Unsubstantiated ‘sonic attack’ allegations still hobble U.S.-Cuba relations
A worker carries a sack inside the compound of the United States embassy in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 29, 2017. The U.S. embassy, along with the Cuban embassy in Washington, have been essentially dysfunctional since accusations of 'sonic attacks' against Cuba were made by the U.S. in 2017. | Desmond Boylan / AP

The new Biden administration may soon ease regulations enforcing the U.S. economic blockade against Cuba. However, if Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s new bill, the U.S.-Cuba Trade Act of 2021, becomes law, the blockade itself will disappear.

The two countries’ embassies in Havana and Washington are dysfunctional. No normal relations will be obtained until they are fully operative. A report recently issued by the Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA) explores circumstances through which the embassies are disabled.

The NSA is a truth-telling organization that monitors U.S. conduct of international affairs by reviewing declassified U.S. government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

In September 2017, the State Department reported that some U.S. diplomats stationed at the U.S. embassy in Havana had for months, one by one, sought relief from incapacitating symptoms such as dizziness, hearing deficits, visual loss, mental confusion, painfully loud noises, insomnia, headaches, and balance problems. A few Canadian diplomats in Havana were similarly affected.

A covert sonic device was mentioned. Former President Donald Trump claimed that “Cuba did some bad things.” Citing health risks, the State Department recalled 60% of Embassy employees and, for the sake of reciprocity, expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington. The Department warned U.S. travelers of health dangers in Cuba.

The Embassy quickly stopped processing entry visas for Cubans seeking to visit the United States. Lack of embassy staffing in both countries hinders inquiries about travel, commercial affairs, and regulations. Cuba’s Washington Embassy can no longer provide consular assistance to Cubans living in the United States.

The affected diplomats were evaluated at U.S. medical centers under State Department auspices. Specialists, unable to identify a cause for the symptoms, ruled out viral infection, toxins, hysteria, and chemical exposure.

CIA operatives in Havana were among the first to complain of symptoms. A few U.S. diplomats in China and Tashkent also fell ill. Now, for almost three years, no diplomats anywhere have been afflicted.

No visitors to Cuba have suffered in similar ways, nor have diplomatic personnel from countries other than the United States and Canada.

At stake is the future of U.S.-Cuba relations. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy claimed in 2017 that, “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.”

The NSA update, noted above, centered on a heavily-redacted report from the Accountability Review Board (ARB), which had been “mandated by Congress in 1986 to assist the State Department in addressing security challenges at U.S. Embassies abroad.”

Although Congress required ARB investigations to take place within 60 days of an incident, “the Trump administration delayed convening the ARB until early 2018.” The ARB submitted its classified report to the Secretary of State 18 months after the first diplomat reported strange symptoms.

The report noted, in regard to the afflicted diplomats, that, “we do not know how. We do not know what happened, when it happened, who did it, or why.” It confirmed that the CIA closed down its Havana station in September 2017, just as the illnesses were first being reported.

The ARB report criticized “excessive secrecy that contributed to a delayed response.” It diagnosed “systemic disorganization” manifested by “serious deficiencies in the Department’s response in areas of accountability, interagency coordination, and communication, at all levels.” The result was “confusion [and] delayed effective, coordinated action.”

The report judged “the lack of a designated official at the Under-Secretary level to manage the response to be the single most significant deficiency.” It accused the State Department of not following procedural standards.

The ARB faulted the department for not providing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with medical data for one year after it had requested a CDC investigation. The fact of a CDC investigation was unknown until a reference to it cropped up in a document reporting on another evaluation.

That one, by the National Academy of Sciences, was sent to the State Department in August 2020. It too was unknown to the public, until it was leaked to the New York Times in December 2020. According to the Times report, the investigators concluded that the “most probable cause [of the symptoms] was radiofrequency energy, a type of radiation that includes microwaves.” However, “they could not rule out other possible causes.”

The picture thus is of extreme disarray and secrecy. Nothing emerging from the studies or from U.S. government actions suggests determination to resolve the embassy crisis. Easy tolerance of confusion and mystery is consistent with the U.S. inclination to perpetuate initial allegations by officials against Cuba. Lack of closure apparently suited U.S. purposes.

Besides, the U.S. image of concern for the safety of foreign diplomats needs burnishing. No word of sorrow or reassurance emanated from the U.S. government following a serious rifle attack against Cuba’s Embassy in Washington on April 30, 2020.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries will continue. One looks in vain for extraordinary circumstances that would justify anything but normal arrangements. These necessitate a fully-functioning embassy and an ambassador. There’s been no U.S. ambassador to Cuba since diplomatic relations were re-established in July 2015.

While the embassy stand-off persists, planning for normal relations by the new Biden administration is hobbled. Planners could, or should, take into consideration the NSA’s revelations suggesting that the impasse stems from cynical opportunism. They should pay respect to Cuba’s record of protecting foreign diplomats and of honoring international norms on conducting diplomacy.


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. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.