U.S. House Hearing on U.S. Policy Towards Cuba  

On September 6, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee held a hearing on U.S. policy on Cuba.[1]

The subcommittee heard from the  following five witnesses, the first four of whom were from the  State Department and the last (Mr. Mazanec) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: (1) Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; (2) Peter Bodde, Coordinator, Health Incidents Response Task Force; (3) Charles Rosenfarb, M.D., Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services; (4) Todd Brown, Assistant Director for Countermeasures, Bureau of Diplomatic Security; and (5) Brian M. Mazanec, Ph. D.

Since the audio recording of the hearing is virtually impossible to hear, the following are the highlights of the prepared and printed statements of two of the witnesses and the brief comments from the Washington Post article.

Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Merten

Human Rights. The Department continues to monitor “human rights developments in Cuba and actively engages with members of Cuban civil society. . . . The Department and USAID also continue to administer U.S. government funded programs to promote democracy and support the critical work of human rights defenders on the island. . . . we regularly speak out against the regime for repression and abuse and raise these concerns directly with the Cuban government.

Cuban Economy. The State Department’s “Cuba Restricted List . . . identifies entities and subentities with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise. . . . [It seeks to ] redirect economic activity that once supported the Cuban military toward the Cuban private sector and Cuban people.”

The Department’s Cuba Internet Task force. It is charged to “develop recommendations on 1) the role of media and unregulated flow of information to Cuba and 2) expanding internet access in Cuba” and is scheduled to complete its work by June 2019.

Promoting Stability and Prosperity. The Department has “1) reviewed democracy programs in Cuba to ensure they align with the criteria set forth in the LIBERTAD Act; 2) provided a report to the President detailing the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses against the Cuban people and its lack of progress towards a “transition government” as described in the LIBERTAD Act; 3) provided a report to the President on bilateral engagement with Cuba to ensure it advances U.S. interests; 4) took a stand at the UN against Cuban anti-embargo propaganda; and 5) continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security to discourage dangerous, unlawful migration that puts Cuban and American lives at risk.”

“Health Attacks” on U.S. Personnel.  Merten reminded the subcommittee that “the Department first became aware of these health complaints and an increase in Cuban harassment in late December 2016, [bit] it was not until months later, after highly specialized medical testing was performed and analyzed by experts, that we began to understand the spectrum of severity and confirm the extent of the health effects. That confirmation indicated that these incidents went beyond routine harassment previously experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana.”

He then stressed that  the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” (Emphasis added.)

He also emphasized that the U.S. Government was committed to long-term support for the affected personnel.

He mentioned that Secretary of State Pompeo has established an Accountability Review Board that had submitted its report on June 7 and that the Secretary has accepted all of its recommendations.

 Dr. Rosenfarb

“We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause,” testified Dr. Rosenfarb.

 Dr. Mazane

His prepared statement summarized the GAO’s July 30, 2018 report (released on September 6) that reviewed the State Department’s management of these health incidents and made recommendations for improvements in same.

Conclusion

 This blog previously has criticized the U.S. so-called democracy promotion activities in Cuba and the U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force because they are unilateral attempts to impose U.S. values on Cuba. Instead, this blog has advocated for the U.S. attempting to develop such programs with the cooperation of the Cuban government. This blog also has also called for the U.S. to ends its embargo of Cuba.[2]

A future post will discuss the latest developments regarding U.S. diplomats who have had medical problems arising from their being stationed in Havana.

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[1] U.S. House Rep., Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Hemisphere Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).

[2] See the following sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA: U.S. Embargo of Cuba, Cuban Human Rights, Cuban Economy, U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba and U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force.

 

 

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake and Former Google Executive Meet with Cuban President Diaz-Canel

On June 4, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) and Eric Schmidt, former Google Chief Executive and now a member of the board of directors of its parent company, Alphabet Inc., met in Havana with Cuba’s President, Miguel Diaz-Canel. Others in attendance were Cuba Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez; the Foreign Ministry’s Director General of the United States, Carlos Fernández de Cossío Domínguez; Philip Goldberg, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Cuba; and  Cuba Communications Ministry officials.[1] Below is a photograph of Flake and Diaz-Canel.

Google and Cuba have been discussing how the company can help connect Cuba to undersea fiber-optic cables that run relatively near to the island, which would allow Cubans faster access to data stored around the world.

Afterwards at a press conference, Flake said, “We had a good meeting with President Diaz-Canel. … We are hopeful for the future if we can have more connectivity, more travel, more meetings with Cubans and vice versa. We were talking specifically about connectivity, but also about the challenges that have come up. Obviously we have had some setbacks.”

Presumably they also discussed the unfortunately unilateral U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force at the State Department that presumably is seeking to improve Cuba’s internet access. On February 9, 2018, this blogger advised  the Task Force that it “is based upon false & illegal premise that U.S. unilaterally may & should decide what Internet services Cuba should have & then take unilateral steps to provide those services & equipment. Instead U.S. should politely ask Cuba whether there was any way the U.S. could assist in improving their Internet service.”[2]

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[1]  Reuters, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, Former Google CEO Meet With New Cuban President, N.Y. Times (June 4, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba’s new president meets with US senator, Google exec, Wash Post (June 4, 2018); Diaz-Canel received US Senator Jeff Flake and President of Google, Granma (June 4, 2008); Cuban President held a meeting with personalities from the United States, Cubadebate (June 4, 2018).

[2] See State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 25, 2018); Cuba Protests U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 1, 2018); Objections to the U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 9, 2018).

 

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom   

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on the subject for 28 countries in the world. Of these the Commission concluded that Cuba and 11 other countries had engaged in or tolerated religious freedom violations during 2017 that were serious and “systematic,  or ongoing, or egregious.”[1]

Commission’s Key Findings About Cuba[2]

According to this report, “religious freedom conditions in Cuba remained poor” with the following Key Findings:

  • “The Cuban government engaged in harassment campaigns that included detentions and repeated interrogations targeting religious leaders and activists who advocate for religious freedom.”
  • “Officials threatened to confiscate numerous churches and interrogated religious leaders countrywide about the legal status of their religious properties.”
  • “The government continues to interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs and actively limits, controls, and monitors their religious practice, access to information, and communications through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment.”
  • “While the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, this protection is limited by other constitutional and legal provisions. At the end of the reporting period, 55 religious communities were registered; only registered religious communities are legally permitted to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad for religious purposes.”
  • “The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) answers only to the Party and so it has broad, largely unchecked power to control religious activity, including approving some religious ceremonies other than worship services, repair or construction of houses of worship, and importation of religious materials.”
  • “Authorities prevent human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities, sometimes using force. Almost every Sunday in 2017, the government prevented members of Ladies in White from attending Mass.”
  • “In a positive development, officials verbally promised the Assemblies of God that the government would not confiscate 1,400 of their churches as it threatened to do in 2015 and 2016.”

Commission’s Recommendations About Cuba to U.S. Government[3]

The Commission also made the following recommendations about Cuba to the U.S. Government:

  1. “Publicly denounce violations of religious freedom and related human rights in Cuba.”
  2. “Press the Cuban government to:
  • “Stop harassment of religious leaders;
  • End the practice of violently preventing democracy and human rights activists from attending religious services;
  • End destruction of, threats to destroy, and threats to expropriate houses of worship;
  • Lift restrictions on religious communities buying property, building or repairing houses of worship, holding religious processions, importing religious materials, and admitting religious leaders;
  • Allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally, and repeal government policies that restrict religious services in homes or other personal property;
  • Allow registered and unregistered religious groups to conduct religious education;
  • Cease interference with religious activities and religious communities’ internal affairs; and
  • Hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of religious practitioners, including the religious freedom of political prisoners.”
  1. “Increase opportunities for Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to, exchange aid and materials with, and interact with coreligionists in the United States.”
  2. “Apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Executive Order 13818, or other relevant targeted tools, to deny U.S. visas to and block the U.S. assets of specific officials and agencies identified as responsible for violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including considering responsible officials from the ORA for such measures.”
  3. “Use appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and widespread access to mass media, and protect Cuban activists by supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies and programs to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Cuba, as informed by the findings and recommendations of the Cuba Internet Task Force created pursuant to the National Security Presidential Memorandum, ‘Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.’”
  4. “Encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocs, to ensure violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

Conclusion

On May 29, the State Department will release its annual report on religious freedom in every other. country in the world.[4] Thereafter we will examine its comments on Cuba and then analyze and evaluate the two reports’ discussion of Cuba.

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[1] U.S. Comm’n Intl Religious Freedom, USCIRF Releases 2018 Annual Report, Recommends 16 Countries be Designated “Countries of Particular Concern,” (April 25, 2018). The other 11 countries in this category (Tier 2) were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain,  Egypt India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The Commission also recommended that the State Department designate the following 16 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (countries whose government engage in or tolerates particularly severe (or systematic, ongoing, and egregious) religious freedom violations: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Commission is an unusual quasi-governmental body. See U.S. Commission on International Freedom: Structure and Composition, dwkcommentaries.com (May 29, 2013).

[2]  2018 Annual Report at 148-53.

[3]  Id.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018).

 

Objections to the U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force

The original post about the U.S. establishment of the Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) set forth the objections from Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, and two Cuban journalists (Sergio Gomez and Randy Alfonso Falcón) and another post focused on the Cuban Government’s objections to the CITF.

Now other objections have been registered by Cuban and other sources

Cuban Objections

Cuban objections came from representatives of its independent media and more from journalists Sergio Gomez and Randy Alonso Falcon.

Cuban Independent Media [1]

The day before the CITF’s inaugural meeting, Reuters reported from Havana that there are now “a handful of web-based news outlets in recent years in Cuba in the wake of the expansion of internet and broader social and economic freedoms. . . .These new outlets have been tolerated as long as they are not ‘counter-revolutionary’” and “have been chipping away at a half-century state monopoly, offering independent reporting and winning prestigious journalism prizes.”

Several representatives of these independent media, according to Reuters, have expressed opposition to the CITF.

Elaine Díaz, 32, in 2015 founded Periodismo de Barrio which focuses on the environment. She said, “We are not just talking about something that heightens tension in the country’s political situation but . . . [the CITF] could also damage the credibility of the independent media.” She added that “her outlet would refuse any money that the Trump program might award because in Cuba, people who receive aid from the U.S. government are branded mercenaries. These media are called independent, and that means independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government.”

José Jasán Nieves, 30, director of El Toque, an online platform that focuses on entrepreneurship and citizenship, offered this comment. The CITF was “damaging us by giving arguments to [Cubans opposed to the independent media] … who are trying to link us to the enemy to minimize our presence in Cuban society.” Trump’s new policies were damaging the normalization of relations initiated by the Obama Administration.

Miguel Alejandro Hayes, 22, who writes for the outlet La Joven Cuba (The Young Cuba), said, “Trump’s policy is aimed at destruction: toppling the Cuban government. We don’t agree with that,” as elaborated in its open letter complaining to the State Department.

Sergio Gomez [2]

Gomez provides two additional comments.

In the first he says, “Although the State Department tries to camouflage its . . . [CITF] as a philanthropic project to improve access to the network of networks in . . .  [Cuba], the list of participants in the first [CITF] meeting . . . betrays its true intentions.”

One participant, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, “is the umbrella of Radio and TV Martí, two relics of the Cold War designed to issue enemy propaganda and carry out psychological operations against Cuba. Millions of dollars of American taxpayers have been wasted in the failed projects of this organization, [which has been] subjected to several audits for corruption scandals and embezzlement.”

Another participant, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), ”is the public arm of the CIA and financier of subversive projects against Cuba such as ZunZuneo and Commotion, whose disclosure by the press was a shame for the US authorities due to its ineffectiveness and violation of international laws.”

“If we take into account the history of those who make up . . .  [CITF], nothing good can be expected.”

The second offering from Gomez with Iramsy Peraza Forte as co-author states that “the U.S. has been using communications technologies to attack Cuba ever since the age of shortwave radios and the emergence of television.” Indeed, “From psychological warfare propagated by the mass media to unconventional warfare, which has been adapted to the internet age, Cuba has been a test site for U.S. schemes designed to overthrow governments which do not respond to its interests.”

They then provide a list starting from March 17, 1960, of 14 U.S. schemes  to do just that in Cuba before the CITF. Here are the ones specifically involving the Internet:

  • In 2004, the “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba . . .is created . . . to identify additional ways to hasten an overthrow of the ‘Cuban regime.’” It proposes  to ‘encourage willing third-country governments to create public access Internet facilities in their missions in Cuba” and to expand “‘the distribution of information and facilitate pro-democracy activities,” and “‘greater access to these types of equipment’ in order to do so.”
  • In 2006 the “Cuba Fund for a Democratic Future was created, providing 24 million USD worth of funding for anti-Cuban propaganda, including online initiatives.”
  • In February 2006 the State Department  “creates the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, specifically aimed at ‘maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas’ in China, Iran and Cuba.”
  • In December 2009 “U.S. citizen Alan Phillip Gross [is] arrested [in Cuba] for bringing illegal communication devices into Cuba as part of a USAID program. In March 2011 Gross was [convicted and sentenced by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law] to 15 years imprisonment.” On December 17, 2014, Gross was released from prison and returned to the U.S. “following the announcement of a process of rapprochement between the two countries.”
  • In March 2011 Cuban officials discovered and stopped the U.S. “Operation Surf,” which “consisted of smuggling equipment and software into the country to install illegal antennas to access the internet.”
  • In April 2014 USAID financed the launch of ZunZuneo, which “was designed as a messaging network similar to Twitter through which thousands of Cubans [eventually] would receive “political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize mass demonstrations akin to ‘smart mobs’ to destabilize the country.”
  • Also in April 2014 the U.S. “Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) which oversees Radio and TV Martí, launched a service similar to ZunZuneo.”
  • In September 2016 OCB “organized the ‘ . . . [for] independent” journalists from the island and digital innovators and activists who support the use of new technologies to bring about a regime change in Cuba.”

Randy Alonso Falcon [3]

In CubaDebate, Randy Alonso Falcon attacked the CITF premise that Cuba has subnormal access to the internet and information. He asserts, “there are more than 4 million Cubans who access the internet services through various means, among them tens of thousands of students, professors, health workers, journalists, scientists and other workers who receive free connectivity by virtue of their professional needs.”

Moreover, according to Falcon, “Cuba was the fastest growing country in social networks last year, according to the  Digital in 2017 Global Overview report . [It] highlights the growth of new users in the networks-with more than 2.7 million new users and 365% increase over the previous year-and the use of mobile phones to access social networks had 2.6 million new users and an increase of 385%.” Falcon also provides graphics to emphasize the rapid growth in Cuban access to the internet.

“Much remains to us to advance in the utilization of the new technologies, and especially in his better [means] to attain productivity and economic efficiency; but it will not be with Trump’s interventionist and subversive plans that we will achieve it. Political disposition, created talent, unity of action, culture and knowledge, will be our best weapons in that sovereign walk along the roads of the Internet. Without fear, with amplitude, with better contents and greater connectivity, but without naiveties.”

Other Objections [4]

Alan Gross, the previously mentioned U.S. citizen who was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for illegally bringing communications equipment to the island, has objected to the CITF.  “My first response was ‘Are you kidding me?’ We are supposed to learn from our mistakes. I learned the hard way that it’s illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that’s funded in full or part by the U.S. government. Until the government of Cuba wants the kind of assistance United States is capable of providing, the United States shouldn’t be doing stuff there.” 

Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch College in New York, author of Freedom House’s annual report on Cuba, said, “”The solution proposed by the Trump administration is perhaps even worse than the disease. It will likely empower not the independent media or citizens but only the Cuban government to more easily justify the unjustifiable – more control and repression of independent media and unmediated access to information.”

Conclusion

The CITF is based upon the false and illegal premise that the U.S. unilaterally may and should decide what Internet services Cuba or any other country should have and then take unilateral steps to provide those services and equipment. Instead the U.S. should politely ask Cuba or any other country whether there was any way the U.S. could assist in improving their Internet service.

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[1] Reuters, Cuban Independent Media Say No Thanks to Trump Free Press Initiative, N.Y. Times (Feb. 6, 2018).

[2] Gomez, Operational Force on the Internet Against Cuba: the same as always with the same objectives, Granma (Feb. 7, 2018); Peraza Forte & Gomez, Internet wars: U.S. plans to  overthrow the Cuban Revolution with new technologies, Granma (Feb. 8, 2018). Many of the previous U.S. covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba have been discussed in posts listed in the “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA

[3] Falcon, US Special Group for the Internet meets to draw the digital guidelines of subversion (+Inforgraphics and Video), CubaDebate (Feb. 7, 2018).

[4] Reuters, Ex-Cuba Prisoner Gross Criticizes U.S. Plan to Foster Internet on Island, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2018); Reuters, Trump Task Force on Expanding Cuba Internet Meets for First Time, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2018). 

U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force Holds Inaugural Meeting  

On February 7, the U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) held its inaugural meeting in Washington, D.C., published its Charter and launched its website. As discussed in a prior post, this group burst onto the scene on January 23 with a State Department announcement of its creation “to promote the free and unregulated flow of information in Cuba” and expand “internet access and independent media in Cuba.”

Now we examine the CITF’s membership, inaugural meeting, Charter and website.

CITF Membership[1]

The CITF is chaired by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs John S. Creamer, a foreign service officer with a distinguished career of service in Latin America. Other members are officials of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which operates TV and Radio Marti; the Federal Communications Commission; the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration; the U.S. Agency for International Development; Freedom House; and the Information Technology Industry Council.

CITF Inaugural Meeting[2]

Chair Creamer said estimates show internet penetration in Cuba is between 5 percent and 40 percent, with the higher figure including those who only can access government-run internet. He said the $1 per hour cost for wi-fi is onerous considering the average salary of roughly $30 per month. For internet access at home, Cubans must pay $17 to $80 per month, depending on speed, for only 30 hours of connectivity, Creamer said. He also claimed that  Cuba’s government uses “filters and blocks websites in a bid to impede the Cuban people’s ability to criticize government institutions and policies.”

Tom Sullivan, chief of the FCC’s International Bureau, said there are no direct, undersea cables between the U.S. and Cuba, though he said there appear to be some U.S. satellites providing service in the island.

Apparently at the meeting, Andre Mendes, acting director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Cuba Broadcasting, declared, “Mr. Castro, tear down this firewall.”

The CITF decided to form two subcommittees: one to explore the role of media and freedom of information in Cuba, and the other to explore Internet access in Cuba. The subcommittees will provide the task force a preliminary report of recommendations within six months (by the end of August) based on input from relevant experts and stakeholders. The task force agreed to reconvene in October to review the preliminary reports, after which it will prepare a final report with recommendations for the Secretary of State and the President.

At the end of the meeting, the public was invited to make comments. Several Cuban dissidents lambasted Cuba’s government, drawing comparisons to World War II and to the governments of Syria and Iran. Others centered on a critique of the decades-old U.S. economic embargo and Trump’s policy toward Cuba. Some argued that any U.S. efforts would backfire, by undermining the perceived independence and credibility of burgeoning independent media in Cuba.

CITF Website[3]

In addition to repeating the information about the CITF’s  inaugural meeting and membership, the website has links to its Charter and Membership Balance Plan.

More importantly, it provides a form for submission of public comments. 

CITF Charter and Membership Balance Plan[4]

The Charter provides that the “Task Force will examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba, including through federal government support of programs and activities that encourage freedom of expression through independent media and internet freedom so that the Cuban people can enjoy the free and unregulated flow of information.”

According to the Membership Balance Plan, the CITF shall have no more than 12 members, of whom 10 shall be from relevant U.S. federal government departments and agencies. The other two shall be (a) a representative from an internet-related non-governmental organization and (b) a representative from an internet-related private-sector entity.

Conclusion

A subsequent post will examine reactions to the CITF and its inaugural meeting.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Inaugural Meeting of the Cuba Internet Task Force (Feb. 7, 2018).

[2] Assoc. Press, ‘Tear Down This Firewall’—US Looks to Expand Cuba Internet, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2018). 

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Website: Cuba Internet Task Force.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Charter of the Cuba Internet Task Force (Dec. 4, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan, Cuba Internet Task Force (Nov. 1, 2017).