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State Department Announces Staff Reduction At Embassy In Cuba After Health Attacks


The United States is ordering more than half its embassy staff in Cuba to return home. That's after mysterious health problems among American diplomats. U.S. officials aren't sure about the cause, but they are making sure fewer Americans are at risk. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: According to the State Department, 21 of its employees in Havana have been targeted in, quote, "specific attacks." And Deputy Assistant Secretary John Creamer says they've suffered a range of symptoms from hearing loss to cognitive issues.

JOHN CREAMER: What we're still struggling with is to identify the cause, the means, the nature of the mechanism which could be delivering this, perpetrators, motive. And so that's what makes this such a difficult issue to wrestle with.

KELEMEN: As the investigation continues, the U.S. is ordering the departure of more than half of its embassy personnel and sending all family members home.

CREAMER: We felt we needed to take this step to reduce our exposure.

KELEMEN: There were reportedly about 50 U.S. diplomats serving in Havana, and not everyone at the State Department is happy about reducing that. Barbara Stephenson heads the American Foreign Service Association, or AFSA, which represents foreign service officers.

BARBARA STEPHENSON: And AFSA's view is that America's diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game. We have a mission to do. It's an important mission. And we're used to operating with serious health risks in many environments around the world.

KELEMEN: She didn't want to talk about the symptoms her colleagues are facing in Cuba but wanted to make one thing clear.

STEPHENSON: I am speaking on behalf of my colleagues who believe that they should be allowed to make an informed choice and that they should be left in the field so they can continue to try to achieve the mission.

KELEMEN: The U.S. only reopened its embassy two years ago when the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations and eased travel and trade restrictions. President Trump has said he's, quote, "canceling the one-sided deal with Cuba." But little has been done to change U.S. policy up to now. With a smaller staff, the embassy won't be issuing visas for Cubans.

The State Department is also warning Americans not to go to Cuba. Collin Laverty, who runs a business that organizes educational travel to Cuba, is getting a lot of questions about that. He says American diplomats started reporting health problems late last year, but he hasn't heard anything similar from private U.S. citizens.

COLLIN LAVERTY: In that time, we've had tens of thousands of Americans travel with us to Cuba, and nobody's reported any weird incidents or symptoms. And we've been looking at it closely in the hotels and the different bed and breakfasts that we work at.

KELEMEN: State Department officials say that some of the attacks on U.S. officials occurred in hotels. That's why the U.S. issued the public warning.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio calls the U.S. response weak. He tweeted today that it's, quote, "shameful that while the U.S. is withdrawing most of its staff from Cuba, the Cubans can keep as many as they want here." Two Cubans were expelled earlier this year. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.