Injured U.S. and Canadian Diplomats in Cuba: New Developments

There have been several recent developments regarding the U.S. and Canadian diplomats who have suffered injuries while serving in Cuba.

First, the two counties’ diplomats have sued their respective governments.

The Canadian lawsuit in Toronto on February 6 alleges that the Canadian government was slow to respond to complaints about these injuries and has failed to provide sufficient medical care.The suit seeks (CAN)$ 28 million [(US)$ 21]  in damages on behalf of 14 diplomats, spouses and their children.

The U.S. lawsuit, which was commenced on February 7 by some of the affected U.S. diplomats, is a Freedom of Information Request to obtain documents related to the State Department’s Accountability Review Board’s investigation of the situation.

Second, the State Department has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a new study to understand “the possible causes of these cases and approaches for future incidents, whether of an apparent acoustic nature or a different environmental or clinical presentation.” This investigation will look at “health monitoring, medical interventions, risk assessment and exposure mitigation for overseas locations that may present a higher risk of adverse health effects.”

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Bilfsky, Canadian Diplomats Sue Their Government Over Mysterious Disease, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2019); Assoc. Press, Canadian Diplomats File suit Over Injuries Suffered in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2019); Atkinson, State Dept. asks scientists to study mysterious illness scare in Cuba, Axios (Feb. 5, 2019); Center for Democracy in the Americas, State Department asks scientists to study mysterious illness scare in Cuba: U.S. personnel file suit, U.S.-Cuba News Brief (Feb. 8, 2019). 

Canada Reducing Cuba Embassy Staff 

On January 30, the Canadian foreign ministry (Global Affairs Canada) announced that another of its diplomats in Havana had fallen mysteriously ill. [1]

This is the 14th such case.  “To date, no cause has been identified.” As a result, Canada is removing up to half of its embassy staff.

The Canadian statement added, “Canada has a positive and constructive relationship with Cuba. We have had close cooperation with the Cuban authorities since the health concerns of our employees posted in Havana first surfaced in the spring of 2017.”

Cuba’s Ambassador to Canada, Josefina Vidal, said Cuba “understands the obligations of the government of Canada to protect its diplomatic personnel in any part of the world, and to try to find answers to the health symptoms reported in Cuba, [which] remains committed to preserving the good state of relations and expanding its ties with a country to which strong ties of friendship and cooperation unite us.”[2]

Nevertheless, the Cuban Ambassador found the Canadian decision to reduce its Havana Embassy staffing “incomprehensible.”  It does “not help solve or find answers to the health symptoms that diplomats have reported and will have an inevitable impact on the conduct of relations.” Instead, this decision “favors those in the United States who use this issue to attack and discredit Cuba. It is known that individuals with a high responsibility for foreign policy in the United States are committed to provoking a climate of bilateral tension and being able to point Cuba as a threat.”

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[1]  Global Affairs Canada, Statement on health and security of Canadian diplomatic staff in Havana, Cuba (Jan. 30, 2019); Assoc. Press, Canada Cutting Canadian Staff at Cuba Embassy in Half, N.Y. Times (Jan. 30, 2019). Other posts about Canadian diplomats’ illnesses in Cuba may be found in the ” U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-??” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com–Topical: CUBA.

[2] Josefina Vidal: Decision by the government of Canada to withdraw part of the diplomatic staff favors those in the United States who attack Cuba, CubaDebate (Jan. 31, 2019)

New Yorker Report on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

The November 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker has a lengthy article about the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats in Cuba starting in late 2016 (and after the U.S. presidential election). [1]

The conclusion, however, is the same as previously reported: some U.S. personnel did suffer injury and the U.S. Government has publicly stated it does not know the cause or perpetrator of these injuries.[2]

But the article does provide greater details about many of the victims having been CIA agents and about the U.S.-Cuba interactions over these incidents.

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[1] Entous & Anderson, Havana Syndrome, New Yorker at 34  (Nov. 19, 2018).

