US to pull non-emergency staff from embassy in Havana

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Vintage cars drive past the recently reopened U.S. embassy in Havana as the sun sets. Photo by Matias J. Ocner.

The U.S. ordered the withdrawal of non-emergency staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday in response to a string of “attacks of an unknown nature,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. The Associated Press reported that about 60 percent of embassy staff will leave, and that the U.S. will stop processing visas in Cuba indefinitely.

“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 for exposure,” Tillerson said.

The State Department said it will also issue an updated travel warning for Cuba in response to the unexplained incidents that left at least 21 U.S. diplomats and family members with symptoms such as hearing loss and traumatic brain injuries.

“We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens,” Tillerson said.

“It is puzzling that the Trump Administration would use this delicate time in the investigation to advise Americans against traveling to Cuba, given the fact that none of these attacks have been directed at American travelers,” wrote James Williams, founder and president of the Washington-based anti-embargo lobbying group Engage Cuba. Less travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens is likely to hurt Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, he added.

Investigators from the U.S. and Cuba say they have not yet been able to figure out who or what is responsible for the unexplained incidents. Cuba has repeatedly denied involvement in suspected sonic weapon attacks. In Friday’s statement, Tillerson did not suggest Cuba was behind the attacks, but said the decision to pull staff from Havana was made for “the health, safety, and well-being of our Embassy community.”

“Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort,” Tillerson said.

Cuban authorities tried to address concerns of a possible closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana in the days leading up to Friday’s announcement. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met with Tillerson on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. to say there is no evidence tying Cuba to the incidents. He also urged cooperation in the investigation.

“He also stated that it would be regrettable that a matter of this nature is politicized and that hasty decisions not supported by conclusive evidence and investigation results are taken,” a Cuban Foreign Ministry readout of the meeting said.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief negotiator for U.S. affairs, also met with State Department officials last week to discuss the mysterious incidents. She responded to the decision to pull staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana by saying: “We consider that the decision announced by the Department of State is hasty and that it will affect the bilateral relations, specifically, the cooperation in matters of mutual interest and the exchanges on different fields between both countries.”


This story was updated after Josefina Vidal spoke about the decision to pull staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

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