Wise Use of Executive Authority Could Navigate Obama off the 404 page

April 25, 2014

Thanks to ZunZuneo, President Obama has tweeted his Cuba policy into an Error 404 page.

Just this week, ZunZuneo rattled Roots of Hope, a non-profit that professed distance from government-funded “democracy promotion” programs, when the Associated Press exposed the role played by some of its leaders in the Cuban Twitter project.

It rankled Costa Rica after the AP reported that a USAID manager stationed in San Jose played a role in supervising the project, dragging a staunch U.S. ally which respects Cuba’s sovereignty into the regime change row.

And it continued to roil press relations with the State Department, where Jen Psaki, the spokesperson, was still telling reporters that USAID had not yet finished reviewing the tweets ZunZuneo sent to Cubans to determine their political content three weeks after the scandal broke.

The 2012 election should have freed the president’s hand.  But, after the President vanquished former Gov. Romney – who famously said in Florida, “If I’m fortunate enough to become the next president, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet” – his Cuba policy is staggering under the weight of a really dumb program that he inherited from his predecessor.

How can the president navigate back?  He should use his authority to revive his Cuba policy in ways that demonstrate his leadership and understanding of the post-Cold War world.

Take Cuba off the State Sponsors of Terror List.  President Reagan listed Cuba for political reasons, and politics is the only justification for why it remains falsely accused and heavily penalized.

Even though the Department explains the list by saying, “the Secretary of State must determine that the government of such country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” the report it issued last year read like a concise statement for Cuba’s exoneration.

It said, Cuba distanced itself from Basque terrorists.  It changed from offering safe haven to some members of the FARC to hosting peace talks between it and Colombia’s government.  The report even said, “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”  The sole criticism it contained — that Cuba harbors fugitives wanted in the United States — is not a condition for including any country on the terror list.

Above politics, there are a number of compelling reasons – all in the U.S. national interest – for the President to remove Cuba from the terror list, and some urgency for him to take this step now.

Reconsider the sentences of the remaining members of the Cuban Five. This week, the New York Times endorsed a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to reinvigorate the clemency power of the executive branch with this reminder:

“Throughout American history, presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman to Gerald Ford have used the power of executive clemency to help bring an end to war, or to promote national healing in its aftermath.”

This brings us – and ought to bring the President – to the case of the Cuban Five, “now in their fifteenth year in prison for conducting espionage operations, mostly against exile groups with violent pasts,” as Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation last year.

Although its negotiating position has shifted over the years, it has long been clear that the Cuban government will negotiate for the release of imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross so long as its “humanitarian concerns” for these prisoners are also met.

Since his arrest in 2009, the U.S. government has fecklessly called for Mr. Gross’s unconditional release, despite his conviction in a Cuban court for activities our government knew were illegal before he was sent to Cuba under a USAID regime change program.

As recently as this month, Secretary of State John Kerry, in testimony before Congress, rejected a prisoner swap because it implies Cuba’s spies and Mr. Gross were engaged in equivalent activities (a debatable notion in itself).

Worse, it is the position of hardline Members of Congress that the U.S. should not negotiate with Cuba to obtain his release because Cuba is listed as a state-sponsor of terror (see above).

While his government offers pat explanations for what it won’t do to affect his release, Mr. Gross was plain-spoken in telling his attorney darkly, “His 65th birthday, which occurs on May 2, will be the last birthday that he celebrates in Havana.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, explaining the administration’s commutation policy, wrote, “It is important to remember that commutations are not pardons. They are not exonerations. They are not an expression of forgiveness.” He could have been writing the script for a Presidential determination to free the Cuban spies in exchange for Alan Gross.

The President will be hard to move on this exercise of his executive authority.  But, make no mistake; an action by the President to approve commutations for the remaining Cuban Five prisoners would not just enable Mr. Gross to celebrate his 66th birthday at home, but free his administration to pursue more effectively all of his Cuba policy goals.

The big enchilada is Helms-Burton. Our final point, though it might be hard to imagine, is that the President should be honing the argument for reclaiming the authority of his office to recognize Cuba, an authority that was seemingly taken away by passage of the Helms-Burton law.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will consider a case that bears directly on this point. It concerns a law enacted by Congress that requires the State Department to treat Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for the purposes of issuing passports.  At stake is the larger constitutional principle of whether the President has the exclusive right to recognize the sovereignty of another country.

The U.S. Court of Appeals sides with presidential power and against the Congress in a decision it issued last year.   Its decision can be read in its entirety here.  But, the conclusion by the Court is unmistakable:

“Having reviewed the Constitution’s text and structure, Supreme Court precedent and longstanding post-ratification history, we conclude that the President exclusively holds the power to determine whether to recognize a foreign sovereign.”

Should the Supreme Court affirm the appellate court ruling, its decision will loosen the grip of Congress on the core issue of Cuba policy – whether the U.S. will shift its focus from overthrowing the Castro government to letting Cubans decide their own future by themselves.

