U.S.-Cuba: How to Stop the Backslide in Relations

By William M. LeoGrande*

Raúl Castro sits at a table with two men.

Cuban President Raúl Castro. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Relations between the United States and Cuba are on a downward spiral due to the mysterious injuries suffered by staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana last year, and there is no clear escape path from the vicious circle of recriminations that have damaged the interests of both countries.  Washington’s initial response to the reported injuries a little over a year ago was to work quietly behind the scenes with Cuban authorities, even arranging visits by the FBI to Cuba.  However, once the story went public, calling the injuries “sonic attacks,” the Trump Administration bowed to pressure from Cuban-American legislators – Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio foremost among them – to impose sanctions on Havana.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in late September issued an “ordered departure,” pulling most U.S. diplomats and family out of Havana and closing the consular section.  Days later, he expelled an equal number of Cubans, including their embassy’s consular staff and entire commercial section.  Soon after, Washington issued a travel warning that “we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

  • The most recent blow to relations came on March 2, when the State Department announced that the staffing cutbacks would be permanent. Although it has been six months since the last recorded injury, Tillerson refuses to return U.S. diplomats to Havana until the mystery is solved or Cuba provides “credible assurances” that whatever happened will not happen again, but he has not said what assurances would count as credible.  Going forward, the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba will be weaker than at any time since former President Jimmy Carter opened the U.S. Interests Section in 1977.  With these actions, Cuban officials have begun to see the whole acoustic episode as an excuse manufactured by the Trump Administration to reverse President Obama’s normalization policy.

The absence of diplomatic boots on the ground means fewer cultural, educational, and business exchanges; slower progress on issues of mutual interest; less help for U.S. visitors who need consular services; and new hardships for Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States, who now have to travel abroad to get a visa.  The travel warning has already reduced the number of U.S. visitors, hurting the owners of private rental homes (casas particulares) and restaurants (paladares).  U.S. study abroad programs have been hit hardest because many universities prohibit sending students to a country under a warning.  Neither government has suspended technical talks on issues of mutual interest like counter-narcotics and safe and orderly migration, but the State Department’s refusal to meet in Havana is certain to test Cubans’ patience.

As the last incident recedes in time, the chances of solving the mystery recede with it, which does not bode well for U.S.-Cuban relations.  Next month, Raúl Castro, the principal patron of normalization on the Cuban side, will retire from the presidency, raising the question whether his successor will persist in trying to improve relations when there appears to be so little interest in Washington.  Both U.S. and Cuban diplomats seem sincere about finding a way out of this impasse, get their embassies back up to full strength, and resume the dialogues that were underway, but this is a “permanent” reduction in staff without laying out the conditions – such as a particular period of time without new incidents or enhanced security measures – for restoring personnel.  The longer the two embassies operate with skeletal staff, the more damage will be done to the broad range of issues of mutual interest the two countries share.  Without an operating consulate, moreover, the United States will likely fail to meet its commitment – rooted in a 1994 agreement maintained by Presidents from both parties – to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans each year.  The United States and Cuba made surprisingly fast diplomatic progress in the last two years of the Obama Administration, signing two dozen bilateral agreements and dramatically expanding trade and travel.  Ending the Cold War in the Caribbean was overwhelmingly popular among ordinary citizens in both countries.  The current freeze in relations puts those gains at risk, giving both governments good reason to re-double their efforts to find a way out.

March 13, 2018

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.  This article is an adaptation of his analysis that appeared in Americas Quarterly on March 6.

U.S.-Cuba: More Facts, Less Clarity on “Sonic Attacks”

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Embassy in Cuba at dusk

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba. / U.S. Embassy Havana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Two prestigious publications – the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and ProPublica – released in-depth investigations this week into the alleged “sonic attacks” directed at U.S. diplomats in Havana in 2016-2017, but neither could confirm the U.S. allegations, explain the technology involved, nor provide comprehensive alternative explanations of what caused the victims’ mysterious symptoms.

JAMA studied the “neurological manifestations” that 21 diplomats linked to “audible and sensory phenomena” they reported experiencing.  Evaluations began an average of 203 days after the victims felt they were exposed to the sound waves.  The 10 joint authors validated some of the symptoms that the patients reported – including problems with cognitive abilities, vision, hearing, balance, and sleep – that had “raised concern for a novel mechanism of a possible acquired brain injury from a directional exposure of undetermined etiology.”  They had concussion-like symptoms without a concussion.  Contrary to information leaked to the press several months ago, MRI brain scans came out normal in most cases, and the doctors were unable to determine the causes of mild or moderate irregularities on three of the scans.  Based on the “high levels of effort and motivation” the patients showed during testing, the authors discounted psychological factors (e.g., “mass hysteria”).  But they were not able to link the sounds or other energy that the victims reported with the symptoms.

  • An accompanying JAMA editorial urged “caution in interpreting the findings;” noted that “a definitive conclusion cannot be reached;” said that the cases “merit consideration of a common medical, environmental, or psychological event as the potential cause;” reported that many of the symptoms described “also occur in other medical, neurological, or psychiatric conditions;” and concluded that “many potential causes for the symptoms experienced … remain possibilities.”

An investigation by ProPublica reporters Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella, who interviewed dozens of U.S. and foreign officials, intelligence officers, and other experts, concluded that, “Even in a realm where secrets abound, the Havana incidents are a remarkable mystery.”  They report that a CIA officer first surfaced the idea that he was struck by, in the authors’ words, “a strange, disturbing phenomenon – a powerful beam of high-pitched sound that seemed to be pointed right at him,” and it was FBI that, after eight months of analysis and several investigative visits to the island, ruled out attack with some sort of sonic device.

  • ProPublica could not identify a Cuban motive in conducting or even tolerating the alleged attacks, noting that “Cuban hostility toward the American diplomats in Havana was hovering somewhere near a 50-year low.” The investigators looked into alternative attack scenarios – such as that the Russians have developed an unknown technology and conducted the operations to disrupt U.S.-Cuba relations – but concluded that evidence is lacking.  They reported allegations that the Trump Administration has used intelligence on the incidents selectively to rationalize its efforts to reverse the U.S.-Cuba normalization process started by President Obama.

Both articles, within their specialties, provide valuable texture to understanding what the U.S. personnel in Havana have experienced – while correcting some of the information leaked since the issue first arose, such as the extent and nature of the “white matter foci” in brain scans.  Neither offers a comprehensive explanation of what happened, but both lay bare the lack of evidence supporting the Trump Administration’s preferred explanation that the Embassy officers were victims of “sonic attacks.”  The difficulty understanding events is compounded by the State Department’s reluctance to allow independent examination of the patients until it was too late to look seriously at alternative explanations.  Waiting 203 days to arrange comprehensive medical examinations, such as those written up by JAMA, would suggest excessive comfort with the “sonic attack” meme.  Moreover, by refusing Cuba’s repeated requests for information on the victims’ symptoms (with patients’ identity fully masked to ensure privacy and security) and directing Embassy personnel not to call a special hotline the Cuban government established so alleged attacks can be investigated real-time, the State Department has undermined its own assurances that it’s doing everything it can to solve the mystery.  Circumstantial evidence is mounting that the Administration – having punished Cuba by drastically slashing Embassy staff in Havana and putting much of the U.S.-Cuba normalization process on hold – is fine with letting the diplomats’ ailments remain a mystery that the Cubans cannot resolve to Washington’s satisfaction.

February 16, 2018

Cuba: Trump Actions Strengthening Hardliners

By Fulton Armstrong and William M. LeoGrande

Two buildings in a composite photo

On the left, the U.S. Embassy in Havana; on the right, the Cuban Embassy in D.C. / U.S. Government Accountability Office / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the end of Raúl Castro’s presidency approaches, Trump Administration actions halting, if not reversing, the process of normalizing relations with Cuba have tilted debate in Havana in favor of hardliners trying to keep the brakes on economic reform and on constructive relations with Washington.

  • In retaliation for alleged “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomats in Havana, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ordered departure of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the closure of the U.S. consulate, and the expulsion of Cuban consular and commercial staff in Washington –has put a chill on bilateral relations that ratifies Havana hardliners’ contention that Washington cannot be trusted. By halting the issuance of visas to Cubans in Havana, the Trump Administration will almost certainly violate the 1994 migration accord committing the United States to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually.  That would rupture the longstanding bipartisan consensus in Washington that bilateral cooperation on migration serves an important U.S. interest in safe and orderly migration.
  • The State Department’s unwillingness to share meaningful information on the U.S. diplomats’ mysterious symptoms – underscored by the Embassy’s refusal to use a hotline established for Cuba to investigate alleged attacks real-time – has frustrated pro-normalization Cubans, who face conservatives’ claims that Washington is cynically exploiting the incident to embarrass Cuba and return to a policy of hostility and regime change.
  • Other Trump measures reinforce Cuban conservatives’ efforts to limit the growth of the country’s nascent private sector, particularly entrepreneurs who profit from U.S. visitors and need easy travel to import inputs from the United States. A travel warning issued in conjunction with the withdrawal of U.S. diplomats is causing a sharp drop in U.S. travelers, and new regulations abolishing individual people-to-people educational travel are channeling people into large hotels, away from private bed and breakfast rentals.  A prohibition on doing business with companies and hotels allegedly linked to the Cuban military is not pushing new clients to cuentapropistas’ businesses but instead is discouraging travel and commerce in general.  Cuban reformers are further dispirited by the perception that Washington is shifting back to the erroneous view that it can promote regime collapse by tightening the economic screws on the government, thereby reinforcing a siege mentality among senior leaders and discouraging needed economic reforms as too risky in the current environment.
  • Trump’s actions have so closely dovetailed with the agenda of Cuban hardliners that some people speculate it was opponents of reform inside the Cuban government who perpetrated the mysterious “sonic attacks” to provoke a confrontation with Washington. But there is no evidence whatsoever in support of that theory, and for anyone to sabotage Raúl Castro’s opening to Washington – one of the signal achievements of his presidency – would be to commit political (if not literal) suicide.

Implementation of Raúl Castro’s road map for economic change, embodied in the 311 lineamientos approved in 2011 and the Conceptualización of Cuba’s socialist model approved by the Communist Party congress last year, had already slowed before Trump’s sanctions due to Cuban concerns about growing income inequality during a period of poor economic performance, uncertainty about energy imports, and perhaps the 86-year-old president’s own level of energy and state of mind after the passing of his two brothers (Ramón and Fidel both died in 2016).  Widely discussed political reforms, such as the Electoral Law and the Law on Associations, that were expected months ago have yet to be unveiled.  The Trump Administration’s efforts to expedite regime change by curtailing financial flows to the government and by promoting private sector growth at the expense of state enterprises make it easy for Cuban hardliners to rally support for slowing reforms.  Ever since he launched the reform process in 2011, Castro has insisted it would move ahead, “Without haste, but without pause.”  Lately, in part because of the Trump Administration’s actions, there’s a lot more “pause” than “haste.”

The election of First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel to succeed Raúl as president seems to be a foregone conclusion of the ongoing multi-tiered election process that culminates in February, but no one outside the two men’s inner circle seems to know how or when next steps on reforms will be sequenced.  Raúl’s focus has been on creating processes and institutions for governing after he steps down, rather than achieving particular results between now and the formalities confirming Díaz-Canel.  One thing that is near-certain, however, is that the successor’s legitimacy will be determined by performance, not his surname or soaring oratory.  Tackling the really big reforms that loom ahead, such as currency and exchange rate unification, will require political will from a relatively unified leadership.  Cuba has long been adept at dealing with U.S. sanctions and pressure, so Trump’s policies are more an irritant than a threat, but the effect they have in Havana is to slow the implementation of changes that would improve the standard of living of ordinary citizens and to reduce the willingness of Cuba’s leaders to engage with Washington in ways that would serve the interests of both countries.

 December 18, 2017

How Will Cuba Update its Drug Policy?

By Isabella Bellezza-Smull*

A graffiti street sign

A “Say no to drugs” sign spotted in Santiago de Cuba. / tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cuba – unlike neighbors long wracked by the drug trade and its violence – has one of the lowest drug-use and homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, but national drug experts are debating how to adapt the country’s strategy to new challenges.  The debate is taking place amid positive evaluations by the Cuban government, the U.S. State Department, and others that indicate rates of illicit drug consumption, production, and retail in Cuba have been negligible, while reliable anecdotal information suggests a rise in drug use and transit as the country opens its doors to foreign trade, travel, and allows emergence of a domestic private sector.

  • Cuba credits its success to a comprehensive approach that includes confrontation, collaboration, prevention, and treatment. In conversation with U.S. drug enforcement counterparts, Cubans emphasize tough-on-drugs policies, including sanctions for drug possession, production, and trafficking, and to the effectiveness of the anti-drug police force, interdiction operations, and some 40 bilateral counternarcotics agreements.  To other partners, they stress multi-sector, humanistic prevention and treatment efforts directed by the Comisión Nacional de Drogas (CND).  The CND coordinates national health, education, justice, and community sectors to prevent and delay the initiation of drug use – and to treat it as a public health issue when it does occur.  Even though drug possession is a crime, the diversion of illicit drug users from the criminal justice system to health clinics has been an important element of national strategy.

Despite its successes, Cuba faces a number of challenges with respect to illicit drugs.  If Cuba continues to increase tourism and diversify its foreign trade, the possibility of drugs – and recreational drug cultures – reaching Cuban shores will increase, putting further stress on the country’s “just-say-no” approach.  The emergence of a class of Cuban entrepreneurs with increased disposable income could create a new appetite for drugs, and the possible exacerbation of economic inequality could make the illicit-drug market attractive, whether as producers or retailers.  A well-established context of informal markets and back-channel networks already exists that could be repurposed to distribute drugs.

Cuba’s robust public health, educational, and community-based institutions – the basis of protective factors related to drug abuse – afford the country an opportunity to adopt a more progressive approach to drug control.  The CND remains publicly committed to prohibition and fighting illicit drugs, but there are also signs that alternative strategies are being considered.  Cuba’s leading research center for drug treatment, the Centro para el Desarrollo Académico sobre Drogodependencias (CEDRO), is beginning to explore harm-reduction measures as an alternative to abstinence-based approaches – acknowledging, as its coordinator has said, that “not everyone who comes to consultation is willing to assume abstinence.”  Decriminalization of drug-use and possession appears extremely unlikely, even though studies in other countries show it reduces high-risk behaviors that increase the spread of infectious diseases and death from overdose, the diversion of law enforcement resources from serious criminality, and exploding prison populations.  More likely, Cuba’s debate probably will touch on adopting harm-reduction measures to treat and prevent problematic drug use, and investing in alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets involved in production, transport, and sale.

