It sounded like a Hollywood spy story come to life. U.S. and Canada's diplomats claimed that while working in Havana, Cuba they had been hit by some debilitating ‘sonic attacks’ hearing strange “buzzing” or “high-pitched” sounds and later suffering an array of symptoms including: headaches, nausea, hearing loss, cognitive problems, and loss of balance. This news made headlines around the world in the summer of 2017 with analysts in both Canada and the U.S. blaming the Cuban government or so-called, "rogue elements of the Cuban government".
Since the problem began in 2017 about 40 diplomats and their families from the U.S. and Canada have reported feeling the symptoms. At first, these were labelled ‘sonic attacks.’ However, multiple scientists and researchers in Cuba and around the world questioned the possibility of an unknown advanced technology that could direct sonic/microwaves to target specific individuals. Everyone claimed this type of technology has yet to be invented in a manner sophisticated enough to cause the illnesses claimed by the diplomats. Yet across Canada and the U.S. so-called analysts continued making outlandish remarks with little evidence about what had happened, and the mainstream media continued to report on it.
An article in the UK Independent News recounts some of the steps the U.S. government took in August 2017. They explain, “the US expelled two Cuban diplomats in direct response to the unexplained illnesses. The following month the US then removed all non-essential staff from the US embassy in Havana and warned US citizens not to travel to Cuba. In October 2017, Donald Trump, then in the first year of his presidency, said: “It’s a very unusual attack, as you know. But I do believe Cuba is responsible.”
However, only a month before President Trump’s assertion that Cuba was responsible, his own State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert explained that the U.S. administration had no answers about the source or cause of the ‘incidents’. President Trump never produced any proof to back up his claim, and the Cuban government declared the whole campaign about sonic attacks, “science fiction”.
On April 16, 2018, Global Affairs Canada announced in a statement its decision "to change the designation of our Embassy of Canada to Cuba to an ‘unaccompanied post’. This means that Canadian diplomats posted to Cuba will not be accompanied by their dependants." This statement did not refer to ‘sonic attacks’, labelling the issues as "unusual health symptoms."
The case unravels
As the months went by the case of these ‘sonic attacks’ has slowly unravelled. Unlike the initial U.S.-Cuba Cold War era sensational spy story, many of the follow-up discoveries by scientific experts were not so widely covered in the mainstream news.
First, "The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome", an article published in The New Yorker Magazine in November 2018, explains that most U.S. research of the so-called 'victims' was centred at the University of Pennsylvania. The article explains that in February 2018, “Douglas Smith and his team at the University of Pennsylvania published their preliminary findings in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). They argued that the victims appeared to suffer from a new type of “brain network disorder,” which was similar to the damage seen in patients with mild traumatic brain injuries or with persistent symptoms after concussions."
However, this report was widely criticized in the U.S. and around the world. The New Yorker article further explains, "JAMA received letters from other specialists, arguing that the study was flawed, especially in neglecting psychological explanations. Mitchell Joseph Valdés-Sosa, a member of a team of scientists investigating the incidents for the Cuban government, seized on the criticism as evidence that the Americans were embracing unproven theories. “The conclusion that there’s brain damage isn’t sustainable by the data,” he said. He added that the victims’ symptoms were common and could have been present before they arrived in Cuba."
The article also quotes Johana Tablada, the deputy director-general of the U.S. division at the Foreign Ministry of Cuba (MINREX), who summarized all of these conflicting reports and lack of evidence shared with the Cubans, stating, “After a year and a half, the most powerful nation on earth hasn’t been able to present one single piece of evidence.”
Secondly, one of the audio sounds recorded by a diplomat and released by the Associated Press was analyzed by Alexander Stubbs a UC Berkeley integrative biology Ph.D. student and Prof. Fernando Montealegre-Zapata of the University of Lincoln. In their research paper published on January 4, 2019, they explain, "the calling song of the Indies short-tailed cricket (Anurogryllus celerinictus) matches, in nuanced detail, the AP recording in duration, pulse repetition rate, power spectrum, pulse rate stability, and oscillations per pulse.” This further backed-up the idea that few experts were willing to continue calling this a ‘sonic attack’ and that the term fell out of favor with the U.S. and Canada governments as well.
Despite this, at the end of January 2019, Canada announced it was cutting its staff at the Embassy in Havana in half. A week later a group of five diplomats who had been stationed in Havana filed a lawsuit against the government of Canada. According to an Associated Press article, these five and their families are claiming $28 million in damages to their health and well-being from the government of Canada. The lawsuit alleges that "diplomats [were] prevented from considering the true risks of a Havana posting to their own health, but they were also denied the opportunity to protect their children and must live with the knowledge that they may never fully recover."
Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau responded by saying, “There is no question that the health impacts on diplomats in Cuba have been visible and real. [...] We are continuing to work with local authorities and work with the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) to determine what is the source of these sounds or this issue they are facing.”
On May 8, 2019, the government of Canada suspended all visa services to Cubans wishing to travel to Canada, again citing the “unusual health symptoms”. This was a cruel move by the government of Canada as Cubans who were unable to get visas to travel to Canada were: separated from their families living in Canada; could not come to study or work in Canada; and many cultural and sports exchanges between the two countries had to be cancelled. It was a very unpopular move and created pushback across Canada and Cuba (To learn more please read and sign the Canadian Network on Cuba petition).
Five studies released no conclusive results
Dr. Robert Bartholomew, a medical sociologist of Botany Downs Secondary College in New Zealand has co-authored two research papers on ‘Havana Syndrome’. The first was published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry in August 2018 and the second was published in October 2019 in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. His latest report titled, "Challenging the diagnosis of ‘Havana Syndrome’ as a novel clinical entity" promotes the theory that those suffering from ‘Havana Syndrome’ are actually suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or shell shock, as the symptoms are similar to those associated with extreme stress or war trauma.
In the paper released in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the researchers assert, "What is the more likely, that the diplomats were the target of a mysterious new weapon for which there is no concrete evidence, or they were suffering from psychogenic symptoms generated by stress? The evidence overwhelmingly points to the latter. [...] Our conclusions are grounded in the prosaic and known science. There is no need to resort to exotic explanations. Claims that the patients were suffering from brain and auditory damage are not borne out by the data.”
They also challenge the results of the four other studies of ‘Havana Syndrome’ to date, accusing the other findings of "design flaws" in their research.
Interestingly one of the studies Dr. Robert Bartholomew is critiquing was commissioned by Global Affairs Canada and conducted by researchers in Halifax, affiliated with the Brain Repair Centre, Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority. They identified that the symptoms are consistent with low dose exposure to neurotoxins. The working theory is that diplomats may have been affected by the use of pesticides sprayed against mosquitos which can spread diseases like Zika virus and dengue fever. A CBC News article titled, "Havana syndrome: Exposure to neurotoxin may have been caused, study suggests" explains, “The researchers found that since 2016, Cuba launched an aggressive campaign against mosquitoes to stop the spread of the Zika virus. The embassies actively sprayed in offices, as well as inside and outside diplomatic residences — sometimes five times more frequently than usual. Many times, spraying operations were carried out every two weeks, according to embassy records. Toxicological analysis of the Canadian victims confirmed the presence of pyrethroid and organophosphate — two compounds found in fumigation products. There was also a correlation between the individuals most affected by the symptoms and the number of fumigations that were performed at their residence.”
The government of Canada’s hypocrisy
While this report seems quite credible, it does not account for the situation of U.S. diplomats and the researchers that are now planning to work with Cuban authorities to further investigate the results of their theory. However, it is interesting that research paid for by the government of Canada demonstrates that indeed Cuba is not to blame (as most of the spraying was conducted by the embassy itself). Yet Global Affairs Canada maintains that, despite the release of the report, it “hasn't definitively determined a cause to the mysterious ailments.” Furthermore, Canada has not restored all services at the Canadian Embassy in Havana Cuba which were cut off in May 2019.
On November 26, 2019, the National Post newspaper published an article titled, "In court filing, Canadian government argues diplomats exaggerated 'Havana Syndrome' claims behind $28M lawsuit." This article deepened the hypocrisy of the government of Canada who are now accusing the diplomats of exaggeration in the claims in the lawsuit. The article explains, “Government lawyers acknowledge that some of the 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit exhibited concussion-like symptoms, but say the cause is unknown and that “in any case, the Defendant pleads that there is no definitive medical diagnosis of any medical condition, illness or disease called Havana Syndrome, notwithstanding the use of this term by the Plaintiffs.” They say the government “has no knowledge or insufficient knowledge” to conclusively determine how many plaintiffs were affected by the symptoms referred to as Havana Syndrome.”
This makes it clear why the government of Canada has been so cautious in the language it uses and whether or not to accept the findings of the report commissioned from the Brain Repair Centre, Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority. They are worried about this lawsuit. Nevertheless, while the government of Canada accuses the diplomats of exaggerating, they continue to refuse to fully restore services to Cubans at the Canadian Embassy in Havana, Cuba.
Whether caused by pesticides, mass hysteria or a form of shell shock/stress it is clear there were no ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba. Overall the question remains if there is something concrete that impacted diplomats or if it is simply “psychogenic symptoms generated by stress”. In all cases, it is quite clear that the Cuban government was not targeting diplomats from Canada or the U.S. and this campaign against Cuba was yet another red herring thrown on the path to stop the real normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. It also seems it was meant to scare tourists from Canada and the U.S. from travelling to Cuba and generally promote suspicion in the U.S. and Canada towards the Cuban people and their revolutionary government. All in all, it seems this Hollywood spy story of ‘sonic attacks’ and ‘Havana Syndrome’ is more fiction than fact.
Follow Tamara on Twitter: @THans01
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