U.S. makes staff reduction at Havana embassy permanent

HAVANA, march 2th (Reuters)  The United States said on Friday it would keep a skeleton crew at its embassy in Havana, making permanent the staff cuts it implemented after U.S. diplomats reported health issues and limiting its diplomatic reach as Cuba strives to emerge from years of isolation.

The State Department cut the embassy’s staff by more than half last September due to“attacks” that it said caused hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue in two dozen employees. It also expelled 17 Cuban diplomats who were stationed in the United States.

“The embassy will continue to operate with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions, similar to the level of emergency staffing maintained during ordered departure,” the State Department said in a statement. It said the embassy would now operate as an unaccompanied post, meaning diplomats would not be permitted to move there with family members.

Cuba and a number of analysts have said the United States was trying to justify rolling back detente begun in 2014 by former U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

U.S. President Donald Trump has taken a tough stance on Cuba, tightening trade and ordering travel restrictions that harken back to the Cold War era just as Cuba embarks on a major political and economic transition.

Raul Castro is due to step down as president in April, making way for the first non-Castro leader in nearly 60 years. Major economic policy changes are also expected this year, such as unifying its dual currencies and multiple exchange rates.

 “This decision will be applauded in Moscow and Beijing, as both countries are poised to take advantage of Cuba’s historic transition of power while the United States remains on the sidelines,” said James Williams, president of Washington-based lobby group Engage Cuba.

The U.S. embassy has typically maintained close ties with civil society and the opposition in Cuba. Under current staffing levels it does not even have a human rights officer.

The embassy also halted regular visa operations last year and is only offering emergency services to U.S. citizens. Cubans seeking visas to travel or move to the United States must apply at U.S. embassies abroad, which is costlier and more complicated.