A ‘Brave’ Move by Obama Removes a Wedge in Relations With Latin America
By SIMON ROMERO and WILLIAM NEUMAN
DEC. 18, 2014
BUENOS AIRES — President Obama has been lambasted for spying in Brazil, accused of being a warmonger by Bolivia, dismissed as a “lost opportunity” by Argentina, and taunted in Nicaragua by calls for Latin America to draw up its own list of state sponsors of terrorism — with the United States in the No. 1 spot.
But now Latin American leaders have a new kind of vocabulary to describe him: They are calling him “brave,” “extraordinary” and “intelligent.”
After years of watching his influence in Latin America slip away, Mr. Obama suddenly turned the tables this week by declaring a sweeping détente with Cuba, opening the way for a major repositioning of the United States in the region.
Washington’s isolation of Cuba has long been a defining fixture of Latin American politics, something that has united governments across the region, regardless of their ideologies. Even some of Washington’s close allies in the Americas have rallied to Cuba’s side.
Now, Mr. Obama’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba is snatching a major cudgel from his critics and potentially restoring some of Washington’s influence in a region where rivals like China have long chipped away at America’s primacy.
“We never thought we would see this moment,” said Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla who chided the Obama administration last year over the National Security Agency’s surveillance of her and her top aides. She called the deal with Cuba “a moment which marks a change in civilization.”
The change in tone was perhaps starkest from President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Cuba’s main financial patron. He has called Mr. Obama the “big boss of the devils,” a puppet and a sad “hostage” of American imperialism. More recently, he lashed out at Mr. Obama over a bill calling for sanctions against Venezuelan officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses.
But on Wednesday, when Mr. Obama announced the Cuba deal, Mr. Maduro was almost effusive.
“We have to recognize the gesture of President Barack Obama, a brave gesture and historically necessary, perhaps the most important step of his presidency,” Mr. Maduro said.
Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president and former Sandinista rebel, was chastising Mr. Obama just days ago, saying the United States deserved the top spot in a new list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then, on Wednesday, he saluted the “brave decisions” of the American president.
“Our previous Cuba policy was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,” said Roberta S. Jacobson, the American assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, adding that it had caused friction even with countries friendly to Washington. She said that countries “with whom we have significant differences are going to be, let’s say, thrown off their stride by a move like this.”
“It removes an excuse for blaming the United States for things,” she added.
The thaw comes just a few months before the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of hemispheric leaders in Panama under the Organization of American States, the Washington-based group from which Cuba was suspended in 1962.
The Panamanian hosts confirmed earlier this month that Cuba would attend the summit for the first time, making for a potentially awkward meeting for American officials.
“They asked themselves, do you really want to show up and have every reasonable president of the region say, ‘Is this how you really want to engage with Latin America?' ” said Eric Hershberg, the director of the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.
One senior Obama administration official said that pressure from the region on Washington’s Cuba policy had crept into and impeded other discussions.
“In the last Summit of the Americas, instead of talking about things we wanted to focus on — exports, counternarcotics — we spent a lot of time talking about U.S.-Cuba policy,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “A key factor with any bilateral meeting is, ‘When are you going to change your Cuba policy?' ”
As for Cuba, experts said a significant factor pushing it to favor better relations with the United States was the economic trouble in Venezuela, whose leftist government has propped up Cuba for years with shipments of oil, much as the Soviet Union once did.
Venezuela ships about 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba, in exchange for Cuban doctors, nurses, athletic trainers and military advisers. The relationship is worth billions of dollars a year to Cuba.
Mr. Maduro has pledged to continue supporting Cuba, but Venezuela is in the throes of a deep economic crisis that is being made worse by a drastic drop in the price of oil, Venezuela’s main export.
“That’s been an ongoing problem for the Cuban government for some time now, trying to figure out how they can diversify their economic relationship so they weren’t so dependent on Venezuela,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research organization. “When they looked at their options, they realized that better relations with the United States were critical to their economic strategy.”
Mr. Obama’s shift on Cuba could have tangible effects. In Brazil, it may deprive critics of an easy target and ease the way for Ms. Rousseff, a leftist with skeptics of her leadership in her own Workers Party, to mend ties with the United States.
In Colombia, the top ally of the United States in South America, the new policy could spur peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end the region’s longest-running guerrilla war.
Cuba, which long supported FARC, has played a central role in the talks by helping to bring the two sides to the table for negotiations, which are taking place in Havana. Many analysts thought that Cuba’s role was part of a broader strategy to soften its profile and convince Washington that it could play a constructive role in the hemisphere, where it had once sought to stir violent revolution.
Given the long history of skepticism over Washington’s policies in Latin America, some in the streets of the region’s cities greeted the shift warily.
“I’m always suspicious of the United States,” said Rubén Grimaldi, 65, a retired owner of a toy store in Buenos Aires. “They must have a knife somewhere under their poncho.”
But while sharp differences persist on many issues, other major Washington policy shifts have recently been applauded in the region, including Mr. Obama’s immigration plan and the resettlement in Uruguay of six detainees from Guantánamo Bay.
“These measures will not eliminate suspicions and resentments, but they will give Washington enhanced credibility on a range of other issues,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group, speaking from Havana.
The first test of the impact of the shift over Cuba could come swiftly in Venezuela, where Mr. Maduro must determine how to respond to the new American sanctions, which Mr. Obama signed into law Thursday.
Given that he had called a rally against the United States and thundered against the “insolent Yankee imperialists” on Monday, Mr. Maduro’s response to the new law was muted.
“President Obama has taken a false step against our country today,” he said in a series of posts on his Twitter account. “On the one hand, he recognizes the failure of the policy of aggression and embargo” against Cuba, “and on the other hand, he starts the escalation of a new stage of aggression” toward Venezuela.
Before the thaw with Cuba, Mr. Maduro had hinted that he was considering kicking out American diplomats, something he has done before. But now that Cuba has opened its doors to American diplomats, Mr. Maduro must consider how it would look for him to be once again showing the door to American envoys.
“There will be radical and fundamental change,” said Andrés Pastrana, a former president of Colombia. “I think that to a large extent the anti-imperialist discourse that we have had in the region has ended. The Cold War is over.”
Correction: December 19, 2014
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a retired toy store owner in Buenos Aires who said he was suspicious of the United States. He is Rubén Grimaldi, not Grimaldo.
How Obama’s Undercover Statecraft Secured Three Major Accords
By MARK LANDLER
DEC. 18, 2014
WASHINGTON — One aide slipped off a Hillary Rodham Clinton trip in Paris and flew to the Persian Gulf. Two others ducked out of the White House periodically to catch commercial flights to Ottawa or Toronto. A top adviser vanished from the West Wing during the waning weeks of the midterm election campaign to travel to Beijing.
Three of President Obama’s top diplomatic achievements — the reopening of ties with Cuba, announced this week; the interim nuclear agreement with Iran; and the climate-change pact with China — resulted from secret negotiations. Some were conducted in exotic locales like the Vatican and the Arab sultanate of Oman; others in less exotic places like Boston.
Not since Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China in 1971 has a president embraced undercover diplomacy with the enthusiasm of Mr. Obama. For an administration that likes to promote its transparency, this White House has concluded that some deals are best pursued with all the openness of a drone strike against distant terrorists.
What the Cuba, Iran and China talks have in common — aside from their cloak-and-dagger allure — are a small team of negotiators, strict discipline and tight control by the White House. They also attest to Mr. Obama’s willingness to entrust historic projects to close aides, some of whom are young and have little experience in diplomacy.
In the case of Cuba, the entire American delegation consisted of two White House officials, one of whom, Benjamin J. Rhodes, is a 37-year-old speechwriter who has worked for Mr. Obama since his 2008 campaign and has become an influential voice in the administration. The Iran and China negotiations were also led by trusted Obama aides.
Using non-diplomats helps preserve the veil of secrecy, a senior official said, because such people are less likely to arouse suspicion among colleagues or the press. The three countries with which they were negotiating, the official said, were also able to keep a secret.
“Negotiations are like mushrooms: They grow in the dark,” said Martin S. Indyk, the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “That’s especially true of negotiations between longtime adversaries, where the domestic politics on both sides make it impossible to reach a deal if the negotiations are conducted in public.”
Mr. Indyk knows firsthand the hazards of conducting diplomacy in open view. As the administration’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he struggled to bring together distrustful parties under a white-hot media glare. While the details of the talks were kept under wraps, the very public nature of the process made it vulnerable to scrutiny from all sides.
The last time Washington had a vigorous debate over the need for secrecy in diplomacy was in 2010 when WikiLeaks released 250,000 confidential State Department cables, forcing the Obama administration to mend fences with foreign leaders and others who had been slighted in the reports that diplomats sent in from the field. The damage from the WikiLeaks disclosures proved less severe or long-lasting than many people in the government predicted. But it did nothing to dissuade the Obama administration that fledgling initiatives needed to be shielded from the public and the press.
In plotting its Cuba overture, the administration drew on the success of its secret back-channel talks with Iran. The United States had taken part in multiparty talks with Iran over its nuclear program. But with those talks frozen in late 2011, Mrs. Clinton, then secretary of state, authorized one of her aides, Jake Sullivan, to make direct contact with Iranian officials.
In July 2012, Mr. Sullivan met with Iranian representatives in Oman, where Sultan Qaboos bin Said had taken on the role of middleman between two longtime enemies. Mr. Sullivan, 38, and a colleague crashed on a couch in a house belonging to the American Embassy. The effort proceeded in fits and starts, but suddenly became serious with the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in June 2013.
Mr. Sullivan, now joined by a more seasoned deputy secretary of state, William J. Burns, continued to meet secretly with Iran in Oman, at the United Nations, and in Geneva. By the time the other Western powers arrived in Geneva for decisive talks with Iran in November 2013, they discovered that much of the deal had already been sown up.
Mr. Rhodes worked closely with Mr. Sullivan when he was at the State Department and recruited him to the White House after Mrs. Clinton stepped down. The two teamed up to support another diplomatic opening — to the military rulers of Myanmar — and they shared a conviction that a thaw with Cuba was long overdue.
This time, Mr. Rhodes volunteered to lead the effort. He was joined by Ricardo Zuniga, a 44-year-old Cuba expert who served in the United States Interests Section in Havana, and was chosen to fill the Western Hemisphere post at the National Security Council because the White House planned an overture to Cuba in Mr. Obama’s second term.
The administration’s agreement with China on greenhouse gas emissions was less dramatic. It was quietly negotiated over months by the State Department’s climate negotiator, Todd D. Stern, and the White House’s adviser on climate issues, John Podesta, who went to Beijing a week before Mr. Obama to try to nail down the details.
But it, too, had its made-for-the-memoir moments. In October, Secretary of State John Kerry played host in Boston to China’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi. Over lunch at a Legal Sea Foods restaurant, Mr. Kerry pointed to Boston Harbor, saying it had been cleaned up by environmental regulations.
The visit evidently made an impression on Mr. Yang: A month later, Mr. Obama and President Xi Jinping stood together in the Great Hall of the People to announce they had reached a landmark deal.
The pact was less of a bolt-from-the-blue than either the Cuba agreement or the Iran talks. But even the day before, White House officials said they were unsure whether the Chinese were ready to go public. Mr. Obama’s aides were plainly impressed by their opacity.
