Cuba Central News Brief: 2/23/2018

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

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.

IN CUBA

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.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

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.

RECOMMENDED READING

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.

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