January 09, 2018

Experts still confounded by source of attacks against U.S. embassy staffers in Havana

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@alextdaugherty 

State Department officials said Tuesday that experts are still investigating the source of the mysterious attacks against at least 24 U.S. embassy officials and their family members in Havana, including possibly ultrasound and viral, which Sen. Marco Rubio concluded must be the product of a rogue element within the Cuban government or another nation-state like Russia operating with Havana’s knowledge.

“Though these events were associated with an acoustic element, we were still looking at other possibilities,” said Todd Brown with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. “I don’t know that I would rule it out entirely, the acoustic element could be used as a masking piece. I do know that other types of attacks are being considered in connection with this. There’s viral, there’s ultrasound, there’s a range of things the technical experts are looking at as could this be a possibility.”

Brown’s comments during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday came after the Associated Press reported that an unreleased FBI investigation into the Cuba attacks casts doubt on the possibility of a “sonic attack” against U.S. officials in Havana.

“If the FBI has determined that is not the case... that doesn’t mean that an acoustic element couldn’t be part of another style of attack here and I do know that other types of attacks are being considered in connection with this,” Brown said, adding that a viral attack would include someone intentionally planting a virus that affects cognitive function.

Rubio and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., repeatedly pressed Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs Francisco Palmieri over the timing and scope of the State Department’s response in Havana, and Rubio argued that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should have set up an Accountability Review Board within 60 days of the U.S. government learning about serious injuries suffered by U.S. government officials.

“By my calculation, if by early May we knew that at least one if not several... suffered serious injury, by early July in the 60-day period and certainly by early September if you run the whole 120-day period an Accountability Review Board should have been set up,” Rubio said.

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January 08, 2018

Rubio calls Cuba sonic attacks a “documented fact” after GOP colleague questions evidence

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via @FrancoOrdonez 

Sen. Marco Rubio pushed back Sunday against comments from a Republican colleague that the United States has found no evidence of “sonic attacks” in Cuba.

The Florida Republican charged the attacks were a “documented fact.”

In a series of tweets Sunday, Rubio dismissed comments by Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a longtime advocate for improving ties with Cuba, stating that any U.S. official briefed on the mysterious events in Havana “knows full well that while method of attack still in question, that attacks and injuries occurred isn’t.”

“It’s a documented FACT that 24 U.S. govt officials & spouses were victims of some sort of sophisticated attack while stationed in Havana,” Rubio tweeted.

Flake said Saturday that he has seen no evidence that American diplomats who suffered health symptoms while in Havana were “attacked,” according to the Associated Press.

After meeting with high ranking Cuban officials, Flake said classified briefings from U.S. officials had given him no reason to doubt Cuban officials who said there was no evidence any health symptoms were a result of an attack.

Rubio countered calling it impossible “to conduct 24 separate & sophisticated attacks" on U.S. government personnel without Cuban officials knowing.

The back and forth between the two senators sets up a potentially explosive hearing Tuesday at a highly anticipated Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing chaired by Rubio. Members are expected to press State Department officials for more answers about the mysterious events.

The Trump administration has already pulled much of the U.S embassy staff from Havana and expelled 15 of their Cuban counterparts working in Washington.

The State Department continued to call it an “attack” on Sunday despite not knowing the source or cause of the events.

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also sharply criticized Flake on Sunday. 

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December 01, 2017

Lawmakers call on Trump to invoke "anti-Russia" law to punish Nicaraguan officials

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via @francoordonez

Cuban-American lawmakers are calling on President Donald Trump to consider punishing two top Nicaraguan officials for alleged human rights violations under a so-called “anti-Russia” law.

Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is leading a bipartisan group of senators and representatives pressing Trump to consider imposing economic sanctions against the president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council and a top Nicaraguan oil official connected to the Venezuela government, according to a letter obtained by McClatchy.

“We urge you to take immediate action to determine whether Nicaraguan nationals Roberto Jose Rivas Reyes and Francisco Lopez meet the criteria to be sanctioned in accordance with the law for human rights abuses, corruption, and illicit activity,” the lawmakers write in a joint letter.

The five Republican and five Democratic lawmakers are calling on Trump to investigate the officials under a law originally adopted to punish human rights abuses in Russia that has since been expanded globally.

They accuse Rivas Reyes, president of the Supreme Electoral Council, of overseeing fraudulent elections rigged to keep President Daniel Ortega Saavedra of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in power. And they accuse Lopez, vice president of Albanisa, a joint venture between the Venezuelan state owned-oil company, PDVSA, and its Nicaraguan counterpart, with corruption and profiting from improper loans.

