Sonic Attacks and the Tourist Industry in Cuba


Primary Analyst: Katrina Marsden

Team Leader: Emily Dolan

 On October 3rd, President Donald Trump discharged fifteen American diplomats from the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba. This discharge was based on a number of reports; since December 2016, the State Department has received twenty-two reports from American Diplomats and their spouses, complaining of hearing loss, dizziness, balance and visual problems, headaches and cognitive issues. By late January, after receiving dozens of health reports detailing similar symptoms, the State Department began to consider the prospect of foul play and targeted sonic attacks.

US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, issued an official statement declaring that the US was expelling US diplomats “due to Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention.” As an internationally recognized treaty established in 1961, the Convention enables diplomats to perform their duties without coercion or harassment on part of their host country. The US government believes that sonic attacks certainly qualify as one of the aforementioned hostilities.

Beginning in November, the Cuban government has increased efforts to dispel the allegations of civilian and state-sponsored sonic attacks. Speaking at a news conference, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez has alleged that the US is leveraging the issue "as a political pretext for damaging bilateral relations and eliminating the progress made" under U.S. President Barrack Obama. Rodriguez insists that the U.S. was deliberately lying about the attacks and denied that Cuba's government had any prior knowledge of them.

The Cuban government’s counter-allegation is one worth considering. Under the Trump administration, the US government has made significant changes to withdraw President Obama’s “hand of friendship” to the Cuban people. President Trump casts the Obama-era policies as a blatant disregard of the brutal human rights violations and authoritarianism of the Castro regime. The US government has begun to strictly enforce travel regulations between the US and Cuba, issuing a travel warning to tourists and subjecting them to a Treasury Department audit.  The new policies also prohibit commerce with Cuban businesses owned by the military and intelligence services.

The latest sonic attack coupled with President Trump’s intensified hostility towards the country poses a significant risk to the prosperity of Cuban tourism and the inflow of foreign direct investment. The sonic attacks and the US administration’s robust response will cause potential travelers to fear for their health and safety. Michael Sykes, president of “Cuba Cultural Travel,” complained that many travelers were misinterpreting the State Department’s travel warning (after the sonic attacks) to mean that Cuban travel was prohibited. Colin Laverty, President of Cuba Educational Travel, believes that the sensationalism surrounding the sonic attacks and the consequent travel warning will cause people to think about travelling to Cuba. Historically, government legislation has had a direct impact on the Cuban tourism industry: President Obama’s extension of friendship resulted in a surge of travelers to Cuba in 2014, but experienced the reverse effect when President Trump took office.

            The tourism industry, including resorts, recreational services and restaurants, will have to adjust to these policy reforms and increased health threats for Americans. Until a more stable relationship is established with the US, business interests may have to concentrate their marketing efforts on other international actors. The unpredictability of the US leadership along with the potential foul play in Cuba, is a definite economic de-stabilizer for the tourism industry.