Members of the Florida congressional delegation reacted to the Trump administration warning American travelers about visiting Cuba and moving embassy staff in Havana as it continues to investigate why more than 20 diplomatic staffers were harmed.
With reports that 21 U.S. staffers were targeted by sonic attacks, U.S. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson said last week that the investigation is continuing but American tourists have been issued a warning about traveling there.
“We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens,” Tillerson said last week. “The Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure.”
In the meantime, nonessential diplomatic staff were ordered out of Cuba on Friday.
"The decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel," Tillerson said on Friday. "We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States."
From his perch on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the Trump administration needed to get tougher with the Castro regime, including removing Cuban diplomats from American soil.
“In light of these harmful attacks against American diplomatic personnel in Cuba, it is weak, unacceptable and outrageous for the U.S. State Department to allow Raul Castro to keep as many of his operatives in the U.S. as he wants,” Rubio said on Friday. “The Cuban government has failed its obligation under international treaties to keep foreign diplomats safe on its soil. The idea that Cuba knows nothing about how these attacks took place and who perpetrated them is absurd. The State Department must conduct its own investigation independent of the Castro regime and submit a comprehensive report to Congress. Until those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice, the U.S. should immediately expel an equal number of Cuban operatives, downgrade the U.S. embassy in Havana to an interests section, and consider relisting Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Rubio was asked about the matter when he appeared on “Face the Nation" on CBS on Sunday morning.
“Let me ask you a question about Cuba, an issue you spent a lot of time working on,” said John Dickerson from CBS News. “You've been critical of the State Department's response to the attacks on diplomats in Cuba. You said it's weak, unacceptable, and outrageous. But is there any evidence that the Cuban government has been behind these attacks?”
“Well, obviously I'm limited in what I can discuss in, in a media program like this. Let me just say this,” Rubio answered. “Cuba is one of the most tightly controlled and monitored society in the world. Anyone who's interacted with Cuba, been to Cuba, or has anything to do with Cuba understands that very little happens in Havana that the Cuban government doesn't know about, especially Americans working for the State Department. So the idea that over 20 Americans working for the State Department, working for the U.S. embassy could be severely injured in Cuba and the Cuban government not know anything about it is ridiculous."
“What should be done now?” Dickerson asked.
“Well, I think they've done half of it, which is drawing down our embassy presence, again, for purposes of protecting our personnel,” Rubio replied. “Set the--everybody knows how I feel about Cuba policy. But set that aside for a moment. If something like this had happened anywhere in the world with a government that tries to argue that they know nothing about it, this is the same response we would advocate. So I agree with the drawing down of our personnel. I just think it is fair and, and reciprocal for us to require a proportional drawdown of the Cuban embassy and the Cuban diplomatic presence in the United States.”
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., agreed with Rubio’s call for Cuban diplomatic personnel to be removed.
“The fact that the Cuban government isn’t protecting the health and wellbeing of our U.S. Embassy personnel is inexcusable,” Nelson said on Friday. “With the loss of hearing and stroke-like-symptoms, the Cuban government owes an explanation and reparations to the families of those injured and must work to ensure these attacks cease immediately. In the meantime, the Cuban Embassy’s staff in Washington, D.C. should be reduced by the same proportionate number of U.S. personnel recalled.”
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., also said more could be done against the Castro regime.
“Withdrawing embassy personnel is a logical first step to keeping our diplomats safe, but more must be done to hold the Cuban dictatorship accountable," Curbelo said on Friday. “Changes in visa policies should focus on denying entry to the United States to Cuban government officials and those who through their actions buttress the dictatorship – not everyday Cubans attempting to visit their families.”
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., had warmer words for the Trump administration’s handling of Cuba but agreed more could be done.
"The Cuban regime has a long history of attacking and harassing U.S. diplomatic personnel,” Diaz-Balart said on Friday. “We must take the appropriate steps to protect these staff members and U.S. national security interests. The policy of the past administration is once again proving to be a failure, and this time, it is at the expense of the health of American citizens. I encourage the Trump administration to assess whether additional consequences, such as declaring additional Cuban regime operatives persona non grata, would be appropriate. The United States will not allow Castro or his thugs to attack our diplomats. I also commend the Trump administration for issuing the travel warning, alerting our citizens to the dangers they face when traveling to Cuba."
On the other side of the aisle, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., noted that only diplomatic staff had been targeted. While she applauded the State Department for removing staff from Havana while the investigation was going on, she thought a full travel warning was a bit much.
“The safety and security of American diplomats and their families is paramount regardless of where they serve,” Castor said on Friday. “I strongly support U.S. and Cuban efforts to determine who is responsible for the harmful sonar attacks as they must be held accountable.
“I am concerned however that today’s announcement and indefinite suspension of visa processing and consular services goes too far and unnecessarily harms the ability of Cuban and American families to travel and see loved ones,” Castor continued. “The State Department must swiftly develop contingency plans to continue to allow families to travel from the island. Many of my neighbors who have been waiting for the opportunity to reconnect with loved ones now face unnecessary and heartbreaking barriers. Cuba, Florida and many Caribbean islands and nations are recovering from devastating hurricanes and families should not be subjected to unnecessary and costly burdens and red tape when trying to visit and stay with family.
“The travel advisory also appears to be unnecessarily broad in its application to ‘all American travelers’ to Cuba in its entirety,” Castor concluded. “ Both governments should avoid calls to sever all diplomatic ties or travel, or encourage retaliatory efforts without identifying the responsible parties. Situations like these require responsible diplomacy from both nations and I encourage both sides to work together to ensure the safety and security of American personnel without causing unnecessary burdens to families.”