President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, refused in 1997 to call for free elections in Cuba. He made this decision following a meeting with then Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Fox News reported Tuesday. A decade later, Becerra voted to end the U.S. trade embargo against the communist island nation. It is a continuing and disturbing pattern to some foreign policy analysts and lawmakers who’ve condemned the communist nation’s actions since the Cuban revolution.
When he was a Democratic congressman in 1997, Becerra stirred up controversy with his House Hispanic Caucus colleagues by taking a trip to Cuba to meet the communist dictator. Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart from South Florida, both members of the caucus Becerra chaired, at the time said that they were “personally insulted” by his four-day trip and resigned from the caucus until Becerra “demonstrates minimal respect for the rights of Cubans to be free and calls for free elections for that oppressed island,” according to Fox News.
Diaz-Balart said at the time, according to The Los Angeles Times, that he would not contribute membership dues to the caucus until Becerra “demonstrates minimal respect for the rights of Cubans to be free and calls for free elections for that oppressed island.”
Later, Becerra said he could not issue a call for free and fair elections.
“This is an issue that the caucus doesn’t take positions on,” he said, so he could not make a statement, according to The Hill, per Fox News.
Aides to Becerra brushed off criticisms at the time, according to Fox News, saying he had attempted to hear from all sides and had spoken to both Cuban dissidents and Castro himself.
He later defended the trip during an appearance on National Public Radio, saying: “As an American citizen who has had the privilege now of being elected to Congress […] I should be as educated as I can be on a number of issues.”
Becerra also criticized his colleagues’ decision to resign from the caucus due to his trip.
“I’m very disappointed that the two members decided to take this action. I consider them friends,” Becerra said. “And I know that they are very passionate about the issue. Certainly, it — the whole issue of Cuba is one that the caucus because there has not been a strong consensus, has decided not to take on. I — as the new chair of the caucus, it was not my intention to change that policy either. They chose, however, to make it an issue.”
A decade later in 2007, Becerra supported an amendment from Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) that would have softened the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba by making it easier to ship farm goods to Caribbean nation, according to Fox News. He backed an additional amendment from Rangel that banned the funding of the embargo against the authoritarian regime.
Significantly, a vital group of Senate centrists—such as Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mitt Romney (Utah), and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)—have yet to say whether they will vote to confirm Becerra, according to Fox News. Senate Republicans have questioned him on his liberal record and have expressed concerns over his lack of experience in healthcare.
You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.
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China Expands Charm Offensive in Southeast Asia to Squeeze out U.S.
Similar to what is happening in the Pacific, the US is facing a significant uphill battle to balance China’s rise in Southeast Asia. During the recent G20 and ASEAN summits in Indonesia and Cambodia, the Chinese Community Party (CCP) media upped its propaganda war against the United States over Southeast Asia. Outlets like Global Times and Xinhua claim that China’s interests in Southeast Asia are focused on mutual benefits, while the US is a malicious force in the region. The CCP press also claims that China is generously giving robust and purposeful aid to the Southeast Asian countries, while the US is neglecting them.
Claim #1: China’s Interest in Southeast Asia is Peaceful and Mutually Beneficial
China’s approach to Southeast Asia is benevolent and focused on mutual benefits, according to the CCP-run press. “China’s goal is to achieve a truly prosperous and peaceful ASEAN,” and “doesn’t interfere in ASEAN members’ internal affairs,” according to Global Times. “China focuses on pragmatic issues, such as promoting infrastructure construction, living standards, which are needed in those countries,” and “China is seeking a cooperative path toward common development,” according to another Global Times article. That same article quoted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as stating that China and the ASEAN countries “are good neighbors who will always be there for each other…”
One country that is particularly thankful for growing Chinese influence, according to the CCP press, is Indonesia. Indonesians want China to “lead…the world to a more peaceful and prosperous future,” and view Chinese President Xi Jinping “with an apparent sense of affability and affection,” according to Global Times. Marzuki Alie, former speaker of the People’s Representative Council of Indonesia, praised China as “becom[ing] essential in improving global governance,” and that “the visionary concept of building a human community with a shared future proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping shows China is willing to work with other countries to create a peaceful and secure world with openness and inclusiveness,” according to Xinhua. And perhaps the most perplexing aspect of China’s “benevolence” in Indonesia is the “Peace Ark” – a hospital ship that has recently docked in Indonesia, but that is also a navy ship run by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to Global Times.
Malaysia has a favorable view of China as well, according to the CCP press. Koh King Kee, president of Center for New Inclusive Asia, a Malaysian think tank, stated that “China is the backbone of the global supply chain and acts as a ballast stone of the global economy in times of uncertainty,” according to Xinhua.
And in response to US concerns over rising Chinese influence in Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian dismisses the base as not targeting any third party, according to Global Times. Cambodia’s Minister of National Defense Tea Banh further claimed that the Chinese involvement in that base is benevolent, stating that the base helps Cambodia “in cooperating with friendly countries and help[ing to] maintain regional peace, stability and prosperity,” according to that same article.
Claim #2: The US’ Interest in Southeast Asia is Manipulative, Malevolent
In contrast to China’s benevolence, the United States “only wants [ASEAN] to serve as its pawn to counter China, and to fulfill its own hegemony goal, according to Global Times. At the G20 conference in Bali, the US takes a “hegemonic, unilateral and protectionist approach,” and “is preaching war and confrontation,” according to that same article.
The US and the West are merely using the G20 summit in Bali “to advance their own geopolitical agenda against Russia, therefore preventing the crucial meeting from tackling serious economic issues,” according to another Global Times article. “Such a geopolitical focus “will worsen this uncertain and unstable world,” according to Veronika S. Saraswati, China Study Unit Convener at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia.
According to another Global Times article, the US is using ASEAN “to drive a wedge between China and Southeast Asian nations in the future,” is attempting to “rope in the region via political, security, and value-oriented agendas,” and is trying “to buy off” Southeast Asian countries “by pledging to spend certain amount[s] of money.”
Claim #3: China gives Robust, Targeted Aid to Southeast Asia
CCP media taunts the extensive aid that China is giving to Southeast Asian countries. China has pledged $1.5 billion in “development assistance” to ASEAN countries in November 2021, and Chinese-ASEAN trade was about $878 billion in 2021, according to Global Times. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang claims that of the 160 “cooperation initiatives” that China has suggested with the ASEAN countries in the previous 10 years, over 99.5 percent of them have been implemented, as reported by another Global Times article.
Li also stated that China is planning to build emergency storage for medical supplies and rise within the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) framework, according to Global Times.
Chinese state-run media is particularly touting China’s Belt and Road investments in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Laos. According to Global Times, the Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway will be operational in June 2023, and as a “flagship project of China-Indonesia cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative,” will be the first high speed train in Southeast Asia, according to Xinhua. China’s ambassador to Indonesia praised the project, claiming that the railway “will greatly reduce traffic jams, make travel more convenient for local people, improve local investment environment, boost businesses and tourism along the route, and accelerate the building of a high speed railway economic corridor.” The ambassador also mentioned that existing Belt and Road initiatives with Indonesia like the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park and the PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry Park, “have generated tax incomes, job opportunities and foreign exchange earnings, and provided Indonesia with opportunities for greater participation in global industrial chains of stainless steel and new energy.”
Claim #4: US Investment Lags Behind China
On the other hand, the CCP media claims that the US is lagging far behind Chinese investments in Southeast Asia. President Biden’s newly announced “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with the ASEAN countries “…looks more like a symbolic act. The US is playing the catch-up game with China,” according to Koh King Kee, president of a Malaysian think tank, according to Global Times.
US and ASEAN trade, at $441 million in 2021, was almost half that of Chinese investment for that same time, according to Global Times. President Biden pledged to ask Congress for $850 million in aid for electric vehicles and clean energy to ASEAN countries, but this amount is “symbolic” and a “mere ‘drop in the bucket’,” according to Global Times. In May, Biden “announced a $150 million development and security package” for the ASEAN countries according to that same article, which pales in comparison to the amounts in aid that China claims it is giving those same countries.
According to Global Times, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang mentioned that US investment in ASEAN is “a drop in the bucket if compared to US support for Ukraine” during the Biden administration, which Global Times claims is “over $18.9 billion in security assistance.”
CCP media is waging a charm offensive targeting Southeast Asia. While China is investing heavily in these countries, the US has yet to devise a credible counter to such influence.
You can follow Steve Postal on @HebraicMosaic
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