Senator Leahy Criticizes Trump Administration’s Reactions to Alleged “Acoustic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba  

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) on October 19 criticized the Trump Administration’s recent reactions to the alleged “acoustic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.[1]

First, he points out that the Administration repeatedly has stated that despite intensive investigation, the U.S. does not know how or who caused the problems and that it does not believe Cuba did so. Nevertheless and illogically, the U.S. has reduced U.S. staffing of the Havana embassy, expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. and issued a travel warning about Americans travel to Cuba.

Moreover, these U.S. reactions “are not only counter-productive to solve this mystery, but will inevitably punish the Cuban people, separate Cuban-Americans from their loved ones on the island, hurt U.S. companies interested in doing business in Cuba, and disrupt further progress between our countries on academic and cultural exchanges, negotiations over fugitives and property claims, public health, and maritime security.”

Second, “whoever is responsible for these attacks has a clear agenda: to sabotage the nascent rapprochement between the [U.S.] and Cuba. . . . While we don’t know who is responsible, we do know there is a clear motivation for our foreign adversaries, like Russia, to drive a wedge between the [U.S.] and Cuba to help achieve their geopolitical goals. And, as we are seeing increasingly around the world, when we disengage our adversaries rush in.”[2]

“Without a hint of evidence, nor a motive, linking  the Cuban government with these incidents,” Leahy said, “it appears as though our actions were driven by political expediency, not diplomacy.”

The next day, October 20, the State Department raised the number of affected diplomats from 22 to 24.[3] The Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said the two additional victims “do not reflect new attacks.” Instead, they are based on “medical evaluations of personnel who were affected by incidents earlier this year.” She added that the U.S. “can’t rule out additional new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community.”

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[1] Leahy, Punishing Without Evidence: The Trump Administration’s Gratuitous Steps To Roll Back Progress Between The United States and Cuba, Huff. Post (Oct. 19, 2017); Patrick Leahy: Moscow could benefit from increase  in tension between Washington and Havana, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 20, 2017).

[2]  A prior post reviewed the frantic pace of Cuba-Russian relations after the election of President Donald Trump, even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats.

[3] Assoc. Press, US Says 2 More American Victims Confirmed in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Says 24 People Harmed From Recent ‘Attacks’ in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2017).

Continued Official Uncertainty Over Cause of Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba     

There has been lots of news over the U.S. diplomats with medical problems from serving in Cuba. But there is still official uncertainty over the cause of those problems and resulting cooler Cuba relations with the U.S. and warmer relations with Russia.

U.S. Trying To Hide the Attacks?[1]

CBS News on October 10 reported that one of the 22 U.S. diplomats who has suffered from purported “sonic attacks” in Cuba had asserted that the U.S. was trying to hide the attacks.

In addition, this individual reportedly told CBS that the attacks had happened at the Embassy itself, their Havana quarters and hotels, that the State Department “pressured” some U.S. embassy officials who had been injured to remain on the island and “waited too long” to withdraw personnel and that the initial treatment by doctors in Havana and at the University of Miami Hospital in the U.S. was “superficial and incomplete.”

The State Department denied these allegations later the same day.[2] Its Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at a press briefing, said, “We have an ongoing investigation that’s being spearheaded out of the [U.S.] with our best investigators on that, so they continue to move ahead with that investigation. We still don’t know who is responsible and we still don’t know what is responsible for the injuries of our American staff.” (Emphasis added.)

Pressed by other reporters about the above comments by one of the victims and by the Department’s recent identification of only two Havana hotels where some of the attacks occurred, Nauert said the following:

  • “I was just speaking with one of our colleagues who served down there in Cuba and is recently back here in the [U.S.]. And I asked this person that very question: ‘How do you feel that we responded?’ And I’ve asked numerous of my colleagues that very question. . . . [W]e all care deeply about how our folks are doing down there. And I asked the question, ‘Do you feel supported by us? Do you feel that we were quick enough to respond?’ And the answer I got back was ‘yes.’ . . . it took a while to put this together, because the symptoms were so different.”
  • “But this person said to me once we figured out a pattern, . . . the State Department was extremely responsive. This person said to me that they . . . never felt the pressure to stay in Cuba, although they wanted to make it clear that they wanted to serve down there. These folks love what they’re doing, they feel a real dedication to . . .our mission down there in Cuba, the activities that they were involved with on behalf of the U.S. Government with local Cubans, and they were encouraged by the State Department to come forward, please get tested if you feel like you’ve had some sort of symptoms or something.”
  • “I don’t have the actual timeline in front of me that lays out when attacks took place at different locations, and I’m not even sure that that is something that we’re making public. But once we started to figure out what this was all about and started to investigate and realized that we were not able to protect our people, that’s when the Secretary made [the decision to reduce U.S. personnel at the Embassy in Havana].”

U.S. Government Statements About the Attacks and Relations with Cuba

On October 12 White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, provided a very unusual press briefing. Unusual because the chief of staff rarely, if ever, provides such a briefing. The apparent major reason for the briefing was to provide a platform for him to deny that he was quitting or being fired as chief of staff. In addition, in response to a reporter’s question, Kelly stated, “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats.”  But he provided no bases for that belief and was not challenged with additional questions by the journalists.[3] (Emphases added.)

Later that same day Kelly’s comment was interpreted (or qualified) by the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, who said, “General Kelly, when he said we believe that they can stop the attacks, I think what he was referring to was, one, we have the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations]. And under the Vienna Convention, . . . the Government of Cuba, has a responsibility to ensure the safety of our diplomatic staff. That didn’t happen. But there’s also another well-known fact, and that is that in a small country like Cuba, where the government is going to know a lot of things that take place within its borders, they may have more information than we are aware of right now.”[4] (Emphases added.)

The next day, October 13, President Trump addressed the 2017 Values Voter Summit.  It included the following comment: “We’re confronting rogue regimes from Iran to North Korea and we are challenging the communist dictatorship of Cuba and the socialist oppression of Venezuela. And we will not lift the sanctions on these repressive regimes until they restore political and religious freedom for their people.”[5] (Emphases added.)

Two days earlier (October 11) Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. in which he referred to meeting people from the Cuban communities here in the U.S., and had seen “the spirit of the Cuban exile community in this country firsthand.” On that same day, the Vice President continued. “President Trump announced a new policy to ensure that U.S. dollars will no longer prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the Cuban people. Under this administration, it will always be “Que viva Cuba libre![6] (Emphases added.)

Sound Recording[7]

The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of what some of the U.S. personnel in Cuba heard.  Says the AP, it “sounds sort of like a mass of crickets. A high-pitched whine, but from what? It seems to undulate, even writhe. Listen closely: There are multiple, distinct tones that sound to some like they’re colliding in a nails-on-the-chalkboard effect.”  The AP adds that it has “reviewed several recordings from Havana taken under different circumstances, and all have variations of the same high-pitched sound.”

Similar Problems at U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 1953-1976[8]

The BBC reports that in May 1953 U.S. officials at the Moscow embassy detected a microwave frequency that oscillated above the upper floors at certain times, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and that autumn some embassy workers felt inexplicably ill. At first it was dizziness, palpitations, headaches, blood pressure too high or too low. But no one understood what was happening.

In 1962, those who were still there or even those who had already left had more severe symptoms: sudden cataracts, alterations in blood tests or chromosomes. In 1965 the U.S. began what was known as the “Moscow Viral Study,” a multimillion-dollar operation in which scientists apparently looked for the potential exposure of workers to an unknown strain of a mysterious and potent virus. The eventual conclusion was the Soviets were “bombing” the U.S. embassy with very low-level microwaves, which the U.S. called the “S ENAL Moscow.” This persisted until April 1976.

Cubans Doubt[9]

From Cuba, the Associated Press reports that “the common reaction in Havana is mocking disbelief” about the attacks.

The same tone was struck by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first vice president who is widely expected to succeed Raul Castro when he steps down as president in February. He said, “A few spokespeople and media outlets have lent themselves to divulging bizarre nonsense without the slightest evidence, with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba’s impeccable behavior.”

Mass Hysteria?[10]

Journalists from the Guardian newspaper in London reported that “senior neurologists” say that ”no proper diagnosis is possible without more information and access to the 22 US victims,” but speculate that the diplomats’ ailments could have been caused by “mass hysteria.”

Cuba-Russia Relations[11]

According to the Miami Herald, “after the election of President Donald Trump, the pace of [Cuba’s] bilateral contact with Russia has been frantic,” even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats. Here are such examples:

  • Just days before Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ September 26 meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson at the State Department, the Minister met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering. The conversation was “confidential,” according to a press release issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
  • On July 26 Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal, the main negotiator with the U.S., went to Moscow and met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
  • Cuba’s ambassador to Russia has met with Ryabkov at least five times so far, this year.
  • Last December, just after the election of Mr. Trump, Russia and Cuba signed an agreement to modernize the Cuban army, and this year Russian officials — including military personnel — have made frequent visits to Havana.
  • In March, the Russian company Rosneft signed an agreement to ship 250,000 tons of crude oil and diesel to offset the decline in Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba.
  • Rosneft also has discussed other joint projects with Cuba for oil extraction and the possibility of modernizing the Cienfuegos refinery, operated jointly by Cuba’s CUPET and Venezuela’s PDVSA.
  • In April, Russia offered to fund $1.5 million in U.N. projects in Cuba for hurricane recovery and later pledged to support recovery efforts following damage caused by Irma.
  • In September, Cuban Vice President and Minister of Economy Ricardo Cabrisas signed a package of agreements with Russia in the energy, rail transport and elevator-supply sectors.
  • Recently, Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which has an office in Washington, and the Russian news agency Sputnik signed an official cooperation agreement.

These developments are no surprise to Richard Feinberg, an expert at Brookings Institution and a former U.S. policymaker for Latin America during Bill Clinton’s administration. He says, “[Vladimir] Putin’s message is not difficult to understand. [He] longs to regain the past imperial glory and relations with Cuba follow that same pattern.” Feinberg added, “From the point of view of the Cubans, they are looking to diversify their relationships. As closer economic relations with the U.S. do not seem likely for at least the next few years, they are looking for alternative allies, especially from countries with strong states like Russia and China that can offer favorable payment terms, something very welcome in an economy with poor international credit standards.”

Conclusion

In the above and the many other reports about the medical problems affecting some U.S. personnel serving in Cuba, I find it astounding that there still is official uncertainty about the cause or causes of the medical problems.

It also is astounding that no journalist or other commentator has publicly asked whether the U.S. has investigated whether the problems were caused by a secret and perhaps malfunctioning U.S. program or device and if so, to provide details. Such a possibility would help explain the delay in the U.S. public announcement of this set of medical problems and the apparent U.S. reluctance to share details of its investigation with Cuban investigators, all as discussed in previous posts to this blog. Moreover, this possibility would render various U.S. reactions—reducing the U.S. personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats and the latest U.S. travel warning—as cover ups and as excuses for additional tightening of U.S. screws on Cuba.

Moreover, Trump’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba, which are unjustified in and of themselves, have adverse effects on other important U.S. interests, including the prevention of increasing Russian influence in Latin America.

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[1] Cuba victim tells CBS News “complaints were ignored,” CBS News (Oct. 10, 2017); ‘Washington was trying to hide the acoustic attacks,’ says one of the victims, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 10, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—October 10, 2017.

[3]  White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff General John Kelly   (Oct. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, White House Says Cuba Could Stop Attacks on Americans, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-October 12, 2017.

[5] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the 2017 Values Voter Summit (Oct. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. to Maintain Cuba, Venezuela Sanctions Until Freedoms Restored: Trump, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[6] White House, Remarks by Vice President Mike Pence at National Hispanic Heritage Month Reception (Oct. 11, 2017)

[7] Assoc. Press, Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[8] Lima, The “Moscow Sign”, the mysterious Soviet Union bombardment of the US embassy, which lasted more than two decades during the Cold War, BBC News (Oct. 14, 2017).

[9] Assoc. Press, ‘Star Wars’ Fantasy? Cubans Doubt US Sonic Attacks Claims, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[10] Borger & Jaekl, Mass hysteria may explain ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, say top neurologists, Guardian (Oct. 12, 2017).

[11] Gámez, Amidst growing tensions with U.S., Cuba gets cozier with Russia, Miami Herald (Oct. 13, 2017).

Yet More News Regarding the Medically Affected U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

There are more developments regarding the actions and reactions associated with the medically affected U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba.

The U.S. State Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at an October 4 Press Briefing, responded to Cuba’s criticism of not obtaining sufficient U.S. information about the medical problems of some of its personnel in Cuba. She said the U.S. was “engaged in an investigation, [and] we, as Americans, need to keep a tight hold on a lot of information. We don’t want that information to leak. . . . That information could potentially leak to other parties . . . who may or may not be involved. So, providing information on the investigation could tip off what I’ll just call the bad guys who are responsible for this. We don’t know who or what is responsible. So . . . we wouldn’t want to tip off the bad guys to any information that we have on the investigation. Again, I’m not calling the Cubans – saying that about the Cubans in general, but we wouldn’t want this type of information to leak.” She added, “the investigation is ongoing. The investigation has not yet been resolved, so there is limited information that we can provide at this point.”[1]

On October 5, the Cuba embassy in Washington reported that its 15 diplomats who were ordered for expulsion included all who handled dealings with U.S. businesses. One of them said, “due to this decision, the activities developed by the Economic and Trade Office of the Embassy… will be seriously affected.” Such activities are usually the first step in the process for U.S. companies when they submit trip proposals, seek out counterparts at state-owned enterprises in the centralized economy and obtain business travel visits to travel to Cuba. In addition, the reduction in staffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana will make it more difficult for U.S. companies to find their way in Cuba.[2]

Scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba. “I’d say it’s fairly implausible,” said Jurgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany and an expert on acoustics. At frequencies higher than 20,000 Hertz, beyond human hearing, ultrasound can damage tissue if produced with enough power, but  “ultrasound cannot travel a long distance,” said Jun Qin, an acoustic engineer at Southern Illinois University. The further the sound goes, the weaker it gets. And, noted Dr. Garrett, humidity in a place like Havana would weaken it still more. Infrasound — low-frequency sound that cannot be heard by humans—on the other hand, is even more unlikely. A report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2002 noted that the military had tried to weaponize infrasound, but had not succeeded because it was hard to focus the wavelengths. The primary effect of infrasound on humans “appears to be annoyance,” the report concluded.[3]

Also on October 4, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a closed hearing on “Ordered Departure of Personnel from U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba.”[4] with an unnamed Senior Official from the CIA plus these three “Briefers” from the State Department: (a) Mr. Christian J. Schurman; Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State And Assistant Director For International Programs; Bureau Of Diplomatic Security with responsibility for “evaluating, managing, and mitigating security threats to, as well as the direction of resources for, more than 240 diplomatic posts within the International Programs Directorate;” (b) Mr. John S. Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary; Bureau Of Western Hemisphere Affairs;and (c ) Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, Medical Director; Bureau Of Medical Services. Since the hearing was close, we do not yet know what happened.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Oct. 4, 2017)

[2] Reuters, U.S. expulsion of Cuban Diplomats Includes All Business Officers, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[3] Zimmer, A ‘Sonic Attack’ on Diplomats in Cuba? These Scientists Doubt It, N.Y. times (Oct. 5, 2017).

[4] Senate Foreign Relations Comm., CLOSED/TS: Ordered Departure of Personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (Oct. 4, 2017).

 

U.S. Orders Cuba To Remove 15 Cuban Diplomats

On October 3, the U.S. Secretary of State issued a Statement about the ordered departure of 15 Cuban diplomats from the U.S. This post will review that Statement and U.S. State Department press conferences regarding that decision. Subsequent posts will review reactions by the Cuban Government and by others.

The Statement[1]

The Statement announced that the Department had just informed the Cuban Government that the Department “was ordering the departure of 15 of [Cuba’s] . . . officials from its Embassy in Washington, D.C.” because of “Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations]. This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations.”

The Statement then noted that on September 29 the Department had announced the voluntary withdrawal of diplomatic personnel and their families from the U.S. Embassy in Havana as a result of concerns about the still unresolved problem of medical “incidents” or “attacks” on those diplomats and their families

The Statement concluded, “We continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and will continue to cooperate with Cuba as we pursue the investigation into these attacks.”

Department’s Press Briefings[2]

There were two Department briefings on October 3 that concerned U.S.-Cuba relations. The first was a pre-announcement briefing exclusively about the Statement when an unnamed State Department official added the following additional details:

  • The Cuban ambassador in Washington was informed of the expulsions in a 9 a.m. phone call.
  • The expelled embassy personnel were identified by the Department and must be out of the U.S. within seven days. By then, the American embassy in Havana will have completed its own drawdown.
  • The Cuban government need to give a clear assurance that the attacks would not continue before the personnel in either embassy could return.”
  • All of this was done even though these “officials emphasized that they are not accusing the Cuban government of complicity in the attacks.”
  • “We are not assigning culpability. The expulsions aim to “underscore to the Cubans that they must take more actions to protect our people on the ground.”

That same afternoon Heather Nauert, the Department’s Spokesperson, held another press briefing that opened with a reiteration that the decision to expel Cuban diplomats did “not signal a change of policy or determination of responsibility for the attacks on U.S. Government personnel in Cuba. Investigations into those attacks are still ongoing [in cooperation with Cuban authorities].” She also added, “We recognize that at this time there is a need to keep a post open there with a skeleton crew handling emergency type issues down there. Frankly, . . . our State Department personnel want to serve in countries all around the world. We have many of them who are serving in very dangerous capacities, and they don’t get enough credit for doing this incredible, amazing work on behalf of U.S. citizens.”

There also was more information about the 21 Americans who have medical problems caused by an unknown device in Havana: 17 were government employees and four were spouses (three of whom worked at the embassy). Another person was added to this list, making it 22.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, On the Expulsion of Cuban Officials from the United States (Oct. 3, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Background Briefing: State Department Official on Cuba (Oct. 3, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Briefing (Oct. 3, 2017); Harris & Davis, U.S. Expels 15 Cuban Diplomats From Embassy in Washington, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2017); Reuters, U.S. to Expel Nearly Two-thirds of Cuban Embassy Staff, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2017); Assoc. Press, Ties Threatened: US to Tell Cuba to Remove Most Diplomats, N.Y. Times  (Oct. 3, 2017).

 

 

 

Medical ‘Incidents’ Affecting U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Prompt U.S. To Reduce Staff at Havana Embassy and Urge Americans Not To Travel to Cuba

On September 29, following a week of news about the subject, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement, “Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba.”[1]

The Secretary’s Statement[2]

The Statement, after reviewing the “variety of injuries from attacks of an unknown nature” to 21 U.S. Embassy employees, asserted that on September 29, “the Department ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as well as all family members. Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our Embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”

The Statement added that the “decision to reduce our diplomatic presence in Havana was made to ensure the safety of our personnel. We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort.”

Simultaneously the Department “issued a Travel Warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba and informing them of our decision to draw down our diplomatic staff. We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”

These action s were taken even though the ”Department does not have definitive answers on the cause or source of the attacks and is unable to recommend a means to mitigate exposure.”

This Statement was preceded by news reports that the U.S. would begin withdrawing roughly 60% of its staff from the Embassy and diplomats’ families. This was not seen as punishment for the Cuban government, but a means of protecting diplomats and their families from the strange attacks. On September 28, Heather Nauert said the Secretary was reviewing all options on “how to best protect our American personnel’ in Cuba. As a result, the U.S. will stop processing Cuban requests for visas at the Embassy.” [3]

Just prior to the issuance of this Statement, the Department held a press conference on that subject.[4] The following additional points were made:

  • “Until the Government of Cuba can assure the safety of U.S. Government personnel in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so as to minimize the number of U.S. Government personnel at risk of exposure. The remaining personnel will carry out core diplomatic and consular functions, including providing emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Cuba. Routine visa operations are suspended indefinitely. Short-term travel by U.S. Government officials to Cuba will also be limited to those involved with the ongoing investigation or who have a need to travel related to the U.S. national security or crucial embassy operations. The United States will not send official delegations to Cuba or conduct bilateral meetings in Cuba for the time being. Meetings may continue in the United States.”
  • “The governments of the United States and Cuba have not yet identified the responsible party, but the Government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel in Cuba.”
  • The Department has “not ruled out the possibility of a third country as a part of the investigation, but that investigation continues.”
  • The “cooperation that the Cuban Government has given to our efforts to understand what is happening in these attacks to [has] been ongoing, and we expect it to continue.”
  • “The ordered departure will result in more than half of the embassy footprint being reduced.”
  • The Department does not “know the means, the methods, or how these attacks are being carried out, and so I could not characterize them as having stopped in August.”
  • “The staff who were affected at hotels were temporary duty staff at the embassy.”
  • The Department is not “aware of any incidents involving [our Cuban staff at the embassy] or attacks involving them.”
  • The U.S. “investigation continues, but at this moment we don’t have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. And so, I really can’t speculate on engagement or not by Cubans or other parties. The investigation’s ongoing and we will see where the facts lead us in terms of cause or source.”

Reactions to the Statement[5]

Before the issuance of the Statement, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, which is the union representing U.S. diplomats, opposed the then threatened withdrawal of staff from the Havana embassy. He said, “We have a mission to do. AFSA’s view is that American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game. We’re used to operating with serious health risks in many environments, whether it’s parasites that rip up our guts in Africa, exposure to Zika virus and dengue fever, or air pollution in China and India,”

Immediately afterwards, Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) said, “”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. . . .We must do all we can do solve this mystery so that our embassy personnel can safely return as quickly as possible.” Representative James McGovern (Dem., MA) had a similar reaction:  the drawdown will make it “harder for Cuban and American families to travel and visit loved ones” and “America cannot afford a return to the failed Cold War isolationist policies that divided families for 50 years.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) did not express agreement or disagreement with the Statement, but instead said these actions did not go far enough. He initially tweeted, “”Shameful that @StateDept withdraws most staff from @USEmbCuba but Castro can keep as many as he wants in U.S.” In a subsequent longer statement, he said, “it is weak, unacceptable and outrageous for the U.S. State Department to allow Raul Castro to keep as many of his operatives in the U.S. as he wants. The Cuban government has failed its obligation under international treaties to keep foreign diplomats safe on its soil. The idea that Cuba knows nothing about how these attacks took place and who perpetrated them is absurd.  . . . Until those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice, the U.S. should immediately expel an equal number of Cuban operatives, downgrade the U.S. embassy in Havana to an interests section, and consider relisting Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

President Trump, ignoring the Department’s continued refusal to blame Cuba, did just that in a brief comment about the Statement when he said, Cuba “did some bad things in Cuba.”

Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, thought the U.S. decision for the Embassy to cease processing Cuban applications for visas to emigrate to the U.S. might violate its agreement with Cuba from the 1990s to issue 20,000 such visas a year if there is no third-country workaround for those visa applications,

The new U.S. travel warning against Americans traveling to the island did not scare tour companies, airlines, cruise ship operators and others in the travel industry. Many have said they will continue taking Americans to Cuba. Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours, said, “We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travelers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes. . . . . [The] experience that our travelers have had on the ground with the Cuban people has been nothing short of amazing. We have no reason to expect that these experiences will not continue.” Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas, said that “consistent with U.S. law, our operations in Cuba will continue.”

Canada also has had some of its diplomats in Havana experience similar medical problems, but its Foreign Ministry said, “We continue to monitor the situation closely and we have no plans to travel advice or remove any staff.”

Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban diplomat who was in charge of U.S. relations until this year, called Washington’s reaction “hasty” and warned that it would “affect the bilateral relations, specifically the cooperation in matters of mutual interest.” But she said Cuba was committed to determining the cause of the symptoms experienced by the American diplomats.”

For ordinary Cubans, the Statement “stirred anxiety and dread.” The ban on Americans traveling to the island “dealt a harsh blow to Cubans who had hoped the nascent normalization of relations with the United States that began in late 2014 would usher in a period of economic growth and greater prosperity in the impoverished Communist nation.” In addition, the “decision to stop issuing visas in Havana indefinitely leaves thousands of Cubans in limbo. Washington typically grants 20,000 immigrant visas a year to reunite Cubans with relatives in the United States, and thousands more to enable students, academics and tourists to travel.” Harold Cárdenas, a popular Cuban blogger who recently started a master’s degree program in international relations at Columbia University, said, “The most immediate is it will perpetuate estrangement, not just political, but physical. There will be a price, and it will be paid by Cuban families.”

Secretary of State’s Prior Meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister[6]

Late afternoon on September 26, at Cuba’s request, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the State Department to discuss issues relating to the medical problems of U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba.

Afterwards the State Department said the conversation was “firm and frank” and that Tillerson raised “profound concern” about the diplomats’ safety and security. State Department spokeswoman Heather Neuter emphasized that Tillerson conveyed how serious the situation is and emphasized that Cuba is obligated under international law to protect foreign diplomats.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s lengthy post-meeting statement was the following:

  • The “Foreign Minister reiterated the seriousness, celerity and professionalism with which the Cuban authorities have taken on this issue. Following instructions from the top level of the Cuban government, a priority investigation was opened . . . [immediately after] these incidents were first reported and additional measures were adopted to protect the US diplomats and their relatives. This has been recognized by the representatives of the US specialized agencies who have travelled to Cuba as from June, whose visits have been considered as positive by the Cuban counterparts.”
  • He “reiterated . . . how important it was for the US authorities to cooperate, in an effective way, with the Cuban authorities in order to clarify these incidents, which are unprecedented in Cuba.”
  • He [also] “reaffirmed . . . that the decision and the argument claimed by the US Government to withdraw two Cuban diplomats from Washington were unwarranted and emphasized that Cuba strictly abides by its obligations under the Vienna Convention on the protection and integrity of diplomats, an area in which it keeps an impeccable record.
  • “He reaffirmed that the Cuban government has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any kind against diplomats. The Cuban government has never permitted nor will it ever permit the use of its territory by third parties for this purpose.”
  • He “stated that according to the preliminary results obtained by the Cuban authorities in their investigations, which have borne in mind the information given by the US authorities, there is no evidence so far of the cause or the origin of the health disorders reported by the US diplomats.”
  • “The Foreign Minister reaffirmed that the investigation to resolve this matter is still in progress and that Cuba has a keen interest in bringing it to closure, for which it is essential to count on the effective cooperation of the US authorities. He also stated that it would be regrettable that a matter of this nature is politicized and that hasty decisions not supported by conclusive evidence and investigation results are taken.”
  • Finally, “the Minister reiterated the willingness of Cuba to continue holding the bilateral dialogue on areas of common interest, based on respect and sovereign equality, despite the profound differences that exist between the two countries. “(Emphases added.)

Earlier that same day U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee “that it was a reasonable suspicion that Cuban authorities either were involved in the incidents or at least knew they were occurring . . . [since] Cuba keeps tight surveillance on American diplomats in the country and would be likely to know if something significant were happening to them.” However, he also admitted that with so much unknown, even that assumption is less than certain “and “as a U.S. government official, I don’t know that.”[7]

Suggested U.S. Responses to the “Attacks” on Diplomats in Cuba[8]

Although perhaps superseded by the previously mentioned Secretary’s Statement, an earlier editorial in the Wall Street Journal proposed that until Cuba offers a persuasive explanation of how these incidents occurred without Cuban collaboration, the U.S. should expel 19 Cuban diplomats from its embassy in Washington, D.C., which with the previous U.S. expulsions of two Cubans would equal the 21 Americans attacked in Cuba. If such a persuasive explanation is provided, then the Cuban diplomats could return to their posts. The Journal, however, is skeptical of such an explanation being provided in light of what it says is Cuba’s “long record of harassing U.S. government employees on the island.”

A more aggressive response suggestion has been offered by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC), a U.S. 501(c)3 nonprofit organization established in 1992 to promote a nonviolent transition to a free and democratic Cuba with zero tolerance for human rights violations. It asserted the following:

  • “The unacceptability of the thesis that the perpetrator was a third party. In the circumstances of comprehensive surveillance (visual, physical, digital, phone, microphones) to which these diplomats are subject 24 by 7, it is impossible for third players to act in independent and undetected fashion for over nine months and in more than two dozen locations such as residences and hotel rooms.”
  • The unacceptability that these facts are diluted, minimized, and silenced by the Department of State and/or any other U.S. agency participating in this investigation.T
  • The unacceptability to allow the perpetrator to escape the scandal as well its political, diplomatic and financial consequences.
  • The unacceptability of diluting the legal responsibility of the perpetrator so that victims could not be compensated nor the truth identified.

Other News[9]

There has been other recent news regarding these issues.

First, a Miami television station reported that at least four additional U.S. diplomats who served in Cuba have been hurt by sonic attacks and that these incidents occurred inside the U.S. Embassy and at several Havana hotels, including the famous Hotel Nacional. This brings the total affected individuals to 25. (Presumably, under the Wall Street Journal’s rationale, if there is confirmation that 25 Americans who have been affected, there would be 23 additional Cubans expelled.)  However, the Miami Herald said that according to an unnamed State Department source, there are only 21 confirmed cases, not 25, and none of the attacks occurred at the U.S. Embassy; the same, more authoritative, message was provided at the previously mentioned September 29 press briefing.

Second, according to CNN, a senior U.S. official said that some of the 21 individuals previously counted as subjects of such attacks were targeted at least 50 times.

Third, an independent Cuban news outlet, Diario de Cuba, reports that among the Canadians similarly affected while serving in Cuba are “several children” from “more than five families of Canadian diplomats.”

 Conclusion

These medical “incidents” are deeply disturbing, and the U.S. and Cuba need to determine the cause(s) and perpetrator(s). The good news is that the U.S. is not rushing to judgment, that in the near term the U.S. is taking reasonable steps to protect its diplomats and families and that the U.S. and Cuba maintain diplomatic relations and are cooperating on these issues and other matters.

