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By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

PANAMA CITY — The thaw in the lengthy diplomatic freeze between the United States and Cuba quickened Friday, with President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro shaking hands at an evening reception ahead of a more substantive face-to-face meeting set for Saturday.

The two leaders’ greeting included no other significant interaction or substantive conversation, a White House official said. But it was closely watched as the first time Obama and Castro have encountered one another since they announced in December that their two countries were working to re-establish diplomatic relations severed in 1961.

U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a one-sentence statement that the two leaders “greeted each other and shook hands.” Photos showed Obama facing Castro, who was accompanied by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

The handshake capped what Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, had described earlier as a ratcheting up of contacts between the two countries’ officials that would have been “unimaginable a year ago.”

Rhodes said Obama and Castro had talked earlier in the week by phone, disclosing a previously unannounced conversation. In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Rodriguez held a lengthy meeting late Thursday night that was billed as the highest-level meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials in nearly six decades — a distinction it will lose when Obama and Castro hold their one-on-one discussion “on the margins” of the Summit of the Americas on Saturday.

“We’ve already had the first interaction, the first meeting, between our foreign ministers since 1958. That happened last night. We’ve had the first phone calls between the president of the United States and the president of Cuba that I’m aware of since a similar time frame,” Rhodes said.

“We’re in new territory here.”

Rhodes said Kerry and Rodriguez discussed “very practical, specific, and sometimes technical issues” related to restoring embassies in their respective countries.

Asked if Washington wants the government of Cuba, ruled by either Fidel Castro or his brother Raul since 1959, to be toppled, Rhodes dismissed the suggestion.

“We’re not focused on overthrowing the Cuban government. We’re not focused on changing the existing regime at a time when we’re engaging that government,” he said.

The phone conversation between Obama and Raul Castro on Wednesday was not particularly long, Rhodes said, while Kerry’s contact with his counterpart was broader and deeper.

The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 following the Cuban Revolution, which sent hundreds of thousands of Cubans into exile, setting off a tense relationship that has become a major factor in both U.S. domestic politics and international tensions. Cuban-Americans are an influential voting bloc in battle-state Florida, and the U.S.-Cuba rivalry has had repercussions for decades, from the Western Hemisphere to Africa.

Obama and Castro have shaken hands before, in 2013 at the memorial service for the late South African leader Nelson Mandela. But while that one was the first such courteous gesture in half a century between the country’s leaders, Friday night’s hand clasping of hands seemed to portend even more momentous changes in a relationship that has split not just the two countries, but the Western Hemisphere. Until this year, no Cuban leader had been invited to a Summit of the Americas, a gathering of all the Western Hemisphere nations, since the event was initiated in 1994.

Vestiges of the strained relationship were on display in the early afternoon as Cuban dissidents and their supporters clashed with backers of the Castro government outside a Panama City hotel in a second day of violence.

Protesters pushed, shoved and shouted at one another outside the Hotel Panama, a luxury hotel in the city’s banking district where a forum was being held to bring together civil society leaders from across the Americas. Many waved Cuban flags. Panama’s main television network called for police to restore order.

Cuba was not the only source of tension. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro arrived in Panama in the afternoon and headed directly to the working-class neighborhood of El Chorrillo, where he laid a wreath at a monument in honor of Panamanians who died resisting the 1989 U.S. invasion that toppled then-dictator Manuel Noriega. Bombing during the invasion heavily damaged high-rises in El Chorrillo.

At midmorning, with temperatures already soaring to the high 80s, Obama toured the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, itself a reminder of the United States’ long, sometimes acrimonious relationship with Latin America. Wearing sunglasses, Obama climbed the control tower that oversees movement of vessels, then walked along a narrow pedestrian walkway that traverses the locks chambers.
Secret Service agents were aboard vessels nearby as Obama crossed the canal.

Between 12,000 and 14,000 ships transit each year between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the canal, which was controlled by the United States until the 1970s, when a treaty surrendered jurisdiction to Panama.

Later, Obama said he “saw the extraordinary progress that is being made” on a $5.2 billion project to expand the canal, scheduled to conclude early next year.

“It really is a symbol of human ingenuity but also Panama’s central role in bridging two continents and bringing the hemisphere together,” Obama said.

Panama held out hope that the summit, which concludes late Saturday afternoon, would not only showcase the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States but help mend tense U.S. relations with Venezuela.

“Where there are differences, let us create bridges,” said Martin Torrijos, a leftist former president of Panama.

Torrijos recalled Panama’s history as a facilitator of peace talks in the 1980s aimed at ending wars in Central America and said, “I hope this can repeat itself.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Day Donaldson via Flickr


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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Tina Peters

YouTube Screenshot

A right-wing conspiracy theorist who was indicted in March on criminal charges of tampering with voting machines to try to prove former President Donald Trump's lies of a stolen 2020 presidential election on Tuesday lost the Republican primary to run for secretary of state of Colorado, the person who oversees its elections.

With 95 percent of the vote counted, Tina Peters, the clerk and recorder of Mesa County, Colorado, was in third place, trailing the winner, fellow Republican Pam Anderson, 43.2 percent to 28.3 percent.

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