The Washington Diplomat / June 2003
By Larry Luxner
As U.S.-Cuban relations sink to their lowest depths in years, Havana's top diplomat in Washington says there's no telling what the Bush administration might do next.
On May 13, the State Department ordered the expulsion of 14 Cuban diplomats from the United States. Seven officials of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and seven from Cuba's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York were declared persona non grata for having engaged in "activities incompatible with their diplomatic status" — State Department lingo for espionage.
Dagoberto Rodríguez, chief of Cuba's Washington mission, said the spying allegations are "silly" and are motivated by politics rather than facts.
"We are law-abiding citizens and we know we have to follow the laws of the country in which we live," he told The Washington Diplomat late last month. "I have my own opinions about the American government and corporate interests within the decision-making process, but it is not my business. I am here to establish links with the American people. We never violate laws willingly."
He added: "This interests section, from its inception in 1977, has engaged in very clean activities aimed only at forging links between Cubans and Americans, and serving as an official channel of communications between the two countries. Nobody can seriously say that we're doing a single illegal thing."
Besides the usual duties of running an embassy, like attending cocktail parties, receiving delegations and keeping up with the latest Capitol Hill gossip, the 48-year-old Rodríguez operates under one especially heavy burden: his country lacks diplomatic relations with the United States.
In 1961 — two years after the Marxist revolution that swept Fidel Castro into power — President Kennedy broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and shut the U.S. Embassy in Havana. That utter absence of ties continued until 1977, when President Carter, in a relaxation of hostilities, signed a bilateral accord establishing interests sections in each other's capitals.
Theoretically, the U.S. Interests Section — a five-story building occupying a choice piece of real-estate along Havana's waterfront Malecón — is an annex of the Swiss Embassy.
Likewise, the stately Cuban Interests Section on Sixteenth Street in Washington belonged to the Embassy of Czechoslovakia until 1991, the year the Czechs embraced democracy and said they no longer wanted to represent Cuba. The Swiss agreed to take over that function in a delicate arrangement which has endured ever since.
The envoy, addressed by his subordinates as embajador despite his lack of ambassadorial status in Washington, seems confident in his job, having served for over 20 years in both the European and North American divisions of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; from 1995 to 1999, he was the Cuban Interests Section’s expert on Congressional affairs, forging links with sympathetic lawmakers and anti-embargo activists.
On May 18, several hundred such people showed up at the Cuban Interests Section for a cocktail party to honor the expelled diplomats. One of them was Wayne Smith, former U.S. Interests Section chief in Havana and now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
Smith says the largest mass expulsion of Cuban diplomats from the United States in recent memory is an act of desperation by the White House.
"This is the Bush administration trying to find a way to look tough," he said. "We have a full embargo on Cuba, we have travel controls, we don't have diplomatic relations. So the administration has very few ways to act tough and this is one way they can. But its a very ineffective to handle the present problem with Cuba."
Rodríguez himself wasn't among the diplomats given 10 days to leave, though the list did include his newly arrived press spokesman, Juan Hernández Acen, and six other functionaries.
A senior State Department official declined to comment on why certain diplomats in Washington were on the list for expulsion and others weren't.
"We're not required to give a rationale," he said. "If the FBI has evidence of diplomats engaging in espionage against the United States, they present their case to us. This is fundamantally a foreign policy decision, though the State Department acted on the FBI's request."
The expulsions came just as members of the House and Senate prepared for a joint press conference announcing proposed legislation to lift the longtime U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. They were the latest salvo in an increasingly hostile propaganda battle between the United States and Cuba that shows no sign of slowing down.
In March, following months of harrassment of U.S. diplomats in Havana, the Castro regime arrested 75 dissidents and sentenced them to prison for as long as 28 years on charges they were actually paid agents of the U.S. government.
In April, three young black men were executed after their unsuccessful attempt to hijack a municipal ferry to Florida — an incident in which no one was killed or even hurt. The executions prompted a worldwide wave of criticism from Castro's opponents and even some of his longtimefriends.
But Rodríguez tried to justify both the dissident crackdown and the executions.
"The people who were jailed were agents of a foreign power. This was proved during the trial," he said. "Any country that respects itself doesn't allow its citizens to act as agents of a foreign power. What would happen if American citizens start to receive money and instructions for trying to U.S. government? Here, even if you try influencing the election, that is illegal."
He added: "Many people are philosophically opposed to the death penalty. We are also opposed to it, but we did it because we had the obligation to preserve the lives of millions of Cubans. In the last few months, we've seen an increase in hijackings from Cuba, encouraged by the Cuban Adjustment Act and the attitude of the American government. The use of weapons is a terrorist act."
Since the controversial arrests and executions, many U.S. state delegations and fact-finding trips — including a Maryland Department of Agriculture mission to Cuba that was scheduled for May 24-28 — have been cancelled. It's also become harder for U.S. diplomats to travel freely within Cuba, and for Cuban diplomats to move freely within the United States.
"In the last few weeks, the administration informed us that from now on, we will not be allowed to travel outside the Beltway, except for consular reasons or for personal reasons," said Rodríguez. "In the case of consular or personal reasons, we have to request permission and they will say yes or no."
In addition, Cuban diplomats will now have to go through the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions whenever they want to buy a car, fix a leaky faucet or install a telephone — a measure that matches a Cuban requirement that U.S. diplomats in Havana go through the Cuban Foreign Ministry for similar services.
Before the latest expulsions, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington had 25 permanent diplomats and 10 long-term support officers.
"The ones who imposed restrictions on the movement of diplomats was the American government. We never thought of doing that," said Rodríguez. "We have just been acting on a reciprocal basis. At one point, we proposed lifting all the restrictions on movement, and they said no. We know that the U.S. government, and especially the anti-Cuban members of Congress who have a lot of leverage in the State Department, are opposed to an increase in communications between the Cuban and American people."
As a result of the travel ban, Rodríguez has had to miss many important events. One of the most recent, a two-day conference in Austin sponsored by the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance, had invited Rodríguez to be the keynote speaker. But because of the travel ban, the diplomat ended up preparing a videotape and sending it to the organizers.
"In a practical sense, we cannot go farther than the Beltway. We cannot attend conferences. But we have many friends in Congress and out of Congress. Many people are now coming to the Interests Section, looking for our opinions. We are using technologies like videoconferencing and the Internet to overcome the draconian measures."
Some of these measures do appear to be extreme. In one case, the State Department denied the 12-year-old daughter of a Cuban official permission to go on a field trip to Gaithersburg with her middle-school class.
But life is no easier on the other side of the fence, and in some ways it appears to be worse. For months, U.S. diplomats in Havana have complained that they're continually hassled by the Cuban government in order "to frustrate routine business, occupy resources, demoralize personnel and generally hinder efforts to advance U.S. policy goals."
A three-page declassified memo recently distributed to members of Congress describes various forms of both physical and psychological harassment suffered at the hands of Cuba's Ministry of Interior. These include everything from pilfered car parts, slashed tires and smashed car windows to unwelcome "messages" like urine and feces deposited in the homes of U.S. diplomats in Havana.
Rodríguez denies such accusations, though he charges that "unlike our activities here to promote goodwill, the U.S. Interests Section is devoted to promoting opposition in Cuba, creating instability and overthrowing the Cuban government. This is the final goal of the administration, even though the Geneva Convention of 1961 clearly states that the mission of any embassy is to promote goodwill and understanding between the government you represent and the government where you are accredited."
A State Department official said U.S. diplomats in Havana are not calling for the overthrow of Castro, but rather for democracy in Cuba.
"We believe the interests sections continue to have value, though we have different functions," said the official, who spoke on background only. "What we accomplish in Havana is to ensure compliance with our commitments under the migration accords. We reach out to civil society and we have contacts with the Cuban government. All these things are important to us."
Yet Rodríguez complains that the State Department hasn't been living up to the 1994 Migration Accords, which require the U.S. Interests Section to issue at least 20,000 visas annually to Cubans who legally apply for entry to the United States. "This fiscal year the total won't even be close to 10,000," he said.
Adds Smith: ""Since Cuba will almost certainly retaliate it will damage U.S. interests more than it will damage Cuban interests. How now will the U.S. Interests Section issue those 20,000 immigrant visas with 14 fewer staff — or could it be that the administration wishes to encourage a maritime exodus?"
The State Department official said such suggestions are nonsensical.
"We know what our obligations are and we're going to meet them," said the State Department official, accusing the Cuban government of "intentionally distorting" the reality of the situation. "We're coming up with ways of complying with the law and issuing travel documents. We have absolutely no interest in provoking a migration crisis with Cuba."
Yet some factions within the U.S. government are pushing for much tougher measures against the Castro regime, including the suspension of Miami-Havana charter flights and the elimination of family remittances that pump as much as $1 billion a year into the Cuban economy.
"Imagine that with just one American dollar in Cuba you can buy 105 liters of milk at subsidized prices. Eliminating the remittances will cause a lot of suffering," said Rodríguez, though he added that "if people are not allowed to send money to Cuba, they'll find ways of paying through third countries or just taking currency there directly."
Some hardliners have called for banning U.S. food sales to Cuba, while others demand that the Cuban Interests Section in Washington be closed permanently — an action that would immediately trigger the closing of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana by the Cubans.
"That has been one of the dreams of the exteme right," says Rodríguez. "My hope is that this administration will not do that. It would be a tremendous mistake. The interests section is one of the few positive things that exist between our countries."
A few hardliners — doubtlessly encouraged by the U.S. military success in Iraq — are now advocating similiar "regime change" in Cuba via military means. "Even if the chances of that happening are only 1%, it's enough to be concerned," said Rodríguez, noting that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell have said that "for now," Washington has no plans to invade Cuba.
If there's one thing the Cubans and Americans agree on, it's that no one can predict how worse relations will get before they hit bottom and begin improving again.
"We can't really calibrate how the Cubans will react," says the State Department official. "It's a very difficult outfit to analyze, because fundamentally it's not a government of institutions, but a government of one old man."
Adds Rodríguez: "We'll have to wait and see what they decide. With this administration, you never know. But I can tell you that in any case, in any scenario, we will continue building bridges with the American people."