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U.S. State Department Pulling Staff From Cuba


The State Department is pulling all nonessential staff out of Cuba - this following mysterious ailments afflicting diplomats and their families there. People have reported symptoms ranging from dizziness to total hearing loss. The U.S. Embassy in Havana will stay open, though. NPR's diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen, is here now. Hey there, Michele.


KELLY: Give us the details on today's announcement.

KELEMEN: Well, the State Department said that it's basically pulling out half of the diplomatic mission in Cuba. And, also, all family members have to leave. And the idea is to reduce the risk that U.S. officials have living in Cuba. There - this also means that they're going to have to drastically cut services. There'll be emergency services, consular services for Americans there. But the embassy won't be processing visa applications. That's going to be suspended indefinitely.

The State Department's also issuing a travel warning in addition to this to explain all this to Americans and to encourage them not to go to Cuba because they say that, you know, some of these attacks - they're calling it attacks now, health attacks - happened in hotels. And the State Department says that it can't guarantee safety for Americans.

KELLY: Wow. OK. So before we get to what all this may mean and how big a deal it is, remind us of the background. When did these attacks start? How many people are we talking?

KELEMEN: Well, they've confirmed now that at least 21 people have suffered some kind of illnesses. And, as you said, they range from hearing loss. They talked about tinnitus, balance problems, visual complaints, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issue and difficulty sleeping. This started last year, actually - the end of last year? The State Department thought it had kind of gotten it under control. But the most recent incidents happened just in August.

KELLY: Huh. And one of the intriguing threads here is the possibility has been raised that this isn't attacks by Cuba, but that some third party may be responsible.

KELEMEN: Well, the State Department says in all of this, it's been investigating this all of this time. It took a while to figure out that this was happening because, you know, some of these health problems could be caused from anything.

KELLY: Sure.

KELEMEN: But they - it took them a while to figure out there was a trend. They've gone down, and they've looked - they haven't found any particular device that may be causing this. They haven't figured out the source of it. But they also haven't ruled out the possibility that it could be another country, a third party being involved. The problem is, Mary Louise, that, you know, the Cuban government runs these - the housing.

For diplomatic housing, there's always been a lot of surveillance against diplomats overseas, particularly in Havana. So it's possible that it could be, you know, some kind of listening device gone awry. It could be any of these things. And the State Department says it hasn't ruled any of that out. The main thing is that the Cuban government is responsible for the safety and security of U.S. government officials.

KELLY: And Cuba professes to be as puzzled as the U.S. is in all this, although they have let in the FBI to investigate.

KELEMEN: They have. And there was a meeting earlier this week. Cuba's foreign minister was in town. He met with Tillerson, the secretary of state. And the Cubans - it seemed like quite a tense meeting. I mean, the Cubans came away saying, we have not - we have never perpetrated attacks against diplomats, and the Cuban government has never permitted, nor will it ever permit, the use of its territory by third parties for this purpose.

KELLY: So how big a deal is this? I mean, the U.S. had only just reopened the embassy there.

KELEMEN: Well, they are keeping open the embassy. But it is going to be a big source of tension.

KELLY: All right. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen updating us on the news just out this morning that the State Department is pulling nonessential staff out of Cuba. The embassy, as you just heard, will stay open. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.