CubaBrief: U.S.- Cuba relations are ‘a mess’ because Obama ignored the pitfalls of reopening. And normalization of relations with U.S. is not Havana’s top priority

Ambassador Otto J. Reich has written an important OpEd, reproduced below, responding to Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis’ June 30 op-ed defending the Obama Administration’s Cuba policy. He performs an important service highlighting what amounted to a policy of appeasement.

It is important to revisit what happened before and after the December 17, 2014 normalization announcement.

In July 2013, Cuban officials were caught trying to smuggle warplanes, missiles, and technology related to ballistic missile programs hidden under 220,000 bags of sugar to North Korea and lied about it. This was in violation of international U.N. sanctions.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.08.24 AM.png

Part of the price President Obama paid to normalize relations with Havana was to free a Cuban spy, Gerardo Hernandez, serving two life sentences. One life sentence for spying on US military facilities, with his spy network, collecting personal information on American personnel and sending it to Havana, and  a second life sentence for conspiring to murder Mario de la Peña, age 24; Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, both 30 years old, and Armando Alejandre Jr., age 45, three U.S. citizens and a permanent resident in an act of state terrorism on February 24, 1996. ( )This sent a dangerous message to enemies of the United States. Worse yet, Gerardo Hernandez is now in charge of the Committees in Defense of the Revolution that spies on the entire Cuban population. ( )

In January 2016, The Wall Street Journal broke the story that in 2014 an inert US Hellfire missile sent to Europe for a training exercise was wrongly shipped on to Cuba. The United States had been asking the Cuban dictatorship to return the missile but it had not done so. It was only after the story broke that a short time later the Hellfire missile was returned.

On January 2, 2017 Cuban troops marched in a parade over which Raul Castro presided, chanting that they would repeatedly shoot President Obama in the head so many times that they would make a “hat of lead to the head.”

Considering that American diplomats in Havana were already suffering brain trauma since November 2016 perhaps this should be looked at in a new light.

Finally, taking into account that there is a decades-old pattern of hostility against American diplomats, and Cuban involvement should not be discarded.

In 2006, the Miami Herald reported how a high-ranking member of the U.S. mission found his mouthwash replaced with urine. In another case, after one diplomat’s family privately discussed their daughter’s susceptibility to mosquito bites, “they returned home to find all of their windows open and the house full of mosquitoes.”

American diplomats, like their Canadian counterparts, have also had pets poisoned while stationed in Cuba. The types of injuries suffered by diplomats since November 2016 are new, but Cuba’s outlaw behavior toward them is not, and should have tempered the Obama Administration’s engagement policy with Havana.

It is a mistake to look at the regime in Cuba only through the lens of US-Cuba relations. On July 1, 2020 John Suarez, the Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba gave an overview of Cuban history from a different point of view, as seen first from a Cuban perspective of pre-revolutionary Cuba history followed through the lens of Communist China-Communist Cuba relations between 1959 and the present. It also explored how that relationship tangentially impacted the United States.

To put it more bluntly to U.S. policy makers: it’s not all about normalizing relations with the United States. Havana would welcome normalized relations to receive U.S. taxpayer subsidies to assist it in exporting revolution around the hemisphere and continue their work to advance international communism. This explains why in 2013 in the midst of secret negotiations with an Administration eager to normalize relations the Castro regime was smuggling tons of weapons to North Korea, and on July 1, 2020 it led the effort at the UN Human Rights Council to legitimize Communist China’s takeover of Hong Kong on June 30th.

The Miami Herald, July 9, 2020

U.S.-Cuba relations are ‘a mess’ because Obama ignored the pitfalls of reopening | Opinion

By Otto J. Reich

President Obama, right, shakes hands with Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in 2015. Mandel Ngan Getty Images

President Obama, right, shakes hands with Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in 2015. Mandel Ngan Getty Images

Jeffrey DeLaurentis’ June 30 op-ed bears the headline, “Five years later, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba are a mess.” DeLaurentis, former U.S. chargé d’affaires in Havana, is right, but those relations aren’t a mess for the reasons he claims.

The United States has diplomatic relations with almost 200 countries, and many are governed by brutal dictatorships that suppress human rights, support terrorism, undermine democracy or impoverish their citizens through corruption and destructive economic policies. U.S. relations with those countries are messy, for good reason.

The reason of why U.S.-Cuba relations are a mess is because Cuba’s government does all of the above, and that the Obama administration, in its outreach to Raul Castro, decided to overlook it all in pursuit of a legacy achievement.

The resulting appeasement succeeded only in encouraging the regime to increase its malign behavior at home and abroad, to the detriment of U.S. interests and those of Cubans, not to mention Venezuelans.

The seeds of Obama’s failure on Cuba were planted during the secret negotiations in which the White House kept most senior officials in the dark and entrusted negotiations to a mid-level official with no prior foreign-policy experience.

The result was a series of unilateral concessions with no reciprocity of any consequence from Havana. None of the positive objectives that Obama promised was achieved. Instead of improving human rights in Cuba, repression increased, according to foreign and Cuban human-rights defenders. Even as Air Force One landed in Havana in March 2016, dozens of Ladies in White were savagely beaten on their way to church services.

Instead of opening markets for U.S. exporters, Cuba drastically reduced U.S. imports in order to extract even greater concessions, such as credits, which are prohibited by U.S. law because Cuba does not pay its creditors. Rather than helping moderate Cuba’s foreign policy, Havana intensified the assistance of its military and secret police given to Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela.

Instead of favoring the small private sector in Cuba, the massive new inflow of dollars from U.S. tourism and remittances was mostly captured by the military-commercial conglomerate GAESA, run by Castro’s former son-in-law. GAESA expelled private entrepreneurs, who had been increasing in numbers prior to the opening, from profitable tourist areas and replaced them with pro-government establishments.

If Obama’s negotiators had considered Cuba’s 60-year record of duplicity, they may have avoided fatal mistakes. For example, in July 2013, as negotiations began, a North Korean ship was stopped in the Panama Canal carrying offensive weapons provided by Cuba in violation of U.N. and U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang. The weapons had been loaded at the Cuban port of Mariel and hidden under thousands of sacks marked “Sugar.”

The administration sanctioned North Korea, but did not even mention Cuba’s complicity in that and other arms trafficking. This was a signal to Havana that Obama was so eager for a deal that he would ignore Cuba’s felonious behavior, leading up to his announcement of the “Cuban Thaw” in 2014.

The next year, Cuban dissidents said that U.S. diplomats in Havana, in an inexcusable moral retreat, told them to “make a deal” with Castro because the United States was going in “another direction.” It disheartened the opposition.

Cuban dissidents were not invited to the opening ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in 2015, allegedly because of space limitations. In reality, however, it was because the Cuban Foreign Ministry objected. A video showed many empty seats, even though our Embassy had tried to fill the seats with pro-engagement Cuban Americans flown in from Miami to take the place of the marginalized dissidents.

All of this emboldened the Cuban regime to commit an unprecedented and egregious act:

In late 2016, just months after Obama shook hands with Castro in Cuba, U.S. diplomats in Havana began to complain of headaches and more serious ailments. Some U.S. personnel reportedly suffered permanent brain damage. Cuban electronic eavesdropping is suspected.

The regime’s response was familiar: stonewall and deny. Inexplicably, some State Department officials covered up the injuries for months, until a whistleblower made them public. Once alerted, President Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recalled most U.S. personnel from Havana and expelled Cuban Embassy officials.

Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba may have been a public relations success, but, ultimately, it was a betrayal of U.S. values and a major blow to U.S. interests in the region. If bilateral relations are a mess, demand Havana change its behavior, don’t appease them.

Otto J. Reich is a former U.S. ambassador and assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.

