Advice and Dissent: What Happens on Cuba if John Kerry and Chuck Hagel Join Obama’s Cabinet?

The staff of the Center for Democracy in the Americas wishes to acknowledge the horrific gun tragedy that took place in Connecticut today, offer our condolences to the families affected by the violence, and remember that this is the eighth mass shooting that we have experienced in the U.S. this year. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence offers a petition here and an opportunity to send a message to the families and victims affected by the school shooting today.

Dear Friends:

Days ago, the future of Cuba policy in President Obama’s second term seemed predictable.

In his first term, Latin America never rose to his priority list.  At her confirmation hearings, Hillary Clinton promised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she and the president were prepared to “seize the opportunities in Latin America,” but they never did.

After repealing all restrictions on family travel, opening categories of People-to-People travel, and restarting migration talks, progress on engagement was thwarted by the imprisonment of Alan Gross and the administration’s reluctance to negotiate directly with Cuba for his release.

Following the election, the president was said to be close to appointing Susan Rice, his U.N. Ambassador, to be Secretary of State – she once told the United Nations that U.S. sanctions were not the cause of deprivation among the Cuban people – but her candidacy was devoured by opponents on issues ranging from the tragedy in Benghazi to the contents of her investment portfolio, and she never arrived at the point of being nominated or given close to a fair hearing.

On the heels of her misfortune, things could get interesting.  If the speculation now is accurate, President Obama may appoint Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Secretary of State and former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  By doing so, the president would bring into his security cabinet two seasoned figures with long histories as Cuba policy reformers and simultaneously place the Foreign Relations Committee in the hands of some of the coldest of the Cold Warriors in Congress.

Kerry, a steadfast opponent of U.S. intervention in Latin America since his election in 1984, has been consistently smart on Cuba.  He supported travel rights not just for Cuban Americans but for all Americans.  He would not give the Obama administration a blank check to run the USAID regime change programs in Cuba and held up funding when he could.  He was a reliable skeptic of the millions spent on the broadcast propaganda arms – Radio and TV Martí – and of the consultants and bureaucrats who created programming that most Cubans don’t see, hear, or care much about.

Chuck Hagel served two terms in the Senate and called our policy toward Cuba “senseless.”  When former President Jimmy Carter visited the island in 2002, he was the only Member of Congress Carter considered to ask to join his delegation, but Hagel stayed in Washington to participate in a Senate debate on trade.  In 2001, he cosponsored legislation to open the Cuban market further for sales of food and medicine and repeal restrictions on travel.

If these two men are nominated and confirmed, this doesn’t mean President Obama will elevate Cuba as a foreign policy priority.  But it does mean that seasoned figures who urged the country to dump its Cold War baggage and normalize relations would be at the table when critical strategic decisions are made.

However, if Kerry is chosen, he will most likely be sworn in as a witness by Senator Bob Menendez, the presumptive chairman of a vastly changed Senate Foreign Relations Committee.   Menendez, a Democrat but a dissenter on liberalization, promised to filibuster “any bill that in any way lifts or lessens the travel ban on Cuba.”  He joined forces with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a failed effort to stop the Obama people-to-people travel reforms in 2011.   He threatened the budget of the OAS after it opened the door to Cuba rejoining its membership.   He even told the New York Times he would prefer to leave Alan Gross in prison, because “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.”

Gone from the ranks of Republicans will be Senator Richard Lugar, a forward-leaning statesman whose report, “Changing Cuba Policy – In the United States National Interest,” is still filled with useful policy ideas that were offered to the Obama team, many never adopted, when it was published in 2009.  Instead, Kerry would be staring up at the scowling faces of Senators like John McCain and Marco Rubio, who could try and use the hearing to create a record against reform.  So long as Kerry has sound instructions from the top, he will do what is needed to avoid being boxed in.

This shouldn’t be hard.  In an election that took place some five weeks ago, President Obama faced an opponent, endorsed by Florida’s Cuban American delegation in Congress, and they could not deliver the Cuban vote, Miami-Dade, or the state, much less the country, to Governor Romney. Politically, Mr. Obama owes the hardliners nothing, and can use his second term to establish a legacy on Cuba.  Should he have ears to hear it, he could have Secretaries of State and Defense to advise him on how it could be done.


European Bank HSBC to pay $1.9 billion to U.S. for  money-laundering and violation of sanctions laws

European Bank HSBC has settled with the U.S. Justice Department to pay a $1.92 billion fine for failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and violating sanctions laws by doing business with Iran, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, Burma and Mexican drug cartels, reports Reuters. The fine is the largest penalty ever imposed on a bank. In court papers filed Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department also charged the bank with violating the Trading with the Enemy Act, reports the Associated Press.

The Obama administration has levied several fines on financial institutions for doing business in violation of U.S. sanctions. Earlier this year, ING Financial Services was fined $619 million for transactions with Cuba and other sanctioned countries. In 2010, ABN AMRO bank, now the Royal Bank of Scotland, was fined $500 million and Barclays bank was fined $298 million for illegal Cuba transactions.

President Obama willing to work to improve relations with Cuba in his second term

Repeating talking points from the first term, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications at the White House, said President Obama is willing to “reach out a hand” to Cuba in order to improve relations as long as Cuba continues to show an interest in change, reports EFE. Ben Rhodes  delivered the message during a press conference with foreign journalist held to discuss President Obama’s foreign policy agenda for his second term. Rhodes emphasized that the case of Alan Gross is a major obstacle for bilateral relations.


Cuba authorizes creation of non-agricultural cooperatives

In line with President Raúl Castro’s economic reform model, Cuba’s government formally authorized the creation of non-farm cooperatives on Tuesday, reports the Associated Press. The measure establishes a trial period in which over 200 co-ops will be created in sectors including transportation, food services, fishing, construction and domestic services, according to Granma. The new co-ops will be permitted to conduct business with other co-ops, individuals, and state entities, and will be free to set their own prices except for “those that the State determines.” In addition, Cuba’s government will lease out businesses like restaurants and other shops to be run by employee cooperatives.

As Phil Peters at the Cuban Triangle explains, the law conceives of two different types of cooperatives: first-degree cooperatives, which includes “start-ups (those that result from individuals who join together and apply for cooperative status) and conversions (where the government decides that it wants to divest itself of an enterprise)” as well as second-degree cooperatives, formed by an association of two or more cooperatives. He points out that the law does not specify the kinds of economic activities the new cooperatives are authorized to conduct, so “if the government has a policy to favor certain types of cooperatives, it will only become apparent as applications are approved and denied in the pilot project phase and later.”

Cuban Dissidents Detained on the Eve of International Human Rights Day

Elizardo Sánchez, a dissident and human rights monitor, said that around 100 dissidents were detained for a short period of time on Monday to prevent them from commemorating International Human Rights Day, reports the Associated Press. On Sunday evening, members of The Ladies in White were also detained, according to a White House press statement condemning the action.

President Castro declares that economic reforms are going well

Speaking before the National Assembly on Thursday, President Raúl Castro lauded the progress of economic reforms, but noted that much work remains to be done to update Cuba’s economic model, reports the Associated Press. Marino Murillo, chairman of the Economic Policy Commission, announced additional support for small business owners and listed newly legalized categories for private sector employment which include real estate broker, delivery person, antique dealer, and produce vendor.

Communist Party names Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez to Political Bureau

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez was appointed to the Communist Party’s Political Bureau at the Fifth Plenary of the party’s Central Committee held on Wednesday, reports the Associated Press. The move reinforces his status as one of the most important leaders of the younger generation. President Raúl Castro, who has often spoken of the need to promote and encourage younger leadership, again “urged Cuba to break the blockade of thinking that still persists when the time comes to select and prepare young leaders,” according to Granma.

British company invests in project to use sugar cane, marabú weeds for fuel

British company Havana Energy has invested $50 million in building a renewable-energy generator in central Cuba that will provision the national grid and one of Cuba’s largest sugar mills, reports BBC. During the sugar harvest the station will be powered by bagasse, a fibrous cane by-product. The rest of the year it will run on marabú, an invasive weed that grows throughout the island. It is anticipated that removing marabú will return land to agricultural productivity and help reduce Cuba’s need for food imports.


Spaniard convicted in the death of Oswaldo Payá to serve sentence in Spain

Ángel Carromero, the Spanish citizen sentenced to four years for negligent homicide in the car crash in Cuba that killed dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero Escalante, will serve out his sentence in Spain, report Reuters and the Associated Press. Spanish Vice President Soraya Saenz de Santamaría announced early today that “Ángel Carromero’s transfer has been authorized,” but a date has yet to be confirmed. The move was facilitated by a 1988 bilateral agreement between Cuba and Spain that allows citizens from either country to serve their sentence in their respective countries.

Delegation of California chefs in Cuba to promote healthy eating

Chefs from Berkeley’s highly regarded Chez Panisse restaurant are in Havana to encourage healthy eating habits like the incorporation of fresh fruits and vegetables into dishes, reports the Associated Press. The “Planting Seeds” delegation spent the past week engaging with chefs and culinary students by holding seminars about the slow-food movement as well as arranging two large dinners. The chefs also toured local organic farms and shared their own unique culinary ideas for uses of commonplace foods in the Cuban diet with their Havana counterparts.

Around the Region

Chávez undergoes surgery in Cuba

Venezuela’s President Chávez traveled to Cuba on Monday for further surgery in his battle against cancer. His condition has been described as “favorable” after a six-hour surgery followed by procedures addressing subsequent “complications.” However, Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas warned that Chávez might not attend his inauguration ceremony on January 10th and said Venezuelans should be prepared in case of that eventuality, reports the Associated Press.

“I leave full of hope. We are warriors, full of light and faith,” Chávez said on the eve of his departure in a speech broadcast across Venezuela (Spanish text here). Admitting the risk involved in his treatment, he urged supporters to elect Vice President Nicolás Maduro should he become incapacitated, in which case elections would be in order within 30 days, according to the constitution.

Clutching the sword of Simón Bolívar, Chávez clarified to the Military High Command that while not handing over power, he is delegating it to Nicolás Maduro. He warned them, “The enemy is lurking abroad and within, and they will not fail to take advantage of any possible circumstance to pounce as hyenas on the homeland.” However he expressed confidence in the Venezuelan people and recalled their history of withstanding destabilizing forces.

Tuesday evening, Vice-President Maduro displayed his oratorical skills in a televised speech peppered with nationalistic rhetoric. Appearing on the verge of tears, he expressed, “You have to return, and we’re waiting for you here, your children, we who’ve sworn to be loyal to you even beyond this life.”

Presidents from around the region have written, voiced and tweeted their good wishes, and Ecuador’s President Correa visited Chávez in Havana. Prayer vigils are ongoing in Venezuela and around the continent including in Bolivia, Washington, DC, Argentina and Uruguay.

Meanwhile, speculation is rampant about a possible future conflict between Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and Maduro if President Chávez is unable to fulfill his mandate, reports AP.  Cabello, who was vice-president during the 2002 coup attempt, served in the military and is thought to have clout with the armed forces while Maduro may not.

If a presidential election is on the horizon, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who just lost to Chávez, would likely be the opposition candidate, but this will depend on his showing in this Sunday’s nation-wide gubernatorial elections, reports Bloomberg, in which Capriles will face a leading Chavista, Elias Jaua to lead Miranda State.

Inter-American Human Rights Court orders El Salvador to investigate El Mozote massacre

The Inter-American Human Rights Court ruled on Monday that El Salvador’s 1992 amnesty law was not sufficient to cover the worst massacre to occur during the country’s civil war, in which soldiers killed an estimated 1,000 people in 1981, nearly half of whom were children, in the town of El Mozote, reports BBC. Responsibility now falls on El Salvador’s government to investigate the massacre, punish those responsible, and pay compensation to families of the victims. On Tuesday, the government recognized the ruling, and said that it would do everything in its power to comply, reports El Faro. President Mauricio Funes asked forgiveness for the massacre on behalf of the government in January of this year.

Constitutional turmoil in Honduras

Honduras’ Congress has voted by a 91 to 37 vote margin, to remove four Supreme Court judges, reports ABC. The vote occurred on Wednesday at 4a.m. with the AP describing a tense scene in which Congress members joked about vote-buying.  The decision stems from the Supreme Court’s rejection of a police reform law proposed by President Porfirio Lobo, which the Court argued in violation of police officers’ due-process rights. The Supreme Court does not contest that the Honduran police force is deeply corrupt and in need of reforms, but rather ruled that the reforms should be carried out in a transparent, appropriate way, explains Honduras Culture and Politics.

The potential for problems associated with the purging of the police force that has been underway has been previously noted by InSight Crime. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling, congress members belonging to President Lobo’s National Party formed a commission to investigate the judges; the report they issued 24 hours later was used as the basis for the Congress’ dismissal of the judges.

Meanwhile, Lobo warned that a coup could be orchestrated against him for pursuing the police reform, by the political and business elite that removed former President Manuel Zelaya from power in 2009. For his part, Zelaya has called for both sides to hear one another out, stating: “the polygraph cannot be the only proof used to remove a police from office, but the claim that they are slowing the police reform process must also be heard. This is about two points of view, and the just interpretation of law should prevail,” reports La Tribuna.  Ongoing developments and legal analysis can be found at the Honduras Culture and Politics blog.

Recommended Reading

Caracas Connect: A Tale of Two Elections, Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Dr. Dan Hellinger analyses the regional elections that will be held this Sunday to elect 23 governors and 260 Legislative Council members in Venezuela (map). He also asks whether Caracas and Washington can reset relations, and discusses the conflicts arising within indigenous communities over mining, assassinations and lack of implementation of the indigenous rights granted in Venezuela’s laws.

The New Cuban Economy: What Roles for Foreign Investment?, Richard Feinberg, Brookings Institution

Richard Feinberg, professor of political economy at the University of California, San Diego, in a report for the Brookings Institution, analyzes recent shifts in Cuba’s economy and the role of foreign investors since the revolution in 1959. He discusses the current modest involvement of some bilateral and regional cooperation agencies and considers the larger potential benefits to Cuba if it were to join global and regional financial institutions.

Cuba’s Free-Market Farm Experiment Yields a Meager Crop, Damien Cave, The New York Times

Damien Cave reports on the growth of farmers’ markets in Cuba.  He finds that these markets, which allow farmers to earn more money by selling their additional crops on the free market, have become inefficient due to transportation issues, theft, legal constraints, and mismanagement.

Ingrid Betancourt on how Colombia can achieve a lasting peace, Tavia Grant, The Globe and Mail

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Ingrid Betancourt, former presidential candidate in Colombia, speaks candidly about the six years she spent as a hostage of the FARC and about her optimism for the peace and reconciliation process moving forward.

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