Letting the Cubans lead, rather than forcing them to tweet, would be a proud moment for the President, unless he prefers hearing the tweet of the hummingbird that brought him to 404.

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Travel with CDA!

Since 2001, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) has been organizing delegations of travelers to visit Cuba to experience the island first-hand.

These trips, which we primarily offer to Members of Congress and various groups of policy experts, provide a truly unique experience, introducing travelers to our diverse range of contacts and friends, including artists, academics, entrepreneurs, musicians, journalists, and Cubans from all walks of life.

Right now, CDA is organizing a people-to-people delegation which will travel from June 1st to the 6th.  There are just a few spaces left, and we are hoping that readers of our news blast would like to fill them! If you are interested in seeing Cuba first-hand, please email Vivian Ramos at vivian@democracyinamericas.org ASAP.

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The Democracy Promotion Paradox – or why Americans hate politics

February 8, 2013

Sometimes our Cuba policy is so farcical, it’s impossible to keep a straight face.

Consider poor Pedro Adriano Borges, age 68 who, according to the Miami Herald is awaiting trial in federal court.  He is charged with ten violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, money laundering, and other crimes for which he could spend 35 years in prison if convicted.  The underlying charge is this: he shipped $93,000 worth of goods – including light bulbs and diapers, spices and mayonnaise – to Cuba before Congress authorized food trade with the island.  Opening the market to mayonnaise might be considered a crime against Cuban cuisine, but he should hardly be facing jail time in 2013 for an activity that’s been legal for a decade.

Other times, however, the policy is not just farcical, but so internally inconsistent that it edges in the direction of tragedy.  Consider what we continue to learn about the USAID democracy promotion or regime change programs.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the programs this week.  Unlike prior studies, which disclosed that U.S. recipients of the funds were wasting them on Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters, and Nintendo Game Boys, GAO said the program was being operated with tighter internal controls.  This – along with headlines like “U.S. government report says America’s democracy programs have improved” –undoubtedly delighted USAID, which just last month read this story in the Washington Post:  “Interference with bid-rigging probe alleged at USAID.”

In fact, Marc Lopes, head of USAID’s Latin American and Caribbean section, told the Herald in a phone interview, “We have increased transparency and financial monitoring, and we are pleased that GAO has recognized that.”

But, remember, the GAO makes judgments about accounting, not about policy.  As the Miami Herald reported, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $205 million dollars on democracy promotion activities since 1996.  There is no evidence that the programs are achieving their objective of hastening a democratic transition in Cuba.  Phil Peters says it well on his Cuban Triangle Blog:

“So the dollars are well accounted for, but as to whether they are being spent in ways that make a positive difference, well, that’s outside the scope of the report.

“Which is worth noting because in the case of USAID’s satellite Internet program run by Alan Gross and other grantees, the dollars may have been perfectly managed and 100 percent accounted for, but they were 100 percent wasted because these operations were rolled up by Cuban intelligence.”

Wasted and obscured from public view.  There is another version of the report, “sensitive but unclassified,” that GAO won’t allow U.S. taxpayers to see.  Even worse, Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, discovered that USAID hired an outside contractor to review the programs, which found “questionable charges and weaknesses in partners’ financial management, procurement standards, and internal controls.”   But when Mr. Eaton filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the outside audit, USAID fought him and then provided only ten pages of material that “omit most findings, recommendations and other key information, including the identity of the aid recipients named in the audit.”

This is more than a little odd coming from USAID which recently gave a $25 million grant to researchers at the University of Texas…(wait for it)….to develop tools that will “Increase Global Aid Transparency.”

Not only that, Mr. Eaton requested an interview with Mr. Lopes a little more than a week ago, and he declined.

Can someone stop the pain?

Not if what President Eisenhower might have called The Cuba-Industrial Complex has anything to say about it.  Although there was scant public mention of democracy promotion at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, a new round of questions and answers about the program popped up in the Congressional Record, according to “Capitol Hill Cubans,” an eager supporter of regime change in Cuba.

In testimony apparently provided for the record –questions asked and answered in private – Senator Marco Rubio urged Mr. Kerry not to negotiate with Cuba to obtain Alan Gross’s release; not to shut down or rollback democracy programs; and to scrutinize the already legal people-to-people trips to Cuba.  You can read Kerry’s responses here.  We think he gave Senator Rubio no quarter.  To date, Mr. Kerry has made no public statements about whether he’d change the programs that he tried to reform as a member of the U.S. Senate.

But, the bodyguards surrounding USAID’s Cuba programs – the contractors, the pro-sanctions Senators, the array of publicists and polemicists aligned with them – will continue resisting the scrutiny and long-overdue public debate that ought to take place about these wasteful, ineffective, covert-but-not-classified programs that antagonize Cuba and which turn Latin America more broadly against us.

We are reminded of what E.J. Dionne wrote in “Why Americans Hate Politics” –

“With democracy on the march outside our borders, our first responsibility is to ensure that the United States becomes a model for what self-government should be and not an example of what happens to free nations when they lose interest in public life.”

Such is the democracy promotion paradox.

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