Relations between the United States and Cuba are on a downward spiral due to the mysterious injuries suffered by staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana last year, and there is no clear escape path from the vicious circle of recriminations that have damaged the interests of both countries.
The most recent blow to relations came on March 2, when the Department of State announced that the embassy in Havana would become an unaccompanied post with reduced staffing similar to what it has been since last October, when most U.S. diplomats and family were recalled. Moreover, U.S. embassy staff who have been working in Washington will now be reassigned, further degrading U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties. Going forward, the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba will be weaker than at any time since former President Jimmy Carter opened the U.S. Interests Section in 1977.
The absence of diplomatic boots-on-the-ground means fewer cultural and educational exchanges; slower progress on issues of mutual interest; less help for U.S. visitors who need consular services; and new hardships for Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States, who will have to travel abroad to get a visa.
The travel warning issued by the State Department in October has already reduced the number of U.S. visitors, hurting the owners of private rental homes (casas particulares) and restaurants (paladares). U.S. study abroad programs have been hit hardest because many universities prohibit sending students to a country under a warning.
How did we get into this mess and how can we get out?
Washington’s initial response to the reported injuries a little over a year ago was to work quietly behind the scenes with Cuban authorities. In February 2017, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro met personally with the U.S. chargé d’affaires, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, and promised a full investigation, even inviting the FBI to Cuba.
However, once the story went public, calling the injuries “sonic attacks,” the Trump administration bowed to pressure from Cuban-American legislators, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, foremost among them, to impose sanctions on Havana. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an “ordered departure,” pulling most U.S. diplomats and family out of Havana and closing the consular section. Days later, the State Department expelled an equal number of Cubans, including their embassy’s consular staff and entire commercial section.
Yet, a year after the first press reports of health problems suffered by U.S. and Canadian diplomats and family members in Havana, investigations by Cuba, Canada and the United States have yet to uncover any evidence pointing to the cause. An interim report by the FBI from Jan. 4 concluded that an acoustic attack was an unlikely culprit, but could not point to an alternative. Canadian investigators have been stymied as well. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a detailed report on the symptoms experienced by 21 of the U.S. personnel, but could offer no explanation for what might have caused them.
Although it has been six months since the last recorded injury, Tillerson refuses to return U.S. diplomats to Havana until the mystery is solved or Cuba provides “credible assurances” that whatever happened will not happen again. He has not said what assurances would count as credible. As the last incident recedes in time, the chances of solving the mystery recede with it. That does not bode well for U.S.-Cuban relations.
In April, Raúl Castro, the principal patron of normalization on the Cuban side, will retire from the presidency. Will his successor persist in trying to improve relations with the United States when there appears to be so little interest in Washington? Even before the public remonstrations about the injured diplomats, the atmosphere between the United States and Cuba was tense in the wake of President Donald Trump’s June 16, 2017 announcement in Miami that he was canceling former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Havana.
With the downgrading of embassies and the travel warning, Cuban officials have begun to see the whole acoustic episode as an excuse manufactured by the Trump administration to reverse Obama’s policy. “The U.S. government has decided to politicize these events and use them as a pretext to take bilateral relations back to the era of confrontation,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez declared at a press conference last November.
At the working level, both U.S. and Cuban diplomats seem sincere when they say they want to find a way out of this impasse, get their embassies back up to full strength, and resume the dialogues that were underway before these mysterious health problems appeared. The longer the two embassies operate with skeletal staff, the more damage will be done to cultural and educational exchanges, commercial ties, and cooperation on issues of mutual interest like counter-narcotics and safe and orderly migration.
As solving the mystery becomes less and less likely, how can relations get back on track? The Department of State must decide what conditions would be sufficiently credible to restore the embassies to full strength even if the mystery of the health problems is never solved. Such a list might include the passage of a specific period of time without any new incidents; enhanced security measures to protect U.S. diplomats (some of which the Cubans have already put in place without fanfare); and more information sharing by U.S. and Cuban investigators. Such confidence-building measures might reduce U.S. suspicions that the Cubans know more than they are admitting, and Cuban suspicions that the Trump administration is using the problem to curb relations.
The United States and Cuba made surprisingly fast diplomatic progress in the last two years of the Obama administration, signing two dozen bilateral agreements and dramatically expanding trade and travel. Ending the Cold War in the Caribbean was overwhelmingly popular among ordinary citizens in both countries. The current freeze in relations puts those gains at risk, giving both governments good reason to re-double their efforts to find a way out.
LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).