The Mysterious Havana Syndrome


Havana syndrome has no proven cause, no consensus on how it is transmitted and no precise symptoms. This illness first appeared in 2016, two years after the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba. Diplomats and U.S. officials in Cuba started to experience a range of conditions such as dizziness, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, severe headache and memory loss. What started as a few reports from a single country in the Caribbean turned into a thousand reports from 98 countries all over the world. Other countries where claims started to be filed were China, Russia, Austria, Serbia and Canada.  As explained by the Wall Street Journal, “the syndrome is a set of unexplained medical symptoms first experienced by U.S. State Department personnel.”  

The first case of the syndrome 

In 2014, when President Barack Obama started his presidency, he signed a landmark agreement with his counterpart, Raul Castro, in Cuba. The two agreed to have diplomatic relations again after they were severed by Heisenhower in 1971. Two years later, in 2016, the first case of Havana syndrome appeared. A few of the officials stationed at the embassy in Havana, Cuba started experiencing cognitive difficulties. Described as a sharp ringing in the ears, pounding headache, and body ache, the illness began to be looked into by the U.S. State Department. 

In 2017, in Russia, a CIA officer named Marc Polymeropoulous was on a mission in Moscow. He woke up one morning with what he reports to have been severe vertigo, causing him to be unable to stand. When discussing the possible ramifications that an illness such as this may have, he stated “of course, I’m concerned about the adversaries behind this because ultimately, I believe it’s an act of war.”

Where and when have similar situations occurred? 

Besides the U.S., Canadian staff also started to complain of similar symptoms when in Cuba in 2016. They stated to have suffered concussion-like symptoms while in Havana. In addition, there have been allegations deriving from states that are even further from the United States such as Uzbekistan and Syria. A U.S. diplomat in China explained the situation as being awakened by “a pulsing, humming sound in her apartment in Guangzhou, China.” She explains that she had “headaches, nausea, and loss of balance for months, initially believing it was connected to high levels of pollution.”

What are some possible explanations for Havana syndrome? 

As scientists, researchers and psychologists have tried to explain the origin of the mysterious disease, they have struggled to come up with a definite answer. For the past seven years, many different theories have been put forward. One of these has been that the symptoms derived from an energy attack such as microwave waves from devices dating back to the Cold War. Another explanation is owed to the Zika virus that erupted in Cuba in 2016. Cuba’s aggressive campaign to combat the disease led to the excessive use of chemicals and this may have possibly had an impact on the officials in the area. 

Later, it was discussed how Havana syndrome could be a potential consequence of suffering from trauma abroad. U.S.-New Zealand psychologist Robert Bartholomew talks about the syndrome having a possible link to war trauma. However, despite all theories pointing the finger at foreign adversaries and possible attacks, the most recent report published in regard to the syndrome states that no credible evidence has been found that backs up the claim. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence explains that “instead, the government concluded that a combination of factors including pre-existing medical conditions, conventional illnesses, and environmental factors was the cause of the reported symptoms.”

What does this report mean for past investigations and the victims? 

The report is shocking to many people and states that whoever has been a victim of the disease must be taken care of and their experiences not be questioned. In October 2021, President Biden signed the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act, which authorizes additional medical and financial support for intelligence officers and diplomats affected by Havana syndrome. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened a criminal probe and operated out of 90 countries to try to make sense of the unexplained symptoms. In addition, intelligence agencies often looked into arms dealers to see whether there was a potential link. 

It cannot be denied that many officials and diplomats suffered greatly from Havana syndrome, however, it is not certain whether support will still be provided to those to claim to suffer from it. Victims still continue to piece together their time abroad and understand how such unexpected systems forever changed the course of their life. 

Featured image by: Alex Sandoval from Health Magazine

Gabriela Gorodi
Gabriela Gorodi
Hey! I´m Gaby, I am a third-year law and international relations student with a passion for writing. My interests go from writing about international conflict to issues closer to our daily life that may be of interest. I was born in Spain however I grew up abroad and love learning about different cultures, traditions, and countries. Everyone has a story to share and I think that's pretty unique.

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