Back in 2010, Rep. Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese-American to serve in Congress, bungled his visit to Vietnam and was highly criticized for it.
First, it was a plain bad idea to go to the communist country just when that government increased its persecution of religious groups there, especially the Catholic Church.
Second, Cao was in such a hurry he whisked there without telling anyone and the world ended up learning about it through the (very self-serving) reporting of state-owned media from Vietnam.
Many called him a tool – knowing or otherwise – of the Vietnamese government, or at least of the Vietnamese propaganda machine. Others shook their heads and thought, boy, how naive can Cao get. They were most disappointed that Cao, a former Jesuit seminarian, didn’t even say or do anything to help the oppressed Catholics there.
Now, a diplomatic cable disclosed in the WikiLeaks database finally (but only partially) vindicated Cao.
The note written by the U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi reveals that Cao did speak out for freedom of religion in the country, going so far as a to call for placing Vietnam on the list of Countries of Particular Concern on religious rights.
But that note also reveals Cao as a political lightweight who was no match for the seasoned government officials that he met on his trip, and anything he might have planned to do about human rights in Vietnam was easily neutralized.
For sure, Cao had a good time on his trip, as part of a 3-member delegation with Eni Faleomavaega (a nonvoting Congressman from American Samoa) and Michael Honda (D-San Jose).
Cao and Honda got to Saigon first. Accompanied by consulate officers, they met with the External Relations Office and then, on their own, they visited the largest and best known maternity hospital of Vietnam, the Tu Du (Từ Dũ) Hospital.
Then Cao went to visit his hometown, Trung Chanh, which is in the far end of Ho Chi Minh City.
The next day, Faleomavaega arrived and the three flew to Hanoi, where Ambassador Michael Michalak took them around.
In the evening, the delegation was hosted by the National Assembly Foreign Affairs Vice Chairman, Ngo Quang Xuan.
That was when Cao spoke up. According to the cable,
Congressman Cao offered his personal, frank assessment of the current human rights and religious freedom situations in Vietnam, including a recommendation that Vietnam be returned to the CPC list.
“Not surprisingly,” the note said, “the Congressman’s statements prompted a strong rebuttal from Vice Chairman Xuan, who strongly defended the GVN position on human rights and religious freedom with well-known talking points.”
And … that was it from Cao!
Hit by a barrage of “well-known talking points,” Cao shut up. The whole religious freedom thing was never brought up again. No more CPC talk.
The next day, meeting with even bigger cheese from the Vietnamese side, Cao became utterly meek. The cable made him out to be close to apologetic. Meeting with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee:
Congressman Cao, speaking in Vietnamese, assured [Nguyen Van] Son that he did not intend to overthrow the Vietnamese Government. All political disagreements should be expressed openly in order to find common ground on issues of concern. “It is important that we continue to talk together and address any differences,” he noted.
Meeting with the Chairman of the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese (a position which makes him something of the sworn enemy of Vietnamese-American anti-communist protestors):
Representative Cao stated that many Vietnamese-Americans are vocal about issues facing Vietnam because they want to see the country prosper.
Meeting with the Vice Foreign Minister (who’s now the Foreign Minister):
Cao thanked the GVN for granting him a visa and allowing him to return to his country of birth. Congressman Cao noted that he continues to have a strong affinity for Vietnam even though he left when he was eight years old. Congressman Cao said he would continue to express his personal opinions on issues facing Vietnam, but only with the intent of making Vietnam a stronger, more stable and prosperous country.
Somehow one dress-down from a second-tier official was enough to drain Cao of all advocacy energy.