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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound Recording[7]

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

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

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

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

Cubans Doubt[9]

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

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

Mass Hysteria?[10]

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

Cuba-Russia Relations[11]

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medical ‘Incidents’ Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Prompt U.S. To Reduce Staff at Havana Embassy and Urge Americans Not To Travel to Cuba

On September 29, following a week of news about the subject, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement, “Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba.”[1]

The Secretary’s Statement[2]

The Statement, after reviewing the “variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature” to 21 U.S. Embassy employees, asserted that on September 29, “the Department ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as well as all family members. Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our Embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”

The Statement added that the “decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel. We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”

Simultaneously the Department “issued a Travel Warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba and informing them of our decision to draw down our diplomatic staff. We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”

These action s were taken even though the ”Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure.”

This Statement was preceded by news reports that the U.S. would begin withdrawing roughly 60% of its staff from the Embassy and diplomats’ families. This was not seen as punishment for the Cuban government, but a means of protecting diplomats and their families from the strange attacks. On September 28, Heather Nauert said the Secretary was reviewing all options on “how to best protect our American personnel’ in Cuba. As a result, the U.S. will stop processing Cuban requests for visas at the Embassy.” [3]

Just prior to the issuance of this Statement, the Department held a press conference on that subject.[4] The following additional points were made:

  • “Until the Government of Cuba can assure the safety of U.S. Government personnel in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so as to minimize the number of U.S. Government personnel at risk of exposure. The remaining personnel will carry out core diplomatic and consular functions, including providing emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Cuba. Routine visa operations are suspended indefinitely. Short-term travel by U.S. Government officials to Cuba will also be limited to those involved with the ongoing investigation or who have a need to travel related to the U.S. national security or crucial embassy operations. The United States will not send official delegations to Cuba or conduct bilateral meetings in Cuba for the time being. Meetings may continue in the United States.”
  • “The governments of the United States and Cuba have not yet identified the responsible party, but the Government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba.”
  • The Department has “not ruled out the possibility of a third country as a part of the investigation, but that investigation continues.”
  • The “cooperation that the Cuban Government has given to our efforts to understand what is happening in these attacks to [has] been ongoing, and we expect it to continue.”
  • “The ordered departure will result in more than half of the embassy footprint being reduced.”
  • The Department does not “know the means, the methods, or how these attacks are being carried out, and so I could not characterize them as having stopped in August.”
  • “The staff who were affected at hotels were temporary duty staff at the embassy.”
  • The Department is not “aware of any incidents involving [our Cuban staff at the embassy] or attacks involving them.”
  • The U.S. “investigation continues, but at this moment we don’t have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. And so, I really can’t speculate on engagement or not by Cubans or other parties. The investigation’s ongoing and we will see where the facts lead us in terms of cause or source.”

Reactions to the Statement[5]

Before the issuance of the Statement, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, which is the union representing U.S. diplomats, opposed the then threatened withdrawal of staff from the Havana embassy. He said, “We have a mission to do. AFSA’s view is that American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game. We’re used to operating with serious health risks in many environments, whether it’s parasites that rip up our guts in Africa, exposure to Zika virus and dengue fever, or air pollution in China and India,”

Immediately afterwards, Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) said, “”Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalization process between the United States and Cuba. Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process. . . .We must do all we can do solve this mystery so that our embassy personnel can safely return as quickly as possible.” Representative James McGovern (Dem., MA) had a similar reaction:  the drawdown will make it “harder for Cuban and American families to travel and visit loved ones” and “America cannot afford a return to the failed Cold War isolationist policies that divided families for 50 years.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) did not express agreement or disagreement with the Statement, but instead said these actions did not go far enough. He initially tweeted, “”Shameful that @StateDept withdraws most staff from @USEmbCuba but Castro can keep as many as he wants in U.S.” In a subsequent longer statement, he said, “it is weak, unacceptable and outrageous for the U.S. State Department to allow Raul Castro to keep as many of his operatives in the U.S. as he wants. The Cuban government has failed its obligation under international treaties to keep foreign diplomats safe on its soil. The idea that Cuba knows nothing about how these attacks took place and who perpetrated them is absurd.  . . . Until those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice, the U.S. should immediately expel an equal number of Cuban operatives, downgrade the U.S. embassy in Havana to an interests section, and consider relisting Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

President Trump, ignoring the Department’s continued refusal to blame Cuba, did just that in a brief comment about the Statement when he said, Cuba “did some bad things in Cuba.”

Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, thought the U.S. decision for the Embassy to cease processing Cuban applications for visas to emigrate to the U.S. might violate its agreement with Cuba from the 1990s to issue 20,000 such visas a year if there is no third-country workaround for those visa applications,

The new U.S. travel warning against Americans traveling to the island did not scare tour companies, airlines, cruise ship operators and others in the travel industry. Many have said they will continue taking Americans to Cuba. Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours, said, “We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travelers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes. . . . . [The] experience that our travelers have had on the ground with the Cuban people has been nothing short of amazing. We have no reason to expect that these experiences will not continue.” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas, said that “consistent with U.S. law, our operations in Cuba will continue.”

Canada also has had some of its diplomats in Havana experience similar medical problems, but its Foreign Ministry said, “We continue to monitor the situation closely and we have no plans to travel advice or remove any staff.”

Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban diplomat who was in charge of U.S. relations until this year, called Washington’s reaction “hasty” and warned that it would “affect the bilateral relations, specifically the cooperation in matters of mutual interest.” But she said Cuba was committed to determining the cause of the symptoms experienced by the American diplomats.”

For ordinary Cubans, the Statement “stirred anxiety and dread.” The ban on Americans traveling to the island “dealt a harsh blow to Cubans who had hoped the nascent normalization of relations with the United States that began in late 2014 would usher in a period of economic growth and greater prosperity in the impoverished Communist nation.” In addition, the “decision to stop issuing visas in Havana indefinitely leaves thousands of Cubans in limbo. Washington typically grants 20,000 immigrant visas a year to reunite Cubans with relatives in the United States, and thousands more to enable students, academics and tourists to travel.” Harold Cárdenas, a popular Cuban blogger who recently started a master’s degree program in international relations at Columbia University, said, “The most immediate is it will perpetuate estrangement, not just political, but physical. There will be a price, and it will be paid by Cuban families.”

Secretary of State’s Prior Meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister[6]

Late afternoon on September 26, at Cuba’s request, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the State Department to discuss issues relating to the medical problems of U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba.

Afterwards the State Department said the conversation was “firm and frank” and that Tillerson raised “profound concern” about the diplomats’ safety and security. State Department spokeswoman Heather Neuter emphasized that Tillerson conveyed how serious the situation is and emphasized that Cuba is obligated under international law to protect foreign diplomats.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s lengthy post-meeting statement was the following:

  • The “Foreign Minister reiterated the seriousness, celerity and professionalism with which the Cuban authorities have taken on this issue. Following instructions from the top level of the Cuban government, a priority investigation was opened . . . [immediately after] these incidents were first reported and additional measures were adopted to protect the US diplomats and their relatives. This has been recognized by the representatives of the US specialized agencies who have travelled to Cuba as from June, whose visits have been considered as positive by the Cuban counterparts.”
  • He “reiterated . . . how important it was for the US authorities to cooperate, in an effective way, with the Cuban authorities in order to clarify these incidents, which are unprecedented in Cuba.”
  • He [also] “reaffirmed . . . that the decision and the argument claimed by the US Government to withdraw two Cuban diplomats from Washington were unwarranted and emphasized that Cuba strictly abides by its obligations under the Vienna Convention on the protection and integrity of diplomats, an area in which it keeps an impeccable record.
  • “He reaffirmed that the Cuban government has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any kind against diplomats. The Cuban government has never permitted nor will it ever permit the use of its territory by third parties for this purpose.”
  • He “stated that according to the preliminary results obtained by the Cuban authorities in their investigations, which have borne in mind the information given by the US authorities, there is no evidence so far of the cause or the origin of the health disorders reported by the US diplomats.”
  • “The Foreign Minister reaffirmed that the investigation to resolve this matter is still in progress and that Cuba has a keen interest in bringing it to closure, for which it is essential to count on the effective cooperation of the US authorities. He also stated that it would be regrettable that a matter of this nature is politicized and that hasty decisions not supported by conclusive evidence and investigation results are taken.”
  • Finally, “the Minister reiterated the willingness of Cuba to continue holding the bilateral dialogue on areas of common interest, based on respect and sovereign equality, despite the profound differences that exist between the two countries. “(Emphases added.)

Earlier that same day U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee “that it was a reasonable suspicion that Cuban authorities either were involved in the incidents or at least knew they were occurring . . . [since] Cuba keeps tight surveillance on American diplomats in the country and would be likely to know if something significant were happening to them.” However, he also admitted that with so much unknown, even that assumption is less than certain “and “as a U.S. government official, I don’t know that.”[7]

Suggested U.S. Responses to the “Attacks” on Diplomats in Cuba[8]

Although perhaps superseded by the previously mentioned Secretary’s Statement, an earlier editorial in the Wall Street Journal proposed that until Cuba offers a persuasive explanation of how these incidents occurred without Cuban collaboration, the U.S. should expel 19 Cuban diplomats from its embassy in Washington, D.C., which with the previous U.S. expulsions of two Cubans would equal the 21 Americans attacked in Cuba. If such a persuasive explanation is provided, then the Cuban diplomats could return to their posts. The Journal, however, is skeptical of such an explanation being provided in light of what it says is Cuba’s “long record of harassing U.S. government employees on the island.”

A more aggressive response suggestion has been offered by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC), a U.S. 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in 1992 to promote a nonviolent transition to a free and democratic Cuba with zero tolerance for human rights violations. It asserted the following:

  • “The unacceptability of the thesis that the perpetrator was a third party. In the circumstances of comprehensive surveillance (visual, physical, digital, phone, microphones) to which these diplomats are subject 24 by 7, it is impossible for third players to act in independent and undetected fashion for over nine months and in more than two dozen locations such as residences and hotel rooms.”
  • The unacceptability that these facts are diluted, minimized, and silenced by the Department of State and/or any other U.S. agency participating in this investigation.T
  • The unacceptability to allow the perpetrator to escape the scandal as well its political, diplomatic and financial consequences.
  • The unacceptability of diluting the legal responsibility of the perpetrator so that victims could not be compensated nor the truth identified.

Other News[9]

There has been other recent news regarding these issues.

First, a Miami television station reported that at least four additional U.S. diplomats who served in Cuba have been hurt by sonic attacks and that these incidents occurred inside the U.S. Embassy and at several Havana hotels, including the famous Hotel Nacional. This brings the total affected individuals to 25. (Presumably, under the Wall Street Journal’s rationale, if there is confirmation that 25 Americans who have been affected, there would be 23 additional Cubans expelled.)  However, the Miami Herald said that according to an unnamed State Department source, there are only 21 confirmed cases, not 25, and none of the attacks occurred at the U.S. Embassy; the same, more authoritative, message was provided at the previously mentioned September 29 press briefing.

Second, according to CNN, a senior U.S. official said that some of the 21 individuals previously counted as subjects of such attacks were targeted at least 50 times.

Third, an independent Cuban news outlet, Diario de Cuba, reports that among the Canadians similarly affected while serving in Cuba are “several children” from “more than five families of Canadian diplomats.”

 Conclusion

These medical “incidents” are deeply disturbing, and the U.S. and Cuba need to determine the cause(s) and perpetrator(s). The good news is that the U.S. is not rushing to judgment, that in the near term the U.S. is taking reasonable steps to protect its diplomats and families and that the U.S. and Cuba maintain diplomatic relations and are cooperating on these issues and other matters.

The new Travel Warning, however, goes too far when it starts, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba” and then admits that the “attacks” to date have been on “U.S. Embassy employees” and “have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.” Moreover, as discussed in prior blog posts, the small number of hotels to date have all been in Havana that have been used by U.S. Embassy employees on a short-term basis and U.S. citizens who are not connected with the Embassy have not been subjects of any of these “attacks.” As a result, the new Travel Warning should have made these facts clear and at most cautioned U.S. citizens about using certain Havana hotels while also telling them that many Cuban citizens are making their Havana homes available to foreign guests and that there have been no problems associated with the many other cities and towns on the island.

For those of us favoring continuation of the process of normalizing relations between the two countries, we must continue to oppose requests for the U.S. to take various actions against Cuba, including closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, all before there is a well-documented conclusion to the ongoing U.S. and Cuban investigations of this mystery.

Similarly, for the same reason we must oppose the suggestion from Senator Rubio, the Wall Street Journal and any others to expel Cuban diplomats equal to the number of U.S. diplomats affected by the “sonic attacks” or whatever else has caused medical problems.

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[1]  This blog has published the following posts about these issues: 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 8/24/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for Americans Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 8/24/17 post);  News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017); In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 2, 2017); Two More U.S. Diplomats Serving in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Sept. 13, 2017); More Mystery Surrounding “Medical Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Sept. 14, 2017); GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 16, 2017); U.S. Evaluating Whether To Close U.S. Embassy in Cuba (Sept, 18, 2017); Developments Regarding U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2]  Tillerson, Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Cuts Staff from Cuba Over Mysterious Injuries, Warns Travelers, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Slashes Cuba Embassy Staff, Warns Americans Not to Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[3]  Ordonez & Kumar, U.S. does not believe Cuba is behind sonic attacks on American diplomats, Miami Herald (Sept 26, 2017)

[4] Dep’t of State, Senior State Department Officials on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017).

[5]  Hudson, Trump’s Thinking About Pulling US Personnel from Cuba. US Diplomats that That’s A Bad Idea, BuzzFeedNEWS (Sept. 28, 2017); Leahy, Leahy REAX On The U.S. Withdrawal of Most U.S. Embassy Personnel And Their Families From CUBA (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. Rep. McGovern Statement on U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Travel Warning to Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Democrat derides Cuba decision as overreaction, Wash. Post (Sept. 29, 2017); Harpaz & Gomez, Travel industry sticking with trips to Cuba from US, Wash. Post (Sept.29, 2017); Rubio: State Department’s Response to Cuba Attacks ‘Weak, Unacceptable and Outrageous,’ (Sept. 29, 2017); White House, Remarks by President Trump in Press Gaggle Before Marine One Departure (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Trump Says Cuba ‘Did Some Bad Things’ Aimed at U.S. Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff from Cuba, N.Y.  Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Statement to the press by General Director for US Affairs, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro (Sept. 29, 2017); Londońo, Cubans Alarmed at U.S. Embassy Withdrawals and Travel Warning, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Cubans Are Heartbroken, Angry Can’t Seek U.S. Visas in Havana, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff From Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[6] Reuters, Tillerson to Meet Cuba’s Foreign Minister in Washington as Tensions Climb, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Cuba Says No Clues Yet to Who Attacked Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Warns U.S. Against Hasty Decisions in Mysterious Diplomats Case, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cuba Foreign Minister meets with US Secretary of State (Sept. 26, 2017).

[7] Id. The Under Secretary’s direct testimony concerned the redesign of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). (Dep’t of State, John J. Sullivan: Testimony Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sept. 26, 2017.

[8] Editorial, Cuba’s Sonic Attacks, W.S.J. (Sept. 25, 2017); FHRC, The responsibility for What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept 2017).

[9] Vela, Total number of Americans hurt in Cuba sonic attacks now at 25, Miami Television Channel 10 News (Sept. 25, 2017); Operand & Labatt, US diplomats, families in Cuba targeted nearly 50 times by sonic attacks, says US official, CNN (Sept. 24, 2017); There are children among Canadians affected by the so-called ‘acoustic attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 28, 2017).

 

 

 

U.S. Evaluating Whether To Close Embassy in Cuba 

On the September 17 “Face the Nation” television show on CBS, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked by John Dickerson, “Some senators suggested closing down the embassy there [in Cuba]. Should that happen?” Tillerson’s answer: “We have it under evaluation. It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered. We’ve brought some of those people home. It’s under review.”[1] (Emphasis added.)

Nearly simultaneous reports indicate that U.S. investigators are pursuing various theories about what caused medical problems in some U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba, including sonic attack, electromagnetic weapon or flawed spying device. Each theory seems to fit some, but not all, of what has happened. The perpetrator is also a mystery. “Suspicion has centered on Cuba’s government, a rogue faction of its security services or an outsider like Russia.”[2]

Conclusion

 With the five Republican senators on Friday, September 15, suggesting closure as the last potential action for the U.S. to take against Cuba, as discussed in a prior post, the question put to Secretary Tillerson on Sunday about closure was hardly surprising, but as it was the last question posed in the interview, there was no time for any follow-up questions.

Here are some of the unasked questions: Is the U.S. considering a temporary closure while the medical incidents are under investigation? If so, what are the details about such a possible temporary cloture? Or a permanent closure? What are the details about such a permanent closure? By the way, what is the status of the U.S. investigation? The Cuban investigation? Are there now more than the 21 U.S. individuals involved? Are they all Foreign Service officers? Are any members of their families? Where did the incidents occur? At the Embassy? At hotels? Which hotels? At their residences? Where are the residences located?

In any event, it should not be surprising that the State Department has closure “under evaluation” or “under review.” That would only be prudent under the circumstances. Assuming the reports about continuing, inconclusive investigations about the cause of the incidents are true along with Cuban cooperation in the investigations, however, permanent closure would not be prudent.

Once again, anyone interested in seeing the U.S. and Cuba continue their efforts at normalizing relations, as does this blogger, needs to closely follow developments in this mysterious story.

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[1] CBS Face the Nation, Transcript, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on “Face the Nation,” Sept/ 17, 2017; Reuters, Tillerson Says U.S. Weighing Closing Embassy in Cuba Over Sonic Attacks, N.Y. Times (Sept. 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Top US Diplomat Says Closing Embassy in Cuba ‘Under Review,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 17, 2017).

[2]  Assoc. Press, Cuba Mystery: What Theories US Investigators Are Pursuing, N.Y.Times (Sept. 16, 2017).

GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats      

On September 15 five Republican Senators asked U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take certain actions against Cuba as a result of the medical problems being experienced by some of the U.S. diplomats who have been stationed in Cuba.[1]  The requested actions are the following:

  1. “Remind the Cuban government of its obligation to protect American diplomats [under Article 29 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].”
  2. “Demand that [the Cuban government] take verifiable action to remove these threats to our personnel and their families.”
  3. “Declare all accredited Cuban diplomats in the [U.S.] persona non grata [and thereby prompt Cuba to have them leave the U.S. under Article 9 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].’”
  4. “If Cuba does not take tangible action, close the U.S. Embassy in Havana.”

The five senators are the leader of this effort, Marco Rubio (FL), plus John Cornyn (TX), Richard Burr (NC), James Lankford  (OK) and Tom Cotton (AR), all members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is chaired by Senator Burr.[2]

Separately there were new reports about other details of the problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba.  U.S. diplomats on temporary duty in Havana stay in four hotels near the U.S. embassy, and all four have been sites of “medical attacks.” In addition to Hotel Capri, which was identified in a prior post, they are Hotel Nacional, Hotel Melia Cohiba, and Hotel Melia Habana. (The two “Melia” hotels are owned by a Cuban government agency, Cubanacan.) Rachel Maddow on her September 15th MSNBC show said that NBC News had learned that President Castro had offered to conduct a joint U.S.-Cuba investigation of this matter and that the U.S. had not responded to this offer.[3]

Meanwhile the U.S. and Cuba on September 15 held a meeting in Washington to discuss bilateral cooperation in law enforcement. According to the U.S. State Department, the discussions covered “national security matters, including fugitives and the return of Cuban nationals with final orders of removal” as well as “the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.” The Cuban statement more generally said the discussions were about such issues as  terrorism, illicit trafficking in drugs and persons, and cybercrime. This meeting was the third such meeting; the first two were held during the Obama Administration.[4]

Conclusion

As is well known, Senator Rubio, a Cuban-American citizen, consistently has opposed U.S. efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, and thus it is not surprising to see him apparently initiate the above statement with the support of four of his Republican colleagues.

The good news is that the other 95 senators were not part of this statement, that Cuba by all reports continues to cooperate on investigating the circumstances surrounding these health issues and that the Trump Administration is not jumping to preordained conclusions about these issues.

This statement by Senator Rubio and four others was not justified and should be resisted by all U.S. citizens and their representatives in Washington. Instead allow the U.S. State Department and other agencies with Cuban assistance to continue their investigation in a professional and objective manner.

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[1] Dorsey, Five GOP senators ask Tillerson to close Cuba embassy after attacks on diplomats, CBS News (Sept, 15, 2017).

[2]  Rubio Press Release, Rubio, Colleagues Ask Tillerson to Expel Cubans, Close Embassy after Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Cotton Press Release, Senators Ask Secretary of State to Expel Cubans and Close Embassy Over Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers Want Retaliation for Sonic Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: GOP senators want US pushback on Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 15, 2017).

[3] Rachel Maddow, Mysterious attack on US diplomats in Cuba confounds (Sept. 15, 2017).

[4] State Dep’t, [U.S.] and Cuba Hold Third Law Enforcement Dialogue in Washington, DC (Sept. 15, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and [U.S.] Authorities . . . Held Third Round of the Dialogue on Application and Compliance with the Law in Washington (Sept. 15, 2017);   The earlier law enforcement dialogues were discussed in these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Hold Law-Enforcement Dialogue (Nov. 9, 2015)(comment to Developments in U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Nov. 8, 2015); United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue (May 19, 2016).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

No Mention of Cuba in U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Terrorism

On July 19, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. One of its chapters lists these three countries as “state sponsors of terrorism:” Iran, Sudan and Syria. Other chapters discuss the terrorism records of most countries in the world.[1]

This Reports document, however, made no mention of Cuba or statement as to the reasons for this omission.[2] This was in sharp contrast to previous reports for the years 1981-2013, that listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” (i.e., the government of a country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”) and the removal of Cuba from that category for 2014 and 2015.

At the press briefing on the latest Reports, a journalist asked whether Secretary of State Tillerson himself had made the decision not to put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors since at his Senate confirmation hearing he had testified that he “wanted to examine the criteria under which Cuba was removed from the list” in 2015 for the year 2014.[3]

The State Department official responded: “Cuba was removed, and there is no requirement within the report for an individual chapter on every single country around the world. We produce chapters in the Country Reports based upon material, frankly, to include in the report. So it was assessed that there was not sufficient information there to provide a report this year on Cuba, but it was removed from the state sponsor list previously.”

Conclusion

The non-inclusion of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in this latest report, in this blogger’s opinion, is the proper conclusion and perhaps is a sign that the Trump Administration’s rhetoric about Cuba is louder and stronger than its bite. Let us hope.

Moreover, the statement that the State Department did not have sufficient information about Cuban counterterrorism efforts to include Cuba in the latest report is disingenuous. From December 2014 through January 19, 2017 (the last full day of the Obama Administration), the U.S. and Cuba held discussions about their respective counterterrorism efforts, and on January 16, 2017 the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Law Enforcement that provided for cooperation on various matters, including “the fight against terrorism.” These discussions, although not a matter of public information, must have provided the U.S. with significant information about Cuba’s counterterrorism efforts.[4]]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 (July 19, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Release: State Department Releases Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 (July 19, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing: Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell on the Release of Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 (July 19, 2017).

[2] Welsh, State Department drops Cuba entirely from annual detail of terrorist activity, McClatchy (July 19, 2017).

[3] Previous State Department reports about Cuba and terrorism have been discussed in posts to this blog. See posts listed in the “Cuba: State Sponsor of Terrorism?” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries: United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue (May 19, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Discuss Counterterrorism Cooperation (June 10, 2016); President Obama Issues Presidential Policy Directive—United States-Cuba Normalization (Oct. 14, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Continue to Implement Normalization of Relations (Jan. 17, 2017).