- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
When President Barack Obama announced his intention to normalize relations with Cuba in 2014, critics scoffed that no accommodation was possible with the Castro regime and that it would be only a matter of time before Havana embarrassed the White House for even trying, as it had done before to previous administrations who sought détente.
We now know that last fall — in the middle of Obama’s final push to lock into place as much of his policy as he could — at least six U.S. diplomats based in Havana had to be medically evacuated to Miami for treatment after complaining of severe headaches, dizziness, and hearing loss. Some of the diplomats’ symptoms were so severe that they were forced to curtail their tours.
U.S. officials believe their illnesses were the result of prolonged exposure to some sort of covert sonic device “that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.” In retaliation for this gross abuse of diplomatic norms, the Trump administration expelled two Cuban diplomats in Washington.
Speaking last Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved,” referring to the fact that the Canadian government revealed their personnel had suffered similar symptoms.
The Castro regime’s response was as arrogant as it was mendacious, professing “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.”
The fact is that the Cuban government has been abusing U.S. personnel posted to Havana for decades. In 2003, the State Department provided a declassified cable to Congress detailing the ongoing physical and psychological harassment of U.S. personnel “to frustrate routine business, occupy resources, demoralize personnel, and generally hinder efforts to advance U.S. policy goals.” According to the cable, “The harassment begins from the moment USINT personnel and their belongings enter Cuba. Cuban agents routinely enter U.S. employee residences to search belongings and papers, enter computers and gather other information thought to be useful from an intelligence point of view. Vehicles are also targeted. In many instances, no effort is made to hide the intrusions.” Not only are vehicles vandalized — tires slashed, parts removed, windshields smashed — but in some instances human excrement is left behind in the diplomats’ homes.
The cable continues, “Electronic surveillance is pervasive, including monitoring of home phone and computer lines. U.S. personnel have had living-room conversations repeated or played back to them by strangers and unknown callers.” In one case, after one family privately discussed their daughter’s susceptibility to mosquito bites, “they returned home to find all of their windows open and the house full of mosquitoes.”
In 2007, the Department’s Inspector General issued a 64-page report asserting that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana suffered from poor morale as a result of the Cuban government’s deliberate efforts to create hardship and discontent in the lives of the diplomats. “Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets. The regime has recently gone to great lengths to harass some employees by holding up household goods and consumable shipments. The apparent goal has been to instigate dissension within USINT ranks.”
In 1996, human rights officer Robin Meyers reported her car was nearly rammed off the road by Cuban agents as she tried to attend a dissident gathering. Chillingly, this was the exact same regime technique that caused the deaths of prominent Cuban dissidents Osvaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in 2012.
Other forms of abuse over the years include attempted sexual entrapment, especially among married personnel, telephones ringing and front-door bells buzzing all hours of the night, freezers unplugged, and air conditioners turned full blast with windows opened in Havana’s tropical heat. One diplomat reported his mouthwash had been replaced with urine.
In addition, in another flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Castro regime has broken into diplomatic pouches — deliveries to the mission from the United States — to investigate their contents.
There will be those who will attempt to explain away this sordid record as “spy-vs-spy” games, as if both sides were equally at fault, as if FBI agents try to run Cuban diplomats off the road or defecate in their homes. Indeed, in the wake of these latest revelations, President Obama’s former National Security Council senior advisor Ben Rhodes professed surprise: “It just doesn’t strike me as something the Cuban government would do.”
But the historical record is clear that this is something the Cuban government is perfectly willing to do. Even if it may have been a surveillance operation “gone awry,” as some have speculated, the same malevolent motivation on the part of the Cuban government still applies: that the United States is the enemy and its personnel in Havana will be treated as such — and international conventions be damned.
And therein lies the fundamental flaw of Obama’s policy, that somehow a relationship with the Castro regime can be normalized. But attempting to normalize the abnormal is a fool’s errand and will only backfire on U.S. interests and the interests of the Cuban people. President Trump has already expressed his disdain for Obama’s Cuba policy as too one-sided and begun a policy of roll-back. It cannot come soon enough.
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