U.S. Senate Hearing on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 9, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.” The Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues was chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a noted critic of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relation, who said the purpose of the hearing was “to establish the facts surrounding the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and conduct oversight over the State Department’s handling of the attacks.”[1]

The witnesses were three officials of the U.S. State Department: Mr. Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Mr. Todd Brown, Diplomatic Security, Assistant Director, International Programs; and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services.

The hearing started with lengthy opening statements by Rubio and the Ranking Member, Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), both very critical of the Department’s response to these incidents or “attacks.” [2] The hearing itself focused on the following four topics:: (1) the nature of the injuries; (2) the cause of the injuries; (3) the perpetrator of the “attacks;” and (4) the State Department’s appointment of an accountability review board.

  1. The Nature of the injuries

 While the symptoms may vary, all 24  of the medically-confirmed cases  have described some combination of the following symptoms: sharp ear pain, dull headaches, tinnitus (ringing in one ea), vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea, extreme fatigue. Some have been diagnosed with mild brain injuries similar to what might happen from a concussion.

  1. The cause of the injuries[3]

In early July, the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department convened a panel of academic experts to review case histories and the test results up to that point. And they arrived at [the following] consensus: ‘the patterns of injuries were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

Mr. Brown said investigators are considering possible causes other than a sonic attack, including a viral attack. He also said the possibility that someone deliberately infected people with a virus has not been ruled out. Dr. Rosenfarb testified that evidence suggest that( this is “not an episode of mass hysteria.”

Brown also said he would not rule out a sound component entirely. He said there had been an “acoustic element” associated with the sensations and feelings experienced by diplomats who fell ill. He said it’s possible the sound masked some other technology that caused the damage.

Dr. Rosenfarb said investigators are confident that something indeed caused medical harm to the Americans.

“Perplexing” was a frequent word in this discussion.

  1. Perpetrator(s)

Senator Rubio in a Fox News interview before the hearing said Havana is one of the most tightly controlled cities in the world. “There is no way you can conduct sophisticated attacks targeting American government officials in Havana without the Cuban government at least knowing about it.” [4] He repeated this opinion or conclusion at the start and at the end of the hearing.

  1. Accountability Review Board

Senator Rubio obtained admissions from the witnesses that a “serious injury” of at least one U.S. diplomat in Cuba happened no later than May 2017 and that the Secretary of State had not appointed an accountability review board within 60 days thereafter, as required by statute, and indeed had not yet done so.[5]

Acting Secretary Palmieri tried to remedy this apparent breach by testifying that Secretary Tillerson on December 11, 2017, had decided to convene such a Board and that the statutory required notice to Congress was “forthcoming.”

The same question came up later the same day at the Department’s Press Gaggle, [6] when the Department spokesperson, Under Secretary I. Steven Goldstein, initially said, “We are going to create, as we’ve said previously, an accountability review board, and I would expect that we would have the announcements of the chair and the members of the board available for release within the next week.” He then was pressed with a reporter’s question about Senator Rubio’s apparent contention that the Department and the Secretary had violated the law by not making an earlier appointment of such a board. Goldstein had the following response:

  • “We don’t agree with [the allegation that the law was violated].The assistant secretary today made clear [at the hearing], and we have said too, that it took us time to get the investigation in place. The investigation is continuing, and we believe that we . . . had the authority to determine when the accountability review board should be set in place. I think let’s not lose focus here. There’s 24 people that had injuries, and those people are receiving treatment, and we’ve had over 20 conversations with the people of Cuba. . . . [The] government investigators have been down four times; they’re going down again within the next few weeks. And so our primary goal at the present time is to find out why this occurred, to prevent it from happening again in Cuba and the embassy of Cuba or in any other place where American citizens are located.”
  • “It took time to set up the . . . board because we were hopeful that we would be able to know what occurred. . . . [T]his investigation has taken longer than we anticipated, . . . but it is now time to go forward. . . . I expect the names [for the Board] to be announced over the next several days.”

Conclusion

Only five of the nine subcommittee members attended the hearing, and the members will be submitting written questions to the witnesses, and there will be classified briefing of the subcommittee. Thus, the complete record will not be available until later. [7]

At the conclusion of the hearing, Rubio said that the following were two established facts: (1) 24 Americans had been harmed while in Cuba and (2) the Cuban government at least knew who was responsible for causing such harm. “The idea that someone could put together some sort of action against them, 24 of them, and the Cuban government not know who did it, it’s just impossible,” Mr. Rubio said. He noted that the Americans in Havana became sick just after Mr. Trump’s election, and speculated that rogue government officials from either Cuba or Russia had sought to create friction between Havana and the new administration in Washington.

Under Secretary Goldstein voiced a similar opinion by saying, “We believe that the Cuban government knows what occurred. So what we’d like to them to do is tell us what occurred.”

