The President and his national security team appear to be borrowing elements from President Bill Clinton’s playbook that led to normal relations between the United States and Vietnam. I never thought I’d say this but, Clinton followed a more strategic, albeit flawed approach on normalization with Vietnam than Obama ever will. At least Clinton was forced, well more like cajoled by Congress to temper the process until key US interests were addressed, the Obama operation could care less about U.S. national interests. They have elevated to an art form appeasement and global interests first.
As a recent Mother Jones story points out, they’ve been at this on Cuba for, at least, two years. I believe it has been in the works longer than that. And if the Congress fails to act this year with more than appropriations riders, the embargo, weak as it is, will be nothing more than an onion thin paper tiger.
The parallels between the normalization process between the Vietnam and Cuba cases are many. For example, the hot button issues with Vietnam included the return of more than 1,000 American POWs either imprisoned or killed in action, compensation for confiscated property stolen from Americans by the Communists, and improvement of the human rights situation. All of these issues, including Vietnam’s close relationship with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, ensured that the embargo remained in place from 1975 through 1994.
In the case of Cuba, the outstanding issues are similar. With the exception of the POW matter, the main issues of contention include Cuba’s failure to compensate Americans for confiscated properties valued at $8 billion, possibly more; Cuba’s harboring of fugitives from U.S. law, including cop killers; as well as gross human rights violations. However, unlike Vietnam, there are many other additional action items clearly laid out in U.S. law since 1996 that the Obama administration has opted to ignore and, in some cases, violated the law.
Before restoring full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, President Clinton eased a majority of the economic sanctions. A mistake. However, by the time he did this, the Soviets were mostly gone from Vietnam; Vietnamese forces had pulled out from Cambodia and replaced with a UN peacekeeping force; and thousands of former South Vietnamese officials had been freed from political prisons and exiled to other nations including the United States.
What ultimately made it politically palatable for Clinton to remove sanctions was a 1993 Senate Select Committee report on POW matters that afforded Clinton the domestic political cover he needed to move forward to ease sanctions. Vietnam also started to return POW remains and allowed U.S. inspectors as part of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTF-FA) to visit various places throughout the country to investigate POW/MIA claims.
Congress was unable to stop Clinton’s July 1993 executive action lifting restrictions on Vietnam’s participation in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The same happened a few months later when U.S. companies were allowed to bid for Vietnam projects at the IMF and World Bank. Then in February 1994, Clinton essentially removed all restriction and lifted the embargo on Vietnam. When the Congress drafted in 1996 the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as Helms-Burton, drafters made certain that the loopholes of the Vietnam embargo were closed in the case of Cuba.
One of the lessons from the Vietnam transition model, as is the case in most foreign policy situations where U.S. interests are at stake, is that human rights, while a factor, will fall in importance as the Cuba discussions continue. Human rights is a long-term and rather complex issue that will require, in the case of Cuba, decades to resolve.
Frankly, and as an American of Cuban ancestry it somewhat pains me to say this, the human rights issue in Cuba is a question that rest squarely with the people of Cuba and other harmed by the Communist regime since 1959, not the United States government. While the U.S. government should and must press current and future leaders of Cuba to do right, human rights cannot be the primary driver of US policy. As the post-World War II Nuremberg process instructs, the human rights issue should not be left to politicians or diplomats. Independent, preferably national tribunals set up to account, review, and take other measures should deb set up to manage that often painful process.
U.S. national interests with respect to Cuba are many and this President has ignored every single one of them because he’s too busy with legacy politics. These issues are outlined in Helms-Burton and also include an array of post-09/11/01 security concerns that have been ignored or, in the case of Cuba’s terrorism designation, whitewashed. On the latter, Congress has been remarkably mute.
Despite Cuba’s dire political and economic state, it continues to undermine U.S. interests throughout the Americas and works with our enemies in other regions, including the Middle East. They hide cop killers and international terrorists from U.S. and European authorities. Corruption and international money laundering are rampant.
Then there is the issue nobody in this town likes to talk about, the $8,000,000,000+ political albatross that Cuba wishes would go away, compensation to American taxpayers for unlawfully confiscated properties and other items that the Communist government never paid for. This is the primary reason why US sanctions were imposed on Cuba and the regime is going to fight us for every penny of it.
Any third year law student who has taken an international law course knows that the taking of property without compensation is, under international law, illegal. This has been the case for centuries. The solution? Again, a long-standing principle under international law requires either restitution or other compensation of equal value, plus interest.
Of course, I’m simplifying the matter and there is much more legal analysis that takes place; however, the gist is that if you steal it, you must pay for it. In the case of Vietnam, before diplomatic relations were fully restored, there was an agreement in place to deal with the property claims issue. Holding diplomatic recognition at bay assured leverage to ensure prompt payment of claims and resolution of other issues.
What leverage do we have now with Cuba? I think very little because the Obama operation keeps granting concession upon concession to the Communist government with U.S. taxpayers taking a back seat to the entire process. More than the using of sanctions, a communist government has been given wouldn’t have wanted for decades: diplomatic recognition, a patina of legitimacy. What we should’ve been talking about is the extradition of Cuban war criminals, and focusing on US interests, not diplomatic relations.
With respect to the claims issue, unlike Vietnam, this go around may have negative legal implications for the United States if the Obama Administration’s policy adventurism in Cuba is not curtailed by the Congress. By allowing unchecked rapprochement, the Congress is condoning trafficking in properties in Cuba subject to certified claims. At some point, when will this turn into a legal issue, a Fifth Amendment taking, of interests held by certified claim holders?
Judging how Congress handled the Iran deal, and Cuba oversight since January, my expectations for a smarter approach on Cuba are very low at this point. In the meantime, by prematurely reestablishing diplomatic relations, the Obama administration has upped the legal ante on claims issues generally, including claims held by a certified claim holders and others.
As the Nuremberg process, and subsequent history of post-World War II transitional justice cases demonstrate, clogging U.S. courts with takings and other cases against Cuba, and potentially the United States, is not way to best handle these matters.We can and must do better for families that were victims of Cuban Communism. The ongoing whitewashing and policy laundering of Cuban Communist by the Obama Administration must stop. It’s un-American.