President Obama has announced the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. In a historic address Wednesday, Obama announced the shift would include the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana.
President Obama: “First, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961. Going forward, the United States will re-establish an embassy in Havana, and high-ranking officials will visit Cuba. Where we can advance shared interests, we will, on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response.”
The softening of U.S.-Cuba relations also came with the release of prisoners in both the United States and Cuba. Cuba released Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on humanitarian grounds. Gross was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years for smuggling in illegal technology for opposition groups. Cuba also released a top spy identified by Newsweek as Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a former cryptographer at Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence who worked secretly for the CIA. In exchange for Trujillo’s release, the United States has freed the three remaining members of the Cuban Five — a group of Cuban intelligence officers arrested in the United States in 1998 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. They say they were not spying on the United States, but trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups responsible for attacks inside Cuba. We will host a roundtable on Cuba after headlines.
The official death toll from an Ebola outbreak in West Africa is climbing toward 7,000 as a new report faults the international community for its slow response. A report by a British parliamentary committee said the World Health Organization and countries around the world failed to heed clear warnings about the disease’s spread. In Sierra Leone, meanwhile, an 11th doctor has died of Ebola, as the country has launched house-to-house searches to root out cases in the capital of Freetown.
New York State is banning the oil and gas drilling process known as fracking, citing potential risks to public health. Fracking involves blasting sand, water and toxic chemicals deep into shale rock to release oil and gas, a process which can poison water supplies and pollute the air. Environmentalists have waged a fierce campaign to pressure the administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to render permanent a 2009 moratorium on the practice. Following a two-year study, acting health commissioner Howard Zucker said fracking was too risky.
Howard Zucker: “The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not even fully known. Relying upon the limited data that is presently available to answer the public health risks would be negligent on my part. I have identified significant public health risks in the current data. And until the public health red flags are answered by valid evidence through longitudinal long-term studies, prospective analysis, patient surveys with large population pools showing that the risk for impact on public health are avoidable or sufficiently low, I cannot support high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York.”
New York will be the first state with major gas deposits to ban fracking. The move will protect reserves in New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale, a massive underground rock formation which stretches across multiple states including Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has backed down on his promise to create a single-payer healthcare system in the state. Shumlin first won election in 2010 with a pledge to make Vermont the first state in the country with a single-payer system. But on Wednesday, Shumlin said the tax hikes needed to fund the system had proven too high.
Gov. Peter Shumlin: “I’m not going to undermine the hope of achieving critically important healthcare reforms for this state by pushing prematurely for single-payer when it’s not the right time for Vermont. This is the greatest disappointment of my political life so far, that we couldn’t advance this ball as quickly as we had wished. But we shall persevere, we shall get it right, we shall push on.”
In Arizona, the final undecided congressional race from this year’s midterm elections has been called in favor of a Republican candidate. Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally has defeated Democratic incumbent Ron Barber. His defeat gives Republicans their 247th House seat in the new Congress, their largest majority in more than 80 years.
Sony Pictures has canceled the release of a film about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un following threats against theaters and a hack of corporate data which officials say was ordered by the North Korean government. Theater companies had canceled showings of the $44 million comedy “The Interview,” starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. Sony says it has no further plans to release the film.
In Colombia, FARC rebels have announced a unilateral ceasefire following a round of talks with the government. The rebels say they will end hostilities unless the army attacks them first. FARC representative Iván Márquez said he hopes the truce will become permanent.
Iván Márquez: “Since we believe that we have initiated a definitive path toward the peace along with a constituent process, we have resolved to declare a unilateral ceasefire and end to hostilities for an indefinite time, which should transform into an armistice.”
Talks between the Colombian government and the FARC aimed at resolving the 50-year conflict resumed earlier this month in Cuba.
In New York City, protesters gathered Wednesday to mark five months since the death of Eric Garner. Garner died after police placed him in a banned chokehold and pinned him to the ground while he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner’s death. Demonstrators are also calling for justice in the case of slain African American Akai Gurley, who died in November after an officer allegedly fired his gun by accident in a dimly lit staircase at a Brooklyn housing project. The officer, Peter Liang, then texted his union rep as Gurley lay dying. On Wednesday, a group of attorneys staged a die-in at a Brooklyn jail. This is attorney Lisa Edwards and, before her, Deborah Wright.
Deborah Wright, president, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys UAW Local 2325: “We represent clients every single day, and we want them to know that not only are we upset, obviously, as what has been happening with Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and now also we’re waiting, obviously, what’s going to happen with Akai Gurley and that grand jury decision. We also want to make sure that out clients who are here today and in the other boroughs know that we care about them.”
Lisa Edwards: “We work within the system, but the system is broken. So we’re here to say it’s time for the system to be fixed. We need a special prosecutor. We need open grand jury minutes. And that’s what we need to get justice.”
A former corrections captain at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex has been convicted of violating the civil rights of a mentally ill prisoner who ate a packet of toxic detergent and was left to die in his cell. In 2012, Jason Echevarria pleaded for help for hours as the detergent burned his insides. Captain Terrence Pendergrass repeatedly ignored reports of the prisoner’s illness, at one point telling a subordinate he shouldn’t be bothered unless “there was a dead body.” Echevarria was found dead the next morning. Pendergrass could face up to 10 years in prison following his conviction.
The FBI has launched an investigation into the death of an African-American teenager who was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina. In August, 17-year-old Lennon Lacy was found dead in a majority-white trailer park in the tiny town of Bladenboro. He had been in a relationship with an older white woman. Local authorities quickly ruled his death a suicide. But his family and the local NAACP have raised the possibility he may have been lynched. They say local police rushed to judgment and overlooked basic questions, like why Lacy was wearing someone else’s shoes.
In South Carolina, a 14-year-old African-American teen wrongfully convicted of murdering two white girls has had his name cleared 70 years after he was executed for the crime. In 1944, George Stinney became the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. He weighed less than 100 pounds and had to sit on a phonebook to fit into the electric chair at his execution. Stinney was charged, tried, convicted and executed within 83 days by a jury of 12 white men after his white lawyer failed to call any witnesses in his defense. His family has long said he was forced into confessing. On Wednesday, a judge threw out his conviction, calling the case an “unfortunate episode in our history.”