US-Cuba thaw halted amid diplomat injuries

By Will Grant
BBC News, Havana

Cubans hold US and Cuban flags outside the US embassy building as the US flag is raised over it in Havana on August 14, 2015, during US Secretary of State John Kerry's visitImage source, AFP

The sun on that hot August day three years ago was punishing. It baked our backs, burnt our foreheads, and left the assembled dignitaries and excited onlookers soaked in sweat.

We'd been standing in position since long before sunrise, but many had been waiting decades to see this moment.

The United States was finally reopening its embassy in the Cuban capital Havana after decades of hostility.

It was a moment laden with symbolism.

The same three marines who lowered the Stars and Stripes when the embassy was shuttered in 1961 passed the flag to their modern-day counterparts. To the strains of The Star Spangled Banner, they raised it once again above the building's forecourt.

As it fluttered behind him, then Secretary of State John Kerry presided over the warmest moment in US-Cuban relations in decades, saying: "Cuba's future is for Cubans to shape."

It was quickly followed by an equally important step, a visit by President Barack Obama in March 2016, the first by a sitting US president since 1928.

President Obama's rhetoric went even further than Mr Kerry's. "I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas," he said to rapturous applause, his speech televised live to Cubans.

'No longer safe'

Yet barely 18 months later, this latest episode between these old foes feels more reminiscent of the Cold War than those sentiments of fraternity and thaw.

The US has reduced its embassy staff in Cuba by 60%.

Furthermore, the US state department has advised American citizens against travel to Cuba, saying it can no longer guarantee their safety. Lobbyists in favour of engagement have been urging a rethink and calling on American visitors to ignore their government's travel advice.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
US diplomats based in Havana have complained of odd ailments

It is an undeniably strange tale, one which began during those final months of the Obama presidency.

Around November last year, US diplomats based in Havana started to complain of odd ailments - dizziness, nausea, even a loss of hearing.

More than 20 members of staff have been harmed in what the state department has described as "health attacks".

There was no clear pattern to the incidents. Some experienced sharp piercing bursts of noise, others seemed to be affected by inaudible sound waves.

Some were affected in their homes, others were apparently targeted while inside a hotel. Some as they slept, others while they worked.

The United States officially complained to Cuba, and President Raul Castro took the unusual step of meeting the highest US diplomat on the island to personally assure him that Cuba wasn't involved.

Both countries launched separate investigations - as did the Canadians, after a smaller number of their staff also reported similar symptoms. Still no obvious cause turned up.

The US government suspects the use of some kind of as-yet unidentified "sonic weapon" or device, but exactly who carried out the alleged attacks is far from clear.

Even once the matter became public the incidents continued, the latest taking place as recently as early August.

Whatever the source of the injuries, some of them are certainly serious. At least one US employee has been left with permanent hearing loss.

'Tense but professional'

It is as baffling as it is intriguing, yet it goes way beyond what most diplomats might consider the usual cut-and-thrust of surveillance or provocation by a hostile host.

"I was always welcomed," remembers Herman Portocarero, the former European Union ambassador to Cuba.

"By and large, I had a frank and open and cordial relationship with my Cuban counterparts."

Some former diplomats in Cuba recall having their car tyres slashed. One even recounts a strange story of a poisoned pet dog.

However, the former EU ambassador never went through anything involving what could perhaps be best described as "extreme provocation".

"Absolutely not", says Mr Portocarero, who has just written a book on his experiences of Cuba, entitled Havana Without Make Up.

"We had tense moments, I was sometimes called in and criticised over our relations with dissidents, but it was always professional. I never suffered any of those invasive or aggressive actions that I hear about."

Shortly before the announcement of US embassy staff cuts, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez held talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington.

Perhaps in a last ditch effort to divert fresh hostility, he underlined Cuba's firm position that it had nothing to do with the incidents and warned against taking "hasty decisions" based on circumstantial evidence.

It seems it wasn't enough to stop the White House from ordering home all "non-emergency personnel" in Cuba.

"They did some bad things in Cuba," was President Donald Trump's verdict, delivered to journalists on the South Lawn of the White House.

That response seemed at cross-purposes with earlier indications that the US didn't necessarily hold Cuba directly responsible for carrying out the attacks, but rather of failing to prevent them.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
That hot day back in August 2015 now seems a very long time ago

Either way, this decision includes what amounts to a punitive measure for thousands of Cuban families. The embassy will not be issuing any further visas to Cubans wanting to travel to the US.

The Cuban foreign ministry again called the decision "hasty" and warned it would affect bilateral relations.

Ordinary people in Havana are worried about what that might mean too.

"Of course I feel affected by this", said Magaly Dominguez, who runs a small café in front of the US embassy. "First I don't like that they speak ill of my country, which I consider is very safe. But also they're going to make it tough for Americans to come here again."

"They're politicising it," said Iris Oviedo, whose business offers photocopies and passport photos to those who turn up at the embassy, folders of paperwork in hand, trying to secure a visa.

"They're creating a problem that doesn't exist."

For the diplomats whose hearing has been severely impaired, the problem certainly exists. Indeed it may affect them for the rest of their lives.

However, even by the standards of the volatile US-Cuba relationship, this is a quick turn of events, one which makes that stiflingly hot day in August 2015 feel a very long time ago.