US To Recall Cuba Embassy Staff, Urges Americans Not To Travel Following Mysterious ‘Attacks’ On Diplomats
The United States is ordering more than half of US personnel to leave Cuba and will warn Americans against visiting the island nation, in a dramatic response to what they described as “specific attacks” on diplomats.
Diplomats began experiencing unexplained health problems almost a year ago, however US investigators still don’t know what or who is behind the attacks.
At least 21 diplomats and their families are believed to have been harmed in the mysterious attacks, some with consequences as serious as traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss.
“Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimise the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
US and congressional officials said Washington was crafting a plan for a drawdown of staff from the Havana embassy in response to the unexplained incidents.
The decision deals a blow to already-delicate ties between the US and Cuba, longtime enemies who only recently began putting their hostility behind them.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry chief for US Affairs Josefina Vidal described the move as “hasty”.
“We consider the decision announced today by the US Government through the State Department is hasty and will affect bilateral relations,” she said in a briefing broadcast on state-run television during the midday news show.
Cuba has insisted it has no idea what was harming American diplomats, and have discouraged Mr Trump from letting the matter become “politicised”.
Officials said the embassy in Havana would lose roughly 60 per cent of its US staff.
In a new travel warning to be issued Friday local time, the United States will say some of the attacks have occurred in Cuban hotels, and that while American tourists weren’t known to have been hurt, they could be exposed if they travel to Cuba.
However, tour companies, airlines, cruises and others in the travel industry have said they would continue taking Americans to Cuba.
“We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travellers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes,” said Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours.
Travel providers point out that there are no reports of American travellers having been harmed, and that travel to Cuba by Americans remains legal under existing regulations.
Collin Laverty of Cuba Educational Travel noted that the US State Department has issued numerous alerts and advisories against travel by Americans to places like Mexico and Europe because of crime, terrorism and other dangers.
In contrast, in Cuba, “they have no evidence to indicate that US travellers at risk during their visits to Cuba”.
Although the State Department has described “incidents” and generally avoided deeming them attacks, officials said the US now has determined there were “specific attacks” on American personnel in Cuba.
Mr Tillerson made the decision to draw down the embassy overnight local time while traveling to China, officials said, after considering other options that included a full embassy shutdown.
The US will also stop sending official delegations to Cuba, though diplomatic discussions will continue in Washington, and President Donald Trump reportedly reviewed the options with Mr Tillerson in a meeting earlier in the week.
The moves deliver a significant setback to the delicate reconciliation between the US and Cuba that began during the Obama administration.
The two countries had endured a half-century-long estrangement despite their close proximity.
Mr Trump has reversed some changes involved in the normalisation of diplomatic ties, but has broadly left the rapprochement in place, and has pointedly not blamed Cuba for perpetrating the attacks.
Officials involved in the deliberations said the administration had weighed the best way to minimise potential risk for Americans in Havana without unnecessarily harming relations between the countries.
To investigators’ dismay, the symptoms in the attacks vary widely from person to person.
In addition to hearing loss and concussions, some experienced nausea, headaches and ear-ringing, and the Associated Press has reported some now suffer from problems with concentration and common word recall.
Though officials initially suspected some futuristic “sonic attack,” the picture has grown muddier — the FBI and other agencies that searched homes and hotels where incidents occurred found no devices.
Some US diplomats reported hearing various loud noises or feeling vibrations when the incidents occurred, but others heard and felt nothing yet reported symptoms later.
Though the incidents stopped for a time, they recurred as recently as late August.