By: Arianna Amato
In September 2023, an attack on the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., reinvigorated steadfast emotions and opinions regarding U.S.-Cuba tensions. There is no love lost between nations that lie only ninety miles apart, but this attack is only the latest in a string of events that continue to strain their relationship. As such, it is imperative to explore the relationship’s latest developments and how it has come to this.
Prior to exploring recent events, a brief understanding of the tumultuous history behind these two nations’ long tension is warranted. For more than sixty years, Cuba has presented major foreign policy challenges for the United States with leaders from both nations grappling with how to approach talks with each other. Since Fidel Castro and his group of Communist revolutionaries overthrew a U.S.-backed government over sixty years ago, Washington and Havana have certainly been shaky. Throughout the Cold War, relations only worsened as the United States used varying methods of economic and diplomatic isolation in efforts to remove Castro and the government he installed. Most notably, an embargo imposed by the U.S. forbids American businesses from dealing with Cuba and its trade while President Reagan also labeled Cuba as a state sponsored of terrorism.
Over the years, and especially following the conclusion of the Cold War, calls have reappeared for the dwindling and even full abolishment of the embargo and designation. This is primarily due to the significant economic and human toll these measures have taken on the Cuban people. For instance, studies show that the embargo has raised the cost of medical supplies and food leading to “declining nutritional levels, rising rates of infectious diseases and violent death, and a deteriorating public health infrastructure.” However, when asked about how to move forward despite the enduring restrictions and their effects, Fidel Castro’s successor and brother, Raul, staunchly answered “Without pause, but without haste.” The latter part of this quote rings more true than the former as both Raul and his successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, appear to consistently take one step forward but then two steps back. More than a dozen bilateral agreements were arranged between the United States and Cuba during the Obama administration, but diplomatic relations were abruptly halted once President Trump came to power. Since then, officials from both nations recently came to terms on a range of issues but remain at odds over disputes surrounding the embargo and terrorism designation. Most recently, Díaz-Canel traveled to New York City to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, where he openly criticized the United States. Characterizing U.S. policies towards Cuba as “coercive” and “merciless,” Díaz-Canel blamed American sanctions for Cuba’s immigration crisis and that they “perpetuate a system of domination that increases underdevelopment and replicates a pattern of modern colonialism.”
Despite a flip-flopping of policies by subsequent administrations, the relationship is still overflowing with pressure while renewed anti-regime protests and a worsening humanitarian situation leave decision-making more complicated. This, in turn, frustrates Cubans and Americans alike more than ever. Protests erupted in July 2021 following substantial human rights violations, amongst other things, leading to the imprisonment of hundreds of Cuban people. Cuba then experienced unprecedented rates of mass migration as in 2022, where approximately two percent of its population attempted to emigrate to the United States. Americans also aired their grievances against the Cuban government via large protests in the U.S., following both the July 2021 protests and Díaz-Canel’s appearance at the UN.
An attack on the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. just last month indicates that the relationship is on thinner ice than previously thought. According to U.S. officials, at least one Molotov cocktail was thrown at the facade of the embassy on Sunday, September 24. Although no one was injured and the building suffered no significant damage, international leaders took no time to speak out about the attack. In a statement by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the United States condemned the attack, calling attacks against diplomatic facilities “unacceptable.” Cuban officials, though, used more robust language to describe the attack and its potential fallout. Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, labeled the perpetrator as a terrorist in a Twitter post containing the video. Even countries on the other side of the globe, like North Korea, denounced the United States for neglecting to ensure the safety of the embassy because of their “despicable anti-Cuban” intentions. While no arrests have been made in response to the attack, varying considerations could lend aid in figuring out the reasons behind the attack.
Although the who of this attack is important, just as important is the why. Those closely involved with the matter have suggested that the most recent attack is a part of an unsettling and repugnant pattern of American hostility towards Cuba and its diplomatic missions. Namely, a similar attack occurred in 2020, where a man suffering from mental health issues opened fire on the embassy with an AK-47 assault rifle. Cuban Ambassador Lianys Torres recalled this earlier incident when telling a Cuban news agency that the most recent attack demonstrated “permissive behavior of the law enforcement authorities of the United States.” An accusation like this prompts a look into U.S. compliance with the Vienna Convention, an international treaty that codifies a framework for diplomatic relations between sovereign states. Article 22, in particular, imposes the duty on a state in which a foreign embassy is located to “protect the premises against intrusion, damage, disturbance of the peace or infringement of dignity.” In essence, the argument is that an isolated attack may be one thing, but more than one only within a few years of each other should be indicative of a more troubling problem at work that can implicate critical foreign relations.
Others proffer the idea that the attack was in response to Díaz-Canel’s addressat the United Nations. As explained previously, it is no secret that Cubans and Cuban-Americans are outraged with the current state of affairs in Cuba. However, this sentiment was made even clearer during the days leading up to the UN General Assembly. Dozens of Cubans marched and protested in New York City, exclaiming to all those who would listen that the Cuban people are without human rights and Díaz-Canel’s presence at the UN makes the international community complicit. Local Miami-Dade community council member Dariel Fernandez passionately explained that Díaz-Canel came to the United Nations not to foster a better relationship with other countries, but instead to “lie to the world” about the “murderous dictatorship” that refuses to release the Cuban people from its coarse clutches. Interestingly enough, the attack also occurred mere hours after Díaz-Canel left the U.S and this is not a coincidence Cubans and law enforcement should take lightly.
Multiple factors could have contributed to the latest attack on the Cuban embassy in September 2023. But what happens now? The only permissible sanction under the Vienna Convention is expulsion, but it is exceedingly doubtful that the United Nation decides that this attack rises to this level. However, this does not mean that the United States should not aim for better adherence and compliance with the Vienna Convention, specifically with regard to Article 22. Repeated attacks on the same embassy, at the very least, tend to raise questions about the United States’ commitment to protecting the Cuban embassy. Additionally, the attack, especially in response to Miguel Díaz-Canel’s visit to the United Nations, continues to push an already fragile relationship between the U.S. and Cuba closer to its limit.
All in all, it is highly unlikely that increasingly inflamed conflict between these two nations will end anytime soon. The tension not only took root decades ago, but continues into the present day to dig deeper and tumultuously tangle with each passing day. As such, it will take significant dedication and patience of both the United States and Cuba to unsnarl themselves from the position they now find themselves in.