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Cuban, Russian officials meet as questions swirl about U.S. diplomats’ hearing-loss

A member of the Cuban honor guard stands next to a new plaque at the front door of the newly reopened Cuban embassy in Washington in this July 20, 2015. The State Department has expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms.
A member of the Cuban honor guard stands next to a new plaque at the front door of the newly reopened Cuban embassy in Washington in this July 20, 2015. The State Department has expelled two diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington following a series of unexplained incidents in Cuba that left U.S. officials there with physical symptoms. AP

Congress has learned of an oddly timed meeting between Cuban and Russian officials and lawmakers’ aides intend to press the State Department for more details in a closed-door briefing next week.

As reports emerged of a mysterious incident of American diplomats experiencing hearing loss at the U.S. embassy in Cuba, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met with Josefina Vidal, director general of the U.S. division of the Cuban foreign ministry, and later the Cuban ambassador to Russia Emilio Lozada Garcia.

“I find it quite interesting that as this news breaks these meetings are occurring,” said a Republican congressional aide.

The two meetings, the first of which occurred weeks after two Cuban officials were expelled from the United States in response and the second yesterday as the incident went public have led to questions about whether a third country was involved in the bizarre case that has captured the attention of everyone from Miami to Washington.

Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the State Department, said the administration did not have definitive answers yet and that investigators are trying to determine the actual cause of the physical symptoms. But she wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of another country’s involvement.

“When I say an active investigation is underway, in part, what that means is, we don't know exactly where this came from. OK?,” Nauert said. “We can't blame any one individual, or a country, at this point, yet.”

The Trump administration has been slowly rolling back Obama-era policy changes that broke down barriers between the United States and the island nation. Nauert wouldn’t say whether the incident would accelerate that process. She said the United States has had multiple conversations with the Cuban government, but that the reason the two Cuban diplomats were expelled was because the government shouldn’t have allowed the Americans to get sick.

“U.S. government officials have been affected in some way by these incidents — physically affected by these incidents. It is the Cuban government's obligation under the Vienna Convention to ensure the safety and protection of our diplomats there… and that obviously did not happen.”

Congress wants more answers also and has been pushing for an updated briefing. They want a better picture of the scope of the incident, how many people got sick, what symptoms they had and what evidence exists about another country’s involvement and if this was intentional or not.

“How can it have a similar impact on so many people if it wasn’t intentional,” a congressional aide said. “The other question is why are we just finding about this now.”

William LeoGrande, a specialist in Cuban politics and U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America at American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, said it made no sense for the Cubans to do this deliberately, but also dismissed the idea of Russian involvement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been rebuilding the relationship with Cuba and has eyed expanding its military presence on the island. But Leogrande said the focus to date has been on the commercial sector.

“I don’t think it could have been the Russians because they, to the best of my understanding, have not restored the kind of military and intelligence cooperation they had with the Cubans before the end of the Cold War.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry said it had been informed of the incidents on Feb. 17 and have since launched an “exhaustive, high-priority, urgent investigation” at the behest of the highest level of the Cuban government.

It criticized the U.S. government for expelling two Cuban diplomats, which it described as “unjustified and baseless.”

“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,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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