The Havana Syndrome: A True Story of Espionage, Secret Weapons, and Geopolitics

The tense plot of the so-called Havana Syndrome, a bizarre remnant of the Cold War, continues. This time, an investigation conducted by The Insider, in collaboration with 60 Minutes (CBS) and Der Spiegel, published on April 1, revealed new clues about the mysterious events that occurred in the Cuban capital between 2016 and 2017. The data, collected over a year by these media outlets, point to the main suspect: Russia.

What does the investigation say about the Havana Syndrome?

Between 2016 and 2017, more than twenty CIA and U.S. State Department officials (and, to a lesser extent, Canadians) stationed in Cuba during the period of normalization of relations between the two countries suffered various strange ailments. The victims coincided in that these began at a very precise moment when they felt like they were hit by a “ray of energy.”

The event, then known as the Havana Syndrome, caused a diplomatic crisis that ended with the reduction of staff at the U.S. embassy on the island and the expulsion of Cuban officials from the Caribbean country’s consulate in Washington. In the long run, this was one of the determining events in the cooling of a relationship that had begun during Barack Obama’s second presidential term, although by then the White House was occupied by Donald Trump.

The first conclusion of the investigation is that the name Havana Syndrome is unfair to Cubans, since, although it was in this capital where the highest number of cases were concentrated in a short period, the truth is that this phenomenon had been recorded in many countries for several years. This fact confirms the statements made some time ago by Mark S. Zaid, attorney for the victims of the Syndrome, who declared some time ago: “[the Havana Syndrome] is a name that blames the Cubans, and no one I know suspects them.”

According to the information published in the report, cases of Havana Syndrome have been recorded among U.S. diplomatic staff, intelligence agents, and their families in places as varied as Georgia, Germany, China, India, Vietnam, and even the United States. In fact, the text reveals an event that U.S. authorities had kept secret until now: a senior Pentagon official experienced the Syndrome symptoms during the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2023.

The first recorded case is believed to have occurred in Frankfurt in 2014. The victim, a U.S. government employee at the consulate in that German city, was diagnosed with a strange “traumatic brain injury.” The incident, curiously, occurred shortly after the Russian invasion of the Donbas region, which would end with the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. But more curiously, these supposed attacks mostly affected U.S. intelligence agents who at some point worked on the ground to counter Vladimir Putin’s expansionism in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

In all cases (except those that occurred in Cuba), the journalists who conducted the investigation were able to demonstrate the presence at the site, during the date of the supposed attacks, of key figures from a Kremlin intelligence organization: Unit 29155.

Vladimir Putin, main suspect of the Havana Syndrome attacks / Original Image: Getty Images

Unit 29155 is a famous assassination and sabotage squad of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU), that is, Moscow’s military intelligence service. The methods of its agents are internationally known for their effectiveness and complexity, possibly surpassing those seen in any spy genre film regarding attacks and assassinations. Unit 29155, to cite one of its most publicized actions, was responsible for the poisoning of British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018, in England. Whenever the Kremlin seeks to get rid of someone “dangerous” or create a situation of political instability in a country, it turns to this Unit, which is the official heir of the Soviet KGB’s “special operations” department.

The investigation results indicate that it was spies from Unit 29155 who caused the Havana Syndrome in several U.S. officials using non-lethal acoustic or microwave energy weapons. Both microwave and ultrasound energy, according to the text, can damage brain cells and cause damaged cell proteins to rapidly leak into cerebrospinal fluid and then into the bloodstream, making evidence of the attack disappear. Since an ultrasonic weapon would need to be placed about ten or 12 meters from the target to cause harm, the more credible option is microwave energy. The report also presents alleged evidence that such a weapon exists and that the Russians have experimented with it for years to optimize it. The information suggests that its creation was the work of one of Vladimir Putin’s most cherished military projects: the Foundation for Advanced Military Research, whose explicit goal is “to create innovative weapons.”

The microwave weapon theory is based on the use of radio frequencies that cause brain damage in the victim, resulting in symptoms ranging from chronic headaches, vertigo, insomnia, and lasting psychophysiological deterioration, to, in extreme cases, hearing loss and blindness. This phenomenon, according to the theory, is similar to the ailments caused by the “Frey effect,” named after the U.S. scientist who first described them when he noticed that those working near radar transponders during World War II suffered strange thermoelastic expansions of the auditory apparatus.

The Insider, 60 Minutes, and Der Spiegel also implicitly raise a question: if three media outlets were able to gather a considerable amount of incriminating evidence against Russia in a year, how is it possible that the top U.S. intelligence officials have not acknowledged these facts and reacted with the severity they deserve? How is it possible that the closest thing to an accusation against the Kremlin is the 2023 report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) of the United States, which stated that it was “highly likely” that these were attacks by a foreign enemy? A possible hypothesis, handled by the sources interviewed, some of them victims of the Syndrome, is that the CIA has not revealed information because to do otherwise would mean acknowledging that Russia has committed an act of war against the United States.

The responses

Just hours after the report was published, the Russian government officially responded. However, at the moment, it seems not to pay much attention (at least publicly) to the matter. The only statement came from Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson, who said:

“No one has published or expressed any convincing evidence of these baseless accusations anywhere. So they are nothing more than unfounded accusations.”

For his part, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío was quick to state on his X account that the report’s revelations were nothing more than “speculations” and “unconfirmed wild stories.” In a note published by the AP agency, Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, director of the Cuban Center for Neurosciences, not only discredited the report but also questioned the existence of something called Havana Syndrome. According to Valdés-Sosa, it has no scientific basis and its symptoms, being so varied, could be caused by “many diseases.”

In the same AP note, Johana Tablada de la Torre, deputy director of the United States Department of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the report “fiction.”

“Havana Syndrome does not exist, as it is not registered as a disease (…) [The report] tries to present Cuba as a threat to U.S. national security. Even if Cuba is not the supposed main actor, it presents Cuban territory as the place where foreign powers can act against the United States,” Tablada told the U.S. press agency.

However, the investigation conducted by The Insider, 60 Minutes, and Der Spiegel barely mentions Cuba. In fact, it clarifies that from the beginning, the CIA almost completely ruled out the responsibility, at least directly, of the Cuban government, suggesting that the attacks could have been the work of the Russians to hinder the rapprochement between Washington and Havana, which would jeopardize Moscow’s geopolitical interests on the island.

The White House, in contrast, reacted cautiously to the report. Hours after its publication, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller reiterated that U.S. intelligence would continue investigating the cases of the Havana Syndrome, although, for now, there is no conclusive evidence of the responsibility of a “foreign adversary” in them.

Medical Evidence of the Havana Syndrome

The medical evidence of the strange and varied symptoms suffered by the victims of the so-called Havana Syndrome is substantial. However, the results of clinical studies sometimes contradict each other, adding more mysteries to the issue.

Several scientists, including some Americans, have suggested that it might be a case of collective psychogenic illness, meaning that multiple people under stress manifested the same symptoms through suggestion. The fact that the U.S. embassy in Cuba was under constant surveillance and relentless harassment by Cuban counterintelligence, which has been corroborated in numerous interviews conducted over the past six years with the victims, might support this theory. However, this hypothesis has been dismissed over time, as many people were affected years earlier in other parts of the world without their cases becoming public, even within the CIA.

In December 2020, a report by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that the most realistic hypothesis about the cause of the Syndrome was the directed transmission of radiofrequency energy. This theory, already popular at the time, gained more followers in the following years.

However, in March 2024, researchers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledged the existence of symptoms in the victims but said they still had no explanation. Two clinical studies published that same month in the specialized journal JAMA yielded slightly different conclusions. The studies, conducted on 86 Syndrome victims, 42 women and 44 men, showed no significant differences between them and other test subjects professionally related to the former in auditory, vestibular, cognitive, or visual function tests, as well as blood biomarker levels. However, the Syndrome victims did present significant symptoms of fatigue, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Additionally, functional neurological disorders were found in 24 of them.

Immediately afterward, JAMA published an editorial by David Relman, a scientist at Stanford University who has led previous investigations into the Havana Syndrome. According to Relman, the studies were flawed because the tests applied were not capable of detecting certain types of brain injuries. In his text, he also referred to his own research and stated that what he found “did not resemble any disorder described in the neurological or general medical literature” and that the traumas “could be caused by an external mechanism.”

