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PETER MCKENNA: Sonic attacks on diplomatic staff in Cuba continue to baffle

The Hotel Capri in Havana, Cuba, is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. New details about a string of mysterious “health attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Cuba indicate the incidents were narrowly confined within specific rooms or parts of rooms. Aside from their homes, officials said Americans were attacked in at least one hotel, the recently renovated Hotel Capri, steps from the Malecon, Havana’s iconic, waterside promenade.(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
The Hotel Capri in Havana, Cuba, is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, where a string of mysterious “health attacks” on U.S. diplomats in were narrowly confined within specific rooms or parts of rooms. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

The controversy swirling around the question of sonic attacks and brain injury in Cuba amongst diplomatic staff (and their dependents) of both the United States and Canada still remains a mystery. It’s been over one year now since the charges first surfaced and no one in Washington, Ottawa and Havana seems any closer to shedding any light on these cases of unexplained symptoms.

On my recent trip to Cuba, it was hard to imagine as I strolled around the outside of the Canadian embassy in Havana that it is now considered as dangerous as our embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was a quiet Tuesday morning, as I calmly took a slew of pictures, and no one said a word to me or seemed to care. I’m not surprised, then, that Canadian officials have no idea (and cast doubt on any sonic attack theory) what caused concussion-like symptoms (but no permanent damage) in a number of diplomats and their family members in Cuba.

I admit to being no expert on “acoustic attacks”— or the source of the loud, shrieking noises that have triggered headaches, nosebleeds and memory loss in several U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana— but it was hard to digest such a claim as I snapped photos in front of the Capri Hotel and walked through the Hotel Nacional (two locations where U.S. officials say the attacks actually took place), both locations just a short walk from the U.S. embassy. And if foot traffic and tourists are any indication, neither venue is outwardly feeling any ill-effects.

Though I saw few, if any, visible signs of anti-Trump posters, billboards or souvenirs, there is certainly no affection between Cubans and The Donald. They have a pretty good sense that President Trump is not going to be any friend of Cuba’s.

In fact, if there is one thing that many Cubans can agree on, it is that the sitting U.S. President is, to put it mildly, mentally unstable. As one Cuban confided to me: “A lot of Americans are crazy (when it comes to Cuba). But Trump is the craziest of all the Americans.”

The Trump White House has rescinded some of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s initiatives on normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations, expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington (and withdrew two-thirds of U.S. embassy personnel in Havana) and warned Americans that they should reconsider travelling to Cuba.

Now, I’m sure that Cubans are being fed a story from their own government about the alleged sonic attacks, but it was still interesting to hear what some had to say on that topic. When you first ask Cubans about the attacks in Havana, they give you this puzzled look, roll their eyes, and say they have no real idea. As one Cuban put it: “That is the normal buzzing sound found in many typical Cuban neighbourhoods.”

It is true that the Cuban government has invited both the FBI and the RCMP to investigate these claims on Cuban soil—a clear sign of just how serious the Cubans are taking this highly sensitive matter. It has also tested dozens of local Cubans around the homes of both Canadian and U.S. diplomats to see whether they have developed any unusual symptoms. But nothing tangible has been found so far.

No one claimed to have any inside information on the diplomatic spat, though all cast aspersions on any theory that associated official Cuban authorities with the acoustic attacks theory. One Cuban was adamant: “It’s not true. It’s an excuse or justification for the U.S. to tighten the screws on Cuba. They use it to deny visas to Cubans and to restrict U.S. travel to Cuba.”

According to another Cuban, the sonic attacks theory is suspect because “the Cubans who work at the U.S. (and Canadian) embassy have not complained about any strange noises or concussion-like symptoms.”

Similarly, one Cuban who works in the tourism sector explained: “The Spanish embassy is nearby and there have been no issues there. It is a lie perpetrated by the Americans.”

When pressed about why the Canadians were making essentially the same accusations, he said curtly: “The Americans have pressured the Canadians to go along.” I have serious doubts about Ottawa caving to U.S. pressure, but it is curious as to why Canada—which has had an enormously constructive relationship with Cuba since 1959—would not come out more strongly against the acoustic attacks theory.

Could it have something to do with the ongoing NAFTA renegotiations? Let’s hope not.

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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