Did State Department Ineptly Investigate the Medical Problems of Some U.S. Diplomats in Cuba?

According to  Dan Vergano of BuzzFeed,News, the U.S. State Department has mismanaged its investigation of the medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana since December 2016.[1]

This report says, “much of the early research into the mystery may have been botched or biased. The initial investigation was confined to two competing sets of researchers, both eager to publish studies on their own work, and whose findings have been at odds with each other. In one case, researchers were also seeking to promote their own newly approved medical device as a diagnostic tool. And until now, the effort has lacked broader oversight by an institution capable of cross-disciplinary research.”

The initial two medical teams “diagnosed the diplomats with injuries centered on their own respective areas of research expertise: inner ear damage and concussions.” Another team from the Center for Disease Control was asked to investigate over a year ago and has not yet submitted a report. Now the U.S. National Academy of Sciences will be starting yet another investigation, but there is concern this may be too late.

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[1] Vergano, The US Government Botched Its Investigation Into The Mysterious “Sonic Attack” in Cuba, Emails Reveal, BussFeed.News (May 29, 2019).  This blog has published many posts on this situation. See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-?” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Still Uncertainty Over What Happened to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

A lengthy New York Times article reviews the different theories that have been offered about what happened to some U.S. diplomats in Cuba starting in December 2016. The article then concludes by saying that to this date no one really knows the cause(s).[1]

The article, however, presses the question of whether the diplomats symptoms “are primarily psychogenic — or ‘functional’ — in nature. If true, it would mean that the symptoms were caused not by a secret high-tech weapon but by the same confluence of psychological and neurological processes — entirely subconscious yet remarkably powerful — underlying hypnosis and the placebo effect. They are disorders, in other words, not of the brain’s hardware but of its software; not of objective injuries to the brain’s structure but of chronic alterations to how the brain functions, typically following exposure to an illness, a physical injury or stress. . . . [Such disorders are] the most misunderstood, debilitating and denigrated ailments known to medicine.”

Nevertheless, the State Department and the diplomats themselves have rejected this theory.

According to the article, one of the leading experts on such disorders is Dr.Mark Hallett, “who is the Chief of the Medical Neurology Branch and the Human Motor Control Section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. He  obtained his A.B. and M.D. at Harvard University, had his internship in Medicine at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and his Neurology training at Massachusetts General Hospital plus fellowships in neurophysiology at the NIH and in the Department of Neurology, Institute of Psychiatry in London.”

Last year the National Institutes of Health asked Dr. Hallett to examine the diplomats, but the State Department did not appoint him to the task force for such examinations, and that  Department and NINDS have instructed De. Hallett not to speak with the author of the Times article.

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[1]  Hurley, Was It an Invisible Attack on U.S. diplomats, or Something Stranger?, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2019). This blog has many posts about the issues posed by the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats in Cuba (and more recently in China). See the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016–??” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

 

Cuba Abandons Rhetorical Restraint in Comments About U.S.

Reuters has concluded that Cuba “has jettisoned rhetorical restraint” in commenting on U.S. policies and threats. [1]

The latest example of this new Cuba approach is its government broadcasting footage of military defense exercises showing “Soviet-era tanks rolling out from mountain caves, soldiers manning anti-aircraft missile batteries, spandex-clad women shooting rifles and factory workers taking up [military defense] positions around their plants.” This is described as training for “The War of the Whole People.”

This Cuban reaction, although lamentable, is understandable ever since the obvious increasing influence of National Security Advisor John Bolton, long known for hostile opinions about Cuba, as evidenced by his speech last November in which he called Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as the “Troika of Tyranny.” More recently the U.S. has been hinting at U.S. military intervention in Venezuela with a possible spill-over against Cuba.

Another sign of Cuba’s “new” approach came last month in a speech by President Diaz-Canel denouncing a Trump speech as “high-handed, cynical, immoral, threatening, offensive, interfering, hypocritical, warlike and dirty.”

The long-simmering dispute between the U.S. and Cuba over the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats, while stationed in Cuba, saw more aggressive Cuban rhetoric on March 14 when Cuba denounced the U.S. continuing to call them “attacks” without any evidence and as part of a broader campaign to damage bilateral relations. Cuba’s director of U.S. affairs at its Foreign Ministry said, “The topic has been highly manipulated politically by the U.S. government, with unfounded accusations, that have been a pretext to take measures against bilateral relations. . . . This manipulation is also serving those who want to reinforce the idea Cuba is a threat and those who opportunistically look to catalog Cuba as a country that sponsors terrorism. It’s a scandal that the State Department is still using the term ‘attacks’ in its statements to the press, with total irresponsibility, This is a national security issue for Cuba, especially when you know the political intentions declared by some [U.S.] individuals, to conduct our relations by a pattern of confrontation.” [2]

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[1] Reuters, In Cuba, Obama’s Detente Becomes History as Trump Threatens, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2019). See also the posts listed in the “U.S. (Trump) and Cuba, 2016-17” and “U.S. (Trump) and Cuba, 2018” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA

[2] Reuters, Cuba Says USA, Not Canada, Manipulating Diplomat Health Incidents, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2019); Assoc. Press, Cubans Again Dispute Claim Attacks Made Diplomats Ill, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2019); Cuba reaffirms that there is no evidence of any sonic attack, Granma (Mar. 14, 2019). See also posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016—??” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada Reducing Cuba Embassy Staff 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crickets Caused Sounds Heard by U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

As previously reported, some of the U.S. diplomats who suffered injuries in Cuba complained that they had heard strange sounds when they were being injured.[1]

Now two scientists–Alexander Stubbs of the University of California, Berkeley and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the University of Lincoln in England—claim that male Indies Short-Tailed Crickets emitted these sounds during courtship.[2]

Such sounds, however, the scientists say, did not cause any of the injuries sustained by the diplomats.

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[1]  See posts in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016-??” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[2] Zimmer, The Sounds That Haunted U.S. Diplomats in Cuba? Lovelorn Crickets, Scientists Say, N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2019).

Inner-Ear Damage to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On December 12, 2018, physicians at the University of Miami published a scientific study  concluding that the U.S. diplomats  in Cuba who have reported certain medical problems over the last two years suffered damage to the part of the inner ear responsible for balance. [1]

Dr. Michael E. Hoffer, the director of the university’s Vestibular and Balance Program and lead author of the study, said, “These people were injured. We’re not sure how. The injury resulted in ear damage and some trouble thinking.”

Dr. Hoffer added, “What we noticed is universal damage to the gravity organs in the ear. The ear has a bunch of different balance organs — and two of them are gravity organs — and those are damaged in everyone.” After suffering the damage, he said, the patients’ bodies spend so much energy trying to stay balanced that it wipes them out.“That’s very fatiguing. And it doesn’t leave a lot left over to remember where you put your keys.”

To date the U.S. has not identified any known cause for these injuries. The University of Miami study said, “it would be imprudent to exclude any potential directed or non-directed energy sources at this time.”

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[1]  Dr. Hoffer, et al., Acute findings in an acquired neurosensory dysfunction, Investigative Otolaryngology (Dec. 12, 2018); Robles, U.S. Diplomats With Mysterious Illness in Cuba Had Inner-Ear Damage, Doctors Say, N.Y. Times (Dec. 12, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba Health Mystery: Diplomats Had Inner-Ear Damage Early On, N.Y. Times (Dec. 12, 2018); Gámez Torres, Doctors who first tested diplomats after Cuba ‘health attacks’ doubt concussion theory, Miami Herald (Dec. 12, 2018). Previous posts on this subject are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016–??” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.