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US tourist fears he was hit in Cuba, years before diplomats

Last Updated Oct 19, 2017 at 4:41 pm EST

CHARLESTON, S.C. – 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 his limbs within minutes of climbing into bed at the same hotel where embassy workers were later targeted. Those weren’t 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?

Allen’s unexplained illness, which lingered for months and bewildered a half-dozen neurologists, may bear 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.

Cases like Allen’s illustrate the essential paradox of Havana’s mystery: If you can’t say what the attacks are, how can you say what they’re not?

With no answers about the weapon, culprit or motive, the U.S. and Cuba have been unable to prevent a runaway crisis, as American tourists reconsider trips to the island. U.S.-Cuban relations are now at risk of collapse after years of cautious progress.

That delicate rapprochement hadn’t even started in April 2014 when Allen felt numbness overtake his body on his first night in the Havana hotel.

“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 records and contemporaneous emails, some sent from Havana.

Tourists and embassy workers alike face the same challenge: No test can definitively say who was attacked with a mysterious, unseen weapon and whose symptoms might be entirely unrelated.

So it’s no surprise that even the U.S. government has struggled to sort through confusing symptoms and incidents that could easily be interpreted as coincidences.

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

But there’s no dispute that a U.S. government doctor was hit, half a dozen U.S. officials said. Dispatched to Havana earlier this year to test and treat Americans at the embassy, the physician became the latest victim himself.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the sensitive investigation. The FBI and the State Department wouldn’t comment.

The U.S. hasn’t named a suspected perpetrator. Cuba’s government vehemently denies involvement or knowledge.

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

He checked into room 1414. Within minutes of going to bed, the tingling and numbness started in his toes, like they’d fallen asleep. It spread to his calves, then 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.

While the State Department says it’s not aware of tourists being attacked, it has given credence to concerns by urging all Americans against visiting Cuba. An extraordinary travel warming last month said assaults have occurred at hotels, including the Capri, and the U.S. can’t guarantee anyone’s safety.

The State Department has said tourists worried they may have been affected should “consult a medical professional.” Roughly three dozen U.S. citizens have contacted the AP to express that concern, but closer examination gave reason to doubt their situations were connected.

Allen’s case is different.

He stayed on the 14th floor of Hotel Capri and described sudden-onset symptoms in one part of the room but not others — all circumstances similar to U.S. personnel who described attacks narrowly confined to just parts of rooms. They also spoke of being hit at night, in bed, on an upper floor of the Capri.

And medical records show Allen conveyed consistent, detailed accounts to at least six physicians — almost two years before the public knew about the attacks.

Still, other parts of Allen’s story don’t neatly align.

The U.S. has said the attacks started in 2016, two years after Allen’s visit. His primary complaints of numbness and tingling differ from the government victims, although their symptoms, too, varied widely and included many neurological problems.

Allen also didn’t recount hearing the blaring, agonizing sound that led investigators to suspect a sonic weapon. Then again, neither did many of the 22 “medically confirmed” government victims.

The symptoms came back the next evening when he got into bed, but stronger and in more parts of his body. This time, they didn’t go away.

So Allen left Cuba early on the first available flight. But the numbness persisted to varying degrees for six months. He underwent CT scans, MRIs, nerve conduction tests and blood workups.

“When you have these vague symptoms, sometimes all you can do is prove what it’s not,” said Dr. George Durst, Allen’s longtime physician. “No one’s smart enough to figure out what it was.”

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Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard, Monika Mathur, Matthew Lee and Bradley Klapper in Washington and Jake Pearson in New York contributed to this report.