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U.S. Cuts Havana Embassy Presence, Issues Travel Alert On Cuba

U.S. Cuts Havana Embassy Presence, Issues Travel Alert On Cuba
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The U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Over the past several months, mysterious health problems have plagued 21 Embassy employees

Nine months after the U.S. government detected a pattern of mysterious illnesses among American diplomatic personnel in Havana, the State Department announced today that it is drastically reducing the Embassy staff in Havana to “emergency personnel” only and suspending major consular functions, including issuing visas for Cubans to visit the United States. State Department officials also issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens to avoid Cuba, even as they acknowledged that “we have no reports that private citizens have been affected.”
 
“Over the past several months, 21 U.S. Embassy employees have suffered a variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature,” stated the press release from the office of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “The affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.” All non-emergency personnel and family members have been ordered to leave Cuba.

Since February, when Cuban President Raúl Castro invited the FBI to come to Cuba and investigate the mysterious health problems, both countries have engaged in a protracted effort to identify the source of these maladies and the technology and individuals responsible for causing them. Despite these investigative efforts, the State Department conceded today, “investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks.”

Initially, U.S. officials told the Cubans that they believed the members of the U.S. Embassy community, and several Canadian diplomats, were victims of some kind of “sonic attack.” So far, however, experts have been unable to identify sound or eavesdropping devices that could cause such physical symptoms. The Trump administration has not accused the Cuban government of being responsible for the injuries, but has repeatedly pressed the Castro government to do more to assure the safety of U.S. personnel on Cuban soil. On September 26, at the first high-level meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials since President Trump took office, Tillerson met with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez in Washington to review the situation.

In impromptu remarks after the State Department made its announcement, President Trump told reporters that there was a "big problem" in Cuba and claimed "They did some very bad things."

Last spring, according to Canadian authorities, several households of Canadian Embassy officials suffered similarly mysterious symptoms. But a Canadian government official made clear that Canada saw no risk to maintaining a presence in Cuba and had no plans to reduce its embassy staff or warn its citizens not to travel to the island. More than 1 million Canadians visit Cuba annually.

“The Government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel and U.S. citizens in Cuba,” the State Department said in a “Cuba Travel Warning” posted on its passport and travel website. “Because our personnel's safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.” While most of the occurrences took place in the residences of the U.S. personnel, two U.S. officials reported that they had experienced sound-related incidents at the Hotel Capri and Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

The travel warning drew an immediate reaction from the travel provider industry. In a statement, the president of Cuba Educational Travel, Collin Laverty, pointed out that “Cuba continues to be one of the safest places in the world for visitors. There are no reports of any incidents affecting U.S. travelers and the isolated events are not considered a threat to visitors’ safety.” Laverty called for the travel advisory to be rescinded. “The travel warning is absolutely unnecessary and counterproductive and will only hurt the U.S. and Cuban people."

In Congress, leading advocates of improved U.S.-Cuban relations also characterized today’s policy moves as “a dramatic overreaction,” that would hurt the ability of Cubans to travel to the U.S. to see their families and undercut U.S. interests in engagement with Cuba.

“Americans cannot afford a return to the failed Cold War isolationist policies that divided families for 50 years,” said Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern in a statement. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans visit Cuba every year. Our businesses are engaged in agricultural sales and other business opportunities. U.S. and Cuban agencies engage in cooperation on drug trafficking, human smuggling, search and rescue operations, and other security issues. An Embassy presence is vital to maintaining those relationships.”