Havana Syndrome | Canadian diplomats called to watch for symptoms

(Ottawa) Canadian diplomatic missions and their staff have received a notice from Global Affairs Canada asking them to watch for symptoms that may be a sign of the mysterious Havana Syndrome.

Posted at 12:36 p.m.

Jim Bronskill
The Canadian Press

Unexplained discomfort has notably been reported among Canadian diplomats in Cuba and American personnel in various countries.

In September, Global Affairs Canada held briefings at its headquarters in Ottawa with senior officials, heads of missions abroad and partners from other federal departments who work in embassies, says a memo from recently disclosed information.

On October 7, an audio message to employees of Global Affairs Canada described the symptoms and how to report them, underlines a document prepared in November for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly.

Canadian diplomats and their family members based in Havana, Cuba, have reported experiencing health issues since 2017, such as headaches, loss of memory and concentration, impaired cognition and vision, sensitivity to noise, dizziness, nausea, insomnia and mood swings as well as nosebleeds.

Fifteen Canadians have been diagnosed with “acquired brain injury,” the department said.

Recently, several Americans who work in China, Austria and even Washington have reported experiencing similar health issues.

“Media continue to report unexplained health issues among U.S. personnel overseas, which is also of concern to Canadian employees overseas,” said the memo written last November for Minister Joly.

The Global Affairs Canada briefings were conducted “out of an excess of caution to meet our obligations,” the memo said.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have also sent similar notices to their personnel, the ministry said.

In particular, CSIS has offices within certain Canadian diplomatic representations abroad.

“In accordance with Global Affairs Canada protocols for responding to any unusual event affecting Canadian officials abroad, CSIS has notified its employees accordingly,” said intelligence services spokeswoman Keira Lawson.

On the side of Global Affairs Canada, spokesperson Patricia Skinner declined to specify whether new cases have been reported since the ministry’s briefings in 2021 to explain how to recognize the symptoms of Havana syndrome.

“For security and privacy reasons, we cannot comment on ongoing investigations into specific cases or details of the security measures put in place,” she said.

Due to this worrying situation in Cuba, since April 2018, Canadian diplomats in Havana can no longer be accompanied by their spouses or children.

In January 2019, Global Affairs Canada had even halved its diplomatic representation in Havana.

“Global Affairs Canada intends to increase their number in due course,” said Ms.me Skinner.

Ministry data obtained by The Canadian Press, through the Access to Information Act, indicates that a return to normal for Canadian personnel in the Cuban capital was temporarily put on hold last March, at the light of a new case which resembles the Havana syndrome.

Mme Skinner declined to say whether this case was confirmed.

Eight Canadian diplomats and family members who fell ill while stationed in Cuba are suing Ottawa in Federal Court for millions of dollars in damages.

The lawyer for these families, Paul Miller, said in an interview that at least one new plaintiff has been added to the lawsuit, possibly a diplomat stationed in Cuba whose case was raised in March 2021.

According to Me Miller, other sick diplomats do not want to join the lawsuit to avoid the adverse effects it could cause to their careers.

“And that last person took some time to decide to go ahead,” the lawyer said.

The lawsuit alleges that the Canadian government failed to protect them, withheld crucial information and downplayed the seriousness of the risks.

The government denies being negligent and wants the court to dismiss the action.

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