested Different Procedure

The squabble over Sessions’ testimony regarding contacts with Russians could have been eliminated by a procedure whereby an attorney on the committee staff with experience of interrogating witnesses would do the questioning on selected topics, rather than having only the senators on the committee do so. The following is a better way of asking Sessions about whether he had any contact with Russian officials:

  • On February 28, 2016, you endorsed Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.[7] Correct? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • On and after February 28, 2016, to the present, have you had any communications, oral or written, with any Russians? (Sessions: Yes.)
  • Identify all such communications by their date, location and the names of the Russians.
  • For all such communications, identify any other persons present, the length of the communications or meetings, state the substance of the communications and identify all documents (including, but not limited to, letters, memoranda, agendas, notes, audio and/or video recordings) regarding or reflecting the communications.

Conclusion

Although this Senate procedure is flawed and should be changed, a prominent New York Times’ columnist, Nick Kristof, asserts, “there has been too much focus on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not enough on Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager” with respect to connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Instead Kristof identifies specific facts or “dots” to support his suspicion “that Trump’s team colluded in some way with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election” and supports a full and fair investigation to determine whether that suspicion is validated.[8]

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[1] Carroll, In context: What Jeff Sessions told Al Franken about meeting Russian officials, PolitiFact (March 2, 2017).

[2] U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Nomination of Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, to be Attorney General (Feb. 28, 2017).

[3] Entous, Nakashima & Miller, Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2017); Franken, Sen. Franken’s Statement on Report That Attorney general Jeff Sessions Misled American Public under Oath During Confirmation Hearing about His Contact with Russian Officials (Mar. 2, 2017); Demirjian, O’Keefe, Horwitz & Zapotosky, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will recuse himself from any probe related to the 2016 presidential campaign, Wash. Post (Mar. 2, 2017).

[4] Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General Sessions Statement on Recusal (Mar. 2, 2017).

[5] Letter, Sessions to Grassley & Feinstein (Mar. 6, 2017); Assoc. Press, Sessions Clarifies Testimony on Russia, Says He Was Honest, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2017).

[6] Grassley, Grassley: Attorney General Clears Confusion on Hearing Testimony (Mar. 6, 2017).

[7] Stokols, Sen. Jeff Sessions endorses Trump, Politico (Feb. 28, 2016).

[8] Kristof, Connecting Trump’s Dots to Russia, N.Y. Times (Mar. 9, 2017).

Additional Reactions to End of U.S. Immigration Benefits for Cubans

There have been extensive White House comments as well as others’ reactions to the January 12 end of special U.S. immigration benefits for Cubans–“dry foot/wet foot” and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—that was discussed in a prior post. Now we look at additional White House comments and the extensive reactions—positive and negative—regarding this change.

White House Comments[1]

There were two additional sets of White House comments about the change. On the early evening of January 12 and hours after the announcement of the change, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, an unidentified senior DHS official and Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, conducted a lengthy conference call with the press on the subject. At the next day’s press briefing White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made comments on the subject. Here is a summary of new points that were made at these events.

Press Conference Call

Johnson: “Going forward, if a Cuban migrants arrives here illegally, the Cuban government has agreed to accept that person back . . . if . . . the time [between] a Cuban migrant leaves Cuba . . . and the time that we commence a deportation proceeding against the individual is less than four years.”

The “reason for the four-year period is . . . a law in Cuba (enacted in response to the [U.S.] Cuban Adjustment Act) that essentially says that if a person has left Cuba, after two years they are considered to have effectively migrated from Cuba.  In the course of our negotiations, the Cuban government agreed [to change that period from two to four years].” In addition, Cuba has agreed to accept other Cubans “on a case-by-case basis.”

“Ultimately, we seek to get to a place fully consistent with the international law under which the Cubans will agree to accept everyone back who is ordered deported by our country.”

“This is the ending of a policy that was put in place 20 years ago.  This is not the enactment of a policy that can be repealed by a subsequent administration. So I wouldn’t characterize it as creating a policy that could be repealed [by the Trump administration].”

Rhodes: “What we’ve seen in recent years is a continued uptick in Cuban migrants coming to the [U.S.].  We attribute that to a variety of factors — one, that Cuba has liberalized its own exit policies with respect to Cubans leaving the country; two, the change in our policy — the normalization of relations that began on December 17, 2014 — I think created an expectation in Cuba that this change might take place and therefore people were motivated to migrate.  Also, though, the increase in resources available to the Cuban people, particularly through our remittance policies, also made it more possible for Cubans to travel.”

“There has been a steady increase to some 40,000 Cubans granted parole in fiscal year 2015; 54,000 roughly in fiscal year 2016.  And what we had also seen is a growing number of Cubans who had begun a journey to try to reach the United States who were in a variety of Central American countries . . . creating both humanitarian challenges and strains within those countries as large numbers of Cubans were essentially stuck there and then facing a very difficult and dangerous — journey to our southern border in some cases.”

“Ultimately . . . we’d like to see people be able to increase their economic prospects within Cuba.  That is why we have taken steps to open up a greater commercial and people-to-people relationship, and have encouraged the Cuban government to pursue economic reforms.  That, ultimately, is the best way to ensure opportunity for the Cuban people going forward.”

“The Cuban Adjustment Act is the legislative architecture around these policies.  That provides preferences including adjusted status, green card status, and certain benefits to Cubans who are paroled into the country. . . . We do believe it would be the appropriate step for Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

“We did not want to speculate publicly about the likelihood of this change for fear of inviting even greater migration flows.”

“On the congressional point, while we did not have regular updates on what were very sensitive negotiations, we have over the course of the last year or so, frankly, heard from members of Congress, from both parties, who were expressing increasing concern about the migration flows.  In fact, in some cases, we were being urged to do something about it.  And we’ve also heard increasing interest and even pieces of legislation being introduced that seek to amend or repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, whether it’s the benefits provided under the Cuban Adjustment Act or the act itself.  So this is an issue that we’ve discussed with members of Congress from both parties, and around this announcement of course we’re doing many notifications to those interested members. . . . It was clear to us that Congress was taking a greater interest in this issue, given the uptick in migration flows and the strain that was placing on certain communities.”

“[E]arly in the post-revolution history, it was very clear that the overwhelming number of Cubans who came to the [U.S.] and ended up doing incredible things here in the [U.S.] absolutely had to leave for political purposes, or very much were leaving for political purposes.  I think increasingly over time, the balance has tilted towards people leaving for more traditional reasons in terms of seeking economic opportunity and, frankly, having not just the benefits of “wet foot, dry foot” and the adjusted status, but also literal benefits under the Cuban Adjustment Act.  That’s not to say that they’re not still people who have political cause to leave Cuba.  And as we do with any other country, political asylum continues to be an option for those individuals.  But we have seen the balance shift to more similar reasons in terms of people pursuing economic opportunity.”

“[U]ltimately the best future for Cuba is one that is determined by the Cuban people, both in terms of their economic livelihoods and in terms of their political future. . . . [It is] important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change and becoming entrepreneurs, and being more connected to the rest of the world. . . . [We] believe that this change is in service of creating more incentive for there to be the economic reforms that need to be pursued on the island in terms of opening up more space for the private sector, allowing foreign firms to hire Cubans, so that they can be responsive to the economic aspirations of their people. So in the long run, the best way for Cubans to have this opportunity is for them to be able to pursue it at home through an economy that has continued to pursue market-based reforms.”

We “believe very strongly, in this administration, of course, that our Cuba opening is the best way to incentivize that economic reform; that as more Americans travel, as more Americans do business, as there are greater commercial ties, that ultimately is going to create more opportunity for people in Cuba, as well as creating opportunities for Americans.  And so that’s very much the approach we’d like to see continued going forward, and ultimately the one that has the best opportunity to deliver results to the Cuban people.”

The “Cubans will be treated like everybody else.  People from anywhere can issue a claim of asylum; that does happen frequently. There’s not going to be a separate queue for Cubans.  So just like any other migrant who reaches our border, they have certain claims that they can pursue, but they’ll be treated as other individuals from other countries are.”

Press Briefing

At the January 13 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made the following extensive comments about the change:

“This policy change was codified in an executive agreement between the U.S. government and the government in Cuba.  As even some of the incoming administration’s nominees have noted, there’s a tradition of subsequent Presidents observing and adhering to the executive agreements that were put in place by the previous President unless, of course, a specific decision is made to change the policy.”

“President-elect Trump . . . on January 20th . . . [will] be able to exercise all of the executive authority that are invested in the presidency at his discretion.  We believe that there is a strong case to be made about normalizing relations between our two countries, and this is just the latest step in that process to ensure that we are treating Cuban migrants the same way that we treat migrants from other countries.”

The “response to this announcement . . . is indicative of how public opinion is changing on these issues, including in the Cuban-American community.” There is “a growing majority of Americans who agree about the direction that the President [Obaama] has moved the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

“[T]he migrants from Cuba will be treated in the same way that migrants from other countries are, which is to say legitimate claims for refugee status or for asylum will be subject to due process, which means that their claims will be evaluated.  And if they have legitimate claims for asylum, then that will be granted. But that will be adjudicated through the regular process . . . that migrants from other countries go through as well.”

“There was . . . a successful effort to brief the incoming administration shortly before this policy change was made public.”

It “takes time to negotiate these kinds of executive agreements, particularly with a country like Cuba that does not have a long history of negotiating these kinds of agreements with the United States.  For more than 50 years, the United States pursued a policy of diplomatic isolation with Cuba.  And so it’s only over the course of the last year or so that we’ve had the kind of diplomatic opening that will allow us to have these kinds of conversations.  So, negotiating these kinds of executive agreements takes time, but as soon as this agreement was completed, we announced it right away.”

Mr. Trump “certainly seems to be motivated by financial interests in some pretty important ways; he has over his professional career.  So I think he’ll find . . . [the economic argument for normalization] persuasive, particularly when you consider that there were reports that his company was negotiating with Cuba for exactly those kinds of agreements.  So he obviously recognizes the economic opportunity that’s there.  There’s more than a hundred flights every day between the [U.S.] and Cuba.  That’s cancelling a lot of flights if he wants to roll back this policy.  And I can’t imagine that the U.S. airline industry is going to be particularly pleased by that kind of development.”

“There are thousands of Americans that have an opportunity to travel to Cuba, and they’ve had an opportunity to enjoy their time there, learn a little bit more about the country, enhance ties between our two countries, and they’ve been able to return to the United States with all of the cigars and rum that they could pack into their suitcase if they choose to.  I don’t think those Americans are going to be particularly pleased to see that policy rolled back.”

For “more than 50 years, there was a policy of diplomatic isolation in place that had no material impact in improving the human rights situation in Cuba.  If anything, it got worse.  This policy has been in place for about a year.  And is there more that we would like to see the Cuban government do with regard to protecting human rights?  We absolutely would.  But our view is that the ability of the United States to advocate for those kinds of improvements is enhanced when we deepen the ties between our two countries.  When there are more Americans that are traveling to Cuba, when there is more communication going back and forth between Cuba and the United States, when there are more Cuban Americans that have an opportunity to visit family and send money to family in Cuba, all that is going to promote freedom.  That’s going to promote our values.”

“There has not been nearly as much an improvement in human rights in Cuba as we would like to see.  But the [normalization] policy has been in place for a little over [two years].”

