US moves to bar American tourists from visiting Cuba

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

US moves to bar American tourists from visiting Cuba

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.


Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts

Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts
Updated 07 May 2021

Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts

Pakistan mountain region observes Ramadan in darkness after power cuts
  • Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to set up hydroelectric power plants
  • Several other hydropower projects are also being built in the area

KHAPLU, GHANCHE: In the mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, daily power cuts of up to 20 hours or more in some districts have pushed locals to protest over having to observe Ramadan in darkness.

Gilgit-Baltistan, an impoverished part of the larger Kashmir region, is the gateway of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with high potential to generate energy from hydropower, but its residents have so far reaped few rewards of the $65 billion infrastructure project.

When the province went to local assembly polls in November last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to set up hydroelectric power plants.

Last month, the region’s chief minister, Khalid Khurshid, gave the provincial secretary powers to ensure no power cuts during suhoor and iftar meals in Ramadan.

Last week, Khan announced a 370 billion rupee ($2.4 billion) development package for the region, part of which is intended to address the electricity crisis. In a meeting this week, between the finance minister of Pakistan and Khurshid, the federal government promised to “undertake several projects for hydropower generation.”

The construction of “the biggest dam in Pakistan’s history,” the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, meanwhile, was inaugurated by the prime minister in July last year.

Several other hydropower projects are also being built in the area, including the Kohala and Neelum Jhelum projects, with the former still under construction and the latter completed in 2019.

But despite this flurry of activity and promises, for now, local businesses, not to mention and Ramadan and upcoming Eid Al-Fitr celebrations, have been upended by power outages.

“There is no electricity in our village,” Ghulam Nabi Sanai, from Ghanche district, told Arab News on Wednesday. “We registered complaints about the absence of electricity, but no power department officials heard us. That’s why we had to stage a sit-in.”

For the past few days, Sanai said, residents of his hometown had been preparing and eating their iftar and suhoor meals in darkness.

Large-scale construction of new power plants — mainly coal-fired ones funded by China — has dramatically boosted Pakistan’s energy capacity in the last couple of years. But even as supply surges, electric power is still not reaching up to 50 million people in Pakistan who need it, according to a 2018 World Bank report, though expansion of transmission lines is planned.

Power outages also remain common.

Sher Ali Rana, a tailor in Ghanche, said he normally sewed some 400 outfits for Eid. This year, however, he would hardly be able to make 150 dresses due to electricity shortages.

“Our tailor community has to face power outages every year, but this year we are facing the worst kind of load shedding ... there is no electricity for 24 hours,” Rana said.

Locals in many other districts, including Skardu and Gilgit, also complain worsening power cuts have paralyzed their daily lives.

Riaz Ali, an executive engineer at Gilgit-Baltistan’s power department, said a major problem of power supply in the region was that its electricity system was not fully connected to the national grid. Low production capacity of existing power stations was another problem, he said.

Generation capacity in winter was 92 megawatts, while the demand was 452 megawatts, Ali said. In summer, generation capacity was 122 megawatts against a demand of 132.

But the engineer said he was hopeful new projects promised under CPEC would solve the region’s power crisis for good.

“If big projects are launched,” he said, “Gilgit-Baltistan has the potential to generate more than thousands of megawatts of electricity.”

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MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer

MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer
Updated 06 May 2021

MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer

MI5 failed to share London terrorist’s heightened threat level: Probation officer
  • Kenneth Skelton decided Usman Khan presented a low threat level, but was not privy to intelligence to the contrary
  • Khan killed 2 people in a knife attack in central London in 2019

LONDON: British intelligence upgraded a terrorist’s threat level due to evidence that he was planning an attack, but failed to inform the probation officer charged with monitoring his activity, an inquest has heard.

Usman Khan killed two people in a knife attack in central London in 2019, less than a year after he was released early from jail where he was serving time for terror offenses.

Now an inquest into the murder of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones at a prisoner rehabilitation event near London Bridge has heard that British intelligence services had evidence that Khan was planning an attack, but did not inform his probation officer.

While in jail for planning to bomb the London Stock Exchange, the court heard, Khan had associated with other terrorists and engaged in violence.

In the month of his release, MI5 upgraded his priority level after obtaining evidence that he was planning a post-release attack, but his probation officer said he was not informed about the heightened threat.

Kenneth Skelton said if he had known, “the whole management process would have been altered.”

Changes made could have included a re-evaluation of Khan’s permission to attend the event at which he carried out the attack — and was subsequently killed by police.

The inquest heard that Skelton was “disappointed” that information on the heightened threat level was not shared with him, particularly as he had attended nearly 30 meetings in which police and probation officers discussed the kind of permissions Khan should be entitled to.

Shortly before the attack, Skelton wrote an official assessment that concluded: “Khan’s likelihood of reoffending and risk of extremist offending is low.”

He added: “Since his release on 24 December 2018 … there has been no demonstration of attitudes supporting or justifying offending of any nature.”

Skelton said he was not made aware of a psychological report from May that year that suggested Khan’s engagement with prisoner rehabilitation programs was “superficial,” and he could not remember being shown a police document that described Khan as “calculating in his behaviour.”

Skelton told the inquest that he was “astounded” when he was told of Khan’s attack, adding: “From nowhere did I get any information that would suggest him returning to any of his (terrorist) behaviors.”

Representatives from MI5 will be called to give evidence at a later stage in the inquiry.


Philippine president lauds Saudi efforts on welfare, labor rights of Filipino workers

During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte expressed thanks for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its COVID-19 vaccination drive. (Reuters/File Photo)
During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte expressed thanks for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its COVID-19 vaccination drive. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 06 May 2021

Philippine president lauds Saudi efforts on welfare, labor rights of Filipino workers

During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte expressed thanks for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its COVID-19 vaccination drive. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • The Philippines and Saudi Arabia recently organized a virtual forum on labor mobility and human rights

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has thanked Saudi Arabia for looking after the welfare and labor rights of Filipinos living in the Kingdom.

During a phone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Duterte also expressed his appreciation for the Kingdom’s inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in its coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination drive, the Philippine leader’s office said on Thursday.

In a statement, the presidential palace, Malacanang, added: “President Duterte recognized Saudi Arabia’s efforts to ensure that the rights, welfare, and well-being of Filipinos in the Kingdom are protected and upheld, including recent efforts aimed at labor reform.”

It said that during Wednesday’s phone call, the crown prince assured Duterte that all Filipinos in the Kingdom would be inoculated, and they also agreed to ramp up joint efforts to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.

“President Duterte has, in several public pronouncements, underscored the need for universal access to vaccines to effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing that nations must work together toward equitable access to life-saving vaccines, particularly for developing and least-developed nations,” the presidential office added.

“King Salman also called on the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies (the G20) to work toward affordable and equitable access to vaccines,” the Malacanang statement said.

During a virtual press conference, Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said the president and Crown Prince Mohammed also used their phone chat to discuss ways “to further improve the protection of Filipino workers in the Kingdom.”

He added that Saudi Arabia was among a number of countries supporting calls for changes to the kafala sponsorship system (for the monitoring of migrant laborers).

New measures under the Kingdom’s labor law reforms, effective since March, ensure that migrant workers in Saudi Arabia’s private sector have improved job mobility and can switch jobs or leave the country without employer consent. The rules also allow foreign workers to apply directly for government services, with all employment contracts documented online.

Duterte had previously described the old kafala system as “unjust” and “exploitative,” claiming it made OFWs in the Middle East, particularly household workers, vulnerable to abuse.

The Philippines and Saudi Arabia recently organized a virtual forum on labor mobility and human rights to discuss the sponsorship system and what Middle Eastern countries were doing to reform it. During the meeting, Duterte called for the abolition of the kafala system.


At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry

At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry
Updated 06 May 2021

At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry

At a Toronto hospital staff exhausted, angry
  • Ontario is now the epicenter of the outbreak in Canada, led by more virulent variants
  • At the week's end more than 2,200 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 in the province of 14 million