December 7, 2017

* Isabella Bellezza-Smull is Latin America coordinator for Global Exchange.  This article is adapted from a study – Will Cuba Update its Drug Policy for the Twenty First Century? – that she prepared for the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro.

U.S.-Cuba: New Challenge to Normalization

By Fulton Armstrong

Tillerson US embassy in Cuba

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees. / U.S. Embassy in Cuba / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s decision to sharply reduce staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana and to warn U.S. travelers to avoid travel to Cuba is a major blow to U.S.-Cuba normalization – and a sign that Washington’s policy is once again dictated by politics rather than reality.  Announcing the measures, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Friday admitted that “investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks,” but he still said that more than half of U.S. diplomats will be withdrawn “until the Government of Cuba can ensure [their] safety.”  Washington is also suspending the processing of tens of thousands of visas for Cubans seeking to visit or migrate to the United States.  Most travel to the island by U.S. officials will also cease; bilateral meetings will continue only in U.S. territory.

  • As the State Department itself has admitted, the “sonic attacks” – which have not been proven to be either sonic or attacks – remain a total mystery. No agency of the U.S. or Cuban governments is aware of a technology that fits the victims’ description of what they experienced, and non-government scientists have been equally puzzled.  Doctors analyzing the victims’ symptoms (headaches, hearing loss, memory loss, confusion) do not see a common cause.  Moreover, no one has been able to ascertain that the incidents amount to deliberate, premeditated attacks.  No one has produced any evidence to support speculation that “rogue” elements of the Cuban government or a third country even possess, let alone have used these unknown technologies.  President Trump said on Friday, “Some very bad things happened in Cuba.  They did some bad things” – without saying who “they” are.
  • Leaks over the weekend that the diplomats suffering the worst symptoms have been U.S. intelligence officers seem intended to rationalize allegations of targeted attacks. But the Associated Press, which reported the leaks and other key aspects of the story, noted with irony: “Almost nothing about what has transpired in Havana is perfectly clear.  But this is Cuba.”

Even though none of the more than 600,000 U.S. travelers to the island each year has reported any of the symptoms experienced by the U.S. diplomats, Washington also issued a statement that “warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba.”  The State Department has provided no evidence that visitors are in danger.  Travel warnings are a powerful political signal of low confidence in host governments and can have a huge impact on local businesses – including many thousands in Cuba’s nascent private sector.

The Administration deserves credit for resisting the temptation to blame the Cubans for the attacks, but it fell prey to its own mindset about “sonic attacks” and – under political pressure –got stuck reacting to an incredible scenario with a counterproductive set of measures.  While the State Department was right to admit its ignorance, a handful of legislators in Washington – a small group that had forcefully opposed normalization all along – filled the information void and corralled Tillerson into a policy prescription that undoes mainstays of the bilateral relationship, including visas, reciprocal meetings in each capital, and other cooperation that requires a robust presence in Havana.  By trying to scare away travelers, moreover, Tillerson threatens to take crucial business away from private entrepreneurs.

  •  The scope of the Administration’s measures – including discouraging non-governmental travel – contradict the leaks suggesting that the incidents are part of a spy war between the two countries. A full epidemiological study about everything the victims had in common – food, drink, habits, and workspaces within the embassy building itself – conducted months ago, when evidence and memories were fresh, would have helped inform these decisions.  To accuse Cuba now, almost a year after the first incident, of failing to meet Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomats rings hollow since the United States has accepted the sincerity of Havana’s efforts – from President Raúl Castro down to the working-level experts – to resolve the mystery and address its causes.  Having achieved the practical shutdown of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, opponents of normalization are now demanding total closure of Cuba’s embassy in Washington.  Politics is once again in danger of becoming the main driver of U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations.

October 2, 2017

U.S.-Cuba: Orwell Redux

By Philip Brenner*

Political cartoon depicting U.S. Cuba relations in 1903

A political cartoon showing U.S. President William McKinley literally branding Cuba as a U.S. possession as a result of the Platt Amendment. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s removal of important historical documents on U.S.-Cuba relations from the public record bolsters commentators’ description of the President’s behavior as Orwellian and undermines understanding of key events in the past.  Double-checking the accuracy of citations for a forthcoming book on the history of Cuba, I discovered that the State Department “retired” its website entitled “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations.”  The Department claimed that the cost would be too great “to revise and expand this publication to meet the Office’s standards for accuracy and comprehensiveness,” but it assured readers that the “text remains online for reference purposes, but it is no longer being maintained or expanded.”  Not true.

