US issues travel warning for Cuba

US issues travel warning for Cuba
© Engage Cuba

The State Department on Friday issued a formal travel warning advising U.S. citizens against traveling to Cuba. 

The warning came after senior State Department officials said that the U.S. would reduce its staff at the country's embassy in Havana by about 60 percent amid concerns about mysterious health attacks that have targeted U.S. diplomats there over the past year.

Those attacks, which caused symptoms such as hearing loss and balance problems, are not known to have affected private U.S. citizens in Cuba.

"We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens," the travel warning reads.

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"The Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure."

State Department officials had said earlier Friday that the agency would issue the travel warning, saying that it was necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of U.S. citizens in Cuba. 

The U.S. Embassy in Havana will still provide emergency services for Americans in the country, but many routine services will not be available as a result of the drawdown.

Diplomatic personnel in Cuba began reporting mysterious symptoms in the fall of 2016. The incidents continued until March of this year. The State Department revealed earlier this month that they began happening again as recently as August.

So far, the U.S. has confirmed 21 cases in which an individual was affected, though officials have cautioned the number could go up. U.S. investigators are still looking into the incidents, and the Cuban government is said to be cooperating with U.S. authorities.

The Cuban government has fervently denied that it is responsible for the attacks. A State Department official said Friday that U.S. investigators have not ruled out the possibility that a third country is behind the attacks.

The American Foreign Service Association, the union representing the U.S. Foreign Service, said in a statement to The Hill on Friday that it believes the U.S. should maintain its diplomatic staff in Havana, and that the health attacks should not disrupt the Foreign Service's mission in Cuba.

“AFSA’s view is the American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game," the union said. "We have a mission to do, and we’re used to operating with serious health risks in many environments, whether it’s parasites that rip up our guts in Africa, exposure to Zika virus and dengue fever, or air pollution in China and India."
 
"It’s a complicated question regarding what is actually causing the health issues in Cuba, but our members are clear that they have a mission to do.”