What is Havana syndrome?

Havana syndrome is a set of medical symptoms that American diplomats have expressed since 2016. It started at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, when twenty-one people experienced nausea, dizziness, headaches, earaches, and fatigue after hearing a high-pitched sound. At first they believed that the Cuban Government was behind it, but in 2018 the same thing happened at the US Embassy in China. Since then, hundreds of cases have been reported in different countries.

Although the exact cause of Havana syndrome is unknown, explanations have been considered. The most widespread for years was that of an attack with a sonic weapon, but there are also those who believe that it is a disease due to suggestion. However, after various investigations, the United States Intelligence Community reported on March 1 that for most of its agencies it is “very unlikely” that it was a foreign rival, and that for two of them it would be “ unlikely”.

Cuba, Russia and the alleged sonic weapon

When the first cases of Havana syndrome appeared in late 2016, then-President Donald Trump withdrew more than half of the staff from the United States Embassy in Cuba because he believed it was an attack by Raúl Castro’s government. The then Cuban leader disapproved of Trump’s hardening of policy towards the island after the opening with Barack Obama. Although Cuba denied any responsibility, Washington changed its mind two years later, when cases appeared in Russia, China, Austria, Germany, Serbia and France.

Suspicions turned against Russia after the trip of then-CIA agent Marc Polymeropoulos to the country in 2017. In his hotel he heard a sharp, stabbing sound, and then felt nausea and extreme vertigo. This led Washington to distrust Moscow, since only cases of Havana syndrome had been reported in Cuba. A year later, a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that those affected had brain abnormalities, and the National Academy of Sciences stated in 2020 that they could be caused by some type of energy directed against them. The authorities then thought that Russia could be using sonic weapons, as in the Cold War.

During this period, the United States and the Soviet Union explored the use of sonic weapons for military purposes, specifically microwave weapons. They believed that the low-frequency electromagnetic energy they radiated could confuse the brain and convince it that it was hearing normal sounds, such as words, thus aspiring to mind control. In fact, Moscow directed low-frequency waves against the American Embassy in the country from 1953 to 1976, but only caused dizziness, headaches and earaches for its staff.

Havana syndrome, a disease of suggestion?

Some experts, however, believe that Havana syndrome is motivated more by suggestion than by an actual attack. For example, American medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew maintains that the symptoms are common and compatible with prolonged stress, such as what the diplomats may have experienced when reopening the United States Embassy in Cuba after 55 years. Furthermore, he affirms that Washington’s request to its agents to be alert contributes to generating an environment of collective suggestion.

Bartholomew also defends that this is not the first time that symptoms such as those of Havana syndrome are reproduced globally by suggestion. In a book that he published in 2020 with neurologist Robert Baloh, they explain that, after World War I, American soldiers who had never set foot on the battlefield experienced the same symptoms as those who had fought. These included sleep disorders, muscle seizures or loss of speech. These people were diagnosed with war neurosis, a psychogenic illness caused by hearing its consequences from others.

US intelligence points to other factors

However, in 2022 the CIA ruled out that the Havana syndrome was the result of a foreign operation. The investigation indicated that the majority of cases were caused by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress, although it did not rule out external interference for a dozen cases. Washington continued to investigate, while those affected received medical coverage and aid under the Havana Law that President Joe Biden had approved in 2021.

Along these lines, the intelligence agencies also pointed out in the statement on March 1 that “the symptoms reported by US personnel were probably the result of factors unrelated to a foreign adversary, such as pre-existing, conventional diseases and environmental factors.” In addition, they identified medical, environmental and social factors that may explain many of them.