Other Reactions to U.S. Ordering Removal of 15 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 while other posts looked at recent developments on these issues and on Cuba’s reaction to that U.S. decision and order. This post will discuss reactions from others.

Opposition to Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[1]

The harshest criticism of this decision along with others recently taken by the Trump Administration has been leveled by Harold Trinkunas, the deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Richard Feinberg, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.They say the following:

  • “This White House and its pro-embargo allies in Congress have opportunistically seized on these mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats to overturn the pro-normalization policies of a previous administration, using bureaucratic obstruction and reckless language when they cannot make the case for policy change on the merits alone.”
  • By taking these precipitous actions, Trinkunas and Feinberg argue, “this White House is doing exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke. Overt U.S. hostility [towards Cuba] empowers anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries. In addition, [the announced American travel restrictions and warning hurts] the privately-operated [and progressive] segments of the Cuban tourism sector, and . . . [thereby weakens] the emerging Cuban middle class.”
  • Furthermore, they say, “a breakdown in U.S.-Cuban relations allows Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin. By pushing Cuba away, the U.S. is pushing it towards other actors whose interests are not aligned with our own.
  • “Our partners in Latin America welcomed the change in U.S. policy towards Cuba in 2014 as a sign that the Cold War had finally ended in the Western Hemisphere. The [Trump] administration’s retreat from the opening towards Cuba alarms our friends in the Americas and calls into question the enduring value of U.S. commitments . . . . This pattern of reckless animus towards diplomacy comes at a cost to the international reputation of the U.S. with no apparent gain for our interests abroad.”
  • “U.S. hostility [also] risks damaging the coming transition to a new Cuban government after President Raul Castro steps down in early 2018 by strengthening the hand of anti-American hardliners who oppose further economic opening on the island.”
  • “It damages Cuban-Americans and their families by impeding travel and the flow of funding associated with their visits, and those of other American visitors, which have allowed the Cuban private sector to gain traction. It also damages U.S. relations with our partners in the region, who have long criticized what they see as senseless hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. And finally, the Trump administration’s approach serves to widen the door to U.S. geopolitical adversaries, such as Russia and Venezuela, to advance their interests in Cuba and in the region.”
  • “Many of our professional diplomats, both those stationed in Havana and those at the State Department, oppose the dramatic downsizing of the U.S. and Cuban missions. While all are concerned for the safety of U.S. personnel, the health incidents seem to be in sharp decline. The U.S. diplomats in Havana are proud of the gains in advancing U.S. interests in Cuba, and they wish to continue to protect and promote them.”

EngageCuba, the leading bipartisan coalition promoting U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, said, “”The diplomats and their families suffering from unexplained health issues deserve answers. If the U.S. government is serious about solving this mystery, they shouldn’t make it more difficult to cooperate with the Cuban government during this critical time of the investigation. This decision appears to be purely political, driven by the desire of a handful of individuals in Congress to halt progress between our two countries. Expelling Cuban diplomats will not solve this mystery; it will not improve the safety of U.S. personnel, but it will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island. We hope that the driving forces behind this decision are comfortable with their Cuban-American constituents being unable to visit their loved ones.”

This EngageCuba statement followed the one it issued about the reduction of staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It said, “”The safety and security of all diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and anywhere in the world, is the first priority of our country. Whoever is behind these serious and inexcusable attacks on American diplomats must be apprehended and brought to justice. We must be careful that our response does not play into the hands of the perpetrators of these attacks, who are clearly seeking to disrupt the process of normalizing relations between our two countries. This could set a dangerous precedent that could be used by our enemies around the world.

EngageCUBA continued, “It is puzzling that the Trump Administration would use this delicate time in the investigation to advise Americans against traveling to Cuba, given the fact that none of these attacks have been directed at American travelers. We are also concerned for the Cuban people, who will be impacted by this decision. Halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from traveling to Cuba will divide families and harm Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island.”

In conclusion, said EngageCUBA, “the U.S. and Cuba must redouble efforts to solve this mystery as quickly as possible in order to keep our embassy personnel safe and continue to move forward with strengthening relations between our two countries.”

A New York Times’ editorial similarly observed, “until there is concrete evidence about the source of the attacks, the Trump administration is wrong to expel Cuban diplomats from Washington. . . . Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s explanation that Cuba should be punished for failing to protect American diplomats presumes that Cuba was at least aware of the attacks, which the [U.S.] has neither demonstrated nor claimed. “Furthermore, “Until something more is known, punishing Havana serves only to further undermine the sensible opening to Cuba begun under Barack Obama. President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the détente — in June his government ordered restrictions on contacts with Cuba that have slowed the flow of visitors to the island, and last week the State Department warned Americans not to travel there, though there is no evidence that tourists are in danger. The sonic attacks on Americans are too serious to be used for cynical political ends.”

Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said: “The United States is using the confusion and uncertainty surrounding these events as justification to take a big step backwards in U.S.-Cuban relations. This doesn’t serve our national interests, or our diplomacy, and it most certainly doesn’t do anything to help advance human rights or a more open political climate in Cuba. This is an unfortunate decision that ought to be reversed.”

Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), the Chair of the Congressional Cuba Working Group, stated, “The Administration’s decision last week to withdraw all non-essential personnel from our embassy in Havana was concerning but understandable to ensure the safety of our foreign service staff on the island. Unfortunately, yesterday’s actions do not seem to advance our efforts of identifying a cause or culprit behind these ‘sonic attacks.’ Instead of sending us back down a path of isolation, we must foster open lines of communication as we continue the investigation to determine who must be held responsible for these attacks on Americans. We cannot lose sight of the fact that an improved and sustained relationship with Cuba brings us one step closer to ensuring the stability and security of the entire Western Hemisphere.”

Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, more guardedly said, “Although . . . [the] decision to expel Cuban diplomats brings parity between U.S. and Cuban embassy personnel levels, I am concerned that it may also stoke diplomatic tensions and complicate our ability to conduct a thorough investigation of these attacks. The U.S. should not take actions that could undermine our bilateral relations with Cuba and U.S. policies aimed at advancing our strategic national interests in the hemisphere.”

Although the most recent Cuba Travel Warning from the State Department strongly discouraged Americans from traveling to Cuba, “several cruise lines operating ships in and around Cuba have released statements pushing back on the warning, noting that no tourists have been harmed in these incidents.” Moreover, “several cruise companies had already announced significant expansion of their Cuba operations before the warning was issued.”

Approval of Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats[2]

This latest U.S. announcement is what was recommended by a Wall Street Journal editorial and by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who immediately tweeted that this was “the right decision.” His subsequent press release Rubio stated, “I commend the US State Department for expelling a number of Cuban operatives from the US. No one should be fooled by the Castro regime’s claim it knows nothing about how these harmful attacks are occurring or who perpetrated them. I have called on the State Department to conduct an independent investigation and submit a comprehensive report to Congress. . . . All nations have an obligation to ensure the protection of diplomatic representatives in their countries. Cuba is failing miserably and proving how misguided and dangerous the Obama Administration’s decisions were.”[7]  He added, ““At this time, the U.S. embassy in Havana should be downgraded to an interests section and we should be prepared to consider additional measures against the Castro regime if these attacks continue.”

This news should also be welcomed by the Washington Post, whose recent editorial continued this newspaper’s hard line about U.S.-Cuba relations by refusing to believe Cuba’s denial of knowledge about the cause and perpetrator of the “attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana. It asserts “recent events suggest that the unpleasant reality of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship remains in place” and that “For decades, the Cuban state security apparatus has kept a watchful eye on everything that moves on the island, and informants lurk on every block. It begs disbelief that Cuba does not know what is going on. Unfortunately, this kind of deception and denial is all too familiar behavior.” Therefore, if “Cuba sincerely wants better relations with the United States, it could start by revealing who did this, and hold them to account.”[8]

This suspicion of Cuban involvement in the attacks received some corroboration by the Associated Press, which reports that six unnamed sources say that “many of the first reported cases [of attacks] involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy.” Moreover, of “the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed.” U.S. investigators, according to the AP, have identified “three ‘zones,’ or geographic clusters of attacks, [which] cover the homes where U.S. diplomats live and several hotels where attacks occurred, including the historic Hotel Capri.” Both the State Department and the CIA declined to comment to the AP. This report undoubtedly will fuel efforts to overturn normalization of relations between the two countries.[9]

Conclusion

I agree with Trinkunas and Feinberg, the recent decisions about Cuba by the Trump Administration do exactly what our adversaries in the region seek to provoke: empower anti-American hardliners in the Cuban regime opposed to stronger bilateral relations between the two countries; damage Cuba’s upcoming transition to a new government after Raúl Castro leaves the presidency early next year; and hurt and weaken the privately-operated and progressive segments of the Cuban tourism sector. In addition, those decisions weaken U.S. relations with most other governments in Latin America while damaging many Cuban and Cuban-American families seeking to maintain and increase their ties. Those decisions also allow Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela, all of which are hostile to the U.S., to deepen their influence in Cuba and the broader Caribbean Basin.

I must also note my surprise that at the two recent State Department press briefings no journalist followed up on the previously mentioned Associated Press report that the initial U.S. diplomats who reported medical problems were U.S. intelligence agents to ask whether that report was valid and other related questions.

All who support the continuation of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation should oppose these moves by the Trump Administration.

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[1] Trinkunas & Feinberg, Reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America’s interests, The Hill (Oct. 5, 2017);  EngageCuba, Statement on U.S. Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats in Washington (Oct. 3, 2017); Engage Cuba, Statement on U.S. Cuts to Havana Embassy & Travel Alert (Sept. 29, 2017); Editorial, Cuba and the Mystery of the Sonic Weapon, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017) (this editorial also noted that the reported medical problems “are real and serious” and that “Cuba’s repressive government must be the prime suspect”); WOLA, U.S. Plan to Expel Two-thirds of Cuban Embassy Needlessly Sets Back U.S.-Cuba Relations (Oct. 3, 2017); Emmer Statement on Administration’s Decision to Remove Cuban Diplomats from Washington, D.C. (Oct. 4, 2017); Cardin Questions Expulsion of Cuban Diplomats amidst Attacks on U.S. Personnel in Cuba (Oct. 3, 2017); Morello, U.S. will expel 15 Cuban diplomats, escalating tensions over mystery illnesses, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2017); Gomez, U.S. orders 15 Cuban diplomats to leave; Cuba blames Washington for deteriorating relations, Miami Herald (Oct. 3, 2017); Glusac, Despite Travel Warning, Cruises to Cuba Continue, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[2] Rubio Press Release, Rubio commends State Department’s Expulsion of Cuban Operatives (Oct. 3, 2017); Editorial, Cuba plays dumb in attacks on American diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2017); Assoc. Press, APNewsBreak: Attacks in Havana Hit US Spy Network in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2017).

 

Request Temporary Loosening of U.S. Embargo of Cuba

As has been widely reported, Hurricane Irma caused major destruction of Cuba’s buildings, homes and roads. Now it needs to reconstruct and recover.

However, the U.S. embargo of Cuba hinders that reconstruction. Therefore, the U.S. should remove restrictions on the ability of U.S. companies to export needed relief and reconstruction supplies to the Cuban government and its people.

The Latin American Working Group (LAWG) [1] and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)[2] are organizing a campaign asking President Trump temporarily to loosen the U.S. embargo in order to facilitate U.S. companies’ helping Cuba with its reconstruction and recovery from Hurricane Irma. Here is their proposed letter to President Trump with copies to the author’s U.S. senators and representative:

  • Dear President Trump,

    We are extremely saddened by the loss of life and destruction in the Caribbean from Hurricane Irma. Cuba was particularly hard hit: ten people perished and billions of dollars’ in damage was done to their already weak infrastructure and housing, in what was the strongest hurricane to hit Cuba in 85 years. Cuba absorbed much of Irma’s force, lessening the storm’s impact on southern Florida and the United States. Historical grievances should be put aside during a humanitarian crisis like this – the people of Cuba need urgent support to rebuild.

    Fortunately, there is a simple change you can make that would provide necessary support to the Cuban people while at the same time helping U.S. businesses: remove restrictions on the ability of U.S. companies to export needed relief and reconstruction supplies to the Cuban government and its people. Although current Treasury Department embargo regulations authorize U.S. companies to provide services related to infrastructure in Cuba (31 CFR 515.591), Commerce Department export regulations require that U.S. exports to support the provision of such services be approved on a case-by-case basis.  (15 CFR 746.2) Obama administration regulations specifically licensed only the sale of tools and construction materials to private entities, servicing only privately-owned buildings, thus excluding public facilities such as schools and hospitals. At this critical time, we should relax these restrictions to allow other appropriate entities in Cuba to purchase needed relief and reconstruction supplies and equipment, even if only temporarily during the rebuilding period.

    Companies like Caterpillar and Home Depot, a founding member of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, have shown interest in providing needed supplies to Cuba in the past. Bill Lane, senior director of global government and corporate affairs for Caterpillar, has said that “Everything Caterpillar makes in the United States is needed in Cuba.” Making this regulatory change would not only help the Cuban people rebuild, but would provide a boon to companies in America who provide good manufacturing jobs to our people.

    This change would not be controversial. Even before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba, 90 percent of Americans supported increasing U.S. business engagement with Cuba. At this difficult time for the Cuban people, denying them the ability to purchase high quality, American-made construction, medical, and other crucial supplies is cruel and counterproductive.  We urge you to take action without further delay.

    Thank you kindly for your consideration. We look forward to your response.

    Sincerely,

    [Letter writer]

cc: U.S. Senators, U.S. Representative

So far over 20 members of Congress have co-signed the letter. We urge you to send such a letter and also copy LAWG (http://www.lawg.org/about-us) and WOLA (https://www.wola.org/get-involved/contact). 

====================================================[1] LAWG, which was founded in 1983, “leads one of the nation’s longest-standing coalitions dedicated to foreign policy. LAWG and its sister organization, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, work with over 50 major religious to promote humanitarian, grassroots, labor and change in U.S. policies towards Latin America and to promote human rights, justice, peace and sustainable development throughout the region.

