The “Havana syndrome” of US and Canadian diplomats previously thought to have been brought about by “sonic attacks” by Cuban security forces are actually far more likely to have been caused by fear and paranoia, a comprehensive new study by a pair of academics from the United States and New Zealand have concluded.
In a study in the peer-reviewed Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr. Robert E Bartholomew, a medical sociologist at Botany College in Auckland, and Dr. Robert W Baloh, a researcher from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, explained that the symptoms experienced by foreign diplomats in Havana appeared to be psychosomatic.
'Sonic Attack' Scandal
In 2017, the US State Department reported that at least 21 diplomats from the US’s Cuba Embassy had reported ‘concussion-like’ symptoms including dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and nausea, prompting Washington to accuse the Cuban government of deliberately targeting the US embassy building and threatening to close the US diplomatic representation on the island.
Canada soon followed suit, reporting that its diplomats in Havana had also begun experiencing strange symptoms including nosebleeds, ringing in their ears and mental impairment. Medical examinations prompted Canadian authorities to send the families of embassy employees back to Canada and to reduce embassy services.
The scandal led to widespread speculation about what caused these symptoms, which were collectively dubbed the ‘Havana Syndrome’, with some claiming that Cuba had employed an unknown ‘sonic weapon’, while others suggested that the symptoms may have been caused by overexposure to insecticides used during fumigation, by counter-espionage tools deployed by the US and Canadian embassies themselves, or even by the mating of Cuban crickets.
Cuba dismissed all claims outright as “science fiction.”
According to Dr. Bartholomew, the experienced symptoms were most likely to have been caused by stress and paranoia of having to live “in a hostile foreign country” like Cuba.
“A characteristic feature of combat syndromes over the past century is the appearance of an array of neurological complaints from an overstimulated nervous system that are commonly misdiagnosed as concussions and brain damage,” he explained. “A signature feature of shell shock was concussion-like symptoms. Like today, their appearance initially baffled physicians until a more careful review of the data determined that what they were seeing was an epidemic of psychogenic illness.”
Stress, not a mysterious and as-yet unidentified ‘sonic weapon’ were the probable cause of the diplomatic workers’ symptoms, the academic emphasised, with rumours about the existence of such a weapon merely compounding the symptoms. “What is more likely, that the diplomats were the target of a mysterious new weapon for which there is no concrete evidence, or [that] they were suffering from psychogenic symptoms generated by stress? The evidence overwhelmingly points to the latter,” Bartholomew noted.
The study also challenged the more dramatic of the claims, including that some staff may have suffered permanent hearing damage or brain damage, saying such claims were “not borne out by the data.” Ultimately, the study urged against resorting to “exotic explanations” to focus on the facts instead. In any case, the authors stressed that both the “political and scientific evidence for the perpetration of an attack on US embassy staff in Cuba is inconclusive.”