Senator Leahy Criticizes Trump Administration’s Reactions to Alleged “Acoustic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba  

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) on October 19 criticized the Trump Administration’s recent reactions to the alleged “acoustic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.[1]

First, he points out that the Administration repeatedly has stated that despite intensive investigation, the U.S. does not know how or who caused the problems and that it does not believe Cuba did so. Nevertheless and illogically, the U.S. has reduced U.S. staffing of the Havana embassy, expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. and issued a travel warning about Americans travel to Cuba.

Moreover, these U.S. reactions “are not only counter-productive to solve this mystery, but will inevitably punish the Cuban people, separate Cuban-Americans from their loved ones on the island, hurt U.S. companies interested in doing business in Cuba, and disrupt further progress between our countries on academic and cultural exchanges, negotiations over fugitives and property claims, public health, and maritime security.”

Second, “whoever is responsible for these attacks has a clear agenda: to sabotage the nascent rapprochement between the [U.S.] and Cuba. . . . While we don’t know who is responsible, we do know there is a clear motivation for our foreign adversaries, like Russia, to drive a wedge between the [U.S.] and Cuba to help achieve their geopolitical goals. And, as we are seeing increasingly around the world, when we disengage our adversaries rush in.”[2]

“Without a hint of evidence, nor a motive, linking  the Cuban government with these incidents,” Leahy said, “it appears as though our actions were driven by political expediency, not diplomacy.”

The next day, October 20, the State Department raised the number of affected diplomats from 22 to 24.[3] The Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said the two additional victims “do not reflect new attacks.” Instead, they are based on “medical evaluations of personnel who were affected by incidents earlier this year.” She added that the U.S. “can’t rule out additional new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community.”

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[1] Leahy, Punishing Without Evidence: The Trump Administration’s Gratuitous Steps To Roll Back Progress Between The United States and Cuba, Huff. Post (Oct. 19, 2017); Patrick Leahy: Moscow could benefit from increase  in tension between Washington and Havana, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 20, 2017).

[2]  A prior post reviewed the frantic pace of Cuba-Russian relations after the election of President Donald Trump, even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats.

[3] Assoc. Press, US Says 2 More American Victims Confirmed in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Says 24 People Harmed From Recent ‘Attacks’ in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2017).

Cuba’s Reaction to U.S. Ordering Removal of 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. Now we examine Cuba’s reaction to that U.S. decision and order as expressed in the Cuba Foreign Ministry’s lengthy  statement and in press conference remarks by its Foreign Minister, Bruno Gonzalez. A future post will look at other such reactions.

Cuba Foreign Ministry Statement[1]

“The Ministry . . .  strongly protests and condemns this unfounded and unacceptable decision as well as the [false] pretext [purportedly justifying it].”

“The Ministry “categorically rejects any responsibility of the Cuban Government in the alleged incidents and reiterates once again that Cuba has never perpetrated, nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any sort against diplomatic officials or their relatives, without any exception. Neither has it ever allowed nor will it ever allow its territory to be used by third parties with that purpose.”

“The Ministry emphasizes that the U.S. Government decision to reduce Cuba’s diplomatic staff in Washington without the conclusive results from the investigation and without evidence of the incidents that would be affecting their officials in Cuba has an eminently political character.”

“The Ministry urges the competent authorities of the U.S. Government not to continue politicizing this matter, which can provoke an undesirable escalation and reverse even more bilateral relations, which were already affected by the announcement of a new policy made in June last by President Donald Trump.”

Cuba’s Foreign Minister previously had “warned . . . [the U.S. Secretary of State] against the adoption of hasty decisions that were not supported by evidence; urged him not to politicize a matter of this nature and once again . . . [requested U.S.]  effective cooperation . . . to clarify facts and conclude the investigation.”

“It is the second time, after May 23, 2017, that the State Department ordered two Cuban diplomats in Washington to abandon the country; that the US Government reacts in a hasty, inappropriate and unthinking way, without having evidence of the occurrence of the adduced facts, for which Cuba has no responsibility whatsoever and before the conclusion of the investigation that is still in progress.”

Just as was expressed by the Cuban Foreign Minister to Secretary of State Tillerson on September 26, 2017, “Cuba, whose diplomatic staff members have been victims in the past of attempts . . . [on] their lives, who have been murdered, disappeared, kidnapped or attacked during the performance of their duty, has seriously and strictly observed its obligations under the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 referring to the protection and integrity of diplomatic agents accredited in the country, for which it has an impeccable record.”[2]

“Since February 17, 2017, when the U.S. embassy and State Department notified [Cuba of] the alleged occurrence of incidents against some officials of that diplomatic mission and their relatives [starting in] November 2016, arguing that these had caused them injuries and other disorders, the Cuban authorities have acted with utmost seriousness, professionalism and immediacy to clarify this situation and opened an exhaustive and priority investigation following instructions from the top level of the Government. The measures adopted to protect the U.S. diplomatic staff, their relatives and residences were reinforced; new expeditious communication channels were established between the U.S. embassy and Cuba’s Diplomatic Security Department and a Cuban committee of experts made up by law enforcement officials, physicians and scientists was created to make a comprehensive analysis of facts.”

