Vermont Senator urges State Department to return diplomats

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Sen. Partick Leahy (D-Vt) meets with Cuban officials during one of his prior visits to assist in the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations in 2015. Source: Sen. Leahy’s Instagram (@senatorleahy)

A six-member delegation of U.S. senators and House members wrapped up a five-day visit to Cuba on Wednesday with a call for the Trump administration to restore the staff of the U.S. embassy in Havana, and resume an effort the Obama administration started to improve relations with the island’s government.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a longtime advocate for normalizing relations with Cuba, said in a news conference wrapping up the visit that there was no reason for the State Department, which is due to make a decision on embassy staffing by March 4, to delay sending back diplomats it pulled out last year after 24 embassy employees were stricken with mysterious ailments, including headaches and hearing loss.

The State Department has said the diplomats were “targeted” in deliberate attacks, apparently with some kind of sonic device. The Cuban government denies any involvement, saying there is no evidence of the attack and suggesting the symptoms might have been caused by stress.

“I have the impression the Cubans have offered whatever cooperation we want, in discovering what if anything happened,” Leahy said before leaving Havana, according to The Associated Press. Carlos Fernández de Cossío, director general for the United States at Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, told the lawmakers “Cuba did not attack or allow attacks against diplomats from the U.S. or any other country,” according to a statement from the ministry reported by Granma, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

The lawmakers also criticized the Trump administration for reversing former President Barack Obama’s effort to improve relations with Cuba. Leahy said the U.S. should remain “animated and involved” in a critical moment of transition as Cuban President Raúl Castro prepares to transfer power to another leader in April.

Five of the six members of the delegation — comprised of Leahy, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), and Susan Davis (D-Calif.) — met with Castro on Tuesday for what a wide-ranging conversation.

McGovern said Castro vowed that his government would continue “some of the ongoing negotiations” with Washington. Despite President Trump’s decision to tighten travel and financial restrictions regarding Cuba, Washington and Havana have continued bilateral talks on migration, human and drug trafficking, and other issues.

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