Other Reactions to U.S. Ordering Removal of 15 Cuban Diplomats   

On October 3, the U.S. ordered the removal of 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. as discussed in a prior post while other posts looked at recent developments on these issues and on Cuba’s reaction to that U.S. decision and order. This post will discuss reactions from others.

Opposition to Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[1]

The harshest criticism of this decision along with others recently taken by the Trump Administration has been leveled by Harold Trinkunas, the deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Richard Feinberg, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.They say the following:

  • “This White House and its pro-embargo allies in Congress have opportunistically seized on these mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats to overturn the pro-normalization policies of a previous administration, using bureaucratic obstruction and reckless language when they cannot make the case for policy change on the merits alone.”
  • By taking these precipitous actions, Trinkunas and Feinberg argue, “this White House is doing exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke. Overt U.S. hostility [towards Cuba] empowers anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries. In addition, [the announced American travel restrictions and warning hurts] the privately-operated [and progressive] segments of the Cuban tourism sector, and . . . [thereby weakens] the emerging Cuban middle class.”
  • Furthermore, they say, “a breakdown in U.S.-Cuban relations allows Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin. By pushing Cuba away, the U.S. is pushing it towards other actors whose interests are not aligned with our own.
  • “Our partners in Latin America welcomed the change in U.S. policy towards Cuba in 2014 as a sign that the Cold War had finally ended in the Western Hemisphere. The [Trump] administration’s retreat from the opening towards Cuba alarms our friends in the Americas and calls into question the enduring value of U.S. commitments . . . . This pattern of reckless animus towards diplomacy comes at a cost to the international reputation of the U.S. with no apparent gain for our interests abroad.”
  • “U.S. hostility [also] risks damaging the coming transition to a new Cuban government after President Raul Castro steps down in early 2018 by strengthening the hand of anti-American hardliners who oppose further economic opening on the island.”
  • “It damages Cuban-Americans and their families by impeding travel and the flow of funding associated with their visits, and those of other American visitors, which have allowed the Cuban private sector to gain traction. It also damages U.S. relations with our partners in the region, who have long criticized what they see as senseless hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. And finally, the Trump administration’s approach serves to widen the door to U.S. geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia and Venezuela, to advance their interests in Cuba and in the region.”
  • “Many of our professional diplomats, both those stationed in Havana and those at the State Department, oppose the dramatic downsizing of the U.S. and Cuban missions. While all are concerned for the safety of U.S. personnel, the health incidents seem to be in sharp decline. The U.S. diplomats in Havana are proud of the gains in advancing U.S. interests in Cuba, and they wish to continue to protect and promote them.”

EngageCuba, the leading bipartisan coalition promoting U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, said, “”The diplomats and their families suffering from unexplained health issues deserve answers. If the U.S. government is serious about solving this mystery, they shouldn’t make it more difficult to cooperate with the Cuban government during this critical time of the investigation. This decision appears to be purely political, driven by the desire of a handful of individuals in Congress to halt progress between our two countries. Expelling Cuban diplomats will not solve this mystery; it will not improve the safety of U.S. personnel, but it will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island. We hope that the driving forces behind this decision are comfortable with their Cuban-American constituents being unable to visit their loved ones.”

This EngageCuba statement followed the one it issued about the reduction of staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It said, “”The safety and security of all diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and anywhere in the world, is the first priority of our country. Whoever is behind these serious and inexcusable attacks on American diplomats must be apprehended and brought to justice. We must be careful that our response does not play into the hands of the perpetrators of these attacks, who are clearly seeking to disrupt the process of normalizing relations between our two countries. This could set a dangerous precedent that could be used by our enemies around the world.

EngageCUBA continued, “It is puzzling that the Trump Administration would use this delicate time in the investigation to advise Americans against traveling to Cuba, given the fact that none of these attacks have been directed at American travelers. We are also concerned for the Cuban people, who will be impacted by this decision. Halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from traveling to Cuba will divide families and harm Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island.”

In conclusion, said EngageCUBA, “the U.S. and Cuba must redouble efforts to solve this mystery as quickly as possible in order to keep our embassy personnel safe and continue to move forward with strengthening relations between our two countries.”

