U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 06/28/2019

Dear Friends,

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuban baseball players deal with dashed hopes; Yoelkis Cespedes, Yoenis’ younger brother, reportedly defects from Cuba, is looking to sign with MLB team

WFAE/NPR reports Major League Baseball (MLB) continues to try to find ways to sign contracts with Cuban players, following the Trump administration’s decision to cancel a historic deal between the League and its Cuban counterpart. The deal allowed players to sign direct contracts with MLB teams. In hopes of resurrecting the deal, MLB hired a team of well-connected lobbyists, and the League’s commissioner recently met with President Trump to discuss the ramifications of the cancellation, according to the article. However, MLB was reportedly told that the Trump administration would reconsider its decision once Cuba pulled its personnel from Venezuela. The baseball deal prevented Cuban players from defecting and facing risks associated with human trafficking and human smuggling, as we previously reported.

Only recently, Cuba’s National Baseball Team had another player defect to the United States. According to CBS Sports, Yoelkis Cespedes defected last week when the Cuban National Team was in Canada participating in an exhibition series. Yoelkis, who left with the hopes of signing a contract with MLB, is the younger brother of the New York Mets baseball star Yoenis Cespedes. In addition to the risks associated with human smuggling, players must contend with sometimes long wait times associated with clearing their status, or becoming  “unblocked,” by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which can take anywhere from 6 weeks to a year after declaring residency in a third country. For these reasons, according to WFAE, Cuban athletes are now dealing with dashed hopes and disappointment.

Should Cuban artists get to perform in South Florida?; Miami can’t have its own Cuba foreign policy

WLRN reports that the city of Hialeah, part of Miami-Dade county, cancelled several performances by Cuban artists including the popular Cuban reggaeton artist Jacob Forever, after passing a resolution that asks for Congress’ permission “to allow local and state governments to ban contracting with some Cuban artists and performers.” These actions show how the lingering political clout from the older Cuban Americans in this area of Florida remains influential on U.S.-Cuba relations. However, according to OnCuba, the resolution can be seen as a violation of the First Amendment of people in Miami to experience art, in addition to a violation of the Berman Amendment to the Cuban Commercial Embargo which allows for cultural exchanges. Michael J. Bustamante, an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Florida International University, told WLRN, “Restricting free expression in order to promote the ideals of free expression is a gross contradiction.”

In the past, Cuban artists have not received the warmest of welcomes from parts of the Cuban American community in Miami. The popular band Los Van Van was on the receiving end of this backlash based on the perception that they were loyal to the communist government in Cuba. During the Obama administration, it became more acceptable for Cuban artists to book gigs in both public and private establishments in the United States. The Kennedy Center even hosted Cuban artists for its Artes de Cuba Festival in 2018 to celebrate Cuban culture and art. The event was an “unprecedented gathering of Cuban and Cuban American artists” according to the Kennedy Center’s website. However, since President Trump has reversed the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, stances on Cuban artists performing in public spaces in Miami have soured. Yet, the fact that private venues are by-passing these decisions in order to contract Cuban artists with minimal backlash proves that perceptions in the Cuban American population are slowly changing.

As sanctions bite in Cuba, the U.S.—once a driver of hope—is now a source of pain; Cubans are migrating to the U.S. after sanctions leave them scrambling for food

According to the Washington Post, the Cuban government is gearing up for leaner times and working to fix food and energy shortages, but relief does not benefit areas of the island like Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba. The Washington Post reports that lines for rationed food are long, as are the wait times. Despite these hardships, Cubans developed a hashtag, #LaColaChallenge (#TheLineChallenge), with selfies or photos of the long lines to make light of and bring awareness to the tough plight of the Cuban people. These shortages are also one of the reasons why, according to WNYC, over 10,000 Cubans have entered the United States since October 2018. The majority of these Cuban migrants have traveled through Mexico in order to escape the dire economic situation on the island. The Washington Post reports the Cuban people blame both their government and the United States for the current economic situation that has stung the private sector. The collapse of the Venezuelan oil market, the failure to impose urgent domestic reforms and the U.S. sanctions have created the perfect storm for Cuba’s economic isolation.

