In Cuba, let’s get back in the game
Emily Mendrala, Opinion Contributor, The Hill
It’s game time in Cuba and the United States isn’t on the field, on the sidelines, or even in the stands; we’re at home.
Cuba is on the brink of a historic transition. In April, President Raúl Castro will step down and usher in a new era of Cuban leadership.
At this complex time, when diplomacy matters most, the U.S. Embassy is operating on life support. On March 2, the State Department announced Secretary Tillerson’s decision to permanently limit staff at the embassy in Havana to a skeletal crew. Fewer than 20 U.S. staff members now are doing a job that was done by more than 60, a number in and of itself insufficient, a year ago.
The problem is, we’ve taken ourselves out of the game.
Our diplomats are vital, especially in Cuba where our bilateral relationship is undeniably important. Though government-to-government ties are sometimes tense, there is much that unites us; in 2017 alone, more than 1.1 million U.S. travelers, including several hundred thousand Cuban Americans, traveled to the island. U.S. businesses — from cruise ships to manufacturers — are operating in the Cuban market, and bilateral cooperation on issues such as law enforcement information-sharing and anti-human trafficking keep both of our countries and our people safe.
The State Department cut staff last October in response to mysterious symptoms experienced by U.S. officials in Havana, and, in turn, kicked out most Cuban diplomats from Washington. In a testament to their dedication to public service, many of the U.S. personnel ordered to leave Havana appealed to department leadership to remain at their post. Nevertheless, they eventually were recalled. As of last week, the U.S. diplomats sent home from Havana have been reassigned.
Today, more than seven months removed from the last reported incident, we are still unable to answer basic questions of who, why or how regarding the illnesses. All the while, U.S. interests and the Cuban people are harmed by the staffing cuts. Our government should be working with urgency toward a solution and, in the interim, put in place a gradual return to normalcy.
There are two major steps the U.S. government could take toward a solution:
Staff the embassy
The government should recognize the importance of diplomacy at this historic moment in Cuba and equip the embassy appropriately. Diplomats provide Washington with insight that informs policy, and those officers — if observing from afar — will be hard-pressed to fully understand the complexities of the current moment in Cuba; U.S. policy will suffer accordingly.
The State Department does not seem to have identified any realistic criteria for returning U.S. diplomats to Havana. Yet it is hard to imagine a scenario, even in the absence of a conclusive investigation, in which the current staffing pattern is in place for the long term. So what’s the way forward?
One reasonable criterion could be a certain amount of time elapsed without incident. If not six months, perhaps nine. The State Department should set a time frame, even if only communicated internally, after which, in the absence of new incidents, embassy staffing would be restored in full. In the meantime, they should gradually increase the number of staff.
The department should prioritize consular functions and restore visa processing in Havana; end the practice where Cubans seeking visas to immigrate to the United States, or simply visit family for important life events, must make visa applications in third countries. Traveling to Colombia or Mexico is cost-prohibitive for a majority Cubans and, starting this year, the United States could fail to meet its agreement to issue 20,000 immigrant visas per year for Cubans.
Investigate with urgency; invite assistance
U.S. officials are eager to solve the mystery of the illnesses. Yet despite months of inquiry, including several trips to Cuba, the FBI’s investigation has found no evidence of an attack on U.S. personnel in Havana nor shed any light on the cause of their ailments. Officials are stumped and should readily welcome second opinions.
On the medical front, the U.S. government took initial steps to do just that. Officials pursued creative ways to share medical information in keeping with privacy requirements. In February, with the blessing of U.S. officials, physicians who examined some of the affected diplomats published an entry in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings were inconclusive, but the publication’s greatest value may be an invitation to the broader medical community for comment.
When The Associated Press released a recording of the unidentified sound heard by some of the affected officials, one computer scientist took to the lab to solve the “interesting puzzle.” Just this past week, researchers with the University of Michigan and China’s Zhejiang University published details of their efforts to reverse-engineer the sound, and posited their theory that interactions between electronic devices could have caused it. With their work, made possible by access to information, we now have a plausible explanation of the “sonic” component of the mystery.
Cuba soon will undergo a leadership transition. The next Cuban president will have opportunities, it’s sure, but he also will encounter challenges, including shifts in U.S. policy toward Cuba. U.S. diplomats should be permitted to serve in Havana to manage this important relationship and protect U.S. interests during this politically sensitive time.
There’s still time. Let’s get back in the game.
Emily Mendrala is a former National Security Council and State Department official in the Obama administration. She is now the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas where she promotes U.S. policies of engagement toward Cuba.
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