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‘Florida Project’ shines a bright light on hidden homeless

Sean Baker‘s “The Florida Project” takes place in a blindingly purple low-budget motel named the Magic Castle, just down Route 192 from Disney’s Magic Kingdom. For the children of single parents who live there, the Kissimmee, Fla., motel is a playground — even if they’re living in poverty.

The Florida Project,” which opens in theaters Friday, is an ebullient, candy-colored movie wrapped around the very real issue of hidden homelessness. Families nationwide are living below the poverty line and eking out an existence in cheap motels, but the problem is particularly acute — and ironic — in the shadows of Walt Disney World.

“When Chris Bergoc, my co-screenwriter brought it to my attention, I was like: ‘This is happening? There are literally kids who are homeless outside of what’s considered the most magical place on the earth for children?'” said Baker, the 46-year-old independent filmmaker.

Studies and investigative reports, including one in 2014 by The Associated Press, have found that an estimated 1,700 families are homeless in Florida’s Osceola County, with most living in the motels surrounding one of the country’s top tourist destinations. Efforts in recent years have been stepped up to get mentally ill homeless people off the streets around Orlando, yet the county still lacks shelters. Many simply find their low-paying service industry jobs don’t cover rent.

But if you’re expecting a stern lesson from “The Florida Project,” you’ll be surprised to find one of the most vibrant, spirited and heartbreaking films of the year. “The Florida Project” stars Willem Dafoe as the kindly father-figure manager Bobby, but its central characters are played by newcomers. The feisty, scamming Halley (Bria Vinaite) is the 23-year-old mother to Moonee (7-year-old Brooklynn Prince), a free-spirited troublemaker who, with her friends (including the 6-year-old Valeria Cotto), are a delightful menace to Bobby and the motel’s residents.

“We wanted it to be a throwback, in a way. What I mean by that is: Little Rascals 2017,” said Baker. “I wanted to do something very similar where it was presenting the kids as kids, first and foremost — and have the audience embrace them, love them, laugh at them. And then hopefully at the end, the audience is sitting during the credits, and the issues have had a light shined on them that will have them talking on their way home.”

In stories ranging from pornography actresses in the San Fernando Valley (“Starlet”) to undocumented immigrants in New York (“The Prince of Broadway”), Baker has made depicting the lives of those Hollywood often overlooks a specialty. His last movie, “Tangerine,” was a micro-budgeted breakthrough, winning a Spirit Award and earning the praise of Francis Ford Coppola. Baker shot the transgender prostitute tale on iPhones with a mix of professional and non-professional actors, including the celebrated leads Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez.

“When I made ‘Tangerine,’ I moved to Los Angeles and I thought that Los Angeles was shot out, meaning that there’s no other stories to tell,” said Baker. “Then I found there’s a whole other world south of Olympic that we haven’t even seen in film unless it was ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ You realize who’s telling these stories. They’re not thinking outside their box, and often their sugarcoated visions of who they are.”

“My films are a response to what I don’t see,” added Baker.

“The Florida Project,” the director says, was an effort to go further in packaging an issue film as an entertainment. The approach drew the interest of Dafoe, a veteran actor eager to appear as a “non-actor,” he says. Especially appealing was the opportunity to work among non-professional performers on location in Orlando.

“It was one of those experiences where you able to riff off what was there. You were able to deal with what’s in the room,” said Dafoe. “My dressing room was not a trailer. It was one of those rooms. Troy lived down the hall. Troy became my friend. Troy was a resident who lived there for many years. That adds a dimension. It makes you learn things and gives you an experience.”

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Florida Project” — as well as Dafoe and Brooklynn’s performances — has been widely lauded as among the best of the year. No one has enjoyed the ride more than Brooklynn, a natural performer who has tweeted and Instagrammed her adventures. Making the movie, the Orlando native said, was like summer camp. She and her young co-star, Val, now consider themselves best friends.

“Me and my mom and dad went over this,” Brooklynn said of the film’s more adult nature. “They weren’t really sure about this movie. But I came to them and I said, ‘I want to bring awareness to these kids and show people the light — my light for Jesus.'”

The low-budget production was for both Brooklynn and Dafoe an eye-opening: an up-close view of the homelessness most never see.

“I learned things about a certain kind of poverty, a certain kind of cycle of homelessness and hopelessness,” said Dafoe. “It’s a rich movie. It’s a poor little rich movie.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

 

Last shelter used for Hurricane Irma evacuees closes

The last shelter used for Hurricane Irma evacuees has closed in Miami-Dade County.

Ronald Book, who oversees the county’s homeless agency, says the final resident of the shelter set up inside the shelter was placed in a long-term apartment on Wednesday.

Book tells the Miami Herald the woman was homeless before the hurricane, which complicated her exit from the shelter.

The Youth Fair complex at Tamiami Park sheltered more than 2,000 from Hurricane Irma, which hit the area on Sept. 10. It was initially the only place people could seek refuge with their pets.

As Irma approached Florida, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued evacuation orders covering 600,000 residents. The county opened 43 shelters capable of housing about 100,000 people. Some 32,000 people ended up taking shelter in county facilities.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Louisiana helping Florida process Irma unemployment claims

Louisiana is helping Florida process its thousands of unemployment claims related to Hurricane Irma.

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, the state’s labor department, said Thursday that it reached out to Florida to offer assistance.

Louisiana had to cope with an influx of disaster unemployment claims after Louisiana’s flooding last year and after hurricanes in previous years.

Agency Secretary Ava Dejoie said in a statement: “Colleagues from around the country have come to Louisiana’s aid during numerous disasters. We are simply doing what we can.”

The workforce commission says it is prepared to help Florida process the unemployment claims for at least 30 days.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Hurricane Irma causes $2.5B in damage to Florida crops

State officials say Hurricane Irma caused more than $2.5 billion in damage to Florida’s agricultural community.

Irma dealt Florida’s iconic orange crop the most devastating blow causing more than $760 million in damage. Beef cattle and dairy were next with $237 million and nearly $12 million respectively.

The preliminary assessment was released Wednesday by Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.

The powerful hurricane damaged nearly all the citrus fruit in some Southwest Florida groves and seriously damaging groves in Central Florida. Growers talked of trees standing in 3 feet (.9 meters) of water, which is a death sentence for a crop already under a decade-long siege by citrus greening disease. Much of the fruit was young, and it’s too late in the season for a new crop.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Donald Trump in Puerto Rico, lauds administration’s relief effort

On the ground in Puerto Rico nearly two weeks after a hurricane ravaged the island, President Donald Trump heaped praise Tuesday on his administration’s relief workers and, more selectively, Puerto Rican officials after earlier dismissing critics of the federal response as “politically motivated ingrates.”

Trump told officials and relief workers assembled in an airplane hangar that the low death toll from Hurricane Maria — he was told 16 or 17 — was a tribute to the relief efforts. “We’ve saved a lot of lives,” he said, and singled out Gov. Ricardo Rossello for “giving us the highest praise.”

The help didn’t come cheap, he said: “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”

“But that’s fine,” he said, “because we’ve saved a lot of lives.”

The most prominent critic, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, attended the first event, in an airport hangar, shaking Trump’s hand as he went around a table greeting officials before sitting in in the shadow of a hulking, gray military plane.

“How are you?” he asked. Her response could not be heard. He thanked her. Days earlier, Cruz said the Trump administration was “killing us with the inefficiency,” pleading for more effective federal leadership in the crisis.

Air Force One brought the president, first lady Melania Trump and aides to Puerto Rico in the late morning. They were expected to spend more than five hours on the ground, meeting first responders, local officials and some of the 3.4 million people whose lives have been upended by a hurricane that, in the president’s words, left the island U.S. territory “flattened.”

The plane descended over a landscape marked by mangled palm trees, metal debris strewn near homes and patches of stripped trees, yet with less devastation evident than farther from San Juan.

At least in his first moments on the island, Trump remained focused primarily on the reviews his administration is getting. “He didn’t play politics at all,” he said of the governor, making clear that he considers those who have criticized him to be politically driven. Trump misstated Maria as a Category 5 hurricane; it was Category 4 when it hit Puerto Rico.

“I appreciate your support and I know you appreciate ours,” he said. “Our country has really gone all out. It’s not only dangerous, it’s expensive. But I consider it a great honor.”

Before leaving Washington, he said Puerto Ricans who have called the federal response insufficient “have to give us more help.”

Large-scale protests against Trump, talked about in advance, failed to materialize by early afternoon, with only a few handfuls of people gathering around San Juan to decry his criticism of local politicians.

As he headed out from the White House to visit the island, Trump told reporters that “it’s now acknowledged what a great job we’ve done.”

The trip is Trump’s fourth areas battered by storms during an unusually violent hurricane season that has also seen parts of Texas, Florida, Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands inundated by floodwaters and hit by high winds.

Nearly two weeks after the Puerto Rico storm, 95 percent of electricity customers remain without power, including some hospitals. And much of the countryside is still struggling to access such basic necessities as food, fresh water and cash.

Trump’s visit follows a weekend in which he aggressively pushed back against critics, including Cruz. Trump responded angrily on Twitter, deriding the “poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help.”

“They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” he added, scoffing at “politically motivated ingrates” who had criticized the federal work, and insisting that “tremendous progress” was being made.

Cruz had begged the administration to “make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives.”

Trump and his wife were to meet Navy and Marine Corps personnel on the flight deck of the USS Kearsarge as well as the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Even before the storm hit on Sept. 20, Puerto Rico was in dire condition thanks to a decade-long economic recession that had left its infrastructure, including the island’s power lines, in a sorry state. Maria was the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century and unleashed floods and mudslides that knocked out the island’s entire electrical grid and telecommunications, along with many roads.

Trump and other administration officials have worked in recent days to reassure Americans that recovery efforts are going well and combat a perception that the president failed to fully grasp the magnitude of the storm’s destruction in its immediate aftermath.

While early response efforts were hampered by logistical challenges, officials say that conditions, especially in the capital, have improved.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are now more than 10,000 federal officials on the ground on the island, and 45 percent of customers now have access to drinking water. Businesses are also beginning to reopen, with 60 percent of retail gas stations now up and running.

The Health and Human Services Department says federal medical teams with their own equipment and supplies have been sent to help provide care at Centro Medico, a major trauma center in San Juan. Additional teams have been sent to five hospitals in other parts of the island.

The department has also placed a liaison in each hospital that’s open, to make sure the facilities can get timely shipments of fuel needed to keep generators running, as well as medical supplies.

For many, however, Washington’s response isn’t enough. On Monday, the nonprofit relief group Oxfam announced that it would be taking the rare step of intervening in an American disaster, citing its outrage over what it called a “slow and inadequate response.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Federal judge blocks Florida abortion law

A federal judge has blocked a Florida law that would require people and groups that provide abortion advice to register with the state and furnish women with a detailed explanation of the procedure and alternatives.

U.S. Senior District Judge Robert Hinkle issued the ruling late Friday saying that the lawsuit filed by a minister, two rabbis, the Palm Beach chapter of the National Organization for Women and others would likely succeed at trial.

The plaintiffs argued that the 2016 law would compel them to pay a $200 fee and make statements they disagreed with and weren’t qualified to make. The plaintiffs don’t provide abortions but make referrals. They receive no government funds.

The state’s attorneys argued the plaintiffs had not been harmed by the law, that it wasn’t being enforced and that there was no penalty for not registering.

Hinkle, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, said the advice the plaintiffs provide is protected by the First Amendment, so the state cannot usually require them to register and pay a fee. He pointed out the state does not require similar individuals and groups giving advice on cancer treatment, vaccines and other legal medical procedures to register, only abortion.

He called a provision “hopelessly vague” that requires women and the parents of girls who seek abortion advice receive “a full and detailed explanation of abortion, including the effects of and alternatives to abortion.”

Nancy Abudu, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, issued a statement saying, “This ill-considered and dangerous law criminalized conversations between confidants, including friends, relatives, clergy people, mental health workers, and a host of others.

“We will continue to do everything possible to protect the rights of both Florida women contemplating an abortion and those they turn to seeking compassion and advice.”

Gov. Rick Scott‘s office said Saturday the ruling is being reviewed.

O.J. Simpson freed from prison. Right now, he’s staying near Vegas but will he return to Florida?

Officials at a remote Nevada prison where O.J. Simpson was set free early Sunday after nine years for armed robbery arranged the former football and Hollywood star’s dead-of-night departure to avoid public scrutiny.

It worked. Simpson signed release paperwork just before midnight and disappeared into the darkness minutes into the first day he was eligible for release. Through efforts by prison officials to keep the time and place secret, there were no journalists outside the prison gates to capture the moment.

Though publicity-prone in the past, Simpson apparently took the advice of people in his inner circle that he avoid the spotlight. He was neither heard from nor seen publicly, except when a television news crew found him in a car at a gas station on the way to Las Vegas and he declined to be interviewed.

State Division of Parole and Probation Capt. Shawn Arruti told The Associated Press that the former football hero and celebrity criminal defendant plans to live at a home in the Las Vegas area for the foreseeable future. Arruti declined for what he said were security and privacy reasons to disclose the exact location of the house.

The prisons spokeswoman also took photographs showing Simpson — in blue jeans, denim jacket, eyeglasses, ball cap and white sneakers — signing documents about 10 minutes before midnight. He later left the prison with four or five boxes of possessions in the car. Keast said she had no information about where he was going.

Tom Scotto, a Simpson friend who lives in Naples, said by text message an hour after the release that he was with Simpson. But Scotto did not answer texts asking where they were going or whether members of Simpson’s family were with them.

The 70-year-old Simpson said at the hearing that he wanted to move back to Florida, where he lived previously. That return did not appear imminent.

Florida’s Corrections Department “has not received any transfer paperwork from Nevada” about Simpson that would be required for him to live in the state and be monitored there, spokeswoman Ashley Cook said Sunday.

Though Florida’s attorney general has urged corrections officials to object to Simpson’s return, the department previously has said it would be required to accept a transfer if it met certain criteria.

“We understand we may have to take him, if he was a model prisoner. And two of his children live here, so that’s his hook for coming to Florida,” state Attorney General Pam Bondi said. “If we have to accept him, I certainly want conditions placed on him.”

Both LaVergne and Scotto said in recent interviews with the AP that they thought Simpson should stay out of public view and focus on family and friends.

Keast said the overnight release from the prison about 90 miles east of Reno, Nevada, was conducted to avoid media attention. No media were near the front gate at the time when Simpson’s car left the prison by a back road and entered nearby Interstate 80, she said.

“We needed to do this to ensure public safety and to avoid any possible incident,” Keast said.

Simpson lost his home near Miami to foreclosure in 2012. But two of his children, Justin and Sydney, also live in Florida.

It’s all a new chapter for the one-time pop culture phenomenon whose fame was once again on display when the major TV networks carried his parole hearing live.

He told officials that leading a group of five men into the hotel room confrontation was an error in judgment he would not repeat.

Simpson told the parole board that he led a “conflict-free life,” an assertion that angered many who believe he got away with killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in Los Angeles in 1994. He was acquitted the following year in what was dubbed the “trial of the century.”

In a statement released through a family spokesman, Goldman’s parents said they respected the Nevada Parole Board’s decision to release Simpson, but that it was “still difficult for us knowing he will be a free man again.”

Fred and Kim Goldman said they will continue to pursue payment of a $33.5 million judgment awarded in 1997 after Simpson was found civilly liable for the deaths. They also said they’ll keep advocating for domestic violence awareness, victim advocacy and judicial reform.

Simpson is still obligated to pay the judgment, which now amounts to about $65 million, according to David Cook, a Goldman family lawyer.

Simpson was once an electrifying running back dubbed “Juice” who won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best college football player for the University of Southern California in 1968 and became one of the NFL’s all-time greats with the Buffalo Bills.

Handsome and charming, he also provided commentary on “Monday Night Football,” became the face of Hertz rental-car commercials and built a movie career with roles in the “Naked Gun” comedies and other films.

Simpson fell from grace when he was arrested in the slayings, after a famous “slow-speed” Ford Bronco chase on California freeways. His subsequent trial became a live-TV sensation that fascinated viewers with testimony about a bloody glove that didn’t fit and unleashed furious debate over race, police and celebrity justice.

A jury swiftly acquitted him. But two years later, Simpson was found liable in civil court for the killings.

On Sept. 16, 2007, he led five men he barely knew into a cramped room at the Palace Station casino in Las Vegas in an effort to retrieve items that Simpson insisted were stolen after his acquittal in the 1994 slayings.

Two of the men with Simpson in Las Vegas carried handguns, although Simpson still insists he never knew anyone was armed. He says he only wanted to retrieve personal items, mementos and family photos from two sports memorabilia dealers.

His conviction in October 2008 in Las Vegas came 13 years to the day after his acquittal in October 1995 in Los Angeles. His lawyers called his stiff 9-to-33-year sentence for armed robbery, kidnapping and other charges unfair. Many other people characterized it as payback for his acquittal in the Los Angeles murder case.

If the nation’s Simpson obsession waned for a while, it resurged last year with the Emmy-winning FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and the Oscar-winning documentary “O.J.: Made in America.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

San Juan mayor in hurricane spotlight after Donald Trump tweets

In Puerto Rico’s hurricane-ravaged capital, it seems Carmen Yulin Cruz is everywhere these days: handing out bags of ice, wading through chest-deep floodwaters, hugging people in need of comfort.

Cruz has long won attention across the island for her hands-on style of leadership in San Juan. But this week she rose to international prominence as a target of Twitter attacks by U.S. President Donald Trump — including one tweet Sunday calling her and others “politically motivated ingrates.”

The insult came hours after “Saturday Night Live” portrayed Cruz in a skit highlighting the latest controversy for the 54-year-old former human resources executive, who occupies one of Puerto Rico’s most powerful posts and has become something of a divisive figure on the island of 3.4 million residents.

Some of Puerto Rico’s mayors have praised federal hurricane relief efforts, while others have joined Cruz in saying they have been insufficient and slow-moving.

In a U.S. territory whose relationship with the mainland is usually the single most prominent political issue, Cruz backs independence but is a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports maintaining the territorial status quo. A graduate of Boston University and Carnegie Mellon, she is also a former member of the island’s House of Representatives.

She first grabbed headlines in 2012 when she ran against San Juan’s three-term incumbent mayor, cobbling together a campaign committee in just three days after her party’s original candidate dropped out. Despite being a virtual unknown for many, she cruised to a surprising win by securing the support of a coalition of left-leaning interests from the LGBTQ community to university students to financially powerful unions.

“Imagine what I’ll do when I’m the mayor of San Juan,” she told reporters in August 2012, three months before the vote.

Once in office Cruz launched a million-dollar urban renewal program, renovated public parks and plazas and unionized San Juan employees as promised during her campaign. She aligned herself with Puerto Rico’s large and long-marginalized Dominican minority. She also made the poor a priority, working to secure federal funds to improve conditions for thousands on an island with a nearly 45 percent poverty rate.

“Her commitment has been through actions, not words, with the impoverished people of San Juan,” political analyst Nestor Duprey said, adding that those efforts continued after the hurricane.

“She has demonstrated an empathy and commitment to her people that have taken her to work day and night, very quietly at the beginning,“ Duprey said.

That changed Friday when Cruz was asked about acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s comment that the federal response to Hurricane Maria was “a good news story.”

Appearing on television in a black shirt with white letters that read, “HELP US, WE ARE DYING,” Cruz argued that federal aid had been slow to reach Puerto Rico following Maria, which knocked out power to the entire island.

“If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy,” she said.

Criticism of his administration’s response apparently didn’t sit well with Trump, who took to Twitter the next day to defend it as “an amazing job.” He singled out the mayor, accusing her of “poor leadership ability,” and added, without elaborating, “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

Neither Cruz nor her spokespeople responded to requests for comment. Since Trump’s tweets she has sought to emphasize a message of unity for the good of Puerto Rico in her own activity on the social media platform.

“I recognize the good heart that the (Federal Emergency Management Agency) people have. They want to help. But they just don’t have the resources,” she said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Cruz was born in the city over which she now presides, and is married with a daughter from a previous partner.

Telegenic and media-savvy, she has been criticized for micromanaging and for wearing herself down to the point where she loses her voice. She has been hospitalized a couple of times for asthma problems.

