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).

 

Conferences About Continued U.S.-Cuba Cooperation on Various Issues 

This past week there have been two gatherings in Washington, D.C. focused on promoting U.S.-Cuba collaboration on various projects.

Environmental Sustainability and Historic Preservation[1]

 The first conference was on June 4, Advancing Environmental Sustainability and Historic Preservation in Cuba, that was organized by the Center for International Policy and the Ocean Doctor organizations. It explored opportunities for small-scale, collaborative initiatives to successfully advance environmental sustainability and historic preservation in Cuba and celebrated the release of the two organizations’ report, “A Century of Unsustainable Tourism in the Caribbean: Lessons Learned and Opportunities for Cuba.”

This gathering emphasized that Cuba has developed differently from any other country in the Caribbean. Many of its natural ecosystems remain remarkably healthy, and the country’s cultural heritage remains authentic and largely intact. The efforts to normalize relations between Cuba and the U.S. by President Obama fueled dramatic growth in tourism and interest in investment on the island, sparking concern that Cuba now faced the same scale of pressures that have resulted in environmental and heritage degradation throughout the Caribbean. With the advent of the Trump presidency and chilling of relations, some of these pressures have waned, but likely only temporarily.

One of the participants was Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, who underscored the actions of cooperation that continue to develop today between various U.S. governmental agencies and organizations and their Cuban counterparts. He  also highlighted the validity of the bilateral instruments signed between Cuba and the United States during the Obama Administration.

Among the other speakers were Salih Booker, Executive Director, Center for International Policy; Dr. David E. Guggenheim, President of Ocean Doctor; Robert Muse, Lawyer specialized in Cuban affairs; Dr. Brain M. Boom, Vice President for Conservation Strategy at New York Botanic Garden; Norma Barbacci; plus preservation consultants.

 Agricultural Trade Relations Between the Two Countries[2]

On June 7  Engage Cuba, a bipartisan advocate for U.S.-Cuba normalization, and the Washington, D.C. office of the McDermott Will & Emery law firm, sponsored a conference,  “Fostering bilateral agricultural and economic capabilities.”

The roundtable was composed of Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR.) Rep. Rick Crawford (Rep., AR). Rep. Thomas Emmer (Rep., MN) and Rep. Roger Marshall (Rep., KS) with Cuban Ambassador to the United States, José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, and moderated by James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, a  bipartisan  advocate for U.S.-Cuba normalization.

The event emphasized the necessity to lift the economic, financial and trade embargo imposed on the Island for more than 55 years and to stress the importance of reversing the failed policy of the United States towards Cuba.

Senator Boozman recalled that nowadays American farmers face a situation in which almost all the prices for their products are low, and that there is a market in Cuba, which can be provided with American products, given the Island’s high import of commodities. However, he said, “American agricultural producers face significant commercial barriers to trade with Cuba. Lifting the ban on private banks and companies from offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba will help level the playing field for our farmers while exposing Cubans to American values and ideals.”

“The U.S.-Cuba relationship is critical to our economy.” stated Congressman Emmer, the Chair of the bipartisan House Cuba Working Group, as he also reaffirmed his commitment to work for the lifting of the embargo and “to break through for a new chapter in our two nations’ history.” Rep. Emmer added, “The time to begin renewing our relationship with our neighbors just 90 miles of the Florida coast is now. With American farmers suffering some of the lowest commodity prices we have ever seen, Congress has an opportunity to take action and make real change. The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, sponsored by Rep. Crawford, would lift financing restrictions imposed by the embargo on agriculture exports. The result would be relief for our farmers and a first step toward redefining the American-Cuban relationship. While my bill, the Cuba Trade Act, accomplishes the ultimate goal or lifting the embargo completely, passing Rep. Crawford’s bill can, and should, happen immediately,” He also pointed out how the failed U.S. policy towards the Island has had a negative impact on the Cuban and U.S. peoples.

