For ten months, covert “attacks of an unknown nature” have caused a variety of injuries to at least 22 U.S. employees at U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels in Havana. The U.S. government has issued a travel warning on Cuba, pulled out all nonessential personnel and families (suspending all visa issuance in Havana), and requested, in reciprocity, that Cuba pare down its embassy in Washington by recalling 15 of its “diplomats,” most of whom are known to be spies.
Analysts and former regime officials who know the 59-year-long Castro regime well — including two top defectors from Cuban intelligence — believe the “sonic attacks,” as these are known, could only have been deliberate and ordered at the highest level. Speculation that third countries or a rogue faction of Cuba’s intelligence services are to blame overlooks the nature of Cuba’s totalitarian system, its massive security apparatus, and the 24–7 intensive surveillance on all U.S. staff in Cuba. Had Russia, for instance, provided technology or in any way been involved, it could only have been in sync with Cuba.
The scheme would have been intended to throw a sledgehammer at the détente with the U.S. that generated high and unmet expectations among the Cuban population while precluding the quintessential “external threat” excuse. Most important, it would provide Cuba a justification to rescind agreements made during the Obama and Clinton administrations to take back Cuban émigrés returned by the U.S.; this would set the stage to unleash a migration crisis — another favored stratagem of the Castros. A rupture with the U.S. would also distract from mounting internal repression and a bogus “transition” process while obscuring the rollback of “reforms” that began soon after Obama’s trip in March 2016.
Consistent rhetoric from regime apologists focuses on the “mysteries” surrounding the puzzling incidents and gives Cuba a way out. That Raúl Castro and top officials of his infamously criminal and prevaricating dictatorship have denied Cuba’s involvement only adds to the ruse. Because the crime scenes are in Cuba and long sanitized, evidence of perpetrators or weapons will not be found; blaming the U.S. for the souring of relations is easy.
Economic crisis has always led the Cuban regime to repress more to maintain control.
Conditions in the sister-republic of Venezuela tanked, leading to diminishing economic sustenance for Cuba. Ibero-American integration under Cuban-Venezuelan “21st-century socialism” further weakened as key allies/benefactors lost power in Argentina (December 2015) and Brazil (September 2016). The latter was particularly damaging, as Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff had delivered over $1.5 billion in generous “loans” and had arranged for $400 million in annual payments for Cuban health workers in Brazil. A center-right government gained power in Peru (June 2016) and one is poised to do so in Chile this November. In Colombia, the peace agreement paving Cuba-friendly FARC’s rise to power had to be rammed through Congress after President Santos lost a plebiscite (October 2016). Angola, another Cuba-backer struggling with depressed oil revenues, has been owing Cuba millions for Cuba’s 4,000 workers there. All of the above has led to a contraction in “export services” — a unique form of modern slavery that has been Cuba’s leading source of revenue since 2005. Alternative outlets for its indentured workers and new patrons for its parasitic economy are proving harder to find.
Economic crisis has always led the Cuban regime to repress more to maintain control. The dire recent turn of events has called for a desperate Cold War revival. Although reports vary on the timing, it appears that the attacks began right after Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president last November. This would have only heightened Cuba’s urgency to act. Two more incidents this August, and coinciding leaks to the media, would have been intended to elicit the expected reaction from the “yanquis.”
Cuba knows how to design these “active measures,” learned from its KGB mentors and perfected over decades. The risks of the “sonic plot” would have been carefully calculated, something both Raúl Castro and Cuba’s intelligence apparatus are good at. A cohesive Cuban leadership is long experienced in dealing with a U.S. government busy with other domestic and international priorities. It counts on holdovers from the Obama administration bent on “normalization” at all costs and policy wonks lacking a deep understanding of the regime’s history or true nature. Finally, it bets on factions of the U.S. establishment pushing for appeasement, convinced that mass migration is the only threat from Cuba.
Cuba’s leaders have been emboldened by 59 years of taking advantage of the U.S. and getting away with numerous egregious aggressions against our interests and security. Cuba harbors hundreds of fugitives from U.S. justice, refuses our criminal deportees, has executed, murdered, and disappeared at least 21 Americans, and has even experimented with torture techniques on our POWs in Vietnam. Its leaders gloat at having defeated the U.S. at the Bay of Pigs, in Angola, and elsewhere. In turn, and despite soft sanctions, U.S.-based assistance to Cuba is over $6 billion a year, and since 1994, at least 20,000 Cubans have been admitted annually under a quota agreed with the Castros. We also send Cuba over half a million visitors a year and are one of its main providers of agricultural imports. What’s more, the U.S. has long accepted that Cuba dictate the terms and conditions of the relationship. U.S. businesses, news bureaus, and even our embassy (formerly our Interests Section) must hire all local personnel from a Cuban state entity that offers mostly — or only — well-trained spies or intelligence collaborators.
A lack of robust responses to Cuba’s transgressions from previous Democrat and Republican administrations would have fueled Cuba’s expectations that a U.S. reaction would skip meaningful consequences. It can count on a politically influential Cuban-American community to oppose any measures that hurt the Cuban people and on vested U.S. business interests to push back on sanctions. To guide the narrative, it relies on its massive and long-running investments in propaganda and influence, exerted in the U.S. by thousands of agents and collaborators (in government, academia, media, etc.).
To date, it appears that the Trump administration has avoided playing into Cuba’s hands. Its tone has been restrained and its measures consequential, the opposite of what Cuba would have wanted. Caught off guard, but on cue, Cuban officials have lashed out in full fury — blaming “the empire” for spoiling relations and even suggesting the attacks have been fabricated. If an ensuing and comprehensive Cuba policy reflects the nature, history, and current predicament of the Cuban dictatorship, this administration might finally outfox the old Communists at their game.
— Maria Werlau is the director of the nonprofit Cuba Archive project and a consultant in Cuban affairs.