The State Department ordered the withdrawal of all non-emergency embassy personnel from Cuba Friday, following reports of hearing loss and cognitive issues from at least 21 American diplomats.
The “ordered departure” was issued out of concern for the safety of American personnel in Cuba and does not represent a break in diplomatic relations, two senior State department officials told reporters Friday.
“The investigation into the attacks is ongoing as investigators have have been unable to determine who or what is causing these attacks,” one senior State Department official said. “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 attacks, believed to have taken place in Havana hotels, have caused a range of symptoms including hearing loss, headaches, dizziness and balance and cognitive issues. The incidents began in 2016 and appear to have continued until August, when the most recent attack was reported.
The 21 victims were reportedly targeted multiple times and there were nearly 50 attacks in total, one State Department official told CNN.
Representatives from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) interviewed ten of the victims, some of whom reported suffering “mild traumatic brain injury” and “brain swelling.” A senior state department official declined to comment on the traumatic brain injury diagnosis, citing a lack of competency on the subject.
State Department officials said they are issuing a travel warning advising U.S. citizens to refrain from traveling to Cuba. No non-embassy personnel have yet reported symptoms, but officials maintain that travel to Cuba is ill-advised until the source of the attacks can be identified.
Officials did not provide any information related to Cuba’s potential involvement in the attacks but emphasized Cuba’s responsibility to protect American diplomats. They stressed that the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with Cuba and acknowledged the Cuban government’s cooperation in the ongoing investigations.
The remaining U.S. diplomats, representing less than half of the normal diplomatic footprint, will conduct core operations including providing emergency services to U.S. citizens in Cuba and assisting in the ongoing investigations, but routine visa operations are suspended indefinitely.
Officials said they have “not ruled out” the possibility that the attacks were carried out by a hostile foreign actor outside of Cuba.
“We will get to the bottom this,” one official concluded.
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