The Trump administration is considering closing the recently reopened US Embassy in Havana following a string of unexplained incidents harming the health of American diplomats in Cuba, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday.
“We have it under evaluation,” Tillerson said. “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.”
Tillerson’s comments were the strongest indication to date that the US might mount a major diplomatic response, potentially jeopardizing the historic restart of relations between the US and Cuba. The two former foes reopened embassies in Washington and Havana in 2015 after roughly a half-century of estrangement.
Of the 21 medically confirmed US victims, some have permanent hearing loss or concussions while others have suffered nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. Some are struggling with concentration or common word recall, the Associated Press has reported.
Some victims felt vibrations or heard loud sounds mysteriously audible in only parts of rooms, leading investigators to consider a potential “sonic attack”. Others heard nothing but later developed symptoms.
Tillerson once called the events “health attacks” but the state department has since used the term “incidents” while emphasizing the US still does not know what has occurred. Cuba has denied any involvement or responsibility but stressed it is eager to help the US resolve the matter.
The US has said the number of Americans affected could grow as more cases are potentially detected. The last reported incident was on 21 August, according to a US official briefed on the matter but not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity.
Tillerson spoke on CBS’ Face the Nation as world leaders and top diplomats descended on New York for annual United Nations General Assembly meetings. Donald Trump will give his first speech on the major global platform this week. Cuba is also represented at the UN, but it is not expected Trump will meet with any Cuban leaders or officials during his visit.
The US has not identified either a culprit or a device. Investigators have explored the possibility of sonic waves, an electromagnetic weapon, or an advanced spying operation gone awry, US officials briefed on the probe told the AP. The US has not ruled out that a third country or a rogue faction of Cuba’s security services might be involved.
Lawmakers have been raising alarm over the incidents, with some calling for the embassy to be closed. On Friday, five Republican senators wrote to Tillerson urging him to not only shutter the embassy, but also kick all Cuban diplomats out of the US – a move that would have dramatic diplomatic implications
“Cuba’s neglect of its duty to protect our diplomats and their families cannot go unchallenged,” said the lawmakers, who included Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a prominent Cuban-American, and the No2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas.
The incidents have frightened Havana’s tight-knit diplomatic community, raising concerns about the potential scope. At least one other country, France, has tested embassy staff for potential sonic-induced injuries, the AP has reported.