This week, in Cuba news…
The U.S. State Department lowered its Cuba travel advisory from a level 3 (reconsider travel) to a level 2 (exercise increased caution). The announcement came Thursday, a couple of weeks in advance of the advisory’s scheduled six-month review, and suggests the Department’s assessment that the health incidents experienced by U.S. personnel in the embassy community do not pose significant risks to general travelers. The travel advisory reiterates recommendations that U.S. travelers avoid Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri, where some U.S. personnel report experiencing incidents. The travel advisory text states, “employees appear to have been targeted in specific attacks.” As we reported previously, one U.S. official from the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China, has been medically confirmed to have symptoms similar to those experienced by 26 U.S. personnel in Havana. Others from Guangzhou are reportedly undergoing testing. In the China context, the Department references “incidents” rather than “attacks.”
At the request of Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) prepared a memorandum on the impact of the reduction personnel in the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Reuters reports the note confirms that several diplomatic activities such as efforts to monitor Cuba’s political environment, engage with human rights activists, and conduct consular operations are severely affected by lack of personnel. The report informs that the amount of U.S. diplomatic personnel is down from 50 to current “essential personnel” levels, a maximum of 18, although at some point there have been 14 diplomats, the Miami Herald writes. Moreover, several positions are filled by retired State Department personnel on special assignment or temporary duty personnel.
As a consequence of the drawdown, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has not issued any refugee visas since the halt to visa processing almost a year ago. As we reported previously, the U.S. government withdrew most of its personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana after two dozen U.S. diplomats experienced unusual symptoms. Last week, POLITICO reported that the State Department is limiting the tours of Foreign Service Officers stationed in Cuba to one year. Such short-duration tours are usually reserved for wartorn or other hardship diplomatic posts.
U.S. and Cuba strengthen law enforcement cooperation
Despite the renewed tension in the U.S.-Cuba bilateral relationship, the two countries continue to cooperate on law enforcement matters. Recent collaboration has led to a conviction in Cuba and the detention of a U.S. fugitive from justice, on the run for 12 years. On August 10, the FBI announced that Cuban authorities had arrested and deported to the U.S. Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, a fugitive linked to a domestic eco-terrorist group. Mr. Dibee, who fled the U.S. in 2005, was traveling from Central America to Russia with a planned stop in Cuba. Federal authorities informed their counterparts in the island, and authorities worked together to detain him and return him to the United States.
Additionally, the Miami Herald reports that a Cuban man was tried in May by a Cuban court, with the help of U.S. prosecutors, for the killing of a Palm Beach County doctor in 2015. The individual fled to Cuba after committing the crime. The Cuban criminal code does not allow Cubans to be extradited to another nation, but, in an unprecedented move, Cuban authorities tried Marcos Yanes Gutierrez for a crime committed in the United States using evidence provided by Palm Beach County prosecutors. Mr. Yanes Gutierrez was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Dave Aronberg, State Attorney for Palm Beach County, tweeted he was “honored” to have played a role in the case. In another unrelated case, the Miami Herald reports a Miami-Dade judge admitted the statement of a farmer in Cuba via pre-recorded Whatsapp videos.
In a week where U.S. authorities worked with Facebook to ban Iranian and Russian-backed Facebook accounts with aims of spreading disinformation in the United States, the Miami New Times reports of U.S. government plans to use the social media platform to disseminate political information in Cuba. The programs, prepared out of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), were to use “native” and “non-branded” Facebook accounts to share U.S. government content and foment dissent, without disclosing the origin of the content, but an OCB spokesperson says the programs “never got off the ground.” The plans were described in the office’s budget documents submitted to the U.S. Congress and are reminiscent of other failed attempts to use U.S. government funding and platforms to promote democracy in Cuba, such as the infamous U.S.-created Twitter-like platform, ZunZuneo. Members of Congress from both parties, including Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) and Congresswoman Betty McCollum (MN-4), have called OCB programs counterproductive and a waste of taxpayer money. OCB operates Radio and TV Martí and is run by former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
Survivor of plane crash in Cuba faces arduous road to recovery
The sole survivor of the May 18 plane crash in Havana, Mailén Díaz Almaguer, has been transferred to Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras for rehabilitation therapy, Granma reports. Doctors tending to the young woman told Juventud Rebelde that one of her legs was amputated below the knee. The Miami Herald reports that two black boxes, recovered from the plane crash, were sent to Washington, D.C., to be analyzed at the National Transportation Safety Board’s recorder lab.
