Developments Regarding U.S. Diplomats Serving in Cuba

On September 19, the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission held its sixth meeting, this time in Washington, D.C. The official statements about the closed meeting do not reveal much of the substance of the discussion.[1]

One of the subjects of the meeting was the medical incidents involving U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

The U.S. statement about the meeting stated there was discussion regarding “the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The [U.S.] reiterated its deep concern for the safety and security of the U.S. Embassy community in Havana and the urgent need to identify the cause of these incidents and to ensure they cease.”[2]

According to Cuban Foreign Ministry, the Cuban delegation also addressed the alleged incidents. They “reiterated that Cuba is strictly complying with its obligations as regards the protection of diplomats, which has never . . . perpetrated actions of this nature, nor has it permitted its territory to be used by third parties for that purpose.” Finally, the Cuban delegation “emphasized that the Cuban authorities have a great interest in clarifying this matter and concluding the investigation that is underway, at the suggestion of the highest level of government, for which the cooperation of the American authorities is essential.”

In addition, the Cuban statement said its delegation “reiterated its rejection of the backwardness of bilateral relations, measures to intensify the blockade and interference in internal affairs; confrontational rhetoric and political manipulation of the human rights issue that was used as a pretext to justify them, as well as the constraints that seek to condition an improvement in bilateral ties to the realization of changes in our constitutional order.”  It also “referred to the consequences of this change in the [U.S.] policy for relations between the two countries, including the effects it causes to various sectors in the [U.S.].”. (Emphasis added.)

Nevertheless, the Cuban delegation reportedly reaffirmed “their willingness to continue a respectful dialogue with the US government, . . . to actively implement the bilateral agreements signed in the last two years.” They alsotransferred concrete actions proposals from several Cuban entities to advance cooperation in areas of mutual benefit such as environmental protection, law enforcement, health, agriculture, hydrography and geodesy, among others.” (Emphasis added.)

The U.S. statement also said the U.S. “reviewed the Administration’s priorities and areas for engagement in the interests of the [U.S.] and the Cuban people, including human rights; implementation of the Migration Accords; and protecting the national security and public health and safety of the [U.S.].”

This meeting occurred simultaneously with President Trump’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly that included brief comments about Cuba and that will be discussed in a subsequent post. However, at the Bilateral Commission meeting the Cuban delegation registered a “strong protest;” about what it termed the “disrespectful, intrusive and unacceptable . . . speech.”

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Hold Sixth Bilateral Commission Meeting in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Held in Washington VI Meeting of the Bilateral Commission Cuba-United States (Sept. 19, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuba Again Denies Role in ‘Health Attacks’ on US Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Assoc. Press, US to Press Concerns Over Incidents in Meeting with Cubans, N.Y. Times (Sept. 18, 2017). The so-called “Bilateral Commission” sessions were started as part of the process of normalization between the two countries since December 17, 2014, and have been discussed in prior posts: U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission Sets Agenda for Future Discussion of Remaining Issues (Sept. 12, 2015); Results of Second Meeting of U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission (Nov. 11, 2015); United States-Cuba Bilateral Commission Meets To Review Normalization Status (May 18, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Hold Another Meeting of the Bilateral Commission (Sept. 30, 2016).

[2] CBS News reported that one of the Americans suffering from an incident was the Regional Security Officer, who was the head of security at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It also said closure of the Embassy was unlikely although there could be reductions of personnel. (CBS News, Investigation continues into attacks on State Dept. officials in Havana (Sept. 18, 2017).

 

 

 

GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats      

On September 15 five Republican Senators asked U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take certain actions against Cuba as a result of the medical problems being experienced by some of the U.S. diplomats who have been stationed in Cuba.[1]  The requested actions are the following:

  1. “Remind the Cuban government of its obligation to protect American diplomats [under Article 29 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].”
  2. “Demand that [the Cuban government] take verifiable action to remove these threats to our personnel and their families.”
  3. “Declare all accredited Cuban diplomats in the [U.S.] persona non grata [and thereby prompt Cuba to have them leave the U.S. under Article 9 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].’”
  4. “If Cuba does not take tangible action, close the U.S. Embassy in Havana.”

The five senators are the leader of this effort, Marco Rubio (FL), plus John Cornyn (TX), Richard Burr (NC), James Lankford  (OK) and Tom Cotton (AR), all members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is chaired by Senator Burr.[2]

Separately there were new reports about other details of the problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba.  U.S. diplomats on temporary duty in Havana stay in four hotels near the U.S. embassy, and all four have been sites of “medical attacks.” In addition to Hotel Capri, which was identified in a prior post, they are Hotel Nacional, Hotel Melia Cohiba, and Hotel Melia Habana. (The two “Melia” hotels are owned by a Cuban government agency, Cubanacan.) Rachel Maddow on her September 15th MSNBC show said that NBC News had learned that President Castro had offered to conduct a joint U.S.-Cuba investigation of this matter and that the U.S. had not responded to this offer.[3]

Meanwhile the U.S. and Cuba on September 15 held a meeting in Washington to discuss bilateral cooperation in law enforcement. According to the U.S. State Department, the discussions covered “national security matters, including fugitives and the return of Cuban nationals with final orders of removal” as well as “the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.” The Cuban statement more generally said the discussions were about such issues as  terrorism, illicit trafficking in drugs and persons, and cybercrime. This meeting was the third such meeting; the first two were held during the Obama Administration.[4]

Conclusion

As is well known, Senator Rubio, a Cuban-American citizen, consistently has opposed U.S. efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, and thus it is not surprising to see him apparently initiate the above statement with the support of four of his Republican colleagues.

The good news is that the other 95 senators were not part of this statement, that Cuba by all reports continues to cooperate on investigating the circumstances surrounding these health issues and that the Trump Administration is not jumping to preordained conclusions about these issues.

This statement by Senator Rubio and four others was not justified and should be resisted by all U.S. citizens and their representatives in Washington. Instead allow the U.S. State Department and other agencies with Cuban assistance to continue their investigation in a professional and objective manner.

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[1] Dorsey, Five GOP senators ask Tillerson to close Cuba embassy after attacks on diplomats, CBS News (Sept, 15, 2017).

[2]  Rubio Press Release, Rubio, Colleagues Ask Tillerson to Expel Cubans, Close Embassy after Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Cotton Press Release, Senators Ask Secretary of State to Expel Cubans and Close Embassy Over Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers Want Retaliation for Sonic Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: GOP senators want US pushback on Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 15, 2017).

[3] Rachel Maddow, Mysterious attack on US diplomats in Cuba confounds (Sept. 15, 2017).

[4] State Dep’t, [U.S.] and Cuba Hold Third Law Enforcement Dialogue in Washington, DC (Sept. 15, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and [U.S.] Authorities . . . Held Third Round of the Dialogue on Application and Compliance with the Law in Washington (Sept. 15, 2017);   The earlier law enforcement dialogues were discussed in these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Hold Law-Enforcement Dialogue (Nov. 9, 2015)(comment to Developments in U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Nov. 8, 2015); United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue (May 19, 2016).

U.S. and Cuba Discuss Counterterrorism Cooperation

On June 8, U.S. and Cuba officials met in Havana to conduct their first Counterterrorism Technical Exchange. The U.S. delegation included representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Department of State. The Cuban delegation was from the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office and General Customs of the Republic.[1]

Before the meeting the Department of State said, “Coordination and cooperation on counterterrorism has been one of several important topics discussed in law enforcement dialogues between the United States and Cuba. We welcome the opportunity to bring together technical experts to discuss this topic of common interest.”

Afterwards, the Cuban Foreign Ministry merely said that the meeting was conducted with “respect and professionalism” and that “both parties agreed on the importance of progress in cooperation in this sphere and agreed to continue the meetings of technicians on the topic.”

Outsiders speculated that the meeting may have included discussions about a possible high-profile prisoner swap: U.S.-jailed Cuban spy Ana Belén Montes in exchange for longtime American fugitive in Cuba, Joanne Chesimard (n/k/a Assata Shakur). The State Department, however, has refused to confirm that such an exchange was being discussed. Instead the Department merely stated that the U.S. “continues to seek the return of Cuba of fugitives from US justice” and that the State Department “brings out the cases of fugitives to the Cuban Government to be settled and will continue to do so at every appropriate opportunity.”[2]

Montes on September 21, 2001 (10 days after 9/11), was arrested and subsequently charged with conspiracy to commit espionage for the Cuban government during the 16 years she worked as an analyst for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The charges also stated she had revealed the identities of four U.S. secret agents. Montes eventually pleaded guilty to spying, and in October 2002 she was sentenced to a 25-year prison term followed by five years’ probation. Recently an international campaign has been started to seek her release from U.S. prison.

Chesimard/Shakur, as discussed in a prior post, was convicted in a New Jersey state court for participation in the murder a state trooper in 1973 and sentenced to life imprisonment, but in 1979 broke out of a New Jersey prison and in 1984 fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum and perhaps Cuban citizenship.

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[1] Dep’t of State, United States and Cuba To Hold first Counterterrorism Technical Exchange in Havana (June 7, 2016); Minrex, Cuban and U.S. officials discuss counterterrorism, Granma (June 9, 2016).

[2] Ayuso, United States and Cuba speak of terrorism, ElPais (June 9, 2016); Torres, Speculation rises over possible exchange of Cuba spy for American fugitive, InCubaToday (June 8, 2016); Ana Montes, Wikipedia; Latell, New revelations about Cuban spy Ana Montes, Miami Herald (Aug. 2, 2014); Whitney, Cuba, War and Ana Belen Montes, counterpunch (Feb. 8, 2016).