U.S. and Cuba Meet About Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On September 13, a Cuban delegation met with U.S. representatives in Washington, D.C. to discuss the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats on the island. The Cuban multidisciplinary group, made up of nine scientists and physicians, members of a panel of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, was headed by Johana Tablada, United States Deputy Director General of the Cuba Foreign Ministry, and the Cuban Ambassador to the U.S., José R. Cabañas . The US team was chaired by Kenneth Merten, Assistant Principal Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, and made up of medical personnel from the U.S. Department of State.[1]

The following accounts strongly suggest that not much was accomplished at this meeting.

 U.S. Comments[2]

The only official U.S. comments about this meeting were provided after the meeting at the State Department’s general press briefing by the  Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert. She said, “[Some] officials from the Cuban Government are here at the State Department today. . . .to discuss some of the medical issues that our people have experienced [in Cuba].” This included some information “about what our people have been experiencing.”

 An anonymous U.S. official said this “meeting was organized after Cuba complained that Washington has withheld important details about the affected Americans’ medical conditions.”

Other U..S. officials “have frankly admitted in background conversations that they still have no idea who or what may be responsible.”

Cuban Comments[3]

The more extensive Cuba Foreign Ministry statement said the following.

“On September 13, 2018 a meeting took place in Washington D.C. between U.S. and Cuban expert scientists to exchange on the health symptoms reported by U.S. diplomats accredited in Havana.”

Before this meeting, “the Cuban team had reviewed the scarce information about the alleged incidents submitted by the [U.S.] Embassy, the publications by a medical team from the University of Pennsylvania, (especially an article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)), and the works by other scientists, as well as the conclusions of police investigations conducted separately by the authorities of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).”

“In the meeting, the Cuban team received a summary of the information previously reported in JAMA describing the results of medical examination of some of the diplomats. The Cuban team presented their analysis of the shortcomings of this study, challenged its main conclusions and the scientific interpretation of the  symptoms presented to them.”

“At the end of the . . . [meeting], the Cuban experts verified that the information provided is unable to support the hypothesis of health attacks and brain damage suggested so far by the Department of State, as well as the explanations of the symptoms which according to the Department of State, were reported by their diplomats.”

“The Cuban experts particularly reaffirmed that with the information exchanged it is not possible to demonstrate the existence of a new neurological medical syndrome of brain lesion type, nor it is possible to assert that a brain damage like those caused by a blow to the head  was produced without cranial trauma. This idea is impossible.”

The Cuba team “observed that the medical evidence presented has serious limitations. The majority of the cases described . . . symptoms such as: headaches, nausea, dizziness, subjective balance and sleep disorders, which are caused by functional disorders and conditions such as: hypertension, stress and many others with high prevalence in the U.S. and worldwide. The accuracy of the reports could have also been affected by the average of 203 days that lapsed from the time the alleged incidents took place to the date when medical research was conducted.”

“The neuro-psychological tests, considered to be more objective, were assessed with unusual criteria which, applied to a group of healthy individuals, would qualify all of them as ill. If the internationally established  criteria would have been applied only two subjects could be considered afflicted, the cause of which, could be attributed to different pre-existing conditions.”

“According to those studies, only three individuals were found to have mild or moderate hearing loss, with each audiogram showing correspondence with three different diseases that were probably preexisting.”

“The neuro-images showed no evidence of brain damage. Two individuals showed mild signs and a third one showed moderate signs that, according to the JAMA report, are not specific, are present in many diseases and could be attributed to processes that occurred before those persons travelled to Cuba. It has been impossible for the Cuban experts to access these images.”

“he scientific studies, the Cuban police and FBI investigations, as well as the information shared by the Department of State show a lack of evidence of any kind of attack or deliberate act. The Cuban delegation rejected categorically the use of the term ‘attack’ when there is no evidence whatsoever that support the term. The US officials underscored that they did not have an explanation for the incidents.”

“Cuba expressed its willingness to cooperate and reiterated that it is its highest interest to find an explanation to the reports described. As of February 2017, when the U.S. Embassy in Havana informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the alleged ‘acoustic attacks’ against some officials of said diplomatic mission, Cuba has requested and provided the highest cooperation to clarify what happened, and early on suggested to hold a meeting between medical experts from both countries.”

“The Cuban delegation regretted the lack of access to clinical data and to the doctors who assessed the diplomatic personnel who reported health symptoms. Nevertheless, the Cuban team considers that today’s meeting was a positive step, and yet insufficient. To date, the scientific and medical exchange has only taken place indirectly through the publication of scientific articles, political statements and regrettable press leaks.”

“The Cuban medical team extended an invitation to the U.S. investigation team to hold another scientific exchange in Havana in the near future that can be also attended by those professionals who treated the U.S. diplomats”

Essentially the same points were made at a press conference in Washington immediately after the meeting.

Conclusion

This blogger continues to be amazed at the number of theories that have been advanced to explain these health problems and by the U.S. Government’s public inability to assign blame for these problems. [4]

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[1] Lee (Assoc. Press), US, Cuba meet on mysterious ‘health attacks’ in Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 13, 2018); Reuters, U.S., Cuba Officials Discuss Mysterious Embassy Health Incidents, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2018); Lee (Assoc. Press), No progress as US, Cuba meet on mysterious ‘health attacks,’ Wash. Post (Sept. 13, 2018).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—September 13, 2018.

[3] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Specialists from Cuba reject notion of health attacks and brain damage in U.S. diplomats, CubaMinRex (Sept. 14, 2018); Cuban specialists reject the theory of “health attacks” and “brain damage” to US diplomats, Granma (Sept. 13, 2018); Cuban specialists reject in Washington theory of “health attacks” and “brain damage” to US diplomats, Cubadebate (Sept. 13, 2018); Harris, Cuban Experts Insist No Proof exists of Attack on diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2018).

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

Russia Is Identified as Suspect of Harming U.S. Diplomats in Cuba 

On September 11, 2018, NBC News exclusively reported that U.S.intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia is “the main suspect” for causing the medical problems of the 26 U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba. In addition, NBC reports that “the victims [also] include multiple CIA officers, at least one member of the U.S. military, and representatives of other agencies.”[1]

This conclusion is reported to be “is backed up by evidence from communications intercepts, known in the spy world as signals intelligence.” This prompted the U.S. investigation to turn to “the Air Force and its directed energy research program at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the military has giant lasers and advanced laboratories to test high-power electromagnetic weapons, including microwaves. . .  Although the U.S. believes sophisticated microwaves or another type of electromagnetic weapon were likely used on the U.S. government workers, they are also exploring the possibility that one or more additional technologies were also used, possibly in conjunction with microwaves.”

NBC News further reports that although “the U.S. believes sophisticated microwaves or another type of electromagnetic weapon were likely used on the U.S. government workers, they are also exploring the possibility that one or more additional technologies were also used, possibly in conjunction with microwaves, officials and others involved in the government’s investigation say.”

On August 14, “the U.S. convened officials from the Energy Department, the National Institute of Health, the State Department and the Canadian government at the Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, according to State Department medical officials. U.S. experts attending a neurotrauma conference in Toronto were linked in by videoconference as [University of Pennsylvania] physicians presented their most recent technical findings. But the summit ended with no new medical revelations”

“The strong U.S. suspicion that Russia is behind the incidents means that Cuba’s government is no longer considered the likely culprit. Still, officials did not rule out the possibility that the Cuban intelligence services may have offered the Russians some level of cooperation or tacit consent.”

Nevertheless, NBC News said the evidence “is not yet conclusive enough, however, for the U.S. to formally assign blame to Moscow.”

Indeed, on September 11, Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokesperson, in response to a journalist’s question, said the following: [2]

  • “We have seen . . . a firestorm of reports out there today assigning blame to the Russian Government according to some unnamed U.S. Government officials. I would caution you all to be very skeptical of those officials’ statements right now. As you should be aware, the investigation continues into what has caused. . . – what we have called health attacks on our State Department employees who have been working in Cuba. There is no known cause, no known individual or group believed to be responsible at this time. We are looking into it. Our position has not changed. The investigation is ongoing. We have not assigned any blame and we continue to look into this, so I want to be very clear about this.”

Relevant to the NBC News report is the increase of Cuba-Russia cooperation on various matters in recent years. A noted U.S. expert on Cuba, Professor William LeoGrande, provided the following summary of the recent Cuba-Russia rapprochement:[3]

  • In 2000 “when Putin “succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian president,” Putin  “began rebuilding Russia’s global influence by repairing relations with traditional allies.” The first step was “Putin’s 2000 trip to Havana, which resulted in expanded trade deals. . . .”
  • “Raul Castro in 2009 visited Moscow during which the two governments signed 33 cooperative agreements, including $354 million in credits and aid for Havana.“
  • In July 2014, Putin visited the island again and agreed to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion in Soviet-era debt, with the remainder to be retired through debt-equity swaps linked to Russian investments.
  • When Raul Castro returned to Moscow in 2015, Russia had signed agreements to invest in airport construction, the development of the Mariel port and metallurgy and oil exploration, and had also agreed to lend Cuba 1.2 billion euros—about $1.36 billion at the time—to develop thermal energy plants.”
  • In September 2016, Russia announced a new package of commercial agreements in which it will finance $4 billion in development projects focusing on energy and infrastructure, and Cuba will begin exporting pharmaceuticals to Russia.

