Something Rotten in the State of Cuba

“Mysterious happenings” has been the most common trope summoned by the media over recent weeks about the strange occurrences in Cuba that began in late 2016 but were first confirmed by a U.S. official last month. And for good reason.

A number of American and Canadian diplomats working in the staunchly communist Caribbean island nation have been diagnosed with hearing loss, nausea, headaches, balance disorders and conditions as serious as mild traumatic brain injury and damage to the central nervous system.

The confounding stories of the diplomats falling victim to bizarre “health attacks,” as they have been labeled, include odd details like the fact of sounds and sensations experienced by personnel in specific rooms or even parts of rooms.

The incidents occurred in the homes of the U.S. officials, and in at least one hotel, the recently renovated Hotel Capri.

One of the 21 American diplomats stricken thus far, for example, said he experienced a “blaring, grinding noise” while lying in his bed. When he moved just a few feet away, there was silence. The peculiar noise began again after he climbed back into bed.

“It was as if he’d walked through some invisible wall cutting straight through his room,” the Associated Press, which interviewed the diplomat, described it. The man, like many of the other victims, experienced hearing loss and speech problems.

Some of the diplomats felt vibrations and heard loud ringing — which they initially thought were their alarm clocks — or a high-pitched chirping, they said; others, the grinding noise. Many said the attacks seemed to come at night, with several reporting they came in minute-long bursts.

Others still heard and felt nothing at all but ended up with the same symptoms.

Making things even more baffling is the insistence of scientists that the sort of mild brain injury diagnosed in some of the diplomats is unlikely to result from even jarring sounds. No single, sonic instrument, they say, can explain the physical responses observed.

“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” said former MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert Joseph Pompei. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”

Investigators have considered several theories to explain the strange happenings, from an intentional attack by Cuba’s government, to that of a rogue faction of the island’s security forces, to the machinations of a third country like Russia, which much evidence indicates interfered with last year’s American presidential elections.

Although the White House has stopped short of accusing Cuba of purposely perpetrating the attacks on its citizens, Washington did expel two Cuban diplomats last month, charging Havana with failing to protect Americans serving in the country.

And President Trump upset Cuba in June, when he announced that he would be rolling back much of the Obama administration’s policies to open the island nation to American investment and travel. The president called that move a “terrible and misguided deal” that benefits only the “repressive” Castro regime.

Cuba responded by asserting that the U.S. is “not in a position to give us lessons” about human rights.

The communist country’s Foreign Ministry, moreover, stated last month that it “has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception.” It also offered full cooperation in the investigation and said it was treating the situation “with utmost importance.”

And, in fact, Cuba has permitted American and Canadian investigators to come to Havana and carry on their work unhindered. F.B.I. and Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigators swept the rooms, looking for devices.

So far, they have found nothing.

What is more, unlike the U.S., Canada has maintained warm ties to Cuba for decades, and so, it is unlikely that Canadian diplomatic households in Cuba would be targeted for any perceived slight by the U.S.

But the investigation continues, as well it should. There may be some natural explanation, unlikely as it might seem at this point. Or there could be an individual or state culprit, either confirming one of the initial theories or from some other corner of the world. Certainly, Cuba’s seeming determination to allow the investigation to proceed unimpeded would seem to point in some other direction.

In our complex world today, where invisible technological forces have wreaked havoc on the defenses and political processes of nations and on the privacy and freedoms of citizens, puzzling happenings like those of the past months in Cuba demand that the investigation be intensified, and all evidence followed to see where it may lead.