On September 21, 2017, more than 30 members of the US Embassy community in Havana, Cuba, sent a letter to the State Department imploring Secretary Rex Tillerson not to reduce the embassy staff in response to a series of mysterious “acoustic incidents” experienced by US intelligence and diplomatic personnel. “[W]e understand there are a series of decisions being made this week regarding the operating status of the Embassy,” the urgent letter stated. “We are aware of the risks of remaining at Post. And we understand there may be unknown risks.” Rather than an “ordered departure,” the diplomats and spouses proposed an alternative: “We ask that the Department give us the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether to stay or leave.”
Despite their determination to remain, Tillerson ordered a severe reduction of embassy personnel, effectively shuttering the consulate and leaving only a skeletal staff to handle emergencies.
This week, almost four years later, President Joe Biden finally ordered a “review” of staffing levels at the US Embassy in Havana. His decision comes in the wake of anti-government protests that have forced the administration to put Cuba on its policy agenda. To mollify hard-liners such as Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the White House is framing the review in interventionist terms. Increased staffing, Biden said yesterday, “will enhance our ability to engage with civil society”—code words for backing an opposition movement.
But as the State Department convenes a restaffing working group, the support for engagement over estrangement put forth by the embassy personnel in 2017 deserves to be remembered. Their letter—it has never been fully published before now—argued that the benefits of sustaining full US diplomatic functions in Cuba outweighed the personal risks the embassy officials and their families confronted at the time. Faced with mystifying neurological injuries spreading through the embassy community—maladies we now know have hit hundreds of US intelligence, diplomatic, and military personnel around the world—the staff’s conclusion deserves all the more weight for the simple reason that they were the people at risk.
The so-called Havana Syndrome began with members of the CIA station in Cuba and spread to diplomatic personnel and some of their spouses. Starting in late 2016, one CIA operative after another experienced pulsating pressure around their head along with a metallic grinding sound in their ears. A cluster of symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disorders, and cognitive disorientation followed. As rumors of these ailments swept through the embassy community in the spring of 2017, a few diplomats and family members flew to Miami for medical evaluation. Eventually, two dozen intelligence and diplomatic personnel suffered ill effects from a source that, to this day, remains unknown.
In February 2017, the new Trump administration quietly lodged a formal diplomatic complaint with the Cuban government. “It is not us,” then-President Raúl Castro reportedly advised Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis. Castro subsequently invited the FBI to come to Cuba to investigate. No less than six FBI investigative missions to Havana failed to find any evidence of a cause or culprit for the unexplained injuries.
Cases of the Havana Syndrome, however, continued to appear. That August, a CIA officer staying at the Hotel Nacional was stricken. Back at Langley, CIA officials became convinced that their agents were being targeted and moved to repatriate them. On September 13, 2017, according to a recently declassified internal investigative report done by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB), “CIA inform[ed][Acting Assistant Secretary Francisco] Palmieri of its decision to withdraw personnel from Havana for the foreseeable future.” Some two weeks later, Tillerson followed the CIA’s lead and issued his draw-down directive for US diplomats and their families.
Tillerson’s decision, the ARB report concluded, violated State Department protocols. “The decision to draw down the staff in Havana…was neither preceded nor followed by any formal analysis of the risks and benefits of continued physical presence of US government employees in Havana,” according to the report. In a heavily censored section titled “Risk Benefit Analysis or Lack Thereof,” the document states: “The State Department has had such a process for a number of years, however, [and] no such analysis has been done to date…for Cuba.”
The signatories of the Havana embassy letter conducted their own informal assessment of the risks. “The acoustic incidents have been stressful, to say the least,” they wrote. “We do not want to minimize the pain of seeing colleagues affected, nor our own concerns in the face of something so mysterious and potentially severe.”
At the same time, they understood, and accepted, the hazards of remaining in Havana. “We knew coming into our tours in Havana there would be challenges—it is a hardship post, after all. And the challenges have been many,” they noted. But, they argued, there were also substantial benefits to keeping the embassy fully operational. They urged the secretary of state to adopt the same voluntary protocol used for the threat of the Zika virus in Cuba: “A tangible risk exists for pregnant women or women who are in their child-bearing years—a risk of brain damage to a child. Yet State allows individuals to evaluate this known risk and decide whether or not they wish to remain at post.”
They wanted to stay at their post to advance US interests and the interests of the Cuban people. An operational embassy meant collaborating with Cuba on such key issues as counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, environmental protection, and migration. “We are highly motivated to implement the National Security Presidential Memorandum and continue our work on the 22 agreements signed with Cuba over the last two years,” the signatories advised. “Reducing staff at the Embassy,” they pointed out, “would necessarily mean a change in policy.”
Moreover, it would signal that the United States was prepared to cut and run in the face of adversity. “We also worry about the precedent it would set if we were forced to leave,” states the letter. “We do not know who the culprit of these incidents is, nor the tool, but we have an idea about the motives. And if we were to draw down, that could encourage imitation by America’s enemies around the world.”
That prediction was prescient. Whether at the hand of imitators or the same culprit, reports of what Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines describes as “anomalous health incidents” have spread far beyond Cuba’s borders. The Havana Syndrome, US officials have finally admitted, is, in fact, a global condition with US intelligence, military, and diplomatic personnel experiencing cognitive injuries from an unknown source in countries such as Austria, Germany, China, Uzbekistan, Russia, and even as close to home as the White House gates, where officials recently reported similar health episodes.
