U.S. Interests Section Cuba (USINT) — 12 Plus Things We Learned About Assignment Havana

— Domani Spero  

State/OIG recently posted its inspection report of the U.S. Interests Section (USINT) in Havana, Cuba.   Post which is headed by career diplomats, John P. Caulfield, the Chief of Mission and Conrad R. Tribble, the Deputy Chief of Mission received a good overall review with a few exceptions. “U.S. Interests Section Havana advances U.S. objectives in a challenging environment. The Chief of Mission and his deputy provide strong leadership.”

Among the main judgments: 1) The consular section has reduced waiting times for Cuban visa applicants and deftly handled the increase in American citizens cases; 2) The political/economic section meets high standards in its reporting, despite limited information and host government restrictions that limit opportunities to make representations to the Cuban Government, and 3) The management section performs well under difficult conditions that hamper its ability to provide seamless administrative support.

An important point, USINT is not in regular communication with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Foreign Missions on issues of reciprocity. Since the movement of diplomatic pouches, cargo, and personal shipments is covered under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, OIG recommends that USINT should inform the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) on a regular basis of delayed shipments and other reciprocity issues.  On May 1, President Obama announced his nomination of Gentry O. Smith as Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, with the rank of Ambassador during his tenure of service.  He will, of course, be stuck in the Senate for the next several months.   (Note: We understand that OFM no longer reports to DS but now reports directly to U/S Management).  Also, the report describes low morale among First and Second Tour (FAST) officers.  However, the final report does not include the curtailments of ELOs/FAST officers from post.

The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 3 and October 17, 2013, and in Havana, Cuba, from November 5 through 21, 2013. The overseas portion of the inspection was truncated because of the partial Federal Government shutdown. Ambassador Pamela Smith (team leader), Lavon Sajona (deputy team leader), Paul Cantrell, Eric Chavera, Mark Jacobs, John Moran, John Philibin, Iris Rosenfeld, and Steven White conducted the inspection.

Below we’ve listicled the twelve things we learned about the assignment in Havana that we did not know before, plus a couple of other things that apparently did not make it to the final report.


#1.  The mission had 51 U.S. direct-hire employees, a cap jointly agreed to by the United States and Cuba.  USINT cannot sustain the elevated pace of nonimmigrant visa adjudications without increasing the number of consular officer positions.  However, because of the cap, it is unlikely that new permanent officer positions can be established in the short term.



 #2. Sixteen employees work in the Office of the Coordinator for Cuban Affairs, one of the Department’s largest country desks.  […] Not all the coordination office’s operations are transparent to USINT or to working-level office staff …Compounding these difficulties, the coordinator has not visited USINT since his previous assignment in Havana more than a decade ago.


#3.  USINT officers’ travel is limited to within Havana province. Permission to travel outside the area requires sending a diplomatic note a minimum of 5 days before travel begins.


#4. Materials and supplies sourced in the United States can take 6 months or longer to procure, ship, and clear into Cuba; that is if the Cuban Government doesn’t reject them.


#5. Unclassified pouches with personal mail are often rejected and sent back to the United States. Incoming household effects, which take 1 day to sail from Miami to Havana, have sat for months in the port awaiting clearance; the same holds for personal vehicles and consumables.


#6.   The mission makes effective use of eligible family members to fill gaps and augment its workforce to meet critical needs.  All family members who wish to work have jobs.


#7.  Offices go without equipment and supplies, the maintenance section lacks materials to repair buildings and residences, and employees and their families go without familiar foods, medicines, clothes, children’s toys, transportation, computers, and books.


#8.  USINT pays the Cuban Government a monthly fee for each employee’s services. The Cuban Government withholds a large portion of the fee, ostensibly as the employee’s contribution to the social welfare system, and pays employees a salary that can be as little as the equivalent of $10 per month.


#9.  In addition to the clearance delays, staff report that the Havana port authority has only one crane and one forklift (not always operable) to move containers, adding to delays.


# 10.  On a more positive note, employees state that Cuban packers are some of the best they have experienced in their careers. Unfortunately, Cuban customs authorities open and x-ray both inbound and outbound shipments before they will clear them.


#11. Productivity increased by a factor of four, as the consular section went from interviewing 120 to 150 applicants per day to an average of more than 500.[…] Consular managers schedule appointments assuming that each officer will interview at least 110 applicants per day. In reality, some officers interview as many as 140 applicants a day, but others interview as few as 80. The rate at which the top producing officers are expected to interview is not reasonable or sustainable for the long term.


#12. [M]ission employees operate vehicles that are damaged, unsightly, and possibly unsafe. One vehicle is missing interior door panels and its gear shift knob. In Cuba, diplomatic vehicles can be sold only to other diplomatic missions. No mission has expressed interest in purchasing USINT’s unserviceable vehicles.



#13. What’s that?   Just couple or so sections accounted for the loss of multiple officers at post? Miserable.  So as a consequence, 3 out of 8 permanently assigned Entry Level Officer (ELO)/First and Second Tour (FAST) officers curtailed? You wouldn’t know it from reading the IG report. Blame it on this ‘swallow da bad stuff’ contraption:

Image via Imgur

Image via Imgur


#14.  Pardon me?  One officer curtailed Havana to go to Pakistan?  Yo, Pakistan! Then one officer … what?  A West Point grad, quit post and the Foreign Service in mid-tour? And then there’s one that did not work out … when we heard these, we’re like ….

Image via Imgur

Image via Imgur


That’s it, until the next listicle.


Related item: Inspection of U.S. Interests Section Havana, Cuba (ISP-I-14-10A)  [729 Kb]  05/31/14   | Posted on May 8, 2014

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Can you imagine having your HHE delivered to your hotel in WashDC?

FSGB Case No. 2011-037 is about a Foreign Service Officer with 30 years of service, whose last overseas assignment was to a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq.  Approaching retirement in the fall of 2009, grievant left Iraq and returned to Washington.  He leased a temporary residence at the Remington Hotel in Washington D.C.  Grievant retired from the Foreign Service, effective Sunday, February 28, 2010.  He remained in the Washington D.C. area, residing at the Remington Hotel.

On Monday March 1, 2010, grievant received a phone call from HR informing him that he has not updated his OF-126 (Residence and Dependency Report) and his most recent OF-126 in his OPF was dated April 30, 1985. Following completion of that conversation, HR e-mailed a blank form OF-126 to grievant. Grievant filled out the form, placing his current Washington D.C. address in Block 8, and electronically signed and dated the form, March 1, 2010.

In October 2010, while attending the Retirement Job Search Program, grievant contacted the Department’s Transportation Office to arrange to have his HHE sent to his retirement home in Baytown, Texas.  He was told that his retirement address was Washington D.C., so his effects could not be shipped at government expense to Texas.

In short, the FSO could proceed to his retirement home in Texas but his 30 years worth of household effects which may or may not have reached the statutory limit of 8,165 kilograms or 18,000 pounds, net weight was stuck in Washington, D.C.

Bulldozer relocating a house in c. 1920

Image via Wikipedia

According to the record of proceeding, which is publicly available online with the names redacted, the grievant contacted HR and was informed the Assignments Panel directed that a Decision Memorandum be sent to the Director General of the Foreign Service.  On November 1, the HR Executive Office (HR/EX) sent a Decision Memorandum to the Director General recommending against approving grievant’s request to retroactively change his separation address to Baytown, Texas.  Excerpt below from the Decision Memorandum:

Mr. [Grievant] (FE-OC) transferred from Iraq to Washington D.C. in October/November 2009.  Facing age limitation mandatory separation, he submitted his retirement package which included the attached OF-126, dated March 1, 2010.  He requested Washington D.C. as his separation address.  No travel orders were issued because his separation address is within a 50-mile radius from Washington D.C.

Mr. [Grievant]’s retirement was effective February 28, 2010.  He has been working in the Department as a WAE since his retirement and recently contacted his CDO to say that he had made a mistake when he completed the OF-126.  He said the correct separation location should have been Baytown, Texas instead of Washington D.C.  He asked that he be re-paneled and retroactively separated to Baytown.  HR/EX would have to issue a travel authorization if his request is approved.

On November 5, the Director General issued her decision, denying the request.

What a way to say “thank you for your service.”

On January 31, 2012, the Foreign Service Grievance Board held that “The grievant met his burden of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his grievance is meritorious.  The grievance is sustained in part, and the Department is ordered to issue grievant travel orders, and ship his household effects (HHE) to the service separation address listed in the form OF-126 in effect on the date of his retirement on February 28, 2010.” 

Below is the case overview from the FSGB:

The grievant, a Foreign Service Officer who retired from the U.S. Department of State, received a telephone call from his Career Development Officer (CDO) in HR/CDA on the first workday (March 1, 2010) after his retirement, in which the CDO told grievant that his OF-126 form must be updated, as the then-current form in grievant’s file was dated in 1985.  Grievant and his CDO did not discuss the significance of the form, or that its contents, specifically Block 8, would be used as the destination for grievant’s travel and the shipment of his HHE.  Without reading the instructions for the form (which he claims not to have received from his CDO), grievant filled it out, citing his temporary quarters in a Washington, D.C. hotel as his separation address, and emailed it back to his CDO.

Several months later, while attending the Job Search Program, grievant called the Department’s transportation division to arrange for shipment of his HHE to his new home in Baytown, Texas, a Houston suburb.  He was told that he was not authorized any shipment as his separation address, as recorded on the March 1, 2010 OF-126, was Washington D.C.  Grievant then called his CDO and asked to have the address changed back to the Houston area.  This required a decision memo to the Director General (DG), which recommended against authorizing the change grievant requested.  The DG denied the request.

The Board found credible the grievant’s contention that he would not have changed his OF-126 had his CDO not called and told him he must do so.  The Board also gave credence to grievant’s argument that given grievant’s last assignment to a provincial post in Iraq, he may not have received the Department notice explaining the importance of keeping the OF-126 updated; it is possible that he was unaware that the form would be used to authorize the final destination of his HHE.  Finally, the Department’s argument that the grievant could not change his retirement address after his effective date of retirement, when the Department did just that only a few months earlier, fails.

The Department is ordered to authorize travel and shipment of effects to the service separation address in grievant’s file on February 28, 2010, the effective date of his retirement, in Houston, Texas.   It is also ordered to reimburse grievant for the costs of storage of his HHE from January 1, 2011 until shipment to Texas.  Grievant’s request to have shipment authorized to Baytown, Texas is denied.

It might be useful to note that the OF-126 is also the basis when you request for Emergency visitation travel (EVT) from the post of assignment to the United States or to other locations in certain situations of family emergency.  Here is the relevant part: “In the event the seriously ill, injured, or deceased family member or incapacitated parent is located outside the United States, or the remains of an immediate family member who has died abroad are to be accompanied to a place outside the United States, travel costs are “constructed,” i.e., the cost of the travel by the employee or employee’s spouse or domestic partner (as defined in 3 FAM 1610) may not exceed the transportation expenses that would have been incurred for travel between the post and the employee’s service separation residence address.”

I’m glad the FSGB did not like the special way they said thank you over there, too.

Domani Spero