Stay away from Cuba, U.S. warns T

Amer­i­can di­plo­mats are pulled af­ter baf­fling “at­tacks.”

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page -

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.

New York Times (2015)

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.

PAUL GUZZO | Times

‘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

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

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.

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