Fifty-five years after the United States and Russia went to the brink of war over the Cuban Missile Crisis, another critical event in the relationship between the United States and Cuba has been reached as President Trump openly blamed Cuba on Monday for the attacks on US diplomats over the past year.
The announcement by President Trump comes after a fruitless investigation into the attacks by multiple investigative agencies, including the FBI.
For those who follow Cuba or US foreign policy, the attacks on US diplomats living in Havana have been hard to miss. According to the US State Department, 22 Americans are “medically confirmed” to have been affected by the attacks, which have continued since late 2016 into August of this year.
“I do believe Cuba’s responsible. I do believe that,” Trump said in a news conference. “And it’s a very unusual attack, as you know. But I do believe Cuba is responsible.” Although the President did not further elaborate on the claim, some reasons for the finger-pointing include Cuba’s tight control over security in Havana and close surveillance of Americans working there. The State Department said that whatever the case, it’s Cuba’s responsibility under international law to protect US embassy workers. “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said.
Although it’s a long way from escalating to the level of crisis experienced by onlookers to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the attacks, along with the US response to them, could send US-Cuba relations back even further than they were before 2015. That was when the two nations re-opened diplomatic relations for the first time in decades.
Some have proffered the possibility of a third country perpetrating the attacks, and this has not yet been ruled out by the US government. Among the many theories, Russia is the most popular. However, whether or not Russia is in any responsible for the attacks, the old ally of Cuba is certainly increasing its activity and presence in Cuba.
A series of events have begun to make those who wish for strong US-Cuba relations nervous, the first of which are the increased diplomatic talks between Cuba and Russia. On July 26th, Josefina Vidal, the main Cuban negotiator with the US, met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on a September 20th meeting at the UN General Assembly.
The Cuban ambassador in Moscow has had an unusually peripatetic agenda in Moscow over the past year, meeting with Ryabkov at least five times. In addition, multiple economic agreements between the two nations have been reached over the past year, including an agreement in 2016 for Russia to help modernize the Cuban army, along with increased oil shipments from Russian company Rosneft to offset the decline of Venezuelan oil imports.
To Richard Feinberg, an expert at Washington, D.C.-based think tank Brookings Institution, the pattern is clear. “Putin’s message is not difficult to understand,” he said, “Putin longs to regain the past imperial glory and relations with Cuba follow that same pattern.” The President, however, has placed the blame entirely on the island nation, and for now, it’s impossible to tell which theory (if either) is correct.