White House national security adviser John Bolton says the Trump administration will seek retribution for the alleged attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana. During an exclusive interview with el Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald Thursday, Bolton added that the administration is also considering new sanctions on the Cuban government.
“I think it’s very important that somebody must be held accountable for what happened to our diplomats. It’s a fundamental principle of how America operates in the world, that Americans abroad do not get harmed with impunity,” he said.
About two dozen U.S. diplomats, intelligence officials and relatives suffered various symptoms, including brain concussions, during episodes in which some reported hearing strange sounds in diplomatic residences and hotel rooms. Two years later, the U.S. government has not said how the incidents were carried out or who was responsible. Doctors who treated the victims do not agree on what caused the symptoms, but have raised the possibility of a directed energy weapon. One NBC report indicated that U.S. intelligence agencies suspect the Russian government carried out the attacks.
The Cuban government has denied any responsibility.
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“There is no conceivable theory [whether] it was accidental or somehow caused by some equipment malfunction,” Bolton said. “We are continuing to be concerned for the safety of our personnel. We are not satisfied with the performance of the government of Cuba respecting their security, so we are going to take a very careful look at that and make some decisions.”
Bolton confirmed a report by McClatchy that the White House is “seriously” considering new measures against the Cuban government, including allowing Cuban exiles whose properties were confiscated by the Castro government to file lawsuits in U.S. courts against foreign companies currently using those properties.
A provision of the Helms-Burton law that allows such lawsuits has been regularly suspended every six months by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Failure to suspend it again would allow the lawsuits to be filed.
“It’s a serious proposition. It’s worth exploring. We have heard from members of Congress who are very serious about it. This time, we’ll give it a very serious review,” Bolton said. He added, however, that he could not guarantee the Trump administration would allow the provision, known as Title III, to take effect.
Bolton said the White House is considering other sanctions against the Cuban government, such as expanding the number of Cuban companies on a “no deal” list because of their ties to the Cuban military and demanding that U.S. companies operating on the island hire employees directly, rather than through a government agency that pockets a large portion of their salaries.
“There will be developments in that area in the next few days,” Bolton said on expanding the list of sanctioned companies. He said the next few weeks will see a broad review of U.S. policies on Cuba to guarantee the implementation of the presidential memorandum signed by President Donald Trump in Miami, as well as the policies he outlined during a speech to Cuban Americans gathered at a Little Havana theater.
“He was very serious about what he said and I don’t think we ought to let bureaucracy get in the way of achieving his objectives” he said, adding that the direct hiring of Cuban workers is one example. The arrangement is “something to look at, that it might have broader impact. There is no doubt that a lot of the foreign currency that goes into Cuba now doesn’t go to the people who are providing the services. It goes to the government,” he said.
“Sometimes people argue that relaxing sanctions will directly help the people of Cuba or other countries. Unfortunately, the consequence has really been to help the government and its ability to stay in power,” Bolton added.
The labor measure could directly impact U.S. airlines, for example, which have hired local office staffers in Cuba through a government labor agency.
Some experts say that a policy of increased sanctions on Cuba will only push the island toward governments that are hostile to the United States, such as Russia. Moscow recently granted Cuba a $50 million loan to buy Russian weapons and military spare parts. Bolton said Vladimir Putin’s government was “fishing in troubled waters” because it perceived a weakness in U.S. policies.
“Hopefully the next time the president sees Putin is to say this kind of involvement in our hemisphere is not something we appreciate,” he said.
On Venezuela, Bolton denied the Trump administration is considering military actions against President Nicolás Maduro but added that it is indeed considering new sanctions, with the help of allied governments in Latin America.
Bolton traveled to Miami to deliver a speech at the Freedom Tower during which he announced the Trump administration will take a stronger stand against the “tyrannies” in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
He dismissed critics who said his speech was designed to pander to Cuban American voters just days before the midterm elections.
“It’s entirely a policy speech,” Bolton said. “If we would have been ready with the policy a month ago, I would have been happy to deliver it then.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres