Friday, August 24, 2018

The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack and its Perverse Consequences: Cuban Constitutionalism and U.S. Influence

It should come as no surprise that the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack has oscillated along a very narrow route between a specific form of politics (the politics of insinuation and bad behavior even when judged by the low standards expected of states in their relations with each other) and a specific form of scientific forensics (one that takes the discursive style the deconstructive hermeneutics of scholastic monks).  The former has seen use of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack to justify a policy change in need of some form of public legitimacy.  The later has seen the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack as a marvelous terrain within which the forensic scientific community can engage in two of its favorite sports--disciplinary prestige and the attention of those with money and power--and usually for reasons of the highest morality and virtue, centering the search for truth.  
Claims that US diplomats suffered mysterious brain injuries after being targeted with a secret weapon in Cuba have been challenged by neurologists and other brain specialists. A medical report commissioned by the US government, published in March, found that staff at the US embassy in Havana suffered concussion-like brain damage after hearing strange noises in homes and hotels, but doctors from the US, the UK and Germany have contested the conclusions. In four separate letters to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which published the original medical study, groups of doctors specialising in neurology, neuropsychiatry and neuropsychology described what they believed were major flaws in the study. (Cuban 'acoustic attack' report on US diplomats flawed, say neurologists)
These contests become more complicated when they acquire an interdisciplinary character, as when scientists debate both the technical feasibility of the Sonic Attacks even as they argue about the way such injury might have been presented in victims (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack: A Sonic Cocktail with a Kick--(Kevin Fu, Wenyuan Xu, and Chen Yan, “On Cuba, Diplomats, Ultrasound, and Intermodulation Distortion,” IEEE Spectrum (March 2018).). This keeps both stakeholders, the media and the audience which is in part the object of all of this activity, quite engaged in a process that can be managed for a long term to suit the needs of the principal players. It also complicates the narrative in ways that may be necessary given the potential multiple objectives pursued by states (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack and the Weaponization of Noise; From the Front Lines in China, Cuba, the United States and Elsewhere).

By now, of course, these gyrations define the character of the "new normal" But they define not merely the state of relations between the two states but also the way in which each is now vulnerable and constrained in their internal and external choices at a point in time in which Cuba is to some extent vulnerable.

This post suggests that like every transition to new political equilibrium states (and especially during the period of such transition), the usually foreseen consequences of the courses of action that bring these changes eventually begin to emerge. It considers one of them--tied to the determination to substantially reduce U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba at a very interesting point in Cuban history.More specially it considers the ways in which the current trajectory of Cuban constitutional reform can be understood within the context of the trajectories of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack. The essay is  part of the Coalition for Peace & Ethics's Technical Assistance Project--Reforma de la Constitución del Estado cubano 2018/Reform of the Cuban State Constitution 2018.

The United States policy continues to be bedeviled by the realities of Cuba within its geo political context.  By this point, of course, Americans should be used to getting it wrong. Either the United States has exhibited an uncanny lack of will to see policy choices through to the end, or such policies have been so fractured that interests adverse to those of the United States have been able to drive whole armies through them. This is beside the value or worthiness of those policy choices--which have remained highly debatable for decades. 

The United States, in uninterrupted succession from the late 1950s has had a singular object with respect to Cuba--regime change to bring Cuba back to the camp of at least ostensibly western liberal democracy, as such may be practiced in the Caribbean region (and under the leadership of the United States).  That objective is to be advanced by all means other than direct invasion--whether overt or covert, whether political. societal, cultural or through other mechanisms. The changes in policy have always been constrained by that fundamental objective. And the United States has thus moved form policies of opening up and closing down, as presidential administrations changed, in furtherance of that objective.  In return, Cuban law, politics and economics has been developed under the shadow of the United States--but also under that of those greater powers in whose own shadows Cuba has sought protection--and a space from which to operate in the international stage.  

And indeed, as in the United States, certain elements of the elites have come to rely on this state of fundamental relations, and its status quo, for preserving internal and external arrangements that perpetuate their own place within their respective hierarchies of power or influence (or both). These gyrations have been somewhat painfully obvious (from both the U.S. and the Cuban perspective) over the course of the Obama and Trump administrations and in the transitions from the Castro brothers to the next generation in Cuba. In those contexts, then, both the U.S. and Cuba have used tools, and make choices, that inevitably come with unanticipated consequences. Ironically these consequences have tented to preserve the status quo even as they are meant to change them. 

It is within the walls of this "box" that it may be useful to consider the current situation in Cuba and between Cuba and the United States.  It is here that the consequences of Cuban constitutionalism and the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack may meet.

1.  The Cuban constitutional project is one of the most remarkable elements of the planning for the transition away from the first generation personality cult driven structures of Cuban  political arrangements, towards one in which the political theory spawned by the machinery of the personality cult is moved form the periphery to the center. In effect, one can understand Cuban constitutionalism since the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century as a long term and well planned campaign to transition the state from the dictatorship of the dictatorship of the Cuban Communist Party (and its military arm) to the political and military dictatorship of the Communist Party within the legitimating constraints of a political and ideological theory beyond which it may not venture and protected by the construction of structures of government--within the Party and the state apparatus--to ensure the centrality of the governing ideology in the operation of the state.  

The constitutional project, then, was meant to incarnate a convergence of politics and law within a constitutional instrument. The changes to the proposed constitutional document itself incorporated the fundamental political ideology developed by and for the PPC.  But there are two elements to this.  

The first is defensive. The political ideology is meant to be memorialized, and through this memorialization, embedded in and preserved through the construction of an administrative apparatus for the implementation of ideology.  The document does not advance ideology so much as preserve it.  This is a topic on which I have written before (e.g., The Cuban Communist Party at the Center of Political and Economic Reform: Current Status and Future Reform). And, indeed, preservation is critical at this juncture for two reasons.  The first is as a means of protection against the incursions of the West (the U.S. and E.U. approach to governance and its political principles) that could erode core fidelity to the political ideology crafted (though not operationalized with outstanding success) in the absence of the personal leadership of the Castro brothers and their key supporters.  The second, is as a means of protection against failures of leadership among those who would succeed the founding generation.  This government, like many others, sees in the institutionalization of ideology a means of preserving the choices and principles that are meant to be embedded in state practice and that are to survive the personal leadership of those who established those ideologies. Raul Castro faces the same problem as confronted the founders of the United States and other revolutionary states, that is the problem of preserving revolution against its own.  The problem becomes critical as the first generation steps into power (and one marked by failures within Marxist Leninist Systems since 1918) and more importantly when revolution itself becomes not even memory but mere history detached from the lived experiences of those who bear its consequences. 

The second is proactive. Though largely ignored by the intelligentsia and the academic classes who control official discourse, there appears to be emerging a strain of endogenous democracy as a counter to the now orthodox understanding of democracy as exogenous to the government.  China has been developing its own approach to endogenous democratic practice, the success of which remains to be determined (Crafting a Theory of Socialist Democracy for China in the 21st Century). Cuba may be seeking to craft it own variation. At the heart of endogenous democracy are mechanisms built into to systems that effectively incorporate popular opinion, limited by the constraints of political ideology and the discretionary choices of the vanguard. It borrows notions of effective popular participation in governance form the West, but emphasizes its political rather than technical/administrative aspects.  Endogenous democracy, then, is meant to work, like its exogenous variation, as a mechanism to legitimate the authority of the state and the legitimacy of its actions.  Exogenous democracy accomplishes this through the deification of elections; endogenous democracy does this through the deification of the consultation relationship between the masses and its vanguard.

For Cuban endogenous democracy to work, then, as a legitimating mechanism, popular consultation and ultimately a plebiscite is a necessary element of the incarnation of Cuban vanguard party ideology within the institutions of government. But like the mechanics of exogenous democracy, endogenous consultation must be well managed. Thus, the constitutional draft was first considered in its ideological framing by the PPC; it was then debated as received from the PPC by the National Assembly.  Modified (with the approval of PPC elders) it was then, and only then, made available for popular consultation.  But the official consultation is to be undertaken in a large number of public meetings at which trusted individuals will listen and note the tenor of debate and the suggestions made.  These will then be complied and in some form conveyed back to the National Assembly which, under the leadership of the PPC, will redraft as they determine necessary.  It it then, and only then, that a final product will be presented for popular ratification.  

But much can happen in the course of these consultations.  First, the formal consultations themselves may serve as a basis for the organization of civil society (e.g., Recursos del constitucionalismo cubano/Cuban Constitutionalism Resources: Comentarios del Extranjero y de la Prensa Independiente/Commentaries from Abroad and the Independent Press).  The masses can organize unofficially to present their views.  And, indeed, power comes form mass movement.  To the extent that the consultation is reduced to individual contributions, it may lack the influence of coordinated engagement among large groups. This can be accomplished as much to advance revolutionary principles as otherwise and thus is not inherently contrary  to the ruling ideology.  Second, informal conversations may also have an important effect, not just on the formation of mass opinion delivered in formal venues--but also for its circulation within the nation in forms that may inevitably come to the attention of the National Assembly.  These are especially potent when the mechanics of social media can be used to leverage unofficial opinion, or opinion circulated through unofficial means (e.g., Recursos del constitucionalismo cubano/Cuban Constitutionalism Resources: Primeros Commentarios del Pueblo/Initial Popular Commentaries).

2.  The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack in this context has produced an ironic effect that effectively diminishes any capacity of the United States in the Cuban constitutional conversation. Cuba's constitutional moment is both a potential source of strength (if it succeeds) but also a point in its political history when it is vulnerable (should the project fail, int he sense of not going according to the plan of the vanguard leadership). It is at this point that the United States, should it wish to further its political objectives, now over 70 years old, would have deployed its resources to the project of constitutional development in Cuba.  Even assuming that the United States might have wanted to respect the autonomy of the Cuban people in the control of its internal affairs, there is nothing that would prevent the United States form using its presence to speak to its own system in its own land.  Influence is as powerful when it serves by example as when it is meant to be directed outwards to others.  

Yet at just the moment when such a show would be potentially most effective--even if only indirectly out of respect for the internal operations of the Cuban system, there is little the United States can produce within Cuba. In the effort to work against the interests of the Cuban state, the United States finds itself unable to engage, even within the conventional boundaries of state to state relations, with Cuba's politics. To that end, the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack may have proven useful in the toolkit of U.S. state to state relations with the Cuban government, by putting pressure on the government in areas where it is vulnerable--migration, and the development of key economic sectors, particularly tourism (The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack: Tourists and Tourism). Yet even here it is possible that the Affair has served the interests of certain factions of the Cuban political class (Under Cover of the Sonic Weapons Attack: The Cuban Private Sector as Collateral Damage as Cuba Retreats Toward Central Planning).

But what has made it potentially useful, has also proven to be a great weakness by shrinking the ability of the United States to actively engage, even form a distance, in the critical project of advancing Cuban constitutionalism. This is because a key consequence of the Affair has been a substantial reduction of the U.S. diplomatic (and other) footprint) in Cuba (reporting here U.S. Embassy cuts hobble influence in Cuba -report - Reuters News, Drastic staff cuts at U.S. Embassy in Cuba now permanent, and below).  The U.S. now finds it harder to engage with Cuban civil society groups; it finds it harder to mingle with people; it finds it harder to coordinate with other governments and their establishments in Cuba. The U.S. has hardly the resources to aid its own people in Cuba.  That was a marvelous tool for putting pressure on U.S. business to avoid Cuba by effectively increasing operational risks.  But it also has had the effect of reducing the value of the people-to-people element of U.S. policy--that portion of the policy most effectively positioned to engage in the process of constitutional reform.     Here, then, the U.S. finds itself trapped by its own deployments of tools and the choices it made in the response to the Affair.  From some perspective, what the U.S. has gained might be balanced by the opportunity lost.  And in this respect, at least, the Cuban Communist Party has much to be grateful for--the Affair of the Sonic Weapons has served to protect it from the soft power of the United States--from the power of ideas--at just the moment when, because of the logic of Cuban constitutionalism, it would have been least able to resist.

3.  On the other hand, that constraint may fit in well with emerging sensibilities about foreign interference with internal political activities. There is not much to say here other than that the practical consequences of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack combined with the internal U.S. debates about foreign influence in U.S. democratic institutions (focusing for the moment on its exogenous elements rather than its endogenous elements) has effectively made the U.S. almost inviosible in the context of this great moment of Cuban constitutionalism.  This has two aspects worth disentangling. The first goes to the development of a consensus against direct foreign interference.  The second goes to the now problematic consensus of the global marketplace of ideas for political theory. 

With respect to the first, it has become clear enough that the United States will have little opportunity to directly or indirectly affect the course of debate on the emerging Cuban constitution.  That is a good thing for those who embrace the emerging consensus against political interference in national political debates.  But that consensus is grounded in two principles that are always hotly debated in the context of individual states. The first is that national debates are effective vehicles for popular opinion that matters--that is for popular participation that will carry some weight within the circles of those charged with decision making.  That is always problematic (even in the most refined Western democracies).  It is especially problematic within a context of developing states without much of a history of robust endogenous engagement (even within the constraints of Leninist theory).  The second assumes that the national debate is free form all outside influence of states.  But that is never true. And in the case of Cuba, the fact that the constitutional debate is freed of the shadow of the United States does not mean that Cuba's friends--Russia, China, Venezuela, etc.--might not avail themselves of the opportunity to influence (or interfere depending on how one views these state to state interactions). In any case, the issue of state interference or assertions of influence, are likely to become less favored int he future.  But that applies to everyone, and the absence of the United States while other states remain free to engage in this context unbalances rather than frees the Cuban debate.

With respect to the second, it has become clear that there is a difference between state interference, and the legitimacy of engagement at the level of ideas.  As globalization has created a large space within which political ideas may be developed, transmitted, debated, refined and embraced within national contexts, it seems to go against the trajectory of global development to treat the transnational availability of ideas in the same way that one treats the interference of states for their own ends ion the politics of other states.  And yet, to some extent, states sometime appear to prefer the interference of states (for policy ends) in their affairs, to the penetration of ideas the effects of which will loosen the ability of local elites to control the principles within which local political orders are nurtured. The question of the openness of states to global political discourse raises distinct issues from that presented by state interference. At one end, ideas detached from states appear worthy of debate, even if they are ultimately rejected.  At the other end, ideas tied to state based international movements--from the Communist International, to theocratically based movements and even that of global democracy (understood in a particular way) might require a different analysis. Yet ideas always appear to detach themselves form the states and leaders who advance them for their own ends.  And in this respect, they remain both difficult to interdict, and powerful elements in crafting policy.


Where does that leave the United States and Cuba? In some sense it leaves both exactly where they have been since the 1960s--each caught in the webs they have devoted tremendous energy creating. For Cuba, that means the necessity of constitutionalism 70 years after the revolutionary moment made that inevitable.  For the United States, it means choosing among opportunities that invariably diminish its ability to advance its interests. Yet in the process, what appears simple--a constitution, Sonic Attacks--assume much more complex roles and assert much more nuanced effects that will continue to shape both states and their relations.

U.S. Embassy cuts hobble influence in Cuba -report - Reuters News

22-Aug-2018 01:46:55 PM

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, Aug 22 (Reuters) - The United States' ability to monitor Cuba, defend human rights, conduct consular activities and comply with bilateral agreements is being undermined by a drastic reduction in staff at the embassy in Havana, according to a congressional report.

The administration of President Donald Trump, which has partly rolled back Washington's detente with Cuba, has sharply reduced U.S. staff in Havana and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats. (Full Story)

The document from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) states that the decision to reduce staffing from more than 50 diplomats to a maximum of 18 - due to a mysterious illness that has affected 26 officials and family members - overwhelmed those remaining at their posts.

"Because of the reduction in U.S. staff, U.S. officials maintain that those officers at post often wear two or three hats in terms of responsibilities," read the report, issued at the request of New York Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

While diplomatic and humanitarian visas are being granted, Americans in Cuba can only expect emergency services, the report said.

Outreach to civil society and human rights activists has also been reduced at a time when Cuba is transitioning to a new generation of political leaders, internet access is spreading and a revamped constitution is headed for a referendum vote.

The U.S. State Department this month announced this month that the few remaining staff would be assigned for just a year instead of two, "making it difficult for the continuity of operations and familiarity with working in Cuba," the report stated.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana was not immediately available for comment on the report.

Not a single refugee visa has been issued so far this year as the processing office is closed, the report noted. Often granted to government opponents claiming persecution, a total of 177 such visas were issued in 2017.

A 1994 agreement to accept 20,000 Cuban migrants annually will also not be met in 2018, according to the report, in part because applicants must travel to Guyana for interviews.

The Trump administration insists the current policy will remain in place until the mystery of the health problems among diplomatic staff, which it often refers to as "attacks," is solved.

Staff have suffered symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, fatigue and memory issues, according to the State Department.

Cuba, the United States and Canada - whose diplomats were also affected - have been investigating the incidents for 18 months. China has now joined the inquiry after a few U.S. diplomats there came down with similar symptoms this year. (Full Story)

Paul Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba who lectures at Boston University's Pardee School of Global Studies, said U.S. staffing was enough to monitor Cuba, but not carry out more labor-intensive activities.

"Diplomacy is continuous and all problems are eventually resolved. Sooner or later this will be," he said. "But perhaps it suits the Trump administration not to engage with Cuba and to warn U.S. visitors who go there that the normal consular protection services of an embassy may be hard to find," he said.


Drastic staff cuts at U.S. Embassy in Cuba now permanent
Sarah Marsh, Marc Frank

March 2, 2018
4 Min Read

HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it was making permanent its decision last year to slash staffing at its Havana embassy by around two-thirds because a spate of alleged health incidents among its diplomats remained unsolved.

A vintage car drives in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

The decision casts a pall on U.S.-Cuban relations and limits the United States’ ability to play a role in the civil society of the Communist-run island as it prepares for its first non-Castro president in nearly 60 years.

It will also hurt Cuban-American families divided by the Florida Straits, who have struggled to get visas to visit one another since the United States first cut the embassy’s staff in September due to the “attacks” that it says have caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in two dozen employees.

President Donald Trump’s administration also expelled 17 Cuban diplomats stationed in the United States.

By law, the State Department is required to decide whether to send diplomats back six months after an ordered departure, and the deadline for that decision was up this weekend.

“The embassy will continue to operate with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions, similar to the level of emergency staffing maintained during ordered departure,” the State Department said in a statement.

The embassy would now operate as an unaccompanied post, it said, meaning diplomats would not be permitted to move there with family members.

A security guard walks in the perimeters of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

The department also renewed its Cuba travel warning on Friday, saying U.S. travelers could be at risk from the mysterious “health attacks,” dealing a blow both to both U.S. travel companies and the island’s fledgling private sector, which had benefited from a boom in U.S. visits.

Cuba and a number of analysts have said Trump’s Republican administration was using the alleged health incidents to justify unwinding a detente begun in 2014 by Democratic former U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Cuba, which is conducting its own investigation, says there is no evidence of any attacks. The United States has not accused Cuba of perpetrating them, but holds it responsible for ensuring the safety of it diplomats.

On Friday, the State Department said it still had no “definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks” and a probe was ongoing.

“U.S.-Cuban relations have become trapped in a geopolitical quagmire over the embassy health mystery,” said Cuba analyst Peter Kornbluh.

“After a year of intense investigation on both sides that has failed to identify what has caused the health problems, it is hard to see how this impasse will be resolved.”

Trump has taken a tough stance on Cuba, tightening trade and ordering travel restrictions that harken back to the Cold War era just as Cuba embarks on a major political transition.

Raul Castro is due to step down as president in April. Meanwhile, major economic policy changes are expected this year, such as the unification of Cuba’s multiple exchange rates and a possible course adjustment in market reforms.
Slideshow (2 Images)

“We have lost the strategic opportunity to pull Cuba into our sphere of interest,” said Vicki Huddleston, a former head of the U.S. interests section in Havana.

“Cuba always needs to have benefactor ... now the next benefactor will likely be Russia or China.”

The U.S. embassy has typically maintained close ties with civil society and the opposition in Cuba. Yet under current staffing levels - the lowest since the U.S. Interest Section opened in 1977, according to Cuba experts - it does not even have a human rights officer.

The embassy halted regular visa operations last year and is only offering emergency services to U.S. citizens. Cubans seeking visas to the United States must apply at U.S. embassies abroad, which is costlier and more complicated.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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