Mystery in Havana

21 United States Diplomats mysteriously ill after bizarre attack on Embassy

Yander Zamora / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
HAVANA, CUBA - A general view of the Embassy of the United State of America in Cuba, Havana. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. may close its embassy in Cuba.

The United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba has fallen victim to a bizarre attack. According to the State Department, 21 diplomatic officials stationed there have reported “hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.” According to the Associated Press, those most affected were U.S. intelligence officials, which would suggest the attack had clear targets. The embassy began reporting the illness late last winter with the latest of the “health attacks” happening last August. At this time there have been no reports of any civilians in Cuba reporting similar symptoms. These unusual symptoms prompted the U.S. government, in August, to send some of the individuals to The University of Miami with hopes of finding clues as to what could be causing such symptoms. Since then, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that the strange symptoms were a result of “health attacks,” adding, “we’ve not been able to determine who’s to blame.” The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs has rejected culpability and created an investigative committee in order to undertake a “comprehensive, priority and urgent investigation.”

Making matters stranger, multiple anonymous government officials have suggested that the illnesses were caused by some kind of sonic weapon. In a few of the diplomats’ accounts, they described hearing very strange and loud sounds in the middle of the night. The sounds seemed to be focused precisely around their beds, such that when they got out of bed, the room would go silent and when they got back in bed, the sound would return. Although others reported never hearing or feeling anything out of the ordinary. Recently the Associated press released recordings of the sounds being heard by the diplomats in Cuba. The sound most closely resembles a strange, high pitched, irritating cricket chirp. It is still not clear where these sounds are coming from. As remarkable as the evidence is, the sonic weapon theory has a huge problem: nobody can point to any sort of feasible device capable of carrying out this kind of “sonic attack.” The few sonic weapons which have been used and researched are generally massive and incredibly loud, and they are not known to cause long-lasting symptoms like those described by the State Department. Some researchers have pointed towards infrasound (meaning non-audible) sonic weapons, however these devices would not only also be huge, but they would require massive levels of sustained power and the attack would not be able to be sustained for more than a few minutes, according to scientists. In fact, the United States has tried creating an infrasonic weapon to non-lethally debilitate enemy soldiers, but, after spending decades researching, the army canceled the project citing that it was too difficult to precisely focus the wavelengths. Nevertheless, there is still the slight possibility that this attack could be caused by an entirely new weapon. 

Many others have also speculated the attack could have been caused by some kind of poisoning, although it is not clear how such an attack would actually take place in practice. Presently, the form and motive of the attack remains a mystery. The F.B.I. is currently investigating the attacks, and its agents have been granted permission to travel to Cuba to proceed with the investigation.

The State Department has responded to the attack by issuing an advisory warning all U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba, and by expelling 15 diplomats from the Cuban embassy in Washington. The State Department has also cut their staff in half at the U.S. embassy in Havana and Secretary of State Tillerson has threatened to close the embassy if the attacks continue. Secretary of State Tillerson described the illnesses as resulting from a concentrated attack. He did not, however, directly accuse Cuba or any other country of being the culprits. In response, a dismayed Cuba promised to continue cooperating with the investigation, but condemned the State Department’s handling of the situation, calling their response “hasty” and one that “will affect the bilateral relations.” Cuban-American relations have been strained ever since President Donald Trump’s rollback of the Obama-era’s policy of engagement with Cuba. Ultimately, beyond the bizarreness of the situation, this latest episode will certainly place additional strain on the already tense Cuban-American relations.