U.S. advises against travel to Cuba, plans to withdraw staff from embassy

The Four Points by Sheraton Havana opened in 2016 (Four Points by Sheraton Havana)

In a blow to recent improvements in relations between the two countries, the U.S. State Department is is warning Americans against visiting Cuba, and is reportedly planning to pull much of its staff out of the American embassy in Havana. The embassy will lose roughly 60 percent of its U.S. staff, and will stop processing visas in Cuba indefinitely, officials said.

The decision follows what the New York Times calls “mysterious attacks” that have injured 21 people associated with the embassy over the course of nearly a year. (The State Department has avoided the term “attacks” in favor of “incidents.”) The American Foreign Service Association reported this month that the symptoms among those affected included mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, severe headaches and brain swelling. Some of the attacks reportedly occurred in Cuban hotels. 

This does not, however, mean that the embassy will close, which offers hope for both U.S. travelers bound for Cuba and for U.S. companies looking to do business there. 

The embassy reopened in 2015 after more than 50 years of no diplomatic relations between the two countries. As relations thawed following former President Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions in late 2014, travel from the U.S. to Cuba soared, and Marriott opened the first U.S.-branded hotel in the country in decades by mid-2016. Other international businesses followed suit, and up until the November election, trade relations between the two countries grew consistently better.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson had reportedly considered closing the embassy, but has kept it open due to growing belief among American officials that the Cuban government was probably not responsible for the attacks. Sources claimed that local officials are “rattled” by the illnesses and have been helping to find a cause. The FBI has been involved in the investigation. 

The Trump administration has already reversed crucial pieces of what President Trump has called a “terrible and misguided deal” with Cuba that was struck during the Obama administration by reinstating travel and commercial restrictions on Cuba.