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who is responsible or what is causing these attacks,” but he still said that more than half of U.S. diplomats will be withdrawn “until the Government of Cuba can ensure [their] safety.”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