Obama’s foreign policy: ‘Put yourself in their shoes’

US President Obama has normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba and concluded a nuclear agreement with Iran. Is engaging adversaries the new normal in Washington? Spencer Kimball reports.

It was a surprisingly candid admission for a sitting American president: The US has, in fact, done wrong to other nations.

“Even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran,” President Obama told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, hours after a historic nuclear deal was concluded with Tehran.

Obama was referencing the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh, a secular democratic leader who nationalized Iran’s oil industry, ending decades of British control. But the president’s history lesson didn’t end there.

“We have had (sic) in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative,” the president said.

The Reagan administration re-established diplomatic relations with the Iraqi dictator in 1980s, providing intelligence that facilitated Iraq’s invasion of Iran. This part of the historical record is rarely brought up in the US domestic discourse on Iran and the Middle East.

Instead, the US tends to focus on their own grievances: The 52 Americans held hostage during the Islamic revolution, the antagonism toward Israel and the anti-Semitic rhetoric of some Iranian leaders.

But it’s not just Iran. For decades, the United States faced off with another revolutionary regime – the communist government in Cuba. This summer, things have changed. The normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic promise to end two long-standing international confrontations.

“A willingness to empathize – not sympathize, but to empathize, to see ourselves as other countries see us – is a sea change in US attitude,” Philip Brenner, an expert on US foreign policy and Cuba at American University, told DW.

“It’s very hard for us to do it, because we’re so large and others countries are so small,” Brenner said. “We have a capacity to affect them much more than they can affect us.”

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US, Cuba announce embassy re-openings

(By Deutsche Welle) The US and Cuba have laid the Cold War to rest. While some see dialogue as a path to reform, Cuban exiles believe the White House has strengthened the Castro regime. Spencer Kimball reports.

Sebastian Arcos Bergnes suffered under two Cuban dictatorships. Bergnes was arrested by the regime of Fulgencio Batista after being discovered with a cache of weapons in 1956. He served three years in prison for participating in Fidel Castro’s revolution. But Bergnes was never a communist.

His son, Sebastian A. Arcos, describes the family as middle class Catholics with “solid democratic credentials.” “They joined the Castro revolution to get back to the constitutional cores established by the 1940 constitution and became disillusioned immediately after Castro turned to the left,” Sebastian told DW.

As Castro consolidated power, Sebastian’s family began documenting the regime’s human rights abuses, particularly in the jails. Political prisoners were often subjected to beatings, deprived of medical attention and had their sentences arbitrarily extended. The reports that Sebastian’s family compiled were smuggled out to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

The family was split up after trying to escape the island in 1981. While Sebastian served a year in prison, his mother and sister fled to Miami. A decade passed before Havana granted Sebastian permission to leave Cuba and join them in Florida. His father was allowed to leave in 1995 for medical reasons. Bergnes died from cancer two years later.

“I left for the US in 1992 as a political refugee and have never been back,” said Sebastian, now the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

‘A political exile does not return’

There are many Cuban-Americans with stories of persecution and flight. Jose Azel joined the anti-Castro underground as a 12-year-old boy, serving as a courier and participating in acts of economic sabotage. After the regime closed Azel’s Catholic school, his father feared that his son would be indoctrinated. He put him on a cargo ship in 1961 bound for Florida where Azel joined his older brother in Miami.

More than 14,000 children left Cuba in the early 1960s. Operation Pedro Pan was the largest recorded migration of unaccompanied minors in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Like Sebastian, Azel has not returned to Cuba. He never saw his father again.

“By definition, a political exile does not return until the conditions that brought about his exile change,” Azel, now a scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, told DW. “An economic immigrant returns when his personal conditions allow him to,” he said. “I would never under any conditions return until there is a change.”

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US plan to destabilize Cuba ‘very foolish policy’

(By Deutsche Welle) The AP news agency has reported that the US tried to undermine Cuba’s government with a social media website called ZunZuneo. Expert William LeoGrande tells DW that US credibility in the region has been damaged.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) clandestinely developed ZunZuneo, which was similar to Twitter, in order to incite flash mobs at sensitive political moments in an effort to force democratic change in Havana. At its height, ZunZuneo had 40,000 users in Cuba, who were unaware of the US government’s involvement. Realizing that the US role would eventually be discovered, those involved in the operation sought to find independent financing for ZunZuneo. Unable to secure a private sector sponsor, they shut the social media site down in 2012 when government financing dried up.

DW: US-Cuban relations have warmed since Barack Obama became US president and Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul. The White House has eased the US embargo on Cuba and Havana has introduced some economic reforms. Will the revelation that Washington tried to use social media to destabilize Havana jeopardize the US-Cuban détente?

LeoGrande: The improvement in relations has been an on-and-off thing. Relations between the United States and Cuba during the Bush administration were just terrible, so they couldn’t really have gotten much worse.

President Obama came into office saying he wanted a new beginning in his relationship with Cuba, but the changes he’s made have been mostly people-to-people changes rather than engaging directly with the Cuban government very much. So, for example, he lifted all the restrictions on Cuban-American travel and Cuban-American remittances to their families on the island. He liberalized people-to-people travel so people in the Untied States can more easily go and visit Cuba. At the government-to-government level, however, there’s only been relatively small advances on issues of mutual interests, like Coast Guard cooperation [and] oil spill mitigation and prevention.

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