The United States has given Cuba seven days to evacuate 15 members of its embassy in Washington, a State Department official told reporters on Tuesday.
Also, a 22nd American diplomatic employee has been confirmed as suffering in a mysterious sonic attack in Havana. The U.S. has been unable to determine who or what is causing the attacks.
The U.S. decision to boot two-thirds of Cuban staff at the embassy was communicated to Cuban Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabanas on Tuesday morning, the official said. The U.S. gave Cuba a list of the personnel it wants out of the country, although they were not declared “persona non grata.”
“The decision was made due to Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. “This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations.”
The expulsion of Cuban personnel from the Cuba Embassy in Washington will mean that travel will remain in limbo for the hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans flying to the island every year to visit relatives.
The U.S. also suspended processing of all visas in Havana, which has created uncertainty among Cuban families divided by the Florida Straits.
“We are evaluating the impact of the reduction of personnel on these services but the secretary’s focus is on the safety and well-being of the diplomatic personnel,” the official said.
The move comes after the United States last week announced it would be reducing nonessential American personnel at the U.S. Embassy by 60 percent as a measure of protection from the sonic attacks that have affected at least 22 diplomats and family members. According to an AP report, among the first affected were members of intelligence agencies working under diplomatic cover. All nonessential personnel is expected to be back in the U.S. by the end of this week.
To consider restoring the operations again at the U.S. embassy in Havana, “we will need full assurances from the Cuban government that these attacks would not continue,” the State Department official said. At the same time he added that expelling the 15 Cuban diplomats “does not signal a change of policy or a determination of responsibility” but ensures “equity on the impact of our respective operations.” Diplomatic relations will be maintained and Cuba has said it will continue investigating, he told reporters.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who previously called for the closing of the embassy in Havana, “commended” the State Department for expelling the Cuban diplomats.
“No one should be fooled by the Castro regime’s claim it knows nothing about how these harmful attacks are occurring or who perpetrated them,” he said in a statement. “I have called on the State Department to conduct an independent investigation and submit a comprehensive report to Congress, and I look forward to reviewing it.
“At this time, the U.S. embassy in Havana should be downgraded to an interests section and we should be prepared to consider additional measures against the Castro regime if these attacks continue,” he added.
Engage Cuba, a coalition of several companies and organizations lobbying to end the embargo, criticized the new measure.
“Expelling Cuban diplomats will not solve this mystery; it will not improve the safety of U.S. personnel, but it will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island”, president James Williams said in a statement.
The Cuban government has so far denied any responsibility for the attacks. The Cuban Embassy has not immediately responded to a request for comment, but the reduction of staff will affect the consular services in Washington.
Cuba requires entrance visas to its citizens as well as the use of the Cuban passport to travel to the island, regardless of whether the individual born in Cuba is a U.S. citizen or from other countries. The renewal of passport or its authorization is an expensive process and an important source of income for the Cuban government. A new passport or renewal costs $350 plus postage. Extension and entry clearance with a U.S. passport (only for those who left Cuba before 1970) costa $160. And waiting times for these procedures can last for months.
In the past, Cuban diplomats have complained that the United States has not allowed more people to be hired to meet the demand of hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who travel to Cuba every year.
(Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.)
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