  • Until May 9, 2017, the Milestones series provided an accurate account of the 1901 Platt Amendment, under which the United States gave itself the right to intervene in Cuban internal affairs when it saw fit. That account is no longer available.  The only mention of the Platt Amendment occurs in a brief summary about President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Good Neighbor Policy:  “In 1934 at Roosevelt’s direction the 1903 treaty with Cuba (based on the Platt Amendment) that gave the United States the right to intervene to preserve internal stability or independence was abrogated.”  Milestones provides no further insights.

Suspension of Milestones hinders an understanding of this important chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations – beginning with the U.S. occupation (1898-1902), during which the military dictated a series of laws intended to prepare Cuba for economic domination by U.S. companies.  It removes from the official U.S. government record the fact that, by 1905, U.S. individuals and companies owned 60 percent of Cuba’s rural land (Cubans owned 25 percent), and iron mines in Oriente Province were almost all U.S.-owned.  Loss of Milestones also erases from the public record U.S. acknowledgment that the administration of President William McKinley (1897-1901) sought control by designating a list of acceptable candidates who could be elected to a Cuban constituent assembly in 1900.  When Cuban voters instead chose an independent slate to draft the new constitution, U.S. officials asserted the election proved that Cubans were irresponsible and unfit for self-government.  General Leonard Wood, the U.S. military governor, described those elected as among the “worst agitators and political radicals in Cuba.”  This helped lay the groundwork for Senator Orville Platt, a Republican from Connecticut, to include an amendment to an Army appropriation bill in 1901 written by Secretary of War Elihu Root.

  • While the United States at the time claimed the Amendment’s intent was to preserve Cuba’s independence and stability, the State Department candidly acknowledged one hundred years later in its Milestones series that it was really “to shape Cuban affairs without violating the Teller Amendment,” which in 1898 stipulated that the United States had no intention to remain in Cuba after the war and occupation. In addition to allowing U.S. intervention whenever Washington saw fit, it directed that Cuba would lease territory to the United States for up to three naval coaling stations; that Cuba could not enter into a treaty that offered a military base to any other country; and that Cuba could make no laws contravening prior U.S. military decisions.

U.S. cynicism and insincerity outraged Cubans when they were forced to write the Platt Amendment into their own Constitution in 1901 as a condition for the end of U.S. occupation.  U.S. observers who know about it share that outrage, but – without accurate accounts of history – understanding what happened is much more difficult.  It is like flying through a fog without instruments, and crashes are bound to ensue.  Perhaps even more important, as Orwell hoped his readers would see, when history is based on lies, people learn to live only in the present, and have no hope for the future.

 August 28, 2017

* Philip Brenner is a Professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service and co-author with Peter Eisner of Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence (Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2017).

Cuba: Attacks Against U.S. Diplomats?

By William M. LeoGrande*

19734869263_7c3351e2bd_b

The U.S. Embassy in Havana. / Melanie K. Reed / Flickr / Creative Commons

The details about alleged sonic attacks against U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana in fall 2016 remain shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty, but the incidents – whatever they were – could cause further disruptions in U.S.-Cuban relations, already on shaky ground after President Trump’s June 16 declaration that he was “canceling” President Obama’s policy of normalization.  The State Department has admitted that after more than eight months of investigation, it “can’t blame any one individual or country” for the reported impairment of U.S. diplomats’ health.  Although press reports indicate the victims suffered hearing loss and headaches from exposure to something in or near their residences, the State Department has provided few details about their symptoms, the number of officers involved, their positions, or their prognoses.  The department’s spokesperson said last week that “we still are trying to … determine the actual cause of their situation … The investigation is ongoing.”  Nonetheless, in May the Trump Administration expelled two diplomats working at the Cuban Embassy in Washington because, according to the spokesperson, Havana is “responsible for the safety and security of our diplomats,” – a responsibility it failed to meet.

  • Speculation about what happened is rampant, but lacks evidence. The State Department’s reference to “any one individual or country” and the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s unequivocal statement that it “has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception” have fueled speculation that a third country may have staged the attacks.  Russia is a favorite suspect, with China a distant second, but conspiracy theorists cannot explain how a third country could conduct such sensitive operations in an environment like Havana where foreign diplomats – especially U.S. diplomats – are under constant surveillance.
  • Speculation that this was a Cuban “attack” intended to injure the diplomats does not make sense, either. U.S. diplomats in Havana have faced petty harassment over the years, but even when relations were at their worst, there was never an attempt to inflict physical harm.  Moreover, the incidents happened at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations were improving and most people expected normalization to continue under President Hillary Clinton.  Neither is it clear why Canadians would be a target.  The U.S. and other militaries have developed low- and high-frequency weapons that cause hearing loss, headaches, and even incapacitation on the battlefield and in crowd-control situations.  But if such a weapon was the cause of the symptoms U.S. diplomats experienced, presumably it would be immediately recognizable.

A popular explanation is that the injuries were an unintended side-effect of a surveillance operation gone wrong.  Without information about symptoms and operating conditions, however, the technology is difficult to fathom.  Lasers, microwaves, and sound waves have long been used for stand-off eavesdropping operations, but primarily against targets in locations to which the attacker has no access, which is not the case with diplomatic residences in Havana.  Moreover, U.S. Embassy regulations strictly forbid having sensitive conversations outside the chancery, so Cuban security services would have little motivation to invest in the expensive equipment and real-time monitoring necessary to target residences.  In short, none of the extant explanations fit very well with the few facts known at this point.

The impact of the alleged attacks and U.S. retaliation on the bilateral relationship has been minimal so far.  Senior diplomats on both sides seem reluctant to allow the incidents to put a brake on improvements in areas of mutual interest.  The fact that both countries agreed to keep the alleged attacks and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats quiet suggests neither wanted the issue to get out of hand.  President Trump’s June 16 announcement tightening regulations on U.S. trade and travel to the island gave no hint of a crisis over an issue as fundamental as diplomats’ safety, and left the door open to continuing dialogue on issues of mutual interest.  President Raúl Castro has criticized Trump’s new policies but, as recently as mid-July, repeated his willingness to work with Washington on a host of issues within the context of respect and mutual benefit.  However, until all the facts are known and responsibility for the incidents is definitively established, the Cuban-American right will continue to stoke speculation about Cuban villainy in hopes of derailing the bilateral cooperation still underway.

August 14, 2017

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Perspectives on U.S.-Cuba Relations Under Trump

Trump and Cuban Americans

President Trump announces his administration’s policy toward Cuba. / YouTube / Livestream TV News / Creative Commons

Reversing Obama’s Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande*

In the two years after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed to normalize relations, Obama tried to make his policy of engagement “irreversible” by opening up travel and trade that would create constituencies with a self-interest in defending engagement. He half-way succeeded. Despite the incendiary rhetoric in which Donald Trump cloaked his new policy when he rolled it out at a rally of Cuban-American hardliners in Miami, the sanctions he announced were limited.

Obama granted general licenses for all 12 categories of legal travel and relaxed other restrictions on who could visit Cuba. Trump rolled back only individualized people-to-people educational travel, so people-to-people visitors must once again travel on organized tours. But they can still go, and bring back rum and cigars.

Obama opened the Cuban market to U.S. businesses by licensing contracts with state enterprises in the travel, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, construction, agriculture, and consumer goods sectors. Trump prohibited only contracts with Cuban enterprises managed by the military, and even then he exempted all existing contracts, and future contracts involving ports, airports, and telecomm – the sectors in which all but a handful of current U.S. businesses operate.

Trump did not impose any restrictions on Cuban–American family travel and remittances. He did not break diplomatic relations or put Cuba back on the State Department’s terrorism list. He did not restore the wet foot/dry foot policy that gave Cuban immigrants preferential treatment after reaching the United States. He did not abrogate the bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest negotiated by the Obama administration.

Why such a flaccid set of sanctions from a president who stood on the stage in Little Havana and demonized the Cuban regime as brutal, criminal, depraved, oppressive, murderous, and guilty of “supporting human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation all around the globe”?

Because Obama’s strategy of creating constituencies in favor of engagement worked. In the weeks leading up to Trump’s announcement, he was deluged with appeals not to retreat from engagement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued in favor of expanding business opportunities, not constricting them. Farmers argued for expanding agricultural sales. Travel providers argued for expanding travel. Fifty-five U.S. Senators cosponsored a bill to lift all travel restrictions. Seven Republican members of Congress and 16 retired senior military officers argued that disengagement would damage national security by boosting Russian and Chinese influence on the island. Polling data showed that large majorities of the public, of Republicans, and even of Cuban Americans support engagement.

Even the executive bureaucracy was won over by the successes scored by the policy of engagement. During the last two years of Obama’s presidency, Cuba and the United States signed 23 bilateral agreements. When Trump ordered an inter-agency review of Cuba policy, the consensus of the agencies involved was that engagement was working and ought to be continued. Trump rejected that conclusion because it did not fit with his political strategy of currying favor with the Cuban-American right, but the agencies fought back successfully against more extreme proposals to roll back Obama’s policies entirely.

Trump’s vicious rhetoric and his open embrace of the goal of regime change – through sanctions, support for dissidents, and “democracy promotion” – risks destroying the atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith that made the gains of Obama’s policy possible. Already, hardliners in Havana who saw engagement as a Trojan Horse for subversion are saying, “We told you so!” Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who Trump’s policy purportedly aims to help, will be hurt the most by the prohibition on individual people-to-people travel. However, the overall economic impact of his sanctions will be limited, both on U.S. businesses and in Cuba.

