America needs an embassy in Cuba

America needs an embassy in Cuba
© Getty Images

The U.S. Department of State has announced a drawdown of about 60 percent of the staff of our embassy in Havana and imposed a reciprocal reduction on the Cuban embassy in Washington. This is a serious action taken in response to attacks on several U.S. diplomats and family members while serving in Havana in late 2016, and the apparent continuation of those attacks in recent months. While the United States has not directly accused Cuba of carrying out these attacks, it has made clear that it holds Cuba responsible for failing to safeguard U.S. diplomats.

These incidents have caused some to question whether we should maintain an embassy in Cuba at all, especially given the failure of Cuba to allow its own people to enjoy greater economic and civil rights. We have maintained a diplomatic presence in Cuba, first as a special interests section and now as an embassy, since 1977. It was established under President Carter and has been maintained by Republican and Democratic presidents for the last 40 years because an official U.S. presence in Cuba is essential to the advancement of U.S. foreign policy goals.

The United States is an open society with an abundance of media that any foreign government may draw upon to understand our political, economic, social and defense policies. Cuba is a closed society with no independent media and actively tries to conceal basic information from even its own citizens. A U.S. Embassy in Havana is far more valuable to the United States in understanding what is going on in Cuba than a Cuban Embassy in Washington is for Cuba in understanding the United States, which has many important interests in Cuba starting with the welfare of U.S. citizens. More than 500,000 American citizens visit Cuba each year. Approximately 80 percent of those are Cuban-Americans visiting family members. We have American citizens in Cuban jails whom our diplomats visit and Americans who become ill or injured whom we assist.

To reduce the potential for mass migration events, we have agreed with the Cuban government that it will accept the return of undocumented migrants detained at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, while the United States will process at least 20,000 legal immigrants a year to join their families in the United States. An important function of the U.S. Embassy is to document these immigrants, a function which has been suspended due to the drawdown. As close geographical neighbors, there are a number of pragmatic issues on which we cooperate with the Cuban government, including air and maritime transportation, environmental protection and control of infectious diseases. In recent years, we have also supported U.S. farmers and other authorized exporters to Cuba.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana is also critical to our support for the Cuban people. We promote cultural events such as concerts, art exhibits and films to which the public are invited. We provide internet access to ordinary Cubans in the embassy and offer several online courses which are not available in Cuba. Our diplomats are able to meet directly with Cuban citizens who have the courage to peacefully object to the lack of basic human rights, and who publicly call for fundamental changes in Cuban society. All these activities will be compromised until staffing at the embassy returns to normal.

Our highest priority now should be to demand that the attacks on U.S. diplomatic personnel end immediately. If there are no more attacks on the remaining staff we should be prepared to increase our staffing incrementally until we are fully staffed, and allow the Cubans to likewise increase their staffing in Washington. Our embassy in Havana is not a concession to Cuban government, nor an endorsement of its policies. It is our most valuable resource in supporting U.S. interests in Cuba.

John Caulfield is the former chief of mission of the U.S. Special Interests Section in Havana and co-founder of the Innovadores Foundation, an American nonprofit that supports private sector technology and design entrepreneurs in Cuba.