Is Cuba-North Korea Cooperation Good or Bad for U.S.? 

On November 22-24 North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was in Havana to meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and President Raúl Castro. Was this a positive or negative development for  the U.S., which has simultaneous strained relationships with both countries?[1]

Background

Since 1960, soon after the Cuban Revolution assumed control of the island’s government, Cuba and North Korea have had close diplomatic relations. It started with a 1960 visit to North Korea by Che Guevara, who praised the North Korean regime as a model for Cuba to follow.

In 1986 Fidel Castro visited North Korea and met with the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il (the grandfather and father, respectively, of the current North Korean leader).

In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar bags upon its return from Cuba. Cuba claimed the weapons were going to North Korea for repairs and were to be sent back. However, the next year a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the U.S.

In 2015, Cuba’s First Vice President and foreseeable successor to Raúl Castro, Miguel Díaz-Canel , was received by Kim Jong-un in the North Korean capital.

In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.

This year the Kim regime has been strengthening its ties with Cuba with a view to breaking its diplomatic isolation, before the tightening of sanctions imposed by the international community. In January, Cuban Vice President  Salvador Valdés Mesa  received the number three of the North Korean regime, Choe Ryong-hae. In May the North Korean trade union leader Ju Yong-gil visited  Havana as part of a meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions and reportedly returned with a message of solidarity from President Raúl Castro.

The Ho-Rodriguez Meeting

Ho’s first meeting in Cuba was with Foreign Minister Rodriguez and below is a photograph of the two men at that meeting. 

Afterwards Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated that the two officials  had “reviewed the satisfactory status and positive evolution of bilateral relations, which [are] based on the traditional bonds of friendship established by the historical leaders Fidel Castro Ruz and Kim Il Sung and the links that exist between both peoples, parties and governments.” They also asserted their “respect for peoples’ sovereignty, independence and free determination, territorial integrity, the abstention or threat of the use of force, the peaceful settlement of disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of States.”

They then “strongly rejected the unilateral and arbitrary lists and designations established by the US government which serve as a basis for the implementation of coercive measures which are contrary to international law.” In addition, they “expressed their concern over the escalation of tensions and the increased military activity in the [Korean Peninsula].”

The Ho-Castro Meeting

After the two officials’ meeting, the official note of the meeting released on Cuban official television stated, “In the fraternal meeting both parties noted the historic bonds of friendship that exist between the two nations and discussed international issues of common interest.”

Implications for the U.S.

On November 23 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the possibility that the North Korea-Cuba relationship was a positive development for the U.S. and the world. He said that last year he had discussed with Castro the possibility of working together to defuse global tensions with North Korea. “Can we pass along messages through surprising conduits?” Implicitly answering “yes” to his rhetorical question, Trudeau said. “These are the kinds of things where Canada can, I think, play a role that the United States has chosen not to play, this past year.”

Canada had an interest in seeking such solutions, not just because of regional security but also because the flight path of possible North Korean missiles would pass over its territory, Trudeau said.

An unnamed Asian diplomat had a similar thought: “We often ask the Cubans if they can talk to [the U.S. about North Korea].”

A more negative assessment was offered by an anonymous U.S. State Department official who said that the U.S. had made clear it wanted a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue, but North Korea’s “belligerent and provocative behavior demonstrates it has no interest in working toward a peaceful solution.” Also skeptical was Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official, who said,  “A key element of the Trump administration’s sanctions effort is isolating North Korea. The U.S. should warn Cuba about the dangers of a relationship with North Korea.”

Conclusion

Although this blog desperately hopes for a de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and the avoidance of a nuclear war, I doubt that Cuba or Canada via Cuba can make a significant contribution to that objective.

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[1] Reuters, Castro Meets North Korean Minister Amid Hope Cuba Can Defuse Tensions, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2017); The North Korean chancellor brings to Raúl Castro a ‘verbal message’ from Kim Jong-un, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 24, 2017); MacDonald, North Korea relations could be cooled using Cuba, Trudeau says, Global News (Nov. 23, 2017); Reuters, Cuba, North Korea Reject ‘Unilateral and Arbitrary U.S. Demands, N.Y. Times (Nov. 23, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, The Cuban Foreign Minister met with his counterpart from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Nov. 22, 2017); Gomez, Bruno Rodriguez receives Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Granma (Nov. 22, 2017); Reuters, North Korean Foreign Minister Heads to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2017); Taylor, Amid growing isolation, North Korea falls back on close ties with Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2017).

 

 

Additional Reactions to New U.S. Regulations Regarding  Cuba         

As noted in a prior post, on November 8, new U.S. regulations on travel to Cuba and business with Cubans were issued while another post discussed initial reactions thereto.  Already additional reactions have surfaced: impact on what Americans drink in Cuba and the adverse impact on U.S. interests.

Americans Drinks in Cuba[1]

The new Cuba Restricted List bans U.S. businesses and individuals from doing business with the Cuba companies that produce two rum brands—Ron Varadero and Ron Caney—and three soft drinks—Tropicola Cachito, Jupiña and Nahita. That has raised concern that Americans in Cuba would have to be careful about what they drink.

Two days after the issuance of the new regulations, the U.S. Treasury issued a clarification. The List only bans direct financial transactions with the entities on the List. Therefore, says the Treasury, “Americans may still consume those soft drinks and rums” — as long as they don’t buy them directly from the companies on the List. They can buy a Tropicola from a street vendor, for example, and they won’t have to tell a bartender: ‘No Varadero or Caney rum, please.’”

But the Americans may not buy “a rum and coke at . . . one of the 83 hotels that are run by Gaviota or Habaguanex, two tourism brands controlled by the military [and, therefore, on the List]. It’s off limits for not only drinks but also lodging.”

Adverse Impact on U.S. Interests[2]

A Miami Herald journalist, Fabiola Santiago, has identified at least five ways the new regulations harm U.S. interests.

“First, by doing away with the independent people-to-people travel by Americans, . . . [the regulations] are actually helping the Cuban government control what travelers do, whom they meet, and how their perceptions of the country are shaped, thus becoming enablers of the dictatorship. Yet, tours are the mode of travel endorsed by Trump’s policy — and propagandistic historical tours are one of the activities that prove to the Treasury Department that your travel to Cuba is ‘educational.’”

Second, the new regulations put “the trips back in the hands of babysitters . . . [i.e.,] loyal government employees who shuttle around visitors. . . . Trump just expanded their ranks. Jobs!”

Third, the new regulations thereby harm “Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurial class,” who will lose customers to the state-owned businesses.

Fourth, the new regulations do not adversely affect U.S. cruise ship operators even though their “passengers are a captive audience of government stores filled with Che Guevara paraphernalia and peddlers who offer government services to people disembarking.”

Fifth, the regulations and the Trumpian rhetoric about Cuba are helping the Russians enhance their relationship with Cuba, which includes “aggressively pursuing establishing a military base in Cuba, 90 miles from the USA.”

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[1] Whitefield, Do new rules on Cuba travel mean no rum in cocktails for American travelers? Miami Herald (Nov. 10, 2017). (I was unable to find the Treasury Department clarification on its website.)

[2] Santiago, It’s your Cuba policy, Miami republicans. You can’t blame Obama now, Miami Herald (Nov. 10, 2017)

The JFK Files and Cuba    

On October 26, the U.S. National Archives released additional documents from the files regarding the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Preliminary examination by journalists revealed what are well known facts relating to Cuba and that horrible crime.[1] Here are what some journalists report.

CIA and Defense Department Schemes To Kill Fidel Castro

“Some of the papers recounted the [CIA’s] well-chronicled schemes to kill Fidel Castro. One document, a summary of the CIA’s plans to assassinate foreign leaders, recounted how the CIA tried to use James B. Donovan, the American lawyer and negotiator made famous by the movie ‘Bridge of Spies,’ for one plot. He would give Castro a contaminated skin-diving suit while the two negotiated for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners.”

“It was known that Fidel Castro liked to skindive. The CIA plan was to dust the inside of the suit with a fungus producing madera foot, a disabling and chronic skin disease, and also contaminating the suit with tuberculosis bacilli in the breathing apparatus,” the paper said. Donovan didn’t go through with it, instead presenting the Cuban leader with “an uncontaminated skindiving suit as a gesture of friendship.”

“Another outlandish plot described talks of prepping a ‘booby-trap spectacular seashell’ that would be submerged in an area Castro enjoyed diving. The seashell would be loaded with explosives that would go off once lifted. ‘After investigation, it was determined that there was no shell in the Caribbean area large enough to hold a sufficient amount of explosive which was spectacular enough to attract the attention of Castro.’”

“Another scheme to kill Castro involved a CIA employee fluent in Spanish based in Cuba who was recruiting a high-ranking Cuban government official in 1963. The CIA officer and the Cuban actually met in Europe on the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The Cuban wanted the CIA to supply him with ‘some type of esoteric gadget with which he would be able to defend himself’ if he got into a fight with Castro. ‘He had in mind some sort of pellet pen,’ the document read. The agency officer didn’t have a pellet pen, but he did show his asset a ballpoint pen with a hypodermic needle ‘inside that when you pushed the lever, the needle came out and poison could be injected into someone.’”

“But the Cuban declined the gadget because it would have required him to get too close to Castro. Instead, the agent asked the CIA operative for weapons. The agency complied, sending down high-powered rifles with scopes to Cuba. The asset was never used. The case officer broke off contact in 1964.”

The Pentagon proposed “a scheme called Operation BOUNTY that sought to overthrow Cuba’s government, and established a system of financial rewards for Cubans for ‘killing or delivering alive known Communists.’ A reward would be paid to an individual upon presentation of a leaflet, with ‘conclusive’ proof of death and dead person’s party/revolutionary membership card. Cubans who played along would get a certain dollar amount based on the title of the Communist they had killed. They would get up to $100,000 for government officials and $57,500 for “department heads.” Castro, perhaps for symbolic reasons, would earn a Cuban only two cents.”

Anti-Castro Groups’ Plans

“Many of the documents center on the activities of Cuban anti-Castro groups — including Orlando Bosch’s Insurrectional Movement of Revolutionary Recovery (MIRR) — as the FBI tried to dissuade or scuttle their plans for armed invasions of the island. One FBI document from June 1959 predicts an uprising against Castro that never came: ‘Conditions are getting so bad in Cuba that it can well be that a counterrevolution will occur from within Cuba, rather than waiting for any invasion force from outside…. Powerful interests, such as bankers, sugar institute, et cetera, are extremely dissatisfied.’”

“Similarly, another 1959 FBI report relays intelligence on some Cuban exiles jockeying to replace Castro if he were to be overthrown, an outcome seen as all but assured. The same document cites the prediction by an informant that Castro ‘cannot last more than two months.’”

“A 1964 FBI memo describes a meeting in which Cuban exiles tried to set a price on the heads of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. ‘It was felt that the $150,000.00 to assassinate FIDEL CASTRO plus $5,000 expense money was too high,’ the memo noted. At a subsequent meeting, they settled on more modest sums: $100,000 for Fidel, $20,000 for Raúl and $20,000 for Che.”

Cuban Plans To Assassinate JFK?

 In 1963, the Cuban ambassador to the U.S. reacted with “happy delight” to the murder, according to a CIA memo.

In 1978 Fidel told American lawmakers that his country was not involved in the plot to kill Kennedy.

“A draft report by the House Select Committee on Assassinations found it unlikely that Cuba would kill Kennedy as retaliation for the CIA’s attempts on Fidel Castro’s life. ‘The Committee does not believe Castro would have assassinated President Kennedy, because such an act, if discovered, would have afforded the United States the excuse to destroy Cuba,’ the draft states. ‘The risk would not have been worth it.’”

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[1] Miller, Strippers, surveillance and assassination plots” The wildest JFK Files, Wash. Post (Oct. 27, 2017); Yuhas & Dart, JFK files reveal FBI warning on Oswald and Soviets’ missile fears, Guardian (Oct. 27, 2017). Some of these U.S. plots against Fidel and Cuba were discussed in a prior post about then U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s obsession with Cuba.

 

Cuban Report of Its Investigation of the Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba  

On October 22, a public report about Cuba’s investigation of the cause of the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats in Havana was made by the Cuban officials in charge.[1]

They “forcefully denied that their government was to blame. Any claim that Cuba is responsible “is completely false,” said Col. Ramiro Ramirez, chief of diplomatic security for the Cuban Interior Ministry.

He added that its investigation has involved nearly 2,000 people, “including law enforcement agents, criminologists, mathematicians, audiologists and the best scientists in our country.” They have examined rooms in two hotels where some American embassy staffers lived, scoured a neighborhood where many had homes, and interviewed 300 neighbors and conducted dozens of medical exams to see if others outside the diplomatic cadre were affected. They also analyzed air and soil samples, looked into whether insects could be the culprit and considered a range of toxic chemicals and the possibility of electromagnetic waves.

Cuba also denied that it possesses any technology to do what is alleged and “has never produced these type of weapons,” according to Lt. Col. Jorge Alazo, head of the criminal division of the Interior Ministry.

As for the possibility that a third country, like Russia, wanted to cause trouble, Col. Ramirez said, “We don’t have definitive answers yet but Cuba has never allowed, nor would we ever allow, our territory to be used in this way.”

The Cubans further noted that the U.S. has refused to share the medical records of the diplomats or let the Cubans speak to U.S. doctors who examined the affected diplomats or permitted them into the homes of U.S. diplomats to conduct tests.

From the U.S., Joe Pompei, a former MIT researcher who is the founder and president of Holosonics, a sound technology company, said, “There’s never been any kind of physiological response that reflects the symptoms that have been reported that has ever been caused by sound waves of any type.”

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[1] Reuters, Cuban investigators say U.S. sonic attack allegations ‘science fiction,’ (Oct. 24, 2017); Mitchell & Murray, Cubans Forcefully Reject Blame for U.S. Diplomats’ Mystery Ailments, NBC News (Oct. 24, 2017). A list of previous posts on this topic are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical—Cuba.

Continued Official Uncertainty Over Cause of Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba     

There has been lots of news over the U.S. diplomats with medical problems from serving in Cuba. But there is still official uncertainty over the cause of those problems and resulting cooler Cuba relations with the U.S. and warmer relations with Russia.

U.S. Trying To Hide the Attacks?[1]

CBS News on October 10 reported that one of the 22 U.S. diplomats who has suffered from purported “sonic attacks” in Cuba had asserted that the U.S. was trying to hide the attacks.

In addition, this individual reportedly told CBS that the attacks had happened at the Embassy itself, their Havana quarters and hotels, that the State Department “pressured” some U.S. embassy officials who had been injured to remain on the island and “waited too long” to withdraw personnel and that the initial treatment by doctors in Havana and at the University of Miami Hospital in the U.S. was “superficial and incomplete.”

The State Department denied these allegations later the same day.[2] Its Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at a press briefing, said, “We have an ongoing investigation that’s being spearheaded out of the [U.S.] with our best investigators on that, so they continue to move ahead with that investigation. We still don’t know who is responsible and we still don’t know what is responsible for the injuries of our American staff.” (Emphasis added.)

Pressed by other reporters about the above comments by one of the victims and by the Department’s recent identification of only two Havana hotels where some of the attacks occurred, Nauert said the following:

  • “I was just speaking with one of our colleagues who served down there in Cuba and is recently back here in the [U.S.]. And I asked this person that very question: ‘How do you feel that we responded?’ And I’ve asked numerous of my colleagues that very question. . . . [W]e all care deeply about how our folks are doing down there. And I asked the question, ‘Do you feel supported by us? Do you feel that we were quick enough to respond?’ And the answer I got back was ‘yes.’ . . . it took a while to put this together, because the symptoms were so different.”
  • “But this person said to me once we figured out a pattern, . . . the State Department was extremely responsive. This person said to me that they . . . never felt the pressure to stay in Cuba, although they wanted to make it clear that they wanted to serve down there. These folks love what they’re doing, they feel a real dedication to . . .our mission down there in Cuba, the activities that they were involved with on behalf of the U.S. Government with local Cubans, and they were encouraged by the State Department to come forward, please get tested if you feel like you’ve had some sort of symptoms or something.”
  • “I don’t have the actual timeline in front of me that lays out when attacks took place at different locations, and I’m not even sure that that is something that we’re making public. But once we started to figure out what this was all about and started to investigate and realized that we were not able to protect our people, that’s when the Secretary made [the decision to reduce U.S. personnel at the Embassy in Havana].”

U.S. Government Statements About the Attacks and Relations with Cuba

On October 12 White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, provided a very unusual press briefing. Unusual because the chief of staff rarely, if ever, provides such a briefing. The apparent major reason for the briefing was to provide a platform for him to deny that he was quitting or being fired as chief of staff. In addition, in response to a reporter’s question, Kelly stated, “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats.”  But he provided no bases for that belief and was not challenged with additional questions by the journalists.[3] (Emphases added.)

Later that same day Kelly’s comment was interpreted (or qualified) by the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, who said, “General Kelly, when he said we believe that they can stop the attacks, I think what he was referring to was, one, we have the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations]. And under the Vienna Convention, . . . the Government of Cuba, has a responsibility to ensure the safety of our diplomatic staff. That didn’t happen. But there’s also another well-known fact, and that is that in a small country like Cuba, where the government is going to know a lot of things that take place within its borders, they may have more information than we are aware of right now.”[4] (Emphases added.)

The next day, October 13, President Trump addressed the 2017 Values Voter Summit.  It included the following comment: “We’re confronting rogue regimes from Iran to North Korea and we are challenging the communist dictatorship of Cuba and the socialist oppression of Venezuela. And we will not lift the sanctions on these repressive regimes until they restore political and religious freedom for their people.”[5] (Emphases added.)

Two days earlier (October 11) Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. in which he referred to meeting people from the Cuban communities here in the U.S., and had seen “the spirit of the Cuban exile community in this country firsthand.” On that same day, the Vice President continued. “President Trump announced a new policy to ensure that U.S. dollars will no longer prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the Cuban people. Under this administration, it will always be “Que viva Cuba libre![6] (Emphases added.)

Sound Recording[7]

The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of what some of the U.S. personnel in Cuba heard.  Says the AP, it “sounds sort of like a mass of crickets. A high-pitched whine, but from what? It seems to undulate, even writhe. Listen closely: There are multiple, distinct tones that sound to some like they’re colliding in a nails-on-the-chalkboard effect.”  The AP adds that it has “reviewed several recordings from Havana taken under different circumstances, and all have variations of the same high-pitched sound.”

Similar Problems at U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 1953-1976[8]

The BBC reports that in May 1953 U.S. officials at the Moscow embassy detected a microwave frequency that oscillated above the upper floors at certain times, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and that autumn some embassy workers felt inexplicably ill. At first it was dizziness, palpitations, headaches, blood pressure too high or too low. But no one understood what was happening.