Obama will sign Russia sanctions bill without imposing new penalties: White House
18 Dec 2014 at 13:45 ET
U.S. President Barack Obama will sign a Russian sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress but will not yet use the legislation to impose new penalties on Moscow, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Thursday.
Earnest, briefing reporters, reiterated that the United States is prepared to roll back U.S. sanctions already imposed against Russia if it takes steps to ease tensions over its aggression against Ukraine.
Fact-checkers tear apart Dick Cheney’s pro-torture interviews
18 Dec 2014 at 12:12 ET
Former Vice President Dick Cheney (R) did a short press junket earlier this month to defend his administration’s actions regarding the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation” programs, which a Senate report characterized as torture.
On Thursday, Mediaite reported that multiple fact-checking organizations have now pored over Cheney’s statements to Fox News’ Brett Baier and MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and found several instances where Cheney — a former Nixon aide and millionaire corporate executive — and the truth parted ways.
Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a detailed report about abuse of detainees in U.S. custody by CIA contractors and other officials. What Bush administration lawyers and press advisers called “enhanced interrogation” largely amounted to institutionalized torture programs that yielded bad intelligence and maimed and killed innocent civilians.
Cheney dismissed the committee’s report as “awful” and “full of crap.”
In his interview with Baier, Cheney claimed that U.S. detainees captured in the “War on Terror” are “not covered by the Geneva Convention.”
“They were unlawful combatants,” said Cheney. “And under those circumstances, they were not entitled to the normal kinds of courtesies and treatment.”
PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking agency based at the Tampa Bay Tribune, said that allegation is Mostly False.
“It’s misleading for him to say that such combatants are ‘not covered by the Geneva Convention,’” wrote PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson. “While detainees who do not have POW status don’t get the top level of protection, they do get more basic protections from the Geneva Conventions.”
Even under these low-level protections, PolitiFact noted, certain actions are “prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever” to military and government personnel. These include “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” in addition to “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”
Another contention of Cheney’s, that deceased Iraqi President Saddam Hussein enjoyed a more than ten-year relationship with the terror group al-Qaeda, PolitiFact’s sister group PunditFact also rated as False, giving it a rating just shy of the site’s “Pants-on-Fire,” status, reserved for the most brazen and outrageous of lies.
“Cheney said Hussein had a 10-year relationship with al-Qaida. Two comprehensive, high-level government reports largely refute that statement. That includes one Pentagon study that relied on a trove of secret Iraqi government documents that fell into American hands after the invasion,” wrote PunditFact’s Jon Greenberg.
In Cheney’s Sunday Meet the Press interview, Chuck Todd asked the former Vice President why the U.S. prosecuted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding U.S. soldiers during World War II if waterboarding is not a crime.
Cheney countered that those Japanese officers were punished for other, much worse crimes than waterboarding, a claim that the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler awarded three out of four “Pinocchios,” the newspaper’s rating scale for lies told by public figures.
“At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), which lasted from April 29, 1946 to Nov. 12, 1948, there were indeed Japanese war criminals who were tried and ultimately executed for some of the events mentioned by Cheney,” Kessler wrote.
Kessler cited “Drop by Drop: Forgetting the History of Water Torture in U.S. Courts,” a 2007 article in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, by Judge Evan Wallach that described a Japanese torture technique called the “water treatment,” in which “the victim was bound or otherwise secured in a prone position; and water was forced through his mouth and nostrils into his lungs and stomach until he lost consciousness.”
A number of Japanese officers were found guilty and prosecuted for war crimes as a result of their use of the “water treatment” on U.S. soldiers. Furthermore, Kessler noted, a U.S. soldier was court-martialed during the Vietnam war for waterboarding a North Vietnamese detainee.
“Cheney dismissed too cavalierly Todd’s question about the prosecution of Japanese soldiers for waterboarding,” said Kessler. “(S)uch techniques in different circumstances have been the subject of U.S. military prosecutions in the past. Thus the former vice president earns Three Pinocchios.”