Havana—“Thank you for joining us at this truly historic moment as we prepare to raise the flag…symbolizing the restoration of diplomatic relations after 54 years,” then–Secretary of State John Kerry stated as he presided over the reopening of the US embassy in Havana in August 2015. After two dynamic and dramatic years of normalization, which have brought an unprecedented degree of bilateral cooperation, economic interaction, and travel, Kerry’s successor, Rex Tillerson, has begun the process of shuttering the embassy once again.
On September 29, Tillerson announced that he would reduce embassy personnel in Havana by 60 percent, effectively closing the consulate that provides visas to Cubans traveling to the United States and terminating all but emergency services for US visitors to the island. The State Department also issued a “Cuba Travel Warning,” advising citizens “to avoid travel to Cuba”—even as it conceded that “we have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected” by a mystifying pattern of health ailments that have struck members of the US and Canadian diplomatic community in Havana.
“Over the past several months, 21 U.S. Embassy employees have suffered a variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature. The affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping,” reads the Tillerson press release, titled “Attacks Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba.” The release continues, “Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our Embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”
The travel advisory and the severity of the embassy reductions have set off alarms that the Trump administration has begun a concerted rollback of the Obama-initiated rapprochement. Although the State Department affirmed that “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,” suspicions abound that the White House is catering to the political interests of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has been working behind the scenes to revert US Cuba policy to the aggression of the Cold War. Last week, Rubio demanded that the Trump administration further punish Cuba by expelling more than half of the staff at the Cuban Embassy in Washington. He appears to have Trump’s ear. On October 3, the State Department sent a diplomatic note to Cuba ordering some 15 members of the Cuban embassy to leave Washington in the next seven days.
A Foreign-Policy Whodunit
There was a “big problem” in Cuba, President Trump explained to reporters in impromptu comments on the embassy drawdown; the Cubans, he claimed, “did some very bad things.”
In fact, Trump administration officials firmly believe that the Cuban government is not culpable for the “attacks”—though it’s not clear the health problems were actually caused by such an event—and have carefully avoided accusing Cuba of generating them. Their assessment appears to be based on intelligence intercepts of conversations among high-level Cuban officials after the United States brought the disturbing pattern of health problems among US and Canadian embassy personnel to their attention last January. As a “former senior American official” told The New York Times, “there was information that the Cubans were rattled by what had happened and were desperate to find the cause.”