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U.S. tourist fears he was hit in Cuba, years before diplomats

U.S. tourist fears he was hit in Cuba, years before diplomats
From CBC - October 19, 2017

Chris Allen's phone started buzzing as word broke that invisible attacks in Cuba had hit a U.S. government worker at Havana's Hotel Capri. Allen's friends and family had heard an eerily similar story from him before.

The tourist from South Carolina had cut short his trip to Cuba two years earlier after numbness spread through all four of his limbs within minutes of climbing into bed at the same hotel where American government workers were later targeted. Those were not the only parallels. Convinced the incidents must be related, Allen joined a growing list of private U.S. citizens asking the same alarming but unanswerable question: Were we victims, too?

It may be that Allen's unexplained illness, which lingered for months and bewildered a half-dozen neurologists in the United States, bears no connection to whatever has harmed at least 22 American diplomats, intelligence agents and their spouses over the last year. But for Cuba and the U.S., it matters all the same.

It is cases like Allen's that illustrate the essential paradox of Havana's mystery: If you ca not say what the attacks are, how can you say what they are not?

With no answers about the weapon, culprit or motive, the U.S. and Cuba have been unable to prevent the attacks from becoming a runaway crisis. As the United States warns its citizens to stay away from Cuba, there are signs that spring breakers, adventure-seekers and retirees already are reconsidering trips to the island. After years of cautious progress, U.S.-Cuban relations are now at risk of collapsing entirely.

That delicate rapprochement had not even started to take hold in April 2014 when Allen felt numbness overtake his body on his first night in the Havana hotel.

It really, really frightened me

"It was so noticeable and it happened so quickly that it was all I could focus on and it really, really frightened me," said Allen, a 37-year-old who works in finance.

The Associated Press reviewed more than 30 pages of Allen's medical records, lab results, travel agency records and contemporaneous emails, some sent from Havana. They tell the story of an American tourist who fell ill under baffling circumstances in the Cuban capital, left abruptly, then spent months and thousands of dollars undergoing medical tests as his symptoms continued to recur.

One troubling fact is true for tourists and embassy workers alike: There's no test to definitively say who was attacked with a mysterious, unseen weapon and whose symptoms might be entirely unrelated. The United States has not disclosed what criteria prove its assertion that 22 embassy workers and their spouses are "medically confirmed" victims.

So it's no surprise that even the U.S. government has struggled to sort through confusing signs of possible attacks, odd symptoms, and incidents that could easily be interpreted as coincidences.

The AP has learned that an FBI agent sent down to Cuba this year was alarmed enough by an unexplained sound in his hotel that he sought medical testing to see whether he was the latest victim of what some U.S. officials suspect are "sonic attacks." Whether the FBI agent was really affected is disputed.

U.S. government doctor affected

But there's no dispute that a U.S. government doctor was hit in Havana, half a dozen U.S. officials said.

Dispatched to the island earlier this year to test and treat Americans at the embassy, the physician became the latest victim himself. How badly he was hurt varies from telling to telling. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive investigation. The FBI and the State Department declined to comment.

While the U.S. has not blamed anyone for perpetrating the attacks, President Donald Trump said this week he holds Cuba "responsible ."

Cuba's government, which declined to comment for this story, vehemently denies involvement or knowledge of the attacks. Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba's first vice president and presumably its next leader, last week called the allegations "bizarre nonsense without the slightest evidence, with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba's impeccable behavior."

When Allen visited Havana three years ago, the sicknesses and political drama were all still in the distant future.

Tingling started within minutes

After spending his first day walking the city, he checked into room 1414 of the recently refurbished Hotel Capri. Within minutes of going to bed, he started losing feeling.

The tingling originated in his toes, like that prickly feeling when your foot falls asleep. It spread into his ankles and calves, then to his fingertips. He got up to investigate, and the sensation went away. He got back in bed. The tingling returned, reaching his hands, forearms, ears, cheek and neck.

Allen assumed he'd never identify the cause of all his trouble. Then in September, the AP revealed the hotel where he stayed was the site of other puzzling eventslater declared "attacks" by U.S. officialsthat left embassy staffers with their own set of varying and seemingly inscrutable symptoms.

"I wanted to wave a flag and be like, I know this, I know what it is like to stay there and have something weird happen to your body and not be able to explain it," Allen said in an hour-long interview in his office in Charleston.

While the State Department says it's not aware of any tourists being attacked, it has given credence to the notion that the unidentifiable danger could potentially ensnare any American who sets foot on the island. Its extraordinary warnings last month noted that assaults have occurred at popular tourist hotels, including the Capri, and that called the allegations "bizarre nonsense without the slightest evidence, with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba's impeccable behavior.".

Allen is not the only tourist who believes he was attacked.The State Department has received reports of several citizens who visited Cuba and say they have developed symptoms similar to what embassy victims experienced. The government says it ca not verify their accounts, but has not indicated it's trying hard to do so. Asked if anyone is investigating such reports, the State Department said its advice to concerned tourists is to "consult a medical professional."

Since the AP began reporting on the Cuba attacks, roughly three dozen American citizens have contacted the news agency to say they believe they may have been affected by the same or related phenomena. The AP has not published those accounts, because closer examination gave ample reason to doubt their situations were connected.

Allen's symptoms

Trip ends, symptoms continue

If he was targeted, then why?

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