Thursday, October 5th, 2017

Witness for Peace sees no objective basis for the Trump Administration’s Friday, Sept. 29th Cuba travel warning, and regrets the U.S. government’s decision to withdraw diplomatic staff from its Havana embassy. Furthermore, we strongly condemn the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington, DC.

The administration announced last Friday that it was withdrawing 60 percent of non-emergency staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana and is warning US citizens to avoid travel to Cuba. The justification for these actions, along with the expulsion of Cuban diplomatic personnel announced Tuesday, Oct. 3rd, is unexplained health problems that 21 Havana-based U.S. diplomats have reported. Unidentified U.S. officials also said the U.S. Consulate in Havana would indefinitely suspend issuing U.S. visas to Cubans. The U.S. Embassy will continue to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Cuba.

The U.S. complaint about the health issues originated almost a year ago during the Obama Administration when the two governments were working toward rapprochement. As acknowledged by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Cuban government responded immediately and initiated an investigation, inviting the U.S. government to collaborate.

During the investigations –of what the U.S. described as “sonic attacks”– the FBI, CIA, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, along with Cuban intelligence officials, have found no devices or other evidence to explain the hearing loss and other symptoms that were reported. They’ve likewise been unable to determine the causes, origins or perpetrators of these “incidents,” claimed by some to be “targeted attacks.” Moreover, experts have questioned the technical feasibility of a sonic weapon’s capability to produce the symptoms described.

Crucially for civilian travelers, and especially for those joining our people-to-people delegations,  we at WFP have not received any reports from WFP staff, our field contacts and partners, or participants in any WFP delegations about any “attacks” (sonic or otherwise) or adverse health symptoms or incidents. And no buildings/workplaces near the Embassy or any neighbors (Cuban or foreign) of any of the diplomats have reported any incidents or symptoms.

Witness for Peace’s main priority anywhere that we work is the safety of our delegates and in-country field partners. In addition to working in countries with stable security contexts, such as Cuba and contemporary Nicaragua, we’ve been working for almost four decades in places like Colombia, Honduras and Mexico, with much more dynamic security contexts. For decades we’ve been able to bring delegates safely into conflict zones in the latter countries due to the close and trusted relationships we maintain with in-country partners and the ongoing and thorough security analysis that we conduct with those partners and other credible sources. It’s important to note that when we’ve assessed that there was a reliable security concern, we’ve changed our travel itineraries.

We’ve done wide consultations with staff at the Martin Luther King Center (our principal partner on the island), other Cuban partners and field contacts, and beyond. Not a single person whom we’ve consulted with believes that travel to Cuba poses security risks for WFP delegates or other U.S. citizens.

“Based on the evidence thus far and the fact that the State Department says no other U.S. citizens have been affected, we believe that its decision is unwarranted, and are continuing to organize travel to Cuba and encourage others to do so,” says Bob Guild, Vice President of Marazul Charters, the trusted charter company with which WFP has often worked. Guild has also stressed that U.S. citizens and residents can legally travel to Cuba under U.S. law–with licensed travel providers like Witness for Peace–and that the State Department advisory in no way prohibits U.S. persons from traveling to the island. Guild is also the co-coordinator of RESPECT, the largest association of U.S. organizers of travel to Cuba, which has been joined by U.S. commercial airlines and others in the travel industry who have publicly expressed their intention to continue to travel to Cuba. RESPECT Co-Coordinator Gail Reed noted, “Cuba remains a very safe destination for U.S. travelers.” Indeed, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this week, “We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected…” 500,000 have visited Cuba so far this year. Additionally, the U.S. Foreign Service Association, the powerful union that represents U.S. diplomats around the world, also opposes any decision to withdraw U.S. diplomats from Cuba.

Unforeseen situations such as natural disasters, car accidents, random physical assaults from strangers, health issues, etc. are possibilities anywhere you go in the world. WFP takes all of the precautions to minimize risk to delegates anywhere that we work. Cuba is a very safe place with extremely low levels of violent crime, making it far more safe than most U.S. cities. While on WFP delegations in Cuba, delegates spend their time in groups accompanied almost always by someone on our WFP International Team and field partners. The assurance WFP can confidently give is that according to our analysis based on wide consultations with field partners and other sources, WFP, as well as field partners, are in agreement that current travel in Cuba for U.S. citizens does not pose any increased safety concerns.

We would also like to underscore the widespread belief of our field partners that the issued travel advisory, much like the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from its Washington, DC embassy, isn’t a neutral and objective decision, but is rather a politically motivated action by the Trump Administration to rollback gains toward normalizing relationships between our two countries in order to further its own very different foreign policy goals toward Cuba. WFP shares this analysis and believes that the Trump Administration is manipulating public opinion and the media by leveraging unexplained isolated symptoms and speculations to provoke fear and again justify its goals. The work that we do in Cuba is precisely to expose how the interests of the U.S. government, as well as private U.S. interests, have shaped foreign policy toward Cuba for decades without regard for their impact on the well-being of ordinary Cubans. Simultaneously we work to show Cuban society for what it is: sovereign, resilient, proud, and steadfast in its commitment to international solidarity.

We at Witness for Peace will continue to bring U.S. citizens and residents to the island to highlight unjust U.S. policies toward Cuba, even “smaller” ones like this hasty travel advisory and reactive U.S. decisions around diplomatic personnel in both countries. And we urge you to take action to support the bills in the House and Senate that would end the economic embargo and travel ban on Cuba (action page courtesy of our good friends at the Latin America Working Group). Will you join us?

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