We also have removed “an impediment to our relationship with countries throughout Latin America that have important relationships with Cuba.  For most of the last 50 years, those countries in Latin America didn’t apply that much pressure to Cuba about their human rights situation, and [instead] were focused on the [U.S.] and our failed policy of trying to isolate them.  Now that that impediment has been removed, it’s not just the [U.S.] that’s encouraging the Cuban government to improve their human rights situation, but you’ve got countries throughout the Western Hemisphere that are making the same argument.  So all we have done is to increase pressure on the Cuban government to improve the human rights situation there, and, at the same time, the American people have enjoyed a number of material benefits, including monetary benefits, that I do think will be persuasive to the incoming President as he determines what policy he believes is best with regard to the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

Positive Reactions[2]

 A New York Times editorial applauded the ending of this policy, which was “misguided for several reasons. It encouraged Cubans to embark on perilous, and often deadly, journeys on rafts across the Florida straits and across borders in South and Central America. It exacerbated Cuba’s brain drain, particularly after 2006 when Washington created a pathway for medical professionals abroad to defect by applying for visas at American embassies. And it unjustifiably gave Cubans preferential treatment while Haitians and Central Americans who were fleeing far more desperate circumstances were deported.”

This policy, says the Times, “has served as an escape valve, giving a way out to tens of thousands of Cubans who were frustrated by the island’s authoritarian government. Young Cubans have grown up regarding immigration to the [U.S.] as an option that has become a core part of the Cuban psyche.”

Now, the Times continues, there probably will be “pent-up dissatisfaction [that may] embolden more Cubans to press for economic changes and political freedoms as the era of rule by Raúl Castro draws to an end [in early 2018]. This would be hard and risky in a police state that stifles dissent by rewarding loyalists, punishing critics and sowing division among groups agitating for change. Eliécer Ávila, a prominent opposition leader, said, ““In the long run, I feel this will be beneficial by putting pressure on us to take responsibility for our homeland. The fundamental problem here is not the laws of other countries but the reality we live with.”

The Times concluded,  “should be clear to . . . [President-elect Trump’s] team that rolling back the recent progress would be foolish.”

A Washington Post editorial reached the same conclusion as the Times while emphasizing that the “dry foot/wet foot” policy “not only induced discontented Cubans to make a dangerous journey, but also relieved pressure on the regime to meet their legitimate demands at home. In recent years, the policy has also led to various scams, such as Medicare fraud perpetrated by Cubans who quickly settled in South Florida and then returned to the island with ill-gotten money.”

The incoming Trump administration was urged by the Washington Post “to treat [Cuban asylum] claims with the generosity they deserve while noting that the U.S. continuing “to set aside 20,000 immigrant visas per year to Cubans [was] an unusually high number properly reflective of Cuba’s unusually repressive system.”

Jon Anderson in the New Yorker points out that the change “should also help curtail a gruesome people-trafficking network that, over the past two years, has bled tens of thousands of Cubans of what little money they have in order to make it to the United States. Many of the migrants have sold their homes to obtain the cash to pay the traffickers who smuggle them through different countries before they reach the United States. One of the networks funnels people through a Mafia-controlled section of Colombia on an arduous and dangerous trek, sometimes lasting as much as three weeks, through the Darién jungle into Panama. Numerous Cubans, as well as other nationalities, have been robbed, raped, and killed along the way. In Mexico, an unavoidable part of any overland journey to the U.S. border from the south, Cubans fall prey to traffickers linked to the violent drug gangs there, at times with corrupt police involvement.”

Representative Albio Sires (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American, said that “in recent years [some Cubans] used [the dry foot/wet foot policy] to reap economic rewards by sending money back to the island or even going back themselves to visit. While I am sympathetic to the plight of all the Cuban people, this program was designed for those asylees and refugees that were forced to flee. Money sent back to the island has no choice but to pass through the hands of the regime that for years has been using this program to fill their coffers.” He, however, questioned the timing of this change with an incoming president who has made many “hateful and disparaging remarks about refugees, minorities and immigrants.”

