May 25, 2018

This week, in Cuba news…


“Physical symptoms” suffered by U.S. government employee in China mirror Cuba incidents

The State Department issued a “health alert” this week after an employee at the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China reported suffering “a variety of physical symptoms” from late 2017 until April of this year, the New York Times reports. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the House Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, “The medical indications are very similar and entirely consistent with the medical indications that have taken place to Americans working in Cuba.”

According to the alert, U.S. officials “do not currently know what caused the reported symptoms,” and the State Department did not announce any further action at this time. A series of similar incidents affecting diplomats in Cuba led the department to withdraw non-essential personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana and expel diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington last October; the U.S. Embassy was converted to an Unaccompanied Post – no diplomats’ spouses or dependents allowed – in March, as we reported at the time.

U.S. activists visit Havana for Cuban pride events; Same-sex marriage on agenda for July constitutional reform talks

A group of U.S. LGBTQ advocates traveled to Cuba for the country’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT) festival, the Miami Herald reports.

The group, visiting from May 12-14, met with Cubans advocating for the legalization of same-sex marriage, and was joined by a delegation of LGBTQ Google employees. In 2016 Google signed a deal to place servers throughout the island, allowing for faster loading times on messaging platforms and for video content on sites like YouTube. As one Cuban activist quoted in the Miami Herald says, “We are pleased by the participation of Google … our marriage equality campaign uses Google tools for pro-LGBTQ messaging.”

The group’s visit coincided with that of a CDA delegation to Cuba of U.S. congressional staff and other leaders on issues of gender equality and public health.

Separately, Mariela Castro announced in a May 4 press conference that she would advocate for an amendment legalizing same-sex marriage during the upcoming constitutional reform process in July. Ms. Castro, the daughter of former President Raul Castro and a member of Cuba’s National Assembly, is a longtime advocate of LGBTQ rights on the island and director of the country’s National Center for Sex Education.

Luis Posada Carriles dead at 90

Luis Posada Carriles, a prominent and polemic opponent of Cuba’s Revolutionary government, died at a South Florida hospital Wednesday after a longtime battle with throat cancer, the Miami Herald reports.

Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile and former CIA agent, participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and was accused of planning and carrying out a number of attacks against Cuban targets, ranging from tourist facilities to Fidel Castro himself. He is perhaps best known for his alleged role in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger airliner, which killed all 73 on board. While Cuba’s government has referred to him as “a terrorist financed by the CIA,” Posada Carriles is revered by many of his generation in the U.S. Cuban exile community for his efforts to dismantle Cuba’s government.

UN group estimates U.S. embargo has cost Cuba $130 billion

Alicia Barcena, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), stated at the commission’s biennial meeting, held this year in Havana, that the “blockade has cost the Cuban people more than $130 billion at current prices,” Reuters reports.

Cuba has estimated a similar figure in the past. The UN has continuously adopted non-binding resolutions calling for an end to the embargo with nearly unanimous support.


Cubana Airlines flight crashes in Havana, killing over 100

A Cubana Airlines flight traveling from Havana to Holguín crashed into a field shortly after takeoff from José Martí International Airport May 18, instantly killing 110 of its 113 passengers, CNN reports.

Two of the survivors have since died from their injuries; the remaining survivor is in critical condition. The Boeing 737 plane was leased to Cubana Airlines by Mexican Charter company Damojh Airlines, and was the subject of past complaints, although there is no report yet on the exact cause of the crash. The aircraft was banned from Guyanese airspace after reports that it was being over-packed with luggage; Damojh airlines has come under fire in the past for insufficient maintenance.

Following the crash, Mexico suspended Demojh’s operations, and Mexican, Cuban, and U.S. authorities are in Havana to investigate further. President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited the scene shortly after the crash, which has become one of the first crises of his nascent presidency. The island began an official two-day period of mourning on Sunday.

Cuba’s sugar yield faces precipitous drops, possibly forcing imports

Cuba will produce just 1.1 million tons of raw sugar this season, a 40 percent drop over last year’s yield, Reuters reports.

The harvest, which typically runs from November through May, has been damaged by extensive rainfall this year. Reuters reports 2018 rainfall has been 46 percent greater than Cuba’s historic average for the first five months of the year; Cuba was forced to cancel 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.

The low yield may force Cuba to import sugar, which has historically been the country’s most important export product. Cuba has a standing agreement to sell China 400,000 tons of sugar each year, and reserves roughly 700,000 tons for the domestic market, according to Reuters.

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.


EU, Cuba hold first joint-council meeting, announce renewable energy deal

Cuba and the European Union held their first “joint-council” meeting since the EU normalized relations with Cuba last year, Reuters reports.

At the May 20 meeting, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced the EU and Cuba would sign an $18 million deal to finance renewable energy production on the island, as well as an agreement to provide Cuba with the funds for a “food security support program.” Ms. Mogherini also stated that the increase in trade relations between the two over the last year has made the EU Cuba’s largest trading partner, and that the two plan to hold future talks on issues including the U.S. embargo, non-proliferation, sustainable development, and human rights.

Cuba previously announced a “goal of getting a quarter of its energy from renewable sources by 2030,” as AFP reports. The country currently receives 95 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels.


Cuba Wars Redux, Daniel P. Erikson, Global Americans

Dan Erikson, a managing director at Blue Star Strategies and member of CDA’s Board of Directors, writes in the Global Americans blog that the White House’s decision to cancel a regular State Department briefing with Cuba experts, executed at the behest of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, “represents a potentially dangerous breach in the firewall between domestic politics and the intelligence community.”


Ballet Nacional de Cuba presents Giselle and Don Quixote, May 29-June, The Kennedy Center

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will host the National Ballet of Cuba on the heels of their “Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World” festival, where they will perform Alicia Alonso’s staging of the ballets Giselle and Don Quixote.

A Historic Music Festival Celebrates Cuba’s Vast Range, Marisa Arbona-Ruiz, NPR

NPR’s Marisa Arbona-Ruiz recaps the Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba festival, writing, “It was the Kennedy Center at its best, hosting an unprecedented — literally — array of Cuban arts, with co-curators Alicia Adams and Gilda Almeida building the country’s world-class musicians into a cultural bridge between our two nations.”

Cuba Central News Brief: 05/04/2018

May 4, 2018

Dear Friends,

Don’t miss the Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba Festival, May 8-20, in Washington, DC. A full list of events can be found here.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Sen. Rubio recommends engagement critic to head Cuba broadcast program

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has recommended former Miami mayor Tomás Pedro Regalado to head the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), the program that oversees initiatives including Radio and TV Martí, Politico reports. Regalado, who was born in Cuba, has in the past criticized U.S. engagement with the island. Senator Rubio is widely seen as the architect behind the Trump administration’s Cuba policy shift, and his recommendation will likely carry weight in the executive branch.

The OCB and its Martí outlets have a mission of promoting “freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming” and have been criticized in the U.S., including by a 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Print, for their high cost and lack of objectivity. Cuba’s government considers their activities, as well as USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion program, subversive initiatives designed to undermine Cuba’s sovereignty.

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposes to significantly cut funds for Radio and TV Martí and Martí Noticias, as well as the broader Office of Cuba Broadcasting, as we previously reported. The 2019 budget cuts are in line with proposed reductions in global democracy promotion programs, and likely do not represent a shift in the Administration’s approach to democracy promotion in Cuba.

Florida politicians protest Kennedy Center’s Cuban arts festival

Representatives Albio Sires (NJ-8), Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), as well as Florida Governor Rick Scott, wrote letters to the Kennedy Center and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticizing the Center’s upcoming Artes de Cuba festival.

In his letter to Secretary Pompeo, Governor Scott wrote that “many” of the participating artists are “known representatives of the dictatorship,” while the representatives’ letter to David Rubenstein and Deborah Rutter, respectively the chairman and president of the Kennedy Center, referred to the delegation as containing “many propagandists.” Meanwhile, in their letter to Secretary Pompeo, the representatives expressed concern that Cuban nationals must travel to a third country to apply for visas to the U.S., as the U.S. Embassy in Havana is not processing non-emergency visas due to its reduced staff size.

As the festival’s curator Alicia Adams told the Miami Herald this week, the event represents “cultural diplomacy . . . Arts are the best tool we have to bring people together.”

In Cuba

President Díaz-Canel, Raúl Castro oversee May Day celebration

Cuba held its annual International Worker’s Day celebration May 1, with over 900,000 participating in a parade in Havana and over 6.6 million Cubans taking part in celebrations nationwide, according to CubaDebate.

Newly-elected President Miguel Díaz-Canel and former-President Raúl Castro jointly led festivities in the capital. As Reuters reports, a keynote speech by Ulises Guilarte, head of the Cuban Workers’ Confederation, called on attendees to “to show our support” for President Díaz-Canel and Communist Party leader Raúl Castro, and said the celebration represented “the majority support of workers and the people for the updating of our socio-economic model.”

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

UN Secretary-General to visit Cuba for CEPAL meeting

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres will travel to Cuba for the 37th biennial meeting of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), EFE reports. The meeting will be held May 7-11 in Havana. At the meeting, which is ECLAC’s most important recurring event, the organization presents development proposals for each member country.

The trip marks Secretary-General Guterres’ first official visit to Cuba. Then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Havana in June 2016 for the signing of a ceasefire agreement between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

French, German companies negotiating on Cuba power plant

A group of international corporations, including France’s Total SA and German-based Siemens AG, is in negotiations to construct a natural gas power plant in Cuba’s Matanzas Bay, Reuters reports.

According to Reuters, the new plant could produce up to 600 megawatts of power, representing a significant increase for a country with a current national capacity of 6,000 megawatts. As Reuters writes, “Total [SA] would obtain the liquid gas from abroad, and then store, process and supply it to the plant, which would be built by Siemens.” The project would expand on a 2016 Memorandum of Understanding signed by Siemens and Cuba’s state energy entity Unión Eléctrica to develop the country’s energy and power sector.

In February, Cuba announced a $4 billion agreement with the European Union to promote renewable energy on the island, as we reported at the time. Cuba aims to generate 24 percent of the island’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030; at present, renewables account for less than 5 percent of Cuba’s electricity generation. Cuba’s dependence on Venezuelan oil shipments has contributed to its economic stagnation in recent months, as oil imports from Caracas have fallen 40 percent in total since 2014.

What We’re Watching

Cuba’s Public Health Approach to Dementia, Cuba Platform

The Platform for Innovation and Dialogue with Cuba releases the first in their series of “micros,” short videos that feature Cuba’s successful experiences working toward social, economic, and health equity, and stories about Cuban-global exchange.

What We’re Reading

A Cuba without a Castro, Vicki Huddleston, The Globe and Mail

Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, writes, “My personal experiences in Cuba led me to the realization that repeating a failed policy time and time again will not lead to a different outcome.”

Marine Ecology and Conservation in Cuba, Bulletin of Marine Science

The Bulletin of Marine Science announces, “A new special issue on the ecology and conservation of Cuba’s coastal and marine ecosystems . . . that celebrates science and conservation efforts, but also warns of potential future risks.

The can’t-miss shows of the Kennedy Center’s unprecedented Cuba festival, Peggy McGlone, The Washington Post

Washington Post reporter Peggy McGlone outlines some of the highlights from the Kennedy Center’s upcoming Artes de Cuba festival, from a car-themed art exhibit to a female rap duo.

This is the incredible story of Cuba’s first independent fashion label, Niloufar Haidari, Vice UK

Vice UK speaks with the team behind trendy Cuban shop Clandestina.


Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World, May 8-20, The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC

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.

Jornada contra la Homofobia y la Transfobia, May 4-18

Friday marked the beginning of Cuba’s annual two-week celebration in advance of the May 17 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The country’s activities, which have a different theme each year, center this year on preventing homophobia and transphobia in schools.