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Culture and Carnage: Cuban Art Can’t Hide Havanan Aggression

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Culture and Carnage: Cuban Art Can’t Hide Havanan Aggression

 

Darren E. Tromblay

 

In May 2018, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts made a serious national security faux pas by providing a platform for Cuban nationals to flack their public relations wares.  However, while the Washington cognesceti were oohing, aahing, and patting themselves on the back for being so multicultural, they might not have had time to ponder that the country whose handiwork was on display has been complicit in a campaign of chemical and biological attacks against the United States.  Exhibitions about those aspects of Cuba’s culture were conspicuously absent from the Kennedy Center – a U.S. government venue, named for the U.S. President who went eyeball-to-eyeball with the Soviets over Cuba’s hosting of Moscow’s missiles.

 

Chemical Warfare

 

Cuba historically waged a chemical – in the form of narcotics – warfare campaign against the United States. The overarching objective of Cuba’s narcotics-related activities was to effect the destabilization of the United States.[i]  Starting circa 1980, Cuba began cooperating with a Colombian narcotics ring and Cuban intelligence officers would meet the ships bringing marijuana from Colombia into Cuban waters.[ii]  Furthermore, according to Congressional testimony, Cuban officials had provided safe-haven for Colombian cocaine shipments which transited through Cuba to the United States.[iii]  Raul Castro reportedly participated, personally, with the cocaine smuggling.[iv]

 

The United States, in 1982, indicted four Cuban government officials on charges related to drug-trafficking.[v]  During the course of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s three-year investigation, which culminated with the indictments of the four Cubans – Vice Admiral Aldo Santamaria Cuadrado; Rene Rodriguez Cruz, Fernando Ravelo Renedo, and Gonzalo Bassols Suarez – the DEA determined that five million methamphetamine tablets and more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana had entered the United States via Florida.[vi]  (In addition to simply serving as a point of transshipment, Cuba also produced marijuana indigenously.[vii]  

 

Cuba’s chemical warfare campaign continued after the indictments.  DEA assessed, in 1984, that the highest levels of the Cuban government continued to participate in drug trafficking and had adopted more covert and sophisticated tactics.[viii]  In 1992, the drug-trafficking trial of Manuel Noriega linked Fidel Castro to both Panama – Noriega’s home country – and the Medellin cocaine cartel in Colombia.[ix]

 

Biological Warfare

 

Considering Cuba’s persistent weaponization of organic chemicals (e.g. coca, cannabis, etc.) the attacks against American diplomats on Cuban soil were sadly, not a complete surprise.  Starting in December 2016 - less than two years after the Obama administration re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, in mid-2015 – US State Department officials assigned to Havana began suffering from a variety of unexplained maladies which eventually included hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual difficulties, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.[x]  According to the State Department, in late 2017, U.S. diplomats had been “targeted” for “specific attacks”.[xi]  The U.S. government subsequently attributed the attacks to the Cuban government.[xii]   

 

A Chem / Bio Fifth Column?

 

Cuba’s assaults on the biology of the U.S. population makes its efforts to develop a cadre of American medical professionals – who, by virtue of their chosen profession, could have access to pathogens - a particularly troubling development.  In 1999, the Cuban government established the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) which caters exclusively to foreign medical students, including those from the United States.[xiii] 

 

Alarmingly, American officials were complicit in facilitating the U.S. students’ studies at ELAM.   Cuba made an offer, in 2000, to provide medical scholarships for U.S. students, at ELAM, following a dinner with members of the US Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) who were visiting Cuba.[xiv] Fidel Castro stipulated that he would offer as many as 500 scholarships for US students who were unable to afford medical school.[xv] The extent of the CBC’s involvement is indicated by the role its members played in processing early ELAM applicants.[xvi]

 

The United States officially designated Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism until 2015.  Facilitating Cuba’s access to Americans who were learning a dual-use profession should have been a non-starter.  US elected officials’ decision to aid and abet this access was, at best, irresponsible.  The CBC doubled-down on its poor judgement when it protested (sadly with success) the U.S. administration’s demand, in 2005, that the American ELAM students return to the United States.[xvii]

 

ELAM is not Cuba’s first foray into developing a sympathetic, operationally exploitable constituency in the United States.  Starting in 1969, the Venceremos Brigades facilitated illegal travel, by Americans, to Cuba.  These Americans were ideologically motivated and subjected themselves to manual labor in order to demonstrate their solidarity with the Cuban regime.  Not surprisingly, Cuba’s Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI) took an interest in the Venceremos Brigades, which afforded the DGI access to self-selected Cuban regime sympathizers.[xviii] 

 

The Cuban government encouraged the visiting Americans to function as proxies for the regime once they returned to the United States.  For instance, Cuba provided one of the brigades with training in journalism, film, and radio so that participants could act as propagandists on behalf of the regime.[xix]  Furthermore, the DGI viewed the Venceremos Brigades, as mechanism for the recruitment of individuals who might obtain elected or appointed office and would be able to provide the Cuban government with political, economic, or military intelligence.[xx]

 

American ELAM students are returning to the United States, looking for jobs in the medical field.  An organization known as Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba is providing these students with tutoring for US exams and connections to American medical networks.[xxi]  Students have managed to obtain employment in Minnesota, California, Washington, DC, and North Carolina hospitals.[xxii]  However, ELAM education is sub-par.  For instance, one returnee had difficulty reading CT scans and MRIs, which are little-used in Cuba.[xxiii]  E.L.A.M. instead emphasizes rudimentary skills such as interpreting the sounds of breathing.[xxiv]  The deficit in quality is indicated by multiple returnees’ failure of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam.[xxv]  However, seeding the American medical profession with ineptitude is the least of the concerns that stem from ELAM. 

 

If Cuba attempts to emulate the Venceremos Brigade model, the results could prove even destabilizing and potentially deadly.  Multiple U.S. administrations – from both parties – have identified Cuba as having a biological weapons program.[xxvi]  By insinuating Americans back into the U.S. medical system, Cuba is conceivably establishing a network, sympathetic to Havana, capable of collecting information that would contribute to bioweapons research (if not necessarily capable of practicing competent medicine).  Furthermore, by creating a cadre of activists in the medical field, Cuba may also be establishing a group of proxies capable of advocating against restrictions on collaboration between US and Cuban scientists.  Of course, demolishing the walls to the transfer of knowledge would provide Cuba with an opportunity to exploit US information, possibly in furtherance of nefarious objectives.       

 

The degree of control that Cuba will exert over its graduates is, as of yet, unknown.  According to Congressional testimony on the theory and practice of Communism, the Cuban Mission to the United Nations maintained a close association with the leaders of the Venceremos Brigades.[xxvii]  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Cuban government might attempt to maintain similar links with ELAM alumni.

 

A Disingenuous Denouement

 

Despite these efforts to subvert and, frankly, poison the American public, the Kennedy Center – a U.S. government institution – granted Cuba an esteemed venue for high-visibility propaganda.  The Cuban regime is a totalitarian one and people do not simply come and go from the island as they please.  More than 200 Cubans applied for U.S. visas to participate in the Kennedy Center’s events and those who traveled were, in all likelihood, the ones that the Cuban regime wanted as its face abroad.  In 2005 and again in 2013, multiple members of the National Ballet of Cuba defected to the United States.[xxviii]  Certainly, with these embarrassments in the recent past, the Cuban government would be especially strict about letting cultural figures – including the regularly hemorrhaging National Ballet of Cuba - travel to the United States for the Kennedy Center festival. 

 

Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for international programming and dance acknowledged the linkage between the image of Cuba presented by artists from that country and the country’s regime.  According to Adams “Cuba punches way above its weight because the government has invested in arts and culture for all of these years . . .”[xxix]  Adams, who has entertained an interest in Cuban culture for two decades, has no excuse for missing that the regime which “punches way above its weight” in the arts is also taking swings at the United States.

 

End Notes

[i] DEA Oversight and Budget Authorization, Before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate. 97th Cong. (1982).

[ii] DEA Oversight and Budget Authorization, Before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate. 97th Cong. (1982).

[iii] DEA Oversight and Budget Authorization for Fiscal Year 1986, Before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 99th Cong. S. Doc. 99-164 (1985).

[iv] “Spot the Dots: Cuba and Drugs” The Economist. April 18, 1992.

[v]. DEA Oversight and Authorization, Before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 98th Cong. S. Doc. 98-91 (1983); DEA Oversight and Budget Authorization for Fiscal Year 1986, Before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 99th Cong. S. Doc. 99-164 (1985).

[vi] George Volsky “U.S. Drug Charges Cite 4 Cuban Aides” New York Times. November 6, 1982 (https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1982/11/06/013928.html?action=click&contentCollection=Archives&module=LedeAsset&region=ArchiveBody&pgtype=article&pageNumber=1) accessed June 19, 2018.

[vii] DEA Oversight and Budget Authorization, Before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate. 97th Cong. (1982)

[viii] DEA Oversight and Budget Authorization, Before the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 98th Cong. S. Doc 98-794 (1984).

[ix] “Spot the Dots: Cuba and Drugs” The Economist. April 18, 1992.

