From exploding cigars to secret missile bases, from bombings and contract assassinations to vacuum cleaner salesmen acting as spies, Havana has long been the perfect setting for real and fictional spycraft. Even in 2017, with the darkest days of the Cold War long behind us, Cuba and the U.S. have yet to shake the karma of bizarre entanglements and mysterious attacks.
Starting in 2016, just as the Obama-Castro rapprochement was ushering in a new era of cooperation, U.S. and Canadian embassy officials in Havana began reporting mysterious symptoms such as hearing loss and cognitive difficulties. By mid-2017, twenty-one American diplomats and five (some sources say more) Canadian diplomats had been confirmed as having been affected by what is believed to be a sophisticated sonic/acoustical attack which resulted in hearing loss and permanent neurological damage to U.S. diplomats and less severe injuries among Canadians diplomats.
To date, despite assiduous investigations by Cuban, Canadian and U.S. security agencies, no reliable evidence appears to have surfaced, and no explanation has been offered as to exactly what technology was used and, more importantly, who used it and for what ends.
Without smoking guns or finger prints all we can do is point out the usual suspects with means, motives and opportunities to mount such an attack on diplomats in Cuba.
The Usual Suspects
The Russians. The Russians have quickly emerged as the prime suspects. They could conceivably have the technological means, as well as the opportunity since their presence in Cuba is substantial and their espionage networks reliable. But why would they want to derail the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement? They only reason they need Cuba is to provide a base from which to listen to the Americans, and they have that, and to make money ‘by doing bizeness’ with Cubans (e.g. selling oil). Why would they have risked more American sanctions and reduced their business opportunities? Not likely. They have the means and the opportunity but no clear motive.
The Cuban government: The Cuban government most certainly had the opportunity and could conceivably have had the technical means. But what in the world could their motive have been? Cuba’s rapprochement with the U.S. brought about the lifting of travel restrictions for American tourists, which is the key to the island’s economic recovery. To sabotage that relationship is, simply, counterproductive. And, why harm Canada one its most loyal allies and risk such an important relationship? Not likely.
Rogue elements within the Cuban government attempting to derail the rapprochement. Here the motive is clear. A transition in Cuba is approaching and surely competing visions are, if not struggling, at least jostling for power. But could these conspirators have the means? This kind of advanced technology (whatever it is) must cost a great deal of money on the black market. Deep pockets are not something individual Cubans have (or can hide if they do). Besides, how did they manage to do this under the noses of the Americans, as well as the eyes of their own security apparatus? Granted, Cuban nationals do work in the embassy and the diplomatic residences are owned by the Cuban government, therefore, someone at some point could have planted a device which was later used as part of the attack. But why would they risk being found out and executed? In 1989, Fidel and Raúl Castro did not hesitate to execute General Ochoa to end a conspiracy involving the drug trade in Cuba. Why would Raúl hesitate this time around? Would a further impoverished Cuba advance the objectives of hardliners who oppose U.S. influence? Ideologically, perhaps, but difficult to see how they would be able to turn the derailment to personal political advantage. Possible, but not likely.
The U.S. government. Like the Cuban government, Americans certainly had the opportunity and most likely the technical means. But, again, these sabotages date back to the Obama Administration. Why would part of the very government that succeeded in the rapprochement want to sabotage its own success? Why would they want to harm their own diplomats, as well as those of their closest neighbor and #1 trading partner – the Canadians? Not likely.
Rogue elements within the U.S. government who want to derail the rapprochement. Again, the motive is clear and, conceivably, the means could have been obtained by stealing technology from the U.S.’s own arsenal. Of all suspects, they had the most opportunity since the conspirators could have more easily gained access to the U.S. embassy and to diplomatic residences, and most likely to the necessary technology. But why would a U.S. government official care enough to risk everything just to get the derailment of relations in return? Not much to gain from this. The U.S. foreign policy establishments seemed to speak with one voice in favor of opening to Cuba. Not likely.
Anti-Castro and Pro-Embargo Cuban exiles. Only someone with a strong ideological conviction would consider derailing the rapprochement under such dangerous and difficult conditions. Though exile groups have in the past engaged in bombings, assassinations, invasions and sabotage missions, it is doubtful that, in this day and age, they would have the wherewithal to do this. Many of the hardcore exiles still alive are now octogenarians, but they do have money and contacts. Though the exiles have the strongest motive and the money to acquire the means, the type of active contacts and resources required to operate in Cuba are probably beyond their reach. Besides, harming U.S. government personnel is a serious offense and a betrayal of the United States. So, though probable, it is not likely. But regardless of whether some radical elements in this community were involved or not, they are sure having a field day egging on the Trump administration to punish the Cubans and derail the rapprochement they so vehemently opposed.
