Opponents of U.S.-Cuba ties score from “health attacks” on diplomats
U.S. diplomats around the world oppose the Trump administration's drastic reduction in personnel assigned to the embassy in Havanna. | AP

A report surfaced in August, 2017 of U.S. diplomats in Havana who, beginning in November, 2016, were experiencing hearing loss, ringing in the ears, headache, nausea, dizziness, vision problems, mental confusion, and abdominal pain. A few heard harsh noises. The symptoms so far have affected 17 diplomats and four spouses, of whom three work in the embassy.

On Sept. 29, the State Department ordered 60 percent of its embassy employees to leave Cuba, but allowed 27 to remain to deal with emergencies. U. S. diplomats are unsafe in Cuba, claimed the Department. Henceforth most Cubans won’t be able to secure visas for travel to the United States. The State Department issued a warning that U. S. citizens traveling to Cuba were putting their health at risk.

At the invitation of Cuba’s government, FBI officers have been in Cuba carrying out investigations. A Canadian diplomat also showed up with symptoms. In May the U. S. government expelled two Cuban diplomats because of the illnesses.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, “We don’t know who is responsible; we don’t know what is responsible.” Yet the original Associated Press report in August cited government sources in attributing the illnesses to a “covert sonic device.”  For Sen. Marco Rubio “acoustic attacks” warrant expulsion of all Cuban diplomats in the United States and, if need be, closing down the U. S. embassy in Havana.  Secretary of State Tillerson, oddly enough, characterized the afflictions as “health attacks.”

Much of the story rests on speculation. According to a neurologist cited by the New York Times, “neither ultrasonic nor subsonic waves have been known to produce such injuries surreptitiously.” He thinks viruses, poison, or radiation are more reasonable possibilities. John Sipher, a former officer of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, suggests that, “this is more likely a surveillance effort gone wrong, than the use of an offensive sonic weapon.”

Media in Spain and Latin America blame Cuba or dissident elements in the the Cuban security services. Other commentary speaks of third countries – Russia among them – and Cuban – American counter-revolutionaries. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy narrowed the parameters of speculation:  “Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalization process between the United States and Cuba. Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process.”

What is certain, the New York Times reports, is that “the Cubans were rattled by what had happened and were desperate to find the cause.” Indeed, the US government’s travel warning threatens Cuba’s tourist industry, a major source of much-needed hard currency. Almost half a million US citizens have visited the island so far this year, many more than visited Cuba in 2016. Some 240,000 Cubans have traveled to the United States this year.

Observers predict that unavailability of visas for travel to the United States will keep Cuba’s artists, diplomats, academicians, speakers, and students away from anticipated projects in the United States, also that diminished travel in both directions will hurt Cuban families.

The State Department actions will likewise interfere with ongoing negotiations on “bilateral cooperation,” in place since December 17, 2014.  So far 20 agreements have been reached in “various areas ranging from environmental protection, to actions on mutual security, re-establishment of mail services, and direct flights.” Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry official in charge of U. S. relations, lamented on September 29 that, “the decision announced by the Department of State is hasty and … will affect bilateral relations.

Most importantly, the recent State Department actions are consistent with President Donald Trump’s previous words and actions regarding Cuba.  Speaking in Florida in June to announce rollback of some Obama policies, Trump proclaimed that: “The exiles and dissidents here today have witnessed communism destroy a nation … Last year, I promised to be a voice … for the freedom of the Cuban people … And now that I am your President, America will … stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.”

US-based commercial airlines are continuing flights to Cuba despite the U. S. travel advisory. And the US Foreign Service Association, the union representing U. S. diplomats in the world, has protested the removal of embassy personnel in Havana.

An official Cuban government statement makes the situation quite clear: “Cuba has not nor will perpetrate attacks of any kind against accredited diplomatic officials… nor has allowed Cuban territory to be used by third parties for this purpose.”  A Cuban journalist asks, “Where is the logic in aggressive methods against U. S. diplomats [now] after the sovereign decision to re-establish ties with Washington?”


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine.