South Florida travelers have mixed reactions to Europe travel warning

The State Department issued a travel warning Monday for anyone who is thinking about traveling to Europe this summer.            

No specific threat was cited, but officials pointed to recent attacks in Europe for prompting the warning, including attacks in Paris and London.

The advisory warns: “Terrorists persist in employing a variety of tactics, including firearms, explosives, using vehicles as ramming devices, and sharp-edged weapons that are difficult to detect prior to an attack.”

“My husband and I have decided that we’re going to just stay in the USA for a while until everything settles down. So I think it’s a good idea to listen to our State Department and respect our president,” Laura Rosenthal, who was traveling out of Fort Lauderdale-International Airport on Tuesday, said.

As people go through security, traveling out of South Florida, they have mixed reactions about the warning.

“It doesn’t bother me. I’d still travel. I travel for my job every day, and even after 9/11, I was one of the first ones on an airplane,” Ken Crawford said.

Transportation Security Administration officials displayed an array of items Tuesday that passengers tried to clear through security. 

“We are trying to make sure that we get ahead of the summer rush,” Sari Koshetz said. “Right now, it’s not as bad a rush because we’re between spring break and summer. We want to remind people what they can and cannot have in their bag.”  

The advisory is in place throughout the summer — a very busy travel season for Americans.

While it is not instructing Americans to avoid going to Europe, the warning is reminding them to be vigilant — something some still find excessive.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Crawford said. “I don’t think there’s much we can do about the terrorists.”

The warning urges Americans to be vigilant not only at airports, but also in malls, parks, restaurants and other public places.

The warning is in effect until Sept. 1.

 

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Merkel to meet Putin over Syrian war, Ukraine crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, as Berlin-Moscow relations remain stuck at a low over the Ukraine crisis and Syrian war.

Merkel will meet with Putin at his summer residence in Sochi on the Black Sea coast, making her first trip to Russia since 2015.

The issue of sanctions is likely to be high on the agenda. Merkel has openly backed the European Union’s decision to place sanctions on Russia following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. She has been the lead mediator in talks with Russia over Crimea.

The EU sanctions — as well as U.S. sanctions — on Russia have been a major thorn in the Kremlin’s side. Moscow has lobbied world leaders to drop the restrictions that have taken a toll on the country’s economy, already sluggish on low oil prices.

The sanctions are due to expire this summer and the EU is discussing their extension.

Moscow has responded to the sanctions with its own embargo on agricultural goods from Western countries.

Putin and Merkel are expected to discuss the Minsk agreements, a deal brokered by Merkel and French President Francois Hollande with the aim of resolving the Ukraine crisis.

Germany has said that lifting the sanctions would depend upon Russia complying with the agreements, which involve a ceasefire and pulling weapons and pro-Russian forces out of the area.

Diplomatic thaw?

The two leaders have been careful to assuage expectations that they will come up with new agreements on the trip, which is expected to keep Merkel in the country for less than five hours. But the trip suggests a diplomatic thaw between the leaders has begun.

Putin and Merkel, both stalwart leaders in their countries, have kept regular communications open over the years. Both speak each other’s language and have overseen periods of expanded Russian-German trade relations.

But that closeness didn’t come immediately. Putin was infamously accused of trying to intimidate Merkel in her early years as chancellor when he brought his dog — a large black Labrador named Koni — into a bilateral meeting and press conference in 2007.

Merkel is reportedly fearful of dogs having been attacked by one in 1995. She was photographed looking distinctly uncomfortable while Putin appeared to smirk. Putin just last year finally denied trying to scare her.

Merkel and Putin split on Syria

Putin and Merkel will also discuss the fight against terrorism and the situation in the Middle East, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The two leaders and their governments stand on opposing sides of the Syrian war. Putin is the most powerful ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Merkel has openly called for Assad’s ouster, though she advocates doing so through a democratic political process.

Russia has been widely criticized by the West for propping up Assad’s regime with powerful airstrikes that have decimated swaths of the country.

The leaders will also discuss the current state and prospects of bilateral relations, including energy, trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation, the Kremlin said, and will exchange views on the forthcoming G20 Summit to be held in Hamburg in July.

Putin also plans to speak with US President Donald Trump before Merkel’s arrival, a spokesman for Putin told state-run media TASS. The two leaders are expected to have their long-awaited first official meeting at the G20 summit, although they have spoken several times on the phone.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will also travel to Sochi to meet with Putin on Wednesday, as the two leaders enjoy improved relations following a troubled period. Turkey is increasingly looking to Russia as an ally as the country’s relations with the West sour.

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State Department issues travel alert for Europe

The US State Department has issued a travel alert for its citizens going to Europe, citing the continued threat of terror attacks.

“While local governments continue counterterrorism operations, the Department nevertheless remains concerned about the potential for future terrorist attacks,” the alert said. “U.S. citizens should always be alert to the possibility that terrorist sympathizers or self-radicalized extremists may conduct attacks with little or no warning.”

