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.

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[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).

U.S.-Cuba Relations Discussed in U.N. Proceedings

During the week of September 18-22, U.S.-Cuba relations was one of many topics of discussion at the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council. Here are those details.

U.S. Statements

 As discussed in a prior post, on September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a lengthy speech to the General Assembly that, in part, criticized Cuba. He said,

  • The U.S. “ has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.”
  • “From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”

The next day (September 20) U.S. Vice President Mike Pence appeared at the Security Council to support reform of the U.N. peacekeeping function and to vote in favor of a resolution to that effect that was adopted that day.[1] Here is a photograph of the Vice President and U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley at the Council.

He also said the following about Cuba:[2]

  • To “keep the peace most effectively, this body must have the credibility to pursue peace by advancing the cause of human rights. It’s no coincidence that some of the most dangerous regimes in the world are also some of the worst abusers of human rights.”
  • “That was the purpose under which the U.N. Human Rights Council was formed. But the truth is, the Human Rights Council doesn’t deserve its name. As we look at the membership of the council today, we see nations that betray these timeless principles upon which this institution was founded. Today, the United Nations Human Rights Council actually attracts and welcomes many of the worst human rights violators in the world. A clear majority of the Human Rights Council’s members fail to meet even the most basic human rights standards. [One of them is Cuba,] an oppressive regime that has repressed its people and jailed political opponents for more than half a century.” (Emphasis added.)

The Vice President added that the Security Council “must reform the Human Rights Council’s membership and its operation. . . .   [The U.S. calls] on the Security Council and this entire body to immediately embrace reforms of the membership and practices of the Human Rights Council and end the [latter’s] blatant bias against our cherished ally Israel.”[3]

Cuba’s Response

The Cuban response to both of these U.S. statements was provided in a speech at the General Assembly on September 22 by Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, as shown in the following photograph. [4]

The following are his lengthy comments about these speeches and other aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship:

  • The U.N.’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development lacks the means for its implementation, due to the egoism and lack of political will of the [U.S.] and other industrialized countries.”
  • “What is the miraculous recipe that President Donald Trump recommends to us in the absence of the financial flows of the Marshall Plan? Who will contribute the resources for that? How can this be reconciled with the ‘America First’ idea advanced by Presidents Reagan and Trump?”
  • “President Trump ignores and distorts history and portrays a chimera as a goal to be pursued. The production and consumption patterns . . . of neoliberal capitalism are unsustainable and irrational and will inexorably lead to the destruction of the environment and the end of the human species.”
  • “Can anyone forget about the consequences of colonialism, slavery, neocolonialism and imperialism?”
  • “Could the several decades of bloody military dictatorships in Latin America be referred to as an example of a successful capitalism? Does anyone know of any recipe of neoliberal capitalism that has been better applied than those which destroyed the Latin American economies in the 1980s?”
  • “It is both indispensable and urgent for the [U.N.] to work in order to establish a new participatory, democratic, equitable and inclusive international economic order, as well as a new financial architecture that take into account the needs and peculiarities of developing countries and the asymmetries that exist in world trade and finances as a result of centuries of exploitation and plundering”
  • “Industrialized countries have the moral duty, the historical responsibility as well as sufficient financial and technological means for that.”
  • “Not even the rich will enjoy the announced prosperity if climate change is not stopped. Cuba regrets the decision taken by the government of the [U.S.], which has been historically the principal greenhouse-gas emitting government in the planet, to withdraw its country from the Paris Agreement.”
  • “The U.S. government has come here to tell us that, in addition to prosperity, the other two ‘beautiful pillars’ of international order are sovereignty and security.”
  • “We all share the common responsibility to preserve the existence of human beings in the face of a nuclear threat. An important contribution to the achievement of that goal was the historical adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons . . . , which proscribe the use and the threat of use of those weapons that have the capacity to annihilate the human species. Obviously, the [U.S.] strongly opposed this treaty. It announced that it will invest 700 billion dollars in military expenditures and is developing an extremely aggressive nuclear and military doctrine based on the threat to use and the use of force.”
  • “NATO member States [act] against international peace and security and International Law by promoting military interventions and non-conventional wars against sovereign States.”
  • “The illegal imposition of unilateral coercive measures and the use of financial, legal, cultural and communicational instruments to destabilize governments as well as the denial of peoples’ right to self-determination have become customary.”
  • “The covert use of . . . [Information and Communications Technology] to attack other States increases, while several developed countries strongly oppose the adoption of international treaties that would regulate cooperation in order to achieve a safe cyberspace.”
  • “The U.S. President manipulates the concepts of sovereignty and security to his exclusive benefit and to the detriment of all others, including his allies. The attempt to resort to military threats and force to stop the irreversible world trend to multi-polarization and polycentrism will seriously jeopardize international peace and security, which should be defended and preserved through international mobilization.”
  • “The principles of sovereign equality, respect for the territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of States should be observed. The UN Charter and International Law admit no re-interpretation.”
  • “The [U.N.] reform should pursue the principal goal of responding to the pressing needs of peoples and the great disadvantaged majorities. Multilateralism should be protected and reinforced in the face of the imperialist interests of domination and hegemony.The democratization of the Security Council, both in terms of its composition and its working methods, is a most urgent task. The strengthening of the General Assembly and the recovery of the functions that have been usurped from it are indispensable.”
  • “The ‘patriotism’ invoked in the U.S. statement is a perversion of humanism, the love and loyalty to the homeland and of the enrichment and defense of national and universal culture. It embodies an exceptionalist and supremacist vision of ignorant intolerance in the face of diverse political, economic, social and cultural models.”
  • “In developed countries, the loss of legitimacy of political systems and parties worsens and electoral abstentionism is on the rise. Corruption, whether legal or illegal, has turned into metastasis. So is the extreme case of the so-called ‘special interests’ or corporate payments in exchange for benefits in the country that spends the highest amount of money in electoral campaigns and where, paradoxically, a candidate with the lowest number of popular votes can be elected or entitled to govern with a negligible support by voters.”
  • There has been an increasing and unheard-of use of science and technology to exercise hegemony, mutilate national cultures and manipulate human behavior, as is the case of the so-called ‘big data’ or psychometry, used for political and advertising purposes. Seven consortia keep a strict control of whatever is read, watched or heard in the planet. Technologies are being monopolized. The governance of digital networks is dictatorial and discriminatory and, despite appearances, the digital divide between rich and poor countries is increasing.”
  • “The opportunities and rights of youths, migrants and workers are curtailed and their human rights are openly and systematically violated”
  • On September 20, “U.S. Vice-President, Michael Pence, ridiculously ignoring the functions of the Security Council and attempting to establish new prerogatives, said that [the Security Council] should modify the composition and methods of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which ‘doesn’t deserve its name’ because ‘a clear majority of the Human Rights Council members fail to meet even the most basic human rights standards.’ I suppose he is not including, in this case, his own country, which will in fact deserve to be included because of its pattern of systematic violations of human rights, namely the use of torture, arbitrary detentions and imprisonment–as occurs at the Guantanamo Naval Base–, the assassination of African-Americans by law enforcement agents, the killing of innocent civilians perpetrated by its troops and the xenophobia and repression against immigrants –including minors– as well as its scarce adherence to international instruments.”
  • “On June 16, . . . President Trump announced the new Cuba policy of his administration, which is a setback in U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations and undermines the bases established two years ago to advance towards a new type of relation between our countries, characterized by respect and equality. The U.S. Government has decided to tighten the economic, commercial and financial blockade by imposing new obstacles to the already limited possibilities its business community had to trade with and invest in Cuba as well as additional restrictions on U.S. citizens willing to travel to our country.”
  • “Those decisions ignore the support from broad sectors in the U.S., including the majority of Cuban émigrés, to the lifting of the blockade and the normalization of relations. They only serve the interests of a group of Cuban origin, based in South Florida, which is an ever more isolated and minoritarian group that insists in harming Cuba and its people for having decided to defend, at all costs, the right to be free, independent and sovereign. Today we reiterate our condemnation of the measures aimed at tightening the blockade and reaffirm that any strategy intended to destroy the Revolution will fail.”
  • “Likewise, we reject the manipulation of the human rights issue against Cuba, which has a lot to be proud of and has no need to receive lessons from the [U.S.] or anyone.”
  • We “express our strongest condemnation of the disrespectful, offensive and interventionist statement against Cuba and the Cuban government, made [by President Trump]. We remind him that the [U.S.], where flagrant human rights violations are committed, which raise deep concern among the international community, has no moral authority to judge my country. We reaffirm that Cuba will never accept any preconditions or impositions, nor will it ever renounce any of its principles.”
  • “Regarding the alleged incidents that. . . have affected U.S. diplomatic officials in Havana we categorically affirm that the Cuban government rigorously and seriously abides by its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in relation to the protection and the integrity of all diplomats without any exception, including those from the [U.S.] Cuba has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate actions of this sort. Cuba has never allowed nor will it ever allow its territory to be used by third parties with that purpose. The Cuban authorities, based on the preliminary results of the priority investigation that is being carried out with a high technical component, following instructions from the top level of our government, has taken into account the data contributed by the U.S. authorities and so far has found no evidence whatsoever that could confirm the causes or the origin of the health disorders referred to by U.S. diplomats and their relatives. The investigation to clarify this issue continues, and in order to be able to arrive to a conclusion, it will be crucial to count on the cooperation of the U.S. authorities. It would be unfortunate if a matter of this nature is politicized.”
  • “As was expressed by the Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz, Cuba is willing to continue negotiating all pending bilateral issues with the United States, on the basis of equality and absolute respect for the sovereignty and independence of our country; and maintaining a respectful dialogue and cooperation in areas of common interest with the U.S. government.”
  • “Cuba and the [U.S.] can cooperate and coexist, respecting their differences and promoting everything that benefits both countries and peoples, but no one should expect Cuba to make concessions that affect its sovereignty and independence.”
  • “The Cuban people will not cease in their legitimate claim for the lifting and total elimination of the economic, commercial and financial blockade and will continue to denounce the strengthening of that policy. In November Cuba will once again present to the [U.N.] General Assembly [a resolution for ending the U.S. blockade of Cuba]. “

Conclusion

The above comments by President Trump and Vice President Pence, while not surprising from their administration, are a most unfortunate retreat from the efforts by President Obama and President Castro to normalize the two countries’ relations and abandon U.S. hostility towards the island.

The U.N. Human Rights Council was created by the U.N. General Assembly on March 15, 2006, by resolution 60/251. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the U.N. Security Council has any authority to make changes in the structure of the Human Rights Council, and Vice President Pence’s suggestion that this be done seems inappropriate unless it was intended as a call for the Security Council to recommend that this be done.

The lengthy comments by Cuba’s Foreign Minister Rodriguez are also not surprising with perhaps one exception. With respect to the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba, he said, “The investigation to clarify this issue continues, and in order to be able to arrive to a conclusion, it will be crucial to count on the cooperation of the U.S. authorities. It would be unfortunate if a matter of this nature is politicized.” All reports to date have indicated that the two countries are cooperating on investigating these issues, and the Foreign Minister’s comment seems to suggest that future U.S. cooperation was questionable. Is this so? If so, that would be most unfortunate and inadvisable for many reasons. The statement about  the possible U.S. politicization of this issue is also surprising unless it was an indirect reference to the letter to the Trump Administration by five Republican U.S. Senators led by Senator Marco Rubio (FL) that called for several U.S. actions against Cuba over this problem, including closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as was discussed in an earlier post.

