Cuba mystery: Even Castro baffled by harm to US diplomats
Raul Castro seemed rattled.
The Cuban president sent for the top American envoy in the country to address grave concerns about a spate of U.S. diplomats harmed in Havana. There was talk of futuristic “sonic attacks” and the subtle threat of repercussions by the United States, until recently Cuba’s sworn enemy.
The way Castro responded surprised Washington, several U.S. officials familiar with the exchange told The Associated Press.
In a rare face-to-face conversation, Castro told U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis that he was equally baffled, and concerned. Predictably, Castro denied any responsibility. But U.S. officials were caught off guard by the way he addressed the matter, devoid of the indignant, how-dare-you-accuse-us attitude the U.S. had come to expect from Cuba’s leaders.
The Cubans even offered to let the FBI come down to Havana to investigate. Though U.S.-Cuban cooperation has improved recently – there was a joint “law enforcement dialogue” Friday in Washington – this level of access was extraordinary.
“Some countries don’t want any more FBI agents in their country than they have to – and that number could be zero,” said Leo Taddeo, a retired FBI supervisor who served abroad. Cuba is in that group.
The list of confirmed American victims was much shorter on Feb. 17, when the U.S. first complained to Cuba. Today, the number of “medically confirmed” cases stands at 21 – plus several Canadians. Some Americans have permanent hearing loss or mild brain injury. The developments have frightened Havana’s tight-knit diplomatic community.
At least one other nation, France, has tested embassy staff for potential sonic-induced injuries, the AP has learned.
But several U.S. officials say there are real reasons to question whether Cuba perpetrated a clandestine campaign of aggression. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation and demanded anonymity.
When the U.S. has accused Cuba in the past of misbehavior, such as harassing diplomats or cracking down on local dissidents, Havana has often accused Washington of making it up. This time, although Castro denied involvement, his government didn’t dispute that something troubling may have gone down on Cuban soil.
Perhaps the picture was more complex? Investigators considered whether a rogue faction of Cuba’s security forces had acted, possibly in combination with another country like Russia or North Korea.
Nevertheless, anger is rising in Washington. On Friday, five Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to kick all Cuban diplomats out of the United States and close America’s newly re-established embassy in Havana.
“Cuba’s neglect of its duty to protect our diplomats and their families cannot go unchallenged,” said the lawmakers, who included Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a prominent Cuban-American, and the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas.
For decades, Cuba and the U.S. harassed each other’s diplomats. The Cubans might break into homes to rearrange furniture or leave feces unflushed in a toilet. The Americans might conduct obvious break-ins and traffic stops, puncture tires or break headlights.
Yet those pranks were primarily to pester, not to harm.
What U.S. diplomats started reporting last November was altogether different.
Diplomats and their families were getting sick. Some described bizarre, unexplained sounds, including grinding and high-pitched ringing. Victims even recounted how they could walk in and out of what seemed like powerful beams of sound that hit only certain rooms or even only parts of rooms, the AP reported this week.
At the time, Washington and Havana were in cooperation mode, working feverishly to lock in progress on everything from internet access to immigration rules before Barack Obama’s presidency ended. Donald Trump’s surprise election win on Nov. 8 meant the U.S. would soon be led by a president who’d threatened to reverse the rapprochement.
As America awaited an unpredictable new administration, Cuba faced a pivotal moment, too.
Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25. The revolutionary had reigned for nearly a half-century before ceding power to his brother, Raul, in his ailing last years. It was no secret in Cuba that Fidel, along with some supporters in the government, were uneasy about Raul Castro’s opening with the U.S.
“There is a struggle going on for the soul of their revolution,” said Michael Parmly, who headed the U.S. diplomatic post in Havana from 2005 to 2008. “It’s entirely possible there are rogue elements.”