U.S.-Cuba: More Facts, Less Clarity on “Sonic Attacks”

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Embassy in Cuba at dusk

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba. / U.S. Embassy Havana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Two prestigious publications – the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and ProPublica – released in-depth investigations this week into the alleged “sonic attacks” directed at U.S. diplomats in Havana in 2016-2017, but neither could confirm the U.S. allegations, explain the technology involved, nor provide comprehensive alternative explanations of what caused the victims’ mysterious symptoms.

JAMA studied the “neurological manifestations” that 21 diplomats linked to “audible and sensory phenomena” they reported experiencing.  Evaluations began an average of 203 days after the victims felt they were exposed to the sound waves.  The 10 joint authors validated some of the symptoms that the patients reported – including problems with cognitive abilities, vision, hearing, balance, and sleep – that had “raised concern for a novel mechanism of a possible acquired brain injury from a directional exposure of undetermined etiology.”  They had concussion-like symptoms without a concussion.  Contrary to information leaked to the press several months ago, MRI brain scans came out normal in most cases, and the doctors were unable to determine the causes of mild or moderate irregularities on three of the scans.  Based on the “high levels of effort and motivation” the patients showed during testing, the authors discounted psychological factors (e.g., “mass hysteria”).  But they were not able to link the sounds or other energy that the victims reported with the symptoms.

  • An accompanying JAMA editorial urged “caution in interpreting the findings;” noted that “a definitive conclusion cannot be reached;” said that the cases “merit consideration of a common medical, environmental, or psychological event as the potential cause;” reported that many of the symptoms described “also occur in other medical, neurological, or psychiatric conditions;” and concluded that “many potential causes for the symptoms experienced … remain possibilities.”

An investigation by ProPublica reporters Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella, who interviewed dozens of U.S. and foreign officials, intelligence officers, and other experts, concluded that, “Even in a realm where secrets abound, the Havana incidents are a remarkable mystery.”  They report that a CIA officer first surfaced the idea that he was struck by, in the authors’ words, “a strange, disturbing phenomenon – a powerful beam of high-pitched sound that seemed to be pointed right at him,” and it was FBI that, after eight months of analysis and several investigative visits to the island, ruled out attack with some sort of sonic device.

  • ProPublica could not identify a Cuban motive in conducting or even tolerating the alleged attacks, noting that “Cuban hostility toward the American diplomats in Havana was hovering somewhere near a 50-year low.” The investigators looked into alternative attack scenarios – such as that the Russians have developed an unknown technology and conducted the operations to disrupt U.S.-Cuba relations – but concluded that evidence is lacking.  They reported allegations that the Trump Administration has used intelligence on the incidents selectively to rationalize its efforts to reverse the U.S.-Cuba normalization process started by President Obama.

Both articles, within their specialties, provide valuable texture to understanding what the U.S. personnel in Havana have experienced – while correcting some of the information leaked since the issue first arose, such as the extent and nature of the “white matter foci” in brain scans.  Neither offers a comprehensive explanation of what happened, but both lay bare the lack of evidence supporting the Trump Administration’s preferred explanation that the Embassy officers were victims of “sonic attacks.”  The difficulty understanding events is compounded by the State Department’s reluctance to allow independent examination of the patients until it was too late to look seriously at alternative explanations.  Waiting 203 days to arrange comprehensive medical examinations, such as those written up by JAMA, would suggest excessive comfort with the “sonic attack” meme.  Moreover, by refusing Cuba’s repeated requests for information on the victims’ symptoms (with patients’ identity fully masked to ensure privacy and security) and directing Embassy personnel not to call a special hotline the Cuban government established so alleged attacks can be investigated real-time, the State Department has undermined its own assurances that it’s doing everything it can to solve the mystery.  Circumstantial evidence is mounting that the Administration – having punished Cuba by drastically slashing Embassy staff in Havana and putting much of the U.S.-Cuba normalization process on hold – is fine with letting the diplomats’ ailments remain a mystery that the Cubans cannot resolve to Washington’s satisfaction.

February 16, 2018

Cuba: Trump Actions Strengthening Hardliners

By Fulton Armstrong and William M. LeoGrande

Two buildings in a composite photo

On the left, the U.S. Embassy in Havana; on the right, the Cuban Embassy in D.C. / U.S. Government Accountability Office / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the end of Raúl Castro’s presidency approaches, Trump Administration actions halting, if not reversing, the process of normalizing relations with Cuba have tilted debate in Havana in favor of hardliners trying to keep the brakes on economic reform and on constructive relations with Washington.

  • In retaliation for alleged “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomats in Havana, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ordered departure of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the closure of the U.S. consulate, and the expulsion of Cuban consular and commercial staff in Washington –has put a chill on bilateral relations that ratifies Havana hardliners’ contention that Washington cannot be trusted. By halting the issuance of visas to Cubans in Havana, the Trump Administration will almost certainly violate the 1994 migration accord committing the United States to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually.  That would rupture the longstanding bipartisan consensus in Washington that bilateral cooperation on migration serves an important U.S. interest in safe and orderly migration.
  • The State Department’s unwillingness to share meaningful information on the U.S. diplomats’ mysterious symptoms – underscored by the Embassy’s refusal to use a hotline established for Cuba to investigate alleged attacks real-time – has frustrated pro-normalization Cubans, who face conservatives’ claims that Washington is cynically exploiting the incident to embarrass Cuba and return to a policy of hostility and regime change.
  • Other Trump measures reinforce Cuban conservatives’ efforts to limit the growth of the country’s nascent private sector, particularly entrepreneurs who profit from U.S. visitors and need easy travel to import inputs from the United States. A travel warning issued in conjunction with the withdrawal of U.S. diplomats is causing a sharp drop in U.S. travelers, and new regulations abolishing individual people-to-people educational travel are channeling people into large hotels, away from private bed and breakfast rentals.  A prohibition on doing business with companies and hotels allegedly linked to the Cuban military is not pushing new clients to cuentapropistas’ businesses but instead is discouraging travel and commerce in general.  Cuban reformers are further dispirited by the perception that Washington is shifting back to the erroneous view that it can promote regime collapse by tightening the economic screws on the government, thereby reinforcing a siege mentality among senior leaders and discouraging needed economic reforms as too risky in the current environment.
  • Trump’s actions have so closely dovetailed with the agenda of Cuban hardliners that some people speculate it was opponents of reform inside the Cuban government who perpetrated the mysterious “sonic attacks” to provoke a confrontation with Washington. But there is no evidence whatsoever in support of that theory, and for anyone to sabotage Raúl Castro’s opening to Washington – one of the signal achievements of his presidency – would be to commit political (if not literal) suicide.

Implementation of Raúl Castro’s road map for economic change, embodied in the 311 lineamientos approved in 2011 and the Conceptualización of Cuba’s socialist model approved by the Communist Party congress last year, had already slowed before Trump’s sanctions due to Cuban concerns about growing income inequality during a period of poor economic performance, uncertainty about energy imports, and perhaps the 86-year-old president’s own level of energy and state of mind after the passing of his two brothers (Ramón and Fidel both died in 2016).  Widely discussed political reforms, such as the Electoral Law and the Law on Associations, that were expected months ago have yet to be unveiled.  The Trump Administration’s efforts to expedite regime change by curtailing financial flows to the government and by promoting private sector growth at the expense of state enterprises make it easy for Cuban hardliners to rally support for slowing reforms.  Ever since he launched the reform process in 2011, Castro has insisted it would move ahead, “Without haste, but without pause.”  Lately, in part because of the Trump Administration’s actions, there’s a lot more “pause” than “haste.”

The election of First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel to succeed Raúl as president seems to be a foregone conclusion of the ongoing multi-tiered election process that culminates in February, but no one outside the two men’s inner circle seems to know how or when next steps on reforms will be sequenced.  Raúl’s focus has been on creating processes and institutions for governing after he steps down, rather than achieving particular results between now and the formalities confirming Díaz-Canel.  One thing that is near-certain, however, is that the successor’s legitimacy will be determined by performance, not his surname or soaring oratory.  Tackling the really big reforms that loom ahead, such as currency and exchange rate unification, will require political will from a relatively unified leadership.  Cuba has long been adept at dealing with U.S. sanctions and pressure, so Trump’s policies are more an irritant than a threat, but the effect they have in Havana is to slow the implementation of changes that would improve the standard of living of ordinary citizens and to reduce the willingness of Cuba’s leaders to engage with Washington in ways that would serve the interests of both countries.

 December 18, 2017

U.S.-Cuba: New Challenge to Normalization

By Fulton Armstrong

Tillerson US embassy in Cuba

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees. / U.S. Embassy in Cuba / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s decision to sharply reduce staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana and to warn U.S. travelers to avoid travel to Cuba is a major blow to U.S.-Cuba normalization – and a sign that Washington’s policy is once again dictated by politics rather than reality.  Announcing the measures, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Friday admitted that “investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks,” but he still said that more than half of U.S. diplomats will be withdrawn “until the Government of Cuba can ensure [their] safety.”  Washington is also suspending the processing of tens of thousands of visas for Cubans seeking to visit or migrate to the United States.  Most travel to the island by U.S. officials will also cease; bilateral meetings will continue only in U.S. territory.

  • As the State Department itself has admitted, the “sonic attacks” – which have not been proven to be either sonic or attacks – remain a total mystery. No agency of the U.S. or Cuban governments is aware of a technology that fits the victims’ description of what they experienced, and non-government scientists have been equally puzzled.  Doctors analyzing the victims’ symptoms (headaches, hearing loss, memory loss, confusion) do not see a common cause.  Moreover, no one has been able to ascertain that the incidents amount to deliberate, premeditated attacks.  No one has produced any evidence to support speculation that “rogue” elements of the Cuban government or a third country even possess, let alone have used these unknown technologies.  President Trump said on Friday, “Some very bad things happened in Cuba.  They did some bad things” – without saying who “they” are.
  • Leaks over the weekend that the diplomats suffering the worst symptoms have been U.S. intelligence officers seem intended to rationalize allegations of targeted attacks. But the Associated Press, which reported the leaks and other key aspects of the story, noted with irony: “Almost nothing about what has transpired in Havana is perfectly clear.  But this is Cuba.”

Even though none of the more than 600,000 U.S. travelers to the island each year has reported any of the symptoms experienced by the U.S. diplomats, Washington also issued a statement that “warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba.”  The State Department has provided no evidence that visitors are in danger.  Travel warnings are a powerful political signal of low confidence in host governments and can have a huge impact on local businesses – including many thousands in Cuba’s nascent private sector.

The Administration deserves credit for resisting the temptation to blame the Cubans for the attacks, but it fell prey to its own mindset about “sonic attacks” and – under political pressure –got stuck reacting to an incredible scenario with a counterproductive set of measures.  While the State Department was right to admit its ignorance, a handful of legislators in Washington – a small group that had forcefully opposed normalization all along – filled the information void and corralled Tillerson into a policy prescription that undoes mainstays of the bilateral relationship, including visas, reciprocal meetings in each capital, and other cooperation that requires a robust presence in Havana.  By trying to scare away travelers, moreover, Tillerson threatens to take crucial business away from private entrepreneurs.

  •  The scope of the Administration’s measures – including discouraging non-governmental travel – contradict the leaks suggesting that the incidents are part of a spy war between the two countries. A full epidemiological study about everything the victims had in common – food, drink, habits, and workspaces within the embassy building itself – conducted months ago, when evidence and memories were fresh, would have helped inform these decisions.  To accuse Cuba now, almost a year after the first incident, of failing to meet Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomats rings hollow since the United States has accepted the sincerity of Havana’s efforts – from President Raúl Castro down to the working-level experts – to resolve the mystery and address its causes.  Having achieved the practical shutdown of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, opponents of normalization are now demanding total closure of Cuba’s embassy in Washington.  Politics is once again in danger of becoming the main driver of U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations.

October 2, 2017