According to LeoGrande, “Both Havana and Moscow refer to their relationship as a ‘strategic partnership’ that has diplomatic and military components. Diplomatically, Cuba supports Moscow’s positions on Ukraine, Syria and NATO expansion. Militarily, Russia is refurbishing and replacing Cuba’s aging Soviet-era armaments. Russian naval vessels visit Cuban ports, and Russia reportedly wants to establish a new military base on the island.”

Conclusion

Interestingly as of the early morning of September 12, this blogger has not found any published reactions to the NBC News report from Russian or Cuban governments. Nor has there been other reporting or comments from U.S. officials or U.S. or international news organizations.

Be on the outlook for reactions to the NBC News report.

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[1] NBC News, U.S. Officials suspect Russia in mystery ‘attacks’ on diplomats in Cuba, China (Sept. 11, 2018); Reuters, Russia the Main Suspect in U.S. Diplomats’ Illness in Cuba: NBC, N.Y. Times (sept, 11, 2018).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—September 11, 2018.

[3] Professor LeoGrande ‘s Comments on the Strengthening Cuba-Russian Relationship, dwkcommentaries (Jan. 3, 2018). See also Trump’s Hostility Towards Cuba Provides Opportunities for Russia, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 19, 2017).

Continuing Controversy Over Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba (and China)

Since late 2016 some U.S. diplomats (now 26 in number) have complained about various medical problems that surfaced while they were serving in Cuba.[1]

The U.S., however, continues to assert publicly that despite subsequent investigations the U.S. does not know what or who caused the problems. Most recently, on September 6, 2018, at a House hearing, Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” At the same hearing, Charles Rosenfarb, the State Department’s Medical Director, testified, “We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause.”[2] (Emphases added.)

Cuba, on the other hand, continues to assert that it did not cause the problems and indeed that there is no scientific basis for any contention that the diplomats suffered any kind of medical issues. For example, in June 2018, a Cuban diplomatic official said that Cuba had “challenged the U.S. on the use of the word ‘attack.’ “There is no evidence of a weapon, there is no evidence of a source, nobody can point to motivation and yet they continue to use the word ‘attack.’ We see it as politically motivated.’” He also noted that neither American nor Cuban experts had been able to determine what caused the symptoms. He renewed concerns that the Trump administration is using the incidents as an excuse to roll back U.S.-Cuba rapprochement started under the Obama administration.[3]

In the meantime, at least the following four theories about causation of the medical problems have emerged.

University of Pennsylvania Theory[4]

Physicians at the University of Pennsylvania examined the affected diplomats and in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) asserted the following key findings:

  1. The patients “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.”
  2. The patients have experienced “persisting disability of a significant nature” involving “hearing, vision, balance and brain symptoms similar to the brain dysfunction seen with concussions, but without histories of head trauma.”
  3. In most cases, the affected diplomats reported hearing a loud, painful noise that they later associated with their symptoms, but the physicians concluded, “There is no known mechanism for audible sound to injure the brain” and “it is currently unclear if or how the noise is related to the reported symptoms.”
  4. “Viruses or chemical exposures are unlikely,” but could not be “systematically excluded.”
  5. “Advanced MRI scans spotted a few changes in some patients in what are called white matter tracts,” but these might be attributed to previous events.
  6. “Several of the objective manifestations consistently found in this cohort,” including vision and balance abnormalities, “could not have been consciously or unconsciously manipulated.”

In August 2018 JAMA published letters from 10 neurologists and doctors from the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany that questioned the conclusions of the University of Pennsylvania report. They said it could have misinterpreted the result of medical tests or ignored disorders that cause symptoms among a large group of people, as psychological factors.

Smith and two colleagues published a response that said they are performing “advanced neuroimaging studies” of the patients and are “hoping to identify structural brain changes that may underlie the neurological manifestations.”

University of Michigan Theory[5]

A team of computer scientists from the University of Michigan’s Security and Privacy Research Group in March 2018 concluded that “if ultrasound played a role in harming diplomats in Cuba, then a plausible cause is intermodulation distortion between ultrasonic signals that unintentionally synthesize audible tones. In other words, acoustic interference without malicious intent to cause harm could have led to the audible sensations in Cuba.” The conclusion of the research paper itself also states, “our experiments do not eliminate the possibility of malicious intent to harm diplomats.” (Emphasis added.)

If I correctly understand this theory, the audible sound similar to that heard in Cuba requires at least two ultrasound sources that interfere with each other and this suggests that the audible sound was accidental and not intended. This supports Cuba’s consistent assertion that it did not intend to do anything to harm the American diplomats, an assertion that makes obvious sense from Cuba’s own self-interest of avoiding antagonizing the U.S.

Microwave Theory[6]

The lead physician and author of the University of Pennsylvania report, Dr. Douglas H. Smith, recently told the New York Times that “microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.” He added, ““Everybody was relatively skeptical at first [but] everyone now agrees there’s something there.”

According to the Times, “Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety. In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.” Moreover, “scientists have known for decades that the brain can perceive some microwaves as sound.” Indeed, “The false sensations, the experts say, may account for a defining symptom of the diplomatic incidents — the perception of loud noises, including ringing, buzzing and grinding. Initially, experts cited those symptoms as evidence of stealthy attacks with sonic weapons.”

Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Diego, is a leading proponent of the theory that pulsed microwaves could explain the symptoms. She has authored a paper that will be published in coming days in the journal Neural Computation.  The symptoms experienced by the Cuba patients match symptoms in other people who are “electrosensitive,” according to her analysis, which relies on the JAMA study and news reports.

Asked about the microwave theory, the State Department said the investigation had yet to identify the cause or source of the attacks. And the F.B.I. declined to comment on the status of the investigation or any theories. In addition, In addition, members of Jason, a secretive group of elite scientists that helps the federal government assess new threats to national security, say it has been scrutinizing the diplomatic mystery this summer and weighing possible explanations, including microwaves.

James C. Lin of the University of Illinois, a leading investigator of the Frey effect, described the diplomatic ills as plausibly arising from microwave beams. Dr. Lin is the editor-in-chief of Bio Electro Magnetics, a peer-reviewed journal that explores the effects of radio waves and electromagnetic fields on living things. In his paper, Dr. Lin said high-intensity beams of microwaves could have caused the diplomats to experience not just loud noises but nausea, headaches and vertigo, as well as possible brain-tissue injury. The beams, he added, could be fired covertly, hitting “only the intended target.”

In February, ProPublica in a lengthy investigation mentioned that federal investigators were weighing the microwave theory. This article also mentioned that a wife of a member of the embassy staff had looked outside her home after hearing the disturbing sounds and had seen a van speeding away.

Kenneth R. Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied microwave phenomena while working at the Naval Medical Research Center in Bethesda. Foster, who was not involved in examining the diplomatic personnel, said that the reported illnesses remain mysterious and that he doesn’t have an explanation.

Nevertheless, Foster said, “But it’s sure as heck not microwaves.” Such a theory is “wildly impossible.” According to Dr. Foster, “to actually damage the brain, the microwaves would have to be so intense they would actually burn the subject, which has never happened in any of these incidents.” Foster added that there is no technology capable of using microwaves to produce the kinds of symptoms that the U.S. diplomats have experienced — and not for lack of trying. “Actually the Navy was interested in seeing whether this could be used as a weapon, and we spent a lot of time thinking about it, but the phenomenon was simply too weak to be of any conceivable use.”

A rejection of this theory also was voiced by University of Cincinnati neurologist Alberto J. Espay, who said, “Microwave weapons is the closest equivalent in science to fake news.”

A Cuban diplomat, Fernández de Cossío, Director for United States at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, insisted that the microwave theory cannot explain the symptoms suffered by the U.S. diplomats in Havana. Mr. Fernández de Cossío accused the U.S. of carrying a deliberate political manipulation. On Monday, CNN reported that Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, a neurologist investigating on behalf of the Cuban government, also dismissed this theory.

The strangest reaction to the microwave theory came in  a Washington Post editorial. After reviewing the pros and cons of the theory, it concluded, “the microwave explanation has again raised a question about whether the United States has discovered more than is being said about the perpetrators. If there are known culprits, they should be identified and held to account.”

Neuro-Weapon Theory[7]

A team put together by the State Department to investigate this problem consisted of Dr. Michael Hoffer of the University of Miami and an expert in brain trauma and otolaryngology; Dr. Carey Balaban, professor of otolaryngology, bioengineering and neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh; and Dr. James Giordano, professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, and an expert in “neurotechnology” and its use in the military.

This team independently studied the first tests taken of  those affected. And  this team believes that the patients likely were hit by  a weapon that uses directed energy and is capable of causing a “cavitation” effect or air pockets, in fluids near the inner ear. The bubbles can travel quickly through two pathways that carry blood to the brain from the inner ear — the cochlear and the vestibular — and “function as a stroke,” Giordano said.

