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Cases of ‘Havana Syndrome’ Reported at U.S. Embassy in Colombia

WASHINGTON — The State Department is investigating new complaints of brain injuries linked to the so-called Havana Syndrome at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, a senior administration official said on Tuesday, a week before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is scheduled to visit the country.

It was not clear how many people at the embassy in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, might have been afflicted by the mysterious illness and its symptoms of headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory loss. The State Department’s spokesman, Ned Price, said officials would ensure that employees “get the prompt care they need, in whatever form that takes,” but he did not describe the complaints in Colombia during a briefing in Washington.

The senior administration official confirmed the complaints, which were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal, and said that it appeared that at least two embassy employees had reported the symptoms.

President Iván Duque of Colombia said his country was aware of the reports. In an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday, Mr. Duque said while the United States was taking the lead, Colombia’s intelligence service was also investigating.

More than 200 U.S. government officials — spies, diplomats, military troops and others — have been afflicted by the illness over the past five years in diplomatic missions in several countries, including Cuba. Reports of an outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam, delayed Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit in August by a few hours.

Though the origins of Havana Syndrome remain unknown, its symptoms are similar to those caused by surveillance equipment used by Russia during the Cold War. As recently as this summer, however, U.S. intelligence officials were struggling to find evidence that the condition was a result of microwave attacks by Russian agents — a theory put forward in a study by the National Academy of Sciences in December.

More than half the victims have been C.I.A. employees, and Congress has approved more support for U.S. officials who have been affected by the illness. Last month, the House Intelligence Committee also demanded more resources to help find the cause of the illnesses and to review the C.I.A.’s handling of cases.

The National Security Council and the State Department have created task forces to investigate the reported injuries, which were a top concern for Mr. Blinken even before he took office. He is not expected to cancel or delay his trip to Colombia, during which he is likely to address the issue of migrants and the political and humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela.

Mr. Price said the State Department had sought to be more open with employees about reported attacks at diplomatic posts, aggressively tried to identify their cause and provided care to people who complained of symptoms.

“We have taken a number of steps, including in terms of communication, in terms of care, in terms of detection, in terms of protection for our work force,” he said. “And that is something that will continue to be a priority for the secretary.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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Ontario Town Still Searching for Answers in Gas Leak Explosion

It’s not a disaster scene like those left by the recent destructive flooding or wildfires in British Columbia. But the effects of an explosion last August in Wheatley, Ontario, have similarly upended the lives of hundreds of people in that town.

Not long after coming back from reporting on the flooding in British Columbia, I headed to Wheatley and found a community in a state of suspended animation. My report on the mystery surrounding the gas explosion that leveled three buildings and turned the town’s center in a no-go zone, cut off from electricity and other utilities, appeared this week.

[Read: Mysterious Gas Leak Unnerves Canadian Town]

Most of Wheatley is still standing. Only three buildings, including a recently opened motel, at the town’s crossroads were wrecked. But after fleeing their homes in late August, members of only about half of the 100 displaced households have been allowed back for just one hour to grab clothing and other personal belongings. Nearly all of the community’s stores, small businesses and professional offices remain closed.

As I wrote in my article, determining exactly what caused the explosion still eludes investigators. The most likely sources are two 19th-century natural gas wells buried under the town’s center. But the constant threat of another explosion has slowed the investigation, to the frustration of people left out of their homes for more than four months.

Late one afternoon, I met Stephanie Charbonneau at the fence that’s keeping her just steps away from “Big Red,” her family’s large brick home. Like many people in town, she described the family’s situation as almost surreal.

If a tornado swept through the neighborhood, Mrs. Charbonneau said, “you can take in the wreckage to help you process what’s happened to you.”

“We just don’t have that to process what we’ve been through,” she added.

Mrs. Charbonneau wasn’t, of course, wishing a tornado on her town. But the effect of the explosion has been similar. Because of the potential danger, though, her insurance company still hasn’t been able to send workers into the house to drain its radiators and water pipes. Given that some pipes recently froze in the farmhouse that’s her family’s temporary home, Mrs. Charbonneau fears the worst for her unheated house.

While there was no widespread destruction in Wheatley, I saw the same sense of the community coming together to help people who were out of their homes that I’d previously witnessed in British Columbia. Everyone had a story about being helped out with housing, clothing, even children’s Christmas presents by people who lived outside the closed zone or in neighboring communities.

The need is very real. The local food bank, which had to relocate, served five to seven families a week in early 2020. Currently it has 40 clients, including individuals and families. It’s also now offering to include household goods and clothing. Donors have been generous to the point where the food bank is outgrowing its space, which includes a refrigerated semi trailer.

For the local businesses, the town’s state of limbo has added to the stresses caused by pandemic shutdowns. Fortunately for the local economy, the fish processing plants and the shipyard that are the big local employers are on the Lake Erie shoreline, a short drive or a long walk from downtown.

There is talk locally that if a permanent solution for the leaking gas can’t be found, it might be necessary to move the town center down toward the harbor.

That, however, might just be trading one problem for another. For the past few years, a long stretch of the former provincial highway that is Wheatley’s main street has been closed a few kilometers east of town. It runs on top of a cliff that has eroded, most likely because of climate change, to the point where officials fear that the road may vanish into Lake Erie.

While no of the people I met in Wheatley said they had anticipated a gas explosion — or had even known that the town might have been built on top of three abandoned wells — the issue of the oil and gas industry’s past haunting the present isn’t unique to the town. It is a major problem in Alberta, where there are about 71,000 abandoned wells in need of cleanup, although they are overwhelmingly outside urban areas.

Shopping is now very limited in Wheatley. One gas station, a feed store and the provincial government liquor store sit outside the restricted zone. But anyone looking for a liter of milk or a loaf of bread must get behind the wheel.

But until new Covid restrictions descended on all of Ontario, the town did have one gathering place. Hilary Hyatt was able to re-establish her cafe and restaurant, Lil Hil’s, in the clubhouse of a golf course on the town’s eastern fringe.

Ms. Hyatt told me that she was grateful to be back in business. And she lives by the lake, far from the closed zone. But, like everyone I met in Wheatley, she wants the uncertainty to end.

“I want my town back,” she told me. “I don’t think it will ever be the same — that’s long gone. But I do believe that our community will find a way to make it feel like home again.”

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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Mass Trials in Cuba Deepen Its Harshest Crackdown in Decades

Detained protesters in Cuba could get up to 30 years in prison as they face the largest and most punitive mass trials on the island since the early years of the revolution.

Prosecutors this week put on trial more than 60 citizens charged with crimes, including sedition, for taking part in demonstrations against the country’s economic crisis over the summer, said human rights activists and relatives of those detained.

Those being prosecuted include at least five minors as young as 16. They are among the more than 620 detainees who have faced or are slated to face trial for joining the biggest outburst of popular discontent against the Communist government since it took power in 1959.

The severity of the charges is part of a concerted effort by the government to deter further public expressions of discontent, activists said. The crackdown also dashed lingering hopes of a gradual liberalization under President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who in 2018 replaced Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl to become Cuba’s first leader from outside the Castro family since 1959.

“What reigns here is an empire of fear,” said Daniel Triana, a Cuban actor and activist who was briefly detained after the protests. “The repression here doesn’t kill directly, but forces you to choose between prison and exile.”

For six decades, Cuba has lived under a punishing U.S. trade embargo. The Cuban government has long blamed the country’s crumbling economy solely on Washington, deflecting attention from the effects of Havana’s own mismanagement and strict limits on private enterprise.

Cuba exploded into unexpected protest on July 11, when thousands of people, many from the country’s poorest neighborhoods, marched through cities and towns to denounce spiraling inflation, power outages and worsening food and medicine shortages.

The scenes of mass discontent — shared widely over social media — shattered the idea promoted by the Cuban leadership that popular support for the governing Communist Party endured, despite economic hardship.

After being initially caught by surprise, the government responded with the biggest crackdown in decades, sending military units to crush the protests. More than 1,300 demonstrators were detained, according to the human rights organization Cubalex and to Justice J11, an umbrella organization of Cuban civil society groups that monitors the aftermath of the summer’s unrest.

The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment sent through the foreign media office.

The scale of the government’s reaction shocked longtime opposition figures and Cuba observers.

Cuba’s leaders had always reacted swiftly to any public discontent, jailing protesters and harassing dissidents. But previous crackdowns tended to focus on the relatively small groups of political activists.

In contrast, the mass trials that began in December are, for the first time in decades, targeting people who largely had no connection to politics before they stepped out of their homes to join the crowds calling for change, said historians and activists.

“This is something completely new,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent Cuban dissident who was convicted of sedition in 2003, along with 74 other activists, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Their sentences were eventually commuted, and most were allowed to go into exile.

“There’s not a single drop of compassion left, and that’s what marks the difference” with the past, she said by telephone from her home in Havana.

Yosvany García, a 33-year-old welder, had never participated in protests or run into problems with the law, said his wife, Mailin Rodríguez. On July 11, he came home for lunch, as usual, from his workshop in the provincial capital of Holguín.

But on his way back to work, he ran into a crowd that was demanding political change, said Ms. Rodríguez. Driven by a surge of indignation at the unbearable cost of living, Mr. García joined the march, she said.

He was beaten by the police who broke up the rally later that day, but came home to his wife that night. Four days later, he was cornered by the police near his home and taken to jail.

On Wednesday, Mr. García was charged with sedition along with 20 other protesters, including five teenagers aged 17 and 16, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Cuba. All are facing penalties of at least five years in prison; Mr. García is facing a 30-year sentence.

Rowland Castillo was 17 years old in July, when he was detained for joining the protest in a working-class suburb of the capital, Havana. A provincial champion in wrestling, one of Cuba’s most popular sports, Mr. Castillo attended a state sports academy and had never participated in political activities, according to his mother, Yudinela Castro.

