The FBI is closer to finding answers about the mysterious attacks that caused health ailments in at least 24 U.S. diplomats, relatives and intelligence agents in Havana, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told the Miami Herald. And the symptoms of some victims are so severe they will not be able to return to work.
“I was briefed last Wednesday by the FBI. They have been investigating this and they have made a lot of progress,” Rubio said Saturday in Lima, where he'd traveled to attend the eighth Summit of the Americas.
According to the Florida senator, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the FBI “has been able to rule out several theories in terms of the technology that was used and I think there will come a time when we will know a little more.”
Rubio said some of the victims have severe disabilities as a result of the alleged attacks.
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“We are talking about Americans and their relatives who are suffering today with what is typically seen after a traumatic car accident. Many, more than six or seven, will never be able to work, and [there are] others who cannot work, who are disabled and work five or six hours a day,” Rubio said.
A study by the University of Michigan suggested that the attacks — initially described as “sonic,” because several of the victims heard sounds and felt vibrations — could have been the result of surveillance gone awry: if eavesdropping devices are too close to each other, the resulting interference causes noises similar to those heard by the victims, the computer scientists who launched the study found.
But Rubio said the incidents in Havana were “targeted,” not the result of an accident, because the theory does not explain the “directional” character of the sensations experienced by the victims and described in a medical article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Rubio did not rule out that Russia could be behind the alleged attacks, which took place at diplomatic residences and at the Capri and Nacional hotels in Havana between November 2016 and August 2017.
“All the hypotheses stand. There are two things being studied: who did it and how they did it. On the subject of how they did it, that is progressing. On the issue of who did it, I think the first question is going to answer the second one,” he said.
Ben Rhodes, adviser to former President Barack Obama and one of the architects of the restoration of relations with Cuba, said he believes that Russia may be involved in the attacks, along with rogue elements within the government of Raúl Castro, who would have acted on their own.
Rhodes referred to the issue at a fundraising event in Miami for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an organization that promotes engagement with Cuba. According to a source present at the meeting, Rhodes said it made no sense that the Cuban government itself ordered the attack. At the time of the first reported incident in November, the Raúl Castro government was “frantically” trying to consolidate the changes implemented by the Obama administration during the thaw, just weeks away from it leaving the White House, Rhodes said, according to the source.
Rubio insisted that the Cuban government “either knows what happened or knows who did it. It is impossible to think that in Havana they are going to attack Americans and that the Cuban government does not know it.”
“Who would know who was there that day?” he asked, referring to the Americans who were attacked in hotels. “They are the ones who know who is coming and going. It is ridiculous to think that this can happen without them knowing it.”
Rubio said it is not known whether the attacks were carried out or had the support of “an element within the government,” or if Castro himself was directly involved, but that there was “no doubt” that the attacks happened.
According to the article in JAMA, some victims who were treated in a medical center at the University of Pennsylvania presented a brain trauma similar to a concussion. They also experienced auditory, cognitive and balance problems. The Canadian government also reported that 10 diplomats and relatives who were in Havana had similar symptoms.
After months of not finding the culprits or understanding what happened in Havana, the State Department ordered the evacuation of most of its personnel at the end of September last year, a decision that became permanent in March. Currently, the embassy has only 10 employees, and the processing of immigrant visas has been transferred to Guyana. To obtain a tourist visa or to visit relatives in the United States, Cubans must now travel to a third country to apply, adding expenses to the trip.
On Monday, the Canadian government also decided to designate its embassy in Havana as an “unaccompanied” post, so diplomats can no longer be accompanied by family members due to the lack of answers about the incidents. Reuters reported that some of the affected Canadians continue to show symptoms.
The Cuban government has flatly denied being responsible for the attacks and has questioned whether they actually occurred.
The Castro government and critics of the Donald Trump administration argue that the alleged attacks on Americans have been used as a political weapon to restrict the flow of Cubans arriving in the United States.
But Rubio insists that the staff reduction in the U.S. Embassy in Havana “is not a punishment for Cuba."
“We cannot send U.S. government employees and their families to a place where they are in danger and we do not know nor are able to tell them how to protect themselves,” he said. “And if the Cuban government does not admit that this is something they know and can guarantee that this will not continue, then we will have to continue protecting our staff not by sending it.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres