On the eve of the biggest political change in Cuba since the 1959 communist revolution, the number of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana has dropped to just ten people.
The U.S. State Department published an updated embassy roster on March 22, which showed there are no political, economic, public affairs, or cultural officers left at the embassy. The majority of positions remaining are focused on the internal functioning of the embassy, its security, or its maintenance.
The new embassy head is Philip Goldberg, who holds the title of Charge d’Affairs, an official who temporarily stands in for an ambassador. Goldberg is expected to remain in role for six months, when he will likely be replaced with another Charge d’Affairs and not a permanent ambassador.
Staffing levels at the embassy were temporarily reduced in September 2017 in response to the mysterious “sonic attacks.” About two-thirds of staff were removed after several diplomats reported various symptoms, including sleep disorders, tinnitus, and headaches.
As I recently reported, those temporary cuts expired in March and were replaced with a new staffing plan designed to keep personnel levels at a bare minimum. Under these new arrangements, family members cannot accompany diplomats to the embassy in Havana.
After the U.S. government closed its embassy in January 1961, there was no representation in Cuba until 1977 when the Carter administration opened the United States Interest Section in Havana. The interest section occupied the former U.S. Embassy building and was nominally operated as a section of the Swiss Embassy to Cuba.
Current levels of embassy staffing are considerably lower than when the U.S. government operated its interest section. Visa applications and processing have ceased at the embassy. Appointments for immigrant visa interviews for Cuban citizens are now being handled by the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, while non-immigrant visas may be handled by any U.S. consulate or embassy outside Cuba.
Not only does this change in visa processing hurt Cuban citizens, but it also hurts the USA, according to James Williams, president of Engage Cuba.
“Regardless of your view of the Cuban government,” explains Williams, discussing the staffing reductions in the embassy, “that is a mistake. We should have as many people down there as possible so we have a clear idea of what’s going on, even for our own selfish reasons.”
On April 19, Raul Castro’s successor as president of Cuba will be announced. Although it is likely Castro will be replaced by Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, nothing is certain. It is also uncertain just how much power Castro will retain. He will likely remain head of the communist party and the army and so will wield a great deal of power for the foreseeable future.
This transition comes at a time of upheaval for Cuba. Weak performance of their economy, compounded by the problems in the politics and economy of their close ally Venezuela, has led to cuts in social services and education. Scarcity has increased as imports shrank by a third between 2013 and 2016. Bureaucracy from a government unsure about how far it is willing to reform its planned economy has hampered foreign investment.
Speaking in February, Williams emphasized the problems caused by the reductions in U.S. Embassy staffing: “The biggest political transition in 60 years is taking place in Cuba in two months, and we are totally blind to it.”