What Was Known and Some “Coincidences”

A key text to understanding what might have happened in Havana between 2016 and 2017 is the report “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome” by journalists Jon Lee Anderson and Adam Entous, published by The New Yorker in November 2018. According to this investigation, the Havana Syndrome was not an excuse by the Trump administration to cool relations between Cuba and the United States, as the Cuban regime has tried to present it, but a problem reported for some time that exploded in such a way in the Cuban capital that it only accelerated the process of distancing between the two nations.

Anderson and Entous pay special attention to the figure of Alejandro Castro Espín, who led Cuban counterintelligence. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s National Security Advisor, had direct conversations with him during the years leading up to the thaw and throughout it. Both Rhodes and Castro Espín suspected that their meetings were being spied on by a third party. The suspicions, at least on the American side, fell on Russia. John Brennan, CIA Director, also had meetings with the Cuban, and despite differences, Alejandro Castro was very assertive in negotiating. However, in 2015, inexplicable intransigence began from the Cuban side, something “U.S. officials” attributed to a faction of the island’s government pressing for closer ties with the United States.

When the first cases of the Syndrome were reported in Cuba, Raúl Castro personally insisted to senior U.S. officials that his country had nothing to do with the incidents. In fact, the idea that a foreign power was involved was “fueled” by Castro himself in secret conversations, according to the text. For U.S. intelligence agencies, it became clear that this power was Russia, although they had no incriminating evidence. However, they sensed that the Russians had been supported by a conservative faction of the Cuban government, as “nothing happened in Cuba without the Cuban government’s knowledge.”

Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl Castro’s son, was “punished” after the Havana Syndrome scandal / Image: EFE

Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl Castro’s son, was one of the most important figures in intelligence during the thaw.

The report indicates that shortly after those conversations, the Cuban government began to show more hostility on the matter. A specialized U.S. team arrived in Havana around that time to investigate the rooms at the Hotel Capri and the Hotel Nacional where some of these alleged attacks occurred but found nothing. They then requested access to nearby security cameras from the island’s authorities, but they were not granted.

Interestingly, the investigation published by The Insider, 60 Minutes, and Der Spiegel suggests that the attacks in other countries were always carried out from outside the facilities where the victims were located, and it even identifies agents from Unit 29155 who were in that position at times close to the incidents.

It is also curious that, after Cuba adopted a hostile stance regarding the Havana Syndrome, Alejandro Castro was removed from political life: not only was he not elected as a deputy to the next legislature of the National Assembly of People’s Power, but his counterintelligence department at the Ministry of the Interior was dissolved.

In February 2023, Anderson and Entous revisited the topic, this time in the podcast “Unpacking the ‘Havana Syndrome’” by NBC. Anderson again dismissed the possibility of direct involvement by the Cuban government, though he pointed to Russia as the main suspect.

“No one (including the CIA people we talked to at many levels) thinks the Cubans were solely responsible, or even mostly responsible. Yes, [the attacks] took place in Cuba, and it could have been a very small group of counterintelligence agents working in conjunction with an allied power, probably Russia. There has also been talk of China, but it is more or less dismissed due to their behavioral patterns,” he stated.

The Kremlin was one of the biggest losers, if not the biggest, in a scenario of closer cooperation between the governments of the United States and Cuba, as the island, besides being its greatest ally in the region, represented the gateway to extending its influence throughout Latin America.

After the alleged attacks that caused the Havana Syndrome and the subsequent freezing of bilateral relations between the island and Washington, Moscow intensified its efforts to approach the Caribbean country. By 2023, relations between Russia and Cuba had reached a level not seen since the days of the USSR. At the beginning of that year, the Cuban regime made public its intention to make the Kremlin its economic advisor and main political ally. Russia, for its part, allowed Cuba to trade in its currency market and has provided continuous aid in energy matters over the last three years, as well as all kinds of supplies. Both nations renegotiated, once again, the island’s enormous debt to the Slavic country. The Cuban government also adopted the use of the Russian MIR payment system throughout its commercial network, allowed its judges and prosecutors to be trained in Moscow, and accepted Russia as the main investor in the expected reactivation of its sugar industry. And despite the significant loss of political credit it represents, Havana has supported Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine.

* Translation from Spanish by Fiona Baler.

Darío Alejandro Aleman. Cuban journalist based in Mexico.


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