The Trump administration ordered the immediate expulsion Thursday of two Cuban diplomats accused of participating in what it called “influence operations” against the United States.
“The United States requires the imminent departure of two members of Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations for abusing their privileges of residence,” the State Department said in a statement. “This is due to their attempts to conduct influence operations against the United States.”
Though the State Department didn’t provide details, the phrase “influence operations” usually refers to gathering intelligence and recruiting sources for purposes of espionage. Cuba’s U.N. mission has widely been regarded as a key intelligence-gathering operation for the island’s government.
The administration also restricted the movements of the rest of the members of the Cuban mission to the U.N. to the island of Manhattan.
“We take any and all attempts against the National Security of the United States seriously, and will continue to investigate any additional personnel who may be manipulating their privileges of residence,” the statement said.
Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, angrily responded to the expulsion on Twitter.
“I categorically reject the unjustified expulsion of 2 officials of the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the UN and [the] tightening of movement restriction to diplomats and families,” Rodríguez said. “It is vulgar slander the imputation that they performed acts incompatible with diplomatic status.”
This is not the first time that the United States has expelled Cuban diplomats for conducting intelligence operations within the country.
In November 2002, the United States expelled Gustavo Machín, currently Cuba’s ambassador to Spain, for espionage activities. In May 2003, the U.S. expelled 14 Cuban diplomats, half of whom were assigned to the U.N. mission in New York.
The announcement Thursday came just days before the start of the high-level session of the U.N. General Assembly. Relations between the United States and Cuba are tense, with each country supporting opposite sides in the Venezuelan conflict.
In recent months the Trump administration has limited travel and remittances to Cuba and sanctioned companies that transport oil from Venezuela to Cuba.
Rodríguez said the ultimate goal of expelling the diplomats was escalating the conflict to the point of eventually closing the respective embassies, reopened in 2015 under an accord between President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres