Cuba’s call for help signals concern over attacks
Sonic strikes on Canadian, U.S. diplomats in Havana have officials probing for answers
HAVANA— Raul Castro seemed rattled.
The Cuban president sent for the top American envoy in the country to address grave concerns about a spate of U.S. diplomats harmed in Havana. There was talk of futuristic “sonic attacks” and the subtle threat of repercussions by the United States, until recently, Cuba’s sworn enemy.
The way Castro responded surprised Washington, several U.S. officials familiar with the exchange told The Associated Press.
In a rare face-to-face conversation, Castro told U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis that he was equally baffled and concerned. Predictably, Castro denied any responsibility. But U.S. officials were caught off guard by the way he addressed the matter, devoid of the indignant, how-dare-you-accuse-us attitude the U.S. had come to expect from Cuba’s leaders.
The Cubans even offered to let the FBI come down to Havana to investigate. While U.S.-Cuban co-operation on law enforcement has improved, this level of access was extraordinary.
The list of confirmed American victims was much shorter on Feb. 17, when the U.S. first complained to Cuba. Today, the number of “medically confirmed” cases stands at 21 — plus several Canadians. Some Americans have permanent hearing loss or mild brain injury. The developments have frightened Havana’s tight-knit diplomatic community.
Several U.S. officials say there are real reasons to question whether Cuba perpetrated a clandestine campaign of aggression. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation and demanded anonymity.
When the U.S. has accused Cuba in the past of misbehaviour, such as harassing diplomats or cracking down on local dissidents, Havana has often accused Washington of making it up. This time, although Castro denied involvement, his government didn’t dispute that something troubling may have gone down on Cuban soil.
Perhaps the picture was more complex? Investigators considered whether a rogue faction of Cuba’s security forces had acted, possibly in combination with another country, such as Russia or North Korea.
Nevertheless, anger is rising in Washington. On Friday, five Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to kick all Cuban diplomats out of the United States and close America’s newly re-established embassy in Havana.
“Cuba’s neglect of its duty to protect our diplomats and their families cannot go unchallenged,” said the lawmakers, who included Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a prominent Cuban-American, and the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas.
For decades, Cuba and the U.S. harassed each other’s diplomats. The Cubans might break into homes to rearrange furniture or leave feces unflushed in a toilet. The Americans might conduct obvious break-ins and traffic stops, puncture tires or break headlights.
Yet those pranks were primarily to pester, not to harm. What U.S. diplomats started reporting last November was altogether different.
Diplomats and their families were getting sick. Some described bizarre, unexplained sounds, including grinding and high-pitched ringing. Victims even recounted how they could walk in and out of what seemed like powerful beams of sound that hit only certain rooms or even only parts of rooms.
At the time, Washington and Havana were in co-operation mode, working feverishly to lock in progress on everything from internet ac- cess to immigration rules before Barack Obama’s presidency ended. Donald Trump’s surprise election win on Nov. 8 meant the U.S. would soon be led by a president who’d threatened to reverse the rapprochement.
As America awaited an unpredictable new administration, Cuba faced a pivotal moment, too.
Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25. The revolutionary had reigned for nearly a half-century before ceding power to his brother, Raul, in his ailing last years. It was no secret in Cuba that Fidel, along with some supporters in the government, were uneasy about Raul Castro’s opening with the U.S.
“There is a struggle going on for the soul of their revolution,” said Michael Parmly, who headed the U.S. diplomatic post in Havana from 2005 to 2008. “It’s entirely possible there are rogue elements.”
When the first diplomats came for- ward with their inexplicable episodes and symptoms, the U.S. didn’t connect the dots. It took weeks before embassy officials pieced together “clusters” of incidents and multiple victims with confirmed health damage.
By the time Obama left the White House on Jan. 20, talk of mysterious maladies had reached some officials in Washington. Word of sonic attacks hadn’t reached the top echelons of the White House or U.S. State Department, three former U.S. officials told The Associated Press.
As Trump took office, a clearer picture started to emerge. On Feb.17, the U.S. complained to Cuba’s embassy in Washington and its foreign ministry in Havana. Soon came Castro, seeking out DeLaurentis directly.
The attacks halted for a time. But several U.S. officials said it wasn’t clear why. It wasn’t long before the incidents started again, as mysteriously as they’d stopped.
Then the Canadians got hit. Between March and May, several households were hit with symptoms including nausea, headaches and nosebleeds, said a Canadian official with knowledge of his country’s investigation. Then those attacks, too, ended.
The diplomats suffered in private, until Aug. 9. News reports finally prompted the State Department to publicly acknowledge “incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms” and were still under investigation. The Associated Press learned they included concentration problems and even trouble recalling commonplace words.
Two weeks later, the U.S. announced at least 16 Americans showed symptoms. At that point, the State Department said the incidents were “not ongoing.” Still, the tally continued to rise — first to 19 victims and then this week to 21.
In the meantime, the State Department had to withdraw its assurance the attacks had ceased. There had been another incident, on Aug. 21.
“The reality is, we don’t know who or what has caused this,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday. “And that’s why the investigation is underway.”