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Canadian, U.S. diplomats in Cuba suffer unexplained hearing loss

A man lowers the Cuban flag while standing amidst flag posts installed outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, April 16, 2016. Canadian diplomats and their families in Cuba have experienced unexplained hearing loss and headaches that are believed to have been caused by a “sonic emission,” according to the federal government.

ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI/REUTERS

Canadian diplomats and their families in Cuba have experienced unexplained hearing loss and headaches that are believed to have been caused by a "sonic emission," according to the federal government.

The disclosure comes after reports that a group of U.S. diplomats began suffering from unexplained hearing loss in the fall of 2016; officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case told the Associated Press that some of the affected diplomats were forced to return to the United States as a result of their symptoms. Global Affairs Canada said it is working with the United States and Cuba to determine the cause of the strange symptoms.

"The health and safety of our employees abroad is a top priority for Canada. We are aware of unusual symptoms affecting Canadian and U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families in Havana. The government is actively working – including with U.S. and Cuban authorities – to ascertain the cause," said Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Natasha Nystrom.

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The Canadian government did not say when diplomats and their families experienced the symptoms. Ms. Nystrom said that the government doesn't have any reason to believe Canadian tourists and other visitors could be affected.

It's not clear if the symptoms experienced by the Canadian and American diplomats were related, or if they were deliberately targeted.

Speaking on background, a Canadian government official said the hearing loss and headaches were believed to have been caused by some sort of "sonic emission," but did not offer any more details. The official did not know if the affected diplomatic personnel and their families suffered any permanent health problems as a result, and could not say how many individuals were affected for privacy reasons.

A months-long U.S. investigation found that a group of American diplomats were attacked with an advanced sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been emitted either inside or outside their homes, according to the AP report. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States retaliated by expelling two Cuban diplomats from Washington on May 23.

After 54 years of severed diplomatic relations, the United States reopened its Havana embassy in 2015 as a part of former president Barack Obama's effort to restore ties with Cuba. Canada helped facilitate talks between the two countries that led to the reestablishment of relations.

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Canada established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1945. It was only one of two countries in the hemisphere – the other being Mexico – that did not break relations with the Caribbean nation in the years that followed the Cuban revolution in 1959, according to Global Affairs Canada's website.

Former Canadian ambassador to Cuba James Bartleman said he is not surprised by this week's reports, given his experience as envoy from 1981 to 1983. Halfway through his posting, a series of strange events occurred: His family dog was poisoned, a trade officer had a dead rat nailed to their door and the embassy started receiving threatening phone calls. Fed up, he called out the Cuban government.

"I called up the Foreign Ministry and told them to call off their goons," he said. "I went down there and I really gave them hell."

Upon returning to the residence from the Foreign Ministry, everything appeared to be back to normal – there was even a veterinarian waiting at the front door ready to treat Mr. Bartleman's dog. He says he still doesn't know why he and his staff were targeted, and that he never forgave the Cuban government.

Another former Canadian diplomat who was once posted in Cuba said they never experienced anything kind of overt harassment or surveillance during their time in the country. The source, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the continuing investigation, said any suggestion that diplomats were purposely targeted is not in sync with the Cuban government he knows.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for CTVNews.ca. Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More

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