The University of Miami received a nervous call from the Trump administration: U.S. diplomats in Havana were getting sick with headaches, dizziness and hearing loss. Washington needed answers.
At least six patients were flown from Cuba to the university’s hospital this year to determine the cause of a medical mystery that was dogging several people who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The illnesses appeared to be caused by some kind of sonic wave machine, and the symptoms worsened with prolonged exposure, said a person who was briefed on the situation but was not authorized to comment.
One of the patients had a more serious illness that involved a blood disorder, the person said. This month, a University of Miami specialist went to Havana to examine others who work at the embassy, because officials expect that more people were affected.
On Friday, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said the illnesses were a result of “health attacks,” adding, “We’ve not been able to determine who’s to blame.”
The episode was the latest in a series of disputes between the nations. It baffled even the most senior Cuba experts, who wondered whether a rogue element of Cuban intelligence intent on ending President Barack Obama’s reconciliation efforts had pulled off an unauthorized caper or, more likely, whether a new kind of eavesdropping technology went awry.
“This is likely another installment in the long saga of spy-vs.-spy in U.S.-Cuba relations,” said Peter Kornbluh, a co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”
The Cuban government has long harassed U.S. government employees in Havana. Stories of feces left in diplomats’ residences became part of Cold War lore. The power would go out, and agents would tailgate diplomats’ vehicles and make it impossible to change lanes. But the recent sicknesses were worse than the standard harassment, even in the worst times, officials said.
“They would come into your house and erase the pictures of your kids off your computer, or turn all the books around on your bookshelf, just to show you that you had no privacy,” said James Cason, who ran the U.S. Interests Section in Havana a decade ago. “They never did anything physical to anybody.”
The mystery deepened last week, when Canada said that its employees had also gotten sick.
“Cuba has very good relations with them, so it doesn’t make sense for them to have been a target of something intentionally designed to injure, even if it was a rogue operation,” said William M. LeoGrande, a professor at American University who is the other author of “Back Channel To Cuba.” “None of the existing speculations make any sense to me.”
John Caulfield, chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2011 to 2014, said it was “inconceivable” that a third government would have been able to act without the knowledge if not the cooperation of the Cubans. The Cuban government, he said, kept “such close tabs on us they would’ve immediately detected someone else.”
He added, “My speculation is that it was a surveillance effort that went bad.”
In a statement Thursday, the Cuban Foreign Ministry said that “Cuba has never allowed or will it allow the Cuban territory to be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, without exception.”
Several Americans cut their tours in Cuba short after falling ill last year, the State Department said, adding that the government expelled two Cuban diplomats from Washington, because Cuba had failed in its obligation to keep U.S. diplomats safe.
The State Department said the employees got sick in late 2016. The Cuban government learned of it in February and two of its diplomats were expelled in May.
Mark Feierstein, a former senior adviser at the National Security Council, said the fact that President Donald Trump did not tear up the Obama administration’s Cuba policy demonstrated that even the Trump administration did not believe that Cuban senior officials were responsible. In June, Trump curtailed a few minor Cuba policy rules, but left the majority of Obama’s measures intact.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security in the Obama administration who helped negotiate the normalization of relations with Cuba, said he also found it inconceivable that Cuba would intentionally physically harm U.S. diplomats.
“It just doesn’t strike me as something the Cuban government would do,” Rhodes said. “They’ve been pragmatic about Trump.”