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Obama signs Venezuela sanctions bill freezing assets of wealthy socialists

In a victory for Venezuelans in Miami, the sanctions freeze assets of socialist regime supporters condoning violent repression and flashing wealth in Miami

Published On: Dec 18 2014 04:11:32 PM EST   Updated On: Dec 19 2014 11:14:06 AM EST
MIAMI -

President Barack Obama signed sanctions Thursday against Venezuelans accused of human rights violations including some of the socialist supporters, who have been seen on Instagram flashing wealth while visiting Miami.

Miami follows unrest in Venezuela

HE IS ALSO BEING INVESTIGATED FOR A RAPE HERE IN SOUTH FLORIDA. THE PROTESTS CONTINUE ON THE STREETS IN VENEZUELA IN SPITE OF A STRING OF CARNAVAL HOLIDAYS THAT THE GOVERNMENT HOPED WON'T COURAGE THEM TO 37 FM HOLIDAYS AURAL LEADING UP TO THEY ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF FORM PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ. DEMONSTRATORS ARE COMMAND THAT THE GOVERNMENT STOP CRACKING DOWN ON PROTESTS, AND THEY THE WANT THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN ARRESTED TO BELEY RELEASED. VENEZUELANS IN SOUTH FLORIDA AREN'T IDLY STANDING BY, AS YOU KNOW. THOUSANDS HAVE CHANGED STAGED PROTESTS OF THEIR OWN THE LAST FEW WEEKS, AND WITH SOCIAL MEDIA THEY ARE LEARNING WHAT'S HAPPENING UP TO THE SECOND BEEP SAT DOWNTOWN A LOCAL10 INTERN WHO IS WRITING HER OWN DOCUMENTARY WITH THE UNREST. Y SHE SHOWS US HOW SHE STAYS IN TOUCH. IT'S THE MOST FRUSTRATING THING WHATEVER. SPEAKERC : SHE IS ONE OF THE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF VENEZUELANS LIVING IN SOUTH FLORIDA. AS TENSIONS ESCALATE IN HER HOMELAND WAS A DEATH IS TOLL RISES FROM FIERY PROTESTS IN CARACAS, THE GOVERNMENT HAS CLAMPED DOWN ON MEDIA COVERAGE, BUT THAT HAS NOT STOPPED HER FRIENDS AND FAMILY FROM CONNECTING. ONCE, LIKE ALL THE MEDIA WAS BLOCKED OUT, THEY HAVEN'T GIVEN UP. THEY STARTED USING THEY ARE PHONES. THEY BECAME STREET REPORTERS. Reporter: STREET REPORTERS ARMED WITH SMART PHONES. ANYTHING THEY HAVE TO CAPTURE THOSE IMAGES, TO CAPTURE VIDEO OF ALL THE INJUSTICES THEY SEE. Reporter: AND IT'S ALL SHARED ON SOCIAL MEDIA, FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM, ANDA MOBILE MESSAGING SERVICE CALLED WHAT'S APP. IT'S THE SAME THING AS A TEXT MESSAGE. Reporter: THESE ARE VIDEOS FRIENDS HAVE SENT HER BE A MASSIVE MARCH IN THE CAPITOL. AND GUNFIGHT CAPTURED ON CELL PHONE BY ANOTHER FRIEND IN THE MIDDLE OF IT ALL. WHILE I WAS TALKING TO HER, AND I TOLD HER "DO YOU FEAR FOR YOUR LIFE? ARE YOU GOING TO STOP MARCHING? ARE YOU GOING TO STOP GOING OUT?" AND SHE'S LIKE WITH NO, NOW MORE THAN EVER I AM GOING TO GO OUT AND PROTEST FOR MY FREEDOM. THAT HUNGER FOR FREEDOM AND TO EDUCATE THE WORLD IS WHAT

Congress passed the legislation last week after the House adopted them in May.  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson supported the bill. Right-winged Venezuelans living in Miami traveled from Doral in west Miami-Dade to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the sanctions.

Raul Gorrin, Gustavo Perdomo and Juan Domingo Cordero are among the accused supporters of the leftist Bolivarian Revolution who are known as the "Boliburgueses" or "Boli-bourgeoisie." El Nuevo Herald reported earlier this year that Gorrin and Perdomo had $4 million homes in Cocoplum, owned Maserati Quatroporte and Ferrari sports cars and shopped at luxury stores like Gucci at the Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables.

Venezuelans reportedly involved in human rights violations during protests against the Chavista regime earlier this year, were the primary target of the new law. The systemic violence during protests left about 43 dead and resulted in thousands of arrests including the Feb. 18 arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

The State Department's measures on Venezuelan officials impose the cancellation of visas and orders freezing the assets. The U.S. hasn't had official diplomatic relations with Venezuela since 2010. Venezuela withdrew from the American Convention on Human Rights in 2012.

DOCUMENT | Read The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014

On Monday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro addressed the sanctions after a march in Caracas. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's ally said in Spanish that "the insolent, imperialist 'yanquis' could stick their visas to the United States of North America up their you know where."

Maduro also said Monday that his administration was working on having a more advantageous relationship with the "the giant from the North." U.S. sanctions come a day after hedescribed the U.S. foreign policy change with Cuba, as a "historic victory" for the Cuban people.

Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly is one of the most influential members of Maduro's governing socialist party.

"We reject sanctions as arbitrary, as immoral," Cabello said.

A SIGN OF BAD TIMES

Raul Castro's willingness to communicate with the U.S. may come from a fear that the Venezuelan oil supply could end just like the Soviet Union's did when it collapsed. Venezuela no longer has the spare cash to cover more than half of the island's consumption and Castro is moving to diversify.

Italian's Saipem operates Scarabeo 9, one of the largest semi-submersible drilling oil rigs in the world being used in the waters of Cuba. Saipem built it in China for an international drilling contractor with offices in Brazil.  Castro allowed the Scarabeo 9 to drill  in the North Cuba Basin for Repson, of Spain. It also drilled in the north coast of Pinar del Rio for Petronas, of Malaysia and for Gazprom Neft, of Russia.

In exchange for medical personnel, Venezuela has been providing Cuba with about 100,000 barrels of oil a day under the shadow of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez's friendship. Chavez was elected in 1998 and died March 5, 2013.

Maduro's currency controls exacerbated economic problems. Chavez's successor hasn't been able to stop the low price of oil exports, contain the world's fastest inflation or improve his approval rating.

Oil exports account for an estimated 95 percent of Venezuela's foreign currency earnings. If oil prices don't recover, experts in Miami and New York City say, Venezuela could default on its foreign debt as early as 2015. 

OPINION | Helena Poleo's weekly columns

U.S. policy changes toward Cuba prompt excitement in travel industry

Cruise lines and airlines work on business plans in case market opens

Published On: Dec 17 2014 09:21:48 PM EST   Updated On: Dec 17 2014 09:43:00 PM EST

Buying a plane ticket to Cuba should be easier, travelers say

ABOUT THEIR OPINIONS ON THIS HISTORIC CHANGE. TERRELL FORNEY CONTINUES OUR LIVE TEAM COVERAGE FROM MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT. Reporter: WELL, CONSTANCE, BELIEVE IT OR NOT 7,000 FLIGHTS FLY EACH DAY BETWEEN MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT AND CUBA, BUT TODAY, THERE WAS A BIT OF EXCITEMENT AMONG SOME PEOPLE WHO HAVE A TICKET IN THEIR HAND RIGHT NOW TO TRAVEL TO LITTLE HAVANA, OF COURSE, ON THE HEELS OF THESE SWEEPING CHANGES. TAKE TO YOU VIDEO RIGHT INSIDE OF THE CONCOURSE. VERY PACKED CONCOURSE INDEED, WHICH OPERATES DAILY CHARTER FLIGHTS TO CUBA. A LOT OF FOLKS HAVE BEEN PLANNING THEIR TRIP TO THAT ISLAND FOR QUITE SOME TIME. THEY HAVE GIFTS FOR RELATIVES, AND THEY ARE VERY EAGER THEY TELL ME TO TALK TO THEM ABOUT YESTERDAY'S DEVELOPMENTS. TRAVEL, THOUGH, REMAINS VERY LIMITED STILL FOR FOLKS WHO CAN LEGALLY GO. CHARTER IS THE ONLY WAY. AND JUST SEVEN AIRLINE COMPANIES OPERATES THOSE FLIGHTS. SOME CUBA-BOUND PASSENGERS TODAY HOPE THAT ALL CHANGES. GOT A GOOD IDEA. SO IT IS A BENEFIT FOR EVERYBODY, YOU KNOW. YOU CAN'T JUST GO ONLINE AND, YOU KNOW, BOOK A FLIGHT. I WISH IT WAS LIKE THAT. IT IS A LOT EASIER. DO YOU THINK THAT DAY WILL COME? DEFINITELY, DEFINITELY. WE ARE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION AND I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO MORE GOOD THINGS TO HAPPEN IN THE FUTURE. Reporter: SO THOSE WERE THE FOLKS THAT ARE LEAVING TO LITTLE HAVANA. THIS AFTERNOON, THERE WAS A FLIGHT TOUCHING DOWN JUST RIGHT NOW THAT WE ARE ABOUT TO GO INSIDE AND TALK TO THOSE FOLKS. JUST ABOUT HOW LIFE IS ON THE ISLAND RIGHT NOW, WHAT ARE PEOPLE SAYING, WHAT IS THE MO PEOPLE SAYING, WHAT IS THE MOOD, WHAT IS THE FEELING. WE WILL GET ALL OF THAT AND WE WILL BRING IT TO YOU LATER ON HERE ON LOCAL 10. BUT I SHOULD ALSO MENTION THAT ABOUT 600,000 PEOPLE ARE A PART OF THOSE FLIGHTS THAT FLY BETWEEN MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT AND LITTLE -- NOT LITTLE HAVANA, BUT HAVANA CUBA

MIAMI -

With both countries easing requirements for travel licenses, the airline and cruise line industries are preparing for the anticipated high demand.

Tourism will not be allowed until Congress lifts the ban. But tell that to Beyonce and Jay Z who celebrated their anniversary in Cuba last year, and Juanes, who founded the Peace Without Borders concert in 2009.

"You just can't go online and book a flight. I wish it was like that; it would be a lot easier," Ernesto Sarduy said Thursday while preparing to fly from Miami International Airport to Cuba.  He added that he thought the U.S. was "moving in the right direction" and he "was looking forward to more good things to happen in the future."

Some investors hoping the market will open were also giving the industries a boost Wednesday. The shares of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Carnival Cruise Lines all went up.

"Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, and it presents numerous opportunities from a cruise industry perspective," Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell  said in a statement. "Some infrastructure for cruising already exists in the country, along with several ports, so it offers great potential"

Frizzell added that there are other issues that will need to be taken into consideration if the market opens up. Royal Caribbean's vice president and global chief communications officer, Rob Zeiger, said the Cruise Lines International Association was assessing the implications. 

"There are a number of factors for consideration before a cruise line would commit to adding a destination to an itinerary," Zeiger said in a statement. "With Cuba, these include infrastructure and port facilities, and regulatory and policy considerations."

Both Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International airport have have thousands of daily flights to and from Cuba.

Several airlines have expressed interest in adding commercial flights out of Fort Lauderdale if the political situation changes.

In the commercial flights arena, the news was exciting. The International Trade Commission estimated in 2001 that the embargo was costing U.S. exporters up to $1.2 billion annually in lost sales.

Xael Charters with JetBlue planes and has flights on Fridays from Fort Lauderdale to Havana. IBC has charter flights out of Fort Lauderdale to Guantanamo Bay.

American Airlines, American Eagle, Sun Country, World Atlantic, Vision Airlines, Falcon Air Express, and Swift Air are some of the many airlines that fly to Havana out of Miami.

"American proudly serves more destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America than any other carrier, giving us a unique understanding of the people and cultures of the region," an American Airlines representative said. "We will continue to be guided by the laws and policies of our government, and the governments of the countries we serve, as they evolve."

Other changes in policy will make it more appealing for people to travel to Cuba. The U.S. will allow travelers to use credit cards and debit cards on the island.

Travelers will also be allowed to bring Cuban cigars and alcohol products to Miami, as long as they are valued at $100. They will be allowed to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba for personal use. And relatives will also be allowed to send remittances of $2,000 every three months -- a $1,500 raise from the $500 previously allowed.

U.S. subcontractor's health is deteriorating in Cuban prison, family says

Alan Gross threatens to commit suicide if diplomatic solution continues to fail

Published On: Dec 03 2014 01:42:21 PM EST   Updated On: Dec 04 2014 09:46:45 AM EST
MIAMI -

The family of a U.S. subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba said Wednesday that his health is deteriorating in prison.

Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of the day Cubans arrested Alan Gross for attempting to smuggle banned communications equipment he said was meant to give the Jewish community in Cuba access to the Internet.

Gross, 65, had traveled to Cuba five times before for a U.S. Agency for International Development project to get synagogues connected to the Internet. He had loaned cell phones, lap tops and computer network devices and was providing training.

He didn't think he was at risk, his family said, but that last trip would get him arrested as he tried to go back home Dec. 3, 2009. Gross was convicted of acts against the territorial integrity of the state March 2011.

"Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba," his wife Judy Gross said in a statement Wednesday. "And I am afraid that we are at the end."

The Gross family said he has lost over 100 pounds and can't walk because of chronic pain. His arthritis is worsening. He also lost five teeth and was losing sight in his right eye, the Wednesday statement said.

Sen. Marco Rubio also released a statement Wednesday. He was advocating against "unilateral concessions" and an "unconditional" release that doesn't seem to be happening.

"I urge the Obama Administration to step up its efforts against the Castro regime," Rubio said in a statement. 

Cuba wants to swap Gross for three Cuban intelligence agents serving time in federal prison. Rubio is against that. In November, U.S. Senators Jeff Flake and Tom Udall flew to Cuba to visit Gross in prison. Flake and Udall are critics of the U.S. embargo on Cuba and want to bring Gross home.

Cuban officials contend the equipment was part of a USAID program designed to undermine communism. The U.S. State Department said Gross was an aid worker, who was helping a small Jewish community access to the Internet.

"It is gravely disappointing, especially in light of its professed goal of providing Cubans with internet access, that the Cuban government has not allowed Mr. Gross to return to his family, where he belongs,"  U.S. Department of State's Marie Harf said in a statement Tuesday.

The White House showed no signs of flexibility and released a short statement Wednesday saying that his release on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations.

Meanwhile, Judy Gross and their daughters Shira and Nina continue to live a nightmare. His 26-year-old daughter battled breast cancer, while he was behind bars.

Last year Gross wrote a letter to Obama saying he had lost almost everything and that he felt his government had abandoned him.

"After five years of literally wasting away, Alan is done," she said in a statement. "It is time for President Obama to bring Alan back to the United States now; otherwise it will be too late."

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