The story of the mysterious health incidents reported by U.S. diplomats in Cuba and other parts of the world seems to be a never-ending story. Five years after the first documented cases, the enigma continues, while the map of the unusual events has spread to nations in Europe, Asia and even the United States itself.
The theories about what happened are dissimilar and, in some cases, contradictory, without science having its last say for now. The investigations carried out have not provided conclusive evidence to date on the cause of the incidents or — if any — on their possible perpetrators, while the snowball has not stopped growing fueled by hypotheses and speculations.
Since the initial reports came to light, released by the Trump administration in 2017 as the spearhead of its particular crusade against the island, the media have capitalized on this matter, jumping from one theory to another and giving shape to a narrative that, at this point, is assumed as valid by a great deal of its audience and brandished by U.S. politicians to target — once again — traditional nemesis such as Cuba and Russia, and win points (votes) with it.
That narrative, which quickly focused on the disorders reported as a result of deliberate “attacks,” soon unleashed a crisis between Washington and Havana, which reduced diplomatic representation to a minimum and paralyzed the consular procedures of the United States on the island, gave rise to the expulsion of Cuban officials from the United States, heated the rhetoric on one side and the other, and served as a trigger for the drastic setback in bilateral relations and the successive sanctions of the Trump administration against Cuba.
What at first officials and the media considered the result of “sonic attacks” has since gone through various explanations as the cause of a collection of symptoms that includes dizziness, nausea, hearing loss, migraine, brain injuries, anxiety and fatigue, among others. Such symptoms, although not described as a homogeneous group in all those presumably affected, have been gathered under the label “Havana Syndrome,” of indisputable media effect and named after the first place where the strange incidents were reported.
Microwaves — and, above all, a possible weapon with this technology — are the most mentioned perpetrators in recent times, even handled at the end of 2020 as the “most plausible mechanism” in a report by the United States Academies of Science, which, however, recognized that “every possible cause remains within a speculative context.” Something that could be said, at least for the time being, of the rest of the theories.
In any case, there are already more than 200 Americans — in addition to a group of Canadian diplomats — who have reported being allegedly affected by the mysterious ailment, and just this Wednesday Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin asked in a letter to his troops that they report suspicious symptoms and events that could be related to the suspected syndrome and immediately move away from the place where they were experienced.
Since the Pandora’s box of health incidents was opened, the Cuban government has emphatically denied any involvement of the island in the events and has reiterated that the allegations to the Caribbean country by U.S. politicians and officials lack scientific foundations and are “politically motivated.” In addition, it has been questioned that the reported symptoms are the consequence of any aggression and, even — supported by the opinion of its own and foreign experts — that what is documented is a single disorder.
Similarly, the island’s authorities have advocated international collaboration — and, in particular, with the United States — in order to resolve the enigma, and they have lamented the impossibility of accessing the affected people and the evidence that the Americans have obtained. reserved for their own investigations.
Even with these limitations, Cuban specialists have carried out their own field studies and analyzes based on known evidence and data and exchanges with scientists from various countries. And, although without having a conclusive answer either, they have refuted the theories that point to possible attacks against diplomats in Havana — carried out, allowed or unknown by the largest of the Caribbean islands — and have been in favor of considering other hypotheses referring to psychological factors, mass hysteria, pre-existing clinical conditions and neurotoxins, among others.
The most recent chapter in the Cuban response is the technical report by a committee of experts from the Cuban Academy of Sciences (ACC) released this week. The document, prepared by specialists from various scientific branches — such as neurophysiology, biophysics, bioengineering, otorhinolaryngology, epidemiology, toxicology, psychology and psychiatry, among others — is based on research carried out on the island and the analysis of everything published and debated on the subject so far and seeks to dismantle the narrative of the “mysterious syndrome.”
Although they acknowledge that they lack “critical information” — referring to data and testimonies held by the United States to which they have not had access — the island’s experts claim to offer in their report “plausible interpretations that better fit the available facts than the story of the ‘mystery syndrome’,” and they conclude that said narrative should not be accepted as an “established truth” because “it is not scientifically acceptable in any of its components” and “it has only survived due to a biased use of science,” in which “dissenting views have been suppressed and published evidence selected to reinforce the narrative.”
The Cuban specialists do not deny that U.S. officials and their families may have felt ill while they were located in Havana, and they sympathize with them, but they do not support that what happened is the result of unknown attacks or syndromes, theories amplified by the media and some politicians. They claim that the United States’ own scientific and official reports discard “most of the claims that apparently support the narrative” and call for “finding simpler and less esoteric explanations to get closer to the truth.”
“Given that we recognize that there are people who have felt ill, we believe that it is ethically imperative to dispel wild conspiracy theories and the erroneous attribution of symptoms to explanations that defy the laws of physics,” assert the Cuban experts in the conclusions of their report, in which they say they are willing to revise their approaches “if new evidence emerges” and invite “efforts to refute their interpretations in a climate of open scientific collaboration.”
