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Secret cables unearthed by WikiLeaks offer dramatic look at U.S. view of Cuba
CubaNews / January 2011

By Larry Luxner

Fidel Castro, bleeding internally on a domestic flight from Holguín to Havana in 2006, nearly died from diverticulitis of the colon after refusing to submit to a colostomy.

Three years later, Fidel’s brother Raúl — now running Cuba — wanted to open secret talks with the White House as the only way his government could “make major moves toward meeting U.S. concerns,” according to Spain’s ambassador to Cuba, Manuel Cacho Quesada.

Officials of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, while clearly opposed to the Castro regime, have concluded that Cuba’s traditional dissident movement — the focus of millions in aid from Washington over the years — is unpopular, ineffective, greedy for American taxpayer dollars and riddled with government spies.

China, meanwhile, is exasperated over Cuba’s habit of not paying its bills on time, and the Cubans are so upset with Jamaica’s reluctance to confront drug smugglers that they’ve even complained to their U.S. counterparts.

None of these dramatic revelations might have ever come to light if not for WikiLeaks, a shadowy “new media” nonprofit website that since Nov. 28 has been embarrassing U.S. diplomats around the world through its gradual release of classified State Department cables to Spain’s El País and other newspapers.

While most of the uproar surrounding WikiLeaks has focused up until now on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, it’s clear that before long, virtually every country with a U.S. mission on its soil will be dragged into the fray — and Cuba is no exception.

Only a fraction of these 251,287 once-secret cables has actually been published. Even so, the biggest diplomatic bombshell in recent history has already been “devastating and destructive” for U.S. foreign service officers overseas, says George Washington University professor Edward “Skip” Gnehm, former director-general of the U.S. Foreign Service and former U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Kuwait and Australia.

“This has broken our confidence and has left most of our interlocutors fearful and angry,” Gnehm told CubaNews in a phone interview from Amman, Jordan. “In the future, people are going to be wary about talking to us, and it’ll be harder for us to give our own governments the information they need to make analytical decisions.”

PREDICTING FIDEL’S DEATH — AGAIN

When it comes to Cuba, the sheer volume of traffic exposed by WikiLeaks could keep an enterprising journalist busy for years. One cable dated Mar. 16, 2007, almost eight months after Fidel ceded power to Raúl, has received lots of attention.

In it, Michael Parmly — then-chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — quotes unnamed sources as saying the elder Castro fell ill on a domestic flight after a long day of giving speeches.

“They had to land urgently once they knew of his bleeding,” it says. “He was diagnosed with diverticulitis of the colon.” That same cable quotes a medical source as saying Castro “won’t die immediately, but will progressively lose his faculties and become ever more debilitated until he dies.”

Parmly himself adds: “We are missing too many variables to be able to predict accurately how many more months Fidel will live.”

In a January 2009 dispatch, Parmly’s successor in Havana, Jonathan Farrar, said “GOC [Government of Cuba] officials would most likely manage the death announcement and subsequent funeral arrangements in great detail with a view toward putting the best face on the situation, both domestically and to the world.” It goes on to speculate that Fidel’s death could even spark a drop in the number of Cubans seeking to emigrate, as islanders wait to see what unfolds.

U.S. HAS DOUBTS ABOUT CUBA’S DISSIDENTS

On another topic, a series of cables sent to Washington in May 2009 and signed by Farrar hints that Cuba’s dissident movement is no longer worthy of America’s full support.

“Many opposition groups are prone to dominance by individuals with strong egos who do not work well together,” Farrar told his superiors. “We see very little evidence that the mainline dissident organizations have much resonance among Cubans.”

In that cable, the USINT chief suggested that new generation of “non-traditional dissidents” such as blogger Yoani Sánchez would have more impact in post-Castro Cuba, but that “the most immediate successors to the Castro regime will probably come from within the middle ranks of the government itself.”

The New York Times reported that in a cable about how other countries deal with Cuba on official visits, U.S. officials classified those approaches on a scale from kowtowing to confrontational: “best-friends-forever,” “keep-it-private,” “we-respectfully-disagree” and, in rare cases, “take-your-visit-and-shove-it.”

The Times article quoted that cable as saying that most countries with diplomatic posts in Havana “do not raise human rights issues with the Cuban government in public or private. A handful of countries including Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic have re-fused to send senior officials to Cuba, rather than accept the government’s restrictions on who they can meet while there.”

Commenting on that apparent discrepancy, Julia Sweig — a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations — told the Times that “on the one hand, the U.S. is saying the dissidents are hopeless and aging. On the other hand, the same interests section is saying that Canadian and EU engagement is not helping progress on human rights.”

Not all the diplomatic traffic out of Havana deals with life-or-death issues. A colorful dispatch dated Jun. 5, 2006, and signed by Parmly touches on baseball, health care and racism.

“USINT is always looking for human-interest stories and other news that shatters the myth of Cuban medical prowess, which has become a key feature of the regime’s foreign policy and its self-congratulatory propaganda,” said the cable.

It went on to describe a prominent Jamaican surgeon, Dr. Albert Lue, who “has publicly denounced Cuban medical incompetency in handling Jamaican patients who traveled to Cuba for eye surgery. Of 60 such patients he surveyed, three were left permanently blind and another 14 returned to Jamaica with permanent cornea damage.”

The cable continues with an eyewitness account of racial slurs and name-calling during a baseball game pitting Havana’s Industriales against the largely black Santiago team.

CHINESE VIP GETS THE COLD SHOULDER

Here’s another tidbit from Parmly’s missive:

“A couple of weeks ago, there was a concert at Amadeo Roldan theater that featured a Chinese conductor as guest of the National Symphony ... The Chinese Embassy made a big deal out of the Chinese guest conductor, turning out a pretty much full house of Cubans and others, and most importantly, the visiting Chinese vice-minister of culture, who was in town on an official visit.

“After the concert, several officials got up to speak,” the cable continues. “Leading the Cuban cohort was Abel Prieto, minister of culture, who had the usual things to say about the depth and strength of Cuban-Chinese ties. All the speakers got the usual polite applause.

“Then the Chinese vice-minister got up. Rather than just respond with counter-inanities, he launched into a speech on the success of China’s economic model, including noting the degree to which openness to the world, encouraging private initiative and letting individual creativity have free rein were key to economic progress. The audience went cold. Not a clap, not a peep when the minister finished speaking.”

SOME QUESTION RELEVANCE OF U.S. CABLES

Other cables describe cooperation between U.S. and Cuba in counternarcotics efforts — especially in the face of Jamaican indifference — and harassment of Cuban doctors in Venezuela who quit their jobs and want to leave.

One 2010 report issued by the U.S. Embassy in Caracas says physicians approved for humanitarian parole via the Cuban Medical Professionals Program have been physically and verbally abused while trying to fly out of Venezuela’s Maquetía International Airport.

“Many of those allowed to board flights to Miami are only able to do so after paying sizeable bribes (generally $700 to $1,000) to Venezuelan immigration officials or Cuban officials said to be working at the airport,” it said.

Another cable describes how Cuba has successfully taken over the management of Venezuela’s ports, yet in a February 2010 dispatch out of Havana, Farrar quotes a top Chinese diplomat there as expressing “visible exasperation” with Cuba’s insistence on retaining a majority control of any joint venture.

“No matter whether a foreign business in-vests $10 million or $100 million, the GOC’s investment will always add up to 51%,” the unhappy Chinese diplomat told USINT staff.

The commercial counselor also complained about Cuba always paying back loans late.

Yet just as diplomats are suspicious of WikiLeaks, so is at least one veteran Cuba-watcher.

“We should not accept what the cables are saying as the absolute truth. The Interest Section in Havana talks to people and they get the information and send a cable,” Jaime Suchlicki, chief of the University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project, recently told reporters. “We are not getting the whole picture.”

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