Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that U.S. diplomats in Havana had been the victims of “health attacks” that left them with hearing loss — the most definitive U.S. statement yet on a series of mysterious incidents that have puzzled longtime observers of U.S.-Cuban relations.
His comments Friday came two days after the State Department issued a vaguely worded statement saying there had been “incidents which have caused a variety of physical symptoms.” U.S. officials later revealed that American diplomats had suffered unexplained losses of hearing, and on Thursday Canada's government said at least one Canadian diplomat in Cuba also had been treated for hearing loss.
“We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you've seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved,” Tillerson said in Bedminster, N.J., where President Trump and members of his administration spoke to reporters.
In the fall of 2016, a series of U.S. diplomats began suffering unexplained losses of hearing, according to officials with knowledge of the case. Some of the diplomats' symptoms were so severe that they were forced to cancel their tours early and return to the United States, the officials said.
The officials told the Associated Press that the hearing loss appeared to have been caused by the deliberate use of some sort of sonic device operating outside the range of audible sound.
Former diplomats and students of U.S.-Cuba relations said they found it inexplicable that Cuba would have tried to harm U.S. and Canadian diplomats, particularly in the fall of 2016 as President Obama was ending a second term marked partly by the reopening of diplomatic relations with the island.
U.S. officials familiar with the incidents said they began to be reported last October, when most domestic and foreign observers expected Hillary Clinton to win the presidency and continue Obama's policy of normalization with Cuba.
Attacking Canadian diplomats would be an inexplicable assault on one of Cuba's most important trading partners and the largest source of tourists to the island.
“There'd be no logic to the Cubans trying to deliberately harm U.S. or Canadian diplomats,” said William LeoGrande, an American University expert on Cuban foreign policy. “It'd really be unprecedented.”
The Cuban government said in a lengthy statement Wednesday that “Cuba has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.”
Former U.S. and Canadian diplomats said they had been targets of low-level harassment and intimidation by Cuban agents in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, incidents that included attacks on diplomats' pets and intimidating maneuvers such as tailgating and flashing bright lights into diplomats' cars as they drove with their families late at night.
“There were things like turning your electricity, turning off your water, entering your home, leaving little reminders that they were there. Things would be out of place,” said John Caulfield, the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba from 2011 to 2014.
The State Department's Inspector General wrote in a 2007 report that “life in Havana is life with a government that ‘lets you know it's hostile.’ Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets.”
“All employees are fully aware that host government hostility extends to an elaborate, aggressive intelligence apparatus,” the report said.
Caulfield said aggressive tactics largely stopped by late 2013 and 2014 as U.S. and Cuban officials secretly negotiated the diplomatic reopening announced in December 2014, after his departure from Havana.
He said he believed the likeliest explanation for the diplomats' mysterious deafness was “a new surveillance technique gone bad that had consequences. I do not believe they would randomly cause harm to this variety of people.”