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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 30, 2017 1:00 am

Mystery ailments in Cuba called attacks

US pulling 60% of diplomats from embassy

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The United States delivered an ominous warning to Americans on Friday to stay away from Cuba and ordered home more than half the U.S. diplomatic corps, acknowledging neither the Cubans nor America's FBI can figure out who or what is responsible for months of mysterious health ailments.

No longer tiptoeing around the issue, the Trump administration shifted to calling the episodes “attacks” rather than “incidents.”

The U.S. actions are sure to rattle already delicate ties between the longtime adversaries who only recently began putting their hostility behind them. The U.S. Embassy in Cuba will lose roughly 60 percent of its American staff and will stop processing visas for prospective Cuban travelers to the United States indefinitely, officials said. Roughly 50 Americans had been working at the embassy.

President Donald Trump said that in Cuba “they did some very bad things” that harmed U.S. diplomats, but he didn't say who he might mean by “they.”

Though officials initially suspected some futuristic “sonic attack,” the picture is muddy. The FBI and other agencies that searched homes and hotels where incidents occurred found no devices.

In Friday's travel warning, the State Department confirmed earlier reporting by The Associated Press that U.S. personnel first encountered unexplained physical effects in Cuban hotels. While American tourists aren't known to have been hurt, the agency said they could be exposed if they travel to the island – a pronouncement that could hit a critical component of Cuba's economy that has expanded in recent years as the U.S. has relaxed restrictions.

At least 21 diplomats and family members have been affected. The department said symptoms include hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping. Until Friday, the U.S. had generally referred to “incidents.” Tillerson's statement ended that practice, mentioning “attacks” seven times; the travel alert used the word five times.

Still, the administration has pointedly not blamed Cuba for perpetrating the attacks, and officials have spent weeks weighing how to minimize the risk for Americans in Cuba without unnecessarily harming relations or falling into an adversary's trap.

If the attacks have been committed by an outside power such as Russia or Venezuela to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba, as some investigators have theorized, a U.S. pullout would end up rewarding the aggressor. On the other hand, officials have struggled with the moral dimensions of keeping diplomats in a place where the U.S. government cannot guarantee their safety.

The United States notified Cuba early Friday via its embassy in Washington.

Cuba blasted the American move as “hasty” and lamented that it was being taken without conclusive investigation results. Still, Josefina Vidal, Cuba's top diplomat for U.S. affairs, said her government was willing to continue cooperation with Washington “to fully clarify these incidents.” Her government took the rare step of the inviting the FBI to the island after being presented with the allegations earlier this year.