Medical ‘Incidents’ Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Prompt U.S. To Reduce Staff at Havana Embassy and Urge Americans Not To Travel to Cuba

On September 29, following a week of news about the subject, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement, “Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba.”[1]

The Secretary’s Statement[2]

The Statement, after reviewing the “variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature” to 21 U.S. Embassy employees, asserted that on September 29, “the Department ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as well as all family members. 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.”

The Statement added that the “decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel. We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”

Simultaneously the Department “issued a Travel Warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba and informing them of our decision to draw down our diplomatic staff. We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”

These action s were taken even though the ”Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure.”

This Statement was preceded by news reports that the U.S. would begin withdrawing roughly 60% of its staff from the Embassy and diplomats’ families. This was not seen as punishment for the Cuban government, but a means of protecting diplomats and their families from the strange attacks. On September 28, Heather Nauert said the Secretary was reviewing all options on “how to best protect our American personnel’ in Cuba. As a result, the U.S. will stop processing Cuban requests for visas at the Embassy.” [3]

Just prior to the issuance of this Statement, the Department held a press conference on that subject.[4] The following additional points were made:

  • “Until the Government of Cuba can assure the safety of U.S. Government personnel in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so as to minimize the number of U.S. Government personnel at risk of exposure. The remaining personnel will carry out core diplomatic and consular functions, including providing emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Cuba. Routine visa operations are suspended indefinitely. Short-term travel by U.S. Government officials to Cuba will also be limited to those involved with the ongoing investigation or who have a need to travel related to the U.S. national security or crucial embassy operations. The United States will not send official delegations to Cuba or conduct bilateral meetings in Cuba for the time being. Meetings may continue in the United States.”
  • “The governments of the United States and Cuba have not yet identified the responsible party, but the Government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba.”
  • The Department has “not ruled out the possibility of a third country as a part of the investigation, but that investigation continues.”
  • The “cooperation that the Cuban Government has given to our efforts to understand what is happening in these attacks to [has] been ongoing, and we expect it to continue.”
  • “The ordered departure will result in more than half of the embassy footprint being reduced.”
  • The Department does not “know the means, the methods, or how these attacks are being carried out, and so I could not characterize them as having stopped in August.”
  • “The staff who were affected at hotels were temporary duty staff at the embassy.”
  • The Department is not “aware of any incidents involving [our Cuban staff at the embassy] or attacks involving them.”
  • The U.S. “investigation continues, but at this moment we don’t have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. And so, I really can’t speculate on engagement or not by Cubans or other parties. The investigation’s ongoing and we will see where the facts lead us in terms of cause or source.”

Reactions to the Statement[5]

Before the issuance of the Statement, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, which is the union representing U.S. diplomats, opposed the then threatened withdrawal of staff from the Havana embassy. He said, “We have a mission to do. AFSA’s view is that American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game. We’re used to operating with serious health risks in many environments, whether it’s parasites that rip up our guts in Africa, exposure to Zika virus and dengue fever, or air pollution in China and India,”

Immediately afterwards, Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) said, “”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. . . .We must do all we can do solve this mystery so that our embassy personnel can safely return as quickly as possible.” Representative James McGovern (Dem., MA) had a similar reaction:  the drawdown will make it “harder for Cuban and American families to travel and visit loved ones” and “America cannot afford a return to the failed Cold War isolationist policies that divided families for 50 years.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) did not express agreement or disagreement with the Statement, but instead said these actions did not go far enough. He initially tweeted, “”Shameful that @StateDept withdraws most staff from @USEmbCuba but Castro can keep as many as he wants in U.S.” In a subsequent longer statement, he said, “it is weak, unacceptable and outrageous for the U.S. State Department to allow Raul Castro to keep as many of his operatives in the U.S. as he wants. The Cuban government has failed its obligation under international treaties to keep foreign diplomats safe on its soil. The idea that Cuba knows nothing about how these attacks took place and who perpetrated them is absurd.  . . . Until those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice, the U.S. should immediately expel an equal number of Cuban operatives, downgrade the U.S. embassy in Havana to an interests section, and consider relisting Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

President Trump, ignoring the Department’s continued refusal to blame Cuba, did just that in a brief comment about the Statement when he said, Cuba “did some bad things in Cuba.”

Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, thought the U.S. decision for the Embassy to cease processing Cuban applications for visas to emigrate to the U.S. might violate its agreement with Cuba from the 1990s to issue 20,000 such visas a year if there is no third-country workaround for those visa applications,

The new U.S. travel warning against Americans traveling to the island did not scare tour companies, airlines, cruise ship operators and others in the travel industry. Many have said they will continue taking Americans to Cuba. Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours, said, “We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travelers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes. . . . . [The] experience that our travelers 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.” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas, said that “consistent with U.S. law, our operations in Cuba will continue.”

Canada also has had some of its diplomats in Havana experience similar medical problems, but its Foreign Ministry said, “We continue to monitor the situation closely and we have no plans to travel advice or remove any staff.”

Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban diplomat who was in charge of U.S. relations until this year, called Washington’s reaction “hasty” and warned that it would “affect the bilateral relations, specifically the cooperation in matters of mutual interest.” But she said Cuba was committed to determining the cause of the symptoms experienced by the American diplomats.”

For ordinary Cubans, the Statement “stirred anxiety and dread.” The ban on Americans traveling to the island “dealt a harsh blow to Cubans who had hoped the nascent normalization of relations with the United States that began in late 2014 would usher in a period of economic growth and greater prosperity in the impoverished Communist nation.” In addition, the “decision to stop issuing visas in Havana indefinitely leaves thousands of Cubans in limbo. Washington typically grants 20,000 immigrant visas a year to reunite Cubans with relatives in the United States, and thousands more to enable students, academics and tourists to travel.” Harold Cárdenas, a popular Cuban blogger who recently started a master’s degree program in international relations at Columbia University, said, “The most immediate is it will perpetuate estrangement, not just political, but physical. There will be a price, and it will be paid by Cuban families.”

Secretary of State’s Prior Meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister[6]

Late afternoon on September 26, at Cuba’s request, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the State Department to discuss issues relating to the medical problems of U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba.

Afterwards the State Department said the conversation was “firm and frank” and that Tillerson raised “profound concern” about the diplomats’ safety and security. State Department spokeswoman Heather Neuter emphasized that Tillerson conveyed how serious the situation is and emphasized that Cuba is obligated under international law to protect foreign diplomats.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s lengthy post-meeting statement was the following:

  • The “Foreign Minister reiterated the seriousness, celerity and professionalism with which the Cuban authorities have taken on this issue. Following instructions from the top level of the Cuban government, a priority investigation was opened . . . [immediately after] these incidents were first reported and additional measures were adopted to protect the US diplomats and their relatives. This has been recognized by the representatives of the US specialized agencies who have travelled to Cuba as from June, whose visits have been considered as positive by the Cuban counterparts.”
  • He “reiterated . . . how important it was for the US authorities to cooperate, in an effective way, with the Cuban authorities in order to clarify these incidents, which are unprecedented in Cuba.”
  • He [also] “reaffirmed . . . that the decision and the argument claimed by the US Government to withdraw two Cuban diplomats from Washington were unwarranted and emphasized that Cuba strictly abides by its obligations under the Vienna Convention on the protection and integrity of diplomats, an area in which it keeps an impeccable record.
  • “He reaffirmed that the Cuban government has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any kind against diplomats. The Cuban government has never permitted nor will it ever permit the use of its territory by third parties for this purpose.”
  • He “stated that according to the preliminary results obtained by the Cuban authorities in their investigations, which have borne in mind the information given by the US authorities, there is no evidence so far of the cause or the origin of the health disorders reported by the US diplomats.”
  • “The Foreign Minister reaffirmed that the investigation to resolve this matter is still in progress and that Cuba has a keen interest in bringing it to closure, for which it is essential to count on the effective cooperation of the US authorities. He also stated that it would be regrettable that a matter of this nature is politicized and that hasty decisions not supported by conclusive evidence and investigation results are taken.”
  • Finally, “the Minister reiterated the willingness of Cuba to continue holding the bilateral dialogue on areas of common interest, based on respect and sovereign equality, despite the profound differences that exist between the two countries. “(Emphases added.)

Earlier that same day U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee “that it was a reasonable suspicion that Cuban authorities either were involved in the incidents or at least knew they were occurring . . . [since] Cuba keeps tight surveillance on American diplomats in the country and would be likely to know if something significant were happening to them.” However, he also admitted that with so much unknown, even that assumption is less than certain “and “as a U.S. government official, I don’t know that.”[7]

Suggested U.S. Responses to the “Attacks” on Diplomats in Cuba[8]

Although perhaps superseded by the previously mentioned Secretary’s Statement, an earlier editorial in the Wall Street Journal proposed that until Cuba offers a persuasive explanation of how these incidents occurred without Cuban collaboration, the U.S. should expel 19 Cuban diplomats from its embassy in Washington, D.C., which with the previous U.S. expulsions of two Cubans would equal the 21 Americans attacked in Cuba. If such a persuasive explanation is provided, then the Cuban diplomats could return to their posts. The Journal, however, is skeptical of such an explanation being provided in light of what it says is Cuba’s “long record of harassing U.S. government employees on the island.”

A more aggressive response suggestion has been offered by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC), a U.S. 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in 1992 to promote a nonviolent transition to a free and democratic Cuba with zero tolerance for human rights violations. It asserted the following:

  • “The unacceptability of the thesis that the perpetrator was a third party. In the circumstances of comprehensive surveillance (visual, physical, digital, phone, microphones) to which these diplomats are subject 24 by 7, it is impossible for third players to act in independent and undetected fashion for over nine months and in more than two dozen locations such as residences and hotel rooms.”
  • The unacceptability that these facts are diluted, minimized, and silenced by the Department of State and/or any other U.S. agency participating in this investigation.T
  • The unacceptability to allow the perpetrator to escape the scandal as well its political, diplomatic and financial consequences.
  • The unacceptability of diluting the legal responsibility of the perpetrator so that victims could not be compensated nor the truth identified.

Other News[9]

There has been other recent news regarding these issues.

First, a Miami television station reported that at least four additional U.S. diplomats who served in Cuba have been hurt by sonic attacks and that these incidents occurred inside the U.S. Embassy and at several Havana hotels, including the famous Hotel Nacional. This brings the total affected individuals to 25. (Presumably, under the Wall Street Journal’s rationale, if there is confirmation that 25 Americans who have been affected, there would be 23 additional Cubans expelled.)  However, the Miami Herald said that according to an unnamed State Department source, there are only 21 confirmed cases, not 25, and none of the attacks occurred at the U.S. Embassy; the same, more authoritative, message was provided at the previously mentioned September 29 press briefing.

Second, according to CNN, a senior U.S. official said that some of the 21 individuals previously counted as subjects of such attacks were targeted at least 50 times.

Third, an independent Cuban news outlet, Diario de Cuba, reports that among the Canadians similarly affected while serving in Cuba are “several children” from “more than five families of Canadian diplomats.”

 Conclusion

These medical “incidents” are deeply disturbing, and the U.S. and Cuba need to determine the cause(s) and perpetrator(s). The good news is that the U.S. is not rushing to judgment, that in the near term the U.S. is taking reasonable steps to protect its diplomats and families and that the U.S. and Cuba maintain diplomatic relations and are cooperating on these issues and other matters.

The new Travel Warning, however, goes too far when it starts, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba” and then admits that the “attacks” to date have been on “U.S. Embassy employees” and “have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.” Moreover, as discussed in prior blog posts, the small number of hotels to date have all been in Havana that have been used by U.S. Embassy employees on a short-term basis and U.S. citizens who are not connected with the Embassy have not been subjects of any of these “attacks.” As a result, the new Travel Warning should have made these facts clear and at most cautioned U.S. citizens about using certain Havana hotels while also telling them that many Cuban citizens are making their Havana homes available to foreign guests and that there have been no problems associated with the many other cities and towns on the island.

For those of us favoring continuation of the process of normalizing relations between the two countries, we must continue to oppose requests for the U.S. to take various actions against Cuba, including closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, all before there is a well-documented conclusion to the ongoing U.S. and Cuban investigations of this mystery.

Similarly, for the same reason we must oppose the suggestion from Senator Rubio, the Wall Street Journal and any others to expel Cuban diplomats equal to the number of U.S. diplomats affected by the “sonic attacks” or whatever else has caused medical problems.

======================================

[1]  This blog has published the following posts about these issues: U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba (Aug. 23, 2017); At least 16 U.S. Diplomats Who Had Served in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Aug. 24, 2017) (comment to 8/24/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for Americans Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 8/24/17 post);  News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017); In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 2, 2017); Two More U.S. Diplomats Serving in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Sept. 13, 2017); More Mystery Surrounding “Medical Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Sept. 14, 2017); GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 16, 2017); U.S. Evaluating Whether To Close U.S. Embassy in Cuba (Sept, 18, 2017); Developments Regarding U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2]  Tillerson, Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Cuts Staff from Cuba Over Mysterious Injuries, Warns Travelers, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Slashes Cuba Embassy Staff, Warns Americans Not to Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[3]  Ordonez & Kumar, U.S. does not believe Cuba is behind sonic attacks on American diplomats, Miami Herald (Sept 26, 2017)

[4] Dep’t of State, Senior State Department Officials on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017).

[5]  Hudson, Trump’s Thinking About Pulling US Personnel from Cuba. US Diplomats that That’s A Bad Idea, BuzzFeedNEWS (Sept. 28, 2017); Leahy, Leahy REAX On The U.S. Withdrawal of Most U.S. Embassy Personnel And Their Families From CUBA (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. Rep. McGovern Statement on U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Travel Warning to Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Democrat derides Cuba decision as overreaction, Wash. Post (Sept. 29, 2017); Harpaz & Gomez, Travel industry sticking with trips to Cuba from US, Wash. Post (Sept.29, 2017); Rubio: State Department’s Response to Cuba Attacks ‘Weak, Unacceptable and Outrageous,’ (Sept. 29, 2017); White House, Remarks by President Trump in Press Gaggle Before Marine One Departure (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Trump Says Cuba ‘Did Some Bad Things’ Aimed at U.S. Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff from Cuba, N.Y.  Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Statement to the press by General Director for US Affairs, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro (Sept. 29, 2017); Londońo, Cubans Alarmed at U.S. Embassy Withdrawals and Travel Warning, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Cubans Are Heartbroken, Angry Can’t Seek U.S. Visas in Havana, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff From Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[6] Reuters, Tillerson to Meet Cuba’s Foreign Minister in Washington as Tensions Climb, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Cuba Says No Clues Yet to Who Attacked Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Warns U.S. Against Hasty Decisions in Mysterious Diplomats Case, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cuba Foreign Minister meets with US Secretary of State (Sept. 26, 2017).

[7] Id. The Under Secretary’s direct testimony concerned the redesign of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). (Dep’t of State, John J. Sullivan: Testimony Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sept. 26, 2017.

[8] Editorial, Cuba’s Sonic Attacks, W.S.J. (Sept. 25, 2017); FHRC, The responsibility for What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept 2017).

[9] Vela, Total number of Americans hurt in Cuba sonic attacks now at 25, Miami Television Channel 10 News (Sept. 25, 2017); Operand & Labatt, US diplomats, families in Cuba targeted nearly 50 times by sonic attacks, says US official, CNN (Sept. 24, 2017); There are children among Canadians affected by the so-called ‘acoustic attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 28, 2017).

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

3 thoughts on “Medical ‘Incidents’ Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Prompt U.S. To Reduce Staff at Havana Embassy and Urge Americans Not To Travel to Cuba”

  1. More Reactions to U.S. Travel Warning About Cuba

    A Washington Post editorial, continuing this newspaper’s hard line about U.S.-Cuba relations, refuses to believe Cuba’s denial of knowledge about the cause and perpetrator of the “attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana. It asserts “recent events suggest that the unpleasant reality of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship remains in place” and that “For decades, the Cuban state security apparatus has kept a watchful eye on everything that moves on the island, and informants lurk on every block. It begs disbelief that Cuba does not know what is going on. Unfortunately, this kind of deception and denial is all too familiar behavior.” Therefore, if “Cuba sincerely wants better relations with the United States, it could start by revealing who did this, and hold them to account.”

    This suspicion of Cuban involvement in the attacks received some corroboration by the Associated Press, which reports that six unnamed sources say that “many of the first reported cases [of attacks] involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy.” Moreover, of “the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed.” U.S. investigators, according to the AP, have identified “three ‘zones,’ or geographic clusters of attacks, [which] cover the homes where U.S. diplomats live and several hotels where attacks occurred, including the historic Hotel Capri.” Both the State Department and the CIA declined to comment to the AP. This report undoubtedly will fuel efforts to overturn normalization of relations between the two countries.

    The bipartisan Cuba Working Group in the U.S. House of Representatives said it was “encouraged by the willingness of the Cuban Government to serve as a partner in resolving this matter. A swift, apolitical resolution is in the best interests of both nations and we support continued cooperation and engagement until the source and motive of these attacks are determined. Calls to sever all diplomatic ties or travel, or encourage retaliatory efforts without identifying the responsible parties are misguided and do nothing to ensure the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel and their families moving forward.” (Emphasis added.)

    Cubans involved in its tourism sector “feared the U.S. travel warning would further tarnish Cuba’s image as a safe and idyllic destination after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc there last month. “A dip in tourism this year would be a further blow to Cuba’s economy, which already is struggling with a drop in cheap oil shipments from key ally Venezuela, lower exports, a cash crunch and recovering from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma.
    ————————-
    Editorial, Cuba plays dumb in attacks on American diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/cuba-plays-dumb-in-attacks-on-american-diplomats/2017/09/30/dae5f648-a54e-11e7-ade1-76d061d56efa_story.html?utm_term=.fa9ee7dc9a04

    Assoc. Press, APNewsBreak: Attacks in Havana Hit US Spy Network in Cuba, N.Y. times (Oct. 2, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/10/02/world/americas/ap-lt-cuba-attacks-the-spies.html?_r=0

    Press Release: Congressional Cuba Working Group Statement in Response to Ongoing Investigation in Cuba, (September 29, 2017)
    https://emmer.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressional-cuba-working-group-statement-response-ongoing

    Reuters, U.S. Travel Warning Sends Chill Across Cuban Tourism Industry, N.Y. Times (Oct. 1, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/10/01/world/americas/01reuters-usa-cuba-travel.html?_r=0

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