Geoff Thale: “The size of the personnel cut looks a lot like a punitive measure, not a safety one”

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

What is your analysis of the conditions which have led the Government of the United States to take these measures? Do you agree?

There is no doubt that there is genuine concern for the health of U.S. diplomats, concern about the inability of officials of either government to identify the source of the problem, and concern that the incidents seem to have reemerged, with someone reporting symptoms as recently as August.

However, it is very hard not to see this as driven by politics. Perhaps it makes sense to withdraw families and/or reduce personnel, though this is hard to tell, since we don’t have access to the information about who has suffered symptoms, who reports attacks, etc. It is clear that at least some of the victims were intelligence operatives, but we don’t know beyond that. As a result, it is very hard to judge what kind of protective reaction makes sense. (Though of course, U.S. personnel are at risk of far more serious physical attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. There we limit families, offer dangerous duty pay, but we don’t withdraw.  And the government of Canada, some of whose diplomats have reportedly experienced similar symptoms, is responding with an investigation, but without withdrawing diplomats or issuing travel warnings.)

A 60% reduction in personnel seems very hard to justify on the facts we have. Among other things, this reduction stops consular services, cuts resources to help tourists, limits support for business deals, and undercuts academic exchanges.

Some of the tough response is because the State Department and the Trump Administration more broadly were concerned about appearances. They had known about these incidents for months, and the diplomatic security service and the FBI and the State Department had kept quiet for so long. They were being attacked for not responding forcefully enough, and they felt a need to defend themselves and look like the United States Government was responding strongly. The Administration felt a need to protect itself; this had to do with public opinion broadly, not particularly with its being Cuba.

But there’s clearly more going on. The size of the personnel cut looks a lot like a punitive measure, not a safety one. It will clearly have punitive effects. The cuts will negatively impact Embassy and consular services for U.S. visitors and U.S. business, and reduce Cuban family and exchange visits to the U.S. The travel warning looks designed to scare away U.S. visitors (and is already having an impact on student travel programs, many of which refuse, on legal advice, to operate in countries where the State Department has issued a travel warning).

The subsequent announcement of a “reciprocal” cut to Cuban embassy personnel in Washington seems especially driven by politics. Senator Marco Rubio had been calling for “reciprocal” cuts in the Cuban Embassy publicly (and presumably privately as well). The argument doesn’t make diplomatic sense. Reciprocity makes sense when one country expels another’s diplomats. It doesn’t make sense in the situation where one country voluntarily withdraws its own diplomats. And the fact that the U.S. provided a specific list of diplomats to be withdrawn, and that they included all the staff who dealt with business and commercial ties, as well as almost all of the consular staff, suggests that the withdrawals were consciously designed to negatively impact travel and trade.

The punitive character of this seems especially clear because the State Department has repeatedly asserted that it is not blaming Cuba for the attacks, and Cuba has been forthcoming in cooperating with the U.S. in investigations. The FBI has been allowed by Cuban authorities to visit Cuba several times to carry out investigations, and both Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and President Raul Castro have been in touch with U.S. authorities about the case.

In June, President Trump made a fiery speech in Miami in front of a crowd of hardline Cuban exiles and Cuban-Americans, announcing that he was reversing the opening toward Cuba that former President Barack Obama had launched. But Trump’s tough rhetoric was followed by an executive order that while it re-imposed some travel restrictions, and threatened to restrict dealings with Cuban state enterprises that reported to the Ministry of the Armed Forces, did not fundamentally change the policy framework that Obama had set in place. Reports were that Senator Rubio, and other hardliners, intended to continue to push the White House to do more.

The “sonic attacks” appear to have given the hardliners the opportunity they sought. They have used the moment to push for measures that, while they appear to be only a response to the health concerns of diplomatic personnel, and others, are actually an opportunity to achieve deeper changes in the policy.

