US-Cuba relations

US reduces staff in Cuba after mysterious ‘health attacks’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 2:24pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:42pm

The US State Department said on Friday it had ordered more than half the US embassy staff and all diplomatic family members to leave Cuba because of a mysterious series of what it called “specific attacks” that have caused health problems in US diplomats.

Only those who carry out the main diplomatic and consular duties, including providing emergency help to American travellers, will stay at the embassy in Havana, officials said.

The State Department issued an advisory for Americans not to visit Cuba, although no tourists or other travellers have been affected by the unexplained attacks. The embassy, an iconic building on Havana’s waterfront, also will suspend processing US visa applications.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he had decided to trim staff and warn Americans in response to what he called “attacks of an unknown nature”. He emphasised that the moves were intended to ensure the health and safety of embassy personnel, not to punish Cuba.

“Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel to minimise the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm,” Tillerson said.

Still, the dramatic moves were a blow to Washington’s delicate relations with Havana, which were restored in 2015, more than half a century after they were broken in the cold war.

Over the last two years, US airlines have begun direct flights to Cuba, tourism has surged and numerous travel and commerce restrictions were lifted. President Donald Trump has reversed some changes but has broadly left the rapprochement in place.

Aides said Tillerson made the decision after considering options that included temporarily closing the embassy.

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In all, 21 US diplomats in Cuba have exhibited a wide range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping. Several Canadian diplomats have also reported unusual physical ailments.

“Investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks,” Tillerson said. Moreover, he said, the State Department “is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure”.

US officials said the attacks occurred in the diplomats’ residences and in local hotels they frequent. The attacks began in mid-2016, and the most recent was in August.

The government has mostly referred to “incidents” rather than attacks in the past. But officials said on Friday the US now believes “specific attacks” targeted the diplomats.

Tillerson emphasised that the US is not breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba, noting that Havana “has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort”.

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Cuba has allowed FBI agents in to help investigate the rash of health problems. The Trump administration has stopped short of blaming Cuba for the attacks, leaving open the possibility that another country or group is responsible.

Experts have theorised that the attacks have been carried out by a machine that sends high-powered sound waves at a person, vibrating brain tissue and parts of the ear.

Russian intelligence agents have been known to use audio weapons, but the US has not definitively determined who is responsible for the attacks in Cuba.

Investigators have struggled to unravel the mystery. FBI agents and other agencies have found devices in or near the homes and hotels that were affected.

The wide range of symptoms, and questions of how and when people were affected, have yet to yield clear clues.

Some diplomats reported hearing loud noises or feeling vibrations when the incidents occurred, but others heard and felt nothing yet reported symptoms later. In some cases, the effects were narrowly confined, with victims able to walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises audible in only certain rooms or parts of rooms, Associated Press has reported.

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“At this moment, we don’t have definitive information about the source or cause of the attacks,” said a State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

Cuba’s embassy had no immediate comment.

Staffing at the US embassy was already down because of recent hurricanes. Early this month, the State Department allowed embassy employees and relatives who wanted to leave voluntarily to leave before Hurricane Irma.

Cubans seeking visas to enter the US may be able to apply through embassies in nearby countries, officials said. The US also will stop sending official delegations to Cuba, though diplomatic discussions will continue in Washington.