In November 2016, personnel at the US and Canadian embassies in Havana, Cuba began reporting unusual sounds and symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, nausea, confusion, and nosebleeds. These combined symptoms would go on to be called “Havana Syndrome” and two dozen US Embassy workers were diagnosed with the syndrome (National Security Archive). The cause of Havana Syndrome is widely believed to be weapons utilizing microwave radiation emplaced by the Cuban government. In October 2017, then-President Donald Trump at a news conference stated “I do believe Cuba’s responsible. I do believe that” and also specifically labeled it as an attack (The Guardian). These same noises and symptoms were reported by US government employees in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and at least one case was confirmed in Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China (National Security Archive).
Microwave radiation and its weaponization has been a topic of discussion since the Cold War. The US once feared that the Soviet Union was developing microwave weapons to be used as a form of mind control. The US itself uses some microwave weapons, including the Active Denial System that heats the water in a human’s skin which causes immense pain. There is even speculation that the microwave weapons supposedly used by Cuba were shipped to the country from Russia. However, this has not been proven.
In early 2018, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered the convening of an Accountability Review Board (National Security Review), led by former Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde . This is a review process that investigates security incidents with State Department staff. The Board’s 104 page report was released to the public in 2019 (National Security Review). After nearly three months of investigation that report concluded that at least 24 “Embassy Havana community members” developed brain injuries of varying severity. The report states that a few of those injured weren’t able to return to their jobs and may never be able to do so in the future. Also mentioned by the Board were approximately 10 Canadian embassy workers that also received brain injuries, but the severity of injury was not specified. Lastly, the Board did find that these incidents were “security related” and characterized them as “targeted action”. Part of its justification for this conclusion was the fact that only American and Canadian embassy personnel received these injuries in Havana.
In September 2017, Secretary Tillerson ordered the evacuation of all non-emergency personnel from the embassy. The ARB recommended that overall responsibility for Cuba be assigned to the Deputy Secretary of State. The Board also recommended establishing a department task force to take action on the failings outlined in the report, the coordination of a study on Havana Syndrome incidents with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the mandation of pre and post-assignment medical screenings for those assigned to duty in Cuba (National Security Review).
Once the incidents were made public, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez stated that Washington was “deliberately lying” and said that the incidents were being used “as a political pretext for damaging bilateral relations and eliminating the progress” that had been made by the two countries in recent years. Rodriguez also claimed that Cuba has no weapons or technology that are capable of causing the symptoms attributed to the syndrome. That claim was also asserted by Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Alazo, the head of the Cuban Interior Ministry’s criminal division. Colonel Ramiro Ramirez, Chief of Diplomatic Security for the ministry, said that Cuban launched its own investigation involving almost 2,000 scientists and law enforcement officers (Mitchell). In the end, Cuba said it wasn’t able to find anything that could link the symptoms of the syndrome. Cuban officials also stated the FBI refused to share medical records of those diplomats that were injured and also refused Cuban investigators access into their homes.
A study done by the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the affected diplomats did experience the symptoms they had reported and did receive varying degrees of brain damage. However, the study did not attribute the syndrome to an attack (Sample). Another study was conducted by Dr. Alon Friedman M.D. and the Dalhousie University Brain Repair Center in Nova Scotia, Canada and was funded by Global Affairs Canada. This study surveyed 26 Canadians, 23 of which were diplomats and family members. The conclusion was that Havana Syndrome may be caused by an overexposure to pesticides used to fight Zika virus. The particular pesticide, Temephos, was found in six out of the ten surveyed individuals thought to have been “remotely exposed” to pesticide during their time in Havana. While Temephos was outlawed in the United States by the EPA, it is still used in Cuba as the country continues its fight against Zika (Christensen). When speaking on the study Dr. Friedman stated, “(i)t took us many months to get to this conclusion, and there is lots of research to be done still, but this is the beginning of an answer to what happened, we think”. In addition to co-authoring the study Friedman is a professor of neuroscience at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel.
There is still much we don’t know about Havana Syndrome and it may be a while before more information becomes available. Regardless of the syndrome’s cause, US diplomats and their families should always be mindful of their surroundings and familiarize themselves with the countries they are assigned to.
About the Author: Brodie Kirkpatrick is a Marine veteran and political science student in the San Francisco Bay Area. He runs the Analyze & Educate podcast.
Christensen, Jen. “Cuba ‘Sonic Attack’ Might Be Connected to Insecticide Intended to Fight Zika, Study Says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 23 Sept. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/09/23/health/cuba-sonic-attack-pesticide-zika-study.
Mitchell, Andrea, et al. “Cubans Forcefully Reject Blame for U.S. Diplomats’ Mystery Ailments.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 13 Feb. 2018, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/cubans-forcefully-reject-blame-u-s-diplomats-mystery-ailments-n813581.
National Security Archive, 2018, Accountability Review Board June 2018, nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20474983-havana-cuba-accountability-review-board-june-2018.
Sample, Ian. “Fresh Row over Mysterious Sickness Affecting US Diplomats in Cuba.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Feb. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/24/fresh-row-over-mysterious-sickness-affecting-us-diplomats-in-cuba.
Staff and agencies. “Trump Says Cuba ‘Responsible’ for Alleged Sonic Attacks, but Offers No Evidence.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/16/trump-says-cuba-responsible-for-alleged-sonic-attacks-but-offers-no-evidence.