The attack is so bizarre that we cannot rule out some exotic combination of the above – Cuban exile money, Russian technology, and a rogue element within the Cuban Armed Forces. Time will tell.
The U.S. Response: Security should have trumped politics – not the other way around.
U.S. investigators have not been unable to point the finger of blame at the Cubans or any other culprit, for that matter. Nevertheless, they are holding the Cuban government accountable for failing to protect the safety of American diplomats and have taken a series of punitive measures to demonstrate their displeasure with what they believe to be Cuba’s unwillingness to act decisively to discover and punish the perpetrators.
By September 2017, the Trump administration had responded to the attacks by: 1) issuing strongly worded statements; 2) paring down the American embassy staff to just 27 people (enough for emergency responses); and 3) warning American tourists and business people of possible deleterious effects of travel to Cuba (though no such damage has been recorded). These are reasonable responses to try and protect U.S. personnel and citizens in Cuba. However, when, in early October, President Donald Trump decided to expel 15 Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, the response went from reasonable diplomatic caution to cynical political theatre.
What has the U.S. response accomplished? Fundamentally, the Trump administration has used this incident to derail the rapprochement between the two countries and to inflict economic damage. These measures are likely to have little effect on the U.S. other than garnering favor from the delighted anti-Castro hardline segment of the Trump political base.
All together, we now have sick U.S. and Canadian diplomats, happy anti-Castro hardliners, miffed American business people, furious and indignant Cuban officials, baffled tourists and disappointed Cuban citizens – but are we any closer to knowing who did this, how and why? No.
By using this incident for political purposes, the Trump administration has seriously endangered a vital and difficult investigation. Cuban security forces are good, but they are not all-knowing and all-powerful and they have been working at a disadvantage. It is doubtful that they would ever get full access to the U.S. Embassy and to diplomatic quarters while occupied, or to the affected personnel files, or to the confidential material about the inner workings of the embassy. The U.S. is making the Cubans responsible for an investigation while at the same time doing its best to keep the investigators in the dark.
As the investigation, now crippled by politics and mistrust moves forward, the incident has indeed resulted in a diplomatic reversal and the end of a promising road ahead for Cuba and the United States. But even that might turn out to be an unintended consequence.
The Spy Who came in from Nowhere
There is a much more terrifying possibility that merits examination. What if these attacks had nothing to do with derailing the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement as an objective and were instead intended as a testing ground for much more nefarious purposes? What if a ‘rogue nation’ such as North Korea or a sophisticated group of cyber-criminals simply: 1) took advantage of their presence in Cuba to test a sophisticated weapon that could harm American embassies worldwide; and 2) predicted – correctly – that if and when the attack was found out the U.S. would respond politically rather than strategically from a security point of view and would thus thwart the investigation?
Given that Cuba is a fish tank and the U.S. Embassy compound and the American diplomatic residences are fish tanks within a fish tank, the perpetrators must be sophisticated enough to foil both security agencies. But even more bizarrely, barring an invisible cloak, it also suggests the possibility that whatever the weapon is, it can be deployed effectively from a far-away location.
Whether any of the usual suspects or a new rogue element with access to Cuba perpetrated this terrorist act or not, what is important at this stage of the investigation is - that someone somewhere is in possession of a weapon of superb stealth, considerable physiological damage potential, and which might be deployed remotely. And they must be delighted that whatever gizmo they actually deployed in Havana worked, and worked well, right under the noses of two of the best intelligence services in the world.
Making sure that U.S. diplomatic personnel anywhere in the world are not targeted by similar sonic attacks should be our national security priority instead of scoring political points domestically by punishing the Cubans for something that, apparently, they did not do and which they cannot solve on their own.
In the long run, the Havana Sound Machine attacks are likely to make the Benghazi and Nairobi attacks seem like child’s play. What we should be doing is investigating, along with our Cuban security counterparts, who did this, how they did it and why. Once again, the U.S. has let politics determine its response to an international crisis and to an attack on U.S. diplomatic personnel abroad. Someday, someone in the Trump administration ‘is goin’ to have a lot of esplainin’ to do.’