US moves to bar American tourists from visiting Cuba

A man traveling to Cuba asks a question at the ticket counter before loading his baggage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP)
Updated 05 June 2019
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US moves to bar American tourists from visiting Cuba

  • White House National Security Advisor John Bolton said the aim was to end what the administration considers "veiled tourism" to Cuba
  • Cuba and the US restored ties in 2015 and Obama himself visited Havana in a historic presidential trip in March 2016, meeting with then-president Raul Castro

WASHINGTON: The Trump administration on Tuesday ended the most popular forms of US travel to Cuba, banning cruise ships and a heavily used category of educational travel in an attempt to cut off cash to the island’s communist government.
Cruise travel from the US to Cuba began in May 2016 during President Barack Obama’s opening with the island. It has become the most popular form of US leisure travel to the island, bringing 142,721 people in the first four months of the year, a more than 300% increase over the same period last year. For travelers confused about the thicket of federal regulations governing travel to Cuba, cruises offered a simple, one-stop, guaranteed-legal way to travel.
That now appears to be over.
“Cruise ships as well as recreational and pleasure vessels are prohibited from departing the US on temporary sojourn to Cuba effective tomorrow,” the Commerce Department said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The new restrictions are part of a broader effort by the administration of President Donald Trump to roll back the Obama-era efforts to restore normal relations between the United States and Cuba, which drew sharp criticism from the more hard-line elements of the Cuban-American community and their allies in Congress.
Treasury said the sanctions would take effect on Wednesday after they are published in the Federal Register.
US national security adviser John Bolton, who declared Cuba part of a “troika of tyranny ” along with Nicaragua and Venezuela as he outlined plans for sanctions in November, said the new policy is intended to deny the Cuban government a vital source of revenue.
“The Administration has advanced the President’s Cuba policy by ending ‘veiled tourism’ to Cuba and imposing restrictions on vessels,” Bolton said on Twitter. “We will continue to take actions to restrict the Cuban regime’s access to US dollars.”
The Cuban government imposed food rationing last month as a result of tightened US sanctions and a drop in subsidized oil and other aid from Venezuela. For the Cuban government, cruise travel generated many millions of dollars a year in docking fees and payments for on-shore excursions, although those figures were never made public. Cuba also has become the most-requested destination for many South Florida-based cruise lines.
“The Trump administration deserves tremendous credit for holding accountable the Cuban regime,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said. “The United States must use all tools available under US law to counter the Cuban regime’s deceitful activities to undermine US policy.”
The new restrictions take effect Wednesday, but the government said it will allow anyone who has already paid for the trip to go ahead with it. But the process going forward for passengers isn’t clear.
Cruise companies appeared to be caught off guard, with several, including Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean, urging ticketed passengers to be patient in response to queries on social media.
Finally, more than nine hours after the Treasury announcement, Royal Caribbean said it was canceling the Cuba stops on its June 5 and 6 cruises and would issue further guidance on future trips as soon as it was practical.
“We expect to know more within the next 24 hours and will communicate any changes as soon as we are able. In the meantime, we are adjusting the itineraries of our June 5 and June 6 sailings, which will no longer stop in Cuba. We are communicating with our guests about those changes,” Royal Caribbean said in a notice posted to its website.
Cruise lines carrying passengers booked before Tuesday had been hoping that they could request specific federal permits to complete their trips to Cuba, said Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based attorney who represents Carnival and three other major cruise lines.
“For now, it’s prohibited unless the cruise lines requests a specific license,” Freyre said. He said cruise lines had been trying to determine “if there’s any opening there to at least complete trips that have been booked and passengers that have made travel plans.”
Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement that it was scrutinizing the new rules and consulting with lawyers and trade experts.
“We are closely monitoring these recent developments and any resulting impact to cruise travel to Cuba,” Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement. “We will communicate to our guests and travel partners as additional information becomes available.”
Shore excursions from cruise ships tend to be organized by the cruise lines in cooperation with Cuban government tour agency Havanatur. A smaller number hire private tour guides or drivers of restored classic cars who wait outside Havana’s cruise docks.
“This affects all of us,” said William Mártinez, 58, a Cuban-born American who lived in Florida for 46 years but returned five years ago to drive a classic car for tourists. “It’s inhuman, the sanctions that they’re putting on Cuba.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the measures are a response to what it calls Cuba’s “destabilizing role” in the Western Hemisphere, including support for the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
“This administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime,” Mnuchin said. “These actions will help to keep US dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”
Along with the cruise ships, the US will also now ban most private planes and boats from stopping in the island.
Cruises have become more popular than flights for leisure travelers to Cuba — nearly 30,000 more came by cruise ship than flights this year. The figures exclude Cuban-born Americans visiting family on the island.
“I’ve been dying to come to Cuba forever, to see the cars, the buildings,” said Maria Garcia, a 46-year-old teacher from Puerto Rico who arrived in Havana Tuesday morning on a Norwegian cruise line. “I could do it with this cruise ... Trump needs to understand that people should come to this country, to enjoy and get to know its culture, just like we would do in any other part of the world.”
Commercial airline flights appear to be unaffected by the new measures and travel for university groups, academic research, journalism and professional meetings will continue to be allowed.
Collin Laverty, head of Cuba Educational Travel, one of the largest Cuba travel companies in the US, called the new measures “political grandstanding aimed at Florida in the run up to the 2020 elections.”
“It’s also terrible for US companies that are providing employment and paying taxes in the US and creating an economic footprint on the island,” he said.


Father of boy killed in school massacre wins defamation suit

In this Dec. 14, 2012 file photo, Alissa Parker grieves with her husband, Robbie, as they leave a staging area after receiving word that their daughter, Emilie, was one of the 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Conn. (AP)
Updated 19 June 2019
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Father of boy killed in school massacre wins defamation suit

  • Victims’ families scored another victory Tuesday when a Connecticut judge imposed sanctions on Jones for an outburst on his web show against one of the families’ lawyers

HARTFORD, Connecticut: The father of a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has won a defamation lawsuit against the authors of a book that claimed the shooting never happened — the latest victory for victims’ relatives who have been taking a more aggressive stance against conspiracy theorists.
The book, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook,” has also been pulled from shelves to settle claims against its publisher filed by Lenny Pozner, whose 6-year-old son Noah was killed in the shooting.
“My face-to-face interactions with Mr. Pozner have led me to believe that Mr. Pozner is telling the truth about the death of his son,” Dave Gahary, the principal officer at publisher Moon Rock Books, said Monday. “I extend my most heartfelt and sincere apology to the Pozner family.”
A Wisconsin judge issued a summary judgment Monday against authors James Fetzer and Mike Palacek, a ruling that was separate from the settlement between Pozner and the book’s publisher. A trial to decide damages has been set for October.
Pozner has been pushing back for years against hoaxers who have harassed him, subjected him to death threats and claimed that he was an actor and his son never existed. He has spent years getting Facebook and others to remove conspiracy videos and set up a website to debunk conspiracy theories.
Lately, the fight has been joined by others who lost relatives in the Dec. 14, 2012, school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. After quietly enduring harassment and ridiculous assertions for years, some have changed their approach, deciding the only way to stop it is to confront it. Their efforts have turned the tables on the hoaxers, including Alex Jones , host of the conspiracy-driven Infowars website.
Victims’ families scored another victory Tuesday when a Connecticut judge imposed sanctions on Jones for an outburst on his web show against one of the families’ lawyers.
Judge Barbara Bellis on Tuesday ordered the Infowars host to pay some of the relatives’ legal fees and prohibited him from filing motions to dismiss their defamation lawsuit against him.
The families of several of the 20 children and six educators killed in the 2012 shooting are suing Jones, Infowars and others for promoting the hoax theory.
Jones made angry comments on his show Friday about a lawyer for the families, accusing him of trying to frame him by planting child pornography in documents Jones’ attorneys submitted to the families’ lawyers.
Robbie Parker, whose 6-year-old daughter Emilie was among those killed at Sandy Hook, spent years ignoring people who called him a crisis actor. His family moved to the West Coast, but still the harassment didn’t stop. He would get letters from people who found his address. He was once stopped in a parking garage by a man who berated him and said the shooting never happened.
“You are taught when you are young that you ignore bullies and eventually they will leave you alone,” Parker said. “But as time went on, and my other girls were getting older, I realized they weren’t stopping and some of this was getting worse and getting more personal.”
Parker is now part of a lawsuit against Jones, has testified before Congress and pushed for changes on social media platforms, such as YouTube, which announced this month it will prohibit videos that deny the Sandy Hook shooting and other “well-documented events.”
“It wasn’t until the lawsuits and until it became a mainstream news story that people realized they were being complicit in this and started to moderate the content,” Parker said.
Pozner is the lead plaintiff in several of at least nine cases filed against Sandy Hook deniers in federal and state courts in Connecticut, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin.
In the case against Jones, the families of eight victims and a first responder say they’ve been subjected to harassment and death threats from his followers. A Connecticut judge ruled in the defamation case that Jones must undergo a sworn deposition, which is scheduled for July in Texas.
On Monday lawyers for the families disclosed that child pornography was found in electronic files sent to them by Jones as part of the discovery process. An attorney for Jones said the pornography was in emails sent to his client that were never opened.
Wisconsin’s Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington ruled Monday that Pozner had been defamed by Fetzer and Palacek, whose book claimed, among other things, that Noah’s death certificate had been faked, according to Pozner’s lawyer, Jake Zimmerman.
“If Mr. Fetzer wants to believe that Sandy Hook never happened and that we are all crisis actors, even that my son never existed, he has the right to be wrong. But he doesn’t have the right to broadcast those beliefs if they defame me or harass me,” Pozner said. “He doesn’t have the right to use my baby’s image or our name as a marketing ploy to raise donations or sell his products. He doesn’t have the right to convince others to hunt my family.”
Before the case went to a judge, Fetzer had said “evidence clearly shows this wasn’t a massacre, it was a FEMA drill,” referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“If you believe otherwise, then you are being played,” Fetzer, a Wisconsin resident, said at the time.
A redacted copy of the actual death certificate is attached to Pozner’s lawsuit. Additionally, Pozner has had DNA samples taken and compared with those provided by the Connecticut medical examiner to prove that Noah was his son. He has put Noah’s birth certificate, report cards and medical records into the public file in his legal actions.
His goal, he says, is to make sure that “normal people” have access to the truth and aren’t persuaded by the hoaxers.
A Florida woman, Lucy Richards, was sentenced to five months in prison for sending Pozner death threats. She was also banned from visiting web sites run by conspiracy theorists, including Fetzer.
Christopher Mattei, a lawyer who represents the families in their Connecticut lawsuit against Jones, said his clients want to live their lives free from that kind of harassment. They also want these hoaxers to know they are affecting real people, who have already been emotionally devastated.
“When the grief process includes having to justify your grief or having to prove your child’s existence,” he said, “it makes it very difficult.”