New Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Certain Cuban Entities                                     

On November 8, the U.S. Treasury, Commerce and State departments released regulations imposing new restrictions on U.S. citizens travel to Cuba. Taking effect on November 9, they “are aimed at preventing U.S. trade and travelers from benefiting its military, intelligences and security arms of the Communist-ruled country.” In addition, they require U.S. travelers on “person-to-person” trips “to use a U.S.-based organization and be accompanied by a U.S. representative of the group.”[1]

This blog post will first provide a list of the Treasury Department’s 12 categories of general licenses for approved travel to Cuba, only two of which are directly affected by the new regulations. These two categories will be discussed followed by the new regulations ban on transactions with certain Cuban entities that affects all 12 categories.

Categories of Approved Travel[2]

“Travel-related transactions are permitted by [OFAC’s] general license for certain travel related to the following activities, subject to the criteria and conditions in each general license: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain authorized export transactions.”

Only the two categories in bold are affected by the new regulations—travel for “educational” reasons (organized and people-to-people) and “support for the Cuban people.”

Formal Educational Travel[3]

OFAC states, “Among other things, this general license authorizes, subject to conditions, faculty, staff, and students at U.S. academic institutions . . . to engage in certain educational activities, including study abroad programs, in Cuba, Cuban scholars to engage in certain educational activities in the United States, and certain activities to facilitate licensed educational programs. U.S. and Cuban universities may engage in academic exchanges and joint non- commercial academic research under the general license. This provision also authorizes persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to provide standardized testing services and certain internet-based courses to Cuban nationals.

In addition, “educational exchanges, including study abroad programs, sponsored by Cuban or U.S. secondary schools involving secondary school students’ participation in a formal course of study or in a structured educational program offered by a secondary school or other academic institution, and led by a teacher or other secondary school official are authorized. Such exchanges must take place under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who is an employee, paid consultant, agent, or other representative of the sponsoring organization (including the leading teacher or secondary school official) must accompany each group traveling to Cuba. For a complete description of what this general license authorizes and the restrictions that apply, see 31 CFR § 515.565(a)(2)(vi). This authorization allows for participation of a reasonable number of adult chaperones to accompany the secondary school students to Cuba.”

“People-to-People” Educational Travel[4]

“OFAC is amending the general license for people-to-people educational activities in Cuba to remove the authorization for individual people-to-people educational travel. This general license now authorizes, subject to conditions, persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to engage in certain educational exchanges in Cuba under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction and sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact. Travelers utilizing this general license must ensure they maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

“The predominant portion of the activities must not be with a prohibited official of the Government of Cuba, as defined in 31 CFR § 515.337, or a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party, as defined in 31 CFR § 515.338.”

“A person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who is an employee, paid consultant, agent, or other representative of the sponsoring organization must accompany each people-to-people educational group traveling to Cuba to ensure that each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities. Individuals traveling under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction and that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact may rely on the entity sponsoring the travel to satisfy his or her recordkeeping obligations with respect to the requirements described above. OFAC is amending this general license to exclude from the authorization direct financial transactions with entities and subentities identified on the State Department’s Cuba Restricted List.”

Support for the Cuban People” Travel[5]

“This general license authorizes, subject to conditions, travel-related transactions and other transactions that are intended to provide support for the Cuban people, which include activities of recognized human rights organizations; independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; and individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba. OFAC is amending this general license to require that each traveler utilizing this authorization engage in a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba. OFAC is also amending this general license to exclude from the authorization certain direct financial transactions with entities and subentities identified on the State Department’s Cuba Restricted List. The traveler’s schedule of activities must not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule in Cuba. For a complete description of what this general license authorizes and the restrictions that apply, see 31 CFR § 515.574.”

“ Renting a room in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas) are examples of authorized activities; however, in order to meet the requirement of a full-time schedule, a traveler must engage in additional authorized Support for the Cuban People activities.”

Ban on Transactions with Certain Cuban Entities[6]

The new regulations also ban U.S. travelers and businesses from transactions with “the large military-run corporations that dominate the Cuban economy. These include GAESA and CIMEX, the holding companies that control most retail business on the island; Gaviota, the largest tourism company; and Habaguanex, the firm that runs Old Havana.” The regulations include a list of forbidden hotels, including Havana’s “Manzana Kempinski, which opened with great fanfare this year as Cuba’s first hotel to meet the international five-star standard.”

This “Cuba Restricted List,” which will be maintained and updated by the State Department, has the following categories of organizations (and the number of entities in each category): Cuban Ministries (2) ; Cuban Holding Companies (including CIMEX,GAESA, Gavotte and Companies Touristic Habituate S.A.) (5) ; Hotels in Havana and Old Havana (27); Hotels in Santiago de Cuba (1); Hotels in Varadero (13); Hotels in Pinar del Rio (2); Hotels in Baracoa (7); Hotels in Cayos de Villa Clara (15); Hotels in Holguín (11); Hotels in Jardine’s del Rey (5); Hotels in Topes de Collates (3); Tourist Agencies (2); Marinas (5); Stores in Old Havana (10);  Entities Directly Serving the Defense and Security Sectors (38); Additional Subentries of CIMEX (16); Additional Subentities of GAESA (13); Additional Subentries of GAVIOTA (4); and Additional Subentries of HABAGUANEX (1).

Conclusion

All of these new regulations are meant to implement President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba, which he signed on June 16, 2017, at an event in Miami Florida.[7]

=======================================

[1] U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Treasury, Commerce, and State Implement Changes to the Cuba Sanctions Rules (Nov. 8, 2017); U.S. Treasury Dep’t (Office of Foreign Assets Control), Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba (updated Nov. 8, 2017); Reuters, Trump Administration Tightens Sanctions Against Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 8, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Takes Steps to Make It Harder for Americans to Visit Cuba, N.Y. times (Nov. 8, 2017); DeYoung, White House implements new Cuba policy restricting travel and trade, Wash. Post (Nov. 8, 2017).

[2] U.S. Treasury Dep’t (Office of Foreign Assets Control), Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba (updated Nov. 8, 2017).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated With Cuba as of November 9, 2017 (Nov. 8, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions on the Cuba Restricted List (Nov. 8, 2017).

[7]  White House, Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017). This Memorandum and the Miami event were discussed in a prior post.

 

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.

=================================

[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).

Intended Nomination of Cuban-American To Be an Assistant Secretary of State

On October 10 President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Yleem D. S. Poblete of Virginia and a Cuban-American to be an Assistant Secretary of State, Verification and Compliance.[1] The announcement stated the following:

  • “Poblete is currently a senior advisor at the Department of State. She has also served more than two decades on the staff of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives, including as its chief of staff and staff director – the first Hispanic female to serve in that post. Dr. Poblete is broadly knowledgeable regarding proliferation matters, the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear agreements, sanctions and export controls, security assistance and arms sales. During her service on the Foreign Affairs Committee, she was the principal staff member on initiatives to address threats posed by Iran, North Korea, and Syria. She has been a frequent guest lecturer at the National Intelligence University. She has also been the co-owner of Poblete Analysis Group, a fellow at The Catholic University of America, and a foreign policy analyst for United States Government projects at the Hudson Institute. Dr. Poblete earned a B.A. from Saint Thomas University, an M.A. magna cum laude from the University of Miami, and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.”

The announcement, however, failed to say that she was a member of the Trump transition’s National Security Council “landing team,” that as a House committee staffer she helped push for, and enforce, sanctions laws related to Cuba and Iran, and that for nearly 20 years she served as an advisor and House Foreign Affairs Committee staffer for Representative Iliana Ros-Lehtinen, also a Cuban-American and fierce opponent to U.S.-Cuba normalization.[2]

Moreover, as mentioned in a prior post, Dr. Yleen Poblete also co-leads a consulting group, The Poblete Analysis Group, with her husband and fellow Cuban-American, Jason Poblete. She and her husband have written articles critical of President Obama’s pursuit of normalization with Cuba. They argued that Cuba was a ‘state sponsor of terrorism,” a designation rescinded by the State Department in May 2015;that the re-opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. increased the risk of Cuban spying on the U.S.; and that Cuba was a “pariah state [that] has earned every punitive measure imposed by the U.S.;” it “helped create and grow the Western Hemisphere drugs for arms network;” its “[h]ostile acts carried out by Havana’s spy recruits in the U.S. government are linked to American deaths;” it “also continues to collaborate with fellow rogues such as Iran;” it “harbors terrorists, as well as murderers and other dangerous fugitives of U.S. justice.”

After the death of Fidel Castro last November she tweeted, “Lost in talk of #castrodeath is #cuba regime murder of Americans, safe haven 4 terrorists & US fugitives, #Iran ties, arms to #NorthKorea.”[3]

Conclusion

Given President Trump’s negative comments and actions against U.S.-Cuba normalization and his inclusion of Dr. Yleem Poblete on the transition team and as a senior advisor at the State Department, the intent to nominate her to a higher position at the Department should not be surprising.

As Assistant Secretary. Dr. Poblete will be in charge of the Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, whose “core missions . . . concern arms control, verification, and compliance with international arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements or commitments.” Thus, it would not appear that this involves Cuba.[4]

Nevertheless, those of us Americans who support full normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, this intended appointment is one to keep our eyes on.

============================

[1] White House, President Donald J. Trump Announces Intent to Nominate Personnel to Key Administration Posts (Oct. 10, 2017); Trump nominates Cuban-American Yleem Poblete as Under-Secretary of State (Oct. 10, 2017).

[2] Kasperowicz, Former House Foreign Affairs chief of staff named to Trump’s NSC landing team, Wash. Examiner (Dec. 1, 2016); Press Release, Ros-Lehtinen Congratulates Her Former Foreign Affairs Committee Chief of Staff Dr. Yleen Poblete On Her Nomination for Assistant Secretary of State (Oct. 11, 2017)

[3]  Cuban-American Trump Transition Team to National Security Council, News Marti (Dec. 1, 2016); Dr. Yleem Poblete, The Poblete Analysis Group; Poblete & Poblete, Yes, Cuba is a State Sponsor of Terrorism, Nat’l Review (Jan. 6, 2015); Poblete & Poblete, The U.S.-Cuba Deal Heightens the Spy Threat, W.S.J. (Jan 12, 2015) 2015); Poblete & Poblete, U.S. Cuba policy: Myth v. reality, The Hill (Jan. 26, 2015); A [fourth] Cuban American . . . joins Trump’s transition team, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 6, 2016); Secretary—John Barsa, Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Virginia; Prieto, The Mark of the Zorro; Cuban Americans in Trump’s Team, OnCuba (Dec. 15, 2016).

 

 

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC). https://www.state.gov/t/avc/

Other Reactions to U.S. Ordering Removal of 15 Cuban Diplomats   

On October 3, the U.S. ordered the removal of 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. as discussed in a prior post while other posts looked at recent developments on these issues and on Cuba’s reaction to that U.S. decision and order. This post will discuss reactions from others.

Opposition to Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[1]

The harshest criticism of this decision along with others recently taken by the Trump Administration has been leveled by Harold Trinkunas, the deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Richard Feinberg, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.They say the following:

  • “This White House and its pro-embargo allies in Congress have opportunistically seized on these mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats to overturn the pro-normalization policies of a previous administration, using bureaucratic obstruction and reckless language when they cannot make the case for policy change on the merits alone.”
  • By taking these precipitous actions, Trinkunas and Feinberg argue, “this White House is doing exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke. Overt U.S. hostility [towards Cuba] empowers anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries. In addition, [the announced American travel restrictions and warning hurts] the privately-operated [and progressive] segments of the Cuban tourism sector, and . . . [thereby weakens] the emerging Cuban middle class.”
  • Furthermore, they say, “a breakdown in U.S.-Cuban relations allows Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin. By pushing Cuba away, the U.S. is pushing it towards other actors whose interests are not aligned with our own.
  • “Our partners in Latin America welcomed the change in U.S. policy towards Cuba in 2014 as a sign that the Cold War had finally ended in the Western Hemisphere. The [Trump] administration’s retreat from the opening towards Cuba alarms our friends in the Americas and calls into question the enduring value of U.S. commitments . . . . This pattern of reckless animus towards diplomacy comes at a cost to the international reputation of the U.S. with no apparent gain for our interests abroad.”
  • “U.S. hostility [also] risks damaging the coming transition to a new Cuban government after President Raul Castro steps down in early 2018 by strengthening the hand of anti-American hardliners who oppose further economic opening on the island.”
  • “It damages Cuban-Americans and their families by impeding travel and the flow of funding associated with their visits, and those of other American visitors, which have allowed the Cuban private sector to gain traction. It also damages U.S. relations with our partners in the region, who have long criticized what they see as senseless hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. And finally, the Trump administration’s approach serves to widen the door to U.S. geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia and Venezuela, to advance their interests in Cuba and in the region.”
  • “Many of our professional diplomats, both those stationed in Havana and those at the State Department, oppose the dramatic downsizing of the U.S. and Cuban missions. While all are concerned for the safety of U.S. personnel, the health incidents seem to be in sharp decline. The U.S. diplomats in Havana are proud of the gains in advancing U.S. interests in Cuba, and they wish to continue to protect and promote them.”

EngageCuba, the leading bipartisan coalition promoting U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, said, “”The diplomats and their families suffering from unexplained health issues deserve answers. If the U.S. government is serious about solving this mystery, they shouldn’t make it more difficult to cooperate with the Cuban government during this critical time of the investigation. This decision appears to be purely political, driven by the desire of a handful of individuals in Congress to halt progress between our two countries. Expelling Cuban diplomats will not solve this mystery; it will not improve the safety of U.S. personnel, but it will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island. We hope that the driving forces behind this decision are comfortable with their Cuban-American constituents being unable to visit their loved ones.”

This EngageCuba statement followed the one it issued about the reduction of staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It said, “”The safety and security of all diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and anywhere in the world, is the first priority of our country. Whoever is behind these serious and inexcusable attacks on American diplomats must be apprehended and brought to justice. We must be careful that our response does not play into the hands of the perpetrators of these attacks, who are clearly seeking to disrupt the process of normalizing relations between our two countries. This could set a dangerous precedent that could be used by our enemies around the world.

EngageCUBA continued, “It is puzzling that the Trump Administration would use this delicate time in the investigation to advise Americans against traveling to Cuba, given the fact that none of these attacks have been directed at American travelers. We are also concerned for the Cuban people, who will be impacted by this decision. Halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from traveling to Cuba will divide families and harm Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island.”

In conclusion, said EngageCUBA, “the U.S. and Cuba must redouble efforts to solve this mystery as quickly as possible in order to keep our embassy personnel safe and continue to move forward with strengthening relations between our two countries.”

A New York Times’ editorial similarly observed, “until there is concrete evidence about the source of the attacks, the Trump administration is wrong to expel Cuban diplomats from Washington. . . . Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s explanation that Cuba should be punished for failing to protect American diplomats presumes that Cuba was at least aware of the attacks, which the [U.S.] has neither demonstrated nor claimed. “Furthermore, “Until something more is known, punishing Havana serves only to further undermine the sensible opening to Cuba begun under Barack Obama. President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the détente — in June his government ordered restrictions on contacts with Cuba that have slowed the flow of visitors to the island, and last week the State Department warned Americans not to travel there, though there is no evidence that tourists are in danger. The sonic attacks on Americans are too serious to be used for cynical political ends.”

Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said: “The United States is using the confusion and uncertainty surrounding these events as justification to take a big step backwards in U.S.-Cuban relations. This doesn’t serve our national interests, or our diplomacy, and it most certainly doesn’t do anything to help advance human rights or a more open political climate in Cuba. This is an unfortunate decision that ought to be reversed.”

Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), the Chair of the Congressional Cuba Working Group, stated, “The Administration’s decision last week to withdraw all non-essential personnel from our embassy in Havana was concerning but understandable to ensure the safety of our foreign service staff on the island. Unfortunately, yesterday’s actions do not seem to advance our efforts of identifying a cause or culprit behind these ‘sonic attacks.’ Instead of sending us back down a path of isolation, we must foster open lines of communication as we continue the investigation to determine who must be held responsible for these attacks on Americans. We cannot lose sight of the fact that an improved and sustained relationship with Cuba brings us one step closer to ensuring the stability and security of the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, more guardedly said, “Although . . . [the] decision to expel Cuban diplomats brings parity between U.S. and Cuban embassy personnel levels, I am concerned that it may also stoke diplomatic tensions and complicate our ability to conduct a thorough investigation of these attacks. The U.S. should not take actions that could undermine our bilateral relations with Cuba and U.S. policies aimed at advancing our strategic national interests in the hemisphere.”

Although the most recent Cuba Travel Warning from the State Department strongly discouraged Americans from traveling to Cuba, “several cruise lines operating ships in and around Cuba have released statements pushing back on the warning, noting that no tourists have been harmed in these incidents.” Moreover, “several cruise companies had already announced significant expansion of their Cuba operations before the warning was issued.”

Approval of Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[2]

This latest U.S. announcement is what was recommended by a Wall Street Journal editorial and by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who immediately tweeted that this was “the right decision.” His subsequent press release Rubio stated, “I commend the US State Department for expelling a number of Cuban operatives from the US. No one should be fooled by the Castro regime’s claim it knows nothing about how these harmful attacks are occurring or who perpetrated them. I have called on the State Department to conduct an independent investigation and submit a comprehensive report to Congress. . . . All nations have an obligation to ensure the protection of diplomatic representatives in their countries. Cuba is failing miserably and proving how misguided and dangerous the Obama Administration’s decisions were.”[7]  He added, ““At this time, the U.S. embassy in Havana should be downgraded to an interests section and we should be prepared to consider additional measures against the Castro regime if these attacks continue.”

This news should also be welcomed by the Washington Post, whose recent editorial continued this newspaper’s hard line about U.S.-Cuba relations by refusing to believe Cuba’s denial of knowledge about the cause and perpetrator of the “attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana. It asserts “recent events suggest that the unpleasant reality of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship remains in place” and that “For decades, the Cuban state security apparatus has kept a watchful eye on everything that moves on the island, and informants lurk on every block. It begs disbelief that Cuba does not know what is going on. Unfortunately, this kind of deception and denial is all too familiar behavior.” Therefore, if “Cuba sincerely wants better relations with the United States, it could start by revealing who did this, and hold them to account.”[8]

This suspicion of Cuban involvement in the attacks received some corroboration by the Associated Press, which reports that six unnamed sources say that “many of the first reported cases [of attacks] involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy.” Moreover, of “the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed.” U.S. investigators, according to the AP, have identified “three ‘zones,’ or geographic clusters of attacks, [which] cover the homes where U.S. diplomats live and several hotels where attacks occurred, including the historic Hotel Capri.” Both the State Department and the CIA declined to comment to the AP. This report undoubtedly will fuel efforts to overturn normalization of relations between the two countries.[9]

Conclusion

I agree with Trinkunas and Feinberg, the recent decisions about Cuba by the Trump Administration do exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke: empower anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries; damage Cuba’s upcoming transition to a new government after Raúl Castro leaves the presidency early next year; and hurt and weaken the privately-operated and progressive segments of the Cuban tourism sector. In addition, those decisions weaken U.S. relations with most other governments in Latin America while damaging many Cuban and Cuban-American families seeking to maintain and increase their ties. Those decisions also allow Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela, all of which are hostile to the U.S., to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin.

I must also note my surprise that at the two recent State Department press briefings no journalist followed up on the previously mentioned Associated Press report that the initial U.S. diplomats who reported medical problems were U.S. intelligence agents to ask whether that report was valid and other related questions.

All who support the continuation of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation should oppose these moves by the Trump Administration.

======================================

[1] Trinkunas & Feinberg, Reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America’s interests, The Hill (Oct. 5, 2017);  EngageCuba, Statement on U.S. Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats in Washington (Oct. 3, 2017); Engage Cuba, Statement on U.S. Cuts to Havana Embassy & Travel Alert (Sept. 29, 2017); Editorial, Cuba and the Mystery of the Sonic Weapon, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017) (this editorial also noted that the reported medical problems “are real and serious” and that “Cuba’s repressive government must be the prime suspect”); WOLA, U.S. Plan to Expel Two-thirds of Cuban Embassy Needlessly Sets Back U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 3, 2017); Emmer Statement on Administration’s Decision to Remove Cuban Diplomats from Washington, D.C. (Oct. 4, 2017); Cardin Questions Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats amidst Attacks on U.S. Personnel in Cuba (Oct. 3, 2017); Morello, U.S. will expel 15 Cuban diplomats, escalating tensions over mystery illnesses, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2017); Gomez, U.S. orders 15 Cuban diplomats to leave; Cuba blames Washington for deteriorating relations, Miami Herald (Oct. 3, 2017); Glusac, Despite Travel Warning, Cruises to Cuba Continue, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[2] Rubio Press Release, Rubio commends State Department’s Expulsion of Cuban Operatives (Oct. 3, 2017); Editorial, Cuba plays dumb in attacks on American diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2017); Assoc. Press, APNewsBreak: Attacks in Havana Hit US Spy Network in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2017).

 

Yet More News Regarding the Medically Affected U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

There are more developments regarding the actions and reactions associated with the medically affected U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba.

The U.S. State Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at an October 4 Press Briefing, responded to Cuba’s criticism of not obtaining sufficient U.S. information about the medical problems of some of its personnel in Cuba. She said the U.S. was “engaged in an investigation, [and] we, as Americans, need to keep a tight hold on a lot of information. We don’t want that information to leak. . . . That information could potentially leak to other parties . . . who may or may not be involved. So, providing information on the investigation could tip off what I’ll just call the bad guys who are responsible for this. We don’t know who or what is responsible. So . . . we wouldn’t want to tip off the bad guys to any information that we have on the investigation. Again, I’m not calling the Cubans – saying that about the Cubans in general, but we wouldn’t want this type of information to leak.” She added, “the investigation is ongoing. The investigation has not yet been resolved, so there is limited information that we can provide at this point.”[1]

On October 5, the Cuba embassy in Washington reported that its 15 diplomats who were ordered for expulsion included all who handled dealings with U.S. businesses. One of them said, “due to this decision, the activities developed by the Economic and Trade Office of the Embassy… will be seriously affected.” Such activities are usually the first step in the process for U.S. companies when they submit trip proposals, seek out counterparts at state-owned enterprises in the centralized economy and obtain business travel visits to travel to Cuba. In addition, the reduction in staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana will make it more difficult for U.S. companies to find their way in Cuba.[2]

Scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba. “I’d say it’s fairly implausible,” said Jurgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany and an expert on acoustics. At frequencies higher than 20,000 Hertz, beyond human hearing, ultrasound can damage tissue if produced with enough power, but  “ultrasound cannot travel a long distance,” said Jun Qin, an acoustic engineer at Southern Illinois University. The further the sound goes, the weaker it gets. And, noted Dr. Garrett, humidity in a place like Havana would weaken it still more. Infrasound — low-frequency sound that cannot be heard by humans—on the other hand, is even more unlikely. A report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2002 noted that the military had tried to weaponize infrasound, but had not succeeded because it was hard to focus the wavelengths. The primary effect of infrasound on humans “appears to be annoyance,” the report concluded.[3]

Also on October 4, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed hearing on “Ordered Departure of Personnel from U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba.”[4] with an unnamed Senior Official from the CIA plus these three “Briefers” from the State Department: (a) Mr. Christian J. Schurman; Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State And Assistant Director For International Programs; Bureau Of Diplomatic Security with responsibility for “evaluating, managing, and mitigating security threats to, as well as the direction of resources for, more than 240 diplomatic posts within the International Programs Directorate;” (b) Mr. John S. Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary; Bureau Of Western Hemisphere Affairs;and (c ) Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director; Bureau Of Medical Services. Since the hearing was close, we do not yet know what happened.

=======================================

[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Oct. 4, 2017)

[2] Reuters, U.S. expulsion of Cuban Diplomats Includes All Business Officers, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[3] Zimmer, A ‘Sonic Attack’ on Diplomats in Cuba? These Scientists Doubt It, N.Y. times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[4] Senate Foreign Relations Comm., CLOSED/TS: Ordered Departure of Personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (Oct. 4, 2017).

 

A New Travel Warning for Americans Traveling to Cuba 

 Last Wednesday (September 13), the U.S. State Department issued a warning about Americans traveling to Cuba that was discussed in an earlier post.

On September 18, the Department updated its Cuba Travel Warning after Hurricane Irma had hit and damaged the island.[1] It stated the following:

  • “The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Cuba while Hurricane Irma recovery efforts are underway.  Major roads are now open in Havana and power and water service has been restored in most of the city, but some parts of the country may be without power and running water. North central Cuba suffered severe damage and should be avoided until further notice. On September 6, the Department authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. government employees and their family members due to Hurricane Irma.”
  • “Travelers should apprise family and friends in the United States of their whereabouts, and keep in close contact with their travel agency, hotel staff, and local officials.”
  • “U.S. citizens in Cuba in need of emergency assistance should contact the Embassy by telephone at +53- 5280-5791 or the Department of State at 1-202-501-4444. At this time, U.S. citizens should not attempt to go to the U.S. Embassy in Havana as it suffered severe flood damage.”

Meanwhile the Cuban government announced that it would help its citizens recover from Hurricane Irma’s devastating swipe at its north coast and rebuild their homes. The plan would have the government finance 50 percent of the cost of construction materials for such rebuilding. Defense councils will certify the extent of damages and the resources necessary to make repairs.[2]

For homes that collapsed or lost their entire roofs, the state will take over interest payments. Defense councils also will consider subsidies for victims whose incomes are too low to purchase all the required construction materials, and those who still owe money on previous construction loans may be granted subsidies.

Hurricane Irma will have a major negative effect on Cuba’s economy. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, is convinced that GDP will decline over the last six months of this year. Another Cuban economist, Pavel Vidal, who is a professor at Javeriana University in Colombia, thought the hurricane damage “may pump up inflation” and cause ‘financial complications.”

==================================

[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 18, 2017); Rosenberg, US warns would-be Cuban travelers: consider the risks following Hurricane Irma, Miami Herald (Sept. 18, 2017)

[2] Information for the population, Granma (Sept. 18, 2017); Whitefield & Torres, Cuba announces program to repair Irma-damages homes as experts assess damage to economy, Miami Herald (Sept. 18, 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.

===================================

[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).