Representative Crawford stated, “For years the United States has had an estranged relationship with Cuba and for years we’ve seen no reversal in the tactics used by Cuba’s oppressive government. Trade with Cuba is a vessel that will create change in Cuba and bring economic opportunity to American farmers. Most Americans agree that it’s time to lift the embargo on Cuba and Congress needs to meet that desire by working to pass my bill, H.R. 525 and others like it.”

Representative Marshall said, “With an open market to Cuba, Kansas could top $55 million in additional sales. While we are renegotiating our trade deals, we have a $2 billion market untouched right under our nose. It is time to throw support behind this mutually beneficial economic opportunity. It is through leadership in Congress, and discussions like this roundtable that we will begin to make these lasting changes.”

The Cuban Ambassador thanked the Senator and Congressmen for their leadership in this topic, highlighted that Cuba is an ideal market for American products and underscored the existing potential for agricultural and trade relations between both countries. He also recalled that Cuba and the United States signed two memoranda of understanding in the field of agriculture in 2016 and 2017, which are still valid.

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[1] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Experts debate about Cuba-US collaboration in topics such as environmental sustainability and historic preservation (June 6, 2018); Ocean Doctor, Advancing Environmental Sustainability and Historic Preservation in Cuba (June 4, 2018).

[2]  Cuba Foreign Ministry, U.S. Legislators advocate for trade relations with Cuba, Granma (June 8, 2018); Rep. Marshall: AR, MN, KS Lead Trade Talks with Cuba Ambassador (June 8, 2018).

 

Discussion About Cuba at the Washington Conference on the Americas

On May 8 the U.S. Department of State hosted the Americas Society’s Council of the Americas’ 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas with U.S. administration senior officials and distinguished leaders from across the Americas to focus on the major policy issues affecting the hemisphere..[1]

The speakers at this event were Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley; U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Benjamin Sasse (Rep., NE); other U.S. State Government officials (U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs, David Malpass; U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, Ted McKinney; U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri) plus Brazilian Ministry of Finance Secretary for International Affairs Marcello Estevão; and International Finance Corporation Chief Executive Officer Philippe Le Houérou.

The bulk of the comments were directed at combatting corruption and at criticizing Venezuela and then at Nicaragua with only a few barbs at Cuba, as discussed below.

Acting Secretary Sullivan’s Remarks[2]

Acting Secretary Sullivan said, “Our engagement in the Americas, of course, is not a recent phenomenon. Since the birth of our republic, the United States has had strong relationships in the Western Hemisphere, bonds built on geography, shared values, and robust economic ties. We strive to coexist peacefully and to do so in a mutually beneficial way.”

The U.S. “Caribbean 2020 strategy is increasing private sector investment in the Caribbean, promoting Caribbean energy security, and building resilience to natural disasters. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative seeks to enhance maritime interdictions, build institutions, counter corruption, and foster cooperation to protect our shared borders from the impact of transnational crime.”

“Threats to the hemisphere occur on a number of other complex fronts, requiring coordinated and sophisticated responses. Whether building capacity to counter cyber threats, supporting de-mining in Colombia, or combating trafficking in persons, the United States is committed to being the security partner of choice for the Americas in the years ahead.”

“The United States is the top trading partner for over half of the 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere. Annually, we trade $1.8 trillion in goods and services with the hemisphere, supporting millions of jobs and leading to an $8 billion surplus in goods and services in 2017.”

“Underpinning our economic engagement is respect for the rule of law and shared values. Corruption both undermines and corrodes the confidence our citizens have in democratic institutions.”

“Finally, we must keep working together to ensure that the people in this hemisphere can live according to democratic values. . . . While most of the region enjoys democratic rule, a few outliers – Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – continue to undermine the region’s shared vision for effective democratic governance as enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.” (Emphasis added.)

