Tillerson says U.S. weighing closing embassy in Cuba over sonic attacks

Reuters

The United States is considering closing its embassy in Havana in response to an alleged sonic attack on U.S. personnel in Cuba, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday.
“We have it under evaluation,” Tillerson said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program. “It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered.”
Five Republican senators on Friday called for the Trump administration to retaliate against the Cuban government by expelling Cuban diplomats and possibly shuttering the U.S. embassy there over attacks that began in late 2016.
The State Department said in August that Americans linked to the U.S. embassy in Havana had experienced physical symptoms from “incidents” involving sound waves. Five Canadians were also affected.
Symptoms included nausea, dizziness and temporary loss of hearing or memory.
Cuba, the United States and Canada have investigated the attacks, but the probe has not yielded any answers about how they were carried out or who was responsible for them.
Cuba has denied involvement. The U.S. State Department has not blamed Havana for the attacks but asked two Cuban diplomats to leave Washington in May.

5 senators call for US to shutter embassy in Havana

The Hill

Five GOP senators are pressing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to expel all Cuban diplomats from the U.S. and shutter the American Embassy in Havana.

In a letter to Tillerson dated Thursday, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Richard Burr (N.C.), John Cornyn (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and James Lankford (Okla.) admonished Cuba for failing to ensure the security of U.S. diplomats based in the country.

“Cuba’s neglect of its duty to protect our diplomats and their families cannot go unchallenged,” the letter reads.

The letter comes as the number of Americans confirmed to have suffered mysterious health symptoms during stints in Havana continues to rise. That number was updated to 21 this week.

Some Americans have experienced permanent hearing loss and mild brain damage, or concussions, from the so-called “health attacks,” the cause of which remains unknown.

“The safety of U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families posted overseas remains one of our high priorities and a shared responsibility of those nations that host U.S. diplomatic facilities,” the senators wrote. “We urge you to remind the Cuban government of its obligation and to demand that it take verifiable action to remove these threats to our personnel and their families.”

Symptoms were first reported in fall 2016 and were initially believed to have continued until spring 2017. But the State Department revealed earlier this month that an incident happened as recently as August. U.S. officials are investigating the matter.

The incidents were made public in early August, when the State Department revealed that the U.S. had expelled two Cuban diplomats from the country’s embassy in Washington.

It remains unclear who is responsible for the attacks, and the Cuban government has repeatedly denied any wrong-doing. The Associated Press reported Friday that, after hearing of the attacks, Cuban President Raul Castro voiced concern and befuddlement to Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a U.S. diplomat in Havana.

The Cuban government even offered to allow the FBI to investigate the matter — a level of access rarely offered by foreign governments, according to the AP.

The U.S. relationship with Cuba is a tense one, after President Trump earlier this year said his administration would clamp down on the travel and trade restrictions former President Obama had relaxed during his tenure.

Masochists! Canadian tourist charged 10 times the cost of a broken TV at Cuban hotel

Lukis says he accidentally grabbed the TV when he was leaning to get something out of the mini fridge. He accepted responsibility for the damage and was charged more than $5,000 CAD
Calgary man warns Cuba travelers about fine print after paying 10X cost of damaged TV
Sunwing says resort’s exorbitant cost was due to ‘the challenges and expense’ of obtaining items in Cuba
The so-called rule of 10 wasn’t something Dan Lukis had ever heard of before his vacation to Cuba, but the fine-print policy that cost him more than $5,000 won’t soon be forgotten — nor will the pall it cast on his trip booked through Sunwing.
One evening, a few days into his all-inclusive stay at the Sanctuary at Grand Memories Varadero resort in April, the Calgary man lost his balance while reaching into the mini-fridge in his room, he recalls.
In an attempt to steady himself, he grabbed the television, sending it tumbling onto the floor.
Lukis said he admitted fault for the damage immediately, but when he asked hotel staff how he could rectify the situation, they came back demanding he pay 10 times the value of the TV — according to a rule of 10 policy established by local authorities and followed by the resort owner, Gaviota.
There was no further damage to the room, documented in photos taken by Lukis.
“We were being treated like criminals for something that was an accident,” Lukis told CBC News.
When he argued with staff about the cost, he said, they told him police and other authorities would get involved and prevent him and his girlfriend from leaving Cuba if he didn’t pay.
“It was kind of frightening. It was lucky I was able to scrounge up enough and go into quite a bit of debt on the credit card just to be able to get us out of the country,” he said
Hotel considered it ‘willful damage’
Lukis said he reached out to Sunwing, but the company deferred to the local authorities’ rule-of-10 policy, which Sunwing said was enforced by the resort, not Sunwing.
“Due to the challenges and expense associated with procuring furniture and electronics in Cuba, most resorts make available at check-in their policy relating to damages/ and this information is reinforced in the introductory briefing held by our Sunwing destination representatives,” Sunwing said in a statement.
Sunwing said it was informed by hotel management on April 15 that Lukis had damaged the TV.
“While Sunwing representatives did attempt to advocate on behalf of the customer, the property, owned by Gaviota, deferred to their published policy which reads ‘when damages caused by a break or loss of property, whether classified as fixed or useful assets, are the result of an intentional act of the clients or are linked to vandalism, the responsible person will be charged ten (10) times the value of the purchase price of the asset broken or lost,'” Sunwing said in a statement.
The hotel management reserved their right to apply the full penalty charge as per the stated policy.
Dispute over whether replacement TVs readily available
Sunwing’s communications manager, Rachel Goldrick, said buying a new TV isn’t that easy in Cuba.
“It’s impossible to just buy a television like you can in North America. You just can’t do it,” Goldrick said. “Goods don’t exist locally.… It’s not sort of like if something happened here, you could go to your local Walmart and take it back.”
Instead, Goldrick said, the room would likely be without a TV for months as the hotel went through the lengthy process to import a new one into the country.
However, Lukis disputes that, saying he saw similar televisions of the same size for sale in local stores and offered to buy one, but was told by the resort that it wouldn’t accept it as a replacement.
He also said he and his girlfriend were not informed of the rule-of-10 policy when checking into the resort and were not informed of it in the introductory briefing held by the Sunwing representative.
“They did no such thing,” Lukis said.
‘I feel it was really hidden and shady’
After returning home, Lukis came across a Daily Mail article detailing a British couple’s similar situation.
“Had I been clearly aware of that being a potential implication, perhaps I would have reconsidered. But I feel it was really hidden and shady. Just something that people really aren’t aware of,” Lukis said.
The local authorities’ rule-of-10 policy followed by the hotel is stated on the Sunwing website, which reads: “Rule of 10 will be in place, established by local authorities. In the case of damaged items, customers will be charged the value of the item multiplied by 10.”
But there is no mention of the policy on the resort’s web page or those of other organizations through which one can purchase all-inclusive stays at the Sanctuary at Grand Memories Varadero.
No one from the resort responded to requests for comment from CBC News.

Is time to bring our diplomats home!: New ‘sonic’ attack reported in Cuba, 19 Americans now affected

Nineteen Americans are suffering from a range of symptoms, including mild traumatic brain injury and hearing loss, related to mysterious “sonic harassment” attacks in Cuba — with a new incident reported just last month.
Previously, U.S. officials said the incidents started in December 2016 and ended this past spring. But State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert revealed Friday that a new incident occurred in August and is now part of the ongoing investigation.
“We can’t rule out new cases as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community,” warned Nauert, who has described the situation as “unprecedented.”
The U.S. government, including the FBI, continue to investigate who and what are behind the incidents, but with no firm answers so far.
The American Foreign Service Association said Friday that its representatives met this week in Washington, D.C., with Foreign Service Officers posted at the U.S. embassy in Havana who have faced diagnoses including mild traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss, but also loss of balance, severe headaches, cognitive disruption and brain swelling.
Traumatic brain injury is caused by a violent blow or jolt to the head or body that may cause temporary dysfunction of brain cells or more lasting damage, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms can be immediate or appear days or weeks later, ranging from loss of consciousness or confusion to sensory problems, memory loss, or headache and nausea.
AFSA said they only met with 10 affected because the others were not available; the State Department has said that some of those affected have remained at their posts in Havana.
Sources have told ABC News that some U.S. officials were exposed to a sonic device in Havana that caused serious health problems and physical symptoms. Sound waves above and below the range of human hearing could potentially cause permanent damage, medical experts have told ABC News.
No device or piece of equipment has been discovered yet, according to Nauert. Some of the affected Americans are still experiencing symptoms “because the symptoms are experienced at different times, because the symptoms are different in various people,” according to a State Department official.
The Cuban government, which denies any involvement, is said to be cooperating with the ongoing U.S. investigation, but the two governments are not working together on the matter.
In May 2017, the State Department asked two Cuban officials working at the embassy in the United States to depart the country. The State Department said that the move was not a form of retaliation or a sign that the U.S. believes Cuba is behind the attack but rather to punish Cuba for its failure to keep American diplomats safe — something it is obligated to do under an international treaty known as the Vienna Convention.
AFSA is encouraging the State Department and U.S. government to “do everything possible to provide appropriate care for those affected, and to work to ensure that these incidents cease and are not repeated.”
“What has happened there is of great concern to the U.S. government,” Nauert has said, defending the U.S.’s response. “Let me just reassure you that this is a matter that we take very seriously…. It is a huge priority for us and we’re trying to get them all the care that they need.”
There have been no reports of other embassies experiencing this, a senior State Department official said.

Botched surveillance job may have led to strange injuries at US embassy in Cuba

The Guardian

Reports of Cuba’s Deafening ‘Covert Sonic Device’ Are Only Getting Stranger

CNN 

The State Department has remained tight-lipped about the strange circumstances in which US diplomats to Cuba reportedly suffered permanent hearing damage from an “inaudible covert sonic device.” But new details reveal that “a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping” was also used to harass the American envoys. What’s more, the number of people who were harmed is reportedly even greater than was previously known.

According to government sources speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, at least 10 US diplomats and family members have been treated for various symptoms following the unexplained attacks that are believed to be part of a concerted harassment campaign. Five Canadian diplomats and their family members have also experienced some sort of “symptoms.” From the report:

In some of the attacks a sophisticated sonic weapon that operated outside the range of audible sound was deployed either inside or outside the residences of US diplomats living in Havana, according to three US officials.

The weapon caused immediate physical sensations including nausea, headaches and hearing loss.

Other attacks made a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping across a floor, but the source of the sound could not be identified, the two US officials said.

The additional information that victims heard traditional, irritating sounds within the human hearing range certainly makes the reports of permanent hearing damage more understandable. And the revelation that family members were also affected makes this all sound more plausible. But still, if the sound was loud enough to cause damage, how could it possibly be so hard to identify the source? And were any neighbors in the areas that US diplomats were living not also suffering?

The fact that the psychological warfare on diplomats reportedly began in the fall of 2016 and remained secret until this month has made everything all the more mysterious. The New York Times reports that at least six patients were flown from Havana to The University of Miami at an unspecified time this year when a panicked Trump administration could not figure out what was wrong with the victims. The Times was told that “a sonic wave machine” was believed to have caused the symptoms which apparently became worse with prolonged exposure. Sources also claimed that one person had developed a blood disorder.

Steve Dorsey from CBS Radio in Washington DC was the first to ask State Department Press Secretary Heather Nauert about the situation when she gave a press conference on August 9th. Nauert appeared to be taken aback by the question and stumbled to give the vaguest answers possible—only being willing to confirm an “incident” in which diplomats experienced “physical symptoms.” She also acknowledged that some American diplomats had come home and two Cuban diplomats were sent home from Washington, D.C. on May 23rd. “There was so much that harkened back to the days of the cold war that it was hard to believe at first,” Dorsey told Radio National. His initial source said at least one of the victims has been deaf for 10 months, and there are concerns it may be permanent.

