All They Could Ask for and More

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Last week, we wrote in this space, “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.”

Clearly, the U.S. State Department had other designs.

On Tuesday, the department declared that it was expelling 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, following up on last Friday’s announcement that it would order non-emergency personnel to leave the U.S. Embassy in Havana, stop issuing visas in Cuba, and issue a Travel Warning cautioning U.S. travelers against visiting the island. (Per the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, issuing an ordered departure requires an accompanying Travel Warning.)

This feels too familiar. Recall 2009, when proponents of engagement had great optimism that a newly-elected President Obama would take steps toward normalization, only to have hopes dashed when USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for his work funded by a U.S. government “democracy promotion” program. Or 1996, when two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force after repeated flights over the island, creating the political environment in Washington to allow for the passage of the Helms-Burton Act.

The sonic attacks are shrouded in mystery, and the harm experienced by our diplomats is very alarming. However, the decision to draw down the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba, and demand the Cubans do the same in D.C., in the midst of an ongoing investigation no less, is the wrong one.

Look at motive, for starters. Whoever is doing this seems to want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba. The U.S. government’s actions in the last several days have given them all they could ask for and more.

Another thing. The diplomatic drawdowns were carried out with seemingly no regard for how they will divide Cuban families. As much was confirmed during a background briefing on the expulsion by an unnamed department official. When asked about how restricting the Cuban Embassy’s consular services and freezing the issuing of visas in Havana will affect families divided between the U.S. and Cuba, the official posited, “I think we are evaluating the impact our reduction of staff will have on those issues.”

Had the department evaluated the impact prior to its decision, it would have seen how many families will be indefinitely separated by this move. It would have heard stories like that of Tomas Luis Balseiro, who told the AP this week that the status of his visa application to see his gravely ill mother in Florida has been thrown into uncertainty. Now, he says, “It would be a victory just to see her alive.”

Balseiro’s story is not a unique one. According to the AP, on Monday morning, 300 people gathered in the so-called “park of laments” outside of the embassy, the area where Cubans wait for information on visa appointments. By now, they will have heard that the U.S. has decided to cancel all previously scheduled visa appointments, and will not refund the $160 application fees. Their mood was captured by Jessica Aguila, who told Reuters she had hoped to visit her family in the U.S. for Christmas. As Jessica wisely notes, “Politics always ends up affecting the poorest, the people, and not the government.”

Indeed, while the ordered departure may have stemmed from legitimate health concerns, politics, we suspect, are at play in the rollout of the expulsion. Earlier this week, the AP reported that the State Department gave Cuba’s U.S. Ambassador a list of 15 specific names of Cuban diplomats who were to leave the country. During a press conference this week, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez told reporters that the list left Cuba’s Embassy with just one consular officer to process visas, and Reuters reported Friday that the State Department expelled all Cuban diplomats working on business ties.

In the words of Cuban student Laura Hernandez, whose father lives in the U.S., “This is unnecessary and inhuman.” The decision to slash consular and commercial staff in both embassies serves little purpose other than to further divide the U.S. and Cuba.

Last week, the bipartisan House Cuba Working Group wrote, “Situations like these require responsible diplomacy,” and the State Department itself has repeatedly expressed its desire to cooperate with Cuba to resolve the issue.

Expelling diplomats is the antithesis of these ideals.

In the words of Rep. Tom Emmer, the expulsion “do[es] not seem to advance our efforts of identifying a cause or culprit behind these ‘sonic attacks,’” and as Rep. Barbara Lee stated, “Isolationism and disengagement has failed time and time again.”

This sentiment is shared by those at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Last week, Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said of a reduction of the Havana Embassy staff, “American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game.” She followed up on those statements to the Atlantic, saying, “We have a mission to do and we really think being present matters.”

Her words ring as true for the importance of having Cuban diplomats in Washington as they do for that of having U.S. diplomats in Havana. The actions taken over the last two weeks have hurt the U.S.’ diplomatic presence and posture, weakened the overall status of bilateral relations with our neighbor, and served to divide families unnecessarily.

What’s more, the actions have given the aggressor all they could ask for and more.

Irma Relief Update

Your support is already making a difference. CDA is pleased to have donated a portion of the Irma Relief Fund to Friends of Cáritas Cubana – earmarked specifically for Irma relief – in honor of the CDA community. Cáritas Cubana is internationally esteemed and excels in the provision of relief in the aftermath of natural disasters. Our collaboration with Cáritas will allow for immediate relief, and we will be traveling to Cuba in November to partner with an organization engaging in longer-term rebuilding efforts.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

State Department expels 15 Cuban diplomats from DC Embassy

The U.S. State Department ordered Tuesday the departure of 15 diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington. The decision comes four days after the department withdrew 60 percent of its staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana due to a series of unexplained “attacks” on diplomats’ health.

According to a statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the latest action was taken due to the determination that Cuba did not meet requirements to protect diplomats set forth by the Vienna Convention, as well as to “ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations.” The expelled diplomats have seven days to leave the country. Meanwhile, during a press briefing on the expulsion, an unnamed State Department official revealed that doctors have diagnosed a 22nd  case based on an attack that took place in January.

Later Tuesday, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez released a statement saying, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly protests and condemns this unfounded and unacceptable decision as well as the pretext used to justify it.” During a press conference, Mr. Rodríguez went on to suggest that Cuba’s efforts to investigate the attacks have been hampered by U.S. investigators, who purportedly have not allowed Cuban doctors to investigate patients or Cuban investigators to visit diplomatic residences where attacks took place. When asked about the allegation, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters, “When we are engaged in an investigation, we … need to keep a tight hold on a lot of information. We don’t want that information to leak.”

Canada, which also has treated diplomats for health issues related to an attack, stated Friday that it has no plans to withdraw staff or issue any travel-related warnings.

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’s Foreign Relations

Cuba, Mexico agree to reciprocal aid following Irma, earthquakes

The governments of Cuba and Mexico have signed an agreement to provide each other with aid following devastating natural disasters in both countries, according to a statement by Mexico’s Foreign Ministry.

Cuba has sent a team of 40 doctors and specialists to Oaxaca, Mexico in order to help in the wake of two earthquakes last month, EFE reports. Meanwhile, Mexico plans to send a group of specialists to help restore electricity to Cuba.

Cuba-Mexico relations have strengthened of late. In August, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray traveled to Havana for a two-day working visit to ask for Cuba’s assistance resolving the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, and to discuss bilateral ties and offer the country an expanded credit line with Mexico’s national bank, as Reuters reported at the time.

What We’re Watching

Cuba’s Entrepreneurs Speak Out on US Policy Changes, The Atlantic Council in collaboration with CDA

Jason Marczak, president of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, interviews Cuban entrepreneurs about President Trump’s intended changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba. The entrepreneurs spoke with the Council in July, when they visited Washington, DC on a trip partially sponsored by CDA, delivering policy recommendations to lawmakers and relevant agencies, and urging against changes that would limit travel to or trade with Cuba.

What We’re Reading

Reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America’s interests, Harold Trinkunas and Ricahrd Feinberg, The Hill

Richard Feinberg, professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego, and Harold Trinkunas, deputy director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, write that the State Department’s actions over the last two weeks have hurt Cuban families, damaged U.S. relations with partners in Latin America, and served as a gift to U.S. adversaries.

U.S.-Cuba: New Challenge to  Normalization, Fulton Armstrong, CLALS AULA Blog

Fulton Armstrong, a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, writes that by expelling Cuban diplomats, the State Department “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.”

US travel warning troubles Cuba’s small-business operators, Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press

The AP’s Andrea Rodríguez writes that the State Department’s recently issued Cuba Travel Warning will hurt Cuban businesses, quoting one Cuban entrepreneur as saying, “Now there is going to be a lot of supply, but relatively little demand.”

Havana quickly cleans up for tourists after hurricane. But other areas have a problem, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald

The Miami Herald’s Mimi Whitefield notes that while tourists are beginning to return to Cuba, Hurricane Irma left deeper scars on the country’s infrastructure.

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