Cuba must respect U.S. diplomats
Posted on Friday, 12.05.08
Cuba must respect U.S. diplomats
BY EVERETT ELLIS BRIGGS
Those hoping the new Obama administration will move swiftly to
''normalize'' our relations with Cuba might first want to take a look at
how U.S. diplomats fare at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (USINT)
— our existing diplomatic establishment on the island.
The Cuban government systematically ignores international practice by
interfering with USINT operations and harassing our people, a situation
that has gotten worse over time. This seriously impedes USINT's ability
to do its work and undermines morale. Examples abound.
• Delivery of diplomatic pouches is delayed, and other official
shipments are subjected to improper scrutiny.
• Items such as printed matter intended for local distribution are no
longer being allowed in, seriously hindering USINT's outreach to the
• The regime controls visits by consular officers to imprisoned U.S.
citizens by limiting their frequency and dictating who on the staff can
perform this duty.
• The regime limits the number of temporary duty personnel sent out from
Washington to perform maintenance on USINT equipment, undermining the
mission's security and communications systems.
• The Cuban government vets all local hires, giving it direct access to
what goes on inside our diplomatic mission and in the homes of our
personnel; and it dictates which houses are available for our staff to
rent — posing obvious security risks for USINT and staff alike.
• Cuban police control all access to USINT, supposedly for its
protection. In fact, this is how the regime seeks to intimidate and keep
tabs on anyone visiting our mission.
• Perhaps most galling from the standpoint of daily living in Cuba,
foreign officials are barred from shopping anywhere except at one of
Cuba's ''dollar'' stores, where they are required to pay a 250 percent
sales tax on consumer items.
What's really wrong with this picture is the complete lack of
reciprocity. Unaccountably, the State Department simply lets Cuba get
away with violating international diplomatic norms with impunity, while
back in Washington, the diplomatic immunity of Cuban diplomats is
scrupulously respected, and they are afforded all the privileges granted
to other foreign representatives.
Washington seems to have forgotten the lessons of the Cold War. Back
then, bad behavior toward our people abroad begat parallel treatment of
officials from offending states assigned to the United States, usually
leading to swift corrective action in foreign capitals and a return of
In addition to a tit-for-tat response to the several examples of Cuban
abuses cited, the State Department should be able to think up additional
ways to level the playing field, until the Cuban regime adopts a more
civilized stance. Why, for example, should Cuban diplomats in the United
States (including at the United Nations) be exempt from paying sales
taxes? This privilege could easily be suspended until such time as
Cuba's larcenous 250 percent sales tax is lifted.
Why should Cubans in this country be allowed to travel freely, frequent
public recreational areas or rent space outside official premises for
special events, when such activity is denied to USINT's staff? A serious
morale issue at our mission in Havana is the frequent and often
prolonged denial of water and electric power to the thoroughly
''bugged'' homes, not because of communist mismanagement but as a
deliberate policy of harassment. Even more demoralizing are the
occasional home break-ins, sometimes with damage to personal property,
that go uninvestigated and unsanctioned.
Such outrages deserve swift countermeasures by imaginative U.S.
technicians and agents in Washington. Those at State charged with the
''care and feeding'' of foreign diplomats will strongly object, both out
of bureaucratic lethargy and because of a misguided sense of diplomatic
decorum. But this should not be allowed to get in the way of unambiguous
reciprocal measures, which, given time, will produce the desired
results, as past experience with other communist dictatorships has
As long as the Cubans are allowed to get away with it, there is a risk
Cuba's acolytes — Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua come to mind
— will be tempted adopt a similar approach to los gringos. (To some
degree, Bolivia already has gone one step further by sanctioning an
attack on our La Paz embassy and seconding a threat by coca producers to
kill our personnel.)
How diplomatic relations are carried out is of necessity something of a
balancing act. There is little balance in the way U.S.Cuban relations
are conducted. It's past time to correct this, and it should be taken
care of before any serious discussion of ''normalization'' is even
Everett Ellis Briggs, a Cuban-born, retired U.S. diplomat, was
ambassador to Panama, Honduras and Portugal. He served as special
assistant to the first President Bush for national security.