BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES NGAMEZTORRES@ELNUEVOHERALD.COM
The U.S. State Department is allowing diplomats in its embassy in Havana to be accompanied by some adult family members in a first step toward fulfilling President Joe Biden’s promise to increase the personnel at the embassy in Havana and eventually resume consular services.
“President Biden has committed to restaffing our embassy in Havana to enhance our ability to engage with civil society and, at the appropriate time, to increase consular services to Cubans, while ensuring the safety of U.S. diplomats serving in Cuba,” a State Department spokesperson said. “This is one step in that process.”
The agency changed the status of the embassy on Aug. 16 from “unaccompanied” to “partially accompanied.”
“Only adult eligible family members employed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana will be allowed to travel to or live in Cuba,” the official said. The embassy is hiring family members to cover a community liaison office coordinator position and a nurse position. The embassy is also recruiting a public engagement assistant and a political assistant.
The change in status was first reported by the Miami TV station America TV. Last July, Biden ordered the State Department to “review planning to augment staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana to facilitate diplomatic, consular, and civil society engagement, and an appropriate security posture.”
The embassy has been working with a reduced staff since late 2017, when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered the evacuation of most employees because of several health incidents affecting U.S. officials and their families. The health ailments, currently known as the Havana Syndrome, include dizziness, tinnitus, visual problems, vertigo and cognitive difficulties.
The National Security Council and the CIA have convened several groups to get to the bottom of the mysterious attacks that have been reported in Cuba, China, Britain and the United States. The affected Americans said they heard a strong sound or felt pressure and that the vibrations seemed to follow them. Experts of the National Academies of Sciences concluded that the sensations were most likely caused by a form of directed energy, possibly microwaves.
Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Vietnam was delayed for several hours after the U.S. Embassy there reported a possible “anomalous incident.” There are now more than 130 afflicted officials, including diplomats, members of the CIA, the military, and the National Security Council.
The State Department did not say if the Cuban government provided assurances that the incidents will not repeat. Children are still not allowed to return to the U.S. Embassy, suggesting there are still doubts about how secure the post is. The island’s authorities have denied involvement, but the Trump administration and members of Congress believed the Cuban government was not straightforward in sharing what it knew.
“We have done our utmost to ensure that our staff on the ground can work safely and securely in Havana, and will sustain this approach while augmenting our staff there,” the spokesperson said. “The Department will continue to prioritize the safety and security of our personnel and ensure that those who were medically evacuated get the treatment and support they need.”
Those advocating for the restoration of embassy services argue that a fully staffed diplomatic mission helps U.S. interests on the island and engagement with civil society and dissident groups pushing for more freedom.
They also note that the U.S. government did not suspend consular services in any other destination where these incidents have been reported.
The evacuation of the staff caused significant disruption to Cuban families across the Florida Straits for the past four years. There is currently a 100,000-plus backlog of immigration visas that have not been processed because consular services were mostly shut down. The State Department moved the processing of some immigration visas to Guyana, adding formidable economic obstacles to what already was a long and complicated process. A family-reunification program allowing some approved petitioners to wait for their visas in the U.S. has also been suspended, leaving the desperate families with no recourse other than to wait.
During a trip to Miami, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the administration was “very focused” on finding ways to reduce the visa backlog but offered no further details.
Nora Gámez Torres: 305-376-2169, @ngameztorres