In 1962, those who were still there or even those who had already left had more severe symptoms: sudden cataracts, alterations in blood tests or chromosomes. In 1965 the U.S. began what was known as the “Moscow Viral Study,” a multimillion-dollar operation in which scientists apparently looked for the potential exposure of workers to an unknown strain of a mysterious and potent virus. The eventual conclusion was the Soviets were “bombing” the U.S. embassy with very low-level microwaves, which the U.S. called the “S ENAL Moscow.” This persisted until April 1976.

Cubans Doubt[9]

From Cuba, the Associated Press reports that “the common reaction in Havana is mocking disbelief” about the attacks.

The same tone was struck by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first vice president who is widely expected to succeed Raul Castro when he steps down as president in February. He said, “A few spokespeople and media outlets have lent themselves to divulging bizarre nonsense without the slightest evidence, with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba’s impeccable behavior.”

Mass Hysteria?[10]

Journalists from the Guardian newspaper in London reported that “senior neurologists” say that ”no proper diagnosis is possible without more information and access to the 22 US victims,” but speculate that the diplomats’ ailments could have been caused by “mass hysteria.”

Cuba-Russia Relations[11]

According to the Miami Herald, “after the election of President Donald Trump, the pace of [Cuba’s] bilateral contact with Russia has been frantic,” even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats. Here are such examples:

  • Just days before Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ September 26 meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson at the State Department, the Minister met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering. The conversation was “confidential,” according to a press release issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
  • On July 26 Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal, the main negotiator with the U.S., went to Moscow and met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
  • Cuba’s ambassador to Russia has met with Ryabkov at least five times so far, this year.
  • Last December, just after the election of Mr. Trump, Russia and Cuba signed an agreement to modernize the Cuban army, and this year Russian officials — including military personnel — have made frequent visits to Havana.
  • In March, the Russian company Rosneft signed an agreement to ship 250,000 tons of crude oil and diesel to offset the decline in Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba.
  • Rosneft also has discussed other joint projects with Cuba for oil extraction and the possibility of modernizing the Cienfuegos refinery, operated jointly by Cuba’s CUPET and Venezuela’s PDVSA.
  • In April, Russia offered to fund $1.5 million in U.N. projects in Cuba for hurricane recovery and later pledged to support recovery efforts following damage caused by Irma.
  • In September, Cuban Vice President and Minister of Economy Ricardo Cabrisas signed a package of agreements with Russia in the energy, rail transport and elevator-supply sectors.
  • Recently, Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which has an office in Washington, and the Russian news agency Sputnik signed an official cooperation agreement.

These developments are no surprise to Richard Feinberg, an expert at Brookings Institution and a former U.S. policymaker for Latin America during Bill Clinton’s administration. He says, “[Vladimir] Putin’s message is not difficult to understand. [He] longs to regain the past imperial glory and relations with Cuba follow that same pattern.” Feinberg added, “From the point of view of the Cubans, they are looking to diversify their relationships. As closer economic relations with the U.S. do not seem likely for at least the next few years, they are looking for alternative allies, especially from countries with strong states like Russia and China that can offer favorable payment terms, something very welcome in an economy with poor international credit standards.”

Conclusion

In the above and the many other reports about the medical problems affecting some U.S. personnel serving in Cuba, I find it astounding that there still is official uncertainty about the cause or causes of the medical problems.

It also is astounding that no journalist or other commentator has publicly asked whether the U.S. has investigated whether the problems were caused by a secret and perhaps malfunctioning U.S. program or device and if so, to provide details. Such a possibility would help explain the delay in the U.S. public announcement of this set of medical problems and the apparent U.S. reluctance to share details of its investigation with Cuban investigators, all as discussed in previous posts to this blog. Moreover, this possibility would render various U.S. reactions—reducing the U.S. personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats and the latest U.S. travel warning—as cover ups and as excuses for additional tightening of U.S. screws on Cuba.

Moreover, Trump’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba, which are unjustified in and of themselves, have adverse effects on other important U.S. interests, including the prevention of increasing Russian influence in Latin America.

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[1] Cuba victim tells CBS News “complaints were ignored,” CBS News (Oct. 10, 2017); ‘Washington was trying to hide the acoustic attacks,’ says one of the victims, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 10, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—October 10, 2017.

[3]  White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff General John Kelly   (Oct. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, White House Says Cuba Could Stop Attacks on Americans, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-October 12, 2017.

[5] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the 2017 Values Voter Summit (Oct. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. to Maintain Cuba, Venezuela Sanctions Until Freedoms Restored: Trump, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[6] White House, Remarks by Vice President Mike Pence at National Hispanic Heritage Month Reception (Oct. 11, 2017)

[7] Assoc. Press, Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[8] Lima, The “Moscow Sign”, the mysterious Soviet Union bombardment of the US embassy, which lasted more than two decades during the Cold War, BBC News (Oct. 14, 2017).

[9] Assoc. Press, ‘Star Wars’ Fantasy? Cubans Doubt US Sonic Attacks Claims, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[10] Borger & Jaekl, Mass hysteria may explain ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, say top neurologists, Guardian (Oct. 12, 2017).

[11] Gámez, Amidst growing tensions with U.S., Cuba gets cozier with Russia, Miami Herald (Oct. 13, 2017).

U.S. State Department Unjustly Continues To Allege That Cuba’s Foreign Medical Missions Engage in Forced Labor 

As noted in a prior post, the U.S. State Department on June 27, 2017, issued its annual report on human trafficking, and Its discussion of Cuba (pp. 143-45) included the allegation that Cuba had engaged in illegal forced labor with its foreign medical mission program.

This allegation has been present in previous annual reports, some of which have been discussed in other posts.[1]

Report Regarding Cuba’s Alleged Forced Labor in Its Foreign Medical Missions

The latest report observes, presumably correctly, that the Cuban penal code does not criminalize forced labor. Therefore, the report, also presumably correctly, states that Cuba “did not make efforts to identify or protect victims of forced labor” and  “did not report having procedures to identify victims of forced labor.”

In addition, the report says, presumably correctly, “The government is the primary employer in the Cuban economy, including in foreign medical missions that employ more than 84,000 workers in more than 67 countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. These medical missions constitute a signficant source of Cuban government income.”

Implicitly conceding that there was conflicting evidence, this report said, “Some participants in foreign medical missions as well as other [unnamed] sources allege that Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; the [Cuban] government has stated the postings are voluntary, and some participants also have stated the postings are voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” (Emphases added.)

This report continued, “The Cuban government acknowledges that it withholds passports of overseas medical personnel in Venezuela due to security concerns; the government provided ID cards to such personnel in place of passports. There are also claims about substandard working and living conditions in some countries. In the past, there have been claims that Cuban authorities coerced participants to remain in the program, including by allegedly withholding their passports, restricting their movement, using “minders” to monitor participants outside of work, or threatening to revoke their medical licenses or retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In 2015, Cuba reinstituted restrictions on travel for specialized doctors and some medical personnel, requiring them to obtain an exit permit from their superiors before leaving the country. On September 9, 2015, the government agreed to reinstate medical personnel who had left their positions while abroad. As of April 1, 2016, the Cuban authorities claimed that 274 medical professionals who returned to Cuba and were rehired at the same salary and level of responsibility they had before leaving. More recent data was not available.”

This report, consistent with prior reports, alleges or assumes that Cuba is engaged in illegal forced labor of Cuban medical personnel in foreign medical missions and that Cuba does not recognize forced labor as a possible issue affecting its nationals in medical missions abroad.

Analysis of the Allegation

This U.S. allegation is flawed for at least the following seven reasons.

First, while previous reports admitted that “information on the scope of . . . forced labor in Cuba is limited,” the latest report admits there is conflicting evidence about whether medical personnel’s participation in the foreign mission program is coerced and that the Cuban government denies such illegal coercion.

Second, most of this report’s recitation of alleged facts about the foreign mission program do not relate to, or substantiate, the forced labor allegation.

Third, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” At least four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions have recorded how they treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.[2]

Fourth, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a detailed study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman.  He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.[3]

Fifth, relevant to this issue, but not mentioned in the Report, is the fact that medical education in Cuba (at the Latin American School of Medicine) is free. As a result requiring medical graduates to pay the country back by such participation seems entirely appropriate and may indeed be a contractual or quasi-contractual obligation. The recent $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.[4]

Sixth, this Report and its predecessors do not cite to the relevant international legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim or set forth any legal analysis purportedly supporting the allegation. This is not surprising as international law does not support this allegation.

Most pertinent is the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which Cuba and 177 other state members of the International Labour Organization have ratified (as of 2016). The U.S., however, has not so ratified, yet another reason why the U.S. charge is inapt.

This treaty’s  Article 2(1) preliminarily defines  “forced or compulsory labour” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily,” But there are five exceptions to this definition set forth in the treaty’s Article 2(2). One such exception, in subsection (b), states  ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphases added.)[5]

Cuba clearly is a “fully self-governing country” and the participants in the foreign medical missions are Cuban “citizens,” and as previously stated, such participation is regarded as “part of the normal civic obligations” of such citizens with the appropriate medical qualifications. Thus, under the most relevant statement of international law, Cuba has not engaged in illegal forced labor with respect to the foreign medical missions.

Seventh, there has not been any fair adjudicative process that has determined that such illegal coercion exists.

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[1] Relevant posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Upgrades Cuba in State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug, 7, 2015); U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Human Trafficking Report (July 2, 2016); U.S. Senate Hearing on on 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 20, 2016).

[2]  Ledn, Cuban doctors share their experiences in internationalist missions, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015).

[3] Erisman, Brain Drain Politics: the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme, Int’l J. Cuban Studies  269, 286-87 (2012).

[4] Raul Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 19, 2016).

[5] This and other parts of the definition of “forced or compulsory labour” were reaffirmed in Article 1(3) of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.

Reducing Adverse Impact on Cuban Entrepreneurs of Trump’s Partial Ban on U.S. Person-to-Person Travel to Cuba   

As described in a prior post, on June 16 President Donald Trump announced a ban on U.S. citizens going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel to be effective upon future adoption of regulations and instead requiring such travel to be only in organized groups. Another post then reviewed the anticipated adverse impact of this change upon Cuba’s emerging private enterprise sector (b&bs, restaurants, taxis, tour guides and others) by forcing visiting Americans to travel in buses and hotels owned by the Cuban government (including its military and security forces), which presumably will be banned by future regulations implementing another Trump policy change.

That is still the assessment of the anticipated impact[1] and, therefore, why this blogger advocates the prompt congressional passage of bills granting Americans the freedom to travel to Cuba as discussed in another post.

Indeed, the Associated Press confirms this view with reports of recent cancellations of reservations at b&bs in Havana and Trinidad, a colonial city on the south coast of the island, and by a prospective American traveler for this very reason. “Tour operators ‘should be opening Champagne’ because of the new policy, said John Caulfield, former chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and co-founder of the nonprofit Innovadores Foundation, which seeds innovation in Cuba.”[2]

The Associated Press, however, reports ways for Cuban entrepreneurs to reduce this adverse impact on their business with American travelers. Some small bed-and-breakfast owners plan to create informal associations of neighboring businesses so they can accommodate larger American groups. And at least some tour operators say they already use privately owned villas, casas and eateries, and engage with local guides, entrepreneurs and artists. And presumably the future U.S. regulations banning U.S. businesses from dealing with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban military or security services will prohibit tour operators from having their travelers staying in hotels so owned or controlled and instead booking accommodations at privately owned enterprises.

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[1] Kunović, Five things you need to know about Trump’s Cuba policy—and who it will hurt, Wash. Post (June 22, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, New Trump Rules on Cuba Travel Leaves Winners and Losers, N.Y. Times (June 27, 2017).