CubaBrief: Havana Syndrome whitewashed and the Castro regime’s pattern of attacking diplomats

U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba

Nora Gámez Torres of the Miami Herald in her April 26, 2023 article “‘Knife in the back’: Havana Syndrome victims dispute report dismissing their cases” reported that shespoke to three former CIA officials and two Canadian diplomats affected by the strange incidents who said they are convinced they were targeted while serving their countries abroad. And all said that a recent U.S. intelligence report blaming their ailments on pre-existing medical conditions or environmental factors is an attempt to whitewash the Havana Syndrome affair, likely due to political considerations.”

She also interviewed Michael E. Hoffer, M.D, who early on ( March through mid-June 2017 ) examined 35 U.S. employees and their family members effected by this phenomenon at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Dr. Hoffer says at the end of the interview that “evidence suggests they were targeted, but we can’t prove that.”

In this CubaBrief we share video from the University of Miami’s School of Medicine which gave a December 2018 briefing on their findings.

Michael E. Hoffer, M.D. at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, and his team talk about their research on the acute symptoms and clinical findings from the health incidents that affected U.S. diplomats in Havana.

While more attention has been focused on the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Canadian diplomats at their embassy in Cuba were also targeted. A study of 16 adult Canadians who reported “health incidents in Havana found changes in areas of their brains that were similar to those found in the Americans affected.

Whereas the Havana Syndrome is a phenomenon that was first observed in late 2016, the Cuban government has a long history of attacking and harassing U.S. and Canadian diplomats that stretches back over decades.

Jim Bartleman, Canada’s ambassador to Cuba from 1981 to 1983 in the 2018 Toronto Star article “Dog poisonings, sex propositions: Canada’s man in Havana remembers the Cold War weirdness” described the poisoning of his dog, and his deputy’s dog on the same day.

Bartleman’s enchantment with Castro soured in a sudden shock one night. It was a year into his posting, and he woke to find that his dog, a German shepherd named Zaka, was deadly sick. They rushed her to a veterinarian in Havana to have her stomach pumped. He soon learned that his deputy’s dog was also sick that morning, and had died. He later learned that the dogs were poisoned. Zaka died six months later.

José R. Cárdenas, who served in several foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration (2004-2009), including on the National Security Council staff on August 16, 2017 had an article published in Foreign Policy Magazine, titled “Targeting American Diplomats, Cuba Is Up to its Dirty Old Tricks” that provided an overview of the Castro regime’s behavior towards U.S. diplomats that fell short of international standards.

The fact is that the Cuban government has been abusing U.S. personnel posted to Havana for decades. In 2003, the State Department provided a declassified cable to Congress detailing the ongoing physical and psychological harassment of U.S. personnel “to frustrate routine business, occupy resources, demoralize personnel, and generally hinder efforts to advance U.S. policy goals.” According to the cable, “The harassment begins from the moment USINT personnel and their belongings enter Cuba. Cuban agents routinely enter U.S. employee residences to search belongings and papers, enter computers and gather other information thought to be useful from an intelligence point of view. Vehicles are also targeted. In many instances, no effort is made to hide the intrusions.” Not only are vehicles vandalized — tires slashed, parts removed, windshields smashed — but in some instances human excrement is left behind in the diplomats’ homes.

The cable continues, “Electronic surveillance is pervasive, including monitoring of home phone and computer lines. U.S. personnel have had living-room conversations repeated or played back to them by strangers and unknown callers.” In one case, after one 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.”

News reports on these practices pre-date the Havana Syndrome. Journalist Nikki Waller’s article “Diplomats in Cuba wary of snoops and snubs” was published in the Miami Herald on July 1, 2006 in which diplomats expressed concerns that ” Cuban government harassment that intrudes on their personal and professional lives.”  The practices described echo and exceed those described above by their Canadian counterpart.

U.S. diplomats tell of endlessly ringing phones and dog feces strewn inside their homes, urine-soaked towels left on a kitchen table and even poisoned family dogs. A high-ranking member of the mission once found his mouthwash replaced with urine.

More ominous was The Washington Post article, “SURVIVING A NIGHTMARE INSIDE CASTRO’S CUBA,” by Thomas W. Lippman published on November 1, 1996 that described how regime agents tried to ram a U.S. diplomat’s car. Robin Meyer, then 39 and a U.S. diplomat in Havana described the attack.

They had a car without license plates but it was the same security agents who had been following me all week, it wasn’t as if I didn’t recognize them.”She said the agents’ car tried repeatedly to ram the passenger side of her vehicle, its occupants yelling at her — using her name — to demand that she hang up her cellular telephone. She finally retreated to the U.S. mission, she said, and left again only when she was able to obtain an escort.

The harm done to U.S. and Canadian diplomats beginning in late 2016 in Havana, Cuba was something new, but targeting and attacking diplomats was not.

Miami Herald, April 26, 2023

‘Knife in the back’: Havana Syndrome victims dispute report dismissing their cases

By Nora Gámez Torres Updated April 26, 2023 9:08 AM

[…]

The Havana Syndrome affair marked a breaking point in U.S. relations with Cuba. Most embassy staff was evacuated in 2017 and all visa processing halted in Havana for several years.

Now the victims claim the U.S. government wants to move on and “put a bow on it and close the book in hopes that no one would question it,” Patient Zero said. “This is a massive analytic intelligence failure or a cover-up; only time will tell,” he said.

Patient Zero got his nickname for being the first U.S. official to bring up the incidents. He said he retired from the CIA after seven years of service because the injuries he suffered in Havana left him blind in one eye and incapacitated for work.

[Full article]

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article274040870.html

From the archives

Toronto Star, April 20, 2018

Canada

Dog poisonings, sex propositions: Canada’s man in Havana remembers the Cold War weirdness

Jim Bartleman, Canada’s ambassador to Cuba from 1981 to 1983, weighs in on current diplomatic intrigue and tells stories of his time in Havana during the Cold War

By Alex Ballingall
Ottawa Bureau, Fri., April 20, 2018

OTTAWA—The first phone call came a few days after Jim Bartleman arrived in Havana. Canada’s new ambassador to Cold War Cuba was still too green to know not to answer.

A woman purred through the line. She told him she had seen him that day, and that he was so handsome. Wouldn’t he love to meet her? His wife would never know, she said, in a voice Bartleman recalls years later as “sultry.”

He hung up on her.

The next night, the phone rang again. It was a man this time, and he said he had a lot of gold. Bartleman could get a good chunk of it, too, if he were willing to use his diplomatic privileges to help smuggle it out of the country.

Bartleman slammed down the phone.

It rang a third time the following night. A man’s voice on the line. “Oh, señor, you’re so handsome. Why don’t we meet? Your wife will never know.”

It was a curious introduction to diplomacy in Fidel Castro’s Cuba: a trio of blackmail attempts, Bartleman suspected.

“I thought it was very funny,” Bartleman, now 78, says of the early days of his ambassadorship in 1981. “They tried everything on you. These tactics worked on a lot of people, I guess … There were always dirty tricks going on — on both sides.”

At a time of renewed diplomatic mystery in the communist island nation, with mysterious symptoms affecting Canadian and U.S. diplomats in Havana, the former ambassador’s reminiscences are a reminder that, when it comes to Canadian consular affairs in Cuba, intrigue is nothing new.

The cause of the strange health problems afflicting diplomats in Cuba remains an open question, with some speculation of an “energy attack.” Just this week, a federal official told journalists in Ottawa that some foreign officers and their families may have suffered brain injuries and that the government has decided to recall the families of consular staff from Cuba so that Canada’s mission there joins the embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq as “unaccompanied posts.”

The mystery complicates the political web at a time of renewed antagonism between the West and Russia, when the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba — Cold War nemeses who took the world to the brink of nuclear way in 1963 — under former president Barack Obama is under question by Donald Trump’s White House. Cuba, meanwhile, named a new president on Thursday: 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, the third leader since the revolution in 1959, and the first who isn’t a member of the Castro family.

No evidence has been made public to implicate the Cuban authorities in whatever caused the diplomats’ health problems.

“Nobody can figure this out,” says Mark Entwistle, a Cuba expert and consultant who was Canada’s ambassador in Havana from 1993 to 1997, referring to the diplomats’ health symptoms.

“I say this with great conviction: the Cubans are very diligent … with the protection of diplomats,” he says. “Which makes this current mystery, or whatever it is … very uncharacteristic, just totally out of sync.”

Of course, Entwistle adds, the situation during the Cold War was different. “Everybody was up to shenanigans,” he says.

