Anti-Castro politicians talk tough on Cuba after suspected attack on U.S. diplomats

Cuba’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
Cuba’s embassy in Washington, D.C.

As the Trump administration prepares to write new regulations regarding travel to Cuba, Havana and Washington are involved in a diplomatic tug of war that seems straight out of the 1960s.

American diplomats in Cuba left the country after experiencing severe hearing loss attributed to a sonic device, according to U.S. officials. In response, the U.S. government expelled two Cuban diplomats from Washington.

The Raúl Castro government vehemently denied any involvement, and there’s chatter the Russians could have been behind it.

“In terms of the timing ... if this was an intentional thing by the Cuban government, the timing couldn’t be worse or stranger,” said Collin Laverty, president of a company that arranges group trips to Cuba and is in favor of improved relations with Havana. “Relations were good when Obama was in office. This just seems completely out of context.”

Anti-Castro elements of the U.S. government, including Republicans from Miami, are capitalizing on the latest news as a sign that Havana cannot be trusted, even though it isn’t clear yet that the Cuban government tried to harm U.S. diplomats.

“The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. “This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement.”

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Castro regime can’t guarantee the safety of our diplomats,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, said. “The escalation described in these reports is unacceptable and clearly indicates that the previous administration’s policy of unilateral concessions failed to advance U.S. interests.”

“The Castro regime has a long and documented history of acting in a manner adverse to U.S. national interests,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said. “The expulsion of two Castro regime officials sends a clear message that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.”

Rubio played a big role in the Trump administration’s decision earlier this summer to limit some types of travel to Cuba, and the president was eager to please conservative Cubans in Miami who helped him win the 2016 election.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the incident, and the State Department declined to go into detail about what happened to the diplomats.

“We first heard about these incidents back in late 2016,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “When we talk about medical issues, about Americans, we don’t get into it. We take those incidents very seriously, and there is an investigation currently under way.”

A White House official said the State Department and White House are “monitoring” the situation in Cuba.

On Wednesday, an unnamed U.S. official told The Associated Press that investigators were looking into the possibility that Russia or another third party could have carried out the attack without the Cuban government’s knowledge.

But Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush, said it’s highly unlikely that the Cuban government would not be aware of a sonic device installed at the house of a diplomat.

“I talked to a Cuban defector who was in Cuban intelligence who said that it’s not possible because the Cubans watch all the diplomatic missions, including their allies,” Reich said. “There’s no way the Russians or the Chinese or anyone else could have done this. Frankly, it tells me a lot more of the thinking of the anonymous U.S. diplomat and how wrong they have been on Cuba.”

Laverty, who wants more engagement with Cuba, agreed that it would be hard for a third party to install a device inside a diplomat’s house without the Cuban government knowing, particularly if the device required technical expertise to install.

“I think it would be difficult in the sense that U.S. diplomats’ places of residence are closely monitored and closely protected,” Laverty said.

But Laverty argued that doesn’t necessarily mean the Cuban government is trying to hurt American diplomats.

He said it’s possible that an easy-to-install device could have been left behind at a diplomat’s house by a third party without the Cuban government knowing, or a surveillance device installed by the government may have stopped working properly, causing hearing problems for the diplomats.

On Thursday, the Canadian government said one of its diplomats in Cuba was treated in the hospital after suffering headaches and hearing loss. Canada helped broker talks between the Cuba and the U.S. that led to closer diplomatic relations.

While Laverty and Reich disagree on how to deal with Havana, they both agree that this week’s news will affect the Trump administration’s outlook on Cuba.

“Given the potential for tension and distrust, any kind of minor event between the U.S. and Cuba has the potential to affect the bilateral relationship,” Laverty said. “I’m just hopeful this is some fluke accident.”

Reich said the sonic attack is the 21st century version of harassment of U.S. diplomats in Cuba stretching back decades, including intentionally causing automobile accidents, to send a message.

“What I think it will do is it will reinforce the decision that has already been made that the Obama policy is a mistake and the regulations must be changed.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty