AUSM Update on Cuba Travel

The Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM) is aware of the travel warning for Cuba issued by the US State Department on September 29, 2017.  The following analysis explains the warning, events leading up to the warning, and our analysis of the situation.

For the Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM), our top priority is the health and safety of our students.  We compile information from a wide range of sources for our regular evaluations, including local staff and partner organizations who know local conditions well, reports by human rights groups and NGOs, media reports, consultations with local officials, and reports from the US State Department.

We’ve found over the decades that State Department reports are often slow to appreciate the seriousness of local safety issues.  For example, AUSM restricted student travel between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque in southern Mexico beginning in 2014 because of increased highway robberies, whereas the State Department issued a less restrictive advisory only recently.  However, the State Department reports, when used in conjunction with trusted on-the-ground sources, have generally provided helpful guidance.

In recent weeks we’ve seen a troubling series of events – the apparent politicization of a travel warning.  We refer to a recent travel warning issued for Cuba, a country that is widely recognized as the safest tourist destination in the world.  This week, Washington announced the withdrawal of 60 percent of US Embassy staff from Havana and is warning US Citizens to avoid travel to the island.  The justification for both actions is a series of unexplained and unconfirmed health problems reported by 22 Havana-based diplomats.  Patients report non-specific “sonic attacks” with generalized symptoms that include tinnitus (wringing ears), trouble sleeping, nausea, dizziness and headaches.  It should be noted that neither the US nor the Cuban governments officially use the term “sonic attack.”  This seems to be a term invented by the media as a shorthand way of referring to a series of unexplained events that may or may not be related.  To date, only embassy personnel, mostly from the US but including several Canadians, report these symptoms.  Not a single US tourist has been diagnosed with similar symptoms.  To date, the US is the only country to issue a travel warning, and no other country has recalled diplomatic personnel.

If these health claims are true, no one is more concerned than the Cubans.  In an unprecedented move, President Raul Castro invited FBI personnel to investigate the situation in Havana on three separate occasions.  Despite repeated investigations by US and Cuban officials, no source has been identified for the health problems.  No “attacks” have been reported since August.  No one in the US government is suggesting that the Cuban government is responsible.  The recent removal of US diplomats from Havana does not represent a change in diplomatic status between the two countries.  In fact, very little can be said with any certainty about the “attacks.”  See Wired Magazine and Snopes Fact-check for scientific evaluations of the known information.  For a political analysis of the deteriorating US-Cuba relations, see the Toronto Star.

The State Department issues travel warnings to discourage travel by US citizens under certain conditions.  The State Department web site notes, “Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Warning might include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks.”  None of these conditions is even remotely present in Cuba.

So why the travel warning?  The fact that we have to ask this question at all is disappointing.  State Department travel warnings should be apolitical, with the health and safety of US citizens as the only priority.

For AUSM, the most important question is the safety of our students.  There are five factors that weigh heavily in our calculations:

– Aside from personnel from two embassies, not a single foreign visitor has reported health problems from a “sonic attack”

– Canada and European countries have not issued travel warnings

– There are no claimed attacks since August

– All reported attacks have been in Embassy housing or a hotel, and our students live 20 minutes from downtown in private homes

– Cruise ships, airlines and other tourist travel are maintaining full schedules

We evaluate these measures by the Trump administration as internally inconsistent, unwarranted given the circumstances, and a misguided politicization of health and safety precautions that will cause travelers to pay less attention to State Department advisories and warnings in the future.  This erosion of trust is becoming all too common under the current administration.

We currently have students in Havana, with five additional programs scheduled between December, 2017 and May, 2018.  We plan to continue these programs, with certain precautions:

– Our students will not visit the US Embassy except in case of an emergency.  The Embassy continues to maintain phone lines for Americans facing emergencies in Cuba (+53 7-839-4100 and +1 202-501-4444).

– Our students will be instructed to avoid social or casual encounters with US embassy personnel.

– Our students will receive a thorough orientation on the signs of a “sonic attack.”

AUSM will continue to monitor the situation and will adjust our practices in accordance with new conditions, always prioritizing the health and safety of our students.  Given our 30 years of experience leading educational delegations to Cuba, we evaluate this particular situation as highly unlikely to result in a threat to student health.

Here is a letter from RESPECT, a grouping of some 150 US travel providers to Cuba