Senator Marco Rubio is calling on the Trump administration to expel Cuban diplomats from the United States in addition to yanking most American personnel out of Cuba because of mysterious attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana and no progress in the investigation into their cause or origin.
The Florida Republican early Friday questioned the logic of continuing to allow Cubans to remain in the United States but reducing the U.S. embassy in Havana to emergency-only staff.
“Some @StateDept want massive drawdown of Americans @USEmbCuba but allow Castro to keep regime embassy in D.C. virtually the same,” he tweeted.
“So Castro regime allows attacks on Americans forcing us to drawdown to keep them safe but he gets to keep about the same # of people here?” he asked in a second tweet.
Rubio is one of five senators on the Intelligence Committee who two weeks ago called on the Trump administration to expel Cuban diplomats from Washington and threaten to shutter the U.S. embassy in Havana if the Cuban government is not more forthcoming about the mysterious attacks that have seriously harmed American diplomats.
The State Department announced Friday that it is cutting most of its personnel in Cuba and warned U.S. travelers not to visit the country because of “health attacks” on American diplomats.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said 21 U.S. diplomats were targeted in the attacks with some of them suffering from a range of ailments, including permanent hearing loss, cognitive issues, dizziness, fatigue, balance problems, visual complaints, and difficulty sleeping.
“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,” Tillerson said in a statement Friday.
The move effectively reverses many aspects of President Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, but Tillerson tried to downplay the decision’s impact on diplomatic and commercial ties between the two countries.
“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.”
“The health, safety, and well-being of our embassy community is our greatest concern,” he continued. “We will continue to aggressively investigate these attacks until the matter is resolved.”
A U.S. official earlier told reporters that for the foreseeable future, any bilateral meetings between U.S. and Cuban officials would take place on American soil, not Cuban.
The State Department is drawing down to a skeleton, essential-staff only position, according to two U.S. officials, with only “emergency personnel” remaining.
The United States is also putting the brakes on all visa processing to Cuba and is issuing an urgent travel warning to American citizens that they should not visit the island nation because their safety is at risk.
“The decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was done to preserve the safety of our U.S. personnel,” an official told reporters on a conference call Friday morning. “We believe that U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”
Speculation in the foreign-policy community has focused on the possibility of Russia or another third party as the likely perpetrators but Cuba experts say the Castro regime monitors Americans so closely on the island that it’s impossible they would not know about or have some complicity with such activity.
“We have not ruled out the possibility of a third country as part of the investigation but that investigation continues and will continue irrespective of the ordered departure” of U.S. personnel, a U.S. official said.
“We will continue to investigate these attacks and get to the bottom of it,” the official added.
The fact that some of the attacks targeted at least one U.S. diplomat staying in a hotel and happened as recently as August led to the State Department’s decision to issue the travel warning to all Americans.
“The fact that some of these attacks have occurred at hotels where American citizens could be at, and we have no way of advising American citizens how we can mitigate these attacks, we felt we must warn them not to travel to Cuba,” the official said.
While U.S. officials said Cuba is still cooperating with the investigation, they stressed that the probe has produced little usable information that could help protect Americans staying there.
“We don’t know the means or the methods or how these attacks are being carried out,” the official said, noting that it appears U.S. embassy personnel are most at risk.
“But we cannot rule out given the nature of these attacks that the American public traveling to Cuba might be at risk as well,” the official said.
Washington’s foreign-policy community was bracing for the move. Two sources familiar with the State Department’s deliberations told the Washington Free Beacon over the last two days that State was putting the final touches on a new sanctions package that would go beyond reducing staffs at both embassies and that an announcement could come as early as Friday.
One source said the State Department had to overcome strong “bureaucratic” resistance among supporters of Obama’s rapprochement to take the dramatic step of reducing staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana to emergency personnel only.