TORONTO: Intensive care nurse Farial says the health care system in Canada’s Ontario province is nearing the breaking point as it fights a fast-moving new wave of Covid-19 infections.
The caregiver at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital is looking after two patients in their 60s who are on ventilators.
“We’re overwhelmed,” she told AFP, conveying the feelings of her peers who often say they feel powerless against a tidal wave of new cases, and angry at times — especially with the Ontario government’s arguably slow response and with Ontarians who are not following public health orders to contain the coronavirus.
“We’re stretched thin. We’re tired and exhausted. Just exhausted.”
Ontario is now the epicenter of the outbreak in Canada, led by more virulent variants. The latest surge in the number of cases was so big that authorities this week dispatched the military and the Red Cross to help care for critical patients.
“It’s the worst wave I’ve ever seen,” says head nurse Kimisha Marshall. “We have younger patients coming in, sicker and lots more patients coming in.”
“We’re short of nurses. We had some nurses that left, but also we have nurses that are getting sick, too,” she adds.
At the week’s end, there were more than 2,200 people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the province of 14 million. Nearly 900 patients were listed in critical condition.
Medical staff have been redeployed from other wards to the ICU to lend a hand, and transferring patients to facilities in less affected areas has alleviated some of the pressure on this Toronto hospital.
But more than a year after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, “the team is tired,” comments Raman Rai, head of the intensive care unit where a few children’s drawings thanking caregivers hang on the walls, bringing a glimmer of cheer.
At times overcome by a deep sadness, Rai says: “You see people who have not only lost a loved one, but who have lost several members of their family. It is very hard.”
More than 60 percent of patients in Humber River Hospital’s intensive care unit on Wednesday were being treated for Covid-19. In one of the rooms, relatives and a priest gathered around a patient’s bed, praying.
Every day, several more patients must be placed on ventilators. On Wednesday, a 52-year-old man with low blood oxygen levels was intubated by a team of four caregivers fully dressed in protective gowns, gloves, masks and visors.
“He was so scared, he could barely breathe,” recounts Melody Baril, who performed the intubation.
“You try and give them a little bit of hope,” she says, “but the death rate is so high, once you get to this point.”
More than 8,000 people in Ontario have died from Covid-19, representing one-third of the nationwide pandemic death toll. The number of cases in the province has risen to over 450,000, or almost 40 percent of the total in Canada.
After peaking in mid-April, the number of new daily infections has fallen slightly over the past 10 days and a vaccine rollout is accelerating. But the number of patients in intensive care continues to rise.
Fearing the crisis will persist, some caregivers say they are angry with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government — which has faced a storm of criticisms over its pandemic response of late — but also against a segment of the population that has stubbornly resisted following public health restrictions.
“I feel frustrated,” says nurse Sarah Banani. “I think perhaps things could have been shut down harder and faster as we saw the variants take hold within the population.”
“I think we all feel we have been let down a little bit by society,” comments physician Jamie Spiegelman, adding that many health care providers “feel powerless to change things.”
“When I go outside and see traffic, people in a shopping center not taking the necessary precautions, that’s a letdown,” he says.
“We’re sick of patients with Covid-19 dying.”


Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU

Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU
Updated 06 May 2021

Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU

Sweden passes one million cases as virus spread tops EU
  • Sweden now has among the highest number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe, said health official
  • With 1,002,121 covid19 cases recorded since the pandemic, 9.85 percent of the population has contracted the virus, according to official data

STOCKHOLM: Sweden on Thursday announced it had recorded over one million cases of Covid-19, nearly a tenth of the population, as the Nordic nation struggles to rein in a third wave of the virus.
“In Sweden we now have among the highest number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe,” Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of microbiology at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, told a press conference.
Tegmark Wisell noted however that there had been a downward trend in recent weeks.
With 1,002,121 cases of the novel coronavirus recorded since the start of the pandemic, 9.85 percent of the population has contracted the virus, according to official data compiled by AFP.
The Public Health Agency published a series of projections, with the most likely scenario showing the virus spread starting to subside in mid-May before reaching “very low levels” in July and August.
The Scandinavian country has famously never imposed the type of lockdown seen elsewhere in Europe, controversially relying on mostly non-coercive measures.
It has however gradually tightened restrictions since November, including a ban on alcohol sales after 8:00 p.m. and on public gatherings of more than eight people.
Since March, cafes, bars and restaurants have also been required to shut their doors by 8:30 pm.
Despite being in the midst of a third wave of cases, the rise in deaths has been much slower in recent weeks, with 156 deaths in the last seven days, which authorities say is the result of the rollout of vaccines among vulnerable groups.
The total number of deaths associated with Covid-19 since the start of pandemic reached 14,158 on Thursday, putting Sweden in the middle of the pack in Europe, although well ahead of its Nordic neighbors Finland, Norway and Denmark,
European mortality statistics however also show that Sweden had a lower than average excess mortality in 2020, compared to the rest of Europe.