Think you had a bad day? It could be worse. You could be a suitcase belonging to the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto.
Packed and unpacked; for the meeting of Caribbean and Latin American leaders in the Dominican Republic. There, President Peña Nieto was a no-show; his trip cancelled without explanation.
Packed again for his meeting with President Trump at the White House on January 31, 2017, a beautiful, historic day, his suitcase got caught up in immigration politics. After the White House issued two Executive Orders on immigration, President Peña Nieto had little choice. He told the Mexican people in a televised address, “I regret and disapprove of the decision by the United States to continue with the construction of the wall,” and then broke the news to his luggage – their trip to Washington was off.
The president’s suitcase? It was a distraction. Distraction is the elegant ingredient of magic – by waving a shiny object, a wizard can pull the audience’s attention where the action isn’t happening, leaving the trick to remain undetected.
Journalists were dutifully distracted reporting each time one of President Trump’s nominees disagreed with him in public (think Russia and climate change) in their confirmation hearings. But the press has paid far less attention when his nominees agreed with him in private; for example, when they signaled Senators in writing about Cuba policy changes yet to be revealed.
Since Friday, two Questions for the Record (QFRs) have been released on Capitol Hill. These are canned questions sent by Senators to obtain canned responses by nominees to nail down commitments by the administration to policy changes that were promised in the presidential election campaign.
For example, when Treasury Secretary-designate Steve Mnuchin was asked if he’d reverse the executive orders by President Obama that loosened restrictions on travel and trade, he told the Senate Finance Committee, “If confirmed, I will enforce all statutorily-mandated Cuba sanctions to the fullest extent of the law.”
When asked if he’d stop American companies from doing business with state-owned entities controlled by the Cuban military he responded “If confirmed, I commit to fully and effectively enforcing all sanctions prescribed by [the Helms-Burton law] and other Cuba sanctions legislation.”
When asked if he’d favor U.S. farmers and manufacturers doing business in Cuba by supporting past easing of the sanctions, he said, essentially, “no.” Or in his words, “If confirmed as Secretary, I will implement and enforce Cuba sanctions pursuant to their statutory construct.”
President Trump can’t be paying Mr. Mnuchin by the word; otherwise, he’d be using more of them. In any case, what he said is news.
More discursive responses – by which we mean disheartening and troubling –came from UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. The answers she submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before winning confirmation suggests the “fact-checkers” left her alone with the ideologues while she was polishing her answers.
When asked, “Do you agree that the U.S. should help support private entrepreneurs in Cuba with training or other assistance, so they can build businesses, market their products and services, and compete with state-owned enterprises?” She said, “Unfortunately, Cuba does not have private entrepreneurs and working independently is not a right but a privilege granted only to supporters of the regime.”
When asked, “Do you agree that after more than half a century the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve any of its principle objectives?” She replied, “We should be clear about a few things. The goal of the embargo was never to cause regime change, but rather to raise the costs of the Cuban government’s bad behavior.”
When asked, “Will you continue the recent practice of abstaining to the UN General Resolution pertaining to the statutory U.S. embargo on Cuba?” She said, “No.”
[Too bad. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech when the U.S. abstained on the embargo resolution last year was a truly great moment.]
And when Ambassador Haley was asked, “Do you support continued diplomatic relations with Cuba?” She submitted an 85-word response that didn’t directly answer the question; which, by today’s standards, means she testified truthfully.
President Raúl Castro spoke about U.S.-Cuba relations in remarks before the gathering of Caribbean and Latin American leaders we mentioned at the outset. “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, respecting differences and promoting all that benefits both countries and peoples,” he said, “but it should not be expected that to do so Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence.”
On the surface, this coincides with President Trump’s inaugural address, where he said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather let it shine as an example.”
That could be read as respect for the sovereignty of others. But it’s probably just a distraction.
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