WASHINGTON: The United States ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats on Tuesday, accusing Havana of failing to protect their US counterparts from harm in a series of mystery “attacks” on their health.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, however, that Washington would maintain diplomatic relations even though the size of the US mission in Havana would be reduced to a minimum.
“The decision was made due to Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention,” Tillerson said.
“This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations,” the statement continued.
“Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”
The attacks, which US officials initially suggested could have come from some sort of covert acoustic device, have affected at least 22 US embassy staff in Havana over the past few months.
Those affected have exhibited physical symptoms including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.
Tillerson said the US would “maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and will continue to cooperate with Cuba as we pursue the investigation into these attacks.”
US relations with Havana were only fully restored in 2015 – after a half-century, Cold War break – and have deteriorated since President Donald Trump took office in January.
Last week, Tillerson said he was withdrawing more than half the personnel from the US embassy in Cuba in response to the unexplained attacks.
‘Protect our people’
The Cuban diplomats, who were given seven days to depart, were not declared persona non grata, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said.
Washington, he said, wants “to underscore to the Cubans that they must take more actions to protect our people on the ground.”
“Our position on assurances is not to presume Cuban culpability. What it does is require the Cuban government to be able to fulfill their obligations with the safety and well-being and protection of foreign diplomats in their country.”
The US diplomats leaving Cuba are expected to be out of the country by the end of the week.
“We would need full assurances from the Cuban government that these attacks will not continue before we can even talk and plan” for resuming operations in Havana, he said.
Most importantly, Tillerson wants “to focus on the safety and well-being of our personnel. Once having made that decision we then moved on to consider ensuring that there would be an equitable impact in our two embassies ability to operate.”
The State Department gave the Cubans a list of which diplomats they wanted to be expelled.
Routine US visa operations in Havana were suspended indefinitely in response to the attacks.
US officials had previously told reporters they believed some kind of inaudible sound weapon was used on the US staff either inside or outside their residences in Havana.
Canadians in Cuba have also been hurt, with a source close to that country’s embassy telling AFP that more than five families were affected, including several children.
Observers doubt that Cuba would have risked antagonizing its neighbors at the end of 2016 – when relations between the former Cold War enemies were thawing, before they deteriorated under Trump.
The head of North American affairs at Cuba´s foreign ministry, Josefina Vidal, earlier told state television that Cuba wants to work with the United States to resolve this case.