CUBA BRIEF: State Dept reports more U.S. diplomats harmed in Cuba. Hurricane Irma: Cuba faces period of darkness and rebuilding. After the Hurricane: The Drowning of San Leopoldo

The Washington Post, September 12, 2017

State Department reports more incidents of diplomats harmed in Cuba

By Anne Gearan

The State Department reported Tuesday that it has catalogued additional recent incidents involving harm to American diplomats in Cuba but said that the cause remains unknown.

There are now 21 reported cases, up from 19 on Sept. 1, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

A U.S. investigation is ongoing, Nauert said.

The Trump administration has not blamed the Cuban government for what the union representing Foreign Service officers called “sonic harassment attacks” dating to late 2016.

Cuba has denied wrongdoing in the mysterious events. Victims have been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injuries, hearing loss and other neurological and physical ailments, the union said.

On Sept. 1, the State Department reported that a fresh incident had occurred in August, after months in which they had appeared to stop. The two new incidents occurred sometime before the one in August, Nauert said.

The August incident, which the State Department would not further describe, came months after the first symptoms were reported. The earlier incidents came to light only in August, and at that time officials indicated that whatever had caused the diplomats’ medical problems was no longer occurring. The State Department has not described the events as an attack.

The health concerns were revealed only when the State Department said in August that it had expelled two Cuban diplomats as a rebuke to the Cuban government.

The Trump administration says the expulsions were a protest of Cuba’s failure to protect diplomats as required under the Vienna Conventions.

The State Department has not explained why it did not make the expulsions public when they occurred in May.

BBC News, September 12, 2017

Hurricane Irma: Cuba faces period of darkness and rebuilding

By Will Grant BBC News, Havana

“This didn’t even happen during the so-called Storm of the Century in 1993,” said Yaritza Mendoza, the floodwaters lapping around her knees.

“We’ve never seen the water reach Linea before.”

For those not familiar with the beautiful Havana district of Vedado, the street name of “Linea” might not mean much, but for residents of the Cuban capital it is one of the city’s reference points.

For days, much of this most treasured neighbourhood has been submerged.

Hurricane Irma brought water and debris crashing over the seawall of the Malecon, Havana’s waterfront boulevard, and into the district’s art deco and modernist buildings. Once the storm surge hit Linea, it was some six blocks up from Malecon.

Ground floor apartments were inundated, possessions ruined, and entire livelihoods were put at risk among those running small businesses from their homes.

The streets of Vedado briefly became canals, with the emergency services going from home to home by boat to rescue the elderly and infirm.

In that regard, Yaritza, who lives on the tenth floor of a building on Linea, considers herself fortunate.

“Thanks to God, I’ve not heard of anyone that has died but there have been very big material losses,” she says, her children wading through the fetid water in bare feet or flip-flops.

Then, as we are speaking, a forensic team arrives to remove the body of Nieves Martinez, an 89-year-old whose body was found floating in the waters outside her home.

It was a tragic and timely sign of what the government would later confirm via state media: there were 10 deaths in Cuba as a result of Hurricane Irma.

Elsewhere in the city, in the much poorer district of Centro Habana, Yolendis Castillo and Maria del Carmen Arregoitia – both aged 27 – died when a fourth floor balcony collapsed on a bus in which they were travelling.

As many local residents make their way through floods to get in and out, Havana remains a city largely in the dark. The fear is that it could take weeks to for the power to be fully returned.

All of this, and Hurricane Irma really only grazed Havana.

The areas further east, which were directly under the eye of the storm were devastated – particularly the fishing village of Caibarien and the outlying keys such as Cayo Coco.

Images released by state media show the roof of the international airport in Cayo Coco caved in.

Incredibly, visitors were flying into that airport as recently as Wednesday, just a day before the key was evacuated in a convoy of buses.

Gill Wilkinson from Nottinghamshire was among them.

“It was truly frightening,” says Gill, adding: “They really should have got us out earlier. We saw the Canadians leave, the Argentines leave and we were all sitting that hotel and with no-one telling us anything.”

Now in a hotel in Varadero, a resort much closer to Havana, she is part of a group of British holidaymakers who are fuming at their travel agent, Thomas Cook, and the British Foreign Office.

“The Cuban people were the only ones who’ve actually looked after us”, said Angelique Wood, another stranded visitor from Derby.

Thomas Cook has defended itself saying the company followed the Cuban government’s emergency instructions to the letter.

Meanwhile the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, described as “completely wrong” the criticism that the UK government’s response to the crisis in the Caribbean was slow or inept.

Still, no-one should confuse matters.

Hurricane Irma in Cuba is not about disgruntled holidaymakers, no matter how difficult the past few days have been for them.

It is about the families of Nieves Martinez, Yolendis Castillo, Maria del Carmen Arregoitia and seven others.

It is about entire communities wondering how they are going to rebuild when they were among some of the poorest on the island in the first place.

It is about swathes of Cuba facing uncertain months ahead, possibly trying to cope in the dark.

The rebuilding of key infrastructure will take time and money that simply doesn’t exist.

President Raul Castro praised the Cuban people for their response to the disaster so far and promised to reconstruct after the damage.

“In these difficult circumstances, of greatest importance is the unity between Cubans, the solidarity between neighbours, and the discipline before the instructions emitted by the National Civil Defence and the Defence Council at every level,” he wrote in a letter to the nation.

Yaritza Mendoza will also be turning to another power.

“We just have to have faith that God is going to help us,” shaking her head at her flooded neighbourhood.

14ymedio, September 12, 2017

Cuba After the Hurricane: The Drowning of San Leopoldo

By Zunilda Mata

14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana/Cienfuegos, 12 September 2017 — The air smells of damp and feces. Using a shovel without a handle, Óscar Rodríguez’s family is shoveling the mud out of all the corners of their house on Gervasio Street, a few yards from Havana’s Malecon, an area recently flooded by Hurricane Irma. Everyone is working on the task, the children, the grandmother, and the neighbor who comes over to help.

“I’ve lived in this place since I was born and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Rodríguez. “We have had floods but they haven’t gone past the door.” This time the sea respected nothing. “We lost two mattresses, the refrigerator got quite wet and the TV fell into the water when we tried to move it to a higher place,” he says.

Rodriguez’s wife circles the water tank in the yard. “We do not have water to drink or to cook because everything is contaminated with the sea and with the contents of the sewage pipes,” he explains. The dog stays put on the stairs leading to the loft platform, guarding it well.

The area where the family lives is supplied by underground electricity, an undeniable advantage for decades for the residents of the San Leopoldo district, which has suffered fewer interruptions than areas are supplied through poles and wires which experience the breaks caused by the winds. But Hurricane Irma has changed the situation.

“They say that electricity will take longer to come back in the underground area because we have to wait for everything down there to dry,” says Rodríguez. They have been without electricity for more than 72 hours and have squeezed every last drop of energy out of everything they had in the house.

“We started with batteries and a flashlight, then we went to candles and now we are getting light from an old kerosene lamp,” he adds. For cooking, the family has a small liquefied gas cylinder that it tries to use as sparingly as possible.

“We had to boil water here for a baby who lives in the next corridor because that family was left with nothing and they have nothing to cook with,” he says.

The hurricane gave the national energy system a real blow. Most of the Cuban thermoelectric plants, with the exception of Renté in Santiago de Cuba and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in Cienfuegos, are located on the north coast, the strip most damaged by the hurricane in its trajectory on the Island.

The officials of the Electricity Union have clarified that it is not enough to live in an area where the hurricane had fewer direct effects, because the problem is power generation.

The truth of this is evident in Cienfuegos, where, despite being out of the path of Irma, there is not enough energy to restart the thermoelectric plant.

“I do not know what’s worse, the conjunctivitis outbreak or the lack of electricity,” says Olga Lydia Ulloa, a scientist who hopes that the engineers of the power company will manage to restart the city’s power plan and “turn on the light.”

Like most of the island, Cienfuegos has been without electricity for three days. In some places the destruction of the high tension towers and the electricity poles augurs weeks for the recovery.

The director of the Provincial Electricity Office, Ricardo García Parra, told the local press that work is being done intensely with the area’s generators to get the thermoelectric plant working.

“In recent weeks there has been an epidemic of zika and conjunctivitis in the village and, to top it off, the hurricane has left us with no lights; we have little kids and nothing to cook with,” says Ulloa.

Most Cubans were forced to use electricity as their only cooking option after the “energy revolution” promoted by the late President Fidel Castro. Although the unrationed sale of liquefied gas to households has been allowed in recent years, the price is high for an average worker, which limits access.

Private markets also have electric service thanks to generators that work with fuel oil and diesel, but only two provincial hospitals in the territory and its surrounding areas had electricity as of Tuesday.

Despite the disaster, in Havana there is room for hope. The Máximo Gómez Thermoelectric Power Plant of Mariel, one of those affected, was ready to begin service on Monday, after intense hours of repairs and hundreds of thousands of residents in Havana are hopeful that this energy colossus will bring them out of the dark .

The tracks left by “the days of the water”

But now, “the worst is the smell, there is no one who can stand it,” says Óscar Rodríguez as he removes pieces of wood, paper and some crushed beer cans from the mud. “At first it smelled of the sea, but as the waters receded this plague has come and now even we smell like this,” he laments.
No one has showered since last Friday. They all try to drink little water so they do not use up the “strategic reserves,” as Grandma calls them, and continue look for some belongings, such as shoes and an identity card that seem to have gone with the flow.

Outside, some kids are enthusiastic about the day they swam down Gervasio Street, the dips in Maceo Park and how the wall of the Malecon disappeared after being covered by the sea. They have not had classes this Monday and nobody knows when they will reopen the schools in the area. At the moment the priorities seem to be different.

The epidemiological situation has been deteriorating since the floods began. The area, one of the most densely populated in the whole of the country, has a great number of buildings where dozens of families live in crowded conditions. Now, most of those residents are stationed outside their homes because the heat and bad smell make it unbearable to stay inside.

Others do not want to be in their homes for fear that the old walls will end up collapsing when they dry. “This is on the verge of pure miracle,” a resident of a tenement at San Lázaro and Lealtad streets tells this newspaper. The narrow, winding hallway is still wet. The rooms on either side have their doors open and waterlogged belonging are set out everywhere under the sun to dry.

The image is like a ship with ragged sails and tired-eyed sailors on no fixed course. The neighborhood of San Leopoldo continues to experience its own shipwreck a few hours after the waters recede.