By Matt Spetalnick and Sarah Marsh
WASHINGTON/HAVANA (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Tuesday ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats after pulling more than half of its own embassy staff out of Havana last week, further escalating tensions between the United States and Cuba.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the latest decision was made due to Cuba’s “failure to take appropriate steps” to protect American personnel in Cuba who have been targeted in mysterious “attacks” that have damaged their health.
The steps being taken by President Donald Trump’s administration mark another blow to his predecessor Barack Obama’s policy of rapprochement between Washington and Havana, former Cold War foes.
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A State Department official said the number of expulsions was selected to make sure the U.S. and Cuban embassies would have “equitable staffing levels” while investigations continue into the unexplained “health attacks.”
The U.S. decision to expel a large portion of Cuban staff at the embassy was communicated to Cuban Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabanas on Tuesday, and the diplomats were given seven days to leave, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The move follows an announcement on Friday that the United States was sharply reducing its diplomatic presence in Cuba as it warned U.S. citizens not to visit because of attacks that have caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in U.S. embassy personnel.
“Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm,” Tillerson said in a statement.
“We continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and will continue to cooperate with Cuba as we pursue the investigation into these attacks,” he added.
The number of American diplomats confirmed to have suffered symptoms has increased to 22, the State Department official said.
The official maintained that despite the U.S. moves, Washington was not assigning “culpability” to Cuba’s Communist government. Cuba has denied involvement in the attacks and is conducting an investigation.
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Several Cuban-American Republican lawmakers, including U.S Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had urged that Cuban diplomats be kicked out in retaliation for the Cuban government’s failure to get to the bottom of the attacks.
“I commend the U.S. State Department for expelling a number of Cuban operatives from the U.S.," Rubio, an influential voice on Trump's Cuba policy, said in a statement. He called for a downgrading relations with Cuba and additional measures if the attacks continue.
But Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said: “The United States is using the confusion and uncertainty surrounding these events as justification to take a big step backwards in U.S.-Cuban relations.”
The Cuban embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cuba's Foreign Ministry Chief for U.S. Affairs Josefina Vidal said last week that the U.S. decision to reduce staff at its Havana embassy was hasty and would affect bilateral relations.
The State Department announced on Friday that Havana embassy was halting regular visa operations for Cubans seeking to visit the United States and would offer only emergency services to U.S. citizens.
Cuba, the United States and Canada have investigated the attacks, but the probe has not yielded any answers about how they were carried out or who was responsible for them.
The bizarre case has brought simmering U.S.-Cuba tensions since Trump took office to a boil.
Trump, who in June vowed to partially roll back the detente with Cuba agreed by his Democratic predecessor Obama, called the Cuban government "corrupt and destabilizing" in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Cuba described his comments as "unacceptable and meddling."
In Havana, U.S. diplomats have been frantically selling off their belongings at garage sales and on social media. Many say they had chosen to stay despite the risks involved so were disappointed to be ordered to leave.
In a bittersweet message posted on Facebook, the embassy's top official, career diplomat Scott Hamilton, said he would also be leaving. "I am an optimist and hope we will return one day, before too long," he wrote. "Hasta la proxima Cuba."
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown)