Cuba Memoir: Those Strange Midnight Attacks in Havana, Explained

Havana, 2000. Forget about new cars. Cubans can’t even get bug spray!
Havana, 2000, Photo: Dan Rattiner

About 15 years ago, a few of us here in the Hamptons got together and visited Cuba through their ministry of cultural affairs. It was very difficult to get permission to go in those years, and the attitude of the Cubans, after nearly 40 years of an American embargo, was ambivalent to be sure.

For example, at the Havana Airport, the customs officials not only took forever to go through our bags, they also cursed at us, made menacing gestures toward us and, when they were done, threw the bags back at us. Luly Duke of East Hampton, who’d arranged this visit and goes there often, said that government officials could be like that to Americans, but the rest of the population was quite friendly, and this turned out to be very true.

I mention this because a month ago, as you know, half of the American mission got pulled out of Cuba after undergoing some kind of invisible attack in their hotel rooms at night. Some reported a high-pitched sound, suggesting there could have been other sounds so high they could not be heard but which could still cause damage. Others had different things happen that made them sick. The Cuban government denied responsibility for the attacks and suggested they were made up. In retaliation, America had the Cuban embassy staff in Washington cut in half, to match the reduction in Havana.

Then, a few days ago, the Associated Press published an exclusive story about an American tourist named Chris Allen, who suffered similar weird things happening in a Havana hotel room at night that made him very ill. When he got into bed, his feet and ankles began to tingle. Then his thighs and trunk and up to his head. He got out of bed and found the tingling and numbness went away, but when he got back in bed, the assaults returned. He was staying in a room on an upper floor at the Hotel Capri, the very hotel where the American diplomats were assaulted. And all this happened to Allen two years ago, long before what happened recently.

The assault was so intense, Allen took a plane home as soon as he could, and, as the symptoms came back, then went away and came back again, he went to various doctors, who took blood samples, did brain scans, MRIs, X-rays and other tests, but none could ever figure out what was wrong—just as no doctors have yet to be able to figure out what went wrong with our diplomats. And so Allen went to the press with his medical findings to show he was not making this up.

The Associated Press also says that other tourists have had similar symptoms after having been in Havana, and are now reporting them—which, as you might imagine, got me thinking that, well, did I have things happen like that?

Dan and friends in Cuba
Dan and friends in Cuba, Photo: D. Rattiner

Yes, I did. I had a single room on the 5th floor of the Hotel Sevilla right downtown. This is an old hotel that was frequented by gangsters in the 1930s (as was the Capri). The attacks came on the very first night right about midnight. In bed, it felt as if I were being bitten by bugs, and it was so bad I called down to the desk to ask someone to come up with some sort of bug spray. It was clearly when I was in the bed. Not in the bed, waiting for the cleaning person to come up, I was not being bitten.

The cleaning woman arrived with a spray bottle with some orange liquid in it. But she explained that, with the embargo on, there was no bug spray available, so they were making do as best they could. I also noticed that there were no bug bites on my body. She told me I was being bitten by no-see-ums, which is what hotel people all around the Caribbean tell you is the case when you feel bitten but don’t see anything. I then asked for a mosquito net, and she said they come right through the netting, and anyway they had no netting because of the embargo. I then asked to be put in another room, and she said it would be the same thing elsewhere, too. Then she sprayed here and there and particularly on the bed, but in small amounts to show that even without proper bug spray they had to husband what they did have.

I experienced being bitten all the rest of that night and on all subsequent nights in bed at that hotel, with no apparent bite marks to show for it. Cuba was so fascinating, I just lived with it. I made no attempt to get home. I mentioned it to the others. Nobody else was getting bit like this. So I thought, well, it’s just that room, but they’re not moving me.

Now I am wondering—was I really being bitten, or was this an assault by a government agent against an American journalist? The others in our group were environmentalists, philanthropists, or academics.

At the time, relations were particularly bad with America. Just a block away on the second day we were there, Fidel made a fiery six-hour speech condemning America to about 5,000 Cubans packed into a park in front of the Swiss embassy, where there was an American interest diplomatic unit guarded by a company of American Marines. I’ll bet you didn’t know we had American marines down there. But we did. Maybe two dozen or so at the Swiss mission.

During our time there, on a day there was no demonstration, we visited the Swiss mission and met the Marines. They were having a volleyball game and barbecue that evening. They invited us and I sure wanted to go, but Luly, our leader, had us visiting an art gallery at the tenement walk-up of a German business executive, where we saw a display of all sorts of household objects, such as can openers, creatively made from empty tin cans. Cubans had picked tin cans from the trash to make can openers because they had no regular can openers. Everything was because of the embargo.

So what do I think? I think it was probably no-see-ums. But maybe it was the same sort of thing going on now. Maybe it was the Cuban government’s secret assault. Or, alternately, maybe it was a kind of mass hysteria. One person gets this weird attack, so then everybody else imagines themselves getting it. Maybe it was what happens to a building when everything is run down and shabby for lack of repair material, and something went wrong with the hotel pipes unknown to any earthly government. Maybe it was aliens. In the movies, you see aliens with ray guns doing this sort of thing all the time.

Finally, maybe it’s the North Koreans. You know, it’s been in the news that North Korea is not only assembling a nuclear arsenal against America, they are also assembling an estimated 1,000 internet hackers who will soon, it is believed, be able to attack our very vulnerable internet economy. And when that happens? You can say I told you so. But I wonder. With the biggest and most powerful internet companies in the world, why aren’t we putting together a 100,000-person hacking unit able to take down any enemy’s internet at the press of a button? All we hear about is how easy it is to attack us, not the other way around.

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