WASHINGTON — It started as a medical mystery. It then was determined to have been the result of a mysterious attack. And on Friday, the illness that has affected 21 diplomats at the American Embassy in Havana, with symptoms including hearing loss and cognitive difficulties, threatened the future of Cuban-American relations.
With no guarantee that the Cuban government could protect American diplomats, the State Department announced that it was withdrawing all nonessential personnel from the embassy.
In a statement, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson repeated the American assertion that the embassy personnel were deliberately targeted. But he did not blame Cuba, and officials held out the possibility that a third party might have been responsible. “Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks, and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort,” Mr. Tillerson said.
But the Trump administration, which has already expelled two Cuban diplomats over the illnesses, is considering further retaliatory steps, according to Congressional staff briefed by administration officials. And the State Department issued an advisory that Americans should not to travel to Cuba. Because some of the attacks occurred in hotels where State Department employees were temporarily staying, officials said they worried that tourists and others could be affected.
The Cuban government responded with dismay while promising to continue to cooperate in the investigation, calling Friday’s decision “hasty” and one that “will affect the bilateral relations.”
While there is no evidence so far that tourists or hotel employees have been affected, the government’s travel warning could cripple Cuba’s burgeoning tourism industry if tour operators, hotel and cruise line companies or their insurers decide that their employees and customers could be at risk.
“Right now, the most important constituency of determining the impact of this is not members of Congress or pundits; it’s the insurance companies,” said John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “If the carriers withdraw coverage because of this warning, then everything could shut down there almost overnight.”
The timing of Mr. Tillerson’s decision and its potential fallout promises to write yet another chapter in an extraordinary history between the two countries that has included the explosion of the American battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Then, in 2014, after decades of frosty relations, constant sniping and severed diplomatic relations, President Barack Obama reversed course and reached an agreement with President Raúl Castro of Cuba to reopen embassies in the countries’ respective capitals and begin to encourage nascent tourism and business ties.
But the rapprochement was deeply unpopular among a powerful segment of Cuban émigrés in Florida, and Mr. Trump in his campaign vowed to reverse what he called a “terrible and misguided deal.” Once in office, Mr. Trump did undo crucial pieces of Mr. Obama’s policy, but kept in place others that were broadly popular, such as allowing direct flights and cruises between the United States and Cuba, and rules making it easier for American companies to do business in Cuba.
On Capitol Hill, a debate began immediately over whether Mr. Tillerson acted too quickly or not quickly enough. He has known since a few days after his confirmation on Feb. 1 that diplomats in Havana were becoming ill, but took until Friday to reduce the diplomatic and Marine Corps contingent there to 27.
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who fiercely opposed Mr. Obama’s decision to improve ties with Cuba, questioned the decision not to punish Cuba more forcefully.Read More...
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