We should not have been surprised by the reports that the United States may close its embassy in Havana after the State Department confirmed that 25 U.S. diplomats and relatives stationed in the Cuban capital have suffered mysterious sonic assaults. The consequences of the hits include permanent loss of hearing, concussions, light brain trauma, headaches, and constant whistling sounds, all possibly the result of sound waves directed at them.
The injuries suffered by the U.S. diplomats and their families in Havana are clear and grave. “As soon as some of the victims left Cuba, they stopped hearing noises,” the Daily Mail reported, and “some of the victims are still struggling to concentrate or even recall common words, evidence of long-term mental damage.” Raúl Castro has denied that he had foreknowledge of any aggression, but he cannot evade responsibility without implying that his regime is incapable of honoring international treaties that require it to protect foreign diplomats.
In a September 17 story from the Associated Press, reporter Josh Lederman seems to blame Washington for responding to Castro’s failure to protect diplomats in Cuba, as required by international law. Lederman writes that “a decision to shutter the embassy, even temporarily, would deal a demoralizing blow to the delicate detente that President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced in late 2014.”
The AP reporter is wrong. There is no delicate balance. What there was until the end of the Obama administration was a conscious effort by the White House to ignore Castro’s dangerous anti-American actions that could endanger Obama’s Cuba “legacy.”
The Castro dynasty also maintains strong ties to U.S. enemies including Iran, North Korea, Syria, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Havana does not respect international norms. Even during the secret negotiations with the Obama administration, Castro was caught smuggling missiles and war planes to North Korea in violation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations. The thousands of U.S. tourists and millions of U.S. dollars they have poured into Cuba’s coffers since Obama lifted U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba did not prevent the island’s intelligence services from stealing a U.S. missile after a NATO training exercise in Europe. His administration did not even notify Congress that the missile had gone missing until months later, after the Wall Street Journal reported on the case. During those months, the Hellfire missile was no doubt examined by Russian, Chinese, North Korean, Iranian, and other experts.
As the “number of injured diplomats soared, State Dept. kept Cuba attacks secret,” CBS News reported in a headline on September 20. It explained that it had obtained “an internal Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs document” showing that “the State Department was fully aware of the extent of the attacks on its diplomats in Havana, long before it was forced to acknowledge them.” CBS added that “State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert only admitted the attacks were occurring after CBS News Radio first reported them August 9.”
There is no way to know if any of the injuries would have been prevented had the Department sent home immediately the diplomats stationed in Havana and prevented them from returning until their physical integrity was no longer at risk. Since Castro is incapable of ensuring the diplomats’ safety, President Trump should, at the very least, bring them back to the United States for medical evaluation. They should not returned until the regime explains the assault, identifies the individuals responsible for it, and specifies the measures being taken to prevent further injuries. Havana should punish the attackers or hand them over to U.S. justice.
President Trump should look into the the State Department’s slow response to events that began last November. Many key positions in the Department are still occupied by officials who for many years opposed existing U.S. Cuba policy and helped design its reversal under President Obama.
The administration’s policy toward Latin America will remain in limbo until someone supportive of the president’s wariness of the Cuban regime is placed in charge of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Until then, some will continue to argue that the Obama policy needs to be given more time, even three years after he began making concessions, and even as evidence of the regime’s longstanding hostility to the United States continues to mount.
Now some people want Americans to believe that Castro and his security agencies know nothing even though they maintain surveillance of U.S. diplomats in Havana 24 hours a day. This is a regime whose leader rules with an iron fist and whose intelligence services know the most intimate details of the lives of the island’s citizens.
The administration’s policy toward Latin America will remain in limbo until someone supportive of the president’s wariness of the Cuban regime is placed in charge of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
If you believe that Castro was surprised by the sonic assaults on the U.S. embassy, you will probably believe that he knew nothing about the weapons shipment (hidden under a mountain of sugar) for North Korea, or that it was only a “coincidence” that a Russian intelligence ship that monitors U.S. military communications docked in Havana one day before Obama’s negotiators arrived in the Cuban capital for talks on improving U.S.–Cuban relations.
President Trump has been canceling some of his predecessor’s initiatives. U.S. policies on Cuba remain complicated, but there’s no doubt that bureaucrats in the State Department, Castro’s friends in Washington, and those who put profits ahead of principle are resisting any effort to reverse Obama’s legacy in this area.
A Cuban delegation, led by intelligence official Josefina Vidal, met last week with State Department officials in Washington and declared that Cuba “has never perpetrated and never would allow actions of that nature, and has never permitted others to use its territory for that purpose.” Trump should reject Castro’s excuses and demand that Havana ensure that the recent aggressions against U.S. diplomats will not recur. Until that matter is resolved, Cuban diplomats should be sent back to Havana, where they can help with the reconstruction of the island after Hurricane Irma.
The fundamental issue now is the physical safety of the diplomats and their families. The attacks that took place are a sonic version of sniper attacks, reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s use of the telescopic sight of his famous rifle, during the revolution, to kill Batista-government soldiers while he remained at a safe distance.
Five U.S. senators have urged the president to close the embassy. Their logic is unassailable: What is the purpose of stationing American diplomats in Cuba if their physical safety cannot be guaranteed?
If the Cold War is over and Raúl Castro wants normal relations with the United States, such skullduggery cannot be ignored, and his government’s violation of U.S. diplomatic pouches must also cease. If the Cold War is over, Havana must remove the thousands of soldiers it has deployed to help maintain Nicolás Maduro’s repressive government in Venezuela.
Some weeks ago the president asked for a report on American fugitives wanted by the FBI for murdering American police officers. The fugitives live in Havana under the regime’s protection. Raúl Castro calls those fugitives from American justice “American exiles.” They should be returned to face justice in America.
This could be a defining moment. Last week President Trump told the United Nations General Assembly that “the Iran deal was one of the worst and one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” The Cuban deal is another example of Obama’s one-sided concession to a regime hostile to the United States.
Trump needs to ensure that men and women committed to his worldview are running key State Department bureaus. The Obama holdovers could be assigned to embassies with little responsibility for American strategy or regional policies. There they will no longer be in a position to keep important national-security matters secret from the American people.
Once he is fully briefed, President Trump is not likely to ignore the plight of our diplomats. Expect him to insist that the Castro regime must stop its anti-American policies before its relations with the United States can return to normal. In that effort, the president will have the support of the American public.
— Frank Calzón is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington, D.C.