The US State Department this week revised its advisory for travel to Cuba from Level 3 — reconsider travel — to Level 2 — exercise increased caution, raising a question: If the state of things in Cuba is good enough for Americans to travel there, why is it still bad enough to warrant a diplomatic rollback?
The change in the advisory, issued Thursday, is a partial reversal of last year’s warning to Americans not to travel to Cuba, and some involved in tourism hope it will reverse a decline in American visitors too — the Cuban Tourism Ministry’s commercial director, Michel Bernal, said in April that the number of US visitors in 2018 is only 56.6% of what it was in 2017.
But the change does nothing to bolster the US diplomatic presence in Cuba. President Donald Trump froze what had been warming relations under Barack Obama after diplomats were struck en masse by a still-unexplained illness initially blamed on “sonic attacks.” The US slashed its staff in Havana by around two-thirds, forbade US diplomatic families from moving there, and kicked 17 Cuban diplomats out of the United States. The president also banned US citizens from doing business with entities linked to the Cuban military and intelligence and security services.
But the allegation of “sonic attacks” was contentious, with many scientists scoffing at the idea. Earlier this month, 10 scientists published letters in the Journal of the American Medical Association criticizing the first medical review of the affected US diplomats in Cuba.
A State Department spokesperson said in an email to BuzzFeed News that the easing of the advisory was in part because average Americans don’t appear to have been affected by whatever made the diplomats ill.
“The health attacks appear to target U.S. government personnel, occurring primarily in the residences of U.S. Embassy staff. We still do not know the cause or source of the attacks and the investigation continues,” the spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote.
“The U.S. Embassy in Havana is able to provide all routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the travel advisory was scheduled to be reviewed by Sept. 2, and that the change to a lower level was the product of a “thorough review.”
The State Department is still recommending that US citizens avoid the Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana and that anyone experiencing acute auditory or sensory phenomena should immediately move to another area.
The move was welcomed by some who had previously been critical of Trump’s approach toward Cuba.
“The previous travel advisory level inhibited the growth of the Cuban entrepreneurial community, significantly harming the Cuban people,” said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, in a statement to BuzzFeed News, adding that he looks forward to promoting technical and financial support for developing small businesses in Cuba.
But the lessened travel advisory does not mean a renewed rapprochement.
“The U.S. Embassy in Havana continues to operate with reduced staffing and as a result, has not resumed visa services in Havana,” the State Department spokesperson wrote. “The Department continues to schedule immigrant visa interviews for Cuban nationals at U.S. Embassy Georgetown, Guyana.”
A spokesperson for the American Foreign Service Association, the union for US diplomats, declined to comment. The association initially had opposed the US drawdown.
The Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, also welcomed the change.
“The decision groups Cuba at the same safety level as countries like France, Spain, and Italy,” WOLA’s director for Cuba, Marguerite Jiménez, tweeted. “While authorities apparently have no information about the health incidents that have affected some US embassy staff, it’s clear that travelers in Cuba for educational, people to people and other purposes are not at high risk.”
Countries with a level 2 ranking include the Bahamas, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Geoff Thale, WOLA's vice president for programs, said that, with a new Cuban president and constitution, it is not in America’s interest to have the embassy as at limited a capacity as it is now.
“If we want to understand what’s going on in Cuba ... not having personnel to talk to people doesn’t make sense,” Thale said, adding that not having consular services for tourists is also less than ideal.
Earlier this year, a similar illness was reported by diplomats in China. The State Department did not issue a travel warning.
The Cuban Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment, but the Cuban government has denied responsibility for the US diplomats’ mysterious illness and insists its hotels are safe.