Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Havana health mystery

It’s enough to wake you from a long nap.

Two dozen U.S. diplomats and a handful of Canadians in Havana suffered a disparate set of symptoms centering on hearing and cognitive problems. Unnamed U.S. officials were soon speculating in the press about attacks by unseen, sophisticated devices beaming sound waves. Within weeks Senator Rubio was urging the Secretary of State to expel all of Cuba’s diplomats and to close its Washington embassy. Eventually the State Department pulled most U.S. diplomats out of Cuba and forced Cuba to do the same from Washington.

This is a doozy even in the context of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The single common characteristic of all the U.S. persons affected is that they all worked in the U.S. Embassy. Presumably the embassy building has been investigated for its environmental factors, acoustic and otherwise – but the parts of the U.S. investigation that have been most discussed in public have involved their homes and hotels where some were living temporarily, and where they are said to have experienced “unusual sounds or auditory sensations,” according to a State Department doctor.

The shorthand for what happened in Havana quickly became “sonic attacks,” even though there is no evidence of attacks, sonic or otherwise.

What we really have is a health mystery that has confounded U.S., Canadian, and Cuban investigators.

The FBI, after sending agents and their equipment four times to Havana, has concluded that there is no evidence of a sonic attack, according to AP. And experts in acoustics scratch their heads at the idea that there could exist a device that can direct sound waves of any kind – within, above, or below the audible spectrum – with the strength required to injure a targeted person without affecting anyone else nearby.

But you have to hand it to Senator Rubio and his allies: “Sonic attacks” is quite a branding triumph. Without having to argue the merits of having diplomatic relations with Cuba, they scored a substantial policy victory that has hobbled diplomatic relations. When he called for expulsion of all Cuba’s diplomats in a letter last September, Rubio alleged that U.S. diplomats had suffered “’acoustic’ attacks;” today he has retreated from that position and instead argues that whatever happened, Cuba surely knows and won’t say.

Secretary Tillerson agrees. He doesn’t argue that this is some kind of Operation Mongoose in reverse, but rather that “someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end.”

The State Department also uses the term “attacks” consistently, such as in this testimony last week – which seems a little foolish when in the same breath the same officials testify that they don’t know what happened, how it happened, or who did it. (No Senator pressed the point.) A friend speculates that the repeated use of the term is a way to link the issue to the Vienna Convention’s requirement that governments “take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack” on the “person, freedom or dignity” of diplomats in their territory.

I don’t doubt that harms occurred, but it’s hard to put stock in any of the theories put forward so far. The sonic theory seems debunked. The idea that a third country carried out attacks on Cuban territory is hard to believe, not least because no one who advances it shows evidence or explains why a state would venture such a deeply hostile act against Cuba. Maybe there’s a rogue element of Cuban intelligence, but those who break with the system in Cuba tend to leave rather than risk their necks causing trouble at home. In his hearing, Senator Rubio was quite sure that no one from Miami could be involved. A CIA hand, recalling acts against our Moscow embassy years ago, guesses that it could have been a surveillance effort gone wrong. In last week’s hearing, the State Department mentioned the possibility of a virus.

We may never know.

This being a Cuba issue, politics has entered the picture, in some cases in ways that may make the investigation less effective.

·      Senator Rubio and the State Department claim that Cuba absolutely must know what happened. That’s a politically convenient thing to say, but it’s cheap and not credible. Cuban intelligence services are quite good, but neither they nor any foreign service bats 1,000. In recent history there have been terrorist attacks and drug operations carried out in Cuba without prior detection.

·      The removal of U.S. diplomats was for safety reasons and the Cubans were sent home for reasons of reciprocity. But the State Department calls it an expulsion and gave the Cuban Embassy a list of names of those ordered to leave. That sounds like a punitive action more fitting in a case where the Administration is assigning blame, something it has not done. It sounds even more like acquiescence to Senator Rubio, who from the first wanted Cuba’s diplomats expelled and its embassy closed.

·      The use of the word “attacks” in the absence of evidence sounds quite political too.

·      When it comes to the investigation, it is to be expected that U.S. agencies would not share every shred of evidence, every source and method. But Cuba is clearly investigating and its ability to do so is limited by an arm’s-length U.S. posture. For example, why is it not possible to give detailed medical information to Cuban investigators, with identities stripped to protect privacy? Why not assent to Cuba’s request for a meeting between its medical team and ours?

·      In the months that have passed, it is not clear that the two sides have worked out a system for immediate response in the event that a new incident is reported.

Meanwhile, there are costs.

Cuba’s consulate in Washington is barely staffed, slowing the processing of passports, visas, and legal documents. In Havana, the U.S. consulate is handling U.S. citizen emergencies and issuing visas only for diplomats and persons needing to travel due to acute health emergencies. Cuban applicants for immigrant visas have to travel to the U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia, where they are told to plan to spend two weeks. Applicants for non-immigrant visas may travel to any U.S. consulate to apply. (In each case, for 99 percent of Cuban applicants, these options are impossible.) The result is that travel in both directions is hampered, especially for Cubans wishing to travel to the United States. Academic and cultural exchanges are stopping. The United States will not meet its pledge, undertaken in the 1994 immigration accord, to issue 20,000 immigrant visas annually. In the face of a State Department travel warning (now slightly softened), Americans are continuing to travel to Cuba, but apparently in reduced numbers. Cuban private restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and other businesses that serve American travelers are suffering, as are entrepreneurs who supply them with goods and services.

As for the non-consular side of the U.S. Embassy, there are no staff in the political and economic sections, so there is extremely limited reporting capacity at a time when Cuba is about to go through a leadership transition and the uncertainty that will come with a government that, for the first time in 60 years, is not led by a Castro.

There is no clear way out.

In March, Secretary Tillerson will have to decide what to do with the Havana-based diplomats who were withdrawn, still formerly assigned to Havana but left to cool their heels in Washington.

He has said that he wants “assurances” from Cuba, but given that Cuba insists that it did not cause this problem and hasn’t discovered its cause, the only assurances it is likely to offer are that it will continue to investigate and to beef up protection. (Cuba’s foreign minister discusses the topic here, and this program describes Cuba’s investigation.)

The Secretary could send our diplomats back to Havana, but in the AP story cited above he said: “I’d be intentionally putting them back in harm’s way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them? I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that.”

Our diplomats’ labor union is less risk-averse. Contrary to what you would expect from a union, its president, Barbara Stephenson, said last September that danger is “our reality…We’ve got a mission to do…The answer can’t be we just pull the flag down and move American presence from the field.”

In sum, three factors have brought us to where we are: an unsolved health mystery, a Secretary of State who is admirably extremist about employee safety, and some actors leveraging all this to shut down diplomacy, consular services, and contacts. Formally speaking, U.S. policy may not have changed, but the diplomatic apparatus that allows it to work is partially mothballed. And the United States’ reduced presence in Havana has us flying blind, worse than when we had just an Interests Section. It is not clear that this last factor matters to Secretary Tillerson.

With the passage of time, is it too much to hope that our diplomatic presence could be restored and then altered only if evidence provides a reason to do so?

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