CUBA BRIEF: Alaska Air will end Cuba flights, citing slowdown in passengers and Trump’s new rules; Cuba attack mystery may be Cold War flashback, officials say

Alaska Air will end Cuba flights, citing slowdown in passengers and Trump’s new rules

Alaska Airlines will end its daily Los Angeles-Havana flights in January, but it says restrictions that President Donald Trump imposed on travel to the island last week were just the last straw for a route that was already struggling.

By Rami Grunbaum

Seattle Times business editor

Alaska Airlines will end its flights to Cuba in January, a year after launching a daily Los Angeles-Havana route that began with great fanfare but was fading even before President Donald Trump last week imposed new restrictions on travel to the island nation.

After its 737-900ER makes a final Havana flight on Jan. 22, Alaska initially will use that jet to add an eighth daily run between Seattle and Orange County, California, said John Kirby, the airline’s vice president of capacity planning.

The Trump administration’s shift “probably was the proverbial straw,” he said, but “we were already looking pretty hard at an exit based on the bookings, so I would not pin this on the regulations changing.”

Travelers with tickets after Jan. 22 can either be rebooked on other airlines at no cost or be refunded their money, the company said.

Seattle-based Alaska is not the only airline to back off initial Cuba plans. American Airlines announced in November 2016 that it would reduce its number of flights, before Alaska had even started operating. Smaller operators Silver Air and Spirit Airlines subsequently dropped their flights, and Frontier ended its flights from Miami to Havana in June.

Alaska was among many contending for the 20 initial daily flights to Havana doled out by the U.S. Department of Transportation under an agreement with Cuba. It then had to fight off a challenge from JetBlue, which questioned why Alaska wasn’t able to start service in November as originally scheduled.

Alaska’s first flight to Havana, on Jan. 5, carried a television crew as well as a trade and educational delegation including University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, who was born in Cuba.

“Initially we saw a lot of demand” as the spring tourism season began last March, with Alaska’s 178-seat planes heading to Cuba “more than three-quarters full,” Kirby said. The following month, flights reached 85 percent capacity.

But this fall “we saw bookings drop off precipitously,” he said. “The hurricane season didn’t help,” as a record-setting storm season lashed both Cuba and the Southeastern United States.

The White House said in June it would reverse some of the travel policies that followed the Obama administration’s re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015. Those new travel rules, which took effect Nov. 9, mean most Americans will, once again, be required to travel as part of organized tours run by U.S. companies.

“Over 80 percent of the traffic we were carrying was the people-to-people” category of visitors traveling on their own, classified as “individual education,” Kirby said. With the new restrictions, “it didn’t make any sense.”

Although Alaska now operates the only nonstop flights to Havana from the West Coast, it has been a small player overall in the Cuba market, according to data from CAPA, an Australia-based aviation research firm.

As of June, CAPA reported, American Airlines led with 34 percent of available seating capacity between the United States and Cuba, followed by Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, United and finally Alaska with 4.5 percent of the total seats.

The end of Alaska’s Cuba flights is “as permanent as anything is in the airline industry,” Kirby said. Alaska will return the landing slots it was allocated after a lengthy approval process by the U.S. and Cuban governments, “so we would relinquish rights to fly to Cuba.”

He said it had been difficult for airlines to predict travel demand to Cuba: “Obviously with a country that was embargoed for 50 years there wasn’t a lot of data.”

The acquisition of Virgin America has also meant that Alaska has “more opportunities than aircraft,” providing good alternative uses for the jet now used on Los Angeles-Havana flights, Kirby said.

The airline said it has added 44 routes this year and is planning for nearly 8 percent network growth in 2018, primarily by bolstering capacity in its existing markets.

Rami Grunbaum: 206-464-8541 or


POLITICO, November 12, 2017

Cuba attack mystery may be Cold War flashback, officials say

Intelligence officials are looking back ‘as far as the 1960s’ in search of answers to baffling attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana.

By ALI WATKINS 11/12/2017 06:56 AM EST Updated 11/12/2017 12:01 PM EST

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials are closely studying Cold War-era Soviet technology as they seek to determine whether an electronic weapon was used to disorient and injure 24 American officials in Cuba earlier this year.

Two intelligence officials tell POLITICO they’re confident that the attacks were conducted with an “energy directed” or “acoustic” device, possibly similar to one used by Soviet intelligence in Havana more than four decades ago, but remain unsure of its exact nature.

That has officials combing classified files and even contacting retired intelligence officers for clues to a mystery that has triggered a diplomatic crisis less than three years after President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Havana.

“We’re trying to talk to guys as far back as the 1960s,” said one of the intelligence officials.

The sweeping, government wide search for answers — spearheaded publicly by the State Department — has pulled in expertise from intelligence agencies, science and weapons development offices and health officials. Still, answers remain elusive. “It’s baffled the entire community,” the intelligence official said.

While investigators remain unsure of who, exactly, was behind the apparent attacks, one former U.S. intelligence official says their leading theory holds that it was the work of Cuban intelligence — possibly even a rogue faction of Cuban spies hoping to derail the restored diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington. Moscow is another prime suspect, though U.S. officials are undecided whether the Russians might be the main aggressors or accomplices, or absent altogether.

The attacks against U.S. officials — including CIA officers — in Cuba began shortly after Election Day in fall 2016, and continued periodically until at least August 2017. Affected personnel reported hearing high-pitched sounds and exhibited symptoms reflective of a concussion, including dizziness, nausea and memory issues.

Of particular interest to federal officials is the former Soviet technique of using radio waves, like microwaves, to target U.S. signals collection in Moscow. In the 1970s, amid escalating spy tensions between the United States and Russia, the Soviets targeted the U.S. embassy in Moscow with radio microwaves in an effort to disrupt U.S. radio surveillance of Russian interests in post Cold-War Moscow, according to multiple Cold War-era recountings. The incident, known as the “Moscow Signal,” was never formally solved — after the U.S. embassy installed screens in its compound, the issue went away.

The use of energy waves or sound as weapons can be a particularly nasty form of covert attack. Not always audible to the human ear, the mysterious devices have surfaced in rumors periodically in Cold War spy history. Answers have remained as ambiguous. As far back as the 1970s Moscow Signal incident, medical professionals suspected the use of such mysterious weapons could lead to brain damage, blood disorders and hearing impairments in exposed personnel — symptoms nearly identical to what targeted U.S. officials are experiencing now.

But intelligence officials are split on what might have motivated the use of an energy device now: Was it meant to harm U.S. diplomats — or could the injuries be an unintended side effect of a surveillance operation?

The affected U.S. officials were targeted at their homes and in hotels, one of the intelligence officials said, leading some to conclude that the attacks were intended to harm, not surveil, U.S. personnel. Tracking when and where U.S. personnel were staying in hotels suggests a more narrow, intentional targeting, the official said.

At least five Cuba-based Canadian officials have experienced similar symptoms — some of them during vacation stretches on the island, according to two of the intelligence officials, further raising suspicion that the presumed attacks were not related to surveillance.

The affected Havana-based U.S. diplomats are still undergoing medical observation and treatment.

The restoration of diplomatic relations with Havana was one of President Barack Obama’s proudest foreign policy achievements. But the end of nearly six decades of animosity was not universally celebrated: Many Cuban government hard-liners still harbor festering anti-Americanism.

If the attacks are indeed the work of a renegade Cuban intelligence faction, the former U.S. intelligence official said, that might be a sign that Cuban President Raúl Castro’s grip on power — he succeeded his brother, Fidel, as president in 2008 — may not be as strong as many outsiders assume.

But while the intelligence community is primarily focused on the role of Cuban intelligence, officials are closely examining the possibility that a third-party — likely Russia — is involved, in part because of strong denials by Castro.

“The Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever in these incidents which are said to have affected the U.S. diplomats,” Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said at the Washington National Press Club in early November.

Just as some Cuban hard-liners opposed Obama’s diplomatic overture, their longtime allies in Moscow feared that a Cuban-U.S. rapprochement might jeopardize their intelligence presence on an island less than 100 miles from the U.S. mainland.

Of the nearly half-dozen current and former U.S. officials with whom POLITICO spoke, none even entertained that Moscow — a longtime ally and patron of the Cuban intelligence services — was not somehow involved, or at least aware of the attacks.

“They’re trained by the SVR. They’re dirtier than the SVR,” one recently departed counterintelligence official said, referring to Moscow’s foreign intelligence service. “It would surprise me greatly if the Russians didn’t know about it.”

Even as U.S.-Cuban relations have thawed in recent years, Russia has stayed close to its historic ally. Just before a January 2015 visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, Moscow docked a high-tech spy ship in Havana. More recently, the Kremlin reportedly reached an agreement with Havana to reopen its sweeping Lourdes signals collection base near that city.

The lack of answers is starting to rankle U.S. policymakers. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) wrote to the State Departmenton Monday, asking for more details on State’s investigation into the incident and the status of the affected diplomats.

“While many Members hold different views on U.S. policy towards Cuba, we all agree that the health and safety of our diplomats and their families is vital to the national security of the United States,” the letter said.

The letter asked whether the State Department has “new evidence or analysis to suggest the source of these attacks,” asking whether “at least some element of the Cuban government has knowledge of the source of these attacks.”

For now, the answer to that question remains a mystery.

Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.


Breitbart, November 14, 2017

Cuba Awards ‘Order of Solidarity’ to Puerto Rican Terrorist Freed by Obama


Prolific Puerto Rican terrorist Óscar López Rivera, responsible for placing over 130 bombs throughout the United States and causing millions in property damage, landed in Cuba this week to receive the nation’s “Order of Solidarity” and honor dead tyrant Fidel Castro.

López Rivera, who served 36 years in prison, was due to be released in 2051 until President Barack Obama freed him via commutation of his sentence shortly before the end of his presidency. He has since returned to far-left political advocacy. Hours after being released from prison, the Spanish newswire service EFE notes, he reached out to Cuban officials to request a trip to the island.

Granma, Cuba’s state-run propaganda outlet, stated Tuesday that López Rivera will receive the “Order of Solidarity” in Havana before meeting with Cuban students at the University of Havana and then traveling east to Santiago, where Fidel Castro is buried, for “an homage to the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution.” He will also stop halfway in Santa Clara to honor communist mass murderer Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

“I feel like I am at home, this is a dream come true, really, so many years that I have been wanting to come to Cuba and today, for the first time, I arrive in Cuba,” López Rivera told Cuban agents upon landing in Havana, according to the Cuban Foreign Ministry (MINREX).

“I am very hopeful to be able to enjoy all the time that I can with the Cuban people,” he added. “I am alive and kicking, at my age I think I can work about 14 to 15 hours a day, I feel good.”

López Rivera is 74 years old.

Telesur, another far-left outlet, reported that the Cuban government sent a member of the “Cuban Five” to greet him at the airport on Sunday: Fernando Gonzalez Llort, who shared a cell with López Rivera for over four years, according to Granma. The Cuban newspaper describes the spies as “the Five Heroes of Cuba, as the anti-terrorist fighters are known.”

Obama also released the “Cuban Five” without having completed their prison sentence in exchange for American citizen Alan Gross in 2014. The five men had infiltrated the pro-American Cuban community in Miami and provided Cuba with the intelligence used to kill five American citizens of Cuban dissent in 1996, all four members of the group Brothers to the Rescue, which engaged in rescue operations to help Cuban refugees attempting to reach America on rafts. Cuba does not recognize American citizens of Cuban descent as U.S. citizens.

Prior to his arrest, López Rivera was among the leaders of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a Puerto Rican terrorist group whose string of bombings, mostly in Chicago and New York, killed five people and caused over $3 million in property damage in the 1970s. He was arrested and convicted on “seditious conspiracy” charges.

Cuba remained for years on the State Department’s state sponsor of terrorism list for its alliances with figures like López Rivera, as well as support for terrorist organizations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Hezbollah. Following their defeat by a joint Colombian-U.S. counter-terrorism effort in the Colombian countryside, leaders of the FARC fled to Havana, where they enjoyed safe haven until dictator Raúl Castro brokered their return to Colombia. “Timochenko,” the terrorist organization’s leader and 2018 presidential candidate, remains in Havana recovering from a medical condition.

Various reports have also tied the Castro regime to Hezbollah through the Venezuelan narco-state, in particular reportedly funding a scheme to grant Middle Eastern Hezbollah members Venezuelan passports.

A minority of leftist Puerto Rican communities in the United States mainland have embraced López Rivera’s liberation. The terrorist made a guest appearance at New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade after major parade sponsors backed out and parade organizers were forced to rescind an award they were to give him at the event. Parade-goers booed López Rivera.