U.S. escalates ‘sonic’ affair

Only essential staff left: Cuban embassy in Washington
Only essential staff left: Cuban embassy in Washington

CUBA STANDARD — While denying it is moving towards a break in diplomatic relations, the Trump administration ordered a drawdown of diplomatic staffs on both sides and issued a travel warning, making business and travel harder.

Citing alleged attacks against U.S. personnel in Cuba and complaining about alleged foot-dragging by Cuban investigators, the State Department first ordered the withdrawal of 60% of employees — all “non-essential” personnel — at its own embassy in Havana, and four days later expelled the same share of staffers at the Cuban embassy in Washington, to “ensure equity”.

The Trump administration will “contemplate returning personnel” only once the Cuban government guarantees the safety of U.S. staffers, a State Department official said in a background press briefing. But that may take a while, as Cuban investigators complain they are stuck in a “Mission Impossible” (see sidebar below).

The State Department ordered 15 Cuban diplomats on a list handed to Ambassador José Cabañas to depart the United States within seven days, including all but one consular officer and all trade attachés.

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

Travel paper jam

The two U.S. measures 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 harder for Cuban Americans and other U.S. travelers to visit the island (see sidebar next page). The U.S. embassy in Havana stopped processing visa applications, effective immediately, suggesting Cuban citizens apply through third-country locations, which makes travel by Cubans to the United States near-impossible. Meanwhile, the Cuban 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 as “extraordinarily precarious”. The State Department also ordered all business officers to leave the country, making business relations more difficult.

Trump administrations officials apparently failed to consider the impact of the embassy staff drawdown on family travel.

“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.”

Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which represents the interests of 15,000 U.S. diplomats, said her Havana members are against the drawdown.

‘No change of policy’

During the briefing, the State Department 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.”

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.

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

U.S. critics

The Trump administration’s measures unleashed a torrent of criticism not only in Cuba, but also in the United States.

“These punitive measures are about much more than protecting U.S. citizens,” write Brookings Institution 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.”

Tight-lipped U.S., elusive facts

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, and they will probably remain so in the foreseeable future.

“They did some bad things in Cuba. Some really bad things,” President Donald Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn, after the State Department announced its punitive measures.

Meanwhile, reporters have been unable to talk, on the record, to any of the alleged victims, whose names are not publicly known. Although Cuban officials have complained about the U.S. withholding substantial information, both a Cuban and U.S. investigation continue.

In an unprecedented move, 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”, the Cuban foreign ministry said in a statement.

Even so, making a quick resolution of the affair impossible, the State Department has held relevant information close to its chest, triggering a response by Cuban authorities that their investigators don’t know what to look for.

Complicating things further, AP reported — citing half a dozen anonymous U.S. sources — that the first alleged victims were U.S. intelligence personnel spying on Cuba under the guise of diplomats.

Asked by a reporter about the Cuban complaint, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said during a press briefing 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 said. “You all know about leaks.”

According to the foreign ministry, a Cuban expert committee complained that the information provided by U.S. authorities has been “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”.

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 during a press conference in Havana, 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.”

“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 foreign ministry 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.”

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 — eventually may deflate fast-growing U.S.-Cuba travel, U.S. companies say they continue to serve the Cuban market.

Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel (RESPECT), an association of more than 100 companies, called the travel warning “unwarranted” and emphasized that Cuba is a safe 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.

“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.”

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. Southwest Airlines upped the ante, lowering Tampa-Havana one-way airfares, through Oct. 12, to $89.

Airbnb said through a spokesman that its operations in Cuba would continue, “consistent with U.S. law”.

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.”

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