Sound­ing out Cuba mys­tery

Hear­ing loss among U.S. and Cana­dian diplo­mats might be from covert spy gear.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Tracy Wilkin­son tracy.wilkin­son@la­ Twit­ter: @Tra­cyKWilkin­son

WASH­ING­TON — It is a mys­te­ri­ous episode seem­ingly ripped from the pages of a Cold War spy novel.

In re­cent months, sev­eral U.S. and Cana­dian diplo­mats posted in Havana have re­ported ex­pe­ri­enc­ing un­usual med­i­cal symp­toms, in­clud­ing im­paired hear­ing, some­times so se­vere that they had to re­turn home.

News of the ail­ments sur­faced this week when the State Depart­ment an­nounced that it had ex­pelled two Cuban diplo­mats from Wash­ing­ton be­cause of an “in­ci­dent” in Havana that harmed U.S. per­son­nel there.

That came de­spite vastly im­proved re­la­tions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Havana since restora­tion of diplo­matic re­la­tions un­der Pres­i­dent Obama.

On Thurs­day, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment added its voice.

Cana­dian of­fi­cials “are aware of un­usual symp­toms af­fect­ing Cana­dian and U.S. diplo­matic per­son­nel and their fam­i­lies in Havana,” the Cana­dian global af­fairs min­istry said in a state­ment.

It said Canada was work­ing with U.S. and Cuban au­thor­i­ties to “as­cer­tain the cause.”

U.S. State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert would not pro­vide de­tails ex­cept to say the episode had caused med­i­cal but non-life-threat­en­ing prob­lems for an un­spec­i­fied num­ber of U.S. Em­bassy per­son­nel based in Havana.

The As­so­ci­ated Press, one of the few Western news out­lets with of­fices in the Cuban cap­i­tal, re­ported from Havana that the in­juries may have been caused by covert sonic equip­ment that Cuban in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers had se­cretly in­stalled in the em­bassies or res­i­dences of staff.

The AP said at least one of the Amer­i­can diplo­matic per­son­nel suf­fered per­ma­nent hear­ing loss.

The Cuban gov­ern­ment de­nied in­volve­ment in the in­ci­dents.

“Cuba has never per­mit­ted, nor will permit, that Cuban ter­ri­tory be used for any ac­tion against ac­cred­ited diplo­matic of­fi­cials or their fam­i­lies, with no ex­cep­tion,” the Cuban For­eign Min­istry said in a state­ment Wed­nes­day night.

Nauert said Thurs­day that Cuban au­thor­i­ties were co­op­er­at­ing in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which also in­volves the FBI.

Some re­ports have sug­gested that a third coun­try might be re­spon­si­ble, al­though Cuba would still be held ac­count­able be­cause of its duty to pro­tect diplo­matic per­son­nel un­der the Vi­enna Con­ven­tion.

Spy­ing on for­eign em­bassy staffs would not be un­usual in Havana, or many other cap­i­tals for that mat­ter. Us­ing sur­veil­lance de­vices to harm diplo­mats would be new, how­ever, al­though the cause is still not con­firmed.

“We don’t have any de­fin­i­tive an­swers about the source or the cause,” Nauert said, not­ing the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

She said two Cuban diplo­mats were ex­pelled from Wash­ing­ton in re­tal­i­a­tion in late May.

The in­ci­dents date to late last year, she said.

The U.S. diplo­matic mis­sion in Havana was el­e­vated to em­bassy sta­tus only in 2015, when Obama and Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Castro reestab­lished full re­la­tions af­ter half a cen­tury of Cold War hos­til­i­ties. Be­fore then it was a low-level fa­cil­ity with a skele­ton crew.

Pres­i­dent Trump an­nounced in June that he was cur­tail­ing some of the Obama-era open­ing with Cuba. How­ever, he has yet to or­der any con­crete steps.

Ale­jan­dro Ernesto Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

THE U.S. EM­BASSY in Havana. Cuba de­nied any knowl­edge of what caused in­juries to staffers there.

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