The Mystery of the Cuba Sonic Attacks

September 30, 2017

The U.S. State Department announced Friday it was withdrawing more than half its embassy staff from Cuba following “specific attacks” that sickened at least 21 U.S. embassy employees. On some level it was only the latest blow to Obama’s historic rapprochement with Cuba; on another, though, it was a diplomatic break that never happened. Just last week, Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, said the U.S. was reviewing closing the entire embassy. As it is, U.S.-Cuba relations remain largely intact.

That the response wasn’t more severe is partly a reflection of the mystery at the core of the attacks: No one yet knows who is responsible. Cuban government officials have denied having anything to do with them, and appeared mystified at the cases. Canadian diplomats also were affected. And Cuba is cooperating in the investigation.

It’s somewhat routine for the State Department to withdraw non-emergency staff from its embassies when there are specific security concerns (see here, here, here, and here). In the Cuban context, however,  Friday’s announcement represented a blow to a delicate thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, one that only a year ago witnessed a visit from President Obama. The trip was capped a signature initiative of his foreign policy: the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba after more five decades.

And it’s an initiative that his successor has begun to reverse, with Trump having announced in June limitations on tourism and trade to the island. That move fell short of the Trump’s announcement that he was “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” but it did eliminate the so-called “people-to-people” exchanges, which allowed Americans to travel to Cuba without seeking government approval or scheduling the trip through a licensed tour company.

So perhaps the real surprise is that his administration didn’t go further on Friday. U.S. diplomats first complained of unexplained hearing loss in the fall of 2016, but it wasn’t until last month that Tillerson said that U.S. officials had suffered “health attacks,” adding the U.S. held “Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who” was behind them. The State Department had previously called what happened to the officials “incidents,” but on Friday the officials used more severe language to say the embassy staff were “targeted in specific attacks.”

A U.S. State Department official, speaking Friday on condition of anonymity, said at least 21 U.S. government officials in Havana had exhibited a range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual problems, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping. The official said investigators had been unable to determine who or what was causing these attacks—though news reports have said the U.S. doesn’t think Cuba is responsible.

A second State Department official said there was “no definitive answer on the source or cause of the attacks.” CNN previously reported that the “device used in the attacks appeared to be a type of sonic weapon that emitted sound waves capable of inflicting physical harm.”

Under the steps announced Friday, the State Department said it was also suspending routine visa operations indefinitely; limiting short-term U.S. government travel to Cuba to those involved in the investigation or who have a need to travel to the country; and issuing a travel warning to Americans not to travel to Cuba. The official also said the U.S. will for the time being stop sending delegations to Cuba for meetings. Friday’s order also covers the families of the non-emergency personnel.

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