The Best Thing I Read This Week – The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome

The New Yorker has a habit of posting their longform articles weeks before their physical publication to the benefit of their online readership. This week’s edition of The Best Thing I Read This Week (still a working title) comes from the November 19th issue, entitled ‘The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome.’

The article is a fascinating inside look at the insider’s game of US / Cuba diplomatic bartering leading up to the historic normalization of relations in 2015 (which Wikipedia calls ‘the Cuban thaw.’) The article counts as its primary sources many of the principal players leading the US side of the negotiations, including Deputy National Security Advisor and Obama’s right-hand man, Ben Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, a career Foreign Service Officer with with extensive LatAm experience (matched with Rhodes to buoy his limited knowledge of the region and lack of Spanish).

On the opposite side of the negotiating table was Alejandro Castro, the only son of Cuban leader Raúl Castro, then thought of as the third most powerful person in Cuba (after Raúl and the now-deceased Fidel). Faced with shrinking revenues and resources from its ideological partner in the region, Venezuela, Alejando’s appointment to lead the Cuban side of the negotiations underlined its importance to the Cubans, and the seriousness with which they were pursuing a potential agreement.

The article capably sheds light on the complicated history that colored the considerations on both sides leading up to the deal, further underlining just how unlikely the accord actually was. On the surface, the deal was an almost overnight success, leading to an almost six-fold increase in US tourists arriving to Cuba by 2017, just three years later.

However, the initial optimism of a rapprochement and normalization of diplomatic and economic ties was always beset by a vast and ingrained ideological chasm, including Cuban anti-imperialism and historic (and warranted) distrust, as well as hawkish views on both sides. Neither side sought to cede any ideological territory in the agreement — it was more so a typically Obama-ian attempt at hoping cooler, more logical heads prevail — letting progress take over, and getting out of the way. After Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, Fidel Castro wrote an editorial in the Communist Party daily (the primary Cuban government mouthpiece), where he wrote: “Nobody should be under the illusion that the people of this noble and selfless country will renounce the glory, the rights, or the spiritual wealth they have gained.”

The teetering balance of voices that formed the US / Cuban agreement was thrown into disarray with the death of Fidel Castro and election of Trump. In the infamously disorganized leadership transition which followed, career Foreign Service Officers were kept out of the loop, and hundreds of State Department roles were left unfilled by the inept management of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many of the deal’s architects were suddenly disempowered (and soon to quit) or outright fired, creating vast uncertainty and an ununified voice towards Cuba.

The US priorities in Cuba seemingly shifted overnight from opening up dialogue, normalizing relations, and trying to rehabilitate a 70 year relationship of distrust and antagonism to trying to “make Rubio happy” (Trump’s words, per a source), referring to Trump’s need to placate Senator and Republican leader Marco Rubio. Rubio, the now-Senior Florida Republican Senator, is a loud anti-Cuban voice and leader of the all-important Latino-Republican union in Florida that has been fundamental to recent Republican victories in Florida (including the recent Republican victories of Rick Scott for Senate [over Bill Nelson] and Ron DeSantis for Governor [over Dem darling Andrew Gillum]).

For Trump to secure his hold over the the Republican Party, the buy-in of Rubio was crucial. The sudden shift in US policy towards Cuba was best summed up by the condolences offered by outgoing President Obama and President-elect Trump towards deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro:

Obama: “At this time of Fidel Castro’s passing, we extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” he wrote. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

Trump: “Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”

The article also provides a fascinating picture of the symbiotic relationship between the State Department and CIA, and the CIA’s dependence on the State Department to provide diplomatic cover and on-the-ground resources for its field agents operating around the world.

Some time beginning in 2016, these field officers, operating under diplomatic cover in the US Embassy in Havana, began complaining of concussion-like symptoms (difficulty concentrating and sleeping, blurred vision, pounding headaches). Before long, after numerous complaints surfaced, officials became convinced that ousted CIA officers were being specifically targeted. Initially dubbed “the thing,” later morphing into “the immaculate concussion” (for its concussion-like symptoms despite a lack of impact), before landing in the name its taken on publically, “the Havana syndrome.”

As the article hints, the Cuban government vociferously deny any involvement in the attack, forcing US officials to speculate the origin and motivation behind the attack. Popular theories include include the denying Cuban leadership, hardline dissidents within the Cuban intelligence establishment angry with the ‘thaw,’ foreign agents of Russia or China seeking to create distance and sow discord between the two countries, or a malfunctioning of Cuban spy technology. The article cites a private suggestion by Raúl Castro that China was behind the attacks, certainly plausible given the Chinese’s growing strength in surveillance and espionage technology, but given the high stakes of US/Chinese relations at this moment, it feels like an incredibly risky adventure halfway around the world.

Meanwhile, incidents of the attack continued to be perpetrated in private residences and hotel rooms alike against CIA officers, their support staff, and State Department Foreign Service Officers. In all, the State Department announced that twenty-one Americans had been “targeted in specific attacks.” As a direct result of these attacks, in an attempt to to protect the identities and careers of the cia officers, as well as the livelihood of the diplomatic staff in Cuba, Secretary Tillerson announced that the US would significantly reduce its US footprint in Havana from 54 staff on-the-ground to 18 or so, including a near-complete exit of the CIA (at least that’s what they’ve publically claim.)

If the ultimate aim of the unknown perpetrator was to create distance between the US and Cubans, it’s clearly been successful in its aims, and have given further ammunition by US hawks that the Cubans are not to be trusted. Meanwhile, the “Havana Syndrome’s” actual cause, effect, and intent remain a medical, technological, and intelligence mystery.

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