Negative Reactions[3]

Cuban-American representatives in Congress registered their typical negative reactions to U.S. normalization with Cuba: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL); Carlos Curbello (Rep., FL); and Mario Diaz-Balart. Representative Curbello, however, admitted that the old wet-foot/dry-foot policy had been “grossly abused and exploited by many Cuban nationals, while also inadvertently bolstering the Cuban regime. A change to this policy was inevitable. I remain firmly committed to supporting the victims of persecution in Cuba while ending all abuses of America’s generosity.”

 A negative opinion also was registered by Carlos Eire, a Cuban-American who arrived in the early 1960’s as a “Peter Pan” kid and who now is an author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.He argues that many Cubans saw the December 17, 2014 announcement of rapprochement . . . [as] new support from the [U.S. that] could prolong the life of the Castro regime indefinitely and allow it to rule despotically; and . . . [as a sign] how Cubans would no longer continue to be viewed by the [U.S.] as an oppressed people.” The January 12 termination of ‘dry foot/wet foot’ “has completed . . . [Obama’s] utter betrayal of the Cuban people — a legacy move set in motion two years ago [and] has burdened Trump with a no-win situation with the potential to seriously tarnish or weaken his presidency right from the start.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on January 12 released a statement from the Chair of its Migration Committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas. Expressing disappointment over the “sudden policy change,” he said, “While we have welcomed normalizing relations with Cuba, the violation of basic human rights remains a reality for some Cubans and the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy helped to afford them a way to seek refuge in the United States.”

The Bishop added, “Cuban Americans have been one of the most successful immigrant groups in U.S. history. The protections afforded them were a model of humane treatment.” This change “will make it more difficult for vulnerable populations in Cuba, such as asylum seekers, children, and trafficking victims, to seek protection. . . . My brother Bishops and I pledge to work with the outgoing and incoming administrations to ensure humane treatment for vulnerable populations, from Cuba and elsewhere, seeking refuge in the United States.”

The Cuban Observatory on Human Rights (OCDH), criticizing the change, said thatmany Cubans do not want or can not live in their own country” and that Cuba has not guaranteed “there will be no reprimand or violations of the human rights of” the Cubans the U.S. returns to the island.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Miami-based Democracy Movement, believes the change “will not stop the Cubans leaving the island, because in Cuba ‘there is a tyranny’ that will create more deaths (of rafters) in the Florida Straits.”

Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue: “Freedom is going to have to be sought now inside Cuba.” It is “sad” that Cubans have always bet on escaping from Cuba rather than fighting for freedom within their country.

Conclusion

This blogger remains persuaded that the “dry foot/wet foot policy is not justified, at least in recent years. Now many, if not most, Cubans wanting to come to the U.S. are motivated by an entirely understandable desire to improve their financial circumstances. That same desire exists in many people from many countries throughout the world. There is no special reason why Cubans should be preferred over all these other people.

As Secretary Johnson, Deputy National Security Advisor Rhodes and Press Secretary Earnest emphasized, if the Cubans are fleeing Cuban persecution for their political opinions, then they may and should submit an application, under U.S. and international law, for political asylum.

The U.S. parole program for Cuban medical personnel 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.[4]

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[1] White House, On-the-Record Press Call [by Jeh Johnson and Benjamin Rhodes] on Cuba Policy Announcement (Jan. 12, 2017); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/13/17.

[2] Editorial, Ending a Misguided Cuban Migration Policy, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017); Editorial, Obama’s latest step on Cuba actually seems necessary and proper, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); Anderson, Obama’s Last Big Cuba Move, New Yorker (Jan. 13, 2017); Congressman Sires Statement on the Administration’s Decision to End “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” (Jan. 12, 2017).

