U.S. considers closing embassy in Havana

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the Trump administration is considering closing down the U.S. Embassy in Havana following unexplained incidents harming the health of American diplomats.

Tillerson says “we have it under evaluation” and that shuttering the embassy is “under review.” He says the issue is “very serious” regarding the harm some individuals have suffered.

Tillerson notes that the State Department has brought home some of the people affected. At least 21 Americans have been medically confirmed to have suffered harm in Havana.

Tillerson previously called it “health attacks” but the State Department now prefers to call them “incidents.” The cause and culprit haven’t been determined.

Tillerson spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation” ahead of President Donald Trump’s trip to the U.N. General Assembly this coming week.

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Hurricane Irma devastates areas of Cuba, kills at least 10

After Hurricane Irma left a trail of destruction in Cuba, officials were working to deliver aid to the areas in need Monday afternoon. Authorities estimate the Category 5 storm killed at least 10 in the northern coast of the island.

Authorities report issuing mandatory evacuations for about 1 million Cubans nationwide. Many were still unable to return to their homes. 

Reporters working for the government’s media reported most of the storm’s victims were in Havana. The powerful storm surge flooded central residential neighborhoods along the coast of the island’s capital Saturday. 

“This was the worst of the storms I have been through, and the sea rose much higher,” said Hector Pulpito, who was working as a custodian at a parking lot in the Vedado neighborhood. “The trees were shaking. Metal roofs went flying.”

The worst seawater flooding — about one-third of a mile inland — was between the Almendares River and the harbor. 

The Communist island’s tourism industry also suffered. Several hotels were damaged in the northern keys off Ciego de Avila and Camaguey provinces. 

Granma, the government’s newspaper, reported Irma’s wind gusts destroyed the Jardines del Rey Airport.

The victims’ identities 

Osvaldo Abreu Barroso, 71, was electrocuted while trying to remove the TV antena. He died in the Plaza de la Revolucion municipality in Havana. 

Alberto Francisco Flores Garcia, 77, a pole collapsed and hit him. He was walking along the Egido Street in Havana when he died. 

Maria del Carmen Arregoitia Cardona, 27, died when a balcony collapsed and fell over the bus traveling in Havana. She was from the municipality of Bauta in the province of Artemisa.

Yolendis Castillo Martinez, 27, died when a balcony collapsed and fell over the bus traveling in Havana. She was from Santiago de cuba. 

Roydis Valdes Perez, 54, and his brother Walfrido Antonio Valdes Perez, 51, died when a building collapsed in Havana. 

Nieves Martinez Burgaleta, 89, drowned in the storm surge. Her body was found floating in front of her home in Havana. 

Alberto Manzano Martinez, 65, died when his home collapsed after he refused to evacuate from his home in Matanzas. 

Orlando Torres Cruz, 53, died when a home collapsed after he refused to evacuate in Ciego de Avila. 

Edilberto Cabrera Rodriguez, 64, died when a home collapsed after he refused to evacuate in Camaguey. 

This is a developing story. Refresh this link for the latest information. 

 

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Cubans start to feel power of Hurricane Irma in Guantánamo

Although meteorologists believe Cuba will dodge the worst of the powerful Hurricane Irma, there was a tropical warning in effect for areas of the island Thursday. Authorities in Havana were preparing supplies and shelters. 

Cuban authorities warned the residents of coastal areas in seven provinces to prepare. According to the Institute of Meteorology of Cuba areas in Guantánamo and Holguín were already experiencing high tides and they were expecting waves to get as high as 19.6 feet. 

In the coastal town of Caibarién, ingenious fishermen were piling up their belongings to bicitaxis and horse carriages in search of higher ground. Jose Antigua said he was concerned about the storm surge. He still remembers how Hurricane Kate flooded his town in 1985. 

“With the rain last night, you couldn’t even see Marti Way,” Antigua said about a popular street in Caibarién.

Cuban government officials announced Thursday that they will be cancelling sports-related events. In the city of Remedios, Cubans were using wood to protect colonial-style windows and students were heading back home after classes were canceled. Thursday 

The Cuban government wanted Cubans to help them clean out sewers and drainage systems to deal with flooding, and was broadcasting meteorology reports on Cuban television. 

The U.S. National Hurricane Center was forecasting Guantánamo, Holguín, Las Tunas, Camagüey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara to experience the hurricane’s storm surge. 

The hurricane was north of the Dominican Republic, while French, British and Dutch rescuers rushed aid to a heavily damaged string of Caribbean islands Thursday, after the 185-mph winds left at least seven people dead and thousands homeless.

Local 10 News’ Brian Ely contributed to this story from Cuba and Local 10 News’ Andrea Torres contributed to this story from Miami. 

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Cuban artist faces threat of prison if he doesn’t remove all of his work

Yulier Rodriguez Perez was born in Florida. Not the state in the U.S. He is from Cuba’s Florida, a municipality in the province of Camaguey.

Getting spray paint and materials isn’t easy for graffiti writers working on the Communist island. Despite the challenges, the 27-year-old abstractionist said he has painted at least 200 walls in Havana since he moved there about three years ago. 

His deformed creatures are hard to miss. In one small wall, a thin layer of ruby red paint surrounds the charcoal drawing of a shouting head. In another, blue and red blend into purple, as two floating figures reach out for each other. 

“I think that graffiti is an artistic work,” said Rodriguez, better known as artist Yulier P. 

While in the U.S. walls with high visibility are an advertising gold mine, in Cuba the walls with visibility are reserved for the government’s propaganda. Rodriguez defied the norm. Authorities kicked him out of his art studio. He was arrested Aug. 17 and he was released on the evening of Aug. 18.

For graffiti writers worldwide, the boundary between being a vandal and an artist is not clearly defined. Rodriguez said he is an artist who has been beautifying crumbling walls. The Cuban government disagrees and ordered him to cover all of his 200 paintings in Havana by Friday as a condition for his release.

Rodriguez’s supporters believe Cuban authorities set him up for failure with an impossible task. His troubles began after an interview with 14 y Medio last year. The website is part of a wave of illegal independent media critical of the government.

“My pictures are like fables, a portrait of people’s experiences … we are souls in a purgatory called Cuba,” Rodriguez said during the 14 y Medio interview.

Cuban activist Yoani Sanchez, who has also been the subject of censorship and harassment, started the news site in 2014. 

Rodriguez claims Cuban authorities also harassed him and intimidated him after he came back from an exhibit in New York in July. He visited the Museum of Modern Art and he left his mark on a corner in Brooklyn. It was a black and white piece of unnatural figures connecting like Salvador Dali’s “Premonition of Civil War.” 

Rodriguez fears authorities are getting ready to move from a penalty over vandalism to a criminal charge of “dangerousness.” It’s a criminal charge designed to punish someone’s potential for crime. Critics of the law say it is used to limit freedom of expression. 

The news of Rodriguez’s arrest was disturbing to Danilo Maldonado, a 34-year-old Cuban artist known as  El Sexto. He moved to Miami in January after he was imprisoned over his political graffiti after the death of Fidel Castro. It wasn’t his first time in prison.

Maldonado and Rodriguez are among the new wave of Cuban artists who belong to the lowbrow art movement, which has deep roots in New York’s and Los Angeles’ hip-hop and punk cultures. Supporters believe graffiti needs to be decriminalized worldwide as a form of expression on decrepit and abandoned urban areas.

Amnesty International has been following Rodriguez’s case and also followed Maldonado’s case when he was in prison.

 

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Escalating U.S. economic crackdown on Venezuela prompts passionate reactions

After President Donald Trump restricted the ability of the cash-strapped Venezuelan government to access U.S. debt markets to get funding, there were passionate reactions Friday in Caracas, Havana and Miami.

A group of Venezuelans who live in Cuba protested. They marched for a couple of blocks in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood and they asked Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to “go hard” against Trump. In Caracas, the Venezuelan military held military drills. 

Cuban and Venezuelan diplomats expect Trump’s executive order to escalate tensions. Maduro warned the U.S. was aiming for a “commercial, oil and financial blockade” and compared the sanctions to the U.S. embargo imposed on the island after the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

“The worst aggressions to Venezuela in the last 200 years,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said. He also accused the U.S. of wanting to “starve the Venezuelan people.”

Although the restriction moves forward from targeting individuals, it is far from an oil embargo. The U.S. Treasury Secretary Seven Mnuchin said Trump’s order was focused on new securities by making it illegal for U.S. financial institutions to trade new bonds with the Venezuelan government. 

“These measures will undermine Maduro’s ability to pay off political cronies and regime supporters,” Mnuchin said. 

Arquimedes Rivero is among the Venezuelans living in Miami-Dade County and Cuban-American lawmakers who support the U.S. sanctions, because they believe that they will not have an effect on the ongoing humanitarian crisis, but on the government corruption that is causing it. 

Venezuelan officials “are not helping the people,” Rivero said in Doral, a city known as “Dorazuela” for its large population of Venezuelan refugees. “The money is going to their pockets and this way you stop them from receiving that money.” 

Human rights activists have been critical of bond buyers relying on the Venezuelan “hunger bonds,” which have proven to pay yields. Despite food and medicine shortages and political pressure, Maduro hasn’t defaulted on payments. 

Investors haven’t been afraid to invest on PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, because the Venezuelan government also counts on loans from China and Russia. The new U.S. restrictions apply to newly sold bonds, but they do not affect the existing bonds in secondary markets. 

The Venezuelan government, including PDVSA, has about $4 billion in debt payments due this year, but only about $9.7 billion in international reserves. Most of the reserves consist of gold ingots. Venezuela risks a default on ballooning debt. 

While Trump’s administration is aiming to pressure Maduro, the new sanctions do not prohibit investors from buying the bonds that Goldman Sachs Asset Management purchased earlier this year. Trump also hasn’t done anything about Citgo, Venezuela’s biggest asset in the U.S.  

“It’s tempting to say that all bond buyers should just stay away from the notes to protest Venezuela’s lamentable conditions,” Bloomberg’s Lisa Abromowicz wrote. “But in reality, investing decisions rarely come from the heart, and the head has a tough time saying no to real money.”

Democrats in Venezuela continue to face repression and censorship. The population of political prisoners and the exodus is growing. Undocumented refugees are moving to the United States to face Trump’s tough policy on immigration. 

The human rights violations reported in Venezuela are congruent with the repression seen in Cuba, Russia and China. Some critics in Miami believe the sanctions need to expand to oil imports. Others want Trump to move forward with a military option. But the radical moves could hurt U.S. financial interests and worsen the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. 

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted the U.S. was not about to “stand by as Venezuela crumbles.” 

The new measures “are carefully calibrated to deny the Maduro dictatorship a critical source of financing to maintain its illegitimate rule, protect the United States financial system from complicity in Venezuela’s corruption and in the impoverishment of the Venezuelan people and allow humanitarian assistance,” The White House said in a statement. 

The Associated Press’ Jennifer Peltz, Joshua Goodman and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report. 

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Cuban exile says Castro’s regime used sonic tech in prison

When reports of a covert sonic device hurting U.S. diplomats in Havana surfaced, Luis Zuñiga Rey said he remembered how Cuban authorities used sonic devices to torture him in prison. 

After leaving Cuba, Zuñiga dedicated his life to fighting against Fidel Castro and his Communist regime. Cuban authorities arrested him and accused him of trying to sneak explosives and weapons into the island in 1974. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“He completed only 14, being released in 1988,” Cuban ambassador Orlando Requeijo Gual wrote in a letter to the United Nations. 

Zuñiga said he feared the destabilizing “high-pitch” of sonic torture in prison. He said he used pieces of fabric from his underwear and turned them into earplugs to protect himself. He believes Cubans likely have more advanced sonic technology capable of doing more harm. 

The U.S. State Department was investigating what prompted the health issues that at least 16 Americans suffered in Cuba. Some of the victims were working at the embassy in Cuba or were relatives of U.S. diplomats.  

“I know that they have been going through the process of bringing the majority of those people back to have through testing,” White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during the Thursday press briefing

Investigators were investigating if covert sonic devices were used to attack or to spy. Canadian authorities also reported similar incidents. Cuban officials denied having anything to do with the incidents and Canadians said they were cooperating with the investigation. 

U.S. laws protect the privacy of the diplomats’ medical records, but after the announcement several reports described the gravity of the threat.

While most of the details remain a mystery, CNN reported at least one needed a hearing aid. The New York Times reported one had a more serious illness that involved a blood disorder. And on Wednesday, CBS News reported some diplomats suffered traumatic brain injuries and damage to the central nervous system.

Zuñiga believes there are Cubans who oppose a U.S. presence on the island. The Cold War foes just reestablished relations in 2014 and Cubans expect more changes with President Donald Trump, who promised the Cuban exile community that he was going to reverse former President Barack Obama’s policy.  

Controversy surrounds Zuñiga. Cuban officials refer to him as a terrorist and a mercenary. But in Miami’s Little Havana, he is described as a patriot, a brave counter-revolutionary, a City of Miami consultant and an activist with the Cuban Liberty Council.

Cuban diplomats protested when he was a member of the official U.S. delegation of the human rights commission in 1999. Requeijo accused him of trying to gather intelligence to sabotage thermoelectric plants, port terminals and oil refineries and of being involved in an operation to plant explosives in hotels and hospitals. Cuban officials also linked him to a paramilitary force and said he was a Central Intelligence Agency operative.  

Local 10 News’ Ross Palombo and Hatzel Vela contributed to this report. Ross reported from Washington and Vela reported from Havana. 

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