Cuba Central News Brief: 04/20/2018

ICYMI: CDA STATEMENT: CDA on Cuba’s Leadership Transition

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

FBI has “made a lot of progress” in health attacks investigation, Rubio says; Canada removes families of diplomats in Havana

Speaking at the Summit of the Americas in Peru, Florida Senator Marco Rubio told the Miami Herald the FBI briefed him last week on its investigation into the mysterious symptoms experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana, saying, “They have been investigating this and they have made a lot of progress.”

According to Sen. Rubio, the FBI “has been able to rule out several theories in terms of the technology that was used and I think there will come a time when we will know a little more.” He went on to say, “All the hypotheses stand. There are two things being studied: who did it and how they did it. On the subject of how they did it, that is progressing. On the issue of who did it, I think the first question is going to answer the second one.”

In February, University of Pennsylvania doctors found evidence of brain injury among diplomats who suffered mysterious ailments in Havana, as we reported at the time. An article published by the doctors in the Journal of the American Medical Association describes the symptoms experienced and the evidence of brain injury, including vision and balance abnormalities that “could not have been consciously or unconsciously manipulated.” The study identified no definitive cause for the diplomats’ ailments.

Separately, Reuters reports that Canada has designated its Havana embassy as an unaccompanied post, meaning it will withdraw all family members of diplomats. The decision comes as a result of a months-long investigation into mysterious symptoms experienced by Canadian diplomats and their families, similar to those experienced by U.S. diplomats. A statement from Canada’s Global Affairs department notes, “There have been no new incidents since the early fall of 2017,” and, “There is no evidence to suggest that Canadian travelers to Cuba are at risk.”

Cuba, in a response published by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated, “There is neither a single shred of evidence to explain the symptoms reported by Canadian diplomats, nor any indication that any attack or incident of any kind had ever occurred on Cuban soil.” The statement described the decision as “unjustified,” said the Cuban government will continue its investigations, and called for collaboration between the two countries. Cuba has released similar statements in response to U.S. actions to reduce staffing at its embassy in Havana.

In Cuba

President Raúl Castro steps down; Miguel Díaz-Canel steps up; and the upper-level leadership shuffles

Cuba’s National Assembly named First Vice President Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez President of Cuba’s Councils of State and Ministers Thursday, marking the end of Raúl Castro’s term as President. The vote was announced during the second day of a special National Assembly session to select the country’s leadership, and Díaz-Canel, who was the sole candidate nominated for the presidency, was confirmed by 603 of the assembly’s 604 attending members. As noted in a speech by the outgoing President Castro, Díaz-Canel will be eligible to serve two consecutive five-year terms, pursuant to a term limit proposal approved by the Party Congress in 2011.

Castro will remain first secretary of the Communist Party and head of Cuba’s armed forces. In his first speech as the country’s President, Díaz-Canel said Thursday that “General Raúl Castro Ruz, as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, will lead the most important decisions for the present and the future of the nation.”

In his speech, President Díaz-Canel suggested he was committed to the process of updating Cuba’s economic model without making major changes to the Cuban Revolution. He said, “The mandate given to this legislature is to give continuity to the Cuban Revolution at a crucial historical moment, which will be marked by all that we can advance in updating the economic and social model … In this legislature there will be no space for those who aspire to a restoration of capitalism; this legislature will defend the Revolution and will continue the improvement of socialism.”

In his own speech to the Assembly, meanwhile, Castro laid out the likely plan for Cuba’s leadership in the coming years. He stated that, pending the approval of party and state leadership, President Díaz-Canel would succeed him as first secretary of the Communist Party in 2021, and remain in that role for three years after the completion of his two five-year terms to ensure a steady transition to the next leader. Castro said that the National Assembly will hold a session in July to select a new Council of Ministers, and at that session the assembly will also appoint a commission to write a new national constitution, which will in turn be ratified by the National Assembly and the Cuban public.

He commented extensively on Cuba’s economic reforms, admitting that he thought “we would have advanced more, and that we would have, if not resolved all the problems, have them well organized and planned.” He warned against “the desire to move faster than the ability to do things well” moving forward. Castro also stated that Cuba would continue allowing the country’s self-employment sector to grow, but that plans to revamp Cuba’s dual currency system had given lawmakers “serious headaches.”  (Reuters has a series of graphics on reforms undertaken during Raúl Castro’s presidency.)

Cuba’s new legislature, by the numbers

Cuban national media reports that a total of 58 percent of the 605 National Assembly members are new to the country’s highest legislature, women make up 48 percent, and 45 percent of elected members identify as Afro Cuban or mixed race. According to Granma, the average age of Cuba’s parliament is 49 years old, and 88 percent were born after the 1959 Revolution.

U.S. Response

Following the announcement, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert released a statement calling the transition part of a “repressive monopoly on power.” President Trump told reporters, “We’re going to take care of Cuba. We’re going to take care of it.” Earlier this week, President Trump, in his remarks to a Florida audience on tax reform, said “We’re, as you know, very tough on Cuba. Have no choice.” In an interview with Univision last week, President Trump said, “We’re being very tough on Cuba because we want the people to have freedom … You’re going to see some very, very good things happen.”

Meanwhile, the bipartisan Congressional Cuba Working Group released a statement Thursday, saying, “If Congress is serious about repairing American-Cuban ties and improving the well-being of the Cuban people, we must take action to reset relations and ensure the next 60 years are not filled with the same outdated, unproductive, and shortsighted rhetoric and policies of generations past.”

As CDA Executive Director Emily Mendrala told ABC this week, “Demographic, emerging cultural trends, U.S.-Cuba policy changing is by no means a sidebar issue. Other countries around the world are deepening their commitment and diplomatic ties while the U.S. is on the sidelines … Taking a step back, not having a fully staffed embassy, for example, puts us at a disadvantage. Family, cultural, academic ties are suffering with consular services in Havana. If the U.S. is leaving a vacuum in Cuba, other countries are filling it.”

Cuba set for lowest sugar production in a century

A Reuters estimate suggests Cuba will produce between 1.1 and 1.3 million tons of sugar this harvest, a number which would mark Cuba’s lowest raw sugar output in over a century and a roughly 30 percent drop over last year’s production. Cuba cancelled sugar exports for the month of January due to the effects of Hurricane Irma and a particularly rainy start to the year, as we previously reported.

Cuba’s 2016-2017 harvest led to the production of 1.8 million tons of raw sugar, a 20 percent increase over the 2015-2016 season; however, yields reached just 85 percent of the goal set by AZCUBA, Cuba’s state sugar enterprise. Cuba attributed the lower-than-expected yields to drought and poor irrigation and drainage systems, as Reuters reported at the time. Cuba’s sugar industry, once the country’s most important sector, has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (In 1991, Cuba produced nearly 8 million tons of raw sugar.) Still, raw sugar accounts for nearly 80 percent of Cuba’s food exports, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics.

What We’re Reading

In the Sierra Maestra, Castro Revolution lives on, Alexandre Meneghini, Reuters

For this photo essay, Reuters’ Alexandre Meneghini talked to Cubans living in the rural Sierra Maestra mountains, the region where the Cuban Revolution first gained a foothold.

U.S.-Cuban relations are about to get worse, Ted Piccone, Brookings

Brookings Senior Fellow Ted Piccone discusses the Trump administration’s decision to ratchet up its strong rhetoric against Cuba in the days preceding and following Cuba’s presidential change.

Cuba in Transition: Issues to Watch 2018-2023, Cuba Study Group

This Cuba Study Group report outlines some of the key issues facing Cuba over the next five years.

‘My Dearest Fidel’: An ABC Journalist’s Secret Liaison With Fidel Castro, Peter Kornbluh, Politico

Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, recounts how a U.S. reporter developed a unique bond with Cuba’s revolutionary leader.

President Trump should engage Cuba’s new president, not leave policy to Marco Rubio, Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald

The Miami Herald’s Fabiola Santiago writes, “It’s an ill-suited strategy to squeeze and isolate Cuba at this moment.”

From Cuba With Love: Yissy Garcia And Bandancha’s ‘Universo’, NPR

Cuban artist Yissy García, who will visiting Washington for the May Kennedy Center festival, talks with NPR about her relationship to American music and what it’s like being an artist in the current political context.


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.

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