Cuba’s official response has been pragmatic but firm. A statement released shortly after Trump’s Miami speech declared, “The Government of Cuba reiterates its willingness to continue respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, as well as the negotiation of pending bilateral issues with the United States Government…. But it should not be expected that Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence, nor will it accept any kind of conditionality.”

In all likelihood, political pressures from the constituencies Obama’s policy created will continue to constrain Trump’s impulse to beat up on Cuba, but his loyalty to the exile right and his penchant for bullying will make it impossible to realize further progress toward normalizing relations. That will have to wait until the White House has a new occupant motivated by the national interest rather than by a political IOU given to Miami’s most recalcitrant Cuban-American minority.

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Cuba: Trump’s “New Policy”

 

By Ricardo Torres*

The “new policy” toward Cuba that President Trump announced to great fanfare in Miami last Friday features little that is new while seeking to restore oxygen to a failed approach advocated by extreme sectors of the Cuban-American community. While adopting language reflecting the worst traditions of American foreign policy, Trump’s declaration implicitly blessed much of the rapprochement between the two countries introduced by President Obama – diplomatic relations will remain intact, for example. But the new measures he announced have symbolic and practical implications. His Cuban-American backers expended great political capital to change the policy in hope of accelerating regime change on the island, but the Trump approach will instead retard change – while increasing the pain of the Cuban people. Moreover, it will undermine the activities of legitimate U.S. citizens, companies, and groups interested in contact with the island and compromise U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel. They have acted against Trump’s campaign promise to create jobs (threatening thousands of workers who depend on U.S.-Cuba interaction) and increase national security (putting U.S.-Cuba cooperation in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and illegal migration at risk). The new approach also runs counter to Secretary of State Tillerson’s repeated assertion that U.S. policy is not to impose its values and standards on others.

U.S. national interests seem to have taken a back seat to internal U.S. political factors, particularly the opposition to Obama’s policies among certain groups of the Cuban Americans that had seen their political influence decline over the past decade.

In addition to its symbolic weight, the Trump approach is likely to be felt most strongly in several principal areas. Despite continuing differences between the two countries, both governments had decided to move ahead together. It is difficult to overstate the sense of hope created during the Obama era, with immediate and tangible benefits for both.

Cuba’s internal situation has been changing recently, due to a gradual opening internally and to other nations. A steady increase in visits by foreign businessmen and Cuban travel overseas are evidence of this change. Trump’s rhetoric and actions will only strengthen those sectors inside Cuba that exaggerate the external threat and want to reduce the space for debate in the country.

The economic impact that Trump and his backers want – to hurt the Cuban government – cannot be separated from the harm it will cause the Cuban people. The new measures will probably reduce tourism, which provides a significant flow of revenue to vast sectors of the Cuban population that, in formal or informal jobs, benefit from that industry. Indeed, the much bandied-about private sector has been one of the principal beneficiaries of tourism development.

The Cuban government will assess its options in relations with the United States as well as in domestic policies. It will naturally have to let the U.S. government know that cooperation has yielded mutual benefits to both countries and that this step backward will not be limited to areas that Washington prefers. Havana might look for more ambitious ties with alternative partners, including both allies and competitors of the United States. Internally, rather than slow down, Cuba’s transformation should accelerate. The legitimate needs of the Cuban people should not be postponed in the face of this new adversity. The pace of Cuban reform should never be tied to external threats. As for the Cuban people, they will once again tell all who will listen that they themselves – not those on the other side of the Florida Strait – represent their interests. President Trump has empowered a small group of Cuban Americans to speak for people in Cuba whom they do not know, at the cost of sacrificing U.S. prestige and an array of its national interests. The absurd has become the accepted norm in American politics.

*Ricardo Torres is a Professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Cuba: Preparing for President Trump

By Fulton Armstrong

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Photo credit: Day Donaldson / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cubans are already calibrating their expectations for relations with the United States under President Trump – hoping the normalization process does not unravel but preparing for a return to a sanctions-based policy from Washington.  Conversations in Havana reveal deep concern that the President-elect’s tweets and statements about Cuba, Mexico, and Latinos in the United States will translate into efforts to slow, stop, or reverse normalization.  The past two years of dialogue have focused on mutual interests, without ignoring remaining differences between capitals but not allowing them to blot out hopes of mutually beneficial cooperation.  Cuba will interpret a return to bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated conditions to reach a “deal,” and the pressure tactics of the pre-Obama era as a sign of U.S. willingness to put bullying a small neighbor eager for improved ties ahead of its own national interests.

Cubans present the stiff upper lip in conversations and, not surprisingly, defiantly note that they’ve already survived decades of U.S. pressure, but their disappointment is palpable.

  • Most concerned are entrepreneurs in Cuba’s small but growing private sector, who depend on investment from U.S.-based relatives and friends. More than 100 Cuban private businessmen wrote a letter to Trump last week urging restraint.
  • Nationalism has precluded Cubans from saying that normalization would be a major driver of their long-promised economic reforms, but few deny that improving ties with the United States would eventually present Havana important opportunities. U.S. retrenchment will remove important incentives for the government to move ahead with its reform strategy.
  • Rumors about tensions between Cuban proponents of normalization and conservative opponents may have some merit, but Cubans across the spectrum will close ranks if Trump gets aggressive.

