The San Francisco Chronicle raised eyebrows this week when it reported that Representative Barbara Lee of Berkeley had told close friends she had a “gentlewoman’s agreement” with President Obama to become the first U.S. Ambassador to Cuba since the early 1960s. Lee certainly counts as a friend of Castro’s Cuba — having made 21 trips there over the last two decades. She is perhaps the most radical member of Congress, going so far as to cast the only vote against a post-9/11 resolution giving President Bush authority to use necessary force against terrorism.
Within hours of Lee’s name being floated, dossiers on her record were delivered to the State Department and White House by Congressional colleagues of both parties. “There was some concern it could happen,” one Senate staffer told me. “After all, Obama appointed Lee in 2013 to be a U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly.” Luckily, Lee got the drift and issued a statement yesterday that she will stay in Congress to fight for better relations with Cuba. One source told the Chronicle that restoring ties to Cuba has been Lee’s “life work.”
President Obama dodged a potential bullet if he was serious about appointing Lee. While she claims to be a sincere supporter of non-violence in opposing U.S. military action, Lee’s history marks her as the kind of “San Francisco Democrat” that the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick criticized in 1984: someone who “always blames America first.”
Even she admits to being surprised how out of step she sometimes is. In 1999 she was the lone vote to oppose a resolution supporting U.S. troops during the conflict with Serbia. “I believe in peace,” she explained. “I believe the way we resolve conflict is not through military action and bombing.” But having learned that other peace activists had voted in support of U.S. troops. “I was surprised,” she admitted. “Being the only ‘no’ vote is troubling. You wonder if there’s something you’ve missed.”
Lee has been missing things for a long time. She was involved with the Black Panthers and twice visited Panther leader Huey Newton when he was in exile in Cuba. “I was known as ‘Comrade Barbara’ at the time,” she notes in her autobiography. At age 33, the then-social worker joined the staff of Ron Dellums, the radical Congressman from Berkeley. She rose to become his chief of staff.
The far-left politics of Representative Dellums and much of his staff came to light in 1983, when the U.S. invaded Grenada, freed a group of American medical students, and deposed a Marxist regime that was building a large airfield with Cuban personnel. Shortly before the invasion, Dellums and his staff had conducted a “fact finding” mission to the island designed to show that the airfield could never be used for military purposes. His office prepared a report on the trip and asked for the Marxist regime to vet it, according to documents from a meeting of the Communist government’s politburo that American troops captured.
“Barbara Lee is here presently and has brought with her a report on the international airport done by Ron Dellums,” the documents read. “They have requested that we look at the document and suggest any changes we deem necessary. They will be willing to make changes.” The meeting documents go on to discuss possible military uses of the airfield.
Another document captured by American troops was the diary of Grenada’s Marxist defense minister. He wrote “The Revo[lution] has been able to crush counter-revolution internationally. Airport will be used for Cuban and Soviet military.” The implication of this is that the Dellums team either were hopeless dupes or something more sinister. Dellums’s final report to Congress on the airfield concluded that “nothing being done in Grenada constitutes a threat to the United States or her allies.”
Nothing was done to discipline Dellums after these revelations. A Reagan-administration official explained to me at the time that stripping Dellums of his senior status on the House Armed Services Committee would only make a martyr of him. But his compromised position was written about in the Washington Post and other publications. Authors David Horowitz and Peter Collier, who were left-wing editors of the radical journal Ramparts in the 1960s but became disillusioned and are now conservatives, wrote that that Representative Dellums was part of a “Fifth Column Left” that during the Cold War used allegations of “McCarthyism” to “preempt scrutiny of their divided loyalties and covert agendas.”
Lee was wise to step away from any thought of becoming U.S. ambassador to Cuba — or would it have been the other way around in practice? Democratic senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until this month, told CNN that he strongly opposed Obama’s relaxation of sanctions against Cuba. “We got nothing in terms of democracy and human rights,” he said. “We subverted the standards that are important for us to uphold globally. If you’re going to make a deal, at least get something for it.” He also that “it would be very difficult to get an ambassador (to Cuba) confirmed.” If the nominee had been Representative Lee, make that “Mission Impossible.” President Obama made a mistake in making Lee his nominee to the U.N. General Assembly. Luckily for him he won’t now be put in the position of turning that error in a fiasco by giving Lee further diplomatic recognition.