State Department orders nonessential diplomats and families out of Cuba following mysterious attacks

(CNN)The US State Department is pulling out all families of employees and nonessential personnel from Cuba, after a string of mysterious attacks against US diplomats.
Several US officials tell CNN that 21 US diplomats and family members became ill after apparent sonic attacks. The American embassy will continue to operate with a 60% reduction in staff. The officials said the US will stop issuing visas in Cuba effective immediately because of the staff reductions and the decision is not described as a retaliatory measure. Officials say there will still be consular officials in the embassy available to assist US citizens in Cuba.
The State Department is also issuing a travel warning, urging Americans not to travel to Cuba because they could also be at risk as some of the attacks against diplomats have taken place at hotels where Americans stay, a senior State Department official told reporters Friday.
“The decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a written statement. “We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”
One senior US official said they expect the United States to ask Cuba to further draw down their personnel in Washington to voice US displeasure over the issue, but no decisions have been made.
The decision came after an exhaustive review of US diplomats’ safety in Havana and discussions with the Cuban government, which has vociferously denied any involvement in the attacks.
In a meeting with Tillerson Tuesday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez denied that Cuba was involved in attacks on diplomats and said the United States was politicizing the incidents. He said his government would continue to work with US authorities investigating the attacks.
“The secretary told him independent of who is doing it, the Cubans have a responsibility for the safety and well being of our people,” a senior State Department official told CNN.
At least 21 US diplomats and family members have been affected by the incidents that began in November, causing a baffling array of maladies from hearing loss to dizziness to concussions.
US officials say there may have been as many as 50 attacks, a senior US official told CNN, the most recent in August. Some victims have had long lasting symptoms and, in at least one case, permanent hearing loss.
Despite the harassment, some US diplomats told CNN they did not want to depart, saying the reductions likely played into the hands of whoever was behind the attacks and would leave the embassy understaffed during a crucial period where Raul Castro is expected to step down as president of Cuba.
Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the organization that represents diplomats is against the drawdown.
“Our view is that American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game,” Stephenson told CNN. “We have a mission to do and we’re used to operating around the globe with serious health risks. We are not saying there aren’t health hazards there. But there are health hazards everywhere and we want the same choice. “
Investigators haven’t determined the cause of the incidents, but US officials told CNN they are convinced someone has targeted American diplomats in Havana with a sophisticated device never deployed before, at least not against US personnel.
Canadian diplomats have suffered similar health problems, according to US and Canadian officials.
But seven months after complaints to Cuban officials and assurances from Castro that the incidents would be investigated, US officials are frustrated by the lack of progress and have considered a range of options from scaling back the embassy to limiting the number of people who risk exposure to a full-on shuttering of the embassy, three senior US officials told CNN.
“We have to consider it. We thought we had corralled this, and then the two cases in August took place,” a senior US official said. “It is not as if the attacks address individual personnel officers. Our personnel is broadly at risk. So we have to consider next steps because we need to protect our people.”