BY JOE CONASON
HAVANA – The presidency of Donald Trump is teaching millions of Cubans – along with people around the world – to see the United States as a symbol of disappointment rather than hope. Within a few months, his abusive attitude toward Cuba has nearly reversed the diplomatic, cultural and humanitarian opening initiated by his predecessor.
Trump’s angry and unthinking policy represents in microcosm his generally malignant impact on American interests abroad. And it is yet another occasion when his actions have clearly advanced the fortunes of a hostile foreign power.
Yes, that means Russia.
Today the U.S. Embassy on Havana’s shoreline boulevard, the Malecon, is virtually silent, its staff reduced from a barely adequate 54 to a pitiful 14 [not counting the Marine guards who provide security]. Five are State Department officials and nine are support staff. Our current ambassador, Philip Goldberg, is a seasoned diplomat, but he arrived only a week ago to serve in acting status for an indeterminate tour. With almost no consular staff on hand, the embassy can do nothing for the Cuban people, who yearn for the thousands of visas our government agreed to provide. For despite decades of ideological hostility, the United States and American people remain extraordinarily popular here.
Not far away from the crippled American outpost, however, stands the Russian embassy – a looming, hideous edifice that resembles an upraised middle finger in an otherwise charming neighborhood.
Never much liked by Cubans even during the Soviet period, when they provided enormous aid and trade benefits as a political ally, the Russians fell out of favor altogether when the Communist empire imploded. Yet over the past year or so, Russia has become very active again here, making lots of deals with the Cuban government. Where Venezuela was once the ally that sent discounted oil to Havana, the Russian Federation has stepped up, perhaps because its energy sector intends to exploit Cuba’s undersea petroleum deposits.
And since Trump’s election, Russian agencies and companies have negotiated technology, defense, and commercial agreements with the Cubans, including an ambitious scheme to rebuild the island’s decrepit railroad system. In short, the Russians are emphatically back, only 90 miles from Key West, where the withering of American influence will encourage whatever mischief they mean to create not only in Cuba itself but in the United States and throughout Latin America.
The timing is perfect, too. President Raul Castro is scheduled to cede power within months to a successor from a new generation, a wrenching change for a country ruled by Castros since 1959.
What enhanced this opportunity for the Kremlin, of course, was the American reaction to an apparent assault on our personnel in Havana last year, which inflicted pain, panic, and medical injuries via means that remains mysterious. A lengthy investigation by American law enforcement and intelligence agencies has yet to determine what caused the illnesses that afflicted Americans and Canadians at several locations, including hotels and residences. And the exhaustive, highly technical investigation has also failed to find a culprit.
Naturally Trump has blamed the Cubans, although they offered unprecedented cooperation in the probe and there is no substantive evidence of their guilt. The lack of proof hasn’t dissuaded either the president or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from retaliating with a travel warning that discourages American tourism and the expulsion of more than a dozen Cuban diplomats.
Those actions have badly undermined the nascent detente with Havana. Which may well have been Trump’s aim from the beginning, since he aims to undo all of Obama’s achievements regardless of merit and constantly stokes the prejudices of every Republican voting bloc. Meanwhile, he is harming ordinary Cubans in every way.
No doubt the strange assault on U.S. personnel in Cuba is genuinely disturbing to Tillerson, who has convened an Accountability Review Board to assess the department’s response. While the former ExxonMobil executive has decimated and mismanaged the diplomatic corps in ways that must also please his old friends in Moscow, his safety concerns are understandable.
But it is important to observe – as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, did during a visit to Cuba this week – that Canada has maintained a fully functioning embassy in Havana, although Canadian personnel were also affected by the mystery ailment. At a press conference on Wednesday, Leahy rightly urged the State Department to restore full staffing at the U.S. embassy, where plenty of our dedicated foreign service officers are still eager to serve.
We don’t know who is behind the troubling incidents in Havana, but the perpetrators’ agenda is all too obvious, whether they are acted on behalf of a foreign power or a renegade element in the Cuban state or both. They aim to drive the United States and Cuba apart at a crucial moment. Our government should stop acting as their hapless pawn.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer