U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 07/12/2019

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This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

In Cuba, entrepreneurs see a steep decline in business with Trump policies; Cuba sees tourism dropping 8.5% due to Trump travel restrictions; By way of Twitter, Senator Rubio wants direct access to Cubans on the island

NBC News quotes a Cuban entrepreneur explaining the ramifications of the Trump administration’s recent travel and trade restrictions for Cuban businesses: “When the U.S. Treasury Department announces new measures, we get cancellations the next day.” According to Ariel Causa, one of the founders of AlaMesa—an app that allows users to access a directory of Cuban restaurants offline—there was an almost 30 percent decline in reservations in the last three months. The recent U.S. policies have also impacted their staff, which has reduced from 20 to 12 so far this year. Thanks, in part, to the Obama era increase in U.S. travel to the island, which rose from 91,254 in 2014 to almost 640,000 in 2018, entrepreneurial activity exploded across Cuba and now accounts for more than 12 percent of the workforce. In June, President Trump enacted travel restrictions that further limit non-family travel to Cuba by ending group people-to-people educational travel and the temporary sojourn of cruises and private and corporate aircraft to Cuba, as we reported then. The measures, purportedly enacted to support the people of Cuba, have only produced immediate negative consequences for Cuban entrepreneurs in the tourism industry, a recent survey applied to Cuban entrepreneurs also confirmed.

On July 10, Senator Marco Rubio created a Twitter account to communicate directly with Cubans on the island. With increasing internet access on the island, Senator Rubio is using this Twitter account (@MarcoRubioCuba1) as a platform to “support democracy in Cuba,” reports Local 10.  According to one of Sen. Rubio’s tweets from this account, the U.S.-Cuba policy changes do not apply to (implying they do not affect) the Cuban private sector. However, Reuter reports, tourism to Cuba will likely drop 8.5 percent this coming year due to the Trump administration’s policies, which will in turn directly affect Cuba’s private sector. Carlos Cristobal Marques, owner of the private restaurant San Cristobal, told Reuters that his business has also seen drops in customers, stating his income has dropped by 80 percent.

According to NBC News, Cuba’s private sector is caught in the middle of a perfect storm with President Trump’s travel restrictions, Venezuela’s oil crisis, and a domestic economic downturn that has been accumulating for years now.

*See CDA’s updated explainer of the Cuba policy changes under the Trump administration here

Société Générale sued for $790 million by heirs of Cuban bank seized by Castro

Société Générale joins the list of companies sued under Title III of Helms-Burton, which was fully implemented in May by the Trump administration and allows U.S. nationals to file suit in U.S. courts against entities trafficking in confiscated property in Cuba. The plaintiffs’ lawyer tells Reuters that the suit is the first Title III case brought against a bank. The grandchildren of the owners of the former Cuban bank Banco Nuñez sued the French bank for approximately $792 million for doing business with Cuba’s central bank which nationalized Banco Nuñez after 1959, Reuters reports. The lawsuit amount was calculated by factoring the bank’s net worth at the time of seizure, 6 percent annual interest, and three times damages. According to the plaintiffs, Société Générale generated hundreds of millions of dollars of fees through transactions with Cuba’s national bank from 2000 to 2010. The plaintiffs claim that they own 10.5 percent of the equity of Cuba’s national bank, the percentage that Banco Nuñez represented when it was seized. Société Générale was previously charged with violating U.S. embargo regulations by OFAC, as CDA previously reported.

IN CUBA

Cubans are using social media to air their grievances—and the government is responding, sometimes

An increase in internet access in Cuba, including the arrival of private in-home wifi and 3G and 4G services over the past few years has increased Cubans’ presence on social media platforms, the Washington Post reports. Cubans use these platforms, including Twitter and messaging apps like Telegram and Whatsapp, to come together and hold their government accountable. Most of Cuba’s social media users are not asking for political change, but for the government to be more responsive, which it has been, from time to time. The viral hashtag “BajenLosPreciosDeInternet” (lower internet prices) which flooded Twitter this June, is an example of citizen organizing efforts. This hashtag was one of Cuba’s first “tweet protests,” in which Cubans urged officials to lower the price of internet 3G/4G packages, the cheapest of which can cost around 15 percent of the median monthly salary on the island. Cubans also began the hashtag “LaColaChallenge” (the line challenge), tweeting photos of themselves in the long food lines that resulted from increased rationing in May, as CDA reported recently.

Cuba has about 605,000 self-employed workers

During her intervention in the Economic Commission of the Cuban parliament this week, Cuba’s Minister of Labor and Social Security (MTSS), Margarita González, confirmed that 605,908 people were self-employed in Cuba, Prensa Latina reports. González also noted that women make up 35 percent and young people make up 32 percent of the non-state sector, which includes the growing private entrepreneurship category.  There are now 128 authorized self-employment activities, and the cities that have the highest number of people working in this sector include Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba. According to Prensa Latina, the commission found that the most represented activities in the private sector include food production and sales, passenger and cargo transport, and the renting of housing, room, or space. During the discussion, the minister also announced upcoming modifications to the self-employment rules in order to enhance compliance and prevent “illegal behaviors”, which she singled out as a major impediment to the development of this sector. Some Cuban economists and academics disagreed with her comments, arguing that, although regulation is important, the discussion should also focus on ways to increase the sector’s productivity.

Cuban farmer feeds hunger for better way of life

Cuban farmer, agriculture scientist, community organizer and international speaker Fernando Funes Monzote, founder of the farm Finca Marta, is paving the way for a new, more sustainable and environmentally harmonious form of agriculture in Cuba, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Funes has established four pillars for his farm: environmental harmony, education, equitable trade and tourism. In addition to expanding his ability to provide food to those in urban areas (he currently provides food to many private restaurants in Havana), he also hopes to inspire others to create small-scale, sustainable operations like his own. Sugarcane production dominated much of Cuba’s agricultural activity until the 1990’s. Since then, Cuba has struggled with domestic agricultural production and crop diversification, and currently imports the majority of its food.

Funes told the Orlando Sentinel that there is enormous potential for agricultural advances from better cooperation with the United States. He said relations between the two nations can hinge partly on Cuba’s rise of small farming since “we can make an impact on society by showing what we do here, that other ways are possible…I’m not a politician, but I’m Cuban.” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor commended Funes’ work stating, “I have been impressed with Fernando Funes’ research on rural development and sustainable agriculture…his farm can serve as a model for flourishing, sustainable and cooperative rural livelihoods.”

In April, the Platform for Innovation and Dialogue with Cuba hosted a screening in Washington, D.C. of four short films featuring innovators working to solve agricultural, social justice, healthcare, and urban transportation challenges. You can check Fernando’s short film here.

New trains will start operating in Cuba with lower prices than for buses; New trains herald rail revolution for Cuba

Trains with new cars that arrived from China will start working in Cuba next weekend, reports OnCuba. In the beginning, the trains will only provide service between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, with aspirations to provide routes between the capital and other large cities in the future. According to Official Gazette of Cuba, the tickets from Havana to Santiago de Cuba—which can be purchased up to one month in advance— will cost between 70 and 95 Cuban Pesos (CUP), equivalent to around 3 to 4 USD, which is more than the current train ticket prices but less than the corresponding bus ticket prices of 169 CUP (around 7 USD). The new trains are also faster, reports the Independent, moving at 36mph. They leave for Santiago de Cuba on alternate days of the week. The new trains are part of a government strategy to revitalize railway transportation on the island, as we reported earlier this year.

Cuba finds lung cancer vaccine

In May, Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) announced that it was ready to market and sell its CIMAvax lung cancer vaccine on the international market, as CDA reported at the time. The vaccine, meant for patients with non-small cell lung tumours in advanced stages, is now available in Paraguay, Colombia, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Bosnia Herzegovina, according to the YucatanTimes. In addition to these countries, Cuba’s government media states that there are two invention patents, one of them which is available in 80 countries until 2028 that allows these countries to market the vaccine but not to manufacture or modify it. In Cuba, the vaccine is provided free of charge to patients.  In 2018, New York-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute and CIM initiated the first ever U.S.-Cuba joint venture to research and advance the development of new cancer medicines.

Bioelectric plants, leading program of the Cuban sugar sector

Cuba is prioritizing the building of three bioelectric power plants before 2030, reports Prensa Latina. The plants are being built near sugar mills in the western and central zones of the island and are part of a 19-unit plan approved in 2014 to increase productivity in Cuba’s sugar sector, as we reported previously. When completed, the bioelectric power plants will account for 14 percent of the 24 percent renewable energy stipulated for 2030 in the national energy matrix.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Vessels change names or go dark to ship Venezuelan crude to Cuba

Venezuelan oil companies have adopted new methods in shipping crude oil to Cuba amidst increasing sanctions from the U.S. government. According to Bloomberg, the ships and tankers are renamed and switch off their transponders in order to sail under the radar of the U.S. government. In response to these recent discoveries, the U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Garrett Marquis said via email that “the United States will continue to target entities involved in shipping oil between the two countries.” Despite the fact that oil shipments from Venezuela to Cuba have decreased since their 103,000 barrels a day peak in 2009, the U.S. government continues to impose sanctions on these oil vessels as a way to cut off funding to Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, as we previously reported. The United States has increased pressure on Cuba to end its longtime support of Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela, which involves sending Cuban doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil shipments. The United States also alleges that Cuba provides “defense, intelligence and security assistance,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Additionally, on July 3, the United States announced that it would impose sanctions on Cubametales, the Cuban oil import and export agency, the Wall Street Journal reports, due to their continued import of Venezuelan oil.

Raúl and Díaz-Canel receive vice president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; Cuba, Vietnam pledge to expand friendship, cooperation

On Tuesday, Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel met with the Vice President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Đặng Thị Ngọc Thịnh, and discussed the positive state of bilateral relations. Đặng Thị Ngọc Thịnh also visited Pinar del Río, the westernmost province of the island, where she witnessed the cooperation between Vietnam and Cuba that has supported rice production in the province, Granma reports.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Return to Cuba: Everything and Nothing Has Changed, Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel

Journalist Kevin Spear compares Cuba under the Obama Administration’s opening to Cuba under the Trump Administration’s increased restrictions, highlighting that while some changes have occurred, the “big change” that some expected under Obama’s policies did not occur, and a general sense of a lack of opportunity within Cuba remains.

‘The Cuban Comedy’ Walks the Line Between Poetry and Politics, Gabino Iglesias, NPR

Gabino Iglesias provides a review of Pablo Medina’s novel “The Cuban Comedy” which tells the story of Elena as she settles in post-revolution Havana after moving there to collect the prize for winning a national poetry competition. The story is divided into three acts which, in addition to being filled with poetry, delves into different aspects of post-revolution Cuba.

Cuba: Living on a $10 Pension, Deutsche Welle

In a series of photographs, Deutsche Welle captures the daily routine of elderly citizens in Cuba and how they live off their pension. Some depend on government rations, others on remittances from family members. Some find themselves selling sweets on the road or giving directions to tourists in return for donations. For each, the daily struggle is different.

Fidel Castro Once Envisioned a Free and Independent Cuba, Jonathan M. Hansen, New York Times

Historian Jonathan M. Hansen claims that, based on his research, the ideas and vision of Fidel Castro  align neither with the views of the United States nor the Cuban authorities and that those in both countries might learn something from revisiting Fidel’s original hopes for Cuba and recognizing the way that Cold War rhetoric mangles current perception.

The History of Yemaya, Santería’s Queenly Goddess Ocean Mermaid, Amber C. Snider, Teen Vogue

Santería is an Afro-Cuban religion that was brought over to the island by slaves from West Africa and later syncretized with some aspects of the Cathoilc faith. One of Santería’s most widely worshipped Orishas is Yemaya who is associated with the oceans. She is often depicted wearing blue and is known as the most nurturing of the Orishas. In Cuba, Yemaya is tied to the Virgen de Regla and is celebrated (commemorated) every year on September 8.

Fugitive U.S. Tech Guru: Cryptocurrency is Next Cuban Revolution, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

John McAfee, businessman, tech guru, and millionaire founder of McAfee Antivirus is currently campaigning for the Libertarian Party nomination for U.S. president from his yacht in Havana harbor, where he calls himself a “fugitive.” McAfee is actively evading the U.S. Internal Revenue Service due to eight years of income tax non-compliance for ideological reasons. His choice to sail to Havana is in direct violation of the Trump Administration’s new regulations on U.S. travel to Cuba, released on June 4, which include, as CDA reported at the time, a prohibition on private vessels, including boats, from traveling to the island.

EVENTS

Carmen: To Havana & Back, July 5-August 10, Public Arts 215 Chystie St. New York, NY

New York’s hottest new immersive show, Carmen: To Havana & Back, reimagines the Bizet opera as set inside a 1950s evening at Havana’s famous Tropicana Club, according to the Forbes article, “Party like it’s 1950s Cuba in New York’s New Immersive Show: Carmen, To Havana & Back.” The show is the brainchild of Kaitana Magno, who conceived the idea while on a trip to Cuba.

Queer Miami: A History of LGBTQ Communities, March 16, 2019-Sep 1, 2019, HistoryMiami Museum, Miami, FL

Queer Miami: A History of LGBTQ Communities, a new exhibition at the HistoryMiami Museum tied to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, traces Miami’s LGBTQ history from 1890 to present, according to the New York Times article “Gay, Cuban and in love.” Within this exhibition, Casimiro González and Manuel Rodríguez’s story is brought to life. As Cuban immigrants who left the island during the Mariel boatlift fleeing the Castro regime’s persecution of queers, their story illustrates one of the many forms that Cuban immigrants shaped the city of Miami.

Gibara Film Festival, July 7 – July 13, Gibara, Holguín

The small town of Gibara is transformed into the buzzing cultural centre of Cuba when it hosts the Gibara Film Festival every year. The emphasis of the festival is to remain as an alternative to larger international film festivals in order to recognize and celebrate the creativity and technical excellence of filmmakers, actors and technicians around the world. The festival also involves live music, theatre performances, art exhibitions and debates on film-making and post-production.

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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