Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute 

At an August 10 State Department press briefing, the Spokesperson Heather Nauert discussed the ongoing U.S.-Cuba diplomatic dispute about U.S. diplomats in Cuba who have had medical problems.[1]  

Emphasizing that there was an ongoing U.S. investigation of this matter, she said that the U.S. was still trying to determine the cause of the ailments, that it was too soon to blame any government or other person for the problems, that she has no knowledge of a country other than Cuba being the potential cause of the problems and that she was not aware of the U.S. having experienced the same problem in other countries.

She also said that the two Cuban diplomats in the U.S. had been expelled in May because Cuba had breached its obligation under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, whose Article 29 states: “The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State [here, Cuba] shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.” (Emphasis  added.)

There have been reports that at least one Canadian diplomat has been treated in hospital in Cuba afar suffering headaches and hearing loss and that the Canadian and Cuban governments are investigating the problem. Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Brianne Maxwell said Thursday that agency officials “are aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and US diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working — including with US and Cuban authorities – to ascertain the cause.”[2] U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert could neither confirm nor deny such reports.

Ms. Nauert also asserted that the U.S. Embassy in Havana is fully staffed and operational.

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[1] A prior post discussed the issue of medical problems of some U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

[2] Canadian diplomat in Cuba treated for hearing loss, CBCnews (Aug. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Canadian Diplomat in Cuba Treated for Hearing Loss, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017).

U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute  

On August 9, it became publicly known that the U.S. and Cuba had been and still are engaged in a diplomatic dispute. Is it a spat or something more serious? Here are details about what started becoming publicly known only yesterday.[1]

  • In the fall of 2016, several U.S. diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, and some of the diplomats’ symptoms were so severe that they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the U.S.
  • On February 17, 2017, the U.S. informed Cuba about these medical problems.
  • Apparently sometime in or about May 2017, the U.S. investigation of these medical problems concluded that the diplomats had been exposed to a device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences. It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose.
  • On May 23, the U.S. asked two Cuban diplomats at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. to leave the U.S., and they did so.
  • On August 9, the U.S. State Department reported that the U.S. had expelled two Cuban diplomats at its Embassy in Washington, D.C. for unspecified “incidents” in Havana.
  • At a press briefing the same day (August 9), the S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the exact nature of the incidents was unclear, but Americans serving in Cuba had returned to the U.S. for non life-threatening “medical reasons.” Moreover, she said, “We don’t have any definitive answers about the source or the cause of what we consider to be incidents. It’s caused a variety of physical symptoms in these American citizens who work for the U.S. government. We take those incidents very seriously, and there is an investigation currently under way. What this requires is providing medical examinations to these people. Initially, when they’d started reporting what I will just call symptoms, it took time to figure out what it was, and this is still ongoing. So we’re monitoring it.”
  • In response later the same day, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that the expulsion of the Cuban diplomats was “unjustified and unsubstantiated” and that : “Cuba has never, nor would ever, allow the Cuban territory to be used for any kind of action against accredited diplomats or their families.” In addition, it said, “It reiterates its willingness to cooperate in the clarification of this situation” and had started a “comprehensive, high-priority and urgent investigation” into the alleged incidents after it had been informed of them by the embassy in February. The statement also reported that Cuba had reinforced security around the U.S. embassy and U.S. diplomatic residences.
  • Apparently also on August 9, a U.S. government official said several colleagues at the U.S. embassy in Havana had been evacuated back to the U.S. for hearing problems and other symptoms over the past six months (February-July?). Some subsequently got hearing aids, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. U.S. officials also told the Associated Press that about five diplomats, several with spouses, had been affected and that no children had been involved and that the FBI and Diplomatic Security Service are investigating. The officials also stated that investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.

Conclusion

Everyone needs to stay tuned for further developments and hope that this does not lead to a further deterioration of relations between the two countries.

The apparent medical problems experienced by spouses of U.S. diplomats suggests that if the problems were caused by some kind of electronic device, the devices were located at the diplomats’ homes, not the Embassy. Especially with the current legitimate concern over the U.S. avoiding provocative statements about North Korea, both the U.S. and Cuba need to exercise restraint, to work together to solve these problems and to avoid jumping to conclusions before the results of investigations are known.

Senator Marco Rubio has not exercised such restraint with his August 9 press release: “The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades. This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement. Personal harm to U.S. officials shows the extent the Castro regime will go and clearly violates international norms.”[2] Calm down, Marco.

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[1]  Reuters, Cuba Denies Involvement in Incidents Concerning U.S. Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Says Investigating ‘Incidents’ Concerning U.S. Diplomats in Havana, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Hearing Loss of US Diplomats in Cuba Blamed on Covert Device, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Aug. 9, 2017); Gearan, U.S. expelled two Cuban diplomats after embassy employees in Cuba developed unexplained ailments, Wash. Post (Aug. 9, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Statement (Aug. 9, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues statement addressing allegations by the U.S., Granma (Aug. 10, 2017).

[2] Rubio Statement on Castro Regime Harming U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Aug. 9, 2017).

