A State Department seminar on Cuba scheduled for Friday has been called off in another sign of the differences between the department and the White House on Cuba policy.
Anti-Castro activists complained that the seminar, titled "Cuba under [Miguel] Díaz-Canel" and organized by the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was to hear only from experts who support the friendlier policies on Cuba advanced under former President Barack Obama.
"It's very strange, what happened with this event, which is held every two or three years and they have always invited me," said Carlos Saladrigas, president of the Cuba Study Group and one of the scheduled speakers. "Suddenly I get an email that it was postponed, with no new date set."
"We called the White House and they acted swiftly on the Friday event, which has since been postponed," said a staff member for Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who complained that the event would have openly undermined President Donald Trump’s agenda on Cuba.
"The event in question has been postponed," a State Department official confirmed. His statement did not mention the reason but added that the department "will seek to reschedule at a later date with a broad cross section of outside views."
The White House declined to comment.
"It seems that some people protested. I did also, because the panel was one-sided and there was no one to say what we believe is the truth about Cuba," said Frank Calzón, director of the Center for a Free Cuba. "They could have invited other people with different opinions. Instead, the event was going to be an exercise in propaganda."
Calzón also questioned the absence of any Cuban-American members of Congress from the panel of speakers.
President Trump has promised to reverse Obama administration policies on Cuba and strongly denounced human rights violations by the island's government, branding the situation a “tyranny.” After Trump ordered stiffer sanctions on Cuba in June, supporters of stronger policies against the island's government have expressed frustration with career State Department officials, accusing them of continuing to support the previous policy of engagement.
Rubio, for example, has complained that the list of Cuban military enterprises subject to U.S. sanctions, drafted by the State Department, is limited and should be broadened.
At the Friday event, Saladrigas was going to be joined by Marguerite Jimenez of the Washington Office on Latin America, American University professor William LeoGrande and Philip Peters of the Cuba Research Center. All support the Obama policies, and LeoGrande and Peters are advisers to Engage Cuba, which favors lifting the U.S. embargo. Peters also runs D17 Strategies, which advises clients on travel, investments and exchanges with Cuba.
The event, by invitation only and off the record, was for government employees and contractors only, according to an email sent to the people invited and obtained by el Nuevo Herald.
"The panel I was on was entirely focused on the internal political situation in Cuba in light of the leadership transition, not about U.S.-Cuban relations or President Trump’s policy," LeoGrande wrote in an email to el Nuevo Herald.
"The purpose, as I understood it, was to give a wide range of State Department officers a detailed analysis of Cuba’s internal dynamics and what developments to expect on the island in the next few years," he added. "I hope it can be rescheduled.
"At a time when the [U.S. Embassy in Havana] is short-staffed and limited in its reporting capacity, for the U.S. government to be able to call upon the expertise of scholars and analysts who follow these events closely would have been a tremendous benefit," he said.
The event, "intended for staff and policymakers … is one of roughly a hundred analytic exchanges that [the bureau] facilitates on an annual basis on a wide variety of foreign policy and national security challenges," the State Department official said. The discussions, he added, aim at exploring "ideas and alternative perspectives, gain[ing] insights, or generat[ing] new knowledge."
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