Reuters reports farmers in Cuba are skeptical that plans to recognize private property in Cuba, currently undergoing debate in Cuba’s constitutional reform process, will equate to significant economic gain. The farmers interviewed for the report cite ongoing inefficiencies, such as access to petroleum, currency controls, and lack of private credit, as impediments to growth. As we reported previously, Cuba’s government recently announced plans to increase the amount of land allowable per lease and the duration of contracts. Additionally, the constitution draft, expected to be finalized in February 2019, would recognize private property. However, according to the article, some economists signal that inefficiencies in land production will remain as farmers in Cuba still lack modern equipment, seeds, and fertilizers. In 2017, Mundubat, a Basque Country-based NGO with ties to Cuban institutions, issued a report claiming that 57 percent of Cuba’s agricultural harvest is lost in the distribution chain, OnCuba reported.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
North Korea’s Vice President visits Cuba
Choe Ryong Hae, North Korea’s Vice President of the State Committee, visited Cuba this week, Prensa Latina reports. Mr. Choe was received by Cuba’s First Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa and Foreign Affairs Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, in separate meetings. As we have reported, Mr. Chloe is not the first North Korean official to visit Havana in recent months; North Korea’s Foreign Minister led a delegation to the island in early July. Yonhap, a South Korean news agency, reports that some watchers speculate that North Korean officials are traveling to countries like Cuba and Iran to shore up friendships around the world.
Earlier this month, the governments of Canada and Cuba signed an agreement to cooperate to combat sex trafficking. The AP reports the agreement provides a framework for greater information sharing, joint investigations, and prosecution of suspects by either country. Canada is the country that sends the most tourists to Cuba, with over a million visitors every year.
Russia has allocated $9.6 million to restore the golden dome of the Havana Capitol building in advance of the city’s 500th anniversary of its founding. The Capitol has a strikingly similar design to the U.S. Capitol, and, in a point of pride for many Cubans, stands 12 feet taller. It was built in 1929 during the government of General Gerardo Machado y Morales and housed Cuba’s legislative branch. After 1959, the government used the Capitol building for the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and the Ministry of Sciences, Technology and Environment. In 2013, then-president Raúl Castro announced that the Capitol would be the home of the National Assembly, which sparked some rumors about a possible reduction in size of the National Assembly (currently at 605 Deputies).
In June, Ricardo Cabrisas, Vice President of the Council of Ministers, met Russian Sen. Sergei Kalashnikov, first Vice President of Russia’s Economic Policy Committee. During their conversation, Granma reports, they discussed Russia’s support to restore the Capitol’s Dome.
US Investment Climate in Cuba May Be Improving, Anya Landau French, Melissa Schwartz, Wynn Segall and Dallas Woodrum, Daily Business Review
Members of the Cuba Practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLC assert there are significant opportunities to invest in Cuba and to do so in alignment with policy priorities of both Cuba and the United States.
Cuba’s 3G Mobile Access Trial – Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty? Larry Page, Circle ID
Page assesses Cuba’s recent 9-hour, nationwide test of 3G mobile Internet access in Cuba. During the test, users in select areas with compatible phones were able to access the Internet free of charge.
As Cuba proposes new constitution, government must support economy, John Caulfield, The Hill
Former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, John Caulfield, talks about economic opportunities for average Cubans. Mr. Caulfield writes that the Cuban government should further facilitate the activity of entrepreneurs in the island, and suggests that economic stagnation and the end of the U.S. “wet foot, dry foot” policy will increase pressure for internal changes.
Harlem/Havana Music and Cultural Festival 2018, July 18th-August 31, New York
An educational and cultural initiative between New York and Cuba, the festival includes works by Cuban musicians, dancers, artists fashion designers, and chefs. See the schedule here.
Manuel Mendive’s exhibition Nature, Spirit, and Body, August 1-November 4, Bronx Museum of the Arts
First premiering at the Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba Festival, Cuban artist Manuel Mendive’s artwork is now on display at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. His work is inspired by African oral traditions and their influence on Cuba.
MEDICC A Healthy Cuba Healthy World Conference: Celebrating History, Community & Culture, December 5-10, Meliã Santiago Hotel in Santiago de Cuba
MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba), a non-profit that strives to foster collaboration between the medical community in the U.S. and Cuba will host a 20th-anniversary conference in Cuba in December.
FYI: Check out the Facebook account of the Platform for Innovation & Dialogue with Cuba. The Platform for Innovation and Dialogue with Cuba (“the Cuba Platform”) is led by CDA’s founding Executive Director Sarah Stephens and aims to foster conversation and collaboration with Cuba and the Atlantic Fellows.