For Bartleman, the phone calls with the strange offers weren’t surprising. He says he was trained in how to handle attempts by the other side to gain leverage on him. The Cuban interior ministry was trained by Soviet and East German secret police, he says. They were considered extremely effective. “It was part of the East-West relations, and the Cubans were heavy, strong players in all of that,” he says.

Fidel Castro was Cuba’s president and strongman at the time, and Bartleman notes that the revolutionary leader had a warm relationship with Canada’s prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. “I think he romanticized Castro. You know, the man with the cigar, fighting in the mountains,” Bartleman says.

Because of this dynamic, Bartleman says, Castro gave the Canadian embassy more attention than most. The Cuban leader would come to the residence about once a month for dinner with Bartleman so he “could maintain a link with Trudeau’s buddy, Jim,” the former ambassador says. Soldiers would encircle the home so no one could leave or enter, and a food taster would try everything before dinner, he says. Then Castro would sit at the table and pontificate for several hours — often till 6, 7, 8 in the morning, Bartleman says — about the quality of milk from the cows raised by the socialist system, the political situation in Latin America, and the intricacies of Lenin’s thinking on imperialism.

“He could talk about anything,” Bartleman says. “I must say that he had me under his spell at the beginning.”

Bartleman says that beneath the show of closeness, there were complications. Cuba outwardly treated Canada as “not a really nasty capitalist country.” But, under the surface, the truth that Ottawa was closely aligned with Washington and the NATO alliance meant there was a level of tension in the diplomatic relationship.

One time, Bartleman says, he arrived at the embassy front door to find a “friendly cat,” hanging around. He took a liking to it and brought it inside only to discover a “shrill whistling sound” emanating loudly from its ears. Suspicious of some sort of listening device, he promptly set the cat back out on the street.

“I always laughed about it, saying this cat was a Cuban secret agent,” he says.

Cats would paw onto the embassy compound, clear converts to Cuban espionage, Bartleman says, because of the buzzing of the recording devices that had been planted in their ears.

Canada, on its end, housed diplomats in Cuba who also worked for the CIA. One of them, John Graham, was posted in Cuba after the missile crisis — when the Soviet Union and the U.S. almost came into direct conflict over Russian missile installations on the Caribbean island.

“The level of trust was, of course, not high,” Graham, now 83, says, describing how he was trained in the U.S. to drive out to Cuban military camps in the countryside and sketch the equipment and machinery he observed. “It was a fascinating time, and if you’re sort of young and foolish, it was an incredible period.”

Bartleman’s enchantment with Castro soured in a sudden shock one night. It was a year into his posting, and he woke to find that his dog, a German shepherd named Zaka, was deadly sick. They rushed her to a veterinarian in Havana to have her stomach pumped. He soon learned that his deputy’s dog was also sick that morning, and had died. He later learned that the dogs were poisoned. Zaka died six months later.

There was also a wave of hateful, anonymous phone calls to various Canadians staffers, and “a rat was nailed to the door” of Canada’s trade officer, he says.

“The Cubans carried on as if nothing had happened at all,” he says. To this day, he still doesn’t know what happened.

After that, he was excited to leave, and jumped at the opportunity to return to Ottawa in 1985 for a promotion in the Canadian foreign affairs department.

He returned to Cuba many times, mostly in the 1990s when he was Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s foreign affairs adviser. At his final official meeting with Castro, the Cuban president was frail, “like a grandfather,” Bartleman recalls. But he boiled with anger, too, after Chrétien gave him a list that Bartleman provided of political prisoners that Canada wanted him to set free. On the way out of the room, Chrétien walked out first, and Castro grabbed Bartleman as he was going out the door, he says.

“He grabbed me, two hands around my neck, and squeezed and shook,” Bartleman says. “He was so mad at me.”

Asked if he was frightened, Bartleman laughs it off. “I was delighted. How many people can go down in history as being throttled by the president of Cuba, and can walk out the door and have lunch with him later?”

With stories like that in his past, Bartleman says he isn’t surprised by the current speculation about the diplomatic health problems. If it did involve the Cubans somehow, he says, “what’s new?”

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2018/04/20/dog-poisonings-sex-propositions-canadas-man-in-havana-remembers-the-cold-war-weirdness.html

Foreign Policy Magazine, August 16, 2017

Targeting American Diplomats, Cuba Is Up to its Dirty Old Tricks

By José R. Cárdenas, August 16, 2017

José R. Cárdenas

When President Barack Obama announced his intention to normalize relations with Cuba in 2014, critics scoffed that no accommodation was possible with the Castro regime and that it would be only a matter of time before Havana embarrassed the White House for even trying, as it had done before to previous administrations who sought détente.

We now know that last fall — in the middle of Obama’s final push to lock into place as much of his policy as he could — at least six U.S. diplomats based in Havana had to be medically evacuated to Miami for treatment after complaining of severe headaches, dizziness, and hearing loss. Some of the diplomats’ symptoms were so severe that they were forced to curtail their tours.

U.S. officials believe their illnesses were the result of prolonged exposure to some sort of covert sonic device “that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.” In retaliation for this gross abuse of diplomatic norms, the Trump administration expelled two Cuban diplomats in Washington.

Speaking last Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved,” referring to the fact that the Canadian government revealed their personnel had suffered similar symptoms.

The Castro regime’s response was as arrogant as it was mendacious, professing “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.”

The fact is that the Cuban government has been abusing U.S. personnel posted to Havana for decades. In 2003, the State Department provided a declassified cable to Congress detailing the ongoing physical and psychological harassment of U.S. personnel “to frustrate routine business, occupy resources, demoralize personnel, and generally hinder efforts to advance U.S. policy goals.” According to the cable, “The harassment begins from the moment USINT personnel and their belongings enter Cuba. Cuban agents routinely enter U.S. employee residences to search belongings and papers, enter computers and gather other information thought to be useful from an intelligence point of view. Vehicles are also targeted. In many instances, no effort is made to hide the intrusions.” Not only are vehicles vandalized — tires slashed, parts removed, windshields smashed — but in some instances human excrement is left behind in the diplomats’ homes.

The cable continues, “Electronic surveillance is pervasive, including monitoring of home phone and computer lines. U.S. personnel have had living-room conversations repeated or played back to them by strangers and unknown callers.” In one case, after one 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.”

In 2007, the Department’s Inspector General issued a 64-page report asserting that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana suffered from poor morale as a result of the Cuban government’s deliberate efforts to create hardship and discontent in the lives of the diplomats. “Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets. The regime has recently gone to great lengths to harass some employees by holding up household goods and consumable shipments. The apparent goal has been to instigate dissension within USINT ranks.”

In 1996, human rights officer Robin Meyers reported her car was nearly rammed off the road by Cuban agents as she tried to attend a dissident gathering. Chillingly, this was the exact same regime technique that caused the deaths of prominent Cuban dissidents Osvaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in 2012.

Other forms of abuse over the years include attempted sexual entrapment, especially among married personnel, telephones ringing and front-door bells buzzing all hours of the night, freezers unplugged, and air conditioners turned full blast with windows opened in Havana’s tropical heat. One diplomat reported his mouthwash had been replaced with urine.

In addition, in another flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Castro regime has broken into diplomatic pouches — deliveries to the mission from the United States — to investigate their contents.

There will be those who will attempt to explain away this sordid record as “spy-vs-spy” games, as if both sides were equally at fault, as if FBI agents try to run Cuban diplomats off the road or defecate in their homes. Indeed, in the wake of these latest revelations, President Obama’s former National Security Council senior advisor Ben Rhodes professed surprise: “It just doesn’t strike me as something the Cuban government would do.”

But the historical record is clear that this is something the Cuban government is perfectly willing to do. Even if it may have been a surveillance operation “gone awry,” as some have speculated, the same malevolent motivation on the part of the Cuban government still applies: that the United States is the enemy and its personnel in Havana will be treated as such — and international conventions be damned.

And therein lies the fundamental flaw of Obama’s policy, that somehow a relationship with the Castro regime can be normalized. But attempting to normalize the abnormal is a fool’s errand and will only backfire on U.S. interests and the interests of the Cuban people. President Trump has already expressed his disdain for Obama’s Cuba policy as too one-sided and begun a policy of roll-back. It cannot come soon enough.

https://www.yahoo.com/news/targeting-american-diplomats-cuba-dirty-181910270.html


Miami Herald, July 2, 2006

Cuba

Diplomats in Cuba wary of snoops and snubs

Posted on Sat, Jul. 01, 2006

U.S. diplomats in Havana say they worry about Cuban government harassment that intrudes on their personal and professional lives.

