Castro, Obama and a 'Thing Called Congress'

Wednesday, June 17, 2015
By Amb. Everett Ellis Briggs in The Republican-American:

Castro, Obama and a 'thing called Congress'

President Obama's chief negotiator for "normalizing" relations with Cuba, Roberta Jacobson, at her final news-media briefing last month, expressed strong optimism that the two countries eventually would restore full diplomatic ties. But said she is a "realist" about how long it might take, after 54 years of what she referred to as misunderstandings between the two countries.

Obama has nominated Jacobson to be his ambassador to Mexico, freeing her from what looks increasingly like a hopeless task, given Cuba's recalcitrance and Congress' determination not to let Obama simply give in to Raul Castro's demands, as seems to be his inclination.

Meanwhile, there has been no give in the Castro regime's insistence on flouting international diplomatic convention by inspecting diplomatic pouches, restricting in-country travel by American officials, preventing outreach to political dissidents (who in Cuba are considered traitors), and interfering with access by the Cuban public to the U.S. mission's reading room or Internet cafe.

Cuba refuses to surrender convicted American terrorists and fugitives from justice whom it has given asylum for decades.

Cuba not only won't pay compensation for the billions of dollars of U.S. property it confiscated, it insists the United States pay reparations for the supposed economic hardship U.S. sanctions have caused the island.

And Raul Castro has announced the return of Guantánamo to Cuba is a non-negotiable condition for re-establishing relations.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to what has been going on inside and outside Cuba after last year's announcement that the countries had decided to bury the hatchet. The regime has clamped down harder than ever on Cuban dissidents. There have been more than 3,000 political arrests, including all 53 prisoners who were released as part of the Dec. 17 deal; and an increase in attacks by Castro goon squads against the Ladies in White (a group of peaceful demonstrators who meet weekly at a Havana church). The long arm of state brutality even was extended abroad, as when Castro agents beat up Cuban dissidents — some of them U.S. citizens — in Panama during the recent Summit of the Americas.

Despite all of this, plus Jacobson's inability to cite a single indicator of progress in the negotiations, Obama keeps looking for ways to induce Castro to soften his rigid anti-American stance, if not the regime's iron grip on its citizenry. After his "historic" encounter with Castro in Panama, Obama approved removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and opening up Cuba's access to U.S. banking, despite evidence that Cuba still is in the business of fomenting trouble abroad (and harbors American terrorists).

The lifting of restrictions on certain Cuban imports and plans to resume commercial travel between the United States and Cuba have been touted as signaling the success of a new policy of engagement, to replace the failure of confrontation.

Time for a reality check. Enter Congress.

Several things happened on Capitol Hill last week, starting with a letter from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in which he notified the secretary he will not allow anyone nominated by the administration to be ambassador to Cuba to be confirmed until there is real political reform in Cuba and a restoration of basic human rights; American terrorists and fugitives are repatriated; Americans are compensated for their stolen property; and all restrictions on diplomats are lifted.

The House Appropriations Committee, in considering the State Department budget, voted overwhelmingly to bar any additional expenditures to convert the U.S. Interests Section in Havana into an embassy, or to facilitate a parallel change for the Cubans in Washington. It also approved an increase in funding for Radio and TV Martí, and provided direction to the secretary of State on denying visas for Cuban military and Communist Party members. These provisions survived efforts by Castro apologists at the leftmost fringes of the Democratic Party to delete them during markup, by wide bipartisan margins.

On June 4, as part of the Commerce and Justice department appropriations bill, the House approved by a vote of 273-153 — with substantial Democratic support — tightening sanctions against the Castro regime. No exports under Obama's "Support for the Cuban People" initiative may be made through any entities owned or controlled by officers of Cuba's military or security services, or their relatives. Since the military and security services run the Cuban economy, that pretty much bars any exports supposedly intended to ease the plight of the Cubans. Their poor standard of living, after all, is entirely because of the regime's misguided policies, not U.S. trade restrictions.

In a similar vein, Sens. Rubio, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the "Cuban Military Transparency Act," which would prohibit financial transactions with the regime's military and security services.

And on April 5, the House, by a vote of 247-176 — again, with significant Democratic support — approved a provision in this year's Transportation Appropriations bill barring any new flights or vessels offering travel to Cuba from being facilitated by, or benefiting from, confiscated property.

Congress has continued to tighten the noose, as much on Obama and those eager Americans who can't wait to enjoy the supposed benefits of normalization, as on Castro, it would seem.

The House Appropriations Committee has just released its 2016 Financial Services Appropriations bill — the one that will keep the Treasury running. It bars travel to Cuba "for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program." In other words, no more disguised tourism. It bars "financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service." So much for investing in Cuba, since the military and intelligence service run the economy.

And most cruelly, it bars the "importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government." We'll just have to suck in our gut and wait for another day to savor the world's best rum and cigars.

Richard Sealy, chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, recognized the current state of affairs last week when he was quoted as saying: "... (A) little dose of reality needs to be realized here. Barack Obama did all he could do as far as restoring relations, but there is still this thing called Congress."

This thing called Congress also should consider tying up other loose ends Obama's approach has caused to unravel, starting with passing legislation reaffirming U.S. authority over Guantánamo, a subject that should not be open for negotiation with anything but a friendly, democratic country.

Everett Ellis Briggs of Norfolk is a former ambassador to Panama, Honduras and Portugal.