Cuba Central News Brief: 3/2/2018

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

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.

IN CUBA

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.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

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.

RECOMMENDED READING

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.

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