Cuba’s reactions to Trump’s election, including President Raúl Castro’s congratulatory message to him, so far suggest that it will hold its tongue and resist being provoked.  A U.S. return to full-bore Cold War tactics would not pose an existential threat to Cuba, even considering the country’s difficulties dealing with unrelated problems such as the crisis in Venezuela.  Popular reactions to the passing of Fidel Castro last month are being construed as evidence of residual political legitimacy for the government and support for it to deliver on promised improvements.  Moreover, Cuba’s progress in normalization; its effective contribution to the Colombia peace accord; its new political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the European Union; and the recent Havana visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe have boosted the country’s international image – and blame for collapse of normalization will surely fall solely upon the United States.  However difficult it will be for the proud people of Cuba to resist rising to whatever bait the Trump Administration throws its way, showing forbearance in the bilateral relationship and moving “without hurry but without pause,” as Raúl Castro said, with its national reform plan would protect the investment that Cuba has already made in normalization.

December 19, 2016

Implications of Fidel’s Passing

By Fulton Armstrong

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As a tribute to Fidel Castro, flowers and posters adorn the gates outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires. / Gastón Cuello / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The death of Fidel Castro last Friday night has drawn largely predictable reactions from largely predictable quarters, but the analysis of the meaning of the comandante’s passing that matters most belongs to the Cuban people.  History may ultimately absolve Fidel of his most egregious excesses and errors over the last six decades, but Cubans are the ones who will decide which parts of his revolution to keep – and which to reject or allow to fade away.  By all accounts, Cubans want to preserve some of the gains of the revolution, including their sense of national dignity and some social benefits, while seeking a vastly improved living standard.  But no one can claim to know exactly what “the people” want – and how they want to achieve it.

  • The economic reforms that President Raúl Castro launched years ago have been halting and hampered by policy contradictions and bureaucratic obstacles rooted in elites’ fears of losing political control. Processes like the 7th Party Congress’ Conceptualización have been so muted as to undermine change and breed cynicism among the population.  Raúl and his team have a roadmap that, while as unorthodox as ever, will move the economy in the right direction.  Fidel’s departure is a signal that the old-timers, perennially blamed for slowing change, represent an eventually diminished threat.  The next generation of Party leaders knows full well that their legitimacy is going to have to come from concrete results, especially improving living standards, and it needs to move ahead with the hundreds of lineamientos, laws and regulations that have already been approved.  It’s their own plan, and the excuses for non-implementation of at least the easier measures are getting thin.  Major reforms such as unifying exchange rates will be a big challenge, as for any country, but the new team at some time will have to bite the bullet.
  • On the political side, Raúl lags even farther behind. Fidel’s passing puts a lot of pressure on him to flesh out his plan to step down as President in 15 months (a commitment that so far seems solid).  Some of Raúl’s actions indicate a desire to build institutions, perhaps even the National Assembly as it moves back into the Capitolio this month; improve decision-making processes; and reduce party intervention in day-to-day matters.  But his handover of power to a new generation won’t work if his policy team stays in the shadows forever.  His vision entails them learning how to do politics among themselves and, increasingly, with the Cuban people – which implicitly entails respect for the plurality of legitimate views across Cuban society.  The Cuban people have shown they’ll not form lynch mobs the moment political space opens up.

Cubans can find support for their evolutionary change in every corner of our Americas, except perhaps one.  Reactions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean differed in tone and effusiveness, but they uniformly showed respect for the deceased comandante and support for the Cuban people.  Regional leaders called him a “giant in history” and “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba as well as Latin America” and the like, while one merely tweeted “condolences to the Cuban government” and had staff explain he’d miss the funeral because the logistics of flying to Cuba were “not easy.”  But the region’s best wishes for Cubans to find a stable path from a Castro-dominated past into the future that they collectively – in the Party and “the people” – wish to find were strong.

The outlier is, again, the United States.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s messages were statesmanlike and consistent with Washington’s sensitivity toward any country in mourning even if it has different interests and values.  President-elect Trump took a different approach.  His condolence statement focused on issues from the past and his affiliation with combatants from the Bay of Pigs invasion who tried to oust Castro in 1961 and endorsed his own candidacy last month.  He tweeted that he will “terminate the deal” of normalization if Cuba is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole.”  Obama’s staff prematurely declared normalization “irreversible,” and Trump may be equally premature in threatening to reverse it.  Cuba’s changing on its own, and Fidel’s passing will probably give change on the island, if not in Washington, a push.  Efforts to return to a Cold War posture would probably put Cuba on the defensive and slow its transition processes – but not even Fidel could stop the march of time.

November 29, 2016