Ten lawmakers signed the letter, including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. as well as Reps. Paul Cook, R-Calif., Albio Sires, D-N.J. and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

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November 08, 2017

Rubio: ‘Bureaucrats’ softened Trump Cuba policy

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@PatriciaMazzei

The night before the White House planned to announce new regulations restricting U.S. business and travel in Cuba, the biggest champions of President Donald Trump’s tighter policy — Miami’s Republican lawmakers in Congress — were in the dark.

Federal agencies writing the rules had gotten input from some of the legislators and their aides over the past five months, ever since Trump unveiled his new Cuba approach to much fanfare in East Little Havana. But Trump’s administration, wary of past leaks, kept close hold of the final product. News reporters knew a Wednesday morning announcement on the regulations was imminent before the members of Congress had even been briefed.

Once informed, the Miami politicians were dissatisfied.

Instead of offering unconditional applause, as they did when Trump signed his policy directive, Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave lukewarm statements lamenting that “bureaucrats” resisted giving muscular backing to the president.

“The regulatory changes announced today by Treasury and Commerce begin to implement President Trump’s June 2017 policy for enforcing U.S. sanctions laws against the Castro regime,” Rubio said in a statement. “Unfortunately, however, bureaucrats in the State Department who oppose the President’s Cuba policy refused to fully implement it when they omitted from the Cuba Restricted List several entities and sub-entities that are controlled by or act on behalf of the Cuban military, intelligence or security services.” 

Rubio weighed in nearly five hours after the regulations were published — a clear indication of displeasure from a senator known for his quick, detailed reactions to matters of Latin America policy he cares deeply about. He used his statement to criticize the State Department for failing to include two major tourism brands from the U.S. list of 180 Cuban entities banned from doing business with Americans.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

Here's what Trump's Cuba crackdown will look like

Cuba Trump
@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres @HeraldMimi

The days of Americans legally staying at Ernest Hemingway’s Old Havana haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, or making purchases at Havana’s only luxury shopping arcade, will be over under new regulations the Trump administration issued Wednesday as part of a crackdown on U.S. business and travel to Cuba.

Americans will be banned from doing business with 180 entities tied to the Cuban military, including hotels, stores, marinas, tourist agencies, industries and even two rum rum makers owned bythe government. U.S. companies will be barred from investing in a sprawling economic development zone in Mariel that Cuba envisions as crucial to its commercial future.

The long-awaited rules will take effect Thursday. The regulations, intended to cut off cash to Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s government and tighten U.S. travel to the communist island, stem from a directive President Donald Trump signed in Miami in June that outlined his new policy. Trump has distanced himself from former President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba, criticizing him for getting a “one-sided” deal.

The Treasury, Commerce and State departments, together with the National Security Council, worked for months on the regulations, which took longer than some members of Congress and U.S.-Cuba policy experts expected. Sanctions against other countries, most notably North Korea, took priority for the administration, which continues to be understaffed in State and other agencies.

The White House also had to deal with the ongoing mystery over a sonic attack against U.S. diplomats in Havana. While Washington has not accused the Cuban government of causing the attacks, it holds Havana responsible for not protecting Americans diplomats while on Cuban soil and has reduced its embassy staff by 60 percent.

The delay in issuing the regulations allowed U.S. companies like Caterpillar, the heavy-equipment giant, to finalize business deals with Cuba that will be unaffected by the new restrictions. The Caterpillar agreement, which allows the company’s Puerto Rican distributor to set up a warehouse and distribution operation at the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, was announced just last week.

More here.

Photo credit: Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

November 01, 2017

Under Trump, U.S. again votes against UN resolution condemning Cuba embargo

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via @HeraldMimi

Saying that Cuba has used the U.S. embargo against the island as a “shiny object to distract the world” from its own failures, the United States bucked the sentiment in the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday and voted against a resolution condemning the embargo.

The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the embargo, but reflecting the Trump administration’s new harder line on Cuba, the United States voted once again to reject the nonbinding resolution. It was its 25th no vote on the resolution, which has come up every year since 1991.

The final vote was 191 in favor with two no votes by the United States and Israel, which traditionally votes with the U.S.

The renewed hostility between Cuba and the United States was on full display as Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, called the long-standing debate on the embargo “political theater,” and said Cuba “is sending the warped message to the world that the sad state of its economy, the oppression of its people, and the export of its destructive ideology are not its fault.”

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez used more than half of his speech to take umbrage at what he called Haley’s “offensive, interfering statements,” condemn the Trump administration’s Cuba policy, and correct what he said were historical errors in Haley’s remarks.

“The United States, where flagrant violations of human rights are committed, hasn’t the slightest moral authority to criticize Cuba,” he said.

More here.

Photo credit: Cia Pak, UN photo

October 27, 2017

Cuba quietly reveals names of sonic attack victims — but some are wrong, U.S. says

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@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres @dchangmiami

For half an hour on prime time Thursday night, the Cuban government took to state-owned television to defend itself against U.S. accusations that American diplomats suffered from a mysterious sonic attack.

In doing so, Cuba also appears to have engaged in a bit of sly retaliation: Briefly, the government published the names on screen of nine purported American attack victims, whose names the U.S. has kept secret.

A one-page memo from Cuba’s powerful Ministry of the Interior dated April 4 asked a Havana health clinic that treats foreign patients to provide summarized medical histories for American citizens who might have reported auditory or neurological symptoms from “sound levels that could affect their health.” The request to Clínica Internacional Cira García also listed the names of the nine potential victims.

The State Department said Friday it could not vouch for the document’s veracity or confirm that any of the names even belong to U.S. government personnel — though other government records available online show at least some of them are diplomats, and some of them are posted to the U.S. embassy in Havana.

But a U.S. official with knowledge of the situation engaged in a bit of sly retaliation of their own: Not all of the people named were attack victims, the official said, without venturing an explanation as to why they would be included in the list at all. 

“Who knows why the Cubans do what they do?” the official said.

More here.

Photo credit: Desmond Boylan, Associated Press

October 20, 2017

State Department identifies two more victims of mysterious sonic attacks in Havana

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@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

The U.S. State Department added two more victims to the list of diplomats who have suffered mysterious attacks in Havana.

The number of Americans affected is now 24.

“Based on continued assessments of U.S. government personnel, we can confirm 24 persons have experienced health effects from the attacks,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “As we have said previously, an investigation into the attacks in Cuba is ongoing, and we revise our assessments as we receive new information.”

According to Nauert, the assessments are based on medical evaluations of personnel who were affected by incidents earlier this year, not by new attacks.

The most recent medically confirmed attack occurred in late August, she said. The spokeswoman said the government cannot rule out that new cases may emerge “as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community.” 

The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Cuba because of the alleged attacks on its personnel in Havana. The victims have reported a variety of symptoms ranging from hearing loss and headaches to brain damage. In particular, the agency warned Americans of staying away from Hotel Capri and Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, where some of the attacks took place.

More here.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery, TNS File

Rubio to Trump: Have U.S. vote 'no' on UN Cuba embargo resolution

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@PatriciaMazzei

Sen. Marco Rubio wants the Trump administration to once again oppose the annual symbolic vote at the United Nations to condemn the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

The UN will probably hold the vote next month, the Florida Republican wrote in a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump, and the U.S. should say "No." Taking any other posture, Rubio argued, "would send the wrong message to human rights defenders and pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba."

Last year, under the Obama administration, the U.S. abstained from the vote for the first time, a historic shift underscoring the former president's diplomatic rapprochement with Raúl Castro's communist regime. It was the 25th time the UN formally rebuked the embargo -- the "blockade," Cuba calls it -- with a 191-2 vote. The U.S. and Israel abstained.

In June, Trump tightened U.S.-Cuba policy, in large part because Rubio -- Trump's go-to man on Latin America -- and Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart pressed the White House. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is a like-minded Rubio friend.

"It is my hope that America's new policy toward Cuba will help to bring closer the day when the Cuban people have the opportunity to elect their own leaders and live under a government that truly represents them and respects their God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Rubio wrote.

Download Rubio letter

Photo credit: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

October 03, 2017

U.S. to expel two-thirds of Cuban diplomats amid sonic attack probe

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via @francoordonez

The Trump administration will kick nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s embassy personnel out of the United States after months of mysterious attacks targeting American diplomats drove the White House to pull its own staff from Havana, according to multiple sources familiar with the plan.

According to three of the U.S. sources briefed on the plan, the State Department will announce the expulsion of Cuban diplomatic personnel as soon as Tuesday. A fourth described the expulsion as “reciprocity” for the American withdrawal from Havana.

A series of mysterious “sonic” attacks began months ago and has affected as many as 25 U.S. personnel. According to one source, U.S. intelligence operatives were the first known American personnel affected. The most recent incidents were reported within the last few weeks.

The United States still does not know the nature of the device or weapon being employed against its staff.

The State Department has not accused Cuba of being behind the incidents. But it has repeatedly warned that Havana is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on its soil under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.
 
“Cuba is not upholding its commitments of the Vienna convention, of protecting diplomats,” said a U.S. source, familiar with the State Department plans.

The State Department’s plan follows days of pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to expel Cuban diplomatic personnel after the White House pulled Americans out of Havana and issued a travel warning.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has emerged as a key advisor to President Donald Trump on all Latin America issues, tweeted last week that the United States “should expel a Cuban diplomat for every U.S. diplomat evacuated due to acoustic attacks.”

“I spoke on Friday to the State Department and I told them that I am strongly advocating that the U.S. kick those 'diplomats,' who are nothing more than spies, out of the U.S.,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. “State told me that it was reviewing this action, so I’m pleased as punch to hear that it may happen soon.”


Read more here.