U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 04/12/2019

Dear friends,

This week, in Cuba news…


Trump administration cancels Major League Baseball deal with Cuba

On Monday, the Trump administration declared a deal between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) to be illegal, the Washington Post reports. The deal, signed in December, would have allowed Cuban baseball players to play in the U.S. and Canada without having to defect to seek residency abroad, as we reported then.*

In response, MLB Vice President Michael Teevan said, “We stand by the goal of the agreement, which is to end the human trafficking of baseball players from Cuba.” The Washington Post quotes a senior administration official speaking on anonymity who said that “the payments were illegal under U.S. sanctions because the federation is part of the Cuban government.” According to NPR, Senator Marco Rubio “lobbied to end the agreement, arguing that the Cuban Baseball Federation is part of the Cuban government.” In 2016, the MLB received permission from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to start the negotiations with the FCB. Ben Rhodes, a former Obama White House official, referred to the cancellation as indefensible, cruel and pointless, saying it “achieve(s) nothing beyond appeasing hard-line factions in Florida.”

The agreement was celebrated by the players themselves, who cheered that Cuban players would have no longer been subjected to exploitation by smugglers and traffickers who have preyed upon Cuban defectors in the past. Former Miami Marlins president, David Samson, stated in an interview the reversal of the policy is a major step backward and will expose the Cuban player to human trafficking again.

The announcement came just days after FCB released the first group of Cuban players allowed to sign direct contracts with the MLB, as we reported last week.

*Read CDA’s statement on the December 2018 MLB deal here.

New U.S. Sanctions Seek to Block Venezuelan Oil Shipments to Cuba

The NY Times reports on the Trump administration’s latest round of economic sanctions against Venezuela, this time aimed at oil shipments between Venezuela and Cuba. The Trump administration has increased its criticism of Cuba, asserting the government is propping up Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced last week in Houston that the U.S. will be levying sanctions on 34 vessels owned or operated by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) as well as two international companies that transport Venezuelan crude oil to Cuba. According to senior administration officials, the goal of the sanctions is to “force a recalibration of the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba,” which alongside China and Russia have been defending the Maduro government.

In response to the sanctions, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said that the country will “fulfill its commitments” to Cuba despite the U.S. sanctions, although he did not reveal the “strategy” Venezuela would implement to ensure oil shipments make it to the island. Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel called the sanctions “an act of extraterritoriality, interference and imperial arrogance.” According to the Washington Post, Venezuela once supplied Cuba with up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day, but that amount has dropped to no more than 50,000 barrels each day.

On Wednesday, days after the sanctions were imposed, Venezuela shipped 1 million barrels of oil to Cuba, Reuters reports, which it did so via two ships that were reportedly not among the 34 sanctioned vessels.

Inspired by migrant caravans, new wave of Cubans seek U.S. asylum

Reuters reports on the new wave of Cubans that are seeking asylum in the U.S. via the U.S.-Mexico border. Two years since the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy that allowed Cubans arriving irregularly by land to establish residency in the U.S., would-be Cuban migrants are looking for new routes to reach the country. In the midst of a surge in Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing from gang-related violence, systemic corruption and widespread poverty, many Cubans have flocked to northern Mexico to join the migrant caravans that share the same hope of being admitted into the U.S. The director of the state commission for population, Enrique Valenzuela, says that in Ciudad Juarez alone, Cubans represent 75 to 80 percent of some 3,600 migrants who have to wait approximately two months before being able to apply for asylum. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in the first five months of the 2019 fiscal year, 6,289 Cubans presented at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border without the proper documentation— a number that is on track to nearly double the total for fiscal year 2018. As shelters become increasingly overwhelmed, Reuters notes that shelter directors are expressing concern over the addition of Cuban migrants who, along with Central Americans, are vulnerable to disappearances and kidnappings.


Cuba’s national assembly enacts the new constitution; Raúl Castro says Cuba will not abandon Venezuela despite U.S. ‘blackmail’

On Wednesday, Cuba’s national assembly enacted the country’s new constitution, Reuters reports. On February 24, 90.15 percent of eligible Cuban voters participated in a national referendum to decide on a new Constitution and the Constitution was ratified with the support of 86.85 percent of voters; roughly nine percent voted against the proposal, we reported then. The new constitution formalizes a number of current laws, common practices, modernizes the governance structure by reestablishing the position of Prime Minister, and introduces new guarantees and rights for Cuban citizens. The approved document also recognizes private property, promotes foreign investment and strengthens the authority of local governments.

Among the main controversies in the lead-up to the vote in February was the dissent led by some religious groups who opposed a provision included in the first draft that opened the door to recognizing same-sex marriage, as we reported then. The approved final version does not contain language on marriage. The government announced that same-sex marriage will be reconsidered within two years in a national referendum of Cuba’s Family Code. The passing of the new constitution responds to Cuba’s current  socioeconomic reality and is expected to be followed by discussions on implementing legislation on a wide range of issues including a new electoral law.

In a speech during the ceremony, Raúl Castro, Cuba’s former president and current leader of the Communist Party, expressed that the island would never abandon Venezuela despite U.S. “blackmail”, even as the Trump administration threatens more sanctions over its support, Reuters reports.

Cuba begins distributing PrEP through pilot program

Under a pilot program that began last month in the city of Cárdenas, the Cuban government has begun to distribute PrEP- a powerful HIV prevention tool and can be combined with condoms and other prevention methods to provide even greater protection than when used alone, the Washington Blade reports. The program was launched in collaboration with the Pan-American Health Organization and is a long way from Cuban policy, which, less than three decades ago, forcibly quarantined people infected with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria. Since then, in 2015, Cuba became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. The National Center for Sexual Education directed by Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro, has also launched HIV/AIDS programs that feature members of the LGBTQ+ community as well as the distribution of condoms and lube across the country.

In possible first, Cuba allows march by animal activists

AP reports on what’s believed to be the first independent march authorized by the Communist Party in Cuba. On Sunday, hundreds of Cubans accompanied by their pets marched peacefully through Havana calling for an end to animal cruelty. The article acknowledges that authorities still hold a firm line against opposition attempts to hold demonstrations and detain dissidents who they claim are subversives in the pay of the U.S. government. However, Beatriz Batista, who organized and received the permit for the march, expresses optimism in that “this could be the new Cuba.” According to Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, who participated in the march, most state-run media neglected to cover the historic event, a fact that Rodríguez calls a lost opportunity.

Cubans told to expect more shortages of food and other goods

Cuba’s Communist Party leader and former president Raul Castro, speaking Wednesday in a ceremony to mark the enactment of Cuba’s new constitution, told the Cuban people to expect more shortages of food and other goods due to increased U.S. pressure, AP reports. In recent months, Cubans have reportedly had difficulty finding goods such as eggs, cooking oil, flour, and chicken, and last week, as we reported at the time, the state-run newspaper Granma reduced the number of pages of its print medium due to a paper shortage on the island. Castro told the crowd, “It’s not about returning to the harshest phase of the Special Period of the ’90s.” “Today it’s a different scenario in terms of the diversification of the economy, although we do have to be prepared for the worst,” Castro added. Since 2017, U.S. policies have made travel to and trade with the island nation more difficult, and, just last week, the U.S. government enacted sanctions targeting oil exports from Venezuela to Cuba in an attempt to “force a recalibration of the relationship” between the countries.

Cuba’s Interior Trade Minister, Betsy Díaz Velázquez, announced yesterday during a parliament session that the government will expand access to wholesale markets to non-agricultural cooperatives that work in food services and to other private businesses, Agencia Cubana de Noticias reports. The new measure is set to start with three pilot programs in the Cuban municipalities of Viñales, Cárdenas and Trinidad. In March, 2018, Cuba opened the country’s first wholesale outlet in Havana to supply formerly state-run restaurants that converted to cooperatives, as we reported then. The move was reportedly made to help the struggling co-ops fill their quotas of supplies without having to turn to expensive state retail markets where private restaurants must buy their supplies. Reuters reports that Cuban officials are also considering methods like hutias (a rodent native to Cuba) and ostrich farms, as means to resolving food shortages. The reports prompted a number of viral jokes and comedic commentary among Cubans active on social media.


Cuba’s President holds meeting with Ghanian counterpart; Cuba to build malaria insecticide plant in Ghana

On Wednesday, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel met with Ghanian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo while he visited Cuba during a weeklong trip to the U.S. and the Caribbean. During the meeting, the leaders discussed the positive and historic bilateral relations between their countries, and shared and reaffirmed their interest in promoting political ties and collaboration, among other relevant topics. The most significant result of this diplomatic encounter was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding for Labiofam S.A. of Cuba to set up a malaria insecticide plant in Ghana’s Northern Region that will target the larval life stage of mosquitos. According to APA News, malaria accounts for over 70 percent of Out Patients Department (OPD) cases in Ghana. President Nana Addo said that an agreement was also reached with the Stella S.A. chocolate factory in Cuba to import cocoa liquor from Ghana to boost the country’s cocoa industry as well as to examine the possibility for Stella S.A. to establish a manufacturing facility in Ghana.


Trump Administration’s Nixing Of MLB Player Transfer Deal With Cuba Is Bad Policy, Andrew Zimbalist, Forbes

Following the cancellation of the Major League Baseball deal with Cuba, Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist describes the advantages of the agreement with Cuba, including ending the human trafficking of Cuban baseball players.

Cuba Has a New Constitution. What Happens Next?, Teresa García Castro and Raudiel Barrios, WOLA

The two Cuba experts at the DC-based Washington Office on Latin America consider that Cuba’s new constitution introduces “significant changes to Cuba’s economic, political, and social model” and that “Cuba will have to make significant changes to its legal framework, ranging from a new Electoral Law to a new Family Code, within a two-year period.” The authors explain the most important changes to the constitution as well as the shortcoming and challenges ahead.

Abejas zumban libres de riesgos en Cuba y su miel endulza a Europa, Rigoberto Díaz, El Nuevo Herald

Across the world the population of bees has been gradually declining over the last few decades due to the effects of climate change, intensified large-scale agriculture, and the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers. Nonetheless, in Cuba, bees have found a diet rich in wild flowers that allows for the production of high quality honey increasingly demanded by European consumers. In 2018, Cuba produced 8,834 tons of honey, more than a thousand tons over the amount originally projected by Cuba’s Beekeeping Company.

Bacardi Aims For Broadway With ‘Truth’ Of Cuban Exile, Fred Minnick, Forbes

A new play premiered this week in Miami that seeks to tell the story of 1957 Cuba through the eyes of the Arechabala family, the exiled founders of the Cuban rum brand Havana Club. The play, AMPARO, is commissioned by Bacardi, the family-owned spirits company that sells a brand of Havana Club and has an ongoing battle for trademark ownership rights with the brand of Havana Club owned in part by Pernod Ricard and is sold throughout most of the world. AMPARO was created by Vanessa Garcia who has made a career telling Cuban stories, including the 2015 novel White Light, which was the recipient of the International Latino Book Award.


A Cuba Compendium, April 13-27, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This anthology of new and old cinematic interpretations includes a compelling variety of ideas, approaches, styles, and understandings concerning the great Caribbean landmass just off the southern coast of the United States. Inspiring everything from an exuberant love letter to a fictional foray to an essayistic tract, the enigmatic island nation of Cuba continues to fascinate artistic sensibilities both within and beyond its borders.

Howard University’s Afro-Cuba Lecture Series, April 16 and 22, Washington, D.C.

The Department of World Languages and Cultures is presenting the Afro-Cuba Lecture Series featuring Obsesión, notable hip-hop duo; Robert Zurbano Torres, analyst, editor, and critical expert in literature, race and alternative music; and Cuban musician Cimafunk, named by Billboard as a “Top 10 Latin Artist to Watch in 2019.” All lectures will be held at the Ralph Bunch International Affairs Center, located at 2218 6th St., NW. For questions and further information contact: Dr. Aisha Z. Cort (aisha.cort@howard.edu).

Cuba Caribe Festival, April 10-14, San Francisco, CA

The 15th annual Cuba Caribe Festival will be celebrating the vibrant cultural and artistic traditions of the Caribbean and its Diaspora. Special focus this year the Cuban social dances Danzón, Mambo, Chachachá, Son, Rumba and Conga, and Cuban influences on Spanish Flamenco.

Havana Biennial 2019, April 12- May 12, 2019, Havana, Cuba

The 13th Havana Biennial, the largest visual arts event in Cuba, will be held from April 12 to May 12, 2019, with the commitment that the capital city of the island become a “cultural corridor.” More than 100 exhibitions from 852 artists, mostly Cuban, will be showcased in studios and public spaces across the city of Havana.

Zilia Sánchez: Soy Isla (I Am an Island), until May 19, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

The exhibition traces Sánchez’s artistic journey from her early days in Cuba to her extended visits to Europe and residence in New York, and finally her move to Puerto Rico, where she now lives and works. The exhibition title, I Am an Island,​ serves as a personal metaphor for Sanchez’s experience as an islander—connected to and disconnected from both the mainland and mainstream art currents.

Cuban American Youth Orchestra, Juntos en Armonía Tour, May 20-27, 2019, Havana, Cuba

CAYO embarks on its first full orchestra tour. Under the leadership of conductor James Ross, CAYO’s program will showcase the world premiere of a new composition by Guido López-Gavilán. Building on the success of pilot programs conducted over the past year, CAYO’s inaugural tour harnesses the power of cultural diplomacy to support Cuban musicians and promote harmony and understanding between the U.S. and its long-estranged neighbor.

One of Those Havana Nights, May 23 to 27, Teatro Bellas Artes and Teatro Mella, Havana, Cuba

Tim McGraw will be in Havana for the first time ever! The Grammy Award-winning superstar will perform two unique acoustic shows during the trip at Teatro Bellas Artes and at renowned Teatro Mella. Tim will be joined by some amazing Cuban artists, including Carlos Varela, Tradicionales de los 50, and the GRAMMY® Award-winning Cuban music legends Los Van Van.

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