New Yorker Report on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

The November 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker has a lengthy article about the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats in Cuba starting in late 2016 (and after the U.S. presidential election). [1]

The conclusion, however, is the same as previously reported: some U.S. personnel did suffer injury and the U.S. Government has publicly stated it does not know the cause or perpetrator of these injuries.[2]

But the article does provide greater details about many of the victims having been CIA agents and about the U.S.-Cuba interactions over these incidents.

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[1] Entous & Anderson, Havana Syndrome, New Yorker at 34  (Nov. 19, 2018).

[2] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Economic Challenges Facing Cuba’s New President 

According to John Caulfield, a former Chief of Mission of the U.S. Special Interests Section in Cuba (before the 2015 reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana), Miguel Diaz-Canel, when he becomes Cuba’s President of the Council of State on April 19, “will face serious challenges from the moment he takes over. Cuba’s Soviet-style economic model is not working. Raul has acknowledged as much and in 2011 began to implement economic reforms that allowed many Cubans to become self-employed and buy and sell residences. These changes have allowed some Cubans to achieve relative prosperity, while the majority is stuck in low-paying jobs.”[1]

Caulfield added, “Their success caused a negative reaction from inside the Communist Party that saw the rise of these non-state workers as a threat to the system. Recognizing these concerns, Raúl [Castro] told the National Assembly last summer that he took personal responsibility for ‘errors’ and froze the concession of most new business and self-employment licenses.”

This will present Diaz-Canel and the Cuban Communist Party with a dilemma:

  • Pull “Cuba from its economic morass” by introducing “urgent reforms to eliminate economic distortions such as the use of two national currencies and inefficient state industries,” by attracting “private foreign investment to generate new exports and rebuild Cuba’s decaying infrastructure” and by allowing “Cuba’s incipient private sector to grow.”
  • Or reject this reform agenda and thereby halt the creation of private wealth and a threat to the Communist Party’s domination of the island.

The case against reform may have been strengthened by the apparent success of the Mariel Special Development Zone, a deep-water port and adjacent land for industry and distribution businesses on the north shore of the island west of Havana. Currently 10 projects are operational, related to several sectors, including industry, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, logistics, construction, food processing, and real estate, and this year another  six (Richmeat, Profood Service, Devox Caribe, Bouygues Construcción Cuba, Engimov Caribe, and Nescor) will begin operations while another 18 have been approved and await implementation.along with construction of an Agricultural Terminal, a second business center and other infrastructure.[2]

The Mariel Special Development Zone received another foreign investor on March 29 when a Vietnamese entity signed an agreement to develop an industrial park of 156 hectares in the Zone. Another eight agreements with such entities were signed that day at the conclusion of the visit to the island by Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam. One of these agreements called for the construction of a 50 megawatt bio-electrical plant and an agricultural development combined with the use of renewable energy to generate electricity.[3]

On the other hand, as noted in a prior post. Secretary-General Trong in a speech at the University of Havana emphasized the need for the incorporation of market economic measures in communist systems.

At the end of last month there was a public debate in Havana about Cuba’s emerging private sector. A survey of the 200 attendees revealed that those with the highest monthly incomes of 20,000 CUC (roughly $20,000) were the owners of rental houses, paladares (restaurants), musicians, small farmers, and, on a smaller scale, scientists, miners, ministers, workers in the sugar industry, lawyers, and doctors. Havana, Ciego de Ávila and Matanzas, were considered the provinces with the highest incomes in the country. On the other hand, at least 25% of the Cuban population lives below the poverty line, and the average monthly salary for State workers in 2018 rose to 740 Cuban pesos (approximately 30 dollars). The audience also discussed what pattern of inequality the population was politically willing to accept and whether this  which could fracture Communist ideology on the Island.[4]

Overriding all of these issues and problems is the recognized need for Cuba to eliminate their dual currency system. According to Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist,“It is impossible for Cuba to achieve a significant and sustainable improvement in the productivity of its economy so long as it operates with two national currencies, with multiple exchange rates between them and an official exchange rate that is excessively overvalued.”[5]

However, Vidal said “state enterprises that show permanent losses should be closed or merged instead of being allowed to operate in a ‘financial bubble’ where they are sustained by implicit subsidies received every time they pay for imported inputs using an overvalued exchange rate. This bubble must be burst, and the state sector must be restructured. Enormous amounts of financial and human resources have been wasted in supporting state enterprises with no economic value.” Vidal added that if the Cuban government chooses true currency reform, “it should be accompanied by not only a greater opening to foreign investment but also by liberalization of the private sector. An expansion of the private sector, he said, “would allow Cuba to absorb the unemployment that would be produced from enterprises that go bankrupt.”

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[1] Caulfield, Cuba’s next president faces choice between economy and communism, the Hill (April 4, 2018).   Many of these issues have been discussed in posts listed in the “Cuban Economy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2] Martinez, Promoting development and connecting Cuba to the world (Photos), Granma (April 3, 2018).

[3] Peraza, New accords strengthen strategic relations between Cuba and Vietnam, Granma (April 4, 2018).

[4] Ramirez, Rich “comrades,” Diario de Cuba (April 4, 2018).

[5] Whitefield, Cuba desperately needs to reform currency system, but timing couldn’t be worse, Miami Herald (April 4, 2018).

Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba  

Previous posts have discussed the recent emergence of a U.S.-Cuba diplomatic dispute over hearing problems of U.S. diplomats.[1] Here is an update on that dispute.

The only news about the conditions of those affected was an August 23 report by CBS News, which had reviewed the medical records of certain U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba. CBS reported that their doctor had diagnosed them with conditions as serious as mild traumatic brain injury and damage to the central nervous system. The U.S. State Department, however, said that it did not yet have “definitive answers” on the source or cause of the incidents and that the investigation into these matters was “ongoing.” The Department also stated, “We remain in regular contact with the Cuban government to emphasize that we take these incidents very seriously and to resolve this matter in a satisfactory manner.”[2]

Earlier, on August 11, Secretary of State Tillerson said that some of the U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana had been victims of “health attacks” that the U.S. has “not been able to determine who’s to blame” and that the U.S. held “the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats [Canadians] involved.”[3]

John Caulfield, the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 2011 to 2014 said U.S. diplomats in Cuba are under 24-hour surveillance during their assignments. “Nobody does anything in Cuba without them knowing.” However, he added that such aggressive tactics largely stopped by late 2013 and 2014 as U.S. and Cuban officials secretly negotiated the diplomatic reopening announced in December 2014, after his departure from Havana. He believes that the likeliest explanation for the diplomats’ mysterious deafness was “a new surveillance technique gone bad that had consequences. I do not believe they would randomly cause harm to this variety of people.”

At least six of the affected U.S. diplomats were flown to the University of Miami Hospital where they received treatment and this August a Hospital specialist went to Havana to examine others who work at the embassy, because officials expect that more people were affected.[4]

The State Department Press Briefing on August 23 touched on this dispute, but did not add any new information.

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[1] U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute, dwkcommentaires (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute, dwkcommentaries (Aug. 10, 2017).

[2]  Some U.S. diplomats in Cuba diagnosed with serious health conditions, medical records show, CBS News (Aug. 23, 2017); Reuters, Cuba ‘Incidents’ Caused Brain Injury, Nerve Damage to Diplomats: CBS News, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 2017).

[3] Assoc. Press, Tillerson Says Diplomats in Havana Suffered ‘Health Attacks,” N.Y. Times (Aug. 12, 2017).

[4] Robles & Semple, ‘Health Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Baffle Both Countries, N.Y. Times (Aug. 11, 2017); Robles & Semple, Diplomats under ‘health attack in Cuba were treated by Miami doctors, Miami Herald (Aug. 13, 2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

More Details on Remaining Issues for Re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations 

Two of the remaining issues for re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, as briefly mentioned in a prior post, are (1) the U.S. offering of journalism courses to Cubans at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and (2) U.S. democracy-promotion programs in Cuba. Here are additional details about these issues.

 U.S. Journalism Courses

According to an Associated Press article,[1] the free courses cover the ABCs of journalism: how to craft a news story, write a headline and check sources. Taught via video link by professors from the International Media Center at Florida International University, there is no obvious attempt to politicize the material. John Caulfield, a retired diplomat who was in charge of the Interests Section in 2011-14, said the journalism program stays clear of politics. “It’s a very open, transparent program. What we were doing was not ideologically driven except for the fact I guess that part of our ideology is that people should have a right to free expression.”

Cuban attendees confirm the lack of an U.S. agenda for criticizing the Cuban government. One said, “”If the conversation even got close to political, the professor would say, ‘Stop, stop, stop,'”

Cuba has complained in the past about the courses. In 2013, the Cuban Foreign Ministry delivered a diplomatic note of protest, which was followed by a critical story in the official newspaper Granma. There also have been reports of Cuban attendees being roughed up, detained and having equipment stolen by security agents.

More recently President Raúl Castro mentioned the journalism courses as an obstacle to re-establishment of diplomatic relations. He said, ““What most concerns me is that they [people at the U.S. Interests Section] continue doing illegal things. For example, graduating independent journalists.”

The U.S. Department of State, however, has said, “The United States continuously works to promote free expression around the world through bilateral engagement, public diplomacy programming, and multilateral diplomacy,” the State Department said. “This includes support to independent journalists around the world, particularly in closed countries where freedom of the press is lacking or independent journalists are under threat.”

State Department and USAID Democracy Programs

The State Department website states that in the Western Hemisphere the Bureau of Democracy, Human rights and Labor “currently supports over 33 democracy, human rights, and labor programs. . . . Current funding for such programs in [the Western Hemisphere] exceeds $35 million. Program topics include forensic assistance, combating violence against women and children, increasing civic participation of indigenous groups, and supporting free press.”

The latest information about such programs in Cuba on the Department’s website says, the Bureau “has a robust Cuba program that focuses on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”  Another Department web page states, “U.S. programs in Cuba include humanitarian support to political prisoners and their families, human rights and democracy promotion, and facilitating the free flow of information to, from and within the island.”

All such democracy programs of the Department would be appropriated nearly $2.265 billion for FY 2016 in Section 7032 (pp. 110-12) of the House Appropriations Committee’s pending appropriations bill for the Department. The programs, as defined in subsection (c ), are not subject to the prior approval by any foreign government, under subsection (e).[2]

Presidential Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, at the June 1st White House press briefing, was asked whether the U.S. would continue in Cuba the democracy-promotion programs of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

After referring specific questions about those programs to those two government agencies, the Press Secretary said, “[T]he U.S. government will continue to invest in efforts to strengthen the engagement between our two countries, between our two governments, and even between the citizens of our two countries.” The new U.S. approach to Cuba, he added, will “give the Cuban people greater exposure to the kind of values and lifestyle that we so deeply value in this country; and that by promoting that kind of engagement, we can actually place additional pressure on the Cuban government to do a better job of living up to the values and the protection of basic universal human rights that we hold so dear in this country.”

Therefore, said the Press Secretary, the U.S. “is going to go and promote our values around the world . . . [as] something that we’ve been engaged in for quite some time in a variety of countries.  And we’re certainly going to continue to do that in a place like Cuba that so frequently tramples those kinds of values.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, US Journalism Courses Rile Cuba Amid Effort to Heal Rift, N.Y. Times (June 3, 2015).

[2] House App. Comm., Draft Bill Making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes (June 2, 2015)