U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 07/26/2019

Dear Friends, 

On Thursday, Representatives Jim McGovern (MA-02) and Tom Emmer (MN-06) reintroduced the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019 in the House, and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced that he will reintroduce the bill in the Senate on Monday. CDA’s Emily Mendrala praised the legislation, stating that “The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019 would allow Americans to directly engage with the Cuban people, especially with Cuba’s growing private sector. It is time we move past the antiquated laws and policies that have for too long divided the U.S. and Cuban people, to the detriment of both.” Read the full PRESS STATEMENT.

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This week, in Cuba news…


The Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019

Previously introduced in 2017, The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019 was reintroduced yesterday in the House by Representatives Jim McGovern (MA-02) and Tom Emmer (MN-06) and will be reintroduced in the Senate by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on Monday. The legislation would allow U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba freely, without restrictions, and to freely conduct financial transactions in Cuba. In his press statement, Senator Leahy stated, “Based on my conversations with other Senators, I am u.s.confident that if we were afforded the opportunity to vote on this bill, more than 60 Senators would support it.” He continued, “It is indefensible that the federal government restricts American citizens and legal residents from traveling to a tiny country 90 miles away that poses no threat to us… It is a vindictive, discriminatory, self-defeating vestige of a time long passed.” Read CDA’s press statement here.

U.S. State Department Updates Cuba Restricted List

On Friday, the U.S. State Department added four entities to its Cuba Restricted List, a list of entities and subentities with which U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in financial transactions. The list was first published in November 2017 as directed by President Donald Trump’s National Security Memorandum on “Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.” The list has previously been amended four times. The additional entities included in the list as of July 26, 2019 are the Hotel Palacio Cueto, Cayo Guillermo Resort Kempinski, Casa Editorial Verde Olivo, and DSE—Departamento de Seguridad del Estado Editorial Capitán San Luis.

Doctors find differences in brains of U.S. diplomats who alleged mystery attacks in Cuba; Brain scans find differences but no injury in U.S. diplomats who fell ill in Cuba; Cuba dismisses findings of ‘sonic attack’ study

According to NBC News, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by University of Pennsylvania researchers determined using neuroimaging, “that a group of U.S. government workers who were potentially exposed to unexplained phenomena in Cuba have less white matter in their brains and less connectivity in the areas that control vision and hearing than similar healthy people.” As we’ve previously reported, between 2016 and 2018, several U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba were victims of what the U.S. calls “targeted attacks.” While stationed in Cuba, officials reported hearing mysterious noises and experiencing subsequent symptoms including headaches, auditory deficiencies, and impaired cognitive function. 

According to NPR, “a close look at the brains of 40 U.S. Embassy workers in Cuba who developed mysterious symptoms has found no evidence of [brain] injury.” The study does not reveal who or what is responsible, nor if these changes can even be tied directly to a common cause. According Sergio Della Sala, a professor of human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, “the differences could have been random or simply the result of different life experiences that can change the brain—like learning a foreign language.” Douglas Fields—a neuroscientist familiar with the events in Cuba—agreed with Sala, stating that “[the images] don’t provide any clinical evidence of any kind of abnormality…What they show are minor differences between the two groups.” Fields maintains that the technique and method used during the study is meant to find subtle differences among people, and asserts that the images from the study appear to all be “within the normal range…there is no evidence of any pathology [brain injury]…when you look at the data there’s no coherent syndrome, no pattern.” BBC reported that Cuba dismissed the findings of a U.S. academic study. Cuba has consistently denied U.S. allegations. Cuba’s lead scientist—Professor Mitchel Valdés-Sosa—considers the researchers’ findings inconclusive. According to BBC, Valdés-Sosa said that, “the changes in the brain images are very small, very diverse and very diffuse…They do not correspond to a coherent explanation.” The mysterious symptoms have been a sticking point for U.S.-Cuba relations since 2016 and—according to BBC—a key reason behind the almost complete shutdown of the U.S. embassy in Havana.

*Read CDA’s health incident explainer here.   

US Secretary of State Pompeo blames Cuba for Venezuelan regime

At a meeting in Ecuador this past weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that he could not see a situation in which there would be “free and fair election[s]” in Venezuela with Maduro still in office and that he believes Maduro remains in office thanks to “Cuban protection,” DW News reports. China, Russia, and Cuba continue to back Maduro, who the U.S. believes is an illegitimate president.

Coast Guard intercepts boat carrying 5 Cuban migrants near Marathon

On Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a boat carrying five Cuban migrants about 55 miles southwest of Marathon, FL, reports WSVN News. The migrants, all men, will be returned to Cuba, and their boat will be destroyed due to it being a navigation hazard to other ships. After Obama’s repeal of the Wet-Foot Dry-Foot policy—which previously permitted entry into the United States under the Cuban Adjustment Act to Cuban migrants arriving on land but not those interdicted at sea—the number of Cuban migrants interdicted at sea fell dramatically. According to the U.S. Coast Guard Fiscal Year report, in 2017, the number of Cuban migrants interdicted at sea was 1,532, a 27 percent decrease from 2016. WSVN News reports that, so far, this year 384 Cubans have attempted to illegally enter the United States arriving by sea. With the elimination of this entry method, an increased number of Cubans are now attempting to enter the U.S. through the southern border. However, updates to U.S. immigration policies could potentially prevent them from using this as a form of entry too, as we reported last week.

Ports from Key West to Alaska to benefit from cruise ban

After the regulatory changes announced by the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Treasury on June 4, 2019 that prohibited U.S. cruise traffic from traveling to Havana’s harbour, U.S. cruise lines have been altering their schedules so they can make the most of the smaller ships that were used for cruises to Cuba. According to Travel Weekly, some cruise lines, such as Carnival Cruise, are redeploying their cruises on other Caribbean routes. Others are sending their ships to domestic ports, such as Alaska and Key West, Florida. While the changes benefit these ports—Key West estimates a 7.8 percent increase in passengers by September 2020—the prohibition on Havana’s ports will undoubtedly cause a dent in Cuba’s economy. Travel Weekly reports that cruise tourism accounted for nearly 900,000 arrivals in Cuba in 2018, with 40 percent of those coming from the United States. The end of U.S. cruise travel to Cuba will not only affect the country’s economic growth, but also the further development of the island’s private businesses.

Montanans see opportunity in Cuba trade

Montana National Committeeman on the Democratic National Committee, Jorge Quintana, recently led a delegation of Montanans to Cuba through Cuba Educational Travel, where participants discovered numerous opportunities for trade, the Great Falls Tribune reports. The delegation took note of the fact that Cuba imports the majority of its food and that beef, bread, and wheat are all potential exports Montana could offer the island. In 2019, a resolution urging Montana’s lawmakers to pressure the U.S. Congress to lift the U.S. embargo was defeated in the state legislature due to concerns surrounding the unexplained health incidents affecting U.S. embassy personnel in Havana. 


Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega, leading political figure, dead at 82

Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega died on Friday at the age of 82 after a long battle with cancer, Reuters reports. Ortega entered seminary in 1956 and was ordained as a priest in 1964. In post-revolution Cuba, Ortega was sent to a labor camp for eight months when Fidel Castro’s government was rounding up religious figures and other perceived ideological enemies. In 1994, decades after his release, and after holding various positions in the church including archbishop of Havana, Ortega was appointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II. Throughout his tenure, Ortega hosted three popes and negotiated the release of political prisoners. In the period of détente between the U.S. and Cuba, Ortega served as the messenger between Pope Francis and presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama. While some critics say that Ortega became too close with the Cuban government, during his lifetime he rose as a political figure whose job, according to other church officials in Cuba, was to stand up for basic principles such as religious freedom and the well-being of all Cubans.

Cuba, with one of highest inmate populations, pardons 2,604

Last Friday, Cuba, the country with the sixth highest prison population per capita (the United States has the highest), announced that it had pardoned 2,604 convicts based on “prisoners’ behavior, time served, the nature of their crime and whether they were afflicted by illness,” Reuters reports. As of 2012, according to Cuban authorities, 57,337 people out of Cuba’s 11.2 million population were incarcerated, though some human rights groups claim the actual number is higher. Many of those incarcerated are thought to be dissidents. Cuba has pardoned many prisoners over the past few years around the time of papal visits.

Cuba: first transgender couple get married

Last week in Cuba, for the first time, a transgender man and woman were married, reports Pink News. However, the couple got married  “according to the legal genders on their official documents,” according to the article, which was necessary because same sex marriage is not legal in the island country. They were given legal advice by Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX,) which is run by Mariela Castro, the daughter of former president Raúl Castro.

After scrapping a provision in the Constitution that would have opened the door to recognizing same-sex marriage, the government announced that same-sex marriage will be reconsidered within two years in a national referendum of Cuba’s Family Code. 

First automated poultry farm starts operation in western Cuba

This month, Cuba’s first automated poultry farm for egg production located in the Consolación del Sur municipality will begin production, Caribbean News Now reports. The new facility is expected to have higher egg production rates than traditional facilities, and automation will help ensure that contamination is less likely. A second such facility will soon be completed in Camagüey. The announcement comes on the heels of a shortage of many goods in Cuba this spring, including eggs, along with increased rationing.


Russia, Cuba talk for political settlement in Venezuela; Castro meets Lavrov to inaugurate statue with 24-karat gold; Russia promises more support for Cuba, including ‘military technical’ in face of U.S. pressure

During a visit to Havana on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Raúl Castro to celebrate the restoration of the Statue of the Republic in the Capitol in Havana. According to Local10 News, the project—which is part of the Capitol restoration for the 500th anniversary of Havana—was financed by Russia and demonstrates the cooperation between the two countries.