The United States remains committed to championing freedom and to standing with the people of Venezuela and Cuba in their struggle to achieve the liberty they deserve. . . . We look to our partners – including governments and civil society organizations – to join us in speaking up whenever and wherever the hemisphere’s shared democratic principles come under attack.” (Emphasis added.)

U.S. Ambassador Haley’s Remarks[3]

“I am here today because the Trump Administration places a high priority on the Western Hemisphere, its security, its prosperity, and its freedom. And we recognize that the United States must reassert our leadership in the hemisphere.”

“I have seen time and time again at the United Nations that when the United States fails to lead, we suffer, and the world suffers. This is even more true in our relationships with other nations. There is no substitute for strong U.S. leadership, based on our values of political and economic freedom and respect for human rights.”

“The prosperity of the United States is critically tied to the prosperity of the hemisphere. Our future is bound up with our neighbors.”

“Among other things, we are each other’s largest and best trading partners. The United States sells more goods and services to our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere than we do to China, Japan, and India combined. While a lot of attention is placed on issues of trade with China, we should keep in mind that we trade nearly three times as much with the Western Hemisphere as we do with China.”

“We are also dependent on each other for our security.”

“And the principle that ties it all together is something else the United States has in common with most of our neighbors in the hemisphere – a commitment to freedom. . . . The western hemisphere is increasingly dominated by countries that share our political and economic principles.”

“The great human rights activist Natan Sharansky had a test for evaluating the freedom of societies that he called the “Town Square Test.” According to Sharansky, if someone can walk into a town square and express his or her views without being arrested, thrown in prison, or beaten, then they lived in a free society. If not, they lived in what he called a ‘fear society.’”

“As we look across the Americas, it’s pretty easy to tell the free societies from the fear societies. It’s a testament to the people of Latin America – and the love of freedom and dignity that exists in the human heart – that most of the hemisphere is free.”

“Across Latin America, the good news is that these challenges are increasingly dealt with through a commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions. The region is far from perfection, but the progress is unmistakable.”

The democratic process  “has exposed the rot at the core of the Nicaraguan government. Like his patron in Caracas and his mentors in Havana, the Ortega government has stayed in power by rigging elections, intimidating critics, and censoring the media.” (Emphasis added.)

The Cuban-Venezuelan-Nicaraguan model of socialism, dictatorship, corruption, and gross human rights violations has proved to be a complete and total failure. It has caused the suffering of millions of people. (Emphasis added.)

“We cannot allow the last, few surviving authoritarians to drag down the hemisphere. As neighbors, the United States and all the nations of Latin America are bound together on this journey.”

Senator Rubio’s Remarks[4]

Senator Rubio’s hostile opinions regarding the Cuban government are well known and appear to be a major factor behind the Trump Administration’s policies on Cuba. At this conference, Rubio was brief. He said, “What I care about in Cuba is political freedoms. The ability to have independent political parties, and a free press and to speak your mind, that’s what I support in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

About a week later, a Rubio complaint led the State Department to cancel a seminar, titled “Cuba under [Miguel] Díaz-Canel,” because it only was going to feature speakers who support normalization with Cuba. The scheduled speakers were Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group; Marguerite Jimenez of the Washington Office on Latin America; American University professor William LeoGrande; and Philip Peters of the Cuba Research Center. LeoGrande and Peters also are advisers to Engage Cuba, a bipaartisan coalition which favors lifting the U.S. embargo.

Americas Society Background[5]

The Americas Society “Is the premier forum dedicated to education, debate, and dialogue in the Americas. Its mission is to foster an understanding of the contemporary political, social, and economic issues confronting Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, and to increase public awareness and appreciation of the diverse cultural heritage of the Americas and the importance of the inter-American relationship.”

Its Council of the Americas is “the premier international business organization whose members share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Council’s membership consists of leading international companies representing a broad spectrum of sectors, including banking and finance, consulting services, consumer products, energy and mining, manufacturing, media, technology, and transportation.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Deputy Secretary Sullivan To Deliver Opening Keynote Remarks at the 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 7, 2018); Council of the Americas, Washington Conference on the Americas.