The new Travel Warning, however, goes too far when it starts, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba” and then admits that the “attacks” to date have been on “U.S. Embassy employees” and “have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.” Moreover, as discussed in prior blog posts, the small number of hotels to date have all been in Havana that have been used by U.S. Embassy employees on a short-term basis and U.S. citizens who are not connected with the Embassy have not been subjects of any of these “attacks.” As a result, the new Travel Warning should have made these facts clear and at most cautioned U.S. citizens about using certain Havana hotels while also telling them that many Cuban citizens are making their Havana homes available to foreign guests and that there have been no problems associated with the many other cities and towns on the island.

For those of us favoring continuation of the process of normalizing relations between the two countries, we must continue to oppose requests for the U.S. to take various actions against Cuba, including closure of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, all before there is a well-documented conclusion to the ongoing U.S. and Cuban investigations of this mystery.

Similarly, for the same reason we must oppose the suggestion from Senator Rubio, the Wall Street Journal and any others to expel Cuban diplomats equal to the number of U.S. diplomats affected by the “sonic attacks” or whatever else has caused medical problems.

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[1]  This blog has published the following posts about these issues: 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 8/24/17 post); Washington Post Editorial Blames Cuba for Americans Medical Problems in Cuba (Aug. 25, 2017) (comment to 8/24/17 post);  News About Cuba-Related Medical Problems from Canada and London (Aug. 26, 2017); In August, New Cases of Injured U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 2, 2017); Two More U.S. Diplomats Serving in Cuba Have Medical Problems (Sept. 13, 2017); More Mystery Surrounding “Medical Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba Sept. 14, 2017); GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 16, 2017); U.S. Evaluating Whether To Close U.S. Embassy in Cuba (Sept, 18, 2017); Developments Regarding U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2]  Tillerson, Actions Taken in Response to Attacks on U.S. Government Personnel in Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Cuts Staff from Cuba Over Mysterious Injuries, Warns Travelers, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Slashes Cuba Embassy Staff, Warns Americans Not to Visit, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[3]  Ordonez & Kumar, U.S. does not believe Cuba is behind sonic attacks on American diplomats, Miami Herald (Sept 26, 2017)

[4] Dep’t of State, Senior State Department Officials on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017).

[5]  Hudson, Trump’s Thinking About Pulling US Personnel from Cuba. US Diplomats that That’s A Bad Idea, BuzzFeedNEWS (Sept. 28, 2017); Leahy, Leahy REAX On The U.S. Withdrawal of Most U.S. Embassy Personnel And Their Families From CUBA (Sept. 29, 2017); U.S. Rep. McGovern Statement on U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Travel Warning to Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Democrat derides Cuba decision as overreaction, Wash. Post (Sept. 29, 2017); Harpaz & Gomez, Travel industry sticking with trips to Cuba from US, Wash. Post (Sept.29, 2017); Rubio: State Department’s Response to Cuba Attacks ‘Weak, Unacceptable and Outrageous,’ (Sept. 29, 2017); White House, Remarks by President Trump in Press Gaggle Before Marine One Departure (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Trump Says Cuba ‘Did Some Bad Things’ Aimed at U.S. Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff from Cuba, N.Y.  Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Statement to the press by General Director for US Affairs, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro (Sept. 29, 2017); Londońo, Cubans Alarmed at U.S. Embassy Withdrawals and Travel Warning, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Cubans Are Heartbroken, Angry Can’t Seek U.S. Visas in Havana, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017); Reuters, Canada Says Has No Plans to Remove Embassy Staff From Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2017).

[6] Reuters, Tillerson to Meet Cuba’s Foreign Minister in Washington as Tensions Climb, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: Cuba Says No Clues Yet to Who Attacked Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Warns U.S. Against Hasty Decisions in Mysterious Diplomats Case, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cuba Foreign Minister meets with US Secretary of State (Sept. 26, 2017).

[7] Id. The Under Secretary’s direct testimony concerned the redesign of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). (Dep’t of State, John J. Sullivan: Testimony Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sept. 26, 2017.

[8] Editorial, Cuba’s Sonic Attacks, W.S.J. (Sept. 25, 2017); FHRC, The responsibility for What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (Sept 2017).

[9] Vela, Total number of Americans hurt in Cuba sonic attacks now at 25, Miami Television Channel 10 News (Sept. 25, 2017); Operand & Labatt, US diplomats, families in Cuba targeted nearly 50 times by sonic attacks, says US official, CNN (Sept. 24, 2017); There are children among Canadians affected by the so-called ‘acoustic attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 28, 2017).

 

 

 

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]

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[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.

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[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).