Friday, September 29, 2017

U.S.-Cuba Relations Seize Up as the Affair of the Sonic Weapon Attacks Intensifies

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

The tenuous nature of the raproachment between the United States and Cuba has been taking an unexpected turn over the course of the last several months.  What began as a curiosity--reports of U.S. and other Western diplomatic personnel suffering unexplained  physical damage (here, here and here), escalated into allegations of the use of new style weapons (here) that put the threat of the closure of the U.S. Embassy on the table (here). 

Now reports are suggesting that the state of relations have sunk even lower. It appears that the United States is now planning significant cuts in its personnel in Cuba.  More importantly for U.S. nationals, the State Department has issued a travel warning (here) ("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. Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.").  This  may affect risk management decisions for travel (especially by universities and other civil society groups). Lamentably for the Cuban people, routine visa operations have also been suspended indefinitely--this is especially difficult in the wake of the recent hurricanes. Taken together, the U.S. response has targeted Cuba's income generating capabilities (the travel warning and adverse impact on tourism), individual travel by Cuban nationals (the visa suspensions), and U.S. engagement within Cuba. 

The Cubans continue both to deny involvement and to proffer no explanation.  Both governments appear interested in finding the cause.  Yet the burden remains on the Cuban state on whose territory these events occurred.  For the Cuban government this presents an important challenge.  If the Cuban state apparatus, well known for its strong control mechanisms and its ability to penetrate even the most obscure group operations is unable to find the cause, that failure will severely damage its reputation.  That is, the Cuban state will appear weaker than it purports to be and less in control of its own territory. That perceived weakness might further encourage dissident groups.  And it might also create a strong reaction that will be evidenced in more brutal responses to perceived threats to the prerogatives of the government. It is likely, then, that the Cuban state has a greater interest in finding the source of the attacks  (or offering something convincing by way of explanation) than the United States.  Any sign of weakness in the control apparatus of the Cuban State and its vanguard party may significantly affect calculations about elections (already postponed) and the transition of power from the históricos--the first generation revolutionaries. 

The excellent reporting by Doina Chiacu "U.S. cuts embassy staff in Cuba, warns citizens not to visit," Reuters (29 September 2017) follows, with thanks to Marc Frank for passing it along. 

"U.S. cuts embassy staff in Cuba, warns citizens not to visit,"
Doina Chiacu
Reuters (29 September 2017

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is cutting its diplomatic presence in Havana by more than a half and will warn U.S. citizens not to visit Cuba because of targeted attacks that have injured at least 21 U.S. personnel, a senior official said on Friday.

“Until the government of Cuba can assure the United States of the safety of U.S. government personnel in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so as to minimize the number of U.S. government personnel at risk of exposure,” a senior State Department official told reporters.

“Routine visa operations are suspended indefinitely,” said the official, who like others on a conference call with reporters spoke on condition of anonymity. He said non-essential embassy staff would be withdrawn as well as all family members.

U.S. and congressional officials told Reuters on Thursday Washington was crafting a plan for a drawdown of staff from the Havana embassy in response to unexplained incidents that have harmed the health of some U.S. diplomats there.

The Cuban government has denied any role and is investigating. But it has so far said it has been unable to determine the cause.

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

The partial evacuation, while depicted as a safety measure, may send a message of U.S. displeasure over Cuba’s handling of the matter and deliver another blow to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies of engagement with Cold War foe Cuba.

Though Washington has not cast direct blame on Cuban authorities, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reminded Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Washington on Tuesday of Cuba’s obligation to protect diplomats and their families.

The symptoms of the 21 U.S. embassy personnel harmed included “hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual complaints, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping,” the senior State Department official said.

“Because our personnel’s safety is at risk and we are unable to identify the source of the attack, we believe that U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba,” the official added.

Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Grant McCool

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