Cuba news roundup

We’ll be back with a full-service Brief next week.

In the meantime, this week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. sent record $3.4 billion in remittances to Cuba in 2016, but growth slows

Cubans on the island received over $3.4 billion in remittances from the U.S. in 2016, up from $3.3 billion in 2015, according to a report from the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group (HCG), EFE reports; however, the 2.7 percent increase represents the lowest rate of growth in any of the last eight years.

The report found that the increase was due to an upsurge in Cuban migration to the U.S. in 2016, as well as the expansion of flights to Cuba, which led to lower travel costs and, in turn, allowed more Cuban Americans to travel to the island to physically deliver remittances.

Despite the increase, the HCG study suggested that an expected decrease in migration will correlate with a similar decrease in the amount of remittances sent in future years. The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a record 5,213 Cuban migrants at sea in FY2016, but announced in May it had interdicted fewer than 100 Cuban migrants at sea in the first four months of 2017, including none in April, the first such occurrence in seven years, as the Wall Street Journal reported at the time; Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft attributed the decline to the rescindment of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy by the Obama administration in January.

In 2009, the Obama administration eliminated restrictions on remittances sent from Cuban Americans to Cuba, and in September 2015, the administration removed all limits on remittances to the island, with the exception of transactions with certain prohibited government officials. The Cuba policy memorandum released by the Trump administration does not impose restrictions on remittances, although it does expand the definition of prohibited officials with whom transactions cannot be made.

Cuba’s chief U.S. negotiator reassigned

Josefina Vidal, the former director of North American affairs at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) and a key figure in negotiations with the U.S. that led to the December 17, 2014 announcement that the two countries would seek to normalize relations, has been named Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, the Associated Press reports.

Ms. Vidal had served in the position, which does not have a set term length, since 2006. Gustavo Machin Gómez, deputy chief of North American affairs at MINREX, will also leave his post, having been named ambassador to Spain.

Two weeks ago, the Miami Herald reported that former Deputy Chief of Mission Scott Hamilton is now serving as chargé d’affaires ad interim of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, after the conclusion of former chargé d’affaires Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis’ three-year term as head of the post. The Trump administration has not indicated its intention to name an ambassador to the embassy.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations on July 16. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link.

In Cuba

Cuba celebrates National Rebellion Day; officials deny participation in Venezuela mediation process

Cuba celebrated the 64th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada military barracks, the event considered to mark the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, with more than 15,000 attending a main celebration in the northwestern city of Pinar del Río on July 26. José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, delivered keynote remarks at the event, taking the opportunity to reject recent speculation that the country could help mediate the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, Reuters reports.

During his remarks, Mr. Machado stated that despite reports in “an influential U.S. daily,” Cuba would not participate in international negotiations regarding the situation in Venezuela, and, “It is up to the Bolivarian people and government, alone, to overcome their difficulties.” Last week, the Financial Times reported that while on a July 17-18 visit to the island, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos would encourage his Cuban counterpart to assist with a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín denied the Times’ report, telling reporters that while “the situation in Venezuela will be part of the conversation with President Castro,” the purpose of the trip was primarily to expand commercial ties, as the Associated Press reported at the time.

In his remarks at the July 26 event, Mr. Machado also payed homage to the late Fidel Castro and reiterated President Raúl Castro’s remarks to Cuba’s National Assembly last week criticizing President Donald Trump’s June 16 announcement that he would limit trade with and travel to Cuba. Though present in the audience, President Castro did not speak at the celebration.

Cuba to open joint venture lead, zinc mine with Singaporean company

Emincar, a joint venture between Geominera, Cuba’s state mining enterprise, and Trafigura, a Singapore-based mineral and oil trading company, will open a lead and zinc mine in Cuba’s Pinar del Río province in October, Reuters reports. The mine, which cost nearly $300 million to build and will be 51 percent controlled by Geominera, is expected to produce 100,000 tons of zinc and 50,000 tons of lead concentrate annually; according to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, Cuba does not currently produce either metal.

The mine could provide a much-needed economic spark for Cuba’s struggling mining sector. Production of nickel, one of Cuba’s largest exports, has dropped precipitously in recent years due to the high energy costs of operating plants and a global decline in nickel prices. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Cuba expects to produce 54,500 tons of nickel and cobalt sulfides in 2017, down from 56,000 tons in 2016. As Reuters reported in December, the drop in Cuba’s GDP last year – the first such reduction since 1993 – was partly attributable to decreased revenue from nickel exports.

What We’re Reading

It’s More Than Cigars and Rum: Why Cuba Matters, Admiral James Stavridis, Foreign Policy

Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander and current dean of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, writes in Foreign Policy, “The United States and Cuba have much to offer each other; the sooner we get our relationship in balance and move forward on a path to greater integration, the more we will benefit economically, diplomatically, and strategically.”

U.S. Cuba tour operators gird for Trump travel crackdown, Marc Frank, Reuters

Reuters’ Marc Frank shares notes from a myriad of travel companies whose customers have expressed concerns about traveling to Cuba under President Trump’s new policy, citing one tour operator as saying, “A pall has been cast over the business and that has me worried going forward.”

Drinking rum until I understand the Cuban embargo, Peter Van Buren, Reuters

Writing in Reuters, retired Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren recounts his recent trip to Cuba and discussions with people on the island, concluding, “It turns out I can’t drink enough rum, even in Cuba, for the embargo to make real sense.”

Amid Trump’s Grim Cuba Talk, Havana Maestros Offer Brighter Vision, Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Forbes

Forbes’ Zach O’Malley Greenburg writes about the Havana Maestros, a Cuban band whose newfound U.S. popularity is representative of cultural exchanges made possible by engagement.

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