U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 05/17/2019

Dear friends,

Join us! We have limited tickets remaining for an intimate concert Monday evening, May 20, in Washington, DC. CDA is THRILLED to host Latin Grammy-award winning artist Aymée Nuviola at our Spring Celebration, where we will celebrate U.S.-Cuba cultural ties during a tough policy environment. RSVP for payment instructions at info@democracyinamericas.org or call us at (202) 234-5506. Tickets are $100 per person.

The U.S.-Cuba Business Council (USCBC) cordially invites you to participate in an off-the-record conversation on the opportunities and challenges for commercial engagement in Cuba. This event will feature congressional leaders, business executives, policy and legal experts for off-the-record discussions on the bilateral relationship (including CDA’s Emily Mendrala), the island’s emerging private sector, and the current legal framework, among other topics. See full agenda here.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

US targets shippers for bringing Venezuela oil to Cuba

Last Friday, the U.S. imposed sanctions on two new shipping companies for delivering Venezuelan oil to Cuba, AFP reports. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Monsoon Navigation Corp., headquartered in the Marshall Islands, and Liberian-based Serenity Maritime Ltd. for owning ships involved in oil transfers that took place through March. As we previously reported, the Trump administration enacted sanctions on more than 30 vessels to “force a recalibration of the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba;” the administration criticizes Cuba, alongside China and Russia, for propping up Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

Cuban ambassador tours Key West to celebrate common culture

Cuban Ambassador to the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, traveled to Key West this week on a cultural visit that included meetings with Mayor Teri Johnston and city commissioners as well as an official proclamation that deemed Cuba and Key West “sister islands,”  Miami Herald  reports. Commenting on the purpose of the trip, Cabañas told a WLRN reporter that “There’s a large Cuban-American population in Key West. We know we have many friends. And that we will have the opportunity to meet local officials, business people and our Cuban community here.” Cabañas went on to add, “as neighbors, they feel very, very close. We welcome a lot of visitors from this part of Florida as well as the western part of Florida, Tampa, Ybor City, St. Petersburg, considering the cultural links and the historical links we have.” According to WLRN, after President Obama resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Key Westers started looking to renew those ties, including a plan to remodel the city’s ferry terminal for international travel. Ambassador Cabañas shared details of his trip to Key West via Twitter.

US Lawmakers Introduce Draft Bill on Agricultural Exports to Cuba

On Tuesday, U.S. Senators John Boozman (AR) and Michael Bennet (CO) introduced the Agricultural Export Expansion Act (S.1447), a bill to remove restrictions to private financing for U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, Prensa Latina reports. Under current law, U.S. farmers may sell agricultural products to Cuba, but U.S. statute requires they receive “cash in advance,” limiting the farmers’ ability to offer competitive credit terms. The Engage Cuba coalition and entities in Arkansas and Colorado expressed their support for the introduction of the bill to expand agricultural exports to the Caribbean island. Engage Cuba President, James Williams said, “as U.S. producers across sectors struggle with sluggish markets and Chinese tariffs, it’s time we move this bad policy out of the way of our farmers, who deserve to be able to compete on equal ground for market share in Cuba.”

IN CUBA

Cuban LGBT activists defy government, hold unprecedented indie pride parade

Reuters reports that, despite the state-run National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) having canceled Cuba’s annual parade (known as conga) against homophobia just a few days before, non-governmental actors organized an independent LGBTQ+ march that took place on Saturday. According to Reuters, more than a hundred Cubans chanting “long live a diverse Cuba” and carrying rainbow flags joyfully marched nearly one kilometer (0.6 mile) from Havana’s Central Park down to the seafront boulevard before being stopped by dozens of security officials, where at least three activists were arrested by plainclothes policemen. Independent journalist and LGBTQ+ activist Maykel Gonzalez Vivero said, “this moment marks a before and an after for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community but also for Cuban civil society more generally.” Vivero also noted that “Social media is playing its role and civil society demonstrated it has strength, and can go out onto the streets if necessary, and from now on the government will have to take that into account.” CENESEX attributed the official conga’s cancellation to certain groups that allegedly planned on using the event to undermine the government, emboldened by the escalation of aggression by the Trump administration against Cuba and its ally Venezuela. However, Reuters reports that many LGBTQ+ activists felt the government was reacting more to pressure from evangelical churches, which have a growing following in Cuba and have campaigned against the expansion of gay rights. CENESEX and Mariela Castro through Facebook denounced both the independent parade and the failure of the international press to cover other CENESEX-organized events that were taking place at the same time.

Two days following the independent march, Travel Pulse reported that Cuba will soon be getting its first LGBTQ+ inclusive hotel in Cayo Guillermo, likely a joint venture including Cuba’s Gaviota Group.

Cuba launches widespread rationing in face of crisis

AP News reports on a widespread rationing of chicken, eggs, rice, beans, soap, and other basic products in the midst of worsening economic conditions in Cuba. Cuba’s Commerce Minister, Betsy Díaz Velázquez, told Cuban News Agency that this is a result from the hardening of the U.S. trade embargo by the Trump administration. At the same time, AP News notes that economists give equal or greater blame to a plunge in aid from Venezuela. According to AP News, Cuba imports roughly two-thirds of its food at an annual cost of more than $2 billion. A month ago we reported on Raul Castro’s announcement telling Cubans to brace for more shortages, after months of difficulty finding a variety of goods, from cooking oil to a paper shortage that led the state-run newspaper Granma to reduce the number of pages of its print medium.