[2] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Canadian Government Also Baffled by Medical Problems of Diplomats in Cuba

For nearly two years the U.S. publicly remains baffled by the causes of the medical problems of 26 U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba. Twelve Canadian diplomats while in Cuba also have suffered similar problems, and the Canadian government publicly also remains baffled.[1]

Now the Canadian government has engaged brain injury experts from the Brain Repair Center, affiliated with Dalhousie University, the Nova Scotia Health Authority and the Isaak Walton Killam Health Center, to investigate the symptoms and possible causes that left Canadian diplomats and family members with a series of mysterious symptoms.[2]

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[1]  See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2]   Campion-Smith, Ottawa teams with brain injury experts as it probes mystery attacks on Canadian diplomats in Cuba, Toronto Star (Sept. 30, 2018); Experts in brain injuries will examine Canadians affected by the ‘attacks’ in Havana, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 2, 2018).

Call for U.S., Canada and Cuba Joint Investigation of Medical Problems of U.S. and Canadian Diplomats in Cuba  

Luis Velázquez, a Cuban neurologist who was recently appointed president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, has asked the US and Canadian national science academies for a joint scientific inquiry to examine the evidence behind the alleged attacks on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba.[1]

The need for such an investigation was buttressed by a letter published in the Journal of Neurology, by Sergio Della Sala and Robert McIntosh, both neuroscientists at the University of Edinburgh, who claim that a U.S. report by University of Pennsylvania scientists is seriously flawed.[2]

Della Sala said much of the evidence the doctors used to propose a new concussion-like syndrome came from six diplomats who each took 37 cognitive tests. The tests looked at visual and auditory attention, working memory, language, reasoning, movement and other cognitive abilities. In their report, the US doctors reveal that all six embassy staff who had the full battery of tests had some brain impairment or another.

But Della Sala and McIntosh say anybody who took the tests would have been classed as impaired. They point out that it is standard practice with cognitive tests to measure people’s performance against others in the population. Often, a person has to score in the bottom 5% to be considered impaired. But the US doctors set the threshold at 40%, meaning that by definition, four in 10 who take the test will be “impaired”.

Della Sala and McIntosh ran a simulation that looked at the probability of passing all 37 tests when the threshold for failure was set so high. “The chances that somebody will be without an impairment is zero,” Della Sala said. “We ran the simulation 1,000 times, and never, ever is there one single individual who appears to be normal. They are all classed as impaired.”

Mark Cohen, a professor of neurology and pioneer in functional brain imaging at University of California, Los Angeles, said there was insufficient evidence to link the diplomats’ health problems to the sounds they heard. “These are symptoms which are typical of many, many causes,” he said. “It is an incautious leap to presume that the cause was related to the reports of sounds heard by these diplomats.”

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[1]  Sample, Cuba calls on US and Canada to investigate ‘sonic attack’ claims, Guardian (May 29, 2018).

[2] The University of Pennsylvania study is referenced in these posts to dwkcommentaries: Discovery of Brain Abnormalities in U.S. Diplomats in Havana with Medical Damage (Dec. 6, 2017); Medical Report on U.S. Diplomats with Health Problems Occurring in Cuba (Feb. 16, 2018); Cuba’s Latest Commentary on “Alleged” Health Incidents Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (April 27, 2018). Other posts about this situation are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

U.S. Senate Hearing on Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On January 9, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing entitled “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.” The Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues was chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a noted critic of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relation, who said the purpose of the hearing was “to establish the facts surrounding the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and conduct oversight over the State Department’s handling of the attacks.”[1]

The witnesses were three officials of the U.S. State Department: Mr. Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Mr. Todd Brown, Diplomatic Security, Assistant Director, International Programs; and Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services.

The hearing started with lengthy opening statements by Rubio and the Ranking Member, Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), both very critical of the Department’s response to these incidents or “attacks.” [2] The hearing itself focused on the following four topics:: (1) the nature of the injuries; (2) the cause of the injuries; (3) the perpetrator of the “attacks;” and (4) the State Department’s appointment of an accountability review board.

  1. The Nature of the injuries

 While the symptoms may vary, all 24  of the medically-confirmed cases  have described some combination of the following symptoms: sharp ear pain, dull headaches, tinnitus (ringing in one ea), vertigo, visual focusing issues, disorientation, nausea, extreme fatigue. Some have been diagnosed with mild brain injuries similar to what might happen from a concussion.

  1. The cause of the injuries[3]

In early July, the Bureau of Medical Services at the State Department convened a panel of academic experts to review case histories and the test results up to that point. And they arrived at [the following] consensus: ‘the patterns of injuries were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source.”

Mr. Brown said investigators are considering possible causes other than a sonic attack, including a viral attack. He also said the possibility that someone deliberately infected people with a virus has not been ruled out. Dr. Rosenfarb testified that evidence suggest that( this is “not an episode of mass hysteria.”

Brown also said he would not rule out a sound component entirely. He said there had been an “acoustic element” associated with the sensations and feelings experienced by diplomats who fell ill. He said it’s possible the sound masked some other technology that caused the damage.

Dr. Rosenfarb said investigators are confident that something indeed caused medical harm to the Americans.

“Perplexing” was a frequent word in this discussion.

  1. Perpetrator(s)

Senator Rubio in a Fox News interview before the hearing said Havana is one of the most tightly controlled cities in the world. “There is no way you can conduct sophisticated attacks targeting American government officials in Havana without the Cuban government at least knowing about it.” [4] He repeated this opinion or conclusion at the start and at the end of the hearing.

  1. Accountability Review Board

Senator Rubio obtained admissions from the witnesses that a “serious injury” of at least one U.S. diplomat in Cuba happened no later than May 2017 and that the Secretary of State had not appointed an accountability review board within 60 days thereafter, as required by statute, and indeed had not yet done so.[5]

Acting Secretary Palmieri tried to remedy this apparent breach by testifying that Secretary Tillerson on December 11, 2017, had decided to convene such a Board and that the statutory required notice to Congress was “forthcoming.”

The same question came up later the same day at the Department’s Press Gaggle, [6] when the Department spokesperson, Under Secretary I. Steven Goldstein, initially said, “We are going to create, as we’ve said previously, an accountability review board, and I would expect that we would have the announcements of the chair and the members of the board available for release within the next week.” He then was pressed with a reporter’s question about Senator Rubio’s apparent contention that the Department and the Secretary had violated the law by not making an earlier appointment of such a board. Goldstein had the following response:

  • “We don’t agree with [the allegation that the law was violated].The assistant secretary today made clear [at the hearing], and we have said too, that it took us time to get the investigation in place. The investigation is continuing, and we believe that we . . . had the authority to determine when the accountability review board should be set in place. I think let’s not lose focus here. There’s 24 people that had injuries, and those people are receiving treatment, and we’ve had over 20 conversations with the people of Cuba. . . . [The] government investigators have been down four times; they’re going down again within the next few weeks. And so our primary goal at the present time is to find out why this occurred, to prevent it from happening again in Cuba and the embassy of Cuba or in any other place where American citizens are located.”
  • “It took time to set up the . . . board because we were hopeful that we would be able to know what occurred. . . . [T]his investigation has taken longer than we anticipated, . . . but it is now time to go forward. . . . I expect the names [for the Board] to be announced over the next several days.”

Conclusion

Only five of the nine subcommittee members attended the hearing, and the members will be submitting written questions to the witnesses, and there will be classified briefing of the subcommittee. Thus, the complete record will not be available until later. [7]

At the conclusion of the hearing, Rubio said that the following were two established facts: (1) 24 Americans had been harmed while in Cuba and (2) the Cuban government at least knew who was responsible for causing such harm. “The idea that someone could put together some sort of action against them, 24 of them, and the Cuban government not know who did it, it’s just impossible,” Mr. Rubio said. He noted that the Americans in Havana became sick just after Mr. Trump’s election, and speculated that rogue government officials from either Cuba or Russia had sought to create friction between Havana and the new administration in Washington.

