Canadian embassy in Cuba now rated as dangerous as Afghanistan

OTTAWA—Canadian diplomats in Cuba will no longer be permitted to bring family members to live with them as unusual health problems some personnel reported in the country last year persist.

The Canadian government said Monday family members living in Cuba are being sent home.

Canada Recalls Families of Diplomats in Cuba

A senior Canadian government official said the health symptoms some diplomats and family members experienced have continued, even after they returned to Canada. The official said medical information the government has received so far raises concerns that those people may have acquired a mysterious type of brain injury.

Individual American travellers are still legally able to go to Cuba for the purpose of supporting the Cuban people, a category that includes helping human rights organizations and non-governmental groups meant to strengthen democracy and civil society. In real terms, this sort of travel is largely undistinguishable from people-to-people trips, with Americans visiting the same private businesses, organic farms and musical venues they did under Obama.

Video: Cuban President Raul Castro steps down on the 19th April

The U.S. ordered most nonemergency staff in Havana to leave their posts last September and no longer permits family members to accompany those working at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. At least 24 U.S. embassy staff or family members have reported symptoms including dizziness, headaches, hearing loss and mild brain damage.

Online lodging booker Airbnb was allowed into Cuba and commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba resumed after more than half a century. As a result, U.S. travel to Cuba roughly tripled by the time Obama left office. U.S. travellers engaged in what amounted to illegal tourism, but also pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into independent restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts that drove the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector.

The Canadian government says 10 people, including children, are currently being followed for medical care by a doctor hired by Canadas Global Affairs department and are experiencing symptoms that are similar to a concussion, such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty concentrating. Two of those people reported symptoms after they returned to Canada.

Obama eliminated the tour requirement, allowing Americans to travel to Cuba on individual “people-to-people” trips that were in reality indistinguishable from travel to any other country in the world. Travelers were legally required to maintain logs of their “people-to-people” schedules, but the Obama administration made clear it would not enforce the requirement.

The cause of the symptoms isnt known, the Canadian government official said. Canada considers earlier theories about acoustic attacks and psychogenic illness, in which the origin of an illness is psychological, to be improbable.

Before former President Barack Obama launched detente with Cuba in December 2014, most Americans without family ties to Cuba could travel to the island only on expensive guided tours dedicated to full-time “meaningful interaction” with the Cuban people and — in principle at least — avoiding activities that could be considered tourism, which is illegal under U.S. law.

In some cases, the symptoms lessened in intensity before reappearing, the official said.

In Cuba, U.S. tour companies were required to contract guides, tour buses and hotel rooms from the Cuban government, meaning U.S. travellers were effectively under the constant supervision of the government. As a result, they were often presented with activities and talks favouring Cuba government positions on domestic and international issues.

An environmental assessment of diplomatic staff quarters in Havana, including air and water quality testing, didnt point to any cause, the government said.

The official said Canadian police are investigating the incidents with the cooperation of Cuban authorities. There have been no new incidents since the fall of 2017, the government said.

Last month, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study that found some American diplomatic staff in Cuba had the symptoms of an acquired brain injury, even though they hadnt received a blow to the head. The researchers said they didnt know what caused the symptoms, but a majority of the people in the study said they heard buzzing, grinding or other noises in their homes and hotel rooms

Most individual American travellers ignore the ban or are unaware of it, and tour groups have found myriad ways of doing business with the Cuban government while respecting the letter of the regulation, for example by doing businesses with the Tourism Ministry and other organizations without direct military ties.

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Raúl Castro may leave office a bit earlier than originally planned

HAVANA, April 16 (Reuters) – This year's Cuban sugar harvest will be one of the lowest in more than a century at 1.1 million to 1.3 million tonnes of raw sugar, a drop of 30 percent, Reuters estimated based on sources and state-run media.

