US staff health attack baffles Cuba

2017-10-01 06:00

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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 embassy personnel.

The US embassy in Havana will halt regular visa operations for Cubans seeking to visit the US and offer only emergency services to US citizens, steps that may further erode the US-Cuban rapprochement begun by former 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 its Cold War foe.

American Tour Operators in Cuba, which counts more than 50 US companies, criticised the travel warning. Cuba reported four million arrivals last year, of which 285 000 were Americans.

The Communist Party-run Cuban government was already dealing with several delicate matters: the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, a steep decline in aid from socialist ally Venezuela and a political transition as President Raul Castro steps down next year.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said in a statement: “Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalisation process between the United States and Cuba. Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process.”

Cuba’s foreign ministry chief for US Affairs Josefina Vidal said: “We consider the decision announced today by the US government through the state department as hasty and one that will affect bilateral relations.”

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

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

Twenty-one US embassy employees in Cuba have reported symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping, the state department said.

“Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel to minimise the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm,” 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.

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

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