The US embassy in Havana, Cuba. Credit: PBS.

Cuba is bracing for the possibility of the United States breaking off diplomatic ties but will seek to maintain them nonetheless, Havana’s top diplomat in charge of relations with Washington said.

“We must be aware that this can get worse,” said the official, Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, summing up months of mounting tension between the two countries, AFP reported.

The reason for the downturn in relations — five years after a historic thaw between Havana and Washington — is simple, he said in an interview with media.

“Those in charge of US policy toward the Western Hemisphere have attitudes and positions that are extremely aggressive toward our country,” he said.

“We are seeing that what they want to do is to break all the existing links, to close the embassies. … We hope that this won’t be the case but we cannot trust that this will not happen,” said Fernandez de Cossio, director general of the US desk at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.

“We are prepared, ready for such an eventuality but we do not wish it.”

The embassies were reopened in 2015, months after then US president Barack Obama and then Cuban leader Raul Castro agreed to revive diplomatic ties severed since 1961.

“It was an emotional moment for the Cuban people,” said Fernandez de Cossio, recalling the hope that prevailed in his country at the time.

But five years on, he has mixed feelings about the progress made.

The first two years were unremittingly positive: Travel and trade restrictions were eased, a direct telephone link was restored, and Obama visited Havana.

Since the administration of President Donald Trump took over, Cuba has seen foreign relations deteriorate, with America piling on new sanctions and restrictive policies.

The speeches from the White House have become bellicose, taking the rhetoric back at least 40 years, accusing Cuba of instigating instability in Latin America.

Senior American officials including Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton have positioned Cuba as directing events in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Also, in late 2016 and into early 2017, American officials and other workers at the US embassy in Havana began to report that they had developed hearing impairments, vertigo, dizziness and other related symptoms often following incidents of hearing high pitched noises.

The American media speculated that the symptoms were caused by what became known as “sonic attacks.” After as many as 26 American personnel claimed to be suffering from these symptoms, Washington recalled over half of the Americans staffing the embassy and, blaming Cuba, expelled Cuban diplomats in Washington in retaliation.

At a news conference in late 2017, Trump said he believed Cuba was responsible for the “unusual attack.”

By the summer of 2017, the media began to report that some Canadian officials stationed in Havana were also experiencing these unusual health symptoms.

Consequently, staff working at the embassy would no longer be able to bring their families with them and the families of the diplomats currently living Havana were moved back to Canada. This was a significant development since this designation is usually reserved for what are widely recognized to be dangerous locales such as Afghanistan and Libya.

As long as Washington maintains an economic embargo, which Obama failed to lift during his presidency, “it’s very difficult to think seriously about sustainable progress in the bilateral relationship,” Fernandez de Cossio said.

The embassies were reopened in 2015, months after then US president Barack Obama and then Cuban leader Raul Castro agreed to revive diplomatic ties severed since 1961. Credit: Media pool photo.

Right now “it’s at a very low point,” he said, citing what he called the “drastic” US measure of depriving 11 million Cubans of fuel by targeting shipments from ally Venezuela with sanctions.

He said he isn’t holding out much hope that the upcoming US elections will change anything.

“Nobody knows what will happen in 2020 in the US,” he said, alluding to Trump’s second term ambitions. But “Cuba has historically shown its wish for, and remains willing to build, a respectful, civilized relationship with the US.”

In November, 187 UN member states overwhelmingly supported the end of the US embargo on Cuba, while only Brazil and Israel joined the US in voting no. Two countries — Colombia and Ukraine — abstained.

“Like all nations, we get to choose which countries we trade with. This is our sovereign right,” Kelly Craft, the US Ambassador to the UN, said prior to the vote.

“So, it is worrying that the international community, in the name of protecting sovereignty, continues to challenge this right.”

The embargo is rooted in the Cold War, when Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries seized power.

Tensions only eased more than a half-century later when the Obama administration established diplomatic relations with Cuba, modifying several aspects of the embargo such as lifting some travel restrictions.

As the resolution states, these policies “contrast” with measures implemented by the current President, Donald Trump, in 2017.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, reported that in recent months Washington has begun to “escalate aggression,” including by preventing international fuel shipments to the island, scaling down consular services, and attacking national programs that support other developing countries.

“The blockade has caused incalculable humanitarian damages. It is a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of human rights,” he charged. “It qualifies as an act of genocide under Articles II (b) and (c) of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948. There is not one single Cuban family that has not suffered the consequences of this.”

The 15 members of the Caribbean Community highlighted Havana’s support to the region. Cuba has deployed medical professionals to distressed areas, including those affected by natural disasters, among other initiatives.

Keisha McGuire, Grenada’s Ambassador to the UN, recalled that the country was among the first to assist The Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in September.

She characterized the embargo as “an anachronism and aberration” in an era when global cooperation is critical to address common challenges such as climate change.

“It is in this broader context that we view the embargo—not just as a punitive act against Cuba but as an impediment to Caribbean regional development as a whole,” she told the General Assembly.

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