From recent classified briefings on Capitol Hill, it is now clear these incidents began in other countries long before the first reported case in Cuba, and they have escalated since they successfully drove US spies and diplomats out of Havana and disrupted US–Cuban relations. “As many as 200 Americans have now reported possible symptoms of Havana Syndrome,” according to an NBC News broadcast this week. “Almost half of those reporting symptoms are linked to the CIA, say officials, with possible cases in Berlin and Vienna and on every continent but Antarctica.”
Under the supervision of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the administration has recently convened two high-level working groups—one to determine the cause of the injuries, and another to address how to mitigate the risk of future injuries. A number of recommendations recently made by a group of more than 20 injured employees and family members are under consideration, among them technological protections, centralized medical services, specialized training, and pre-departure preparation for new personnel going to high-risk posts such as Havana.
To be sure, the Cuban government will be highly suspicious of any embassy staffing with the stated purpose of interfering in Cuba’s internal affairs. It remembers that diplomatic ties were originally broken in early 1961 after Fidel Castro accurately labeled the embassy “a nest of spies” as the CIA secretly prepared for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
But restaffing the embassy remains necessary for basic diplomatic functions. Among other benefits, the reopening of the consular section will restore normalized immigration—a critical need of both nations. A staffed consulate could process visas for thousands of Cubans who want to visit their families in the United States—or immigrate permanently—as well as for Cuban entrepreneurs who in the past traveled to Miami to build supply chains for their private-sector businesses on the island. As the economy has deteriorated, more and more people are risking their lives trying to cross the Florida Strait on small boats and rafts. Making emigration safe and legal again would avert a brewing migration crisis and bring Washington back into compliance with the 1994 migration agreement that requires it to provide at least 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually. Finally, a fully staffed embassy could resume a discussion with Cuba on key bilateral agreements made during the Obama era that have lain moribund since Trump took office—including a diplomatic dialogue on human rights.
As the embassy staff understood in 2017, a well-functioning embassy remains essential to fulfilling the US mission in Cuba. “[W]e have stayed here because we find our work fulfilling, we are supporting national security and foreign policy priorities, and we are having a positive impact on the Cuban people,” the signers of the letter wrote before they were forced to depart their posts in Havana almost four years ago. For those very reasons, it is time for them to return.
Dear Assistant Secretary Palmieri, Deputy Assistant Secretary Creamer, Ambassador Todd, and Ambassador Stephenson and AFSA Colleagues,
This is a message from over 30 members of Embassy Havana—Foreign Service generalists and specialists, colleagues from other agencies, eligible family members, some present in Havana, and some evacuated. We have excluded the Chargé d’Affaires from this process; this is a grassroots effort.
First, we want to thank all of you, as well as DS, OBO, MED, and many others for your support during these very challenging last days, weeks, and months as we dealt with the unprecedented acoustic incidents and recovery from a major hurricane.
Second, we understand there are a series of decisions being made this week regarding the operating status of the Embassy in response to the acoustic incidents. We know you are hearing and reading very alarming stories in the media and directly from some of our colleagues who were affected by the acoustic incidents. We would like to take this opportunity to share our perspective with you.
We knew coming into our tours in Havana there would be challenges—it is a hardship post, after all. And the challenges have been many. But we have stayed here because we find our work fulfilling, we are supporting national security and foreign policy priorities, and we are having a positive impact on the Cuban people and the bilateral relationship. And on top of it all, we and our families have full lives in Havana. We support each other and have bonded under trying circumstances.
The acoustic incidents have been stressful, to say the least. We do not want to minimize the pain of seeing colleagues affected, nor our own concerns in the face of something so mysterious and potentially severe. But over the last many months we have thoroughly discussed these incidents, inside and out, as individuals, as family units, and as a community. We have been given every opportunity to leave if we so choose. Some of our colleagues chose to leave, but most have stayed. In fact, eight of us, many of whom have families with small children, decided to extend for a third or fourth year, even after knowing about the incidents.
We are aware of the risks of remaining at Post. And we understand there may be unknown risks. We ask that the Department give us the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether to stay or leave. This would be in line with State’s policy regarding Zika: A tangible risk exists for pregnant women or women who are in their child-bearing years—a risk of brain damage to a child. Yet State allows individuals to evaluate this known risk and decide whether or not they wish to remain at post.
We are highly motivated to implement the National Security Presidential Memorandum and continue our work on the 22 agreements signed with Cuba over the last two years. Reducing staff at the Embassy would necessarily mean a change in policy. We also worry about the precedent it would set if we were forced to leave. We do not know who the culprit of these incidents is, nor the tool, but we have an idea about the motives. And if we were to draw down, that could encourage imitation by America’s enemies around the world.
Finally, we will respect the Department’s ultimate decision. But, if we were to go on ordered departure, we would request that our colleagues and families who evacuated Havana the week of September 4 ahead of Hurricane Irma be allowed to return to Post to pack up and say good byes. This would be very important for closure.
Thank you for the Department’s constant support, and for listening to our perspective.
Sincerely, Embassy Havana Community