Some people got sick in Cuba. Or did they?

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The last time I wrote about the Cuban ‘sonic attack’ baloney, I said that a pair of peer-reviewed articles had convinced me

…that some American diplomats who served in Cuba have real neurological symptoms (Swanson et al. 2018). Furthermore, they have convinced me that these same diplomats appear to have real differences in brain structure from an age-matched, healthy control group (Verma et al. 2019).

I may have spoken too soon: Sergio Della Sala and Roberto Cubelli, writing in Cortex, dispute the evidence that American embassy personnel in Cuba suffer from neurological impairment:

The [Swanson et al.] JAMA article represents a case of poor neuropsychology; clinically inappropriate and methodologically improper…

As I said in the previous article, I lack the expertise to evaluate these claims (I’d love it someone with the relevant expertise weighed in). But I want to acknowledge that there is at least a dispute within the neuroscience community about whether or not neurological symptoms even exist:

In conclusion, there is no evidence that the people assessed present with any cognitive deficit (to be linked or not with their stay in Cuba). Subjective cognitive symptoms cannot be supported by the reported data. There is no “new syndrome” to contemplate. Hence, the search for its cause is moot.

Brutal. Let’s quickly review how ridiculous the oft-repeated claim that American embassy personnel in Cuba were attacked with a sonic weapon really is. First, we have to agree that embassy personnel got sick. I was previously convinced that this was true; now I’m not so sure. Next, we have to agree that that illness was due to an attack. This is a huge leap. People get sick for lots of reasons, and almost none of them are attacks. Some naturally occurring illnesses even tend to strike people in the same place all at once!

But assuming that an illness is due to an attack is not nearly as absurd as attributing, with no evidence beyond ‘they heard some sounds’, the alleged illness to a physically impossible magical sci-fi sound gun. And let’s not forget that those sounds, described by AP reporters as “sort of like a mass of crickets,” turned out to be…

You’ll never guess…


And that’s aside from the fact that all the experts interviewed by reporters, and several writing on their own, have said that there is zero plausibility to the claim that the (alleged) health problems reported by embassy personnel were caused by a sonic weapon:

“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” said Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.” —Josh Lederman, Michael Wessenstein, and Mathew Lee, reporting for AP

“I know of no acoustic effect or device that could produce traumatic brain injury or concussion-like symptoms,” said Juergen Altmann, an acoustic weapons expert and physicist at Germany’s Technische Universitaet Dortmund. — Josh Lederman, The Associated Press and Lauran Neergaard, reporting for Federal Times

And so on. And that’s aside from the fact that the FBI dismissed the possibility of sonic attacks nearly two years ago:

Following months of investigation and four FBI trips to Havana, an interim report from the bureau’s Operational Technology Division says the probe has uncovered no evidence that sound waves could have damaged the Americans’ health, the AP has learned. — Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee, reporting for AP

In my non-final “Final thoughts on Cuba,” I said,

When people get sick, the first question you ask should not be “how were they attacked,” but rather “why did they get sick.”

As it turns out, I may have been too quick to accept the premise. Maybe embassy personnel in Cuba were exposed to something that made them sick; I’m not saying they weren’t. I also don’t have any problem, though, imagining that a few of them happened to get sick for unrelated reasons, and in the resulting investigation a bunch more unrelated symptoms were discovered. Once the suspicion of an attack existed, it seems nearly certain that embassy personnel were closely questioned for any health complaints since they arrived in Cuba, and that all their headaches, insomnia, and episodes of nausea–all the things that happen to us all, in other words–would have been attributed to the alleged attacks.


Stable links:

Della Sala, S. and Cubelli, R. 2018. Alleged “sonic attack” supported by poor neuropsychology. Cortex 103: 387-388. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2018.03.006

Swanson, R.L., Hampton, S., Green-McKenzie, J., Diaz-Arrastia, R., Sean Grady, M., Verma, R., et al. 2018. Neurological manifestations among US government personnel reporting directional audible and sensory phenomena in Havana, Cuba. J. Am. Med. Assoc., 319: 1125–1133. doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.1742

Verma, R., Swanson, R.L., Parker, D., Aziz, A., Ismail, O., Shinohara, R.T., et al. 2019. Neuroimaging findings in US government personnel with possible exposure to directional phenomena in Havana, Cuba. J. Am. Med. Assoc., 322: 336–347. doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.9269


  1. says

    The problem with this event has always been that the only people apparently effected were American and Canadian embassy personnel. Why no one else? If it was a deliberate attack you would think there would be other targets, if only to disguise the intent of the attackers. If it wasn’t you’d think diplomats from other countries would also be effected by whatever did happen.

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