Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary, is this week’s guest contributor to the Cuba Central News Brief. He served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005, and as Associate Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff from 2001 to 2002, during which time he focused on East Asia and the Pacific, political-military, and legislative affairs. Prior to working in the State Department, Col. Wilkerson served in the U.S. Army for 31 years.
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“Who steals my purse steals trash … But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” – Shakespeare’s Othello
Immediate attention today is turned to whether or not the Government of Cuba caused intentional harm to U.S. and Canadian diplomats through a series of sonic incidents in Havana. Frankly, it looks more like spyware gone bad than an intentional effort to do harm. Damage is done, nonetheless, as the U.S. has reciprocated with the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats from Washington.
Long-term concern, however, relates to President Trump. In short, what exactly is Trump’s Cuba policy today? Are his administration’s incremental reversals of previous U.S.-Cuba policy all we shall see, or will there be more, and more substantial, reversals of what was beginning to look like a warming relationship?
Even the small steps backward—and most certainly more substantial ones—are detrimental to U.S. national security, and while many aspects of that negative impact are readily discernible—from cooperation in managing drug trafficking to the environment—the most dangerous aspect, as with the U.S. practice of torture from 2002–2006, goes largely unreported.
Simply stated, the reputation of America is as powerful a component of its standing in the world—perhaps more so—than its vast array of tanks, warplanes, and warships. For the billion people in the Western Hemisphere, and increasingly for the six billion others in the rest of the world, the U.S.’ Cuba policy is another nail in the coffin of the American empire. Of late, nations around the world have been hammering in such nails with alarming frequency and vehemence.
From the now utterly nonsensical embargo on Cuba—essentially an abuse of the use of sanctions bordering on an act of war—to the unseemly and unconstitutional restrictions on travel to the island by U.S. citizens, U.S.-Cuba policy would be the laughing stock of the world if it were not so indicative of America’s present policies—and thus a serious matter indeed. What a worsening of this policy would do is add immeasurable weight to a now swiftly-coalescing world opinion that America is no longer worthy of global leadership.
A dramatic historical moment in 1956, during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, sums up brilliantly what reputational power is all about. The moment is described eloquently by Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith. The occasion was President Eisenhower’s having compelled Great Britain, France and Israel to reverse their combined invasion of Suez:
“Never in the postwar era was American prestige higher than in the aftermath of Suez. Small nations could scarcely believe the United States would support Egypt, a Third World country, in a fight against two of America’s oldest allies, or that it would come to the aid of a Muslim state resisting Israeli aggression. ‘Never has there been such a tremendous acclaim for the President’s policy,’ Henry Cabot Lodge reported from the United Nations. ‘It has been absolutely spectacular.’”
Eisenhower understood what reputational power meant in the world. He knew it outweighed all the panoply of war of which, ironically enough, he was arguably one of the foremost practitioners.
Today, with America’s reputation in tatters all over the globe, in the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, torture, walls on the Mexican border, and strategic missteps from Berlin to Beijing, the very last thing Washington needs is another policy disaster. To reverse the opening to Cuba would be a serious blow to U.S. security in the Western Hemisphere and add another blow to that security, already in serious jeopardy, elsewhere in the world.
That is the last thing the nation needs; it would make us poor indeed.
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This week, in Cuba news…
JetBlue Airways Corporation opened two ticket offices in Havana September 1, a year-and-a-day after the company operated the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in over 50 years, the Miami Herald reports.
Separately, the Department of Transportation announced last week it would extend its period of review to determine the allocation of three daily flights to Havana. Airline operators American, Delta, FedEx, JetBlue, Southwest, and United applied to fill the slots left behind by Frontier and Spirit Airlines after the two ended their service to the capital city earlier this year. The department will announce its final decision regarding allocations September 19.
Abelardo Moreno Fernández, Cuba’s vice minister of foreign relations, released a statement last week criticizing President Donald Trump’s Executive Order “Imposing Additional Sanctions With Respect to the Situation in Venezuela,” calling the new round of sanctions “unjust, unilateral, arbitrary, and illegal acts that violate international law.”
The statement also highlighted National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s comment that “no military actions are anticipated in the near future,” with Mr. Moreno Fernández questioning, “Does this mean that we must wait for them to occur later?”
Last month, after the Trump administration issued sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations released a similar statement, saying at the time, “We are very familiar with these interventionist practices.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced last week that a new “sonic incident” affecting workers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana occurred last month, and that the incidents have affected 19 U.S. government personnel since they began last fall, the Associated Press reports.
