Havana Syndrome: U.S. concerned about health of its officials abroad

Dizziness, severe headache, hearing loss, an unpleasant general feeling spread throughout the body: these are some of the symptoms of the so-called "Havana Syndrome", which in recent months has affected numerous public officials and diplomats of the United States in different locations scattered around the world.

This syndrome takes its name from a series of episodes that occurred between 2016 and 2017 to several members of the U.S. and Canadian diplomatic entourage in the Cuban capital, who began to manifest health problems characterized by a recurring symptomatology, seemingly unjustified and that, with time, took on increasingly suspicious features. The CIA immediately took an interest in this matter and started to monitor with more attention similar cases. Following Biden's election as President, episodes of sudden illness among U.S. civil servants on missions abroad have increased dramatically, and have seriously alarmed the government.

Defining precisely and in detail what the "Havana Syndrome" is not yet possible. The symptomatology enclosed within this expression is in fact very varied. The first reported cases, which occurred precisely in Cuba, are described as a general malaise. Some subjects affected by these sudden health problems have told of a feeling of pressure on the chest, as if they were driving at high speed. Others described the feeling of being hit by a beam of energy. Still others have listed a number of problems ranging from hearing and vision loss, to lack of balance and, finally, a strong sense of anxiety. It should also be considered that the severity of these manifestations varies depending on the individual. Some employees, despite being affected by this feeling of malaise, were able to continue working without serious consequences. On the other hand, others have had to stop their activities, going so far as to have to abandon their position and return to the United States to get better. A particularly worrying element is the fact that some of those affected by this syndrome have shown that the symptoms occurred only in certain places, such as hotel rooms or specific rooms within the buildings where they worked.

Since the first episodes of this mysterious syndrome were reported, there have been more than 200 cases. Nearly half of these have affected CIA agents on missions abroad and their close family members, the other half being equally divided between employees of the Department of Defense and the Department of State. In addition to the Cuban capital, similar situations have been reported by officials stationed in Russia, Poland, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, China, Georgia, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The "Havana Syndrome" has thus become a global problem for the US government, which sees the health of its officials abroad endangered by an inexplicable, but increasingly common, ailment.

However, it should be noted that one place in particular, besides Havana, has stood out for the high number of suspected cases: Vienna. Especially in the past few months, in the Austrian capital a worrying number of US civil servants have shown unusual and sudden health problems. The city has thus become the new global epicenter of this mysterious syndrome. The suspicion that these episodes are not causal but, on the contrary, are caused by a form of attack against the US is a hypothesis that has been carefully considered in these months. It must be underlined at this point that Vienna is historically a center of primary importance for international espionage. The city is in fact the seat of many large organizations, such as the United Nations, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency. For this reason, in the city there is a large number of officials from all over the world, in possession of information of interest to the intelligence services of different nations. Traditionally, Austria's internal security services have turned a blind eye to foreign intelligence operations on Austrian soil, as long as those operations did not threaten national interests and security. In light of this, and the sudden increase of suspicious cases among American functionaries, the hypothesis that the so-called "Havana Syndrome" is deliberately caused by activities carried out by one or more intelligence services deployed against the United States was promptly considered. The U.S. government is taking this matter extremely seriously, President Biden has in fact formed a task force whose goal is to investigate these episodes. In addition, the U.S. Senate intervened in June 2021, passing the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks (HAVANA) Act, to support victims of this syndrome.

From the beginning, the suspicions of the CIA, the government and the task force have focused on Russian intelligence. Nevertheless, there is currently no concrete evidence linking Moscow to these cases. However, several theories have been developed since 2016 to explain how it is possible to cause these sudden illnesses. The most accredited states that these symptoms are caused by electronic devices that, through waves, interfere with the health of U.S. officials and agents. In this direction also goes a report published last December by scientists from the “National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine”, which shows that the symptoms described by U.S. officials may be caused by direct and pulsed radiofrequency devices, a form of energy that includes microwaves. Numerous question marks remain about this matter, however. Over the years, the U.S. government has tried several times to understand what is behind these episodes, without reaching a comprehensive explanation. Specialists from the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania have, in fact, in the past conducted studies, through the use of magnetic resonance imaging, on the brains of 40 subjects who have manifested the syndrome. The results showed damage to the brain, but without finding any trace of what had caused them. It was stated that it was as if the patients had a concussion, but without the physical signs of the latter. The investigations carried out by the United States will therefore continue in the future, in an attempt to give an answer to the many questions surrounding this affair.

At the beginning of August, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to reassure US diplomats and officials abroad, who are understandably very alarmed about their health. Blinken, in a letter to them, emphasized that the United States is doing all it can to investigate these unexplained health problems. However, he also admitted that the government currently has no clear answers and cannot explain what is going on. It is therefore difficult to imagine that the US government will be able to make any concrete decisions in the near future that will effectively protect the health of its officials. Surely the "Havana Syndrome" will be a central issue for the CIA and the US government in the coming months, which will have to find a solution to protect its agents and diplomats from these mysterious illnesses.

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  • L'Autore

    Andrea Ghilardi

    Classe 1996. Nato e cresciuto in provincia di Bergamo.

    Attualmente studente presso la Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, sta conseguendo il Master "International Security". Precedentemente si è laureto in "Scienze Internazionali e Istituzioni Europee" presso l'Università degli Studi di Milano. Durante il suo percorso triennale ha avuto la possibilità di studiare un semestre all'estero, presso la Masaryk University a Brno (CZ).

    Una delle sue principali passioni è la politica internazionale, della quale apprezza particolarmente le tematiche legate alla geopolitica, alla sicurezza internazionale e alla lotta al terrorismo. Mostra infine interesse e sensibilità per i temi sociali e ambientali.

    ENG - Born in 1996. Raised in the province of Bergamo.

    Currently a student at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, he is pursuing his Master degree in "International Security". Previously he graduated in "International Studies and European Institutions" from the University of Milan. During his bachelor degree he had the opportunity to study for a semester abroad, at the Masaryk University in Brno (CZ).

    One of his main passions is international politics, of which he particularly appreciates the topics related to geopolitics, international security and the fight against terrorism. Finally, he shows interest and sensitivity for social and environmental issues.


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