Close up of female ear with source of pain. Photo: iStock
Close up of female ear with source of pain. Photo: iStock

At least two more American employees of the US. Consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou were evacuated from China on Wednesday, after experiencing headaches, sleeplessness and nausea. Their reported symptoms are similar to those of another consulate employee, who was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury on May 18 after being transferred to the US.  

There are still no answers to the mystery behind the brain injury sustained in the first case, although US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 23 it was “very similar and entirely consistent with the medical indications that have taken place to Americans working in Cuba.” Following the incident, the US State Department issued a health alert.    

The government employee diagnosed in May “recently reported subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure” followed by “a variety of physical symptoms” between late 2017 and April 2018.  The employee’s physical symptoms and illness were strangely akin to those reported by 24 American and 10 Canadian diplomats in Cuba during 2016 and 2017.

The first reports surfacing from Havana came in December 2016 after employees complained of sharp ear pain, dull headaches, tinnitus, vertigo, disorientation, nausea, sleep impairment and extreme fatigue.  Another 19 Americans who traveled to Cuba reported similar symptoms to the US State Department.  At a hearing held by the US Congress in January, details emerged of nearly all the ailments having an “acoustic element,” such as a “high-pitched beam of sound” or a “baffling sensation akin to driving with the windows partially open in a car.”  Other competing theories being suggested include toxins, malfunctioning listening devices or even mass hysteria.

The cases in Havana were initially blamed on “ataques sonicos,” or sonic attacks, and later referred to as “health attacks” after investigations by the FBI and Cuban officials failed to verify the use of a sonic weapon

The cases in Havana were initially blamed on “ataques sonicos,” or sonic attacks, and later referred to as “health attacks” after investigations by the FBI and Cuban officials failed to verify the use of a sonic weapon.

However, after reports of the illnesses of the embassy staff members reached US President Donald Trump, he expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States.  More than half of the US Embassy personnel were withdrawn back in September.

When I visited Cuba in January, news stories about the “ataques sonicos” were featured every night on television. Many of the Cubans I spoke with seemed confident the sonic attacks had been invented by the US diplomatic community in Havana as an excuse to withdraw their staff in the face of rising tensions with Washington. Some were even peddling the idea that the attacks were an excuse to allow US diplomatic personnel to quit their positions while still maintaining their pensions. Other Cubans I talked to dismissed the reports as “science fiction,” saying “Cuba doesn’t have the technology” for carrying out such attacks.  For its part, Havana denied any responsibility for the attacks and suggested mass hysteria as a potential cause.

At that time, US Senator Marco Rubio cast doubt on Havana’s denials, arguing, “The idea that someone could put together some sort of action against them, 24 of them, and the Cuban government not know who did it, it’s just impossible,” while adding: “The Cuban government either did this or knows who did it.”  Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, concurred: “Cuba is a security state, the Cuban government in general has a very tight lid on anything and everything that happens in that country.”  

Pointing to the similar high level of surveillance in China, Rubio, a vocal critic of China, is accusing Beijing of hiding the facts.  The State Department has sent medical teams to Guangzhou, while a detailed report from its Accountability Review Board investigating the incidents in Cuba is expected. soon  

Beijing has already conducted an investigation and dismissed concerns, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang saying last month, “[So] far, we have found no reason or clue for what was reported by the US.”  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also quickly commented:“We don’t want to see that this individual case will be magnified, complicated, or even politicized. We hope people will not associate it with other unnecessary matters.”

However, given the similarities between the incidents in Havana and Guangzhou, there is the potential for additional cases of brain injuries being diagnosed, more serious travel advisories being issued leading to a fall in tourist arrivals, and the possible further withdrawal of diplomatic personnel from China.  The incidents in Cuba have seriously damaged the tourist industry, as I witnessed in January, while diplomatic relations between the two countries were set back greatly. While the economic, political and diplomatic ties between China and the US are obviously much stronger, any additional strains are not welcome. Hopefully there will soon be a reasonable explanation, but for now the source of the illness remains a mystery.

Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

2 replies on “Mystery consulate illness strains US-China relations”

Comments are closed.