The U.S. Interests Section in Cuba is an unusual diplomatic mission for many reasons. It has a grand location and is the largest diplomatic mission in Havana, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations. Thanks to restrictions initiated during the Bush Administration, its diplomats cannot leave Havana (and Cuba’s diplomats in Washington cannot breach the Beltway) without the host government’s prior permission. USINT used to function like a typical U.S. mission in the former Soviet bloc, with a degree of access to officials and active cultural and informational programs – but for some years its official access has been limited to the Foreign Ministry’s North America division. Recently, it seems that cultural contacts are picking up.
Given the limitations imposed on U.S. personnel, USINT’s reporting has long been a subject of speculation. Visitors to Havana notice that whereas in most countries one goes to the U.S. Embassy to learn what is going on in the country, in Cuba you go to the U.S. mission and get friendly questioning about what you have seen and heard, especially outside the capital. One wonders whether USINT’s reporting is slanted or trimmed to please the Administration in power. Also: Given Washington’s intense focus on Cuba’s dissidents, how does USINT see them as a political force?
It’s too early to say a lot about these questions, as Wikileaks continues its very slow release of diplomatic cables. But in recent days a good number of cables have come out that discuss the Cuban leadership, Fidel Castro’s health crisis, the dissidents, and other topics.
In the play-to-your-audience category, this one from 2007 stood out. In remarking on Raul Castro’s “reputation as a family man,” USINT chief Michael Parmly felt compelled to start with this phrase: “Yes, both Fidel and Raul Castro are mass murderers and cruel leaders…” He also referred to Raul as “acting Cuban dictator.” Maybe these were craven remarks to curry personal favor with the Bush Administration, or maybe they bought the author space to deliver unpleasant messages – that some independent journalists were barred from USINT Internet facilities because they were disruptive and abusive; that USINT doesn’t trust prominent dissidents (same cable); or that a student critical of the Cuban government credits “increased contact with actual Americans” (which Bush was trying to reduce) with improving attitudes toward Americans even among Cubans suspicious of the Bush Administration.
Regarding the dissidents, this 2009 cable balances their daunting difficulties – harassment and penetration by state security – with the fact that they are barely known among Cubans and are not politically effective.
Here are the recent releases, thanks to El Pais:
- From Embassy Brussels, April 18, 2005 – an EU official’s account of EU Commissioner Louis Michel’s visit to Havana, where former foreign minister Perez Roque’s negotiating style is described as, “I’ll tell you the time if you give me your watch”
- From USINT Havana, April 27, 2006 – on a visit by dissidents Elizardo Sanchez and Vladimiro Roca, where they complain that some independent journalists were barred from USINT Internet facilities
- From Embassy Caracas, August 10, 2006 – on the impact that Fidel Castro’s absence would have on Cuba-Venezuela relations, with the Embassy asking permission to warn the Venezuelan government “against intervening in Cuba during its transition”
- From Embassy Madrid, December 27, 2006 – on a Spanish doctor’s public statements that Fidel Castro does not suffer from cancer
- From USINT Havana, January 3, 2007 – on speculation on the state of Fidel Castro’s health
- From USINT Havana, March 16, 2007 – on Fidel Castro’s health and a report on how his health crisis began July 26, 2006 on a Holguin-Havana flight with no doctor aboard
- From USINT Havana, June 19, 2007 – on the death of Vilma Espin
- From USINT Havana, January 18, 2008 – on a teleconference between the Secretary of Commerce and Cuban students, and a post-conference political conversation with a student
- From USINT Havana, January 15, 2009 – on speculation about the state of Fidel Castro’s health, with this conclusion: “We do not believe the announcement of Fidel’s death will spark either violent demonstrations or a quick surge in migration. The security arrangements noted in the previous paragraph and the Cuban people’s generally conservative nature after 50 years of repression, combined with still significant admiration for Fidel personally, argue against short term disturbances. Far from generating a surge in migration, the announcement of his death could cause a drop in such activity as Cubans wait to see if Fidel’s passing brings any change to the island.”
- From USINT Havana, April 15, 2009 – on the dissident movement and its weight in Cuban politics
- From Embassy Madrid, February 18, 2010 – on a conversation on Cuba between Spanish officials and Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela