In February 1996, Cuban fighter jets shot down two small, unarmed civilian airplanes piloted by members of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue – four of whom were killed.
Cuba argued the Brothers aircraft had violated Cuban airspace. But a U.N. investigation ruled otherwise, and the shootdowns were widely condemned as an unreasonably brutal act.
Cuba’s communist government still defends its deadly decision. And it does so in large part because, even before its air force jets were scrambled that day, it convinced itself of something that was patently untrue – that the twin-engine Cessnas were actually U.S. Air Force aircraft attacking Cuba. After the shootdowns, Cuban officials even insisted the letters “USAF” were visible on the planes.
No, they weren’t. Period. But that didn’t matter to the apparatchiks in Havana. In their minds, the military-assault nature of the Brothers flights might as well have been a documented fact.
That, after all, is how authoritarian regimes operate. They make the facts fit their ideologies.
Which is exactly why the Trump Administration and the Cuban-American congressional caucus – especially Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio – risk sounding like Cuba when they hurl rhetoric like “documented fact” into discussions about the alleged (repeat alleged) sonic attacks on U.S. diplomatic personnel in Havana.
No one disputes that two dozen Americans working in the U.S. embassy in Cuba were the victims of strange, apparently acoustic episodes at their diplomatic residences, which they say started in late 2016. They experienced headaches, hearing loss and even brain injury.
In response, the State Department has all but evacuated the Havana embassy and, as a result, has stopped processing new U.S. visas for Cubans. It’s expelled diplomats from the Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. and issued a warning for Americans against traveling to Cuba (which on Wednesday it softened to "reconsider traveling there").
The problem is, no one – neither scientists nor FBI agents – has been able to determine exactly what caused the Americans’ maladies. They haven’t even been able to figure out what technology could have caused them.
Nor has anyone been able to determine exactly who might have been responsible. The Cuban government denies any involvement in or knowledge of what occurred. That’s to be expected, of course – and it does stretch credulity to think a U.S. diplomat could trip over a sidewalk crack in Havana without Cuba’s yanqui-monitoring security apparatus knowing about it.
But until the facts (repeat facts) prove otherwise, we can’t definitively call whatever happened to the Americans a deliberate attack. Not by the Cuban government, not by a rogue hardline element inside that government, not by a third party like Russia.
To do so simply because it's what we assume about Cuba makes us guilty of the same Orwellian pastime – cramming the square peg of dogma into the round hole of reality – that we scorn in regimes like Cuba’s.
That’s the simple reason Republican Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said last weekend, “There’s no evidence that someone purposefully tried to harm somebody.”
Yes, Flake is a longtime proponent of increased U.S. engagement with Cuba. But what he said is actually true. What Rubio tweeted a day later in angry response to Flake – “It’s a documented FACT that 24 U.S. govt officials & spouses were victims of some sort of sophisticated attack while stationed in Havana” – is not.
That’s what Rubio seems to prefer to believe because he’s got his own dogma to feed – namely, that then President Barack Obama should not have normalized relations with Cuba back in 2014. He’s frustrated that President Trump hasn’t done more to roll back U.S.-Cuba normalization, and he sees the alleged sonic attacks as a pretext for remedying that.
That was evident during the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on the issue that Rubio conducted on Tuesday. At one point the Florida Senator offered this contorted logic: because “we don’t know the methodology that was used,” he said, what happened in Havana was therefore “so sophisticated” that it “had to be” an attack.
Rubio went on to say that whoever is responsible “did this because they wanted there to be friction between the U.S. and the Cuban government.”
Perhaps. But so does Senator Rubio.