As I wandered along Havana’s famous Malacon one humid evening in Cuba, I found myself, after a few too many mojitos and Cuban cigars, and, wearing a well-worn Graham-type Greene sports coat, in a very odd place.
I was looking up at the big, glassed building that houses the US embassy — and the scary-looking police and guards around it, were looking decidedly at me.
Thankfully, I didn’t linger, I retreated back to my hotel. I didn’t care to be “Our Man In Havana,” and this was probably a good thing.
According to a new study from some of the America’s greatest scientific minds, that building, and the diplomatic corps in it, were being bombarded with microwave radiation beams … or something.
We still don’t know exactly.
Diplomats and their families recounted high-pitched sounds in homes and hotel rooms at times intense enough to incapacitate. Long-term, the symptoms included nausea, crushing headaches, fatigue, dizziness, sleep problems and hearing loss.
The same strange illness also struck members of the Canadian embassy, which is located in a different part of Havana, along embassy row.
Both embassies, appear to have been targeted. But by whom and why?
The State Department filed diplomatic protests, and the Cuban government denied involvement. Later, the FBI and RCMP would open investigations and its agents began visiting Havana to try to solve the mystery.
In September 2017, the Trump administration warned travelers away from Cuba and ordered home roughly half the diplomatic personnel.
“Havana syndrome,” as it was called, teemed with unanswered questions.
If it was microwaves, who fired the beams? The Russians? The Cubans? A rogue Cuban faction sympathetic to Moscow? The Chinese?
After years of study, a new report by a National Academy of Sciences committee is now offering some answers.
It has found that “directed” microwave radiation is the likely cause of illnesses among American (and Canadian) diplomats in Cuba and China.
The study commissioned by the State Department and released Saturday is the latest attempt to find a cause for the mysterious illnesses.
The study found that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible” explanation for symptoms that included intense head pressure, dizziness and cognitive difficulties.
The study did not name a source for the energy and did not say it came as the result of an attack, though it did note that previous research on this type of injury was done in the former Soviet Union.
But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect.
“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.”
In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.
The false sensations, the experts say, may account for a defining symptom of the diplomatic incidents — the perception of loud noises, including ringing, buzzing and grinding.
In its report, the 19-member committee noted that it faced significant challenges in trying to get to the bottom of the medical mystery.
Among them, not everyone reported the same symptoms and the National Academy of Sciences research did not have access to all reports, some of which are classified.
One study even suggested that insecticides used to fight the Zika virus as a possible cause.
The research, led by Dr. Alon Friedman of Dalhousie University’s Brain Repair Centre, ran counter to the prevailing microwave theory, pointing to environmental neurotoxins, the kind that might have been used during an aggressive campaign of spraying to mitigate the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitos and can cause birth defects.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the diplomats were left to walk the plank.
The smooth talking, handsome Prime Minister, Just Trudeau, sympathized with the diplomats in public, saying he was treating the matter “very seriously,” but then inexplicably sicked a pack of federal lawyers on a group who dared speak up, subsequently destroying morale in Canada’s foreign service.
His Dad, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, considered a master of foreign policy, would have been ashamed.
While Canadian federal government lawyers argued that five diplomats and their families have made “excessive” and “exaggerated” claims in a CDN$28-million lawsuit filed over mysterious injuries suffered while stationed in Cuba, their US counterparts were set to receive long-term, emergency care.
Daniel, a career Canadian diplomat whose postings have sent him to some dangerous countries, said he, his wife and children were all diagnosed with brain damage.
“My wife, she isn’t the same anymore. She has gaps in her memory, headaches, problems hearing. She picks up the telephone to make a call but forgets why, enters rooms without reason. She can’t concentrate anymore,” he told Radio-Canada.
To date, the most detailed medical case for microwave strikes has been made by Beatrice A. Golomb, a medical doctor and professor of medicine at UC San Diego.
In a forthcoming paper to be published in October in Neural Computation, a peer-reviewed journal, she lays out potential evidence for Cuban microwave strikes.
She compared the symptoms of the diplomats in Cuba to those reported for individuals said to be suffering from radio-frequency sickness. The health responses of the two groups, Golomb wrote, “conform closely.”
In closing, she argued that “numerous highly specific features” of the diplomatic incidents “fit the hypothesis” of a microwave attack.
For his part, Frey says he doubts the case will be solved anytime soon. The sporadic nature and the foreign setting made it hard for federal investigators to gather clues and draw conclusions, he said, much less file charges.
“Based on what I know,” he remarked, “it will remain a mystery.”
Sources: Global News, The Associated Press, The New York Times, Ottawa Citizen, Radio-Cananda, CBC, Neural Computation