Commencement Address: Senator Patrick Leahy

You know, this is kind of fun, and President Lovell, unlike the Joker you didn’t put a knife up to my throat. You gave me the degree instead. I want to say hello to everybody who’s here, and Marcelle and I want to thank you for inviting us to join on this wonderful, perfect Vermont day. And I’m so proud to be here with Doctor Leahy also. And we both checked, the degrees were signed. As we drove down we could not think of a better day.

I first want to say a word about Ellen Lovell, who served as my chief of staff from 1983-1994. She’s been a special friend to Marcelle and myself for over 30 years. I only joked a little bit about her being my boss, because I always felt that I was a constitutional impediment to Ellen, who really ran things. 

Ellen had come from the Vermont Council on the Arts—which incidently was in 136 State Street, the building I grew up in, in Montpelier—and after my office, she went to work in the Clinton White House—that is, the BILL Clinton White House—sorry I couldn’t resist that. But she was exemplary at the White House. I know the president and the first lady went out of their way to praise her to me. But I also wanted to praise her for Marlboro, because I think Marlboro is a better institution for Ellen’s time here.

I never knew Walter Hendricks but I knew why he founded this school, not just a school but a community, where students and faculty participate actively in both academic and community life. Look at what each of these students has done, and what they’ve studied; this is amazing. I think Marlboro becomes a better place all the time, but Ellen, it’s at its best because of you, and I compliment you for that.

We are gathered here to celebrate the accomplishments of this class of graduates, who are thinking, "as soon as this is over we can get out of here."

We could talk about a number of things. Starting tomorrow, even today, each of you will chart your own path—when I look at the backgrounds you have, I think you’re going to have extraordinary careers ahead of you.  But whatever you choose and wherever you end up, national and world events, and the decisions made by your government to deal with them and shape them, are going to affect you.  Some of you may actually have a say in that process, and I was privileged to do that.

I want to use my few minutes to tell you about a recent example of how a few determined people inside and outside of government, working together, can bring about a profound change in the world around us.  Fifty-five years ago, after the Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. Since then, the United States Congress, spurred on by I believed a minority, imposed a tangled web of unilateral sanctions against Cuba in an attempt to bring about the overthrow of the Castro government.

I told President Obama once that, “I can almost see the memo. The memo said, Mr. President, hold tough, and those Castros would be gone. Now that memo was sent to President Eisenhower, then to President Kennedy, then to President Johnson, then to President Nixon, then…” He said, “Pat, I get your point.

From prohibiting trade and investment by American companies with Cuba, to tightly restricting travel by American citizens to Cuba—these were not done to let the Cubans know who we really are—these sanctions are more onerous than any in effect against any other country in the world.  Think of this—sanctions we have against this tiny little island, are greater than sanctions against anywhere else. For example, American tourists can visit any other country in the world that will grant them a visa, including North Korea, Syria, Iran, and so forth—but not Cuba

This is an anachronistic policy, and it made no sense. Those who argued for it said: In that the embargo has not achieved any of its objectives, and its been there for 50 years and through nine presidencies, we ought to keep it in place because sooner or later it’s bound to work. Yeah, hope springs eternal, but not in this Irish-Italian boy right now

Now, having been to Cuba a number of times, I am no fan of the Cuban government.  It is a repressive, one-party state, and the economy is in shambles. But, as I’ve told both President Castros, be thankful for the embargo, you can blame everything that goes wrong in your country on the United States 

Well, I’m frankly one who believes that if something has been an abysmal failure for over half a century, let’s try something different.  In fact, I think that is the way most people think.

The embargo not only failed to bring about the desired changes in Cuba’s government, it has isolated the United States and become a thorn in our relations with other countries, especially in this hemisphere, but around the world.  Frankly, it is beneath a great nation like ours to be treating a tiny neighbor this way. I would say this is not the American way, and that should change.

Now, I began asking everybody in Washington who would listen to me, “Why don’t we change this?” I knew the president didn’t like the policy, the vice president, the secretary of state, everybody was against it. Why don’t we change it

I might seem like an obvious question, but as recently as six months ago the conventional wisdom was that any attempt to change the policy was doomed so long as the Castros were in power.

But I felt we should try, and it quickly became clear to me that to change the policy and reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, there were a number of things we could do. First had to broker the release of Alan Gross.

Mr. Gross was a U.S. government contractor from Maryland, who had been arrested in Cuba and was serving a 15-year prison sentence for secretly distributing cell phone technology that is illegal in Cuba 

The solution to his case began long before he was arrested. I think of the first time I traveled to Cuba 16 years ago, and Marcelle and I met with then President Fidel Castro over dinner.  We went through a whole wide range of issues, but to my surprise the meeting ended with a debate over who has better ice cream. He said, “Of course, we have the best ice cream,” and I said “No, no, we have Ben & Jerry’s,” and he said “Never heard of it.”

I said let me send some, knowing that Ben would be happy to charter a plane and go down and discuss the revolution with him. He said “I don’t care.” And on the way out he grabbed Marcelle’s arm and said, “Be sure to pack the ice cream in dry ice. Well, I told him I’d send him some, then found out we have an embargo against that too. 

Then I figured out: we were down there for baseball game, and by coincidence, the Oriels were playing the Cubans. The Cubans then came to Baltimore to play the Oriels, and I said “hah.” We had three big coolers of every kind of ice cream Ben & Jerry’s made, we sealed them all up, and told the baseball team you can have any two you want, the third one goes to President Castro.

I didn’t hear anything for a while, till the Cuban government called and said we have something for you, can we come by your office? They came by with a hand-made wooden box, and I thought, good lord, it better not be one thing I’m thinking of. Well it turned out to be a bottler of every kind of Cuban rum there is, with a note from Castro saying, “The product of your state is very good. Try the product of my state.”   

Since then I have met twice with his brother, President Raul Castro.

The first meeting started off not too well. I said, “We are of an age…” He said, “I’m older than you are.” I said, “We’ll remember the things we think you did wrong, you’ll remember the things we did wrong.” He said, “You’re a bigger country; You did more things wrong.” I’m thinking, “This is not getting anywhere.” I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if our children and our grandchildren grew up in a different world.” He said, “I have a great grand-daughter. At which point, the real diplomat in the Leahy family, Dr. Marcelle Leahy, said, “Oh, Mr. President, do you have a photograph of her? He said, “Yes I do,” ran to his desk and pulled it out, and said, “Isn’t she beautiful, she’s eight years old.”

That single gesture changed the whole conversation, and since then we have exchanged photographs of our family. He sends his with his children and grandchildren and great granddaughter, with handwritten notes on the back explaining who they are.

Now, my message to him was that, yes, we had made mistakes and they had made mistakes, but let’s think about those children and grandchildren. Same message, I brought over and over again to Northern Ireland when we were trying to bring about peace there.

I mention this because the historic change announced by President Obama last December on the day Alan Gross was finally released came about from so much diplomacy. We had secret meetings in New York, I even showed up on crutches at one of them after I hurt myself hiking, and in Canada, and in Cuba, secret letters going back and forth.

I got a confidential call on Wednesday, Dec. 16, that an agreement had been reached, and I was asked if I would head a small delegation to go on the President’s plane the next day, to bring Alan Gross home from Havana.  For years I had been working nonstop for his release. Tim Rieser, who some of you know from this area, went down and visited Alan Gross several times and talked to him at least once a week, to make sure that he would not totally despair.

So at 4:00 a.m., we boarded the plane, the President’s back up Air Force One, at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside of Washington.  The others on board were Alan’s wife Judy, Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who is Alan’s congressman, and Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has visited Cuba with me and has been a close friend and help on Cuba policy issues. And you know what was kind of neat? The president has three personal photographers, and one of them was onboard the plane with us. That one happens to be our son-in-law. We had breakfast together on the way down.

I, of course, brought my camera.

As we neared Cuban airspace a carefully choreographed drama began to unfold.  We had three government aircraft coming from the United States. Our plane—with the big blue and white United States of America you see in photographs of the president—landed at a small military base.  A U.S. Marshals plane landed at a second military field.  And an unmarked aircraft from—I’ll just say—a U.S. intelligence agency landed at a third.  All were involved in the exchange of prisoners that was part of the agreement.  It was a gorgeous, gorgeous day—we could see it out the window as the Caribbean day was dawning.

All three aircraft were on the ground for just 31 minutes.  All three were in constant communication with each other.  My party descended the steps and walked the short distance to a small terminal building.  Alan Gross had been in his cell hours before, he had not been told he was going to be released. But he was brought out to meet us, and then when he saw his wife, and he saw the rest of us, he looked over our shoulders and saw the airplane—ah, the smile on his face made all the hours and years and work worth it. We all embraced, and we didn’t waste time.  We walked back to the plane.

At another airport, three Cuban prisoners that we had held in the United States were led off the U.S. Marshals plane. The attorney general, and I, and others, had worked with the president and their sentences were commuted. And at the third airport, an unnamed prisoner who had been a so-called “U.S. asset” held in a Cuban jail, was led to the third, unmarked plane. And we all took off together. 

Alan had lost more than 100 pounds while in prison.  He was even thinner than when I had last visited him, and he had lost a number teeth.  But he was so full of energy.

We got on the plane, we were standing in the president’s office, and there were two large TV monitors on the plane, each tuned to an American cable news network.  One was reporting a “rumor” that Alan Gross had been released.  He said,  “I’ll confirm that rumor.”

When we saw that we were over American soil, I told Alan that he was finally free.  He turned to me and threw his arms around me and said, “Patrick, I finally believe it.”

A steward tapped Alan on the shoulder, and said, “Mr. Gross, the president is on the phone. Will you take the call?”  I suggested he probably should—it wasn’t collect. And he went into the president’s office and he took the phone. And just as we landed, President Obama and President Castro simultaneously announced that we were opening a new era in our relationship.  

Now, this has taken a lot of thinking by governments and a lot of inertia that had to overcome. There were times when I was as frustrated by the White House and the state department as I was with the Cubans. But all of the ideas that were flat-out rejected at first were ultimately accepted, and President Obama recognized that a failed Cold War policy was hurting us more than it was hurting the Cuban government.

But this is only the beginning. They’ve got to improve civil liberties there, and we’ve got to improve a reality in our own views. And the U.S. Congress still needs to end the restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. Come on, boys and girls of the Congress, come in to this century.

This was an example of a few people working out of the limelight, having no press conferences during this time, so much of this was done so secretly. In the New York meetings only Marcelle and I and Ted Reasa were at those meetings. You may wonder why I’m telling you this story. What useful lessons can you, on your last day of college, take away from this?  I think there are several, and while they may sound elementary, they can make a world of difference:

  • First, when people say something cannot be done, it is possible they are right.  But it is just as possible they are wrong, and that they are only saying it can’t be done because it never has been, not because it can’t be.    
  • Second, big changes require a collective effort.  No single person, none of us individually, not even the president, could have single-handedly achieved this result.  If you want to achieve results, whether for your community, or your college, or your office, work together with others.
  • Third, change usually occurs incrementally, not all at once.  This may seem obvious, but believe me, in industry, in schools, it is a lesson that many people forget.
  • Fourth, think before you speak—think about that—or before you hit the send button. There were times when – even though everyone agreed we wanted to improve relations between our countries – someone felt they had to go before the press in US or Cuba, and make some provocative statement, and we have to start all over again.
  • Fifth, the solutions to very few problems are black or white.  Sure, the embargo has been an abysmal failure.  But no, it is not the cause of most of Cuba’s problems—they were, after all, trading with other countries. It actually helped keep a repressive regime in power.  So, you use the tools of critical thinking you acquired at this school to differentiate fact from fiction, and political correctness from reality. You were taught to think here, not just learn, but to think. Oh, lord, I wish more people were.
  • Sixth, treat people with respect.  One thing we found, the Cubans really wanted to be treated with respect.  You would think this would be automatic. Read a book by a man named Kinser, called The Brothers—All the mistakes we made over the years, that we didn’t treat people with respect.

And finally, whether you choose to be a concert pianist, such as these great musicians here, a software designer, school teacher, lawyer or a farmer, find ways to make your community and your country better. You actually do make a difference. People will tell you that, but you can, and you will. Work with others who feel the same way. And congratulations to all of you. Thank you.