[2]  WOLA “is a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. We envision a future where public policies protect human rights and recognize human dignity, and where justice overcomes violence. WOLA tackles problems that transcend borders and demand cross-border solutions. We create strategic partnerships with courageous people making social change—advocacy organizations, academics, religious and business leaders, artists, and government officials. Together, we advocate for more just societies in the Americas.”

 

Lobbying the Incoming Trump Administration To Continue Normalization with Cuba  

Major supporters of U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba have been lobbying the incoming Trump administration to continue that policy. This includes Cuban entrepreneurs, as discussed in a prior post, and most recently U.S. agricultural and business groups.

Agricultural Groups[1]

On January 12 over 100 U.S. agricultural trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau and the American Feed Industry Association, sent a letter to President-Elect Trump. It said, ” we urge you to continue to show your support for American agriculture by advancing the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and building on the progress that has already been made.”

The letter cited a recent deep dip in farm income to bolster their argument that U.S. farmers needed more trade. “Net farm income is down 46 percent from just three years ago, constituting the largest three-year drop since the start of the Great Depression.”

They also mentioned that under an exception to the U.S. trade embargo from the year 2000, Cuba may import agricultural products for cash, but this cash limitation limits the ability of U.S. agriculture to export to Cuba. Therefore, the letter calls on Trump to allow normal trade financing and credit so the sector can better compete for the Cuban market.

The letter concluded with these words: “As a broad cross-section of rural America, we urge you not to take steps to reverse progress made in normalizing relations with Cuba, and also solicit your support for the agricultural business sector to expand trade with Cuba to help American farmers and our associated industries. It’s time to put the 17 million American jobs associated with agriculture ahead of a few hardline politicians in Washington.”

Business Groups[2]

On January 17 the Cuban Study Group, an organization of Cuban-American business leaders, led a group of advocates for U.S.-Cuba normalization, in submitting to the President-elect a memorandum entitled “U.S. Policy Toward Cuba: the Case for Engagement.”

It argued that continued engagement with Cuba will create U.S. jobs and facilitate more positive change on the island. It states “constructive engagement — including the reduction of travel and commercial barriers — is the best strategy for supporting the Cuban people and boosting U.S. jobs and exports.” Indeed, further progress toward normalization stands the best chance of improving security just off U.S. shores, reducing irregular migration, enhancing the management of U.S. borders, and encouraging continued, positive evolution inside the island.” More specifically, continued engagement with Cuba should produce the following benefits to the U.S.:”

  • “U.S. Job Creation. Further engagement would allow the United States to regain lost market share in emerging Cuban markets from economic competitors such as China, Vietnam, and Brazil and employ thousands of U.S. workers in agribusiness, infrastructure, tech, and tourism.
  • Cuban-American support. Lifting restrictions on remittances and travel allows Cuban-Americans to support their families in Cuba and provide critical seed funding for the island’s nascent private sector.
  • Cuba’s burgeoning entrepreneurial sector. In just a few years, Cuba’s private sector has grown to account for 30% of the country’s workforce. U.S. travelers to Cuba have become the principal source of revenue for many small businesses.
  • Greater access to information. Internet access is growing, and continued engagement can further contribute to connectivity and the development of civil society in Cuba.”

Moreover, they say, “to reflexively reverse course could have pernicious consequences for U.S. economic and foreign policy interests and the prospects of evolutionary change in Cuba.”

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[1] Engage Cuba, Over 100 U.S. Agriculture Groups Urge Trump to Strengthen U.S.-Cuba Trade Relationship (Jan. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Farmers Ask Trump to Stay the Course on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017).

[2] Engage Cuba, Cuba Groups to Trump: Reversing Course Could Harm Cuban People and U.S. Interests (Jan. 17, 2017); Reuters, U.S.-Cuba Detente Supporters Make Last-ditch Effort to Sway Trump, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2017).

The other signers of the memorandum are the American Society/Council of the Americas; the U.S.-Cuba Business Council; the Center for Democracy in the Americas; Ted Piccone, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Richard E. Feinberg, Professor, UC San Diego and Senior Fellow (non-resident), Brookings Institution; William M. LeoGrande, Professor of Government, American University; Engage Cuba; Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); Latin America Working Group; National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC); Christopher Sabatini, Executive Director, Global Americans and Lecturer, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; The National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA) National Tour Association (NTA) United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) TechFreedom The American Society of Travel Agents NAFSA: The Association of International Educators; the National Foreign Trade Council, the American Society of Travel Agents and the Association of International Educators; Christopher Sabatini, Executive Director, Global Americans and Lecturer, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; The National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA); National Tour Association (NTA) United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA); TechFreedom; The American Society of Travel Agents; NAFSA: The Association of International Educators.