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Havana Syndrome: Why Do US Diplomats Keep Getting Sick?

It starts with a sound that no one can hear but you. It’s high pitched, like a buzzing insect, and is sooned joined by a feeling of pressure in your ears as if you’re riding in a car with the windows cracked. It goes away after a couple of minutes and you think nothing of it. 

But then in the next few days you start noticing strange symptoms: dizziness, nausea and sudden headaches that keep you from sleeping. Over the following months, it only gets worse. You have bouts of hearing and memory loss. You can’t seem to move your eyes correctly, and you’re so fatigued you have to take time off from your job as a CIA agent.

Finally, an MRI scan of your brain leaves your doctors baffled. It looks like you’ve suffered an extreme concussion, as if you were in a car wreck, but of course you’ve suffered no such accident.

It may sound like science fiction, but this is exactly what’s been happening to US and Canadian officials all over the world for the last 5 years. The question is, what’s causing it? Russian spies? Pesticides? Crickets? Or is it just in their heads?

Havana Syndrome got its name because the first cases affected diplomats and officials at the US and Canadian embassies in Havana, Cuba, starting in 2016. By late 2017, some 21 officials had reported symptoms such as headaches, hearing loss and cognitive problems. By 2018, mounting cases caused the US and Canadian governments to remove all but the most essential personnel from their Cuban embassies.  

Havana at night
Havana at night. By Gabriel Rodríguez, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Since then, over 200 Americans and 40 Canadians have come forward with symptoms indicative of Havana Syndrome. The officials include mostly undercover CIA agents, State Department diplomats and military personnel as well as their families.

They’re not all from the Cuban embassy either. Cases have popped up around the globe including in Russia, China and Colombia as well as NATO countries closely allied with the US like Austria and Germany. Over 20 cases have come out of Vienna alone. 

In fact, there have been two cases on US soil. One was reported by a White House official while she was walking her dog near her home in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. Another occurred on “the Ellipse,” the large grassy park right next to the White House.

Most recently, reports have come from Vietnam. Two American diplomats had to be evacuated on August 24 from the embassy in Hanoi after experiencing symptoms. This actually ended up delaying a trip to Vietnam by Vice President Kamala Harris because she’d make a prime target for what the US government believes is a targeted and malicious attack on their officials by some enemy state.

This suspicion was aroused by the very first cases some five years ago in part because it all started in Havana. US-Cuba relations have never been the smoothest, and US President Eisenhower actually severed all diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1961 after Fidel Castro took power in the Cuban revolution and nationalized a number of American companies without compensation. 

In 1977, President Carter established a small “interest section” in Havana that didn’t fly the US flag, but there wasn’t a true embassy until President Obama reinstituted it in 2015. That’s just a year before the first cases of Havana Syndrome, certainly coincidental enough to raise eyebrows.

No one seemed more ready to point fingers than President Donald Trump, who in his characteristic bluntness accused the Cuban government of being behind the syndrome. Of course, the Cuban government denied all involvement and accused the US of lying about the whole thing in the first place.

The CIA and US Department of Defense have a different theory, though. Despite the embassy in Havana being ground zero, they claim most evidence points to Russian intelligence. Though no public accusations have been made, officials have privately mentioned the Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije, or GRU, the agency in charge of Russian military intelligence, and the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti, or FSB, the successor to the KGB known in English as the “Federal Security Service.” 

These agencies may be attempting to sow mistrust between the American government and nations like Cuba or China with whom the US has a fragile relationship.

This theory is based primarily on cell phone tracking data that puts Russian agents in the vicinity of the affected American officials at the same time as the incidents, sometimes even in the same hotel. The CIA has made these connections in numerous countries where cases have been reported.

In one case a military officer in an undisclosed country with a large Russian presence experienced a case of Havana Syndrome after driving his car. At a busy intersection, he suddenly felt an intense pressure in his head, and his infant son in the back seat began to cry. He sped out of the intersection, the pressure subsided, and his son stopped crying.

All this has led US and Canadian officials to believe the syndrome is not only Russia’s fault, but the result of targeted attacks with some kind of secret weapon. But what? What kind of weapon could physically alter someone’s brain through walls and over such distances that people can’t even see their attacker?

The first theory was a “sonic weapon.” In other words, a weapon that can beam a sound or ultrasound wave at someone, which would explain the high-pitched noises heard by victims. 

It’s actually not as sci-fi as it seems. Sound waves can and are weaponized. For example, police have used a sonic weapon called a “Long Range Acoustic Devices” to disperse protestors and rioters.

A LRAD on top of a New York City police Hummer.
A LRAD on top of a New York City police Hummer. By FlyingCoyote, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

If you’re from the UK, you may also be familiar with a device called “the Mosquito.” It produces a high-pitched frequency that causes discomfort, so shop owners use it to keep teenagers from loitering. On the other hand, if you’ve never heard “the Mosquito,” it’s probably because you’re too old. It usually only affects those under 20 years old, the one silver lining of age-related hearing loss.

Nevertheless, a sonic weapon that a Russian spy could use to fry an American agent’s brain across a public space without affecting anyone else would be a never-before-seen technology. Plus, studies carried out on the brains of victims are not consistent with a sonic attack.

Instead, research in the Journal of the American Medical Association and Neural Computation as well as a study by the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine point to pulsed radiofrequency or microwaves. According to these studies, this explains the noises and pressure experienced by officials, their chronic symptoms, and the brain damage that appears on scans.

And in fact, the US government has actually suspected Russia of targeting their diplomats with microwaves before. From 1953-1976, the US Embassy in Moscow recorded inexplicable microwave radiation throughout the premises that appeared to be coming from a nearby apartment building. Though they never figured out who was beaming the radiation or why, officials assumed it was Soviet forces either controlling espionage equipment or attempting to harm embassy employees.

Not everyone is convinced by the microwave hypothesis, though, and there are a number of other theories. For example, a study by Global Affairs Canada on Canadian diplomats blamed pesticides. In the past, the Cuban government has sprayed a pesticide called a “cholinesterase inhibitor” throughout the country including near the US and Canadian embassies to kill mosquitoes carrying Zika virus. This pesticide is a neurotoxin, and the researchers concluded it could be responsible for the symptoms of Havana Syndrome.

By far the most interesting theory is that crickets are behind Havana Syndrome. A few US officials made sound recordings of the high-pitched noises they heard and sent them to the Associated Press. Both US and Cuban scientists have analyzed the recordings and determined they’re the noises of rare jungle crickets living in Cuba.

Of course, crickets can’t explain the other symptoms, leading some to consider the syndrome “psychogenic” in origin. In other words, the symptoms aren’t caused by any external physical source at all but are instead psychological, produced by the victim’s own mind. Indeed, a review by the CDC of 95 suspected cases determined that 49 of them were “not likely” to be cases of Havana Syndrome.

Based on this, some have suggested Havana Syndrome is simply a manifestation of mass hysteria. If someone believes they may have been attacked, their brain could psychologically produce symptoms, an example of the reverse placebo, or nocebo, effect.

Still, while mass hysteria could be to blame for some of the cases, most scientists and government officials are convinced that many are truly the victims of malicious attacks. That’s due to the sheer volume of cases as well as the very noticeable and physical brain trauma a lot of the victims present with.

Regardless, whether Havana Syndrome is the result of an attack by Russian spies using a secret weapon or psychogenically prompted by chirping crickets, one thing is certain: it’s changed the lives of dozens of American and Canadian agents and diplomats. Many have experienced chronic health problems and had to undergo extensive physical and neurological treatment with some still unable to return to work. 

A number of these victims have even put some of the blame on their own governments. In 2019, several Canadian diplomats sued the Canadian government for $28 million for concealing information and downplaying the situation, thereby putting them in danger. 

Many American officials have also complained about the lack of response from their government, and it is true that investigations have been hampered by inter-agency conflict and secrecy. For instance, the CIA has refused to share case information with the FBI over fear of leaks.

In the meantime, the US and Canadian embassies continue operating with minimal staff and the exact cause of Havana Syndrome remains a mystery. I’d be willing to bet, though, that it will inspire spy thrillers and sci-fi movies for decades to come. 


“Ailing Canadian diplomats who served in Cuba have ‘visible and real’ health impacts, Trudeau says” Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2019/02/07/ailing-canadian-diplomats-who-served-in-cuba-have-visible-and-real-health-impacts-justin-trudeau-says.html

“A Mysterious Syndrome First Detected in Cuba Now Reported in the U.S.” Healthline.com: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/a-mysterious-syndrome-first-detected-in-cuba-now-reported-in-u-s

“As many as 200 Americans have now reported possible symptoms of ‘Havana Syndrome,’ officials say” NBCNews.com: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/many-200-americans-have-now-reported-possible-symptoms-havana-syndrome-n1274385

 “Cuba Unexplained Events Investigation—Final Report” NSAArchive.gwu.edu: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/documents/cdc-report-havana-syndrome-medical-mystery-remains-unresolved/CDC%20%2320200983DOS255%20Final%20Report.pdf

“Havana syndrome: Exposure to neurotoxin may have been cause, study suggests” CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/havana-syndrome-neurotoxin-enqu%C3%AAte-1.5288609

“Possible Havana syndrome incident delayed Harris flight to Vietnam” CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/24/politics/kamala-harris-vietnam/index.html

“Trump says Cuba ‘responsible’ for alleged sonic attacks, but offers no evidence” The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/16/trump-says-cuba-responsible-for-alleged-sonic-attacks-but-offers-no-evidence

“US investigating possible mysterious directed energy attack near White House” CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/29/politics/us-investigating-mysterious-directed-energy-attack-white-house/index.html

“Vienna Is the New Havana Syndrome Hot Spot” The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/vienna-is-the-new-havana-syndrome-hotspot

“What is Havana Syndrome, the puzzling malady plaguing Western diplomats?” The Economist: https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2021/08/23/what-is-havana-syndrome-the-puzzling-malady-plaguing-western-diplomats

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