Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack--The Cuban Action Within a Global Web

I have suggested that since November, the seeds planted in late summer, one that sought to connect the Russians to the Sonic Weapons Attack, had been gaining enough traction that it has been playing out with greater resonance in Western media (e.g., here).  The issue of Soviet technology and Russian intentions has only deepened over the last several weeks, and is now conflated with a number of other strands to the narrative of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack.

This post considers  recent developments and their integration. As is not unusual when it comes to Cuba, what at first appears to be a bilateral affair is quickly becoming embedded in larger geopolitical contests. These include covert weapons testing and its detection, regime legitimacy, and the increasing effectiveness of economic weapons  in wars that can no longer be fought with soldiers, and more interestingly in Cuba's relations with Syria and North Korea. In a sense, the Affair of the Sonic Weapons has placed Cuba back in the middle of calculations of the great powers--it can again punch well above its weight; but like the North Koreans, that prominence comes with a cost. And, as is usual in these matters, it is not the officials but rather people (individuals and communities) who are left to pay the bill.
The first; reports have been widely circulating about a similar attack against U.S. diplomats in Uzbekistan in 2016 (Karina Martín, “Sonic Attacks” in Uzbekistan Suggest Russian Involvement in Similar Cuban Incident, Pan Am POst (30 Nov. 2017).
An incident in Uzbekistan, similar to the”sonic attacks” that took place in Cuba, have raised suspicions that Russia could be involved in the mysterious events that targeted US diplomats in 2016. CBS News is reporting that an official of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and his wife suffered from a similar attack as the diplomats in Cuba. The official and his wife were evacuated from Tashkent, the location of the USAID headquarters in Uzbekistan, by the State Department, for evaluation. (here).
The United States, however, has chosen to tease rather than inform. "The State Department declined to describe in detail the incident in Tashkent." (Steve Dorsey, Uzbekistan incident raises suspicions of Russian involvement in Cuba attacks, CBS News (28 Nov 2017) ("Now, two U.S. security sources say the September incident in Tashkent raises concerns Russia may be involved, and could have had a hand in the attacks targeting U.S. government personnel in Cuba-another country where Russia has also exerted growing influence." Ibid.)).  The object here is clear.  The U.S. appears to be signalling through these reports that the Cuban government did not originate the attacks.  In a way this is insulting--the notion is that the Cuban state for all of its vaunted technological resources was incapable of developing and using technologies of this kind.  But it also signals that Cuba assumes its usual semi autonomous supporting role in larger world affairs.  The U.S. now appears to see in the attacks a pattern whose center runs through Moscow. It is unwilling, though, publicly to do more than to muddy the waters.  That, in turn suggests that all sides are now deeply engaged in covert or undisclosed activity to advance interests. One can only hope that the U.S. officials involved know what they are doing and, more important, are being directed by people who have a good strategic and principled sense.  But none of this will ever be clear.

The second; the  brain damage part of the story has been amplified and appears to be heading in a more interesting direction.  Reports are now circulating that doctors have found brain abnormalities among those exposed to the attacks (e.g., here, and here). "“Physicians are treating the symptoms like a new, never-seen-before illness,” the AP wrote, and expect to monitor the victims for the rest of their lives, although most have fully recovered from their symptoms by now." (Avi Selk, Chirps, hums and phantom noises — how bizarre events in Cuba changed embassy workers’ brains, The Washington Post (6 Dece 2017)).

But the emerging medical evidence which the United States has permitted t be disclosed appears to be substantially changing the character of the attacks.
Medical testing has revealed the embassy workers developed changes to the white matter tracts that let different parts of the brain communicate, several U.S. officials said, describing a growing consensus held by university and government physicians researching the attacks. White matter acts like information highways between brain cells.

Loud, mysterious sounds followed by hearing loss and ear-ringing had led investigators to suspect "sonic attacks." But officials are now carefully avoiding that term. The sounds may have been the byproduct of something else that caused damage, said three U.S. officials briefed on the investigation. They weren't authorized to discuss it publicly and demanded anonymity. (Josh Lederman, Doctors identify brain abnormalities in US Embassy patients in Cuba, Associated Press (ABC News) (6 Dec 2017)).
This provides some solace, perhaps, to the Cubans, who have long argued that there were no "sonic" attacks.  But "Enter James Lin of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who reports that the localised sounds and corresponding health effects might both be the result of a beam of pulsed" (David Hambling, "Weaponised microwave may be behind alleged sonic attacks in Cuba," Scientist (12 Dec 2017)) Whatever the ultimate conclusion that will be advanced for public consumption, these debates all continue to affirm that attacks did occur, and attacks perhaps of a more strategically potent sort.
The case has plunged the US medical community into uncharted territory. Physicians are treating the symptoms like a never-before-seen illness. After extensive testing and trial therapies, they are developing the first protocols to screen cases and identify the best treatments – even as the FBI investigation struggles to identify a culprit, method and motive. (Brain abnormalities found in victims of US embassy attack in Cuba, The Guardian (6 Dec 2017))
That should give the Cubans little comfort to the extent they were complicit in the experimentation that occurred within their territory.

