Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Who or What Is Behind the ‘Sonic Attacks’ in Cuba?

The Trump administration has reduced the size of the staff in the U.S. Embassy in Havana (pictured above).

The U.S. State Department in early October expelled 15 Cuban diplomats in protest of what it said was Cuba’s failure to protect American envoys in Havana from a series of mysterious attacks that caused hearing loss and other ailments. The order came after a U.S. decision to reduce the size of its embassy in Havana by 60 percent. What do the decisions to expel and withdraw diplomatic staff indicate about the future of U.S.-Cuban relations? How well are the two countries working together to solve the mystery? Who or what might be behind the attacks, and what would be the potential motive for staging them?

Daniel P. Erikson, managing director of Blue Star Strategies and former White House and State Department advisor on Latin America during the Obama administration: "The mystery of the apparent sonic attacks in Cuba has only deepened in the days since the United States decided to draw down most of its embassy staff in Havana and asked the Cuban Embassy in Washington to implement a commensurate reduction in staff. Simply put, the central question surrounding the ‘Cuban sonic attacks’ can be broken into three parts. Were there attacks? Were they sonic? And were they perpetrated by Cuba? On the first point, there seems to be little question that U.S. diplomats were targeted for harassment, beginning at the end of 2016 and continuing on an intermittent basis through August of this year. The evidence related to the second question is more mixed; some diplomats reported hearing piercing noises while others did not, and a recent New York Times survey of scientific experts in acoustics concluded that ‘scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba.’ The third question, regarding the Cuban government’s potential culpability, is the most puzzling. Cuba’s initial reaction—which included a meeting between Raúl Castro and the U.S. charge d’affaires, cooperating with the FBI, and an emergency visit to Washington by Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez to discuss the matter with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—all indicate high levels of concern. But rather than concede that Cuba’s vaunted security apparatus may have been asleep at the switch, the Cuban government has now started to dismiss the claims as ‘tall tales.’ And finally, will the U.S. and Cuban governments be able to steer through this crisis, successfully conclude the investigation and focus on cooperating to advance long term strategic interests? That remains another mystery."

Vicki Huddleston, retired U.S. ambassador and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana: "Given that all but a few of the sonic incidents occurred in the private homes of principally intelligence and security officers more than a year ago, and given the U.S. government’s blatantly political response in the last few months—well after the damage was done—this mystery is unlikely ever to be solved. But a logic process that focuses on motive, means and opportunity points to three suspects. Those with motive are: Cuban hardliners opposed to the Obama-Castro opening, militant Cuban exiles who in the past have perpetrated attacks against Cubans and Americans, and an enemy or competition state, such as Russia, China, North Korea or Venezuela. Of this group, all had means and opportunity, except radical Cuban-Americans, unless they colluded with a rogue Cuban element or an unfriendly state. Given the rapprochement with the United States, it appears the Cuban government lacked a motive to carry out such attacks, but it is likely that it was complicit in covering up the perpetrator, because it is embarrassed to admit that there is a rogue faction within the government or that it is dependent on the largess of whichever state carried out the attacks. The tragedy is that conservative Cuban-Americans, led by Senator Marco Rubio, have used these mysterious attacks to trash U.S.-Cuba relations. In so doing, they have given Russia and China more influence, harmed American and Cuban families by denying them the right to visit and to immigrate, and wrecked a process that was leading toward greater social and economic freedom in Cuba."

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba: "Let’s get the context straight. The ‘other ailments’ include concussions and brain trauma, which, even if they are mild, is a serious matter. The administration’s decision means the White House no longer ignores actions harmful to the United States, like the attempted smuggling of missiles and war planes to North Korea under tons of sugar, Russian spy ships back in Havana, the harboring of American terrorists wanted by the FBI, the stealing of an American Hellfire missile used at a NATO exercises in Europe, and the deployment of thousands of Cuban soldiers in Venezuela—all of which were swept under the rug by the previous administration. The future of bilateral relations will depend on Raúl Castro. Cuba and the United States are not jointly responsible to solve ‘the mystery.’ If Cuban diplomats were harmed in Washington, no one would expect Cuba to share responsibility for the investigation. Cuba is a police state where U.S. diplomats are under constant surveillance and are required to rent their homes from the regime. Cuba hires out hundreds of Cubans to work inside the U.S. Embassy and many, if not all, are the eyes and ears of the regime there. How many would not have been hurt if all diplomats had come home earlier? If Cuba cannot fulfill its international responsibility to guarantee the diplomats’ safety, the embassies should be closed. The idea that Havana ended its Cold War against the United States, in exchange for Obama’s concessions, is not supported by the facts."

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