WASHINGTON (CN) — Offering insight into the soured diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, a spokeswoman for the State Department cited retaliation as the reason that two Cuban diplomats were expelled this past May from their Washington, D.C., embassy.
As relayed to the Associated Press by unnamed officials with knowledge of the investigation, America’s embassy in Havana was only newly reopened under President Barack Obama when several U.S. diplomats began suffering unexplained losses of hearing in the fall of 2016.
Officials said the symptoms were so severe for some of the diplomats that they were forced to cancel the tours they had only just started and return to the United States.
An ensuing investigation revealed that the diplomats had been exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences.
Whether the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose, remains unclear.
The Associated Press says its sources were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It quoted State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert as saying the U.S. retaliated by expelling two Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington on May 23. She did not say how many U.S. diplomats were affected or confirm they had suffered hearing loss, saying only that they had “a variety of physical symptoms.”
Cuba noted in a statement that it has begun an “exhaustive, high-priority, urgent investigation” into the allegations.
It maintains, however, that America’s expulsion of its diplomats was “unjustified and baseless.”
“Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception,” the country’s ministry said in a statement.
“Cuba is universally considered a safe destination for visitors and foreign diplomats, including U.S. citizens,” the statement continues.
U.S. officials told The Associated Press that about five diplomats, several with spouses, had been affected and that no children had been involved. The FBI and Diplomatic Security Service are investigating.
Cuba is having an expert committee analyze the incidents and purports to have reinforced security around the U.S. embassy and U.S. diplomatic residences.
The Associated Press called U.S. diplomats among the most closely monitored people in Cuba, which operates an intensive surveillance program through its state security apparatus.
Like virtually all foreign diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. diplomats who experience sudden hearing loss last year lived in housing owned and maintained by the Cuban government.
Officials familiar with the probe said investigators are studying whether a third country such as Russia could have carried out the attack without Cuba’s knowledge.
With the investigation still ongoing, Nauert said the Cuban diplomats’ expulsions were undertaken to show how seriously America is treating the issue.
“We requested their departure as a reciprocal measure since some U.S. personnel’s assignments in Havana had to be curtailed due to these incidents,” she said, according to an AP article. “Under the Vienna Convention, Cuba has an obligation to take measures to protect diplomats.”
Though it called the use of sonic devices to intentionally harm diplomats unprecedented, the AP notes that the U.S. and Cuban agents have historically harassed the other’s diplomats in their countries since the restoration of limited ties with the communist government in the 1970s.
This article includes reporting by MATTHEW LEE and MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN with the Associated Press.
(Main photo shows downtown Havana.)