The Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2017

Cuba’s Sonic Attacks

How to respond to the harm done to 21 Americans in Havana.

 By The Editorial Board

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CBS ’s “Face the Nation” recently that the U.S. is thinking about closing its Embassy in Havana in response to mysterious acoustic attacks on U.S. personnel that have injured at least 21 Americans.

Here’s a better idea: Keep the Embassy in Havana open but expel from the U.S. 19 Cubans working at its embassy in Washington. Since the U.S. already expelled two Cuban diplomats in August in response to the attacks, the new round of expulsions would bring the number of Castro personnel asked to leave to the same number of U.S. personnel that have been medically confirmed to have suffered injuries.

The U.S. can tell Cuba that things will return to normal when Raúl Castro explains to the State Department how the Embassy employees were harmed. As of now, all we know is that the State Department believes some sort of sonic harassment has left them with “a variety of physical symptoms.”

That’s an understatement. The American Foreign Service Association, a union for U.S. diplomats, said earlier this month that it has spoken with 10 of the affected and that “diagnoses include mild traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss, with such additional symptoms as loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption and brain swelling.”

Mr. Castro says he is shocked to hear this news and claims he has no idea how it could have happened. That would be easier to believe if Cuba were not a police state with a long record of harassing U.S. government employees on the island. According to retired ambassador James Cason, who ran the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002-2005, leaving feces on a dining room table or a car door-handle and poisoning pets are a few ways that Castro’s boys have shown hospitality toward Americans over the years. Embassy personnel engaged on human-rights issues and with dissidents were among the most likely targets because the regime wanted to send a message, Mr. Cason told us.

The sonic attacks are different because the Americans didn’t know they were being harmed until after the fact. One theory is that one of Cuba’s allies, like North Korea or Iran, decided to test a new assault device from its embassy on the island. Another theory is that a rogue wing of the regime wants to undermine the U.S. rapprochement. But a regime that specializes in spying on its own people isn’t often surprised by local developments. As Mr. Cason puts it, “nothing happens [in Cuba] without the government knowing about it.”

On the odd chance that the attacks aren’t regime-approved, a one-party state that learned from the Soviets certainly has the power to investigate. Yet these incidents began last November, the U.S. first complained in February and as recently as August they continued. Not withstanding Mr. Castro’s bafflement, his government has done nothing about the attacks. Perhaps Raúl figured he could simply get away with it after he won normal relations with the U.S. without making any concessions.

Mr. Tillerson said “it’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered.” Expelling Cuban embassy personnel will anger Cuba because it will weaken its espionage ability here. But the U.S. has a responsibility to protect its diplomats and a failure to respond will encourage other regimes to do the same.

Appeared in the September 26, 2017, print edition.


Financial Times, September 26, 2017

Venezuelan politicians seek refuge abroad

Exiled mayor David Smolansky says country has moved closer to a totalitarian regime

by John Paul Rathbone and Gideon Long in New York

After a month in hiding and a clandestine three-day road trip through the jungle, Venezuelan politician David Smolansky arrived in New York last week — one more exile from the oppressive regime of president Nicolás Maduro.

“I had to pass through 30 road checks to get out,” says Mr Smolansky, recounting his epic escape across the Orinoco Basin, through the wilderness of southern Venezuela and across the border into Brazil. “I had to disguise myself. I cut my hair, shaved off my beard and I wore a cap.” In Venezuela, Mr Smolansky was mayor of El Hatillo, a well-to-do Caracas district. Elected in 2013 as Venezuela’s youngest mayor, he is still only 32. But in August the government-stacked Supreme Court sentenced him to 15 months in jail in summary hearings that New York-based Human Rights Watch said “lacked all due process and guarantees”.

Mr Smolansky’s supposed crime was failing to allow free circulation in his municipality. That was a veiled way of saying he allowed anti-government street protests this year, when a four-month long series of nationwide confrontations left more than 125 dead and drew international condemnation of government abuses. “Venezuela is moving from an authoritarian state towards a totalitarian one,” says Mr Smolansky, looking shell-shocked and disorientated amid the skyscrapers of New York. “I have no idea where I will settle. Exile is not easy.” Mr Smolansky is not alone. As part of Mr Maduro’s clampdown, 11 other mayors have been removed from their posts on trumped-up charges. Five are already in jail, says Mr Smolansky, while seven are on the run or in exile.

Magistrates have gone underground, too. In July, just before the opposition-controlled parliament was usurped by a “constituent assembly”, it nominated 33 independent judges to the Supreme Court. Mr Maduro vowed to arrest them “one by one”. Within days, the secret police had picked up the first, Ángel Zerpa

The rest went into hiding. Seven turned up in Colombia last month and have requested asylum. Six more are holed up in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in Caracas. The Chileans have offered asylum but the Venezuelan government refuses to let them leave. 

It is the stuff of old-fashioned Latin American dictatorships. “Judicial persecution is being used as a weapon to silence dissent,” says Luisa Ortega, the former attorney-general. A government insider who was stripped of her post in August after she broke with Mr Maduro, she too is now on the run.

After a slow start, the international community has begun to respond. Big Latin American nations such as Brazil and Mexico, historically reluctant to criticise their neighbours, have taken a tough, united stance. The US has sanctioned officials suspected of abuses and has said it is prepared to raise the pressure. Europe has said it would follow suit unless Caracas moved to restore Venezuela’s subverted constitutional order. “The international community is finally waking up,” said Tamara Taraciuk, a senior HRW researcher with a special focus on Venezuela.

For Mr Smolansky’s family, though, exile in the face of leftwing persecution is a depressingly familiar theme. His grandparents fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s and settled in Cuba, only to leave half a century later to escape Fidel Castro for the apparent safety of Venezuela, then a rich and democratic country.  [More]