The U.S. and Cuban governments have responded very differently to the unexplained incidents that left U.S. and Canadian government workers stationed in Havana with symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, and even traumatic brain injuries.
The U.S. State Department, which says at least 24 diplomats and family members were harmed, has labeled the incidents “attacks.” It responded by withdrawing 60 percent of its Havana embassy staff, expelling 15 Cuban diplomats in Washington, and issuing a travel warning for the island.
Cuba has regularly called on the U.S. government to collaborate in the investigation of the incidents, but has recently accused the country of withholding information and suggested the “attacks” didn’t happen.
Meanwhile, Canada has shown far more restraint even though several of its diplomats reported unexplained symptoms. A Global Affairs Canada spokesperson said the country “has no plans to change its travel advice and advisory for Cuba or remove its staff from Cuba.”
But Canada is still monitoring the situation. Global Affairs Canada says affected personnel have undergone testing in Canada or the U.S., and the country “continues to work closely with Cuban authorities to ascertain the cause of these unusual symptoms.” U.S. media reported that Cuba allowed Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigators to travel to the island, but the federal agency told Cuba Trade that it cannot confirm its involvement in an investigation until criminal charges are laid.
Canada has responded more cautiously for several reasons, says Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba and managing partner for consulting firm Acasta Cuba Capital.
First, and most importantly, neither Canada, Cuba, or the U.S. have declaratively stated who or what they believe is behind the incidents. “Frankly, we don’t really know much about any of it,” Entwistle said.
Even in the White House, leaders have been vague about the incidents. President Donald Trump, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all said Cuba is responsible for allowing the bizarre events to happen, but no top-level administration official has explicitly accused the country of carrying them out.
Second, Canada has 70 years of uninterrupted relations with Cuba. Talk of sonic weapon attacks isn’t consistent with what Entwistle says Canadian officials have learned about the Cuban government over a decades-long relationship.
“I just can’t imagine there was a purposeful Cuban attack on foreigners – and even more on foreign diplomatic staff,” Entwistle said. “This is completely out of sync with anything I know of the Cubans; how they operate, how they see the world, and how they see their obligations under things like the Vienna Convention.”
Entwistle says the third reason is that the Canadian government simply hasn’t been pressured to take punitive measures.
“We don’t have the domestic politics around Cuba that you have in the United States,” Entwistle said. “We don’t have the special interest group that has historically – and clearly wishes to do again – exercise inordinate influence over the conduct of American foreign policy vis-à-vis Cuba.”
Canada’s political approach to Cuba contrasts sharply with the U.S., where Florida Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart have influenced the Trump administration.
“The idea that Cuba knows nothing about how these attacks took place and who perpetrated them is absurd,” Rubio wrote in a Sept. 29 statement that criticized the State Department for not expelling Cuban diplomats in Washington on the same day it announced diplomatic staff withdrawals in Havana. Four days after Rubio issued the statement, the State Department announced it was kicking out Cuban diplomats.
It’s not clear whether Rubio’s comments encouraged the State Department to expel the diplomats, but the Cuban-American leader clearly guides executive policy toward Cuba. Rubio and Díaz-Balart helped craft the Trump administration’s yet-to-be implemented policy that will bar U.S. companies from conducting new business with entities linked to the Cuban military, as well as make it harder to travel to Cuba without an itinerary of activities.
Just like the Canadian government, Entwistle says the Canadian – and some American – businesses he consults as managing partner of Acasta Cuba Capital have avoided taking hasty measures. “It’s just kind of broadly discounted as being too strange of a story, because it doesn’t fit with the personal experience of most Canadian business guys who have been around for a while.”
Nancy Lussier, president of the Canada-Cuba Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agrees that Canadian businesses operating on the island aren’t panicking. “From what I see, the perception from Canadian businesses hasn’t turned negative. Canadian businesses have their own vision of what they want to develop that works independently of other forces,” Lussier said.
Gregory Biniowsky, a consultant who represents Canada’s Gowling WLG from Havana, said it’s unfortunate U.S.-Cuba relations are deteriorating, but that the fallout extends the window of opportunity for global competition.
“If Donald Trump – through this episode of the sonic attacks and other things – wants to slow down investment from the U.S. into Cuba, there are a lot of non-U.S. companies that are eager to secure the sweetest deals while Americans are on the sidelines,” Biniowsky said. His personal opinion is that “when it comes to Cuba, Donald Trump is putting America last.”