U.S. limits diplomatic tours in Cuba following mysterious illnesses
The change to the “standard tour of duty” puts Cuba in league with countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan. It follows a series of mysterious, seemingly sound-related injuries that have injured at least two dozen Americans who spent time in the country.
It’s also another blow to business and other groups who — despite reluctance from President Donald Trump — still hope to see U.S.-Cuban ties improve following the re-establishment of diplomatic relations during the Obama administration.
According to an Aug. 10 State Department cable obtained by POLITICO, U.S. officials determined that the American Embassy in the Cuban capital, Havana, “is a post experiencing extraordinary circumstances” in reducing the standard tour of duty from 24 months to 12 months.
The cable doesn’t specify those circumstances. But in confirming the change, the State Department listed concerns about what some call the “health attacks” on its diplomats in Cuba.
Many of the diplomats and other Americans affected in Cuba complained of hearing strange noises from an unknown source. Some suffered hearing loss, headaches and even brain trauma. Several Canadian diplomats in Cuba also experienced similar symptoms, while at least two U.S. cases have popped up in China.
In a statement to POLITICO, the department pointed out that in June two more U.S. diplomats in Cuba were confirmed to have exhibited symptoms similar to other cases over the past two years.
“We cannot rule out that additional cases could come to light as U.S. diplomats continue to live and work at the U.S. Embassy or are deployed temporarily to Cuba,” the department said.
Due to the health crisis, the U.S. has severely cut back on the number of personnel posted In Havana. Diplomats there also are not permitted to have their families with them.
“We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks,” the department noted in the statement, adding that its investigation is ongoing.
Although the United States acknowledges it doesn’t know what or who is causing the problems, it says it holds the Cuban government responsible for the welfare of American diplomats. But Cuban officials insist they are as stumped as anyone about the cause of the injuries.
There are multiple theories about what’s at the root of the health crisis, ranging from the use of an unknown sonic weapon to the possibility of an attack by a toxin.
One theory is that eavesdropping devices in the vicinity — perhaps placed by U.S. rivals such as Russia or China, or maybe the Cubans — could be releasing harmful sound waves. Some researchers have suggested many of the affected people may be experiencing “mass hysteria.”
The health crisis has been an unexpected twist to Cuban-American relations in recent years. Then-President Barack Obama restored U.S. diplomatic ties to Cuba in 2015, formally re-engaging with the communist-led island for the first time after more than 50 years.
Obama also knocked down many restrictions on how Americans could travel to Cuba or do business there. But Trump, heeding the voices of some conservatives in Congress, restored many of those restrictions. He did not, however, sever diplomatic ties.
Technically, the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has remained in place the entire time, requiring an act of Congress to be lifted.