Amidst all of the confusion revolving around the mysterious health ailments experienced by US diplomats and relatives in Cuba over the past few months, the Trump administration has taken an even harder line on US-Cuba relations.
After an announcement last Friday that the US would significantly reduce its embassy staff in Havana, the State Department is expected to announce a new measure this week – the removal of 60 percent of Cuba’s diplomats from Washington, D.C. On Friday, the US announced that it would downsize its embassy staff in Havana indefinitely. The change will pare embassy personnel down from 50 to around 20, while also halting the processing of visas for prospective Cuban travelers to the US .
To date, little is known about the attacks other than the symptoms – concussion-like in nature, with most experts theorizing some sort of acoustic device utilized at long range while victims were asleep. Headaches, nausea, dizziness, and in some cases permanent hearing loss were among the symptoms experienced by at least 21 US diplomats and their family members working in Havana. In an unprecedented move, the Cuban government took the rare step of inviting the FBI to the island, adding a layer of complexity to decoding the motives of the attacks. However, the FBI and other agencies have come up short in their searches and have found no devices in any homes or hotels.
Either way, the Trump administration has taken an even harsher tone on the issue, calling the episodes “attacks” rather than “incidents” as before. “They did some very bad things,” in Cuba, Trump said, leaving the question of exactly whom he was referring to open-ended.
The administration has not pointed the finger yet, but officials have been been hard-pressed to figure out a solution that minimizes risk while maintaining relations with Cuba. After all, if the attacks are indeed attempts by a third actor to sabotage US-Cuba relations, as some analysts postulate, the US ending or curtailing diplomacy with Cuba plays into that third actor’s hands.
However, the official position by the State Department is that the safety of US citizens take precedence over preservation of diplomatic relations. “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,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. Although tourists have not been victims of the attacks, the State Department also issued a warning to Cuba-bound American citizens, saying that they could be exposed if they traveled to the island, as the first attacks were reported to have happened in Cuban hotels.
Since one of Cuba’s major industries is tourism, the US position is troublesome. The attacks came at a time when tourism had been ramping up due to loosened restrictions between the two nations. However, at least some US citizens seem undeterred by the State Department’s ominous warnings.
US study abroad programs to Cuba are functioning as normal, although students are being “urged to avoid the US Embassy, nearby hotels and well-known hangouts where Americans congregate,” a statement from the Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University read. Students also have a lower risk, according to other program coordinators, because they are closely integrated with Cuban families and schools and don’t frequent the same sorts of locales as US diplomats.