United States-Cuba

Gunning for a deal

Print edition : November 24, 2017

The U.S. embassy in Havana. Photo: ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI/REUTERS

President Raul Castro. Photo: JORGE BELTRAN/AFP

President Donald Trump after signing an executive order on Cuba policy on June 16 in Miami. From left are Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Florida Governor Rick Scott, the Cuban dissident Cary Roque, Vice President Mike Pence and Labour Secretary Alex Acosta. Photo: EVAN VUCCI/AP

After targeting Obamacare and the nuclear deal with Iran, President Donald Trump sets his sights on derailing the historic deal the Obama administration finalised with Cuba.

WHILE on the campaign trail, Donald Trump had vented a lot of ire on significant deals the Barack Obama administration had succeeded in clinching. Besides “Obamacare”, the former President’s signature health-care Bill, Trump had targeted the historic nuclear deal with Iran, terming it “a disaster”, and the Obama administration’s attempt to normalise ties with Cuba. Trump seems all set to renege on the nuclear deal with Iran, though the United States Congress may yet demur.

Since taking office, President Trump has had nothing positive to say about the historic deal with Cuba, which he terms as one-sided, beneficial only to the government in Havana, and “terrible and misguided”. After the deal was signed in 2015, the two countries had signed 22 agreements covering a range of issues, from environmental protection to the restoration of direct flights and security matters. While campaigning in Florida, where a large number of anti-Castro Cuban emigres reside, Trump had pledged to undo the Cuba deal if elected to office.

The President took his first tangible step in that direction in June this year. Speaking in Little Havana, a Miami suburb that is a conservative stronghold of anti-Castro groups, Trump announced that his administration would roll back the normalisation process with Havana that the Obama administration had embarked on by once again introducing travel bans on American citizens who wished to travel to the island. The Obama administration had relaxed restrictions on travel to Cuba.

The Trump administration also announced a ban on American companies and individuals doing business with Cuban companies that have any connection with the country’s armed forces. The Cuban armed forces either run or have a stake in key enterprises, including in the island’s booming tourism sector. The Cuban government had set up an Armed Forces Support Enterprises Group under the command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. Before taking over as President, Raul Castro was the long-serving Defence Minister. The state still retains control of all major enterprises in Cuba.

Trump and his senior advisers have been demanding that the Cuban government make compromises that would impinge on Cuba’s sovereignty and dignity as a nation. The demands the U.S. is now making include the holding of immediate multiparty elections, the freeing of all political prisoners and the return of all Americans who have been granted asylum in Cuba. Trump said in his belligerent and much-criticised speech at the United Nations in September that the U.S. would only lift sanctions on Cuba after the government installed Western-style democracy in the island and restored capitalism. Before the revolution, Cuba was a virtual American fiefdom with the trappings of Western-style democracy. Trump in his U.N. speech also described the Cuban government as “corrupt and destabilising”.

Speaking on the 50th anniversary of death of the revolutionary Che Guevara in the second week of October, Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President and the most likely candidate to succeed Castro after he steps down next year, said that the recent actions of the U.S. in the region, especially those aimed against Cuba and Venezuela, showed that “imperialism can never be trusted, not one tiny bit, never”. Diaz-Canel stressed that Cuba would not make “any concessions to its sovereignty and independence, nor negotiate its principles or accept the imposition of conditions”. The changes needed in Cuba, he said, “will solely be carried out by the Cuban people”.

‘Health attacks’

In September, the Trump administration further upped the ante against Cuba by unilaterally withdrawing 60 per cent of the American diplomatic staff serving in its embassy in Havana. Starting from late 2016, diplomats from the U.S., Canada and a few other countries had come down with a mysterious hearing-related ailment alleged to be the result of “sonic” or “acoustic” booms emanating from an unknown source on the island. The Cuban government had agreed to a joint investigation with the Americans to help unravel the mystery of the so-called “health attacks”. But the Trump administration instead chose to withdraw the bulk of its diplomats and bring to a halt important consular activities such as the issuance of visas.

The Canadian government chose to keep its diplomats in Havana and, unlike the U.S., has not chosen to apportion blame to the Cubans. It has already sent investigators to look into the causes of the mysterious illness that afflicted some of its staff members. In late September, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to justify the expulsions by putting the blame on the alleged failure of the Cuban authorities to “take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention”. In May this year, two Cuban diplomats were expelled from the U.S. without any prior warning or explanation. The expulsion left the Cuban embassy in Washington seriously short-staffed. There were more Cuban diplomats in the “Cuban Interest Section” that operated in Washington before full diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored in 2015 than now.

Castro had personally met with the American charge d’affaires in Cuba to assure him that his government was seriously investigating the matter. He went to the extent of inviting the U.S.’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to jointly investigate the alleged sonic attacks with Cuban investigating agencies. That offer was not immediately taken up. An FBI team started working on the ground in August. It was the first time in 50 years that the FBI was allowed to work on Cuban soil.

In all, the FBI team made three visits to Cuba from the middle of the year. In the last week of October, it was announced in Havana that after the “exhaustive investigations” carried out on orders from “the highest government authorities”, there was absolutely no evidence of the reported attacks ever having happened. The U.S. State Department said that it had no proof to substantiate the charge that the Cuban authorities were behind them and stated that it did not know “who or what” was responsible. But this has not changed Trump’s views on the issue. He reiterated in late October that he believed that Cuba was “responsible for the attacks”.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla sharply criticised the U.S.’ move and accused the U.S. of not “sufficiently cooperating” with the Cuban government’s efforts to investigate the “health attacks”. The U.S. authorities have not provided access to those affected or to the doctors examining them. In his recent statement on the subject, Tillerson said that there was an “attack” on his country’s diplomats based in Havana. Previously, he had only referred to the cases as “incidents”. Havana is among the safest diplomatic postings in the world.

An article in The New York Times, based on interviews with leading experts, questioned the very basis of the allegations that the diplomats were attacked by some sort of a sonic weapon. According to leading physicists, the laws of physics make it impossible for ultrasound devices to hurt individuals from afar. Also, ultrasound, according to the experts, does not cause brain damage. Some of the American diplomats claimed to have suffered a mild form of brain damage. Jurgen Altmann, a renowned physicist and an expert on acoustics from the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany, told The New York Times that it was “fairly implausible” that a hidden ultrasound weapon could explain what happened to the American diplomats in Cuba. Around a million tourists from America visited Cuba last year. Not a single one of them complained of the symptoms suffered by the diplomats. The Cuban Foreign Minister asserted that his country “has never perpetrated and will never perpetrate any type of attacks against diplomats or their relatives”. He went on to add that the reports of “hearing loss” and other symptoms were all “science fiction”.

The U.S. authorities had initially said that the diplomats affected had been “exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and has been deployed either inside or outside their residences”. Even when relations between the two countries were at a historic low, Cuba did not resort to such underhanded measures against American diplomats, despite grave provocations from the U.S. It is inexplicable that Cuba would resort to these kinds of measures now after signing a historic deal with the U.S. It has been obvious since Trump assumed the presidency that it was not Havana that was interested in sabotaging bilateral relations.

The Cuban authorities who had been carrying out investigations of their own after the Americans alerted them in February this year have not found any evidence “that confirms the causes or the origin of the alleged health issues of the U.S. diplomats and their family members”. “Eargate”, as sections of the media have dubbed the incidents affecting the American diplomats, according to some experts and analysts, could have been orchestrated from within the walls of the American diplomatic compound by rogue elements within the country’s security establishment who were never reconciled to Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba.

Considerable criticism

The Trump presidency’s attempts to derail the U.S.-Cuba deal have come under considerable criticism from within the U.S. itself. “There’s no going back. The momentum is forward, and I believe the momentum will carry U.S.-Cuba relations forward despite Trump,” said U.S. Democratic Congressman James McGovern. Many influential lobbies within the U.S., including those representing business and the Catholic Church, do not want a return to the past. Even the majority of Cuban Americans want the rapprochement with Cuba to remain unimpeded.

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