“The idea that Cuba knows nothing about how these attacks took place and who perpetrated them is absurd,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared on September 29, when he demanded that the Trump administration break diplomatic relations, expel Cuban diplomats from Washington, and put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of internationalism terrorism.
Rubio has long opposed any engagement with Cuba, so it is no surprise that he seized on the reports of “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats in Havana as an excuse to wreck the diplomatic progress President Barack Obama made during his last two years in office.
But the belief that the Cubans must know who and what caused the health problems reported by U.S. personnel in Havana seems credible at first glance, given how closely Cuban intelligence services monitor U.S. diplomats — especially those suspected of being CIA officers under diplomatic cover. Surveillance was “twenty-four hours a day, in my house and my car, every which way they could track,” recalled John Caulfield, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2011 to 2014.
If the injuries to U.S. and Canadian personnel were caused by some sort of acoustic device planted in their residences or by a sonic or microwave beam fired at them from afar by some third party, it certainly seems like Cuban surveillance would have noticed. As Caulfield told the Miami Herald, the Cubans kept “such close tabs on us they would’ve immediately detected someone else.”
But investigators have still not been able to identify the cause of the injuries and scientists doubt that any acoustic or microwave device could produce the range of symptoms reported, so the cause may turn out to be something less obtrusive that Cuban security could have missed. Cuba’s security services are not omniscient or infallible.
As Peter Kornbluh and I describe in our book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, in 1989, a dozen Cuban intelligence officers in a special operations unit of the Ministry of the Interior conspired with Colombian drug traffickers to smuggle cocaine into the United States using Cuba as a waystation. Cuban authorities did not discover the plot until they were tipped off by U.S. diplomats after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) busted the U.S. distributors. The Cuban minister went to prison for dereliction of duty.
In 1997, Cuban security forces were baffled by a series of bombings at tourist hotels and restaurants. From April to September, eight bombs exploded in Havana and at the Varadero beach resort, injuring a dozen people and killing Italian businessman Fabio Di Celmo. For six months, Cuban authorities could not identify the bombers or halt the wave of terrorism. Suspecting that Cuban Americans were behind the bombings, Cuba sought U.S. assistance, which led to the first FBI delegation going to Cuba to review evidence from the attacks. Intelligence sharing by the United States enabled Cuban authorities to thwart several bombings, and they finally arrested four Salvadoran and Guatemalan mercenaries who had been hired by Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles.
Cuba has denied absolutely and repeatedly that it is in any way responsible for the injuries suffered by U.S. and Canadian diplomats. When the U.S. Embassy informed Cuba in February of the health problems, Raúl Castro met with U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis, pledged Cuba’s full cooperation, and invited the FBI to come to Cuba to investigate. Although the State Department reports that Cuba has been cooperative, thus far the investigation has been unable to identify who is responsible, what their motive might be, or how the diplomats were injured.
Is it possible that Cuban authorities know the answers but are covering up, either for themselves or an ally? Yes. But it is also possible that they are just as baffled as U.S. investigators. The myth of the omnipotent and omniscient totalitarian state is just that—a myth. Someone inside Cuban intelligence could have acted without the knowledge of higher authorities, just as happened in 1989. Or some third party could have acted surreptitiously without Cuban authorities detecting it, as happened in 1997. While Cuba, the United States and Canada continue to investigate, we should keep an open mind until there is some actual evidence about who is to blame and who knew what, when.