Of course, a decision like this had to be discussed at the highest levels of the State Department and among officials of the National Security Council. In the run up to the June announcement, most U.S. officials had opposed major policy changes, with pressure coming from hardliners in Congress whose votes the White House needed on other issues. While most political appointees at the State Department and the NSC have a traditionally conservative, Republican outlook on Western Hemisphere issues, and likely want to put further normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba on hold, they general do not see Cuba as a priority issue, and are not focused on reversing the main outlines of the Obama approach. (A senior NSC official recently gave a speech on hemispheric relations without mentioning Cuba once.) The outcome of the debate that led to the June speech was a tough speech, but more modest actions. Now, it seems likely that the hardliners have been able to push for more impactful actions, in a context in which no one wants to appear to be putting U.S. personnel at risk, and so no one is forcefully resisting the proposed changes. This is a change being driven by hardliners in the Congress and political forces outside the Administration, with no one inside pushing back.

WOLA obviously does not agree with this approach. We oppose the embargo and support normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations, and don’t believe these health related incidents justify steps backward in the relationship. We are, of course, concerned about the health of U.S. diplomats and their families, and believe that the State Department should take thoughtful measures to protect them. But we don’t believe that this major a withdrawal is justified, and we don’t believe that the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Washington makes any sense. We believe that U.S. Cuban cooperation is critical to uncovering the facts about what is happening to the diplomats, and we believe that the measures the Administration has taken will make the cooperation more difficult, not less.

What could be the consequences of the current state of relations for the various non-governmental actors?

As noted above, the steps taken by the Administration are likely to have a significant effect on U.S.- Cuban relations. The withdrawal of consular services in Havana will mean that Cubans seeking visas to visit family, or engage in cultural, academic, or religious exchange with counterparts in the United States will find it almost impossible to travel. Similarly, the limitation  of consular services at the Cuban Embassy in Washington will mean that passport issuance and passport renewals for U.S. citizens and residents of Cuban birth will be curtailed, limiting family travel. And U.S. citizens seeking visas for business, academic, cultural and religious travel to Cuba will also find it almost impossible to travel. This will limit the “people to people” exchange that has contributed to better understanding between the U.S. and Cuban people, and that has helped build a constituency for change in the U.S. In this case, U.S. officials seem to have opted for the broadest, and potentially most damaging, warning.

In Cuba, the cutbacks on travel and on the exploration of commercial ties will certainly have an impact on the economy overall. Its severity will depend on how long the restrictions remain in place, and how deeply they affect travel. They will certainly hurt the emerging self-employed and small business sector. The issuance of a travel warning by the State Department is already having an impact on university study abroad programs to Cuba. (Although the State Department is required to issue a travel warning whenever it withdraws diplomatic personnel from a country, it has some latitude about how it words the warning, much of which is linked to foreign tourism.) And if warming relations between Cuba and the United States contributed to a climate in Cuba in which debate flourished and proposals for constitutional reform were under discussion, this freeze in relations is likely to cool the climate in Cuba, and make debate less open.

Do you think that the political will exists on both sides to overcome this situation, or is this once again the start of a deterioration of the bilateral relationship?

There seems little doubt that the Cuban government is eager to overcome this situation. The Cuban government’s willingness to accept FBI delegations on the island, their willingness to cooperate in investigation, the outreach to U.S. officials by both President Castro and Foreign Minister Rodriguez, and the moderate responses of Cuban authorities to the announced U.S. cutbacks all seem designed to avoid provocation, and put relations back on a constructive footing. And clearly it’s in Cuba’s interest to continue the influx of U.S. visitors, given their impact on the economy, and to continue cooperation on security and other issues. While there’s no doubt that some sectors in the government, the Party, and society continue to doubt U.S. intentions, and worry about the impact of better U.S. relations on Cuban society and culture, and that these doubts impact internal debates about the pace of reforms and the how quickly relations with the U.S. should improve, it’s very clear that the country’s leadership is committed to improving relations and strengthening economic ties overall, and wants to overcome the current problem.

The U.S. is a more complicated, and uncertain, question. It is clear that the hardline forces which would like to see relations deteriorate have some initiative at the moment, and that they are not encountering significant resistance inside the Administration. But the changes underway will generate opposition – in the Congress, in sectors of the Cuban American community that see their travel and contacts with family on the island being cut back, in the U.S. travel industry, among study abroad programs, and in other sectors. Time will tell how powerful those forces will be in the internal debate in the United States. And of course what happens in the investigation of the “sonic incidents” will have an important impact. Progress in the investigation will generate significant pressure to reverse the Embassy cutbacks and related moves

How will this conflict impact the new Cuban government which will take office in 2018, and the reverse (how will the new Cuban government respond to the conflict?)

If the conflict continues at its current level – with embassies with skeleton crews, impacts on travel and exchange – the next Cuban government will face a difficult set of pressures. The new government will be under contradictory pressures already —- without the legitimacy of the historic generation they will be under pressure to produce economic gains for the population and accelerate the “updating” of the economy. On the other hand, they lack the political capital, as a new government, to push through major reforms. If relations with the U.S. remain particularly tense, the new government will be unlikely to be in a position to open up greater internal debate or new election mechanisms. If U.S. travel has been reduced, the government will see reduced revenue, with the attendant problems. Under these circumstances, they are likely to look for other economic partners and allies, and might seek closer relations with China and Russia. While a decision that would make the U.S. unhappy, this might be an economically and politically rational choice for the Cuban government.

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William M. LeoGrande: “La verdadera motivación de estas duras sanciones es la oposición del gobierno Trump a la política del presidente Barack Obama de normalizar las relaciones con Cuba”

William M. LeoGrande: “The real motivation for such harsh sanctions is the Trump administration’s opposition to President Barack Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba”

Domingo Amuchástegui: “Lo que buscan es el colapso económico, político y social en Cuba”

Carlos Alzugaray: “La Administración Trump estaba buscando la excusa para tomar medidas agresivas que redujeran a cero los intercambios diplomáticos”.

Richard Feinberg y Harold Trinkunas: “La hostilidad hacia Cuba perjudica a los intereses de Estados Unidos”

Michael J. Bustamante: “Me cuesta trabajo entender la expulsión de los diplomáticos cubanos”

Geoff Thale: “El tamaño del recorte del personal diplomático se parece mucho a una medida de castigo, no a una de seguridad”

Michael Camilleri: “Ha ocurrido un deterioro significativo en las relaciones bilaterales y parece probable que permanezca durante toda la Administración Trump”

Michael Camilleri: “A significant deterioration in bilateral relations has occurred and appears likely to last for the duration of the Trump Administration”

Sarah Stephens: “Los de línea dura en Estados Unidos tendrán un problema entre manos si tratan de arrastrar las relaciones bilaterales hacia la Guerra Fría”.

Sarah Stephens: “I think the hardliners in the U.S. will have a fight on their hands if they try to drag U.S.-Cuba relations back into the era of the Cold War”.

Paul W. Hare: “Rusia, China, Irán y otros estarán consolidando sus relaciones con Cuba, mientras Estados Unidos vuelve a su papel de adversario”

Paul W. Hare: “Russia, China, Iran and others will be eagerly consolidating their relations as the US returns to its role of adversary”

Randy Pestana: “El presidente Trump sintió la necesidad de traer a los republicanos cubanos de “línea dura” a su lado”

Randy Pestana: “President Trump felt it necessary to bring in the hardline Cuba republicans to his side”

Arturo López-Levy: “Raúl Castro caminó “la milla extra” para no ser responsable por dinámicas de ruptura”

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”.

Emily Mendrala: “The manner in which the expulsions were carried out suggests political influence from those who oppose increased engagement between U.S. and Cuban people and businesses”.

Ted Henken: “Me parece muy precipitada y agresiva la medida de obligar a la Embajada de Cuba en Washington a reducir sustancialmente su presencia diplomática en Estados Unidos”.

Sobre los autores
Geoffrey Francis Thale 3 Artículos escritos
(Chicago, 1952). Master en Relaciones Laborales de la Universidad de Wisconsin. Se desempeña como director de programas en WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America), ONG que trabaja temas relacionados con la justicia social y los derechos humanos en...
Luis Carlos Battista 36 Artículos escritos
La Habana (1988). Licenciado en Derecho por la Universidad de La Habana y en Relaciones Internacionales por Florida International University (FIU). Ha publicado sobre las relaciones exteriores de Cuba y Estados Unidos en espacios como OnCuba Magazine...
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