Recent Developments Regarding U.S. Diplomats Sickened in Cuba 

There have been two recent developments regarding U.S. diplomats sickened in Cuba.

New Confirmed Case in Cuba [1]

The first was on June 21, when the U.S. State Department announced that a 25th U.S. diplomat working at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba has been sickened by a mysterious illness. This case suggests that “whatever caused the illnesses in late 2016 and the first part of 2017 had started again or was continuing. Yet the U.S. at least privately still states that it has no idea of whom or what may be behind the attacks.

This is one of the two potential cases that the U.S. announced on June 8, as discussed in a previous post. The other individual is still under evaluation.

The official announcement of this development came at the June 21 Department Press Briefing, when spokesperson Heather Nauert stated the following:

  • “On June 21st, following a comprehensive medical evaluation, one U.S. diplomat working at the U.S. Embassy Havana was medically confirmed to have experienced health effects similar to those that were reported by members of the U.S. Havana diplomatic community. This is the first medically confirmed case in Havana since August of 2017. The number of Americans now affected is 25. Previously, that number was 24; it is now 25. The health and well-being of our personnel remains our top priority here at the State Department. The investigation into the origin of these symptoms continues, and it is an interagency effort.”
  • “The interagency community continues to work diligently to determine the cause of the symptoms, as well as develop mitigation measures. We informed the Cuban Government of this occurrence on May the 29th of this year. The Cuban Government assured us that they will continue to take this seriously and are continuing their investigation. We strongly remind the Cuban Government of its responsibility under the Vienna Convention to protect our diplomats.”
  • “Our other employee is still being evaluated at this time, so we don’t have any updates on his or her condition yet.”
  • The U.S. has “had conversations with the [Cuban] government, reminding them, of course, of their responsibility under the Vienna Convention. They have pledged to be of assistance in the investigation. . . .”

Other Patients Have Retained Attorney

The other recent development has been at least eight of the 25 U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers and relatives with medical problems from their service in Cuba have hired an attorney, Mark Zaid, to take action to ensure reimbursement for medical expenses.[2]

Zaid, a Washington, D.C. attorney who often represents former/current federal employees who have grievances against the U.S. government, said, “Are they being treated or are they being studied? It’s not entirely clear what is happening.” He added that some of the victims had problems accessing their medical records at the UPenn treatment center because the records are government property. “They are doctors working for the U.S. government.”

Moreover, the attorney added that the uncertainties tied to the cases have placed the government in a predicament because of the mystery not just on the so-called attacks but the injuries experienced. For example, federal employees who have been injured by incidents such as explosions, “the wounds have been specific and concrete, not strange brain and neurological damages. It’s much more complicated.”

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-June 21, 2018; Harris,25th Person at U.S. Embassy in Cuba Is Mysteriously Sickened, N.Y. Times (June 21, 2018); Assoc. Press, 1 More US Worker Confirmed Hurt by Mystery Cuba Incidents, N.Y. Times (June 21, 2018).

[2] Torres, These Americans suffered severe neurological disorders in Cuba. Now they have a lawyer, Miami Herald (June 20, 2018).

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).

Cuba’s Elections, 2017-2018

Cuba has elections by private ballot for members of its local legislatures (Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power); provincial legislatures (Provincial Assemblies of People’s Power); and national legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). The initial such election in 2017-2018 occurred on November 26 for the local legislatures. This post looks at that election and the direct elections early next year for the other legislatures and the indirect election on February 24, 2018, of Cuba’s president.[1]

Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power Election

On November 26, Cuba held its national election of delegates to 168 Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power, which are local governing bodies. There were more than 42,300 polling stations and 27,221 candidates, 35.4% of whom were women, and 19.4%, young people. The majority of candidates have secondary and higher education, and workers from the production and services, as well as administration sectors, are most widely represented, although there are also non-state sector workers among the candidates. These candidates were chosen by nomination assemblies from September 4 through October 30 with the participation of 6.7 million voters. Such elections occur every two and a half years.[2]

Preliminary electoral data reveals that 7.6 million Cubans voted, which was 85.9% of those on the electoral register and that 11,415 delegates were elected. Another 1,100 delegates will be elected in a second round of voting on December 3 as a result of ties or no one receiving more than 50% of the valid votes.[3]

The 85.9% turnout sounds incredibly high to American observers. However, it was the lowest participation since the late Fidel Castro imposed a system of elections in 1976. Moreover, 8.2% of the ballots were left blank or annulled. Thus, a combined 22.3% of the population did not vote or rejected the government-sanctioned candidates. Even this figure may understate the proportion of non-participation as opposition activists question the validity of the official statistics.

The U.S. State Department immediately attacked the validity of these municipal elections. Its spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said they were “the first stage in what we consider to be a flawed process that will culminate in a non-democratic selection of a new president in 2018. Unfortunately, the elections that took place further demonstrate how the Cuban regime maintains an authoritarian state while attempting to sell the myth of a democracy around the world.” She added, “Despite courageous efforts by an unprecedented number of independent candidates this year, none . . . [was] allowed on the ballot. The regime, once again, used intimidation, arcane technicalities, and false charges to discourage and disqualify independent candidates from running. Democracy is not quantified by participation alone; democracy is undermined when voters may only choose candidates who follow one ideology.” [4]

Yet another negative comment was made by Ms. Nauert. “It’s important to remember the dozens of political prisoners who are unjustly held in Cuba. So far in 2017, there have been more than 4,500 arbitrary detentions for political motives. The detentions show that Cuban citizens cannot exercise their fundamental freedoms to organize, assemble, or express themselves. Those are all vital components of democratic elections.”

There indeed is evidence that the Cuban Government took steps to discourage, and in fact, to eliminate independent candidates from running for these municipal government positions. An independent Cuban news source reported that the “majority of the  independent candidates  who tried to run for the ‘elections’ in the Nominating Assemblies of constituency delegates did not achieve their goal. The regime frustrated the effort through arbitrary arrests, police summons, criminal proceedings, acts of repudiation and even the capture of people.”[5]

Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President and the rumored next President, openly said before the elections that the government was  “taking all steps to discredit” the  independent candidates because if they reached the Municipal Assemblies that “would be a way to legitimize the counterrevolution within our civil society.”  Just after he voted, he made a lengthy statement to the  press, saying the voting would deliver a message to the world. “What message? Unity. Conviction. A message that our people don’t bow down, not to a hurricane and even less to external pressure and some people’s desire to see our system change.” He also said the future presidents of Cuba “will always defend the Revolution and will rise from among the people. They will be elected by the people. Are people forced to vote or do they take on a duty, take on an expression of continuity” in the socialist system?  “I believe in continuity and I am certain that we will always have continuity.”[6]

Provincial Assemblies of People’s Power Election

Each of Cuba’s 14 provinces has its own Assembly of People’s Power that oversees transportation and communication systems throughout the province and recommends legislation regarding national crime and allocations of resources for development. Each such Assembly elects a provincial committee whose  president functions as the provincial governor.

The provincial assembly members are elected directly by the people to five-year terms, Only candidates belonging to the Communist Party of Cuba are allowed to run. Their next election will be in early February 2018.

 National Assembly of People’s Power Election

In early February 2018 there will be a national direct election of 614 members of the unicameral National Assembly for five-year terms. This election is limited to a slate of approved candidates chosen by the National Candidature Commission, and such candidates run unopposed. Candidates are required to obtain at least 50% of the valid votes to be elected. If no candidate passes that threshold, the seat is left vacant although the Council of State my choose to hold a special election to fill the vacancy.

The National Assembly “is the supreme organ of state and the sole legislative authority. . . . [and] has the formal power, among others, to approve the budget and the national economic plan; elect the members of the Supreme Court; and generally oversee the rule-making activities and electoral processes of the provincial assemblies and municipal assemblies.” But it “meets [only] twice a year for a few days to rubber stamp decisions and policies previously decided by the governing Council of State.”

Since the National Assembly meets only twice a year for a few days each time, the 31-member Council of State wields supreme legislative authority. Another body, the Council of Ministers through its nine-member executive committee, handles the administration of the government and the economy.

Cuba’s Presidential Election

There is no popular election of the president of Cuba. Instead, the newly elected National Assembly will elect an individual for that position for a five-year term with possible re-election to another such term. The current president, Raúl Castro, age 86, has said that he will not seek another term, and the current First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is widely expected to be chosen for that office on February 24, 2018.

In addition to Diaz-Canel’s recent comments noted above, he also was the highest-ranking official at a concert held on the steps of the University of Havana last Saturday night in tribute to Fidel Castro on the first anniversary of his death. Afterwards Diaz-Canel said he was optimistic about the attitude of Cuban youths toward the system founded by Fidel Castro in 1959 and led by a member of the Castro family for nearly six decades. “When one sees young people gathering in solidarity in the name of the Cuban people, feeling so much for Fidel, I’m convinced that we’ll see the youth and the Cuban people out defending the revolution at the polls tomorrow.”[7]

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[1] This post’s simplified account of the provincial and national legislatures of Cuba and certain other organs of its government is based upon the following sources: The structure of Cuban State, Granma (Mar. 11, 2014); Cuban Government, Legislature, countriesquest.com; CIA World Factbook: Cuba;    Cuban parliamentary election, 2018, Wikipedia; Cuba’s Government, Global Security.org. Comments correcting any errors in this account are most welcome.

[2] Elections begin in Cuba, Granma (Nov. 26, 2017); Morales, Garcia & Pérez, Cuba ready for election day, Granma (Nov. 24, 2017); Elections in Cuba, Wikipedia.

[3] Morales, Second round elections scheduled for 1,100 constituencies, Granma (Nov. 28, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Daily Press Briefing (Nov. 28, 2017); Reuters, U.S. State Department Criticizes Cuban Municipal Vote as ‘Flawed,’ N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2017).

[5] Independent observers register numerous ‘incidents’ in the municipal ‘elections,’ Diario de Cuba (Nov. 27, 2017).

[6] Torres, Cuba had the lowest election turnout in four decades. Is the government losing its grip? Miami Herald (Nov. 28, 2017); Low participation in the ‘elections’ without opponents of the regime, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 28, 2017); Torres, 175 Cuban dissidents tried to run for office. Here’s how Castro’s government reacted, Miami Herald (Nov. 10, 2017).

[7] Assoc. Press, Cuba’s Expected Next President Starts to Take Higher Profile, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2017).

Senator Leahy Criticizes Trump Administration’s Reactions to Alleged “Acoustic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba  

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) on October 19 criticized the Trump Administration’s recent reactions to the alleged “acoustic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.[1]

First, he points out that the Administration repeatedly has stated that despite intensive investigation, the U.S. does not know how or who caused the problems and that it does not believe Cuba did so. Nevertheless and illogically, the U.S. has reduced U.S. staffing of the Havana embassy, expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. and issued a travel warning about Americans travel to Cuba.

Moreover, these U.S. reactions “are not only counter-productive to solve this mystery, but will inevitably punish the Cuban people, separate Cuban-Americans from their loved ones on the island, hurt U.S. companies interested in doing business in Cuba, and disrupt further progress between our countries on academic and cultural exchanges, negotiations over fugitives and property claims, public health, and maritime security.”

Second, “whoever is responsible for these attacks has a clear agenda: to sabotage the nascent rapprochement between the [U.S.] and Cuba. . . . While we don’t know who is responsible, we do know there is a clear motivation for our foreign adversaries, like Russia, to drive a wedge between the [U.S.] and Cuba to help achieve their geopolitical goals. And, as we are seeing increasingly around the world, when we disengage our adversaries rush in.”[2]

“Without a hint of evidence, nor a motive, linking  the Cuban government with these incidents,” Leahy said, “it appears as though our actions were driven by political expediency, not diplomacy.”

The next day, October 20, the State Department raised the number of affected diplomats from 22 to 24.[3] The Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said the two additional victims “do not reflect new attacks.” Instead, they are based on “medical evaluations of personnel who were affected by incidents earlier this year.” She added that the U.S. “can’t rule out additional new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community.”

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[1] Leahy, Punishing Without Evidence: The Trump Administration’s Gratuitous Steps To Roll Back Progress Between The United States and Cuba, Huff. Post (Oct. 19, 2017); Patrick Leahy: Moscow could benefit from increase  in tension between Washington and Havana, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 20, 2017).

[2]  A prior post reviewed the frantic pace of Cuba-Russian relations after the election of President Donald Trump, even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats.

[3] Assoc. Press, US Says 2 More American Victims Confirmed in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Says 24 People Harmed From Recent ‘Attacks’ in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound Recording[7]

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

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

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

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

Cubans Doubt[9]

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

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

Mass Hysteria?[10]

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

Cuba-Russia Relations[11]

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).