U.S.-Cuba: Putting the “Sonic Attacks” Myth behind Us?

by Fulton Armstrong and Philip Brenner*

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba / Ajay Suresh / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The Biden Administration’s recent announcement that it is resuming “limited” consular functions at the U.S. Embassy in Havana suggests that it’s prepared to put the “sonic attacks” meme – President Donald Trump’s stated rationale for closing the Consulate in 2017 – behind it, but Washington still appears unlikely to restart the normalization process. U.S. and Cuban officials met last month for the first time in four years to discuss implementation of a migration accord signed in 1995. Orderly migration is only one among several interests the United States could advance if it were willing to resume discussions with Cuba. But the Biden administration has placed electoral politics ahead of U.S. interests and appears unlikely to do more.

  • A State Department official told reporters that consular officers will process applications from only the Cuban parents of U.S. citizens, and that persons in all other non-emergency categories will still have to go to Guyana or another third country to apply. A few of the vice-consuls reportedly will fill previously permanent slots, but others will be assigned to the Embassy on a temporary basis.
  • When it ceased consular services in 2017, the State Department unilaterally abrogated a bilateral agreement, which enjoyed bipartisan support for two and a half decades, to process visas in a manner that would keep migration legal and safe. Renewing limited services, officials cited the surge in “irregular Cuban migrants” to the United States “via land and maritime routes.” Cubans are the second largest group arriving on the Southwest border – 16,531 in February alone, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted more than 1,000 Cubans in the Florida Strait since October.

The State Department has not publicly reconciled its consular decision with its repeated allegations of a Cuban role in, or at least failure to prevent, the “sonic attacks” that the Trump Administration cited, after months of inaction, as reason for reducing the Embassy. Now referred to as “Havana Syndrome” and “unexplained health incidents” by the Biden Administration, those allegations have never been substantiated.

  • Various reports have seriously challenged the official claims, but the U.S. Government has continued efforts to find scientists who will corroborate them. As early as November 2018, scientists of the prestigious JASON advisory group concluded that the reported sounds “most likely” were caused by Caribbean short-tailed crickets; it found they were “highly unlikely” from ultrasound or microwave equipment as alleged. A half-dozen investigations later, CIA officials last January said that all but two dozen of the 1,000 reported cases could be explained by environmental conditions, undiagnosed medical conditions, or stress rather than a global campaign by a foreign power. (Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns soon came forward to stress that “while we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done.”)

The “sonic attacks” in Havana initially took place in late 2016, but the Trump Administration did not mention them in announcing its first round of measures in June 2017 to slow and eventually reverse President Obama’s normalization policies – perhaps because it too didn’t take the allegations seriously. Public complaints by self-identified victims in August 2017 found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill, however, and legislators pressed the Trump Administration to use it as pretext to reduce the U.S. Embassy in Havana (and to force Cuba to cut back its Embassy staff in Washington). The Biden Administration embraced the same rationale three and a half years later, despite overwhelming evidence that the blame on Cuba was misplaced, with literally hundreds of victims from around the world (even in Washington, DC) coming forward with similar claims of unexplained head injuries. The Biden Administration seems now to seek a quiet way back to addressing a migration crisis for which it, like the Trump Administration, has been complicit.

  • The Administration seems to think its policies will help it win hearts and minds in Florida, but its failure to provide leadership on issues like “sonic attacks” is further narrowing its political space. Now it faces challenges not only from the usual characters in Congress who oppose normalization, but also moderates such as Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Mark Warner (Virginia), who cosponsored the “HAVANA Act.” In addition to permanently linking the issue to Havana, the legislation, which Biden signed into law last October, has contributed to a surge in alleged cases of anomalous symptoms by offering compensation to “victims.”
  • Neither does the Administration seem concerned about the implications of its Cuba policies for U.S. interests throughout Latin America – one of the main drivers of President Obama’s pivot on the island in 2014. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s statement this week that he will not attend the Summit of the Americas that Biden is hosting in Los Angeles next month if Cuba is not invited is a blow. Similarly, Ambassador Ronald Sanders of Antigua & Barbuda, widely seen as “dean” of the Caribbean diplomatic corps, declared that Biden’s continued embrace of Trump policies on Cuba and Venezuela “has continued to haunt US‑Caribbean relations.”

May 13, 2022

* Fulton Armstrong directs AULABLOG. Philip Brenner is Emeritus Professor of International Relations and History at American University. His latest books are Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence and Cuba at the Crossroads.

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