Sun, Oct 01, 2017 - Page 5 News List

US cuts Cuba staff, issues travel alert

‘STRONG BLOW’:The travel warning is ‘puzzling,’ as US tourists had not been targeted, a lobbying group said, adding that the decision will divide families and harm businesses

Reuters, WASHINGTON and HAVANA

The US on Friday cut its diplomatic presence in Cuba by more than half and warned its citizens not to visit because of mysterious “attacks” that have caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in US embassy personnel.

The US embassy in Havana is to halt regular visa operations for Cubans seeking to visit the US and offer only emergency services to US citizens, steps that might further erode the US-Cuban rapprochement begun by former US president Barack Obama.

The partial evacuation, while depicted as a safety measure, sends a message of US displeasure over Cuba’s handling of the matter and delivers another blow to Obama’s policies of engagement with Cold War foe Cuba.

“We consider the decision announced today by the US government through the State Department is hasty and will affect bilateral relations,” Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs US Affairs Director Josefina Vidal said.

Vidal, in a briefing on state-run television, said Cuba was still keen to cooperate with US authorities to clarify what happened.

Officials in US President Donald Trump’s administration said the US was maintaining diplomatic ties with Cuba.

Twenty-one US embassy employees in Cuba have been injured and reported symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping, the US Department of State said.

“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,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

The Cuban government has denied any role and is investigating.

The FBI has been looking into the incidents, a US law enforcement official said, but so far has not determined the cause.

A senior department official said neither the US nor Cuban governments had been able to identify who was responsible, but added that “the government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba.”

In a travel warning, the department bluntly said: “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe US citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

The department said the attacks on US embassy personnel had occurred at “US diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by US citizens.”

No tourists are known to have been injured in the attacks.

Diana Rodriguez, 52, who sells handicrafts in Old Havana, said she had a visa appointment this month so she could visit family who live in Florida.

“I won’t ever go there now,” she said. “This is a really strong blow that affects regular Cubans on the street. It’s just unheard of. What is going on with this man? Neither [former US president George W.] Bush nor his father were such sons of bitches.”

Trump in June vowed to partially roll back the detente with Cuba agreed by Obama, and called the Cuban government “corrupt and destabilizing” in his address to the UN General Assembly last month.

Engage Cuba, a Washingon-based lobbying group, said the decision was “puzzling,” given that US travelers had not been targeted.

It said halting the visa process in Cuba and discouraging Americans from going there “will divide families and harm Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, civil society groups and efforts to improve human rights on the island.”

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