A New York Times’ editorial similarly observed, “until there is concrete evidence about the source of the attacks, the Trump administration is wrong to expel Cuban diplomats from Washington. . . . Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s explanation that Cuba should be punished for failing to protect American diplomats presumes that Cuba was at least aware of the attacks, which the [U.S.] has neither demonstrated nor claimed. “Furthermore, “Until something more is known, punishing Havana serves only to further undermine the sensible opening to Cuba begun under Barack Obama. President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the détente — in June his government ordered restrictions on contacts with Cuba that have slowed the flow of visitors to the island, and last week the State Department warned Americans not to travel there, though there is no evidence that tourists are in danger. The sonic attacks on Americans are too serious to be used for cynical political ends.”

Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said: “The United States is using the confusion and uncertainty surrounding these events as justification to take a big step backwards in U.S.-Cuban relations. This doesn’t serve our national interests, or our diplomacy, and it most certainly doesn’t do anything to help advance human rights or a more open political climate in Cuba. This is an unfortunate decision that ought to be reversed.”

Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), the Chair of the Congressional Cuba Working Group, stated, “The Administration’s decision last week to withdraw all non-essential personnel from our embassy in Havana was concerning but understandable to ensure the safety of our foreign service staff on the island. Unfortunately, yesterday’s actions do not seem to advance our efforts of identifying a cause or culprit behind these ‘sonic attacks.’ Instead of sending us back down a path of isolation, we must foster open lines of communication as we continue the investigation to determine who must be held responsible for these attacks on Americans. We cannot lose sight of the fact that an improved and sustained relationship with Cuba brings us one step closer to ensuring the stability and security of the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, more guardedly said, “Although . . . [the] decision to expel Cuban diplomats brings parity between U.S. and Cuban embassy personnel levels, I am concerned that it may also stoke diplomatic tensions and complicate our ability to conduct a thorough investigation of these attacks. The U.S. should not take actions that could undermine our bilateral relations with Cuba and U.S. policies aimed at advancing our strategic national interests in the hemisphere.”

Although the most recent Cuba Travel Warning from the State Department strongly discouraged Americans from traveling to Cuba, “several cruise lines operating ships in and around Cuba have released statements pushing back on the warning, noting that no tourists have been harmed in these incidents.” Moreover, “several cruise companies had already announced significant expansion of their Cuba operations before the warning was issued.”

Approval of Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[2]

This latest U.S. announcement is what was recommended by a Wall Street Journal editorial and by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who immediately tweeted that this was “the right decision.” His subsequent press release Rubio stated, “I commend the US State Department for expelling a number of Cuban operatives from the US. No one should be fooled by the Castro regime’s claim it knows nothing about how these harmful attacks are occurring or who perpetrated them. I have called on the State Department to conduct an independent investigation and submit a comprehensive report to Congress. . . . All nations have an obligation to ensure the protection of diplomatic representatives in their countries. Cuba is failing miserably and proving how misguided and dangerous the Obama Administration’s decisions were.”[7]  He added, ““At this time, the U.S. embassy in Havana should be downgraded to an interests section and we should be prepared to consider additional measures against the Castro regime if these attacks continue.”

This news should also be welcomed by the Washington Post, whose recent editorial continued this newspaper’s hard line about U.S.-Cuba relations by refusing to believe Cuba’s denial of knowledge about the cause and perpetrator of the “attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana. It asserts “recent events suggest that the unpleasant reality of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship remains in place” and that “For decades, the Cuban state security apparatus has kept a watchful eye on everything that moves on the island, and informants lurk on every block. It begs disbelief that Cuba does not know what is going on. Unfortunately, this kind of deception and denial is all too familiar behavior.” Therefore, if “Cuba sincerely wants better relations with the United States, it could start by revealing who did this, and hold them to account.”[8]

This suspicion of Cuban involvement in the attacks received some corroboration by the Associated Press, which reports that six unnamed sources say that “many of the first reported cases [of attacks] involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy.” Moreover, of “the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed.” U.S. investigators, according to the AP, have identified “three ‘zones,’ or geographic clusters of attacks, [which] cover the homes where U.S. diplomats live and several hotels where attacks occurred, including the historic Hotel Capri.” Both the State Department and the CIA declined to comment to the AP. This report undoubtedly will fuel efforts to overturn normalization of relations between the two countries.[9]

Conclusion

I agree with Trinkunas and Feinberg, the recent decisions about Cuba by the Trump Administration do exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke: empower anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries; damage Cuba’s upcoming transition to a new government after Raúl Castro leaves the presidency early next year; and hurt and weaken the privately-operated and progressive segments of the Cuban tourism sector. In addition, those decisions weaken U.S. relations with most other governments in Latin America while damaging many Cuban and Cuban-American families seeking to maintain and increase their ties. Those decisions also allow Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela, all of which are hostile to the U.S., to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin.

