HAVANA – A few hours before I was to meet the Cuban doctor overseeing an investigation into an allegation of sonic attacks on members of the American diplomatic community in this communist country, I stood outside the Hotel Capri second guessing my decision to go inside.
Built by American mobsters in 1955, the Capri – according to U.S. government officials – is a crime scene. It’s one of the places where “numerous employees at the U.S. embassy in Havana have been targeted in specific attacks” from a phantom weapon, the state department charged back in October.
I went to the 19-story hotel to see this torture chamber for my self.
I expected to find just a few foolhardy souls inside. But the Capri’s lobby was teeming with people who seemed either unaware –or unafraid – of the sonic attacks that the state department claims injured some
of the Americans who spent time in this 19-story hotel at the corner of 21st and N streets in the Vedado section of the Cuban capital.
While U.S. government investigators say they have no reason to think Cuba actually launched these attacks, President Trump said he believes Cuba is responsible for the alleged attacks – which are thought to have started shortly after his election in November 2017. The victims, according to the state department, have been hit with headaches, dizziness, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and some cognition problems. I experienced none of these things during my visit to the Capri.
Of course that doesn’t mean a sonic weapon wasn’t used on American diplomats in this hotel and at other locations throughout Havana. But to believe in the existence of such a weapon you have to believe that Cuba has developed something akin to a neutron bomb. The neutron bomb is a Cold War-era weapon that kills people and leaves buildings standing. Its sonic counterpart – if it exists – would be capable of targeting a single person while not injuring anyone nearby.
If you think that’s the stuff of science fiction, so does Manuel Villar. An ear, nose and throat specialist, Villar is the coordinator of the 10-member team of Cuban doctors that has been trying to solve the medical part of this conundrum. I met with him shortly after leaving the Hotel Capri.
“This is very, very weird,” Villar said of the state department’s sonic attacks theory. “We are trying to find the reason for what they (U.S. officials) claim happened to these embassy employees. But they have given us little to work with.”
Villar said the U.S. hasn’t told Cuba which embassy employees claim to have been injured, or shared the prior medical histories of the people whose symptoms have been diagnosed. “They don’t want to cooperate,” Villar said. “They hide information.”
Maybe, maybe not.
What’s certain is that facts are in short supply in this strange case. So far, what we know for sure is that the U.S. government has offered no evidence to back up its claim that “sonic attacks” are responsible for the mysterious symptoms that, reportedly, have afflicted American embassy workers in Cuba.
“To accuse someone of a crime,” Villar said, “you have to have the weapon, the victim and the motive.” By these measures, Cuba hardly seems to be a good suspect. It doesn’t appear that Cuba had a motive. Relations between the United States and Cuba didn’t begin to sour until months after it is believed the “sonic attacks” started. As for a weapon, it’s a stretch to think that this cash-strapped country has the means to produce a sonic weapon capable of targeting a specific person in a crowded hotel or elsewhere without being detected – or harming others. And while it’s been reported that nearly two dozen Americans in Cuba have been injured in some way, not a single one of these “victims” has been identified.
Still, as the host nation, Cuba must shoulder a lot of the responsibility for safeguarding American diplomats – and for figuring out what caused the illnesses that are believed to have befallen them.
To help do this, Villar said his committee, while continuing to work with U.S. government investigators, will urge nongovernment organizations in the United States to help solve this medical mystery.
“I am offering an open invitation to any researchers at American universities and medical institutions to come to Cuba to work alongside us to research this problem,” he told me. I hope someone takes him up on this offer.
It may take such an intervention to move the United States and Cuba beyond this diplomatic impasse.
By DeWayne Wickham