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Trump Befriends Authoritarian Rule Everywhere — Except Cuba

Donald Trump has often been faulted for recklessly upending established U.S. government policies, inviting harmful consequences. But in the case of Latin America, he has chosen to follow in a long U.S. tradition that has its own harmful consequences: pushing our neighbors around like it’s our job.

Last Tuesday, he expanded Washington’s campaign to starve the Cuban government into submission. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a ban on organized group travel to the island, which had been allowed for the first time in decades under Barack Obama.

Never mind that the United States has conducted a 60-year experiment in using economic ostracism to force a change in the Communist government of Cuba — and it has been a failure. The regime has held fast to power despite — or because of — the enmity of the colossus to the north.

The comical part of the new travel restriction was Mnuchin’s explanation. “Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere,” he claimed, “providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes.”

Fomenting instability and propping up undemocratic governments, you see, are activities that only the United States is allowed to do. Much of the turmoil in the Middle East stems from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a massively destabilizing venture whose consequences are still being felt.

Trump, of course, does not fret about the undemocratic governments in Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt. Of North Korea’s dictator, he said: “He likes me. I like him. Some people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t like him.’ I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I like him?'”

“Communist foothold” is one of those phrases that had meaning during the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow strove to maximize their influence around the world. But the Havana regime is no longer the spearhead of Soviet expansionism; it’s an established homegrown entity. It supports the leftist president Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela because of a common ideology and a common enemy — natural behavior for any government.

Trump’s policies follow a clear pattern. He has called for regime change in Venezuela and raised the possibility of military action. He suspended aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to punish their people for seeking asylum here. He has announced a plan to impose 25 percent tariffs on goods from Mexico unless it stops unauthorized migration. He behaves as though he is not just president of the United States but anointed ruler of the Western Hemisphere.

That approach has a lengthy, embarrassing pedigree. The CIA helped military officers mount a coup against an elected president in Guatemala in 1954. It supported the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an effort to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro. In 1965, it sent troops to install a friendly regime in the Dominican Republic.

The CIA assisted a military coup against an elected leftist president in Chile in 1973. The U.S. financed a right-wing insurgency in Nicaragua in the 1980s. It invaded Grenada in 1983 to depose a pro-Castro regime. It invaded Panama in 1989 to remove a hostile dictator.

The presumption that we are entitled to impose our will anywhere in Latin America goes back even further. President Theodore Roosevelt asserted a sweeping U.S. prerogative in the region.

“All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly and prosperous,” he said in 1904. “Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship.” But “chronic wrongdoing” or “a general loosening of the ties of civilized society” may “require intervention” by the U.S. In his view, we had the right to use force whenever we saw a need.

Trump is reviving a tradition that never really lapsed. George W. Bush was exceptionally unpopular in the region for a variety of reasons, including his suspected support of an attempted 2002 coup in Venezuela, his stance toward Cuba, and the prison camp at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay — itself a relic of U.S. imperialism. Even Obama, who restored diplomatic relations and allowed more travel, didn’t entirely lift the embargo.

In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt announced a shift in the American approach, declaring that he was “opposed to armed intervention” in the region. In the end, his Good Neighbor Policy didn’t last. To Latin America, we have often been a very bad neighbor. But there is always room to be worse.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Cuban President Raul Castro reacts during a news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama (not pictured) as part of President Obama’s three-day visit to Cuba in Havana, March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Once Again Trump’s Policy Benefits Russian Interests, Not Ours

The likelihood that Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal for principled or pragmatic reasons is vanishingly small, since he seems to know very little about the agreement. His own defense secretary, who understands the deal very well, advised him that it continues to serve our national security interests. Many observers suspect Trump is merely acting out his neurotic anger against Barack Obama.

However petty Trump’s personal motivations may be, the grave consequences of his action are clear. By breaking an agreement so recently signed by the United States, he will further diminish American credibility on the international stage. By rejecting the entreaties of our European allies — and threatening sanctions against European companies — he will further strain those vital relationships. And by violating the terms of a disarmament plan negotiated with a rogue state, he will weaken any nuclear deal he may eventually reach with the North Korean regime.

So instead of improving American security or benefiting the United States in any way, this ill-conceived announcement instead harms our prospects. Abrogating the deal is already driving up oil prices and may well raise the possibility of another terrible war

Yet there is one state that will quietly applaud Trump’s fateful mistake, the same state that has profited from all his diplomatic fumbling: the Russian Federation.

Like so many stupid, destructive policies foisted on us by this White House — from steel tariffs and anti-Muslim immigration bans to the ruinous assault on the State Department, the FBI, and the intelligence community — Trump’s latest decision seems designed to advance the Kremlin’s agenda.

In theory, of course, the Russians should have wished the U.S. to remain in the deal, since Russia was one of the six international partners (along with China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) that negotiated its terms with Iran. And it is true that Russian diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere delivered a few pro forma admonitions urging the Trump administration to continue the agreement.

