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.”


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.


[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.


[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.”

American Teens Hear Strange High-Pitched Sound at Havana Airport

On December 31, 2017, an American father in his 40’s and his son and daughter, ages 15 and 14, were at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. Around 2:00 p.m. they were waiting to board their return Delta flight to Atlanta.

The teens asked their father what was making the annoying high-pitched noise. The father, however, heard nothing and asked them if they could tell the direction of this noise.  They could and tracked the sound to a green box on a wall near the ceiling of the departure area. The teens also said the device gradually changed the pitch to where it was inaudible and then it gradually came back to the pitch where they could hear it.

Here are the father’s photographs of that device in the upper right of the airport wall and of a closeup of the device showing a label with the words “toscano” and “Zoonic” and images of an insect, reptile, rodent and bird.





A quick Internet search revealed that it is an “ultrasound animal repeller” that “makes the stay of birds, reptiles, and rodents uncomfortable” by emitting “vibrations of high frequency (ultrasounds), alternating between ranges for different animals, so that they will never nest.”

In addition, the device’s Installation and Operating Instructions (in English) state that it has a “micro-switch with two positions, HIGH and LOW. . . . Normally better results are obtained in LOW (frequency) position, but may be bothered [bothersome?] for persons. It is recommended [to] use this position when usually not working [with] any person[s] around.”

The device’s manufacturer apparently is Toscano , which describes itself as an “electronics development & manufacturing” firm in Sevilla, Spain.

By all indications, this device is not manufactured with the intent to cause harm to humans. Some, but not all, of its sounds are audible and annoying to some people, but not others. The audibility of the device is not constant given that it gradually changes pitch to go beyond the hearing range and then it gradually comes back to the range.

This report raises many questions pertaining to the medical problems experienced by some U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana that by some accounts are caused by sonic sounds [1] These questions include the following:

  • How many of the devices have been sold to persons in Cuba?
  • What persons in Cuba bought the devices?
  • Where have they been installed in Cuba?
  • Who installed them?
  • Who maintains them?
  • Have any of these devices been installed in or near the U.S. or Canadian embassies or their diplomats’ residences or Hotel Nacional or Hotel Capri?
  • How difficult would it be for a single device to be obtained by an individual or entity in order to harass American/Canadian diplomats?
  • Are the devices in need of calibration and recalibration?
  • If they are not susceptible to malfunction, then why are they audible to only some people and not others?
  • Are the devices capable of producing health problems?  (Either in their normal state or altered?)
  • Did the U.S., Canadian or Cuban government notice these devices in their investigations?  If so, what did they conclude?


[1]  The medical  problems of the U.S. diplomats in Havana have been discussed in many previous posts that are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016–” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.


In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

Previous posts have discussed the recent news that starting in late 2016 through March 2017 several U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba had been suffering various medical problems apparently associated with some kind of sonic device, that the U.S. with Cuban cooperation has been investigating these incidents and that the U.S. was not accusing the Cuban government of being responsible.[1]

On September 1, the U.S. State Department revealed that last month (this August) additional U.S. diplomats were suffering symptoms from a sonic “incident” in Cuba. The Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said that 19 Americans are now confirmed to have been affected, up from 16 reported last month. But the Department did not say exactly when last month the incidents took place or provide other details while also cautioning, “We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate” diplomats and their families. The U.S. investigation of these incidents is continuing and to date the Trump administration has not blamed the Cuban government.[2]

Also on September 1 the American Foreign Service Association, the labor union representing U.S. Foreign Service officers, said that based upon its contacts with 10 of the U.S. diplomats suffering from medical problems associated with their having served in Cuba the Association believes that they have been subjected to mysterious “sonic harassment attacks” that have caused  “mild traumatic brain injury [concussions]and permanent hearing loss, with such additional symptoms as loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption, and brain swelling.” Therefore, the Association “strongly encourages the Department of State and the U.S. Government to do everything possible to provide appropriate care for those affected, and to work to ensure that these incidents cease and are not repeated.”[3]

On August 30 CBS News reported that U.S. intelligence analysts believe the cause of the acoustic attack on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana starting late last year was an inaudible sound (ultra and infrasonic waves), and a Georgetown University ear surgeon said such sounds can damage hearing. Medical records show that U.S. victims have been diagnosed with hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury and likely nerve damage. CBS also reported that the two Cuban diplomats earlier expelled from the U.S. were intelligence officials.[4]

Although the U.S. Government to date has not blamed Cuba for these incidents, a Washington Post editorial has strongly suggested that Cuba is responsible, and Roberto Alvarez Quińones, a Cuban-American journalist, economist and historian living in Los Angeles, asserts that however the attacks occurred, Raúl Castro is responsible.[5]


[1] Posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Have Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute (Aug. 10, 2017); Update on U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Dispute Over Health Conditions of U.S. Diplomats Stationed in Cuba (Aug. 23, 2017); At Least 16 U.S. Diplomats Who Had Served in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Aug. 24, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for American Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post); News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017) (comment to 08/23/17 post).

[2] Gearan, State Department reports new instance of American diplomats harmed in Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Lederman (Assoc. Press), U.S.: Another health attack on diplomats in Cuba last month, Wash. Post (Sept. 11, 2017).

[3] Gearan, American diplomats suffered traumatic brain injuries in mystery attack in Cuba, union says, Wash. Post (Sept. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Diplomats Union: Attacks in Cuba Caused Mild Brain Injury, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017).

[4] Dorsey, Infra- and ultrasonic waves thought to be responsible for Cuba attacks, CBS News (Aug. 30, 2017); CBS: US Intelligence points out that diplomats in Cuba were affected by ‘an inaudible sound,’ Diario de Cuba (Aug. 30, 2017).

[5]   Editorial, Don’t play down a sinister attack on diplomats in Cuba, Wash. Post (Aug. 24, 2017); Alvarez Quińones, Acoustic attack or not, Raul Castro is to blame, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 31, 2017).


Another State Department Briefing Regarding Cuban Diplomatic Dispute 

At an August 10 State Department press briefing, the Spokesperson Heather Nauert discussed the ongoing U.S.-Cuba diplomatic dispute about U.S. diplomats in Cuba who have had medical problems.[1]  

Emphasizing that there was an ongoing U.S. investigation of this matter, she said that the U.S. was still trying to determine the cause of the ailments, that it was too soon to blame any government or other person for the problems, that she has no knowledge of a country other than Cuba being the potential cause of the problems and that she was not aware of the U.S. having experienced the same problem in other countries.

She also said that the two Cuban diplomats in the U.S. had been expelled in May because Cuba had breached its obligation under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, whose Article 29 states: “The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State [here, Cuba] shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity.” (Emphasis  added.)

There have been reports that at least one Canadian diplomat has been treated in hospital in Cuba afar suffering headaches and hearing loss and that the Canadian and Cuban governments are investigating the problem. Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Brianne Maxwell said Thursday that agency officials “are aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and US diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working — including with US and Cuban authorities – to ascertain the cause.”[2] U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert could neither confirm nor deny such reports.

Ms. Nauert also asserted that the U.S. Embassy in Havana is fully staffed and operational.


[1] A prior post discussed the issue of medical problems of some U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

[2] Canadian diplomat in Cuba treated for hearing loss, CBCnews (Aug. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Canadian Diplomat in Cuba Treated for Hearing Loss, N.Y. Times (Aug. 10, 2017).