How Castro re­sponded when U.S. di­plo­mats sud­denly got sick

Num­ber of ‘med­i­cally con­firmed’ cases stands at 21 — plus sev­eral Cana­di­ans

Truro Daily News - - WORLD - By Josh le­D­er­man, michael Weis­senstein anD roB Gil­lies

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 be­fud­dled 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-ac­cuseus 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 had im­proved, this level of ac­cess was ex­tra­or­di­nary.

“Some coun­tries don’t want any more FBI agents in their coun­try than they have to — and that num­ber could be zero,” said Leo Tad­deo, a re­tired FBI su­per­vi­sor who served abroad. Cuba is in that group.

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 tightknit diplo­matic com­mu­nity.

At least one other na­tion, France, has tested em­bassy staff for po­ten­tial sonic-in­duced in­juries, Cuba Pres­i­dent Raul Castro ap­peared as alarmed as the Amer­i­cans. The United States, his na­tion’s sworn en­emy un­til re­cently, was de­mand­ing ur­gent an­swers about a spate of U.S. di­plo­mats harmed in Ha­vana.

the AP has learned.

But 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 of mis­be­haviour in the past, like 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 like Rus­sia or North Korea.

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, the AP re­ported this week.

At the time, Wash­ing­ton and Ha­vana were in fran­tic co-op­er­a­tion mode, work­ing fever­ishly to lock in progress on ev­ery­thing from In­ter­net ac­cess 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.”

AP PHOTO

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