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

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

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).

Macri in the Next 100 Days

By Nicolás Comini*

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Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Everybody seems to love President Mauricio Macri outside Argentina – it’s not hard to understand why – but he faces tough challenges at home.  Foreign supporters have plenty of reasons to believe in him.  First, he is not Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president whom they branded a populist too close to Venezuela, Bolivia, or Ecuador.  Like many conservatives inside Argentina itself, they see Macri as the person who avoided the “Venezuelization” of the country, and his market-friendly credentials were sealed through his campaign promise of a “rain of investment” and his government’s implementation of a package of measures aimed at financial liberalization, regulatory flexibility, liberalization of foreign trade, and stronger fiscal discipline.  He has been less confrontational in diplomacy.  “Return to the world,” “de-ideologization,” “pragmatism,” and “transparency” are the continuous slogans that draw the foreign accolades.

Things look different at home, however.  The federal government confronts a convoluted scenario in the next 100 days, during which it will face at least three sets of sensitive issues in the run-up to Legislative primaries in August and elections in October.

  • Domestic issues. The government will have to deal with a hostile internal front.  One challenge will be resolving a long-running pay dispute with teacher unions – especially in the province of Buenos Aires.  Another is quelling complaints about steep increases in the costs of government services and deep slashes in funding for Science and Technology, Culture, Human Rights, Health, Production, and Energy.  Macri’s failure to meet inflation reduction targets (prices rose by 40 percent in 2016); the need to stimulate the economy; and debates on tax reform are a daunting agenda.
  • Controversy over human rights and immigration. One of the Achilles’ heels of the current administration is the imprisonment of social activist Milagro Sala in the northwestern province of Jujuy.  An ally of former President Fernández de Kirchner, Sala was arrested in January 2016 – one month after Macri took office – on highly contested charges: initially of “instigate criminal activity disorder” and later of “illicit association, fraud, and extortion.”  Pope Francis, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, and UN officials have expressed concern, fueling tensions inside Argentina.  An immigration reform decree facilitating deportations and restricting access at border crossings has been rejected by social movements, international organizations, and much of the Argentine political opposition.  The repudiation is not only felt in the formal political arena but also on the streets.
  • External dynamics with internal consequences. Brazil’s Lava Jato scandal is splashing as much onto Macri’s government as his predecessor’s.  Officials from both administrations are being accused of receiving bribes from Odebrecht, the largest Brazilian construction company, and no one knows how this process will develop hereafter.  Congresswoman and Macri ally Elisa Carrió claims the whole political elite is complicit in the Odebrecht mess.  The “Panama Papers” – leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, which allegedly was involved in helping companies hide bribes paid to a number of South American leaders – has so far not touched Macri, whose family has links to firms cited in the documents.

The August primaries, followed by full legislative elections in October, are a potential inflection point for both Macri and his opponents.  Neither side has yet announced its slate of candidates, but one essential factor is already clear: the candidacy (or not) of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.  The primary election will define how the pieces of the political chessboard are placed, and Macri’s handling of his economic, political, and social challenges will be decisive.  Achievement of his reform agenda – including the overhauling the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC, accused of cooking data during previous governments), an ambitious “Plan Belgrano” infrastructure program, and the end of currency controls – may not be enough.  The potential reunification of his key Peronist opponents, increased social unrest, splits in his own coalition, and the spillover from the Brazilian crisis suggest a sobering future.  True love cannot be achieved from one day to the next, but in the domestic political arena it is simple to lose it suddenly.

June 8, 2017

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

Latin America United Against Violence in Gaza

By Aaron T. Bell

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer provoked sharp criticism from Latin American governments.  Condemnation came not only from Cuba, a long-time critic of Israel, and from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which have been without diplomatic ties to Israel since cutting them after previous conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2010.  This summer’s UN-estimated 1,500 civilian deaths also provoked outrage from center-left governments, as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru all withdrew their ambassadors.  At the Mercosur summit at the end of July, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina issued a joint statement in which they criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force…which has almost exclusively affected civilians.”  And one of the largest popular demonstrations worldwide against the Israeli action took place in Chile, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian descendants.

Latin American interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is deeply rooted in the past.  Waves of immigration beginning a century ago have made the region home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.  Latin American governments provided crucial support for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, but they roundly condemned the occupation of the Gaza Strip 20 years later.  In the Cold War era, Israel provided military hardware to rightwing military regimes in the region while the Palestine Liberation Organization, more leftist than Islamic in its revolutionary views, lent political and economic support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.  Contemporary Latin American governments have taken a balanced approach in their relations with Israel and the Palestinians.  All but Colombia, Mexico, and Panama have recognized a Palestinian state based on national borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and trade with Israel has flourished.  Brazil is the top destination for Israeli exports, totaling over $1 billion per year.  In addition, Israel signed free trade agreements with Mercosur in 2007 and 2010; became an official observer to the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) in 2013; and in May 2014 approved a four-year, $14 million plan to boost trade with the PA nations and Costa Rica.  Israel’s recent efforts to further trade in Latin America ironically developed out of a desire to shrug off some of its dependency on Europe, where criticism of Israeli policy has become widespread and boycotts of Israeli goods are being organized by advocates of the Palestinian cause.

This summer’s fighting in Gaza chilled diplomatic relations between Latin American governments and Israel.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry described the withdrawal of Latin America ambassadors as a “hasty” decision that would only encourage Hamas radicalism, and it struck a nerve in Brazil when dismissing its “moral relativism” as an example of “why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”  But both Israel and Latin America stand to gain from stronger economic ties, and with the exception of Chile’s suspension of trade talks, there are no pending signs that economic relations will suffer further now that this round of fighting in Gaza has come to an end.  The significance of this summer’s events lies instead in the autonomous decision by Latin American governments of all political stripes to act in favor of peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of civilians enveloped by the violence of war.  The Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens in Syria in recent years provoked a more reticent condemnation from Latin America’s center-left governments and regional blocs, which backed a negotiated solution to the conflict while strongly opposing the possibility of foreign military intervention.  Without the specter of a wider conflict looming over this summer’s Gaza crisis, Latin American governments seized the opportunity to stake out a firmer position.  The region’s reaction to future atrocities – which may come sooner rather than later as the US prepares to battle the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq – will show how durable this new approach will be.

More Cracks in the EU’s “Common Position” on Cuba

By William M. LeoGrande*

eu cubaThe visit of Dutch Foreign Minister Timmermans to Cuba earlier this month marks yet another crack in the European Union’s 1996 Common Position on Cuba, which conditions normal relations with the island on democratic reforms. Days later, EU Commission President Barroso acknowledged that a number of member states were pressing for a reevaluation of the Common Position, and Spanish Foreign Minister García Margallo announced that the issue would be taken up at the EU foreign ministers meeting on 10 February – adding, however, that any new policy “would have, as a determining factor, respect for human rights.” Amending the Common Position will require unanimity among the EU’s member states, something conservative governments – especially in the former socialist countries – have thus far blocked.

The Common Position has severely constrained the ability of Brussels to respond creatively to rapidly changing conditions in Cuba today, but various European governments have expanded their bilateral economic and political ties with Cuba despite its strictures. Trade between Cuba and Europe, at 2.5 billion euros annually, has roughly tripled since 1996, and official development assistance to Cuba has quadrupled to nearly 60 million euros annually. Policies of engagement have proven more successful than policies of hostility and confrontation.  In 2010, quiet diplomacy by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s government enabled Spain to play a crucial mediating role between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church, leading to the release of more than a hundred political prisoners – the largest such release since the 1970s.

Cuba today is moving in directions that the EU has long favored.  The “updating” of the Cuban economic model, begun in 2011, entails greater economic openness, reduced government regulation of private markets, and a larger role for private sector businesses. At the same time, although challenging Cuba’s one-party system or its socialist society is still out of bounds, there has been a very gradual opening of political space to debate the shape of Cuba’s future.  Replacing the Common Position does not mean that European states, individually or collectively, would abandon their commitment to encouraging greater human rights and democracy in Cuba.  But a warmer political climate would enable them to express their concerns more effectively through quiet diplomacy. What offends Cuba’s leaders is not that other states have different views on these issues; it is that the Common Position makes normal relations contingent on Cuba conforming to European norms, a litmus test that no other Latin American country is required to pass.

*Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.  This article is excerpted from an essay (click here) he wrote for the London School of Economics and Political Science blog.