Now is Not the Time to Reduce America's Havana Embassy
tags: President Trump; Cuba; Havana; U.S. Embassy
Joseph Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Global Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina
On Friday, the U.S. State Department announced a 60% reduction in the staff of the U.S. Embassy. At the same time, the Trump administration also warned Americans against traveling to Cuba.
The reason? Officially, the State Department is concerned for the welfare of embassy employees and their dependents. According to U.S. officials, twenty-one diplomats and family members have experienced “sonic attacks” during the last year in their homes.
These attacks have provoked a variety of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, and hearing loss in their victims. Some Canadian diplomats and their families also reported the same symptoms.
Initially, the Trump administration responded by expelling two Cuban diplomats, while publicly speculating about closing the embassy. Though the embassy remains open for now, the reduction will impair the ability of staff to assist both Americans in Cuba and Cubans wanting to come to the United States.
But what else could the administration have done? Shouldn’t the U.S. government protect its diplomats and citizens from attacks that threaten their health?
Absolutely. At the same time, we must ask ourselves: Is reducing the size and capacity of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, which in turn reduces travel and cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, in the best interest of the United States and Cuba?
The answer is no.
In fact, these measures appear to be one more step in the Trump administration’s campaign to reverse the reforms of the Obama administration.
In June President Trump announced new travel restrictions attempting to sharply decrease the number of Americans going to Cuba. “The previous administration's easing of restrictions of travel and trade does not help the Cuban people,” said President Trump in a speech in Miami in June, “They only enrich the Cuban regime."
Any sustained improvement of relations, warned the President, required the Cubans to institute more democratic reforms. More than 600,000 Americans visited Cuba during 2016
Why the restraint? Quite simply, the Cuban government has no incentive to worsen relations with the Trump Administration, much less drive Americans away from Cuba.
The Cuban government needs Americans to come to Cuba. The government depends on tourists to populate not only hotels and tour buses, most of them state owned, but also the private houses and private restaurants that now populate every city and town.
Attacks on U.S. diplomats and their families will only make tourists less likely, and less able, to come. It will also make removing the embargo and other travel restrictions impossible.
So, who is to blame for these attacks? Speculation runs from rogue elements of Cuban intelligence services, answerable to hardliners who oppose a rapprochement with the U.S., to foreign powers now at odds with Washington. It bears noting that both Russia and North Korea have embassies in Havana.
And it may also be true that President Trump and his State Department are using these attacks to further curtail American travel to Cuba.
The embargo and travel restrictions, after all, are not popular with Americans. But sonic attacks that provoke headaches and other health problems? Who wants those?
No one . . . and I wonder if that is what the Trump Administration wants. Are they betting that threats of sonic attacks will deter Americans in ways legal threats will not? Not to mention a half-staffed embassy unable to help American travelers in need.
Call me cynical, but I am guessing the answer is yes.
But now is not the time to curtail contact between Americans and Cubans.
Now is the time for increased travel and trade with Cuba . . . if, that is, you truly care about promoting the political and economic changes now underway in Cuba.
But I am guessing that President Trump cares more about votes from Cuban-Americans in Miami than the welfare of Cubans in Havana.
Again, call me cynical.
In my next blog post, I will discuss how a new class of entrepreneurs, reliant on tourist dollars, is thriving in Cuba.
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