HAVANA — The mainstream media stories were straight out of a science fiction movie. Somebody in Cuba was aiming a super sophisticated “sonic weapon” at US diplomats here in Havana, causing them to experience hearing loss, dizziness, nausea, severe headaches and even brain damage similar to a concussion.
From December 2016 through February 2017, according to the Trump administration, 22 American diplomats heard strange sounds in their homes and hotel rooms. They suffered a variety of debilitating symptoms.
Trump administration sources told CNN, “The device was so sophisticated, it was outside the range of audible sound. And it was so damaging, that one US diplomat now needs to use a hearing aid.”
President Trump blamed the Cuban government for the attacks. “I do believe Cuba’s responsible,” he said at a Rose Garden press conference. “I do believe that.”
Other administration officials blamed the Russians or rogue elements in the Cuban government.
I went back to Cuba a year later to find out what happened to the sonic weapon story. Turns out the US has produced no evidence that an attack took place, let alone one directed by the Cuban government. The FBI made four visits to Cuba and could find no indications of an attack, according to conservative Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who visited Havana this month.
“This whole thing is bullshit,” one mainstream reporter living in Havana told me.
But the bullshit had serious consequences. Last September, the US used the incident to expel 15 Cuban diplomats from their Washington Embassy and withdrew half the staff from the US Embassy in Havana.
All the US consular staff were evacuated except for one person handling emergency visas. Cubans must now travel to US consulates in Colombia or Mexico to apply for visas, costing them thousands of dollars on top of the existing stiff processing fees.
The Trump administration issued warnings that US visitors to Cuba won’t be safe in a hotel where the alleged attacks took place. To date no tourists have reported coming under sonic weapon attack.
The Cuban government interviewed 300 people living near the homes of US diplomats along with workers at the Hotel Capri where the attacks allegedly took place. Not one person heard the noises claimed by the diplomats nor did they suffer any of the symptoms.
Independent scientists noted that a sonic weapon that caused hearing loss, if it even existed, would have to be mounted on a truck in front of the diplomat’s house.
Sonic waves can’t cause a concussion, according to Jürgen Altmann, a physicist at the Technische Universität Dortmund in Germany. Altmann told The New York Times, “I know of no acoustic effect that can cause concussion symptoms. Sound going through the air cannot shake your head.
The sonic weapon theory proved so ridiculous that the administration has quietly stopped citing it. The US now speculates that some virus or other medical attack may have been responsible.
So what’s really going on? The medical ailments may be rooted in psychosomatic illness. One person can experience symptoms, and in the pressure cooker environment faced by some diplomats, could attribute the problems to an attack. Others then attribute different, unexplained symptoms to a similar attack.
I contacted my old friend Dr. Wendel Brunner, the former public health director of Contra Costa County, who has experience in the field.
“Maybe it is some other, perfectly normal illness, infection, or contamination that is compounded by anxiety of staff being in a tense situation in Cuba,” he told me.
The diplomats’ physical symptoms may be real, he noted, but fear and anxiety may have led to attributing all kinds of symptoms to a non-existent attack.
“I am sure lots of visitors to Cuba have dizziness, headaches, etc., but we don’t hear about it because they don’t work in the Embassy.”
“It seems all too convenient that the Embassy is under mysterious ‘attack’ at a time when the Trump administration wants to disrupt relations with Cuba,” Dr. Brunner added.
So what’s really going on?
The Cuban government certainly has no motivation to debilitate US diplomats. The alleged attacks began in December 2016 just as the US and Cuba were rushing to solidify their newly established relations that benefited the Cuban economy.
The Russians, who the US has speculated were potential attackers, have absolutely no reason to wreck US-Cuban relations. Besides, no third party could engage in such attacks on foreign diplomats without the knowledge of the tightly controlled Cuban intelligence agencies.
Right-wing Cuban Americans in Florida and New Jersey would certainly benefit from disrupting US-Cuban relations. They opposed President Obama’s openings to Cuba and pressured Trump to scale back US visits to the island.
“There is an anti-Cuban mafia in Miami, and we are victims of their dirty work that involve certain people very close to the governing circles of the United States,” said Col. Ramiro Ramírez, the Cuban official responsible for security of diplomats.
But to date the Cubans have offered no evidence that the right-wingers were responsible. So for now, we have to await more evidence before the cause of the illnesses might be explained.
The Trump administration has declined to make any of the victims available for press interviews nor have their medical records been evaluated by independent sources.
But one thing is certain. US visitors to Cuba are in no danger of being zapped by sonic weapons in their hotel rooms. Come on down and see for yourself.
Reese Erlich’s syndicated column on international affairs appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. He has visited Cuba 15 times since 1968. His home page is www.reeseerlich.com; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.