After more than 50 years of what can only be described bitterly antagonistic relations between the United States and Cuba, in July 2015 President Obama finally oversaw the resumption of diplomatic ties. But now, after a series of dramatic incidents allegedly involving injury to U.S. diplomats in Cuba, this new-found friendship has been strained to breaking point.
Cuba’s stormy relationship with the United States dates back to 1959 when forces led by Fidel Castro took the country’s capital, forcing the dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee into exile in Portugal. In fact, at first, the United States favored the Castro-led revolution. It was believed that this might herald a new era of democracy in Latin America.
However, the honeymoon was to prove short-lived. Castro legitimized the Communist Party in Cuba, there were large-scale expropriations of agricultural land, and many people were executed by the Communist regime. Consequently, the United States embarked on a policy of increasing stringent economic sanctions against its Caribbean neighbor. In retaliation, Cuba signed an economic treaty with the Soviet Union, America’s principal Cold War protagonist.
Then relations between the two countries had taken a decided turn for the worse in 1960 after U.S. President Eisenhower had authorized a bid by Cuban dissidents to forcibly remove Castro. This became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an operation mounted in April 1961.
Some 1,400 troops, supported by C.I.A. B-26 bombing raids, landed at a beach in the Bay of Pigs. However, the Cuban Army was equal to the task of repelling the invasion. As a result, this ill-advised adventure ended in ignominious defeat after just three days of operations.
The main results of this misbegotten campaign to end Castro’s Communist regime were threefold. It strengthened Castro’s position as unchallenged Cuban supremo; it reinforced Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union; and it heightened enmity between the United States and Cuba. And there was worse to come in the shape of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted for 13 days in October 1962, is seen by many pundits as the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to all-out nuclear war. The Soviets were unhappy that the Americans were deploying nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey. They retaliated by siting nuclear weapons on Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida.
After that, the United States blockaded Cuba to prevent delivery of more missiles and demanded that the Russians withdraw the missiles they’d already deployed. Much to the relief of a terrified world, presidents Kennedy and Khrushchev hammered out a deal. The result was Soviet nuclear weapons were removed from Cuba, and U.S. missiles were withdrawn from Turkey.
So relations between Cuba and the United States can only be described as terrible during the 1960s. And they were to continue at the same hostile level for decades to come. Meanwhile, on the Cuban side, Castro continued as Communist dictator right up until 2008 when he retired as president.
At the same time, U.S. presidents, subject to periodic elections not to mention term limitations, came and went. But none was prepared to countenance an end to the embargo on Cuba or the resumption of diplomatic relations. Then came the 2008 election of the 44th U.S. president, Barack Obama.
In 2014, Obama moved to end the impasse with Cuba. Diplomatic relations were re-established and the U.S. Embassy in Havana was reopened, as was the Cuban Embassy in Washington. Both had been shuttered since 1961. Next, the United States relaxed trade restrictions and loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba by American citizens.
In a final symbol of the rapprochement between the two countries, Obama traveled to Cuba in March 2016, the first U.S. president to do so since 1928. There, he met the second President Castro, Raul. Raul Castro had succeeded his brother Fidel as Cuban leader in 2008.
All of this seemed like a rosy dawn to a newly normalized and friendly relationship between the United States and Cuba, with the Cold War conflict definitively consigned to history. But then something strange started to happen, not long after Obama’s Cuban visit.
It was in late 2016 that some American staff at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba began to report that they were suffering some peculiar and unsettling symptoms. These mystery ailments included loss of hearing, difficulties with speech and recalling words and an inability to concentrate properly.
Now there was talk of unpleasantly discordant noises experienced by those suffering from symptoms. Furthermore, one diplomat said that he’d heard such noises in his hotel bedroom in Havana. Weirdly, it turned out when he’d changed position within the room, the noises disappeared, only to reappear when he moved back to his original position.
Speaking to The Guardian Fulton Armstrong, an ex- C.I.A. man who had operated in Havana before the U.S. Embassy reopened for business, said, “None of this has a reasonable explanation. It’s just mystery after mystery after mystery.” And suspicions began to grow that U.S. officials were being targeted by some kind of sonic beams.
Eventually, 24 American government staffers and their partners who had been stationed in Havana were reported to have experienced the strange and inexplicable symptoms, both in hotels or in their homes. In addition, some Canadian officials also reported these ailments. In December 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Associated Press that he was “convinced these were targeted attacks.”
Doctors now began to examine the victims of these “attacks,” and their findings made sobering reading. Subsequently, tests revealed that staff who’d worked at the embassy had observable changes to the white matter tracts in their brains, tracts that allow messages to pass across the brain.
Nevertheless, Cuban officials have been adamant that they know nothing about attacks on U.S. personnel serving in Havana. For this reason, Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla told CNN, “There is no evidence, there is no evidence whatsoever, of the occurrence of the alleged incidents or the cause or origin of these ailments reported by U.S. diplomats.”
Be that as it may, the United States pulled more than half of its diplomats from the embassy in Havana in September. This was followed in October by the expulsion of 15 Cuban officials who had been serving at the Cuban Embassy in Washington. The United States announced tighter sanctions against Cuba in November. Could this lead to a return of Cold War levels of hostility? Only time will tell.