I must also note my surprise that at the two recent State Department press briefings no journalist followed up on the previously mentioned Associated Press report that the initial U.S. diplomats who reported medical problems were U.S. intelligence agents to ask whether that report was valid and other related questions.

All who support the continuation of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation should oppose these moves by the Trump Administration.

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[1] Trinkunas & Feinberg, Reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America’s interests, The Hill (Oct. 5, 2017);  EngageCuba, Statement on U.S. Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats in Washington (Oct. 3, 2017); Engage Cuba, Statement on U.S. Cuts to Havana Embassy & Travel Alert (Sept. 29, 2017); Editorial, Cuba and the Mystery of the Sonic Weapon, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017) (this editorial also noted that the reported medical problems “are real and serious” and that “Cuba’s repressive government must be the prime suspect”); WOLA, U.S. Plan to Expel Two-thirds of Cuban Embassy Needlessly Sets Back U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 3, 2017); Emmer Statement on Administration’s Decision to Remove Cuban Diplomats from Washington, D.C. (Oct. 4, 2017); Cardin Questions Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats amidst Attacks on U.S. Personnel in Cuba (Oct. 3, 2017); Morello, U.S. will expel 15 Cuban diplomats, escalating tensions over mystery illnesses, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2017); Gomez, U.S. orders 15 Cuban diplomats to leave; Cuba blames Washington for deteriorating relations, Miami Herald (Oct. 3, 2017); Glusac, Despite Travel Warning, Cruises to Cuba Continue, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[2] Rubio Press Release, Rubio commends State Department’s Expulsion of Cuban Operatives (Oct. 3, 2017); Editorial, Cuba plays dumb in attacks on American diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2017); Assoc. Press, APNewsBreak: Attacks in Havana Hit US Spy Network in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2017).

 

Yet More News Regarding the Medically Affected U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

There are more developments regarding the actions and reactions associated with the medically affected U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba.

The U.S. State Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at an October 4 Press Briefing, responded to Cuba’s criticism of not obtaining sufficient U.S. information about the medical problems of some of its personnel in Cuba. She said the U.S. was “engaged in an investigation, [and] we, as Americans, need to keep a tight hold on a lot of information. We don’t want that information to leak. . . . That information could potentially leak to other parties . . . who may or may not be involved. So, providing information on the investigation could tip off what I’ll just call the bad guys who are responsible for this. We don’t know who or what is responsible. So . . . we wouldn’t want to tip off the bad guys to any information that we have on the investigation. Again, I’m not calling the Cubans – saying that about the Cubans in general, but we wouldn’t want this type of information to leak.” She added, “the investigation is ongoing. The investigation has not yet been resolved, so there is limited information that we can provide at this point.”[1]

On October 5, the Cuba embassy in Washington reported that its 15 diplomats who were ordered for expulsion included all who handled dealings with U.S. businesses. One of them said, “due to this decision, the activities developed by the Economic and Trade Office of the Embassy… will be seriously affected.” Such activities are usually the first step in the process for U.S. companies when they submit trip proposals, seek out counterparts at state-owned enterprises in the centralized economy and obtain business travel visits to travel to Cuba. In addition, the reduction in staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana will make it more difficult for U.S. companies to find their way in Cuba.[2]

Scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba. “I’d say it’s fairly implausible,” said Jurgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany and an expert on acoustics. At frequencies higher than 20,000 Hertz, beyond human hearing, ultrasound can damage tissue if produced with enough power, but  “ultrasound cannot travel a long distance,” said Jun Qin, an acoustic engineer at Southern Illinois University. The further the sound goes, the weaker it gets. And, noted Dr. Garrett, humidity in a place like Havana would weaken it still more. Infrasound — low-frequency sound that cannot be heard by humans—on the other hand, is even more unlikely. A report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2002 noted that the military had tried to weaponize infrasound, but had not succeeded because it was hard to focus the wavelengths. The primary effect of infrasound on humans “appears to be annoyance,” the report concluded.[3]

Also on October 4, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed hearing on “Ordered Departure of Personnel from U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba.”[4] with an unnamed Senior Official from the CIA plus these three “Briefers” from the State Department: (a) Mr. Christian J. Schurman; Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State And Assistant Director For International Programs; Bureau Of Diplomatic Security with responsibility for “evaluating, managing, and mitigating security threats to, as well as the direction of resources for, more than 240 diplomatic posts within the International Programs Directorate;” (b) Mr. John S. Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary; Bureau Of Western Hemisphere Affairs;and (c ) Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director; Bureau Of Medical Services. Since the hearing was close, we do not yet know what happened.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Oct. 4, 2017)

[2] Reuters, U.S. expulsion of Cuban Diplomats Includes All Business Officers, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[3] Zimmer, A ‘Sonic Attack’ on Diplomats in Cuba? These Scientists Doubt It, N.Y. times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[4] Senate Foreign Relations Comm., CLOSED/TS: Ordered Departure of Personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (Oct. 4, 2017).

 

U.S. Orders Cuba To Remove 15 Cuban Diplomats

On October 3, the U.S. Secretary of State issued a Statement about the ordered departure of 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. This post will review that Statement and U.S. State Department press conferences regarding that decision. Subsequent posts will review reactions by the Cuban Government and by others.

The Statement[1]

The Statement announced that the Department had just informed the Cuban Government that the Department “was ordering the departure of 15 of [Cuba’s] . . . officials from its Embassy in Washington, D.C.” because of “Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations]. This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations.”

The Statement then noted that on September 29 the Department had announced the voluntary withdrawal of diplomatic personnel and their families from the U.S. Embassy in Havana as a result of concerns about the still unresolved problem of medical “incidents” or “attacks” on those diplomats and their families

The Statement concluded, “We continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and will continue to cooperate with Cuba as we pursue the investigation into these attacks.”

Department’s Press Briefings[2]

There were two Department briefings on October 3 that concerned U.S.-Cuba relations. The first was a pre-announcement briefing exclusively about the Statement when an unnamed State Department official added the following additional details:

  • The Cuban ambassador in Washington was informed of the expulsions in a 9 a.m. phone call.
  • The expelled embassy personnel were identified by the Department and must be out of the U.S. within seven days. By then, the American embassy in Havana will have completed its own drawdown.
  • The Cuban government need to give a clear assurance that the attacks would not continue before the personnel in either embassy could return.”
  • All of this was done even though these “officials emphasized that they are not accusing the Cuban government of complicity in the attacks.”
  • “We are not assigning culpability. The expulsions aim to “underscore to the Cubans that they must take more actions to protect our people on the ground.”

That same afternoon Heather Nauert, the Department’s Spokesperson, held another press briefing that opened with a reiteration that the decision to expel Cuban diplomats did “not signal a change of policy or determination of responsibility for the attacks on U.S. Government personnel in Cuba. Investigations into those attacks are still ongoing [in cooperation with Cuban authorities].” She also added, “We recognize that at this time there is a need to keep a post open there with a skeleton crew handling emergency type issues down there. Frankly, . . . our State Department personnel want to serve in countries all around the world. We have many of them who are serving in very dangerous capacities, and they don’t get enough credit for doing this incredible, amazing work on behalf of U.S. citizens.”

There also was more information about the 21 Americans who have medical problems caused by an unknown device in Havana: 17 were government employees and four were spouses (three of whom worked at the embassy). Another person was added to this list, making it 22.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, On the Expulsion of Cuban Officials from the United States (Oct. 3, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Background Briefing: State Department Official on Cuba (Oct. 3, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Oct. 3, 2017); Harris & Davis, U.S. Expels 15 Cuban Diplomats From Embassy in Washington, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2017); Reuters, U.S. to Expel Nearly Two-thirds of Cuban Embassy Staff, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2017); Assoc. Press, Ties Threatened: US to Tell Cuba to Remove Most Diplomats, N.Y. Times  (Oct. 3, 2017).