Previous posts have discussed the recent emergence of a U.S.-Cuba diplomatic dispute over hearing problems of U.S. diplomats. Here is an update on that dispute.
The only news about the conditions of those affected was an August 23 report by CBS News, which had reviewed the medical records of certain U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba. CBS reported that their doctor had diagnosed them with conditions as serious as mild traumatic brain injury and damage to the central nervous system. The U.S. State Department, however, said that it did not yet have “definitive answers” on the source or cause of the incidents and that the investigation into these matters was “ongoing.” The Department also stated, “We remain in regular contact with the Cuban government to emphasize that we take these incidents very seriously and to resolve this matter in a satisfactory manner.”
Earlier, on August 11, Secretary of State Tillerson said that some of the U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana had been victims of “health attacks” that the U.S. has “not been able to determine who’s to blame” and that the U.S. held “the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats [Canadians] involved.”
John Caulfield, the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 2011 to 2014 said U.S. diplomats in Cuba are under 24-hour surveillance during their assignments. “Nobody does anything in Cuba without them knowing.” However, he added that such aggressive tactics largely stopped by late 2013 and 2014 as U.S. and Cuban officials secretly negotiated the diplomatic reopening announced in December 2014, after his departure from Havana. He believes that the likeliest explanation for the diplomats’ mysterious deafness was “a new surveillance technique gone bad that had consequences. I do not believe they would randomly cause harm to this variety of people.”
At least six of the affected U.S. diplomats were flown to the University of Miami Hospital where they received treatment and this August a Hospital specialist went to Havana to examine others who work at the embassy, because officials expect that more people were affected.
The State Department Press Briefing on August 23 touched on this dispute, but did not add any new information.
 U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute, dwkcommentaires (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute, dwkcommentaries (Aug. 10, 2017).
 Some U.S. diplomats in Cuba diagnosed with serious health conditions, medical records show, CBS News (Aug. 23, 2017); Reuters, Cuba ‘Incidents’ Caused Brain Injury, Nerve Damage to Diplomats: CBS News, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 2017).
 Assoc. Press, Tillerson Says Diplomats in Havana Suffered ‘Health Attacks,” N.Y. Times (Aug. 12, 2017).
 Robles & Semple, ‘Health Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Baffle Both Countries, N.Y. Times (Aug. 11, 2017); Robles & Semple, Diplomats under ‘health attack in Cuba were treated by Miami doctors, Miami Herald (Aug. 13, 2017).
5 thoughts on “Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba ”
At Least 16 U.S. Diplomats Who Had Served in Cuba Have Medical Problems
On August 24, U.s. State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said there were at least 16 U.S. personnel who had served in Cuba and who are suffering hearing loss as a result of activity attributed to a covert sonic device. They are being treated by physicians in Cuba and in the U.S.
She also said that the U.S. has not located a device that caused the symptoms and has not identified the perpetrator and that Cuba is cooperating with the U.S. investigation.
Assoc. Press, US Says at Least 16 Americans Suffered Hearing Loss in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Aug. 24, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/08/24/us/politics/ap-us-united-states-cuba.html
U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing (Aug. 23, 2017)(no new information in response to questions about the U.S. personnel in Cuba), https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2017/08/273592.htm#CUBA
U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Aug. 24, 2017), https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2017/08/273608.htm#CUBA
Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuban Government for Americans Medical Problems
In an August 24 editorial, the Washington Post states, “Some news reports have passed along speculation that rogue Cuban security forces might be to blame, or perhaps a third country interested in disrupting Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States. Such theories must be weighed against facts there: Cuba is a small, highly disciplined police state where next to nothing goes unobserved by the regime — much less high-tech assaults on foreign diplomats.”
The editorial further asserts that “the sonic attacks would be in keeping with, if an escalation of, harassment that U.S. diplomats have long suffered in Havana, including constant surveillance and home and vehicle break-ins.” Nevertheless, “The administration appears to be giving the Castro regime the benefit of the doubt — which, considering its overall record since the restoration of relations, may be more than it deserves.”
Although this editorial, in my judgment, is premature in suggesting the Cuban government was responsible for these medical problems, I am surprised that there has been no speculation in the media that Venezuela might be responsible.
Here are reasons that should give rise to such speculation. The medical problems first appeared last December after the election of Donald Trump. Venezuela had reason to be concerned that the then future Trump Administration might be more aggressive against Venezuela, which is going through great turmoil. Indeed, President Trump on August 11 said,“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.” Venezuela is a close ally of Cuba, which is very dependent on imports of Venezuelan oil, and Cuba might find it very difficult to resist a request or demand from Venezuela for assistance in trying to find out whether the U.S. was planning military or other aggression against Venezuela.
I hope that such speculation turns out to be unfounded. But if not Venezuela, who? Russia?
News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London
On August 25 a Canadian offical said Canada is not assuming that Cuba was behind an alleged “acoustic attack” against U.S. and Canadian personnel in Havana and has no plans to expel Cuban diplomats. The official also said the Cuban government was “incredibly cooperative” with the investigation.
The Guardian newspaper in London reported comments by James Lewis, a former state department official and US military adviser with expertise in intelligence and spy technology. According to Lewis, “You can’t rule out harassment, but why do it when you want things to go well, and why the Canadians? Nobody dislikes the Canadians!” He added that it was much more likely that a sonic surveillance device, designed to remotely pick up the vibrations caused by speech, could have been wrongly configured and emitted harmful sound waves as a result. “We know with 100% certainly that the embassies are under surveillance, and the technology being used could just be crude and over-powered.”
Another Guardian source, John Sipher, who spent 28 years in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, argued that while direct targeting of U.S. diplomats is rare, unintended harm caused by surveillance efforts that go wrong are much more common. “These efforts, while designed to further surveillance and eavesdropping and not to cause malicious damage, nevertheless risked or resulted in residual physical harm to US diplomats,” Sipher said in a commentary on the Just Security website.
Reuters, Canada Sys Not Assuming Cuba Was Behind Acoustic Incidents, N.Y. Times (Aug. 25, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2017/08/25/world/americas/25reuters-usa-cuba-diplomacy-canada.html
Borger, Botched surveillance job may have led to strange injuries at US embassy in Cuba, Guardian (Aug. 25, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/25/botched-surveillance-job-may-have-led-to-strange-injuries-at-cuban-embassy