On September 6, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee held a hearing on U.S. policy on Cuba.
The subcommittee heard from the following five witnesses, the first four of whom were from the State Department and the last (Mr. Mazanec) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: (1) Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; (2) Peter Bodde, Coordinator, Health Incidents Response Task Force; (3) Charles Rosenfarb, M.D., Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services; (4) Todd Brown, Assistant Director for Countermeasures, Bureau of Diplomatic Security; and (5) Brian M. Mazanec, Ph. D.
Since the audio recording of the hearing is virtually impossible to hear, the following are the highlights of the prepared and printed statements of two of the witnesses and the brief comments from the Washington Post article.
Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Merten
Human Rights. The Department continues to monitor “human rights developments in Cuba and actively engages with members of Cuban civil society. . . . The Department and USAID also continue to administer U.S. government funded programs to promote democracy and support the critical work of human rights defenders on the island. . . . we regularly speak out against the regime for repression and abuse and raise these concerns directly with the Cuban government.
Cuban Economy. The State Department’s “Cuba Restricted List . . . identifies entities and subentities with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise. . . . [It seeks to ] redirect economic activity that once supported the Cuban military toward the Cuban private sector and Cuban people.”
The Department’s Cuba Internet Task force. It is charged to “develop recommendations on 1) the role of media and unregulated flow of information to Cuba and 2) expanding internet access in Cuba” and is scheduled to complete its work by June 2019.
Promoting Stability and Prosperity. The Department has “1) reviewed democracy programs in Cuba to ensure they align with the criteria set forth in the LIBERTAD Act; 2) provided a report to the President detailing the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses against the Cuban people and its lack of progress towards a “transition government” as described in the LIBERTAD Act; 3) provided a report to the President on bilateral engagement with Cuba to ensure it advances U.S. interests; 4) took a stand at the UN against Cuban anti-embargo propaganda; and 5) continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security to discourage dangerous, unlawful migration that puts Cuban and American lives at risk.”
“Health Attacks” on U.S. Personnel. Merten reminded the subcommittee that “the Department first became aware of these health complaints and an increase in Cuban harassment in late December 2016, [bit] it was not until months later, after highly specialized medical testing was performed and analyzed by experts, that we began to understand the spectrum of severity and confirm the extent of the health effects. That confirmation indicated that these incidents went beyond routine harassment previously experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana.”
He then stressed that the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” (Emphasis added.)
He also emphasized that the U.S. Government was committed to long-term support for the affected personnel.
He mentioned that Secretary of State Pompeo has established an Accountability Review Board that had submitted its report on June 7 and that the Secretary has accepted all of its recommendations.
“We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause,” testified Dr. Rosenfarb.
His prepared statement summarized the GAO’s July 30, 2018 report (released on September 6) that reviewed the State Department’s management of these health incidents and made recommendations for improvements in same.
This blog previously has criticized the U.S. so-called democracy promotion activities in Cuba and the U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force because they are unilateral attempts to impose U.S. values on Cuba. Instead, this blog has advocated for the U.S. attempting to develop such programs with the cooperation of the Cuban government. This blog also has also called for the U.S. to ends its embargo of Cuba.
A future post will discuss the latest developments regarding U.S. diplomats who have had medical problems arising from their being stationed in Havana.
 U.S. House Rep., Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Hemisphere Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).
 See the following sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA: U.S. Embargo of Cuba, Cuban Human Rights, Cuban Economy, U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba and U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force.
2 thoughts on “U.S. House Hearing on U.S. Policy Towards Cuba ”
Duane, I heard that the strange illness of the U.S. employees in Cuba may have been caused by magnetic fields inducing electric current stimulation of nerves, muscles, sensory cells,etc. the source was a piece of equipment in the office area. Magnetic fields are classified as possible carcinogens. Have you any information about this theory?
Representative Engel Questions State Department’s Response to Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba
At the September 6 hearing before the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Representative Eliot Engel (Dem., NY), the Ranking Member on the overall Foreign Affairs Committee, appeared to make a statement and ask questions.
Engel stated that last December he and Committee Chairman Ed Royce (Rep., CA) “sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] urging them to take a leading role in investigating the health incidents that affected U.S. personnel in Cuba. I think it’s a no-brainer that as our nation’s top experts on health threats, the CDC should be at the forefront of this investigation with the appropriate experts deployed in Havana. I was pleased that the [State Department’s Accountability Review Board recently] recommended that ‘the Department engage the CDC to undertake a comprehensive medical study of the symptoms and clinical findings related to the incidents in Cuba. So, I am pleased that the CDC is finally involved, but I’m concerned, and frankly perplexed, that it’s come so late.”
“So I’d like to ask Dr. Rosenfarb . . . could you explain why it took so long for the CDC to get to work on the Cuba health incidents? And, why, on the other hand, did the CDC start their work on the confirmed China incident immediately?”
• [Dr. Rosenfarb: “Sir, I would like to just reinforce that it’s taken time to understand the extent of the symptoms and findings and injuries. Right now, in retrospect, we know what injuries happened to folks. But way back, when these things first started appearing in December of 2016 and over the course of the next several months it wasn’t evident at that time. And then our first and foremost goal was to provide care to those people who were injured and do assessments. We accomplished that over the next several months, from January 2017 going forward.”
• “Once we felt we had people properly cared for, in the fall of 2017, we began talking to CDC. We met with CDC informally a number of times in fall of 2017 and that led to a formal request from the department to CDC in December of 2017 for their active assistance. We have been very happy with CDC to this point. They have been great partners and we hope to benefit from their work going forward.”]
Engel also said, “I understand that the physician who first treated affected U.S. personnel was Michael Hoffer – a former military doctor now at the University of Miami. A Time Magazine article from June 2011 about Dr. Hoffer stated: ‘A U.S. military doctor deployed to Iraq subjected troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries to treatment with an unapproved drug, in which he had a financial stake, that may have harmed them, Pentagon investigators report. The article goes on to cite an extensive Pentagon Inspector General report on this incident. CBS News reported that ‘investigators found the study did not use standard military concussion assessments on the soldiers possibly resulting in ‘sub-standard care.’”
“Had you reviewed these articles, or the report of the Inspector General before Dr. Hoffer was brought on to treat U.S. embassy personnel? And have you received these documents since then?”
• [Dr. Rosenfarb: “I am aware of some of that. When this started to unfold back in early spring 2017, members of the US government medical team reached out, initially to Johns Hopkins University, to try and figure out who would be the best placed person to see our personnel. If you recall, initially the thoughts were that this was some sort of acoustic attack—the symptoms initially appeared to be localized to the acoustic, the ear system.”
• “We reached out to Johns Hopkins. There was a recommendation to go to Dr. Hoffer because of his experience in the military treating brain injury there, at the University of Miami. So, the first patients back in April and May of 2017 were assessed by Dr. Hoffer. Subsequently, when we determined that it was probably not localized to the acoustic system, that it was more kind of a broader brain injury process, that’s when we made efforts to find a—Center of Excellence for Brain Injury and Repair, and University of Pennsylvania was then identified, and patients have gone there since.”
• “At the time, we felt he was the best qualified person—the recommendations we received to do the initial evaluation.”
Rep. Engel, Engel Remarks on Cuba Policy and Health Incidents (Sept. 6, 2018). https://engel.house.gov/latest-news/engel-remarks-on-cuba-policy-and-health-incidents/