Under Secretary Goldstein voiced a similar opinion by saying, “We believe that the Cuban government knows what occurred. So what we’d like to them to do is tell us what occurred.”

After the hearing, Cuba’s diplomat who has been intimately involved in U.S.-Cuba relations , Josefina Vidal, said  the hearing was chaired by two Senators (Rubio and Menendez)  “both with a vast record of work against better relations between Cuba and the United States, and the promoters of all kinds of legislative and political proposals that affect the interests of the Cuban and American peoples, and only benefit an increasingly isolated minority that has historically profited from attacks on Cuba.” She continued:

  • “From [the hearing’s] very title “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba,” it was evident that the true purpose of this hearing . . . was not to establish the truth, but to impose by force and without any evidence an accusation that they have not been able to prove.”
  • “The State Department does not have any evidence that allows it to affirm that there have been attacks against its diplomats in Havana, or that Cuba may be responsible, or have knowledge of the actions of third parties.”
  • “I categorically reiterate that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for the health conditions reported by U.S. diplomats. Cuba never has, and never will, perpetrate such acts, nor has it or will it permit third parties to act against the physical integrity of any diplomat, without exception. The Cuban government is aware of its responsibilities and fulfils them exemplarily.”
  • “I affirm that the investigation carried out by Cuban authorities, the results of which the State Department and specialized agencies of the United States have had ample and systematic access to, has shown that there is no evidence at all regarding the occurrence of the alleged incidents and no attack of any kind has occurred.”
  • “Nothing presented by the government of the United States throughout this period, including today, provides evidence that the health problems reported by its diplomats have their origin or cause in Cuba.”
  • “We reject the politicization of this matter and the unjustified measures adopted by the United States government, with a high cost for our population, Cuban émigrés and the U.S. people. We also condemn the political manipulation of these events by anti-Cuban elements, who seek to aggravate the bilateral atmosphere, with the sole purpose of returning to a an era of confrontation, with negative consequences for both countries and the region.”
  • “Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country for Cubans, for foreigners, for accredited diplomats and for the millions of people who visit us every year, including U.S.”[8]

This blogger’s opposition to Senator Rubio’s hostile approach to Cuba has been expressed in a prior post. That approach is against U.S. economic and strategic interests. It provides openings to Russia and the EU, for example, to pursue various developments with Cuba while the U.S. stands on the sidelines. Moreover, that approach contradicts Rubio’s stated desire to support Cuba’s emerging private sector and the Cubans investing and working in that sector.

Senator Rubio also erroneously stated that it is a fact that Cuba has one of the world’s most pervasive surveillance systems in the world and, therefore, has to know if some third-party has perpetrated attacks on U.S. (and Canadian) diplomats. At most that is an allegation or theory, which has been denied by Cuba. Rubio also ignores that whatever security and surveillance system Cuba has undoubtedly is prompted, at least in part, by the long history of U.S. hostility towards the Cuban Revolution, including covert or undercover efforts to promote regime change on the island. Moreover, in its responses to the medical problems of some of its diplomats in Cuba, the U.S. repeatedly has emphasized Cuba’s obligation under the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect other countries diplomats on the island, an obligation that presumably requires Cuba and other nations, including the U.S., to have some idea as to the whereabouts of  those diplomats.

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[1]  Senate Foreign Relations Comm., Subcommittee Hearing: Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight (Jan. 9, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Won’t Send Americans Back to Embassy in Havana Yet: U.S. Officials, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, In Wake of ‘Attacks,’ Tillerson Not Returning Staff to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Considers Whether Virus Might Explain Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan, 9, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Says ‘Viral Attack’ Among theories in Cuba Illnesses, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018); Harris, U.S. to Open Formal Inquiry on Americans Sickened in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 9, 2018). In the days before the hearing, disputes erupted over what happened to the diplomats, as discussed in a prior post. (See also posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.)

[2] Press Release, TOMORROW: Rubio Chairs Hearing on Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 8, 2017); Press Release, Menendez Opening Statement at Cuba Hearing (Jan. 9, 2018).

[3] Some Canadian diplomats in Cuba have suffered similar injuries or effects, but on January 10, a Canadian official said Canada has not reached any conclusions on the cause(s) of such ailments. Reuters, No Conclusion on Cause of Health Symptoms at Embassy in Cuba-Canada Official, N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2018).

[4] Press Release, Rubio Presses State Department on Response to Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Jan. 9, 2018).

[5] The State Department has a statutory obligation to “convene an Accountability  Review Board” . . .  not later than 60 days after the occurrence of an incident [of] . . . .any case of serious injury.” The Department also has an obligation to “promptly notify the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of the incident” of the convening of such a board. (22 U.S.C. §4831.) U.S.

[6] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Gaggle (Jan. 9, 2018).

[7] The subcommittee members in attendance were Senators Rubio and Tom Johnson (Rep., WI), Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ),), another Cuban-American critic of normalization; Tom Udall (Dem., NM); and Jeanne Shaheen (Dem., NH). The absentees were Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), a supporter of normalization who was just in Cuba; Cory Gardner (Rep., CO); Johnny Isakson (Rep., GA); and Tim Kaine (Dem., VA). Two of these absentees (Flake and Gardner) and Menendez were attending the simultaneous White House conference on immigration.

[8] Vidal, Cuba is a safe, peaceful and healthy country, Granma (Jan. 10, 2018).

More Details on Medical Problems of Canadian Diplomats in Cuba         

Newly disclosed Canadian government documents reveal more details about medical problems experienced by their diplomats and members of their families in Cuba.[1]

In May 2017 one of those diplomats in a message to the government in Ottawa reported that some diplomats and members of their families, including children, had symptoms including headaches, dizziness, nausea, hearing loss, nosebleeds and cognitive issues including loss of short-term memory. “Many of the symptoms are similar to signs of extreme stress, and there is the possibility that there could be mental health effects caused by the fear of being targeted. Either way, testing should help to rule out cases and reassure personnel that we have the means to be able to provide duty of care. There are no answers. We are left to (sift through) what we know about … the targets and possible suspects.”

By June 9, the Canadian mission was underscoring the need for help from a Canadian federal medical adviser and stressing that new diplomatic personnel bound for Cuba should be made aware as soon as possible of the strange ailments affecting staff. In the meantime, local guards were asked to increase their patrols around the residential properties of Canadian staff and to be extra vigilant in reporting. This report also mentioned additional symptoms: loss of consciousness, blurred eyesight, lack of balance and ear pain. “Many have heard strange noises in their residences and have experienced symptoms that they have not had before in their lives.”

On June 18  Dr. Jeffrey Chernin of Health Canada went to Cuba to meet concerned staff individually and take part in a townhall-style meeting a few days later. The doctor found that symptoms, experience and recovery varied, but he seemed to rule out viral causes such as the flu or hearing loss due to age. He also found that the symptoms were similar to those experienced by U.S. personnel in Cuba.

Subsequently Privy Council Office and Global Affairs Canada officials held a meeting with Cuban counterparts to encourage “closer collaboration” on fact-finding, explore the possibility of greater security in areas where Canadian diplomats were living “to discourage further attacks” and express Canada’s ongoing commitment to good relations.

By August, however, it appeared the situation was not yet resolved. A Health Canada medical adviser suggested in an August 11 email that “routine audiometry,” which measures individuals’ hearing sensitivity, could be conducted as a baseline for Canada-based staff headed on posting to Havana.

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[1] Bronskill, Trudeau Government Sent Doctors To Cuba To Examine Canadian Diplomats With Mysterious Ailments: Records, HuffPost (Jan. 4, 2018); Smith, Canadian children were among those affected by sonic attacks in Cuba, documents suggest, Nat’l Post [Canadian newspaper] (Jan. 4, 2018). Previous posts about the medical problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba have mentioned the similar problems of Canadian diplomats; they may be found in a search of posts mentioning “Canada and Cuba.”