Cuba: Attacks Against U.S. Diplomats?

By William M. LeoGrande*

19734869263_7c3351e2bd_b

The U.S. Embassy in Havana. / Melanie K. Reed / Flickr / Creative Commons

The details about alleged sonic attacks against U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana in fall 2016 remain shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty, but the incidents – whatever they were – could cause further disruptions in U.S.-Cuban relations, already on shaky ground after President Trump’s June 16 declaration that he was “canceling” President Obama’s policy of normalization.  The State Department has admitted that after more than eight months of investigation, it “can’t blame any one individual or country” for the reported impairment of U.S. diplomats’ health.  Although press reports indicate the victims suffered hearing loss and headaches from exposure to something in or near their residences, the State Department has provided few details about their symptoms, the number of officers involved, their positions, or their prognoses.  The department’s spokesperson said last week that “we still are trying to … determine the actual cause of their situation … The investigation is ongoing.”  Nonetheless, in May the Trump Administration expelled two diplomats working at the Cuban Embassy in Washington because, according to the spokesperson, Havana is “responsible for the safety and security of our diplomats,” – a responsibility it failed to meet.

  • Speculation about what happened is rampant, but lacks evidence. The State Department’s reference to “any one individual or country” and the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s unequivocal statement that it “has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception” have fueled speculation that a third country may have staged the attacks.  Russia is a favorite suspect, with China a distant second, but conspiracy theorists cannot explain how a third country could conduct such sensitive operations in an environment like Havana where foreign diplomats – especially U.S. diplomats – are under constant surveillance.
  • Speculation that this was a Cuban “attack” intended to injure the diplomats does not make sense, either. U.S. diplomats in Havana have faced petty harassment over the years, but even when relations were at their worst, there was never an attempt to inflict physical harm.  Moreover, the incidents happened at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations were improving and most people expected normalization to continue under President Hillary Clinton.  Neither is it clear why Canadians would be a target.  The U.S. and other militaries have developed low- and high-frequency weapons that cause hearing loss, headaches, and even incapacitation on the battlefield and in crowd-control situations.  But if such a weapon was the cause of the symptoms U.S. diplomats experienced, presumably it would be immediately recognizable.

A popular explanation is that the injuries were an unintended side-effect of a surveillance operation gone wrong.  Without information about symptoms and operating conditions, however, the technology is difficult to fathom.  Lasers, microwaves, and sound waves have long been used for stand-off eavesdropping operations, but primarily against targets in locations to which the attacker has no access, which is not the case with diplomatic residences in Havana.  Moreover, U.S. Embassy regulations strictly forbid having sensitive conversations outside the chancery, so Cuban security services would have little motivation to invest in the expensive equipment and real-time monitoring necessary to target residences.  In short, none of the extant explanations fit very well with the few facts known at this point.

The impact of the alleged attacks and U.S. retaliation on the bilateral relationship has been minimal so far.  Senior diplomats on both sides seem reluctant to allow the incidents to put a brake on improvements in areas of mutual interest.  The fact that both countries agreed to keep the alleged attacks and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats quiet suggests neither wanted the issue to get out of hand.  President Trump’s June 16 announcement tightening regulations on U.S. trade and travel to the island gave no hint of a crisis over an issue as fundamental as diplomats’ safety, and left the door open to continuing dialogue on issues of mutual interest.  President Raúl Castro has criticized Trump’s new policies but, as recently as mid-July, repeated his willingness to work with Washington on a host of issues within the context of respect and mutual benefit.  However, until all the facts are known and responsibility for the incidents is definitively established, the Cuban-American right will continue to stoke speculation about Cuban villainy in hopes of derailing the bilateral cooperation still underway.

August 14, 2017

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: