US-Cuba relations remain tense amid release of new medical study

By: Joseph Cain, CIB Americas Section
Analytical Question: Will relations between the United States and Cuba improve in 2018?

The United States Department of State recently released a medical study concerning US government personnel stationed at the American Embassy in Havana, who experienced a wide array of neurological ailments in 2016 and 2017. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), reinforces our belief that relations between the US and Cuba will not improve in 2018. This is largely due to the decreasing level of trust between Washington and Havana regarding the health and safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed in the Cuban capital.

US embassy in Cuba

Following the rapid improvement of relations between the Washington and Havana under the administration of US  President Barack Obama, a series of unexplained symptoms began plaguing a number of US and Canadian embassy personnel stationed in Cuba. The US Department of State has labelled the cases as “targeted attacks”. Various US government officials have also floated the possibility of third party actors such as Russia or China, or rogue elements of Cuban Security Forces, as the perpetrators. The situation has prompted bilateral relations to revert to Cold War era levels. Under President Donald Trump’s guidance, the US State Department has expelled 17 Cuban diplomats in response to the embassy health scare. It is key to note that none of the Cuban diplomats have been deemed persona non grata, meaning that the US can potentially readmit them if and when relations improve. Also, the State Department evacuated all non-essential members of its embassy staff, and has since issued a level 3 travel advisory (reconsider travel) to US citizens planning to visit Cuba. The Cuban government has strongly denied involvement or knowledge of attacks targeting US diplomatic personnel and has since allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) substantial access in Cuba to conduct a full investigation. However, the Bureau’s probe has not yet provided conclusive evidence. In July of 2017, the Department of State’s Bureau of Medical Services assembled an expert panel to further-review the cases of the affected personnel.

This past Thursday, State Department-tasked scientists concluded in the peer reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association that 21 individuals “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks”. The individuals were tested by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Brain Surgery and Repair and an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami between August of 2016 to Late 2017. Currently the State Department has not identified any of the individuals involved. The Guardian reported in October 2017 that many of these individuals were in fact members of the intelligence community, stationed in Havana under diplomatic cover –something that could possibly explain the lack of transparency. The individuals were tested at an average of 203 days after they first reported related symptoms. Most of the 21 cases reported hearing loud audible noises in their homes and hotel rooms. Two hotels, Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri, were identified as locations where the attacks happened.

The actual cause of these attacks/conditions remains unknown. However, US Embassy personnel were exposed to “directional audible and sensory phenomena” that produced “cognitive, vestibular, and oculomotor dysfunction, along with auditory symptoms, sleep abnormalities, and headache”, according to the report. Dr. Douglas Smith, of the University of Pennsylvania, stated to The New York Times: “We all believe this is a real syndrome. This is concussion without blunt head trauma”.  Initially, the cause was believed to be a sonic weapon due to the noise that most of the embassy workers reported hearing. However, “sound in the audible range (20 Hz-20 000 Hz) is not known to cause persistent injury to the central nervous system”. Mass hysteria, which was proposed by Cuban medical officials, also proved unlikely, as was the possibility of the use of chemical agents (JAMA). The results of this study are key in understanding the most likely direction for US Cuba relations. Without a definitive cause and solution, the normalization process between the two countries is currently stalled. The State Department has also announced that it will not reinstate the rest of embassy staff until safety can be ensured. This in turn has created myriad of problems, especially with regards to awarding visas to Cubans wishing to travel to the US to see family members.

The JAMA study published Thursday is the product of multiple entities within the State Department and experts from University of Pennsylvania and Miami, and has been cited by respectable news outlets such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times.  Thus, it can be stated with high confidence that the findings are dependable. However, the report was supposed to shed light on the mystery, but instead it created more questions that must be answered before US-Cuban relations can progress forward. Conclusively, it can be stated with a high degree of confidence that the findings of the report point towards further ambivalence and stagnation in relations between the US and Cuba.