[2] U.S. Embassy in Havana, Remarks at 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 8, 2018).

[3] Americas Society. Remarks: U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley to the 48th Annual Washington Conference (May 8, 2018).

[4]  Press Release, VIDEO: Rubio Delivers Remarks at Annual Washington Conference on the Americas (May 8, 2018); Torres, State Department postpones event on Cuba after Sen. Rubio protests, Miami Herald (May 17, 2018).

[5] Americas Society, About AS/COS .

 

U.S. Reactions to the New President of Cuba

A prior post reported the April 19 election of Miguel Díaz-Canel as the new President of Cuba. U.S. reactions to that election  have been unanimous: at least initially there probably will be no major changes in Cuba’s international and domestic policies, and many also say there was not a democratic transition of power. Here is a sampling of these U.S. reactions.

U.S. Reactions

Soon after Raúl Castro in his April 19 speech referred to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s leaving the Summit of the Americas, Pence tweeted the U.S. will not rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free! #CubaLibre.”[1]

On April 18 a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told an independent Cuban news outlet, “The United States has no expectation that the Cuban people will see greater liberties under Castro’s hand-picked successor. We will continue to show solidarity with the Cuban people in their petition for freedom and prosperity, so we are not expected to change our policy of directing funds to the Cuban people and away from Cuba’s military, security and intelligence services.”[2]

The previous day the spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Heather Nauert, said, “As we watch what’s taken place at the Cuba national assembly, we certainly see that that’s not a democratic transition. So when we see that something is not a democratic transition, that’s of great concern to us. We would like citizens to be able to have a say in their political outcomes, and this certainly does not seem like regular folks will have a say. . . . They basically don’t have a real or meaningful choice because it’s not a democratic process. We hope that Cuba’s new president will listen to the Cuban people. We’re not sure that that’s going to happen. We would like a more free and democratic Cuba. We will be watching but aren’t overly optimistic, because this isn’t a democratic process.”[3]

A New York Times editorial stated, “Rául Castro, who handpicked this loyal apparatchik as his successor, remains at the helm of the Communist Party and the armed forces; his son runs the intelligence services; his ex-son-in-law runs the military’s vast business interests. In his first speech, Mr. Díaz-Canel vowed there would be no “capitalist restoration” and concluded with a slogan that has not roused the masses for some time now: “Socialism or death! We will triumph!”[4]

The Times’ editorial also stated, “President “Trump should join with Cuba’s other neighbors to encourage the new Cuban leader to expand the private economy, release political prisoners, increase access to the internet, decentralize power and in other critically needed ways finally break his country out of the Castro cocoon.”

After noting his concurrence in not expecting major changes in Cuba, Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive director of Global Americans, urges changes in U.S. policies regarding the island. He says, “While it is not in America’s interest to promote investment to prop up an anachronistic, repressive regime, it is also not in its interest to stand by while a neighbor’s fragile economy crumbles under the weight of its failed policies. In the worst of cases, an economic implosion would produce social unrest and waves of migrants to American shores.” To that end, he suggests, “Multilateral banks like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, at Washington’s urging, could be given special allowances to offer economic assistance to the next Cuban government while providing international cover for American-led efforts. Any aid should come with a strong message from Washington and the banks that the Cuban government must refrain from repression in response to protests.” Sabatini also recommends that the U.S. restore the full staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.[5]

Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition of businesses and others that supports U.S.-Cuba normalization, issued two statements about this change.[6]

The first one said this “is a historic and potentially transformative change. The new Cuban president will face an internal political struggle between continuity and reform. I hope that they choose reform and openness, including greater support for the private sector and access to the internet.” It added, “The [U.S.] must also seize this historic moment. After 60 years of a failed embargo, it is time to recognize that with this Cuban transition comes opportunity. We must show leadership and constructively engage. If President Trump is willing to meet with the hostile leader of North Korea, surely we can talk with Cuba. If the U.S. abandons Cuba and fails to lead, we can be sure our adversaries in China and Russia will fill the void, and the losers will be the Cuban people.”

The second press release from Engage Cuba stated the following:

  • “U.S. policy . . . [should] encourage the change we’d like to see. For almost 60 years we have pursued an embargo policy that has failed. With new generational leadership in Cuba, we now have an opportunity to reimagine our policy for the 21st century. We know that continuing the embargo will not work, so let us not double down on 60 years of failure. President Trump and Congress should seize this moment, support the Cuban private sector, let American businesses compete, and look to the future with a modern policy of constructive engagement. After all, the American and Cuban people overwhelmingly support engagement and improved relations. Washington politicians should listen to them for a change.”
  • “Diaz-Canel inherits the challenges of Castro’s Cuba, particularly on the economic front. In the interest of institutional continuity, reforms under Diaz-Canel are expected to be gradual. But market distortions caused by the country’s multiple exchange rates, slow GDP growth, and declining exports will test the new president’s ability to balance badly needed reform with preserving Cuba’s brand of socialism.”
  • “The transition comes at a time of historically low diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Cuba. The health incidents affecting U.S. diplomats remain an unsolved mystery,which the State Department has used as a rationale for slashing U.S. embassy staff in Havana. Diplomatic personnel have been reduced to 40 percent capacity (12 officers), with no consular services for Cubans seeking U.S. travel or immigrant visas.”
  • “In this transitional period, the fragile U.S.-Cuba relationship poses national security risks for the U.S. Both Russia and China have ramped up exports and investment in Cuba and expressed interest in increasing military and intelligence presence in the region. Further U.S. withdrawal from Cuba could jeopardize the dozens of agreements and joint security initiatives between the two nations.”

The leading long-time U.S. opponent of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), stated, “The sham ‘elections’ in Cuba were nothing more than a predetermined charade by the Castro regime. With Raul Castro stepping down today, and his appointed crony Miguel Diaz-Canel taking his place, Cuba will continue to be imprisoned under the rule of an oppressive single-party political system. The Cuban dictatorship portrays this election as a step towards change, yet we know that Diaz-Canel and the regime will remain an enemy of democracy, human rights and the impartial rule of law. If Castro really wanted democratic change for Cuba, he would allow the Cuban people to determine their fate through free, fair, and multi-party elections. “[7]

Cuban Reactions Through U.S. Eyes

 According to a U.S. journalist in Havana, no Cubans seemed to have been watching and listening to the televised April 19 speeches by Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro. “Instead, a collective sense of apathy seemed to permeate Havana, a feeling that appeared to have been fostered, at least to some degree, by the government itself.” This was coupled with “a sense of hopelessness.”[8]

Conclusion

As apparent from many previous posts, this blog consistently has called for U.S.-Cuba normalization, rescinding the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, restoring the full staffing of our Havana Embassy and of Cuba’s embassy in Washington, D.C., rescinding the recent U.S. warning about U.S. citizens traveling to the island, ceasing U.S. efforts that seek to change Cuba’s regime, continuing the bilateral meetings that address issues of common concern and engaging in efforts to resolve other long-pending issues (U.S. claims for Cuban compensation for expropriation of property owned by American interests, Cuban claims for damages from the embargo and other actions and disputes about Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.).

Such changes in U.S. policies would do a lot to encourage changes in Cuba’s policies and improve the lot of the Cuban people.

It must also be said that U.S. does not have standing to criticize  Cuba’s not having a national popular election to choose its president. How can anyone forget that the U.S. still uses an antiquated indirect way (the Electoral College) to choose its president and vice president while some state voting laws have been designed to discourage voting by African-Americans.

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[1] Assoc. Press, The Latest: Pence tweets response to Cuba’s Raul Castro, Wash. Post (April 19, 2018).

[2] The White House rules out changes in its policy towards Cuba, Diario de Cuba (April 19, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-April 17, 2018.

[4] Editorial, A New Cuba After the Castros? Not Quite, N.Y. Times (April 20, 2018).

[5] Sabatini, We Shouldn’t Ignore Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 17, 2018). 

[6] Press Release, Engage Cuba Statement on Selection of New Cuban President (April 19, 2018); Press Release, Engage Cuba Statement on Cuba’s Presidential Transition (April 19, 2018).

[7] Press Release, Rubio Statement on Sham Cuban “Elections,” (April 18, 2018).

[8] Ahmed, Cubans Doubt a Change at the Top Will Bring Change at the Bottom, N.Y. Times (April 21, 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).

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).

 

U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversals of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                   

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now we look at U.S. reactions to this change of policy. Subsequent posts will examine Cuban reactions and conclude with this blogger’s opinions on the subject.

 Overall Assessment of Changes[1]

As many sources have pointed out, the announced changes do not affect most of the important elements of Obama’s normalization policies. The U.S. will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and operate the U.S. Embassy in Havana (while Cuba continues to operate its Embassy in Washington). U.S. airlines and cruise ships will continue service to the island. Cuban-Americans can still send money (remittances) to relatives and travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government (with restrictions against credit for sales). There was no change to next year’s budget for the State Department that eliminated the undercover or covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. will continue to reject the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil “with dry feet,” but was terminated late last year by President Obama; Trump’s speech endorsed this termination as designed to protect Cubans who were exposed to dangerous journeys by land to the U.S. Various bilateral arrangements facilitating cooperation on multiple issues were not mentioned and, therefore, are not directly affected by this announcement. Nor did the announcement say that the U.S. would reinstate its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The prohibition of U.S. businesses having interactions with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban government or military presents more of a problem because such entities are involved in all sectors of the economy. According to Cuban economists, the government conglomerate (GAESA) boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings.

U.S. Businesses Reactions[2]

Many U.S. businesses opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island.” Others with similar views include ENGAGECuba, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, National Farmers Union and the National Foreign Trade Council.

These business opponents were supported by non-business groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office of Latin America, Church World Service and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The changes will have negative impacts on U.S. jobs and income. The increase in U.S. trips to Cuba has helped the U.S. hospitality industry with Delta Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others flying to at least six Cuban cities daily and Carnival cruise lines taking American citizens to port in Havana. All told, the group Engage Cuba estimates that restricting the rights of United States citizens to travel and invest in Cuba would cost the American economy $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs.

U.S. hotel businesses also expressed concern about the potential impact of the change on the island’s hotels.  The Gran Hotel Manzana, for example is managed by a Swiss company (Kempinski Hotels) but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company. An U.S. company, Marriott International, through its subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Would they be off-limits for American travelers or would they fall under a vaguely promised grandfather clause for existing deals? Or would the change force American travelers to Cuban hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan? There is even speculation that the change economically benefited Mr. Trump by neutralizing rival hotel companies’ ability to gain an early advantage over the Trump hotels, which previously had expressed interest in developing hotels on the island.

Congressional Reactions[3]

Many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have expressed opposition to the changes.

Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who’s been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill while also being the author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.442—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said Trump’s new Cuba policy “will hurt the United States economically, making it harder for our nation’s farmers to access new markets and cutting the knees out from under our travel and manufacturing industries.” Emmer also said the new policy will not keep the American homeland safe and could threaten new bilateral agreements with Havana to combat human trafficking, illicit drugs and cyber crimes.

Representative Rick Crawford, (Rep., AR), the author of a bill to promote U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (H.R.525—Cuba Agricultural Exports Act), said Trump’s shift is more than just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would benefit from greater access to Cuba’s agricultural import market. He said Trump’s policy may put U.S. national security at risk as strategic competitors move to fill the vacuum the uncoupling could create. “Further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast,” Crawford said.

