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).

Beautiful Poem Celebrates Ceremonial Opening of U.S. Embassy in Havana

Before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave his remarks at the August 14, 2015, formal opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba-American poet Richard Blanco gave a beautiful rendition of his beautiful poem that was commissioned by the U.S. State Department for the occasion: “Matters of the Sea” or “Cosas del Mar.” Appropriately as he spoke one could see the blue Caribbean Sea behind him in the YouTube video of the reading.[1]

Richard Blanco at U.S. Embassy in Havana
Richard Blanco at U.S. Embassy in Havana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The poem opens with these words: “The sea doesn’t matter. What matter is this—that we all belong to the sea between us. ” It closes with another call for the unity of the Cuban and American peoples: “Yet, yet we all hold seashells up to our ears. Listen again to the anthem. Today the sea is still telling us that the end to our doubts and fears is to gaze into the lucid blue of our shared horizon to breathe together, to heal together.”

Blanco’s comments about his poem also are inspiring. He said it is about “getting back to our own humanity, the shared humanity beyond the politics. In the end, it’s about coming to a place of healing, getting to that place where we can see each other as human beings.”

Moreover, the poem, he says, “is one of the most emotionally complex and personal poems I’ve ever written, invested with all my love for the people of two countries that are part of my very being. I’m elated by the power of poetry to mark such important, communal moments, and be a catalyst for change and understanding by reaching deep into our emotional selves and connecting us to our shared humanity.”

“Matters of the Sea/Cosas del Mar” is the title of a bilingual chapbook of his poems to be published this September by the University of Pittsburgh Press.[2]

On January 21, 2013, Blanco read another of his poems–“One Today”–at the second inaugural of President Barack Obama. Commissioned by Obama, this poem is the lead poem of another collection of Blanco’s poetry.

Soon after his Cuban parents fled Cuba, Richard was born in 1968 in Madrid Spain. Two months later, they all moved to the U.S. and eventually settled in Miami Florida where Richard grew up. In addition to being a writer, he is professional civil engineer.

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[1] NPR, Poet Richard Blanco on U.S., Cuba: ‘We all Belong To The Sea Between Us” (Aug. 14, 2015); Whitefield, Poet Richard Blanco speaks of the sea and hope in Cuba, Miami Herald (Aug. 14, 2015); Geoffroy, WATCH: Gay Poet Richard Blanco Read His Poem “Matters of the Sea” at U.S. Embassy Opening in Cuba, Towleroad (Aug 14, 2015); American poet, Blanco, urges U.S., Cuba ‘to breathe together, to heal together,’ YouTube (Aug. 14, 2015); Lilly & Naverez, Cuban-American Richard Blanco: We All Belong to the Sea Between Us, NBC News (Aug. 14, 2015); Richard Blanco: Made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, imported to the USA; Poet, Richard Blanco.

[2] Univ. Pittsburg Press, Inaugural poet commissioned to write poem for Friday’s Cuban embassy ceremony; Univ. Pittsburg Press, Matters of the Sea/Cosas del mar.

U.S. Secretary of State Meets with Cuban Dissidents

As mentioned in prior posts, on August 14, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry delivered the main remarks at the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and thereafter held closed-door meetings with the Cuban Foreign Minister and other diplomats. That afternoon he attended a meeting with Cuban dissidents at the official Havana residence of the head of that Embassy, charge d’ affaires, Jeffrey DeLaurentis. [1] Who was there? What happened?

The gathering was attended by diplomats, Cuban-Americans, advocates of warming relations with Cuba and Cuban dissidents, including Jose Daniel Ferrer, Miriam Leiva and Yoani Sanchez, the author of the blog Generation Y[2]

According to the Associated Press, Kerry told the group that Cuban leaders should not expect to see progress on the embargo without improvements in civil liberties in Cuba, which does not allow independent media, political parties other than the ruling communist party or direct election of anything but low-level municipal posts. “There is no way Congress will lift the embargo if we are not making progress on issues of conscience,” he said.

On August 19, Yoani Sanchez wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled “The Meaning of a U.S. Embassy in Havana.” She said, “The fact of living in Cuba on August 14 makes the more than 11 million of us participants in a historic event that transcends the raising of an insignia to the top of a flagpole. We are all here, in the epicenter of what is happening. . . . it is the end of one stage. . . . Now comes the most difficult part. However, it will be that kind of uphill climb in which we cannot blame our failures on our neighbor to the north. It is the beginning of the stage of absorbing who we are, and recognizing why we have only made it this far.”

Moreover, she says, Cuban government officials no longer legitimately may assert that the U.S. is an enemy after the officials are seen by all Cubans “shaking hands with their opponent and explaining the change as a new era.” Now the Cuban government must “understand that we are living in new times—moments of reaching out to the people, and helping them to see that there is a country after the dictatorship and that they can be the voice of millions who suffer every day economic hardship, lack of freedom, police harassment, and lack of expectations. The authoritarianism expressed in warlordism, not wanting to speak with those who are different, or snubbing the other for not thinking like they do, are just other ways of reproducing the Castro regime.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, A Festive Flag-Raising, Then Tough Talk on US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2015); Gordon, Kerry Strikes Delicate Balance in Havana Trip for Embassy Flag-Raising, N.Y. Times (Aug. 14, 2015); Klapper & Weissenstein, Kerry calls for democracy as US flag is raised in Cuba, Wash. Post (Aug. 14, 2015).

[2] The dissidents were not invited to the embassy ceremony to avoid tensions with Cuban officials who typically boycott events attended by the country’s small political opposition. This was criticized in editorials in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

The Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies

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

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

Opening of Cuba’s Embassy

Cuban Embassy
Cuban Embassy (Photo by Andrew Hamik)

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

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

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

Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening of U.S. Embassy

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

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

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

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