The third; the Cuban counter thrust on the medical issue continues to be reactive and misses the movement of events. These stories of medical abnormalities were countered by Cuban narratives that focused on stress rather than sonic weapons (e.g., here).
Stanley Fahn, a neurologist at Columbia University who has seen a summary of the Cuban report, agrees that “it could certainly all be psychogenic.” That a panel appointed by the Cuban government dismisses the U.S. claims may not be surprising, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is still leading what State Department officials have described as a “vigorous” multiagency investigation. But the Cuban report summary, obtained by ScienceInsider, reveals intriguing details. For instance, a high-frequency noise that some had identified as a possible “sonic weapon” may have been crickets chirping.
But even Cubans have mocked portions of this report. (see, e.g., here). The contests over media legitimacy for medical conclusions is part of the political battle now waged between the two sides.  That contest is marked not just by the distinctive narratives put forward by both sides but also by the substantial informational control that has been effectively asserted by both sides. 

The fourth; the renewal, at the highest diplomatic levels of the initial charge that the Cuban government knew or should have known about the attacks and did nothing to stop them (e.g., here, and here).
When asked about the mysterious attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Dec. 6 he had told the Cuban government “you probably know who’s doing it. You can stop it."(Tillerson on attacks in Cuba: 'We don't like our diplomats being targeted', The Washington Post (6 Dec 2017)).
This serves as a potent double edged attack on the Cuban state.  On the one hand  if Cuban officials knew and did nothing then they are complicit in the attacks.  If on the other hand they did not know then the government effectively admits its weakness and the instability of governance within Cuba. "Mr. Tillerson made clear that no matter who was behind the attacks, Cuba was to blame. “What we’ve said to the Cubans is: small island,” Mr. Tillerson said, raising his hands. “You’ve got a sophisticated security apparatus. You probably know who is doing it. You can stop it. It’s as simple as that.”" (Gardiner Harris, Tillerson Suggests Cuba Could Have Stopped ‘Targeted Attacks’ on U.S. Diplomats, New York Times (6 Dec 2017)).

The fifth; touches on some of the consequences of the Affair of the Sonic Weapons Attack, especially respecting Cuba's economic performance.  These cut in a number of directions. On the one hand, reports have recently circulated that the United States is putting pressure on U.S: scientisist to abandon collaborative endeavors with Cuban counterparts.    
To celebrate its 80th anniversary, the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine (IPK) here is throwing a birthday bash: a conference next week that several U.S. collaborators were planning to attend. All but one has backed out, says IPK virologist María Guadalupe Guzmán. Some, she says, were unsettled by recent claims that U.S. diplomats in Cuba suffered what the Department of State has described as “health attacks.” And two researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told IPK they had to pull out because agency officials forbade them from traveling to Cuba. (Richard Stone, United States bans most government scientists from travel to Cuba, Science (28 Nov. 2017))
Moreover, there are reports a substantial downturn in Cuban imports of Chinese goods because the Cuban's can't pay for them (here). 
The island’s economy relies on imports to fuel economic activity, so a drop in Chinese exports does not bode well. “The fall in imports from China is a pattern more or less across the board and in part reflects the government’s efforts to balance revenues and pay debt,” said former Cuban central bank economist Pavel Vidal, now a professor at Universidad Javeriana Cali in Colombia. “That means less consumer goods and supplies for the productive sector, which effects growth,” said Vidal, who expects little if any growth this year despite increased government spending and foreign investment. (Marc Frank, China's exports to Cuba slump as island's cash crunch deepens, Reuters (6 December 2017)).
The  Chinese, however, continue to find that providing moral support, as well as agreements respecting key sectors identified by the Cubans as centers of income. Note the nuance in the latest expression of solidarity between China and Cuba with respect to Cuba's critical investment in pharma: "China is working on the reform of the review and assessment system to register drugs, in order to approach international standards in this discipline and speed up the entry of new and better products into the national healthcare system, the senior official said. He also referred to the challenges of the process and was open to strengthening cooperation with the Cuban regulatory authority and the biopharmaceutical industry, in order to exchange on the main changes the reform will imply, the official note states." (China for More Cooperation with Cuba’s Biopharmacy, Escambrey (11 Dec 2017)). There is little in the way of good news here for Cuba had it hoped to cultivate a "special relationship" with the Chinese beyond "the Changchun Heber Biological Technology joint venture [established] in 2003 in the northeastern province of Jilin . . . [with the] main objective to manufacture biotechnological products." (Ibid.).

The Sixth; suggests that Cuba will survive the Affair, though not unharmed.  Cuba continues to grow its Pharma sector, entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with India for medical devices and pharma regulation (e.g., here).
The MoU was signed by Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare J.P. Nadda and his counterpart from Cuba, Roberto Tomas Morales Ojeda. Nadda said the MoU on cooperation in the field of health and medicine between India and Cuba was important for exchanges in the health sector and to develop institutional framework for cooperation in the health sector between the two countries. (India, Cuba sign MoU for pharma regulation, medical devices, HealthWorld from the Economic Times (7 Dec 2017))
The bad news, of course, is that these advances look to the middle term; there is very little prospect of immediate substantial cash flows to Cuba form these arrangements. Moreover, the U.S. could seek to exploit this, had it the strategic sense and will.  But two factors make that unlikely.  The first is that for all of the fuss, Cuba remains at best an episodically important irritant at the periphery of U.S. external politics (and a more potent force for internal politics).  The second, is the U.S. international policy, at least at the leadership level, appears to be heading in another (and not yet clear) direction.

The seventh; neither Cuba nor the U.S. have yet to master the narrative of these event in their mutual efforts to control discourse and thus manage those institutional forces that are tasked with managing mass (or popular) opinion to political effect. The focuses on the continued circulation of other theories (e.g-. here) suggests that there is still a lively market for the storytelling that is the primary stage of turning opinion into conviction and then, through mass mobilization, of turning conviction into legitimating premise supporting action. 

And the eighth; all of these maneuverings may be signalling realignments that suggest battle lines for a new cold war. This has been reported from the U.S. side (see, e.g., here, and here).  It has also been reported from the Cuban side (see, e.g., here). "

With little room for negotiation with the U.S., the communist island in Florida's backyard has sought to rekindle relations with Russia, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and has stood firmly behind Syria and North Korea. North Korean and Cuban officials met last week to strengthen ties. Both countries suffer from harsh U.S. economic sanctions intended to destabilize their respective governments. (Tom O'Connor, Trump Creating a New Cold War? North Korea, Russia, Syria and Cuba Now Working Together Against the U.S., Newsweek (27 Nov 2017)).

The public roll out of discussion of an "Axis of Resistance" (Cuba, North Korea, Syria, and Russia) then brings the current news cycle full circle. U.K. papers reported: "And, with North Korean and Cuban officials also meeting last week, there is concern a fourth nation could be added to the potentially explosive mix." (Mark Chandler, North Korea WARNING: Kim could be forming lethal alliance with Syria, Cuba and Russia, Sunday Express (28 Nov 2017)). It suggests Cuba as another chess piece in Russia's grand game against the U.S. (leaving a little room for their subordinate clients to achieve their own national aims in coordination with the larger Russian ambitions).  But it is not an avenue that has been emphasized by the Americans.  Perhaps with good reason--strategically and in terms of the management of mass opinion. And yet it is clear that people are connecting the dots, of which the soniuc weapons attack (whatever their true character) forms a dot.

Hace apenas unos días, recibieron en La Habana al canciller de Pyongyang. El solo hecho de invitar a visitar Cuba al representante de ese régimen execrable y execrado constituye, desde luego, un desafío a la comunidad internacional. Durante su estancia, el personaje se reunión con su homólogo Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, algo que era de esperar, pues es lo que indica el protocolo.

Pero el gobierno de la Isla excedió con mucho las obligaciones que dicta la hospitalidad, pues el visitante fue recibido también por el general Raúl Castro. Entre todos los adjetivos que hubieran podido emplearse para calificar ese encuentro, se escogió el de “fraternal”.

¿Qué pretenden con estos pasos las autoridades cubanas? ¿Incordiar al “Gran Satán” —Estados Unidos— aunque de paso provoquen irritación en otros países con los que se mantienen buenas relaciones, como Japón?

El paso parece a un tiempo osado y torpe. Ya se sabe que la superpotencia mundial —y en particular la actual administración de Trump— no simpatiza con el régimen de La Habana. Pero también se conoce que ahora mismo Cuba no constituye un objetivo prioritario de la política exterior estadounidense.

Ése no es el caso con Corea del Norte, que sí representa un tema de primordial importancia para Washington. En ese contexto, ¿qué ventajas podría tener para nuestro país esa exhibición ostentosa de vínculos con un estado al que sus propios actos han convertido en un paria internacional? (Rene Gómez Manzano, Lo que gana Cuba con el romance Kim-Castro, ¿Se ha excedido el gobierno de la Isla con las obligaciones que dicta la hospitalidad?, CubaNet (28 Nov 2017))
[Just a few days ago, the government received the chancellor of Pyongyang in Havana. The mere fact of inviting the representative of that execrable and execrated regime to visit Cuba constitutes, of course, a challenge to the international community. During his stay, the chancellor met with his counterpart Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, something that was to be expected, since that is what protocol requires.But the government of the Island far exceeded the obligations dictated by hospitality, as the visitor was also received by General Raul Castro. Among all the adjectives that could have been used to qualify that meeting, the one of "fraternal" was chosen.What do the Cuban authorities intend with these steps? Annoy the "Great Satan" - the United States - incidentally causing irritation in other countries with Cuba maintains good relations, such as Japan?The passage seems at once daring and clumsy. It is already known that the world superpower - and in particular the current Trump administration - does not sympathize with the Havana regime. But it is also known that right now Cuba is not a priority objective of US foreign policy.That is not the case with North Korea, which does represent an issue of paramount importance to Washington. In that context, what advantages could this ostentatious display of links with a state to whose own acts have turned it into an international pariah have for our country?]

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