The U.S. State Department announced Friday it was withdrawing more than half its embassy staff from Cuba following “specific attacks” that sickened at least 21 U.S. embassy employees. On some level it was only the latest blow to Barack Obama’s historic rapprochement with Cuba; on another, though, it was a diplomatic break that never happened. Just last week, Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, said Washington was reviewing a plan to close the entire embassy. As it is, U.S.-Cuba relations remain largely intact.
That the response wasn’t more severe is partly a reflection of the mystery at the core of the attacks: No one yet knows who is responsible. Cuban government officials have denied responsibility, and appeared mystified at the cases. Canadian diplomats also were affected. And Cuba is cooperating in the investigation.
It’s somewhat routine for the State Department to withdraw non-emergency staff from its embassies when there are specific security concerns (see here, here, here, and here). In the Cuban context, however, Friday’s announcement represented a blow to a slow thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, kicked off only a year ago by a visit from Obama. That trip was capped with a signature initiative of his foreign policy: the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba after more five decades. This is an initiative that his successor has begun to reverse, with President Donald Trump announcing in June limitations on tourism and trade to the island. That move fell short of the Trump administration’s announcement that he was “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” but it did eliminate the so-called “people-to-people” exchanges, which allowed Americans to travel to Cuba without seeking government approval or scheduling the trip through a licensed tour company.