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.

Cuba’s Possession of U.S. Missile Threatens To Disrupt U.S.-Cuba Normalization

On January 7, 2016, it became publicly known through a Wall Street Journal article that since sometime in 2014 Cuba has had possession of an inert U.S. missile that was erroneously shipped to Cuba from Europe.[1] This post will discuss what is now known about this missile in Cuba and the reactions to this news.

Diversion of U.S. Missile to Cuba

Hellfire missile
Hellfire missile

The object is a dummy U.S. Hellfire missile without any explosives that is a laser-guided, air-to-surface weapon that weighs about 100 pounds and that can be deployed from an attack helicopter or an unmanned drone.

Its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, in early 2014, with U.S. State Department authorization, shipped the missile from Orlando, Florida to Spain for a NATO training exercise for later return to the U.S. After the completion of the training exercise, it was packaged in Rota, Spain and sent on another freight-forwarder’s truck to Madrid, where it was sent by plane to Frankfurt, Germany. There it was supposed to have been shipped to Lockheed in Florida. Instead for unknown reasons it was shipped from Frankfurt to Paris on an Air France flight, and from Paris to Havana on another Air France flight. Upon its arrival in Cuba, a Cuban official noticed the labeling on the crate and seized it.

Around June 2014 Lockheed, after realizing the missile was missing and likely was in Cuba, notified the U.S. State Department. Thereafter the U.S. has been pressing the Cuban government for information about the missile and for Cuba to return it to the U.S., but Cuba has not responded.

During the summer of 2014, of course, the U.S. and Cuba were engaged in the final steps leading up to the December 17, 2014, announcement that the two countries were embarked upon normalization of relations. Since then, they have been taking various steps toward normalization.

The reason for the shipment to Cuba is unknown. Was it a stupid mistake by a freight forwarder or several of such companies? That I find difficult to believe. That seems to leave it being an intentional criminal or espionage act.

The U.S. is concerned that Cuba has or could give access to the missile to learn about its technology to Russia, China or North Korea. But an article by someone who apparently is technically sophisticated in such matters discounts such dire consequences because “there’s good reason to suspect that China and other large cyber powers might already have blueprints and more, thanks to the still-vague scope of several highly successful military cyber attacks;” because “the US sells thousands upon thousands of working Hellfires to ‘close military ‘allies’ like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey;” and because “the fall of Iraq’s Mosul to forces from ISIS . . . led to about $700 million worth of working Hellfire missiles falling into the hands of terrorists.”[2]

 Criticism of the Obama Administration[3]

Unsurprisingly this news has prompted severe criticism of the Administration.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a Republican presidential candidate, voiced his criticism in a letter to Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson. Rubio opened with the seemingly incontrovertible statement, “Preventing the proliferation of sensitive U.S. technology is one of the most important duties carried out by the State Department.” Because Jacobson has been so deeply involved with normalization negotiations with Cuba, she was asked these questions:

  • “When was the State Department informed that a U.S. Hellfire missile had been sent to Cuba?
  • When were you personally first informed of this matter and by whom?
  • What has been done to obtain the missile’s return by the Cuban government?
  • What specific entity of the Cuban government is currently in possession of the missile?
  • Please provide a list of the specific occasions on which you or other U.S. Government officials have raised this issue with the Castro regime.
  • Why was the return of the missile not obtained as a result of the negotiations that led to President Obama’s December 17, 2014 announced change in U.S. policy toward Cuba?
  • Why was the return of the missile not a condition of removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?
  • Why was the return of the missile not a condition of establishment of embassies in Havana and Washington?
  • What members of Congress did you inform of this issue during your briefings and testimony regarding U.S. policy toward Cuba over the last 18 months?
  • Does the State Department know if the Cuban government shared the missile or its design with any foreign governments?”

The Rubio letter concluded, “Sensitive U.S. technology falling into the hands of such a regime [as Cuba’s] has significant implications for U.S. national security.  The fact that the administration, including you, have apparently tried to withhold this information from the congressional debate and public discussion over U.S.-Cuba policy is disgraceful.”

Also on Friday, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted: “Whether it’s Iran holding U.S. citizens hostage or Cuba holding a U.S. missile hostage, Obama always caves. I won’t.’’

Four other lawmakers critical of the Obama position toward Cuba also criticized the handling of the missile case. In a joint statement, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), Mario Diaz Balart (R., Fla.), Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.) and Albio Sires (D., N.J.) said:

  • “Regardless of how Cuba came into possession of a U.S. Hellfire missile – which must be investigated – it is unconscionable that the Obama administration knew the Castros were in possession of this sensitive U.S. military technology since June 2014 and still moved forward with its policy to open up travel, trade, investment and diplomatic relations with the regime.”
  • “The fact that the Castro regime was able to acquire a U.S. Hellfire missile could be indicative of the lengths it is willing to go to undermine our national security and harm our interests. Congress must provide oversight to determine how the U.S. export control system failed to prevent this gross violation from occurring, and if Cuba’s espionage apparatus played a role in this Hellfire acquisition.”
  • “The Cuban regime rebuffed the President’s efforts to secure the return of the Hellfire missile even as the negotiations were ongoing, and yet the regime still got everything it could have wanted. It is no wonder that the Castro brothers feel ever more emboldened to continue on with the repression of the Cuban people, with intimidation and unlawful arrests at an alarmingly high rate.”
  • “This is a very serious breach and we are deeply concerned that the Castros have already shared the sensitive technology with the likes of Russia, North Korea or China. . . . We urge the Administration to start holding the Cuban regime accountable for its continued transgressions not only against its own people, but its continued disregard for international norms.”

Senator Ron Johnson (Rep., WI), the Chair of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, sent a letter to the heads of the Pentagon and the State Department, asking for an explanation “why the U.S. military would forgo complete control, care, and custody of such cargo when transporting it abroad.’’ Mr. Johnson also asked the administration for details of any other lost shipments of sensitive technology over the past five years.

Administration’s Response to Criticism[4]

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on January 8 that the administration takes the issue very seriously. “The Department of Defense and the State Department are, again, I think for obvious reasons, quite interested in getting to the bottom of exactly what happened.’’

The same day the U.S. State Department spokesman, John Kirby, said, “I am restricted under federal law and regulations from commenting on specific defense trade licensing cases and compliance matters. What I can say is that under the Arms Export Control Act the State Department licenses both permanent and temporary exports by U.S. companies of regulated defense articles. U.S. companies are responsible for documenting their proposed shipping logistics in the application of their export license as well as reporting any shipping deviations to the department as appropriate.”

Conclusion

Although I have been, and still am, a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, I am very troubled by the news of this missile ending up in Cuban hands and of its diversion in mid-2014 apparently not affecting U.S. negotiation of normalization. Final assessment has to await Assistant Secretary Jacobson’s responses to Senator Rubio’s questions and other news about this situation. I pray that it does not disrupt or sabotage further progress towards normalization.

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[1] Barrett & Lubold, Missing U.S. Missile Shows Up in Cuba, W.S.J. (Jan. 7, 2016); Reuters, Inert U.S. Hellfire Missile Wrongly Shipped to Cuba in 2014:WSJ, N.Y. Times (Jan. 7, 2016); Assoc. Press, Dummy Hellfire Missile Mistakenly Shipped to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2016); Ayuso, The mystery of the US missile ended in Cuba, El Pais (Jan. 9, 2016).

[2] Templeton, It probably won’t matter Cuba got a dummy Hellfire missile—and that’s terrifying, ExtremeTech (Jan. 9, 2016).

[3] Barrett & Lubold, Republicans Criticize Obama Administration Over Missile Sent to Cuba, W.S.J. (Jan. 8, 2015); Missile that turned up in Cuba ignites backlash, Miami Herald (Jan. 8, 2016); Rubio, Rubio Demands Answers From Administration On U.S. Missile in Cuba’s Possession (Jan. 8, 2016); Ros-Lehtinen, Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart, Curbelo and Sires Make Joint Statement Regarding Unaccounted U.S. Hellfire Missile Acquired by the Castro Regime (Jan. 8, 2016)

[4] U.S. Dep’t of State, Daily Press Briefing (Jan. 8, 2016).

 

 

U.S. Secretary of State Speaks to the Cuban People

On August 14, 2015, the U.S. formally opened its Embassy in Havana, Cuba with the raising of the American flag and a program featuring remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that were telecast and broadcast live throughout the island.[1] Thus, his message, in one sense, was directed to the Cuban people, and the words in bold in the following remarks were especially addressed to them.

John Kerry @ U.S. Embassy in Havana
John Kerry @ U.S. Embassy in Havana
Secretary & U.S. Flag at Havana Embassy
Kerry & U.S. Flag at Havana Embassy

Kerry’s Remarks

Kerry started by recognizing that “this is truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities” and that Presidents Obama and Castro had made “a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow.”

The U.S. needs to recognize that “U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged. Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition in Cuba. It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have, in a short term, a transformational impact. After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape. Responsibility for the nature and quality of governance and accountability rests, as it should, not with any outside entity; but solely within the citizens of this country.”

“But the leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people – should also know that the United States will always remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms. . . .[We] will continue to urge the Cuban Government to fulfill its obligations under the UN and inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas.”

“And indeed, we remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”

We “believe it’s helpful for the people of our nations to learn more about each other, to meet each other. That is why we are encouraged that travel from the United States to Cuba has already increased by 35 percent since January and is continuing to go up. We are encouraged that more and more U.S. companies are exploring commercial ventures here that would create opportunities for Cuba’s own rising number of entrepreneurs, and we are encouraged that U.S. firms are interested in helping Cuba expand its telecommunications and internet links, and that the government here recently pledged to create dozens of new and more affordable Wi-Fi hotspots.”

“The restoration of diplomatic ties will also make it easier for our governments to engage. After all, we are neighbors, and neighbors will always have much to discuss in such areas as civil aviation, migration policy, disaster preparedness, protecting marine environment, global climate change, and other tougher and more complicated issues. Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk, and talk can deepen understanding even when we know full well we will not see eye to eye on everything.”

“We are all aware that . . . the overall U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place and can only be lifted by congressional action – a step that we strongly favor. For now, the President has taken steps to ease restrictions on remittances, on exports and imports to help Cuban private entrepreneurs, on telecommunications, on family travel, but we want to go further. The goal of all of these changes is to help Cubans connect to the world and to improve their lives. And just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban Government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade, access information online. The embargo has always been something of a two-way street – both sides need to remove restrictions that have been holding Cubans back.”

Kerry also thanked “leaders throughout the Americas who have long urged the United States and Cuba to restore normal ties [and] the Holy Father Pope Francis and the Vatican for supporting the start of a new chapter in relations between our countries.”

He then paid “tribute to the people of Cuba and to the Cuban American community in the United States. Jose Marti once said that ‘everything that divides men…is a sin against humanity.’ Clearly, the events of the past – the harsh words, the provocative and retaliatory actions, the human tragedies – all have been a source of deep division that has diminished our common humanity. There have been too many days of sacrifice and sorrow; too many decades of suspicion and fear. That is why I am heartened by the many on both sides of the Straits who . . . have endorsed this search for a better path.”

“We have begun to move down that path without any illusions about how difficult it may be. But we are each confident in our intentions, confident in the contacts that we have made, and pleased with the friendships that we have begun to forge. And we are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors – time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”

Conclusion

In attendance at the ceremony were Embassy staff, including Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the charge d’affaires; other U.S. federal government officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in recent negotiations with Cuba; other countries’ diplomats; U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Barbara Boxer (Dem., CA), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ); [2] U.S. Representatives Karen Bass (Dem., CA), Steve Cohen (Dem., TN), Barbara Lee (Dem., CA) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA); [3] and James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, and Zane Kerby, President & CEO of American Society of Travel Agents.

Also in attendance was a Cuban delegation, including Josafina Vidal, who led the Cuban team in those negotiations; and Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the new Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. [4]

Another highlight of the ceremony was the beautiful reading of a beautiful poem, “Matters of the Sea” or “Cosas del Mar,” by the Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. Afterwards Kerry walked around old Havana, met privately with Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, participated in a joint press conference with Rodriguez and met with Cuban dissidents at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires These other events of the day will be discussed in subsequent posts.

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[1] Gordon, Kerry Strikes Delicate Balance in Havana Trip for Embassy Flag-Raising, N.Y. Times (Aug. 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, A Festive Flag-Raising, Then Tough Talk on U.S.-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2015);  DeYoung, In historic Cuba visit, Kerry presides over raising of U.S. flag over embassy in Havana, Wash. Post (Aug.14, 2015); Granma, Official reopening ceremony will take place today, Granma (Aug. 14, 2015); Parazza, Bécquer & Gomez, The challenge of building a future without forgetting the past, Granma (Aug. 15, 2015). A video of the ceremony also has been archived.

[2] Separate press releases celebrating the formal opening of the U.S. Embassy were issued by Senators Leahy, Boxer, Klobuchar and Flake. Back in the U.S. Senator Marco Rubio denounced the opening of the Embassy.

[3] Representatives Cohen, Lee and McGovern issued press releases welcoming the reopening of the Embassy in Havana.

[4]  Dr.Cabañas visited Minnesota last October and was mentioned in a prior post.

The Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies

On the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside over that event.[1]

This post will focus on the ceremonial opening of the Cuban Embassy; subsequent posts will discuss the afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez as well as reactions to the reopening of the embassies.

Opening of Cuba’s Embassy

Cuban Embassy
Cuban Embassy (Photo by Andrew Hamik)

Cuba’s opening was celebrated in the morning by the raising of its flag in front of its former Interests Section building. It was the same flag that was removed 54 years ago when the two countries severed diplomatic relations.

The event was attended by more than 500 people, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in negotiations with Cuba after the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement; Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the State Department, who has participated in those negotiations; Jeffrey DeLaurentis, current charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Havana; Ben Rhodes, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor who led 18 months of behind-the-scenes secret negotiations with Cuban officials with the aim of restoring diplomatic ties; Wayne Smith, a Cuban expert who was forced to leave the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 1961 when the two countries broke diplomatic ties; U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem, VT), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) along with U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (Dem., CA), Donna Edwards (Dem., MD), Kathy Castor (Dem., FL), Karen Bass (Dem., CA) and Raul Grijalva (Dem., AZ).[2]

Afterwards Senator Klobuchar, the author of a bill to end the U.S. embargo (Freedom to Export to Cuba Act), said in a press release, “The opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC, marks an important step in modernizing our relationship with Cuba after more than 50 years of isolation. This evolution in our relationship with 11 million people 90 miles off of our shore was long overdue, and it is now time to not only open our own fully equipped and staffed embassy in Havana, but to lift the trade embargo once and for all. Passing my bipartisan bill to lift the embargo would benefit the people of both of our countries by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods.”[3]

Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s Speech

The attendees then went inside the Embassy, where they heard a speech by Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez. Here are excerpts from those remarks.

The Cuban flag now flying in front of the Embassy “embodies the generous blood that was shed, the sacrifices made and the struggle waged for more than one hundred years by our people for their national independence and full self-determination, facing the most serious challenges and risks. Today we pay homage to all those who died in its defense and renew the commitment of the present generations, fully confident on the newer ones, to serve it with honor.”

“We evoke the memory of José Martí, who was fully devoted to the struggle for the freedom of Cuba and managed to get a profound knowledge about the United States: In his “North American Scenes” he made a vivid description of the great nation to the North and extolled its virtues. He also bequeathed to us a warning against its excessive craving for domination [over Cuba] which was confirmed by a long history of disagreements.”

“We’ve been able to make it through this date thanks to the firm and wise leadership of Fidel Castro Ruz, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, whose ideas we will always revere with utmost loyalty. We now recall his presence in this city, in April of 1959, with the purpose of promoting fair bilateral relations, as well as the sincere tribute he paid to Lincoln and Washington. The purposes that brought him to this country on such an early time [of the Cuban Revolution] are the same that have pursued throughout these decades and coincide exactly with the ones that we pursue today.”

“This ceremony has been possible thanks to the free and unshakable will, unity, sacrifice, selflessness, heroic resistance and work of our people and also the strength of the Cuban Nation and its culture.”

“I bring greetings from President Raúl Castro, as an expression of the good will and sound determination to move forward, through a dialogue based on mutual respect and sovereign equality, to a civilized coexistence, even despite the differences that exist between both governments, which makes it possible to solve bilateral problems and promote cooperation and the development of mutually beneficial relations, just as both peoples desire and deserve.”

“We know that this [rapprochement] would contribute to peace, development, equity and stability in the continent; the implementation of the purposes and principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter and in the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace, which was signed at the Second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States held in Havana.”

“Today, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the re-opening of embassies complete the first stage of the bilateral dialogue and pave the way to the complex and certainly long process towards the normalization of bilateral relations.”

“The challenge is huge because there have never been normal relations between the United States of America and Cuba, in spite of the one and a half century of intensive and enriching links that have existed between both peoples.”

“The Platt Amendment, imposed [on Cuba by the U.S.] in 1902 under a military occupation, thwarted the liberation efforts that had counted on the participation or the sympathy of quite a few American citizens and led to the usurpation of a piece of Cuban territory in Guantánamo. Its nefarious consequences left an indelible mark in our common history.”

“In 1959, the [U.S.] refused to accept the existence of a fully independent small and neighboring island and much less, a few years later, a socialist Revolution that was forced to defend itself and has embodied, ever since then, our people’s will.”

“I have referred to history to reaffirm that today an opportunity has opened up to begin working in order to establish new bilateral relations, quite different from whatever existed in the past. The Cuban government is fully committed to that.”

“Only the lifting of the economic, commercial and financial blockade which has caused so much harm and suffering to our people; the return of the occupied territory in Guantánamo; and the respect for Cuba’s sovereignty will lend some meaning to the historic event that we are witnessing today.”

“Every step forward will receive the recognition and the favorable acceptance of our people and government, and most certainly the encouragement and approval of Latin America and the Caribbean and the entire world.

“We reaffirm Cuba’s willingness to move towards the normalization of relations with the [U.S.] in a constructive spirit, but without any prejudice whatsoever to our independence or any interference in the affairs that fall under the exclusive sovereignty of Cubans.”

[For the U.S.] to insist in the attainment of obsolete and unjust goals, only hoping for a mere change in the methods to achieve them will not legitimize them or favor the national interest of the [U.S.] or its citizens. However, should that be the case, we will be ready to face the challenge.”

“We will engage in this process, as was written by President Raúl Castro in his letter of July 1st to President Obama, “encouraged by the reciprocal intention of developing respectful and cooperative relations between our peoples and governments. From this Embassy, we will continue to work tirelessly to promote cultural, economic, scientific, academic and sports relations as well as friendly ties between our peoples.”

“We would like to convey the Cuban government’s respect and recognition to the President of the [U.S.] for urging the U.S. Congress to lift the blockade as well as for the change of policy that he has announced [last December], but in particular for the disposition he has showed to make use of his executive powers for that purpose.”

“We are particularly reminded of President Carter’s decision to open the respective Interests Sections back in September of 1977.” We also “express our gratitude to the members of Congress, scholars, religious leaders, activists, solidarity groups, business people and so many U.S. citizens who worked so hard for so many years so that this day would come.”

“To the majority of Cubans residing in the [U.S.] who have advocated and called for a different kind of relation of this country with our Nation, we would like to express our recognition. Deeply moved, they have told us that they would multiply their efforts and will remain faithful to the legacy of the patriotic emigration that supported the ideals of independence.”

“We would like to express our gratitude to our Latin American and Caribbean brothers and sisters who have resolutely supported our country and called for a new chapter in the relations between the [U.S.] and Cuba, as was done, with extraordinary perseverance, by a lot of friends from all over the world.”

“From this country José Martí organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party to conquer freedom, all the justice and the full dignity of human beings. His ideas, which were heroically vindicated in his centennial year, continue to be the main inspiration that moves us along the path that our people have sovereignly chosen.”

Opening of U.S. Embassy

 With the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana not happening until August 14, the changes there were subtler. There was no raising of the U.S. flag. There was no changing of the sign on the building. The U.S. diplomats who previously worked in the Interests Section now worked in the Embassy. A future post will review the ceremonial opening of the Embassy, now scheduled for August 14.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Ahmed & Davis, U.S. and Cuba Reopen Long-Closed Embassies, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2015); Schwartz, Embassies Reopen, as U.S., Cuba Restore Ties, W.S.J. (July 20, 2015); Ayuso, ‘Mojito diplomacy’ as Cuba reboots US relations in reopened embassy, El Pais (July 21, 2015); Gómez, Cuban flag waves in U.S. capital, Granma (July 20, 2015); Gómez, The flag day, Granma (July 21, 2015).

[2] The famous Cuban-American jazz pianist and a resident of Minnesota, Nachito Herrera, was invited to attend the opening of the Cuban Embassy, but unfortunately had to decline because of previously scheduled performances at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis with his new group The Universals, featuring saxophonist Mike Phillips, who has worked with Prince and Stevie Wonder; Cuban drummer Raul Pineda; Senegal bassist Cheikh Ndoye; and violinist Karen Briggs. (Bream, On special day for Cuba, Nachito Herrera gets emotional at the Dakota, StarTribune (July 21, 2015).) As previously noted in this blog, Nachito has frequently performed at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

[3] A similar press release was issued by Senator Leahy.

Email to President Obama Objecting to Covert or “Discreet” U.S. Government Programs Purportedly Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba

On January 7, 2015, I sent the following email to U.S. President Barack Obama with copies to Secretary of State John Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Al Franken and Representative Keith Ellison.

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On December 17th I was overjoyed to hear the great news about your decision to embark upon a path of reconciliation with Cuba. That same day I sent you an email expressing my congratulations and thanks for this important decision. I also wrote the following blog posts to the same effect:

Now, however, I must express my profound disappointment in your Administration’s apparent decision to continue the covert or “discreet” USAID and other programs that purport to foster democracy and human rights on the island. It is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in October, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.” My blog post expands on these points: Rejection of Criticism of Cuban Cancellation of Open-Microphone Event and Arrests of Its Organizers (Jan. 6, 2015), .

Please, Mr. President, stop such programs as soon as possible. Instead, raise issues of democracy and human rights in direct meetings with Cuban government officials, as you have said your Administration would do.

Rejection of Criticism of Cuba’s Cancellation of Open-Microphone Event in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and Arrests of Its Organizers

Tania Bruguera
  Tania Bruguera

On December 30th Cuban authorities cancelled an open-microphone event at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and detained or arrested its organizers. The principal detainee was Tania Bruguera, a Cuban citizen who lives on the island and in Miami, Florida and who is a performance artist. She intended to provide an open-microphone for any attendee to give a one-minute statement on his or her opinions and recommendations for Cuba’s future.

This cancellation and related arrests have provoked strong condemnation from the U.S. Department of State and major U.S. newspapers. Initially I was persuaded by such condemnations and worried that they would foster U.S. political resistance to recent U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. After further investigation, however, I have come to reject such harsh condemnations. In order to understand this conclusion, this post will examine what happened in Havana, the reactions from the State Department and western newspapers and then the reasons why I reject such condemnations.

Cuban Events Relating to the Open-Mike Performance[1]

Plaza_de_la_Revolution

Plaza3

On December 30th Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was planning to stage an open-microphone event, “Yo tambien exijo,” [I also demand],” in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the huge public square usually reserved for large government-sponsored events.[2] (The photo on the top shows an empty Plaza while the other one has a large crowd in attendance.) She planned to give any attendee a one-minute platform to discuss his or her opinions about, and recommendations for, Cuba’s future. She told the U.S. National Public Radio that she wanted “people in the street [to] come and share . . . [their] doubts, [their] happiness – whatever [they] think right now about what is happening in Cuba, and what is the idea of Cuba that [they] want?”

Bruguera was proceeding with these plans even though her application for a permit had been denied and even though the Government’s National Fine Arts Council had told her that it would not be providing her with institutional support for the event as proposed because it “would negatively impact public opinion, in a key time of negotiation between the Cuban government and the government of the United States.”

On December 30th the Council issued a public statement documenting its decision not to support the event. It said, “Under current circumstances, it is unacceptable performing this purported performance in the symbolic space of the Plaza of the Revolution, especially considering the extensive media coverage and manipulation that has been in the media broadcasters counterrevolution.”

The Council, however, also stated that Bruguera had rejected its suggestions on conducting the event subject to the following conditions: (a) move the event to the National Museum of Fine Arts, a prestigious cultural institution in the field of visual arts; (b) the Museum would be freely open to diverse people of dissimilar social sectors; (c) the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative;” and (d) the performance would be limited to 90 minutes.

Just hours before the planned event, Cuban police detained, on public disorder charges, Bruguerea and at least three leading dissidents: Antonio Rodiles, the head of Citizens Demand for Another Cuba; Eliezer Avila, the leader of the opposition group Somos Mas; and Reinaldo Escobar, a senior editor of a dissident website 14medio.com. Escobar’s spouse, Blogger Yoani Sanchez, was also detained at her home by police. There were reports that up to 50 members of the political opposition were detained.

Ms. Bruguera was released the next afternoon along with most of the political dissidents. She then announced she would hold a news conference and public gathering on the Malecón, Havana’s coastal highway, at the memorial to the Maine, the American battleship that sank in Havana Harbor in 1898. Cuban agents, however, stopped her en route to the gathering and took her away for interrogation. She was told she could not leave Cuba “for two or three months” while the case was being processed. Again she was released.

However, on January 1, 2015, she was arrested again along with several dissidents when they went to a jail to demand the release of 15 additional dissidents who had been arrested on the day of the planned event. The next day (January 2) she was released.

Reactions to the Cancelation and Arrests

On December 30th, the U.S. Department of State issued a Press Statement saying the U.S. was “deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists . . . [and] strongly condemn[ed] the Cuban government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom expression, and intimidate citizens.”

The Statement added, “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are internationally recognized human rights, and the Cuban government’s lack of respect for these rights, as demonstrated by today’s detentions, is inconsistent with Hemispheric norms and commitments. We urge the Government of Cuba to end its practice of repressing these and other internationally protected freedoms and to respect the universal human rights of Cuban citizens.”

The Statement concluded that the U.S. has “always said we would continue to speak out about human rights, and as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions, just like their fellow members of civil society throughout the Americas are allowed to do.”

Also on December 30th Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson tweeted “Freedom of expression remains core of US policy on #Cuba; we support activists exercising those rights and condemn today’s detentions.”

These views were shared by the New York Times’ December 30th editorial, “Cuba Turns Off Critics’ Open Mike.” It said, “By stifling critical voices, the Cuban government is showing its unwillingness to tolerate basic freedoms most citizens in the hemisphere enjoy.”

The Times’ editorial continued, “This move, unfortunately, will amplify the criticisms of those who opposed Mr. Obama’s historic shift on Cuba policy. Heavy-handed tactics by the Castro government will give them ammunition next year, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, to stymie the Obama administration’s steps to ease the embargo through executive authority and dim the prospects of legislative change to pare back the web of sanctions Washington imposes on Cuba. That result would be a shame and, in the long run, self-defeating for Havana.”

The editorial on the same subject by the Washington Post, which earlier opposed the December 17th reconciliation, was in the same vein. It stated, “[T]he Castro regime has been left free to continue stifling dissent, while reaping the economic and political benefits of Mr. Obama’s ‘engagement.’ Raúl Castro declared in a speech shortly after the agreement was announced that the Communist political system would remain unchanged. Two weeks later, not one of the 53 political prisoners the White House said would be freed — about half of the total identified by human rights activists — has been reported released.”

The Washington Post editorial concluded, “Cubans who seek basic freedoms continue to be arrested, harassed and silenced, while the regime celebrates what it portrays as ‘victory’ over the United States. If support for the Cuban people and American values is supposed to be the point of this process, then it is off to a very poor start.”

People opposed to the resumption of relations with Cuba were quick to hold up the arrests as a sign that the Castro government had no intention of pursuing political change and would reap only economic benefits from Mr. Obama’s moves. For example, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a Cuban-American, tweeted, “Castro govt. arrests of activists in #Havana exposes the folly of new Obama #CubaPolicy.”

Rejection of the Condemnation

As a long-time member of the American Civil Liberties Union and as a pro bono attorney in one of its important free speech cases, I am a strong believer in the importance of free speech. Therefore, I initially concurred in the State Department and New York Times’ condemnation of Cuba’s cancellation of this event and related arrests, and I worried that this controversy might cause the U.S. to abandon the recently announced U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

On the other hand, I was and continue to be troubled by the State Department and most of the articles about this event not mentioning the Cuban Fine Arts Council’s willingness to support the event in another location and with certain limits. This action by the Arts Council suggests at a minimum that the State Department and western media are over-reacting to these events and unfairly rushing to judgment.

These U.S. critics also forget that governmental authorities in the U.S. sometimes determine that it is not appropriate to stage a protest at a particular time and place. It just happened in my home state of Minnesota at the Mall of America (MOA) on a big shopping day (December 20th). Although MOA officials had told the organizers that it was against its policies for them to hold a “Black Lives Matter” protest at the Mall on that day,[3] they did so anyway as this video shows. After 2,000 to 3,000 protesters flooded a Mall rotunda and held “die-ins” in front of several nearby businesses, riot-gear-clad police officers arrested 25 for trespass, peacefully dispersed the crowd and tried to block people from re-entering the rotunda. Afterwards the local city attorney announced plans “to file additional charges against ‘ringleaders’ of the protest and to seek restitution for the costs of 250 police at the event and lost sales during the two to three hours when more than 75 stores in the mall were closed.” On January 5th some of the protesters spoke against such prosecution at a city council meeting. This story obviously is not yet over.

In addition, there is a report that raises the much more serious question of whether the event was an idea of Cubans acting by themselves. According to the Wall Street Journal, an opponent of reconciliation with Cuba, at the scheduled time for the event, “Cuban cellphones received mysterious messages from a Florida area code offering cheap beer to all those gathering on the plaza.” This was confirmed in an interview by U.S. National Public Radio with Marc Frank, a U.S. journalist who was one of about a dozen people at the Plaza at the time of the planned event. He said, “text messages were sent from somewhere in Miami to a lot of cell phones here, including mine, basically saying that there’s going to be an event at the Plaza de la Revolución, and there’d be free beer.” Frank added that “Tania is an artist, lives some in Cuba and mainly in Miami, . . . [but] she’s not really well-known in Cuba at all.”[4]

These messages about free beer in the Plaza from a Miami telephone number raise the question of whether the event was actually being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or another U.S. government agency or by Cuban-Americans opposed to the reconciliation of the two countries.

As discussed in prior posts, USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) had funded via a private contractor at least three covert (or as the agency prefers to say “discreet”) programs in Cuba to promote civil society and dissent or regime change, all without the prior knowledge or consent of the Cuban government. One was for U.S. citizen Alan Gross to take communications equipment to Cuba, for which he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for violating its laws.[5] Another such USAID program via a private contractor unsuccessfully tried to create a Cuban social media program Yet another used Central Americans to promote purported HIV informational efforts on the island. The final one that has been discovered so far by journalists again via a private contractor attempted to infiltrate the Cuban rap-artist community.

These USAID programs were sharply criticized in a November New York Times editorial, as discussed in an earlier post. The editorial said, ““Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

Instead, the Times’ November editorial argued, “The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.” Moreover, “Washington should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

Perhaps the Times forgot this editorial when it more recently lambasted the Cuban actions over the “open-microphone” event.

In any event, the U.S. government apparently has not learned the lesson outlined by the Times in October because the USAID website, which says it was last updated on December 16 (the day before the announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation), still contains general information about its Cuba programs to “[p]romote human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In addition, on December 22, 2014 (five days after that announcement), the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued a Public Notice of its “Request for Statements of Interest: Program Fostering Civil, Political and Labor Rights in Cuba.” The Bureau’s prospective funding of $11 million would be used for typically funded proposals, the Bureau said, like “[o]rganizational assistance to Cuban civil society to improve management, strategic planning, sustainability, and collaboration of local civil society groups; [o]ff-island trainings, short-term fellowships, or engagement; [d]istribution of software that would be easily accessible in an open society; . . . [and] ]a]ssistance mechanisms designed to provide independent Cuban civil society with tools, opportunities, and trainings that civil society counterparts in open societies can access.”

Both the USAID and State Department statements read as if they are promoting programs in Cuba without the knowledge, cooperation or agreement of the Cuban government. This is contrary to President Obama’s statement in his nationally televised speech on December 17th, in which he said the U.S. would “raise those differences [with the Cuban government] directly . . .[such as] democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement [with the Cuban government].” He added, “no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there.”

Similar thoughts were expressed the same day in the White House’s FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course on Cuba.” It said, “We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.” It also stated, “The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba, and we will encourage reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials.”

Although President Obama apparently was talking about encouraging the Cuban government to expand the Cuban people’s rights to express different opinions on what their government should do, a prior post shows some ambiguity in these statements that could allow the continuation of the USAID and State Department’s covert or “discreet” efforts to promote regime change.

If the open-microphone event, in fact, was orchestrated by USAID or some other U.S. government agency, it is Orwellian. Such programs purport to promote democracy and human rights with undemocratic and non-human rights means. Such programs are publicly mentioned—in very general terms—on U.S. government websites yet are conducted covertly or “discreetly” on the island. Such programs are hostile to a country with which the U.S. purportedly is attempting to build a normal and respectful diplomatic relationship. These programs also logically motivate Cuban authorities to be vigilant in reacting to events like the “open-microphone” one.

In other words it is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in November, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

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[1] This account of the planned event and the arrests by the Cuban government is based on articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street JournalGuardian, Los Angeles Times,  National Public Radio, the Cuban Fine Arts Council and again the New York Times.

[2] The Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world; it measures 72,000 square meters (774,936 square feet) and has been the site for crowds of 1 million for major speeches by Fidel Castro and for a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. The idea that the open-microphone event might create such a large crowd should have been seen as ridiculous by everyone, including the Cuban authorities, and a small gathering like the 12 or so that showed up on the 30th would have demonstrated the over-reaction of the those authorities in shutting it down and the State Department and western media in attacking the shut-down.

[3] Before the protest the local city (Bloomington) sent a letter to the protest organizers warning that the city would enforce the mall’s private-property rights under the authority of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that held the MOA was a private entity with the right to exclude demonstrators.

[4] The Director of Security Operations at Telecommunications Company of Cuba reported that since December 21st Cuba had been receiving electronic messages calling for participation in an event with Tania Bruguera. These messages came from a platform “Wake Cuba,and these messages were similar to previous ones paid for by USAID.  Another Cuban source states that some Cuban email addresses were hacked and used to send emails to Cubans about this event.

[5] Gross on December 17th was released from Cuban prison and returned to the U.S.