Consider this. The United States government doesn’t know who’s responsible for the so-called acoustic attacks on its embassy personnel in Havana. Then consider this. Cuban president Raúl Castro didn’t simply claim his government had nothing to do with the incidents, he did the unthinkable and invited the FBI to investigate. FBI agents haven’t been able to figure it out. Neither have American acoustics specialists or medical experts. Even Canada’s Mounties, whose own diplomats reported similar attacks, are stymied.
Despite the fact no one has identified either culprit or cause, the Trump administration is pre-emptively creating conflict with Havana. Why? And who benefits from that?
On October 3, the State Department announced it was expelling two-thirds of Cuba’s Washington embassy personnel, less than a week after it announced it was withdrawing sixty per cent of its own diplomats from Havana, and warning Americans against traveling there. The department called the moves “reciprocity,” but didn’t explain for what, since the Cubans haven’t expelled anyone.
The State Department insists it isn’t blaming the Cuban government for the attacks; it’s simply trying to protect American diplomats and tourists. Ironically, the U.S. Foreign Service Association, representing American diplomats around the world, opposes Washington’s directive. So do travel companies and airlines ferrying eager American visitors to the island in increasing numbers. So presumably do Americans generally, the majority of whom support improving relations with Cuba. While over 600,000 Americans visited Cuba last year, it’s worth noting not one has so far complained of symptoms similar to those reported by the diplomats.
Some context may be useful here. Late last year, U.S. diplomats in Havana began reporting hearing loud grinding, ringing noises inside areas of their homes and experienced the sensation that their bodies were vibrating. They claimed to suffer nausea, headaches and hearing loss. U.S. government officials now say some have been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injuries. Twenty-one American and at least five Canadians diplomats and/or their families have been affected.
In the absence of evidence about who did what and why, media have been rife with speculation. At first, the most popular assumption was that the Cuban government must be targeting these diplomats. This is now considered unlikely, since the first of the so-called attacks occurred at a time when bilateral relations were beginning to improve, and Cuban president Raúl Castro has consistently favored improving relations with the United States.
Likewise, given that Canada and Cuba have traditionally maintained solid ties, there would have been little advantage for the Cubans in rocking that diplomatic boat.
That led to other theories: “rogue elements” in the Cuban security forces; officials inside US intelligence services keen to resort to Cold War times; Russians eager to bolster their own relationship with their erstwhile ally while sowing discord between the US and Cuba; maybe even Donald Trump himself, anxious to deflect attention from his own many domestic and international challenges.
We don’t know. And perhaps we never will. Or maybe the truth will only be revealed 30 years from now after sufficient time has passed and intelligence agencies (from whichever country is involved, if they are involved) finally release the pertinent documentation.
So what do we really know?
Well, we certainly know who is already working overtime to twist these unexplained events to their ideological advantage: anti-Cuba hawks in Washington and Miami. Still nursing their wounds from the Obama administration’s 2015 reset on relations with Cuba, they are eager to reassert their own hardline views on US policy.
The Trump White House — which has talked tough on Cuba but done relatively little so far to scale back actual policy changes implemented during the Obama era — seems eager to do the hawks bidding under cover of protecting US diplomats.
On Sept. 15, five right-wing Republican Senators, including virulent anti-Cuba Florida Senator Marco Rubio, sent an open letter to Secretary Rex Tillerson, asking him to “immediately declare all accredited Cuban diplomats in the United States persona non grata and, if Cuba does not take tangible action, close the U.S. Embassy in Havana.”
Two days later, Tillerson — who has since come close to putting a full checkmark beside their first demand — told CBS the State Department has shuttering the embassy “under evaluation… It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered.”
It is indeed a very serious issue — which is exactly why Washington shouldn’t allow its response to be hijacked by baseless arguments of self-interested Senators eager to turn back the political clock, and a president paying back his political commitments to the wealthy Cuban-American lobby.
Over five decades were wasted after the Washington broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. The reopening of diplomatic relations just two years ago was a victory for common sense—but sadly is now in danger of being overturned because of self-seeking politics and ignorance.
John Kirk is Professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University. He is the author/coeditor of 16 books on Cuba. His most recent book is Healthcare without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism (2015), and he is the coeditor of “The Evolution of Cuban Foreign Policy under Raúl Castro” (to be published in 2018). For many years he was the Editor of the Contemporary Cuba series with the University Press of Florida, and is now the Co-editor of the new series on Cuba published by Lexington Books.
Stephen Kimber is a Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, CANADA, and the author of nine books, including the award-winning What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five.