CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: 05/25/2018

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

“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.

IN CUBA

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.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

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.

RECOMMENDED READING

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.”

EVENTS IN WASHINGTON, D.C

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.”

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