Appearing on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, October 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that the Trump administration was reviewing whether to close the U.S. embassy in Havana because of the mysterious injuries suffered by U.S. diplomats from late 2016 to early 2017. Just two days earlier, five Republican senators, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) among them, urged Tillerson to close the embassy and expel all Cuban diplomats from the United States in retaliation for the purported attacks.
Closing the U.S. embassy makes no sense. It would punish Cuba for actions whose perpetrator remains unidentified, and it would seriously damage U.S. interests. The demands of these Republicans come as no surprise. They opposed the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in the first place and are using the injuries to U.S. personnel as a handy excuse to refight a policy battle they lost, not only in 2016 when President Barack Obama restored relations, but again in 2017 when President Donald Trump decided not to break them.
Few people believe the Cuban government was directly responsible for whatever harmed U.S. personnel and no evidence has emerged implicating it. As a source close to the investigation told Reuters, “U.S. officials here in Cuba have never suspected the Cubans as perpetrating these events.” The State Department has been careful not to blame Havana, though it expelled two Cuban diplomats as punishment for Cuba’s failure to protect U.S. diplomats on the island.
The ongoing investigation of the incidents, which also injured a handful of Canadian diplomats, has yet to establish who was responsible, how they did it, or why. By all accounts, the Cubans are cooperating fully with both the U.S. and Canadian inquiries, going so far as to offer to allow the FBI to send investigators.
The whole affair is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. An attack by Cuban authorities intended to injure the diplomats would run counter to Cuba’s own interests. U.S. diplomats in Havana have faced petty harassment over the years, but even when relations were at their worst a decade ago, there was never an attempt to inflict physical harm. Moreover, these new incidents happened at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations were improving. There is even less reason to target Canadians. Cuba and Canada have been on good terms for years and Canada supports the island’s most important industry by sending more tourists to Cuba annually than any other country.
Discerning a rationale for the attacks (if they were, in fact, attacks) is problematic, but trying to figure out the science behind the incidents is harder still. The wide range of symptoms reported by the victims, from nosebleeds, nausea and temporary hearing loss to mild traumatic brain injury, do not fit any known acoustic technology, despite the Department of State’s initial statement that they were produced by some sort of sonic weapon. As the Associated Press reported, “the facts and the physics don’t add up.”
Regardless, closing the U.S. embassy in Havana would be a self-inflicted wound, reversing not just Obama’s policy, but the policies of the previous six presidents, three of them Republicans, all of whom saw the value in maintaining the U.S. diplomatic mission that President Jimmy Carter established in 1977 as an Interests Section (one step short of a full-fledged embassy).
As Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016, diplomatic relations are not a gift the United States gives to Cuba. Having an embassy provides practical benefits that serve U.S. interests. U.S. diplomats are able to interact with all sectors of Cuban society. They travel around the island, providing first-hand reports on social, economic, and political conditions. They foster cultural and educational exchanges, and engage with Cuban officials to promote cooperation on issues of mutual interest.
In 2016, over 600,000 U.S. residents visited Cuba. If there is no U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, who will provide those visitors with consular services when they need them? Every year, the embassy processes visa requests from over 50,000 Cubans seeking to travel to the United States as immigrants or visitors. If the embassy is closed, who will process those visas?
Whatever injured U.S. and Canadian diplomats seems to have stopped, so personnel serving on the island do not appear to be in imminent danger. It took 55 years to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed them in 1961. It would be a serious blunder to precipitously cut them again without good cause, sacrificing the important benefits that normal relations provide.
William LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University. He is the co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.