Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Havana health mystery

It’s enough to wake you from a long nap.

Two dozen U.S. diplomats and a handful of Canadians in Havana suffered a disparate set of symptoms centering on hearing and cognitive problems. Unnamed U.S. officials were soon speculating in the press about attacks by unseen, sophisticated devices beaming sound waves. Within weeks Senator Rubio was urging the Secretary of State to expel all of Cuba’s diplomats and to close its Washington embassy. Eventually the State Department pulled most U.S. diplomats out of Cuba and forced Cuba to do the same from Washington.

This is a doozy even in the context of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The single common characteristic of all the U.S. persons affected is that they all worked in the U.S. Embassy. Presumably the embassy building has been investigated for its environmental factors, acoustic and otherwise – but the parts of the U.S. investigation that have been most discussed in public have involved their homes and hotels where some were living temporarily, and where they are said to have experienced “unusual sounds or auditory sensations,” according to a State Department doctor.

The shorthand for what happened in Havana quickly became “sonic attacks,” even though there is no evidence of attacks, sonic or otherwise.

What we really have is a health mystery that has confounded U.S., Canadian, and Cuban investigators.

The FBI, after sending agents and their equipment four times to Havana, has concluded that there is no evidence of a sonic attack, according to AP. And experts in acoustics scratch their heads at the idea that there could exist a device that can direct sound waves of any kind – within, above, or below the audible spectrum – with the strength required to injure a targeted person without affecting anyone else nearby.

But you have to hand it to Senator Rubio and his allies: “Sonic attacks” is quite a branding triumph. Without having to argue the merits of having diplomatic relations with Cuba, they scored a substantial policy victory that has hobbled diplomatic relations. When he called for expulsion of all Cuba’s diplomats in a letter last September, Rubio alleged that U.S. diplomats had suffered “’acoustic’ attacks;” today he has retreated from that position and instead argues that whatever happened, Cuba surely knows and won’t say.

Secretary Tillerson agrees. He doesn’t argue that this is some kind of Operation Mongoose in reverse, but rather that “someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end.”

The State Department also uses the term “attacks” consistently, such as in this testimony last week – which seems a little foolish when in the same breath the same officials testify that they don’t know what happened, how it happened, or who did it. (No Senator pressed the point.) A friend speculates that the repeated use of the term is a way to link the issue to the Vienna Convention’s requirement that governments “take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack” on the “person, freedom or dignity” of diplomats in their territory.

I don’t doubt that harms occurred, but it’s hard to put stock in any of the theories put forward so far. The sonic theory seems debunked. The idea that a third country carried out attacks on Cuban territory is hard to believe, not least because no one who advances it shows evidence or explains why a state would venture such a deeply hostile act against Cuba. Maybe there’s a rogue element of Cuban intelligence, but those who break with the system in Cuba tend to leave rather than risk their necks causing trouble at home. In his hearing, Senator Rubio was quite sure that no one from Miami could be involved. A CIA hand, recalling acts against our Moscow embassy years ago, guesses that it could have been a surveillance effort gone wrong. In last week’s hearing, the State Department mentioned the possibility of a virus.

We may never know.

This being a Cuba issue, politics has entered the picture, in some cases in ways that may make the investigation less effective.

·      Senator Rubio and the State Department claim that Cuba absolutely must know what happened. That’s a politically convenient thing to say, but it’s cheap and not credible. Cuban intelligence services are quite good, but neither they nor any foreign service bats 1,000. In recent history there have been terrorist attacks and drug operations carried out in Cuba without prior detection.

·      The removal of U.S. diplomats was for safety reasons and the Cubans were sent home for reasons of reciprocity. But the State Department calls it an expulsion and gave the Cuban Embassy a list of names of those ordered to leave. That sounds like a punitive action more fitting in a case where the Administration is assigning blame, something it has not done. It sounds even more like acquiescence to Senator Rubio, who from the first wanted Cuba’s diplomats expelled and its embassy closed.

·      The use of the word “attacks” in the absence of evidence sounds quite political too.

·      When it comes to the investigation, it is to be expected that U.S. agencies would not share every shred of evidence, every source and method. But Cuba is clearly investigating and its ability to do so is limited by an arm’s-length U.S. posture. For example, why is it not possible to give detailed medical information to Cuban investigators, with identities stripped to protect privacy? Why not assent to Cuba’s request for a meeting between its medical team and ours?

·      In the months that have passed, it is not clear that the two sides have worked out a system for immediate response in the event that a new incident is reported.

Meanwhile, there are costs.