After the hearing, Cuba’s diplomat who has been intimately involved in U.S.-Cuba relations , Josefina Vidal, said  the hearing was chaired by two Senators (Rubio and Menendez)  “both with a vast record of work against better relations between Cuba and the United States, and the promoters of all kinds of legislative and political proposals that affect the interests of the Cuban and American peoples, and only benefit an increasingly isolated minority that has historically profited from attacks on Cuba.” She continued:

  • “From [the hearing’s] very title “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” it was evident that the true purpose of this hearing . . . was not to establish the truth, but to impose by force and without any evidence an accusation that they have not been able to prove.”
  • “The State Department does not have any evidence that allows it to affirm that there have been attacks against its diplomats in Havana, or that Cuba may be responsible, or have knowledge of the actions of third parties.”
  • “I categorically reiterate that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats. Cuba never has, and never will, perpetrate such acts, nor has it or will it permit third parties to act against the physical integrity of any diplomat, without exception. The Cuban government is aware of its responsibilities and fulfils them exemplarily.”
  • “I affirm that the investigation carried out by Cuban authorities, the results of which the State Department and specialized agencies of the United States have had ample and systematic access to, has shown that there is no evidence at all regarding the occurrence of the alleged incidents and no attack of any kind has occurred.”
  • “Nothing presented by the government of the United States throughout this period, including today, provides evidence that the health problems reported by its diplomats have their origin or cause in Cuba.”
  • “We reject the politicization of this matter and the unjustified measures adopted by the United States government, with a high cost for our population, Cuban émigrés and the U.S. people. We also condemn the political manipulation of these events by anti-Cuban elements, who seek to aggravate the bilateral atmosphere, with the sole purpose of returning to a an era of confrontation, with negative consequences for both countries and the region.”
  • “Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country for Cubans, for foreigners, for accredited diplomats and for the millions of people who visit us every year, including U.S.”[8]

This blogger’s opposition to Senator Rubio’s hostile approach to Cuba has been expressed in a prior post. That approach is against U.S. economic and strategic interests. It provides openings to Russia and the EU, for example, to pursue various developments with Cuba while the U.S. stands on the sidelines. Moreover, that approach contradicts Rubio’s stated desire to support Cuba’s emerging private sector and the Cubans investing and working in that sector.

Senator Rubio also erroneously stated that it is a fact that Cuba has one of the world’s most pervasive surveillance systems in the world and, therefore, has to know if some third-party has perpetrated attacks on U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats. At most that is an allegation or theory, which has been denied by Cuba. Rubio also ignores that whatever security and surveillance system Cuba has undoubtedly is prompted, at least in part, by the long history of U.S. hostility towards the Cuban Revolution, including covert or undercover efforts to promote regime change on the island. Moreover, in its responses to the medical problems of some of its diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. repeatedly has emphasized Cuba’s obligation under the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect other countries diplomats on the island, an obligation that presumably requires Cuba and other nations, including the U.S., to have some idea as to the whereabouts of  those diplomats.

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[1]  Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee Hearing: Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight (Jan. 9, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Won’t Send Americans Back to Embassy in Havana Yet: U.S. Officials, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, In Wake of ‘Attacks,’ Tillerson Not Returning Staff to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Considers Whether Virus Might Explain Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan, 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Says ‘Viral Attack’ Among theories in Cuba Illnesses, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Harris, U.S. to Open Formal Inquiry on Americans Sickened in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018). In the days before the hearing, disputes erupted over what happened to the diplomats, as discussed in a prior post. (See also posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.)

[2] Press Release, TOMORROW: Rubio Chairs Hearing on Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 8, 2017); Press Release, Menendez Opening Statement at Cuba Hearing (Jan. 9, 2018).

[3] Some Canadian diplomats in Cuba have suffered similar injuries or effects, but on January 10, a Canadian official said Canada has not reached any conclusions on the cause(s) of such ailments. Reuters, No Conclusion on Cause of Health Symptoms at Embassy in Cuba-Canada Official, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2018).

[4] Press Release, Rubio Presses State Department on Response to Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 9, 2018).

[5] The State Department has a statutory obligation to “convene an Accountability  Review Board” . . .  not later than 60 days after the occurrence of an incident [of] . . . .any case of serious injury.” The Department also has an obligation to “promptly notify the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of the incident” of the convening of such a board. (22 U.S.C. §4831.) U.S.

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Gaggle (Jan. 9, 2018).

[7] The subcommittee members in attendance were Senators Rubio and Tom Johnson (Rep., WI), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ),), another Cuban-American critic of normalization; Tom Udall (Dem., NM); and Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH). The absentees were Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), a supporter of normalization who was just in Cuba; Cory Gardner (Rep., CO); Johnny Isakson (Rep., GA); and Tim Kaine (Dem., VA). Two of these absentees (Flake and Gardner) and Menendez were attending the simultaneous White House conference on immigration.