From the archives:

The Miami Herald, January 6, 2017

Cuban troops’ bizarre chant: We’ll make Obama ‘a hat out of bullets to the head’

By Fabiola Santiago

Special forces soldiers parade through Revolution Square in honor of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Monday © AP

Special forces soldiers parade through Revolution Square in honor of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Monday © AP

In a particularly absurd display of military might and tropical folklore, Raúl Castro presided over a military parade in Havana on Monday to honor his dead brother and mark the 58th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

Listen to the war chant the marching troops were shouting in the parade:

“Commander-in-Chief, command us. Command over this land. We are going to make war if imperialism comes. Obama! Obama! With what fervor we’d like to confront your clumsiness, give you a cleansing with rebels and mortar, and make you a hat out of bullets to the head.”Nothing like a little santería jargon — una limpieza, a cleansing! — to go with the fatigues, rifles and a threat to do the U.S. president harm.

Raul Castro lifts President Obama's arm after delivering speeches in Havana on Monday, March 21, 2016. AL DIAZ

Raul Castro lifts President Obama’s arm after delivering speeches in Havana on Monday, March 21, 2016. AL DIAZ

The Washington Post, July 16, 2013

North Korean ship seized in Panama Canal carried suspected missile-system components

By Billy Kenber

Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a North Korean-flagged ship on the coast of Panama. (Arnulfo Franco/AP)

Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a North Korean-flagged ship on the coast of Panama. (Arnulfo Franco/AP)

An aging North Korean freighter carrying suspected missile-system components hidden beneath bags of sugar was seized in Panama last week on its return from Cuba, Panamanian officials announced Tuesday.

The Chong Chon Gang, a rusting, 14,000-metric-ton ship that carries a painted North Korean flag, was traveling through the Panama Canal last week when it was intercepted and boarded by drug enforcement agents who had received a tip that it was smuggling narcotics.

In dramatic scenes described by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, officers were met with violent resistance from the 35-strong crew during efforts to redirect the vessel to port and the ship’s captain subsequently tried to commit suicide. He is hospitalized in stable condition after slitting his throat with a knife, according to wire reports.

Martinelli, who used his Twitter account to post a photograph, taken in the ship’s hold, of a long green missile-shaped object, told local radio that “sophisticated missile equipment” had been discovered.

“That is not allowed,” he said. “The Panama Canal is a canal of peace, not war.”

The ship’s concealed cargo appears to be in breach of U.N. sanctions that prevent North Korea from exporting weapons and from importing all but small arms.

Officials arrested the crew Monday after making the discovery and are removing 250,000 bags of sugar so they can thoroughly inspect the ship, a process they say may take up to a week.

The United States said it “strongly supports” the decision to intercept the freighter.

Late Tuesday, the Cuban Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the ship was carrying 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons” to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba. It listed the weapons as two Volga and Pechora antiaircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21 aircraft and 15 engines for the planes — “all of it manufactured in the mid-twentieth century.”The statement also said Cuba has “unwavering commitment” to peace, nuclear disarmament and international law.

North Korea had not commented on the incident.

The 450-foot-long Chong Chon Gang was tracked leaving the Russian port of Vostochnyy on April 12 and entered the Panama Canal at the start of June with Havana as its stated destination, the maritime company Lloyd’s List Intelligence said.

Crew members appear to have turned off the ship’s automatic tracking system for the voyage. The ship did not reappear until July 11, when it was diverted to Manzanillo, Panama.

Hugh Griffiths, a maritime arms trafficking expert based at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in an interview Tuesday that he had been monitoring the vessel since 2010, when it was detained by Ukrainian authorities who discovered small-arms ammunition, light weapons and narcotics on board.

Before the most recent incident, Griffiths said, the freighter had last used the Panama Canal in 2002 and had not sailed in the Western Hemisphere since then.

“Until April of this year it was being logged in Chinese ports, and before that it traveled to places in the Indian Ocean like Bangladesh, Iran and Pakistan,” he said.

Griffiths said the Chong Chon Gang’s voyage was highly unusual. “The North Korean fleet is on a safety watch list, so they’re inspected very frequently, and they’re also, of course, on arms trafficking watch lists,” Griffiths said. “. . . It’s pretty crazy, sending a ship to Cuba. It’s very obvious.”

The discovery follows recent signs that North Korea is attempting to foster a closer relationship with Cuba. This month, the head of the North Korean armed forces visited Cuba and met with President Raúl Castro.