Monthly Archives: September 2017

*Breaking News* US cuts embassy staff by 60%, urges no travel to Cuba

The Miami Herald

The United States is warning Americans against visiting Cuba and ordering more than half of U.S. personnel to leave the island, senior officials said Friday, in a dramatic response to what they described as “specific attacks” on diplomats.
The decision deals a blow to already delicate ties between the U.S. and Cuba, longtime enemies who only recently began putting their hostility behind them. The embassy in Havana will lose roughly 60 percent of its U.S. staff, and will stop processing visas in Cuba indefinitely, the American officials said.
In a new travel warning to be issued Friday, the U.S. will say some of the attacks have occurred in Cuban hotels, and that while American tourists aren’t known to have been hurt, they could be exposed if they travel to Cuba. Tourism is a critical component of Cuba’s economy that has grown in recent years as the U.S. relaxed restrictions.
For now, the United States is not ordering any Cuban diplomats to leave Washington, another move that the administration had considered, officials said. Several U.S. lawmakers have called on the administration to expel all Cuban diplomats. In May, Washington asked two to leave, but emphasized it was to protest Havana’s failure to protect diplomats on its soil, not an accusation of blame.

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.