Such “neuro-weapons” can be biological, chemical, or in the case of the incidents in Havana, “directed energy weapons.”  The team was unable to conclude exactly what method the perpetrators of the attacks used but reduced it to the following possibilities:

▪ Ultrasonic (acoustic) exposures were considered “very possible and probable.”

▪ Electromagnetic pulsing was also described as “very possible and probable.”

▪ The team reported that the use of microwave energy was possible, but “unlikely.”

Conclusion

I am not a scientist or medical doctor and am unable to evaluate the merits and demerits of the above theories. I, therefore, specifically invite comments with additional information or thoughts.

But I also confess that I am amazed that after nearly two years the official U.S. public position is an inability to identify the cause or perpetrator.

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[1]  Previous posts about these issues are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of Lists of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2] U.S. House Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Affairs Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba  (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).

[3] Recent U.S.-Cuba Developments, dwkcommentaries.com (June 15, 2018), Cuba Still Baffled by Illness of U.S. Diplomats, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2018).

[4] Swanson, et al., Neurological Manifestations Among US Government Personnel  Reporting Directional Audible and Sensory Phenomena in Havana, Cuba, JAMA (Mar. 20, 2018); Medical Report on U.S. Diplomats with Health Problems Occurring in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 16, 2018); What affected the US diplomats in Cuba? Ten scientists question the ‘attacks,’ Diario de Cuba (Aug. 15, 2018); Gianoli, et al., Neurological Symptoms in US  Government Personnel in Cuba, JAMA (Aug. 14, 2018); Mojena, The truth is that they do not want to listen, Granma (Aug. 17, 2018); Do ‘Sonic Weapons’ Adequately Explain ‘Health Attacks’ on Diplomats in Cuba?  Snopes (updated Sept. 4, 2018); Rasenick, et al., Letter: Cuba ‘sonic attack’ conspiracy theories and flawed science, Guardian (June 1, 2018); Sample, Cuban ‘acoustic attack’ report on US diplomats flawed, say neurologists, Guardian (Aug. 14, 2018).

[5] Possible Solution to Mystery of “Sonic Attacks” on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 4, 2018).

[6] Broad, Microwave Weapons Are Prime Suspect in Ills of U.S. Embassy Workers, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2018); Kaplan & Achenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuba diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018); Could ‘Microwave Weapon Really Have Caused US Embassy Workers’ ‘Bizarre Symptoms? LiveScience (Sept/ 5, 2018); Foster, Cuba’s “Sonic Attack” on the U.S. Embassy Could Have Been Merely Sounds Emitted by a Listening Device, Scientific American (Sept. 7, 2018); Editorial, A literal secret weapon is hurting U.S. diplomats abroad. What is it? Wash. Post (Sept. 7, 2018).

[7] Gámez, Doctors reveal possible ‘neuro-weapon’ used in alleged attacks in Cuba, Miami Herald (Sept. 7, 2018).

 

U.S. House Hearing on U.S. Policy Towards Cuba  

On September 6, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee held a hearing on U.S. policy on Cuba.[1]

The subcommittee heard from the  following five witnesses, the first four of whom were from the  State Department and the last (Mr. Mazanec) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: (1) Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; (2) Peter Bodde, Coordinator, Health Incidents Response Task Force; (3) Charles Rosenfarb, M.D., Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services; (4) Todd Brown, Assistant Director for Countermeasures, Bureau of Diplomatic Security; and (5) Brian M. Mazanec, Ph. D.

Since the audio recording of the hearing is virtually impossible to hear, the following are the highlights of the prepared and printed statements of two of the witnesses and the brief comments from the Washington Post article.

Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Merten

Human Rights. The Department continues to monitor “human rights developments in Cuba and actively engages with members of Cuban civil society. . . . The Department and USAID also continue to administer U.S. government funded programs to promote democracy and support the critical work of human rights defenders on the island. . . . we regularly speak out against the regime for repression and abuse and raise these concerns directly with the Cuban government.

Cuban Economy. The State Department’s “Cuba Restricted List . . . identifies entities and subentities with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise. . . . [It seeks to ] redirect economic activity that once supported the Cuban military toward the Cuban private sector and Cuban people.”

The Department’s Cuba Internet Task force. It is charged to “develop recommendations on 1) the role of media and unregulated flow of information to Cuba and 2) expanding internet access in Cuba” and is scheduled to complete its work by June 2019.

Promoting Stability and Prosperity. The Department has “1) reviewed democracy programs in Cuba to ensure they align with the criteria set forth in the LIBERTAD Act; 2) provided a report to the President detailing the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses against the Cuban people and its lack of progress towards a “transition government” as described in the LIBERTAD Act; 3) provided a report to the President on bilateral engagement with Cuba to ensure it advances U.S. interests; 4) took a stand at the UN against Cuban anti-embargo propaganda; and 5) continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security to discourage dangerous, unlawful migration that puts Cuban and American lives at risk.”

“Health Attacks” on U.S. Personnel.  Merten reminded the subcommittee that “the Department first became aware of these health complaints and an increase in Cuban harassment in late December 2016, [bit] it was not until months later, after highly specialized medical testing was performed and analyzed by experts, that we began to understand the spectrum of severity and confirm the extent of the health effects. That confirmation indicated that these incidents went beyond routine harassment previously experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana.”

He then stressed that  the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” (Emphasis added.)

He also emphasized that the U.S. Government was committed to long-term support for the affected personnel.

He mentioned that Secretary of State Pompeo has established an Accountability Review Board that had submitted its report on June 7 and that the Secretary has accepted all of its recommendations.

 Dr. Rosenfarb

“We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause,” testified Dr. Rosenfarb.

 Dr. Mazane

His prepared statement summarized the GAO’s July 30, 2018 report (released on September 6) that reviewed the State Department’s management of these health incidents and made recommendations for improvements in same.

Conclusion

 This blog previously has criticized the U.S. so-called democracy promotion activities in Cuba and the U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force because they are unilateral attempts to impose U.S. values on Cuba. Instead, this blog has advocated for the U.S. attempting to develop such programs with the cooperation of the Cuban government. This blog also has also called for the U.S. to ends its embargo of Cuba.[2]

A future post will discuss the latest developments regarding U.S. diplomats who have had medical problems arising from their being stationed in Havana.

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[1] U.S. House Rep., Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Hemisphere Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).

[2] See the following sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA: U.S. Embargo of Cuba, Cuban Human Rights, Cuban Economy, U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba and U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force.

 

 

U.S. State Department Softens Travel Advisory for Cuba

On August 23, the U.S. State Department revised its Travel Advisory for Cuba. Now, Cuba is “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.[1] The new Advisory  states the following:

  • “Exercise increased caution in Cuba due to attacks targeting U.S. Embassy Havana employees resulting in the drawdown of embassy staff.”
  • “Numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees appear to have been targeted in specific attacks.  We are unable to identify the source.  Many of these employees have suffered injuries.  Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues, visual problems, and difficulty sleeping.”
  • “Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences (including a long-term apartment at the Atlantic) and at Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri in Havana.”
  • “The U.S. Embassy in Havana is operating with reduced staffing.  Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Cuba.
  • “If you decide to travel to Cuba:
  • Avoid Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri.
  • If you experience any acute auditory or sensory phenomena, immediately move to another area.
  • Know where to seek medical carein Cuba.
  • Consult with a medical professional prior to traveling if you have personal health concerns or upon return if you believe you have suffered symptoms similar to those listed above.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)to receive Alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
  • Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Review the Crime and Safety Reportfor Cuba.
  • S. citizens who travel abroad should always have a contingency plan for emergency situations.  Review the Traveler’s Checklist.”

This action supersedes and thereby cancels the Level 3 Category issued this January that advised Americans to reconsider travel to the island. Thus, the new Advisory is an upgrade, and its legend “Exercise Increased Caution” implicitly means increased caution over that for the Level 1 (top) category. [2]

Orna Blum, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said, “The Department conducted a comprehensive risk assessment for U.S. private citizen travelers in Cuba and decided that a Level 2 travel alert was appropriate. The health attacks appear to be directed at U.S. government personnel and occur mainly in the residences of embassy staff.”

Reactions

“We are pleased that the State Department has made this common-sense decision,” said Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), a coalition of U.S. tour operators and organizations. “Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world, and people-to-people exchanges, which began to flourish under the Obama administration, ground almost to a halt when the travel restrictions were imposed last year.”

A similar reaction came from Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, who said, “It is a breath of fresh air in a highly politicized process of confusion, anxiety and speculation which led to an excessive measure by the State Department.” He said the initial decision to elevate the Cuban travel advisory was politically motivated and that now the United States is “righting its wrong by assessing that Americans need not reconsider travel to Cuba in order to stay safe.”

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[1]  U.S. State Dep’t, Travel Advisory: Cuba—Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution (Aug. 23, 2018); Whitefield & Gámez, U.S. softens its Cuba travel advisory, still advised caution, Miami Herald (Aug. 23, 2018); Reuters, U.S. State Department Softens Travel Advisory on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 2018).

[2] State Department’s New Travel Advisory System for Cuba and Other Countries, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 11, 2018).

