The Gifts of the People

By Gretchen Sánchez Higuera

It can be something big or small, costly or inexpensive, ancient or modern. All gifts are well received. But, what happens when an official receives it? Who owns the gifts that fall in the hands of the President and his family as part of the exercise of public office? In order to build a national model in Cuba, it is worth studying our history and learning from other countries in our continent, allowing for greater or smaller differences.

Since 1787, the Constitution of the United States regulated that ‘no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state’. But the corruption of governments such Warren Harding’s caused that additional regulations be adopted. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush established a single code for public officials.

The current regulation on the reception of ‘gifts’ is applied from the President to the lowest-ranking official. Presents are registered by the National Archive, and in the case of Heads of State, they may be displayed at the Presidential Library once their terms conclude. The law only allows them to keep them during their term in executive office.

The rule forbids the President and his immediate family from keeping gifts of a diplomatic nature which exceed $375 in value. The American government’s Office of the Chief of Protocol makes public each year a list of the presents received by the President of the United States. In spite of that, Trump has been involved in scandals such as giving his son Barron the football he received from Vladimir Putin. Years earlier, Angela Merkel had given a similar gift to Malia and Sasha Obama that they weren’t able to keep.

Putin gives Trump a soccer ball and tells him ‘ball’s in your court now’. Photo: The Hill

In Venezuela there is no official, public record of presidential gifts, with the exception of the cases when the press covers the news. However, the country has a Code of Conduct for Public Servants, adopted in June 1998 by the then President Rafael Caldera. It establishes that: ‘Public servants shall turn down in the exercise of their functions the gifts, invitations, favors, handouts, payment of travel expenses, use of means of transportation or any sort of treat, material or immaterial benefits offered by persons or groups interested in obtaining favorable decisions of any kind.’

In Ecuador, former President Rafael Correa signed decree #501 in November 2014, specifying that any gift received by a public official with a value higher than that of the basic wage was to be considered national heritage. His idea went one step further when the 2016 earthquake hit the country. Eight months later, the President announced on Twitter: ‘today we begin the auction of the gifts we have received on behalf of the Ecuadorian people.’ The sale was consulted with the countries who presented the gifts as a gesture of diplomatic courtesy. The money raised was used for the building of homes in an indigenous community.

In May 2017, days before his final term concluded, Correa inaugurated the Government House Museum, located in the ground floor of Carondelet Palace. There, 11,000 gifts were exhibited, valued at 2.5 million dollars in total. According to his own statement: ‘I could have taken these presents home, and they would have solved the economic part of my life (…) but that would have been theft, it wouldn’t have been ethical.’

Bolivia also has, since February 2017, a museum which exhibits the diplomatic gifts received by President Evo Morales in his first 11 years of government. The Museum of the Democratic and Cultural Revolution was built in the village of Orinoca, the place of birth of the Head of State, and it displays more than 13,000 gifts, which include a collection of traditional hats and football shirts.

In Argentina, Law 25.188 lays down rules since 1999 for the ethical practices of public officials, and it establishes that they shall not be able to receive gifts, services or goods while performing their duties. The Anti-Corruption Office would have the power to regulate the procedure in the case of diplomatic gifts, and to decide in which cases they would be incorporated into the national economy. This regulation was not implemented; neither Cristina Fernández, nor the former presidents Néstor Kirchner, Eduardo Duhalde, Fernando de la Rúa or Carlos Menem ratified the article. In 2016, Mauricio Macri signed a decree regulating its enforcement.

Although the regulation of diplomatic gifts can be traced back three centuries in the more developed countries, in others it is easy to incorporate as a practice, it only requires political will. The case of Cuba is tragic; after centuries of struggle for independence, the republic was born under the whim of another power. Thus, corrupt governments and dictatorships followed one after another, and presidential shamelessness became the norm.

Fulgencio Batista fled from Cuba to the Dominican Republic on the night of January 1st, 1959, in possession of a briefcase with 3 million dollars and the deeds to other properties overseas.

The revolution of ’59 promised to get rid of such practices, but the hostility of the United States, the scant institutionalization and the nature of the guerrilla heroes relegated transparency to the background.

In the book One Hundred Hours with Fidel, the Cuban leader explains to journalist Ignacio Ramonet: ‘One day I gave to Eusebio Leal, the Historian of the City of Havana, some 17 thousand gifts (…) then I handed over from pajamas to some of those watches worth 6,000 or 7,000 dollars, to works of art, everything; I mean, good paintings, valuable artifacts, antiques.’

In a quick mathematical exercise, if in 11 years Evo Morales received 13,000 gifts, and in 10 years Rafael Correa gathered 11,000 gifts, how could Fidel Castro only receive 17,000 in four decades? Although there’s no evidence that Fidel was less inclined to receive presents, if that were the case, there isn’t an institutional or legal mechanism which regulates with transparency the reception of such gifts either, so we have no way to know for sure.

Cuba needs a Code of Ethics for Public Officials

We cannot hold President Miguel Díaz-Canel accountable for the lack of transparency of previous governments, but we can do it in his case. An easy-to-implement measure which would have a high political impact could be regulating the fate of presidential gifts. Turning them into the people’s patrimony would be a good example, and it would be in agreement with the accountability he demands of his cabinet. He should learn from the good practices of Correa in Ecuador.

More than a year has passed since he assumed the presidency. He went on a tour of official visits during which he received and delivered diplomatic presents. It’s time that Cubans knew the fate of the gifts presented to public servants, as well as who receives those which are paid for with their taxes. Few in Cuba know that, for example, before he left the White House, Obama received from Raúl Castro a wooden bust of Abraham Lincoln along with 205 Cuban cigars, a bottle of rum and two books. The rest of his family received 2354.78 dollars’ worth of Cuban gifts. The President of the United States delivered all the presents to his country’s National Archive, and us Cubans never heard about them.

Obama and his family delivered $2500 in Cuban gifts to the Office of the Chief of Protocol. Photo: Newsweek/Getty

Keeping a record of gifts contributes to reducing the risk of corruption and foreign influence, it increases the trust of citizens in their officials, it sets limits to their behavior and it increases transparency and institutional and popular control. Aside from being a matter of ethics, it is an economic necessity for Cuba. Wouldn’t the resources resulting from an eventual auction of presidential gifts be necessary? It would only be a question of deciding which would become the patrimony of the Cuban nation and which wouldn’t.

Perhaps many ask themselves whether there is a market for the auctioning of highly valuable gifts in Cuba. The example of Ecuador shows that most of the buyers were foreign residents, which proves that this could be another way to acquire international currency. None of the countries I mentioned above, except for Venezuela, has an economy as depressed as Cuba’s. In their case, there’s less need to regulate the possession of the presents received by their officials.

President Raúl Castro and His Holiness Kirill exchanged gifts in Cuba. Photo: Granma

Diplomatic gifts belong to the State and they need to be recorded. This information must be public and detailed: who gave them, what the gift consists of and where will it remain. It’s left to be seen whether the presidential decrees and codes of conduct in the countries mentioned are really respected, but the institutionalization of transparency is by and large a demand of all peoples.

As I’ve pointed out, perhaps some presents could remain in the President’s possession, but there should always be a public record of these and they should be considered the patrimony of all citizens. Regulating the gifts of the people is not only urgent; it would be an easy political victory for whoever does it. I can think of no legitimate reasons not to do it.

The President should take measures in that respect. The current Cuban practice regarding the exchange of diplomatic gifts is contradictory with socialist rhetoric and it’s too reminiscent of the preceding governments. That an official temporarily promoted to public office receive a present doesn’t mean it’s his. He should be the channel through which that gift should reach its true recipient: the people.

(Translated from the original)