Ever since former President Barack Obama normalized relations with Cuba three years ago – heralding the possibility of a new era after half a century of hostility – cold warriors on both sides of the Florida Straits have gnashed their teeth at the rapprochement.
But in the coming days and weeks, sources say the Trump Administration may well shelve a good chunk of the new normal in favor of the old normal the hawks prefer – in effect, the re-freezing of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Trump won’t break renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, say senior U.S. officials. But U.S. travel and remittances to the island could be seriously curtailed again. Unprecedented dialogue on issues ranging from drug interdiction to coral reefs could be shuttered. Cuba could even find itself back on the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
And the key questions will be: Are the hawks on the south side of the Straits to blame? Or are the hawks on the north side jumping to conclusions to justify snuffing out normalization?
The big issue in Washington is whether Cuba’s communist hardliners were somehow responsible for what the Trump Administration now calls the sonic “attacks” on some two dozen U.S. diplomats based in Havana. Those mysterious and prolonged blasts, which allegedly began last year and took place mostly at the diplomats’ Havana residences, supposedly caused the Americans and their family members to experience hearing loss and other serious maladies such as brain injury.
Last week the State Department said it was recalling almost two-thirds of its embassy staff in Havana to protect their health and safety. But State also warned Americans about traveling to Cuba. And in a move that directly impacts South Florida, it suspended issuing new U.S. visas to Cubans. Then, on Tuesday, it announced it was expelling 15 Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington.
Cuba called the moves rash, unfair and "unjustified." But they may be just the start of normalization’s unraveling thanks to the acoustic espionage – if that is what indeed occurred.
U.S. officials say they don’t yet know for certain what and who was behind the attacks, which apparently began before last November’s U.S. presidential election and initially targeted U.S. intelligence agents.
And the Cubans themselves have offered no answers – even though U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson thought he'd get some last week.
That’s when Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez took the remarkable step of traveling to Washington for a face-to-face with Tillerson about the diplomatic dust-up.
“Given that Rodríguez took that unprecedented decision, [Tillerson] expected the Cubans to come with some information,” says a source familiar with the meeting.
Other close sources say Tillerson and his staff had been given reason to expect Cuba would "come clean" – that Rodríguez would perhaps even disclose the attacks were a sloppy rogue operation carried out by communist hardliners whom Cuban President Raúl Castro would now deal with.
But when Rodríguez arrived he instead repeated the Castro government’s claim that it knows nothing. Nada.
Tillerson and his aides “were taken aback by that,” says the source. What the Trump Administration decided to focus on at that point were three possible scenarios:
One, Cuba’s intelligence apparatus did carry out the sonic spook-job with Castro’s knowledge – either as an eavesdropping mission that went badly awry or as a deliberate spy-vs-spy action.
Two, a rogue cell did it – hoping the fallout would scuttle U.S.-Cuba normalization.
Three, it was perpetrated instead by other U.S. enemies such as Russia – which is notorious for these kinds of attacks – North Korea or Iran.
If it’s the second or third scenario, did the Castro government know about it?
“I believe the Cubans [would have] known all along,” says Andy Gomez, interim director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. (Some of the U.S. victims were brought to UMiami doctors for observation.)
“I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t know, given the sophistication of their intelligence apparatus for the past 60 years.”
Many Trump Administration officials feel the same way – which is why further U.S. actions are expected as early as this week after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Florida Senator and anti-Castro hardliner Marco Rubio, is expected to hold a closed-door hearing on the issue.
President Trump already put a small dent in normalization last June by making it harder for Americans to travel to Cuba and U.S. companies to do business on the island. The Treasury Department was supposed to issue new regulations on those matters last month – but the diplomatic crisis put a hold on them and may result in tougher measures.
Sources familiar with the discussions say they might even include significantly reining back the unlimited trips and remittances Cuban-Americans can make to Cuba. And should the U.S. determine Cuba was responsible for the alleged attacks – or that a third country was – Cuba could find itself back on Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which Obama had removed the country in 2015.
That would almost certainly elicit an outcry from Havana – and derail already slow normalization talks on difficult issues such as the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and Cuba’s obligation to pay reparations for U.S. property confiscated during the Cuban Revolution.
What’s not on the table right now, U.S. officials say, is canceling diplomatic relations with Cuba.
But either way, says one source, “the ball is now entirely in Cuba’s court.” And what’s likely is a long, long time-out in the U.S.-Cuba normalization game.