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The Cuba Conundrum: Who Is Attacking Our Diplomats and Spies in Cuba?

Ron Radosh on the Sonic Attacks in Havana

Former Adjunct Fellow
US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, September 18, 2017 (Yander Zamora/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, September 18, 2017 (Yander Zamora/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A few days ago, the State Department announced that it was advising Americans to no longer travel to Cuba, and sent half of its staff at the United States Embassy back home. The reason is the strange and dangerous series of sonic attacks on American diplomats working in the Embassy; also, at least one attack was aimed at a diplomat staying at the famous Capri Hotel, once the homestead of the American mob in the '50s.

Among their problems,” the Washington Post reported, “are hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual difficulties, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues and sleeping difficulties.” At least one American suffered brain injury. The State Department said only our diplomats were purposefully targeted for sonic attacks: “Only Americans suffered these problems; Cuban employees working in the Embassy did not.”

It also was reported that the Americans harmed included CIA agents, not simple diplomats. The AP reported, as the Chicago Tribune emphasized, “that U.S. spies were among the first and most severely affected victims” and that “it wasn't until intelligence operatives, working under diplomatic cover, reported bizarre sounds and even stranger physical effects that the United States realized something was wrong.” The incidents began, evidently, soon after Donald Trump’s election.

The big question: just who is responsible? Every Cuba expert knows that Cuban intelligence is perhaps the most organized and effective of all the old Communist dictatorships; they were well-trained by the notorious East German STASI and/or the KGB. We are familiar with their success in plying their spy craft from within our government. Two different Americans who were Cuban spies obtained the most sensitive secrets from both the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency. They both gave major top-secret reports to Cuba, which it then could easily, and probably did, send on to other U.S. enemies like Iran.

Ana Montes spied for Cuba as head of the Latin American branch of the Defense Intelligence Agency for sixteen years, until she was arrested on September 21 in 2001. Kendall Meyers spied at the U.S. Department of State for close to 30 years, until he was arrested on June 4, 2009. That both these Cuban spies could reach such top positions in both State and the DIA reveals just how expertly trained Cuban spies are.

As of today, we do not know who is responsible for these new and dangerous attacks on our personnel in Cuba. Raul Castro, the current president of Cuba and his brother Fidel’s successor, has told the United States that Cuba is not responsible, and they will help the FBI if they come to Cuba to investigate the issue. Why would Castro even make such an offer, if his country’s intelligence agency orchestrated the attacks?

A plausible reason for the attacks is that they throw a monkey wrench into the improved relations between the two countries ever since President Barack Obama's opening to Cuba changed American policy, which included the reopening of the U.S. Embassy. Cuba is now increasingly dependent on the dollars American tourists spend on hotels, taxis, tourist guides, private home rentals, restaurants, and cruises, crucial dollars the Cuban government desperately needs to stay afloat. The collapse of this relatively new tourism could have disastrous results for Cuba’s economy.

Yet Marco Rubio believes that these attacks could not have taken place without Castro’s knowledge and permission. He said on Face the Nation last Sunday:

Anyone who has interacted with Cuba, been to Cuba or has anything to do with Cuba understands that very little happens in Havana that the Cuban government is not aware of, especially of Americans working for the State Department.

Rubio may turn out to be right. The only difficulty is that his estimate does not consider the question of why Castro would initiate measures that would harm his own regime’s lifeline.

Therefore, let me speculate on other actors that might be behind these dangerous attacks:
# Other foreign regimes hostile to the United States: Cuba has good relations and diplomatic interaction with countries like Venezuela, Russia, China, and North Korea, as well as with rogue terrorist movements they view as “liberation” groups. Any one of these could be initiating attacks on the U.S. via their own agents, while keeping their operations secret from Raul Castro and his government.

# Cuban political forces inside the government and military who strongly opposed the U.S.- Cuba rapprochement. Just before he died, Fidel Castro wrote a few articles for the Communist daily paper, Granma, in which he made clear his real feelings about what was taking place regarding establishing better relations with “the empire,” as he called it. There could easily be, ensconced within the Communist Party of Cuba’s apparatus, Fidelista hardliners who believe Cuba’s communist regime is being put in danger by opening their country to American citizens and their corrupting ideas.

When he was alive, Fidel Castro had to carefully tread between the lines and make his views known without formally attacking his brother’s leadership of Cuba. Now that he’s gone, his followers could be using their own intelligence agents to foment the attacks, in the hope it will end U.S.-Cuba cooperation.

Of course, I acknowledge the above is simply speculation. For now, the Trump administration has taken the appropriate action in removing our personnel, and sending back to Cuba an equivalent amount of their diplomats in our country. At the same time, the administration is not using these attacks as an excuse to completely retract the existing policy.

Within the next few weeks, the truth of what nation or faction within Cuba is responsible is likely to emerge. Should it turn out to be the Cuban government and military, it might be the final straw that leads to the end of the Obama opening.