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Cuba on US diplomats' health attacks: No way it's sonic weapons. Maybe it's stress

Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

It did not include audiograms, MRIs, cat scans or a statistical summary or tables indicating how many of the symptoms each patient had, said Valdes Sosa, of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience.

The list of symptoms, said Villar, could respond to a number of different illnesses, including inner ear infections, hypertension, epilepsy, toxicity by drugs or alcohol, diabetes, cancer and other ailments.

Here's a look at the Cubans' take on some of the theories:

-- Auditory or sonic attacks

"When we talked about these so-called sonic attacks for the first time, I must confess that I thought it was science fiction," said Villar.

Cuban investigators said the FBI shared 14 recordings, apparently made on cellphones, from diplomatic residences.

The Cuban criminal investigators complained that the recordings arrived without information about where they were recorded and under what circumstances. After listening to them, the Cuban investigators said they were able to match some to ambient sounds in the area around the Playa and Siboney neighborhoods where many of the U.S. diplomats lived.

Hernandez said more than 200 Cubans who lived near the diplomats were examined to see whether they exhibited similar symptoms. Four showed hearing loss. Two cases were due to chronic ear ailments, one to exposure to artillery fire, and the other to industrial exposure, according to the investigators.

"It's impossible to generate the type of energy that would cause these damages (to the diplomats) without affecting other people," said Lt. Col. Jose Alazo Rangel, a criminal specialist in the Interior Ministry.

"None of the (sound) samples exceeded 74.6 decibels," said Villar. In Cuba, environmental noise over 80 decibels is considered unacceptable in the workplace.

The Cuban analysis of the recordings revealed a number of sounds -- female crickets, other insects, nocturnal birds, traffic noise, an air conditioner, a human voice -- but none that would put human health in danger, said Alazo.

If sonic waves were present, they would distort ambient sounds on the recordings to the point where cricket and other sounds would be unidentifiable, Alazo said. Investigators captured crickets near the diplomats' homes and taped their high-pitched sound to compare with those heard on the recordings.

When the FBI was in Cuba, Ramirez said he asked agents what they would do if they were in Cuban shoes. "I asked what we were missing. They said they would have done the same, or maybe a little less."

-- Infrasound and ultrasound

Investigators said infrasound, or sub-sonic sound too low for the human ear to hear, can produce vibration. But it is hard to direct and would be expected to affect others -- neighbors, spouses, and pets. Ultrasound, with frequencies too high-pitched to hear, can be concentrated better but it would have to be very close to a victim to cause damage.

Also puzzling is why any type of sound wave would affect only diplomats in certain rooms of their homes. Investigators said they haven't been able to check the possibility of whether some damaging device might have been installed in diplomatic homes because they've only been permitted to enter three of the residences.

"I personally listened to the 14 recordings and had them turned up to the maximum level," said Villar. "Well, here I am. Do you really think it's possible to use a cellphone to record acoustic aggression?"

-- Mass hysteria

Cuban investigators say they need to do more work on whether stress caused by deteriorating U.S.-Cuba relations under Trump could have damaged the diplomats' health. But they haven't ruled out mass hysteria even though the U.S. has disparaged it.

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During the Senate hearing, Rosenfarb said that U.S. findings "suggest this is not an episode of mass hysteria." The U.S. consensus at this point, he said, is that the injuries "were most likely related to trauma from a non-natural source."

The Cubans said among the conditions that would have contributed to psychosomatic illness and mass hysteria were that all the diplomats worked in the same place and were dealing with the uncertainty of U.S. policy change toward Cuba. The U.S. government's use of terms such as sonic weapons, attacks and victims could have increased anxiety, Cuban investigators said.

"I think some of them did get sick -- for diverse reasons," said Valdes Sosa. "But tension and the change in relations between the two countries could exacerbate their illnesses."

-- What about the Canadians?

Several Canadian diplomats and family members reported the onset of symptoms similar to ones suffered by the Americans. They, too, were reported to have occurred at diplomatic residences.

Little has been released about the Canadian cases. Ramirez said the Canadian investigation has been characterized by cooperation and exchange.

Valdes Sosa said the Canadian complaints also could be the product of mass hysteria. "They're all diplomats; they speak the same language and they talk a lot with the Americans," he said.

Cuban investigators said they had received no reports of similar health symptoms affecting diplomats at other embassies.

-- A virus or toxin

Valdes Sosa said neither a virus, which would be expected to spread to those beyond the American diplomatic corps, nor a toxin, which would not be expected to produce such a variety of symptoms, seems plausible.

There has been no shortage of theories about who might be responsible for the diplomats' health problems: a deliberate attack by a third-party trying to interrupt U.S.-Cuba relations, a rogue element in the Cuban government not pleased with the rapprochement, or a Cuban surveillance attempt gone wrong.

Some in the United States, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, insist that in a tightly controlled country like Cuba, not only must the government know what caused the mysterious incidents but also who is responsible.

"People were hurt and the Cuban government knows who did it. They just won't say -- for some reason," Rubio said at a Jan. 9 Senate subcommittee hearing that he called to gather information on the State Department's response to the attacks.

Cuba has emphatically rejected the idea that it could be behind any attacks. "Why would we do that when we're in the process of trying to normalize relations?" asked Ramirez.

Cuba watchers have suggested that Russia or China might have wanted to interrupt the rapprochement that began on Dec. 17, 2014, under the Obama administration. To that, Ramirez adds another possibility: "It could be the government of the United States itself -- using the incidents as a pretext to reduce embassy staff."

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