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From Cuba to China: The Anonymity of Technology as a Political Tool

The Presence of Sonic Sounds Abroad

Reports of unknown sounds near the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba first arose in August 2017. The noises heard inside the homes and hotel rooms of U.S. embassy personnel left 24 Americans hospitalized with cases of “headaches, dizziness, eyesight, hearing, sleep and concentration problems” [1]. The illnesses resulted in the firing of 15 Cuban diplomats and an initial blame of the incidents on the Cuban government, despite a lack of evidence [2]. Mirrored symptoms were reported at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China in May 2018, where there has been no known role played by the Chinese government or other actor. A plethora of explanations by politicians, researchers, and journalists did not find a consensus, with varied theories alleging a sonic weapon, attempted eavesdropping, or even toxin.

The United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba.

In the medical field, doctors and scientists have struggled to attribute the sounds to any known biological source or technology. The Cuban government claimed the sounds and illnesses were a result of a “collective psychogenic disorder,” or mental disorder unrelated to outside cause [3]. However, official medical studies have not concluded any “external origin,” “environmental cause,” or “rogue virus or other pathogen” [4]. The least contested theory has become the attempted eavesdropping of the Cuban or Chinese governments—medical researchers have not yet ruled out the possibility that the injuries were the backlash of a powerful recording device. However, Cuban leaders have openly denied involvement or knowledge of the source of the issue [5]. Medical examinations of brain abnormalities have revealed the detrimental effects of the noise, but its nature and source remain unknown.

What This Means for Diplomatic Relations

The anonymity of sonic sounds as an aggression on the health of diplomatic personnel is unprecedented in international relations. Politically targeted violence can manifest itself in an anonymous fashion, such as with terrorist attacks, but the sounds experienced in Cuba and China are a unique threat. Physical attacks carry some evidence: there is hard, sometimes traceable verification of the origin. The unaccountability of anonymous technology, however, undermines the traditional diplomatic responses that governments have at their disposal, leaving unwarranted blame to be the solution of last resort. Such a tactic has been used by President Trump, who accused the Cuban government of perpetrating the attacks near the Havana Embassy, despite contradiction by fellow Republican and Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Jeff Flake [6].

Should the U.S. pursue further action, such as misplaced sanctions or retribution towards a faultless nation, it could strain the current U.S.-Cuba détente or erode the multidimensional U.S.-China relationship. With trade-bargaining simultaneously occurring between the U.S. and China, the presence of a potentially deliberate political tool complicates an already fragile international partnership. Conversely, inaction could invite further manipulation by foreign powers. The same issue has already presented itself on opposite ends of the globe nearly one year apart, risking more cases to rise at embassies elsewhere.

Following a detailed but inconclusive investigation into a medical explanation, the U.S. State Department has retreated from labelling the incident an “attack,” recalling health warnings using that term [7]. After initial finger-pointing, the American government has been silent on the issue. In light of an international threat to the health of its citizens, a hegemon like the United States is expected to respond without hesitation. However, the United States cannot follow traditional game-theory politics when it does not know who it is playing against. Both a lack of evidence and unwillingness to sacrifice a politically secure appearance have forced the United States into a diplomatic corner against anonymity.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson giving remarks at a United Nations Security Council Session.


  1. Sample, Ian. “Fresh row over mysterious sickness affecting US diplomats in Cuba.” The Guardian. 24 February 2018.

  2. Sample, Ian,

  3. Stone, Richard. “Stressful conditions, not ‘sonic weapon,’ sickened U.S diplomats, Cuba panel asserts.” 5 December 2017.

  4. Achenbach, Joel. “Controversy surrounds research on State Department employees sickened in ‘attacks’.” The Washington Post. 8 June 2018.

  5. Schoen, John W. “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Alleged 'sonic attack' on a US official in China is similar to mysterious incidents in Cuba.” 23 may 2018.

  6. “Jeff Flake says there's "no evidence" Cuban government attacked American diplomats”. 6 January 2018

  7. Schoen, John W.

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