[3] Ros-Lehtinen Statement on Latest Obama Concession to Castro Regime: Elimination of Wet Foot/Dry Foot and Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (Jan. 12, 2017); Diaz-Balart, Have You No Shame, President Obama? (Jan. 12, 2017); Curbelo Comments on DHS Announcement Regarding End of Wet-Foot Dry-Foot Policy (Jan. 12, 2917); Eire, Wet foot, dry foot, wrong foot, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); USCCB Migration Chairman Expresses Disappointment over Abrupt End of “Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy—Policy Has Long Benefited Cuban Migrants and Refugees (Jan. 12, 2017); OCDH Position on the Elimination of the Policy of “Dry Feet/Wet Feet (Jan. 13, 2017);Reactions: Obama’s policies have been ‘a betrayal of Cubans,’ says Mario Díaz-Balart, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 13, 2017).

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

Washington Post Endorses Continued Normalization with Cuba

The Washington Post opens its January 10 editorial by properly recognizing that the “lasting foreign policy legacy of a president often doesn’t become clear until years after he leaves office. That may be particularly true of President Obama, because some of his most distinctive initiatives were, in large part, bets on long-term results. . . . [T]he president’s decision to reopen relations with Cuba without requiring any political liberalization by the Castro regime will be judged on whether greater engagement with the United States eventually helps to bring about that change.”[1]

The editorial concludes by urging President-elect Donald Trump to “improve on . . . [President Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba]. A break with Havana would dash the hopes of millions of Cubans who still expect the [U.S.] to use its leverage to promote real change. Mr. Trump should freeze contacts with the regime’s security agencies and link any further U.S. economic concessions to an increase in political freedom.”

In between these words the editorial laments what it sees as a Cuban escalation of “[r]epression against the political opposition . . . since the death of Fidel Castro;” the decline of U.S. exports to the island; and what it sees as the slow pace of expansion of Cuban self-employment financed, in part, by U.S. remittances to Cuban family and friends.

Conclusion

I applaud the editorial’s recognition that the process of normalizing relations with Cuba is a long-term project that Trump should not abandon, but instead seek to improve.

The editorial, however, fails to acknowledge that Cuba is going through its own long-term project of moving from a state-owned to a mixed economy. This is not an easy task. Indeed, last April Raúl Castro in a speech to the Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba criticized the old habits of many within the state-owned enterprises; praised the economic contributions of the self-employed, now 30% of the national economy; and complained about some low-skilled workers like gas-station attendants earning more money than high-skilled workers like physicians.[2]

This Cuban long-term project is made even more difficult by the economic collapse of its ally Venezuela and the resulting reductions of the latter’s economic support of Cuba, which is briefly mentioned in the editorial along with the 1% decline of the Cuban economy in 2016.

Cuban repression of what we see as political dissent may be factually well founded. But our criticism of such repression needs to be tempered by recognition that the U.S. continues to conduct covert or under-cover so-called “democracy promotion” activities in Cuba and that Cuba has legitimate reasons to be concerned about such activities. This blog, for example, has repeatedly criticized such “democracy promotion” programs and urged that they be conducted only with the cooperation of the Cuban government.[3] Moreover, it would be short-sighted to condition further U.S. economic liberalization on improvements in Cuban human rights; this approach failed in its implementation from 1959 through December 2014.

Finally the U.S. needs to recognize and support Cuban entrepreneurs, many with funding from U.S. remittances, who are improving their own lives and those of their employees and who are becoming an important non-state source of ideas and advocacy.[4]

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[1] Editorial, How Trump could bring real change to Cuba, Wash. Post (Jan. 10, 2017).

[2] Raúl Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommenataries.com (April 19, 2016).

[3] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion Programs in Cuba” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical (Cuba).

[4] Here are some of the dwkcommentaries.com posts that touch on the Cuban economy: Cuba to Legalize Small and Medium-Sized Private Business, (May 25, 2016); Cuba Press Offers Positive Press About the Island’s Private Enterprise Sector, (June 1, 2016); Economists Discuss Current Cuban Economic and Political Situation, (Aug. 1, 2016); Cuba Faces Economic Challenges (Dec. 14, 2016); Cuba’s Economic Ties with Venezuela Are Fraying (Dec. 14, 2016); U.S. and Cuba’s Efforts To Continue Normalization (Dec. 9, 2016).