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Cuba-US Relations

The Five Detective Questions About the Acoustic Attacks in Havana

Of the five classic questions that a homicide detective regularly asks, in this case most have already been answered.

Kamala Harris, Vice-President of the United States, had her trip from Singapore to Vietnam delayed by 'Havana Syndrome'.
Kamala Harris, Vice-President of the United States, had her trip from Singapore to Vietnam delayed by 'Havana Syndrome'. AP

President Joe Biden has urged the commission to render a verdict on the acoustic attacks that occurred in Cuba. A series of newspaper articles tend to highlight unknowns and unsolved mysteries, leaving readers with the impression that it is impossible to determine what happened and whether or not Cuba was responsible for those events. The truth is that of the five classic questions that a homicide detective asks —what, where, when, who and why— most are already clear.


We know what happened: the health of just over two dozen US diplomats was seriously and permanently damaged. This is beyond dispute, having been demonstrated by multiple clinical examinations carried out by various doctors and specialists with different institutions, and supported by laboratory tests, MRI, and other high-precision instruments.


We know exactly where these events occurred: in the houses rented by the US from the Cuban state as homes for US diplomats and their families in Havana. We also know the operational context in which those acts took place. And we know that these diplomatic residences and their US tenants are the most monitored in the entire country, 24x7, by the Cuban totalitarian state's surveillance system, which includes remote systems for eavesdropping and the monitoring of movements.


It is known that the acoustic attacks began in 2016, with the "thaw" in full swing, though they were made public in August 2017. By then diplomatic relations in both countries had already been reestablished at the embassy level. Negotiations had started begun in 2013 and culminated in the decision to reestablish full diplomatic relations, which was made public by the presidents of the United States and Cuba on December 17, 2015.


Two hypotheses are put forward: one that exclusively blames the Cuban Government, and one that exonerates it, positing that a third actor carried them out independently. The other explanations are laughable; theories like the one speculating that crickets emitted noises that only the Americans heard, or that it was just a case of mass hysteria suffered by the 26 diplomats.

The theory of a third, autonomous actor is the most common among those who wish to absolve the Cuban elite and its Ministry of the Interior (MININT) for what happened. However, for a third actor to be able to operate autonomously and independently of the Cuban Counterintelligence network, it would have had to have the kind of exceptional logistical facilities that only the MININT does: premises near those homes where fixed monitoring points could be set up to operate various transmitting systems against more than a dozen diplomatic residences, 24 hours a day, for months, without being discovered by Cuban Counterintelligence's multiple wiretaps and operative agents.

The possibility that the MININT carried out these actions in cooperation with another foreign intelligence service, which may have provided the device, and the operators trained in its use, should be considered. However, in the past six decades Cuban covert operations within the island have never been directed by foreign agencies. An operation of this nature, had it required the cooperation of third parties, would necessarily be carried out with the authorization and full knowledge of the highest authority in the country, as well as under the supervision and logistical control of the Cuban Counterintelligence's executive authority.


The process of negotiations with the United States known as the "thaw" was never the primary objective of Cuba's elite. That was their Plan B, in case they lost Venezuela. Plan A was not to lose control over Venezuela after Chávez died. The Castros knew that this could happen any second, due to the aggressive and lethal cancer from which he suffered. The talks with the United States ran in parallel with a critical phase of Cuba's domination of Venezuela. Chávez's dangerous cancer worsened, while presidential elections (April 2013) and parliamentary ones (December 2015) approached in that country, and popular opposition to the "Bolivarian" regime grew. The thaw was nothing more than insurance for the Cuban higher-ups, their Plan B, in case they lost Venezuela.

Contempt for and sabotaging any opportunity to normalize relations with Washington were constant impulses of Fidel Castro, still alive and influential in 2015. He had done it in 1959, 1975, 1978, 1996, and was preparing to repeat his behavior after taking advantage, economically and in terms of public image, of the generous olive branch offered by President Obama.

Once his control over Caracas had been secured, the time had come to rake in money from remittances, tourism and debt cancellations while closing the door on US-based businesses and reestablishing control over the massive flow of visitors and American diplomats who moved freely at official institutions and civil society.

It was also time to re-establish suffocating control mechanisms, restrictions and taxes on any incipient non-state sector entities budding in the wake of the thaw. The decline of that sector was a deliberate decision by the Cuban elite, and began at that stage, rather than the result of President Donald Trump's sanctions.

Was the damage accidental?

If the energy emissions were designed to listen inside the residences, but accidentally began to seriously damage the diplomats' health, nothing kept the perpetrators from continuing when the damage they were causing became known. The officers in charge of that operation, especially Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín, did not arrest anyone when they learned (even before the US ambassador himself) what was happening. Daily reports landed on his desk from the listening teams, who took turns following and summarizing the conversations of these diplomats, 24 hours a day. They contained their comments on the ailments affecting them: children crying from headaches, lost balance, and vomiting did not move them.

In summary: even the hypothesis that it could have been accidental collateral damage, not deliberate or foreseen effects, loses all exculpatory value once the MININT learned what was happening, and these actions continued for months anyway.

Thus, the use of energy-emitting equipment that harmed the health of US and Canadian diplomats was approved by members of Cuba's hierarchy and was under the operational control of its Counterintelligence service, even if it was operated by a technician of some other nationality.

Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín was the top official responsible for supervising that operation, but did not stop it when he learned that two dozen US diplomats were complaining of the same inexplicable ailments.

While spying on enemies has a long tradition in international politics, the Geneva Convention clearly establishes the responsibility of the host country for the safety of accredited foreign diplomats in its territory.

What was benevolently termed "Havana Syndrome" was, from the moment that clandestine wiretapping systems detected the complaints in Americans' homes, a conscious and ruthless attack on the health of these diplomats and their families, including minors.

The Main Lesson
Washington must continue investigating what technology produces these effects and who has used it in other parts of the world where there are reports of similar incidents after what happened in Havana. But what has been fully documented, from the medical point of view, in more than two dozen diplomats in Cuba, are these events' effects on their health.

Regardless of how the Biden Administration proceeds in its bilateral policy going forward, there is an important lesson to be drawn from what happened.

Cuba is a country hijacked by an oligarchy that has taken over its main institutions and placed them at its service. Thus, the way to define its "best interests" cannot the same as that used by a democratic government, in an open society, with a market economy and the rule of law.

The primary objective of this new Cuban oligarchy is not to promote regional peace and collective well-being, but rather its perpetuation in power and personal enrichment. Due to to this paradigm, the search for stability, for them, is something different from what this means to decision-makers in Washington. They do not seek democratic governance as a tool for stability, but rather to exercise totalitarian power.

Any assessment of how to conduct policy towards Cuba that overlooks or downplays the implications of the acoustic attacks, or ignores the main lesson to be drawn from them, is doomed to failure.

And worse: it would send a message of weakness to America's enemies around the world.

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Profile picture for user Rolando Laserie

They are not five, but seven, since the ancient Roman times. And the the two questions omitted by the columnist are precisely those crucial for defining the case: how and with what means. BTW, the question about Who is not well answered pointing to an attempt to spoil Obama's move towards accomodation, since there is another side very interested in the same goal, isn't it?