By Gar Smith
In an unprecedented act of geopolitical contrition, Barack Obama has become the first US president to apologize to another world leader for America’s role in overthrowing an elected democracy and installing a brutal military regime that murdered and “disappeared” more than 30,000 civilians.
The apology was tendered on March 24, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Well, actually, what Obama apologized for was the US being “slow to speak out for human rights.” Washington’s military role in supporting the coup, the dictatorship and the “dirty war” were only inferred. As Amanda Taub observed on Vox World: “Obama was, unsurprisingly, pretty vague on what role the US played in that conflict.”
Obama reportedly was compelled to offer the mea culpa at the insistence of Argentine President Mauricio Macri who made it a precondition of Obama’s state visit—on the 40th anniversary of the US-backed military coup.
Obama’s historic statement included the following remarks:
“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for. And we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights and that was the case here . . . .
“There has been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days. . . . Confronting crimes committed by your own leaders, by your own people—that can be divisive and frustrating, but it is essential to moving forward.” [You can read the complete speech at the end of this article.]
Obama concluded his remarks by pledging to take action. He vowed to stand up to the military-intelligence complex anddeclassify new military and intelligence records that would document the human rights violations that wracked the region from 1976 to 1983.
The Buenos Aires-based Center for Human Rights Advocates was not won over by the president’s statement, however. The CHRA declared: “We will not allow the power that orchestrated dictatorships in Latin America and oppresses people across the world to cleanse itself and use the memory of our 30,000 murdered compatriots to strengthen its imperialist agenda.”
Still, it’s a good precedent for the president. And it raises the bar for accountability in the eyes of the world. If Obama is planning any other foreign trips in his remaining months in office, he might expect to receive similar “precondition letters”—official demands seeking public apologies directed to the people of Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and . . . well, the list goes on.
And Then There Is Cuba
When Barack Obama flew to Cuba (marking the first visit of a US president in 88 years), his mission was not to cop to a half-century of US crimes directed at its Caribbean neighbor. Instead, Obama’s comments at his joint press conference with Cuban President Raul Castro involved invocations of vague optimism mixed with incantations of Cold War admonitions about a lack of “democracy” and “human rights.”
There was much in the March 21 press conference at Havana’s Grand Theater that didn’t make on onto the CBS Evening News. To its credit, USA Today posted a transcript of the complete press conference online. The following report reveals some of the exchanges that were either not mentioned by the mainstream press or were mischaracterized
President Obama began his remarks by going off-topic to mention a Marine who had just been killed in northern Iraq. Obama used the soldier’s death—and the Havana press event—as an opportunity to praise “US armed service members who are sacrificing each and every day on behalf of our freedom and our safety.”
That mission accomplished, he began by praising Cuba: “The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its achievements in education and in healthcare.” And Obama promised that “Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation . . . . [T]he future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans, not by anybody else.”
That said, the President warned that, “as we do wherever we go around the world . . . , the United States will continue to . . . . speak out on behalf of universal human rights, including freedom of speech, and assembly, and religion.”
At one point, Obama wound up ceding more ground to President Raul Castro than was necessary. Apparently fearing the Cuban leader was going to hammer America for its rampant hunger, poverty, and racial oppression, he remarked:
“President Castro has also addressed what he views as shortcomings in the United States around basic needs for people, and poverty and inequality and race relations.”
In fact, Castro had only scolded the US for its record on health, education, pensions, pay and the rights of children. In Castro’s words:
“Actually, we find it inconceivable that a government [i.e., the USA] does not defend and insure the right to health care, education, Social Security with provision and development, equal pay and the rights of children. We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights . . . .
“We hold different concepts on many subjects such as political systems, democracy, the exercise of human rights, social justice, international relations and world peace and stability.
“We defend human rights. In our view, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are invisible, interdependent and universal. We oppose political manipulation and double standards in the approach to human rights. Cuba has much to say and show on this issue.”
Obama Talks of Trade and Dollars
Obama spoke enthusiastically of the economic reforms Washington could now expect from Havana, including: “Allowing the US dollar to be used more widely with Cuba, giving Cubans more access to the dollar in international transactions, and allowing Cubans in the US to earn salaries.” (Come again?)
Obama offered further insights into US plans to reform of the Cuban economy when he mentioned “cooperation on agriculture to support our farmers and our ranchers . . . some of the new commercial deals being announced by major US companies . . . steps we urge Cuba to show that it’s ready to do more business, which includes allowing more joint ventures and allowing foreign companies to hire Cubans directly.” Obama also said he was looking forward to seeing “more English-language training for Cuban teachers—both in Cuba and online.”
As the world press looked on, Obama continued to turn history into a fairy tale.
Ignoring an infamous and once-secret 1961 State Department memo—that explained the explicit purpose of the 54-year-old US embargo was “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government”—Obama now proposed that “the embargo was implemented to encourage, rather than discourage, reforms that the Cuban government itself is willing to engage in and to facilitate greater trade and commerce.”
Do we have a disconnect here? The punishing five-decade-long economic and trade embargo was intended to “facilitate greater trade and commerce”?
After both leaders finished their introductory remarks Jim Acosta, a Cuban-American reporter, asked Obama whether he would invite Raul Castro to the White House and inquired why the president did not meet with Fidel Castro. Obama ignored both questions.
Instead, he returned to the issue of “human rights” and described “disagreements around human rights and democracy” as “impediments to strengthening . . . ties.” And then Obama added: “I’ve met with people who have been subject to arbitrary detention.” (He could have been referring to jailed dissidents and whistleblowers in the US but the reference was clearly directed at Cuba.)
Acosta directed two questions at Castro. One (an embarrassment to his profession) invited the Cuban leader to indicate whether he would vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. The second raised the issue of “political prisoners.”
President Castro’s response was vigorous: “Give me the list of political prisoners and I will release them immediately,” he said. “Just mention a list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners. And if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends.”
(Whether Acosta ever presented a list of political prisoners is unknown.)
It had been agreed that the US President would take two questions while the Cuban leader would respond to one query from the press.
At this point, Obama called on NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, describing her as “one of our most esteemed journalists.” It was clear that Mitchell wanted to pursue the issue of “human rights” and Obama, turning to Castro, declared: “I’m sure she’d appreciate just a short, brief, answer.”
Castro was not about to be bulldozed. Referring to the pre-arranged time limit for the press conference, he replied: “There is a program here to be fulfilled. I know that if I stay here, you will ask 500 questions. I said that I was going to answer one. Well, I answer 1 ½.”
Mitchell pressed Castro about the recent arrests of the Ladies in White (a group of the women who have nonviolently protested against the Cuban government every week for the past 13 years). Castro offered the following response:
“I’m going to make the question to you now. There are 61 international instruments recognized. How many countries in the world are complying with all the human rights and civil rights that have been included in these 61 instruments? What country complies with them all? Do you know how many? I do. None. None whatsoever.
“Some countries comply some rights; others comply others. And we are among these countries. Out of the 61 instruments, Cuba has complied with 47 of these human rights instruments . . .
“Do you think there’s anything more sacred than the right to health, so that billions of children don’t die just for the lack of a vaccine or a drug or a medicine? Do you agree with the right to free education for all those born anywhere in the world or in any country? I think many countries don’t think this is a human right….
“Do you think that for equal work, men get paid better than women just for the fact of being women? Well, in Cuba, women get the same pay for the same work. I can give you many, many examples. I don’t think we can use the argument of human rights for political confrontation. That is not fair. It is not correct . . . Let us work so that we can comply with all human rights.”
And Now, a Word from Fidel
At one point in the proceedings Obama declared: “We can’t force change on any particular country.” This statement, which seemed to be totally at odds with Washington’s 50-year history of sanctions and plots directed at overthrowing the Cuban revolution, roused former Cuban President Fidel Castro to pen a 1,500-word rebuttal addressed to “My Brother Obama.” The full text did not appear in the Western media. Instead, US news services generally reduced its message to Fidel’s statement that Cuba “has no need of gifts” from the US. (A poor translation, at best.)
Here (gathered from the website of the Cuban government’s official newspaper, Granma) is some of what Fidel had to say to Barack:
“In 1961, just one year and three months after the triumph of the Revolution, a mercenary force with armored artillery and infantry, backed by aircraft, trained and accompanied by US warships and aircraft carriers, attacked our country by surprise. Nothing can justify that perfidious attack, which cost our country hundreds of losses, including deaths and injuries.”
Fidel made no mention of the 632 attempts to kill him. These included numerous CIA assassination plots involving everything from poisoned drinks and infected handkerchiefs to exploding cigars and seashells filled with high explosives. A 2006 seven-part documentary traced Washington’s 50-year campaign to murder the Cuban leader. These covert assassination attempts spanned nine administrations. The record reads as follows: Eisenhower (38 assassination attempts), Kennedy (42), Johnson (72), Nixon (172), Carter (74), Reagan (197), GHW Bush (16), Clinton (21), GW Bush (6).
Fidel wrote that hearing Obama’s call to “forget the past, leave the past behind, let us look to the future together, a future of hope” nearly gave him a heart attack.
“After a ruthless blockade that lasted almost 60 years, and what about those who have died in the mercenary attacks on Cuban ships and ports, an airliner full of passengers blown up in midair, mercenary invasions, multiple acts of violence and coercion?
“Nobody should be under the illusion that the people of this dignified and selfless country will renounce the glory, the rights, or the spiritual wealth they have gained with the development of education, science and culture.
“I also warn that we are capable of producing the food and material riches we need with the efforts and intelligence of our people. We do not need the empire to give us anything. Our efforts will be legal and peaceful, as this is our commitment to peace and fraternity among all human beings who live on this planet.”
On the Question of Human Rights
In February of this year, Amnesty International released its Annual State of the World Report. AI’s interim executive director Margaret Huang offered the following summary: “Worldwide we have seen human rights and freedom take a backseat to misguided fear and xenophobia masquerading as patriotism. The United States has been no exception.”
Among the charges laid against the US were the following:
* indefinite detention without trial at the Guantanamo prison
* lack of accountability for criminal wrongdoing related to the US torture program
* excessive use of lethal force by police in the US
* failure to act to curb gun violence which claims, on average, 88 American lives each day
* failing to criticize allies like Saudi Arabia for jailing prisoners of conscience “such as human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair and writer Raif Badawi.”
While the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2015 faulted Cuba for its treatment of the Ladies in White—i.e., being “routinely harassed, roughed up, and detained before or after they attend Sunday mass”—HRW also criticized the US for “routinely violat[ing] rights . . . in the areas of criminal justice, immigration, and national security, US laws and practices” and noted that “racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, and prisoners—are the people most likely to suffer abuses.”
HRW also noted other US human rights failures, including:
* US national security policies, including mass surveillance programs, are eroding freedoms of the press, expression, and association. Discriminatory and unfair investigations and prosecutions of American Muslims are alienating the communities the US claims it wants as partners in combating terrorism.
* Although African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, they represent 42 percent of federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.
* Many poor defendants languish in pretrial detention because they cannot afford rising bail costs.
* US courts allow children under the age of 18 to be prosecuted as adults and sentenced to adult prison terms.
* Hundreds of thousands of children work on US farms, often laboring often 10 or more hours a day and risk pesticide exposure, heat exhaustion, and injuries. Underage tobacco workers also suffer from acute nicotine poisoning.
* US military veterans face systemic barriers in accessing health care and suffer from chronic homelessness.
* The Pentagon continues to force-feed Guantanamo detainees on hunger strikes using methods that violate medical ethics and amount to mistreatment under international law.
* The US employs “abusive counterterrorism investigations” against vulnerable American Muslims and individuals with intellectual and mental disabilities who are easily snared in FBI sting operations. In addition, overly broad “material support” charges may violate fair trial rights.
* The US continues to conduct targeted killing operations using assassination drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Human Rights Wronged in the US
Two recent articles by Harvey Wasserman ( America’s Astounding Human Rights Hypocrisy in Cuba) and Marjorie Cohn ( Stop Lecturing Cuba and Lift the Blockade) reveal a significant gap when one compares human rights in the US and Cuba.
Among Wasserman’s findings:
* The US has the world’s largest prison population, with 2.2 million citizens jailed for offenses that include smoking pot and failure to pay debts.
* There are more citizens in US prisons than there are in China, a country with a population is 4 to 5 times larger than the US.
* Rape, torture, extended solitary confinement, and other human rights offenses are common in US prisons.
* Unlike Cuba, the US still has the death penalty, which has been repeatedly used to execute people who were later proven innocent. (George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, personally ordered the execution of 152 men and women.)
* In the US, acccess to due process is significantly restricted by race and class.
* Numerous political prisoners are being held in the US prison system charge with “offenses” as flimsy as those laid against prisoners in Cuba. Among them is Leonard Peltier, a Native American wrongly convicted of murder four decades ago.
* Since the start of the Drug War in 1971, the US has spent $1 trillion arresting and jailing more than 41 million American citizens, mostly poor and people of color.
* Prisoners are now viewed as “cash flow” under America’s for-profit prison system, which profits from keeping people incarcerated as long as possible.
* In the US, police are allowed to confiscate cash and other property from innocent citizens without due process. The funds are often used for the personal benefit of the police departments and officers involved.
* A nationwide program of electronic spying has shredded the Fourth Amendment rights of private citizens.
Wasserman’s essay ends with the expressed hope that “President Obama will admit to some or all of the above amidst his cringe-worthy lectures to the Cubans on the sacred nature of human rights.”
Comparing Human Rights in the US and Cuba
Marjorie Cohn, a law school professor and former president of the National Lawyers Guild, notes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains “two different categories of human rights: civil and political rights on the one hand; and economic, social and cultural rights on the other.
“Civil and political rights include the rights to life, free expression, freedom of religion, fair trial, self-determination; and to be free from torture, cruel treatment, and arbitrary detention.
“Economic, social, and cultural rights comprise the rights to education, healthcare, social security, unemployment insurance, paid maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, reduction of infant mortality; to prevention, treatment, and control of diseases; and to form and join unions and strike.”
Since the Reagan administration, Cohn writes, “it has been US policy to define human rights only as civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are dismissed as akin to social welfare, or socialism.”
Cohn has compiled the following comparisons:
Unlike the US, healthcare is considered a right in Cuba. Universal healthcare is free to all. Cuba has one of the world’s highest doctor-to-patient ratios (6.7 per 1,000 people). Cuba’s 2014 infant mortality rate was 4.2 per 1,000 live births—one of the lowest in the world. In 2014, the Lancet medical journal ovserved, “If the accomplishments of Cuba could be reproduced across a broad range of poor and middle-income countries, the health of the world’s population would be transformed.”
Free education is a universal right up to and including higher education. Cuba spends a larger proportion of its GDP on education than almost any other country in the world.” It is free to train to be a doctor in Cuba. There are 22 medical schools in Cuba.
Elections to Cuba’s National Assembly occur every five years and elections to regional Municipal Assemblies every 2.5 years. National Assembly delegates elect a Council of State that, in turn, appoints the Council of Ministers from which the President is elected.
In the next general election in 2018, all senior elected positions, including the President, will be limited of no more than two five-year terms. Anyone can be nominated. It is not required that one be a member of the Cuban Communist Party.
No money can be spent promoting candidates and no political parties are permitted to campaign during elections. Instead of security personnel on patrol at polling stations, the ballot boxes are guarded by school children.
Cuban law guarantees the right to voluntarily form and join independent and autonomous trade unions. Union contacts include 30 days’ paid annual leave in the state sector. Unions have the right to participate in company management, to share management records, office space, and materials.
Union agreement is required prior to any layoffs, changes in working hours, and overtime. Cuba’s unions have a constitutional right to be consulted about employment law and the right to propose new laws to the National Assembly.
The majority of Cuban judges, attorneys, lawyers, scientists, technical workers, public health workers and professionals are women. With women constituting more than 48% of Parliament, Cuba has the third highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world. Women receive 18 weeks of full salary during maternity leave, followed by 40 weeks at 60% of full salary.
No one is facing a death sentence in Cuba. Cuba’s last remaining death row inmate (a Cuban-American convicted of a murder carried out during a 1994 terrorist invasion) had his sentence commuted on December 28, 2010. By contrast, as of January 1, 2016, 2,943 US prisoners were on death row in state prisons and, as of March 16, 2016, 62 were on federal death row.
In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund has hailed Cuba as the only country to achieve the United Nations’ goal of “sustainable development”—”thanks to its high literacy level and a very high life expectancy, while the ecological footprint is not large since it is a country with low energy consumption.”
The US is well aware of the contradictions that appear when it’s human rights record is compared to Cuba’s. In 2015, Cohn reports, a Cuban delegation lead by Pedro Luis Pedroso met with their US counterparts to discuss the issue of human rights. “We expressed our concerns regarding discrimination and racism patterns in US society,” Pedroso recalled, “the worsening of police brutality, torture acts and extrajudicial executions in the fight on terror and the legal limbo of prisoners at the US prison camp in Guantanamo.”
Cohn’s conclusion is one our president should heed:
“The hypocrisy of the US government in lecturing Cuba about its human rights while denying many basic human rights to the American people is glaring. The United States should lift the blockade. Obama should close Guantanamo and return it to Cuba.”
And the United States should apologize to Cuba.
President Barack Obama’s Apology to Argentina
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (March 24, 2016)—Good morning. It’s humbling to join President Macri at this poignant and beautiful memorial in honor of the victims of the Argentinian military dictatorship, and the suffering their families have endured.
This park is a tribute to their memory. But it’s also a tribute to the bravery and tenacity of the parents, the spouses, siblings, and the children who love and remember them, and who refuse to give up until they get the truth and the justice they deserve.
To those families—your relentlessness, your determination has made a difference. You’ve driven Argentina’s remarkable efforts to hold responsible those who perpetrated these crimes. You are the ones who will ensure that the past is remembered, and the promise of “Nunca Mas” is finally fulfilled.
It takes courage for a society to address uncomfortable truths about the darker parts of its past. Confronting crimes committed by our own leaders, by our own people—that can be divisive and frustrating. But it’s essential to moving forward; to building a peaceful and prosperous future in a country that respects the rights of all of its citizens.
Today, we also commemorate those who fought side-by-side with Argentinians for human rights. The scientists who answered the call from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to help identify victims in Argentina and around the world. The journalists, like Bob Cox, who bravely reported on human rights abuses despite threats to them and their families.
The diplomats, like Tex Harris, who worked in the US Embassy here to document human rights abuses and identify the disappeared. And like Patt Derian, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights for President Jimmy Carter—a President who understood that human rights is a fundamental element of foreign policy. That understanding is something that has influenced the way we strive to conduct ourselves in the world ever since.
There’s been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days, and the United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies as well, and its own past. Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for; when we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights. And that was the case here.
But because of the principles of Americans who served our government, our diplomats documented and described many instances of human rights violations. In 2002, as part of a two-year effort, the US declassified and released thousands of those records, many of which were used as evidence to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Today, in response to a request from President Macri, and to continue helping the families of the victims find some of the truth and justice they deserve, I can announce that the United States government will declassify even more documents from that period, including, for the first time, military and intelligence records—because I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency.
A memorial like this speaks to the responsibilities that all of us have. We’ll cannot forget the past. But when we find the courage to confront it, when we find the courage to change that past, that’s when we build a better future. That’s what the families of the victims have done. And the United States of America wants to continue to be a partner in your efforts. Because what happened here in Argentina is not unique to Argentina, and it’s not confined to the past. Each of us have a responsibility each and every day to make sure that wherever we see injustice, wherever we see rule of law flouted, honest witnesses, that we’re speaking out and that we’re examining our own hearts and taking responsibility to make this a better place for our children and our grandchildren.