[8] Vidal, Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country, Granma (Jan. 10, 2018).

Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee

On or before January 20 Rex Tillerson provided written responses to questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that is considering his nomination to be Secretary of State.[1] Here we will look at those responses regarding U.S. policies regarding Cuba.

Tillerson’s Responses Regarding Cuba

Many of his responses were “Yes, if I am confirmed” and are not understandable without the question. The following are his responses regarding U.S. policies regarding Cuba [with portions of the questions inserted in brackets to make the answers more understandable]:

  • “If confirmed, I will engage with Cuba but continue to press for reform of its oppressive regime. I will support human rights defenders and democracy activists in Cuba, empower civil society, defend freedom of expression, and promote improved Internet access and I will ask our allies to do the same.”
  • “Yes, if I am confirmed, [I will continue to support programs that promote democratic voices and initiatives in Cuba like Radio and TV Marti].”
  • “If confirmed, I will engage bilaterally and multilaterally to bring these fugitives [like New Jersey cop-killer Joanne Chesimard] to justice.”
  • “Yes, if I am confirmed, [I work with the Treasury Department to ensure that no revenue from American businesses goes directly toward supporting the Cuban military and the regime].”
  • “If confirmed, I will press Cuba to meet its pledge to become more democratic and consider placing conditions on trade or travel policies to motivate the release of political prisoners.”
  • “I will work bilaterally and multilaterally to identify training and technical assistance opportunities to assist with judicial reform, if I am confirmed.”
  • “Yes, [I will stand by President-elect Trump’s commitment to reverse the Obama Administration’s Cuba regulations until freedoms are restored on the island]. There will be a comprehensive review of current policies and executive orders regarding Cuba to determine how best to pressure Cuba to respect human rights and promote democratic changes.”
  • “Yes, [I will stand by Vice President-Elect Pence’s commitment to reverse the Obama Administration’s Cuba regulations].”

Conclusion

Perhaps not too surprisingly, these responses do not add much clarity on the new administration’s policies regarding Cuba. As he said in his live testimony to the Committee and in these written responses, there are hints that the new administration will change at least some aspects of the Obama Administration’s policies to normalize relations with Cuba. But first there will be “a comprehensive review of current policies and executive orders regarding Cuba to determine how best to pressure Cuba to respect human rights and promote democratic changes.”

Those of us who support normalization need to be on guard and register our objections to any proposed retreat from that important, positive development for the U.S. and Cuba and indeed all of Latin America.

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[1] Secretary-of-State-designate Rex Tillerson’s confirmation answers on Latin America, Latin America Goes Global (Jan. 20, 2017)

U.S. Covert or “Discreet” Democracy Promotion Programs in Cuba

Previous posts have discussed misguided covert or “discreet” U.S. democracy promotion programs in Cuba through the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).[1] This is still happening as revealed in a recent hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[2]

On April 26, the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere heard testimony regarding this and other issues from Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State, Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau; Francisco Palmieri, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; and Elizabeth Hogan, Acting Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, USAID.

Highlights of Hearing

Thomas Malinowski [3]

Malinowski’s prepared direct testimony was focused on how the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau (DRL) “works to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in closed societies . . . through the Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF) . . . [which] has grown from $8 million in FY 1998 to $88.5 million in FY 2016.” This past year there were almost 350 such grants “totaling almost $500 million that benefit civil society and activists around the world in their struggle for freedom and dignity.” (Emphasis added.)

With respect to Cuba, he testified, the Bureau was “committed to supporting the people of Cuba as they seek the basic freedoms that their government denies. . . . Consistent with . . . [President Obama’s messages to the Cuban people on his recent visit] DRL programs in Cuba respond to the needs and wishes of the Cuban people, by promoting human rights, facilitating the flow of uncensored information, and strengthening independent civil society. Cuban government restrictions on civil and political rights increase the degree of difficulty of program implementation. But despite these challenges, DRL has been able to sustain consistent support to Cuban civil society for the past 10 years, and we will continue to do so with your support. As the President has made clear our new approach to Cuba is not based on the premise that the human rights situation there has improved; rather it is based on the belief that we will be better able to support the demands of the Cuban people if we keep the focus on the Cuban government’s policies rather than allowing the regime to blame American policies for its problems.” (Emphasis added.)

Francisco Palmieri [4]

Palmieri’s prepared direct testimony was devoted to supporting the Department’s “Fiscal Year 2017 foreign assistance request for the Western Hemisphere” of $1.7 billion. This includes “democracy assistance for Cuba and Venezuela, where the United States will continue to provide assistance to advance universal human rights and support vibrant civil society. The request for Cuba continues direct support for civil society. Promotion of democratic principles and human rights remains at the core of U.S. assistance to Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

Elizabeth Hogan [5]

Hogan testified that USAID is “committed to supporting human rights everywhere we work, including in Cuba and other closing spaces where citizens are arbitrarily detained, threatened, harassed, and beaten for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights.” (Emphasis added.)

Indeed, the USAID website has a page (Last updated April 1, 2016) describing its work in Cuba. It states, “USAID focuses on increasing the ability of Cubans to participate in civic affairs and improve human rights conditions on the island. By reaching out to the dissident community and beyond and engaging citizens to enhance local leadership skills, strengthen organizational capacity, facilitate outreach strategies, and support greater access to information and communication, the USAID program contributes to the development of independent civil society groups that can ultimately make significant contributions at the local and national levels.” [6]

More specifically, the USAID website says it (a) “provides on-going humanitarian support to political prisoners and their families;” (b) “supports independent civic, social, and development activities by providing technical and material assistance to organize, train, and energize small groups of people within their communities . . . to work together in a manner independent from the state;” and (c) “disseminate[s] books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets to broad segments of the population but with an increasing emphasis on promoting the use of social media . . . [with distribution of] laptops to facilitate the sharing of information from USB drives, CDs, and DVDs. “ (Emphasis added.)

To these ends,, the Congress ““appropriated $55 million for Cuba programs between fiscal years 2009-2011; USAID managed nearly $31 million of this amount, while the Department of State managed the remainder. Also, $20 million has been appropriated for fiscal year 2012.”

USAID Inspector General’s Report on Its Cuba Programs

In December 2015 USAID’s Inspector General issued a report criticizing the agency’s programs in Cuba for inadequate monitoring, conflicts of interest and questions of legal responsibility for those involved; and the lack of a policy to protect sensitive work from subversion by Cuban intelligence officials. (Emphasis added.) The 89-page report contained 16 recommendations to improve accountability and prevent conflicts of interest. In response a USAID spokesperson said the agency already had completed several recommendations from the report with the remaining to be finished by July 2016. The spokesperson also noted that the report concluded that its Cuba programs were “consistent with U.S. legislation and designed to support activities ‘that expand the reach and impact of independent civil society in Cuba. [7]

Conclusion

Although the stated goals of the U.S. programs to support democracy in Cuba are laudable, the programs, in my opinion, are not because they are covert or “discreet” as the U.S. bureaucrats like to say because the State Department and USAID are statutorily prohibited from conducting “covert” activities. Yet simultaneously there is general discussion of the programs in the U.S. public record. In short, such programs are antithetical to the promotion of democracy.

Moreover, such programs understandably prompt Cuban authorities to investigate and monitor supposed dissident activities in Cuba, especially given the history of U.S. hostility towards the island and the vastly superior military and economic power of the U.S. Indeed, these U.S. activities prompt the question of whether they are the actual or perceived reasons for Cuba’s reported persecution of dissidents and whether one of the reasons for the U.S. programs is to provoke those very Cuban responses and the subsequent U.S. criticisms, as covered in a recent post.

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[1] U.S. Secret Cuba Social Media Program Raises Questions About the Validity of Criticism of Cuba by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (April 4, 2014); U.S. Senate Hearing Discusses USAID’s Social Media Program for Cuba (April 9, 2014); What Is Wrong with the White House’s Plan for Democracy in Cuba? (April 9, 2014); Yet Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba (Aug. 12, 2014); Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: U.S. Government’s Reactions (Aug. 13, 2014); Another USAID Effort To Promote Regime Change in Cuba: Other Reactions (Aug. 14, 2014); New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts To Promote Regime Change in Cuba (Nov. 10, 2014); Email to President Obama Objecting to Covert or “Discreet” U.S. Government Programs Purportedly Promoting Democracy and Human Rights in Cuba (Jan. 7, 2015); Reforming U.S. “Democracy Promotion” Programs in Cuba (Nov. 6, 2015).

[2] U.S. Senate, Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, Review of Resources, Priorities and Programs in the FY 2017 State Department Budget Request (April 26, 2016)  I have not been able to find the actual budget request, which would be interesting to peruse.

[3] Testimony of Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski (April 26, 2016).

[4] Testimony of Francisco Palmieri, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (April 26, 2016). Palmieri also testified that the U.S. was not going to change its “dry feet” policy for admission of Cubans into the U.S.

[5] Prepared Testimony of Elizabeth Hogan (April 26, 2016).

[6] USAID, Cuba—Our Work.

[7] USAID Inspector General Report (Dec. 2015) ( (no longer available online); Assoc. Press, Watchdog: Secret US ‘Cuban Twitter’ Programs Problematic, N.Y. Times (Dec. 23, 2015) (no longer available online); Statement by USAID Spokesman Ben Edwards (Dec. 23, 2015).