When Donald Trump was elected President, many—ourselves included—expected a swift chilling effect on US-Cuban relations. As a result, many were pleasantly surprised when his June policy announcements on Cuba left most of the opening intact. But then, last Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to the mysterious “sonic attacks” against US diplomats in Cuba by ordering all non-essential US personnel out of Havana and issuing a broad travel warning to US citizens. All pending visa appointments on the island were cancelled. Then this week, under pressure from Senator Marco Rubio and other members of Congress, the State Department ordered the Cuban Embassy in Washington to reduce its diplomatic staff by the same proportion—reportedly expelling the entire economic section and all but one consular officer. Today, President Trump pledged to “not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until it delivers full political freedom for the Cuban people.” While the Administration is right to respond to the attacks, such a precipitous pullback (and expelling the Cuban diplomats) unnecessarily escalates the tensions, hurts the Cuban people, and risks a long-term refreeze—only without fanfare or an official declaration.
Although the measures are intended to punish the Cuban government for the attacks (after all, it’s widely agreed that little happens on the island without the knowledge of Cuban security forces), inevitably and tragically, they end up hitting the Cuban people—on both sides of the Straits of Florida—the hardest. With the consular sections of both embassies mostly only able to process emergency applications, cultural, scientific, academic, and family exchanges will be put on hold. Together with the travel advisory, this bottleneck has real impacts on Cuban entrepreneurs and the private sector, which are broadly dependent on tourism. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of visas for Cubans moving to the US or visiting family members may no longer be issued. From the Cuban point of view, the doors to the US seem to have closed.
We may never know the origin of what Cubans are calling the “Guerra de los Decibeles” (Decibel War). The circumstances around the incidents—from their curious medical details to the revelation that they mostly targeted American intelligence agents—remain bizarre and are difficult to explain. However, it is increasingly likely that this chilling effect is long-lasting, at least into 2018 if not far longer.
While the decision to scale back the embassy may not have been a measured or calculated one—and is certainly less significant than closing the doors altogether—it remains expensive to scale up or scale down a diplomatic presence. According to the Associated Press, US diplomats are “frantically” selling their possessions in Havana and preparing for a transition back to the US. Few seem to think they will be back anytime soon. Reversing the process will take at least some political will.
In the context of a Trump Administration, that resolve may not exist. The President has little motivation to send personnel back to Cuba soon—if ever. While the opening with Cuba is broadly popular in the US, it is staunchly opposed by a key segment of Trump’s base in Florida and a tiny, yet influential faction in Congress. It is also a central piece of Barack Obama’s legacy, which President Trump has made no secret of his desire to undo. In theory, there’s nothing preventing this draw down from becoming permanent—especially if an explanation for the attacks is never found.
To be sure, this isn’t the worst case scenario for US-Cuban relations. The US embassy in Havana is likely to remain open and essential personnel are likely to stay for good. At the very least, official diplomatic channels will remain open through this tense period.
But the implications are still grave. The sonic attacks threaten to turn the relationship back towards Cold War tensions, and keep alive many of the festering anti-American feelings that the Cuban embargo has long inspired across Latin America. This draw down, which clearly pleases hardliners on both sides, also risks empowering the most anti-American factions in the Cuban government, whose power is built on isolation, repression, and fear of a bellicose and powerful northern neighbor. With the first real transition of power in the island’s post-revolutionary history upcoming in February—for the first time in 59 years Cuba will likely not be led by a Castro—the political class may be easily spooked and willing to take advantage of US antagonism. It may even play directly into the hands of whoever committed the attacks, potentially even a hostile third party seeking to drive a wedge between the US and Cuba.
Secretary Tillerson should think about these policy changes in terms of the real harm they do to the Cuban people and to US strategic interests around the globe. The attacks are despicable and worrying, but the response has been disproportionate. Just as the State Department does everywhere else, risk to US diplomats and their families must be weighed against the critical importance of the nation’s interests and values. As the President of the American Foreign Service Association said, in coming out against the cutback, “we’re used to operating with serious health risks in many environments.” Certainly the threats to diplomats in Havana are no greater than those in Kabul or Baghdad. If it’s any indication, the embassy personnel in Havana seem to be dismayed by the decision. Even most of those struck by the attacks had previously chosen to stay on the island. A better response would have been new security measures and options for voluntary departures, but without interrupting consular services or issuing a travel advisory—especially since there is no evidence that these attacks may target tourists. Moreover, without evidence about what happened, expelling Cuban diplomats is preemptive, and appears to be in bad faith.
Meanwhile, those Cubans and Cuban Americans who had been waiting to receive a professor from Havana for a conference, or for family members to spend the holidays together pending a visa, will have to look for new alternatives.