World

U.S. pulling embassy staff from Cuba, advises against visits

The United States delivered an ominous warning to Americans on Friday to stay away from Cuba and ordered home more than half the U.S. diplomatic corps, acknowledging neither the Cubans nor America's FBI can figure out who or what is responsible for months of mysterious health ailments. Cuba called the move "hasty."

Cuba calls the American move 'hasty'

U.S. and Cuban flags hang from a balcony in Old Havana, Cuba, in 2014. The U.S. is pulling all its non-essential staff out of Cuba and warning travellers not to visit because of 'specific attacks' on American diplomats. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

The United States delivered an ominous warning to Americans on Friday to stay away from Cuba and ordered home more than half the U.S. diplomatic corps, acknowledging neither the Cubans nor America's FBI can figure out who or what is responsible for months of mysterious health ailments.

No longer tiptoeing around the issue, the Trump administration shifted to calling the episodes "attacks" rather than "incidents."

The U.S. decision to reduce staff at its Havana embassy was "hasty and will affect bilateral relations," Cuba's foreign ministry chief for U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, said on Friday in a briefing broadcast on state-run television.

The U.S. is cutting its diplomatic presence in Cuba by roughly 60 per cent and also warned U.S. citizens not to visit because of the mysterious "attacks" that have caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in U.S. Embassy personnel.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana will halt regular visa operations and offer only emergency services to U.S. citizens, steps that may further erode the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement begun by former president Barack Obama.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. Embassy in Havana will keep only emergency personnel working there until Cuba can ensure the U.S. that its diplomats are safe.

Diplomatic relations to continue

He says the U.S. continues to have diplomatic relations with Cuba that advance U.S. interests and national security. Tillerson says the U.S. will continue co-operating with Cuba on the investigation.

The secretary says the U.S. has no reports that private American citizens were affected by the attacks.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. will continue co-operating with Cuba on the investigation into the attacks. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Twenty-one U.S. Embassy employees in Cuba have been injured and reported symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping, the State Department said.

"Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm," Tillerson said in a statement.

Between five and 10 Canadian diplomats have also been hit by these mysterious attacks, but Global Affairs says Canada doesn't plan on removing its diplomatic staff from Cuba. 

The Cuban government has denied any role and is investigating.

Unable to identify who's responsible

A senior state department official told reporters neither the U.S. nor Cuban governments had been able to identify who was responsible but stressed that "the government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba."

In the travel warning, the State Department bluntly said "because our personnel's safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba."

The U.S. Embassy in Havana will stop processing visas in Cuba indefinitely, officials told The Associated Press. (Desmond Boylan/Associated Press)

It said the attacks on U.S. Embassy personnel had occurred at "U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens."   

The U.S. is also warning citizens that the government will have limited ability to help them if they travel to Cuba, because of the staff cuts.

However, U.S. tour companies and others in the travel industry say they will continue taking Americans to Cuba despite the state department warning.

'Cuba is a safe destination'

"We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travellers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes," said Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours. "There has long been significant political tension between the U.S. and Cuban governments, but the experience that our travellers have had on the ground with the Cuban people has been nothing short of amazing. We have no reason to expect that these experiences will not continue."

Travel providers point out that there are no reports of American travellers having been harmed by the mysterious sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats and other officials, and that travel to Cuba by Americans remains legal under existing regulations.

Collin Laverty of Cuba Educational Travel noted that the U.S. State Department has issued numerous alerts and advisories against travel by Americans to places like Mexico and Europe because of crime, terrorism and other dangers. In contrast, in Cuba, "they have no evidence to indicate that U.S. travellers are at risk during their visits to Cuba." He also called the warning "absolutely unnecessary and counterproductive."

The Trump administration said earlier this year that it planned to issue new rules limiting travel by Americans to Cuba but it has not yet done so.

Tour companies and others in the travel industry say they will continue taking Americans to Cuba despite a dramatic safety warning issued Friday by the U.S. State Department. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

U.S. airlines continue to offer regular flights to Cuba, cruises continue to make stops there, Airbnb has a thriving rental business in Cuba and tour companies are still offering trips.

Airbnb spokesperson Nick Papas said that "consistent with U.S. law, our operations in Cuba will continue.… Guests from the United States who have previously booked a trip to Cuba and wish to cancel their travel to Cuba can contact Airbnb to have their Airbnb reservation cost refunded under our extenuating circumstances policy."

In Friday's travel warning, the State Department said 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.

Fewer trips to Cuba booked

Carlos Valderrama, owner of Cuba Travel Group, a Miami-based agency that sells trips for cultural tours and eco-tourism, said he's already booked one-third fewer trips this year than last because of President Donald Trump's June announcement that restrictions were forthcoming on travel to Cuba.

As for Friday's warning, Valderrama said, "It was already very difficult to explain to Americans who want to travel to Cuba the ways in which they can do it correctly. This will only scare them more. But it's doesn't reflect the reality of [what it's] like to travel to Cuba."

Aside from their homes, U.S. officials said their diplomatic staff were attacked in at least one hotel, the recently renovated Hotel Capri, steps from the Malecon, Havana's waterside promenade. (Desmond Boylan/Associated Press)

Bert Hoffman, a Latin American expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg suggested that Washington's decision may have been motivated by Trump's desire to pursue a tougher policy with the Communist Party-run country.

"The incident seems just a pretext to toughen U.S.-Cuba policy," Hoffman said.

The analyst said the "de facto visa restrictions" resulting from the suspension of normal visa operations could call into question the U.S.-Cuban migration accord hammered out in the 1990s under which the U.S. grants 20,000 visas per year in return for Cuba preventing illegal emigration.

Engage Cuba, a Washington-based lobbying group, said the decision was "puzzling" given that American travellers had not been targeted. It said halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from going there "will divide families and harm Cuba's burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island."

U.S. lawmakers took positions on the issue that appeared to reflect their wider perspective on engagement with Havana.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who favours normalization, suggested the attacks may be an attempt to undermine this.

"Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalization process between the United States and Cuba. Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process," Leahy said in a statement. "We must do all we can do solve this mystery so that our embassy personnel can safely return as quickly as possible."

Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican senator and frequent critic of the Cuban government, suggested the U.S. should shrink the Cuban diplomatic footprint in the U.S.

"Shameful that @StateDept withdraws most staff from @USEmbCuba but Castro can keep as many as he wants in U.S.," Rubio said on Twitter. 

U.S. President Donald Trump has reversed some changes to Obama's Cuba policy, which relaxed travel and economic restrictions on Cuba 6:19

With files from Reuters and CBC News