U.S. sanctions put telecoms firms off Cuba, internet task force says

According to Reuters, a U.S. government task force on internet access in Cuba released a final report via the U.S. Department of State website. The report stated that U.S. sanctions on Cuba are deterring U.S. firms from exploring in the telecommunications sector in spite of Washington’s desire to expand internet access on the island. Last year, Cuba’s government protested the development of a Cuba Internet Task Force citing it as “foreign interference.” The recommendations from the final report advised “the U.S. government to clear up the regulatory uncertainty and seek feedback on how to improve telecoms firms’ ability to invest.” The previous administration under President Barack Obama left an opening in embargo regulations for U.S. telecommunications companies to invest in and provide certain services to Cuba. The current administration maintained the opening, but its tightening of sanctions worsened the overall investment climate, deterring U.S. companies from entering the Cuban market due to the frequent changes in regulations. Cuba’s telecommunications market is dominated by Chinese companies, Reuters reports.

A U.S. Navy destroyer is keeping a close eye on the advanced Russian warship roaming the Caribbean

A Russian warship that has been sailing around the Carribean arrived in Havana on Monday, Business Insider reports. It is unclear what the ship’s mission is, but, according to the Russian Navy, it will travel to other ports in the Carribean as well. Sending a warship to the Carribbean is not unusual for Russia, but the ship’s arrival in Havana comes during a time of bilateral tensions between the United States and Cuba. This leaves Russia, who has historically had a close relationship with Cuba, in a place to fill the gap left in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal. The ship’s arrival was also notable because it occurred in the same port where U.S. cruise ships docked prior to the Trump administration’s travel restrictions announced earlier this month, which we reported on. According to Business Insider, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailing 50 miles off the coast of Havana has been keeping an eye on the Russian vessel.

IN CUBA

Cuba announces increase in wages as part of economic reform

Cuba’s government announced Thursday that it would raise the salaries of state workers, the Washington Post reports. The step is a precursor to broader economic reforms, according to Cuba’s president Miguel Díaz-Canel. These reforms could include the unification of the island’s dual currency system in which state workers are paid in Cuban pesos (CUPs), equal to roughly 1/25 of the dollar-pegged Cuban convertible peso (CUC). Cuba has long planned to unify its two currencies. As CDA previously reported, rumors circulated in early 2018 that currency unification was imminent, but Cuba’s Central Bank dispelled these rumors by responding that there was no set date, according to an April 2018 Miami Herald article.

Cuba to legalize independent film-makers

On Thursday, Cuba issued a decree, to take effect on August 23, that will make it legal for Cuban independent filmmakers to produce movies, according to France 24. Filmmakers will be recognized as “independent artists.” The decree was issued to “guarantee the quality of production and take advantage of the resources that the country uses in the development of these activities,” according to the article. It will allow filmmakers to open bank accounts, contract, be contracted, and potentially have access to a new cinema fund that will be created, according to director of the Cuban Cinema Institute, Roman Samada. The law will only apply to Cubans living on the island, not those in exile. Reuters reports that the legalization will also create three new private-sector licenses for those working on independent movie projects: operator of movie equipment, from lighting to drones; casting director; and production assistant.

Cuba’s iconic Coppelia ice cream parlor reopens to cool Havana customers

Cuba’s most famous ice cream parlor recently opened its doors again after a two-month renovation project, just in time for summer, EFE reports. Coppelia was built in 1966 and was made famous after its appearance in the Oscar-nominated Cuban film “Fresa y Chocolate” (“Strawberry and Chocolate”) which criticized the Castro government’s treatment of LGBTQ+ communities. The ice cream parlor previously suffered reputational damage due to accusations of poor service, poor hygiene and corruption (stealing ice cream), EFE reports.This, however, did not deter Cubans from waiting in three-hour long queues to enter the revamped space and be the first to taste a variety of 14 flavours. In comparison to other ice cream parlors, Coppelia is the cheapest place for most Cubans—who live off a salary of an average $30 a month—to enjoy some ice cream. It attracts a large range of customers, from young students to the elderly.

Cuba improves natural disaster prevention system

According to Prensa Latina, a study by the Center for Environmental Studies and Services in Matanzas (CESAM) explained that despite the existence of a decent and well-structured emergency response system, the island is still vulnerable to hydrometeorological and geological events. In order to mitigate the risk and impact of a natural disaster, the study suggested making improvements to the monitoring and early response structures that are already in place and expanding the knowledge of these measures among the Cuban public and authorities. The Director of CESAM, Yasiel Martínez, is hopeful that learning from past disasters like hurricanes Irma and Maria will help them to consider and incorporate gender- and disability-specific responses moving forward, improving the effectiveness of disaster response systems.

Cuba restores oldest Jewish cemetery as Havana is spruced up

Havana’s historian’s office has begun an initiative to restore areas of the city in anticipation of the city’s 500th anniversary in November. One of these restoration projects will focus on recovering a long-neglected Jewish cemetery in the Guanabacoa neighborhood, the Washington Post reports. The land the cemetery was built on belonged to Cuba’s first Hebrew Society, made up of Jews who fled persecution between World War I and World War II. After the Revolution in 1959, many Jews left the country and others gave up their religious practices as Cuba was declared an atheist state. Judaism saw a reinvigoration in the 1990’s. Today, the initiative includes cleaning and repairing tombstones and the restoration of a room where bodies are washed and dressed as a part of Jewish burial rights.

Cuba presents sugar development program until 2030

Prensa Latina reports that participants in the 15th International Congress on Sugar and Derivatives will be briefed on Cuba’s future development program for the sugar industry up to 2030. According to Prensa Latina, a forum unveiling the bioelectric 2030 development plan will be led by the Sugar Azcuba Group. The goal of the 2030 program is to spread knowledge on the potentials of sugarcane, diversify the industry and increase production with an eye towards sustainability. Roundtables will be held to discuss and present 11 years of data and analysis collected on Cuba’s soil quality and the fertilization processes used in the cultivation and production of sugar cane. This meeting comes at a time when Cuba’s  sugar production industry is experiencing all time lows, as we previously reported.

#MeToo Cuba: will the movement spread to the island?

According to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, Dianelys Alfonso Cartaya, one of Cuba’s most prominent musicians, accused her former band director Jose Luis Cortez of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse that occurred 15 years ago. She has received both backlash and praise— including from Cuban feminist Aylin Torres Santana, who first proposed using the hashtag Diosa, #YoSiTeCreo (#IBelieveYou) as a form of support for the artist on social media—for speaking out publicly during a live interview with Alex Otaola, a Miami-based Cuban entertainer. Deutsche Welle reports that Cartaya does not regret confessing, but she is worried about facing a defamation lawsuit Cortez filed against her. She asserts Cuba’s institutions and laws are not equipped to handle gender-based violence cases. According to the article, the #MeToo movement has not arrived on the island with the same force it has in other countries in the region such as Mexico and Argentina. This is partly due to a lack of social media access and Cuba’s political system, which does not allow demonstrations or rallies to occur without the state’s approval, although these two things have seen slow advances over the past year. According to Deutsche Welle, Cuba’s new constitution does contain an article where the government “ensures the exercise of [women’s] sexual and reproductive rights, protects them from gender-based violence in all of its forms and in all spaces, and creates the institutional and legal mechanisms to do so.” Deutsche Welle reports that while this is the first year Cuba released and denounced femicide rates, the state has yet to “categorize women who die as a result of gendered violence or even the concept itself in its penal code.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba to help Nicaragua improve its education system

Cuba’s government entered into a cooperation agreement with Nicaragua in the hopes of strengthening the Central American country’s education system, ACN reports. The agreement includes plans for Cuba’s education officials to visit Nicaragua to share their experiences building a world-class school system. Nicaragua’s Vice President Rosario Murillo announced that Cuba’s education minister Ana Elsa Velázquez will also visit the country. Velázquez will explain how Cuba built a quality education system— including its deployment of “mobile teachers” to reach children who are unable to attend their local school—and ways to train Nicaragua’s teachers. Cuba’s education system is internationally renowned. According to Caribbean News Now, “World Bank figures suggest that, as a proportion of its GDP, Cuba spends more than any other country in the world on its public education system, which is free at all levels for its citizens.”

Argentinian trade union strengthens relations with Cuba; Cuba appreciates Sri Lanka’s support to end the blockade

This week, Cuba received reaffirmed support from two foreign entities in the wake of new U.S. sanctions. Representatives from the Autonomous Workers’ Confederation of Argentina (CTA Autonoma) expressed solidarity with Cuba at a meeting attended by the Cuban Ambassador in Buenos Aires Orestes Perez and Ricardo Peidro, the CTA Autonoma General Secretary. During the meeting, CTA Autonoma reaffirmed Argentina’s support for Cuba in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s tightening of restrictions and sanctions, Prensa Latina reports.

According to Prensa Latina, Cuba’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marcelino Medina, welcomed Sri Lanka’s State Ministry head, Vasantha Senanayake, to Havana this week. Medina thanked Sri Lanka for its support in urging for the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Prensa Latina reports that the meeting was held in the context of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. After the Cuban revolution on January 1, 1959, Sri Lanka became one of the first Asian countries to support and forge relations with Cuba.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

These Portraits Captures the Diversity of Queer Cubans, Alexis Ruiseco, VICE

Artist Alexis Ruiseco-Lombera, in collaboration with late scholar, activist and friend Rafael Suri-Gonzalez, documented the diversity of Cuba’s LGBTQ+ community in the series Añoranza: Portraits of Trans and Queer Cuba. Ruiseco-Lombera, who was born in Cuba and is currently living in Brooklyn, has dedicated his work to uplifting LGBTQ+ Cubans in order to prevent their erasure from Cuban history and culture.

Budding private economy in Cuba takes a hit as fewer tourists travel to Havana, Washington Post

This video follows some of Cuba’s new entrepreneurs and how they and their businesses have been impacted after the United States tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba on June 4, 2019.

Discovering Cuba through the photographer’s lens, Irvin Zhang, News@Northeastern

During a three-week study abroad program in Havana, students from Northeastern University studied photography and story-telling. Northeastern professor Luis Brens, who led the program, designed the program in such a way so that the students would learn the nuances of street photography while also immersing themselves in Cuban culture. He encouraged students to shoot photos away from the tourist-friendly areas of Havana. Brens says that the photography program in Cuba will continue, but he is also preparing back-up plans in case of additional travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government.

Trump and Cuba: Why not America First?, Paul Hare, Orlando Sentinel

Paul Hare argues in the Orlando Sentinel that U.S. engagement in Cuba, in fact, would advance U.S. interests and align with President Trump’s America First strategy. According to Hare, disengagement opens the door for foreign adversaries such as Russia and China to influence Cuba’s political and economic future. He also brings to attention President Trump’s willingness to negotiate pressing issues with North Korea, the Middle East, China, and Iran, and the apparent contradiction with his approach toward Cuba. According to the article, U.S. engagement with Cuba is at its lowest point since 1997. However, popular American opinion favors relations with Cuba, and most Americans believe the embargo is not working. The article ends by asserting that there are more advantages for the United States to stay engaged with Cuba than not.

Cuba’s forgotten eastern provinces: testing regime resiliency, Richard E. Feinberg, Brookings

Renewed hostilities from the United States, Cuba’s central government’s difficulty allocating resources equitably across its regions, and the island’s diminishing support from Venezuela will challenge the government’s resiliency in upholding the two fundamental pillars of the revolution: regional equality and social betterment. In this Brookings report, Richard Feinberg takes the opportunity to discuss the historical significance Cuba’s different regions played in shaping present-day Cuba. This helps one to understand the central government’s current regional investment disparities.

Let’s move Cuba towards democratic socialism, Alejandro Armengol, Havana Times

Alejandro Armengol calls for Cuba to move towards democratic socialism by detaching the Lenin element from the government’s agenda. He believes democratic socialism will be a positive change for Cuba, will promote social justice, and will continue to provide the Cuban people access to free healthcare and education.

Cuba’s first “sex shop” tackles taboos, fuels legalization calls, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

Cuba boasts being sexually liberal, but there is plenty of close-mindedness regarding sex toys, which stems from the pervasive machismo within Cuba’s society. According to Cuba’s government, the distribution of anything categorized as obscene is banned—as is porn—making the approval from the state for a pop-up sex shop at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) during Havana’s Biennial art celebration all the more surprising. Cuba also recently implemented Decree 349 last December, which stipulated, among other things, that artists could not show obscene, vulgar, or pornograpgic art, as we reported at the time. Despite these laws, the artists, Yanahara Mauri, Javier Alejandro Bobadilla and Joan Díaz, are looking to “break the taboos,” according to Reuters. Their store, “Consolez Vous” and their success in Havana’s Biennial have re-ignited demands for the state to permit the sale of sex toys.

Russia warns of repeat of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Reuters

Reuters reports Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov asserted that if the United States places land-based missile systems close to Russian borders in eastern Europe, Russia may be provoked to react in a similar way to the standoff that occurred in 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. This declaration comes in the wake of President Trump’s announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces arms control treaty—a move Russia has criticized. Vladimir Putin supported Ryabkov’s statement by threatening that Moscow would match or outdo any moves the United States takes to station missiles closer to Russia.

Myths, facts and gray areas that will complicate your Cuba travel plans, Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times; We dreamed of going to Cuba⁠ — and we did, just in the nick of time, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times breaks down which forms of travel to Cuba are still permissible, which ones are now prohibited under the Administration’s new regulations, and where gray areas remain. In a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times article Myths, facts and gray areas that will complicate your Cuba travel plans, a couple on the final U.S. cruise ship to depart from the port in Havana shares their experience and why they believe it’s a shame that the United States has implemented restrictions on travel to the island.

CUBA ELECTION COVERAGE

Democratic presidential candidates can win over Cuban-American voters by following Obama’s lead, Manuel R. Gomez, Sun Sentinel

In gearing up for the 2020 presidential election, Republicans are developing their strategy for garnering Latino support in Florida, and Democratic presidential candidates will participate in the first round of debates in Miami. Cuban and Latin American communities will have to be addressed head-on by both parties. Manuel Gomez writes in the South Florida Sun Sentinel that candidates should convey a progressive message on both domestic and Cuba policies in order to win the growing number of moderate Cuban American voters and satisfy broader public opinion on the matter. Gomez thinks the Democrats will need to motivate the young Cuban American population who is in favor of engagement rather than “getting tough” with Cuba. Looking forward to 2020, the Democratic candidates must respect the views of the older Cuban voters but look beyond the voices of the past to develop a Cuba platform that is representative of the majority of the population.

Neither Cuba nor Venezuela was on Trump’s mind in Miami campaign stop. Bored already?, Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald

During President Trump’s visit to Miami-Dade county in Florida this week, he neglected to mention Venezuela and barely mentioned Cuba, Fabiola Santiago writes in a Miami Herald Op-ed. Since Trump’s policy actions towards Venezuela and Cuba have largely been assessed as moves to cater to certain Florida voters, his silence was all the more mystifying.

Democratic candidates for president tackle two Florida issues: Disaster relief and Cuba policy, Steve Contorno, Tampa Bay Times

The Democratic presidential hopefuls were in Florida this week for two nights of debates. Tampa Bay Times surveyed all the candidates via email on matters specific to Florida that have, to date, not received much attention in the campaign. One of the questions on the survey was Cuba policy. According to the Tampa Bay Times, out of the 15 candidates who responded, 12 said the United States should end the Cuba embargo. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey was the only candidate who had reservations about re-normalizing relations on the basis of the country’s “dismal record on rights…[that] must be addressed as part of any future U.S.-Cuba relationship,” reports the Times. Buttigieg and Hicklenlooper were two other hopefuls who did not explicitly call to end the embargo, but they were critical of President Trump’s new policies. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Beto O’Rourke’s spokesperson, Chris Evans said, “U.S. posture toward Cuba led to more harm than good.”

EVENTS

Summer Salsa Mixer and Fundraiser, June 28 – 29, Bossa Bistro and Lounge, Washington, D.C.

Join Botanica Tea DC and YorubaCuba for two nights of dancing, music, food and art. Tickets will give you admission to salsa classes and BotanicaTea DC’s art show, as well provide you with wine, beer and light hor d’oeuvres and community bonding! Funds raised benefit The Women’s Cancer Fund.

Iconic Cuban Illustrator Gets First Exhibition in Miami, Over 50 Years After Death, June 7, 2019-Feb 2, 2020, Miami, Florida

The Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach has opened its doors to an exhibition titled Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer. The show will go on until February 2, 2020. This will be the first time that Conrado Wilson Massaguer’s artwork will be shown in the United States since 1931. His illustrations helped to cement the image of Cuba as a tropical paradise in the minds of American tourists in the first half of the 20th century.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band Announces ‘A Tuba to Cuba’ Tour, Nov 29-Dec 1, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

Preservation Hall Jazz Band will be embarking on a Tuba to Cuba tour this coming fall. It will feature a soundtrack they created for their documentary of the same name, A Tuba to Cuba. Both their soundtrack and documentary are based on a trip they took to Cuba in 2015 to learn more about the origins of New Orleans Jazz.

Incubator of mid-century modernism, Cranbrook unites, diverse art of Detroit, Cuba, Italy, South Korea, Greece exploring decades of shared strife June 22-Oct 6, 2019, Landlord Colors: On Art, Economy and Materiality, Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

A dozen Cubans spent three months working with Reynier Leyva Novo, one of Cuba’s leading conceptual artists, to assemble garment fragments from about 80 immigrants, many remnants of the clothes worn while crossing the border, to create a brilliantly colorful rag carpet. Novo’s creation entitled Untitled (Immigrants) 2019 is an engaging artistic rendition of a Cuban cultural tradition that becomes political when put into the context of the immigration crisis.

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