Ms. Nauert had stated during an August 24 press briefing, “The incidents are no longer occurring,” and that a total of 16 government employees were affected; she has since told reporters, “We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community.” The American Foreign Service Association has confirmed that embassy workers in Havana suffered “mild traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss,” CNN reports.
The cause of the incidents continues to be a source of speculation. Last week, Reuters reported that Canadian officials do not “assume automatically that this was necessarily intentional,” and believe that Cuba’s government has been “incredibly cooperative” in the ongoing investigation into the incidents.
Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link.
Cuba has issued varying degrees of hurricane warnings for 14 of its 16 provinces—with the most serious for the seven provinces from Ciego de Ávila east to Guantánamo—ahead of Hurricane Irma’s expected impact Friday.
The country has begun evacuations of coastal areas, including moving over 8,000 international tourists from seaside resorts into more central areas, according to CubaDebate; Canada’s Embassy in Havana has also encouraged tourism operators in coastal areas to evacuate.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning urging citizens not to travel to Cuba. The U.S. Navy announced Tuesday that it will not evacuate staff or detainees from its base at Guantánamo Bay, the Miami Herald reports.
Over 4.5 million Cubans on the island used the internet in 2016, a 16 percent increase over the number of users in 2015 and 74 percent greater than the number of users in 2011, according to Cuba’s 2016 Annual Report on Information Technology and Communications, EFE reports. The increase means that over 40 percent of Cubans now use the internet, compared with 23 percent five years ago.
In June, EFE reported that over 600 households in Havana had signed internet service contracts with ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications agency. (ETECSA began offering packages for in-home internet access in March, following a three-month pilot project in Havana.) Across Cuba, ETECSA now hosts 421 public Wi-Fi hotspots, up from 0 in 2014.
Cuba began a series of local forums across the island on Monday to nominate candidates to serve as municipal assembly representatives, the first step in the country’s 2017-2018 electoral process, the Associated Press reports.
At the more than 12,000 forums, which will last through September 30, neighborhoods will nominate candidates for municipal assembly elections. Those elections will be held October 22, with a second round October 29 as necessary. Municipal assembly members serve on two-and-a-half-year terms.
Representatives from municipal assemblies elect members of the provincial and national assemblies based in part on lists of candidates nominated by union groups, including organizations of workers, students, and farmers. Members of the National Assembly select the country’s president, vice president, and members of the council of state. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro has stated that he will step down from the presidency when his current term ends in February.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
The Central Bank of Cuba signed an agreement last week allowing the country to become a foreign member of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Associated Press reports. According to CubaDebate, the island sees the bank as a possible “new source of external financing,” especially for projects highlighted in Cuba’s annual Portfolio of Opportunities for Foreign Investment.
The bank, which primarily serves to invest in projects in Central America and abroad that promote “development to reduce poverty and inequality,” approved Cuba’s membership during a meeting in April. Cuba joins Mexico, Taiwan, Argentina, Colombia and Spain as the bank’s foreign partners.
Cuba has released its Portfolio of Opportunities each year since 2014, when the country’s National Assembly passed a law loosening restrictions on foreign investment on the island; the 2017 edition has 395 potential projects totaling $9.5 billion of investment. Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s minister of foreign trade, stated last year that Cuba aims to garner $2 billion in foreign investment annually, though the country approved a total of just $1.3 billion worth of projects across 2015 and 2016.
A group 189 Colombian medical students, made up of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and victims of the lengthy Colombian conflict, arrived in Havana last week as part of the peace deal signed by Colombia’s government and the FARC last November, EFE reports.
During the four-year negotiations between the two parties, for which Cuba acted as host and guarantor, Cuba’s government offered 1,000 full scholarships for Colombian students affected by the conflict to attend Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine. The 1,000 slots are available through 2022.
What We’re Reading
U.S.-Cuba Meeting Demonstrates Value of Collaboration in Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science
Representatives from the American Association for the Advancement of Science discuss the importance of U.S.-Cuba scientific collaboration, and argue that the “free exchange of ideas and people” is crucial to scientific research.
Coast Guard, Cuba work together on common issues, Editorial Board, Tampa Bay Times
The Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board argues, “Given that Florida is only 90 miles away and a hub for Cuba cruise ship travel, the Coast Guard’s strong relationships on the island further the security and economic interests of the Sunshine State.”
We went to Cuba three days after the President announced new restrictions. Here’s what we learned., Tina Smith, Cuba Trade Magazine
Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith reflects on her recent trip to Cuba, the first official delegation to the island after President Trump’s June 16 policy shift announcement. She writes, “There’s truly never been a better time for U.S.-Cuban engagement.”
According to JetBlue, 390,000 passengers have traveled on the nearly 2,000 flights the company has operated between the U.S. and Cuba in the last year.
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