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U.S. Pulls Some Staff Out of Cuba After Bizarre Health Episodes

U.S. officials are at a loss as to what’s causing diplomats to go deaf in Cuba.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
cuba flag

The United States, puzzled by a spate of bizarre health incidents suffered by its diplomats in Cuba, on Friday ordered the bulk of its embassy staff and their families to go home until they have the answers.

The embassy in Havana will lose 60 percent of its staff and stop processing visas immediately, two senior State Department officials told reporters on Friday. The order is coupled with a new travel notice issued Friday warning U.S. citizens against traveling to Cuba.

The United States, puzzled by a spate of bizarre health incidents suffered by its diplomats in Cuba, on Friday ordered the bulk of its embassy staff and their families to go home until they have the answers.

The embassy in Havana will lose 60 percent of its staff and stop processing visas immediately, two senior State Department officials told reporters on Friday. The order is coupled with a new travel notice issued Friday warning U.S. citizens against traveling to Cuba.

The decision to pull out diplomats is the latest bump in the road of already rocky U.S.-Cuba relations since President Donald Trump took office, and it suggests intensifying U.S. concern about the mysterious ailments plaguing diplomats that have left officials and experts scratching their heads.

About a year ago, U.S. government personnel in Cuba began complaining of unexplained health problems, including hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, visual complaints, and cognitive issues. Some reported hearing loud noises or vibrations, sometimes only in only specific parts of the rooms they were in, while others felt nothing before experiencing symptoms, according to the AP, which first broke the story.

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert spoke of the “incidents” — not “attacks” — in Havana, and said they were under review, including with investigations on the ground by the FBI.

On Friday, a senior State Department official said the “targeted attacks” affected 21 people, and at least some occurred in hotels. The last reported attacks occurred in late August. While no tourists have been targeted, the State Department isn’t taking any chances and is now warning all U.S. citizens to steer clear of the island.

“Because our personnel’s safety is at risk and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe that U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba,” said a senior State Department official.

Investigators initially suspected high-tech “sonic attacks” targeting diplomats, but they haven’t found any devices that could cause such symptoms and came up short on scientific explanations for the mystery.

“We don’t have any definitive conclusions regarding cause, source, or any kind of technologies that have been engaged or might have been used,” a State Department official said.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez to address the issue. Cuban President Raúl Castro has steadfastly denied any Cuban involvement in the incidents.

Despite Trump’s hawkish stance on Cuba, his administration has not blamed the Cuban government for the attacks, further deepening the mystery of who is responsible. “We acknowledge the efforts the Cuban government has made to investigate and its cooperation in facilitating the U.S. investigation,” a State Department official said. Officials wouldn’t rule out a third country being responsible for the attacks.

The mysterious attacks could strike a blow on efforts to repair ties between the two countries. Following 56 years of a strict embargo and sanctions, former President Barack Obama reopened relations with Cuba in 2015. Trump vowed to roll back parts of what he called Obama’s “terrible and misguided” Cuba policy during a speech in Miami in June, but three months later, he has still failed to issue new regulations to enact his pledge.

“The decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel,” Tillerson said in a statement released Friday. He stressed that Washington maintains diplomatic relations with Cuba despite the episode. “We will continue to aggressively investigate these attacks until the matter is resolved,” he said.

Photo credit: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Tag: Cuba