Unlike the major European heads of state, however, Vladimir Putin made no real attempt to persuade Trump. The effort to save the deal by the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain was extraordinarily open and creative, almost heroic. Meanwhile, the Russian leader had a perfect opportunity to make his own argument when the US president, against explicit instructions, offered congratulations on Putin’s phony re-election. But he said nothing.

Just days before Trump announced his decision, a top official in the Russian foreign ministry gave away the game when he practically welcomed a U.S. withdrawal. Vladimir Yermakov, the director-general of the ministry’s non-proliferation bureau, not only assured reporters that the Iran deal would continue without the U.S. but gloated: “It might even be easier for us on the economic front, because we won’t have any limits on economic cooperation with Iran. We would develop bilateral relations in all areas — energy, transport, high tech, medicine…”

In short, the Russians plan to rush in where the United States could be doing business — and will have no competition, thanks to that brilliant dealmaker Donald Trump.

Such a bad diplomatic result for his own country is strikingly reminiscent of what Trump has achieved in Cuba — another traditional site of Cold War confrontation where Russian deal-making (and perhaps mischief-making) can accelerate while the stripped-down American embassy sits almost idle. Still only 90 miles from Florida, the island could again become a staging area for Kremlin espionage and influence missions in this hemisphere — including our country.

If Trump didn’t always wrap himself in the flag, proclaim that he’s a nationalist, and constantly bellow “America First,” somebody might begin to wonder why so much of what he is doing benefits only our principal adversary — and inflicts permanent damage on our own country.

In Cuba, Trump’s Hostility Serves Russia — Not The United States

HAVANA — The presidency of Donald Trump is teaching millions of Cubans — along with people around the world – to see the United States as a symbol of disappointment rather than hope. Within a few months, his abusive attitude toward Cuba has nearly reversed the diplomatic, cultural, and humanitarian opening initiated by his predecessor.

Trump’s angry and unthinking policy represents in microcosm his generally malignant impact on American interests abroad. And it is yet another occasion when his actions have clearly advanced the fortunes of a hostile foreign power. 

Yes, that means Russia. 

Today the U.S. Embassy on Havana’s shoreline boulevard, the Malecon, is virtually silent, its staff reduced from a barely adequate 54 to a pitiful 14 (not counting the Marine guards who provide security). Five are State Department officials and nine are support staff. Our current ambassador Philip Goldberg is a seasoned diplomat, but he arrived only a week ago to serve in acting status for an indeterminate tour. With almost no consular staff on hand, the embassy can do nothing for the Cuban people, who yearn for the thousands of visas our government agreed to provide. For despite decades of ideological hostility, the United States and American people remain extraordinarily popular here.

 Not far away from the crippled American outpost, however, stands the Russian embassy — a looming, hideous edifice that resembles an upraised middle finger in an otherwise charming neighborhood.

Never much liked by Cubans even during the Soviet period, when they provided enormous aid and trade benefits as a political ally, the Russians fell out of favor altogether when the Communist empire imploded. Yet over the past year or so, Russia has become very active again here, making lots of deals with the Cuban government. Where Venezuela was once the ally that sent discounted oil to Havana, the Russian Federation has stepped up, perhaps because its energy sector intends to exploit Cuba’s undersea petroleum deposits.

And since Trump’s election, Russian agencies and companies have negotiated technology, defense, and commercial agreements with the Cubans, including an ambitious $2 billion scheme to rebuild the island’s decrepit railroad system. In short, the Russians are emphatically back, only 90 miles from Key West, where the withering of American influence will encourage whatever mischief they mean to create not only in Cuba itself but in the United States and throughout Latin America.

The timing is perfect, too. President Raul Castro is scheduled to cede power within months to a successor from a new generation, a wrenching change for a country ruled by Castros since 1959.

Underlining this opportunity for the Kremlin, of course, was the American reaction to an apparent assault on our personnel in Havana last year, which inflicted pain, panic, and medical injuries via means that remains mysterious.  A lengthy investigation by American law enforcement and intelligence agencies has yet to determine what caused the illnesses that afflicted Americans and Canadians at several locations, including hotels and residences.  And the exhaustive, highly technical investigation has also failed to find a culprit.

Naturally Trump has blamed the Cubans, although they offered unprecedented cooperation in the probe and there is no substantive evidence of their guilt. The lack of proof hasn’t dissuaded either the president or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from retaliating with a travel warning that discourages American tourism and the expulsion of more than a dozen Cuban diplomats.

Those actions have badly undermined the nascent détente with Havana. Which may well have been Trump’s aim from the beginning, since he aims to undo all of Obama’s achievements regardless of merit and constantly stokes the prejudices of every Republican voting bloc. Meanwhile, he is harming ordinary Cubans in every possible way.

No doubt the strange assault on U.S. personnel in Cuba is genuinely disturbing to Tillerson, who has convened an Accountability Review Board to assess the department’s response. While the former ExxonMobil executive has decimated and mismanaged the diplomatic corps in ways that must also please his old friends in Moscow, his safety concerns are understandable.

But it is important to observe  – as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) did during a visit to Cuba this week – that Canada has maintained a fully functioning embassy in Havana, although Canadian personnel were also affected by the mystery ailment. At a press conference on Wednesday, Leahy rightly urged the State Department to restore full staffing at the U.S. embassy, where plenty of our dedicated Foreign Service officers are still eager to serve.

We don’t know who is behind the troubling incidents in Havana, but the perpetrators’ agenda is all too obvious, whether they are acted on behalf of a foreign power or a renegade element in the Cuban state or both.  They aim to drive the United States and Cuba apart at a crucial moment. Our government should stop acting as their hapless pawn.

IMAGE: Honor guards carry the U.S. and Cuban flags during a wreath laying ceremony by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Jose Marti monument in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Rick Scott Figures Some Dictators Aren’t So Bad — If They’ve Got Money

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is now dabbling in foreign policy, trying to look like a tough guy in advance of his U.S. Senate run in 2018.

He recently warned Florida’s seaports that they could lose critical state funding if they make any shipping deals with Cuba. Scott later told reporters: “I don’t believe any port in our state, none of them, should be doing business with a brutal dictator.”

These would be stirring words if they didn’t reek with hypocrisy. The governor has been a gushing supporter of free trade with China, where human rights are trampled daily by the government.

In fact, under Scott, lots of Florida taxpayer dollars have been spent trying to drum up more business with the leadership in Beijing.

Here’s a peek at what goes on there, as detailed in Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 report:

Start with a “massive nationwide crackdown” on human-rights lawyers, whose homes and offices got raided. More than 240 attorneys and activists were detained or questioned by Chinese state security agents, and 25 were still in custody or “missing” at the time the report was compiled.

In a narrower purge, five women were arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” because they tried to start a national campaign against sexual harassment. Meanwhile, in the province of Zhejiang, Chinese authorities continued a very public program of destroying churches and tearing down Christian crosses.

And if it’s government brutality that really disturbs Gov. Scott, he should be aware that torture remains “widespread” in Chinese detention facilities, according to Amnesty and other groups.

One case cited was that of human-rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who was abused in a Beijing prison from October 2014 to January 2015. He was handcuffed in a “restraint chair,” interrogated for 15 to 16 hours every day and denied sleep.

Horrifically, human-rights investigators also reported last summer that the Chinese government has been harvesting organs from thousands of executed prisoners, including many who were jailed for religious or political reasons.

Of course, China remains a key trade partner of the United States, and owns a jaw-dropping $1.2 trillion of our national debt. For years we have, for the sake of profit, overlooked Beijing’s suppression of dissent and persecution of activists and journalists.

President Trump complains loudly about Chinese monetary policy — not the treatment of political prisoners.

Enterprise Florida, a controversial pro-business consortium that gets 90 percent of its funding from state taxpayers, opened offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong in March 2014.

Its press release boasted that China was “Florida’s No. 1 largest import market” and “the No. 1 customer for the Port of Miami in overall tonnage.”

The board of Enterprise Florida is chaired by Gov. Scott, who at the time clearly had no qualms about our seaports accepting cargo from a communist regime.

Not long after Enterprise Florida opened its doors in Hong Kong, police in that city began rounding up pro-democracy protesters. In all, 955 people were arrested.

Not a peep of outrage was heard then from Scott. Yet now he surfaces, bristling with phony alarm because Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach were hosting a trade delegation from Cuba.

Officials at those ports had planned to sign memoranda opening future business discussions with Havana. “Disappointed some FL ports would enter into any agreement with Cuban dictatorship,” Scott tweeted. “I will recommend restricting state funds for ports that work with Cuba….”

Both Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach quickly backed away from signing cooperation papers. Last week the governor submitted a budget that included a threat to withhold infrastructure funds from any port that expands trade with Cuba.

The ports wouldn’t be breaking any laws. Exports of certain commodities and medical supplies to Cuba are legal, and since 2010 U.S. companies have shipped 4.8 million tons, about one-sixth of it from Florida ports.

How odd that Scott hasn’t confronted the major airlines that are now flying direct to the island from Florida, or the cruise lines seeking berths in Havana Harbor.

Maybe he forgot about them, or maybe just doesn’t want to piss off big corporations that might donate to his Senate campaign.

The same sort of human-rights crimes that occur in Cuba are happening throughout China and other countries with which we freely do business. For American politicians, lambasting Chinese leaders is risky, because China has lots of money, and manufactures lots of stuff we want: computers, clothes, sneakers.

It’s much easier to act indignant about the Cuban government, because Cuba is poor and doesn’t have much to sell us.

Thus appears Rick Scott, intrepid crusader for human rights.

But if there was serious money in old Havana, you can bet that Enterprise Florida would put an office there.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: chiaasen@miamiherald.com.

IMAGE: Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks at a press conference about the Zika virus in Doral, Florida, U.S. August 4, 2016.  REUTERS/Joe Skipper