This coming November there will be a General Assembly debate and vote on Resolution A/72/50 42: Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.[5] It is widely assumed that this will be adopted by an overwhelming margin; the similar resolution last year passed, 191-0 (with two abstentions by the U.S. and Israel), as discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.N. Security Council, Resolution 2378 (2017).

[2] White House, Remarks by the Vice President to the UN Security Council (Sept. 20, 2017); Assoc. Press, Pence Applauds UN Resolution on Peacemaking Reform, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2017); Reuters, Pence Tells U.N. That America First Does Not Mean America Alone, N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] The same day (September 20) the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland issued a reprimand of Cuba while U.S. and Cuba representatives traded comments on Cuban human rights. This will be discussed in a subsequent post.

[4] Rodriguez, Cuba will never accept any preconditions or impositions (+ Video), Granma (Sept. 22, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Urges U.S. Not to Politicise Allegations of Harmed Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 22, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuban Official: Still No Clue on US Diplomat Health Issue, N.Y. [InformationTimes (Sept. 22, 2017).

[5] U.N., Report of the Secretary-General, Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba, No. A/72/94  (July 26, 2017)

President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies

On June 16 in the Little Havana district of Miami, Florida, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. With a flourish at the end of his speech, Trump signed the National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba to document the new policy. Back in Washington, D.C. the White House issued a Fact Sheet and a Background Briefing and the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About the New Policy.

An examination of these documents, however, reveals that there is more smoke than fire to the changes. Most of the preexisting normalization policies and actions are not affected, and the changes that were made by executive action can be overturned by federal legislation.

Subsequent posts will review U.S. and Cuban reactions to these changes before providing this blogger’s reactions and recommendations.

National Security Presidential Memorandum[1]

The Memorandum’s purpose in grandiose language is “to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. . . . [to] channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society [and to condemn abuses by the Cuban regime]. . . . [The] Administration will continue to evaluate its policies so as to improve human rights, encourage the rule of law, foster free markets and free enterprise, and promote democracy in Cuba.” (Section 1)

The Memorandum in section 2 then states the Administration’s policy shall be to:

  • “(a) End economic practices that disproportionately benefit the Cuban government or its military, intelligence, or security agencies or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people.
  • (b) Ensure adherence to the statutory ban on tourism to Cuba.
  • (c) Support the economic embargo of Cuba described in [federal statutes] . . . (d) Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services, free press, free enterprise, free association, and lawful travel.
  • (e) Not reinstate the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy, which encouraged untold thousands of Cuban nationals to risk their lives to travel unlawfully to the [U.S.].
  • (f) Ensure that engagement between the [U.S.] and Cuba advances the interests of the [U.S.] and the Cuban people. . . . [including] advancing Cuban human rights; encouraging the growth of a Cuban private sector independent of government control; enforcing final orders of removal against Cuban         nationals in the [U.S.]; protecting the national security and public health and safety of the [U.S.], including through proper engagement on criminal cases and working to ensure the return of fugitives from American justice living in Cuba     or being harbored by the Cuban government; supporting [U.S.] agriculture and protecting plant and animal health; advancing the understanding of the [U.S.] regarding scientific and environmental challenges; and facilitating safe civil  aviation.”

The Memorandum in section 3 concludes with detailed directions for implementation.

White House Fact Sheet[2]

The White House Fact Sheet on this policy change stated the following as its objectives: (1) “Enhance compliance with United States law—in particular the provisions that govern the embargo of Cuba and the ban on tourism; (2) Hold the Cuban regime accountable for oppression and human rights abuses ignored under the Obama policy; (3) Further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people; and (4) Lay the groundwork for empowering the Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty.”

The Fact Sheet then stated the following “Summary of Key Policy Changes:”

  • “The new policy channels economic activities away from the Cuban military monopoly, Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA), including most travel-related transactions, while allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba. The new policy makes clear that the primary obstacle to the Cuban people’s prosperity and economic freedom is the Cuban military’s practice of controlling virtually every profitable sector of the economy. President Trump’s policy changes will encourage American commerce with free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector.”
  • “The policy enhances travel restrictions to better enforce the statutory ban on United States tourism to Cuba.  Among other changes, travel for non-academic educational purposes will be limited to group travel.  The self-directed, individual travel permitted by the Obama administration will be prohibited.  Cuban-Americans will be able to continue to visit their family in Cuba and send them remittances.”
  • “The policy reaffirms the United States statutory embargo of Cuba and opposes calls in the United Nations and other international forums for its termination. The policy also mandates regular reporting on Cuba’s progress—if any—toward greater political and economic freedom.”
  • “The policy clarifies that any further improvements in the United States-Cuba relationship will depend entirely on the Cuban government’s willingness to improve the lives of the Cuban people, including through promoting the rule of law, respecting human rights, and taking concrete steps to foster political and economic freedoms.”

Significantly this Fact Sheet did not contain actual new regulations to implement the policy changes. Instead, “the Treasury and Commerce Departments [were directed] to begin the process of issuing new regulations within 30 days.  The policy changes will not take effect until those Departments have finalized their new regulations, a process that may take several months.  The Treasury Department has issued Q&As that provide additional detail on the impact of the policy changes on American travelers and businesses.”

White House Background Briefing[3]

The prior day the White House conducted a background briefing on this policy change for journalists.

In addition to presaging the chances noted above, it stated that the new policy was the result of “a full review of U.S. policy toward Cuba [led by the] National Security Council . . . [under the leadership of] General McMaster, [that] engaged in a thorough interagency review process, including more than a dozen working-level meetings, multiple deputies meetings, and principal meetings.  This interagency process included . . . the Treasury Department, the State Department, Commerce Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Transportation. . . .”

“Additionally, during this process, the President met with members of Congress who are experts on Cuba policy and have been leaders in formulating Cuba policy, from a legislative perspective, for years.  These members also worked with us hand-in-glove in providing technical guidance and policy suggestions as we continued to formulate the policy and went through multiple drafts.”

“The President and other principals also met with members on both sides of the aisle in this process, and even, additionally, were sharing thoughts with those who have, I think, been advocates — in particular, agricultural trade with Cuba.”

U.S. Treasury Department FAQs[4]

The June 16th FAQs emphasize that the Department’s changes will become effective only upon its issuance of amendments to its Cuban Assets Control Regulation, which are expected in a couple of months.

The upcoming amendments will end individual people-to-people travel. But still permissible will be group people to-people travel: “educational travel not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program that takes place under the auspices of an organization that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact. Travelers utilizing this travel authorization must maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that are 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. An employee, consultant, or agent of the group must accompany each group to ensure that each traveler maintains a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.”

“The announced policy changes will not change the authorizations for sending remittances to Cuba.”

Vice President Pence and President Trump’s Speeches Announcing the Change[5]

Trump’s speech was a full-blown condemnation of many Cuban policies and practices and U.S. past and current efforts to change those policies and practices that went far beyond the limited changes previously mentioned. He was introduced by Vice President Pence, who reiterated some of the same rhetorical devices regarding Cuba.

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[1] White House, National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017).

[2] White House, Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017).

[3] White House, Background Briefing on the President’s Cuba Policy (June 15, 2017).

[4] U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions on President Trump’s Cuba Announcement (June 16m 2017); U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba (Jan. 6, 2017).

[5] White House, Remarks by the Vice President on the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017); White House, Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba (June 16, 2017); DeYoung & Wagner, Trump announces revisions to parts of Obama’s Cuba policy, Wash. Post (June 16, 2017); Davis, Trump Reverses Pieces of Obama-Era Engagement with Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Announces Rollback of Obama’s Cuba Policy, W.S.J. (June 16, 2017).

 

 

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)