Slam Dunk for a Lame Duck: Our Man in Havana and Obama’s Faith in Diplomacy

On Wednesday, President Obama sent the nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis to the U.S. Senate for confirmation to be our nation’s first ambassador to Cuba in a half-century.

In a statement released by the White House, the President said of DeLaurentis, a career diplomat who now serves as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, “There is no public servant better suited to improve our ability to engage the Cuban people and advance U.S. interests in Cuba than Jeff.”

Later that day, Senator Marco Rubio, a senior Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement, “President Obama’s Nomination of Ambassador to Castro Regime Should Go Nowhere.”

This surprised no one. In 2014, just hours after President Obama announced his historic breakthrough with Cuba, Senator Rubio stated his strident opposition to the new policy by promising to block the appointment of any ambassador to Cuba. This week he renewed his pledge, by declaring the DeLaurentis nomination dead and calling diplomacy with Cuba “appeasement.”

If Founding Father John Adams were here today, he would be shocked to witness a partisan controversy over something as basic as having a U.S. ambassador in the foreign capital of a nation with whom we are normalizing relations. In his time, Adams served as the first U.S. ambassador to Britain following the end of our Revolutionary War.

It would hardly reassure Adams to learn that Senator Rubio’s stance on ambassadors – and diplomacy – is inconsistent. A day after he denounced the DeLaurentis nomination, Rubio responded to the death of Shimon Peres by praising Israel’s former Prime Minister and President precisely because Peres negotiated with Israel’s enemies:

“He fought for a brighter future for the children of Israel, and in addition to seeking peace with the Palestinians, helped negotiate peace with Egypt and Jordan when most believed it was not possible.”

Today, we concern ourselves not with Rubio’s inconstancy (he also voted to confirm the U.S. Ambassador to China), but with President Obama’s faith in diplomacy and, even more, the choice he is facing given the roadblocks to the DeLaurentis nomination.

In 2007, he was asked (as were the other primary candidates) if he “would be willing to meet with the leaders of America’s most vociferous enemies: Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.” At the time, his answer seemed exotic and politically risky.

Then-Senator Obama answered plainly, as Jon Lee Anderson reminds us, in his recent New Yorker essay, “I would.” He said:

“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] Administration—is ridiculous.” He waited out a round of applause, then continued, “Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic Presidents like J.F.K. constantly spoke to the Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.”

Six years later, President Obama demonstrated respect for Cuba’s sovereignty when he shook President Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa; a year after that he proved that talking to Cuba could realize the national interest in negotiations that opened the door for the two countries to resume diplomatic relations and set Cuban and American prisoners free.

In the fruitful talks that followed, diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba have produced agreements to restore air service, direct mail service, and telephone service, provide for cell phone roaming, as well as cooperation on environmental protection and law enforcement.

Now, the President has taken the long-delayed step of nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than 50 years.

This draws the battle lines between a President who wants an ambassador in Cuba to advance the normalization process, and opponents of the nomination, who think it conveys unacceptable legitimacy to the Cuban government. What happens next?

Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes, an architect of the diplomatic opening, sees the path forward clearly. “They’ll put up a fight and we’ll see if we can get him a vote,” Rhodes said. “Hopefully we can. If not, we wanted to set the precedent that governments nominate ambassadors to Cuba. And it’ll be evident over time that it’s self-defeating to just deny us the resource of an ambassador.”

But if Congress fails to act on DeLaurentis’ nomination, he need not take one for the team in defeat. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments, employing his presidential power to make appointments, albeit temporary, when his nominations faced what the Washington Post called “a wall of Democratic opposition.”

It was by a recess appointment that conservative firebrand John Bolton came to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and his fellow Cold Warrior, Otto J Reich, became Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for a provisional period in Bush’s first term.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Bush made 30 recess appointments during the period between a national election and the next year, while Congress was not in session. Those appointments last for a year. If the Senate doesn’t vote to confirm his nominee, President Obama can take the same step that President Bush took to appoint Mr. DeLaurentis as our ambassador.

Making a recess appointment to give our man in Havana ambassadorial status would be controversial. Congress can use the trick of not adjourning to deny the President a chance to make recess appointments. There’s precedent for that, too.

What’s clear is that Jeff DeLaurentis is a great diplomat who has performed extraordinary service as the U.S. and Cuba have begun to rebuild relations after decades of deep enmity. His appointment is worth fighting for; if not in an up-or-down Senate vote, he’d be a slam dunk after the lame duck. Either way, we suspect John Adams would be pleased.

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

How Donald Trump’s Company Violated the United States Embargo Against Cuba, Kurt Eichenwald, Newsweek

In 1998, a hotel company controlled by U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, secretly conducted business in Cuba, an apparent violation of U.S. laws that prohibit most business transactions with Cuba. Documents from court filings and company records revealed that Trump Resorts & Casino Hotels paid consultants more than $68,000, payments it tried to conceal, for the purpose of exploring opportunities in Cuba for a casino investment in anticipation of the U.S. embargo ending.

With Trump’s knowledge, Newsweek reports, “executives funneled the cash for the Cuba trip through an American consulting firm.” Months later, he launched a short-lived presidential campaign, running on a platform that included staunch support of the embargo. At a 1999 Miami event hosted by the Cuban American National Foundation, he spoke against investing in Cuba, saying “the embargo must stand if for no other reason than, if it does stand, [Fidel Castro] will come down.”

Revelations of Mr. Trump’s prior business dealings in Cuba could adversely affect support for his candidacy in Florida among pro-embargo Cuban-American voters, according to Politico. As we reported last week, Trump exchanged his recent support for ending the embargo for a hard-line position, saying in a speech in Miami that he would reverse President Obama’s policy on Cuba. A top Cuban diplomat rejected Trump’s threat to sever relations if Cuba didn’t meet his demands to negotiate on domestic political rights, as reported by AP.

In response to the story, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway suggested her candidate “broke the embargo,” as the Washington Post reported, “by spending money in Cuba, if indirectly.” Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, described by the Miami Herald, as “an anti-Castro hardliner who’s said he plans to vote for ‘the Republican nominee,’” conceded “They’re very serious allegations,” Diaz-Balart said. But, he added, “up to now, it looks like there wasn’t business” done in Cuba.”

This week Senator Marco Rubio called on the Trump campaign to answer for the allegations, as reported by ABC News. On Thursday, Politico reported that Mr. Trump denied the veracity of the Newsweek article, saying, “No, I never did anything in Cuba. I never did a deal in Cuba.”

Cuba approves U.S. air marshals on commercial flights, Nora Gámez Torres, El Nuevo Herald

Today, the U.S. and Cuba announced an agreement for U.S. air marshals to conduct missions on regularly scheduled commercial flights between the countries. The agreement was negotiated between U.S. officials from the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security and Cuban counterparts from the Ministries of Interior, Transportation, and Customs Department.

It was confirmed by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) today: “With regard to Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) coverage on flights to/from Cuba, TSA has an arrangement in place for charter and scheduled commercial flights. As a general matter, to protect the operations and efficacy of our Federal Air Marshal program, TSA does not provide specific information about when or which flights are covered by our air marshals, as that could potentially compromise security. ”

The announcement comes after confrontations between the Obama administration and Members of Congress regarding the safety of flights between the U.S. and Cuba. As we reported earlier this month, the House Homeland Security Committee advanced a bill that would halt commercial U.S.-Cuba flights unless specific conditions were met. Among those conditions is a provision requiring the Federal Air Marshal Service to be able to operate on U.S.-Cuba commercial flights.

Cuba and the U.S. hold fourth Bilateral Commission meeting in Washington, D.C., as law enforcement engagement deepens

Today marked the fourth meeting of the Cuba-U.S. Bilateral Commission, which is the government-to-government mechanism for high level dialogue between the countries. The U.S. delegation was co-chaired by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mari Carmen Aponte and Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning Jon Finer. Cuba was represented by Josefina Vidal, the Foreign Ministry’s Director General for U.S. Affairs, as reported this week in a White House press release and by Cuban state newspaper Granma. The meeting continued the ongoing dialogue on a suite of bilateral topics, including economic issues, environmental protection, agriculture, health, and law enforcement and counter-terrorism.

Law enforcement was also the focus of a visit this week to Cuba by state-level U.S. attorneys general, led by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. As reported by the Tribune Star, Zoeller and colleagues traveled to the island this week to meet with their Cuban counterparts to advance an on-going bilateral discussion on legal and law enforcement issues. Zoeller said, “We are excited to be building this bridge to the Cuban legal community as our countries are normalizing relations. Despite the differences in our legal systems, we both face serious common problems like human and drug trafficking and other transnational crime.”

The trip took place under the auspices of the Alliance Partnership Binational AG Exchange, an extension of previous meetings between top state U.S. lawyers and their counterparts in other Latin American countries. Zoeller added, “This face-to-face meeting is the first step in creating a robust bilateral relationship that will promote the rule of law and allow cross-border collaboration on issues of mutual importance.”

U.S. trade delegations continue to visit Cuba

This week, two trade delegations that include state and local officials and private sector leaders, are visiting Cuba. As reported by AP, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and local Texas business leaders are in Cuba for three days. The delegation is slated to meet with officials that oversee several key sectors of the economy, including from the Ministries of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Energy and Mines, Tourism and Public Health. Texas Governor Greg Abbott led a state trade mission to the island in 2015.

World Poultry reports that a delegation representing the U.S. poultry, egg, and soybean industries is visiting Cuba from September 27-30. This is the first trade mission under U.S. Department of Agriculture industry-funded programs to conduct authorized research in Cuba, as announced by Secretary Vilsack in March 2016. The Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program and the Iowa Soybean Association checkoff program are backing the trip. They are joined by leaders of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation, the American Egg Board, and others.

