Elephants in the Room

If Cuba Can’t Keep U.S. Diplomats Safe, What’s the Point of Normalizing Relations?

The Trump administration should immediately reduce the U.S. embassy in Havana to skeleton staff and order the same for the Cuban embassy in Washington.

TOPSHOT - An old American car passes by the US Embassy in Havana on December 17, 2015. The United States announced Thursday the resumption of regular flights to and from Cuba, the latest step in a historic thaw in relations. "On December 16, the United States and Cuba reached a bilateral arrangement to establish scheduled air services between the two countries," the State Department said in a statement. / AFP / YAMIL LAGE        (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - An old American car passes by the US Embassy in Havana on December 17, 2015. The United States announced Thursday the resumption of regular flights to and from Cuba, the latest step in a historic thaw in relations. "On December 16, the United States and Cuba reached a bilateral arrangement to establish scheduled air services between the two countries," the State Department said in a statement. / AFP / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week to deny the Castro regime’s culpability in mysterious “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomatic personnel in Havana. We should all be skeptical.

Nearly one year after U.S. diplomats began reporting mysterious physiological ailments while serving in Cuba, an array of physicians, scientists, and intelligence experts have reportedly concluded is that the mild brain damage and loss of hearing resulted from some sort of acoustic device directly targeting U.S. personnel.

The stakes for holding the Castro regime accountable are high. U.S. diplomats serve in any number of difficult environments around the world representing and promoting U.S. interests. If our adversaries determine that it is open season for attacks on U.S. personnel serving abroad, fewer Americans will be interested in joining the foreign service, and U.S. interests and our image will suffer for it. In short, the bad guys win.

According to media reports, here’s what we know to date:

  • Beginning as long ago as last November, U.S. diplomats serving in Cuba have been treated for mild traumatic brain injuries and permanent hearing loss after complaining of concussion symptoms such as nausea, severe headaches, dizziness, ear-ringing, and disorientation, as well as nosebleeds, exhaustion, sleeplessness, and trouble concentrating and remembering words. U.S. officials are convinced the diplomats were targeted with a sophisticated device never encountered before. “It is increasingly apparent the Cubans are involved in some way,” a senior U.S. official told CNN. (A McClatchy report this week quotes sources as saying U.S. officials have concluded that the Castro regime was not behind the attacks, but an administration source told me that is flatly untrue.)
  • At least 25 Americans, including family members, have been affected. There may have been as many as 50 attacks. They also continued even after the State Department went public with the incidents in August. (It expelled two Cuban diplomats at the time in retaliation.) Canada as well has reported that some of their diplomats in Havana have reported similar symptoms.
  • U.S. diplomats have reported differing experiences: Some reported nothing unusual, while others that they felt vibrations or blaring sounds heard in certain parts of their rooms, but not others. Some likened the sounds to the loud buzzing of insects or metal being scraped across a floor. Victims also reported that as soon as they left Cuba, the noises stopped.
  • The attacks all took place in residences provided and maintained by the Cuban government. None occurred at the embassy or the ambassador’s residence. They were also indiscriminate, targeting a range of officials, including the regional security officer, the top official in charge of embassy security.
  • The attacks began on President Barack Obama’s watch, meaning his administration knew full well U.S. diplomats were falling ill in Cuba but chose to keep quiet about it even as the White House was rushing in the administration’s final months to lock into place as much of its normalization policies with the Castro regime as they could.
  • The Castro regime has a decades-long history of harassing U.S. diplomats in Havana. In 2007, the State Department’s inspector general issued a 64-page report saying the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana suffered from poor morale as a result of the Cuban government’s deliberate harassment of U.S. diplomats to create hardship and discontent in their lives.

The evidence is damning. After five Republican senators from the Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Tillerson calling on him to expel all accredited Cuban diplomats in the United States and consider closing the embassy in Havana, Tillerson acknowledged shuttering the embassy is “under review.”

It is for that reason that defenders of Obama’s rapprochement with the Castro regime are working overtime to deflect Cuba culpability in the matter. They suggest another hostile government could have been responsible, such as Russia. But the idea that another foreign intelligence service could be operating in police-state Cuba without the knowledge of the Castro regime, targeting U.S. diplomats no less, defies belief.

Others speculate a rogue hard-line element in the Cuban regime that opposes rapprochement with the United States could have been out to sabotage relations. Again, this is farfetched. Not only does it presuppose that Raúl Castro is something other than a hard-liner — it also ignores the fact that if anything has defined this regime since 1959, other than its capacity for repression, it is its unity. Dissenters are either dead, living abroad, or internally exiled. Besides, the fact that Canadians were also targeted dispels this myth.

No, what concerns them is that these incidents threaten to collapse another Obama “legacy.” As they should. It matters little whether the attacks were deliberate or a surveillance operation gone awry. If the Castro regime cannot guarantee the basic safety of U.S. diplomats, then what really is the point of “normalizing” relations?

The Trump administration should immediately reduce the U.S. embassy in Havana to skeleton staff and order the same for the Cuban embassy in Washington. Beyond that, the United States has important global interests in ensuring that the Castro regime pays a steep price for its hostile behavior towards our diplomats. Rogue regimes around the world must be put on notice that there is a red line here — and that they violate it at their own peril.

Photo credit: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

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