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Cuban Minister rejects US sonic attack claims

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said today that the United States has provided no evidence for its claims that US diplomats in Havana have come under deliberate sonic attack, and raised the question of whether the Trump administration is using the diplomats' injuries to unwind recent progress in creating closer ties.

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Nicole Gaouette (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said today that the United States has provided no evidence for its claims that US diplomats in Havana have come under deliberate sonic attack, and raised the question of whether the Trump administration is using the diplomats' injuries to unwind recent progress in creating closer ties.

"There is no evidence, there is no evidence whatsoever, of the occurrence of the alleged incidents or the cause or origin of these ailments reported by US diplomats," Rodriguez Parrilla said today in Washington. "Neither is there any evidence suggesting that these health problems have been caused by an attack of any sort during their stay in Cuba."

"These health problems are being used as a pretext of a political character ... to harm bilateral relations," Rodriguez Parrilla said at a press conference at the National Press Club. "The US government should stop politicizing this issue."

The Cuban minister said that the United States hasn't provided his government with any proof to substantiate President Donald Trump's statement that Cuba is to blame for medical problems suffered by more than 22 US diplomats and family members, some of whom have reportedly suffered brain injuries.

"I do believe Cuba's responsible, I do believe that," Trump said on October 17 in the White House Rose Garden.

Rodriguez Parrilla also slammed Trump for his rhetoric about the island nation, citing the "repeated disrespectful and offensive statements on Cuba by the US president." Trump's rhetoric is responsible for "re-launching the hostile rhetoric of the periods of sharpest confrontation," he said.

He added that anyone who claims the diplomats' health problems are the result of an attack is "deliberately lying."

Rodriguez Parilla, who spoke in both Spanish and English, repeatedly pointed to a US failure to provide facts, saying that Cuban doctors and experts have been given no chance to meet with US counterparts to learn more about the US claims. Cuba, he said, had given FBI investigators access to sites and allowed them to import equipment.

"Why were the incidents reported at such a late date," he asked, "most of them months and weeks after they had allegedly occurred?"

He also argued that the accusations are highly implausible.

Referring to the US diplomats, he said that the "diversity of their symptoms cannot be associated to a unique cause," and added that "there is no known technology able to selectively direct a sonic source against specific persons without affecting others."

The Cuban official also criticized the US vote Wednesday at the United Nations against lifting the embargo on Cuba, saying the move left the United States isolated.

The United States and Israel were the only two countries to vote against the resolution, which calls for an end to the US economic embargo on Cuba, and which passed the UN General Assembly 191-2. Havana has brought the resolution before the UN for the last 26 years.

'A warped message'

While the UN vote carries some symbolic power, only the US Congress can lift the embargo, which banned most exports to Cuba in 1960 and most imports from the island in 1962.

Last year, the Obama administration abstained from voting on the non-binding resolution for the first time in 25 years, breaking with a longstanding tradition of voting "no" as part of its efforts to foster better relations with Cuba. That campaign included re-opening the US embassy in Havana and a visit by then-President Barack Obama.

This year, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the United States was voting "no" again.

"The Cuban regime is sending the warped message to the world that the sad state of its economy, the oppression of its people, and the export of its destructive ideology is not its fault," Haley said at the General Assembly.

Businesses and lawmakers pushed back.

The vote and Haley's comments underscore the Trump administration's "misguided approach toward Cuba," said James Williams, president of the group Engage Cuba, a coalition of private businesses and organizations.

"If the administration spoke to real Cubans, they would know that fears for the future are rooted in what a rollback of engagement means for their businesses, communities and families," Williams said. "The Trump administration seems determined to stand alone in the world, supporting an archaic policy that has failed for the last 55 years. And the biggest losers are the people of Cuba."

A group of 10 senators led by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy wrote President Donald Trump on Tuesday to urge him to abstain from voting on the resolution. "It has become abundantly clear that our effort to isolate Cuba has instead isolated us from the international community, and particularly from allies and partners in this hemisphere," the lawmakers wrote.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that the US decision to vote against the resolution is meant to underscore the Trump administration's Cuba policy.

Beyond Trump's hostile rhetoric about Cuba on the campaign trail, the mysterious sonic attacks on US diplomats have also cooled any signs of warming between the two nations.

In late September, the State Department pulled out all families of employees and nonessential personnel from Cuba, after what it described as a string of attacks against US diplomats.

Then, on October 3, Washington expelled 15 Cuban diplomats to match staff reductions at the US Embassy in Havana, after the United States ordered non-essential diplomats and families to come home after the mysterious attacks on personnel there.

The move drew an angry rebuke from Rodríguez Parrilla at the time. "Cuba has never perpetrated, nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any sort against diplomatic officials or their relatives," Rodríguez Parrilla said at a news conference in Havana.

The drawdown in staff has meant that the US embassy is operating with a 60% reduction in staff. The most immediate impact of the slowdown was that the United States stopped issuing visas in Cuba, a step that US officials said wasn't a retaliatory measure but simply a function of having fewer people on the job. Officials tell CNN that consular officials in the embassy will still be available to assist US citizens in Cuba.

The State Department also issued a travel warning, urging Americans not to travel to Cuba.

The warning, reductions and the decision to reverse course on the UN vote are just the latest setbacks in deteriorating US-Cuban relations.

On Tuesday, Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said the administration was acting on its desire to have Cuba offer its citizens greater freedoms. "Cuba has engaged in human rights abuses," she said. "This administration continues to call upon Cuba to improve in terms of human rights, and also open up to where they would have better media access, better access to the things that we enjoy here."

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