Secretary of State Rex Tillerson returned recently from a tour throughout Latin America in which he urged governments in the region to focus on the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The Colombian government announced new measures to block the flow of desperate refugees from Venezuela. The exodus also impacts on other countries including Curacao and other Caribbean islands. There are also large Venezuelan exile communities in the United States. Unfortunately, lacking in the diplomatic discussions on what to do about Venezuela is a full awareness of Havana’s criminal role in the crisis.  

Nicolas Maduro cannot blame “a blockade” which is the term used by Havana to describe American policy of economic sanctions against the Castros dynasty. To this day the United States is the top purchaser of Venezuelan oil.  In this CubaBrief you may read “Cuba is making the crisis in Venezuela worse” by Jose Cardenas published in Foreign Policy. Just imagine what the positive consequences for the region and other parts of the world would be if instead of a regime that insists in trying to make the failed Marxist model work while denying the Cuban people the most basic rights there was in Cuba a democratic government responsive to its people.

Also in this CubaBrief the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation, an independent human rights organization based in Havana that continues to be denied the required “registration” by the government, released the monthly figures of arbitrary detentions. In January of 2018 there were 330 arbitrary arrests. The Center for a Free Cuba has forwarded the Commission’s report to Federica Mogherini, and other European leaders. Until now the EU has ignored the human rights situation in Cuba, which according to press reports could prompt the suspension of the agreement.

Finally, the controversy about the health attacks on American diplomats stationed in Havana has entered a new phase.  While the Cuban government claims that the symptoms are the result of “stress”, a University of Miami doctor who treated some of the patients disputes the regime’s claims.

Foreign Policy, February 7, 2018

Elephants in the Room

Cuba Is Making the Crisis in Venezuela Worse

Putting pressure on Caracas means holding Havana accountable.

By José R. Cárdenas | February 7, 2018, 5:35 PM

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, left, and Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana, Cuba, on Dec. 14, 2017. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

With President Donald Trump singling out “the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela” in his State of the Union address and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson using his first trip to Latin America to rally regional support for tougher measures against Venezuela, the Trump administration is clearly signaling its intention to escalate diplomatic and economic pressure on the authoritarian regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

There is no other course. The Maduro regime’s intransigence, its systematic destruction of democracy, and its epic economic malpractice are creating not only a humanitarian nightmare within Venezuela, but a migration crisis that threatens the stability of it neighbors, including Colombia and nearby Caribbean islands.

Pressing forward on a strategy of increased sanctions and multilateral pressure is right, but at the same time the Trump administration cannot delink Venezuela and Cuba, for there will be no resolution in Venezuela without addressing the pernicious influence of the Castro regime in fortifying Maduro’s grip on power and rooting out any internal opposition to the breakdown of democratic order.

Today, the penetration of Venezuela by thousands of Cuban operatives is complete. While it remains difficult to quantify the exact numbers, according to a Brookings Institution report, Cuban intelligence operatives and military advisors in Venezuela range from hundreds to thousands. Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro puts the number at 15,000, likening them to “an occupation army from Cuba in Venezuela.”

Certainly, there is nothing new to the incestuous Venezuela-Cuba relationship. What is new is the Maduro regime’s increasing brazenness in pursuing an uncompromising survival strategy straight out of the Castro playbook: ever-more reliance on repression to maintain control, while driving the discontented out of the country. Cuba’s fingerprints are all over this human tragedy.

So what more can the Trump administration do to hold Cuba accountable? The United States already maintains an embargo on most commercial activity with Cuba and the U.S. embassy there is running on a skeleton staff due to the health attacks on U.S. diplomats. Yet, there are options that would raise the costs to the Castro regime for its destructive role in Venezuela, for which it has paid no price to date.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Suspend the working groups between the U.S. and Cuba established by the Obama administration, especially the U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogues, which involves intelligence-sharing on counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and other criminal activity. Cuban President Raúl Castro desperately craves legitimacy through these meetings, even as common sense screams out about their utter incongruity.
  • Expand U.S. drug investigations in Venezuela to Cuban officials based there. Venezuela is a full-blown narco-state, with numerous high-ranking officials implicated in facilitating drug shipments from Colombia through Venezuela and on to the United States and Europe. Given Cuba’s intimate standing in Venezuela, it defies belief that some Cuban officials are not likewise complicit.
  • Oppose Cuba’s participation in the eighth Summit of the Americas, to be held April 13 and 14 in Lima, Peru. Although there has been no word on Cuba’s participation, it attended the 2015 summit with the acquiescence of the Obama administration. Cuba’s ongoing, destructive role in Venezuela merits vociferous opposition on the part of the United States this time around.
  • Target Cubans operating in Venezuela with sanctions. In its first year, the Trump administration sanctioned more than two dozen Venezuelan officials for narcotrafficking, assaults against democracy, and human right abuses. It should extend those sanctions to Cuban officials in Venezuela. While they are not likely to have assets in the United States to be frozen or visas to be withdrawn, sanctions would target their dealings with entities that come into contact with the U.S. financial system. Secondly, the stigma of U.S. sanctions is a powerful psychological tool, especially when targets are named and shamed before the Venezuelan people.
  • To raise the economic costs to Cuba, reactivate Title IV of the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, which denies U.S. visas to foreign persons profiting from confiscated property in Cuba claimed by U.S. nationals. In 22 years, the provision has only been invoked a handful of times. Reintroducing this threat will have a chilling effect on the Castro regime’s effort to lure foreign investment in its tourism industry, the Cuban military’s cash cow.
  • Return Cuba to the official list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Obama administration removed Cuba for purely political purposes to facilitate its normalization process, despite there being no evidence the Castro regime had mended its ways (in fact, the evidence points to the contrary).

There is very little to be optimistic about regarding Venezuela. Some liken it to an out-of-control bus that needs to crash before anything can be done. But that is an abdication of responsibility by those in a position to prevent such a tragedy and a disservice to the Venezuelan people.  Moreover, there will be those who claim the United States has no moral authority to act in preventing the destruction of Venezuela. It’s very likely, however, that not many of them live there.


José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

The Miami Herald, February 8, 2018


UM doctor who examined American diplomats in Havana: Symptoms are not caused by stress

By Nora Gámez Torres

The University of Miami doctor who traveled to Havana to examine American diplomats and others who were allegedly victims of health attacks has ruled out Cuba’s suggestion that the symptoms were the result of mental angst.

“It is not psychosomatic,” Dr. Michael Hoffer told el Nuevo Herald in reference to the cause that could have provoked physical symptoms suffered by at least 24 confirmed victims over a period of eight months.

People suffering from psychosomatic disorders develop physical symptoms with emotional causes such as stress and anxiety. Among the most common symptoms reported by the American victims — which include diplomats, family members and intelligence officials — are headaches, loss of hearing, nausea, fatigue and mild brain trauma.

Canadian diplomats reported similar symptoms, but little information has been revealed in their cases.

Hoffer, a former U.S. Navy doctor, was tapped by the U.S. Department of State last year to examine 80 U.S. employees and relatives in Havana. An otolaryngologist who also specializes in the treatment of concussions, he is one of the authors of two medical articles that describe details of the case. The articles are supposed to appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association and The New England Journal of Medicine once they are approved for publication by the State Department.

Exactly what caused the ailments? That remains a mystery.

The State Department has said it has not yet been able to determine the source or the perpetrators of the alleged attacks but have pinpointed the time frame and locations where the incidents occurred: between November 2016 and August 2017 at diplomats’ residences and at rooms in two hotels in Havana, the Hotel Nacional and Capri.

According to the AP, the FBI has ruled out that an acoustic weapon is to blame for the attacks.

“We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. The investigation into the attacks is ongoing,” a State Department spokesperson told the Herald in a statement. “The Department’s Diplomatic Security Service continues to coordinate closely with appropriate law enforcement agencies.”

Hoffer declined to comment on any other details tied to the cases because he said he was not authorized by the State Department to do so.

In January, a retired employee from UM who spoke with Hoffer said the doctor considered there was evidence to qualify the incidents as attacks.

The Cuban government, meanwhile, says there is no evidence that any kind of attack has occurred against U.S. personnel. Cuban doctors summoned by the island’s government to investigate the incidents have suggested that the allegations of so many different symptoms could be a case of collective hysteria, a theory also bounced around by some experts in the United States.

Josefina Vidal, the Cuban diplomat in charge of U.S. affairs at the foreign ministry, publicly stated in January that “months of exhaustive investigations have shown that there has been no attack.”

The U.S. team handling the investigation evaluated several theories, among them that the symptoms were caused by a virus. But U.S. officials recently disclosed that a panel of experts who evaluated the cases concluded last summer that the symptoms “were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source,” Charles Rosenfarb, medical director at the State Department, said at a Senate hearing in January.

After being notified of the incidents in February 2017, the Cuban government launched its own investigation. Cuban officials have complained that U.S. investigators have not shared enough information. Cuban doctors did not interview any of the American victims.

Dr. Mitchell J. Valdés-Sosa, director of the Neuroscience Center of Cuba, told the Miami Herald that medical information sent to the Cuba team by U.S. authorities did not include audiograms, MRIs, CAT scans or tables indicating what symptoms each patient had.

What the Cuban investigators received was “a collection of nonspecific symptoms,” he said. “We do not know if everyone was affected equally.”

Valdés-Sosa also said that he has heard about the imminent publication of articles written by U.S. doctors but added: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

The alleged attacks have plunged Washington and Havana into a bitter dispute.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry says there is no evidence that any kind of attack has occurred, but the United States has insisted that Cuba is responsible for the protection of its diplomats. President Donald Trump’s administration has ordered the evacuation of most of its personnel at the embassy in Havana and the expulsion of 17 Cuban diplomats.

With the evacuation order came a warning advising Americans to “reconsider” trips to Cuba. More recently, the State Department was contacted by 19 American travelers, who reported symptoms similar to those suffered by the diplomats. However, the agency did not clarify if any of these cases were medically confirmed.

Cuban officials have complained that they learned of these allegations by reading the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report from Havana.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres in Twitter: @ngameztorres