Washington: The Trump administration on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats after pulling more than half of its own embassy staff out of Havana last week, drawing an angry protest from the Cuban government.
With U.S.-Cuba tensions escalating, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the latest decision was made due to Cuba's "failure to take appropriate steps" to protect American personnel in Cuba who have been targeted in mysterious "attacks" that have damaged their health.
The steps taken by President Donald Trump's administration mark another blow to his predecessor Barack Obama's policy of rapprochement between Washington and Havana, former Cold War foes.
State Department officials said the expulsions were reciprocal measures - not punishment - intended to ensure that the U.S. and Cuban embassies would have "equitable staffing levels" while investigations continue into the unexplained "health attacks."
But Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced it as an "unjustified decision," accused the United States of insufficient cooperation with Cuba's investigation of the incidents and urged Washington to stop politicizing the matter.
The U.S. decision was communicated to Cuban Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabanas on Tuesday, and the diplomats were given seven days to leave, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States announced on Friday that it was sharply reducing its diplomatic presence in Cuba, as it warned U.S. citizens not to visit the Communist-ruled island because of attacks that have caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in U.S. embassy personnel. The State Department had said the embassy was halting regular visa operations for Cubans seeking to visit the United States and would offer only emergency services to U.S. citizens.
"Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm," Tillerson said in a statement.
"We continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and will continue to cooperate with Cuba as we pursue the investigation into these attacks," he added.
The number of American diplomats confirmed to have suffered symptoms has increased to 22.
Cuba has denied involvement in the attacks and is conducting its own investigation.
Speaking to reporters in Havana, Rodriguez said Cuba was strongly protesting the expulsions and that the United States was not providing sufficient information to Cuban investigators.
PRESSURE FROM LAWMAKERS
Several Cuban-American Republican lawmakers, including U.S Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had urged that Cuban diplomats be kicked out in retaliation for the Cuban government's failure to get to the bottom of the attacks.
"I commend the U.S. State Department for expelling a number of Cuban operatives from the U.S.," Rubio, an influential voice on Trump's Cuba policy, said in a statement.
But James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a Washington-based pro-engagement lobbying group said: "This decision appears to be purely political, driven by the desire of a handful of individuals in Congress to halt progress between our two countries."
"It looks like we are returning the threats and tensions of the 1960s," said Maria Fernandez, a 45-year-old office worker in Havana. "This is madness by Trump. It's really sad, because we are so close, and yet so far away from a sincere rapprochement."
Cuba, the United States and Canada have investigated the attacks, but the probes have not yielded any answers about how they were carried out or who was responsible.
Trump, who in June vowed to partially roll back the detente with Cuba agreed by his Democratic predecessor Obama after five decades of hostility, called the Cuban government "corrupt and destabilising" in his address to the United Nations last month. Cuba described his comments as "unacceptable and meddling."
In Havana, U.S. diplomats have been frantically selling off their belongings at garage sales and on social media. Many said they were disappointed to be ordered to leave.
In a message on Facebook, the embassy's top official, career diplomat Scott Hamilton, said he would also be leaving. "I am an optimist and hope we will return one day, before too long," he wrote. "Hasta la proxima Cuba."
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Sarah Marsh, Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Tom Brown)
© Thomson Reuters 2017
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