The alert mentioned recent attacks in France — which heads to the polls next week to choose a new president — Russia, Sweden and the UK, noting that extremists tend to focus on tourist hot spots.

A US official told CNN in February that the terror threat in Europe was as high as it’s ever been.

Recent estimates from Europe and US say as many as 1,900 foreign fighters have returned to Europe after stints in Iraq and Syria, the official said. Some remain committed to terror groups like ISIS, but others returned disenchanted.

The alert expires September 1.

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Exclusive interview with Mariela Castro: Part 2

As Cubans get ready to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia it made sense to talk to Mariela Castro about gay rights. 

Mariela Castro, 55, has been the champion gay issues in Cuba and has been the head of the National Center for Sex Education since 2000. 

Local 10 News sat down for an exclusive interview with Raul Castro’s daughter to talk about her work and other issues, such as human rights in Cuba. 

“I want to respond politely,” she said, when asked about the argument often made outside Cuba that there could be no gay rights when the Cuban government has a bad record on human rights.

Castro said she wants people to be informed.

“Get rid of your hate, your prejudices and stereotypes,” Castro added, talking about the exile community in Miami. 

She urged exiles and Cuban-Americans in general to open their hearts and come discover the country of their heritage and reconnect with respect. 

There is a history there, she said, that wasn’t the one you were taught. 

She said people should draw their own conclusion. 

Mariela Castro is one of two children from Cuban President Raul Castro’s marriage to revolutionary Vilma Espin. 

When asked whether she has pride looking back at her life, she said she feels good about the life she has lived. 

She talked about her father.  

“He understands and supports my work,” she said. “My mother was able to get that support early on. He made sure I didn’t take advantage of being his daughter. He would not support me if I did.”

SPANISH-LANGUAGE VERSION OF HATZEL VELA’S INTERVIEW:

On U.S.-Cuba relations, she gives former President Barack Obama credit  for accomplishing what she said many American presidents had not. 

But while there is an embargo, Mariela Castro thinks any economic development for Cuba is tough. 

She believes Cuba remains besieged. 

“We live in fear every time there is a change of president in the United States,” she said, “because Cubans never know how aggressive the new leader will be towards Cuba.”  

The links between both sides of the straits are strong and Mariela Castro reminds us most Cubans have family in South Florida. 

She wonders why obstacles remain in reuniting both sides.

Many Cubans speculate Mariela Castro could seek high office, but she she wants to remain an active citizen, sometimes a contrarian when she needs to be. 

“No, I’m not interested,” she said when pressed her on a specific political post.

She remains satisfied with her current post as a member of the Cuban National Assembly, where she can continue fighting for her beliefs. 

 

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Exclusive interview with Mariela Castro: Part 1

Mariela Castro, 55, spoke exclusively to Local 10 News in Havana as Cuba gets ready to celebrate month-long activities surrounding an anti-homophobia and transfobia campaign.

Since 2000, Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro, has been the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). 

When it comes to gay rights, Mariela is a rock start. Her profile tends to climb around this time of year because of the festivities. 

“I was scared,” she said of walking the streets of Havana the first time she and some transexual friends celebrated the same eve.

SPANISH-LANGUAGE VERSION OF HATZEL VELA’S INTERVIEW:

She clearly remember the inquisitive looks and the disapproval from people. That’s when she knew what it felt to be in their skin. 

It’s been 10 years since that day and now Mariela Castro looks back and feels good about the advances she and her group have made when it comes to gay life in Cuba. 

But she admits there she feels some sadness for the amount of work that there is left to do, like gay marriage. 

In 2014, Mariela was the only member of Cuba’s National Assembly to vote against a discrimination ban because it didn’t include protections based on gender identity. 

But critics said she hasn’t done enough the gay marriage movement. 

It’s a task they have been working on for a long time, she said. 

When she was criticized for not pushing legalized same-sex marriage on the island, Mariela Castro said it was because Cubans are still battling homophobia and transphobia, and legalizing same-sex marriage wouldn’t change that.  

In Cuba, legalizing same-sex marriage would require her father’s administration to change the country’s constitution. Mariela Castro said she is focused on making sure that Cubans get the type of education that would promote the uprooting of discrimination on the island. 

Mariela Castro is also a member of the Cuban parliament. Most recently, she hosted actress Jodie Foster and her wife, Alexandra Hedison. They were interested in learning more about CENESEX. She also made headlines after she insulted a reporter in Madrid.

She is married to Paolo Titolo, an Italian  executive for Corticeira Amorim, the world’s largest cork company. Titolo is also a photographer. His images of members of the Cuban transgender community have been on exhibit in Havana and Paris last year.

In part two of Local 10’s exclusive interview, Mariela Castro talks about her father, political ambitions and U.S.-Cuba relations. 

Local 10 News’ Andrea Torres contributed to this report. 

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Six years apart: North Korean family trapped on either side of the border

Ri Gum Ryong and his daughter, Ri Ryo Gun, live in Pyongyang.

Their home is a large and modern flat, by North Korean standards. It’s sparsely furnished — not uncommon in North Korea — but still cozy.

However, there’s one notable, painful absence in this immaculately-kept family home: mother and wife Kim Ryon Hui, whom neither husband or daughter have seen for nearly six years.

Kim Ryon Hui is alive and well, and claims she’s equally as desperate to be reunited with her family.

However, she’s living in South Korea, and while they might only be a 20-minute flight away, in between the two sides of the family lies one of the most insurmountable borders in modern history.

“Today marks the 2,150th day since I was separated from mom,” says 23-year-old Ri Ryo Gun, visibly emotional. “Not a day or two — but six years.”

One-way ticket

Ri’s mother, Kim Ryon Hui, lived a relatively upscale life in North Korea until she went to China in 2011 to visit relatives and seek medical care for liver disease. She’d been hospitalized for six months in North Korea and had heard the treatment there was more advanced.

When she arrived, she discovered that Chinese doctors wanted cash for treatment up front and she couldn’t afford the medical bills.

China regards North Koreans as economic migrants rather than refugees or defectors, and if they’re caught they’re usually sent back to face punishment. However, a broker told her that Chinese people often went to South Korea to work, so she decided to do the same.

She says that little did she know, once she signed papers renouncing her North Korean citizenship, she’d never be able to go home. Once she realized this was the case, she told the broker handling her case that she wanted to escape, she says, but the broker took her passport away.

“Other defectors who were with me said if I go out and get caught they too will be handed over to China’s Public Security and their life will be in jeopardy. Because I didn’t have a passport, I had to follow them and I ended up in South Korea,” she told CNN.

Kim says once in South Korea, she turned herself over to the police, pretending to be a spy in hope of being deported. But instead, she ended up in jail, sentenced for two years for passport fraud and espionage.

Visits and letters to the North are permitted, but only with the approval of South Korea’s Minister of Unification, and her status as a criminal now makes any travel out of the country impossible.

Without government approval, the South Korean National Security Act stipulates that any contact or correspondence with what it defines as “a member of an anti-government organization” can result in up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

This has been the case for tens of thousands of North Koreans who have fled to South Korea since the great famine of the late 1990s — but Kim is one of the few who says she wants to return.

Video messages

In Seoul, we play Kim a video of her family in North Korea — a rare opportunity for her to see her daughter who was just 17 when they were separated.

“I’m sorry for keep on crying, when I have to be strong in front of you,” Kim’s daughter Ri Ryo Gun says in the message.

Ri and her father, Kim’s husband, tell her they have received a “great new house.” “We hung the family photo and wait for the day you come back,” he says.

It amazes Kim how adult her daughter, who has graduated from catering college, has become.

“She was a just a child playing in my arms and that’s how I still remember her,” Kim says through the tears, adding that she’s “so thankful she has grown up to be a bright, confident young woman.”

Kim says she takes comfort in the fact her husband and daughter are still young, but what really breaks her heart is being separated from her parents.

“During these six years my father has become an old man that I can’t even recognize,” she says when we play her a video message from them.

A bruised heart

Kim’s father, Kim Se Hwam, and mother, Jo Won Hui, are both in their 70s.

Jo’s eyesight is failing; she’s already lost vision in one eye and is losing sight in the other. “What do we do if the daughter comes back when she can’t see at all?” says her husband.

The elderly couple live on the 13th floor of an apartment block in Pyongyang. Because the lift is broken, they have to take the stairs.

They say they’ve received support from friends and the local community, insisting that in their country they “share sadness and tragedy.”

But they say their health has suffered from the anguish they feel being separated from their daughter.

“My heart’s been bruised,” says Kim’s mother. “My daughter asked me to stay healthy and please be there to hug me when she comes back, to please give her a hug, but what would it be like for her if she comes back after I pass away?”

We play them a video message and they say it’s the first time they’ve laid eyes on her in six years.

“My aged parents, who should be just spending their last days looking at happiness of their children, and the oldest daughter is still making you sad, making you shed tears. I am so sorry,” Kim says in a video message from across the border.

Defections

Previous defectors have said that relatives left behind can bear the brunt of their decision to escape the regime. Some have been sent to prison camps as punishment or are threatened with harm, according to one high-profile defector.

Kim’s family deny this is the case, calling such stories “propaganda” and “rumors.”

“There is no such thing as the government punishing us or looking at us differently. They would rather try to help us as much as they can,” Kim’s father says.

But for daughter Ri, ongoing tension on the divided Korean Peninsula isn’t what matters.

“Putting all the politics and ideology aside,” she asks, “as a human with love and affection, isn’t a heart of a mother who wants to go back to her family, a heart of a person missing his or her parent, a basic right a human must have?”

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