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Archive for Cuba

Newsline: The Real Story Behind the Havana Embassy Mystery

The most dire diplomatic crisis of the Trump administration, or maybe just the weirdest, began without much notice in November 2016, some three weeks after the new president was elected. An American working at the U.S. Embassy in Havana—some call him Patient Zero—complained that he had heard strange noises outside his home. In all, some two dozen people were eventually evacuated for testing and treatment. The outbreak at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba wasn’t the only mysterious illness to pop up in the headlines. Around the same time that embassy officials were preparing to fly home, more than 20 students at an Oklahoma high school suddenly came down with baffling symptoms—uncontrollable muscle spasms, even paralysis. But the Cuban mystery, the Trump administration insisted, was different. It was not some environmental mishap, but something far more diabolical. Encouraged by U.S. officials, the media quickly unfurled a story that the mysterious sound was an “attack”—an act of war. Some kind of “acoustic weapon” had been secretly aimed at the diplomats, in an effort to reduce them to brain-damaged zombies. By January 2018, some of the government’s own experts had ruled out a sonic attack. If you view what happened to the diplomats in Havana as an “attack,” you must look for something capable of producing such an assault. It would have to emit a sound that varied widely from listener to listener. It would have to strike only people who worked at the embassy. It would have to assail them wherever they happened to be, whether in their homes or staying at a hotel. It would have to produce a wide range of symptoms that seemed to bear no relation to one another. And it would have to start off small, with one or two victims, before spreading rapidly to everyone in the group. As it happens, there is and always has been one mechanism that produces precisely this effect in humans. Today it’s referred to in the medical literature as conversion disorder—that is, the conversion of stress and fear into actual physical illness. But most people know it by an older, creakier term: mass hysteria. Conversion disorder, according to the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, is the “rapid spread of illness signs and symptoms among members of a cohesive social group, for which there is no corresponding organic origin.” Scientists in Cuba were among the first to realize that the outbreak at the American Embassy conformed to mass hysteria. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, told The Washington Post, “If your government comes and tells you, ‘You’re under attack. We have to rapidly get you out of there,’ and some people start feeling sick … there’s a possibility of psychological contagion.” Some American experts who were able to review the early evidence concurred. “It could certainly all be psychogenic,” Stanley Fahn, a neurologist at Columbia University, told Science magazine. But the government also ignored data that didn’t fit its preferred theory. Early on, there was an outbreak of symptoms among Canadian officials in Havana. But Canada and Cuba enjoy good relations, so it made no sense for Cuba to be attacking Canadians. Likewise, an isolated report of a similar “attack” at the U.S. Embassy in China briefly made the news, but was eventually dropped from the narrative. U.S. officials further loaded the dice by selecting the people sent home for testing—presenting an incomplete and misleading set of data for doctors to examine. Since 2000, there have been more events of mass psychogenic illness than there were in the entire previous century. The prescribed treatment for psychological contagion—avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and letting everyone calm down—will be increasingly difficult in the age of the Twitter Presidency, when the populace is regularly needled into fits of panic. There is a new battlespace in America’s ongoing war over what is real, and it can be found inside the architecture of our own skulls.



Newsline: 25 US employees at embassy in Cuba did suffer inner-ear damage

Two dozen U.S. diplomats and government employees who experienced dizziness and ear pain from a mysterious illness while assigned to Cuba were found to have suffered inner-ear damage, according to a new study by doctors who first treated them. The report said the majority of the 25 individuals reported intense pain in one or both ears and experienced tinnitus, or a ringing in ears. All of the individuals noticed “unsteadiness and features of cognitive impairment,” according to the report. The study by physicians at the University of Miami and the University of Pittsburgh was published Wednesday in Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology journal. The doctors found that the patients displayed “abnormalities in the otolithic organs,” or damage to the inner ear that controls balance.


Newsline: Canada Mulls Its Cuba Embassy Presence After 13th Mystery Illness Case

Canada is mulling its embassy presence in Cuba after another confirmed case of an unexplained illness. Canadian officials are investigating the potential cause of “unusual health symptoms” reported by some Canadian Embassy workers in Havana and their family members. A new case brings the total number of affected people to 13. The recent development also prompted the Canadian government to give staff stationed in Havana the option to return to Canada. Global Affairs Canada says there’s no known risk for Canadian residents traveling to Cuba. A group of Canadian government officials will visit the island next week to review the issue and potentially take further steps to protect diplomats there.


Newsline: Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba Ali Rodriguez dies

Ali Rodriguez, an icon of Venezuela’s socialist revolution who went on to serve as a diplomat in top government posts, died on Monday. Rodriguez had served as ambassador to Cuba. He passed away in Havana and was 81 years old, Venezuela’s state TV network said. Among stages of his storied career, Rodriguez oversaw the mass firing of thousands of workers at Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA. He also defended the sharply anti-American foreign policy of the socialist governments of late President Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro. Rodriguez served as president of PDVSA until November 2004, when Chavez made him foreign ambassador to Cuba. He used the position to defend Venezuela’s anti-American foreign policy amid two decades of socialist rule.


Newsline: Canada’s brain-injured Cuba diplomats speak out about Ottawa’s silence

For members of the tight-knit community of Canadian diplomats based in Havana, life became terrifying and disorienting last year – and many of them, speaking to the media for the first time, say it has only become more aggravating since mysterious cases of brain injury forced them to return to Canada. Starting in the spring of 2017, a dozen embassy staff and their family members, including eight adults and four children, almost simultaneously began experiencing symptoms including gushing nosebleeds, ringing in the ears, fits of nausea, dizziness, incapacitating headaches and mental impairment, often striking most intensely in their homes late at night. Those affected represented about a third of the embassy staff. After a months-long struggle with the embassy to recognize their symptoms, and after receiving a battery of scans and tests, the diplomats were diagnosed by neurologists as having suffered brain injuries similar to a concussion, but without the physical trauma. This is the same “Havana syndrome” that disabled two dozen staff in the recently reopened U.S. embassy in the Cuban capital at around the same time. A year and a half after the initial symptoms, a group of the diplomats have broken their silence and spoken to The Globe and Mail about their frustrations in seeking treatment and recognition. While Washington has been outspoken in speculating that those brain injuries were caused by mysterious energy-weapon attacks by some foreign power, the Canadian diplomats have remained an obscure and largely unknown footnote. The U.S. victims have been subject to a very public investigation, while Ottawa has kept its case, and Canada’s multiagency investigation into it, largely quiet for what diplomats believe are strategic and organizational reasons. The group members, who represent a wide range of former embassy staff positions and say their views reflect those of most of those injured, spent a day in Ottawa describing their lengthy struggle to have brain injuries recognized and properly investigated by the Canadian government. They were all granted anonymity by The Globe because, as current employees of Canada’s foreign-affairs department, Global Affairs Canada (GAC), they are not authorized to speak to the media and doing so could harm their future work prospects. “We all love our jobs. We want to represent our country, and we know there is hardship involved in doing that, we know there is a price to pay,” one diplomat said. “But we did not expect to be abandoned, or more precisely, sacrificed – that’s how we’re feeling now.” In response, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s spokesman Adam Austen said the department is “deeply troubled” by the “health problems” of the diplomats and their families, and is “exploring any and all possible causes” through an investigation led by the RCMP and other agencies. “We know that this has been a harrowing experience for the affected diplomats and their loved ones and they have our unwavering support,” he said in a written response. “We will continue to do all we can to provide advice and support to them under these difficult circumstances.”


Newsline: Injuries of US diplomats in China differ from those in Cuba

Fourteen of 15 U.S. diplomats pulled from China for medical testing this year have been found not to have the same set of injuries as personnel evacuated earlier from Cuba, the State Department said Wednesday. The department said 14 of the 15 brought to the U.S. for medical testing earlier this year did not present the “constellation” of symptoms suffered by more than two dozen diplomats in Cuba that it blames on mysterious health attacks. Results for the 15th were inconclusive, it said. The diagnosis of an initial patient from China found to have Cuba-like injuries stands. But the new findings may ease fears that whatever affected the diplomats in Havana has spread. In May, a diplomat posted in China was confirmed to have Havana-like symptoms, sparking fears the alleged Cuba attacks had also occurred on another continent. Some 300 diplomats and family members in China sought preliminary testing from State Department medical staff. Fifteen of them were identified as needing additional evaluation in the U.S. The Havana Cohort is the name given to the group of 26 Cuba-based diplomats who the department says suffered injuries, including dizziness, headaches and mild brain damage, from the alleged mystery attacks for which the specific cause and culprit are still unidentified. U.S. officials have not blamed Cuba for the alleged attacks but hold Cuba responsible for the safety of American government personnel on the island. The State Department has dramatically reduced its staff at the embassy in Havana.


Newsline: Cuban refugee numbers plummet in Tampa area with cuts at Havana embassy

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. embassy in Havana suspended processing requests from people hoping to leave the island nation as refugees. The reason: Staffing was reduced to a skeleton crew in the wake of mysterious health attacks on embassy personnel. The State Department said new arrangements would be made for refugee applications, but that hasn’t happened yet. The result is a dramatic drop in the number of Cuban refugees coming to Florida — from some 600 a month in late 2017 to fewer than 40 a month today. In December 2016, about 600 Cuban refugees arrived safely in the Tampa Bay area and some 7,000 statewide. Since then, because of two developments, the numbers have plummeted. First, in January 2017, after restoring diplomatic relations severed more than five decades earlier and reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana, President Barack Obama ended wet foot, dry foot. From that point through last September, when embassy services were suspended, an average of 94 Cubans refugees arrived each month in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to the state Department of Children and Families. Statewide, the monthly average for this eight-month period was 1,016. From last September through June, the average monthly numbers have fallen to 38 in the Tampa Bay area and 375 statewide. This nine-month period is the latest for which figures were available from the state. The numbers might not include all refugees processed in the two or three months after the suspension.