Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Personal Speculations About Medical Maladies in Cuba, Change in Travel Advisory

by John McAuliff

The New York Times over the Labor Day weekend published a front page article on the medical problems affecting US and Canadian diplomats in Cuba and China. The original postulate of sonic attacks has been discredited. The Times argument that the cause was a microwave attack is subject to serious debate, notably in Scientific American.  More troubling is that the article elevates the scientific specialist on microwaves into a policy analyst by giving unmerited credence to his speculation that Russia was responsible.

That presumes that Russia could carry out such an attack in two countries that would find it against their national interest.  The one constant in both circumstances is the US.  It is known that at least the initial targets of the attacks in Havana were intelligence operatives posted under diplomatic cover, a familiar practice by most countries.  A similar possibility is implicit in reports of who was targeted in China.  On the one hand that makes the idea of spy against spy covert combat more plausible.  On the other it raises the possibility that the source of the problem is some malfunctioning US counter surveillance technology by itself or in conflict with normal Cuban efforts to surveil.

Underlying the Times Russia thesis may be the not unjustified premise that deliberately or not many policies and actions of the Trump Administration have served Russia's strategic interests.  Certainly the exaggerated response by Secretary Tillerson of gutting the US Embassy staff by 60%, including relatively all consular functions, has crippled US engagement with and influence on events in Cuba during an historic transition.

The timing of attacks can be seen as deliberately aimed at provoking a response from the Trump Administration.  They began just after the election creating a new atmosphere of conflict for incoming officials, escalated in April when it seemed that Trump was not going to do anything to fulfill his campaign speeches in Miami, and were renewed in August after it was obvious that the only thing achieved in June was a hard line speech .

The theory that somehow Miami hard liners were responsible also fits that scenario, but does not explain the attacks in China.

The odd piece of the story are the attacks on Canadian embassy staff in April.  Could the US have shared its counter surveillance equipment?  Does that point the finger at Miami because of the long time animus from hard line exiles?  Why would Russia, China or an anti-US faction of Cubans attack Canada?  Canada responded much more cautiously to the problem, offering an option for staff who believed they were affected to return home, but with no change in total staffing or bilateral relations.  Having had no political impact on Canada, the attacks were not repeated.

A devastating consequence of Secretary Tillerson's abrupt withdrawal of 60% of US personnel is that visas for family reunions, legal migration and academic and cultural exchange have become far harder to obtain, requiring expensive trips to Guyana or other countries.  Initially I thought this was an unintended consequence, but given the xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitude pervasive in the Trump Administration, I wonder if sabotaging the US agreement to provide at least 20,000 immigrant visas annually may be a factor.

Two things on the positive side of Secretary Pompeo's ledger:

1)  The State Department Travel Advisory on Cuba was diminished from 3 to 2.  "3" means "Reconsider Travel";  "2" is  "Exercise increased caution" because of "the drawdown of embassy staff".  Worldwide 54 countries are labeled "2" , including 10 in the Western Hemisphere and 7 in Western Europe.  The full State Department list of travel advisories is here   

In addition to the better psychological atmosphere for people considerings visits to Cuba, the improved ranking removes a problem with insurance companies that restricted some university exchange and study abroad programs. 

2)  Secretary Tillerson had blocked visits to Cuba by official US delegations under the premise that they would be endangered.  Secretary Pompeo authorized the visit of three specialists in the maladies problem and then welcomed a Cuban delegation on the topic to the State Department.

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 Here is the report from the Cuba Central September 1 news blast that reports Claver-Carone's anti-Trump record:

 During the 2016 Republican primary debates, Claver-Carone regularly criticized candidate Donald Trump via his Capitol Hill Cubans blog on issues ranging from Trump's stance on Cuba to his foreign policy views on the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Russia, once publishing, "Trump would place the moral, international leadership of the United States at risk." Claver-Carone is well acquainted with Republican political circles; Jeb Bush tweeted in support of an announcement that Claver-Carone would join President Trump's team. However, Claver-Carone's senior role in the Trump Administration would be in contrast to the Administration's decisions to forego appointments for others in the GOP's Never Trump movement, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' reported rescission, just last week, of an employment offer to a former official for his past "Never Trump" comments. 

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