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U.S. expels 15 Cuban diplomats, and another victim confirmed in attack in Havana

Trabajadores en la embajada de los Estados Unidos en La Habana salen del edificio el viernes por la tarde, 29 de septiembre de 2017.
Trabajadores en la embajada de los Estados Unidos en La Habana salen del edificio el viernes por la tarde, 29 de septiembre de 2017. emichot@miamiherald.com

The United States gave Cuba seven days to evacuate 15 members of its embassy in Washington, a State Department official told reporters on Tuesday.

Also, a 22nd American diplomatic employee has been confirmed as suffering in the attack in Havana. The U.S. has been unable to determine who or what is causing the attacks.

The U.S. decision to boot out two-thirds of Cuban staff at the embassy was communicated to the Cuban ambassador José Ramón Cabañas on Tuesday morning, the official said. The U.S. gave Cuba a list of the personnel it wants out of the country, although they were not declared “persona non grata.”

The expulsion of Cuban personnel from the Cuba Embassy in Washington will mean that travel will remain in limbo for the hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans flying to the island every year to visit relatives.

The United States also suspended processing of all visas in Havana, which has also created uncertainty among Cuban families divided by the Florida Straits.

“We are evaluating the impact of the reduction of personnel on these services but the Secretary’s focus is on the safety and well-being of the diplomatic personnel,” the official said.

The move comes after the United States last week announced it would be reducing non-essential American personnel at the U.S. Embassy by 60 percent as a measure of protection from the mysterious “sonic” attacks that have affected at least 25 diplomats and family members. According to an AP report, among the first affected were members of intelligence agencies working under diplomatic cover. All non-essential personnel is expected to be back in the U.S. by the end of this week.

To consider restoring the operations again at the U.S. embassy in Havana, “we will need full assurances from the Cuban government that these attacks would not continue,” the State Department official said. At the same time he added that expelling the 15 Cuban diplomats “does not signal a change of policy or a determination of responsibility” but ensures “equity on the impact of our respective operations.” Diplomatic relations will be maintained and Cuba has said it will continue investigating, he told reporters.

The Cuban government has so far denied any responsibility on the attacks. The Cuban embassy has not immediately responded to a request for comment but the reduction of staff will impact the consular services in Washington.

Cuba requires entrance visas to its citizens (known as "habilitación") as well as the use of the Cuban passport to travel to the island, regardless of whether the individual born in Cuba is a U.S. citizen or from other countries. The renewal of passport or its authorization is an expensive process and an important source of income for the Cuban government. A new passport or renewal costs $350 plus postage. Extension and entry clearance with a U.S. passport (only for those who left Cuba before 1970) costs $160. And waiting times for these procedures can last for months.

In the past, Cuban diplomats have complained that the United States has not allowed more people to be hired to meet the demand of hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who travel to Cuba every year.

On Twitter, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said “the decision to expel two thirds of Castro regime employees from embassy in D.C. was the right decision.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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