“In the face of the belated, fragmented and insufficient information supplied by the U.S., the Cuban authorities requested further information and clarifications from the US embassy in order to carry out a serious and profound investigation.”

“The U.S. embassy only delivered some data of interest on the alleged incidents after February 21, when President Raúl Castro Ruz personally reiterated to the Chargé d’Affairs of the U.S. diplomatic mission how important it was for the competent authorities from both countries to cooperate and exchange more information. Nevertheless, the data subsequently supplied continued to be lacking in the descriptions or details that would facilitate the characterization of facts or the identification of potential perpetrators, in case there were any.”

“In the weeks that followed, in view of new reports on the alleged incidents and the scarce information that had been delivered, the Cuban authorities reiterated the need to establish an effective cooperation and asked the U.S. authorities for more information and insisted that the occurrence of any new incident should be notified in real time, which would provide for a timely action.”

“The information delivered by the U.S. authorities led the committee of Cuban experts to conclude that this was insufficient and that the main obstacle to clarify the incidents had been the lack of direct access to the injured people and the physicians who examined them; the belated delivery of evidence and their deficient nature; the absence of reliable first-hand  and verifiable information and the inability to exchange with U.S. experts who are knowledgeable about this kind of events and the technology that could have been used, despite having repeatedly stating this as a requirement to be able to move forward in the investigation.”

“Only after repeated requests were conveyed to the U.S. Government, some representatives of U.S. specialized agencies finally traveled to Havana in June, met with their Cuban counterparts and expressed their intention to cooperate in a more substantive way in the investigation of the alleged incidents.  They again visited Cuba in August and September, and for the first time in more than 50 years they were allowed to work on the ground, for which they were granted access to all Cuban facilities, including the possibility of importing equipment, as a gesture of good will that evidenced the great interest of the Cuban government in concluding the investigation.”

“The U.S. specialized agencies recognized the high professional level of the investigation which was started by Cuba and its high technical and scientific capabilities and which preliminarily concluded that, so far, according to the information available and the data supplied by the U.S., there were no evidence of the occurrence of the alleged incidents or the causes and the origin of the health disorders reported by the U.S. diplomats and their relatives.  Neither has it been possible to identify potential perpetrators or persons with motivations, intentions or means to perpetrate this type of actions; nor was it possible to establish the presence of suspicious persons or means at the locations where such facts have been reported or in their vicinity.  The Cuban authorities are not familiar with the equipment or the technology that could be used for that purpose; nor do they have information indicating their presence in the country.”

. Nevertheless, the Ministry reiterates Cuba’s disposition to continue fostering a serious and objective cooperation between the authorities of both countries with the purpose of clarifying these facts and concluding the investigation, for which it will be essential to count on the most effective cooperation of the U.S. competent agencies.”

Cuba Foreign Minister’s Press Conference[3]

Foreign Minister Rodriguez in his lengthy press conference made the following additional points:

  • The decision to expel Cuban diplomats “can only benefit those who intend to reverse the progress [in U.S.-Cuba relations] made in recent years and only follows the interests of a handful of people.”
  • The U.S. decision to expel Cuban diplomats “is clearly a political decision unrelated to the ongoing investigation. It is a reprisal. It is politically motivated and malicious. To date there is no concrete evidence regarding the claims of attacks on U.S. diplomats, with theories being paraded around that can only be described as ‘science fiction.’”
  • The only terrorist attacks to have taken place in Cuba were perpetrated by groups based in the U.S., not by any third country.
  • The incidents were reported by the U.S. Embassy months after they were supposed to have occurred. Cuban experts have not visited diplomatic residences, as the U.S. has refused them entry.
  • The question about the future of the bilateral diplomatic agenda should be put to the U.S. government. That agenda has been adversely affected by the expulsion of the Cuban diplomats; by President Trump’s recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly;[4] and his speech in Miami in June about U.S.-Cuba relations.[5] In short, all of these decisions are rash, and the “U.S. will be responsible for the deterioration of relations between the two countries.”
  • Cuba has not taken any action against the U.S.; it does not discriminate against its companies; it invites U.S. citizens to visit; it favors dialogue and bilateral cooperation; it does not occupy any part of the territory of the U.S. and has not adopted any measures of a bilateral nature. On the contrary, Cuba has favored a respectful course on the basis of sovereign equality, to treat our differences and to live civilly with them for the benefit of both peoples and countries.
  • Since the creation of the Cuban Interests Office in Washington (now our embassy) until this minute, Cuban diplomatic officials have never carried out intelligence activities.

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[1] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Statement (Oct. 3, 2017)

[2] Medical ‘Incidents’ Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Prompts U.S. To Close Embassy in Cuba and Urge Americans Not to Travel to Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 30, 32017) (discussion of 9/26/17 Rodriguez-Tillerson meeting).

[3] Minute by Minute: Press conference by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Granma (Oct. 3, 2017); Bruno Rodríguez: Cuba has never carried out attacks against diplomats (+ Video), CubaDebate (Oct. 3, 2017).

[4] President Trump Condemns Cuba at United Nations, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 21, 2017).

[5] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 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).