A “War of the Decibels” in Cuba

In the wake of mysterious “acoustic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana, normalization efforts further unravel.

October 9, 2017

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, on August 14, 2015. (U.S. State Department)

Bizarre. A head-scratcher. Straight out of the Cold War. Few descriptors for the latest diplomatic flap between Cuba and the United States don’t sound cliché. Whatever explains the alleged “sound attacks” on U.S. personnel in Havana, Graham Greene and Antonio Prohías—the Cuban-born creator of Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy”— would have had a field day.

But “Sordogate,” or the “War of the Decibels,” as I have also seen it called, is no laughing matter—not least for the over twenty U.S. officials (and several Canadian counterparts) affected by a range of serious symptoms including hearing loss and speech problems as a result of purported acts of acoustic aggression against them. Now, with over half of U.S. and Cuban diplomats in Havana and Washington respectively heading home, everyday Cubans will also feel the pain. These moves further cripple President Obama’s popular policy of rapprochement with the island. They also risk bringing people-to-people ties across the Florida Straits to a lower point than well before Obama’s breakthrough in 2014.

As if that weren’t enough, the Associated Press recently reported that the first targets of sonic subterfuge were U.S. intelligence officials under diplomatic cover in Havana. Then, on Friday, CBS News relayed that a “handful” of “private” U.S. visitors have also come forward to claim experiencing health concerns after past trips. (The veracity of their assertions has not been confirmed.) This drip-drab of anonymously sourced, often speculative news will only add to the downward spiral, leaving the Cuban people bystanders in the dark. What began under the Trump administration as a partial departure from the Obama administration’s policies in June, albeit couched in inflammatory rhetoric, now seems headed toward a more complete break.

Birth of a Scandal

Secretary of State Tillerson’s decision to leave only a skeleton staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana comes on the heels of weeks of mounting public tensions. Ever since the “sound attack” story broke in August, Havana has rejected any allegation of responsibility. Cuba’s leadership had already allowed the FBI to come and investigate in early 2017. Months ago, Raúl Castro personally assured then U.S. Chief of Mission Jeffrey de Laurentis that he was equally puzzled by what had taken place. Given that these “incidents” started last fall, it is a testament to restraint on both sides that the story remained out of the public eye for almost a year.

After the events came out, a measured, if terse tone seemed to prevail. Yes, Washington had quietly sent two Cuban diplomats packing as a warning shot back in May. But until late summer, U.S. officials used the word “incidents” rather than “attacks” to describe the strange occurrences. Indeed, no coherent theory accounts for either the range of symptoms experienced by victims, or how anyone in Cuba—an anti-normalization element in the state security services, or the security services of another government—would have gotten their hands on the technology required. This has led to caution against ascribing direct responsibility to the Cuban government. Experts question whether any sonic device exists in the world that can produce the health effects reported, and in such narrow spaces. (In one case, a single hotel room is said to have been targeted.)

Still, as investigators struggled to come up with answers, frustrations mounted. Washington argued that even if the Cuban government was not the perpetrator, it had a responsibility to protect diplomats on Cuban soil from harm. The Cubans, on the other hand, held that not enough information about the incidents was forthcoming from Washington to allow its own probe of the matter to advance. In a last-ditch push, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez took the unusual step of pleading his case to Tillerson directly. Evidently, Rodríguez failed to share any clarifying revelations, sealing the divide. Already hounded by a group of Republican U.S. Senators to close the embassy entirely, Secretary Tillerson announced the drawback of U.S. staff later that week.

Rationales and Effects

In theory, a staff reduction might make sense out of an abundance of caution until the source of the health symptoms could be neutralized. But short of public information, one inevitably wonders whether this is a pretext for a policy, or what interests may be pulling the strings. As one former U.S. diplomat noted to the Miami Herald, “If we say we can’t identify [the device responsible for the attacks], it’s probably because we have one of our own.” Could some of the “attacks” be the result not of Cuban malfeasance, but of U.S. espionage efforts gone wrong? At this point, the possibility of American error—at least in part—seems as plausible as any other explanation.

Either way, the effect of the resulting controversy is a rollback of normalization efforts more complete than what Trump initially proposed. Back in June, analysts criticized the aggressive rhetoric of Trump’s Cuba policy announcement, but they also noted just how much of Barack Obama’s stamp remained. Yes, the administration was going to make it more difficult for U.S. individuals to travel to Cuba; yes, this would have a negative impact on the island’s small business sector. But the embassies? The end of “Wet-Foot-Dry-Foot”?  The gaudy cruise ship arrivals? All of that, and more, was going to stay in place. (Indeed, because the Trump administration has not yet issued regulations actually implementing the announced June changes, technically all of Obama’s travel rules are still on the books.)

But the drastic reduction in embassy staff in Havana, and the retaliatory expulsion of Cuban diplomats in Washington, means formal diplomatic relations are now hanging on by a thread. To put this in context, not since before the establishment of Cuban and U.S. Interests Sections in the late 1970s has the diplomatic presence of both countries in each other’s capitals been this weak. This has direct consequences for the ability of diplomats to advocate for expanded business ties, to monitor human rights, or to keep afloat the bilateral collaboration agreements that Cuban and U.S. authorities already signed. Meanwhile, a State Department warning to all Americans against visiting the island further threatens Cuban restaurant and homestay owners’ bottom lines. Yet for many Cuban citizens, the most immediate, egregious outcome has to do with a different form of travel: their own inability, going forward, to visit and reunite with loved ones in the United States.

As a result of the U.S. embassy staff reduction, virtually all consular operations in Havana will cease. Not only is this heartbreaking for those who have waited months, or years, to join relatives via family reunification visas; it also means that professional, artistic, and academic exchanges will grind to a halt. (More salt to the wound: fees for visa appointments already scheduled, but now cancelled, cannot be reimbursed.) As serious, the de facto closing of the consulate will likely put the United States in violation of one of its longest standing bilateral agreements with Cuban authorities: the Migration Accords of 1994-1995, reaffirmed and updated by Cuba and the Obama administration in early 2017. This pact obligates Washington to issue a minimum of 20,000 travel documents to Cubans for permanent immigration each year. However, with no real consular operation on the ground, there is no way the Trump administration will be able to meet this mark.

Meanwhile, the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Washington will bring about a similar result, albeit in the other direction. For Cubans already living in the United States, the Cuban consulate in D.C. is an unavoidable purgatory, as even former migrants nationalized as U.S. citizens must enter Cuba to visit with a valid Cuban passport or entry visa. Applying for and keeping this documentation up-to-date was already an expensive chore. At $375, the cost of applying for a Cuban passport from the United States is steep, and though technically valid for six years, it has to be “prorrogado” (a nonsensical “extension”) every two for an additional fee. But now there will be all of one consular official left to handle such transactions. Paperwork that already could take months may now linger incomplete.

This does not appear a coincidence. The decision to expel Cuban diplomats was by no means necessary in the absence of definitive evidence of Cuban culpability in the sound “attacks.” But more to the point, the United States chose which personnel at the Cuban embassy to send home. In addition to the staff of the business section (responsible for courting U.S. companies to invest and lobby against the embargo), the consular bureau seems to have been singled out. Conservative Cuban-Americans like Marco Rubio have long held the thinly veiled view that remittances and diaspora travel to the island, like U.S. travel more broadly, are nothing more than convenient “lifelines to the regime.” Could this be more evidence of Rubio’s outsized degree of influence over the Trump administration’s Cuba policy specifically, and its Latin America policy in general?

What is not in doubt is that voices long against normalized relations with Cuba are seizing on the moment to push for a broader repeal of the Obama legacy. If the results of the first round of policymaking in June were mixed, “sonic attacks” now provide the perfect excuse to go for goal. With Fidel gone, Venezuela in shambles, and the Wet Foot, Dry Foot “escape valve” conveniently shut, pro-embargo Miami TV commentators have seemed eager to put a new “pressure cooker” theory to the test. One source reports that renewed restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances are being contemplated. If that is true, it will be the clearest evidence yet that the forces opposed to engagement are using this opportunity to advance an agenda that, polls show, is not even popular with most Cuban-Americans. 

Bad Timing, or Good?

In most ways, this turn of events comes at an awful time for Cuba and its government. As I wrote in the summer issue of the NACLA Report, prior to Trump’s policy announcement in June, the island was already facing a series of challenging obstacles. Despite an unprecedented tourist boom, economic growth had stalled. Efforts to reform the island’s economy from within—the fabled process of socialist “updating”—also had not advanced in any major way in two years. Venezuela’s crisis had indeed exacted a toll on supplies of cheap oil. And with Raúl Castro slated to retire in February, the government was facing the prospect of leaving behind the charismatic authority upon which the Revolution’s claims to legitimacy have always been partially based.

Then came the Trump announcement in June, threatening to deplete the number of U.S. visitors. This was followed in August by the declaration of a temporary Cuban government freeze on issuing private business licenses. Even worse, Hurricane Irma devastated a wide swath of Cuba’s northern coast in September. Coastal parts of Havana found themselves under water. Smaller adjoining islands that are prime tourist destinations were hit particularly hard. While Cuban officials have insisted that tourist poles will be fully operational by high season this December, a recent report on the halving of rates for many resorts suggests they are worried.

In this sense, the “sound attacks” brouhaha marks the latest blow in what has already been a bad year. However, in another way, the timing of the scandal could not be better for a certain element of the Cuban system afraid of change. Insofar as the Trump administration has overplayed an aggressive hand, it favors those in Cuba’s government who were skittish about normalization and internal reform already. By this same logic, some in Cuba might have had a motive to provoke the scandal themselves. But it is one thing is to use a foreign policy crisis not of one’s making to rally conservative nationalist passions, quite another to instigate a confrontation that undoubtedly brings grave economic risks. The latter still seems too beyond the pale.

The losers in this war of positions will be the Cuban people. With fewer U.S. visitors, private and state-owned corners of the tourist economy will suffer. And with no visas, and delayed Cuban passports in Washington, links between the island and its diaspora—human and financial—will wane.  Remittances, it is true, have been a mixed bag, as they provide a baseline of income or under-the-table investment capital for some, while excluding others (Cubans of color especially) from new opportunities due to a comparative lack of family members abroad. But to a tune of $3 to $5 billion annually, the transnational flow of dollars and goods in recent years has outpaced some of the most lucrative sectors of the Cuban economy overall.

Cubans are left, then, with little consolation other than the hope that their history will continue to move in cycles and better times will return. As the memories of the Obama moment fizzle, and hopes for immediate internal reform fade, many might find themselves humming the lyrics of a beloved late 1990s tune:

Los de derecha giran a derecha

Los de la izquierda giran a izquierda

Y ya yo me aburrí

De esos viejos viajecitos en círculo…


(Those on the right turn to the right

Those on the left turn to the left

And I’m already bored of these little old trips in circles…)

Habana Abierta, “La Vida es un Divino Guión,” 1999.

Michael J. Bustamante is Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University.

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