The response to 'health attacks' on US diplomats in Cuba suggests nobody knows what's going on

  • The US has taken action against Cuba in response to attacks on diplomats there.
  • But neither the US or Cuba appears to know who’s behind the attacks.
  • Hardliners appear stand to benefit the most from the response, rolling back improved US-Cuba relations.

The mystery about “health attacks” on US diplomats in Cuba has in recent days yielded a fair amount of action, but there are few answers about who is behind them or even how they were carried out.

Two years of improving relations between the erstwhile enemies was roiled in August, when it was reported that US diplomats on the island had suffered unexplained hearing loss with symptoms so severe they had to return to the US.

The attacks are believed to have started in fall 2016 and continued into the spring. The US raised the issue in February, at which point Cuba said it launched an investigation.

The US expelled two Cuban diplomats in May. The State Department stressed it was in protest of Cuba’s failure to protect US personnel and not a suggestion of guilt, though Cuba called it an “unjustified and baseless” decision.

By September, the total number of US diplomats affected rose to 21 — the most-recent case occurring in August. Some had experienced mild traumatic brain injury, with symptoms like severe headaches, brain swelling, and “cognitive disruption.”

The attacks were blamed on “sonic weapons,” but it’s not clear a device exists with the capacity to cause the symptoms reported by US personnel, as well as by some Canadian diplomats.

Despite that lack of clarity, the US has responded with what many see as drastic action.

CubaChip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesA woman walks past a mural depicting Cuban Communist Party founder Julio Antonio Mella, left, Cuban revolutionary leaders Camilo Cienfuegos, center, and Che Guevara in the Habana Vieja neighbourhood, in Havana, Cuba, January 24, 2015.

On September 29, the State Department ordered the departure of nonemergency personnel from the US embassy in Cuba, amounting to more than half the US diplomatic contingent. And despite no known attacks on private US citizens, the Trump administration issued a travel warning for the island.

Days later, the US ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats in the US, giving them 15 days to leave.

Throughout this period, however, the US has stopped short of blaming Cuba for carrying out the attacks. And Havana, while claiming its innocence and even questioning whether attacks occurred, has not named a third party that could be behind them.

The lack of information about the culprit suggests to some that neither side knows who did it.

“Publicly, both sides are denying any definitive knowledge of what, or who, is causing the symptoms experienced by US diplomats. If either side does know, they are not saying so,” Michael Bustamante, a Latin American history professor specializing in Cuban-American affairs at Florida International University, told Business Insider.

“It is possible both sides are genuinely puzzled. The fact that the Trump administration has not labelled the Cuban responsible suggests so,” he added.

Trump heaped criticism on the Obama-led rapprochement with Cuba in the final days of his presidential campaign.

This summer Trump announced the reversal of some Obama-era policies toward the island (though he left much of the opening in place.) He also criticised Cuba during his UN General Assembly speech in late September, earning Havana’s scorn.

“Given the Trump administration’s hostile attitude toward the Cuban government, if they could label them the culprit with a degree of certainty, they would,” Bustamante said.

Ben Rhodes, a top foreign-policy adviser to President Barack Obama, said a recent episode of the Pod Save the World podcast that his administration was not aware of the attacks at the time they started in fall 2016. He also said that an absence of finger-pointing by both sides suggested neither had a solid idea of the perpetrator.

“While Cuba has harassed our diplomats in the past, even at the times of maximum hostility between our countries they never did anything this brazen and designed to harm people,” Rhodes said.

When the attacks started, the Cuban government was scrambling to sign agreements with the Obama administration and deals with US businesses, making it unlikely it would also try to harm US personnel, Rhodes said.

The Cuban government has offered to cooperate with the FBI on an investigation, which is out of character for many foreign governments, let alone Havana.

“There are theories that range from some rogue elements inside of Cuba that [are] looking to disrupt the US-Cuba relationship, third-parties, governments, the Russians, who harassed our diplomats in other places,” Rhodes said.

Russia is a long-time patron of the Cuban government, and anti-Castro hardliners are believed to have organised attacks on Cuban soil to harm the regime in the past.

This year is also supposed to be Raul Castro’s last in office, and potential disputes over succession make it possible there could be rogue elements.

“Any theory is plausible at this point. But all have serious holes,” Bustamante said. “For example, even if there were an element of the Cuban government that wanted to spoil the (still germinal) US-Cuban relationship, that does not explain how or why a lesser number of Canadian diplomats were apparently also targeted.”

“The Cubans have been trying to preserve the relationship, even under Trump,” Rhodes said. Harming diplomats from the US or Canada, the latter of which has strong ties with Cuba, “runs entirely counter to everything else they have done.”

Bustamante also said the US response appears to be disproportionate.

While a travel advisory is mandatory whenever the US withdraws diplomats, he noted, none of the more than 3 million foreigners who visit the island each year, including Americans, have shown symptoms like those experienced by the diplomats.

“The decision to expel Cuban diplomats also is questionable on the merits,” Bustamante added. “The administration has argued that this measure holds Cuba accountable for its failure to protect US diplomats under the Vienna Convention. But the State Department has said Cuba is cooperating with the investigation.”

The sudden departure of US embassy staff has left in limbo more than 100,000 Cubans seeking visas. An indefinite halt to visa services may put the US in violation of agreements on Cuban immigration. And, less than a year after the suspension of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans who made it to the US to stay, further restricting legal pathways to the US could spur a new wave of migration.

Similarly, the looming backlog for the one officer remaining at the Cuban consulate in Washington “will seriously jam up transnational networks of family and financial ties that are important for Cuban families and the Cuban economy,” Bustamante said.

For the US, beyond immigration, “the staff that does work on promoting human rights is going to be affected by this, so we’ll be less able to promote human rights in Cuba,” Rhodes said. “People who work on a whole host of bilateral issues, like working together to combat narcotics trafficking, [are] going to be affected.”

US diplomats have opposed the actions taken by the Trump administration, but the expulsions have come as good news to those in the US, namely Republican legislators, who oppose warming relations with the Castro government.

The Cuban government, for its part, has responded in kind to the State Department’s moves, calling the expulsion “unfounded and unacceptable.”

“Predictably, actors opposed to US-Cuba rapprochement are using this opportunity to push a broader agenda that has no bearing on a real solution to this mystery,” Bustamante said.

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