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.