Friday, September 29, 2017

And the Other Shoe Drops--In Cuba Anger on the Street and the Ministries, Conspiracy Theories, and Defensiveness

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017 (a street dog neutered by a local social organization wearing a notice to that effect and imploring passers by to refrain from beating the dog))

No sooner did I post some thoughts and the first reports about the U.S. decision to substantially reduce its personnel in Cuba, freeze visa applications and issue a travel warning (U.S.-Cuba Relations Seize Up as the Affair of the Sonic Weapon Attacks Intensifies)--than the predictable reaction erupted in Cuba.  Not that the Cuban reaction was unjustified, at least in a way.  The U.S. actions appear to implement some of the  actions that might suggest a hard freeze in relations, perhaps in this case taking the U.S.-Cuba relations back to the time of the Clinton Administration. And this despite U.S. protestations to the contrary (one does well to rely less on what is said than what is done in most situations in any case). And as has been the case since 1959 in this furiously perverse relationship between these two states, both of which define their bilateral relations by the state of their willingness to indulge their national neurosis about the other, both states bear some of the responsibility for the present state of affairs and its longer term consequences.

At best Cuba is now manifesting an inability to police and protect its own interests in its own territory--a sign of sclerosis that portends badly for the vanguard party and its long term ambitions to institutionalize its governance system (that it still worries about this after almost three quarters of a century ought to give pause). At worst Cuba again is playing death wish politics--some faction within the state apparatus (or its military apparatus) in partnership with who knows what or whom--has chosen this as the most opportune moment to destroy any remaining chance of forward movement in relations. The first renders Cuba's state apparatus pathetic; the second renders that apparatus dangerous or out of control.  Conspiracy theorists might be inclined to see in this an out of control vanguard party unable to contain the factional fighting even before the present leadership retires.  Or worse, it might suggest that Cuba has become a somewhat brazenly open territory for experimentation by those states that would otherwise not dare to act in the open with development of (likely purloined and then cleverly developed) technological innovation in next generation personal weaponry. 

The U.S. fares little better.  At best the U.S. is wisely protecting its diplomats and citizens.  In an era in which all U.S. nationals tend to be targets of convenience for any individual or group that views U.S. policies, positions, culture, etc. as an affront or threat that justifies the most atrocious conduct, risk averse decisions are not unreasonable. Yet there are weaknesses to the present choices. The U.S. is manifesting a sad and technologically backwards inability to protect its own people (and interest) within a context in which the United States had (or ragged about having in any case) the most advanced technologies and know how in the world.  That the United States is reacting to the sonic attacks the way my nearly century old father in law reacts to glitches on his laptop computer renders the United States and its vaunted security apparatus as pathetic as its Cuban partner.  On the other hand, the response evidences the sort of meanness that ought to have no place in the relations of a powerful state, if only because it invariably compromises U.S., interests.  The Americans gains nothing by punishing the very people it purports to vest its great hope for "regime change" in Cuba.  Fleeing diplomats suggests the sort of weakness a great power ought never to display.  And the pettiness--fit for a middle tier state, or a teenager dealing with high school drama--suggests weakness or disarray within the U.S. policy apparatus.  The really sad thing is that it is as likely that locals will decide that the reason for the reduction  of personnel is the reality of the flooding at the U.S. Embassy that renders the building less usable.

In any case, the next steps are clear though not certain.  At this crossroads, either both states will cooperate and overcome the present difficulties or give in to their usual patterns of thoughtless provocation. In the best case, that means Cuba does something quite difficult, it chooses to approach U.S. overreaction in a less paranoid style and expresses a willingness to be more pragmatically rational  about exposing the glitches that produced the incident.  For the U.S. this means tempering the usual reflex toward the pettiness of the clueless but privileged and indulgence in the usual reflex toward petty vindictiveness (for example the call to expel Cuban diplomats) and the characteristically American "gotcha" approach to political interaction. and reinforces its quite useful policy of focused targeting of punishment for harms to U.S. interests.   Otherwise, the pathologies that have marked these relationships for so long will continue to drive policy on both sides in what has always been the most colorful act in the Caribbean diplomatic circus.

These themes are nicely developed in U.S. cuts staff in Cuba over mysterious injuries, warns travelers, a Reuters article (Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Alana Wise in New York and Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool), portions of which follow.

U.S. cuts staff in Cuba over mysterious injuries, warns travelers - Reuters News29-Sep-2017 04:45:09 PM

Strong language in paragraph 14 may be offensive to some readers

Adds American visitors, FBI, airlines

By Arshad Mohammed and Sarah Marsh

WASHINGTON/HAVANA, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The United States on Friday cut its diplomatic presence in Cuba by more than half and warned U.S. citizens not to visit because of mysterious "attacks" that have caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in U.S. embassy personnel.

The U.S. embassy in Havana will halt regular visa operations for Cubans seeking to visit the United States and offer only emergency services to U.S. citizens, steps that may further erode the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement begun by former President Barack Obama.

The partial evacuation, while depicted as a safety measure, sends a message of U.S. displeasure over Cuba’s handling of the matter and delivers another blow to Obama's policies of engagement with Cold War foe Cuba.

Cuba's Foreign Ministry chief for U.S. Affairs Josefina Vidal said: "We consider the decision announced today by the U.S. government through the State Department is hasty and will affect bilateral relations."

Vidal, in a briefing on state-run television, said Cuba was still keen to cooperate with U.S. authorities to clarify what happened.

Officials in President Donald Trump's administration stressed the United States was maintaining diplomatic ties with Cuba.

Twenty-one U.S. embassy employees in Cuba have been injured and reported symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping, the State Department said.

"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," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

The Cuban government has denied any role and is investigating. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been looking into the incidents, a U.S. law enforcement official said, but so far has not determined the cause.

A senior State Department official said neither the U.S. nor Cuban governments had been able to identify who was responsible but stressed that "the government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba."

In a travel warning, the State Department bluntly said "because our personnel's safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba."

* * *

Diana Rodriguez, 52, who sells handicrafts in Old Havana, said she had a visa appointment in October so she could visit family who live in Florida.

"I won't ever go there now," she said furiously. "This is a really strong blow that affects regular Cubans on the street. It's just unheard of. What is going on with this man? Neither Bush nor his father were such sons of bitches."


Trump in June vowed to partially roll back the detente with Cuba agreed by his Democratic predecessor, Obama, and called the Cuban government "corrupt and destabilizing" in his address to the United Nations General Assembly this month.

Engage Cuba, a Washingon-based lobbying group, said the decision was "puzzling" given that American travelers had not been targeted. It said halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from going there "will divide families and harm Cuba's burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island."

"I haven’t felt in danger at all. The people are very friendly, it’s a very safe culture ... I don’t feel threatened at all here, I think its a really safe place to be," American visitor Joey Branch said.

U.S. lawmakers took positions on the issue that appeared to reflect their wider perspective on engagement with Havana.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who favors normalization, suggested the attacks may be an attempt to undermine this.

"Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalization process between the United States and Cuba. Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process," Leahy said in a statement.

Marco Rubio‏, a Florida Republican and frequent critic of the Cuban government, called for harsher measures.

"Until those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice, the U.S. should immediately expel an equal number of Cuban operatives, downgrade the U.S. embassy in Havana to an interests section, and consider re-listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism," Rubio said in a statement.

American Tour Operators in Cuba (ATOC), that now counts more than 50 U.S. companies, criticized the travel warning.

"The motivation for the U.S. government to issue today’s Travel Warning for Cuba is difficult to understand given that the facts and circumstances of these mysterious incidents have never posed a tangible threat to American visitors in Cuba."

American Airlines AAL.O and United Airlines UAL.N, both of whom have applied for additional flight frequency to Havana, said the travel warning would not affect their current operations to Cuba.

JetBlue Airways JBLU.O said it would waive change and cancellation fees for Cuba flights booked on or before Sept. 29.

Airbnb said its operations in Cuba would continue. * * *

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Alana Wise in New York and Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool)

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