Cuba’s consulate in Washington is barely staffed, slowing the processing of passports, visas, and legal documents. In Havana, the U.S. consulate is handling U.S. citizen emergencies and issuing visas only for diplomats and persons needing to travel due to acute health emergencies. Cuban applicants for immigrant visas have to travel to the U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia, where they are told to plan to spend two weeks. Applicants for non-immigrant visas may travel to any U.S. consulate to apply. (In each case, for 99 percent of Cuban applicants, these options are impossible.) The result is that travel in both directions is hampered, especially for Cubans wishing to travel to the United States. Academic and cultural exchanges are stopping. The United States will not meet its pledge, undertaken in the 1994 immigration accord, to issue 20,000 immigrant visas annually. In the face of a State Department travel warning (now slightly softened), Americans are continuing to travel to Cuba, but apparently in reduced numbers. Cuban private restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and other businesses that serve American travelers are suffering, as are entrepreneurs who supply them with goods and services.

As for the non-consular side of the U.S. Embassy, there are no staff in the political and economic sections, so there is extremely limited reporting capacity at a time when Cuba is about to go through a leadership transition and the uncertainty that will come with a government that, for the first time in 60 years, is not led by a Castro.

There is no clear way out.

In March, Secretary Tillerson will have to decide what to do with the Havana-based diplomats who were withdrawn, still formerly assigned to Havana but left to cool their heels in Washington.

He has said that he wants “assurances” from Cuba, but given that Cuba insists that it did not cause this problem and hasn’t discovered its cause, the only assurances it is likely to offer are that it will continue to investigate and to beef up protection. (Cuba’s foreign minister discusses the topic here, and this program describes Cuba’s investigation.)

The Secretary could send our diplomats back to Havana, but in the AP story cited above he said: “I’d be intentionally putting them back in harm’s way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them? I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that.”

Our diplomats’ labor union is less risk-averse. Contrary to what you would expect from a union, its president, Barbara Stephenson, said last September that danger is “our reality…We’ve got a mission to do…The answer can’t be we just pull the flag down and move American presence from the field.”

In sum, three factors have brought us to where we are: an unsolved health mystery, a Secretary of State who is admirably extremist about employee safety, and some actors leveraging all this to shut down diplomacy, consular services, and contacts. Formally speaking, U.S. policy may not have changed, but the diplomatic apparatus that allows it to work is partially mothballed. And the United States’ reduced presence in Havana has us flying blind, worse than when we had just an Interests Section. It is not clear that this last factor matters to Secretary Tillerson.

With the passage of time, is it too much to hope that our diplomatic presence could be restored and then altered only if evidence provides a reason to do so?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Obama's Cuba doctrine...

…and why President Trump should stick with it. An article of mine in The American Conservative.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Odds and ends

·      Cuba and the United States agreed on a framework for cooperation on law enforcement (terrorism, drugs, human trafficking, contraband, etc.), but did not release a text. Announcements here (U.S. and Cuba). Meanwhile, the Bergen Record editorializes that Trump should not reverse Obama’s policies but he should press hard for the return of fugitive Joann Chesimard.

·      A magnitude 4.5 quake shook southeastern Cuba,

·      Miami’s ABC affiliate WPLG opens a bureau in Cuba.

·      What it’s like to hijack a plane and live the rest of your life in Cuba.

·      AP on a fine effort by universities and libraries to preserve parish records that record births and other information about Cubans centuries ago, including the slave population. In Cuban parishes, you can see the old registries in separate books, one for blacks only.

Monday, January 16, 2017

More on the immigration action

·      What makes Cubans the chosen people of U.S. immigration policy is not just that they have been admitted without a visa, but that they also receive U.S. government benefits that are extended to no similarly situated immigrants of any other nationality. These benefits are described in this superb series from the Sun Sentinel, based on reporting from Florida and Cuba. The phenomenon of Cubans coming to the United States, qualifying for the benefits, and returning to Cuba to live off the benefits has surely grown since Cuba’s immigration laws changed and made back-and-forth travel much easier. By all means blame the beneficiaries for taking advantage of U.S. programs, but elected officials are abusing the taxpayer by legislating this gravy train in the first place. President Obama’s action last week is an indirect solution, but Congress would do well to make refugee benefits available to refugees only – as Senator Rubio and Congressman Curbelo, to their credit, propose.

·      Senator Rubio’s statement, once you get past the obligatory shots at President Obama, actually supports the action the President took last week. He says it’s important to be sure that potential refugees and asylees have an opportunity to have their claims heard, but he does not oppose the heart of Obama’s action, which is to return Cuban migrants who arrive without a visa. He refers to “abuse” of the system, which based on some of his past statements means Cubans who arrive, acquire residency, then travel to Cuba – just like immigrants from other countries who visit home, but in Rubio’s mind it’s an abuse because Cubans are supposed to act like exiles, as if they are refugees who fear returning to Cuba. In 2015, 1,527 Cubans were admitted to the United States with refugee status. Senator Rubio does oppose Obama’s action on the Cuban doctor program and sounds optimistic that Trump will reverse it.