In Cuba

Austerity Measures In Cuba Spark Fears Of A Return To Dark Economic Times, Carrie Kahn, NPR

Facing a flagging economy due in part to low prices for Cuba’s limited number of exports and cuts in imports of subsidized oil from Venezuela, Cuban authorities have introduced significant conservation measures, including electricity and gas rationing and reduced work hours. The new austerity is sparking concern and pessimism in Cuba about the future, in contrast to the high expectations of economic opportunity following the resumption of bilateral relations and President Obama’s visit to Cuba in March.

Cubans interviewed in Havana complain that they can’t afford to fill their gas tanks. Cuban authorities say they have prioritized the maintenance of reliable electricity to residential areas and for hotels and restaurants that serve the growing tourist sector, but warn that they expect further drops in export income and oil supplies.

As we reported earlier this month, Ricardo Torres, a reform-oriented economist and a professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana, believes that Cuba’s economic challenges, “do not signal the beginning of a new Período Especial – the profound crisis Cuba experienced in the 1990s.” Writing for American University’s Latin America Blog, he calls them “a painful reminder of the country’s chronic structural problem: the inability to generate enough hard currency to develop the economy and the failure of efforts to overcome that obstacle so far.”

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

China, Cuba agree to deepen ties during PM Li’s Havana visit, Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh, Reuters

This week, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang spent two days in Havana where he met with President Raul Castro and signed “around 30 agreements on economic cooperation in various sectors,” Reuters reports. The agreements cover science, environmental protection, energy, public health, agriculture, as well as the extension of credit for certain projects. Trade with China is increasingly important to Cuba; the countries traded $1.6 billion in 2015, up almost 60% from 2014. Li also reinforced political solidarity with Cuba, saying he sought to “intensify the mutual political trust.”

Cuba, Russia sign nuclear energy cooperation deal, EFE (Spanish)

This week, on the sidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s General Conference, Cuba and Russia signed a deal to cooperate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The agreement, which had been in the works for two years, forms the framework to develop bilateral projects that will focus on medical and food/agriculture applications. Cuba is particularly interested in obtaining industrial irradiators for food sterilization and radio pharmaceuticals for cancer diagnosis and treatment. The agreement does not include any provision for bringing Russian nuclear facilities to Cuba, whether for energy or medical use.

Colombia signs historic peace deal, but voters will have final word, Jim Wyss, Miami Herald

On Monday in Cartagena, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander Rodrigo Londoño signed an historic peace agreement. This brings an end to the longest-running armed conflict in the Americas, one that has claimed 220,000 lives over 52 years. The agreement is the culmination of four years of negotiations hosted in Havana and facilitated by Cuba and Norway, and was broadly welcomed by leaders in the hemisphere. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was among those attending the signing ceremony. He said the U.S. would consider removing the FARC from its list of terrorist organizations, depending on whether they were “implementing” the peace deal.

To enter into force, the pact must be approved by Colombian voters by plebiscite on October 2. As Reuters reported, it is expected to pass, but some in Colombia have expressed reservations about too much leniency for rebels who have been involved in violence, as well as the FARC’s political agenda. Felix Antonio Muñoz, a member of FARC’s governing body, has said that the FARC political platform will be based on rural and agricultural development, making landowners pay their fair share of taxes, and fighting corruption, the Miami Herald reports.

The agreement is a 300-page document that sets forth a path for the FARC to transform into a political party with 10 seats in the Colombian parliament and for rebels to reintegrate peacefully into society.

Recommended Reading

A New Cuba, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

Anderson surveys the evolution of the U.S.-Cuba relationship during the Obama administration, including domestic U.S. political dynamics that shaped the White House’s approach to Cuba policy.

Can Cuban science go global?, Sara Reardon, Nature

In an article for the journal Nature, writer Sara Reardon surveys Cuba’s scientific history, achievements, challenges, and discusses opportunities for the future in a context of renewed relations with the United States.

Connecting Cuba: More space for criticism but restrictions slow press freedom progress, Committee to Protect Journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists released a special multimedia report examining the ongoing transformation of journalism in Cuba, including new and independent journalism outside traditional state media and persistent challenges to press freedom. New York Times Editorial Board Member Ernesto Londoño provides a foreword to the report.

Nothing Trumps Sovereignty, Sarah Stephens, Progreso Weekly

Our thanks to Alvaro Fernandez for bringing this piece to a larger audience, which we published here last week.

Recommended Viewing

The Rolling Stones Will Release Live Album, Concert Footage from Their Historic Cuba Performance, Monica Hunter-Hart, Paste Magazine

Watch the trailer for the forthcoming film of the Rolling Stones’ historic March 2016 concern in Havana, titled Havana Moon.

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