Nagy: The mysterious 'Havana Syndrome' -- made in Russia?

·3 min read

In 2016 some employees at the US Embassy in Havana started reporting strange symptoms including fatigue, insomnia, memory loss, feeling pressure in the head, nausea, vertigo, and brain fog – accompanied by loud or clicking sounds. Soon some Canadian diplomats reported similar symptoms. Initially, the medical response was uneven – while doctors evaluating the cases agreed that the symptoms were real, they were unsure of the cause, and some ascribed “Havana Syndrome” to psychological factors (mass hysteria) or work stress. (Note: the working and living environment for Americans in Communist Cuba was beyond stressful because of the Cuban government’s hostility to US diplomats – who were constantly monitored, bugged, harassed, etc.)


While US Embassies have a dedicated medical officer who was the first to treat the affliction on site, the various US Govt agencies at post each have their own medical programs which evaluated employees returning from Cuba. Unfortunately, the agencies responded differently – with some being very supportive, while in others, employees faced skepticism. But soon it became apparent that the syndrome was not confined to Cuba, as employees and even family members at other locales started exhibiting the same symptoms. As of the end of 2021, there have been over 200 cases with additional ones emerging in Columbia, Germany, India, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Vietnam, Uzbekistan and even Washington, DC. There were also recent cases in Vienna – with dozens afflicted, including children – as well as Geneva, and Paris. The best answer up to this point has been a 2020 study which, while inconclusive, pointed to microwaves as the most likely culprit.

Interestingly, US diplomats being targeted by microwaves is not a new story. In 1951 the US Govt discovered that the Soviets were bombarding the US Ambassador’s residence in Moscow with microwaves to activate hidden listening devices. In the 1960s, this was expanded to target the US Embassy itself. While rumors circulated that this was happening among Embassy staff, the US Govt did not officially disclose this to Embassy Moscow until 1976. While the majority view in the medical community, and a 1978 study, held that such microwaves were not harmful to people, some in the medical community believed they were, and that they could cause the types of symptoms associated with “Havana,” which some employees in Moscow apparently exhibited. Furthermore, according to anecdotal evidence, employees leaving Moscow presented higher than expected white blood cell counts and rates of cancer.

Readers of my op-eds know that I don’t hesitate to point out the administration’s foreign policy failings – but in this case both the White House and Secretary of State Blinken deserve major credit. For the first time there is clearly a “whole of government” approach to tackling this problem, with all agencies on board to support employees who’ve suffered. Even Congress – while divided as never before – came together in 2021 to unanimously to pass the HAVANA Act (Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks), which provides support to victims. In signing the act, the White House declared: “Protecting Americans and those who serve our country is our duty, and we will do everything we can to care for our personnel and families.” Secretary Blinken met with afflicted employees and declared, “those suffering must be believed…” and said at a press conference this week, “There is no doubt in my mind that people have been directly and powerfully affected…” There is now also a formal government taskforce addressing the problem; and Johns Hopkins has been tasked with a further study. At least the skepticism is gone and those afflicted are no longer under a cloud for “mass psychosis.”

Unfortunately, as Blinken himself admitted, there are still no clear answers as to “why” but most especially “who.” While Blinken also noted that the issue has been discussed directly with the Russians, the US is not ready to point any fingers. Personally, I’m fully understanding of diplomatic decorum and what can be said, when. But for me – while I wouldn’t bet the ranch – history suggests a strong culprit.

Ambassador Tibor Nagy was most recently Assistant Secretary of State for Africa after serving as Texas Tech’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and a 30-year career as a US Diplomat.

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Tibor Nagy trying to get to the bottom of mysterious 'Havana Syndrome'

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