State Department Officials Visit Cuba To Discuss Diplomats’ Health Incidents          

On July 24 three senior U.S. State Department officials visited Cuba and met with the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. They were the Interim Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri; the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Administration, William Todd,; and the Undersecretary of Diplomatic Security, Michael Evanoff.[1]

They also met with the Director General of the United States of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Carlos Fernández de Cossío.

Afterwards, Sr. Cossio said the U.S. is “manipulating this issue politically and irresponsibly. The State Department has behaved with a lack of transparency and cooperation, despite the insistent claims of Cuba to seek a response in a cooperative and comprehensive manner, given the reports that the State Department says it has received from its diplomats, but for which it has not shown the slightest evidence.”

Julia Mason, spokeswoman for the State Department, said, “The trip provided an opportunity for our senior officials to gain a deeper insight into the challenges posed by these attacks and their impact on US operations in the field.”

CBS News reports that a spokesperson for Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that the State Department Accountability Review Board has “recently completed” a report on the case, as the committee awaits a briefing on it.

“There should be additional hearings in Congress about this,” says Daniel Runde, senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Worried about future attacks on U.S. diplomats, Rude says, “This needs to stop. This is outrageous. I think it is a significant danger.”

Cuba repeatedly has denied any responsibility and has said the U.S. has manipulated the “alleged health incidents” for political purposes. [2]

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[1] Goméz, Officials of the State Department in Cuba to discuss alleged incidents with the health of their diplomats, Cubadebate (July 24, 2018); Surprise visit of senior US officials to Havana for the ‘health incidents, Diario de Cuba (July 25, 2018); Dorsey, Top State officials visit Cuba, probe new health “attacks,” CBS News (July 24, 2018).

[2] Previous posts about the health incidents of U.S. diplomats in Cuba and more recently in China are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18″section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.

Recent U.S.-Cuba Developments 

Here are updates on several U.S.-Cuba issues.

U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission Meeting[1]

On June 14 in Washington, D.C., the U.S. and Cuba held their seventh meeting of the  Bilateral Commission that was started by the Obama Administration and Cuba.

Afterwards the State Department said the two parties “reviewed . . . areas for engagement that advance the interests of the [U.S.] and the Cuban people including combatting trafficking in persons; facilitating safe civil aviation; law enforcement cooperation; agricultural cooperation; maritime safety and search and rescue cooperation; resolution of certified claims;[2] advancing understanding of environmental challenges; and protecting the national security and public health and safety of the [U.S.]”

The State Department also said, “The [U.S.] reiterated the urgent need to identify the source of the attacks on U.S. diplomats and to ensure they cease. We also reiterated that until it is sufficiently safe to fully staff our Embassy, we will not be able to provide regular visa services in Havana. We expressed our continued concerns about the arbitrary detention of independent journalists and human rights defenders. The [U.S.] acknowledged progress in repatriating Cubans with final orders of removal from the [U.S.], but emphasized Cuba needs to accept greater numbers of returnees.” The U.S. also voiced concern about the “arbitrary detention of independent journalists and human rights defenders” in Cuba.

“Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, the top Cuban official at [this meeting], told The Associated Press that his delegation had “challenged the U.S. on the use of the word ‘attack.’ “There is no evidence of a weapon, there is no evidence of a source, nobody can point to motivation and yet they continue to use the word ‘attack.’ We see it as politically motivated.’” He also noted that neither American nor Cuban experts had been able to determine what caused the symptoms. He renewed concerns that the Trump administration is using the incidents as an excuse to roll back U.S.-Cuba rapprochement started under the Obama administration.

This objection to the U.S. verbiage for this problem was reiterated in a statement by the Cuba Foreign Ministry. “The Cuban delegation urged the government of the [U.S.] to desist from the continued political manipulation of the alleged health cases, which became the pretext to adopt new unilateral measures that affect the performance of the respective embassies, in particular, the rendering of consular services depended upon by hundreds of thousands of persons.” Cuba also raised its objection to the U.S. “travel warning” for Cuba, saying it “hinders the scientific, academic, cultural, religious and entrepreneurial exchanges, as well as the visits by Americans to a country that is internationally recognized as safe and healthy.”

The Cuba Foreign Ministry statement added, “The Cuban delegation rebuffed the regress in the bilateral relationship imposed by the government of the [U.S.] and called attention on the negative consequences thereof for both peoples, the Cuban emigration and the international and regional environment. The Cuban delegation reiterated that the economic, commercial and financial blockade continues to be the main obstacle to any perspective of improvement in the bilateral relationship and denounced its intensification with the adoption, in particular, of additional financial measures of aggressive extraterritorial nature.” Another Cuban objection was registered to what it said were U.S. actions, which were “intended interference in the internal affairs of Cuba, with the open manipulation of the human rights issue, which is flagrantly, massively and systematically violated with the implementation of the blockade.”

The Cuban Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, acknowledged “that it has been demonstrated that it is possible to cooperate and live in a civilized manner, by respecting differences and promoting that which benefits both countries and peoples. It expressed Cuba’s willingness to continue the bilateral dialogue and to work on issues of common interest through the active implementation, based on concrete proposals, of the bilateral agreements subscribed as those on environmental protection, law enforcement, health, agriculture, hydrography and geodesy, among others.”

Finally the State Department announced that the parties had “agreed to hold the next rounds of the biannual Migration Talks and the Law Enforcement Dialogue this summer.”

Another source mentioned that since Trump took office, the two countries have met around two dozen times on topics such as migration, public health, combating illicit drugs, environmental protection, law enforcement, agriculture, people smuggling and migration fraud, fugitives from justice, cyber-security, anti-money laundering, human trafficking, maritime safety, civil aviation and human rights.

Overall Evaluation of U.S.-Cuba Relations Under Trump[3]

Mimi Whitefield, who closely follows Cuban developments for the Miami Herald, notes that U.S.-Cuba relations appear to be stalled since President Trump gave his speech in Miami announcing retreats on U.S. engagement with Cuba.

However, she points out, the Havana-based “Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented 5,155 such cases last year, compared to 8,616 and 9,940 during the last two years of the Obama administration.” And in May 2018 they fell to 128, the lowest monthly total in three years, which may have been affected by “factors that affected Cubans’ activism: Poor weather conditions kept many people indoors, Cubans were preoccupied and took more time trying to find food and other staples, transportation was difficult, and the deaths of 112 people in a May 18 airline crash left the nation shell-shocked.”

Whitefield also states that the U.S. List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated With Cuba as of November 9, 2017, with which U.S. persons are not to have any dealings, has not been updated and does not even include all the hotels run by Cuba’s military conglomerate, and Americans still have the option of staying at hotel chains operated by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.

U.S. visitors to the island declined 56.6% in the first quarter of 2018 versus the prior year, with enormous adverse impact on Cuba’s emerging private sector. “Cuban entrepreneurs complain that the confusing U.S. travel policy has hurt them disproportionally because individual travelers tend to stay with them rather than at state-owned hotels. Business, some say, is down 30 to 40 percent because U.S. travel in general is down.”

On the other hand, says John McAuliffe, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which promotes engagement between Cuba and the U.S., “there is one form of travel to Cuba that is booming and that is cruises, and most of the revenue from the cruise industry goes to the state. With cruise terminal fees, buses, tours, and cruise passengers eating at mostly state restaurants, it’s channeling more money to official circles.”

Expansion of Bipartisan State Councils Supporting  Engagement with Cuba[4]

 On June 12, Engage Cuba, a bipartisan coalition promoting U.S. engagement with Cuba, announced that there are now 18 states with bipartisan state councils supporting these efforts. The latest is Pennsylvania, which like the others will seek to build statewide support for pro-engagement policies and ending U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Hold Seventh Bilateral Commission Meeting (June 14, 2018); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Seventh Meeting of the Cuba-United States Bilateral Commission held in Washington, D.C, (June 14, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Renews Call for Cuba to Probe Cause of Health ‘Attack,’ N.Y.Times (June 14, 2018); The US urges the Government of Cuba to identify the origin of attacks on diplomats, Diario de Cuba (June 14, 2018).

[2] The “certified claims” probably refers to claims against Cuba by U.S. nationals for their claims for compensation for Cuba’s expropriation of their property on the island in 1959-1960 that were certified by the U.S. Department of Justice. See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims (April 6, 2015); Resolving U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims (Dec. 13, 2015).

[3]  Whitefield, Has President Trump’s year-old Cuba policy helped the Cuban people? Miami Herald (June 14, 2018).

[4]   Engage Cuba, Pennsylvania Leaders Launch Engage Cuba State Council (June 12, 2018).

 

Developments  in U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations

As previously reported, beginning in late 2016 and continuing through August 2017, 24 U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba have suffered various medical problems, which apparently were in connection with unusual sounds (sometimes referred to as “sonic attacks”). In response the U.S. in September  2017 reduced the staffing at its embassy in Havana and the State Department ordered non-essential embassy personnel and the families of all staff to leave Havana, arguing the U.S. could not protect them from unexplained illnesses. In addition, the U.S. expelled some of the Cuban diplomats from Washington, D.C. and imposed an advisory for U.S. citizens to reconsider plans to travel to Cuba because of the problems of some of its diplomats in Havana.[1]

In recent days there there have been significant developments on these issues.

Continued Reduced U.S. Staffing in Havana [2]

On March 2, the U.S. State Department announced that effective March 5, “a new permanent staffing plan will take effect. The embassy will continue to operate with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions, similar to the level of emergency staffing maintained during ordered departure. The embassy will operate as an unaccompanied post, defined as a post at which no family members are permitted to reside.”

The announcement also admitted that after over 15 months of investigation the U.S. still does “not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks, and an investigation into the attacks is ongoing. The health, safety, and well-being of U.S. government personnel and family members . . . were a key factor in the decision to reduce the number of personnel assigned to Havana.”

Continued U.S. Travel Advisory for Cuba

Also on March 2 the State Department reissued its Travel Advisory for Cuba for U.S. citizens to “Reconsider travel to Cuba due to  attacks targeting U.S. Embassy Havana employees resulting in the drawdown of embassy staff.” It also stated the following:

  • “Numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees appear to have been targeted in specific attacks.  Many of these employees have suffered injuries.  Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, and difficulty sleeping.” 
  • “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk.  Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences (including a long-term apartment at the Atlantic)  and at Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana.”
  • “The U.S. Embassy in Havana is operating with reduced staffing and, as result, has limited ability to assist U.S. citizens, particularly outside Havana.”  
  • “Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Cuba.”
  • Specific suggestions were made for those U.S. citizens who nevertheless decide to travel to Cuba, including the following: “Avoid Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri. Know where to seek medical care in Cuba. Consult with a medical professional prior to traveling if you have personal health concerns or upon return if you believe you have suffered symptoms similar to those listed above. Visit our website for Travel to High-Risk Areas. Review the Crime and Safety Report for Cuba.”

The Crime and Safety Report for Cuba was not issued by the State Department, but by the federal Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC). It states the State Department “ HAS ASSESSED HAVANA AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS,” i..e., “non-violent crimes against tourists; . . . . roads are often dangerous due to lack of road maintenance.” A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS. HAVANA AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.”

U.S. Reactions to These U.S. Decisions [4]

“We have lost the strategic opportunity to pull Cuba into our sphere of interest,” said Vicki Huddleston, a former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana. “Cuba always needs to have benefactor … now the next benefactor will likely be Russia or China.”

With the reduced staffing, the U.S. is unable to maintain close ties with civil society and the opposition in Cuba. 

In addition to the previously noted inability of the Havana embassy to provide normal services to U.S. citizens on the island, it is unable to provide visa services to Cubans wanting to visit the U.S.

The six Democratic senators and representatives who visited Cuba last month, as discussed in an earlier post, already had expressed their opposition to the reduced staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the travel advisory for the island.

One of them, Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa, Florida, followed up with a February 28 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. She stressed her concern about the “detrimental impact [of reduced staffing] on families, [and] educational, religious and cultural exchanges” between the two countries. With the upcoming anticipated change in Cuba’s presidency the U.S. “should be there promoting economic and human rights reforms and continued cooperative dialogue.”

Representative Castor’s letter also called for reversal of the “overarching travel warning” for Cuba and the restrictions on person-to-person travel to the island. “There is nothing in recent history to show that Cuba is unsafe for American visitors and travel restrictions serve no purpose.” In fact, these restrictions already are adversely affecting the emerging private sector on the island, which should be a force for change on the island and improved relations with the U.S.

Representative Barbara Lee (Dem.,  CA) had similar thoughts: “The decision of the State Department affects years of progress toward the normalization of relations with Cuba. Our diplomats should be allowed to do their job and return to their posts in Cuba.”

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition promoting U.S.-Cuba normalization, said, “”It is deeply disappointing that [the U.S. has chosen] . . . not to return U.S. diplomats to their assigned posts in Havana. This decision will be applauded in Moscow and Beijing, as both countries are poised to take advantage of Cuba’s historic transition of power while the United States remains on the sidelines. . . . As Washington continues to distance itself from Havana, U.S. adversaries have exerted greater influence. In a time of political uncertainty for Cuba, safeguarding U.S. national security interests remains more critical than ever. Last year, over a dozen retired U.S. military flag officers urged U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster to continue to normalize relations with Cuba in order to strengthen regional stability in the Western Hemisphere.” 

Similar thoughts come from Cuba Educational Travel, which “organizes educational exchange programs and people-to-people travel for U.S. citizens and residents to Cuba” and believes “our two countries have much to learn from each other and meaningful exchanges that foster dialogue can be highly beneficial to strengthening the artistic, environmental, medical, scientific, and social science communities in the U.S. and Cuba. Most importantly, increased travel and people-to-people contact will strengthen ties between ordinary Americans and Cubans.”

Cuban Reactions to These U.S. Decisions [5]

Carlos Fernández de Cossío, the US General Director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said the continued low staffing of the U.S. Embassy is in response to U.S. “political motivations and has no relationship whatsoever with the security of its officials.” He also criticized the U.S. for continuing to use the word “attack,” when “it knows perfectly well that no attack or deliberate act occurred in Cuba against its diplomats.”

Sergio Gómez, a journalist with Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, provided the following comprehensive list of reasons why the U.S. should restore the full staffing of its Havana Embassy:

  1. There are millions of affected people, including Cubans on the island who intend to travel to the U.S. to visit a family member, attend an event or re-settle in the U.S. and, therefore, need the assistance of the U.S. Embassy.
  2. Requiring Cubans to go to the U.S. Embassy in Colombia imposes extra burdens  on Cubans and on that country.
  3. It makes it impossible for the U.S. to fulfill its commitment to issue 20,000 immigrant visas per year to Cubans.
  4. It impedes collaboration of scientists, scholars and athletes of the two countries.
  5. The U.S. expulsion of 17 Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. adversely affects its ability to assist  Cubans and Americans.
  6. There is no evidence of Cuban “attacks” on U.S. personnel.
  7. There is no evidence of Cuban causing the medical problems of U.S. personnel.
  8. Cuba has fully cooperated in investigating these medical problems, including welcoming the U.S. to do such investigations on the island.
  9. Cuba has an impeccable record of protecting foreign diplomats on the island.
  10. Cuba is a safe, stable and healthy country as evidenced by its welcoming 4 million foreign visitors last year, including 620,000 from the U.S.

Conclusion

The criticisms of these U.S. decisions from the U.S. and from Cuba are well founded. Restore full staffing of the Havana Embassy! Rescind the Travel Advisory for Cuba!

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[1] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-2018” section in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, End of Ordered Departure at U.S. Embassy Havana (Mar. 2, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba ‘Health Attacks’ a Puzzle; Embassy Cuts Permanent, N.Y. Times (Mar. 2, 2018);Reuters, Drastic Staff Cuts at U.S. Embassy in Cuba Now Permanent, N.Y. Times (Mar. 2, 2018). 

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Advisory (Mar. 2, 2018); OSAC, Cuba 2017 Crime & Safety Report (Mar. 10, 2017). 

[4] Congressional Delegation Visits Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 24, 2018); Representative Castor, Letter to Secretary Tillerson (Feb. 28, 2018)l Engage Cuba Statement on Permanent Staff Reduction at U.S. Embassy in Havana (Mar. 2, 2018). 

[5] Gomez, Washington keeps cutting its Embassy in Cuba, Granma (Mar. 2, 2018); Gómez, Ten reasons why the United States should normalize its Embassy in. Havana, Granma (Mar. 2, 2018).

Congressional Delegation Visits Cuba

A delegation of six U.S. senators and representatives, all Democrats, visited Cuba from February 17 through 21. They were Senators Patrick Leahy (VT),  Gary Peters (MI) and Ron Wyden (OR) plus Representatives Jim McGovern (MA), Kathy Castor (FL) and Susan Davis (CA). [1]

Leahy, the leader of the group, announced that the purpose of the trip was “to meet with U.S. and Cuban officials, officials of other governments, and Cubans in the emerging private sector to discuss: the presidential transition in Cuba; U.S. and Cuban investigations of health incidents involving U.S. government personnel in Cuba; cooperation on maritime security, search-and-rescue, narcotics and human trafficking, and migration issues; the impact of the withdrawal of U.S. Embassy and Cuban Embassy personnel and of revised Treasury Department regulations on U.S.-Cuban relations; and opportunities for public health, law enforcement, scientific, environmental, commercial, educational, cultural, and other engagement with Cubans.”

Meeting at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry

On February 20 they met with the Director General of the United States of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cárlos Fernández de Cossío.

They discussed, among other topics, the medical problems of certain U.S. diplomats that occurred in Cuba. Cossío emphasized that  there was no evidence of attacks on the diplomats and Cuba’s difficulties of carrying out a rigorous investigation.

Meeting with President Raúl Castro

On February 20 the delegation also met with President Raúl Castro, who was joined by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Director General Cossio. Below is the official photograph of the meeting. The Cuban release about this event merely stated, “During the meeting they exchanged about matters of interest to both countries.”

Other Activities

The delegation met with Cuban entrepreneurs who said Trump’s Cuba policy was hurting their businesses. Surprisingly there have been no reports that there was discussion of last year’s actions by the Cuban government to curtail the growth of the private sector or its new proposed regulations to impose even more onerous restrictions on that sector that apparently were leaked to the public the day after the delegation left the island as discussed in a prior post

An objective of the delegation was not met. They wanted to meet with Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro’s presumed successor, but he was not available.

Press Conference

At the conclusion of their trip, on February 21, the delegation held a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and below is a photography of the delegation at this event.

According to Diario de Cuba, Senator Leahy said, “The embargo does not make sense and the reversal of the policies negotiated by Barack Obama and Raúl Castro does not help the US or Cuba.” In fact, he said, President Trump’s retreat from engagement with Cuba was “erroneous” and “stupid.”

Leahy also addressed the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba. He said, “If we have to find out if something happened, it is a big mistake to close our embassy or to pretend that the Cubans close theirs. How are you going to get visas? How to maintain medical cooperation? What about the students? Of the projects in agriculture? There are many projects that are paralyzed.” 

Moreover, according to Leahy, the Cuban government has been cooperating in trying to ascertain the cause of these medical problems  and he believes the island’s authorities do not have the slightest intention to harm U.S. citizens who visit Havana. Indeed, not a single one of his colleagues had any fears about traveling to Cuba as they believe the island to be a safe place, and have even travelled here with their spouses, and in Leahy’s case, with his 13 year-old granddaughter.

Leahy added that there are many American diplomats who want to work in Cuba despite the symptoms that Washington previously said affected 24 U.S. government officials and spouses. As a result, Leahy urged the State Department on Wednesday to restore embassy staff in Havana as soon as possible.

Leahy also stated, “”Whoever is [the new] president in Cuba will make a mistake if he thinks we should maintain tensions between our countries, which is easy to say, but we have to go back to the dialogue we had between Obama and Castro.”

Representative McGovern, again as reported by Diario de Cuba, offered that protection of U.S. diplomats is “paramount,” but it was an “error” by the Trump Administration to cut the Embassy’s staff and to expel Cuban diplomats in Washington. Moreover, “US policy toward Cuba has been guided by paranoia and suspicion,” which he described as “stupid” because it has not yielded any fruit in more than fifty years of hostility. “Cuba is changing, it will soon elect a new president and it will have a generational change of leadership. Unfortunately, at that historic moment for Cuba, the involvement of the United States will be limited.”

Senator Wyden added that the delegation had stressed the importance for Cuba to unify its two currencies and “Cuba officials repeatedly said that this was the year to get it done.” Representative Castor subsequently added that the delegation asked the Cuban government to eliminate the 13 percent exchange tax on the U.S. dollar with respect to the CUC, the local convertible currency. The Cuban officials responded by saying “they would like to do that, but they have said that in the past,” said Castor.

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[1] Press Release, Leahy To Lead Congressional Delegation To Cuba (Feb. 16, 2018); Delegation of the United States Congress Visits Cuba, CubaDebate (Feb. 18, 2018); Senator Leahy visits the MINREX headquarters in Havana, Martí (Feb. 20, 2018); Raúl received a delegation from United States Congress, Granma (Feb. 21, 2018); US congressmen criticize Trump’s turn toward politics as “erroneous and stupid,” Diario de Cuba (Feb. 21, 2018); US congressional delegation reaffirms need to improve relations with Cuba, Granma (Feb. 21, 2018); US Congressmen insist on the need to improve ties with Cuba, CubaDebate (Feb. 21, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Lawmakers Say It’s Time to Restore Staff at Cuba Embassy, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2018); Marsh, Cuba tells U.S. delegation monetary unification on cards this year, Reuters (Feb. 21, 2018); Torres, Cuba shares plans for single currency and more during a visit by U.S. lawmakers, Miami Herald (Feb. 21, 2018).