Cashiers at a shopping center in Havana told AP News that they received orders on Friday to limit powdered milk to four packets per person, sausages to four packs per person, and peas to five packets per person. The latest shortages and rationing appear to mark the end of a phase of relative prosperity but conditions are reportedly not close to the deprivation of what is known as Cuba’s “special period,” when the Cuban economy crashed with the fall of the Soviet Union. AP News explains that every Cuban receives a ration book that allows them to buy small quantities of basic goods in food stores that are government-run and sell products that range in price from highly subsidized to wildly overpriced. AP News points out that the rationing measures can be expected to have a serious impact on private business owners who often buy goods at state stores in the absence of access to a wholesale market. In addition to the rations, Reuters reports that the Cuban sugar harvest for 2019 is set to fall short of the originally forecasted 1.5 million metric tons, which will further complicate the already struggling economy.

Cuba says Boeing 737 plane crash last year likely due to crew errors

An investigation into the crash a year ago in Havana of a Boeing 737 jet that killed all but one of the 113 people aboard suggests errors by the crew, who died in the crash, was most likely to blame, Reuters reports. The Cuban Institute of Civil Aeronautics said in a statement, “the most probable cause of the accident were the actions of the crew and their errors in the calculations of weight and balance that led to loss of control of the plane and its fall during the takeoff phase.” The 39-year-old plane, leased by Mexican company Damojh to Cuba’s flagship carrier Cubana, dived into fields south of Havana shortly after taking off on a domestic flight on May 18, 2018. According to Reuters, Damojh has not operated since at least August 2018, after Mexico’s civil aviation authority suspended it for several months. By the time the agency finished probing into the company’s operations, Damojh had ended all contracts to rent and operate its two remaining planes.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba, Canada foreign ministers discuss resolving Venezuela crisis

Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, visited Cuba Thursday to discuss the crisis in Venezuela as well as U.S. sanctions against the island and the implementation of Title III of Helms Burton, the provision recently enacted by the U.S. government to allow suits in U.S. courts against entities believed to be “trafficking in confiscated property.” The visit takes place just two weeks after Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, initially reached out to Diaz-Canel on behalf of the Lima Group as they continue to seek a solution to the Venezuelan crisis. Following the meeting, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said in a tweet, “Cuba ratifies its willingness to contribute to initiatives that promote respectful dialogue with the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Freeland’s visit also happened to coincide with the first round of talks between Venezuela’s government and opposition in Norway. According to Reuters, Freeland also visited the Canadian Embassy in Havana, which has been reduced to skeletal staffing levels after numerous diplomats experienced unexplained symptoms over the last two years.

Al-Shabab demands Sh150m ransom for kidnapped Cubans

Standard Digital reports that suspected Al-Shabab militants who abducted two Cuban doctors are demanding Sh150 million (around 1.5 million USD) in ransom. As we previously reported, Cuban doctors Assel Herrera Correa and Landy Rodriguez Hernandez were abducted over a month ago in the Mandera County of northern Kenya by the Somalia-based extremist group, Al-Shabab. According to Standard Digital, after days of negotiations, community elders from Mandera and Bulahawo in Somalia who travelled to the area confirmed that the two are alive and offering treatment to the community in a restricted environment. However, other reports say the abduction was actually carried out by bandits who subsequently handed over the doctors to Al-Shabab, which now seek ransom from the group of elders who are allegedly being used as proxies. Standard Digital explains that the bandits most likely acted in response to a business rivalry that emerged in Mandera when the arrival of the Cuban doctors caused a drop of medical services in the area.  Following the abduction, Cuban doctors in Wajir, Garissa and Tana River were recalled and reassigned to other countries, Standard Digital reports.

Burgeoning numbers of Cubans trying to enter US via Mexico

AP News reports on the rapidly increasing number of Cuban nationals seeking entry into the U.S. via Mexico, with approximately 4,500 asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez alone. The recent months’ surge has reportedly been propelled in part by loosened travel restrictions for Cubans in Central America and deteriorating living conditions in Cuba. Enrique Valenzuela, an official of Mexico’s Chihuahua state, told AP News that “It’s a bottleneck with an opening that is getting smaller.”

The “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, which almost automatically admitted any Cuban who reached American soil, ended in 2017. Its termination has reportedly driven Cubans to this other option: reaching the U.S.-Mexico border and claiming asylum. The Cuban Adjustment Act remains in effect; the U.S. law opens a path to citizenship for Cubans legally resident in the U.S. for over one year. According to AP News, in the past Cubans seeking to enter through the southern border generally flew to South America and tried to come into the U.S. at Laredo, Texas, whereas now many are using a relatively new and shorter route: they fly to Panama or Nicaragua, pay smugglers to help them reach the U.S. border, and seek to come across at El Paso. In fact, Nicaraguan officials reported this week a 900 percent increase in Cuban visits from all of 2018 some to buy hard-to-find goods for resale in Cuba while others embark on an overland trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported that between October and April, 10,910 Cubans came through official crossings along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, compared to 7,079 in the previous 12 months.

Cuba busca inversiones de Eslovaquia

The governments of Cuba and Slovakia signed an agreement on Monday that seeks to promote investment on the island, On Cuba News reports. The agreement was signed in Havana by Cuban Vice-president, Ricardo Cabrisas, and Slovakia’s Deputy Minister of Investment and Informatization, Richard Raši. Moreover, the agreement also seeks to consolidate existing economic relations between both countries and promote scientific and technological collaboration.

RECOMMENDED READINGS

Editorial: Rick Scott’s Reckless, Inaccurate Rhetoric

In this editorial, the authors assert, “[Senator Rick] Scott is wrong to call the recent visit to Cuba by Crist, D-St. Petersburg, ‘an absolute disgrace’ and to make the ridiculous claim that ‘the money he and any staff spent in Havana was sent to Caracas to keep Maduro and his brutal regime in power.’ It is wise to try to maintain reasonable relations with Cuba, and Crist’s trip was perfectly legitimate.” Following a Tampa Bay Times article entitled “Charlie Crist quietly visited Cuba as tensions over Venezuela escalated,” Senator Rick Scott released a statement criticizing the St. Petersburg-area Congressman and former Governor.

Was it an Invisible Attack on U.S. Diplomats, or Something Stranger?, Dan Hurley, The New York Times Magazine

Hurley writes that, two and a half years after the first diplomats in Havana said they heard strange sounds and fell ill, and after at least six visits to Cuba by the FBI, the study by University of Pennsylvania researchers, another study led by the otolaryngologist at the University of Miami, and a consuming investigation by a “health incidents response task force” organized by the State Department, the claims of an attack by an invisible weapon remain not only unproved but also highly contested by prominent physicists and engineers in the U.S. and abroad.

Sanctions on Cuba will only slow regime change, The Economist

The article argues that the Trump administration’s offensive against Cuba will most likely not bring about a change in regime, given that the island has already survived six decades of American sanctions. On the contrary, Trump’s assault on Cuba is only causing the government to become increasingly rigid in its resistance.

A New Leader, at Last, to Bring Cuban Ballet Into the Future, Brian Seibert, The New York Times

Viengsay Valdés, a star ballerina and hometown hero, assumes leadership role at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, a position  held by 98-year-old founder Alicia Alonso since 1948. Valdés’ appointment is expected to bring a modern touch to the company, which for a long time has been viewed as an “institution stuck in the past.”

Cuban Immigrants Were Given A Haven In The U.S.; Now They’re Being Deported, Daniel Rivero, NPR

NPR reports on the new deportation phenomenon that many Cuban immigrants in the U.S. are increasingly facing following the elimination of the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot policy” under President Obama, which for two decades had allowed Cuban nationals to stay in the U.S. even if they arrived illegally.

Cubans and Americans Caught in the Political Crossfire, Anne Hobson and Stefanie Haeffele, The Bridge

Hobson and Haeffele argue that the Trump administration’s crackdown on Cuba and the increased sanctions on the island are a “blunt economic sledgehammer aimed at political ends.” They assert that it is not the Cuban government who will bear the brunt of the costs, but rather, the Cuban people, American travelers, and the nascent Cuban private sector that will be hit the hardest.

EVENTS

CDA Spring Celebration, May 20, Washington, DC

Join us for CDA’s Spring Celebration to celebrate U.S.-Cuba cultural ties! The event will feature a special performance by Latin-Grammy award winning artist, Aymée Nuviola! Honorary Co-Chairs: Senator Patrick Leahy and Rep. Tom Emmer. Tickets are $100 per person. Please RSVP for payment instructions: info@democracyinamericas.org or call (202) 234-5506 (space is limited). For sponsorship opportunities contact: maria@democracyinamericas.org.

U.S.-Cuba Business Summit | Opportunities and Challenges for Commercial Engagement, May 21, Washington, DC

The U.S.-Cuba Business Council (USCBC) cordially invites you to participate in this off-the-record conversation on the opportunities and challenges for commercial engagement in Cuba. This event will feature congressional leaders, business executives, policy and legal experts for off-the-record discussions on the bilateral relationship (including CDA’s Emily Mendrala), the island’s emerging private sector, and the current legal framework, among other topics. See full agenda here.

HI DC’s Afro-Latino Fest, May 18, Washington, DC

In celebration of Passport DC and DC International Cultural Awareness Month, Hostelling International DC invites the local community to its first Afro-Latino Fest. Come discover Afro-Latino cultures through music, food, dance, and fun activities. Hors d’oeuvres from High Street Cafe and My Cuba Cafe, 734 Coffee, and natural ginger juice will be served. The event highlights include: a live performance by Proyecto Piquete (Puerto Rico), La Marvela (Colombia), a fun DIY keychain activity, and a brief talk by 734 Coffee team.

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.

Support CDA: Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the Cuba Central News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty. Make your 100% tax-deductible gift now!

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