When lawmakers met to discuss U.S. policy toward Cuba, Rep. Paul Cook, R-Calif., scolded Cuba for its “close relations with Russia.”
He might as well have criticized the Trump administration for the same. But the hearing was about Cuba, not Russia, and the unexplained health attacks on U.S. personnel in Havana topped the agenda.
Said Cook, chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs:
The Cuban regime failed in its international obligation to protect diplomats in Cuba, and for that it must be held accountable. I am further concerned about the fact that we have yet to determine the cause or perpetrator of the attacks.
He and other lawmakers at the Sept. 6 hearing called for more aggressive measures against Cuba, despite the State Department’s inability to prove that Cuba was responsible, according to a transcript of the proceedings.
Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, expressed support, with little explanation, for “boots on the ground” in Cuba. He stated:
And so we are trying to build a democracy, and I am all for Radio Marti. We have been down to Miami, we have seen the broadcast studio … and it is … a great tool to spread the message of liberty and freedom … yet you have got a Communist regime in there that is just not allowing that. So … I think we should continue to do that, but boots on the ground. I think we need to relook at how we do things down there.
Does anybody have any ideas of what would be outside of the box that you are able to talk about?
Kenneth Merten, acting principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, replied:
Sir, I would be happy, my colleagues from the Cuba desk, would be happy to have some discussions with you. I am not going to speculate here on possible policy avenues. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to do that.
Merten discussed the State Department’s Cuba restricted list, which prohibits direct financial transactions with 180 shops, hotels and other entities thought to benefit the Cuban armed forces. He said:
…the goal behind the Cuba restricted list … was to do our utmost to ensure that elements of the Cuban state, particularly the ministry of defense, the Cuban military, wasn’t benefiting or profiting from … American people that happen to be visiting Cuba for a variety of reasons. So we hope to be channeling their activities in Cuba to the private sector, to B&Bs, that type of thing, small family private-sector run operations and, therefore, depriving the Cuban military of a source of income. I am not aware that we have done a quantitative analysis of the effect of that thus far. It is something we should probably do, but our belief is that it will have an impact on denying funding that would otherwise go to the Cuban state.
Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Illinois, was the only lawmaker to criticize the State Department’s approach. She said it was hurting, not helping, the Cuban people:
When President Trump announced his intent to cancel President Obama’s deal with Cuba, one of the stated aims of his new approach was to support the Cuban people. The policy curbed travel to and trade with Cuba and almost immediately the impact was clear: Cancellations at private bed and breakfast, restaurants that were accustomed to flocks of foreign patrons now empty, large tour groups set to hire a private classic car chauffeur service began receiving cancellations of their contracts.
Of President Trump’s rhetoric and restrictive travel, regulations resulted in ambiguity, I would say, that caused U.S. travel to Cuba to drop by as much as 40 percent in the first part of 2018. Less independent travel means less revenue for Cuba’s entrepreneurs who have risked so much for the chance to determine their economic future, many of which catered to those U.S. travelers. One restauranteur quoted by The Washington Post cites a 70 percent dip in business compared with the year prior.
The stated intent of the policy was to help the Cuban people, but they don’t feel supported.
People who go to Cuba under one of the broad licenses given by the Treasury Department are not really, strictly speaking, supposed to be there as tourists.
Our goal is to deny the Cuban regime, particularly the Ministry of Defense and Cuban military, a stream of revenue that they had had before. There may be some collateral effect of this in that fewer people may be going, and fewer people going means less business to some of these private sector entities, which we certainly do want to see helped and we do want to see them thrive. But in an economic system where the incentives are, for lack of a better term, corrupted as they are in Cuba because you have the state which is really involved in virtually every aspect of the economy, it is hard to do both of those things simultaneously.
Yoho blamed the Obama administration, saying:
Well, and this goes back to poor foreign policy. We should never have gone down this road without having this stuff worked out in the very beginning from the previous administration. To open up, you know, travel and going in there like everything is okay without having these things negotiated was a big, big mistake and a failure in foreign policy.
I have got people from Florida and all over the United States, basically, that had businesses down there, they have ports, cruise ships are going in there, and there are family ports that these families got their property confiscated from, and the Cuban Government’s making a ton of money off of this illegal property. And for us to open up the borders or open up negotiations and relationships with them without having this worked out in the beginning was a terrible mistake in foreign policy, and this is something now we are trying to reel back. And once you let the toothpaste out of the tube, it is hard to get it back in and, unfortunately, we are here.
Cook said the U.S. government needed to “work more with regional partners to curb the Cuban regime’s ability to wreak havoc on its people and on the region.”
Merten said the U.S. investigation into the health attacks was ongoing. He stated:
There is still much we do not know, including who or what is behind the injuries to our colleagues.
Peter Bodde, coordinator for the State Department’s Health Incidents Response Task Force, said 26 people associated with the U.S. Embassy in Havana “have incurred medically confirmed unexplained symptoms and health effects” since Dec. 30, 2016. He said:
Reported acute symptoms have included dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, fatigue, visual problems, ear complaints, hearing loss, and difficulty sleeping. Many of the affected personnel later developed other symptoms, including cognitive problems and imbalance walking.
Let me be clear, the Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the source, or the motive behind the attacks in Cuba or when they actually commenced, yet throughout this unprecedented situation, from the first reported health complaint through the confirmation of the onset of adverse related medical symptoms, U.S. Government medical professionals have insured that competent and professional care has been provided to our impacted personnel. They collaborate closely with the medical centers of excellence, such as the University of Pennsylvania Center for Brain Injury and Repair, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the National Institute of Health.
We have also asked the Centers for Disease Control for their expertise to better understand what transpired in Havana. In order to ensure that our affected personnel have access to long-term workers’ compensation coverage, the Department also works closely with the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs.
When we found potential gaps in the ability to care for those affected under current authorities, we began discussing with other agencies in the White House possible legislative language, which we will share for your consideration once we have an interagency consensus, to make sure our impacted diplomats and their families receive the care they deserve without incurring personal financial burden. We are also establishing a new position solely responsible for the longer term outreach in assistance to impacted personnel.
Cook, a Vietnam veteran and former Marine, said he was “somewhat bewildered, frustrated.” He said:
You know, this goes back quite a while ago. When it first happened, we had some classified hearings on it, and no one could figure out what was going on.
Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, medical director in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Services, replied:
We are frustrated as well. We know the accumulation of medical knowledge tends to be a very deliberate process. I can only speak to what we are trying to do to find out what caused the injuries.
You know, as you read previously, the symptoms people presented with were vague, very common symptoms. It took some time to figure out that they were connected. When we put the information together, they appeared to be similar to the symptoms and findings you would see in a traumatic brain injury or a head concussion, but obvious head trauma. So we had to kind of work backwards and find out what could cause that.
We identified the University of Pennsylvania and other locations to see our people, to do thorough evaluations, but still there is no obvious mechanism we know of that could cause that injury. The experts are exploring a number of possibilities.
… this is kind of what we are seeing as a unique syndrome. Probably you can’t even call it a syndrome. It is a unique constellation of symptoms and findings but with no obvious cause. There is a lot of speculation in the media. We prefer not to talk about speculation. All I know is the experts who have examined the patients are doing everything they can to determine, you know, where the injuries occurred, what part of the brain, and what possibly could cause it.
Sir, I would like to just reinforce that it has taken time to understand the extent of the symptoms and findings and injuries. You know, right now, in retrospect, we know what you know. Injuries happened to folks, but way back when these things first started appearing in December 2016 and over the course of the next several months, it wasn’t evident at that time. And then our first and foremost goal was to provide care to those people who were injured and do assessments. And we accomplished that over the next several months, from January 2017 going forward.
Asked whether the health troubles in Havana were “incidents” or “attacks,” Bodde replied:
The State Department has come to the position that they were attacked, sir.
The subcommittee hearing lasted 68 minutes. At 3:10 p.m., lawmakers adjourned and went to a secret chamber known as a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.
Once there, they continued their discussion in private.