US-Cuba thaw halted amid diplomat injuries
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.
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.