The Department of State confirmed Tuesday that it has ordered Cuba to withdraw 15 diplomats from Washington, as unexplained sonic attacks against American personnel in Havana have poisoned the nascent reconciliation between Cold War adversaries.
The expulsion follows a decision by the Trump administration last week to order the evacuation of most U.S. officials from the embassy in Havana, leaving only a staff of “emergency personnel.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has sent a diplomatic note to the Cuban embassy in Washington that includes a list of specific individuals who are to leave, a State Department official said on background. The order does not declare the Cuban diplomats “persona non grata,” but gives them seven days to depart Washington.
The State Department insists that the expulsion does not reflect a change in policy or assign responsibility to the Cuban government for the attacks. Cuban diplomats are being ordered to leave because of Cuba’s “inability to protect [U.S] diplomats in Havana” and to ensure “equity” in staffing levels between U.S. and Cuban missions, the department official said.
The diplomatic fallout began when reports surfaced in August that the U.S. had expelled two Cuban diplomats, believed to be intelligence officers, in response to unspecified “incidents” affecting American personnel in Havana. Department officials later confirmed that U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers were the victims of unexplained attacks that caused disturbing symptoms, including permanent hearing damage, memory loss, and impaired cognitive function.
The attacks, which began in late 2016 and continued through August, targeted U.S. government employees at their homes and in hotel rooms in Havana. Among the first victims were several American intelligence officers, who reported hearing noises similar to loud crickets and then experiencing physical symptoms. In more recent cases, U.S. personnel said they didn’t notice an audible sound but suffered similar effects nonetheless.
A total of 22 American personnel have been diagnosed with physical symptoms related to the attacks, up from last week’s tally of 21, the State Department confirmed Tuesday. Officials said that all of those diagnosed appear to be victims of a series of incidents over a long period of time from “unknown means.”
“There was no other conclusion that we could draw,” the Department official said, referring to State’s characterization of the incidents as deliberate attacks.
Last week, Tillerson ordered the evacuation of non-essential personnel from the U.S. embassy in Havana, citing doubts that the Cuban government could meet its obligation to ensure the safety of foreign diplomats. The State Department also issued a special travel warning that advised Americans to refrain from traveling to Cuba, and the U.S. embassy indefinitely suspended visa operations in Havana.
Some pro-Cuba groups worry those moves will derail progress toward normalizing relations between Washington and Havana. The Engage Cuba Coalition, a collection of business and civil organizations, says that reducing staff at both countries’ is embassies will make it harder to discover who is behind the attacks.
“If the U.S. government is serious about solving this mystery, they shouldn’t make it more difficult to cooperate with the Cuban government during this critical time of the investigation,” the group said Tuesday in a statement. “This decision appears to be purely political, driven by the desire of a handful of individuals in Congress to halt progress between our two countries.”
It remains unclear what percentage of the Cuban embassy workforce will have to leave, but State Department officials say the reduction is proportionally similar to the number of Americans who were ordered to depart. The evacuation of U.S. diplomats from Havana is expected to be completed by the end of this week, the department official said.
With some exceptions on commercial transactions, the Trump administration has largely continued the rapprochement with Cuba initiated by the Obama administration. Tillerson says U.S. policies toward Havana have not changed, despite the reduction in U.S. embassy staff and subsequent expulsion of Cuban 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,” Tillerson said Friday in a statement. “Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”
As for the Cuban diplomatic presence in Washington, the State Department confirmed that personnel restrictions will remain until Havana can ensure that American diplomats will be safe there.
“We will need full assurances from the Cuban government that these attacks will not continue before we can even think about” restoring the previous staffing levels, the State Department official said.
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