The Cuban refutation in six points
According to the island’s experts, the predominant narrative around the so-called “Havana Syndrome” assumes that the described symptoms and events have been caused by “attacks with an unidentified energy weapon.” This perspective, they say, is based on six “unverified” and interconnected statements. They are:
1- A novel syndrome with shared central symptoms and signs is present in the affected employees.
2- It is possible to detect brain damage in these employees originating during their stay in Havana.
3- There is a source of directed energy that could affect people’s brains from great distances after crossing the physical barriers of homes or hotel rooms.
4- A weapon capable of generating said physical agent is feasible and identified.
5- Evidence was discovered that an attack occurred.
6- The available tests rule out alternative medical explanations.
Cuban specialists refuted each of these statements, based on the analysis of the data, studies and publications in their possession. Although developed more fully in the body of the report, the scientists’ arguments are synthesized in their conclusions, and as such we offer them below.
Regarding the first statement in the narrative, the ACC’s committee of experts concluded that “it is possible that some U.S. employees while stationed in Havana felt ill due to a heterogeneous collection of medical conditions, some pre-existing before going to Cuba — for example, ear trauma due to military service ―, and others acquired due to common causes such as age-related diseases, head injuries due to sports activities and stress, among many other possibilities.”
Thus, in their opinion, “a heterogeneous group of people erroneously attributed their symptoms to a common external cause,” an idea — that of a non-homogeneous set of cases — which, they say, is also implicit in reports published in this regard by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) of the United States.
Regarding the second point, they affirm that “only a minority of these cases present notable cerebral dysfunctions, the majority due to conditions pre-existing their stay in Havana ― caused by naturally acquired and prevalent diseases or by head trauma ―, and others due to the aforementioned functional neurological disorders.”
This argument is supported by the fact that “the international scientific community and the NASEM report dismiss most of the evidence presented to affirm the existence of generalized brain damage in U.S. employees,” while pointing out that “other diseases prevalent in the general population can explain most of the symptoms.”
Regarding the possible use of an energy source directed from long distances, Cuban specialists assert that “no known form of energy can selectively cause brain damage — with a precision similar to a laser beam — under the conditions described for the alleged Havana incidents.” “The laws of physics governing sound, ultrasound, infrasound or radio frequency waves (including microwaves),” they point out, “do not allow this, as recognized by U.S. and international experts.”
In this regard, they point out that “these forms of energy could not have damaged brains without being felt or heard by others, without disturbing electronic devices in the case of microwaves, or without causing other injuries, such as ruptured eardrums or skin burns.”
Closely related to the above, on the fourth statement that the experts refute, they affirm that “although there are weapons that use sound to disperse crowds, or microwaves to deactivate drones,” these “are large and there is no possibility that they go unnoticed, or leave a trace, if they had been deployed in Havana.” In addition, they add, “they cannot produce the selective effects of people described in the alleged incidents.”
Regarding the possible existence of evidence that the affected persons have been victims of deliberate aggression, the ACC committee confirms that “neither the Cuban Police, nor the FBI, nor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have discovered evidence of ‘attacks’ against diplomats in Havana despite intensive investigations.” Meanwhile, they maintain that “it is not possible to rule out the psychogenic and toxic explanations of many symptoms in some cases without further investigation” and explain that “specifically, all the conditions for the psychogenic spread of discomfort were present in this episode.”
Regarding this last refutation, that of the sixth point of the narrative of the “mysterious syndrome,” the Cuban researchers exemplify what may have happened through a scenario in which initially, and “for whatever reason,” some individuals believed that they were being “attacked” by “sonic weapons.” Based on that point, they note, “an environment that fostered the amplification of symptoms and their misattribution to unlikely causes, along with a psychogenic spread of worry and the development of functional neurological disorders,” may have been created.
This environment, they analyze, may have been sustained thanks to factors such as “an inadequate initial medical response, the initial U.S. government official support of an ‘attack’ theory, and sensationalist media coverage, among other causes.”
Based on all the foregoing, the ACC rejects the acceptance as an axiom that there have been attacks in the Cuban capital, causing the conditions reported by U.S. officials, and, consequently, affirms that “it is time to rethink the narrative” about these events. In addition, “it reiterates its willingness to collaborate with the NASEM and with any other American or international counterpart, with the aim of better understanding the health incidents of diplomats and their families in Havana or elsewhere.”
However, beyond the validity of the Cuban scientists’ approaches and their collaborative will in order to “alleviate the suffering of the affected people,” their technical report does not aspire to be the conclusive chapter of this story. New investigations, hypotheses and debates could appear on the horizon in the coming months in search of deciphering the enigma of the mysterious incidents, which, moreover, have already transcended Cuban borders. The saga, therefore, promises to continue.