She said she only realized he had joined the protest when police came to arrest him several days later. Prosecutors are seeking a 23-year sentence against him for sedition.

Ms. Castro said that after her son’s arrest she was fired from the state food market where she worked. She now lives on donations from neighbors and well-wishers in an abandoned community first-aid clinic with her 2-year-old grandson — Mr. Castillo’s son — as she tries to recover from cancer.

“Through him I came to realize the evil that happens in this country,” she said, referring to her jailed son. “He didn’t do anything, apart from go out and ask for freedom.”

At first, the ascension of Mr. Díaz-Canel, 61, to the presidency in 2018 raised hopes of gradual change in some quarters.

He was not part of the old guard that rose to power with the Castros. In office, he tried streamlining Cuba’s convoluted currency system and introduced reforms to expand the private sector in an attempt to ameliorate a crippling economic crisis caused by the pandemic, sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and dwindling aid from the island’s Socialist ally, Venezuela.

But Mr. Díaz-Canel, born after the revolution, could not evoke the Castro brothers’ anti-imperialist struggles to paper over the ever-declining standards of living. When the protests broke out, he reacted with force.

“They don’t have any intention of changing,” said Salomé García, an activist with Justice J11, the rights group, “of allowing Cuban society any participation in determining its destiny.”

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Journalists in El Salvador Targeted With Spyware Intended for Criminals

El Salvador’s leading news outlet, El Faro, said on Wednesday that the phones of a majority of its employees had been hacked with the spyware Pegasus, which has been used by governments to monitor human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.

The revelation came just months after the American government blacklisted the Israeli firm that produces Pegasus, the NSO Group, in an attempt to curb the largely unregulated global market in spyware.

According to Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School and Access Now, two cybersecurity watchdogs that analyzed the phones of El Faro’s employees, the spyware had been installed on the phones of 22 reporters, editors and other employees between July 2020 and November 2021.

During that time, El Faro was investigating the Salvadoran government’s clandestine connections to the country’s gangs and corruption scandals. The government has denied any connection to local gangs.

“It’s completely unacceptable to spy on journalists,” said Carlos Dada, the founder and director of El Faro. “It endangers our sources, it limits our work and it also endangers our families.”

The cybersecurity watchdogs said 13 journalists from other Salvadoran news organizations were targeted as well. An El Faro journalist’s phone had been reinfected with the spyware over 40 times, the most persistent hacking attempt by Pegasus yet to be discovered.

“NSO Group’s tentacles continue to spread across the globe, crushing the privacy and rights of journalists and activists into oblivion,” said Angela Alarcón, who campaigns on Latin America and the Caribbean at Access Now. “Revelations that Pegasus software has been used to unjustly spy in El Salvador may not come as a complete surprise, but there is no match to our outrage.”

It remains unclear who was using NSO’s surveillance technology to spy on the journalists. El Salvador’s government denied responsibility, and a spokesperson with NSO Group would not say whether Pegasus spyware had been provided to El Salvador’s governments, past or present.

“The government of El Salvador is in no way related to Pegasus and is not a client of the NSO Group,” Sofía Medina, the communications director for President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, said in a statement.

“The government of El Salvador is investigating the possible use of Pegasus,” the statement added, before going on to describe a similar hacking attempt targeting Salvadoran government officials.

The development is the latest scandal to rock NSO Group, a prized Israeli technology company whose spyware has long been under scrutiny for its ability to capture all activity on a smartphone — including a user’s keystrokes, location data, sound and video recordings, photos, contacts and encrypted information — and for mounting allegations of misuse by repressive governments.

In August it was revealed that Pegasus had been secretly installed on the smartphones of at least three dozen journalists, activists and business executives across the world, including close associates of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In Mexico, it was used against influential journalists and others.

The Biden administration blacklisted NSO Group in November, stating that the company had knowingly supplied spyware used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” the phones of human rights activists, journalists and others.

The measure was a notable break with Israel, an American ally, as the company is one of Israel’s most successful technology firms and operates under direct surveillance of the Israeli government.

After the American government blacklisted NSO Group, the company promised that Pegasus was only licensed to governments with good human rights records.

But in December it was announced that the iPhones of 11 American Embassy employees working in Uganda had been hacked using Pegasus spyware.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for NSO Group, who declined to provide their name, maintained the company only provides its software to legitimate intelligence agencies and to law enforcement agencies to fight criminals and terrorists.

The spokesman added that the company does not know who the targets of its customers are, but that NSO works to ensure that its tools are used only for authorized purposes.

Israel’s Defense Ministry is in charge of regulating and approving any exports of NSO’s software. The Israeli military has also been criticized for its human rights violations at home and abroad.

While it remains unclear what entity targeted the Salvadoran journalists, El Salvador has been criticized for intimidating and censoring local media.

El Salvador’s president, Mr. Bukele, has come under withering criticism from the United States government and rights groups for using the military to interfere with the legislature and to suspend Supreme Court judges and the attorney general.

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