Transnational crime also has drawn the Americas’ signature enemies closer. Although neither side flaunts it, Havana and Washington have collaborated for more than two decades to interdict drug shipments, human traffickers, cross-border crime cartels, money launderers, and more recently even Medicare cheats. U.S. authorities say Cuba could do more to prosecute international outlaws. Yet the 16-country Financial Action Task Force of Latin America recently acknowledged Cuba’s efforts to identify terrorist groups and starve them of assets as “complete and consistent.”

The milling season runs from late November through April when the weather is normally dry and temperatures cool and the cane plants yield the most sugar. Yields and output fall significantly after that as hot and humid summer weather sets in.

US-Cuban relations are about to get worse

Most mills did not open this season until around the New Year in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Some clear-thinking officials in Washington also have taken note. “There’s a growing awareness that a stable, functioning Cuban government is an important force for hemispheric stability,” sociologist Bernardo Sorj, a Latin America scholar at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told me. “Though there’s little love lost between the two countries, the question is what will happen tomorrow if Cuba destabilizes.”

Then unseasonable rainfall shut most of the mills down for over a month.

Many mills are now expected to remain open into May, and even June, if the weather permits.

Geoff Thale, a Cuba expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, agrees. “There have been six separate technical exchanges between Cuba and the U.S. in the last year or so,” Thale said in an interview. “Despite the chill of the Trump administration, it’s clear the U.S. Coast Guard, Southern Command, and the Drug Enforcement Administration all believe that Cuba is an important barrier to crime.”

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Azcuba, the state sugar monopoly, planned to produce 1.6 million tonnes this season after drought and the hurricane damaged the crop, but then the wet weather further dampened expectations.

“Cuba used to be an incredible blind spot in the Caribbean and so a safe haven for international criminals,” William LeoGrande, a professor at American University, told me. “The joint crackdown has forced traffickers to shift routes, and that success is one reason so many security professionals have been arguing against rolling back the Obama-era policy of approximation with Cuba.”

“Azcuba said the sector would not rest until it meets the plan, which has suffered a readjustment of 20 percent (320,000 tonnes),” state-run Radio Rebelde reported last week.

On April 18, Miguel Diaz-Canel will be sworn in as the new Cuban president. The transition is a landmark for the island nation, where for the first time in six decades a Castro will not be in command. It will also shift the mental landscape of a region which — even as memories of Latin dictators and Yanqui imperialism fade — can still swoon to the revolution that was.

Provincial media had referred to the readjustment previously, but there was no mention of the national reduction before the Radio Rebelde report.

No one expects Cuba to radically change course. Although Raul Castro is officially stepping aside, he’ll go no further than the top slot at the Cuban Communist Party, where eminence grise is the new khaki. And don’t expect a truce in the sexagenarian feud between Havana and Washington, which has only escalated under Trump. 

For example, the eastern Las Tunas provincial newspaper, Periodic 26, said that “the decision of the country to exonerate the territory of the deficit of 60,000 tonnes … caused by intense and prolonged rain from the end of December through mid-February, was right and just.”

Yet Cuba and the U.S. also are bound by strategic interests that have remained remarkably solid despite the continuing vitriol over the Florida Strait. Even as public diplomacy festers, in recent months shared policy initiatives, technical cooperation pacts and binational task forces have survived and, in some cases, even strengthened.

Las Tunas was expected to be the only province to produce more than 200,000 tonnes this season. The paper put the new plan at 141,000 tonnes.

The Cuban sugar ministry was eliminated in 2011 and Azcuba formed after output declined to 1.1 million tonnes, the lowest in more than a century and far below the eight million tonnes produced in 1990 before the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union

Azcuba said upon its founding that it would be producing more than 2.5 million tonnes of raw sugar annually by 2018.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes of sugar a year and has an agreement to sell China 400,000 tonnes annually. It sells the rest on the open market.

Sugar was long Cubas most important industry and export, but today it ranks behind many sectors such as tourism, tobacco, nickel and pharmaceuticals. (Reporting by Marc Frank Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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