State Department Expels 15 Cuban Diplomats

Oct 3, 2017
Originally published on October 3, 2017 9:12 am

The State Department is ordering the Cuban embassy in Washington to downsize, expelling 15 Cuban officials. They have 7 days to leave.

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There's been more diplomatic fallout from the mysterious attacks on U.S. Embassy personnel in Cuba. The Trump administration announced this morning that it is expelling 15 Cuban diplomats. There are still many unknowns here. The U.S. is still investigating who or what has caused serious health problems afflicting U.S. Embassy personnel in Cuba. NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now.

Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What more can you tell us about the State Department's actions today?

KELEMEN: Well, what we're told is that a top State Department official spoke with Cuba's ambassador here in Washington and gave him a list of 15 Cuban diplomats who the U.S. wants out of the country. Those 15 now have seven days to leave. Officials say this is not - the U.S. isn't cutting ties with Cuba but that this is about equity because remember, the U.S. had to withdraw more than half of its staff at the embassy in Cuba last week. It's also pulling out all of family members, though it took that decision on its own.

MARTIN: But the reason that happened is because there's all this weird, mysterious health issues that have transpired. I mean, what more can you tell us about what we know have happened to U.S. Embassy personnel?

KELEMEN: Not much at this point. The State Department calls them targeted attacks, but they say they still don't know who or what is behind it. They don't blame the Cuban government but say that they can't return staff members until the Cuban government can give assurances that Americans would be safe serving in Havana. There was one other small detail, Rachel, that we learned today. That is that there are now 22 victims. Last week, the State Department was talking about 21, but officials say, one person who reported some health problems earlier this year was re-evaluated, so is now part of this official count. The health effects are very broad. They range from hearing loss and dizziness to fatigue. Some of the victims reportedly heard loud sounds. Others didn't. So it really remains quite a mystery.

MARTIN: So there's been this tit for tat now - U.S. Embassy personnel removed from Cuba, Cuban diplomats removed from the - their station here in the States. What does that mean for travelers? I mean, if Americans want to go to Cuba, can they still go?

KELEMEN: Well, they - the State Department has issued a travel warning because some of these incidents actually happened in hotels. And the State Department is telling Americans that, you know, they should be - they should know about this and should be aware of this. There - it is going to make it harder for people to get visas - you know, things like businesses or even family visits - because the U.S. is scaling back so much of its staff in Havana. It's also suspending visa services.

MARTIN: There have been reports that Canadian diplomats have had similar health problems. Has Canada taken similar steps now?

KELEMEN: They haven't. You know, they do say that some diplomatic staff in Cuba and family members reported these unusual symptoms that were - started for them in March. But they say the cause of the symptoms remain unknown. And they've also told Canadians - and Canadians, by the way, make up far more of the travelers to Cuba than Americans do. They say at this time, there's no reason to believe that Canadian tourists or other visitors could be affected, so they have not changed their travel guidance, unlike the Trump administration, which has.

MARTIN: OK, NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen - thanks so much for talking with us this morning.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Rachel.

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