The US on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of 14 Cuban envoys for "inappropriate and unacceptable activities," a common diplomatic reference for spying.
The mass expulsion of Cuban diplomats is among the most sweeping ever undertaken by Washington in a long history of reciprocal ousters. It comes as the administration of President George W. Bush is studying ways to punish Havana for its recent imprisonment of scores of government critics and human rights activists.
The State Department notified the Cuban government on Tuesday morning that seven diplomats from Havana's mission at the UN in New York, and seven officials at Cuba's de facto embassy in Washington, were being given 10 days to leave the country.
"In response to certain inappropriate and unacceptable activities, the US has decided to take strong action," said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman. The Cuban diplomats in Washington were declared persona non grata, requiring their prompt departure, Reeker said. The UN envoys, under a separate procedure, were ordered to leave for actions "deemed to be harmful to the United States."
Reeker declined to discuss the charges against the Cubans, referring questions to the FBI. Bureau officials did not respond to requests for comment.
"I think you're all familiar with the record of espionage by the Cuban regime against the United States," Reeker said. "It's a long record."
Officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, which functions as an embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations, did not respond to requests for comment.
Administration officials privately insisted that the expulsions were independent of an overall review of Cuba policy following the crackdown on dissidents and the swift execution of three would-be ferry hijackers.
But administration officials have said for weeks that they were considering a wholesale reduction in the Cuban diplomatic presence in the US as part of a menu of possible actions to be unveiled by the White House in coming days. Among the other options are moves to curtail cash payments to Cubans from their relatives here, restrict Cuban immigration, place new curbs on already limited trade and enhance US government broadcasts to the island.
John Kavulich, the president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said that the expulsions may be part of a drive by hardliners in the administration to toughen the US position toward Havana and thwart moves in Congress toward greater liberalization.
Without discounting the possibility that the envoys engaged in spying, Kavulich, whose council advises businesses interested in investing in Cuba, said "From what I know, they're far more political casualties."
There was no immediate reaction from Havana, but US officials braced themselves for retaliatory steps. In recent weeks, Cuban officials have complained bitterly about contacts between the top US diplomat in Havana, James Cason, and various dissident leaders, many of whom have since been sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
The State Department refused to identify the Cubans being expelled, except to say that they did not include the chiefs of mission in Washington or at the UN. News reports said that the third- and fifth-highest officials at the UN mission, Adrian Francisco Delgado Gonzalez and Alfredo Jose Perez Rivero respectively, were among those told to leave.