Despite the often-empty supermarkets and antagonistic relations with the Communist-run government, Cuba offered US diplomats a rare benefit for years: It was safe.
Unlike in many other countries, in Cuba, US Embassy employees didn’t have to worry much about terrorist attacks, kidnapping or even pretty crime. The Cuban government’s tight control over the island made Havana one of the safest cities in the world.
Diplomats — especially those Cuba suspected of being spies — might suffer harassment at the hands of the powerful state security apparatus, but there were established lines neither of the Cold War adversaries would cross
But starting early this year, US diplomats heading to the island to begin their postings were quietly warned they could face a mysterious threat that was causing American Foreign Service officers to fall ill, some with long-lasting symptoms.
At least 21 US diplomats and family members have been affected by the incidents that began in November, causing a baffling array of maladies from hearing loss to dizziness to concussions.
US officials say there may have been as many as 50 attacks, a senior US official said in a statement, the most recent in August. Some diplomats were targeted multiple times, the official said.
Investigators haven’t determined the cause of the incidents, but US officials said they are convinced someone has targeted American diplomats in Havana with a sophisticated device never deployed before, at least not against US personnel.
Canadian diplomats have suffered similar health problems, according to US and Canadian officials.
At the United Nations on Friday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla denied that Cuba was involved in attacks on diplomats and said the United States was politicizing the incidents.
But seven months after complaints to Cuban officials and assurances from Cuban President Raul Castro that the incidents would be investigated, US officials are frustrated by the lack of progress and may scale back the embassy to limit the number of people who risk exposure.
Options include sending families and nonessential staff back to the United States to a full-on shuttering of the embassy, three senior US officials said in a statement.
If the United States were to recall diplomats, it would be a devastating setback to US-Cuban relations and come at a crucial moment as Castro prepares to step down as President in February and Washington needs eyes and ears on the ground.
Ties between the countries were severed in 1961 shortly after Fidel Castro took power. As confrontation between the two nations loomed, US diplomats hurriedly lowered the American flag at the embassy and boarded a ferry to sail across the Straits of Florida.