Who is Attacking U.S. Diplomats in Cuba?

Until the U.S. can figure out what is causing the U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba serious health issues, it won’t be able to determine who is responsible for a series of what have been described as possible “sonic attacks”.

In November of 2016 until the spring of 2017, U.S. and Canadian diplomats started reported symptoms of permanent hearing loss or concussions, while others suffered nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. The symptoms were so bad for some that they had to return to the U.S. for treatment.

The health concerns of the diplomats only came to light in August, almost a year after the first symptoms were reported. The U.S. also confirmed that the latest incident occurred in August and 21 of their employees were suffering from symptoms.

In June, five Canadian diplomats and family members reported experiencing symptoms consistent with the symptoms U.S. diplomats experienced.

Some U.S. officials have said that the hearing loss was caused by a possible sonar device placed either inside or near the diplomats’ residences. The employees affected were not at the same place at the same time, and have recounted different symptoms and different recollections of what happened during the incidents. Some felt vibrations and heard sounds while others heard and felt nothing and their symptoms appeared later.

U.S. officials believe the symptoms were caused by an advanced acoustic or sonic device that operated outside the range of audible sound but a number of experts aren’t sure whether such a device exists. It is also unlikely that a device exists that is causing such a wide array of physical responses.

When U.S. officials spoke with President Raúl Castro about the incidents happening in Havana, he denied any responsibility and has promised to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

The U.S. is uncertain about whether Cuba is the perpetrator of the attacks or whether a third party, or rogue group in Cuba is responsible.

Since these attacks are still happening and it is still unclear how they are occurring and who is responsible, the U.S. has debated closing down the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Earlier this year, the U.S. sent home two Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy as retaliation for the Cuban government failing to protect the U.S. people in its country.

The Cuban government has a history of harassing U.S. personnel in Cuba for decades but after the U.S. formally restored relations with Cuba in 2015, the campaign of harassment ended until these incidents began in late 2016. The Cuban government physically and psychologically harassed U.S. employees through surveillance, searching their residences, delaying shipments and limiting travel of U.S. personnel within Havana.

While Cuba has a track record of harassment of U.S. diplomats, the same cannot be said of Canadian officials. Cuba and Canada have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship for over 70 years with close social and economic ties. It’s unclear why Cuba would target Canadian citizens, given this history.

It’s possible the perpetrator may be a third party country such as Russia, or Venezuela, in an attempt to damage the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba; but if there is any evidence which would suggest the nature of perpetrators it has not been publicly revealed.

Russian intelligence has a history of harassing foreign diplomats, even injuring a U.S.Embassy employee in the past. The Russian government has closed U.S. diplomatic sites and expelled U.S. diplomats in the past year, leading to a U.S. response. They are perhaps also the adversary most likely to have access to technology necessary for such an attack.

Another potential suspect is Venezuela, whose possible motive would be retaliation against the U.S for sanctioning Venezuelan leaders. Cuba and Venezuela have close relations, and U.S.-Venezuelan ties have degenerated since pro-democracy protests broke out in the South American Country. President Obama instituted sanctions against Venezuelan leaders in March of 2015, a policy President Trump has since expanded.

While there’s no evidence to rule out a rogue group or non-state actor, given that Cuba is a communist government with tight controls over the country and an efficient internal security forces, it is questionable how a non-state actor would manage to conduct such an attack and remain undetected absent state support.

Whichever part is carrying out the attacks, ultimately Cuba bears the responsibility for protecting diplomats in their nation, and their failure to do so is likely to dampen enthusiasm for continuing to improve U.S.-Cuban relations.