The U.S. and Cuban governments should not allow the unexplained “sonic attacks” to undermine bilateral relations or efforts toward normalization. Policies of engagement remain in the best interests of the U.S. and Cuban people.
The U.S. government’s decision to remove more than 60% of its diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday, September 29, was made with the safety of its diplomats and their families in mind. The “sonic attacks” are shrouded in mystery, and the harm experienced by our diplomats is alarming. Allowing diplomats the ability to leave their Havana posting early was the right decision, but perhaps the departure should have been voluntary rather than ordered. In a situation like this, our diplomats would normally keep channels of communication open with foreign government counterparts. Some of the diplomats who were ordered home would have preferred to stay, and their union backs them: 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.”
A Travel Warning was issued simultaneous to the ordered departure announcement. The wording of the warning, which cautioned U.S. travelers against visiting Cuba, was excessive. Although there were no confirmed reports of private U.S. citizens being harmed, the Travel Warning stated, “we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.” At first blush, the mere existence of the Travel Warning may have seemed unreasonably cautious, but the issuing of the warning turns out to be more of a formality. According to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, issuing an ordered departure requires an accompanying Travel Warning.
Tuesday’s announcement, however, heightened suspicions that political forces are at play. That day, the Department declared that, in the midst of an ongoing investigation, it was asking 15 Cuban diplomats to leave Washington. The move came days after multiple tweets from Senator Marco Rubio called it “shameful” that the U.S. had not coupled the ordered departure of U.S. diplomats from Havana with a diplomatic drawdown from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC. The State Department reportedly gave Cuba’s U.S. Ambassador a list of 15 names of specific Cuban diplomats who were to leave the country. During a press conference, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodríguez, told reporters that the expulsions left Cuba’s Embassy with just one consular officer to process visas, and it was later reported that the State Department expelled all Cuban diplomats working on U.S.-Cuba business ties. Maybe this U.S. action was a necessary step to ensure parity in the size of our diplomatic presences, but the manner in which the expulsions were carried out, which handicapped business and consular services, suggests political influence from those who oppose increased engagement between U.S. and Cuban people and businesses.
Understaffed embassies in both capitals will undermine engagement on issues of mutual concern and complicate visa processing, dividing Cuban families. Through its diplomatic presence in Havana, the U.S. has held numerous bilateral dialogues and signed agreements with Cuba on issues including cooperation in law enforcement and national security, environmental protection, and public health. These exchanges have had tangible effects—massive increases in the seizure of narcotics and the resumption of commercial flights between the two countries, to name a few. This type of cooperation and dialogue will undoubtedly diminish.
Cuban entrepreneurs will also be affected. Many were already anxious in the wake of President Trump’s June 16 announced policy change. They feared the negative U.S. government rhetoric and the forthcoming rules on trade and travel from U.S. sanctions enforcement agencies would decrease the number of U.S. travelers visiting Cuba, and thus harm their businesses. Now, they are panicked.
Arguably those most acutely affected are the many divided Cuban families. Due to the decision by the U.S. Embassy in Havana to stop visa processing in Havana, many Cubans are unable to obtain U.S. visas to visit family members in the U.S.
It is unfortunate – that U.S. and Canadian diplomats have been harmed, some permanently, and that the U.S. government’s response is weakening a fragile normalization process. After a burst of momentum, we seem to be throttling backward, a feeling all too familiar in the U.S.-Cuba policy context.
However, this time is different. Over the past two and a half years, the normalization process advanced at rapid speed with a goal by some to make progress irreversible. Diligent work from U.S. and Cuban diplomats set in place mechanisms for cooperation, and, more importantly, proved that cooperation between our two governments is possible and can bear fruit. This present setback can certainly chill cooperation, but it will be hard to reverse entirely the prior years’ advancements.
Whoever is orchestrating the “sonic attacks” seems to want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba at an incredibly important moment in our bilateral relationship in recent decades. In the wake of rapid normalization, there is momentum in the U.S. Congress to take action against elements of the embargo. Opportunities and challenges abound with a new political context in the U.S. and a Cuban political transition on the horizon.
Exactly how this ordered departure will end remains uncertain. U.S. and Cuban authorities continue to cooperate on the investigation into the “sonic attacks.” Hopefully the cooperation will be authentic, and the investigation will wrap up quickly and conclusively. All the while, per State Department policy, the Department will reevaluate the ordered departure every 30 days. The State Department should establish specific criteria to use for these evaluations and make those criteria transparent with the U.S. Congress, if not the public at large.
While the current moment is challenging, it important to note U.S. government statements pledge to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and to continue to cooperate with Cuban officials on the ongoing investigation into the attacks that affected U.S. diplomats in Havana.
VER EN ESTE DOSSIER
Emily Mendrala: “La forma en que se llevaron a cabo las expulsiones de los diplomáticos cubanos sugiere la presencia de influencia política por parte de los que se oponen a un mayor compromiso entre personas y empresas de Estados Unidos y Cuba”.