HAVANA — As pundits on both sides of the Florida Straits debate the State Department’s Oct. 3 decision to kick out two-thirds of the staff at Cuba’s newly revived embassy in Washington, one highly placed cubano isn’t mincing words.
Carlos Alzugaray, the island’s former ambassador to the European Union, is a frequent commentator on U.S.-Cuban affairs. He says the expulsion of 15 diplomats — taken after a series of mysterious “sonic attacks” that have left some two dozen Americans and their spouses stationed in Havana with mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, balance problems, headaches, speech problems and other cognitive issues — pretty much devastates the bilateral ties that had finally begun to flourish toward the end of the Obama administration after half a century of hostilities.
“I don’t see U.S.-Cuba relations going forward as long as Donald Trump is president, unless he suffers such a great defeat in the midterm elections of 2018 that pro-engagement forces in Congress pass laws lifting the embargo or the travel restrictions,” Alzugaray told The Diplomat.
That is unlikely to happen given that Republicans have been unwavering in their determination to keep the decades-old trade embargo, which only Congress can lift, until the communist island opens up its political system. And regardless whether it was Trump or Hillary Clinton in office, the bizarre sonic attacks would have likely derailed relations regardless.
The U.S. government is still trying to figure out what exactly happened and who was behind the attacks. In the meantime, the State Department has whittled down the embassy staff in Havana to the bare minimum and warned Americans not to travel to Cuba, as several tourists and one FBI agent have recently came forward to report similar symptoms. The government says it cannot verify their accounts, and experts are baffled as to what could’ve caused the perplexing ailments, especially because no known covert acoustic weapon exists that would cause a concussion or other cognitive symptoms.
Alternate theories range from poisonous chemicals to a psychosomatic disorder prompted by “mass hysteria” being the culprit. The Cuban government has vehemently denied it had anything to do with the attacks and dismissed the allegations of brain trauma and other symptoms as “science fiction.”
Many observers agree that it would be strange for the Cuban government to launch such an attack at a time when it was frantically working to cement bilateral accords before Trump took office. Some have speculated that rogue elements within Cuba’s military or intelligence services who were opposed to the U.S. rapprochement might’ve instigated the attacks. Others say it could have been Russia or North Korea or even the result of a surveillance operation gone bad.
Whatever the case, the U.S. government has revealed very little information about the “incidents,” as Alzugaray prefers to call them. He says they look more like spy games that go on all over the world. Even Washington has yet to directly blame Cuba for whatever happened (although it has said the island is at fault for failing to protect diplomats posted there).
“It is highly unlikely that the Cuban government or intelligence service would be doing something like this,” he said. “Remember, these incidents started in November 2016, when Obama was still in the White House and relations between the two governments were good. If there had been some action by Cuba or some rogue Cuban elements or a third party operating within Cuba, chances are the Cuban government would have resolved it before Trump was inaugurated.”
Alzugaray agrees with his government’s assessment that this is really about domestic politics — and not about protecting U.S. citizens in Cuba from danger.
“Among the 15 diplomats expelled [from Cuba’s embassy in Washington] are all the officers working on commercial and economic cooperation, and all but one of the consular officers,” he told us. “This aims at two of the most promising spheres in which normalization of relations has had some progress.”
He added: “These expulsions were devised to cause as much harm as possible to the normalization process, as the drawdown of the U.S. Embassy in Havana has affected mostly the capacity of the consular office to handle visa applications. As a matter of fact, those actions hurt normal Cubans and especially the private sector.”
Alzugaray also suspects this is less about diplomatic security and more about pandering to the hardline Cuban exiles who helped deliver Florida’s electoral votes that put Trump in office.
“Look who’s benefitting,” he said. “First, the president, who has used any possible excuse to reverse everything that Obama did — and that plays very well with his constituency. This ‘acoustic attack’ comes in very handily. Second [are] Marco Rubio and his cohorts in Miami,” Alzugaray charged, referring to the Republican senator who has pushed Trump to crack down on the Castro regime.
The president has rolled back what he called his predecessor’s “one-sided deal with Cuba,” clamping down on U.S. travel to the island and business with the Castro regime. But he hasn’t broken the diplomatic relations that Obama restored in 2014 after 55 years of hostility
That’s why Alzugaray thinks the Trump doctrine is “more bark than bite.”
“He really didn’t reverse or cancel everything,” said the retired diplomat. “Not a single agreement signed between the two governments has been repudiated by Trump. He has not reversed policies on Cuban-American travel or remittances, and he has not really done a complete reversal on Obama’s policies on travel to Cuba, although it’s obvious he’s not facilitating things,” Alzugaray told The Washington Diplomat during an hour-long interview at Havana’s Hotel Meliá Cohiba close to the U.S. Embassy, where he’s a frequent visitor.
“Every time Obama spoke about Cuba after Dec. 17, 2014, the Treasury, Commerce and State Departments all enacted regulations that facilitated things immediately,” he said. “The Obama administration didn’t lose one minute in enacting new regulations.”
Trump, on the other hand, has targeted only two categories: individual travel, “which is quite stupid because that’s the one where more money goes to the casas particulares” — privately owned homes that lodge tourists — and doing business with the Cuban military.
“The problem is that the American political system is so gridlocked that issues like this can be detained by small groups and people like Marco Rubio,” said Alzugaray. He pointed out that just a few weeks before Trump’s Miami rally in June when he vowed to end the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, 55 senators led by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) reintroduced the Freedom of Americans to Travel to Cuba Act, which, if passed, would allow unfettered U.S. travel to the island for the first time since 1963.
“The good thing is that now, government officials from both sides are talking directly to each other,” Alzugaray said. “And they are finding that, contrary to what the Miami crowd says, there is an ample field of cooperation possible between the United States and Cuba on a number of issues.”
An astute observer of U.S. politics, Alzugaray, 74, comes from a well-to-do family. His grandfather was the prominent attorney Carlos Martín Alzugaray Lavaggi. And in the 1940s, his father Mario Alzugaray Ramos Izquierdo co-founded the revolutionary Partido del Pueblo Cubano, also known as the Orthodox Party.
In 1959, Fidel Castro named his father ambassador to Japan, during which time he got the Japanese to sign a contract guaranteeing the purchase of 500,000 tons a year of Cuban sugar. The younger Alzugaray studied at both Tokyo’s Sophia University and the University of Havana. His doctorate dissertation was on the Eisenhower administration’s policy toward Cuba from 1958 to 1961.
Alzugaray’s own diplomatic career began at the Cuban Embassy in Tokyo and included later postings in Bulgaria and Argentina, and as adviser for global political affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry. He was also consul-general at the Cuban Embassy in Montreal, counselor at Cuba’s Organization of African Unity mission in Ethiopia and finally Havana’s top envoy to the EU in Brussels.
He then switched careers and became a scholar at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales, later doing a lengthy stint as a visiting professor at New York’s Queens College.
These days, Alzugaray is an independent analyst and self-described “old wise guy” who lectures at universities from Mexico City to Madrid. His columns appear in newspapers throughout Europe and Latin America.
“Up until 2002, I used to come to the States once or twice a year,” he said, recalling that back in the 1990s, traveling between the two countries was no big deal, even with the lack of full diplomatic relations. “Then the Bush administration cut off almost all academic exchanges, and for some reason or another, I was denied visas in 2003, 2004 and 2005. It was only in 2011 that I got a visa again for the first time.”
Since then, Alzugaray has lost count how many times he’s visited the States. “Probably 10 or 12 times,” he said, venturing a guess. “I have a five-year visa now.”
There’s no question that the rapid pace of warming bilateral relations has sparked controversy both in Washington and Miami. Even so, President Obama’s dramatic reversal of half a century of hostility has its share of detractors in Havana as well.
“The Cuban side has invested a lot in the Obama initiative, but it does not enjoy 100 percent support here in Cuba. I would say the majority of Cubans, especially the younger ones, like it very much. But among older Cubans, there is a prejudice that this is the same old dog. They cannot come to terms with it,” Alzugaray said.
While Raúl Castro has presided over an unprecedented economic opening, allowing small private businesses to operate, the bulk of Cuba’s 11 million people have not experienced a dramatic change in their lives, either because of Castro’s policies or Obama’s détente.
Despite the relative lack of progress on the island and the souring of relations under Trump, many Americans are still hopeful that improving U.S.-Cuba ties is the key to change.
“A coalition of security officials, federal officials, businessmen, the agriculture lobby and state governments have the idea that, ‘We want to engage with Cuba, so we have to abandon the old policy of trying to bring about regime change by coercion,’” Alzugaray said. “That coalition is divided into two broad groups. One group that thinks maybe regime engagement will work if force fails. But there’s another train of thought that says, ‘Who cares about regime change? It will come or not come to Cuba eventually one day.’”
The bottom line, said Alzugaray, is that common interests such as trade, tourism, counternarcotics, law enforcement, security and environmental issues are far more important than forcing regime change in Havana. This is one reason why, he observed, the hardliners in Miami “got maybe 10 or 20 percent of what they wanted” from Trump.
“I don’t think they’re going to sit on their hands, but it’ll depend very much on opportunities,” he said. “It’s obvious they pushed Trump as far as they could.”
For one thing, he said, the U.S. federal bureaucracy including Homeland Security, Defense, Treasury and State see that U.S.-Cuban relations are working. And it’s apparent to him that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “doesn’t care either way” about Cuba.
Alzugaray added that Scott Hamilton, second-in-command at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, “wants to keep things as they are, and they’re not sending anyone to replace Jeff.” That would be Jeff DeLaurentis, the departing U.S. deputy chief of mission, whom Alzugaray has known since 1991 and with whom he has a “very good relationship.”
Meanwhile, he says “a process has started” in Florida, and one sign of that is the upcoming retirement of 64-year-old Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a hardliner who spoke for the older generation of Cuban exiles, 80 percent of whom are Republicans. In April, the dean of Florida’s congressional delegation in Washington announced she would step down in 2018 after 35 years in Congress.
“Now you have second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans who are more American than Cuban. Yes, they love Cuba and what they see in Cuba doesn’t fit that horrible narrative that their parents and grandparents had. These people don’t have a lot of political power; they don’t trust either party,” Alzugaray said.
And in Cuba itself, “we are going to have a generational change in power.” That’s because in February 2018, Raúl Castro has pledged to step down from power a decade after taking over for his brother Fidel, who died in November 2016. “The new leaders of Cuba are going to be guys like Miguel Díaz-Canel. They will introduce economic reforms toward the creation of a mixed economy,” Alzugaray said of the technocrat who is predicted to be Raúl’s successor.
“We are in a brand-new ball game,” he said. “An opening with the United States will have a positive influence on the reform process. A hardline position by the United States will have a negative impact on the reform process.”
Alzugaray worries that the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from the embassy in Washington could lead to backsliding — not to the time where there were “interest sections” in each other’s capital cities — but to the previous period between 1961 and 1977, when there was nowhere to go to request a U.S. visa for private visits or educational, cultural and scientific exchanges.
“This hurts not only Cubans interested for personal or working reasons to travel to the U.S., but also Cuban-Americans who want to have a better connection with their country of origin, or their families,” he said.
Alzugaray warned that it’s possible the Trump administration may very well close the U.S. Embassy altogether — or at least roll back the travel regulations further than what has already been announced.
“Personally, given a choice between the Obama opening and the Trump ‘reversal,’ I prefer the Obama opening, even if it is a policy of regime change through engagement,” he said.
In the end, Alzugaray insists that Cuba will never dump its socialist system under pressure from Washington — regardless of what Trump says or does.
“What’s up for grabs is the pace of reform. There is a struggle. Our economic situation is not very good, and it’s complicated by Venezuela,” he told us. “But Cuba is not going to change anything under pressure, or as part of a deal. Those things are our sovereign decision.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist Larry Luxner is the former editor and publisher of CubaNews. He spent six days in Havana and Camagüey on a reporting trip in early July.