State Department makes embassy staff cuts permanent in Cuba

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The State Department announced Friday that it would make staff cuts permanent at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

The U.S. withdrew 60 percent of its embassy employees last year, leaving only a skeleton crew after 24 Americans there suffered ailments from headaches to hearing loss. The State Department blamed the symptoms on “sonic” attacks, but doctors who examined the patients and the FBI found no evidence to support that claim.

“We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks, and an investigation into the attacks is ongoing,” the State Department said in a statement. “The health, safety, and well-being of U.S. government personnel and family members are of the greatest concern for Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson and were a key factor in the decision to reduce the number of personnel assigned to Havana.”

Cuba has repeatedly denied responsibility for the diplomats’ ailments, and said there was no evidence to support the U.S. claim that the diplomats had been targeted with some kind of sonic device.

By law, the State Department had to make a decision by March 4, because it can’t keep diplomats out of their posts for more than six months without sending them back or making their withdrawal permanent.

Critics called the move unnecessary and unjustified, saying there was no legitimate reason not to send the embassy employees back.

“This is a terrible decision, given the FBI investigation that found no evidence of “sonic attacks” afflicting U.S. diplomats. With Raul Castro stepping down in April, this key period of transition is not the time to have a bare-bones U.S. Embassy in #Cuba,” tweeted the Washington Office on Latin America, a leading human rights group.

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who visited Cuba in mid-February with a delegation led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a letter this week urging him to send the diplomats back, and lift an advisory urging U.S. citizens to reconsider traveling to Cuba. “There is nothing in recent history to show that Cuba is unsafe for American visitors,” Castor wrote, “and travel restrictions serve no purpose.” Castor added that in Cuba she “heard directly from many everyday Cubans regarding the negative effects that changes in policy by the Trump administration have had on the support for the Cuban people and the private sector on the island.”

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