The United States on Friday cut its diplomatic presence in Cuba by more than half and warned U.S. citizens not to visit because of attacks that have caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in U.S. embassy personnel.
The U.S. embassy in Havana will halt regular visa operations and offer only emergency services to U.S. citizens, steps that may further erode the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement begun by former President Barack Obama.
Officials in the administration of President Donald Trump stressed that the U.S. was maintaining diplomatic ties with Cuba.
The attacks, which are of an unknown nature, have injured 21 U.S. embassy employees in Cuba, causing symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping, the State Department said.
“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 minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
U.S. and congressional officials told Reuters on Thursday that Washington was crafting a plan for a drawdown of staff from the Havana embassy in response to the unexplained incidents.
The Cuban government has denied any role and is investigating. But it has so far said it has been unable to determine the cause.
A senior State Department official told reporters neither the U.S. nor Cuban governments had been able to identify who was responsible for the attacks but stressed that “the government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba.”
The partial evacuation, while depicted as a safety measure, may send a message of U.S. displeasure over Cuba’s handling of the matter and deliver another blow to Obama’s policies of engagement with Cold War foe Cuba.
In a travel warning, the State Department bluntly said “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.”
It said the attacks on U.S. embassy personnel had occurred at “U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”
Bert Hoffman, a Latin American expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, Germany, suggested that Washington’s decision may have been motivated by Trump’s desire to pursue a tougher policy with the Communist Party-run country.
“The incident seems just a pretext to toughen U.S.-Cuba policy,” Hoffman said.
The analyst said the “de facto visa restrictions” resulting from the suspension of normal visa operations could call into question the U.S.-Cuban migration accord hammered out in the 1990s under which the United States grants 20,000 visas per year in return for Cuba preventing illegal emigration.
U.S. lawmakers took positions on the issue that appeared to reflect their wider perspective on engagement with Havana.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who favors normalization, suggested the attacks may be an attempt to undermine this.
“Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalization process between the United States and Cuba. Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process,” Leahy said in a statement. “We must do all we can do solve this mystery so that our embassy personnel can safely return as quickly as possible.”
Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and frequent critic of the Cuban government, suggested the United States should shrink the Cuban diplomatic footprint in the United States.
“Shameful that @StateDept withdraws most staff from @USEmbCuba but Castro can keep as many as he wants in U.S.,” Rubio said on Twitter.