Senator Jeff Flake, (Rep., AZ), a frequent critic of Trump and the author with 54 cosponsors of a bill to facilitate Americans travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act), stated that any policy change “that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people.” Therefore, Flake called for the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill. Flake also warned that returning to a “get tough” policy hurts everyday Cubans whose livelihoods are increasingly rooted in travel and tourism.

Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.472—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said that “putting America first means exporting what we produce to countries across the globe.” He said he remains focused on finding ways to “increase trade with Cuba rather than cut off relationships that have the potential to create new jobs, bring in revenue and boost our national economy.”

Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR) said Trump’s policy moves the U.S. backward.” It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” Boozman said under the latter approach, “we not only trade goods, but ideas.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.1286– Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017), said the new policy was “a setback in U.S. – Cuba relations at a time when 73 percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba, not less. These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism, which will also hurt the Cuban people. Earlier today I joined Minnesota officials and business leaders who are traveling to Cuba next week to send the message that America wants to continue doing business in Cuba. We need to build on the bipartisan momentum we have created by restoring relations with Cuba, not make it harder for Americans to travel and do business there.”

The five-day Minnesota trip referenced by Senator Klobuchar is being led by its Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, accompanied by various state government officials and leaders of agricultural groups. Their objectives are to build relationships with Cuba and promote Minnesota agricultural exports to the island.

In Cuba Lt. Gov. Smith said, “There is no denying the actions Trump took . . . [on June 16] are a real setback. But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.” In the meantime, she said she was glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations. Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade. Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

Other Americans’ Reactions[4]

Many other Americans have expressed their opposition to the changes.

One is Rena Kraut, a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra, which visited Cuba in 2015.[5] She talked about the importance of encouraging Americans to visit Cuba and the “ability [of artists] to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.” Inspired by the Orchestra’s trip, she has founded Cayo, a non-profit that is organizing a youth orchestra for American and Cuban young people “to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together.”

Published letters to the Editor of the New York Times were generally critical of the change. Luis Suarez-Villa, professor emeritus at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “American policy toward Cuba has been hijacked by a clique of Cuban-American politicians who have sold their support in Congress to President Trump.” Suarez-Villa also berated the “punishing, 55-year-old embargo perpetrated by the world’s most powerful nation — accompanied by innumerable acts of economic sabotage, espionage, attempted assassination and military aggression.” Stephen Gillespie of San Francisco, California wrote, “Mr. Trump seems to hate oppressive regimes that convert private property into public goods for the benefit of the people, but he loves oppressive regimes that convert public goods into private property for the benefit of a few rich friends.”

Miriam Pensack, an editorial assistant at The Intercept and a former researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, wrote, “Carried out under the unlikely banner, for Trump, of human rights and democracy, the shift is instead more likely to re-impose hardships on ordinary Cubans — the very same people Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart claim to champion.”

William LeoGrande, who teaches government at American University and co-authored the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, observed, “When Americans go down there, a lot of them stay in private homes, they eat in private restaurants, they take private taxis, and they pay private tour guides that guide them around the city. That’s money directly into the hands of ordinary Cubans.” He added, ““It’s hard to believe that human rights are really anything more than just an excuse. This is really more a matter of political horse trading than it is a matter of foreign policy.”

A contrary view in the New York Times’ collection of letters came from Medford, New York’s Eugene Dunn, who stated, “Kudos to President Trump for demanding that Cuba finally turn over a parade of criminals who have sought sanctuary on the Communist island for decades. Finally we have a titanium-spined president who isn’t afraid to use America’s military and economic might as leverage over these tin-pot dictators who under previous administrations made us the laughingstock of the world.”

The Cuban-Americans at the president’s event in Little Havana are enthusiastic supporters of the new policy as are many other Republican voters in the U.S.

