Cuba’s ambassador to the United States says the ball is now in the U.S. court to present evidence that deliberate attacks caused the mysterious health symptoms reported by American diplomats in Havana.
“In this case you have the conclusion without introducing the evidence,” José Ramón Cabañas, the Cuban ambassador in Washington, said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “They are the ones who have to demonstrate what happened. We are the ones asking.”
The State Department has referred to strange incidents, often accompanied by sound, that have caused symptoms ranging from dizziness, headaches, ringing in the ears, loss of balance, fatigue, cognitive problems to hearing loss as attacks. A Cuban delegation that visited Washington this past week asked the State Department to stop using the word attack.
The U.S. says 26 diplomats who were stationed in Havana were confirmed to have experienced at least some of the symptoms in attacks, reported from late November 2016 up until this past May.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
U.S. doctors who have examined the American patients have raised the possibility that perhaps some sort of new weapon employing microwaves or directed energy was used to attack them, but no one has identified what such a weapon might be and how it would work.
University of Pennsylvania researchers who treated the diplomats reached a preliminary conclusion that they suffered from a new neurological syndrome that could cause brain damage without a blow to the head.
But the Cuban scientific delegation challenged the Penn doctors’ conclusions, which first appeared in an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. JAMA also has published letters from scientists and doctors from around the world who disagree with the findings and say more study is necessary.
“The logistics of an attack don’t work. How do you get that amount of energy into the house, then direct it at the brain without damaging the skin or affecting anything else in the house?” asked Dr. Mitchell Joseph Valdés Sosa, head of the Neuroscience Center of Cuba and one of the nine Cuban scientists who came to Washington for talks.
Media speculation about what weapon could be behind the attacks has been rampant, and NBC recently quoted unnamed U.S. government officials as saying that for the past year the U.S. military has been trying to reverse engineer a weapon or weapons capable of producing brain damage in the diplomats.
NBC also reported that unnamed U.S. officials also thought Russia was most likely behind the attacks but that evidence was not conclusive enough to formally blame the country.
The State Department says the investigation into the origin of the attacks continues, and there is no known cause nor any known individual or group.
“We have seen a firestorm of reports out there today assigning blame to the Russian government according to some unnamed U.S. government officials. I would caution you to be very skeptical of those officials’ statements right now,” Heather Nauert, a State Department spokesperson, said at a Tuesday news briefing.
Among the theories that have been advanced as to why the alleged attacks occurred are that a government, such as Russia or China, that wanted to disrupt the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement begun during the Obama administration or a rogue element in the Cuban government, unhappy about the opening, carried out the alleged attacks.
It seems the U.S. has come up with a theory — that there were deliberate attacks against the diplomats — and is looking for facts to buttress the theory, said Valdés Sosa. Cuba, he said, still hasn’t seen credible evidence that there were attacks or that the diplomats sustained brain damage.
“We think everyone who complained of feeling sick was sick, but that doesn’t mean they were brain-damaged or attacked by a mysterious weapon,” he said.
To generate the amount of energy into a brain to cause damage, he said, the apparatus would be large enough to be noticed. A van seen on the street outside one of the diplomatic residences is one of the few possibilities mentioned so far that could house such an apparatus. But when its license plate was checked, it turned out to belong to a church group, said Cuban authorities.
Asked what motivation Cuba would have to cooperate with or allow the Russians to carry out attacks on foreign diplomats stationed in Cuba, Cabañas replied: “None.”
After the United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations in July 2015, U.S. travel to the island boomed and interest in Cuba by other international travelers and investors also increased, providing a boost for the ailing Cuban economy. U.S. travel to the island fell off sharply late last year but is slowly recovering.
“The Cuban population and the Cuban government benefited from that travel,” said Cabañas, “and the state that benefited the most was Florida” because so many of the flights and cruises leave from Florida.
Cabañas said this isn’t the first time U.S. officials have accused Cuba of being involved with mysterious weapons.
During the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. believed Cuba was developing biological weapons and John R. Bolton, then the State Department’s arms control chief and now the Trump administration’s National Security Advisor, claimed such technology could be transferred by Cuba to rogue states to support biological warfare. No hard evidence was ever presented to support the claims.
Cuba doesn’t even have a weapons research program, said Valdés Sosa.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi