President Donald Trump once said of John Bolton, his newly fired national security advisor, that he was absolutely a hawk, that if it were for him they would be at war with the entire world. Trump satirized that someone could be more of a hawk than him, enjoying bridling the aggressiveness of his foreign policy advisor.
It is no surprise that the president fire officials on Twitter. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has the “historical merit” of being the first cabinet member to be fired in the middle of the Atlantic. Tillerson was on a tour of Africa and on his return flight, he learned that his services to the president were no longer needed. That’s Trump for you.
Bolton has said he resigned the previous night, but until the morning of last Tuesday, the ambassador was still hopeful, kneeling and praying. A presentation of Bolton had been announced on the White House site with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin until the precise moment of the fatal twit. The good humor with which the secretaries assumed the journalists’ questions about the dismissal illustrated that Ambassador Bolton’s departure did not surprise them. Pompeo appeared jubilant, with no pity for the ousted official.
Bolton’s presence in the Trump administration was not unthinkable but it was never a heavenly marriage. Bolton made alliances with neoconservative politics but his home was in the most traditional reactionary wing of the Republican party. His mentor was Senator Jesse Helms, about whom democracy, not even the imposed, could not care less.
Helms and Bolton may have talked about a human rights day, but, unlike the neoconservatives, they did not see U.S. security in terms of a democratic peace, in which the internal form of government of the states is relevant.
Bolton never had a headache because Helms defended racial segregation in the U.S., and apartheid in Africa. The Helms-Burton Act that seeks to starve Cuba as a country also has nothing to do with human rights. It is called FREEDOM, as an artifice to evade international standards and distribute money to anti-Castro groups in Miami, Mexico and Argentina through USAID and the NED under social, academic, and even humanitarian pretexts.
The attitude towards the war in Iraq is symptomatic of differences and coincidences. Trump considers the war in Iraq a disaster caused by the arrogance of elite groups in Washington. In advocating the war in Iraq, Bolton had to clarify in an interview that he did not get up every day thinking how to insult the UN, but how he could defend U.S. interests. He had already written in the New York Times that international law was just a legal tangle to entangle the U.S. preventing it from doing whatever it wanted when it felt like it.
Like Bolton, Trump is unilateralist and rejects the idea of a soft power, but unlike the former, he understands that the U.S. is being worn down in interventions for reasons that are not directly economic or security-related. Alliances with ideological partners are instrumental.
Unlike Bolton, who made a career at USAID, Trump has given voice to an extended sentiment in the U.S. against the waste of money and the blood of Americans in adventures and regime change projects. With some reason, Trump has denounced the waste of arrogant politicians in Washington, bent on imposing in other countries politicians who roam the U.S. capital competing to be Gunga Din’s favorite. Bolton, on the other hand, is old in that game, typical of the cold war.
On the subject of Cuba, Bolton was not pro-U.S.
It has been said that Bolton did not care about multilateralism because he was an outright defender of American interests. His positions on the embargo/blockade against Cuba are an example that Bolton is a reactionary politician who cannot care less about U.S. strategic and economic values and interests.
In the George W. Bush administration, Bolton invented lies against President Carter’s visit to Cuba in 2002. A few hours after Carter’s arrival in Cuba, approved by Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bolton set up a show at the Heritage Foundation to accuse Cuba of possessing biological weapons and being a threat to the U.S. Are those inventions and the cheap game with U.S. national security issues an expression of a U.S. patriotic stance? Hard to believe.
At the senatorial confirmation hearings for UN ambassador, it would be known that Bolton’s obsession with Cuba was even more serious if it concerned U.S. values. Assistant Secretary of State Carl Ford, a decent Republican, described Bolton as violating all routines and procedures to impose his lie, mistreating his subordinates. Another senator, when Bolton was appointed to the United Nations headquarters in New York, defined the decision as a “Nixon trip to China.” Also at that time, then-Democratic Senator Joseph Biden characterized him as “sending a bull to a Chinese porcelain store.”
Harassment and intimidation, politicization of the analysis, McCarthyite threats to destroy the professional career of State Department and CIA officials, abuse of subordinates. None of that is American by character. Most Americans don’t behave like this or have anything in common with that procedure. In fact, Bolton and his acolytes have been forced to act with such self-confidence because it is the only way they have to prevail.
Mario Díaz-Balart highlighted Bolton as the ideal public servant. Only from the professional codes of the capital of fraud to Medicare, where a law school is called “Rafael Díaz-Balart” in honor of a minister of the Batista dictatorship, can it be said that Bolton represents the best of politics in Washington.
Even there, Bolton, whom they want to describe as “pro-American,” has a reputation for being abusive and unpleasant. Trump appointed him as national security advisor, a position that does not require senatorial confirmation.
So, we must be accurate: Bolton was not pro-U.S. Neither for the interests he defended nor for the values learned from Jesse Helms.
And now what?
After Bolton’s ousting, Trump received a call from Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio expressed fear that Bolton’s exit would mean the weakening of sanctions against Cuba, a country he compares with North Korea. It is surprising that Rubio never says anything to the president about the Cuban immigrants humiliated in the border detention camps when they supposedly would be escaping the country he describes as a Hitlerian Germany 90 miles away.
In response to the conversation with Rubio, Trump confirmed that in the name of the presidency he can say one thing and its opposite at the same time. According to a Trump twit, he told Rubio that Bolton was limiting him in the hardline against Cuba and Venezuela. One difference between Marco Rubio and Mario Díaz-Balart is that Rubio chooses to play dumb when it suits him. Rubio and his staff know that Trump himself has already told several reporters this week that he disagreed with the policy Bolton proposed for Venezuela. He was “out of line,” Trump said, and “it has been proven that I was right.”
It can always be worse between Havana and Washington, but that isn’t what’s likely. Rubio has few options at this time, except for ensuring he believes everything Trump tells him. What is coming may be worse and ultimately the remedy for Trump’s hostility against Cuba, trips to the island, family and other trips, the possibility that these two countries move to a universe of better prospects, depends on what happens in November 2020. But a copy of a national security advisor more committed to the Helms-Burton Act than Bolton would have to be made, particularly because of the priority he gave it, to the point of spending in less than five months two whole days in Miami surrounded by flattery, parties and praise.
It is true that President Trump calls the shots in U.S. foreign policy and to the extent that there is―something to be doubted―a strategy towards Latin America, he hasn’t shown a favorable course towards constructive relations with Cuba. His electoral victory plans in 2020 go through winning Florida with the support of the most reactionary vote of the Cuban community without having nowhere to go, since―that is also Obama’s legacy―all Democratic candidates favor the end of the embargo/blockade.
It is also true that Secretary Pompeo, the main winner in this bureaucratic battle, has a record of favoring hostility agendas towards Cuba. It is an illusion to expect improvements in bilateral relations, at least before January 2021.
But anticipating that a new national security advisor, among the most likely candidates, will propose a more damaging policy to the U.S. and to Cuba than how Bolton and Claver Carone embraced the opening of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, requires underestimating Trump, Pompeo and whoever was appointed. You choose, if you believe Trump and Rubio, or what you see.
What do the evidences say? Upon being appointed national security advisor, Bolton was acclaimed with great approval by supporters of the embargo against Cuba. Bolton did not disappoint them. In August 2018, Bolton brought to the National Security Council, to the delight of his Cuban followers, Mauricio Claver Carone, who has made his career out of advocating the strengthening of sanctions against Cuba. A special chemistry was created between them.
In Miami, parties were organized for him, which, as usual, started late and, among so many very Cuban hugs and kisses, included making jokes about a beautiful singer who didn’t even know the lyrics of Cuba’s national anthem. In the United States, the participation of the national security advisor in these open tribunes with lunches, artists and local comedians is not usual. Only Bolton, because of his love for them, could listen to Díaz-Balart’s same speech twice, “now we are going to Havana.”
Contrary to Secretary Pompeo and President Trump himself who have expressed doubts about the Venezuelan opposition, Bolton insisted that the end of Maduro’s government was just around the corner and that all options, including the military, should be on the table, starting with Venezuela, passing through Nicaragua and ending in Havana.
Ignoring all the warnings that support the differences between Maduro’s Venezuela and Noriega’s Panama, Bolton used his position for a hurried rhetoric that few took seriously, but that involved the Trump administration in a possible dangerous course given the delicate situation, even dividing the international coalition against Maduro.
None of those evaluated for the position―according to the media―has that history of contacts that goes through Senator Helms with the Cuban right in exile. Not even those sent for negotiations in Korea, Stephen E. Biegun; or to Iran, Brian Hook, who have been mentioned for the position, neither retired colonel Douglas McGregor, nor the current acting director of the National Security Council, Charles Kupperman, nor the ambassador to Germany, Richard Grennell, nor the unexpected cards of a return of general H.R. McMaster, nor the appointment of the negotiator with China, Robert Lighthizer. None have the biography of the author of Surrender Is Not an Option, who ran to Dade County to mobilize his Cubans when guaranteeing for George W. Bush the 2000 election.
There are structural reasons that complicate the poisonous hostility against Cuba against U.S. national interests. With Bolton’s dismissal, Trump has said that he is in control of his own foreign policy. Trump’s interests and preferences do not have Cuba as priority, as it was for Bolton. To the extent that Trump and his interests have a vision of Cuba―beyond winning the Florida votes in the polling station―it is less virulent than Bolton’s. He’s not interested.
It is difficult to predict that a national security advisor facing issues such as Russia, China, bilateral trade deficits, negotiations with Korea, in Afghanistan and possibly with Iran will get out of those issues to travel to Miami twice. That was only done by Bolton. His identification with Mauricio Claver Carone was so complete that one almost wonders how long that round face will remain in the photo. In which of the areas in which Bolton sabotaged Trump did Claver not agree with his boss?
Why would a national security advisor loyal to a president who wants agreements with Russia, and says that Kim Jong-Un “loves his people very much” have to ignore the complexities that Cuba has in the current situation, if for example the economic reforms were to lead to economic growth on the island? If all that Trump has wanted and Bolton has sabotaged occurs in Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, Kabul or Damascus, the obsessive hostility towards Cuba, particularly after Raul Castro’s retirement, would make less sense from a logic of U.S. national interest.
The idea that the replacement of Bolton is going to be worse for Cuba contradicts the most elementary induction of the presidential twit: Trump is in charge of his foreign policy and whoever comes has to adopt his priorities.
In the Bolton era, Trump’s policy toward Cuba was Rubio’s policy, because the national security advisor embraced it enthusiastically. This did not happen in the days of General McMaster, even when the subject of the alleged “sonic attacks” was already on the table because, among other reasons, if institutional logic is followed, and bureaucrats and analysts are consulted, courses so harmful to the U.S. are not adopted. Bolton ignored all that.
With Bolton, the scenario was decided: hostility, hostility and more hostility. With the options shuffled now, it is expected that Trump will continue to say until November 2020 that Cuba is Marco Rubio’s portfolio, but what about later?