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.

And the Winner is… Trump in Latin America

By Nicolás Comini*

Donald_Trump_and_Mauricio_Macri_in_the_Oval_Office,_April_27,_2017

U.S. President Trump and Argentine President Macri meet in the Oval Office. / Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies toward Latin America ranges from mild to furious in the region and among many U.S. Latin America watchers, but that anger is not likely to drive greater regional unity and demands for a more balanced relationship.  Trump’s rhetoric – emphasizing sovereignty, nationalism, and protectionism – have long been popular concepts in many countries of the region.  During Latin America’s recent “turn to the left,” for example, political leaders embraced a developmentalist emphasis on using tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers to give domestic industries an advantage in national economic expansion strategies.  But the U.S. President’s statements have generally infuriated not only the left as reflecting bias on an array of issues, such as immigration, but also the right.

  • Trump’s policies contradict the prescriptions that Washington has been advocating – and most conservative politicians have embraced – for Latin America for many years. Those prescriptions have emphasized free trade but touched on other issues as well, such as the shift (symbolic and material) of resources from traditional national defense to the “war on drugs.”  Trump’s “America First” approach undercuts his natural allies in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere.  It has also given their leftist opponents a sense of legitimization of their anti-Americanism speeches, something that is surging also because of Washington’s new policies toward Cuba.
  • The U.S. summary abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), conservatives’ last great hope for deeper trade integration with the United States, left them angry. According to the ECLAC, 73 percent of all FDI in Latin America in 2016 came from the United States (20 percent) and the European Union (53 percent).  Individuals with strong anti-Communist credentials in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are all flirting with joining China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Regional organizations show no sign of providing leadership in how to respond to U.S. policy.  UNASUR is fading rapidly, in part, because it was labeled by the new conservative governments as too Bolivarian and anti-American.  Something similar is happening with the CELAC.  MERCOSUR is struggling, in part, because of the political tumult in Brazil.  Indeed, most governments are trying to remain friends with Washington, prioritizing bilateral agendas in detriment of regional (multilateral) institutions and mechanisms.

The surge in resentment toward Washington – within and among Latin American countries – is unlikely to lead to increased regional unity.  Internally, the left and right may agree that Trump is harming their interests, but their reasons are different and prescriptions for dealing with it are far apart.  On a regional basis as well, the current context accelerates the atomization of the region – and threatens to expand the bargaining power of the great powers of the United States, China, Germany, or Israel.  Although China is making inroads, in the end the United States has, and will retain, the greatest influence in Latin America – and the lack of efficient regional decision-making will prolong that situation.  Latin American fragmentation will create an image of acquiescence – and President Trump will think he is not doing so badly in the region.

October 18, 2017

* Nicolás Comini is Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires) and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires.  He was Research Fellow at CLALS.

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

The Caribbean After the Hurricanes: What Path for Recovery?

By Daniel P. Erikson*

A group of man clear debris

Residents and volunteers begin clearing debris from Hurricane Irma on St. Maarten. / NLRC / Flickr / Creative Commons

This fall’s historically fierce hurricane season reminds us once again that the Caribbean remains extraordinarily vulnerable to natural disasters – especially in the lucrative tourist sectors – and needs to move beyond tourism.  The services sector in the Caribbean may serve as an important source of economic growth, but only if the region begins to take advantage of opportunities in banking and financial services; call centers and information and communication technology; off-shore education and health services; and transportation.

  • While the impact of Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, and Maria in U.S. states like Texas and Florida has received wide attention, the small island nations of the Caribbean have also been left to contend with extensive damage to infrastructure and loss of life that has resulted in thousands of newly homeless and dozens of deaths. Irma struck the tiny nation of Antigua and Barbuda as a peak-strength Category 5 storm, and Prime Minister Gaston Browne estimated that 95 percent of the properties on the smaller island of Barbuda were destroyed.  Irma then raked across the U.K. territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos, the French territories of St. Bart’s, Guadeloupe and St. Martin (including the Dutch half of St. Maarten).  Cuba also suffered as the storm swept across its northern coast and ravaged the third-largest city, Camaguey.  Then, just as Hurricanes Jose and Katia rattled the islands only to retreat as minor threats, Hurricane Maria strengthened into a Category 4 storm that ravaged Dominica and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico with winds exceeding 150 mph, devastating local infrastructure and knocking out the power grid, possibly for months to come.

Clearly, the focus of the near-term will be relief and recovery efforts, as these small islands seek to cope with the enormous damage.  But rebuilding a stronger and more diversified service sector may offer the best path towards a sustainable and much-deserved recovery for the people of the region.  Several years ago, the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, asked me to assess what steps the Caribbean islands could take to diversify their economies away from an over-reliance on tourism to create a more sustainable future.  The lessons of that study, Beyond Tourism: The Future of the Service Industry in the Caribbean, remain relevant today.  The bottom line:  Expanding the competitiveness of the Caribbean services sector beyond tourism is a way to draw on regional strengths and broaden the basis for economic growth.

The hurricanes have dealt a tragic and costly blow to the Caribbean, but the reconstruction efforts may also provide an opportunity to build back stronger and more resilient economies.  While the damage is still being assessed, it is already clear that the lives of tens of thousands of people who live on these islands will never be the same and that property damage will extend into the billions.  The recent damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria will likely jolt those figures substantially higher, while some of the smaller, remote islands hurt by earlier storms may be uninhabitable for weeks to come.  French President Emmanuel Macron and the King of the Netherlands traveled to the region to show solidarity with their afflicted citizens, while the United States deployed teams to assist in disaster relief and deployed over $1 million in aid to the smaller affected islands – and is beginning to launch a major relief effort in Puerto Rico as well.  Once the challenges of treating the injured and assisting with basic human needs are met, much of the early reconstruction effort is likely to focus on rebuilding tourist infrastructure.  This will be necessary, but not sufficient, to create a full recovery.  Caribbean leaders have increasingly recognized that developing globally competitive services industries offers one way to retain high-skilled workers and mitigate the risk of external shocks to the tourist sector. During the Obama administration, Vice President Biden made a major effort to deepen U.S. investments in the Caribbean’s energy sector, and new sources of financing through the Inter-American Development Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and private U.S. companies could similarly lead to a major push to modernize services-related infrastructure throughout the islands.  Future storms cannot be prevented, but a more diversified services sector will help the islands to navigate the challenge of reconstruction more effectively.

September 28, 2017

* Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies in Washington, DC, and previously served as a White House and State Department advisor on Latin America during the Obama Administration.

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*

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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