Critics have questioned Cruz’s management style, noting that some early supporters, including people who occupied key positions, have resigned or been dismissed.

She also took heat for offering a job to Puerto Rican independence militant Oscar Lopez Rivera, whose prison sentence was commuted in January by then-President Barack Obama. Rivera was released from prison in May after serving 35 years for his involvement with a group that claimed more than 100 bombings in the 1970s and ’80s that killed or maimed dozens on the U.S. mainland.

In public appearances Cruz has a penchant for hugging people and sometimes crying during interviews, prompting some to praise her sincerity while others call her overly dramatic.

In recent days she has gone before news cameras repeatedly, issued more emotional pleas for help and tweeted images of her helping islanders in the hurricane’s aftermath, repeatedly emphasizing the slogan “One goal: saving lives.”

Hector Ferrer, the president of Cruz’s party who had a public falling out with her this year over political differences, said that while Cruz may be in the media spotlight, there are plenty of others working hard to help Puerto Rico recover.

“I’m going to communities to hand out water and food — without journalists and without photographers,” he said. “There are 78 mayors who are performing miracles with the resources they have. We have to recognize everyone’s work.”

But Ferrer said he respected Cruz’s efforts to help Puerto Ricans.

“The mayor operates on a different platform and is able to attract more attention, and I commend her for that,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Attacks in Havana hit U.S. spy network in Cuba

Frightening attacks on U.S. personnel in Havana struck the heart of America’s spy network in Cuba, with intelligence operatives among the first and most severely affected victims, The Associated Press has learned.

It wasn’t until U.S. spies, posted to the embassy under diplomatic cover, reported hearing bizarre sounds and experiencing even stranger physical effects that the United States realized something was wrong, individuals familiar with the situation said.

While the attacks started within days of President Donald Trump’s surprise election in November, the precise timeline remains unclear, including whether intelligence officers were the first victims hit or merely the first victims to report it. The U.S. has called the situation “ongoing.”

To date, the Trump administration largely has described the 21 victims as U.S. embassy personnel or “members of the diplomatic community.” That description suggested only bona fide diplomats and their family members were struck, with no logical motivation beyond disrupting U.S.-Cuban relations.

Behind the scenes, though, investigators immediately started searching for explanations in the darker, rougher world of spycraft and counterespionage, given that so many of the first reported cases involved intelligence workers posted to the U.S. embassy. That revelation, confirmed to the AP by a half-dozen officials, adds yet another element of mystery to a year-long saga that the Trump administration says may not be over.

The State Department and the CIA declined to comment for this story.

The first disturbing reports of piercing, high-pitched noises and inexplicable ailments pointed to someone deliberately targeting the U.S. government’s intelligence network on the communist-run island, in what seemed like a bone-chilling escalation of the tit-for-tat spy games that Washington and Havana have waged over the last half-century.

But the U.S. soon discovered that actual diplomats at the embassy had also been hit by similar attacks, officials said, further confounding the search for a culprit and a motive.

Of the 21 confirmed cases, American spies suffered some of the most acute damage, including brain injury and hearing loss that has not healed, said several U.S. officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the investigation and demanded anonymity. They heard an unsettling sound inside and in some cases outside their Havana homes, described as similar to loud crickets. Then they fell ill.

Over time, the attacks seemed to evolve.

In many of the more recent cases, victims didn’t hear noises and weren’t aware an attack was occurring, identifying the symptoms only later. That has raised concerns among investigators that the attacks may be getting more sophisticated and harder to detect, individuals briefed on the investigation said.

Though the State Department has called all the cases “medically confirmed,” several U.S. officials said it’s unclear whether all of the victims’ symptoms can be conclusively tied to attacks. Considering the deep sense of alarm among Americans working in the embassy, it’s possible some workers attributed unrelated illnesses to attacks.

Almost nothing about what has transpired in Havana is perfectly clear. But this is Cuba.

For decades, Washington and Havana pushed their rivalry to unprecedented levels of covert action. The former enemies tracked each other’s personnel, turned each other’s agents and, in the case of the CIA, even mounted a failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban government in the 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion.

There were hopes, though, that the two nations were starting to put that bitter history behind them after renewing diplomatic relations in 2015. When the attacks first occurred, the U.S. and Cuban governments were hard at work on clinching new commercial and immigration agreements. No new spat among intelligence services was publicly known.

Eleven months on, the U.S. cannot guarantee the threat is over. Last week, the State Department warned Americans to stay away from Cuba and ordered more than half the embassy staff to leave indefinitely. The U.S. had previously given all embassy staff the option to come home, but even most of those struck by the mysterious attacks had opted to stay, individuals familiar with the situation said.

For those staying and new arrivals, the U.S. has been giving instructions about what to watch and listen for to identify an attack in progress. They’re also learning steps to take if an attack occurs that could mitigate the risk, officials said.

But the U.S. has not identified whatever device is responsible for the harm. FBI sweeps have turned up nothing.

So to better identify patterns, investigators have created a map detailing specific areas of Cuba’s capital where attacks have occurred, several individuals familiar with the matter said. Three “zones,” or geographic clusters of attacks, cover the homes where U.S. diplomats live and several hotels where attacks occurred, including the historic Hotel Capri.

Since first disclosing the situation in August, the United States had generally avoided the word “attacks.” It called them “incidents” instead until last Friday. Now, the State Department deems them “specific attacks” targeting Americans posted in Havana, without saying what new information, if any, prompted the newfound confidence they were indeed deliberate.

The most obvious motive for attacking Americans in Havana would be to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba. If that’s the case, the strategy appears to be succeeding.

Last week’s embassy drawdown added to the growing friction between the nations. And an accompanying new travel warning deemed Havana’s hotels unsafe for visitors, threatening to drive down tourism, a backbone of Cuba’s economy.

In Havana, American diplomats are frantically selling off possessions — from mattresses to canned goods to children’s toys — and hunting for jobs and places to live in the United States. Many have spent years overseas and don’t have homes waiting for them in the United States.

“Heartbroken? Me too, but this will make you feel better,” one seller posted in a chatroom for foreigners in Cuba, under a picture of a Costco artichoke hearts jar selling for $6.

For Cubans, it may be no better. The U.S. has been providing 20,000 visas a year to Cubans moving to the United States. It has issued thousands more to Cubans wishing to visit family in America. The reduction in U.S. staff in Havana means visa processing there has been suspended indefinitely.

Cuba has vehemently denied involvement or knowledge of the attacks. Some in the U.S. government believe the Cubans may be telling the truth, officials said.

When President Raul Castro denied any culpability in February, he did so on the sidelines a meeting in Havana with five visiting U.S. members of Congress, the AP found. The U.S. had raised complaints about the attacks to Cuba just days earlier through diplomatic channels.

But the visiting lawmakers knew nothing of the attacks taking place in the country they were visiting.

Nor did they know that Castro had used the occasion of their meeting to pull aside Jeff DeLaurentis, then the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, to say privately that his government was equally alarmed and willing to help.

The lawmakers all declined to comment. Cuban officials say they’re disappointed in the U.S. retaliatory measures, but will continue cooperating with the investigation.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Parole official: O.J. Simpson will live in Vegas area

A Nevada parole official said O.J. Simpson plans to live at a home in the Las Vegas area for the foreseeable future.

State Parole and Probation Capt. Shawn Arruti told The Associated Press on Sunday that the former football hero and celebrity criminal defendant has one approved residential plan, and it doesn’t currently include a move to Florida or any other state.

But Arruti said that could change in the future.

Simpson previously said he wanted to live in Florida, where he used to live and where he has friends and two children.

Arruti said the exact location of the house in Las Vegas isn’t disclosed for security and privacy reasons.

But he said that at least for now, the 70-year-old Simpson has no permission to leave Nevada without advance approval from his parole officer.

On Friday, Attorney General Pam Bondi had formally objected to Simpson’s return to Florida, referring to an interstate agreement that allows states to deny relocation permission to parolees from other states.

Bondi quoted Simpson as saying, “I could easily stay in Nevada but I don’t think you guys want me here.”

“In light of Mr. Simpson’s history in California, Nevada and Florida … the same goes for the people of Florida,” Bondi wrote.

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