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Rep. Joseph Cao – Sinner or Saint?

By Jackie Bong-Wright

A Warm Seat at the White House
“The relationship that I have been able to develop with the President and his
Administration has been great for my constituents in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. We have worked extremely well together in our first year in office, and I deeply respect his commitment to Gulf Coast recovery,” declared Rep. Joseph Cao after accepting the historic invitation from President Obama to watch the Super Bowl at the White House with his wife, Kate, and two daughters. Cao said that he would discuss the cancellation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Constellation human spaceflight program, which could mean job losses for his constituency, during the quality time he spends with the President.
Whether the President and the Democratic party want to lure the novice Republican Congressman to their side or not, they seem to have extended him a lot of favorable gestures after Cao cast the lone Republican vote for the Health Care Reform Bill in Congress last November. His action was regarded as treason by Republicans and victory by Democrats, who have rewarded him amply ever since.
First, Cao was invited to join a Congressional Delegation that included Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif) and Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) on an 11-day trip in January to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Japan. Secondly, Cao was asked to be the co-founder and co-chairman of the American Engagement Caucus with Rep. Russ Carnahan, a third-term Democrat from Missouri, and six other members, all Democrats. The invitation to the White House was the culmination of these favorable signs, which may be meant to entice the Congressman from New Orleans to switch parties. This could be a natural route for Cao, since the majority of Cao’s Second District constituents are African-Americans and Democrats.
The purpose of Cao’s foreign policy trip to South East Asia was primarily to study ways to help clear the unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. forces that have killed thousands since the end of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, Cao is no Princess Diana, whose similar work in other parts of the globe brought her plaudits. Instead, Cao received a stream of heated accusations, paradoxically, from human rights activists, mostly Vietnamese and Laotians. It was a backlash that Cao and the CoDel had not foreseen.

On the Hot Seat With the Asian Community

In Vietnam, Cao was greeted by Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Thanh Son and officials of the National Committee for Overseas Vietnamese Affairs (NCOVA). Son, overtowering the 5 ft. 2 inch Cao, and putting his arm around Cao’s shoulders in an affable gesture, sparked heated criticism from the Vietnamese-American community everywhere. The Viet Kieu, or Overseas Vietnamese, as they are called by the government of Vietnam, criticized Cao for looking submissive to the Hanoi Communists.
Vietnamese Americans also complained that Cao spoke of reconciliation with a one-party regime that had put his father and thousands of his compatriots in prison for years, and had killed nationalists who had cooperated with the U.S. They reproached him, too, for not speaking up on behalf of the 14 dissidents who were being sentenced to long jail terms during his Vietnam visit for writing and speaking about religious freedom and human rights. Cao’s response: “Many of my aspirations sometimes are not in parallel with the Vietnamese government’s policies, but I still hope that we can continue to cooperate and work together.”
In 2009, the Vietnamese Americans sent around $7 billion to their families, and half-a-million of them returned home to visit. Deputy Foreign Minister Son and the NCOVA said they wanted to build a bridge to the Vietnamese overseas community, and mentioned the possibility of sending a mission to meet with Vietnamese in the U.S. who still “do not possess a full and clear picture about Vietnam.” The Viet Kieu found that conciliatory approach deceitful, and felt the Communist government was using Cao to lure them to sympathize with the Communist side.
Many of the 1.5 million Vietnamese Americans, perhaps a majority, believe Cao
let them down during and after his trip to Vietnam. Just a few months back, Vietnamese in California, Texas and the Washington area had teamed up to raise funds for his re-election in November. Now they are accusing him of naivete.
Cao has given as the reason for his detached remarks, and his failure to visit Vietnam’s dissidents, the need to avoid being denied a visa to Vietnam. He also said, at press conferences on his return to the U.S., that he was able to press his concerns about human rights abuses and the suppression of religious freedom in Vietnam during a series of meetings with top Hanoi officials.
Cao also said that he was interested in expanding higher education opportunities for Vietnamese students, including increasing the availability of visas to the United States, so that they are better able to fill jobs at home with foreign companies, including U.S.-owned firms. But Vietnamese Americans have retorted that such students tend to be the children of top Communist cadres who use the privilege of foreign study to come back to high positions in the public and private sectors and then engage in corruption to enrich themselves and their families.
Criticism of Cao became even more intense after the delegation visited Laos. Cong. Honda and Del. Faleomavaega visited Pha Lak camp, where repatriated Hmong (hill tribe montagnards who sided with the U.S. to fight the Communists during the Vietnam War) were housed. Cao didn’t join them, but, based on his colleagues’ accounts, told reporters, “I think that people were being well treated.” In return for that “insulting” remark, Cao received a flurry of accusations from Lao Hmong advocates and human rights activists.
Christy Lee, Director of Hmong Advance, Inc., an advocacy group located in Washington, DC, said, “We condemn in the strongest terms the distorted and misleading comments of the three U.S. Congressmen, during their recent visit to Laos, and to the Lao government’s Potemkin Village show camp in Vientiane. It is deplorable that they did not visit, or seek to visit, the secret camps and prisons in more remote areas where most of the Hmong refugees are being jailed, tortured and imprisoned.”
Lee continued, “Hundred of Hmong refugees have disappeared or have been killed by the Lao government in recent years according to independent human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Lao Hmong Human Rights Council. Rep. Cao and the other Congressmen have misled the international community and helped the Lao military and government with its devious and terrible agenda to force the Hmong refugees back to Laos and oppress them. They didn’t visit the jailed Lao student leaders or the Lao and Hmong political and religious dissidents imprisoned in Laos. Their trip to Laos was utterly shameful.”
Furthermore, Philip Smith, Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, said, “It is outrageous and insulting to the Hmong community in the US to go so far as to accuse them of making up stories about human rights abuses. The three Congressmen have helped wash the blood from the hands of the Lao military.” In the 2009 report, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom placed Laos on the watch list for religious freedom violations and persecution of believers.
Cao’s office said that the criticism was unfounded and unfair. “Accusations that Cong. Cao is insensitive to the needs of refugees or is somewhat insensitive to victims of government abuse and persecution are not only wrong but absurd,” Cao spokeswoman Princella Smith said. She noted that Cao had signed a letter last year to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning that “forced repatriation of legitimate Hmong refugees to Laos may be a death sentence for a number of the detainees.
Christy Lee responded that she was concerned that the three Congressmen had refused to sign a recent letter from 12 U.S. legislators to the Foreign Minister of Laos requesting a guarantee that the 4,700 Lao Hmong repatriated from Thailand to Laos have access to international monitoring by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and asking that those eligible for resettlement be allowed to go to third countries.
Cao returned home from his trip with the vision of helping the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia remove 30 percent of the millions of unexploded mines and cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. during the ten-year Vietnam War. In his new role in the American Engagement Caucus, he wanted to play a greater part on the world stage and to embrace more multilateralism in foreign policy, focusing on the U.N. For that, too, Cao was denounced as willing to give away millions of tax-payer dollars to the Hanoi-backed, one-party Communist regime in Laos, which wants to remove unexploded bombs left over along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Complementing the snowstorms raging across the country this first week of February, criticism is pouring down on Cao. He says he remains optimistic, however, believing he has behaved justly, like an honest Jesuit, in the fight to help his constituents. Can Cao win a second term, however, in following his principles, focusing on service, acting independently, and voting his conscience, while ignoring party partisanship? It worked the first time, when he ran against a corrupt incumbent, but will it work this time around when he has to face an angry and frustrated group of unemployed voters who have lost their jobs and homes? He now opeates in an environment of racial and ethnic tension.
Early In the Lunar New Year of the Tiger 2010, one person posted this comment in All Louisiana Politics, “This guy is the most ineffective Member of Congress. He has not done 1 substantial thing during his tenure. Thank Goodness, Louisiana’s 2nd district will have a real representation in 1 year.”
Another person responded, “Removing the thief Jefferson was substantial.” And a third person wrote, “What’s with all the Cao-bashing? He’s an independent politician who went against the wishes of his party to support the wishes of his district.”
So the jury on Cao is still out. Let us see who wins in the end.