White House Press Secretary and Senate Majority Leader Offer Conflicting Comments About U.S.-Cuba Relations

Josh Earnest
Josh Earnest

On the afternoon of July 1, 2015, Josh Earnest, White House Press Secretary, held a press gaggle (an informal on-the-record briefing) en route to Nashville, Tennessee that involved many comments about U.S.-Cuba relations. The next day the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, addressed the same subject with conflicting comments. [1]

White House Press Secretary

1. Congressional Repeal of the Embargo Against Cuba

With respect to prospects for congressional repeal of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Earnest said, “I haven’t done any whip counts, but I do think that there is, at minimum, strong . . . bipartisan support in the [U.S.] Congress for lifting the embargo on Cuba.  This is a policy that the President is encouraging Congress to pursue, and I think it’s worth noting how misplaced the opposition to doing so is.”

“We actually see, based on publicly available data about the preferences and views of the Cuban people, that the overwhelming majority of them strongly support normalizing relations with the [U.S.] and deepening their engagement with the [U.S.]  And that takes a variety of forms.  That’s everything from establishing an embassy there, which we’ve obviously taken steps to do, but it involves expanded commerce between our two countries; it involves more Americans traveling to Cuba; and it involves Cubans having more access to information.”

“This is something that the Cuban people are hungry for.  And so all of those who claim to have the interests of the Cuban people at heart should be strongly supportive of a policy that the President has implemented that we know that the Cuban people overwhelmingly support.”

2.Conditions for U.S. Diplomats Travel in Cuba

After deferring to the State Department for details on the agreed-upon conditions for U.S. diplomats traveling in Cuba, Earnest did say, “We believe that sufficient progress was made in resolving some of those concerns to move forward with the opening of the [U.S.] embassy in Cuba.”

3. Response to Critics of Restoring Diplomatic Relations

With respect to critics of the restoration of diplomatic relations, Earnest said Senator Robert Menendez’s was wrong when he stated “that democracy and human rights take a backseat to a legacy initiative. . . .  The fact is the President has been very clear since mid-December when this was originally announced about what the goal of this policy change actually is.”

“For more than 50 years, the U.S. policy toward Cuba was an effort to isolate Cuba in the hopes that that isolation would bring about better protections for human rights, for basic personal liberties related to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech.  But yet, we saw very little change over the last [50-plus] years.  And the President believed it was time for us to consider a new approach, and to try a new strategy for bringing about the kind of change that we would like to see in Cuba.”

“[T]hose who are concerned about ensuring that the rights and preferences of the Cuban people are protected and even advanced should be strongly supportive of the President’s policy, because the Cuban people are strongly supportive of the President’s policy. . . .  Every available shred of evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people actually do support this policy change and that the vast majority of the Cuban people actually do believe that it will allow their ambitions to be realized, and that by having greater engagement with the American people, having greater access to the U.S. government, having greater access to publicly available information — this is what the Cuban people believe is in their best interest.”

“The President believes that this also happens to be a policy that has important benefits for the [U.S.].  There are important economic opportunities for U.S. businesses on the island nation of Cuba.  We have seen that the change in our policy toward Cuba has strengthened our relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere.  For a long time, we saw that the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was actually an impediment to our ability to build strong relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve actually seen that by removing that impediment, we’ve been able to deepen our ties with other countries in the Western Hemisphere and, as a consequence, actually increase international attention on the failures of the Cuban government to protect the basic human rights of the Cuban people.”

“The President believes strongly that this approach is clearly within the best interest of the United States, but also in the best interest of the Cuban people in allowing them to achieve their ambition of having a country that is integrated, that is free, where they can freely express their political views.”

4. Appointment of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

“We haven’t laid out a timeline yet for when an announcement of an ambassadorial nomination would be made.  But obviously that would be another step in normalizing our relations with Cuba, would be to appoint an ambassador to lead the U.S. Embassy in Havana…. I’m confident that will be a venue for robust debate about how the policy changes that the President announced back in December aren’t just clearly in the best interests of the American people, they’re clearly in the best interests of the Cuban people, as well.”

“For obvious reasons, it would be our strong preference that once an ambassador has been nominated, for that individual to be treated fairly by the [U.S.] Senate and confirmed in bipartisan fashion so that they can represent the interests of the United States on the island nation of Cuba.”

Senate Majority Leader

Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Mitch McConnell

On July 2, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep., KY), the Senate Majority Leader, gave a speech to a local chamber of commerce in his home state of Kentucky in which he made negative comments about President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba and promised Senate resistance to that policy.

He called Cuba “a thuggish regime” that is “a haven for criminals” fleeing prosecution in the United States. “I’m having a hard time figuring out what we got out of this, you know? You would think that the normalization of relations with Cuba would be accompanied by some modification of their behavior. I don’t see any evidence at all that they are going to change their behavior. So I doubt if we’ll confirm an ambassador, they probably don’t need one.”

Moreover, McConnell noted that many of the restrictions placed on Cuba would require congressional legislation, “and we’re going to resist that.”

His negative views were echoed by some of his fellow Republican Senators, especially Cuban-Americans Marco Rubio (FL) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), by John Boehner (Rep., OH), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and by Republican presidential candidates, especially Jeb Bush.

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[1] This post is based upon White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Nashville, TN, 7/1/15; Fran, Top Republican doubts Senate will confirm ambassador to Cuba, Wash. Post (July 2, 2015); Carney, Cruz: Cuba embassy a ‘slap in the face’ to Israel, The Hill (July 1, 2015).