While in Havana, Lavrov also met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, at a conference where he expressed Russia’s continued support for Cuba in the face of Trump’s new trade restrictions, Newsweek reports. Lavrov explicitly stated that Russia was willing to assist Cuba “not only politically, not only morally, not only by means of developing military technical cooperation but also through encouraging trade and economic projects to help the country’s economy become more resistant to all kinds of external threats.” 

Following this meeting, Russia and Cuba confirmed their position in favor of political settlement in Venezuela, Anadolu Agency reports. According to Lavrov in a news conference after the meeting, Cuba and Russia are actively working to stimulate dialogue and create the conditions necessary to arrive at an agreement between factions led by Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó. After a third round of negotiations began in Barbados in May, Cuba and Russia are supportive of the ongoing peaceful talks and discourage foreign interference, Local10 News reports.


Trump Doubles Down on Failed Cuba Policy, Christopher Sabatini, New York Times

Despite the failures of the U.S’s 57 year embargo on Cuba, the Trump administration continues to use economic sanctions and restrictions on U.S. citizens’ trade with and travel to the island to harm Cuba’s government and push it to end its support for the Maduro government in Venezuela. According to Christopher Sabatini, this policy will fail, as past policies attempting to isolate Cuba have, and it will continue to be Cuban citizens who suffer the most.

Cubans Talk about Impact of Trump Administration Travel Policy Changes, Mia Taylor, Travel Pulse

Cubans are struggling economically and lack hope for their future in the wake of the Trump administration’s new Cuba travel restrictions. While it is still relatively easy for those from the U.S. to visit the island, confusion about the regulations, coupled with the end of cruise travel, has decimated the customer base for many Cuban private businesses and entrepreneurs. These individuals and businesses were opening up and expanding as customers flocked to the island under the Obama administration’s opening, finally seeing hope for themselves and their future on the island.

Engagement with Cuba is the Key to Greater U.S. Influence in Latin America, Calum Paton, Global Security Review

Tracing U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America through the years, Calum Paton explains how the U.S. has flip-flopped between interventionism and non-interventionism and how Obama’s policy of engagement opened the door to U.S. influence on the island via a soft power foreign policy approach, which he claims is more effective than tightening sanctions. By adhering to the Wilsonian model of foreign policy, the U.S. could use reconciliation and “economic might” to achieve its stated goals in its policy towards Cuba.

Cubans Seek to Revive Little-known Tango Legacy, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

In a country known for salsa dancing, a group of Cuban dance enthusiasts in Havana are seeking to revive Cuba’s tango legacy, Reuters reports. These several dozen Cubans began an annual Havana Tango marathon and festival, hold regular classes, host Argentine teachers who provide free classes, and distribute donated tango clothes and shoes. Tango was especially popular in Havana in the 50’s, with Havana being in the “second top spot for tango in the world” at that time. However, tango saw a drop in popularity in the 1960’s.

Art in Times of Androids, Yoel Rodriguez Tejada, OnCubaNews

The Servando Cabrera Gallery in Havana is hosting an exhibition of robotics this month and next month titled “En tiempos de androids…” (In the time of androids…). The exhibition includes drones, robotic arms, and unmanned aviation vehicles. Despite the fact that many of these inventions do not yet have practical or everyday life applications yet, the exhibition demonstrates a possible path forward into the future.

Cuba Skateboarders Pivot for Official Recognition, AFP

Cuban skateboarders are hoping to gain the attention of their government in time to participate in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, where skateboarding will, for the first time, be included as an Olympic sport, according to AFP. Currently, Cuba does not officially recognize skateboarding as a sport, meaning that there are no official spaces, trainers, or a Cuban skateboard federation, which would be needed for Cubans to participate in Olympic qualifying events. Despite the lack of official recognition and support, skateboarding has been growing in popularity over the past few years on the island. Cuban youth have created their own spaces, taught each other, attempted to speak with officials about receiving recognition, and posted videos online that have inspired donations of skateboards and equipment to fill the community’s needs; there are no skate shops or raw materials in Cuba, and costs for such goods are high.


The People’s Republic of Blues: Cuba on My Mind, Sundays live at 5 PM (eastern) on WERA 96.7, Radio Arlington 

Arlington’s radio station—WERA 96.7—will dedicate its Sunday evening 5pm show to the resilient people of Cuba. It will feature artists and groups such as the Rolling Stones live in Havana, Samantha Fish, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Buddy Guy, Carolyn Wonderland, Shemekia Copeland, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt, the Allman Brothers, and Dr. John. 

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 History Miami 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. 

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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