Havana Syndrome or Washington Syndrome?
There was no crime, no victims, no evidence, no murder weapon, but no motive either. So, on which basis was the accusation launched all over against Cuba for months?
A man with alcoholic breath enters a room where students gather and beats one of the young men. Again and again, he demands that boy acknowledge the paternity of the child that his daughter carries in her womb. The boy receives so many blows that he is almost exhausted. When the offended assailant returns home, he discovers that the pregnancy test he found in his daughter's room was not hers, but a neighbor's.
This simple anecdote could illustrate the history of health symptoms that some US officials in Havana began to report and link to an alleged attack, just as the presidential elections that brought Donald Trump to power in Washington were held. The exceptional events were raised within that embassy by a few members of a staff non-related with diplomatic functions. Later, the alleged malaise spread to a broader group of employees.
On February 17, 2017, the then US Charge d'Affaires in Havana sent a complaint to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) about alleged "attacks" against his staff, which theoretically had occurred since November of the previous year. There was no talk then of diseases or symptoms. Immediately, the Cuban experts mobilized and began to investigate, without even wondering why the information was not shared with them from day one.
Paradoxically, those affected did not go to receive medical attention in the clinics where they were always treated in Havana, the same way their Cuban counterparts in Washington had done until then and continue to do so today.
Five days after the first report, Cuban officials met with the head of security at the US embassy and realized that he was not aware of what was happening among people he was supposed to protect. A few hours later that individual's name appeared on a list of alleged victims of the so-called attacks and he was evacuated to the United States.
Cuba offered willingly to collaborate in the clarification of the facts, real or not, and indicated that cooperation with US agencies was key. In an expeditious manner, protection measures for diplomats' headquarters and residences were strengthened, and new communication channels were opened.
At the request of the highest level of the Government of Cuba, a police investigation was initiated and an inter-institutional and interdisciplinary scientific committee of experts was appointed to analyze the reports made. The investigations concluded that there was no evidence to demonstrate any attack and that such a wide variety of symptoms cannot be attributed to a common cause.
The FBI visited Havana four times to conduct its own analysis in complete freedom. At the end, their conclusions coincided with the opinion of Cuban experts that there was no evidence of attacks, but the State Department rejected the Bureau's proposal to share the investigation with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC), which also had long-standing scientific exchange experience with Cuban counterparts.
Meanwhile, from January to mid-year 2017, officials from the US embassy in Havana requested a large number of visas on behalf of close relatives or friends for them to travel to the island and also covered the procedures to travel to other Cuban provinces for touristic purposes on countless occasions. This behavior did not correspond to the attitude of a human group that feels it is subjected to any external harassment.
In private diplomatic meetings, US officials in both Washington and Havana used the term "attacks" to refer to inexplicable events, while their Cuban counterparts warned against hasty conclusions and urged the delivery of concrete evidence.
All the limited information that was transferred to the Cuban side through the diplomatic channel seemed designed to mislead and document inaccurate facts. On one occasion it was a small-scale map of the city of Havana with large red dots in different locations, which did not allow to specify the exact place where the event that was narrated could have taken place. In another they were recordings of strange sounds that, when measured and compared with other records, indicated that they corresponded to the hum of common insects on the Island.
After the Cuban diplomatic security service agreed with the US embassy a mechanism to alert the authorities in real time about the occurrence of the incidents, on several occasions it was not used at all and on other occasions the information arrived very late.
The State Department limited itself to a brief line of messages: something had happened in Havana and the Cuban side had to explain it, even without them saying exactly what had happened. In sporting terms, it was the closest thing to practicing shooting against a moving target.
The US government then began to transfer a group of US officials and their families from Havana, who paradoxically made public their misunderstanding of the measure and their desire to return to their posts. That is to say, this group did not share the theory of the attacks, or at least considered them of such a relative importance that they could afford to return. However, they were denied this possibility and most were quickly relocated to other functions.
In August, with the same level of imprecision with which the subject had been dealt with up to now, the news made its way to the US media. Months later another journalist coined the term of an alleged syndrome associated with the name of the Cuban capital and disciplinedly put together theories and speculations, based on statements and alleged leaks, that were intentionally inaccurate and sensationalist, from various official federal sources.
When the press reports of those days are reviewed, it can be seen that the information about the alleged attacks flowed to the American public through specific journalists and media outlets, the rest only echoed without asking uncomfortable questions, or questioning the official story. Cuban officials located and spoke with the directors of these media, who could never deny that their journalists were being used by unidentified sources from the United States government who contributed to creating more confusion and not seeking an explanation. Nor could they justify the periodic reiteration of the issue, despite the fact that there was nothing new to report.
There was speculation about alleged weapons used in the attacks that generated sounds or waves, of which there are no records of manufacturers, plans or fingerprints. They were awarded to those capabilities that are not proven or proven by science.
In the absence of consensus on a possible "murder weapon", there was talk then of possible protagonists of the attacks, who, without anyone documenting that they existed, could be "dissident" forces among Cuban officials who, by the way, gained absolutely nothing by damaging the bilateral relationship, or third country actors. In any case, the real dissent was in Washington, among those who wanted to reverse President Barack Obama's policy towards Cuba and were in great need of a good argument, tangible or not, to begin taking measures to guarantee the process of regression.
Before long, a significant portion of the American public believed both in "sonic attacks" and that McDonalds and Coke are healthy foods.
It was Cuba and not the United States that requested a meeting of Foreign Ministers to discuss the matter, which was held in Washington on September 26, 2017. At the meeting it was evident that the highest level of the State Department was not informed of the details of the investigations that the FBI had conducted in Havana.
It was striking that then-Secretary Rex Tillerson, a former senior executive at Exxon Mobile, a company where millions of dollars are spent in the search for fossil fuels only if there is hard and pure evidence that it is located in specific beds, proceeded to damage the bilateral relationship with Cuba without any material proof.
During that visit to Washington DC, the Cuban Foreign Minister presented his arguments in Congress directly to eight senators and the minority leadership of the House of Representatives and these counterparts appreciated the exchange. Up to that date, Congress had held (and did so later) several private hearings on the subject, but absolutely none of them offered useful data from the government, not even under the veil of the most hermetic legislative secrecy.
From Capitol Hill, the Cuban Minister departed for the National Press Club, where he met with a most prominent of the group of American reporters covering foreign policy. The Cuban Minister then asked a long list of questions about the inconsistencies in the case that remain unanswered to this day. The impact of his presentation in the US press, however, was marginal.
In successive subsequent exchanges, the State Department acknowledged that it had no information on the medical preconditions of its diplomats before leaving for Cuba, or for other destinations, so it could not affirm, or rule out, which symptoms presented by several recently arrived officials (who were dissimilar) to Havana had no cause in a condition that they suffered from well before.
But the State Department needed to give some veil of credibility to such inconsistency and an article finally appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that, although it was written to give a scientific nuance to the accusation against Cuba, nevertheless added more doubts to what has already been said and did not raise any conclusive thesis. The Cuban side did not even have to question it, because the Editorial Board of the publication itself was in charge of it, when in the same edition distanced itself from the text.
As Cuba continued to insistently request a meeting between scientists from both parties to analyze the issue, the State Department only agreed in 2018 to allow a group of officials from that agency to welcome an official Cuban delegation. The latter presented all the inconsistencies it found in the case, while the US side always replied with sentences taken from the JAMA article. However, in a show of uncommon professional solidity for the time, the US employees did make it clear that they never proposed to the leadership of the federal agency to refer to the events in question as attacks.
On that occasion, the Cuban experts organized on their own a meeting in a personal capacity with renowned counterparts from the United States in specialties related to the case, from neurology to psychiatry. There was complete agreement in the approach of both parties. In the absence of finding a venue to host a press conference to present the results of the debate, the Cuban Embassy summoned media leaders who had followed the issue for many months. There was a lively exchange of questions and answers about it, the journalists wrote their dispatches, but their respective editors did not consider the content to be newsworthy that day. Little was published.
At this point, perhaps it is worth relating just some of the questions that scientists and observers from various countries (not just Cubans) made early on to the first official US version of events:
Collen G. Le Prell, director of the audiology program at the University of Texas: “the audiologist community wonders what could be the cause of the symptoms described in these cases because no one has a good explanation for it” (…) “the sudden onset of hearing loss without an audible source is very unusual”. (Newsweek August 29, 2017)
Andrew Oxenham, psychologist at the Laboratory of Auditory Perception and Cognition at the University of Minnesota: “I cannot explain to myself that disease and hearing loss are related to sound… there is no way that an acoustic device can cause hearing damage using inaudible sounds. You cannot stimulate the inner ear in a way that could cause harm” (Buzz Feed News, August 30, 2017)
James Jauchem, retired biologist and scientist who investigated the biological effects of acoustic energy in the US Air Force research laboratory: “the elements that researchers have to declare that it is an acoustic weapon are not known” (The Verge, September 16, 2017)
Joe Pompei, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, founder and president of Holosonics: "There has never been any kind of physiological response that reflects the symptoms that have been reported caused by sound waves of any kind." (Business Insider, September 29 from 2017)
Jurgen Altmann, physicist at the Technische Universitat Dortmund in Germany: "I would say that it is quite implausible", "I do not know of any acoustic effects that can cause symptoms of concussion." (The New York Times, October 5, 2017)
Jun Qin, Acoustic Engineer at Southern Illinois University: “Sound through the air cannot shake your head.” “Ultrasounds cannot travel a long distance” (The New York Times, October 5, 2017)
Adam Rogers, a journalist for the publication Wired, specialized in technological issues, pointed out: "The adventures of the encounter between 007 and the X-Files in Cuba continue" (Wired, October 5, 2017)
The relationship of similar opinions was endless and continues to be so 4 years later. There came a time when the creators of the syndrome jumped from the sonic explanation of the attacks, because it was becoming unsustainable, to speculation about microwaves that has also been unsustainable from science.
The already coined "Havana Syndrome" was a useful argument for the United States before its own public opinion and before third parties to justify the closure of the consular services of its embassy in the Cuban capital, discontinue immigration and citizenship services there, reduce the Cuban diplomatic presence in Washington, issuing travel alerts to Cuba, reducing the flow of visitors to that destination, putting into question the commitment of the Cuban authorities regarding security for foreign diplomats in their territory.
But what did Cuba gain if it had actually harassed US officials in some way? Can anyone in their healthy mind consider that the Cuban authorities wanted a regression in the bilateral relationship that would additionally lead to new blockade measures?
There was no crime, no victims, no evidence, no murder weapon, but no motive either. So, on which basis was the accusation launched all over against Cuba for months?
Tillerson then retired from the State Department, the new Secretary Mike Pompeo wanted to cover the forms in a certain way expressing: “the precise nature of the injuries suffered by the affected personnel is unknown, and if there is a common cause for all the cases, it has not yet been settled down". But Pompeo came from running the CIA, the agency to which belonged most of those who insisted they were attacked.
For some months the alleged attacks appeared to be a bilateral issue between the United States and Cuba and, if a third party was referred to, it was in terms of "some power interested in harming US officials," which, as a result of new speculation, was identified as Russia.
However, the official US narrative took an unexpected turn when an official from that country took in the symptoms of the syndrome, a little far from the Caribbean, in China (April 2018). Curiously, there were no excesses in the conduct of the State Department and none of the measures implemented in the case of Cuba, still in force, were taken against the Asian nation. Although other US officials in the same country tried to join the epidemic of attacks, the official version only registered one and soon it was no longer on the headlines.
The story was made even more unlikely when two different people were registered with the symptoms of the “Havana Syndrome” in the United States in April 2021 and later other United States officials in Germany and Austria joined in August 2021. In these events, Washington did not demand additional security from Berlin or Vienna (or from itself) for the comfort of its nationals, nor was the flow of national visitors to those destinations reduced.
If all the speculations that were woven regarding Cuba were true, how is it now possible to explain that an evil power moved through half the world, including the US capital, with a "weapon" that was calculated to be the size of a war tank?, which would have to emit a sound intense enough to cause brain damage, with a directional ability so perfected that it would hit only selected people and not those who were moving a few meters from the target?
And the inevitable happened, the theory that was created to damage relations with a foreign country was used by the alleged victims to file lawsuits in US courts under the accusation that the State Department and other agencies did not adequately protect their employees. The hunter ended up hunted.
All this time, Cuba has observed an attitude of total attachment to science, sharing the opinions and analysis of Cuban experts who analyze and have studied and exchanged with the limited information available and offering cooperation without launching unsupported speculations. However, after facing alone, for a long period of time, the only punitive measures that Washington implemented for the occurrence of the "attacks", there is the right to think about some generalizations.
Most of the official-victims are not diplomats, but linked to US intelligence agencies. They shared not only physical and isolated spaces in their country's embassies abroad, but also specific technology at their workplaces, as well as common habits, conditions and demands that surely forced them to face high mental and emotional stress.
It would be worthwhile for US agencies to spend more time on introspective exercises and, if they are unwilling to do so, at least show a more coherent attitude in tackling the problem as a whole. If none of this is possible, it would be expected that they would rectify a way of doing what they inherited from a previous administration, implemented with the frank purpose of causing an irreversible setback in the bilateral relationship with Cuba.
Thanks to the professional declassification work of the US organization National Security Archives, on February 2021 three reports were published on what is called "Havana Syndrome" written by the Department of State, the Center for the Prevention and Control of Diseases and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine of the United States. All of them reflected what happened in relation to this issue during the Trump years: the lack of cooperation of the employers' agencies of those affected with whom they carried out the investigations, non-existent access to those involved, decisions precipitated by political motivations and the absence of a theory that would explain the attribution of diverse symptoms to a common cause.
In particular, the aforementioned State Department report suggested that Donald Trump's decision to dismantle the Havana embassy in early 2018, in reaction to alleged “sonic attacks” against his diplomatic staff, was a plagued political “response”, mismanagement, lack of coordination and non-compliance with regulations. The same text revealed that the former president made the decision to reduce 60% of the consular staff in Havana and deactivate the operation of the embassy, without having any proof that Cuba was behind the mysterious health problems that affected its officials.
Textually, the report stated: “The decision to reduce the personnel in Havana does not appear to have followed the standard procedures of the State Department and was not preceded or followed by any formal analysis of the risks and benefits of the continued physical presence of the employees of the US government in Havana”.
Confession of parties, relief of evidence.
We will agree that the next time someone demands paternity obligations, they must first show the evidence of a pregnancy, or at least not go to extreme positions.
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