Small Wars Journal

Behind the Scenes: Defense Attachés’ Contributions to Cuban Diplomatic Engagement in Haiti

Share this Post

Behind the Scenes: Defense Attachés’ Contributions to Cuban Diplomatic Engagement in Haiti

Ted Kim and Santiago Otero-Ortiz

“….President Obama spoke by phone with President Raul Castro of Cuba to discuss the process of normalization between the two countries in advance of Pope Francis’ upcoming visits to Cuba and the United States. The President underscored the importance of the United States and Cuba re-establishing diplomatic ties and the reopening of embassies in our respective countries. The two Presidents commended the role that Pope Francis has played in advancing relations between our countries. They noted the cooperation between U.S. and Cuban medical professionals during the U.S. Naval Ship COMFORT’s visit to Haiti this week...”

-- The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 18 September 2015 

There is always a story behind the story - many people working tirelessly to make a headline a reality behind the scenes.  This article provides an inside look at the Defense Attachés assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and how they served on a diplomatic frontline alongside State Department diplomats and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) colleagues to promote U.S. interests in Haiti.  They are soldier-statesmen, helping to advance US foreign policy.

Planning for the Events

In late June of 2015, the Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché (SDO/DATT) to Haiti, United States Coast Guard Commander (USCG CDR) Ted J. Kim, received an email from the Caribbean Desk Officer at the Office of Secretary Defense/Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA).  The email said that the National Security Council (NSC)/WHA was interested in a medical engagement with Cuban doctors in Haiti.  Also, the Chief of the USAID Health Office at the Embassy, contacted Haiti’s Security Cooperation Office (SCO) and the SDO/DATT to discuss possible engagements with Cuban doctors.  USAID Headquarters directed USAID Health to provide requirements for Cuban/USAID engagements.  USAID Health and the SCO in Haiti discussed potential medical engagement opportunities.

The recommendation from USAID Health was for USAID and USNS COMFORT doctors to conduct a professional exchange during the ship’s visit to Haiti.  USAID Health recommended inviting the Cuban doctors to St. Luc’s Hospital, a Catholic hospital funded by USAID and one of the medical treatment sites for the USNS COMFORT mission.  Since the SCO was preparing for the COMFORT visit including the opening ceremony, the SDO/DATT recommended inviting the Cuban Ambassador and Cuban doctors from the Cuban Medical Brigade operating in Haiti to the opening ceremony and giving them a tour of the ship, allowing Cuban doctors to meet and greet U.S. counterparts before the medical engagements.  USAID Health and the SCO drafted the diplomatic note (DIPNOTE), extending the Cuban Ambassador and their Cuban doctors in Haiti an invitation to the opening ceremony, a tour of the USNS COMFORT, and a medical engagement at St. Luc’s Hospital.

After several weeks of revising the DIPNOTE through an internal revision and the diplomatic processes, the U.S. Department of State (DoS) passed the DIPNOTE to the Cuban Government on August 14.  By this time, all personnel in the SCO were fully occupied preparing for the ship visit and medical mission in Haiti.  At the same time, the SDO/DATT directed the U.S. Defense Attaché Office Port-au-Prince (USDAO PaP) to prepare for the Cuban engagement.  Lieutenant Colonel Santiago Otero-Ortiz, the Army Attaché (ARMA) assigned to the US Embassy in Haiti, is a native Spanish speaker, an experienced Foreign Area Officer (FAO), and an accredited diplomat in Haiti.  The ARMA led the task of coordinating with multiple inter-agencies and other Department of Defense elements to ensure that all requirements were met. 

Eventually, the Cuban Government sent a DIPNOTE accepting the US Government’s invitation to attend the USNS COMFORT’s opening ceremony and tour of the ship on September 1.  However, the DIPNOTE from Cuba did not mention or accept the USG’s invitation for Cuban medical professionals to visit the medical site at St. Luc.  The Cubans counter offered with an opportunity for U.S. medical doctors to visit one of the Cuban medical hospitals in Haiti.  Less than 10 days away from USNS COMFORT’s arrival, there wasn’t enough time to negotiate between the two embassies. 