State Department Officials Visit Cuba To Discuss Diplomats’ Health Incidents          

On July 24 three senior U.S. State Department officials visited Cuba and met with the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. They were the Interim Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri; the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Administration, William Todd,; and the Undersecretary of Diplomatic Security, Michael Evanoff.[1]

They also met with the Director General of the United States of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Carlos Fernández de Cossío.

Afterwards, Sr. Cossio said the U.S. is “manipulating this issue politically and irresponsibly. The State Department has behaved with a lack of transparency and cooperation, despite the insistent claims of Cuba to seek a response in a cooperative and comprehensive manner, given the reports that the State Department says it has received from its diplomats, but for which it has not shown the slightest evidence.”

Julia Mason, spokeswoman for the State Department, said, “The trip provided an opportunity for our senior officials to gain a deeper insight into the challenges posed by these attacks and their impact on US operations in the field.”

CBS News reports that a spokesperson for Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that the State Department Accountability Review Board has “recently completed” a report on the case, as the committee awaits a briefing on it.

“There should be additional hearings in Congress about this,” says Daniel Runde, senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Worried about future attacks on U.S. diplomats, Rude says, “This needs to stop. This is outrageous. I think it is a significant danger.”

Cuba repeatedly has denied any responsibility and has said the U.S. has manipulated the “alleged health incidents” for political purposes. [2]

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[1] Goméz, Officials of the State Department in Cuba to discuss alleged incidents with the health of their diplomats, Cubadebate (July 24, 2018); Surprise visit of senior US officials to Havana for the ‘health incidents, Diario de Cuba (July 25, 2018); Dorsey, Top State officials visit Cuba, probe new health “attacks,” CBS News (July 24, 2018).

[2] Previous posts about the health incidents of U.S. diplomats in Cuba and more recently in China are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18″section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.

U.S. and Cuba Continue To Hold Dialogues on Common Issues

On July 10 and 11, 2018, the U.S. and Cuba in Washington D.C. continued to hold bilateral meetings. On July 10, the subject was law enforcement. On the 11th, migration. As was true for other such meetings, each country released statements about the meetings. Here is a summary of those statements.

Law Enforcement Dialogue[1]

U.S. Statement

According to the U.S. State Department, the two countries  “addressed topics of bilateral interest on national security matters, including fugitives and the [U.S.] return [to Cuba] of Cuban nationals with [U.S.] final orders of removal.” They also “reviewed recent progress in the law enforcement relationship, such as new bilateral cooperation that resulted in the [U.S.] conviction of a Cuban national who murdered an American citizen and who had fled prosecution in the [U.S.], as well as areas where there is more work to be done, such as trafficking in persons.”

The U.S. also said there was discussion about “the health attacks against diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, including two recent cases. The U.S. delegation reminded the Cubans of their responsibility to protect U.S. diplomats from harm.”[2]

Cuban Statement

The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s statement had these words about the medical issues of certain U.S. diplomats in Cuba: “The Cuban delegation urged the U.S. government to desist from the continued political manipulation of the alleged health incidents that became a pretext to adopt new unilateral measures that affect the operation of the respective embassies, particularly, the rendering of consular services depended upon by hundreds of thousands of people.”

“The investigations carried out by specialized agencies and experts from Cuba and the United States for more than one year confirmed that there is no credible evidence or hypothesis or science-based conclusions that justify the actions taken by the U.S. government against Cuba to the detriment of bilateral relations. Last June 5, U.S. Secretary of State himself affirmed that ‘the precise nature of the injuries suffered by the affected personnel, and whether a common cause exists for all cases, has not yet been established.’”

Nevertheless, the Cuban delegation “reiterated its unchanged commitment to cooperate with the U.S. authorities to clarify this situation. Ensuring the health and security of Cubans and foreign citizens is and will be a priority of the Cuban government. “

In addition, the Cuban statement said, “The purpose of these exchanges is to coordinate the bilateral cooperation in the field of law enforcement and to advance in the combat against the different crimes that threaten the security of the two countries such as terrorism, illicit drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, cybercrimes, among others.”

Cuba added, “While reviewing the exchanges on the different areas of security, the Cuban side made reference to the concrete results of this bilateral cooperation, which has contributed to prevent crimes and prosecute offenders. The Cuban delegation also made emphasis on the information and requests for cooperation [while still waiting for a U.S. response] to further advance in the implementation of this mechanism.”

“Both sides agreed to continue with this dialogue and to keep holding the technical meetings between the law enforcement agencies from both countries to bring bilateral cooperation to fruition.”