Editorialists’ Reactions[6]

 The New York Times’ editorial condemned the Trump Administration’s approach. The Times said it was “the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy” and was likely to cause “Cuban-American relations . . . to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.” Moreover, Trump’s stated concern for Cuban human rights was especially galling from a “president [who] has been so disdainful of these rights . . . [and who has] embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.”

The editorial from the Los Angeles Times was similar. It stated that the new policy was “based on a disingenuous argument. The putative reason for the change is that Cuba still violates the human rights of its own people, including jailing dissidents and independent journalists. But hasn’t the Trump administration been moving the U.S. away from its focus on human rights around the world?” Instead, said the Los Angeles newspaper, “What’s really happening is that Trump has let the anti-Castro sect in Congress take the wheel on this issue, no doubt for cynical political reasons. Remember that Trump broke with his Republican rivals during the campaign and supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. Then he flipped and disparaged the policy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it unless Cuba met fresh demands on human rights, including the ‘freeing of political prisoners.’”

An editorial from the Washington Post, however, gave the change a weak endorsement. It said, it was “little more than a policy tweak” and “a little more impatience about democracy [in Cuba with the Trump policy] isn’t such a bad thing.”

Although the Wall Street Journal has not offered an editorial on this change, its columnist on Latin American issues and a critic of normalization, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, welcomed Trump’s changes to U.S. policy regarding Cuba even though it was only “an important symbolic change . . . [whose] effects are likely to be minimal.” Instead she argues that Cuba needs a “high-profile truth project” to take “ an honest look at the historical record that acknowledges the regime’s many crimes against humanity.” She refers to the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project that has documented 934 executions mostly in the Escambray” Mountains, circa 1959-1964, in addition to 607 executions of political prisoners, most of whom are believed to have been captured in the Escambray. This Project is the work of the Free Society Project, Inc., a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization with a board of Cuban-Americans.

Minnesota’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune, opined that Trump was “unraveling years of work to build ties with a strategically placed neighbor. Instead, he’s choosing a misguided return to strict embargos on travel and trade that failed to achieve U.S. aims for more than half a century.” The editorial endorsed the efforts to promote Cuba normalization by Minnesota’s U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) while commenting that Cuba “holds a strategic allure” for other nations “that could threaten American security.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, AP FACT CHECK: Not Much New in Trump’s Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Rolls Back Some, Not All, Changes in US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017).

[2] Burnett, Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Military’s Tentacles Reach Deep Into Economy, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017); Harwell & O’Connell, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, Wash. Post (June 15, 2017); Sabatini, Trump’s Imminent Cuba Problem, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017).

 

[3] Assoc. Press, Republicans Divided as Trump Reverses Some Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Press Release: Emmer: President’s Misguided Cuba Directive Undercuts Human Rights & Threatens National Security (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Crawford Opposes Cuba Policy Shift (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Flake Statement on Renewed Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Sen. Moran Statement on Administration’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Boozman, Statement on President Trump’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Klobuchar Statement on Changes to Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Golden, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to lead Minnesota trade trip to Cuba, StarTribune (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Minnesota lieutenant governor visits Cuba, StarTribune (June 20, 2017); Reuters, Minnesota Will Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017)

[4] Kraut, Trump Is Wrong to Pull Back from Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Letters to Editor, Trump’s reversal of U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2017); Pensack, Trump To Reverse Obama Openings to Cuba Under the False Flag of Human Rights, The Intercept (June 16, 2017).

[5] Previous posts about the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are listed in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[6] Editorial, A Cynical Reversal on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Trump just reopened the Cold War with Cuba. His excuse is disingenuous, L.A. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift, It’s just a policy tweak, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Editorial, Trump’s Cuba retreat hurts U.S. and Minnesota, StarTribune (June 19, 2017); O’Grady, Cubans Need a Truth Commission, W.S.J. (June 18, 2017).