Nation & World

U.S. to expel two-thirds of Cuban diplomats amid sonic attack probe

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, right of center, applauds with other dignitaries after raising the Cuban flag over their new embassy in Washington, Monday, July 20, 2015.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, right of center, applauds with other dignitaries after raising the Cuban flag over their new embassy in Washington, Monday, July 20, 2015. AP

The Trump administration will kick nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s embassy personnel out of the United States after months of mysterious attacks targeting American diplomats drove the White House to pull its own staff from Havana, according to multiple sources familiar with the plan.

According to three of the U.S. sources briefed on the plan, the State Department will announce the expulsion of Cuban diplomatic personnel as soon as Tuesday. A fourth described the expulsion as “reciprocity” for the American withdrawal from Havana.

A series of mysterious “sonic” attacks began months ago and has affected as many as 25 U.S. personnel. According to one source, U.S. intelligence operatives were the first known American personnel affected. The most recent incidents were reported within the last few weeks.

The United States still does not know the nature of the device or weapon being employed against its staff.

The State Department has not accused Cuba of being behind the incidents. But it has repeatedly warned that Havana is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on its soil under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.

“Cuba is not upholding its commitments of the Vienna convention, of protecting diplomats,” said a U.S. source, familiar with the State Department plans.

The State Department’s plan follows days of pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to expel Cuban diplomatic personnel after the White House pulled Americans out of Havana and issued a travel warning.

Cubans and tourists are reacting to the announcement that drastically reduce the staff of the US Embassy in Havana and will suspend the issuance of visas for Cubans who wish to travel to the United States.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has emerged as a key advisor to President Donald Trump on all Latin America issues, tweeted last week that the United States “should expel a Cuban diplomat for every U.S. diplomat evacuated due to acoustic attacks.”

“I spoke on Friday to the State Department and I told them that I am strongly advocating that the U.S. kick those 'diplomats,' who are nothing more than spies, out of the U.S.,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. “State told me that it was reviewing this action, so I’m pleased as punch to hear that it may happen soon.”

A State Department spokesperson on Monday night said Secretary Rex Tillerson was still evaluating steps the department could take to “ensure the Cuban government is accountable to its responsibility to protect diplomats.”

The bizarre attacks followed two years of thawing relations between the old foes, after former President Barack Obama eased restrictions meant to isolate Cuba. The long string of incidents, which appears to have begun as Trump entered the White House, is now testing the relationship between Washington and Havana in new ways and raised speculation about whether Cuba was bringing back Cold War tactics.

The Cuban government has repeatedly stated it had nothing to do with the incidents. And in a speech to the United Nations last month, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said Havana had found “no evidence whatsoever” that could confirm the causes or the origin of the health problems reported by U.S. diplomats and their relatives.

“Cuba has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate actions of this sort,” he said. “Cuba has never allowed nor will it ever allow its territory to be used by third parties with that purpose.”

Some officials inside the State Department are swayed by the Cuban denials, even raising the possibility of a third-party actor operating against the United States.

Havana requested a meeting with Tillerson to talk about the incidents. That meeting, held last week, marked the highest-level discussion between the two countries since Trump was sworn into office in January.

The diplomats affected have seen doctors and had medical tests and evaluations in the United States. University of Miami officials said they had been contacted by the State Department, but won’t share details about possible treatment other than to say that school doctors have “consulted” with the department.

In announcing the withdrawal of staff from Havana, Tillerson said the safety and well-being of their Embassy community was the greatest concern.

“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,” Tillerson said in a statement Friday announcing the withdrawal of staff from Havana. “Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed.