Cuban Americans seeking to have their relatives join them from the island will not be able to do so — at least for the time being — as a result of the announcement Friday of a significant withdrawal of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
It is not known how long the suspension of the visa reunification program will last.
The withdrawal of more than half of the American staff from the embassy in Havana is in response to mysterious sonic attacks that have caused several health problems to at least 21 diplomats, officials confirmed.
Additionally, Washington has issued a new alert warning Americans not to travel to the island because of the attacks.
“Over the past several months, numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees have been targeted in specific attacks,” the State Department said in its notice. “These employees have suffered significant injuries as a consequence of these attacks. Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.”
Beyond the family reunification program, all other visas — immigrant and non-immigrant — also will be “suspended indefinitely.”
The State Department announced the suspension of visas for Cubans without having finalized the details on how they will handle this situation. Another official said that perhaps Cubans could apply for visas in third countries without explaining how the procedure would work.
“Nobody understands what is happening,” said Adrián Núñez, who arrived to Miami from Cuba two years ago and is in the process of seeking a visa for his mother who is still on the island.
“With these new measures I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “Getting out of Cuba is very complicated because few countries allow entry for Cubans without visas.”
Outside the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday afternoon, Lisandro Fornaris was stationed with a cart on a street selling crackers, turron and coconut and guayaba pies from a push cart. He said Cubans would not be happy that the consular section was closing and they would have to go to third countries to get visas to travel to the United States.
“It’s going to be really difficult for Cubans to do that,” he said. “There might be a few who can do that but for most, it’s impossible.”
As far as diplomats and other Americans being in danger in Cuba, he said, “There’s security here. Foreigners here are more secure than Cubans themselves. They’re prioritized here.”
Back in Washington, the U.S. also announced it will not send delegations to Cuba even as diplomatic relations remain in place.
“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,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement Friday. “Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”
In a conference call with media, a high-ranking State Department official said: “Until the Cuban government can provide assurances of the safety of our diplomatic personnel, the embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so we can provide basic services to American citizens.”
Cuba called the measures “hasty.”
“We consider that the decision announced by the State Department is hasty and will affect bilateral relations, in particular, cooperation on issues of mutual interest and exchanges of a different nature between the two countries,” Josefina Vidal told the Cuban press.
Vidal, who leads the U.S. Department at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, emphasized that “the government of Cuba has no responsibility whatsoever for the alleged acts and performs seriously and rigorously its obligations under the Vienna Convention.”
She reiterated Cuba’s willingness “to continue an active cooperation between the authorities of the two countries, for the full clarification of these facts, for which a more efficient US involvement will be essential.”
Reactions in the Washington and Miami have been mixed.
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the administration for not going further. “Shameful that State Department withdraws most staff from the U.S. Embassy in Cuba but [Raúl] Castro can keep as many as he wants in U.S.,” the Florida senator tweeted.
Fellow Cuban-American Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he wanted the government to do more “to hold the Cuban dictatorship accountable” but added that “changes in visa policies should focus on denying entry to the United States to Cuban government officials and those who through their actions buttress the dictatorship — not everyday Cubans attempting to visit their families.”
And longterm pro-engagement supporter, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) called the suspension of consular services “ a dramatic overreaction and the latest example of a White House with a stunning ignorance on how to best conduct foreign policy.”
Several U.S. travel organizations also opposed the measures.
In Miami, Giancarlo Sopo, president of CubaOne Foundation, an organization that takes young Cuban Americans to the island, said the halt on visas sent the wrong message.
“The message from our country and community has always been that those who seek freedom will be greeted here with open arms. Suspending visas for Cubans trying to flee the island is certainly inconsistent with those values.”
The measures, first reported by the Associated Press, seek to protect diplomats and their families from what Tillerson called “attacks on the health” of diplomatic staff in Havana.
Various symptoms, from hearing loss to brain damage, as well as a diversity of descriptions about the sounds the diplomats say they have heard, have left experts confused. Authorities said they have not yet determined how the attacks were carried out nor who is behind them and said the investigation is ongoing.
“The Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure,” Tillerson said in a statement Friday. “The decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel.”
The official on Friday’s press call acknowledged the cooperation of the Cuban government in the investigation but said he could not rule out that the attacks continue. Nor did he rule out the involvement of a third country in these attacks.
There are 21 confirmed cases of affected persons, not 25 as originally reported. Another State Department source said that the attacks did not occur at the U.S. embassy. American authorities believe the attacks occurred at diplomats’ homes — all leased from Cuban government — and in the Hotel Capri in Havana.
In the press conference Friday, the high-ranking State Department official said he was unaware of any attack on U.S citizens who were not diplomatic staff. But the significance of the attacks and the fact that they occurred in at least one hotel prompted the government to issue the travel alert to protect Americans. Diplomatic personnel who suffered attacks at hotels were temporary staff at the embassy, he said.
Embassy employees were scheduled to have a meeting Friday afternoon to discuss how the order to evacuate will be implemented. Generally, such departures occur quickly and, within a week, it is expected that all the personnel being withdrawn will have departed. The diplomats from the U.S. Embassy would join other State department employees in Washington who have been withdrawn from Venezuela and Russia.
The withdrawal of staff follows a high-level meeting Tuesday between Tillerson and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. According to a State Department statement, Tillerson “conveyed the seriousness of the situation and underscored the Cuban authorities’ obligations to protect Embassy staff and their families under the Vienna Convention.”
The meeting was requested by the Cuban government.
From the outset, the Cuban government has denied responsibility in the attacks and allowed entry to the FBI island to investigate. But remarks by Rodriguez, considered a conservative in government, did not appear to alleviate the crisis.
According to a previous statement by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations, Rodríguez told Tillerson that “according to the preliminary results obtained by the Cuban authorities in their investigation, which has taken into account data provided by the U.S. authorities, there is as yet no evidence of the causes and origin of health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats.”
The Cuban foreign minister also complained about what he called the “unjustified” decision of the U.S. government to expel two Cuban diplomats from Washington and added “it would be unfortunate to politicize a case of this nature and to make hasty and unsupported decisions on inconclusive evidence and investigative results.”
After the meeting, Cuban diplomats have been frantically tweeting their governments position and sharing stories by the official Cuban press on the subject.
Miami Herald staffer Mimi Whitefield contributed from Havana and el Nuevo Herald correspondent Mario J. Pentón contributed from Miami.