We still don’t know exactly how 26 American diplomats were injured in Havana in 2016 and 2017. But the evidence suggests Cuba at minimum failed to protect them.
With President Joe Biden in the White House, Democratic lawmakers and Washington think tankers are bustling with ideas about how the United States might ease economic pressure against the Cuban regime. While the new administration has said U.S. policy toward Cuba is currently under review, Biden promised during the presidential campaign to reverse Donald Trump’s policies toward Cuba and return “in large part” to the level of engagement under his former boss, President Barack Obama, who took the step of normalizing relations with Havana.
But these are not normal times in which the United States has the luxury to debate the best approach to Cuba on normal terms—Republican or Democratic policies, sticks or carrots, maximum pressure or engagement. The starting point of any conversation about U.S. policy toward Cuba needs to be a piece of unfinished business from the previous administration: the still-unfolding mystery of how 26 American diplomats were injured in Havana in 2016 and 2017.
The exact origins of the injuries remain uncertain, but the known and emerging evidence suggests the Cuban regime is guilty, if not by commission then at least by omission, of injuring U.S. personnel. This episode represents a likely direct attack on one country’s citizens by another, and there has yet to be a full accounting of who is responsible and how it all happened, or a resolution. If the Biden administration is tempted to engage anew with Havana, it must first hold the Cuban government to account for what these American diplomats endured.
I had a unique window into the mystery of the Havana attacks while serving from 2017-19 in the State Department. A few months before my arrival, at least as early as December 2016, U.S. personnel in Havana began hearing loud, piercing sounds and feeling pressure in their heads. At first, American officials on the ground reasonably assumed this was another form of harassment or surveillance by Cuban security services, who had long antagonized U.S. personnel (and even their pets) in Havana—attempts to signal that the regime was watching and was fully in control.
But by early 2017, it became clear that what was happening to U.S. personnel was causing them injury. Their symptoms included headaches, balance problems, cognitive issues, hearing loss and sleep disruption. The U.S. chargé d’affaires in Havana raised the issue multiple times with the Cuban government starting in February 2017, including with then-President Raúl Castro. Yet the “incidents,” as they were called by State Department officials at the time, continued. As a result, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision to reduce U.S. staff in Havana and issue a travel warning in late September 2017, the month after the attacks became public.
Cuba consistently denied involvement. Instead, the regime has peddled the theory that the cause was mass psychogenic illness—aka. mass hysteria—among America’s diplomatic personnel. Conveniently, this theory absolves Cuba of blame, shifting it instead to the victims. Yet the theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny now, and never did.
For one, neurospecialists in Miami, as well as at a premier U.S. brain injury center in Pennsylvania, have documented physical injuries in the victims. The latter group published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2018 documenting that the 21 victims who were studied “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.” What’s more, it wasn’t just the cohort of Americans living in Cuba who were affected. U.S. officials who traveled to Havana on temporary duty, some for only a few days, also suffered injuries. So did at least 15 Canadian diplomats, who were working under less stressful conditions than their American counterparts, given that the Canadian government has long maintained a good relationship with the Cuban regime. Canada took the attacks so seriously that it, too, drew down its staff in Havana.
The most recent research—including a State Department-commissioned report released last year by the National Academy of Sciences—has concluded that the victims’ symptoms and experiences are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy on brain networks. The study concludes further that directed energy is the “most plausible” explanation for the symptoms suffered. Directed energy is not new as a tool of espionage; it has been used for years, including against the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the 1970s.
The United States can draw three reasonable conclusions from the research suggesting pulsed energy was involved. First, the energy had to have been directed by actors, meaning at least one nation-state likely was involved. Second, U.S. and Canadian diplomats were deliberately targeted. Third, the “incidents” can appropriately be called “attacks” for which the Cuban government is at least partially responsible. Even if the original intent was spycraft and even if Cuba itself did not author the attacks, they continued for months after the United States had told the Cuban government that U.S. personnel were injured on Cuban soil, and Cuba failed to protect those Americans from injury.
It is possible that a third-country actor was involved in the attacks or was the primary actor. Media reports have pointed to Russia as the most likely perpetrator, or sometimes Iran or China. In 2017 and 2018, U.S. personnel in Guangzhou, China, experienced injuries consistent with those in Cuba. There also have been subsequent media reports of attacks against U.S. government personnel in Poland, Georgia, Australia and Taiwan.
Even if other countries were involved, however, it is impossible to conclude that dozens of attacks could have taken place in Havana without at least the knowledge—and tacit support—of the Cuban government. The Cubans are known for having air-tight control of the population in Havana, including closely tracking dissidents and foreign diplomats. Some of the American victims were staying in Cuban government-owned hotels, several of which were included in the travel warnings issued by the State Department in 2017 as a result of the attacks. In one case, a U.S. diplomat was attacked within hours of arriving in country. It is implausible that Cuban security services had no idea American travelers were attacked—and far more likely that the security services, or some factions within them, facilitated or carried out the attacks.
As to the Cubans’ potential motive, the timing is suggestive. Fidel Castro, the country’s longtime leader, died on November 25, 2016, just a month before the first attacks were reported to U.S. leadership at the embassy in Havana. Some observers have floated theories about internal tension within the Cuban regime after Fidel’s death, with different factions holding competing views about the opening with the United States, the Cuban economy and other policies. The attacks, the thinking goes, might have been the work of a faction that opposed warmer relations with Washington.
So, what should the new U.S. administration do now? The Biden administration recently signaled a continued focus on the Havana attacks by appointing a high-level coordinator in the State Department, mirroring the Trump administration’s tapping the deputy secretary of State to be the lead official coordinating the response. This is a good first step, but it is not sufficient. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are urging the new president to lift restrictions on Cuban travel and remittances, as well as the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. These calls demand nothing in return from the Cuban government—neither progress on human rights and democracy nor the cessation of support for the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela, much less answers to how at least 26 Americans were injured in Havana.
Cuba almost certainly has information about the tools and method of attacks that could help the United States protect its personnel around the world. The United States should not ease economic pressure until that information is shared. If the new administration were to do so without first holding Cuba to account for the attacks, this would send the message that U.S. diplomats all over the world are fair game. The implication would be that there is no cost for injuring Americans, and in fact doing so wins you U.S. tourism and dollars.
The Biden administration has signaled that it will use a variety of strategies to hold other countries to account for their actions. The United States recently sanctioned Russian officials for the poisoning of a Russian opposition leader, for example, and launched airstrikes after rocket attacks against the U.S. facilities in Iraq. The administration must send a clear message that attacking or facilitating attacks on U.S. diplomats is not acceptable either. Accountability for the injuries of these 26 Americans must begin where the attacks started, in Havana.