·      If you’re wondering what the U.S.-Cuba joint statement (pdf) means when it refers to returning Cubans who came through the port of Mariel and others, it’s explained in the New York Times.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Chosen people no more

Ok fine, let’s get back to it.

The end of the wet foot-dry foot policy ends Cubans’ status as the chosen people of U.S. immigration policy.

Until yesterday, they were admitted when they show up at the border with no visa, put on a path to legal permanent residency, and given a package of free government benefits (Medicaid, food stamps, education assistance) that no other nationality gets.

If you like the idea of a fair and even-handed immigration policy – something that I as a fan of legal immigration think we should maintain – this change is long overdue. Cubans, few of whom come here as refugees, had no reason to receive that package of federal benefits that is intended for refugees. And Cubans who intend to immigrate will now have to do so through the processes and timetables that apply to everyone else.

Here’s the joint announcement of the two governments, the Obama statement, a Cuban foreign ministry press conference, and a Homeland Security fact sheet.

This is not the end of Cuban immigration, far from it. The U.S. commitment under the 1994/1995 immigration accords to issue 20,000 immigrant visas each year remains in effect, and we could do more. Cubans have the rare opportunity to apply for refugee status in the U.S. consulate in Havana (which amounts to a few hundred per year), they can apply elsewhere if they are outside Cuba, and they can seek asylum at the U.S. border.

Yesterday’s announcement may not even end all illegal immigration by Cubans. Yes, those who show up at the border will be returned. But there are other groups: those who arrive with visas and overstay, then seek legal permanent residency; or those Cubans who acquire Spanish citizenship, enter on a Spanish passport, then seek legal permanent residency. The Cuban Adjustment Act remains on the books and still allows the executive to “adjust” the status of Cubans who have been on U.S. soil for one year by giving them permanent residency. Yesterday’s announcement was silent on this question.

The Administration’s announcement drew a hoary condemnation from Senator Menendez (it will “tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people”).

But it’s surprising that those who support the embargo as an instrument of pressure on the Cuban people and the Cuban government do not support this step. If your goal is to apply pressure to force political change, it makes no sense to maintain an open-door immigration policy that invites dissatisfied Cubans to get up and leave.

The new policy is good for U.S. border security, because it will stem a flow of tens of thousands of illegal migrants per year and likely free up enforcement resources. It is good for countries from Ecuador to Mexico that have had to care for these migrants. And inside Cuba, it certainly puts a greater onus on the government to press ahead with economic reforms – those on the books now, and perhaps new ones – that can create jobs for those who have been leaving Cuba in search of basic economic opportunities.

As for the incoming Trump Administration, its views on this are anyone’s guess. But candidate Trump did address the issue in an interview last February. When asked if the special treatment for Cuban migrants is justified, he responded: “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, why would that be a fair thing? … You have people that have been in the system for years [waiting to immigrate to America], and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.”

Sounds like Obama did him a favor.

Monday, July 20, 2015


The critics do have a point. Cuba got something today: recognition that the socialist government in office in Havana since 1959 is in fact the governing authority in Cuba.

One wonders how Fidel Castro feels about it.

He reacted to the December 17, 2014 announcements with the grumpiness to which his age entitles him, saying he is not against peaceful solutions even though he does not trust the United States. Nonetheless, he huffed, “The President of Cuba has taken the pertinent steps according to the prerogatives and powers granted him by the National Assembly and the Communist Party of Cuba.”

I also wonder if he thinks back to his April 1961 speech, when he couldn’t envision that “the imperialists” could ever change their spots:

“Because what the imperialists cannot forgive us is that we are here, what they cannot forgive us is the dignity, the integrity, the bravery, the ideological strength, the spirit of sacrifice and the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people. That is what they cannot forgive us, that we are right under their nose and we made a socialist revolution right under the nose of the United States!”

I don’t know about forgiveness, but there they are, still right under our nose, and they have been recognized. So there.

But did we lose anything?

For those who think that the past policies were successful or productive, or the only morally correct posture toward our socialist neighbor, we have lost a great deal. Pass the smelling salts, please.

For the rest of us, it’s a rational path, it has nothing to do with approval, and it’s no more radical than Nixon’s relations with China or Reagan’s with the Soviet Union.

And let’s be clear that for decades, our policies have been tantamount to formal recognition anyway.

We have had a diplomatic mission in Havana since 1977, housed in our old embassy building. We, the imperialists, have more diplomats accredited there than any other country. We negotiated agreements on migration and other matters. We have collaborated on drug enforcement, search and rescue, transfers of prisoners, and other matters, with our diplomats dealing directly with each other.

This relationship carried on even during the George W. Bush Administration, and has long amounted to de facto recognition of the Cuban government.

Today it changes to full legal recognition. What matters more than that legal formality is the opportunity before us, and what both nations make of it.