Trump expels Cuban diplomats, making travel even more difficult

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Only essential staff left: Cuban embassy in Washington

Only essential staff left: Cuban embassy in Washington

CUBA STANDARD — Taking another step towards minimizing diplomatic relations, the Trump administration expelled 60% of diplomats working at the Cuban embassy in Washington, to “ensure equity” after the State Department ordered the withdrawal of 60% of employees at its embassy in Havana.

The State Department ordered that 15 Cuban diplomats on a list handed to Ambassador José Cabañas depart the United States within seven days.

The measure came four days after the State Department announced it withdrew all non-essential personnel from the embassy in Havana, citing alleged attacks against U.S. diplomats.

In a statement, the Cuban foreign ministry called the measure, which follows the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats in May over the same affair, “unfounded and unacceptable”.

“The U.S. government is responsible for the present and future deterioration of relations,” said Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez in a press conference in Havana.

The two U.S. measures combined effectively shut down the capacity of both embassies to process visa and passport applications, making it near-impossible for Cubans to visit relatives in the United States, and making it difficult for Cuban Americans and other U.S. travelers to visit the island. The embassy in Washington will be reduced to just one consular staffer to process hundreds of thousands of applications, Rodríguez said, describing the situation of consular affairs “extraordinarily precarious”. The State Department also ordered all business officers to leave the country, making business relations more difficult.

The Trump administration’s moves unleashed a torrent of criticism — in the United States.

“These punitive measures are about much more than protecting U.S. citizens,” write analysts Richard Feinberg and Harold Trinkunas in a recent report. “Rather, this White House and its pro-embargo allies in Congress have opportunistically seized on these mysterious illnesses affecting U.S. diplomats to overturn the pro-normalization policies of a previous administration, using bureaucratic obstruction and reckless language when they cannot make the case for policy change on the merits alone.”

“Expelling Cuban diplomats will not solve this mystery; it will not improve the safety of U.S. personnel, but it will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island,” said James Williams, president of pro-normalization group Engage Cuba. “We hope that the driving forces behind this decision are comfortable with their Cuban-American constituents being unable to visit their loved ones.”

“I think we are evaluating the impact our reduction of staff will have on those issues,” a State Department official said in a press briefing, on condition of anonymity, responding to a reporter’s question about the impact on Cuban families. “But [Secretary of State Rex Tillerson] has made clear first and foremost is the safety, security, and well-being of our diplomatic personnel overseas. There will be emergency services that will remain available.”

The official denied that the Trump administration is seeking a break in diplomatic relations.

“This move does not signal a change of policy or determination of responsibility for the attacks on U.S. government personnel in Cuba”, the official said about the alleged attacks. “We are maintaining diplomatic relations with Havana. The decision on expulsions was taken due to Cuba’s inability to protect our diplomats in Havana, as well as to ensure equity in the impact on our respective operations.”

Issuing Cuban passports ...

Issuing Cuban passports …

Elusive facts

The official alleged that 22 persons have experienced health effects “due to the attacks”, one more since the State Department issued its last roll call. He said the 22nd alleged victim was added after he or she had reported symptoms as early as January.

Both a Cuban and U.S. investigation continue, the official said, with cooperation on both sides.

The Trump administration will “contemplate returning personnel” again once the Cuban government gives “full assurances that these attacks will not continue”, the official said, responding to a reporter’s question.

According to the State Department, 22 embassy employees in Havana have suffered hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, and sleeplessness, but ongoing investigations are inconclusive. Citing half a dozen anonymous U.S. sources, AP reported that the first alleged victims were U.S. intelligence personnel spying on Cuba under the guise of diplomats.

... and processing U.S. visas will be difficult

… and processing U.S. visas will be difficult, keeping Cuban families apart

Asked by a reporter why the State Department uses the term “attacks”, if the cause of the symptoms is unknown, and the symptoms are different, the official said that “there’s been a consistent pattern of our people being affected, and there’s no other conclusion we could draw.”

In its statement, the Cuban foreign ministry gave a more detailed description of the ongoing investigation, complaining about the lack of information provided by the U.S. government, and concluding that so far there is no evidence for the alleged incidents.

According to the statement, a Cuban expert committee complained that the information provided by U.S. authorities is “insufficient”, saying that “the main obstacle for a clarification of the incidents has been the lack of direct access to the affected persons and to the doctors who examined them”. Setting a 50-year precedent, Cuba has let U.S. investigators work in the island in three instances since June, allowing them to import equipment, as a “sign of goodwill”.

“Until now, according to the available information and the data provided by the United States, there is no evidence that these alleged incidents have occurred, nor for the cause and origin of the health effects experienced by U.S. diplomats and their families,” the statement concludes. “Neither have possible authors or persons with a motive, intent or resources to perpetrate these kinds of actions been identified, nor has the presence of suspicious persons or equipment at the locations where the incidents were reported been established. The Cuban authorities are not familiar with equipment and technologies that could be used for that purpose, nor do they have information that would indicate their presence in the country.”

Asked during the press briefing about the wide range of medical symptoms and their possible causes, the State Department official had no clear answer.

“I know that the medical teams are looking at all of the symptoms and are considering all of the possibilities,” he said. “But they have been able to confirm the symptoms that we’ve previously described are occurring and our people are demonstrating physical symptoms.

“Cantinflas,” responded Foreign Minister Rodríguez, referring to the Mexican comedian famous for his nonsensical torrent of words. “This is incomprehensible rhetoric that tries to hide the essence: The lack of data, conclusive results of the investigation, evidence, information.”

Asked by a reporter the next day, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the U.S. government needs “to keep a tight hold on a lot of information” because “we wouldn’t want to tip off the bad guys”.

“We don’t want that information to leak,” Nauert told reporters during a briefing in Washington. “You all know about leaks.”

No cutbacks by U.S. travel companies, so far

Even though the measures — together with soon-to-be-expected new regulations that prohibit individual travel — are likely to throw a wrench into fast-growing U.S.-Cuba travel, U.S. companies say they continue to serve the Cuban market. American Airlines and United Airlines, which are vying for additional slots to Havana, said the travel warning would not affect their current operations. JetBlue Airways said it would waive change and cancellation fees for Cuba flights booked before the travel warning.

Airbnb said through a spokesman that its operations in Cuba would continue, “consistent with U.S. law”. “Hosts will continue to have the chance to offer their homes and experiences to guests visiting the island.”

Cruises seem to continue unaffected as well. Royal Caribbean Cruises said the travel warning does not affect their passengers, since “they do not visit hotels.” Competitor Norwegian Cruise Line said its “cruises to Havana continue to operate as scheduled” because no incidents involving tourists have been reported.

“While members and relatives of the U.S. diplomatic corps have suffered illnesses apparently triggered by occurrences at the diplomatic offices or possibly their homes, none of the more than 475,000 other Americans visiting Cuba this year have reported similar health issues related to their visits,” Carnival Cruise Line said in a statement. “We are, of course, closely monitoring and are in touch with U.S., as well as Cuban authorities, and will act accordingly if anything warrants a change in our plans. Please be advised that your visa for travel to Cuba is valid, and there are no issues with your return to the U.S. The State Department advisory does not prohibit Americans from traveling to Cuba.”

Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel (RESPECT), an association of more than 100, called the measure “unwarranted” and emphasized that Cuba is a safe travel destination U.S. travelers can legally visit.

“Based on the evidence thus far and the fact that the State Department says no other U.S. citizens have been affected, we believe that its decision is unwarranted, and are continuing to organize travel to Cuba and encourage others to do so,” said Bob Guild, RESPECT co-coordinator and vice president of Marazul Charters.

“So far the reaction has been fairly muted,” said Michael Sykes, who recently started the American Tour Operators in Cuba (ATOC) group, which counts some 50 members. “I think people are viewing this as a political maneuver. No cancellations so far.”

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