[x] Carol Morello. “U.S. Slashing Embassy Staff in Cuba, Issuing Travel Warning because of Apparent Sonic ‘Attacks’” Washington Post. September 29, 2017; Felicia Schwartz, “State Department, Embassy Workers’ Union Confirm Health Problems in Havana; Staffer Suffered Mild Brain Injuries and Hearing Loss Attributed to Sonic Attacks” Wall Street Journal. September 1, 2017.

[xi] Carol Morello. “U.S. Slashing Embassy Staff in Cuba, Issuing Travel Warning because of Apparent Sonic ‘Attacks’” Washington Post. September 29, 2017.

[xii] Tracy Wilkinson. “Trump Blames Cuba for Attacks on U.S. Diplomats” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2017.

[xiii] Anakwa Dwamena. “Why African-American Doctors Are Choosing to Study Medicine in Cuba” New Yorker.com. https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/why-african-american-doctors-are-choosing-to-study-medicine-in-cuba, June 6, 2018 (accessed June 20, 2018).

[xiv] Cindy Loose. “The Cuban Solution,” Washington Post, July 23, 2006.

[xv] Cindy Loose. “The Cuban Solution,” Washington Post, July 23, 2006; Cat Wise “Cuba Offers Poor Medical Students a Free Ride,” PBS NewsHour, December 22, 2010.

[xvi] Mark Fineman, “8 Americans in Havana Are Med Students with a Mission,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2001.

[xvii] Marc Lacey, “Hippocrates Meets Fidel and Even US Students Enroll,” New York Times, December 8, 2006.

[xviii]Annual Report of the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws, of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 94th Cong. (1976).

[xix] The Theory and Practice of Communism in 1972 (Venceremos Brigade), Before the Committee on Internal Security, House of Representatives. 92nd Cong. Pt. 2. 7863 (1972).

[xx] FBI Charter Act of 1979, S 1612, before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate. 96th Cong. Pt. 2. (1980).

[xxi] Anakwa Dwamena. “Why African-American Doctors Are Choosing to Study Medicine in Cuba” New Yorker.com. https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/why-african-american-doctors-are-choosing-to-study-medicine-in-cuba, June 6, 2018 (accessed June 20, 2018).

[xxii] Anakwa Dwamena. “Why African-American Doctors Are Choosing to Study Medicine in Cuba” New Yorker.com. https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/why-african-american-doctors-are-choosing-to-study-medicine-in-cuba, June 6, 2018 (accessed June 20, 2018).

[xxiii] Anakwa Dwamena. “Why African-American Doctors Are Choosing to Study Medicine in Cuba” New Yorker.com. https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/why-african-american-doctors-are-choosing-to-study-medicine-in-cuba, June 6, 2018 (accessed June 20, 2018).

[xxiv] Cindy Loose. “The Cuban Solution,” Washington Post, July 23, 2006.

[xxv] Cindy Loose. “The Cuban Solution,” Washington Post, July 23, 2006.

[xxvi] Dana Priest “Cuba Poses ‘Negligible’ Threat, Report Says” Washington Post. May 7, 1998; Steven R. Weisman. “In Stricter Study, U.S. Scales Back Claim on Cuba Arms” New York Times. September 18, 2004.

[xxvii] The Theory and Practice of Communism in 1972 (Venceremos Brigade), Before the Committee on Internal Security, House of Representatives. 92nd Cong. Pt. 2. 7825 (1972).

[xxviii] Erika Kinetz “The ‘Cuban Nijinsky’ Seeks Asylum and Stardom” New York Times. August 31, 2005; Erika Kinetz. “Cuban Dancers Defect” New York Times. November 8, 2005; Daniel J. Wakin “Citing Art and Money, 7 Cuban Dancers Defect to U.S.” New York Times. April 5, 2013.

[xxix] Sadie Dingfelder. “The Kennedy Center Is Bringing Cuba’s Top Musicians, Dancers and Other Artists to D.C.” Washington Post. May 3, 2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2018/05/03/the-kennedy-centers-cuba-festival-is-bringing-the-islands-top-musicians-dancers-and-other-artists-to-d-c/?utm_term=.8b3bb7ef77f5 accessed June 19, 2018.

 

About the Author(s)

Darren E. Tromblay has served the U.S. Intelligence Community, as an Intelligence Analyst, for more than a decade. He is the author of The U.S. Domestic Intelligence Enterprise: History, Development, and Operations (Taylor & Francis, 2015) and co-author of Securing U.S. Innovation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Mr. Tromblay has been published by Lawfare, the Hill, Small Wars Journal, and Intelligence and National Security. He holds an MA from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, an MS from the National Intelligence University, and a BA from the University of California. Mr. Tromblay can be reached at Tromblay@gwu.edu. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book on the impact of foreign influence operations against U.S. policymaking, which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2018. The views expressed in this essay are entirely his own and do not represent those of any U.S. government or other entity.