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).

Cuba’s Many Problems Prompt Speculation Galore  

Cuba’s facing many problems: the collapse of its ally and benefactor, Venezuela; recovering from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma; increased hostility from the Trump Administration; Cuba’s government’s fear of an expanding private sector of the economy; declining visitors from the U.S.; a declining national economy; the imminent political transition next February and the regime’s blocking 175 independent candidates from the upcoming election of municipal councils.

A Miami Herald article gathers experts’ speculation over whether Raúl Castro will in fact relinquish the presidency next February; whether the presumed new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, will be capable of handling all of these problems; whether hardliners in the regime have been or will be empowered. Read it to get the full flavor of these and other speculations.[1]

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[1] Whitefield & Gámez, Raúl Castro: Will he stay in power in Cuba or retire? Miami Herald (Nov. 21, 2017).

The JFK Files and Cuba    

On October 26, the U.S. National Archives released additional documents from the files regarding the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Preliminary examination by journalists revealed what are well known facts relating to Cuba and that horrible crime.[1] Here are what some journalists report.

CIA and Defense Department Schemes To Kill Fidel Castro

“Some of the papers recounted the [CIA’s] well-chronicled schemes to kill Fidel Castro. One document, a summary of the CIA’s plans to assassinate foreign leaders, recounted how the CIA tried to use James B. Donovan, the American lawyer and negotiator made famous by the movie ‘Bridge of Spies,’ for one plot. He would give Castro a contaminated skin-diving suit while the two negotiated for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners.”

“It was known that Fidel Castro liked to skindive. The CIA plan was to dust the inside of the suit with a fungus producing madera foot, a disabling and chronic skin disease, and also contaminating the suit with tuberculosis bacilli in the breathing apparatus,” the paper said. Donovan didn’t go through with it, instead presenting the Cuban leader with “an uncontaminated skindiving suit as a gesture of friendship.”

“Another outlandish plot described talks of prepping a ‘booby-trap spectacular seashell’ that would be submerged in an area Castro enjoyed diving. The seashell would be loaded with explosives that would go off once lifted. ‘After investigation, it was determined that there was no shell in the Caribbean area large enough to hold a sufficient amount of explosive which was spectacular enough to attract the attention of Castro.’”

“Another scheme to kill Castro involved a CIA employee fluent in Spanish based in Cuba who was recruiting a high-ranking Cuban government official in 1963. The CIA officer and the Cuban actually met in Europe on the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The Cuban wanted the CIA to supply him with ‘some type of esoteric gadget with which he would be able to defend himself’ if he got into a fight with Castro. ‘He had in mind some sort of pellet pen,’ the document read. The agency officer didn’t have a pellet pen, but he did show his asset a ballpoint pen with a hypodermic needle ‘inside that when you pushed the lever, the needle came out and poison could be injected into someone.’”

“But the Cuban declined the gadget because it would have required him to get too close to Castro. Instead, the agent asked the CIA operative for weapons. The agency complied, sending down high-powered rifles with scopes to Cuba. The asset was never used. The case officer broke off contact in 1964.”

The Pentagon proposed “a scheme called Operation BOUNTY that sought to overthrow Cuba’s government, and established a system of financial rewards for Cubans for ‘killing or delivering alive known Communists.’ A reward would be paid to an individual upon presentation of a leaflet, with ‘conclusive’ proof of death and dead person’s party/revolutionary membership card. Cubans who played along would get a certain dollar amount based on the title of the Communist they had killed. They would get up to $100,000 for government officials and $57,500 for “department heads.” Castro, perhaps for symbolic reasons, would earn a Cuban only two cents.”

Anti-Castro Groups’ Plans

“Many of the documents center on the activities of Cuban anti-Castro groups — including Orlando Bosch’s Insurrectional Movement of Revolutionary Recovery (MIRR) — as the FBI tried to dissuade or scuttle their plans for armed invasions of the island. One FBI document from June 1959 predicts an uprising against Castro that never came: ‘Conditions are getting so bad in Cuba that it can well be that a counterrevolution will occur from within Cuba, rather than waiting for any invasion force from outside…. Powerful interests, such as bankers, sugar institute, et cetera, are extremely dissatisfied.’”

“Similarly, another 1959 FBI report relays intelligence on some Cuban exiles jockeying to replace Castro if he were to be overthrown, an outcome seen as all but assured. The same document cites the prediction by an informant that Castro ‘cannot last more than two months.’”

“A 1964 FBI memo describes a meeting in which Cuban exiles tried to set a price on the heads of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. ‘It was felt that the $150,000.00 to assassinate FIDEL CASTRO plus $5,000 expense money was too high,’ the memo noted. At a subsequent meeting, they settled on more modest sums: $100,000 for Fidel, $20,000 for Raúl and $20,000 for Che.”

Cuban Plans To Assassinate JFK?

 In 1963, the Cuban ambassador to the U.S. reacted with “happy delight” to the murder, according to a CIA memo.

In 1978 Fidel told American lawmakers that his country was not involved in the plot to kill Kennedy.

“A draft report by the House Select Committee on Assassinations found it unlikely that Cuba would kill Kennedy as retaliation for the CIA’s attempts on Fidel Castro’s life. ‘The Committee does not believe Castro would have assassinated President Kennedy, because such an act, if discovered, would have afforded the United States the excuse to destroy Cuba,’ the draft states. ‘The risk would not have been worth it.’”

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[1] Miller, Strippers, surveillance and assassination plots” The wildest JFK Files, Wash. Post (Oct. 27, 2017); Yuhas & Dart, JFK files reveal FBI warning on Oswald and Soviets’ missile fears, Guardian (Oct. 27, 2017). Some of these U.S. plots against Fidel and Cuba were discussed in a prior post about then U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s obsession with Cuba.

 

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).

 

In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

Previous posts have discussed the recent news that starting in late 2016 through March 2017 several U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba had been suffering various medical problems apparently associated with some kind of sonic device, that the U.S. with Cuban cooperation has been investigating these incidents and that the U.S. was not accusing the Cuban government of being responsible.[1]

On September 1, the U.S. State Department revealed that last month (this August) additional U.S. diplomats were suffering symptoms from a sonic “incident” in Cuba. The Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said that 19 Americans are now confirmed to have been affected, up from 16 reported last month. But the Department did not say exactly when last month the incidents took place or provide other details while also cautioning, “We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate” diplomats and their families. The U.S. investigation of these incidents is continuing and to date the Trump administration has not blamed the Cuban government.[2]

Also on September 1 the American Foreign Service Association, the labor union representing U.S. Foreign Service officers, said that based upon its contacts with 10 of the U.S. diplomats suffering from medical problems associated with their having served in Cuba the Association believes that they have been subjected to mysterious “sonic harassment attacks” that have caused  “mild traumatic brain injury [concussions]and permanent hearing loss, with such additional symptoms as loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption, and brain swelling.” Therefore, the Association “strongly encourages the Department of State and the U.S. Government to do everything possible to provide appropriate care for those affected, and to work to ensure that these incidents cease and are not repeated.”[3]

On August 30 CBS News reported that U.S. intelligence analysts believe the cause of the acoustic attack on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana starting late last year was an inaudible sound (ultra and infrasonic waves), and a Georgetown University ear surgeon said such sounds can damage hearing. Medical records show that U.S. victims have been diagnosed with hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury and likely nerve damage. CBS also reported that the two Cuban diplomats earlier expelled from the U.S. were intelligence officials.[4]

Although the U.S. Government to date has not blamed Cuba for these incidents, a Washington Post editorial has strongly suggested that Cuba is responsible, and Roberto Alvarez Quińones, a Cuban-American journalist, economist and historian living in Los Angeles, asserts that however the attacks occurred, Raúl Castro is responsible.[5]

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[1] Posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba (Aug. 23, 2017); At Least 16 U.S. Diplomats Who Had Served in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Aug. 24, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for American Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post).

[2] Gearan, State Department reports new instance of American diplomats harmed in Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Lederman (Assoc. Press), U.S.: Another health attack on diplomats in Cuba last month, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2017).

[3] Gearan, American diplomats suffered traumatic brain injuries in mystery attack in Cuba, union says, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Diplomats Union: Attacks in Cuba Caused Mild Brain Injury, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017).

[4] Dorsey, Infra- and ultrasonic waves thought to be responsible for Cuba attacks, CBS News (Aug. 30, 2017); CBS: US Intelligence points out that diplomats in Cuba were affected by ‘an inaudible sound,’ Diario de Cuba (Aug. 30, 2017).

[5]   Editorial, Don’t play down a sinister attack on diplomats in Cuba, Wash. Post (Aug. 24, 2017); Alvarez Quińones, Acoustic attack or not, Raul Castro is to blame, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 31, 2017).

 

U.S. State Department Unjustly Continues To Allege That Cuba’s Foreign Medical Missions Engage in Forced Labor 

As noted in a prior post, the U.S. State Department on June 27, 2017, issued its annual report on human trafficking, and Its discussion of Cuba (pp. 143-45) included the allegation that Cuba had engaged in illegal forced labor with its foreign medical mission program.

This allegation has been present in previous annual reports, some of which have been discussed in other posts.[1]

Report Regarding Cuba’s Alleged Forced Labor in Its Foreign Medical Missions

The latest report observes, presumably correctly, that the Cuban penal code does not criminalize forced labor. Therefore, the report, also presumably correctly, states that Cuba “did not make efforts to identify or protect victims of forced labor” and  “did not report having procedures to identify victims of forced labor.”

In addition, the report says, presumably correctly, “The government is the primary employer in the Cuban economy, including in foreign medical missions that employ more than 84,000 workers in more than 67 countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. These medical missions constitute a signficant source of Cuban government income.”

Implicitly conceding that there was conflicting evidence, this report said, “Some participants in foreign medical missions as well as other [unnamed] sources allege that Cuban officials force or coerce participation in the program; the [Cuban] government has stated the postings are voluntary, and some participants also have stated the postings are voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” (Emphases added.)

This report continued, “The Cuban government acknowledges that it withholds passports of overseas medical personnel in Venezuela due to security concerns; the government provided ID cards to such personnel in place of passports. There are also claims about substandard working and living conditions in some countries. In the past, there have been claims that Cuban authorities coerced participants to remain in the program, including by allegedly withholding their passports, restricting their movement, using “minders” to monitor participants outside of work, or threatening to revoke their medical licenses or retaliate against their family members in Cuba if participants leave the program.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In 2015, Cuba reinstituted restrictions on travel for specialized doctors and some medical personnel, requiring them to obtain an exit permit from their superiors before leaving the country. On September 9, 2015, the government agreed to reinstate medical personnel who had left their positions while abroad. As of April 1, 2016, the Cuban authorities claimed that 274 medical professionals who returned to Cuba and were rehired at the same salary and level of responsibility they had before leaving. More recent data was not available.”

This report, consistent with prior reports, alleges or assumes that Cuba is engaged in illegal forced labor of Cuban medical personnel in foreign medical missions and that Cuba does not recognize forced labor as a possible issue affecting its nationals in medical missions abroad.

Analysis of the Allegation

This U.S. allegation is flawed for at least the following seven reasons.

First, while previous reports admitted that “information on the scope of . . . forced labor in Cuba is limited,” the latest report admits there is conflicting evidence about whether medical personnel’s participation in the foreign mission program is coerced and that the Cuban government denies such illegal coercion.

Second, most of this report’s recitation of alleged facts about the foreign mission program do not relate to, or substantiate, the forced labor allegation.

Third, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” At least four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions have recorded how they treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.[2]

Fourth, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a detailed study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman.  He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.[3]

Fifth, relevant to this issue, but not mentioned in the Report, is the fact that medical education in Cuba (at the Latin American School of Medicine) is free. As a result requiring medical graduates to pay the country back by such participation seems entirely appropriate and may indeed be a contractual or quasi-contractual obligation. The recent $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.[4]

Sixth, this Report and its predecessors do not cite to the relevant international legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim or set forth any legal analysis purportedly supporting the allegation. This is not surprising as international law does not support this allegation.