Migration Dialogue[3]

U.S. Statement

“The delegations discussed the significant reduction in irregular migration from Cuba to the [U.S.] since the implementation of the [January 12, 2017 Joint Declaration]. Apprehensions of Cuban migrants at U.S. ports of entry decreased by 88 percent from fiscal year 2017 to 2018. The [U.S.] again raised the need for increased Cuban cooperation in the [U.S.] return of Cubans with final orders of removal from the [U.S.]”[4]

The [U.S.] also reiterated that until it is safe to fully staff our Embassy, we are able to adjudicate only official and emergency visas in Havana.”

“A strong migration policy is vital to the [U.S.’] national security. The Migration Talks, which began in 1995, provide a forum for the [U.S.] and Cuba to review and coordinate efforts to ensure safe, legal, and orderly migration between Cuba and the [U.S.].”

Cuban Statement

Both “parties acknowledged the benefits of the Joint Declaration of January 12, 2017, in particular the elimination of the policy of “Dry feet-wet feet” and the “Parole Program for Cuban Medical Professionals,” in the decrease of irregular emigration.”

“They also agreed on the usefulness of the exchange between [U.S.] Coast Guard Troops and the [Cuban] Coastguard Service held in January 2018, and the technical meeting on trafficking in persons and immigration fraud carried out in December 2017.”

In addition, “compliance with bilateral agreements was reviewed, in order to guarantee a regular, safe and orderly migration; discourage irregular migration, and prevent and confront associated illicit acts. Cuba demonstrated that it rigorously fulfills its obligations, and reiterated its willingness to maintain and expand bilateral cooperation in this area.”

“The Cuban delegation urged the government of the [U.S.] to fully comply with its commitments to issue visas for migrants, in accordance with the Migration Agreements. . . . [The U.S.] decision to suspend visa processing services at its embassy in Havana directly affects migratory relations and family ties, damaging institutional exchanges and travel between the two countries.”

The Cubans also “expressed concern about the [U.S.’] Cuban Adjustment Act, which, together with other US regulations, encourages the irregular emigration of Cubans and exposes them to becoming victims of illegal traffickers and gangs associated with organized crime.”

Conclusion

Despite the Trump Administration’s continued hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba, it is reassuring that the two countries are continuing to have respectful dialogue on many common issues and reaching agreement on some of these problems. May it continue!

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[1]  U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Hold Fourth Law Enforcement Dialogue in Washington, DC (July 10, 2018); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and the United States hold fourth meeting on law enforcement dialogue, Minrex (July 11, 2018); Washington once again reminds Havana of its responsibility in the protection of its diplomats, Diario de Cuba (July 11, 2018). The most recent prior meeting was in September 2017. (U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Hold Third Law Enforcement Dialogue in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 15, 2017).) This blog has commented on prior bilateral meetings. E.g., Cuba and U.S. Continue To Hold Bilateral Meetings on Various Issues (Jan. 18, 2018).

[2]  On July 11, 2018, the issue of the medical problems of the U.S. diplomats cane up at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Kenneth Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, testified, “We don’t know who is responsible and we don’t know what is responsible for this. . . . We have taken this … very seriously, both in the Cuba context and the China context which is, frankly, still very much evolving.” At the hearing, Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman and ranking member, respectively — said they planned to meet with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Wednesday afternoon and would discuss the health incidents with him.”  (Reuters, State Department Still Investigating Diplomats’ Illnesses in Cuba, China, N.Y. Times (July 11, 2018); Greenwood, State Dept: No answers in sonic attacks in Cuba, China, The Hill (July 11, 2018).) Prior posts about these medical problems are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, U.S. and Cuba Hold Biannual Migration Talks in Washington, DC (July 11, 2018); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Migratory Round Held between Cuba and the United States (July 11, 2018); Celebrated Migratory round between Cuba and the United States, Cubadebate (July 11, 2018). Two days before the latest migration meeting, a Cuba Foreign Ministry official in an  interview asserted that Cuba  has “rigorously” complied with its migration agreements with the U.S. despite the U.S. creation of “obstacles to the fulfillment of its obligations.” (Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba strictly complies with migration agreements with the US, MINREX (July 9, 2018).)

[4] The January 2017 Joint Declaration eliminated the U.S. policy of admitting into the U.S. Cubans who arrived on land with “dry feet” and the U.S. Program for Parole for Cuban Medical Personnel. See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Ends Special Immigration Benefits for Cubans (Jan. 13, 2017); Additional Reactions to End of Special Immigration Benefits for Cubans (Jan. 14, 2017); Other Current Developments Regarding Cuban Migrants to U.S. (Jan. 15, 2017).