BY NIKKI WALLER
nwaller@MiamiHerald.com

HAVANA – Every time his dog acts strangely or the power goes out at his home, Bill Hawkins wonders, if only for a moment, whether Fidel Castro’s agents are trying to get under his skin.

”Anywhere in the world, stuff happens to you,” said Hawkins, a building-security engineer posted at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. “Here, you never really know if just life is happening, or if someone’s doing it to you.”

Life is tense these days for the 51 Americans assigned to the U.S. Interests Section, the diplomatic mission in the Western Hemisphere’s lone communist-ruled nation and enduring thorn in Washington’s side.

Interviewed at the Interests Section last month, in an unadorned room crammed with Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution and pro-democracy books available to any Cuban who walks in, five U.S. diplomats talked about trying to lead a normal life in Havana.

Nearly all, like Hawkins, say they are targets of a Cuban government-sponsored harassment campaign aimed at disrupting the activities of the mission and the lives of its staff.

U.S. diplomats tell of endlessly ringing phones and dog feces strewn inside their homes, urine-soaked towels left on a kitchen table and even poisoned family dogs. A high-ranking member of the mission once found his mouthwash replaced with urine.

Government agents follow them in public, say the Americans, and provoke them at social events. Some tell of sexual come-ons from strangers, a gambit designed to compromise them or damage their marriages.

”It’s all just a reminder that they’re there,” mission spokesman Drew Blakeney told The Miami Herald during a visit to the seven-story building on the seaside Malecón promenade. The athletic, dark-haired Blakeney arrived in Havana last fall with his wife and child.

STANDS BY HER MAN

At a party in May, a stranger came up to Blakeney’s wife and claimed her husband was being unfaithful. Recognizing the provocation, she told the man off, Blakeney said.

He and others play down the harassment, saying the nuisances cannot compare to the government persecution that Cuban dissidents must endure.

But the persistence of the Cuban agents ”makes Ceaucescu’s Romania look like real amateurs,” Interests Section chief Michael Parmly said in an interview, referring to the last and notoriously harsh communist ruler of Romania.

Diplomats’ claims of low-level harassment are nothing new, but Cuba’s actions appear to have intensified since January, when the Interests Section began scrolling anti-Castro news and commentary from an electronic billboard. Cuba quickly struck back, sending nearly one million people to march in protest past the Interests Section and installing a cluster of 138 flagpoles nearby to block the view of the billboard.

BLACKOUT

Tensions escalated last month, when U.S. officials complained that Cuba cut electricity to the mission for several days.

Attempts to reach the Cuban Interests Section in Washington were unsuccessful. The missions are known as interests sections because the two countries have had no formal diplomatic relations since the 1960s. Both missions operate from the same buildings that once served as embassies.

GRANMA DENIES

A recent front-page editorial in the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, flatly denied interfering with the U.S. mission.

”Our Revolution would never attack or violate a diplomatic office,” the editorial said. “It never has and it never will.”

But the U.S. diplomats say they often come home to unpleasant surprises:furniture moved slightly, windows left open or freezers unplugged. Some have found a white powder sprinkled around their doorways and gates.

The Cuban government makes its presence known outside the Interests Section building, too. Security huts perch at each end of the complex, and guards photograph visitors from afar and demand passports before allowing people to enter.

Some of the torments seem more like the work of a poltergeist or a band of fraternity brothers than a national government.

Hawkins, who was posted earlier in South Africa and Georgia in the former Soviet Union, once found the covers torn off some matchbooks he had at home, but the intruders left the matches behind.

HIRING REFUSED

Parmly says Cuba also is withholding visas for newly assigned U.S. diplomats and barring the mission from hiring Cuban employees for maintenance and clerical work, leaving at least 25 vacancies at the mission.

The hold-ups have forced Parmly, who speaks passionately about the job in Cuba he took on last year, to shelve several projects until Cuba allows in more personnel.

”This summer could get rough,” if staff and supply shortages continue, Parmly said with a grimace.

One junior officer, whose supervisor requested her name be withheld, said she and her husband arrived for their first foreign assignment in January — just as the fight over the electronic billboard grew ugly. Her problems began immediately.

”We wanted a challenge for our first post, and we got it,” she said.

MYSTERY CALLS

When the couple return to their apartment in the Miramar neighborhood, objects appear to have moved around on their own. The doorbell buzzes at all hours, and the phone rings constantly through the night, with no voice on the line.

More seriously, the Castro government denied the couple’s first request to import their car and has ignored the second. The government also ignored their requests to hire a housekeeper.

A former Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, the officer hastens to say that she’s not the type who normally would hire a maid, but with markets open only during work hours, most diplomats need someone to help find food during the week.

The couple spends the bulk of their weekends on their bicycles foraging for groceries and provisions to last the week. It’s a challenge: the produce that makes its way to Havana’s markets arrives ripe, meaning that Saturday’s mango turns to mush by Wednesday. By Thursday, she said, they’re cooking creatively.

RESOLVE GROWS

The diplomats say the Cuban government’s tactics, rather than destroying morale, have strengthened their resolve.

The junior officer says the harassment campaign bonds her more closely with the visa applicants she interviews and assists every day.

”This helps us understand what a lot of people who don’t agree with the regime are experiencing,” she said.

Still, for U.S. diplomats, living in Havana means living with the Cuban government always in mind.

”Paranoia’s good,” said Carl Cockburn, the consul in Havana. He hasn’t noticed break-ins at his apartment — but then, he adds, he might not be that observant.

At times, the diplomats realize their situation has become almost comical.

Blakeney recalled an American child’s birthday party earlier this year, when lightning struck a nearby tree, causing an earsplitting crash.

A second later, a mango dropped from a tree overhead, barely missing a 2-year-old girl’s head. After the initial instant of terror, the party guests began joking about the new lighting bolt-hurling and mango-dropping capabilities of the Cuban government.

”We know they’re messing with us, just not how much,” Hawkins said.

Parmly’s brashness as mission director has made him a special object of attention. He says Cuban security agents follow him everywhere and snap his picture, but he refuses to hide out at home, reveling in the city’s culture and inhabitants.

”I am bound and determined to enjoy living in Havana,” he said.

http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/world/cuba/14944250.htm

The Washington Post, November 1, 1996

SURVIVING A NIGHTMARE INSIDE CASTRO’S CUBA

By Thomas W. Lippman

November 1, 1996

Cuban security agents punctured Robin Meyer’s tires. They videotaped her meetings. They followed her everywhere, even to lunch with a visiting cousin. They sometimes arrested people who went to see her. Finally, they threw her out of Cuba.

Meyer, a U.S. foreign service officer, was assigned to the U.S. mission in Havana. Her job was human rights: establishing contact with Cuban dissident groups, distributing books and magazines, monitoring Cuban government restrictions on the liberty of Cuban citizens. She wrote the section on Cuba in the State Department’s annual worldwide human rights survey — the chapter that begins, “Cuba is a totalitarian state.”

By Meyer’s account — confirmed by State Department colleagues and independent human rights monitors — the government of Fidel Castro took a dim view of these activities and set out to make her task as difficult as possible.

Security agents confiscated books and documents she provided to Cuban citizens. They threatened not only people who talked to her but their families and their neighbors. And on one tense occasion, they tried to ram her car with their old Soviet-built Lada on a main Havana boulevard.

The punctured tires were a special nuisance, she said, because “it never was just one tire, it was always two. I had one spare tire but I didn’t have two.”

“I don’t think it was me personally,” Meyer said in an interview. “I think it was anyone who was in contact with human rights activists. . . . It’s kind of an all-out effort to keep dissidents isolated and keep international public opinion from knowing what is going on.”

Meyer, 39, is a mid-level foreign service officer. U.S. diplomats of her rank rarely give interviews, but she was encouraged to do so by senior State Department officials irked by the farewell tributes collected by Jose Luis Ponce, the Cuban diplomat expelled by the United States in August in retaliation for Cuba’s ouster of Meyer.

Senior officials said they were especially irritated by a comment Ponce made in The Washington Post regarding the tit-for-tat expulsions, in which he said, “There’s no way you can compare what she was doing there to what I do here. She was intervening in Cuban affairs. My role has been to try to open lines of communication and lessen tensions.”

“There’s something I would like to say about that,” Meyer said. “I was just thinking how almost funny it was. He was opening lines of communication, in a country were all the lines of communication are open to him. If he wants to have a meeting with a congressman he calls and goes over, or a university professor. . . . The situation in Havana is quite different. All of our meetings had to be approved by the Cuban government,” and many of her requests were turned down, she said.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Cuba. Each country is represented in the other’s capital by an “interests section,” nominally under the flag of a third country. Meyer, who is fluent in Spanish, was assigned to the U.S. interests section in Havana in 1994, just as relations with Cuba were entering a particularly rocky period. She has been in the foreign service since 1988; Havana was her second foreign posting, after a stint in Sao Paulo.

The nature of her assignment virtually guaranteed that the Cubans would find her an irritant.

“The Cuban government is extremely uncomfortable with human rights monitoring,” said Sara Decosse, who studies Cuba for the independent group Human Rights Watch. “It became clear that the Cuban government was watching her quite closely.”

What the Cubans saw was a U.S. diplomat who maintained regular contact with Cuba’s beleaguered dissidents, providing them with Spanish-language copies of the Miami Herald and books such as “Animal Farm,” relaying information from them to Radio Marti and Amnesty International and interviewing participants in protest demonstrations.

These activities were riskier for the Cuban participants than for her, Meyer said, because she was protected from arrest by diplomatic immunity.

Any Cuban who joins an opposition group “knows there’s a risk,” Meyer said. “The first thing that will happen is you lose your job. That’s a way to marginalize you. Your family members can lose their jobs too. Then they start visiting your neighbors and start threatening them. . . . It effectively marginalizes and isolates people, and of course makes them more fearful of having contact with you.”

According to Meyer, she was under more or less constant scrutiny from Cuban security agents who were often menacing as they hovered over her, filming every meeting, but sometimes laughable in their ineptitude.

On one occasion, she said, she and her visiting cousin were having lunch in a seaside restaurant that requires payment in hard currency, which her Cuban watchdogs — one in a U.S. Marines T-shirt, the other in Chicago Bulls attire — didn’t have.

“They couldn’t eat because they didn’t have dollars,” Meyer said. “One of them came up and said, admiringly, If it weren’t for you, I would never have seen this place.’ It was almost like Keystone Kops. It was funny, up to a point.”

That point arrived in February, when the Cuban government was on edge because of a planned rally by an umbrella dissident group called Concilio Cubano. The night before the event, “to make sure I wasn’t involved in any way, not only were they following me but they were actually trying to hit me as I was in my car. They had a car without license plates but it was the same security agents who had been following me all week, it wasn’t as if I didn’t recognize them.”

She said the agents’ car tried repeatedly to ram the passenger side of her vehicle, its occupants yelling at her — using her name — to demand that she hang up her cellular telephone. She finally retreated to the U.S. mission, she said, and left again only when she was able to obtain an escort.

The Concilio Cubano rally was canceled under pressure from the government but the next day, the day it was to have been held, the tensions within the government exploded in the shoot-down by Cuban military jets of two small unarmed planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based Cuban exile group.

The lethal attack on the planes drove relations between Washington and Havana to a new low and prompted President Clinton to sign a law he had previously opposed aimed at discouraging foreign companies from investing in Cuba. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who embarked that same weekend on a trip to South America, lost no opportunity to berate the Cubans for the incident, and said it dramatized Cuba’s isolation as the only nation in the hemisphere still ruled by a dictator.

By midsummer the Cubans had apparently had enough. Meyer was expelled because, according to foreign ministry spokesman Rafael Dausa, she went beyond appropriate diplomatic conduct and “supported, organized and united small counterrevolutionary groups.”

Meyer and other State Department officials said that is a typical Cuban response to human rights work. They said the Cubans allege that all dissent is fomented by the United States, thus seeking to discredit the legitimacy of the opposition.

Last Thursday, the State Department gave Meyer its “Superior Honor Award,” citing her for “exceptional performance.” The citation said her “dedication, bravery, and consistently sound policy recommendations” helped senior officials work toward a “free and democratic Cuba.” CAPTION: Foreign service officer Robin Meyer: “I don’t think it was me personally. I think it was anyone who was in contact with human rights activists.” CAPTION: Expelled Cuban envoy Jose Luis Ponce: “There’s no way you can compare what she was doing there to what I do here. She was intervening in Cuban affairs.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1996/11/01/surviving-a-nightmare-inside-castros-cuba/62bcca4d-8509-4af7-92d2-173076908c20/?utm_term=.e633007eed27