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Russia is suspected of attacks against diplomats in Cuba. Will US strike back?

Workers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana leave the building on Sept. 29, 2017, after the State Department announced that it was withdrawing all but essential personnel from the embassy because Cuba could no longer guarantee diplomats' safety. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS)

Cuba is again in the middle of what could be another confrontation between the United States and Russia, after Moscow was identified in a news report as the main suspect in the string of mysterious attacks against U.S. Embassy personnel and relatives in Havana.

An NBC report quoting unidentified U.S. officials said federal agencies investigating the incidents have intercepted intelligence communications that point to Russian responsibility for the attacks, although the evidence is not conclusive enough to formally accuse Moscow.

But if a Russian role is confirmed, “that would be unprecedented. That’s never happened,” said Frank Mora, who served as deputy secretary of defense for Latin America and now heads the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.

“Russia has meddled in the U.S. elections and has been behind the attacks on former Russian spies in England, but to provoke serious injuries to U.S. officials, that is much more complicated and the United States has to react in some way,” he added.

The NBC report said the U.S. military is working to replicate the weapon or weapons used to injure 26 employees of the State Department, the CIA and other federal agencies as well as relatives who were based in Havana. The victims suffered symptoms such as loss of hearing, cognitive problems and some experienced brain damage.

A team of doctors that investigated the incidents at the request of the U.S. government has said it’s possible the attackers used a “neuro-weapon” of directed energy that could damage the brain by causing a “cavitation” effect with ultrasonic, electromagnetic or microwaves. The U.S. Air Force research program on directed energy is participating in the investigation.

Mora and other experts told the Miami Herald that if Moscow’s role in the attacks is confirmed, the U.S. government could impose more sanctions on Russia. “There would be pressure for President Donald Trump or the White House to issue a statement,” said Chris Sabatini, a Latin American expert and professor at Columbia University.

Cuba also could face repercussions.

“My fear is that Cuba would be more of a whipping boy for Russia, even though their fingerprints are everywhere”, said Sabatini. “It’s the weakest player, and that’s been the U.S. policy under the Trump administration.”

Trump has stepped up the U.S. rhetoric against Cuba and tightened restrictions on travel and investments on the island. With the likely appointment of anti-Castro hard-liner Mauricio Claver-Carone as Latin American director at the National Security Council, the White House could use the Havana attacks to reverse more of the engagement measures adopted by former President Barack Obama and perhaps even return Cuba to the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, Sabatini said.

Mora said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican who is close to Claver-Carone and has influenced Trump policies on Cuba, could use “the opportunity to tighten and put more sanctions and pressures on the Cuban government.”

The senator’s office declined to comment on the NBC report, but Rubio told the Herald last week that “ultimately it’s the Cuban regime who needs to be held accountable. Because either they carried out these attacks or they know who did and aren’t telling us.”

The U.S. government withdrew most of its embassy personnel in Havana, but has not blamed Cuba for the attacks. The Cuban government has denied any involvement and branded the complaints as lies.

Yet, Rubio is not alone in saying there’s little chance the Cuban government does not know who’s behind the incidents. Cuba has failed to protect U.S. personnel in Havana, the State Department has argued.

One of the most popular theories in Washington and Miami is that hard-liners within the Cuban government, who wanted to stop the process of normalization of relations started by the Obama administration, could have collaborated with Russia on the attacks.

“Historically, that’s been a problem for them,” said Mora, referring to the sympathy among Cuban security officials for the Soviet experts who trained them. And Raul Castro, who stepped down as president in April but remains head of the Communist Party of Cuba, may not want to admit that he does not have total control of what happens on the island.

There have been unconfirmed reports in recent months that before he left the government, Castro quietly dismantled or reorganized the National Security and Defense Commission headed by his son, Interior Ministry Col. Alejandro Castro Espin, because either the son was not aware of the attacks, could not stop them or was involved in some way. The Herald has not been able to confirm the rumors, but Castro Espin has not been seen in public for several months.

Some experts have said that Cuban security forces may have simply failed to notice and stop the attacks.

“It is unlikely, given the tight level of control the regime maintains over the population, that they didn’t know,” said Sabatini. “But in the mid 1990s, there was a series of bombings in hotels and weeks passed before they got those responsible. It is unlikely, but not impossible.”

In this obscure saga, Russia’s motivations for attacking U.S. officials may be more evident.

“It is clear that Russia has an interest in sabotaging the renewed U.S.-Cuba relationship. Over the past few years, Russia has ramped up engagement and investment in Cuba because they are clearly threatened,” said James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, a coalition of U.S. companies pushing to improve relations with Cuba and end the U.S. embargo. “If these allegations are confirmed, the Trump administration has a responsibility to hold Russia accountable.”

Ben Rhodes, who handled the Obama administration’s secret negotiations to re-establish diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, has said that Russian spies closely followed the contacts.

But analysts of U.S.-Cuba relations don’t agree on what Havana could win by participating in or turning a blind eye to the attacks.

“The alleged attacks occurred when relations between our countries were at their best point in over half a century. Raul Castro (bet) his entire legacy on normalizing diplomatic relations with the United States” said Ric Herrero, policy director of the Cuba Study Group.

“It makes no sense for the Cuba government, which Raul still oversees as first secretary of the Communist Party, to undermine its own efforts to normalize trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S., especially when its top benefactor, Venezuela, is on the verge of total collapse,” Herrero added.

The Russian economy is suffering under sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other governments, Mora said, and the country is not in a position to offer the kind of economic subsidies that Cuba needs.

But the Russians have promised to help modernize the island’s railroad and port systems as well as its military, and it is supplying part of the oil that Venezuela had been delivering on preferential terms, said Sabatini: “That’s more than what Cuba gets from the United States.”

On the other hand, the attacks started right after Donald Trump was elected president in November of 2016, said Sabatini, and the Cubans “could have suspected that the engagement (under Obama) was going to end. What did they have to lose? The Cuban economy is in dire need.”

The most recent attacks, reported in April and May, have perplexed most analysts who argue that by then, the Cuban government should have figured out who was behind the attacks and stopped them.

“It makes sense if they are as much in the dark about how it is happening as we are,” said American University professor William LeoGrande. “Note that there are cases in China as well. China and Russia are rivals, not allies, but the Chinese have no success solving the mystery either. I think Russia is using these attacks to try to drive a wedge between the United States and Cuba, and the United States and China, as a way of bolstering Russian influence.”

Several analysts agreed that the focus of any U.S. response should be on Russia, not Cuba, if Moscow is confirmed as the principal responsible.

“If the Russians are responsible, then it doesn’t make sense to impose additional sanctions against Cuba unless it can be demonstrated that the Cubans knew and were active collaborators,” said LeoGrande. “This is especially true since diplomatic relations with Cuba serve U.S. interests as much as they serve Cuban interests, and U.S. interests have already suffered as a result of the reduced embassy staffing.

“If the evidence against Russia is clear, Cuba could and should provide credible assurances to the United States that this will not happen again,” LeoGrande added.

For those who favor a U.S. policy of engagement with Cuba, the attacks on Havana only show what can happen when the United States withdraws from the hemisphere.

“By rolling back our policy of engagement, Trump and those who wish to isolate Cuba would be effectively ceding our neighborhood to Russia and placing their own narrow, domestic political agendas ahead of our national security,” said Herrero. “Our country cannot afford this.”


© 2018 Miami Herald

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