Considering that President Trump has criticized the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and has called it “a completely one-sided deal,” it’s easy to be skeptical of this as all being some sort of cloak and dagger stunt to make Cuba look bad. The US embassy remains “fully operational” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has only said, “We hold the Cuban authorities responsible for finding out who is carrying out these health attacks on not just our diplomats but, as you’ve seen now, there are other cases with other diplomats involved.” For hawkish Republicans, the incident has been an opportunity to point fingers at the Cuban leadership that they never wanted to deal with in the first place. “The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades.” Marco Rubio told Dorsey on August 9th. “This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement.” Writing for Foreign Policy’s “Elephants in the Room” blog, Jose R. Cardenas declared, “Cuba is up to its old tricks again.”

But Cuba has repeatedly denied any involvement or knowledge of the attacks, setting up a special investigative unit to get to the bottom of the matter. The fact that Canadians were targeted as well certainly confuses the situation because the two nations have consistently had a good relationship since the US first cut off ties with Cuba in 1959. Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security in the Obama administration, told The New York Times “It just doesn’t strike me as something the Cuban government would do.” He says that “they’ve been pragmatic about Trump,” and indeed the president has done very little to scuttle the new relationship, despite his tough talk. This leads some to believe that a third country is trying to sabotage the US/Cuba relationship.

But even if we knew who was responsible for this bizarre circumstance, we still don’t know how such an attack would work. As far as what kind of weapon could be used to damage hearing without producing an audible sound, most outlets have had to resort to very cursory speculation. When Gizmodo originally reported the incident, we reached out to several experts on hearing damage to ask if they were aware of any scientific basis for such a device. No one wanted to give their medical perspective on the record and all seemed genuinely confused by the scenario.

The US Air Force has acknowledged its testing of “Direct Energy Weapons” and acoustic weapons that “use sound across the entire frequency spectrum to kill, injure, disable, or temporarily incapacitate people.” But the results of those tests and details of the weapons remain murky. And a study from 2014, showed that the human ear does respond to low frequencies that are typically understood to be outside the human range of hearing, but it made no conclusions about potential long-term damage.

New Scientist did manage to get Dr. Toby Heys, Leader of the Future Technologies research center at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, to speculate on what kind of device could possibly do what’s being reported in Cuba. Heys said that sound waves below the human range of hearing could theoretically cause damage but enormous subwoofers set to extremely high volumes would be required. The only other possibility he was aware of is directing ultrasound into the ear cavity, but he says this would have to be highly targeted with a clear path from the device to the victim’s ear. “It is all very Philip K. Dick territory,” Heys told New Scientist, acknowledging the tinfoil hat-nature of the circumstances.

If some nation really does have a weapon that causes hearing damage using inaudible sound, it would signal a new, terrifying chapter in psychological warfare. And it’s quite understandable that the US government would want to keep every detail of that situation secret. Generally, Heys is skeptical of the stories surrounding this incident but acknowledges, “we are living in a fairly surreal world right now.”

Nicolas Maduro Doesn’t Really Control Venezuela

Article pubished in The Atlantic by Moisés Naím

It’s hard to pick the Venezuelan president’s greatest flaw. Which is more serious: his cruel indifference to the suffering of his people, or his brutal autocratic behavior? Which is more outrageous: his immense ignorance or the fact that he dances on television while his henchmen murder defenseless young protesters in the streets? The list of Nicolas Maduro’s failings is long, and Venezuelans know it; over 80 percent of them oppose him. And it’s not just Venezuelans. The rest of the world has also discovered—at last!—his despotic, corrupt, and inept character.

And yet … Maduro doesn’t really matter. He is simply a useful idiot, the puppet of those who really control Venezuela: the Cubans, the drug traffickers, and Hugo Chavez’s political heirs. Those three groups effectively function as criminal cartels, and have co-opted the armed forces into their service; this is how it is possible that every day we see men in uniform willing to massacre their own people in order to keep Venezuela’s criminal oligarchy in power.

When Nicolas Maduro Was Dictator for a Day

The most important component of this oligarchy is the Cuban regime. Three years ago I wrote: “Venezuelan aid is indispensable to prevent the Cuban economy from collapsing. Having a government in Caracas that maintains such aid is a vital objective of the Cuban State. And Cuba has accumulated decades of experience, knowledge, and contacts that allow it to operate internationally with great efficacy and, when necessary, in a way that is almost invisible.” Havana’s priority remains controlling and plundering Venezuela. The supply of oil from Venezuela to Cuba is no longer as steady as it once was, due to the production troubles of the state-run oil company PDVSA. But the flows, while intermittent, have continued. Moreover, Cuban companies are the intermediaries of choice for many critical imports of foods and medicines to Venezuela.

And Cuba’s leaders know how to keep their Venezuelan allies in power—namely by exporting their own successful military-control strategies to Venezuela. Cubans have perfected the techniques of the police state at home: constant but selective repression, extortion and bribery, espionage, and persecution. Above all, the Cuban regime knows how to protect itself from a military coup: That is the main threat to any dictatorship, so controlling the armed forces is an indispensable requirement for a self-respecting dictator.

The Venezuelan regime has adopted these tactics. The effects are obvious: Officers who do not sympathize with the Maduro regime have been neutralized, while those who support it have gotten rich. It is no coincidence that there are more generals in Venezuela today than in NATO or the United States. Or that many high-ranking officials are exiled, imprisoned, or killed. That is why the hope that a group of patriotic, democratic, and honest officers will defend the nation, and not those who plunder it, has so far been only a hope.

But, in addition, Cuba—in stumbling across Venezuela—happened upon one of the most unprecedented gifts in the annals of geopolitics: Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez, the president of a petro state who happily invited a bankrupt dictatorship to exert enormous influence in some of his country’s vital functions, from elections, economic policy, and politics to, of course, military and citizen surveillance. Cuban “advisers” were deployed at critical government agencies and soon started vetoing the decisions of the Venezuelan officials and in some instances imposing their views. The Venezuelans who resisted them were transferred or fired. The surprising influence that Cuba gained in Venezuela was essentially due to the close political alliance and deep emotional attachment that Chavez developed toward Fidel Castro. But even today, more than four years after Chavez’s death, the Venezuelan government makes few important decisions that are not stealthily influenced by the Cuban regime.

Another important player in today’s Venezuela is the drug traffickers, whose power is also a constraint on Maduro. Venezuela is one of the main drug routes to the U.S. and Europe. This status is worth billions of dollars, and the country is home to a vast network of people and organizations that control the illicit trade and the enormous amount of money it generates. According to U.S. officials, one such person is Vice President Tareck El Aissami, and so are a large number of military officers and other relatives and members of the ruling oligarchy.

This oligarchy, made up of Chavez’s political heirs, is the third major component of the real power in Venezuela. Of course, Maduro; his wife, Cilia Flores; and many of his relatives and associates are part of that oligarchy. In this elite there are different “families,” “cartels,” and groups that compete for influence on government decisions, for political appointments, and for the control of illicit markets—ranging from human trafficking to money laundering. The smuggling and selling of food, medicines, and all kinds of products are just a few of the many other corrupt activities that enrich the Maduro oligarchy as well as the Cubans, the military, and their civilian accomplices.

Getting rid of Maduro is necessary. But it’s not enough as long as three criminal cartels—who are intermingled in business, corruption, and the exercise of power—continue to control Venezuela.

View article at The Atlantic

After Maduro’s secret trip to Cuba, opposition leaders want to know: ‘Why did he go?’

The Miami Herald

The unannounced visit to Cuba earlier this week by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, apparently to pay homage to the late Fidel Castro, has rekindled criticisms about the the Cuban government’s strong influence on Venezuela’s crisis.

“Mr. Maduro traveled secretly last night to Cuba. Why did he go? He’s been to Havana more than Maracaibo or San Cristobal,” Venezuelan opposition leader and Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles wrote in Spanish on a Tweet posted Monday.

“Why did Mr. Maduro go?” Capriles added in a video posted Wednesday on Periscope. “To hand over more of our oil? To commit our armed forces even more, asking for reinforcements from the Cuban military so they can continue … to command the Venezuelan military?”

In the midst of the deepening political crisis in Venezuela, opposition activists in both countries have stepped up their complaints about what they allege to be the noxious influence of Havana over domestic affairs in the South American country.

“The Castro government tests and applies all its repressive technology in Venezuela,” said a declaration signed by 42 Cuban government opponents. “Havana designs the strategy for installing a totalitarian regime, and sends the agents necessary to carry out those objectives. The Chavista regime, plagued by corruption and drug trafficking, has been the perfect ally.”

The declaration signers — including prominent Cuban dissidents Berta Soler, Guillermo Fariñas, José Daniel Ferrer and Antonio Rodiles — added that Cuban ruler Raúl Castro and his son Alejandro, as well as Maduro and his No. 2., Diosdado Cabello, “should be held equally responsible for the disastrous situation in the sister nation.”

For the Venezuelan opposition, the issue of alleged Cuban interference is of such importance, that in a declaration criticizing President Donald Trump’s recent mention of a possible U.S. military intervention in their country, the Caracas-based Mesa de la Unidad (Democratic Unity Coalition) alleged that “military and political interference by Cuba has not only affected our sovereignty and independence but is one of the main causes for the government’s violence and repression.”

Maduro’s trip to Cuba and meeting with Raúl Castro, kept secret until it was confirmed by the Cuban news media Wednesday, highlighted a frequent criticism of the Venezuelan president: that he accepts too much political advice from Havana.

“I believe the proposal for a new Constituent Assembly was created in Cuba,” said Cuban author Carlos Alberto Montaner. “Under the current constitution they could not carry out a communist revolution. They needed a tighter model because the experience of the Cuban government is that if they build a system for defending the political model, they survive.”

Raúl Castro recently congratulated Maduro for ordering the Constituent Assembly in a letter that appeared to sum up his advice to Caracas: resist and appeal to “the unity of the people.”

“Experience shows that each act of terrorism lifts the morale of the people, each attack makes it stronger, each blow strengthens unity,” Castro wrote.

Castro also predicted “days of powerful struggles, of international harassment, of blockades, of restrictions. But they will also be days of creativity and work for revolutionaries and the entire Venezuelan people which, like today … will have us Cubans on the first row of militant solidarity.”

The stability of the Maduro government is vital to Cuba because Venezuela has been its biggest trade partners and provides the island with highly subsidized oil. Although the oil shipments have dropped significantly in recent months, Maduro remains committed to a level of supply that has kept the Cuban economy from total collapse.

he Venezuelan opposition has been denouncing the Cuban presence in the country for years. After the alliance between Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Cuba gained a powerful influence over the South American nation, including its national identification system, the PDVSA oil monopoly and many government ministries. In 2012, opposition activist María Corina Machado demanded an investigation of the Cuban military’s Cooperation and Liaison Group (GRUCE) in Venezuela, led by Gen. Ermio Hernández Rodríguez.

“As OAS Secretary General, Luis Almargo, said at a Senate hearing on July 19th, there are approximately 15,000 Cuban regime military and security forces who are acting ‘like an occupation army from Cuba in Venezuela,’ ” said Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fl.

“…The world needs to know and stand up against the occupation of Venezuela by the Cuban regime and it needs to support the appeals of the Venezuelan people for democracy and basic human rights,” Díaz-Balart added.

The U.S. government has not taken a clear position on the issue, although it has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan government officials and is drafting new regulations expected to ban U.S. companies from doing business with companies controlled by the Cuban military.

The State Department declined to answer questions about the Cuban meddling in Venezuela. But CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently said that U.S. concerns over the Venezuelan crisis were justified by the presence of Cuba and hostile countries like Russia and Iran.

“The Cubans are there. The Russians are there. The Iranians and Hezbollah are there,” Pompeo said in an interview with the Fox TV network. “This is something that has a risk of getting to a very, very bad place. So, America needs to take this very seriously.”

Jason Poblete, a lawyer in Washington who follows U.S. policies for the Western hemisphere, said Cuba is trying to support the Maduro government at all costs because it is desperate to continue receiving Venezuelan oil.

“Cuba wants to protect the oil,” he said. “If you want to resolve the Venezuelan problem, you have to resolve the Cuba issue.”