The U.S. Department of State has ordered the departure of all nonessential U.S. diplomats from the embassy in Havana, Cuba, which has amounted to a 60 percent reduction in personnel. All consular services at the embassy have been suspended, which means that visa applications for Cubans travel to the United States are limited to emergencies and government personnel. To obtain visas for U.S. travel, Cubans need their applications processed in another U.S. embassy abroad.
The March Deadline
Secretary Tillerson has reviewed the ordered departure and determined that it was not yet safe to return U.S. diplomats to Havana. By law, evacuations may not exceed 180 days, so on March 4th, the State Department must make a policy decision regarding the personnel assigned to Havana. Secretary Tillerson has the following options regarding the operation of Embassy Havana:
- Resume full operation of Embassy Havana as an accompanied post and return all diplomats and their dependents to Cuba.
- Resume operation of the embassy as a partially unaccompanied post, allowing officers and their spouses but placing restrictions on dependents.
- Convert the embassy into an unaccompanied post, where officers will return but families are restricted. The U.S. has done this in countries with high risk of conflict, such as Iraq.
- Suspend operation of the U.S. Embassy in Havana until further notice, as the U.S. has done in highly active conflict zones like Syria.
If Secretary Tillerson decides that U.S. diplomats are still at risk in Cuba, the embassy will likely convert to an unaccompanied post. Once this happens, the State Department will have to make an active decision to revert the embassy back to accompanied status if it determines Havana is safe for families, and the department has adequate personnel and security appropriations. Unlike under an ordered departure, there will be no statutory trigger for reevaluation.
U.S. diplomatic posts in countries deemed too dangerous for families become “unaccompanied posts,” where a Foreign Service Officer must complete his or her tour alone. Families are not permitted to reside at the diplomatic residence. In some cases, a post may be partially accompanied, permitting spouses but not dependents. High-risk countries where diplomatic posts are unaccompanied include Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Sudan. State Department regulations permit travel by U.S. officials and their families to countries with unaccompanied posts, but they may not use diplomatic passports to do so.
Unaccompanied posts do not necessarily operate at reduced capacity; for instance, U.S. Embassy Baghdad is the third largest U.S. diplomatic operation in the world. However, unaccompanied status will group Cuba with hardship countries that are engaged in active conflict. Secretary Tillerson, in notwithstanding any FY 2018 budget limitations, may choose to return to a fully staffed embassy with unaccompanied status. Since the evacuation time has expired, if he chooses to permanently scale back embassy staff, FSOs formerly assigned to Havana will be reassigned.
Converting Cuba to an unaccompanied diplomatic post implies a high level of risk, not only to diplomatic personnel and their families, but to everyday travelers. While the clock has run out on the ordered departure, the travel advisory may remain in effect as long as its status is evaluated every six months. Should the post become unaccompanied, the State Department will effectively relegate Cuba to a category with many of the most volatile regions in the world. Further, while the diplomatic mission is likely to remain operational, a permanent reduction in staff would hinder critical diplomatic operations and consular services. Its reversal would also require an active policy change and budget adjustments.