The US is withdrawing about 60% of its embassy staff from Havana after attacks that caused traumatic brain injuries and permanent hearing loss in at least 21 diplomats and their families, according to the Associated Press.
The US will also stop issuing visas in Havana and warn US tourists against visiting Cuba under a travel order today. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson had been considering closing the embassy entirely over concerns about the unexplained health issues.
Cuba, which is keen to maintain newly restored diplomatic relations with the US, has strenuously denied responsibility, and even invited the FBI to look into the matter. American officials believe Cuba is “probably not responsible,” the New York Times reported (paywall).
A diplomat from Canada have also been injured, which makes the situation even more mystifying. Some possible theories put the blame on rogue elements of Cuba’s security services, or on a third party like Russia that doesn’t want US-Cuban relations to improve.
The move could feed into the rhetoric from hardliners on both sides, who want to cut diplomatic relations completely.
“Protecting the safety of our diplomats is of utmost importance. Yet such a broad announcement that extends to visitors to the island and the issuance of visas to Cubans will have a huge impact,” Alana Tummino, senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told Quartz.
“So much of the current bilateral relationship is based on rebuilding trust. The impact of this announcement together with the attacks are no doubt damaging to all that’s been accomplished the past couple years,” she added.
The mysterious ailments date began in late 2016 and extended into 2017. The American Foreign Service Association told the AP earlier this month that symptoms across the group included brain swelling, loss of balance, severe headaches, and “cognitive disruption.”
The AP reported that while “officials initially suspected some futuristic ‘sonic attack,’ the picture has grown muddier … clues about the circumstances of the incidents seem to make any explanation scientifically implausible.”