The U.S. State Department has changed its travel alert system and now recommends American citizens “reconsider” visiting Cuba. It had previously issued a warning advising Americans not to travel to the island.
“As we were putting all this together, we did a very careful assessment. We talked to all of our experts, and this is where we came out on Cuba,” Michelle Bernier-Toth, acting deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizen Services, said in a teleconference on Wednesday.
On Sept. 29, the State Department recommended that Americans not travel to Cuba because they could risk becoming victims of mysterious attacks such as those suffered by at least 24 diplomats and their relatives stationed in Havana. The United States also ordered the evacuation of most of its employees at its embassy in the Cuban capital.
“Because our personnel's safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk. Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and at Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana,” says the new warning.
According to Bernier-Toth, the new classification is not due to a change in the situation on the island but the need to be consistent in classifying the risks in different countries.
“There is no change in our assessment of what is going on in Cuba,” Bernier-Toth said. The official said that in cases where the U.S. orders the departure of its personnel from a country, this automatically increases the risk of travel “to level 3 or 4,” which would be equivalent to the old recommendation of “do not to travel.”
Categories three and four will be reviewed every six months, she added.
The new system includes four levels: the first is “exercise normal precautions”; level two, “exercise increased caution”; the third, “reconsider travel”; and level four and most serious is “do not travel.”
Carl C. Risch, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, explained at a press conference in December that level four implies the existence of “life-threatening risks,” while level three “would be talking about avoiding travel due to serious risks of safety and security.”
In an email sent to the Miami Herald, a State Department official said the agency did not consider the change as “softening” the travel warning for Cuba.
The new Cuba travel advisory also eliminated a reference to the responsibility of the Cuban government to prevent attacks against U.S. diplomats, which was included in the previous one.
In a hearing before the Senate on Tuesday, State Department officials said the investigation is ongoing, and the perpetrator is still unknown. But they stressed that an attack against diplomatic personnel on Cuban soil likely would be known to the government of the island.
“We can say that we don’t know how it happened. We can even say we can’t know for sure who did it. But two things we know for sure: People were hurt and the Cuban government knows who did it,” said Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, who presided over the hearing. “They just won’t say for some reason,” he added.
The U.S. director at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal, responded by criticizing Rubio and the State Department and insisting that the agency “has no evidence whatsoever to affirm that there have been attacks against its diplomats in Havana, nor that Cuba may be responsible or have knowledge of third-party actions.”
On the alleged attacks in Havana, Bernier-Toth said that “we do not know what happened and we are not going to speculate before we have the final answers.”
Vidal wrote on Twitter that more than one million Americans — including Cuban Americans — traveled to the island in 2017.
Risch clarified that the messages are recommendations, not travel bans. Americans will be able to travel to Cuba even if the government recommends against it, unless it is prohibited by law, as is the case with North Korea. Recommendations for specific areas within a given country will also be available on the recently redesigned website www.travel.state.gov.
The new advisory system, Risch added, aims at simplifying the messages to avoid confusion.
“It’s not driven by politics,” he said. “It’s driven by our commitment to making sure that Americans who are traveling overseas are informed travelers and have access to up-to-date information.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres