The United States is considering closing its embassy in Cuba for a strange and scary reason: the unexplained injuries that dozens of American diplomats suffered after potentially being hit by some sort of secret sonic weapon.
Starting in mid-November 2016, at least 21 Americans who worked at the embassy in Havana complained of hearing loss, nausea, loss of balance, and headaches. Some of those diplomats even suffered from mild brain damage and blood disorders, and two may have completely and permanently lost their hearing.
The attacks ended this spring, but the mysterious events explain why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Washington may shutter the US mission in Havana.
“We have it under evaluation,” Tillerson told CBS’s John Dickerson on Sunday. “It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered.”
Tillerson’s comments came two days after five Republican senators, including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), wrote a letter to the secretary imploring him to expel Cuban diplomats from the US. If Cuba doesn’t figure out who or what was behind the attacks, the legislators said that America should close the Havana embassy.
"Cuba's neglect of its duty to protect our diplomats and their families cannot go unchallenged," the lawmakers wrote.
The US already expelled two Cuban diplomats in May because of the incidents.
The Cuban government denies any involvement in the attacks, even though many of these Americans — and several Canadians — were hit while inside homes provided by the Cuban government itself. The Associated Press reports that in a rare one-on-one meeting with Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of mission at the US embassy in Cuba, Cuban leader Raul Castro noted his concerns about the injuries American officials incurred. He even allowed FBI investigators to come to Cuba to see what they could find, but law enforcement found no evidence of a sonic device.
The question now is whether such cooperation will be enough to keep the Trump administration from taking a hammer to America’s fragile ties to Cuba.
The mystery could reverse a top Obama accomplishment
There are many theories about what actually happened — and why.
One of them is that Cuban intelligence officials wanted to listen in on President Donald Trump’s transition plans for Cuba and learn what they could about the new White House. Recall the timing: The attacks started in mid-November 2016 and ended around this spring. That coincides very neatly with Trump’s election and the first months of his administration.
And here’s why Cuba likely cared so much: Trump has been more antagonistic toward Cuba than Obama was. In 2014, Obama announced he wanted to open a US embassy in Cuba and increase travel and commerce with the country. He got his wish: The Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, opened on July 20, 2015 — formally reestablishing ties between the two countries after around 50 years of estrangement — and the US opened its embassy in Havana on August 14, 2015.
But then Donald Trump won the election. Throughout the campaign, he promised to reverse the deal Obama made with Havana. Cubans legitimately wondered whether some of the improvements they’d seen — like more foreign hotels opening on the island — would go away. Cuban spies, then, may have taken extra measures to find out what Trump would do once in office.
An investigation is still ongoing into what actually transpired in Cuba. But if the Trump administration does decide to close the embassy in Havana, it would reverse one of the Obama administration’s top diplomatic achievements — only two years after it happened.