Sunday, October 29, 2017

New Cuban Regs for Cuban Americans

Cuba announces new measures to make travel to the island easier for Cuban Americans

OCTOBER 28, 2017 5:46 PM

Sunday, October 15, 2017

RESPECT Denounces Travel Warning

U.S. travel association opposes Trump administration’s Cuba travel warning and pullout of embassy staff


Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel • September 30, 2017

Meeting in Cuba, RESPECT*, the largest association of U.S. organizers of travel to Cuba, unanimously rejected the Trump administration’s Cuba travel warning and its decision to withdraw diplomatic staff from its Havana embassy.
The reaction came in response to Washington’s announcement that it is withdrawing 60 percent of non-emergency staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana and is warning U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba. The justification for both is unexplained health problems that 21 Havana-based U.S. diplomats have reported.
In addition, unidentified U.S. officials said the Consulate in Havana would suspend issuing U.S. visas to Cubans, indefinitely. The U.S. Embassy will continue to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Cuba.
“Based on the evidence thus far and the fact that the State Department says no other U.S. citizens have been affected, we believe that its decision is unwarranted, and are continuing to organize travel to Cuba and encourage others to do so,” said Bob Guild, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and Vice President of Marazul Charters. He also stressed that U.S. citizens and residents can legally travel to Cuba under US law and that the State Department advisory in no way prohibits U.S. persons from traveling to the island.
RESPECT is joined by U.S. commercial airlines and others in the travel industry who have publically expressed their intention to continue Cuba travel. Gail Reed, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and MEDICC founder, noted: “Cuba remains a very safe destination for U.S. travelers.”
The U.S. Foreign Service Association, the powerful union that represents U.S. diplomats around the world, also opposes any decision to withdraw U.S. diplomats from Cuba. Association President Barbara Stephenson said, “We have to remain on the field and in the game.”
The U.S. complaint about the health issues originated almost a year ago during the Obama Administration when the two governments were working toward rapprochement. As acknowledged by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Cuban government responded immediately and initiated an investigation, inviting the U.S. government to cooperate.
At the invitation of Cuban authorities, the FBI went to Havana seeking evidence of what the U.S. described as “sonic attacks” resulting in hearing loss and other symptoms. However, its agents found no devices or other evidence to explain the mystery.
None of the 500,000 U.S. visitors to Cuba this year have reported similar health issues. Tillerson said this week, “We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected…”.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, speaking at the UN this month, reiterated that Cuba takes very seriously the protection of all diplomats in its country and would never cause them harm or allow others to do so, in accordance with the 1961 Vienna Convention. He also urged the U.S. authorities to work more closely and effectively with the ongoing Cuban investigation, a point he raised again during his meeting with Tillerson this week.
Replying to the U.S. move to reduce its diplomatic personnel in Havana, Josefina Vidal, director general for U.S. Affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, called the decision precipitous and said it will affect bilateral relations and cooperation in areas of mutual interest. She noted that Cuba had urged the U.S. not to politicize the matter and insisted that Cuba needed the active cooperation of U.S. authorities to arrive at a definitive conclusion.
“We fear that such hasty action by the Trump Administration, independent of scientific evidence, may be motivated by politics rather than concerns for health and wellbeing,” said Walter Turner, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and President of Global Exchange. “Thus, once again we encourage all U.S. visitors to continue to travel to Cuba.”

* RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel) is a 150-member US professional association of travel agencies, tour operators, non-profit entities, and other travel service providers dedicated to practicing and promoting ethical and socially responsible travel to Cuba. Founded in December 2016 on the anniversary of the opening announced by the US and Cuban presidents, RESPECT held a two-day meeting at the Meliá Cohíba Hotel in Havana this week, where its members hammered out a 2017 Action Plan to implement its 17 principles. These include ways US travel organizations and travelers can contribute to protecting Cuba’s environment as it adapts to climate change, commit to non-exploitative relations with all Cubans and respect the country’s cultural heritage and expressions. The Association also defends the right of all US citizens and residents to travel to Cuba and advocates lifting all US government travel restrictions to the island.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Personal thoughts about the state of US-Cuba Relations

AP has published a story with the copy of the sound that is alleged to have been targeted against US diplomats.  An earlier story indicated that they were US intelligence operatives using the customary diplomatic cover.

How can the sound have been recorded and the US not know what is generating it?  One would think if there is time to make a recording, that embassy and/or Cuban security could locate a source.  Is there a piece of consumer or professional equipment common to all the affected personnel that could be the accidental or intended vector of the sound?  Does the identity of the targets confirm intentional hostile action, or does it raise questions about the reliability of the accusers, the CIA having a rather checkered past in Cuba, including attempted assassination of Fidel Castro?

The Guardian cites experts disputing the thesis of a sonic attack on scientific grounds.  Similar doubts have been raised in the New York TimesCNN explored the possible use of infra or ultrasound and the advanced capabilities of Russia.

North Korea has a history of total disrespect for normal diplomatic protocol in Cuba.  Given President Trump's military threats and impetuousness, would such aggression provide a causus belli with Pyongyang?  That could be a reason to not want to dwell on such a possibility.

At the moment, I am agnostic about the nature of the problem and the cause.

The Miami ultras have an undeniable motive and are exploiting successfully the murky situation.  Their past practice of blowing up civilian targets in Cuba and creating the life endangering provocation of Brothers to the Rescue flights suggests they would not worry much about the human cost if it would derail normalization.

Is it reasonable to assume they had a mole in the embassy who could identify residences and hotel rooms?

I wonder whether the extreme reaction by the State Department was to forestall the even more extreme action that Rubio and four other Senators had demanded the previous week, the closing of  embassies?  Did the State Department realize that a big draw down of personnel would routinely require a travel warning?  Were they counting on push back from airlines, cruises, hotel companies, universities, AirBnB and tour organizers?

The termination of both immigrant and visitor visas will come back to haunt Rubio when grandma or grandson can't come for Christmas, or spouses are finally able to reunite.  If State is playing chess, could that be the intention of barring visas?

This history provided by a friend in Havana offers an interesting parallel:
Back in April 1997 a bomb went off in the Havana Melia Cohiba hotel, an unheard of event in the tightly controlled Communist-run country. They kept going off in hotels and restaurants into September when a Salvadoran tourist was arrested.

A few more went off or were discovered and the last was found in the Trash outside Havana's airport at the end of October. In all, five Central Americans were in custody. All testified they were paid a few thousand dollars per bomb and trained by a ring of Cuban exiles.
It had taken the famous and fully mobilized Cuban security services six months to crack the case which involved a group of amateurs.

As the bombing run went on and on speculation turned to rogue elements within the Cuban state. There was no other explanation for why the bombings continued in such a controlled environment. The Christian Science Monitor wrote…
"The failure to present any evidence in the blasts leads many Cubans to believe that the government doesn't actually have a clue as to whom is setting the bombs. But speculation runs in two directions: that it is either Cubans working with an extremist exile group opposed to President Fidel Castro; or that it is Communists, perhaps within the military, who are responsible.

That anti-Castro exile groups would act against the island's tourist industry follows a certain logic…

But some Cubans say there is also reason to believe that hard-line communists opposed to the island's economic opening are responsible - especially with the Communist Party's congress, the first since 1991, set for October…

Supporters of this theory say elements of the military might be involved because they would have access to materials needed to construct explosives, and because they might number among those most alarmed by the country's moral drift.?
There are both similarities and differences with the just as strange 'acoustic attacks' that have bedeviled the island this year and apparently injured a number of U.S. diplomats and family members.

However, the U.S. rationale being used to roll back detente, that even if the Cuban government is not directly to blame it MUST know what is going on, is refuted by the above events when arguably the security services were less degraded than they are today, faced, one assumes, by less sophisticated players and had real time access to crime scenes.
My largest concern is on the consequences for exchanges, intended or not.

One of the best institutional responses has come from a university exchange program in Mexico, raising for the first time the damage to the credibility of State Department Travel Warnings by politicization.

However that is not a US university.  I have heard that a Travel Warning affects insurance coverage and therefore the ability of US universities and corporations to send people to Cuba.

If the Travel Warning was simply triggered by a routine bureaucratic mandate, and is not intended for political pressure or worse, the State Department should find a way of removing it. 

From the Foreign Affairs Manual:
"When a post goes to authorized departure or ordered departure, a travel warning is issued by the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  The warning routinely urges private U.S. citizens to consider leaving or avoiding travel to countries where authorized or ordered departure is in effect. "
This is the "or worse" from one of the smartest observers in Washington:
The administration is doing worse than reversing normalization.  The policies are based on the (incorrect) judgment that Raúl’s transition is vulnerable, and now’s the time to strike by shutting down the migration accords, stopping people-to-people, and expelling the Cuban Embassy’s commercial team.
A less apocalyptic interpretation is that an increasingly beleaguered and isolated President is trying to shore up hard core support against legal and constitutional threats to his tenure.

The crisis with Cuba is not as life threatening as President Trump's words and actions on Charlottesville, Puerto Rico, North Korea, Iran and affordable health care, but it is enmeshed in the same irrational inability to understand our national interest.

    --John McAuliff, 10/14/17

Additional resources

"Reckless hostility toward Cuba damages America's interests"
     by Harold Trinkunas and Richard Feinberg

"U.S.-Cuba: New Challenge to Normalization"
    by Fulton Armstrong

"Mass hysteria may explain 'sonic attacks' in Cuba, say top neurologists"
    by Julian Borger and Philip Jaekl

Associated Press stories

Petition to rescind the travel warning and restore visas

Friday, October 13, 2017

Mass Hysteria or Sonic Attacks?

Mass hysteria may explain 'sonic attacks' in Cuba, say top neurologists
·        Despite 22 Americans reporting symptoms no evidence of a weapon found
·        Experts suspect a psychosomatic disorder linked to high stress in Havana
Julian Borger and Philip Jaekl

Thursday 12 October 2017 13.20 EDTLast modified on Thursday 12 October 2017 17.53 EDT

Senior neurologists have suggested that a spate of mysterious ailments among US diplomats in Cuba – which has caused a diplomat rift between the two countries – could have been caused by a form of “mass hysteria” rather than sonic attacks.
The unexplained incidents have prompted the US to withdraw most of its embassy staff from Havana and expel the majority of Cuban diplomats from Washington.

The neurologists who talked to the Guardian cautioned that no proper diagnosis is possible without far more information and access to the 22 US victims, who have suffered a range of symptoms including hearing loss, tinnitus, headaches and dizziness

The state department has described the incidents as “attacks”, saying they began at the end of last year with the last recorded incident in August.
But US and Cuban investigations have produced no evidence of any weapon, and the neurologists argue that the possibility of “functional disorder” due to a problem in the functioning of nervous system – rather than a disease – should be considered.

“From an objective point of view it’s more like mass hysteria than anything else,” said Mark Hallett, the head of the human motor control section of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Mass hysteria” is the popular term for outbreaks among groups of people which are partly or wholly psychosomatic, but Hallett stressed there should be no blame attached to them.

“Psychosomatic disease is a disease like anything else. It shouldn’t be stigmatised,” said Hallett, who is also president of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology. “It’s important to point out that symptoms like this are not voluntary. They are not a sign of weakness in an individual’s personality.”
Hallett said it was more common for such disorders to affect smaller groups of people, often in families, but he added that it was feasible for larger numbers of individuals to be affected, especially when they were working closely together in a tense and hostile environment.

“There are a very large number of individuals that have relatively vague complaints as far as I can see,” Hallett said. “There has been an exploration of possible causes for this and nothing has been found and the notion of some sonic beam is relatively nonsensical.

“If it is mass hysteria that would clarify all the mystery – and presumably normalise US-Cuban relations again,” said Hallett. “These people are all clustered together in a somewhat anxious environment and that is exactly the situation that precipitates something like this. Anxiety may be one of the critical factors.”

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that it had been provided audio tapes of high-pitched whining noises which some US embassy workers said they heard in Havana, but it is unclear whether the sounds were linked to the health complaints. The report noted that not all the Americans injured in Cuba heard sounds, and of those who did, it is not unclear if they heard the same thing.

Alan Carson, a consultant neuropsychiatrist and former president of the British Neuropsychiatry Association told the Guardian: “Typically what one gets in a functional disorder is some trigger. It is often relatively mild and non-specific, it can be a minor physical injury. But then a combination of a degree of anxiety and also belief and expectation distort that feeling.”

“If there is a strong enough expectation that something is going to happen, that will distort in an entirely real way the incoming information,” Carson said. “In certain circumstances that can be transmitted from person to person... If one person has that experience strongly enough and sets off that train of thought in somebody’s else’s mind, that can happen too.”

Many acoustics experts have said that it is highly unlikely that the range of symptoms reported could have been caused by any kind of sonic weapons.
Another theory was that the health complaints were caused by a surveillance operation that had gone wrong – but that has also met with scepticism from experts and a dearth of evidence.

The US has not directly blamed the Cuban government but said Havana had failed in its obligation to protect foreign diplomats on its territory. The Cuban government has denied conducting any form of attack and has offered its cooperation in discovering the cause of the symptoms.

“I don’t think the Cuban government is behind it,” said Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser, who was involved in negotiating the previous administration’s rapprochement with Havana.

“First, these things apparently started in December … At the same time the attacks were starting the Cuban government was frantically concluding agreements with us, signing business deals … in other words trying to preserve the relationship. So the notion that at the same time as doing that, they would initiate something that is so obviously designed to blow up the relationship doesn’t make any sense.”

Asked about the possibility of functional disorders, a state department spokesperson said: “We have no definitive answers on the cause or the source of the attacks on US diplomats in Cuba, and an aggressive investigation continues. We do not want to get ahead of that investigation.”

Donald Trump has struck a markedly more hostile tone towards Cuba than his predecessor, and in June announced a partial rollback of Obama’s rapprochement, tightening travel and trade rules with the island.

Jon Stone, a University of Edinburgh neurologist and the co-editor of a book on functional neurologic disorders, said that such disorders were very common, and the second commonest reason to see a neurologist.

“There is a misconception that only people who are weak-willed, people who are neurotic, get these symptoms. It isn’t true,” Stone said. “We are talking about genuine symptoms that people have of dizziness, of headaches, of hearing problems, which they are not faking.”

He added that the outbreak could have started with one or two people falling ill with headaches or hearing problems, and those spread in a high-stress atmosphere and then amid talk of a “sonic attack”.

“None of this makes sense until you consider the psychogenic explanation,” said Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist and the author of series of books on outbreaks of mass hysteria.

“American intelligence agencies are the most sophisticated in the world, and they reportedly don’t have a clue as to what’s causing the symptoms. I will bet my house that there are agents in the intelligence community who have also concluded that this is a psychogenic event – but their analysis is either being repressed or ignored by the Trump administration because it doesn’t fit their narrative. Mass psychogenic illness is by far the most plausible explanation.”

Thursday, October 12, 2017

University Response to State Department Travel Warning

AUSM Update on Cuba Travel
The Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM) is aware of the travel warning for Cuba issued by the US State Department on September 29, 2017.  The following analysis explains the warning, events leading up to the warning, and our analysis of the situation.
For the Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM), our top priority is the health and safety of our students.  We compile information from a wide range of sources for our regular evaluations, including local staff and partner organizations who know local conditions well, reports by human rights groups and NGOs, media reports, consultations with local officials, and reports from the US State Department.
We’ve found over the decades that State Department reports are often slow to appreciate the seriousness of local safety issues.  For example, AUSM restricted student travel between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque in southern Mexico beginning in 2014 because of increased highway robberies, whereas the State Department issued a less restrictive advisory only recently.  However, the State Department reports, when used in conjunction with trusted on-the-ground sources, have generally provided helpful guidance.
In recent weeks we’ve seen a troubling series of events – the apparent politicization of a travel warning.  We refer to a recent travel warning issued for Cuba, a country that is widely recognized as the safest tourist destination in the world.  This week, Washington announced the withdrawal of 60 percent of US Embassy staff from Havana and is warning US Citizens to avoid travel to the island.  The justification for both actions is a series of unexplained and unconfirmed health problems reported by 22 Havana-based diplomats.  Patients report non-specific “sonic attacks” with generalized symptoms that include tinnitus (wringing ears), trouble sleeping, nausea, dizziness and headaches.  It should be noted that neither the US nor the Cuban governments officially use the term “sonic attack.”  This seems to be a term invented by the media as a shorthand way of referring to a series of unexplained events that may or may not be related.  To date, only embassy personnel, mostly from the US but including several Canadians, report these symptoms.  Not a single US tourist has been diagnosed with similar symptoms.  To date, the US is the only country to issue a travel warning, and no other country has recalled diplomatic personnel.
If these health claims are true, no one is more concerned than the Cubans.  In an unprecedented move, President Raul Castro invited FBI personnel to investigate the situation in Havana on three separate occasions.  Despite repeated investigations by US and Cuban officials, no source has been identified for the health problems.  No “attacks” have been reported since August.  No one in the US government is suggesting that the Cuban government is responsible.  The recent removal of US diplomats from Havana does not represent a change in diplomatic status between the two countries.  In fact, very little can be said with any certainty about the “attacks.”  See Wired Magazineand Snopes Fact-check for scientific evaluations of the known information.  For a political analysis of the deteriorating US-Cuba relations, see the Toronto Star.
The State Department issues travel warnings to discourage travel by US citizens under certain conditions.  The State Department web site notes, “Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Warning might include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks.”  None of these conditions is even remotely present in Cuba.
So why the travel warning?  The fact that we have to ask this question at all is disappointing.  State Department travel warnings should be apolitical, with the health and safety of US citizens as the only priority.
For AUSM, the most important question is the safety of our students.  There are five factors that weigh heavily in our calculations:
– Aside from personnel from two embassies, not a single foreign visitor has reported health problems from a “sonic attack”
– Canada and European countries have not issued travel warnings
– There are no claimed attacks since August
– All reported attacks have been in Embassy housing or a hotel, and our students live 20 minutes from downtown in private homes
– Cruise ships, airlines and other tourist travel are maintaining full schedules
We evaluate these measures by the Trump administration as internally inconsistent, unwarranted given the circumstances, and a misguided politicization of health and safety precautions that will cause travelers to pay less attention to State Department advisories and warnings in the future.  This erosion of trust is becoming all too common under the current administration.
We currently have students in Havana, with five additional programs scheduled between December, 2017 and May, 2018.  We plan to continue these programs, with certain precautions:
– Our students will not visit the US Embassy except in case of an emergency.  The Embassy continues to maintain phone lines for Americans facing emergencies in Cuba (+53 7-839-4100 and +1 202-501-4444).
– Our students will be instructed to avoid social or casual encounters with US embassy personnel.
– Our students will receive a thorough orientation on the signs of a “sonic attack.”
AUSM will continue to monitor the situation and will adjust our practices in accordance with new conditions, always prioritizing the health and safety of our students.  Given our 30 years of experience leading educational delegations to Cuba, we evaluate this particular situation as highly unlikely to result in a threat to student health.