We are monitoring the breaking news that the State Department will order the departure of all non-essential personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana. We hold as a top priority the well-being of our diplomats, and urge a swift investigation into the mysterious incidents that have inflicted harm upon them. We note Cuba’s efforts to investigate the matter, and Secretary Tillerson’s promise to continue cooperation with Cuba’s government. We are pleased diplomatic channels through which to cooperate on a matter such as this exist, and believe engagement is more important now than ever.
* * *
What’s in a Name?
“The appointment of an ambassador is a common sense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries.”
Those were the words of former President Barack Obama when, one year ago this week, he nominated Jeff DeLaurentis to the position of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba.
Alas, the Senate declined to vote on DeLaurentis’ nomination, leaving him to serve out the remainder of his three-year shift in Havana as the embassy’s chargé d’affaires. (DeLaurentis completed his term in July.)
Now, exactly 12 months later, we’re reminded of the misguided, schismatic criticisms of engagement that denied him a hearing, in the wake of the news that the U.S. will withdraw 60 percent of its staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana and issue a warning cautioning U.S. travelers against visiting the island.
Let’s be clear: the presence of an embassy has played a key role in the development of productive, bilateral relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Through its diplomatic presence in Havana, the U.S. has held numerous bilateral dialogues and signed agreements with Cuba on issues including cooperation in law enforcement and national security, environmental protection, and public health. These exchanges have had real, tangible effects—massive increases in the seizure of narcotics and the resumption of commercial flights between the two countries, to name a few.
Diplomacy matters, and having an ambassador to direct the U.S.’ diplomatic efforts matters, too.
Last September, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said of DeLaurentis’ nomination, “Rewarding the Castro government with a U.S. ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the President that needs to be stopped.”
This line of thinking misses the point. Assigning an ambassador is a not a “reward” to a foreign government, but rather, a key component of promoting U.S. interests abroad. Titles matter, and formally appointing an ambassador expands the diplomatic work that a U.S. mission abroad can accomplish. Leaving an ambassadorial post open is a self-defeating policy that only limits the U.S.’ ability to facilitate dialogue.
In the wake of the mystifying “sonic incidents” in Havana, it is more important than ever that the U.S. demonstrate its commitment to engagement. In his meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez emphasized, “It is essential to count on the effective cooperation of the US authorities” in Cuba’s investigation into the events.
Filling official roles, like that of an ambassador, shows foreign nations that the U.S. is serious about diplomacy.
Moreover, in a situation like this one, it is important to keep channels of communication open. In times of uncertainty, our diplomats play a crucial role in ensuring that all parties are working effectively toward a common goal—in this case, ensuring the safety of diplomats in Havana.
As President Obama said last September, “Having an ambassador will make it easier to advocate for our interests, and will deepen our understanding even when we know that we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government … we only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an Ambassador.”
Rubio was right about one thing, though. Placing an ambassador in Havana would certainly create a lasting legacy—one of commitment to diplomacy and bilateral cooperation.
URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!
This week, in Cuba news…
The State Department has ordered 60 percent of staff working at the U.S. Embassy in Havana to leave Cuba, and will stop issuing visas in Cuba effective immediately, the Associated Press reports. The State Department has also issued a Cuba Travel Warning cautioning U.S. travelers against visiting the island while the source of the incidents remains unknown.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement Friday, saying, “Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our Embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.” Mr. Tillerson further clarified, “We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”
Regarding the Travel Warning, Mr. Tillerson stated, “We have no reports that private citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”
The announcement comes despite a report by McClatchy earlier this week that the Trump administration does not believe Cuba to be responsible for the incidents.
Josefina Vidal, director general for U.S. affairs at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, released a statement Friday saying the State Department announcement was “hasty and will affect bilateral relations, in particular, cooperation on issues of mutual interest,” but that Cuba hopes to continue working with U.S. authorities to resolve the issue.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez met Tuesday at the State Department–at Cuba’s request–to discuss the mysterious sonic incidents affecting diplomats in Havana, the Associated Press reports.
Following the meeting, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a statement saying Mr. Tillerson “underscored the Cuban authorities’ obligations to protect Embassy staff and their families under the Vienna Convention.”
According to a readout from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX), Mr. Rodríguez told his U.S. counterpart that Cuba has found “no evidence so far of the cause or the origin of the health disorders,” and he “emphasized that Cuba strictly abides by its obligations under the Vienna Convention.” The MINREX statement also reiterated Cuba’s desire to cooperate with U.S. authorities to resolve the issue, as well as to continue bilateral dialogues such as those held last week.
On Monday, Local 10 News, Miami’s ABC syndicate, reported that diplomats were affected while inside the U.S. Embassy, and specifically named the hotels Capri and Nacional as other sites where incidents took place. Local 10 also reported that the number of affected individuals has risen from 21 to 25, though Ms. Nauert told reporters Tuesday, “I can confirm the number of 21.”
A bipartisan group of 65 Members of Congress wrote to President Trump this week urging him to remove restrictions on exports to Cuba to help rebuild the country’s damaged infrastructure in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
As the letter notes, while embargo regulations allow for the sale of “services related to infrastructure … Commerce Department export regulations require that U.S. exports to support the provision of such services be approved on a case-by-case basis.”
The letter was organized by Representatives John Conyers, Jr. (MI-13), Congressman Rick Crawford (AR-1), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13), and Congressman Tom Emmer (MN-06). Representatives Crawford and Emmer are the sponsors of bills to allow agricultural exports to Cuba and lift restrictions on trade with the island, respectively.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez reiterated Cuba’s desire to cooperate with the U.S. in resolving the sonic incidents affecting diplomats in Havana, while also urging the U.S. to continue pursuing channels of diplomacy with Havana.
Of the incidents, Mr. Rodríguez stated, “It would be unfortunate if a matter of this nature is politicized,” and he called for “the cooperation of U.S. authorities” in helping investigate the matter. Mr. Rodríguez also specifically noted Cuba’s President Raúl Castro’s stated desire to “continue negotiating all pending bilateral issues with the United States.”
The Minister also responded to remarks made by President Trump before the UNGA last week, stating, “Cuba will never accept any preconditions or impositions.” President Trump had said, “We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.”
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.
Over 99 percent of Cubans now have electricity, with power expected to be fully restored by September 30, following damage to the country’s electrical grid levied by Hurricane Irma, Granma reports.
According to Lázaro Guerra Hernández, technical director of Cuba’s Electrical Union, some electrical issues may remain even after power is fully restored, as “strong winds could have caused shorts in conductors.”
Separately, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro made an unannounced visit to Havana September 22–September 24 to deliver hurricane relief supplies, reports Reuters. President Maduro was greeted at Havana’s José Martí International Airport by Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, though reports in Granma did not specify whether the leaders met to discuss issues other than aid. The visit was President Maduro’s second in just over a month; he traveled to Santiago de Cuba in early August to commemorate the late Fidel Castro’s birthday.
ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications agency, will expand its offer of packages for in-home internet service to seven new cities, Pinar del Río, Viñales, Las Tunas, Holguín, Bayamo, Guantánamo, and Baracoa, beginning September 29, CubaDebate reports. The in-home internet program, known as Nauta Hogar, was previously available only in Havana.
According to CubaDebate, in-home access in the seven cities will initially be available only in 17 pre-determined areas. Nauta Hogar offers monthly packages for 30 hours of internet use at prices ranging from 15 to 70 CUC (Cuba’s currency for foreign exchange, equal to U.S. dollars), depending on internet speed. Over 600 households in Havana have purchased contracts for internet service.
The program builds off a pilot project for in-home access which lasted from December 2016 to February, providing free internet service to 858 homes in the Old Havana neighborhood. Across Cuba, ETECSA now hosts 432 public Wi-Fi hotspots; Cuba has seen large increases in Wi-Fi availability over the last two years.
What We’re Reading
U.S.-Cuban Relations in the Trump Era, Cuba Study Group
A white paper released by the Cuba Study Group makes a series of recommendations to the Trump administration on how best to conduct its relations with Cuba under the guidelines set forth by the President’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy. The paper includes 12 primary recommendations, including continuing bilateral agreements on national security cooperation, appointing an ambassador to Havana, and clearly defining the ban on activities involving Cuba’s military.
US Diplomats Oppose Withdrawal Of Staff From Cuba, John Hudson, Buzzfeed News
Buzzfeed News reports that the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) has come out against any changes to staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Buzzfeed quotes Barbara Stephenson, president of AFSA, saying, “AFSA’s view is that American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game.”
Support CDA: Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the Cuba Central News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.