For her April 26 story, “‘Knife in the back’: Havana Syndrome victims dispute report dismissing their cases,” Nora Gámez Torres’ interviewed Canadian and U.S. government employees harmed by incidents that apparently targeted them while stationed in Cuba. Medical specialists at the University of Miami examined 35 employees and their family members affected by the phenomenon. The doctor in charge of the investigation, Michael E. Hoffer, M.D., said that, “Evidence suggests they were targeted, but we can’t prove that.”
Gámez delivered solid investigative journalism. Most U.S. media coverage, and U.S. government reports myopically focus on American victims while omitting Canadian employees harmed at their embassy in Cuba. But Gámez also reported that a study of 16 Canadian adults who reported “health incidents in Havana found changes in areas of their brains similar to those found in the Americans affected. Children of the Canadians working at the embassy also were affected.
Advocates for engagement with Havana have sought to minimize or ignore the harm done by this unexplained phenomenon. They also omit the Castro regime’s history of attacking and harassing U.S. and Canadian diplomats, which stretches back decades.
Jim Bartleman, Canada’s ambassador to Cuba from 1981-83 had his view of Castro “soured in a sudden shock” a year into his posting when regime agents poisoned his dog and his deputy’s dog on the same day. Both dogs died.
In 2003, the State Department provided a declassified cable to Congress detailing physical and psychological harassment of U.S. personnel. According to the cable, Cuban agents routinely entered U.S. employees’ residences to search belongings, papers and computers and to gather other information thought to be useful. They also vandalized vehicles — slashing tires, removing parts and smashing windshields. In some instances, human excrement was left behind in the diplomats’ homes. After one family privately discussed their daughter’s susceptibility to mosquito bites, “They returned home to find all of their windows open and the house full of mosquitoes.”
News of these practices pre-date the Havana Syndrome. Journalist Nikki Waller’s July 1, 2006 article in the Miami Herald, “Diplomats in Cuba wary of snoops and snubs” reported U.S. diplomats “told of endlessly ringing phones and dog feces strewn inside their homes, urine-soaked towels left on a kitchen table, in addition to poisoned family dogs. A high-ranking member of the mission once found his mouthwash replaced with urine.”
The harm done to embassy employees beginning in late 2016 in Havana was something new. But targeting and attacking diplomats was not.
John Suarez is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.