Most pertinent is the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which Cuba and 177 other state members of the International Labour Organization have ratified (as of 2016). The U.S., however, has not so ratified, yet another reason why the U.S. charge is inapt.

This treaty’s  Article 2(1) preliminarily defines  “forced or compulsory labour” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily,” But there are five exceptions to this definition set forth in the treaty’s Article 2(2). One such exception, in subsection (b), states  ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphases added.)[5]

Cuba clearly is a “fully self-governing country” and the participants in the foreign medical missions are Cuban “citizens,” and as previously stated, such participation is regarded as “part of the normal civic obligations” of such citizens with the appropriate medical qualifications. Thus, under the most relevant statement of international law, Cuba has not engaged in illegal forced labor with respect to the foreign medical missions.

Seventh, there has not been any fair adjudicative process that has determined that such illegal coercion exists.

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[1] Relevant posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Upgrades Cuba in State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug, 7, 2015); U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Human Trafficking Report (July 2, 2016); U.S. Senate Hearing on on 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (July 20, 2016).

[2]  Ledn, Cuban doctors share their experiences in internationalist missions, Granma (Nov. 26, 2015).

[3] Erisman, Brain Drain Politics: the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme, Int’l J. Cuban Studies  269, 286-87 (2012).

[4] Raul Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 19, 2016).

[5] This and other parts of the definition of “forced or compulsory labour” were reaffirmed in Article 1(3) of the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930.

New Cuban Limits on Private Enterprises

On August 1, the Cuban government announced suspensions in the issuance of permits for a large number of private occupations and ventures, including restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, teachers, street vendors of agricultural products, dressmakers and the relatively recent profession of real estate broker.[1]

The announcement said those already engaged in these private occupations and ventures could continue to operate, but it did not say when the suspensions would end.

In addition, there will be no additional authorizations for “wholesale agricultural product salesman, agricultural retailer, ambulant operator or seller of agricultural products, seller/buyer of discs and operator of equipment of recreation for the rustic equipment.”

This announcement had been preceded by the government’s seizing and closing some private restaurants.[2] In June, for example, the government’s Technical Department of Investigations raided El Litoral, a popular Havana paladar known for its high-end cuisine and customers, and removed all of its fixtures, and others speculated it allegedly was engaged in money-laundering, buying liquor from unlawful suppliers and paying some employees off the books. Two other Havana private restaurants suffered the same fate in June.

These governmental measures were mentioned  by President Raúl Castro in his July speech to Cuba’s National Assembly that was discussed in an earlier post.

He said that rules regarding private enterprises would be enforced and that Cubans would not be permitted to start mini-empires with multiple businesses. Thereafter the National Assembly said a “concentration of property and financial and material wealth would not be permitted.”

Raúl’s message essentially was repeated by Marta Elena Feitó Cabrera, the first deputy minister of Labor and Social Security, in discussing the new suspensions: the decision for suspensions “is part of a systematic process of review and improvement, aimed at correcting deficiencies, so that no action Is outside the legality. The most recent evaluation of the performance of this sector has shown . . . that raw materials, and equipment of illicit origin are used; non-compliance with tax obligations persists and income is under-declared; [there is] lack of confrontation and timely resolution of problems; there are uncertainties and inadequacies in control as well as deficiencies in economic contracting for the provision of services or supply of products between legal persons and natural persons.”

Nevertheless, Cuba is not closing down the private sector with 567,982 outstanding licenses for self-employed workers (12% of the total work force), 2,000 private restaurants and 22,000 rooms in casas particulares (private bed-and-breakfasts). As the CubaDebate article states, “the validity of this form of management as an employment option is unquestionable. Not only has it facilitated the labor reorganization process, it has also succeeded in increasing the supply of goods and services with acceptable levels of quality, as well as gradually lightening the state’s burden to allow it to concentrate on transcendental activities for Cuban economic development.”

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[1] Puig,  Announce new measures for self-employment in Cuba, CubaDebate (Aug. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuba Stops Issuing New Permits for Some Private Enterprises, N.Y. Times (Aug. 1, 2017).

[2]  Whitefield, Cuba reins in entrepreneurs who take free enterprise too far, Miami Herald (July 31, 2017).