U.S. urges citizens not to travel to Cuba, cuts embassy staff and halts visa processing
At least 21 diplomats and their families have experienced unexplained health issues, including brain injury and hearing loss.
by Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee
The United States is warning Americans against visiting Cuba and ordering more than half of U.S. personnel to leave the island, senior
officials said Friday, in a dramatic response to what they described as "specific attacks" on diplomats.
The decision deals a blow to already delicate ties between the U.S. and Cuba, longtime enemies who only recently began putting their
hostility behind them. The embassy in Havana will lose roughly 60 percent of its U.S. staff, and will stop processing visas in Cuba
indefinitely, the American officials said.
In a new travel warning to be issued Friday, the U.S. will say some of the attacks have occurred in Cuban hotels, and that while American
tourists aren't known to have been hurt, they could be exposed if they travel to Cuba. Tourism is a critical component of Cuba's economy
that has grown in recent years as the U.S. relaxed restrictions.
For now, the United States is not ordering any Cuban diplomats to leave Washington, another move that the administration had
considered, officials said. Several U.S. lawmakers have called on the administration to expel all Cuban diplomats. In May, Washington
asked two to leave, but emphasized it was to protest Havana's failure to protect diplomats on its soil, not an accusation of blame.
Almost a year after diplomats began describing unexplained health problems, U.S investigators still don't know what or who is behind the
attacks, which have harmed at least 21 diplomats and their families, some with injuries as serious as traumatic brain injury and
permanent hearing loss. Although the State Department has called them "incidents" and generally avoided deeming them attacks,
officials said Friday the U.S. now has determined there were "specific attacks" on American personnel in Cuba.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision to draw down the embassy overnight while traveling to China, officials said, after
considering other options that included a full embassy shutdown. President Donald Trump reviewed the options with Tillerson in a
meeting earlier in the week. The officials demanded anonymity because the moves have yet to be announced.
The U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. Senior officials say the United States is
pulling roughly 60 percent of its embassy staff out of Cuba and warning
American travelers not to visit due to attacks that have harmed diplomats.
The United States notified Cuba of the moves early Friday via its embassy
in Washington. Cuba's embassy had no immediate comment.
Cubans seeking visas to enter the U.S. may be able to apply through embassies in nearby countries, officials said. The U.S. will also
stop sending official delegations to Cuba, though diplomatic discussions will continue in Washington.
The moves deliver a significant setback to the delicate reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba, two countries that endured a half-
century estrangement despite their locations only 90 miles apart. In 2015, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro
restored diplomatic ties. Embassies re-opened, and travel and commerce restrictions were eased. Trump has reversed some changes,
but has broadly left the rapprochement in place.
The Trump administration has pointedly not blamed Cuba for perpetrating the attacks. Officials involved in the deliberations said the
administration had weighed the best way to minimize potential risk for Americans in Havana without unnecessarily harming relations
between the countries. Rather than describe it as punitive, the administration will emphasize Cuba's responsibility to keep diplomats on
its soil safe.
A Cuban man cleans up and makes repairs in the wake of Hurricane Irma in Havana on Sept. 12, 2017. (Yamil Lage / AFP/Getty Images)
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 AP 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. And clues about the circumstances of the incidents seem to
make any explanation scientifically implausible.
Some U.S. diplomats reported hearing various loud noises or feeling vibrations when the incidents occurred, but others heard and felt
nothing yet reported symptoms later. In some cases, the effects were narrowly confined, with victims able to walk "in" and "out" of blaring
noises audible in only certain rooms or parts of rooms, the AP has reported.
Though the incidents stopped for a time, they recurred as recently as late August. The U.S. has said the tally of Americans affected could
Already, staffing at the embassy in Havana was at lower-than-usual levels due to recent hurricanes that have whipped through Cuba. In
early September, the State Department issued an "authorized departure," allowing embassy employees and relatives who wanted to
leave voluntarily to depart ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Though Cuba implored the United States not to react hastily, it appeared that last-minute lobbying by Castro's diplomats was
unsuccessful. The days leading up to the decision involved a frantic bout of diplomacy that brought about the highest-level diplomatic
contacts between the countries since the start of Trump's administration in January.
Last week, the Cuban official who has been the public face of the diplomatic opening with the U.S., Josefina Vidal, came to the State
Department for a meeting with American officials in which the U.S. pressed its concerns. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez used his
speech to the U.N. General Assembly to insist Cuba had no idea what was harming American diplomats, while discouraging Trump from
letting the matter become "politicized."
As concerns grew about a possible embassy shut-down, Cuba requested an urgent meeting Tuesday between Rodriguez and Tillerson
in which the Cuban again insisted his government had nothing to do with the incidents. Rodriguez added that his government also would
never let another country hostile to the U.S. use Cuban territory to attack Americans.
Citing its own investigation, Cuba's embassy said after the meeting: "There is no evidence so far of the cause or the origin of the health
disorders reported by the U.S. diplomats."
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