An interesting turn of events happened when the U.S. Embassy started to consider that the historical engagement between the U.S. and Cuba was not going to materialize.  On August 31st, the SDO/DATT received the sad news that the MINUSTAH Military Force Commander, Brazilian Lieutenant General Jose Luiz Jaborandy Jr., suddenly passed away in Miami the day prior.  His body was flown back to Haiti along with his family for a memorial service in his honor on September 2.  It was during the memorial service for Jaborandi that the ARMA and SDO/DATT had an opportunity to meet the Cuban Ambassador to Haiti.  The ARMA introduced himself to the Cuban Ambassador and then introduced the SDO/DATT and the U.S. Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission.  

This initial contact allowed the U.S. Embassy to gauge the interest of the Cuban diplomatic delegation in participation in the visit of the USNS COMFORT.  The Cuban Ambassador to Haiti, Ricardo Garcia Nápoles, demonstrated great interest and was enthusiastic about the medical engagement with USNS COMFORT personnel in Haiti, indicating that the Cuban delegation and the medical brigade doctors were looking forward to the opening ceremony and tour of the ship.  SDO/DATT and ARMA started to outline the details of the scope of the engagements with the Cuban Ambassador after the memorial service.  This marked the first diplomatic engagement with Cuba in Haiti and set the tone for future discussions with the Cuban Embassy in Haiti.  The ARMA, as the senior FAO in country, was resourceful by utilizing, not only his language skills, but also the diplomatic tact that comes with experience in regional and cultural understanding.  After the first contact, the ARMA worked behind the scenes and negotiated a series of high profile negotiations with the Cuban Third Secretary on behalf of the Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires.  All of this was facilitated by the SCO and DAO Port-au-Prince.

On September 4, the Cuban Embassy in Haiti delivered another DIPNOTE, listing the Cuban doctors that were to participate in the medical engagement and Cuban medical sites in Haiti that U.S. medical professionals were invited to visit.  The DAO coordinated with other USG agencies to ensure protocols were in place for any contingency while executing this first historical interaction with Cuban diplomats and medical personnel based on current USG policies towards Cuba.  The DAO also coordinated with the Cuban Embassy in Haiti to conduct a site visit of one of the Cuban medical sites to assess force protection requirements in preparation for the Deputy Chief of Mission and USNS COMFORT personnel visit.  The US Embassy’s leadership entrusted the DAO to be the lead agent to communicate and coordinate with the Cuban Embassy diplomats and to integrate other embassy agencies.

Executing the Events

On September 10, the USNS COMFORT arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, marking the start of Continuing Promise 2015's (CP-15) final mission.  On September 11, during the opening ceremony, the Cuban Ambassador was accompanied by five Cuban doctors, escorted by the ARMA, who introduced them to the chiefs of various U.S. agencies and other distinguished guests.  The Cuban Ambassador demonstrated his mastery of diplomatic skills and candidly engaged with the U.S. delegation before the ceremony, including the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Pamela White, and SOUTHCOM’s Deputy Commander, LTG Joe DiSalvo, with TV cameras and journalists watching closely.  Ambassador White welcomed the Cuban Ambassador and doctors during her speech and thanked them for their participation in such a historic event. Ambassador White was also glad to finally be able to recognize the Cuban Ambassador as a fellow diplomat at an official function.  During the tour of the USNS COMFORT, the Cuban doctors were very enthusiastic and engaged with the U.S. delegation, diplomats, and USNS COMFORT’s personnel.  Ambassador Nápoles later noted that he was extremely satisfied with the warm welcome that the Cuban delegation and him received and thanked the U.S. Embassy and USNS COMFORT leadership for the respect given to him and his delegation.  This positive initial engagement set the tone for the rest of the activities with Cubans and rekindled the discussion for visiting the St. Luc medical site by the Cuban delegation.

On September 15, an Embassy delegation visited La Renaissance Medical Center, a Cuban Medical Brigade site specializing in ophthalmology and physical therapy in downtown Port-au-Prince.  In an atmosphere of optimism and excitement shared by all participants, the second engagement with Cuba went smoothly. This engagement was historical, as it was the first time since the severing of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 that USG personnel and Cubans were allowed to openly engage diplomatically. The US delegation was led by the Charge d’Affaires Brian Shukan;  Political Counselor, Matt Purl; Mission Commander of the USNS COMFORT, U.S. Navy Captain  Sam Hancock; SDO/DATT, USCG CDR Ted Kim; ARMA, LTC Santiago Otero-Ortiz; Acting Office Chief of USAID Health Office, Ms. Susanna Baker; and Acting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Country Director, Dr. Samuel Martinez.  Also in participation were a group of U.S. and Haitian medical professionals, three doctors from the USNS COMFORT and two Haitian doctors from a USAID-funded program at La Renaissance center. Upon arrival of the delegation, the Cuban Ambassador greeted the delegation warmly and accompanied them on a detailed tour of the Cuban medical site, where Cuban doctors explained their work.  After the tour, the US and Haitian doctors participated in patient consultations side-by-side with Cuban doctors.  In the meantime, the Cuban Ambassador and Charge Shukan attended a presentation on the history of the Cuban medical mission in Haiti.  Charge Shukan then thanked the Cuban Ambassador and his medical staff for the tour of the La Renaissance and the collaboration that made the visit and diplomatic exchange a success.  Ambassador Nápoles stated that developments in U.S.-Cuban cooperation are viewed positively by the Cuban Government.  Meanwhile, LTC Otero-Ortiz successfully negotiated with the Cuban Embassy for the Cuban Ambassador and doctors to visit the USNS COMFORT’s medical site at St. Luc Hospital.

On September 17, the U.S. and Cuban delegations met again at St. Luc Hospital.  The U.S. delegation was led by Charge Shukan, and included U.S. Navy Captain Christine Sears, the Commander of the USNS COMFORT’s medical team, USAID, DAO PaP, and CDC.  The Cuban delegation was led by Ambassador Nápoles and the five Cuban doctors present at the two previous engagements.  The Haitian Minister of Public Health, Dr. Florence Guillaume, also participated in the event.  The Cubans toured the site, viewing patient examinations and procedures in pediatrics, ophthalmology, and dentistry.  The Cuban doctors were enthusiastic, asking many questions to the USNS COMFORT medical staff working there.  The Cuban Ambassador also spoke with the American medical staff about their work.  The atmosphere was friendly and at the end of the tour Charge Shukan and the Cuban Ambassador had a brief press engagement.  Minister Guillaume spoke about the importance of the USNS COMFORT Mission, and praised both the U.S. and Cuba for their assistance to Haiti in the field of health care.  Minister Guillaume stated that she looks forward to more United States-Cuba-Haiti trilateral cooperation on healthcare in Haiti.  Charge Shukan spoke about the success of the USNS COMFORT visit, USG rapport with the Haitian Ministry of Public Health, and the significance of this historic medical engagement with Cuba during the USNS COMFORT visit. 

On September 18, the closing ceremony had presence the Cuban doctors that had participated throughout the week and eagerly engaged with U.S. personnel in the previous events.  Regrettably, the Cuban Ambassador could not participate in the closing ceremony due to a medical appointment.  The SDO/DATT presented the Cuban doctors SCO challenge coins and thanked the Cuban delegation for their participation in the opening and closing ceremonies and the medical engagements.  The closing ceremony also provided an opportunity for Charge Shukan to engage the Chief of the Cuban Medical Brigade.  Charge Shukan made some warm remarks in his speech about collaborating with Cuba, which drew applause from all attending the ceremony. The closing ceremony was another great success.  

Hotwash

The USNS COMFORT mission in Haiti offered a strategic platform, providing a unique opportunity for both the United States and Cuba to demonstrate their mutual interest in re-establishing diplomatic relations in an international forum.  The Cuban participation in the ceremonies and medical engagements were instrumental in advancing U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations.  The chiefs of mission from both countries expressed optimism about a new phase in U.S.-Cuban relations, noting the potential for the United States and Cuba to cooperate in the area of medical aid to Haiti.  The Defense Attachés played a great part in the process, assisting the DoS in re-engaging diplomatic relations with Cuba after 54 years of severed diplomatic ties and setting the tone for the next steps in the collaboration between Cubans and Americans…all behind the scenes.

After a successful historical engagement with the Cubans in Haiti, some critics argued that this was just a symbolic gesture that the Cubans are trying get good news out before the Pope visit to Havana, Cuba.  Even after the Pope’s visit, DAO Port-au-Prince continues to engage with the Cuban Embassy to promote health related cooperation between two countries.  For example, there was a last-minute request to perform an eye surgery on a five year old Haitian boy that the USNS COMFORT could not accommodate due to the ship’s departure schedule.  This case was referred to the Cuban medical facility (La Renaissance), which LTC Otero-Ortiz coordinated with the Cuban Embassy.  The surgery was successful and the boy was released from the Cuban medical facility.  This cooperation showed that the Cuban engagement during the COMFORT mission was not just a symbolic gesture.  Even after the ship visit, the U.S. and Cuban diplomats and medical personnel worked together to help the people of Haiti in the area of health.  This is a great opportunity for our colleagues in USAID health and CDC as well as SOUTHCOM medical personnel to work with Cubans in Haiti to advance U.S. interests in the future. 

After Thought…

The Pope’s visit to the United States highlighted many shared values to make a better world.  Among the high priority interests were providing relief to refugees, increasing humanitarian assistance, promoting religious freedom, and easing poverty worldwide.  President Obama and Pope Francis also included cooperation with Cuba on Haiti healthcare as one of our shared values.  

Pope Francis was instrumental in encouraging talks that led to the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, and we will continue to seek his support as we proceed with the bilateral relationship.  As President Obama said, “The Pope’s moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”  The United States and Cuba share common interests, among them the health and welfare of the people of Haiti. U.S. and Cuban medical professionals collaborated during the USNS COMFORT’s stop in Haiti, including working together at a Catholic hospital. As with our previous cooperation on Ebola, this provided a unique opportunity to engage with Cuban medical professionals and to discuss opportunities for future cooperation. This cooperation demonstrates how our continued normalization of relations with Cuba can help us advance our interests in the Americas.  -  September 23, 2015.  The White House, Office of the Press Secretary.

Images

1.  PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (Sept. 15, 2015) Cuban doctors give U.S. Embassy staff members and Continuing Promise 2015 (CP-15) personnel a tour of a Cuban medical site visited during CP-15. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response to partner nations and to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)

2.  PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (Sept. 15, 2015) Cuban doctors give U.S. Embassy staff members and Continuing Promise (CP-15) personnel a tour of a Cuban medical site visited during CP-15. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response to partner nations and to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)

3.  PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (Sept. 17, 2015) Capt. Christine Sears (right), commanding officer of the Medical Treatment Facility aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), gives Cuban medical team member, Dr. Sizes Carrulla, a Continuing Promise 2015 (CP-15) coin during a tour of a medical site established at St. Luc Hospital in support of CP-15. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response to partner nations and to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)

4.  PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (Sept. 17, 2015) Lt. Alejandro Garcia Salas, a U.S. Navy internal medicine physician assigned to Naval Hospital Beaufort, S.C., greets the Cuban Ambassador to Haiti, Ricardo Garcia Napoles, during a tour of a medical site established at St. Luc Hospital during Continuing Promise 2015. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response to partner nations and to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)

5.  PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (Sept. 17, 2015) Lt. David Myles, a native of Chicago, Ill., and pediatrician assigned to Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, N.C., gives Cuban medical team member, Dr. Michel Escalona Martin, a Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) ball cap during a tour of a medical site established at St. Luc Hospital in support of Continuing Promise 2015. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response to partner nations and to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)


 

6.  PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (Sept. 15, 2015) Cmdr. Eric Barnes (left), a native of Virginia Beach, Va., and optometrist assigned to Naval Station Norfolk Branch Health Clinic, Va., Lt. Cmdr. William Hill, a native of Houston, Texas, and optometrist assigned to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va., and Cuban doctor, Sizes Carrulla, give a patient an eye exam during a visit to a Cuban medical site during Continuing Promise 2015. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored and U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet-conducted deployment to conduct civil-military operations including humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response to partner nations and to show U.S. support and commitment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)

The authors would like to thank the U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince, USNS COMFORT, U.S. Southern Command, and the Defense Intelligence Agency for their assistance and hard work to accomplish the mission.

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Santiago Otero-Ortiz, U.S. Army, is the Army Attaché, U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Commander Ted Kim, U.S. Coast Guard, is the Senior Defense Official, Defense Attaché, and Chief of Security Cooperation Office, U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince, Haiti.