CUBA BRIEF: U.S. imposes first economic sanctions against Maduro. Don’t play down attack on diplomats says The Washington Post. NPR reports on diplomats brain damage.

Earlier today, the Miami Herald reports that “the U.S. imposed its first economic penalties against Venezuela, hitting the South American country’s financial sector in an attempt to starve President Nicolás Maduro’s government of cash. The Trump administration banned trades of Venezuelan debt, prohibiting Maduro’s government and its state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA, from selling new bonds to Americans or in U.S. financial institutions. President Donald Trump signed an executive order approving the sanctions Thursday.”  [More]

The economic penalties do not come a minute too soon. Let’s hope that the next step will be for Washington to pay attention to recent commentary by Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O’Grady who points out the obvious nefarious role of thousands of Cuban soldiers propping up Nicolas Maduros’s regime. While the Administration takes steps to deny Caracas resources, Havana provides soldiers to keep Maduro in power. Some of those military operations are for sure financed with American tourist dollars.

Additional details have resurfaced about the sinister attack on diplomats in Cuba. CBS News reported that Canadian and American victims suffered “likely damage to [their] central nervous system.” President Barack Obama’s Cuba “guru” Ben Rhodes has lost no time in trying to minimize the outrage. The Washington Post has it exactly right when it says that the sonic attacks are in fact “in keeping” with old Soviet style “active measures” inflicted on American diplomats throughout the years by Cuban intelligence services. Other media covering the story say that the regime “provides” homes for the diplomats. The Washington Post points out that the diplomats live in “the residences where they were required to live by the Cuban government.” As a result, the regime is in a position to “prepare” well those homes with surveillance and electronic equipment to monitor and inflict harm on the diplomats and their families.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is rightly focusing on the diplomats’ plight. National Public Radio quotes the State Department spokesman: “We take this situation extremely seriously.” Will the Congress ask State Departmentundersecretary for political affairs Tom Shannon to explain when did the Department learn of this outrage and what did the Obama Administration do about it? Mr. Shannon, who remains at the State Department, was an important advisor to President Obama on Latin America and elsewhere. Now that the main focus of U.S. diplomacy on Cuba is not “the legacy” of the former President, the State Department should return to its basic duties of protecting American interests, supporting America’s allies and opposing America’s enemies. The last time we checked, those were President Trump’s foreign policy priorities.

U.S. – Cuba policy cannot be separated from the Venezuelan tragedy, as Vice President Mike Pence told several hundred at an important address in Miami earlier in the week. Miami Herald’s columnist Fabiola Santiago focuses her editorial talent on the subject. She writes that Vice President Mike Pence ended his Latin American journey by listening to Venezuelan exiles who told him about their sons and daughters murders by Nicolas Maduro’s police. Senator Marco Rubio also spoke at the event. Ms. Santiago wrote that “Venezuelans clamored we love you.” Santiago wrote that “Yes, Venezuelans love Marco Rubio fiercely — and he’s earned it. Rubio has made himself an indispensable player on the issue most important to them: the U.S. response to Nicolás Maduro’s brazen moves to cement, before our very eyes, a Cuba-style dictatorship in Venezuela.” We are including a link to Santiago’s article. We are not reprinting her full column because some time back she complained that CubaBrief should not do so and insteadprovide a link to her newspaper.


The Miami Herald, August 25, 2017

U.S. imposes first economic sanctions against Venezuela

By Patricia Mazzei and Franco Ordoñez

The U.S. imposed its first economic penalties against Venezuela on Friday, hitting the South American country’s financial sector in an attempt to starve President Nicolás Maduro’s government of cash.

The Trump administration banned trades of Venezuelan debt, prohibiting Maduro’s government and its state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA, from selling new bonds to Americans or in U.S. financial institutions. President Donald Trump signed an executive order approving the sanctions Thursday.

“In an effort to preserve itself, the Maduro dictatorship rewards and enriches corrupt officials in the government’s security apparatus by burdening future generations of Venezuelans with massively expensive debts,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

“These measures are carefully calibrated to deny the Maduro dictatorship a critical source of financing to maintain its illegitimate rule, protect the United States financial system from complicity in Venezuela’s corruption and in the impoverishment of the Venezuelan people, and allow for humanitarian assistance.”

Barring Venezuelan debt purchases could cripple Caracas’ ability to raise money to pay off interest on its growing national debt, as the oil-producing country has been doing in the middle of an unprecedented economic collapse. The U.S. suspects PDVSA, the source of most of the government’s funding, has become a corrupt, money-laundering enterprise.

Most existing Venezuelan debt traded in the U.S. was issued by PDVSA. The sanctions don’t prohibit the resale of those bonds, only purchases and trades of new PDVSA debt. [More]



The Washington Post, August 24, 2017

Don’t play down a sinister attack on diplomats in Cuba

By Editorial Board 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA’S much-hyped restoration of relations with Cuba was a bet that diplomatic and economic engagement would, over time, accomplish what 50 years of boycott did not: a rebirth of political freedom on the island. So far, the results have been dismal. In the two years since the U.S. Embassy in Havana reopened, repression of Cubans — measured in detentions, beatings and political prisoners — has significantly increased, while the private sector has remained stagnant. U.S. exports to Cuba have actually decreased, even as the cash-starved regime of Raúl Castro pockets millions of dollars paid by Americans in visa fees and charges at state-run hotels.

Now there’s another sinister cost to tally — the serious injuries inflicted on the U.S. diplomats dispatched to Havana. This month, the State Department announced that two Cuban embassy staff had been expelled from Washington because of “incidents” in Havana that left some American diplomats and staff members with “a variety of physical symptoms.” Anonymous sources speaking to various news organizations have since provided shocking details: At least 16 American diplomats and family members received medical treatment resulting from sonic attacks directed at the residences where they were required to live by the Cuban government. A number of Canadian diplomats were also affected. 

CBS News reported that a doctor who evaluated the American and Canadian victims found conditions including mild traumatic brain injury, “with likely damage to the central nervous system.” According to CNN, two Americans evacuated to the United States were unable to return to Havana, while others cut short their tours of duty.

The State Department is saying that it has not identified the source of the attacks, though it is holding the Cuban government responsible under the Vienna Convention, which requires host governments to protect diplomatic personnel. Some news reports have passed along speculation that rogue Cuban security forces might be to blame, or perhaps a third country interested in disrupting Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States. Such theories must be weighed against facts there: Cuba is a small, highly disciplined police state where next to nothing goes unobserved by the regime — much less high-tech assaults on foreign diplomats.

In fact, the sonic attacks would be in keeping with, if an escalation of, harassment that U.S. diplomats have long suffered in Havana, including constant surveillance and home and vehicle break-ins. Instead of easing this abuse, the reopening of the embassy may have intensified it. And no, the Trump administration, which has largely preserved Mr. Obama’s opening, is not to blame: State says the attacks began in November 2016. Rather than seize on them, the State Department under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has played them down; the Cubans were expelled in May, but no announcement was made until this month. The administration appears to be giving the Castro regime the benefit of the doubt — which, considering its overall record since the restoration of relations, may be more than it deserves.


NPR, August 25, 2017

At Least 16 U.S. Embassy Staff In Cuba Treated After ‘Health Attacks’

By James Doubek

At least 16 U.S. government employees in Cuba have been treated after experiencing symptoms including hearing loss.

Employees at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba started experiencing odd medical symptoms starting in late 2016, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has characterized as “health attacks.”

“We can confirm that at least 16 U.S. government employees, members of our embassy community, have experienced some kind of symptoms,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday. “They have been provided medical treatment in the United States as well as in Cuba. We take this situation extremely seriously.”

“This is something that we have not experienced in the past,” she added, saying that the “incidents are not ongoing at this point.”

“Some time in the fall, several of [the employees] began to suffer symptoms that included loss of hearing, headaches — I’ve also heard nausea,” The Associated Press’ Michael Weissenstein told NPR.

At least one Canadian diplomat reportedly experienced similar symptoms.

The State Department determined that “diplomats were either attacked deliberately with a sound device or were somehow exposed in a way that caused them to suffer these very severe symptoms,” according to Weissenstein. A sound device or devices that caused the symptoms was likely placed near or in the embassy staff’s homes, he says.

Earlier this month the State Department announced that it had expelled two Cuban diplomats earlier this year.

“We’re not assigning responsibility at this point,” Nauert added, saying the matter is still being investigated. “We don’t know who the perpetrator was of these incidents.”

The Cuban government denies being behind any audio attack on embassy staff, as The Two-Way reported earlier:

“Cuba responded by saying that it would never allow its soil to be used for actions against diplomats and that it is willing to cooperate with the U.S. to clarify the incidents. It also called the decision to expel Cuban diplomats ‘unjustified and baseless.’ “

Analysts question why the Cuban government would choose to attack U.S. diplomats just as the two countries renewed diplomatic relations after decades of hostility.

Former foreign service officer James Lewis told CNN there’s a possibility it’s the accidental result of “misconfigured” Cuban audio surveillance equipment, which “could produce inaudible noise.”

The AP’s Weissenstein says investigators are also looking into the possibility of a third party being involved in audio attacks, and “the third country that comes up repeatedly in our reporting and others is Russia,” he told NPR’s Ari Shapiro.


The Miami Herald, August 25, 2017

As Republicans earn their stripes on Venezuela, Democrats let an opportunity slip by

By Fabiola Santiago

When Marco Rubio walked up to the podium at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral, the emotional crowd of Venezuelans suffering the loss of their homeland rose to give the Republican Florida senator a standing ovation.

“¡Te amamos!” they clamored.

Yes, Venezuelans love Marco Rubio fiercely — and he’s earned it.

Rubio has made himself an indispensable player on the issue most important to them: the U.S. response to Nicolás Maduro’s brazen moves to cement, before our very eyes, a Cuba-style dictatorship in Venezuela.   


Fox News,  August 23, 2017

Castro ‘heir,’ once seen as moderating force, takes hard line on US-Cuba relations

Fox News

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s vice president and likely successor to leader Raúl Castro, has been portrayed as a quiet, moderate politician who favors the continuing easing of tensions with the United States and a move away from the hard-line, communist rhetoric of late Cuban strongman Fidel Castro.

But a newly released video of a private meeting with Cuban Communist Party members that has quickly spread across social media shows that Díaz-Canel may be more like Fidel than many people assume.

In the video, which was recorded in February but only published this week by Cuban dissident Antonio Rodiles, Díaz-Canel lays out his own rigid ideology – slamming dissidents, independent news outlets and numerous European embassies for allegedly working to subvert the Castro regime and making it clear that he sees very little benefit in working to ease the decades-long animosity between Havana and Washington.

 “The U.S. government … invaded Cuba, put the blockade [embargo] in place, imposed restrictive measures. Cuba did not do any of that, so in return for nothing they have to solve those asymmetries if they want relations and if they want normalization of the relations,” Díaz-Canel said in the video, which was published by the Miami Herald. “We do not have to give anything in return.”

In a historic moment that thawed decades of Cold War animosity, Cuba and the U.S. re-established diplomatic ties in 2015 and have slowly worked to normalize issues like travel, money exchange and information sharing. The historic rapprochement, however, has still not brought an end to the U.S. embargo imposed on the communist island since 1962.

Díaz-Canel has been mentioned as the front-runner to replace current Cuban President Raúl Castro – himself sometimes seen as a moderating force compared to his older brother – when Castro retires from the post in 2018. And many observers, both on and off the island, were hopeful that the vice president would continue to improve relations with the United States.

The video, however, seems to indicate that Díaz-Canel is less than enthused by the rapprochement taken by the U.S. under former President Barack Obama – calling it a different way of advancing “the destruction of the revolution” and warning of an “American design” of “political and economic conquest.” To back up his claims, Díaz-Canel showed a PowerPoint presentation that included Obama’s 2016 visit to the island, business pitches harking back to the decadence of pre-Castro Cuba and even the extravagance of last year’s Halloween parade.

While the language and rhetoric may be different, Díaz-Canel’s sentiments bear similarities to those of President Trump, who has pushed his own hard-line approach toward Cuba.

In June, Trump announced he was tightening travel restrictions for Americans that had been loosened under Obama and also banning U.S. business transactions with the Cuban state to cut going to the Castro regime and pressure the government to let the country’s nascent private sector grow.

“Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump said during a speech in Miami. “I keep my promises…And now that I am your president, America will expose the crimes of the Castro regime.”