New research on ‘Havana syndrome’ points to Russia as the culprit

The Cuban government and the Kremlin reject the information published by the independent Russian media ‘The Insider’ in collaboration with Germany’s ‘Der Spiegel’ and the American TV news program ‘60 Minutes’

La embajada de EE UU en Cuba
The U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba.Desmond Boylan (AP)

The mysterious “Havana syndrome” has once again made headlines around the world. A fresh investigation into the illness that has apparently affected some 200 people for several years, including employees of the White House, the CIA and the FBI and their families — and which redirected the course of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States — seems to back the theory pointing to Russia as one of the direct culprits, just as in the days of the Cold War. The new investigation by The Insider in collaboration with Der Spiegel and 60 Minutes suggests that people affected by Havana syndrome — the name given to the alleged acoustic attacks that more than 20 American and Canadian diplomats have suffered since 2016 during their stay in the Cuban capital—may have been targeted by members of the Russian military intelligence Unit 29155, with “directed energy” weapons.

The first people affected in Cuba were two diplomats who said they had suffered “sonic attacks” on November 25, 2016, the day of Fidel Castro’s death. But so far, there is no clear explanation of the causes behind what the United States Defense Health Agency calls an AHI (Anomalous Health Incident).

Many theories have been thrown around. For a time, some researchers said it was an “outbreak of mass hysteria,” others talked about a “mass psychogenic illness,” and there was even talk of a “microwave attack.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued a report last year stating that it was “unlikely” that the syndrome was caused by a “foreign adversary.” After the new investigation was released, the American congressman of Cuban descent Carlos Giménez blamed the government in Havana for the events along with Russia, an accusation that has more than once been denied by the Cuban government and ruled out by the team of FBI investigators. “Communist Cuba collaborated with Russia to attack U.S. intelligence officials,” Giménez said. “The regime must face the consequences of its actions.”

The Cuban government has immediately reacted to the new investigation and denied the accusations. The deputy director for the United States of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Johana Tablada de la Torre, told the Associated Press that Havana syndrome “does not exist, since it is not registered” as a disease, and that in reality it is “Washington syndrome.” She also assured that the investigation “tries to present Cuba as a threat to the national security of the United States; even when Cuba is not portrayed as the supposed main actor, it puts Cuban territory as the place that lends itself so that foreign powers can perpetrate acts against the United States.”

The attacks on American diplomats were the main pretext for Donald Trump’s administration to withdraw most of the staff from its embassy in Havana. Since then, Cubans must carry out most of their consular procedures in third countries. The event also marks the beginning of the rollback in the restoration of relations that former president Barack Obama had promoted.

What does the new research say?

With access to intercepted Russian intelligence documents, travel records, call metadata and testimonies, the investigation states that among the main findings is the fact that high-ranking members of the Russian military Unit 29155 received awards and political promotions for work related to the development of “non-lethal acoustic weapons.” It also states that several agents assigned to that department have been located in places around the world “just before or at the time when anomalous health incidents occurred,” and that one officer was rewarded for his work related to the development of said weapons.

Between May 2016 and September 2017, several diplomats in Cuba claimed to have experienced symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, intense ringing in the ears and difficulty concentrating. However, the investigation states that “there were probably attacks two years earlier” in Frankfurt, Germany, when a U.S. government employee was knocked unconscious “by something resembling a strong energy beam.”

Since the first reported cases emerged, other American officials in countries such as China, Vietnam, Germany and even the United States have stepped up with claims that they experienced similar symptoms, and others such as vertigo, tinnitus, insomnia, nausea, psychophysiological deterioration, blindness and hearing loss. Several of those affected have been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injuries. In 2021, the Biden administration enacted the Havana Law, which provides compensation for confirmed victims of AHI.

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Greg Edgreen told 60 Minutes that if there is a common factor among the victims, it was the “nexus to Russia.” “They had worked against Russia, they had focused on Russia, and they had done it extremely well,” he said.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told the media that so far “no one has published or expressed any convincing evidence of these baseless accusations. So all of them are nothing more than unfounded accusations.”

It is not the first time that an investigation points to Russia as the main culprit for incidents involving American diplomats. Two years ago, The New York Times cited Russia as the most likely agent behind the attacks on diplomats in countries like Cuba or China, due to “its history with weapons that cause brain injuries” and its interest in fracturing Washington’s relations with Beijing and Havana. At the time, Russia also rejected the accusations.

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