Stay away from Cuba, U.S. warns T
American diplomats are pulled after baffling “attacks.”
he United States delivered an ominous warning to Americans on Friday to stay away from Cuba and ordered home more than half the U.S. diplomatic corps, acknowledging neither the Cubans nor the FBI can figure out who or what is responsible for months of mysterious health ailments.
No longer tiptoeing around the issue, the Trump administration shifted to calling the episodes “attacks” rather than “incidents.”
The U.S. actions are sure to rattle already delicate ties between the longtime adversaries who only recently began putting their hostility behind them. The U.S. Embassy in Cuba will lose roughly 60 percent of its American staff and will stop processing visas for prospective Cuban travelers to the United States indefinitely, officials said. About 50 Americans had been working at the embassy.
President Donald Trump said that in Cuba “they did some very bad things” that harmed U.S. diplomats, but he didn’t say who he might mean by “they.”
Though officials initially suspected some futuristic “sonic attack,” the picture is muddy. The FBI and other agencies that searched
“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.”
Rex Tillerson, secretary of State
homes and hotels where incidents occurred found no devices.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reviewed options for a response with Trump, 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.”
In Friday’s travel warning, the State Department confirmed earlier reporting by the Associated Press that U.S. personnel first encountered unexplained physical effects in Cuban hotels. While American tourists aren’t known to have been hurt, the agency said they could be exposed if they travel to the island — a pronouncement that could hit a critical component of Cuba’s economy that has expanded in recent years as the U.S. has relaxed restrictions.
At least 21 diplomats and family members have been affected. The department said symptoms include hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping. Until Friday, the United States had generally referred to “incidents.” Tillerson’s statement ended that practice, mentioning “attacks” seven times; the travel alert used the word five times.
Still, the administration has pointedly not blamed Cuba for perpetrating the attacks, and officials have spent weeks weighing how to minimize the risk for Americans in Cuba without unnecessarily harming relations or falling into an adversary’s trap.
If the attacks have been committed by an outside power such as Russia or Venezuela to drive a wedge between the United States and Cuba, as some investigators have theorized, a U.S. pullout would end up rewarding the aggressor. On the other hand, officials have struggled with the moral dimensions of keeping diplomats in a place where the U.S. government cannot guarantee their safety.
The administration considered expelling Cuban diplomats from the United States, officials said, but for now no such action has been ordered. That incensed several lawmakers who had urged the administration to kick out all of Cuba’s envoys.
“It’s an insult,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of Cuba’s government, said in an interview. “The Cuban regime succeeded in forcing Americans to downscale a number of personnel in Cuba, yet it appears they’re going to basically keep all the people they want in America to travel freely and spread misinformation.”
The U.S. travel warning 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.”
Canada, which also has reported diplomats with unexplained health problems, said it had no plans to change its diplomatic posture in Cuba.
“We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travelers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes,” said Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours. “There has long been significant political tension between the U.S. and Cuban governments, but the experience that our travelers have had on the ground with the Cuban people has been nothing short of amazing. We have no reason to expect that these experiences will not continue.”
Travel providers point out that there are no reports of American travelers having been harmed by the mysterious sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats and other officials, and that travel to Cuba by Americans remains legal under existing regulations.
Collin Laverty of Cuba Educational Travel noted that the U.S. State Department has issued numerous alerts and advisories against travel by Americans to places like Mexico and Europe because of crime, terrorism and other dangers. In contrast, in Cuba, “they have no evidence to indicate that U.S. travelers are at risk during their visits to Cuba.”
The Trump administration said earlier this year that it planned to issue new rules limiting travel by Americans to Cuba, but it has not yet done so.
U.S. airlines continue to offer regular flights to Cuba, cruises continue to make stops there, Airbnb has a thriving rental business in Cuba, and tour companies are still offering trips.
American Airlines is among a number of carriers declining to refund or waive change fees for Cuba flights despite the warning Friday. Travelers with tickets to Cuba are being treated like any travelers wishing to make changes: They must call the airline’s reservations line to see what the options are, based on whether they bought a refundable or nonrefundable ticket, said American spokesman Matt Miller.
“It is still legal to travel to Cuba,” reiterated Greg Buzulencia, CEO of ViaHero, which creates personal itineraries for Americans visiting Cuba. “I don’t have any insight on the claimed attacks on U.S. diplomats, but there have been no such attacks on U.S. travelers.” He said they’d had no cancellations from travelers.
The United States notified Cuba early Friday via its embassy in Washington.
Cuba blasted the American move as “hasty” and lamented that it was being taken without conclusive investigation results.
Workers raise the Cuban flag at a plaza in front of the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana in July 2015. A series of unexplained health ailments suffered by U.S. diplomats may set back relations with the communist-run nation.
‘THIS IS GOING TO HURT BUSINESS’: Nine months after the first commercial flight from Tampa to Cuba in more than five decades left Tampa’s airport, the travel industry responds to the warning. Story, 6B
A line of cars await tourists in Havana on Jan. 18. U.S. tourists aren’t known to have been hurt, the State Department says.