Cuba Central News Brief: 3/16/2018

March 16, 2018

ICYMI: In Cuba, let’s get back in the game, by CDA’s Emily Mendrala in The Hill

This week, in Cuba News…


At State, Tillerson out; Pompeo to step in

On Tuesday, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and announced his plan to nominate current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him, reports the New York Times. Tillerson oversaw the State Department’s role in the administration’s Cuba policy review, which directed the revision of regulations intended to restrict travel to and transactions with Cuba, enacted in November 2017. Earlier this month, Tillerson extended staffing cuts to the U.S Embassy, as we previously reported.

Pompeo, who will face opposition to his nomination as Secretary of State, represented Kansas’s 4th district as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011-2017. Observers consider Pompeo hawkish and most focused on potential threats to U.S. security. In a May 2017 hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pompeo agreed with Sen. Rubio’s proposition that Cuba exploits warmer bilateral ties to exert pressure to end the embargo. In 2016, he criticized former President Obama’s decision to travel to Cuba, accusing him of granting “unilateral concessions.”

Cuban emigres return home

Thousands of Cubans who emigrated to the U.S. are considering returning to the island, reports the Miami Herald.  Cuba’s government eased the country’s migration laws in 2013 to allow people who left the island to “repatriate” and claim the benefits of Cuban citizenship, including home ownership. Almost 12,000 Cubans applied for repatriation in 2017. The Herald reports that, under the migration reforms, Cubans can live abroad for up to two years at a time without losing their residency status.

People interviewed by El Nuevo Herald cited varied reasons for returning to Cuba, including family ties, access to affordable medical care, plans to invest in Cuban businesses, and the intent to engage in political activism. Many did not plan to live in Cuba full-time.

Cubans in the United States who want to repatriate to the island may lose some of their U.S. benefits, reports the Miami Herald in the second installment of a two-part article. For example, U.S. citizens cannot receive social security benefits while in Cuba.

Furthermore, attorney Claudia Cañizare says Cubans who became U.S. residents under refugee or political asylum status, were they to return to Cuba, would be “admitting they are not afraid of returning to Cuba,” and would risk having their U.S. resident status and related benefits revoked.

The Cuban constitution does not recognize dual citizenship. U.S. law does not mention dual nationality.


Cuba holds vote for national and provincial legislators

On Sunday, Cubans voted to fill seats in the national and provincial assemblies, reports Reuters. The national assembly is scheduled to select Cuba’s next president on April 19. First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who cast his vote along with this wife in his home province of Villa Clara, is widely assumed to be the incumbent, as we previously reported. The 57-year-old Díaz-Canel represents a generational change in the leadership of Cuba’s government, having been born after the 1959 Revolution and having no military ties.

Díaz-Canel on Sunday told reporters that under the next government, “The people will participate in the decisions that the government takes… There has to be a focus on ties to, links with, the people,” reports the Associated Press.

Despite the forthcoming presidential leadership change Cubans do not expect dramatic changes to occur in the single-party system. President Raúl Castro will remain head of the Communist Party, which drives official policy in Cuba.

Preliminary returns from the one-party vote indicated lower than normal turnout for the election, at just below 86 percent of eligible voters, but the official figures place turnout at 89 percent, a slight increase over the 2015 elections, reports the Miami Herald.

Cuba’s electoral process began in November 2017. In participatory forums, Cubans chose delegates at the local level to serve in 168 municipal assemblies. A party-controlled commission composed of mass and social organizations, and designed to represent the people, consults with the municipal assemblies in order to compile candidature slates for provincial delegates and the Members of the National Assembly (currently comprised of 612 members or deputies). Cuban voters ratify the selections at the ballot box. Cuba’s president is then elected by the National Assembly.


OPEC to invest $25 million in Havana water and sanitation system

Cuba will receive $25 million from the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) to fund upgrades to the water supply and sanitation system in Havana, reports Prensa Latina. The investment will make infrastructure improvements in more than 60 percent of the city, impacting 30,000 residents, and will extend to the city’s periphery through 2021.

The project comes on the heels of a $10 million donation by Japan to purchase sanitation equipment for Havana announced in February and a $45 million loan agreement by OFID to support Cuba’s solar power program announced last week.


In Cuba, let’s get back in the game, Emily Mendrala, The Hill

CDA Executive Director Emily Mendrala makes the case for increased diplomatic engagement with Cuba at a critical moment in Cuba’s history.

Havana’s symphony of sound, Reif Larsen, New York Times

Novelist and filmmaker Reif Larsen recounts his trip to Havana in January, describing his first experience of the island’s rich culture.

Exploring the mysteries of Cuba’s coral reefs, Bryn Nelson, Science News for Students

Science writer Bryn Nelson explores Cuba’s robust coral reefs and discusses lessons for marine ecosystem revitalization and protection worldwide.

Inside a Cuban cigar factory, CNN

CNN gives a virtual tour of the Partagás cigar factory in Havana, which has produced hand-rolled cigars since 1845.


Film: Ghost Town to Havana, April 17, Atlas Performing Arts Center

DC’s Atlas Performing Art Center presents an inspiring film about an Afro-Cuban youth baseball coach from Havana, an African-American coach from Oakland, California, and the friendships developed between the coaches and their players.

Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World, May 8-20, The Kennedy Center

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will host a two-week international festival celebrating Cuban culture, featuring music, dance, theater, visual art, and more.


Cuba Central News Brief: 3/9/2018

March 9, 2018


Marine science and search and rescue collaborations endure despite political chill between U.S., Cuba

This week U.S. and Cuban government officials and experts met in Fort Lauderdale to advance coordination plans for oil spill prevention and mitigation in the Gulf of Mexico, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Cuba was represented by several Cuban Ministries and its National Civil Defense Staff, and the Department of State and the Coast Guard represented the U.S. in two days of working sessions.

Oil spill response and the prevention of overfishing are top priorities for the Coast Guard, which established a permanent presence in Cuba in 2000. Even with the September 2017 ordered departure of U.S. personnel, the Coast Guard maintains an officer stationed in Havana.

“For the most part, our work stays professional, constructive and apolitical,” said Peter Brown, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Seventh District in Miami. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry characterized the sessions similarly: “The working sessions were held… in a professional and mutually respectful ambiance. This exchange reflects the importance of bilateral cooperation for the protection of the marine environment in a region of great economic importance for both countries as is the Gulf [sic] of Mexico and the Florida Straits.”

Also this week, the Coast Guard and Cuban counterparts participated in tabletop exercises in Key West to strengthen cooperation on search and rescue in the Florida Straits, and they propose a second exercise to take place in Havana before the end of the year.


Cuba to hold National Assembly elections this weekend

On Sunday Cubans will vote to fill the 605 seats comprising their country’s National Assembly, the next step in Cuba’s presidential succession, reports Agence France Presse. With exactly 605 candidates emerging from the electoral process that began in November 2017, the outcomes are certain.

Cuba’s 31-member Council of State will designate Cuba’s next president, who will succeed Raúl Castro on April 19. The Council of State is selected by the National Assembly. Cuba’s First Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel, 57, is expected to take the helm, as we previously reported. The incoming president will face challenges, which include continuing the ongoing economic reform process in Cuba and establishing legitimacy as the first president in 60 years who did not participate in Cuba’s 1959 Revolution. Cuban professor and lawyer Julio Cesar Guanche says that the new president’s legitimacy will come from “institutional performance” rather than personal history.

Cuba imposes new restrictions on imports

This month Cuba instituted restrictions on imports by state-run companies in order to meet foreign obligations and stem increasing commercial debt amid a shortage of cash, reports Reuters. Affected firms now must obtain a letter of credit from Cuba’s central bank for purchases exceeding $100,000.

The latest measure to regulate import demand may lead to a short-term drop in imports and a longer-term reduction in supplies, and possibly the shuttering of insolvent state companies, according to a banker with experience working with Cuba.

Since 2016, Cuba’s economy has suffered under reduced deliveries of subsidized oil from Venezuela and lower commodity prices for its exports. Cuba restructured a significant portion of its official debt and currently faces mounting pressure from commercial creditors to come to a settlement, as we previously reported.

Cuba resumes sugar exports as milling stabilizes

Cuba began exporting raw sugar in late February, but remains far behind the planned harvest schedule, reports Reuters. Following Hurricane Irma and a rainy start to the year, Cuba cancelled sugar exports in January, as we previously reported.

The November – April harvest season was expected to yield 1.6 million tons of raw sugar, despite damage to the industry from Irma, but Reuters estimates that the heavy winter rainfall has set back production by more than 300,000 tons. A Cuban agricultural expert said he expects this season’s production to fall short of 1.3 million tons.


OPEC fund grants $45 million to Cuba’s solar program

The OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) signed a $45 million loan agreement for Cuba’s Solar Energy Development Project, reports Renewables Now. The loan will be used to expand installed capacity of solar electricity generation and deploy photovoltaic (PV) systems and solar water heaters in residential and industrial settings.

Cuba recently announced a $4 billion agreement with the European Union to promote renewable energy on the island, as we reported. Cuba aims to generate 24 percent of the island’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, renewables account for less than 5 percent of Cuba’s electricity generation.

Ex-Bolivian, Colombian presidents say Cuba denied them entry

Former Presidents Andres Pastrana of Colombia and Jorge Quiroga of Bolivia said they were turned away by Cuban authorities this week upon landing in Havana, reports Reuters. The conservative ex-leaders traveled to the island on behalf of the Democratic Initiative of Spain and the Americas (IDEA) to receive an award from Cuban political dissidents.

Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma accused IDEA of provoking instability and seeking to tarnish Cuba’s international reputation.


What the U.S. government is not telling you about those ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, Peter Kornluh, The Nation

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive discusses the role of the intelligence community in the U.S. response to mysterious illnesses that affected U.S. officials in Havana.

How to stop the U.S.-Cuba backslide, William M. LeoGrande, Americas Quarterly

William LeoGrande of American University discusses the pernicious effects of downgrading the Embassy in Havana and suggests solutions to break the current impasse in bilateral relations.

El Salvador Update: A debacle foretold, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, El Salvador expert and CDA Advisory Board Member, examines El Salvador’s March 4 legislative and municipal elections and what the results mean for the country.

How Cuba Became a Biopharma Juggernaut, Andrés Cárdenas O’Farrill, Institute for New Economic Thinking

Cuban Economist Andrés Cárdenas O’Farrill gives a detailed look at the sophisticated Cuban biotechnology industry rooted in the country’s universal public health system.


Cuba Central News Brief: 3/2/2018

March 2, 2018


State Department extends cuts to U.S. Embassy in Cuba despite calls for increased diplomacy

The Trump administration will extend the deep staffing cuts at the U.S. Embassy indefinitely, reports ABC News. The new permanent staffing plan by the Department of State caps Havana at the emergency staffing level of 18 diplomats, beginning March 5. The Embassy will operate as an unaccompanied post, in which diplomats serve abroad without their family members. In a media note, the State Department acknowledged that it still does not have answers on the source or cause of the health ailments experienced by U.S. personnel, which precipitated the Ordered Departure of personnel in September 2017.

Many of the personnel ordered to leave Havana appealed to senior State Department officials to remain at the Post at the time. The group of 35 diplomats and spouses wrote, “We are aware of the risks of remaining at Post. And we understand that there may be unknown risks. We ask that the Department give us the opportunity to decide for ourselves whether to stay or leave,” reports ProPublica.

The move to maintain only a skeletal diplomatic presence in Havana implies significant impacts on U.S. intelligence, Cuban migration, and support for people in Cuba. Since the September 2017 Ordered Departure, some dozen U.S. diplomats, including only one consular officer, have staffed the Embassy in Havana. Virtually all normal Embassy functions have been stopped, as we reported last week. Consular services in Havana have been suspended for Cubans seeking to visit or immigrate to the U.S., forcing them to travel to third countries for interviews and processing. Immigrant visas fell from an average of 800 issued per month before the September 2017 staff drawdown to just 22 issued in December. The State Department informed Cuba’s government that it is likely to fall short of the 1994 bilateral migration agreement to accept 20,000 Cuban immigrants per year, as we reported. State Department officials said that Department and U.S. immigration authorities still have no plan to mitigate the visa crisis.

U.S. Representative Kathy Castor of Florida traveled to Cuba on a congressional delegation last week and subsequently sent a letter to Secretary Tillerson urging him to restore full staffing at the Embassy in Havana. Castor cited the detrimental impacts of the lack of consular services on families, who are prevented from reuniting for important family events and now face the onerous prospect of having to travel to Colombia for immigration visas.

Castor also called on the State Department to reverse the Cuba travel advisory, which has significantly hurt Cuban entrepreneurs who have grown their businesses on serving U.S. visitors. A group of 28 tour operators and educational travel organizations petitioned the Department of State this week to downgrade the advisory as well, citing the lack of any confirmed reports of health ailments similar to those reported by U.S. personnel among the 700,000 civilian U.S. visitors to Cuba in 2017.

A survey of 462 recent U.S. travelers to Cuba found that 83% of travelers believe Cuba is “very safe” and less than 1% believe that the country is “unsafe.” The majority of respondents also indicated that they believe Cuba is “very well prepared” to respond to environmental, health and crime related situations. Despite the sharp downturn in U.S. travel to Cuba following the Trump administration’s policy pronouncements and issuance of the travel advisory, U.S. tour companies continue to expand their activities in Cuba. This week Cuba Travel Services and ABC Charters, which have operated in Cuba for almost two decades, each announced that they received authorization to open offices in Cuba.

Researchers find possible explanation for the “sonic weapon” mystery

Scientists may have found an explanation for the mysterious sounds that have been associated with the health ailments afflicting U.S. diplomats in Cuba, reports IEEE Spectrum. U.S. and Chinese computer science and engineering researchers successfully reverse engineered ultrasonic signals that could have led to outcomes like the sounds reportedly heard by U.S. personnel in Havana in 2016 and 2017. Their experiments combined ultrasonic signals of differing frequencies emitted from electronic to produce audible sounds. According to the researchers, ultrasonic signals can come from room occupancy sensors, jammers, or other types of transmitters.

The experiments are described in detail in a technical report published this week by the University of Michigan. Report co-author Kevin Fu said that “if ultrasound is to blame, then a likely cause was two ultrasonic signals that accidentally interfered with each other, creating an audible side effect… Each device might have been placed there by a different party, completely unaware of the other.” The researchers said they believe that high amplitude ultrasonic signals could easily produce audible noises that could harm human hearing as an unintentional byproduct. Fadel Adib, MIT professor and specialist in wireless sensor and communications technology, who was not involved in the research, reviewed the results of the experiments and concluded, “Given all the possible explanations, this definitely seems the most plausible and the most technically feasible.”

Wildfires threatened Guantánamo Navy base. Cuba’s Frontier Brigade came to the rescue

The U.S. and Cuban militaries engaged in an unprecedented collaboration to extinguish wildfires that threatened the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, reports the Miami Herald. Cuba’s Eastern Frontier Brigade dispatched three fire trucks and a helicopter, which operated for hours dumping water on the blaze. Cuban military firefighters joined their U.S. counterparts inside the fence line to combat the fire on the northern side of the base.

A military spokesperson lauded the cooperation, as we reported last week. Base commander Navy Captain Dave Culpeper said that the successful and seamless collaboration had nothing to do with politics, but resulted from the longstanding U.S.-Cuba military-military contact and joint training exercises conducted regularly.


Cuban official indicates no increased taxes for private workers

Marino Murillo, Vice President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba, met with residents of Havana and twelve candidates for the Parliament and the Provincial Assembly of the People’s Power this week. According to meeting participants, Mr. Murillo stated that there is no immediate plan to raise the tax burden on self-employed workers, and indicated that the government will reopen the issuance of new licenses for some private sector occupations frozen in August 2017. During the meeting, he answered questions about the dual currency, the future of the private sector, and the creation of a wholesale market for the self-employed. Earlier this month Cuban Finance Minister Meisi Bolaños announced that tax system tweaks were coming in 2018, as we reported.

Cuba’s Capitol reopens after years of restoration

Cuba’s Capitol is open to the public following eight years of restoration, reports Reuters. The building, most recently occupied by Cuba’s Ministry of Science and Technology, will return to its use as the seat of the national assembly, which will convene on April 19 to select a new president. The restoration, undertaken by the Office of the City Historian of Havana, began in 2010. The structure stands 12 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol, on which its design is based.


Cuban cigar sales hit record as China demand surges

Profits for Cuban cigar manufacturer Habanos S.A. rose 12 percent to a record $500 million last year, driven by demand in China, reports Reuters. According to Habanos executives, China could overtake Spain and France to become the company’s largest export market. Sales in China increased 33 percent in 2017. Habanos S.A. is a 50-50 joint venture between the Cuban state and Britain’s Imperial Brands Plc.

Cuba hosts discussion on Caribbean environment management

Representatives and experts from around the Caribbean convened in Havana this week under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reports Prensa Latina. The UN’s Global Environment Facility-funded Integrating Water, Land and Ecosystems Management in Caribbean Small Island Developing States (GEF IWEco) steering committee met to advance its five-year project to address water, land, and biodiversity resource management, as well as climate change. Ten countries participated as well as regional and international partners.


Cuba’s economy after Raúl Castro: A tale of three worlds, Richard E. Feinberg, Brookings Institution

Political economist Richard Feinberg analyzes Cuba’s economy, suggesting reforms that could fit the uniquely Cuban context to create growth, attract investment, and ameliorate inequality.

Filling the void: Chinese-Cuban relations continue apace, Teresa García Castro and Philip Brenner, China Policy Institute: Analysis

Philip Brenner of American University and Teresa García Castro of the Washington Office on Latin America summarize the Sino-Cuban relationship and deepening bilateral ties.

How Cuba’s medical model could transform South Africa’s, Lungile Pepeta, BusinessDay

Dean of Health Sciences at Nelson Mandela University Lungile Pepeta examines Cuba’s medical system and draws lessons for improving public health in South Africa.

Cuban artist switches Havana’s neon lights back on, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

Chief Cuba Correspondent Sarah Marsh profiles Cuban artist Lopez Nieves, who is restoring Havana’s historical neon signage.

Cuba Central News Brief: 2/23/2018

February 23, 2018


US lawmakers say it’s time to restore staff at Cuba embassy

A U.S. congressional delegation led by Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) returned from a five-day trip to Cuba this week and urged the State Department to reinstate embassy staffing in Havana, reports the Associated Press. The group, which included Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) and Reps. Jim McGovern (MA), Kathy Castor (FL), and Susan Davis (CA), met with senior government officials and Cuban entrepreneurs to discuss the presidential transition in Cuba, the investigations into the health incidents affecting U.S. personnel in Cuba, the effects of recent U.S. policy changes, and other issues in the bilateral relationship, reports the Miami Herald. President Raul Castro, who is slated to step down as president in April, met the delegation and pledged that Cuba would not abandon ongoing engagement with the U.S.

Leahy and other delegation members told reporters that Cuba has cooperated with U.S. investigators examining the health incidents. The lawmakers called for increased collaboration with Cuba to resolve the investigation and urged the State Department to bring back staff to the Embassy in Havana. “We need to get back our embassy fully staffed and we have been reassured there is no conceivable way of granting the number of visas that we have agreed. There is no way we’re going to have improved relations if we don’t have the personnel to do it,” Leahy said. The staffing cuts, which were ordered in late September in response to the health incidents, persist despite FBI investigators finding no evidence of an attack. The staff cuts prevent the issuance of visas in Havana and have stopped virtually all non-emergency Embassy functions, jeopardizing the decades-old agreement for the U.S. to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans, as we previously reported.

Rep. Castor underlined the need to reinstate consular services “to ensure that families in Florida and Cuba and continue to see each other. She also said that Cuban entrepreneurs told the delegation that president Trump’s policies were hurting their businesses. Rep. McGovern said that the travel advisory issued by the State Department was a mistake and he underlined the importance of U.S. engagement with Cuba at a critical time, saying “Cuba is changing and soon it will experience a historic generational change in its leadership. Regrettably in this moment of this nation’s history, U.S. engagement is limited.”

Cubans join forces with U.S. personnel to put out wildfire at Guantánamo Bay

A wildfire that spread to the U.S Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay was contained with the help of Cuban security forces, reports the Miami Herald. The fire spread beyond immediate control after shifting winds spread the conflagration and necessitated the evacuation of six neighborhoods of the base that houses 1,700 U.S. personnel.

