Cuba Central News Brief 8/25/2017

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

More individuals affected by sonic “incidents” than previously thought

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday at least 16 U.S. diplomats and family members have suffered from a series of mysterious sonic “incidents” in Havana, and CNN reports that 5 Canadian diplomats and family members have been affected, both more than had previously been reported. Meanwhile, CBS News reports U.S. and Canadian diplomats were treated by doctors at the University of Miami for a range of conditions beyond hearing loss, including, in some cases, “mild traumatic brain injury, and … likely damage to the central nervous system.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Nauert told reporters that the incidents began in December 2016, and on Thursday added, “The incidents are no longer occurring.” (CNN reports that incidents “stopped this spring.”)

The source of these incidents has stymied U.S., Canadian, and Cuban officials, who are collaborating on an ongoing investigation. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that he holds Cuba responsible for determining the cause of the events and for ensuring the “safety and security” of U.S. diplomats; earlier this month, Ms. Nauert questioned Cuba’s compliance with international standards for protecting diplomats as outlined by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Cuba’s government has released a statement expressing its determination to resolve the situation and reiterating its commitment to the 1961 convention.

Marriott eyes future expansion in Cuba

Marriott International, Inc. is looking to expand its operations in Cuba, according to Tim Sheldon, the hotel chain’s president for the Caribbean & Latin America, the Miami Herald reports.

According to Sheldon, Marriott is hoping to move forward with plans to renovate and manage the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, and is “waiting for clarity from the current administration” on its ability to pursue other unspecified projects on the island.

Marriott currently manages the Cuban government-owned Four Points Sheraton hotel in Havana. Though President Trump’s Cuba policy memorandum bans transactions with entities related to Cuba’s military, according to the Treasury Department, operations that “were in place prior to the issuance of the forthcoming regulations” (like Marriott’s current activities) will be permitted. On June 15, the day before President Trump’s Cuba announcement, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson released a statement saying, “It would be exceedingly disappointing to see the progress that has been made in the last two years halted and reversed,” as Reuters reported at the time.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations 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

Number of air passengers to Cuba surpasses 2016 total

A record four million passengers flew into Havana´s Jose Marti International Airport in the first 8 months of 2017, surpassing the total number of visitors to Cuba by plane in 2016, the Cuban News Agency (ACN) reports.

Though data on the number of visitors by sea this year is not yet available, the ACN report likely means that the total number of travelers to the island this year has surpassed the 2016 total, as virtually all visitors to Cuba travel by air (over 99 percent in 2016, according to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics).

In June, Cuba announced that it had already received more U.S. visitors in 2017 than in all of 2016, as EFE reported; that same month, José Alonso, business director of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, stated that Cuba is on track to reach its goal of 4.2 million visitors in 2017, even with increased U.S. travel restrictions. There are currently six U.S. airlines operating flights to Cuba.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Mexico’s foreign minister visits Cuba for talks on Venezuela, bilateral ties

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray traveled to Cuba on Saturday for a two-day working visit to ask for Cuba’s assistance resolving the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, and to discuss bilateral ties and offer the country an expanded credit line with Mexico’s national bank, Reuters reports.

According to Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Videgaray met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, to discuss progress in trade and technical exchanges between the two countries, note that Mexico will eliminate visa requirements for Cuban officials in order “to facilitate exchanges and joint bilateral initiatives,” and announce a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the countries’ respective national banks to extend Cuba’s line of credit for imports from Mexico. A statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the ministers also discussed “issues on the international agenda.”

A separate Reuters report this week suggested that Mexico is exploring providing oil to Caribbean countries should Venezuela’s oil industry find itself unable to meet its export agreements. Last month, Reuters reported that Cuba, which depends heavily on subsidized oil imports from Venezuela, imported just 72,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Caracas in the first half of 2017, compared with 83,000 barrels per day in the first half of 2016 and over 100,000 barrels per day in the first half of 2015.

Last month, José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, stated, “It is up to the Bolivarian people and government, alone, to overcome their difficulties.”

What We’re Reading

Interview: Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba Trade Magazine

Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, tells Cuba Trade Magazine that U.S. policy toward Cuba must allow for “communication, transportation, the ability to talk to the country’s leaders, and to work together on issues of mutual interest.”

Cuba: How politics has become a hurdle for its researchers, Bryn Nelson, Science News

Bryn Nelson discusses in Science News how the U.S. embargo prevents Cuban scientists from obtaining important research equipment and publishing in U.S. journals, limiting our ability to understand our shared ecosystem.

Truck Manufacturers Keep Eyes on Cuban Market, Craig Guillot,

Car manufacturers are hoping to drive up interest in legal exports to Cuba, which once served as a top market for the U.S. auto industry.

What We’re Listening To

Cuba and the USA: healing the emotional embargo, BBC World Service

Ruth Behar, co-creator of the Bridges to/from Cuba blog, discusses the “emotional embargo” against Cuba: “the sense that Cubans have had for nearly 60 years of holding our breath and not knowing what is going to happen next.”

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