Sun | Dec 16, 2018

US cuts staff in Cuba

Published:Friday | September 29, 2017 | 11:00 AM
In this August 14, 2015, file photo, a US flag flies at the US embassy in Havana, Cuba. – AP Photo

The United States is warning Americans against visiting Cuba and ordering more than half of its Havana embassy personnel to leave the island, senior officials said Friday in a dramatic response to what they described as targeted "specific attacks" affecting the health of US diplomats.

The decision deals a blow to already delicate ties between the US and Cuba, longtime adversaries who only recently began putting their hostility behind them. The embassy in Havana will lose roughly 60 per cent of its US staff, and will stop processing visas in Cuba indefinitely, the American officials said. Roughly 50 Americans are currently working at the embassy in Havana.

In a new travel warning to be issued Friday, the US will say some of the mysterious attacks have occurred in Cuban hotels, and that while American tourists aren't known to have been hurt, they could be exposed if they travel to Cuba. Tourism is a critical component of Cuba's economy that has grown in recent years as the US relaxed restrictions.

For now, the United States is not ordering any Cuban diplomats to leave Washington, another move that the administration had considered, officials said. Several US lawmakers have called on the administration to expel all Cuban diplomats. In May, Washington asked two to leave, but emphasised it was to protest Havana's failure to protect diplomats on its soil, not an accusation of blame.

Almost a year after diplomats began describing unexplained health problems, US investigators still don't know what or who is behind the attacks, which have harmed at least 21 diplomats and their families, some with injuries as serious as traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss. Other symptoms have included fatigue, visual and balance problems, difficulty sleeping and dizziness.

Although the State Department has called them "incidents" and generally avoided deeming them attacks, officials said Friday the US now has determined there were "specific attacks" on American personnel in Cuba.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision to draw down the embassy overnight while travelling to China, officials said, after considering other options that included a full embassy shutdown and less significant personnel reductions. President Donald Trump reviewed the options with Tillerson in a meeting earlier in the week.

The officials demanded anonymity to provide the information because the moves have yet to be announced.

The United States notified Cuba early Friday via its embassy in Washington. Cuba's embassy had no immediate comment.

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