Base spokesperson Julie Ann Ripley said that Cuban security forces flew over the fence line to drop water from helicopter as well as provided personnel and trucks, saying “that was very, very helpful.” The Cuban assistance came under a security agreement for mutual support in case of disaster.

U.S., Cuban officials to meet in Florida about cooperation on oil spill response

Cuban and U.S. public and private sector representatives will meet in March in Broward County to discuss cooperation on oil spill mitigation, reports the Tampa Bay Times. The talks will be under the auspices of a bilateral agreement reached under the Obama administration and will likely address military exercises and personnel and logistical matters as part of a strategy to prepare for oil spill contingencies in the future. CDA previously recommended such an agreement in its 2011 publication on the subject.

The Trump administration pulled back plans to open oil exploration off the coast of Florida at the insistence of Governor Rick Scott, however 77 million acres of Gulf Coast waters along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas are scheduled to be approved for drilling in March under previous action by the Obama administration. Cuba’s attempts at offshore oil exploration have so far come up dry, and industry analyst Lee Hunt believes that it will be years before Cuba can attract a willing international partner to invest in offshore exploration.


Cuban draft rules propose curtailing fledgling private sector

A draft of new regulations restricting private sector activity in Cuba is circulating among Cuban entrepreneurs and Cuba experts, reports Reuters. The document describes rule changes that go beyond modifications announced in December, including restricting a home to one business license. Many successful large private restaurants run out of homes currently operate with several business licenses, in order to exceed the 50 seat maximum for a single license. The new draft rules, if enacted, would make such an arrangement illegal.

The regulations, which would increase government control over the private sector and impose more rigorous enforcement, have been sent from Cuba’s central economic planning commission to provincial and national administrative units for consultation, and are speculated to have been leaked in order to gauge public opinion. Cuba’s government has recently ramped up criticism of the private sector on the island, citing the generation of excessive wealth and apparent criminal activity, as we previously reported.

Cuba set to tackle monetary unification this year

Cuban government officials repeatedly told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation in Havana that that establishing a single monetary system is a top priority for this year, reports Reuters. Cuba has been working for years to unify its dual currency system, which observers contend is a necessary step for the country to build a strong sustainable economy, as we previously reported.

Cuban comedian denounces discriminatory policies, attitudes on island

In a Facebook post to his 200,000 followers, Cuban comedian Luis Silva this week strongly denounced discriminatory policies and attitudes in Cuba, reports Reuters. Silva, who is widely known by his television character’s name Panfilo, satirizes the everyday hardships of Cuban life and pokes fun at official policy in his show “Vivir del Cuento,” which is shown on Cuban state TV and does not directly attack Cuban authorities or policies.

Silva linked an article in the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde titled “Are Cubans second class tourists?” which described discrimination against Cubans in tourist establishments on the island. In 2008, Raul Castro rescinded the long-standing prohibition on Cubans patronizing resort hotels.


Japan donates $10 million to Cuba

This week Japan and Cuba formalized a $10 million donation for the purchase of sanitation equipment, reports Prensa Latina. The contribution from Japan is part of a development and aid program that will help Havana prepare for the 500th anniversary of its foundation in November 2019 and is intended to increase the resiliency of the city’s sanitation system to floods and hurricanes.

Separately, the International Cooperation Agency of Japan (JICA), which coordinates official development assistance for the government of Japan, will establish a permanent office in Havana in March 2018. Other JICA projects in Cuba include capacity building for medical equipment maintenance and early diagnosis of cancer, and improving grain production in Cuba.


The Havana turning point, Anya Landau French, U.S. News and World Report

Cuba expert Anya Landau French makes the case for U.S. engagement in Cuba at a time of historic change on the island amid increasing investment by Russia and China.

How socially engaged activism is transforming Cuba, Sujatha Fernandes, The Nation

Political economist and sociologist Sujatha Fernandes tells compelling stories of Cubans who have helped their communities through activism and community engagement at the local level.

Cuba Central News Brief: 2/16/2018

February 16, 2018


Doctors find neurological damage to Americans who served in Cuba, but cannot identify cause

University of Pennsylvania doctors found evidence of brain injury among diplomats who suffered mysterious ailments in Havana, reports the Washington Post. Their article published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) describes the symptoms experienced and the evidence of brain injury, including manifestations of vision and balance abnormalities that could not have been manipulated. The University’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair investigated 21 people, who were found to have concussion-like symptoms but no evidence of physical trauma nor significant brain abnormalities.

The study identified no definitive cause for the diplomats’ ailments. Addressing the sounds heard by some of the affected diplomats, the article states that, “it is currently unclear if or how the noise is related to the reported symptoms.” An accompanying editorial by JAMA noted that some of the abnormalities studied were based on patient self-report and subjective measures, concluding, “before reaching any definitive conclusions, additional evidence must be obtained and rigorously and objectively evaluated.”

For a detailed account of the U.S. investigation, see the ProPublica article published this week, also linked below in RECOMMENDED READING.

U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogue convenes in Washington

This week senior officials from Cuba and the U.S. met in Washington to advance bilateral cooperation on regional security issues. A U.S. Department of State media release described a series of meetings on combatting human trafficking. The exchange was hosted by the State Department and included the Departments of Justice, Labor, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services.

Cuba’s delegation was led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included officials from the Ministry of the Interior, the General Prosecutor, and Cuba’s Central Bank. Prensa Latina reported that this week’s exchange included a technical meeting to combat money laundering and took place “in a climate of respect and professionalism (sic).”

Trump’s budget includes drastic cuts to Radio and TV Martí

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget would significantly cut funds for Radio and TV Martí and Martínoticias, as well as the broader Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), reports the Miami Herald. The proposal would cut OCB’s budget to $13.6 million, less than half of what it received in fiscal year 2017, and would reduce its full-time staff from 113 to 51.

The OCB and its Martí outlets have a mission of promoting “freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming” and have been criticized in the U.S. for their high cost and lack of objectivity. Cuba’s government considers their activities, as well as USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion program, subversive initiatives designed to undermine Cuba’s sovereignty.

While the president’s 2018 budget proposal eliminated Cuba democracy funding altogether, the 2019 budget includes $10 million for the programs. The actual present enacted level, as approved in fiscal year 2017, is the traditional $20 million. The 2019 budget cuts are in line with broad proposed reductions in global democracy promotion programs, and likely do not represent a shift in the Administration’s approach to democracy promotion in Cuba.


Cuba creditors offer “very significant relief” in debt proposal

The London Club offered a sizeable debt relief proposal to Cuba in January, reports Reuters. Cuba has defaulted commercial creditors in the London Club of commercial banks, which hold $1.4 billion worth of Cuban debt, effectively excluding Cuba from international capital markets. The proposal is seen as a move by the creditors to increase pressure on Cuba to meet a portion of its obligations.

A lawyer representing the London Club invoked the 2015 agreement in which the Paris Club forgave $8.5 billion in Cuban debt, saying that “the London Club offer draws on certain features of the deal with the bilateral creditors but in some respects it is even more generous to the Cubans.” The Paris Club deal included payment structured over 18 years and the option to swap debt for equity stake in projects in Cuba. Cuba has already paid the first two installments under that deal, as we previously reported.


The Sound and the Fury: Inside the Mystery of the Havana Embassy, Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica

This in-depth report, based on interviews with U.S. diplomats and officials, examines how the mystery surrounding the ailments suffered by U.S. personnel in Havana provided political justification without evidence for policy changes toward Cuba.

El Salvador Update: Hard Times and Inconvenient Truths, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, El Salvador expert and CDA Advisory Board Member, provides a deep look into El Salvador’s ongoing domestic strife and international relations in the run-up to forthcoming midterm and presidential elections.


First Listen: Alfredo Rodríguez, ‘The Little Dream’, Jackson Sinnenberg, NPR

Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez is part of a young vanguard of exciting and boundary-pushing Cuban jazz musicians. Stream his new album before its official release on February 23.

From Hip-Hop to Jazz to Reggae, Here Are the Cuban Artists You Should Be Listening to Today, Marjua Estevez, Billboard

Billboard explores Cuba’s contemporary music scene and highlights some of the island’s rising stars.

Cuba Central News Brief: 2/9/2018

February 9, 2018


Trump administration launches Cuba Internet Task Force; Cuban independent media say “no thanks”

This week the Trump administration’s new Cuba Internet Task Force convened for the first time in Washington, drawing criticism from Cuban independent media as well as Cuba’s government, reports Reuters. The task force was ordered by President Trump’s June 2017 National Security Presidential Memorandum and includes officials from the Departments of State and Commerce, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Cuba Broadcasting, reports the Associated Press.

The Task Force charter states that its mandate is to examine expanding internet access in Cuba, including through U.S. federal government support of programs to promote freedom of expression. Cuba’s government views the Task Force as a means for the U.S. to violate Cuba’s sovereignty and promote subversive action in Cuba, and handed a formal note of protest to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, reports Reuters. Retired USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years after distributing satellite communications equipment, criticized the Task Force, saying that “until the government of Cuba wants the kind of assistance United States is capable of providing, the United States shouldn’t be doing stuff there,” reports Reuters.

Cuban independent media, which has grown in recent years thanks to expanded internet access on the island, also criticized the formation of the Task Force. Young Cubans like Elaine Díaz, founder of the independent environmental policy website Periodismo de Barrio, are concerned that U.S. involvement could “damage the credibility of the independent media.” Cuban independent media began receiving attacks from Cuban pro-government bloggers immediately following the State Department’s announcement of the Task Force in January, reports Reuters. Díaz would refuse any money from the U.S., saying “these media are called independent, and that means independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government.”

The Task Force, which has no budget nor authority to implement policy, will submit its recommendations to the Secretary of State by February 2019.

U.S. promise to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans is jeopardized by U.S. Embassy cuts

The shut-down of consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana due to the September 2017 Ordered Departure of personnel may result in the U.S. violating migration agreements with Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. Visa processing for Cuban travel to the U.S. has been suspended, with exceptions for emergencies and for Cuban officials. Separately, the U.S. political asylum program was suspended by the Trump administration for four months and capped at 1,500 refugees from Latin America for Fiscal Year 2018. Cubans applying to immigrate to the U.S. must travel to Colombia for visa interviews, as we previously reported.

A State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. will face challenges to meet the commitment to issue 20,000 Cuban immigrant visas and travel documents in FY 2018. At its origin, the immigrant visa agreement was designed to regularize migration and was negotiated in 1994 as the resolution to the balsero crisis, during which thousands of Cubans made the dangerous and risky voyage to the U.S. in makeshift rafts.

The Ordered Departure will expire on March 4, but the State Department has given no indication if the Secretary will increase Embassy Havana staffing at that time.

Cuba grants visa to senior U.S. diplomat to lead Havana embassy

Cuba has issued a visa to Philip Goldberg, the U.S. diplomat who will lead the U.S. mission in Havana, reports Reuters. Goldberg, who previously served as ambassador in the Philippines, ambassador in Bolivia (from which he was expelled by the Bolivian government), chief of mission in Kosovo, and assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, will be the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to serve as chargé d’affaires in Havana. Goldberg is expected to serve a limited term in Havana and will likely lead a small team of Embassy staff due to the September 2017 Ordered Departure.

U.S. and Cuban takes differ on health incidents

Cuban investigators dismissed charges that the mysterious symptoms experienced by 24 U.S. diplomats in Havana were caused by an attack, theorizing that they could be manifestations of psychosomatic illness or mass hysteria, reports the Miami Herald. The doctors and law enforcement officials leading Cuba’s investigation into the incidents point out that the apparent lack of uniform auditory damage and the concussion symptoms experienced are inconsistent with the capabilities of any known sonic device. They also argue that a viral or toxic cause seems unlikely, as symptoms were not spread to others in close proximity to the affected people. Cuban investigators have complained that the U.S. has not shared substantive information that would allow a serious forensic investigation, such as audiograms, MRIs, or CAT scans.

In contrast, the University of Miami doctor who examined the affected U.S. personnel in Havana rejected the notion that stress could have caused the symptoms, reports the Miami Herald. Dr. Michael Hoffner, an otolaryngologist and concussion specialist, is an author of two medical articles that describe the details of the case. The publication of those articles is reportedly pending approval by the State Department. The FBI’s investigation has ruled out a sonic attack as the cause of the symptoms. The State Department said in a statement, “We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. The investigation into the attacks is ongoing.”


Cuba Will Tune Tax Controls in 2018, Assures the Government

Cuban Minister of Finance Meisi Bolaños announced plans to tweak Cuba’s tax system in 2018, reports Prensa Latina. The actions aim to enforce compliance under the new system that began implementation in 2013. Cuban authorities cited tax evasion in their recent curtailment of licenses for the private sector, as we reported. National revenues in 2018 are expected to reach $57.2 billion (for useful background on Cuba’s currency system, see the article by Ricardo Torres below in RECOMMENDED READING), of which 75 percent will be collected from taxes. That leaves an 11.7 billion peso shortfall in a budget that primarily funds education, healthcare, and social services.


Commercial creditors seek talks on $1 billion Cuban debt

The Cuban London Club group of commercial creditors wants to begin negotiations with Cuba on the repayment of $1 billion from the 1980s, reports CNBC. The group has retained a U.S. attorney, signaling its willingness to take the matter to court if they cannot find a negotiated settlement soon. Repaying the commercial debt is a key hurdle to overcome for Cuba to access international capital markets and to attract large-scale foreign investment.

In 2015, the Paris Club of major creditor nations agreed to write down the bulk of Cuba’s $11.1 billion debt, marking an important step for Cuba’s re-integration in the international financial community. Cuba has begun making payments to the Paris Club, as we previously reported.


Cuba’s dual currency is due for revision, Ricardo Torres, Progreso Weekly

Prominent Cuban economist Dr. Ricardo Torres explains Cuba’s dual currency system and argues for the urgency of addressing this key economic issue.


Ibeyi Tiny Desk Concert, National Public Radio

Afro-Cuban twin sisters perform at NPR’s Tiny Desk, invoking Yoruban deities and blending cultures and languages in their music.

Cuba Central News Brief 2/2/2018

February 2, 2018


Cuba inaugurates José Martí statue as symbol of friendship

On Sunday, Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal inaugurated a statue of Cuban national hero José Martí in the presence of Cuba’s top leadership and U.S. officials and business leaders, reports Reuters. The statue, a replica of Martí that stands in New York’s Central Park, depicts the Cuban independence champion on horseback at the moment of his death in battle.

Among the attendees were U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee, Karen Bass, and Roger Marshall, who traveled to Cuba with CDA on a fact-finding delegation and exchanged greetings with President Raúl Castro, as reported by the Miami Herald. The $2.5 billion statue project was spearheaded by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and given as a gift to the people of Cuba to, as stated by Joseph Mizzi, chairman of the board of trustees of the Bronx Museum, “symbolize the friendship of the people” of Cuba and the U.S.

U.S. travelers to Cuba slowed in the second half of 2017

U.S. travel to Cuba slowed in the second half of 2017, reports the Miami Herald. Cuba received a record 4.7 million international visitors last year, including 620,000 U.S. travelers, but tour operators and other hospitality industry leaders say that those numbers are falling off. The Melia Cohiba hotel in Havana saw a 25 percent drop in U.S. guests during December and January, and tour companies like Insight Cuba are reporting empty flights to the island.

The travel industry points to confusion about the U.S. administration’s statements and policy changes announced in June 2017 and the U.S. travel warning issued in September as having driven U.S. travelers away. A State Department spokesperson reported that, since the end of September, 19 U.S. citizens contacted the Department to report health symptoms after visiting Cuba. The reports remain unverified. Tom Popper of Insight Cuba organized the first Cuba Media Day conference in Havana last week to dispel fear and confusion around travel to Cuba. This month, the Madrid International Tourism Fair awarded Cuba “safest country in the world.”


Fidel Castro’s eldest son ‘Fidelito’ commits suicide

Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, eldest son of Fidel Castro, committed suicide on Thursday, reports Reuters. Known as “Fidelito,” Castro Diaz-Balart had been receiving treatment for depression in the months before his death at age 68. He was a nuclear scientist who ran Cuba’s national nuclear program from 1980 to 1992. At the time of his death he was Vice President of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a scientific counselor to the Cuban Council of State. Fidelito was the son of Mirta Diaz-Balart and first cousin of U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and former Member of Congress Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Cuba cancels sugar exports; Hurricane Irma, January rains hit harvest

Cuba cancelled January sugar exports in the wake of recent heavy rain and damage from Hurricane Irma, reports Reuters. The head of Cuba’s state sugar company Azcuba said that Cuba is struggling to meet local demand with a harvest at just 31 percent of planned output. Hurricane Irma, which hit Cuba as a Category 5 storm in September 2017, severely disrupted the island’s sugar industry, destroying 740,000 acres of sugarcane and damaging 40 percent of sugar mills, as we previously reported.

Of the 53 sugar mills scheduled for operation this season, only 29 have re-opened and 14 are shut due to heavy rain, according to Azcuba.

Cuba’s private sector stagnant under rule changes

Entrepreneurs in Cuba’s nascent private sector are cancelling plans to expand or open new businesses under a suite of restrictions, according to the Associated Press. Cuba stopped issuing new licenses for private businesses in August and closed several private restaurants as a response to apparent criminal activity like tax evasion and the rapid pace of labor changes. In December, new rules were announced dictating that individuals may now only hold a single private business license and Cuban cooperatives’ operations will be limited. Small business tax policy is also under review.

Cuban economist and Communist Party member Esteban Morales sees potential in expanding rather than restricting Cuba’s private sector: “Self-employment generates jobs that the state can’t. That’s something that hasn’t been taken advantage of before, and would be very smart to do.” The number of self-employed Cubans has tripled since Raúl Castro began implementing economic reforms in 2010, accounting for 12% of the country’s workforce in 2017.


Cuba seeks to diversify oil imports and expand renewable energy

This week Cuba announced agreements to increase oil imports from Algeria and to promote renewable energy on the island with European Union financing. Prensa Latina reports that the EU will contribute 18 million euros ($22.4 million) over five years in a program that marks the bloc’s first financing to the island since the EU-Cuba bilateral cooperation agreement came into force in 2017. The announcement comes on the heels of the visit of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, about which we previously reported.

The EU financing will contribute to Cuba’s $4 billion renewable energy expansion plan aiming for 24 per cent of the island’s electricity generation by 2030.

Cuba also signed a deal with Algeria to increase oil imports as supplies from Venezuela decline, reports Oilprice. Algeria sent 2.1 million barrels of oil to Cuba in 2017, as we previously reported. Sources at Algerian state oil firm Sonatrach indicated that 2018 deliveries to Cuba will remain at 2.1 million barrels. Details of the new agreement, including any increase in deliveries, have not been released, however Reuters suggested that a recent agreement for Cuba to send more doctors to provide services in Algeria may portend increased oil deliveries under a barter arrangement.

EU offers to assist Cuba with monetary consolidation: EU official

A high level European Union delegation visited Havana this week to strengthen engagement with Cuba and offer technical advice on the country’s currency consolidation, reports Reuters. For more than a decade, Cuba’s monetary system has incorporated a national currency used in local transactions (CUP) and a convertible peso (CUC) used in trade and by foreign visitors, with an exchange rate of 24 CUP to 1 CUC.

According to economists, Cuba’s monetary system masks inefficiencies in the economy, due in large part to differing exchange rates for different entities in Cuba. Currency unification will imply a devaluation of the official exchange rate, according to observers.

Cuban President Raúl Castro has made the monetary consolidation a top priority in Cuba’s economic updating process, saying in December 2017 that the currency unification could no longer be delayed. More than 200 Cuban specialists are working the issue, according to the chairman of Cuba’s Economic Policy Commission.


Yes, You Can Still Visit Cuba Legally—and It’s Safe, Paul Brady, Condé Nast Traveler

Travel writer Paul Brady recounts his recent trip to Havana to cover the U.S. travel industry’s Cuba Media Day, highlighting the open avenues for U.S. travel to Cuba and continued flow of repeat U.S. visitors to the island.

Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba, Vicki Huddleston

Vicki Huddleston, top U.S. diplomat in Cuba under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, chronicles the past several decades of U.S.-Cuban relations. Pre-order available for March 13 hardcover book release.