U.S.-Cuba News Brief 11/01/2019

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This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Miami Democrats want to bring back a suspended Cuban family reunification program

Today, Representative Debbie Mucarsell-Powell (FL-26) announced in a press release that she will introduce a bill that will unite Cuban families across the Florida Straits, the Miami Herald reports. If passed, H.R. 4884, the Cuban Family Reunification Act, would restart the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program and restore visa processing while putting measures in place to protect U.S. personnel. The U.S. Embassy in Havana suspended consular services in the fall of 2017 when it ordered the evacuation of most U.S. personnel following reports of still-unexplained health incidents. Some consular services shifted to U.S. Embassies in third countries, but applications under the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program — a program created in 2007 for Cuban Americans to petition for their non-immediate family members to come to the United States — were reportedly altogether stalled. 

“Congress should pass H.R. 4884, and they should also take steps — like lifting caps on remittances and codifying the right for Cuban Americans to visit family on the island — to make clear that U.S. policy should not be a weapon against Cuban families,” said CDA’s Emily Mendrala in a statement.

Read CDA’s full statement here.

The Trump administration will end commercial flights to nine destinations in Cuba

Last Friday, the Trump administration announced it would suspend all commercial airline flights to Cuba with the exception of flights bound for Havana, the Miami Herald reports. America Airlines, Delta, and JetBlue, who operate flights to nine other locations including Santiago de Cuba and Varadero, have 45 days from Friday to wrap up flights to other locales. Charter flights will still be able to fly to and from airports outside of Havana. According to a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, “in suspending flights to a total of nine airports, the United States impedes the Cuban regime from gaining access to hard currency from U.S. travelers staying in its state-controlled resorts, visiting state-owned attractions, and otherwise contributing to the Cuban regime’s coffers near these airports.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) issued a press release ahead of the release of the new regulations, stating that “pursuing a policy that has failed for more than half a century is nonsensical, indefensible, and wrong. It has achieved none of its objectives, while it is harming the Cuban people and infringing on the rights of the American people.” Representative Jim McGovern (MA-02) also issued a statement, calling the move “a stupid political stunt,” and saying “our disagreements with the Cuban government should be handled through diplomacy and dialogue, not obsolete and unpopular restrictions from the Cold War that isolate us from our allies, embolden hardliners, hurt the people of Cuba, and undermine American companies that have made significant long-term investments to support these flights.” Representative Eliot Engel (NY-16), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called the move “a shortsighted decision by the Trump Admin. that will hurt the Cuban people & their relatives in the U.S.” He added,  “rather than limit flights to Cuba, we must encourage U.S. travel to the island to support the nascent, but growing private sector.”

In a joint statement made last Friday, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Cuba Study Group, Engage Cuba, LAWG, OXFAM, and WOLA denounced the regulatory changes and called on Congress to pass the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019. CDA’s Emily Mendrala said, “This administration’s obsession with Cuba strikes another blow to the interests of the American and Cuban people alike. Think of some of the collateral damage done by today’s move: Cuban Americans adding hours – possibly days – to their travel time to see family; private businesses and entrepreneurs losing important streams of revenue; students, scientists, and researchers facing undue hurdles to travel to cities outside of Havana; and uncertain economic consequences that will come with confining U.S. travelers to Cuba’s capital city. This arbitrary move seems more intent on scoring political wins and reversing the Obama legacy than achieving any foreign policy goals.”

Find CDA’s latest Memo on Trump Administration policy changes linked here.

Request to investigate immigrant center where Cubans tried to commit suicide

On Wednesday, governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, requested an investigation into accusations of mistreatment by Immigration and Customs Officials (ICE) officials at the Otero County Processing Center, where Cuban immigrants have attempted to commit suicide, OnCuba reports. In a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Governor Lujan Grisham asked that DHS inspector general Joseph V. Cuffari investigate the Otero center immediately. Last month, inmates staged a 75 day hunger strike at the center, which resulted in weeks of forced feeding from ICE. Immigrant advocates and lawyers in contact with the detainees in the Otero County Center report that at least three Cubans have attempted to take their lives because of the ill-treatment, AP News reports. A statement from ICE has confirmed two of these instances, which occurred the weekend of October 12.

IN CUBA

Cuban government prohibits import of convertible pesos (CUC); Havana stores start selling in dollars

According to a resolution signed by Irma Margarita Martínez, the head of Cuba’s National Bank (BNC), Cuba will ban imports of convertible pesos (CUC) beginning November 16, OnCuba reports. The resolution also reiterates the existing ban on CUC exports from Cuba in amounts exceeding approximately 80 CUC. Those who violate the resolution could have funds seized at the border.

The announcement occurs in the context of new economic measures, which, as we previously reported, include plans to allow more than 70 stores to sell household appliances and other goods at “competitive prices” in U.S. dollars–which have not been accepted as legal tender on the island for more than a decade, and permitting certain state enterprises to provide import services for private Cuban citizens. In order to obtain merchandise at these U.S. dollar stores, Cubans will need to open up U.S. dollar-denominated bank accounts in Cuba and to obtain newly available debit cards. This week, as these stores opened their doors for the first time, long lines formed outside their entrances and goods ran out, OnCuba reports. Some stores ran out of electric motorcycles that were in high demand.

Cuba to allow registration of imported mopeds that violated customs regulations

From November 25, 2019 to February, 29, 2020, Cuba will allow its citizens to legally register mopeds, which have previously been illegal to import, OnCuba reports. Those who do not register during this window will not be able to later acquire the privileges offered by this one-time opportunity.

Fuel supply improves in Cuba after impact of sanctions

After a severe fuel shortage through September and October that affected transportation, factories, universities, and more, Cuba’s fuel supply has reportedly improved, OnCuba reports. However,  the situation remains unstable due to Cuba’s reliance on Venezuelan oil, that country’s political and economic crisis, and the U.S.’s continued efforts to sanction Venezuelan oil shipments. In early October, Venezuela announced plans to ship three million barrels of oil to Cuba for free to avoid overfilling its reserve tanks and losing  domestic production capacity.

In September, Cuba announced that the public should expect limited public transportation and that blackouts may occur, though they would be announced in advance. Cuba also announced it would adjust university class schedules to take advantage of daylight hours, and rely more on telecommuting for some educational instruction and jobs.

In March 2019, the Miami Herald reported, based on an interview with Jorge Piñón, director of the Latin American Energy Program at the University of Texas at Austin, that Cuba produces about 50,000 barrels of oil per day but uses 130,000. Thus, if Venezuelan oil shipments were to come to a halt, Cuba would have a deficit of 80,000 barrels of oil per day; meeting demand could cost Cuba an estimated $2 billion a year.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Putin hosts Cuban leader for talks on expanding ties

On Tuesday, Cuba’s president Miguel Díaz-Canel met with Russia’s president Vladmir Putin in Moscow, AP News reports. The two countries discussed strengthening economic ties, and Putin praised Cuba’s resilience in the face of U.S. sanctions and the embargo. Russia and Cuba have held several meetings over the past few months to discuss bilateral cooperation. Russia recently agreed to provide various types of vehicles to Cuba, to update several power plants on the island, and to enter into a joint venture to make construction materials. Following the meeting, Putin announced on October 29 that he would travel to Cuba at the invitation of Díaz-Canel, Prensa Latina reports.  Since 2013, trade between Russia and Cuba has increased by more than twofold.

According to John Ermer in an April 2019 perspective piece for the Washington Post, the U.S. withdrawal from Cuba creates a vacuum into which Russia and China, U.S. adversaries, have been moving. The U.S. can expect increased aid and military influence from Russia and China to enter Cuba, according to Ermer. While the U.S. has the geographic proximity, resources, and knowledge necessary to become a top trading partner with Cuba and assist the island as its economy increasingly takes on the features of a market economy, the U.S. government continues to isolate Cuba and allow adversaries to fill the void, he says.

Cuba and China agree to develop artificial intelligence on the island

During an official visit to Beijing, Cuba’s Minister of Higher Education, José Ramón Saborido, renewed one exchange agreement and signed two new agreements with China, OnCuba reports. One of the new agreements proposes a collaborative effort between the University of Hebei, in China, and the Central University of Las Villas, in Cuba, to build an artificial intelligence center on the island. The two parties signed a second agreement to increase Spanish language instruction in China. Both countries also renewed an educational exchange agreement from 2018, until the year 2022.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Concerts by Cimafunk & Afro-Cuban All Stars showcase Cuban music’s ongoing evolution, Judy Cantor-Navas, Billboard

Cimafunk and the Afro-Cuban All Stars brought a taste of Cuba’s evolving music scene to Barcelona, showcasing the “live-in-the-moment joy” of Cuban music and, according to the Afro-Cuban All Star’s Juan de Marcos González, the youth-driven nature of Cuban talent.

Cuban Fusion Pioneers Sintesís On Queen, Santería And Prog Rock, Felix Contreras, NPR

NPR’s Felix Contreras sits down with the Cuban black progressive rock group Síntesis for a discussion on its influences, including the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria and the rock group Queen.

EVENTS

IN THE U.S.

Cuban Visions Program 6: The Personal is Political, November 10,

America’s Media Initiative will host its final film screening in its “Cuban Visions” series. La Música de las Esferas (Music of the Spheres) is a documentary that chronicles the director’s parents’ relationship as they struggled with their family’s views on race and the economic crisis of the 1990’s in Cuba. The film interweaves aspects of family and national politics. A discussion with the director will follow.

YPA Panel: Perspectives from Cuban entrepreneurs on the private sector in today’s Cuba, November 14, Americas Society, New York, New York

Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA)and Cuba Educational Travel will host a Young Professionals of America (YPA) panel featuring Cuban entrepreneurs from the tech, fashion, film, and cultural sectors. The group will discuss “building business from the ground up in Cuba today.” Networking reception to follow.

Transformation and Continuity in Cuba, International Conference [CALL FOR ABSTRACTS], March 20-21 2020, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia

Kennesaw University will host a conference exploring the intersections of transformation and continuity in Cuba with a focus on the island’s complexities. The deadline for abstracts has been extended to November 1st.

Cuba And Beyond Series, September 24th-December 5th, International Affairs Building, New York, New York

Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies is holding a series of conferences and seminars aimed at increasing scholarly exchange between scholars from the U.S. and Cuba, as well as other experts. Upcoming events cover a variety of topics, from Cuban foreign policy to Cuban-American music. 

IN CUBA

Cuba Sabe Culinary Workshop, January 9-11 2020, Iberostar Grand Packard Hotel, Havana, Cuba

The culinary workshop Cuba Sabe, organized by Paradiso Cultural Tourism Agency, Cuba’s National Council of Cultural Heritage, and the Culinary Federation of Cuba, will be held in Havana in January 2020. The workshop is a continuation of last year’s Gastrocult Academic Workshop. Next year’s theme will be cuisine that showcases the blend in Cuban food of “tradition and avant gardism.” The workshop will also showcase the art of painting and the aesthetic aspect of cuisine by “propos[ing] a contest between culinary artists and painters based on the visual quality of what is brought to the table.”

IN CANADA

The Cuban Revolution at 60 International Conference, October 31-November 2, Halifax, Canada

Canada will hold an international conference featuring forty Cuba scholars, policy-makers and policy analysts. The conference will be free and open to the public. Topics discussed will include the health incidents that affected Canadian and U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba, the Cuban economy, U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuba’s international relations, ecological change, and social change, including discussions on race, gender, sexual diversity, and health.

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