When President Trump laid out his new policy on Cuba in June that would cancel President Obama’s “one-sided deal” with the country, the speech’s rhetoric sounded more hardline than the travel and business restrictions he actually proposed.
Most important, full diplomatic relations would continue, with both the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and the Cuban Embassy in the U.S. remaining open and functional.
Now, the Trump administration is considering shuttering the American embassy in Cuba in response to mysterious and harmful attacks on American diplomats there.
“We have it under evaluation,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on CBS’ Face the Nation of the potential embassy closure. “It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered. We’ve brought some of those people home. It’s under review.”
At least 21 members of the state department’s diplomatic staff have suffered unexplained health problems over the last year, including permanent hearing loss, brain swelling, mild brain damage, blood disorders, loss of balance and and speech problems. Others have complained of nausea, headaches, and ear-ringing.
American diplomats working at the embassy in Havana began reporting symptoms in November 2016, but the U.S. did not officially acknowledge the attacks until last month, several weeks before the most recent incident on August 21.
The cause has not yet been identified, but early suspicions believed the culprit to be a series of sonic attacks carried out by the Cuban government, even though some of them occurred inside private homes given to U.S. diplomats—and several Canadian diplomats—by the government.
But the Cuban government’s response to the issue, as reported by the Associated Press over the weekend, has called into question the theory that the government was behind the attacks.
Raul Castro reportedly met with U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis recently and denied any involvement in a credible manner, going as far as to allow the FBI to investigate the incidents in Havana. Law enforcement found no evidence of sonic devices responsible for the attacks.
On Friday, five Republican senators—including Cuban-American hardliner Marco Rubio—urged Tillerson to close the embassy and kick all Cuban diplomats out of the U.S.
“Cuba’s neglect of its duty to protect our diplomats and their families cannot go unchallenged,” the senators wrote in a letter to Tillerson. Two Cuban diplomats were already expelled in May as a result of the incidents, though the public would not hear about their expulsion until August.
Even as the State Department mulls closing the embassy, they have taken care to not implicate Castro or the Cuban government in the incidents—a potential sign that investigators likely don’t believe that the attacks were ordered by top authorities.
“There are plenty of people with political interests that would make them point a finger at Cuba, but there’s no evidence,” Mark Feierstein, who helped restore Cuban-American relations on Obama’s National Security Council, told The Daily Beast.
Feierstein pointed to the “prevailing theory” among U.S. officials that a third party collaborated with rogue elements of Cuban security forces. Indeed, there have been reports that the nature of the technology used in the attacks was too sophisticated to have been created by the Cuban government alone.
“If they were to close the embassy it’s not going to be based on a conclusion that the Cubans were responsible for the attacks,” Feierstein said, adding that he imagined such a move would be presented as an “interim measure” to protect U.S. diplomats while continuing to work with Cuban authorities.
Foreign policy experts say it’s not in America’s interest to close our embassy in Cuba.
“It would make communication between the two countries very, very difficult,” said John Caulfield, who served as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2011 to 2014.
“We’ve had diplomats in Cuba since 1977, and Cuba has had diplomats in the U.S. since then,” he added, noting that this diplomatic presence predated Barack Obama’s July 2015 opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., a formal re-establishment of ties between the two long-estranged countries.
The U.S. opened its embassy in Havana a month later in order to increase in travel and business between the two countries.
Caulfield said it would be extremely unusual for the U.S. to close its embassy in Cuba, and would signal that we have no interest in maintaining a relationship with the country.
“However, we’re dealing with an unprecedented situation,” Caulfield said. “It’s very difficult for our country to assign people to diplomatic positions where actions or events in that country are leading to permanent health damage.”
Caulfield also argued that the possibility that rogue actors are targeting Americans in Cuba without authorization of top leadership is “extremely far-fetched.”
“Diplomats are used to government surveillance, but what’s different is that these incidents are causing people physical harm,” he said.
Fulton Armstrong, a former CIA official who served in Havana many years before America re-opened an embassy there, said the fact that the administration is considering closing the U.S. embassy says a lot about the people serving in it.
“It’s pretty sad that one letter from five senators could threaten to reverse a policy that has had bipartisan support,” said Armstrong.
The State Department declined to say whether or not they will close the embassy.
“Embassy staff continue to undergo medical testing, which we will continue to monitor,” department spokesperson Heather Nauert told The Daily Beast in an emailed statement.
“The health, safety, and well-being of our staff is our greatest concern. Cuba has a responsibility to protect our diplomats and we will continue to hold the Government of Cuba to this responsibility. We are keeping an open line of communication with our colleagues as we continue to investigate the cause of the incidents.”