Cuban scientific investigators visiting Washington to meet with State Department officials, scientists and members of Congress have challenged whether 26 diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana actually suffered brain injury and were deliberately attacked.
But does that mean they think nothing happened and the diplomats didn’t suffer real ailments?
“We don’t doubt that the diplomats were sick. As a doctor I would never deny that these people were feeling ill,” Dr. Mitchell Joseph Valdes Sosa, who heads the Neurological Center of Cuba, said at a Thursday night press conference at the Cuban Embassy after a day of meetings.
But he said there could be many reasons for their symptoms, including pre-existing conditions, psychological factors and other underlying causes that need more study before they can be eliminated. Cuban scientists, he said, have seen no credible evidence from the scarce information shared with them that some mysterious high-tech weapon was used against the diplomats.
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“The idea that a whole collection of symptoms was caused by a weapon, we find difficult to believe,” Valdes Sosa said
In late November 2016, some diplomats assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana began to complain of dizziness, headaches, ringing in the ears, loss of balance, fatigue, cognitive problems and in the most acute cases, hearing loss. The symptoms were often associated with a shrill sound that seemed to be directional.
University of Pennsylvania doctors and scientists who saw the diplomats and affected family members reached a preliminary conclusion that the diplomatic personnel suffered a new neurological syndrome that could cause brain damage without a blow to the head.
But the Cuban scientists said many of the diplomats’ symptoms could also be caused by functional disorders such as hypertension and stress.
“The neuro-psychological tests, considered to be more objective, were assessed with unusual criteria, which applied to a group of healthy individuals, would qualify all of them as ill,” the delegation said in a statement. If internationally established criteria were applied, the statement said, “only two subjects could be considered afflicted.”
Three diplomats seen by the University of Pennsylvania researchers showed hearing loss, but they could have had pre-existing conditions, the Cuban doctors said. There were no baseline studies of the patients to make comparisons.
A State Department spokesperson defended the U.S. studies Thursday evening: “These patients have undergone months of highly specialized medical testing. World-class brain injury specialists and other scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to examine the medical data to gain a better understanding of these patients’ symptoms.
The meetings came at a time when some in the U.S. government believe that Cuba is not sharing all it knows about what the State Department has deemed deliberate health attacks on its diplomatic personnel at their homes and at two Havana hotels where they were staying.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has insisted that in a tightly controlled country like Cuba, not only must the Cuban government know what caused the mysterious incidents but also who is responsible. Officially, the State Department says it is still investigating and hasn’t assigned blame, but it does hold Cuba responsible for failing to protect the diplomats while they were on the island.
Cuba has vigorously denied it has had any role in harming the diplomats.
Johana Tablada, deputy director of the U.S. Department at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Cuban delegation will ask the State Department “to stop using the word attack.” She said she hopes that U.S. and Cuban doctors will be able to work doctor-to-doctor, without the influence of politics, to try to come up with a better understanding of what happened to the U.S. diplomats.
The nine-member Cuban scientific delegation also met with members of Congress and the National Academy of Sciences to press their point that there needs to be more scientific cooperation to unravel the mystery. Cuban investigators have complained that the United States is not sharing enough medical information on the victims to carry out an adequate investigation.
After the meeting at the National Academy of Sciences, José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador to the United States, tweeted, “when Cuba and U.S. scientists meet there is only one language: Science.”
Tablada said the meeting came at the invitation of the State Department and took more than a year to arrange. The Cuban delegation, she said, was gratified to be able to talk with their U.S. counterparts but disappointed that more medical and clinical data wasn’t shared with them. The U.S. delegation, which was headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kenneth Merten, also included State Department medical personnel.
Valdes Sosa said the Cubans’ State Department counterparts only shared a study that had already been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the University of Pennsylvania study.
“We have received very little data — very little hard data,” he said. That JAMA article, he said, has “been severely criticized in the the scientific community. There’s nothing that sustains the conclusion that there was widespread brain damage.”
University of Pennsylvania doctors and scientists who saw 21 of the confirmed cases, on an average of 203 days after the the alleged attacks occurred, said some suffered from concussion-like symptoms, but without experiencing any blow to their heads.
The Cuban delegation said they had hoped that the Penn scientists would be present at the State Department meeting so they could have had an exchange about their findings.
Researchers and doctors at the University of Miami and University of Pittsburgh also disputed whether the diplomats had mild traumatic brain injuries. The 25 patients who were seen in Miami had a low incidence of headaches. A high incidence of headaches usually accompanies a concussion, they said.
They theorized that some type of directed energy weapon could have caused the symptoms they were seeing.
“Before we start looking for a James Bond-type weapon,” it’s necessary to prove there was actually brain damage, said Valdes Sosa.
Friction over the health incidents also has harmed relations between the United States and Cuba. In their wake, the United States has withdrawn two-thirds of its diplomats from Havana, leaving only essential personnel, has limited tours of duty in Havana to one year, and has made Havana an unaccompanied post where family members can’t join diplomats.
The United States also expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from the embassy in Washington.
The confirmed cases of ill diplomats began to mount until August 2017, when the incidents stopped. Heightened security measures were instituted by both the U.S. and Cuba and the diplomatic draw-down began in late September.
But in May 2018, two new cases were reported at a diplomatic residence in Havana and confirmed in June. A U.S. government worker in China also was confirmed to be suffering from similar symptoms this past summer.
Tablada said FBI investigators were in Cuba at the time the May incident occurred. When investigators went to the home, the mysterious sound turned out to come from water pump, she said. Such water pumps often make a shrill, grinding sound when they start up.
Among the theories that have been advanced about who might be responsible for the diplomats’ health problems: a deliberate attack by a third-party trying to interrupt U.S.-Cuba relations, a rogue element in the Cuban government not pleased with the Obama-era rapprochement with Cuba, or even malfunctioning surveillance equipment.
Much of the discussion in the United States has centered around an unidentified weapon capable of inflicting a broad range of symptoms. Some have speculated that it employs microwaves.
Originally, the incidents were called sonic attacks because of the mysterious sounds accompanying the onset of symptoms, but many scientists now doubt that theory. Valdes Sosa said if there were a sound loud enough to cause the type of damage reported, “it would be loud enough to be heard by everyone in Havana.”
After an NBC report earlier this week quoting unnamed U.S. officials that Russia is the most likely culprit, perhaps with cooperation from Cuba or perhaps not, Cuba has pushed back.
Foreign ministry officials have lit up Twitter disparaging the report. Cabañas said it was “painful” to see the NBC report “without evidence, using dark sources.
“Is there any balance? Where are the #Cuba sources?” he asked.
Although U.S. doctors, officials and the FBI have visited Cuba numerous times during the investigation to discuss the health incidents, this is the first time the Cuban investigators have come to Washington to get answers and get their point of view across.
“I’m sure if this is examined in a dispassionate way, we can get to the bottom of the problem,” said Valdes Sosa.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi