U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 11/15/2019

Dear Friends,

The City of Havana is celebrating its 500 year anniversary tomorrow. Felicidades! The celebration of Cuba’s capital city will include the inauguration of renovated landmarks, concerts, and a firework show above the Malecón seafront boulevard.

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This week, in Cuba news…


Fernández de Cossío: U.S. denies visas to Cuban diplomats and forces Cuba to “reciprocate”

Carlos Fernández de Cossío, the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s director of U.S. affairs, stated in an interview with Cubadebate that the U.S. is denying visas for Cuban diplomats who work within the island’s embassy in Washington, forcing Cuba to take reciprocal action, OnCuba reports. The action damages the functioning of the two diplomatic missions” and is being used as a way for the U.S. to move toward closing the embassies in both countries, Cossío said. According to him, “the United States refuses to grant Cuban officials a visa for certain responsibilities in our embassy, ​​which are analogous to their responsibilities in their embassy in Havana.” Despite this, OnCuba reports, Cuba is committed to making accommodations that allow proper embassy function as long as the U.S. is committed as well.

Cuban president visits town near U.S. military base; Cuba grants unprecedented access to presidential tour

On Thursday, Cuba’s president Miguel Díaz-Canel visited the town of Caimanera, near the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay naval base, for the first time as president, the New York Times reports. President Díaz-Canel stopped at several government-funded projects, including a new 3D movie theater, and discussed agricultural productivity with university students. He also spoke about the U.S. embargo, calling it a failure. “[The U.S.] keep[s] insisting on their failed policy of blockade and have hardened the blockade, hardened the financial persecution,” he said. “New measures appear every week. They’ve gotten angry with Cuba after having a failed policy of blockading us for so many years.” The Associated Press and other foreign media, who, breaking with past precedent, were invited to cover President  Díaz-Canel’s trip, were granted intimate access to the tour. Usually, foreign media coverage of trips such as these is gleaned from social media accounts of Cuban officials. Foreign press were invited to cover three events, including the aforementioned visit to Caimanera’s new 3D movie theater and the forum with university students, as well as a visit to the city center that took place in the evening.

Two Cuban migrants stabbed to death in Mexico’s southern border

On Wednesday, authorities in Mexico reported that a Cuban couple was stabbed to death in Tenosique, in the state of Tabasco at the southern border of Mexico, OnCuba reports. According to Cubans in the area that knew the couple, they arrived to Tabasco earlier this month and were on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. Rubén Figueroa, south-east coordinator of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, stated that the couple left Cuba in search of economic opportunities in the U.S. The murdered woman was pregnant, Figueroa added.

In October, the Doctors Without Borders team in Tenosique denounced the rapidly increasing rates of violence towards migrants at the Southern border. In less than a month, they have cared for eleven migrants who were victims of kidnapping and torture in the state of Tabasco alone.

Miami mayor declares Haila María Mompié persona non grata

On Wednesday, the mayor of Miami, Francis Suárez, declared that renowned Cuban singer Haila María Mompié was not welcome in the city, OnCuba reports. Mompié is scheduled for a concert next Thursday at the Studio 60 Nightclub, located in the Miami neighborhood of Allapattah. Some elements of Miami media and society are encouraging attendees to boycott her performance in Miami due to the fact that she attended the funeral of Fidel Castro in 2016. Mompié also once said “I love him with all my heart,” about Castro, kissing him on the cheek during an official televised event, according to OnCuba. Recently, the singer canceled concerts in Las Vegas and Hialeah (a town neighboring Miami), due to pressure from Cuban Americans in Miami pushing for a boycott.

Trivago removes Cuba listings [SPANISH]

The travel booking company Trivago, a German subsidiary of the American travel company Expedia, recently removed all of its listings in Cuba, Cuba’s state-owned media Granma reports. Trivago’s removal of Cuban hotels from the site is likely in response to the company being sued for allegedly trafficking in confiscated property in a Helms Burton Act Title III lawsuit in June, the first of two suits against Expedia. Manuel Marrero Cruz, Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, recently reported that restrictions on travel have cost Cuba’s travel sector upwards of 38.72 billion dollars.

The implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act has forced other companies to cut ties with the island as well. For example, in September, Amazon and an artisanal charcoal company, FOGO Charcoal, were hit with a Title III lawsuit. Shortly after, both companies stopped selling products from Cuba.


Electric motorcycles ride to rescue in fuel-short Cuba

Fuel shortages continue in Cuba as a result of U.S. sanctions and the crisis in Venezuela, and Cubans are turning to electric motorcycles, France24 reports. With fewer vehicles running on the limited fuel supply, public transportation is increasingly crowded, and the motorcycles provide a welcome alternative mode of transit. When fuel shortages spiked in September, police in Cuba began flagging down state-owned vehicles to take on passengers, and encouraged drivers to pick up passengers on their own accord. Motorcyclists responded by volunteering with particular fervor. Cuba’s president Díaz-Canel even mentioned them and their efforts on state television, according to France24.

From 2013, when electric motorcycles were first licensed for import, to now, the bikes have increased in presence on Cuba’s streets, with about 210,000 in use currently. As a result of the government price controls that were implemented in August on a range of goods, the bikes are now cheaper, and 3G and increased wifi availability have made networking among riders easier, resulting in groups like the Electric Motorbikes of Cuba, an online group for motorbike enthusiasts who share their knowledge of electric motorbikes and which, according to France24, “has evolved to have an environmental and social purpose.” The group currently has more than 80 members. Two weeks ago when new USD stores opened in Cuba, electric motorcycles were in high demand and popular models sold out at some stores. Also two weeks ago, Cuba announced that for a limited time, it would allow the import and registration of mopeds that otherwise violate customs regulations.

Some Cubans are also promoting bicycle use and implementing environmentally and socially sustainable practices in their businesses, like the woman-owned and-run bicycle repair and rental shop, VeloCuba, that aims to empower women and their local communities. VeloCuba’s newest project, Ha’BiCi, is the first public-private partnership for a public bicycle system in Havana and it includes a pilot project to institute cycling lanes on some streets throughout the country. Ha’Bici opened its doors in November 2018. It is a collaboration with Havana City Historian’s Office and the Basque government and its Tecnalia company, who supplied the sixty bikes currently in use.

Marabana 2019: The race for Havana’s 500 years

On Sunday, despite the rainy weather, the 33rd Marabana marathon in Havana drew 5,858 participants, including 1,300 foreigners from across the world, OnCuba reports. The race, which was a part of Havana’s 500th anniversary celebrations and sponsored by Adidas, involved a marathon, half marathon, 10K, and wheelchair marathon, among other segments.

Cuban leaders rally sugar workers to produce more with less

Cuba’s sugar harvest, which begins next week, is likely to suffer from the effects of tightened U.S. sanctions, Reuters reports. Fuel and tire shortages in particular may impact the harvest, which Reuters estimates will total around 1.5 million metric tons if all goes to plan. This goal, however, may be hard to meet. Last year, Cuba, whose entire economy once revolved around sugar, and who counted sugar as its main export until the fall of the Soviet Union, produced its lowest harvest in over a century: only 1.3 million metric tons. Yearly, Cuba consumes around 700,000 metric tons of sugar, exports 400,000 metric tons to China to fulfill a trade agreement with the country. Cuba sells the remaining sugar on the open market. Cuba hopes to bring its people together and work to get ahead even with less supplies and financing, said José Ramón Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Communist Party, while touring the mills this week.


Spain’s king starts historic trip to Communist-run Cuba; First Spanish royal visit crowns Havana’s 500th party; Spanish king travels to Cuba, sparking protests — and the killing of stray dogs in Havana; Animal rights activists stage rare protest in Cuba’s capital; Spanish king defends democracy and human rights on state visit to Cuba

On Monday, King of Spain, Felipe VI, and Queen Letizia began their three day official visit to Cuba for the celebration of Havana’s 500th anniversary, Reuters reports. During the official visit, King Felipe and President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, had a closed door meeting where they agreed to further develop positive bilateral political and economic relations, Cuban state-owned media Granma reports. Despite Cuba’s history as one of Spain’s colonies, this is the first ever official visit from a Spanish King to the island. King Felipe’s father, King Juan Carlos, visited Cuba twice – but neither visit was official.

King Felipe’s official visit sparked criticism in Cuba as well as in Spain. In preparation for the monarch’s arrival, Cuba’s government reportedly euthanized dozens of stray dogs, the Miami Herald reports. Animal-rights activists in Havana, who in April held what’s believed to be the first independent march authorized by the Communist Party, calling for an end to animal cruelty, were able to rescue some dogs, but many more were still put down. This led to several demonstrations in front of the Spanish consulate. The trip also drew criticism from some Spanish politicians and Cuban dissidents, who claim it legitimizes Cuba’s one-party system at a time of increased repression on the island.

During a dinner at the Captains General Palace in Havana with President Díaz-Canel, King Filipe insisted that democracy requires respect for human rights, including the right “to freely express…ideas, freedom of association and assembly.” According to El Pais, sources from the Spanish government said that the King could not visit Cuba without making a call in favor of democracy and human rights. In October, Cuba and the EU held talks in Brussels on human rights in both Cuba and the EU, including collaboration on strengthening women’s rights, fighting violence against women, and increasing internet access within Cuba. They also discussed freedom of expression, access to information, and the right to participate in public affairs.

Ecuador ends agreement to receive Cuban doctors; Ecuador probing influx of Cubans before anti-austerity protests; Bolivia’s new government expels Cuban officials, recalls its diplomatic staff from Venezuela

On Tuesday, Ecuador’s Interior Minister, Maria Paula Romo, announced that the country will not renew any of its agreements to receive doctors from Cuba, Telesur reports. By the end of the year, their bilateral agreement will come to an end and four hundred Cuban doctors will leave their positions in Ecuador. These spots will be filled by Ecuadorian national specialists, Romo announced. The following day, Ecuador announced that it was looking into Cubans carrying “a special class of passport,” or “official passports,” issued for “specific missions,” under suspicion that foreign actors may have been involved in recent protests, Reuters reports. Official passports are issued to persons involved in Cuba’s medical missions, although Romo did not directly accuse Cubans of involvement in the protests. Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno has accused Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro of sending Venezuelans to incite protests and violence in the past.

Bolivia’s caretaker government announced today that over 700 Cuban officials, including those participating in foreign medical missions in that country, will begin leaving Bolivia today, the Miami Herald reports. In a statement in response, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls on Bolivian authorities to stop exacerbating the irresponsible and hateful anti-Cuban sentiment, and the defamation and the instigation of violence against Cuban collaborators.” Furthermore, it noted, the doctors “have been providing health services in solidarity with their Bolivian brothers.”

Medical missions are one of Cuba’s main sources of income, and a cornerstone of Cuba’s international cooperation programs around the world. According to Romo, there will be no new agreements between Cuba and Ecuador’s Health Ministries moving forward. Last week, as part of its steady drumbeat of new sanctions against the island nations, the Trump administration banned federal funding for cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and Cuba over allegations that these medical missions violate labor rights. Earlier this year, Brazil also terminated their medical professional agreements with Cuba. In September the U.S. urged other nations to cease their participation in Cuba’s medical missions, saying they constituted “human trafficking.”

Cuban and Mexican foreign ministers meet in Havana to relaunch ties

On Saturday, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez met with Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebard in Havana where they discussed “relaunching” bilateral ties, OnCuba reports. At the meeting, Rodriguez highlighted the fact that Mexico was the only country to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1962 when the U.S. embargo was put into place. The meeting follows an official trip by Cuba’s president Miguel Díaz-Canel to Mexico three weeks ago, during which President Díaz-Canel met with Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss consolidating economic-commercial and migration ties. The two countries have grown closer since President Lopez Obrador entered office in Mexico.

Italian dairy company established in Mariel

The Italian dairy company Lácteos Mariel S.A. will establish itself in Cuba’s Mariel Special Development Zone, OnCuba reports. The company will work with the agricultural sector to encourage high levels of milk production that can be turned into high quality products such as yogurt, ice cream, and cheese for domestic consumption and export. Lácteos Mariel S.A. is the third Italian company in the Mariel Development Zone, joining two existing Italian-Cuban joint ventures there that produce disposable diapers: Vidrios Mariel and Industrias Arthis.

Cuba condemns coup in Bolivia

In several tweets on Sunday, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel condemned the actions leading up to the resignation of Bolivian President Evo Morales, calling the events a coup and expressing solidarity with Morales, Cuba’s state-owned media Granma reports. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement condemning violence and racism surrounding the alleged coup.

The Director General of the OPEC Fund arrives today in Cuba

On November 12, the Director General of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Fund for International Development (OFID), Dr. Abdulhamid Alkhalifa, visited Cuba for the celebration of Havana’s 500th anniversary, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations. During his stay, until November 17, Dr. Alkhalifa plans to sign the fifteenth cooperation agreement between Cuba and OFID. OFID is a multilateral development finance institution, established in 1976 by the member states of the OPEC. Over the last two decades, OFID has approved 278.5 million U.S. Dollars in loans to country in order to finance projects in the agriculture, energy and water sectors.

The Island Rum Company announces Cuba’s first rum joint venture in 20 years

On November 7, Azcuba, Cuba’s state-owned sugar producer, and Island Brands SL, a subsidiary of the Norwegian company The Island Rum Company, entered into a historic joint venture, Ron Vigia S.A., TRBusiness reports. The joint venture, which is valid for 30 years, is Azcuba’s first joint rum venture, and Cuba’s first “fully integrated” joint rum venture since the formation of Havana Club International in the 1990’s. The Island Rum Company already sells three products made with Cuban rum on the international market, including Black Tears spiced rum.


 Cuba: Go or no? The answer is more complicated than you might think, Catherine Watson, Los Angeles Times

Journalist Catherine Watson writes about visiting Havana and the differences she sees in Cuba from having visited the island on six trips from 1999 up through today. She also shares how she views Cuba’s 1959 revolution as a thread that lives on and serves to connect Cuba’s many elements.

If Cuba’s on your bucket list, here’s what the most recent changes mean for you, Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Despite continued sanctions implemented by the Trump administration, it is still possible to travel to Cuba. Catharine Hamm lays out the nuances a U.S. traveler must keep in mind to stay within U.S. regulations.

Why the Elián Gonzalez saga resonates 20 years later, Jess Swanson and Angel Garcia, Vox

Twenty years ago next month, Elián Gonzalez, a five year old Cuban boy, was rescued by fishermen off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. He was rescued after his mother and the other migrants they were traveling with died as they attempted to reach the U.S. on a makeshift raft. Elián’s father, who remained in Cuba, fought for custody and the return of his son to Cuba. Anti-communist Cubans in Florida protested, demaning Elián Gonzalez remain in the U.S.with his uncle. Swanson and Garcia illustrate how this international custody battle continues to have effects on the U.S.-Cuba relationship today.

Cuba’s urban farming shows way to avoid hunger, Paul Brown, Climate News Network

Urban farming in Cuba, initially taken up due to food shortages, could serve as a model to combat climate change. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba relied on the USSR for food imports in exchange for sugar produced on the island. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, with the end of food, fertilizer, and tractor fuel shipments, and the fact that so much of Cuba’s land had been dedicated to sugar, many Cubans suffered from significant malnutrition. This sparked the trend of urban farming. Families and cooperatives tended plots that by 2008 covered 8 percent of Havana and which produced 90 percent of all fruits and vegetables consumed in Cuba. Cuba’s experiments with urban agriculture could help combat food shortages that may arise as a result of climate change.



DIAGO: The pasts of this Afro-cuban present, October  24, 2019-January 19, 2020, Lowe Museum, Miami, Florida

A retrospective display of Juan Roberto Diago’s artwork will be at the Lowe Museum until January 19, 2020. Leading member of the Afro-Cuban movement, Diago’s visual art offers a revisionist history of Cuba’s racial tensions. Diago’s art will be curated by Director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, Dr. Alejandro de la Fuente, in collaboration with the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora (Miami MoCAAD).

Cuba And Beyond Series, September 24th-December 5th 2019, 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. Check the calendar (link above) to see upcoming events this month.


Cimafunk’s ‘Getting Funky in Havana’ Concerts with New Orleans Groups Soul Rebels and Tank & the Bangas, January 14-18, 2020, Havana, Cuba

New Orleans groups Soul Rebels and Tank and the Bangas are set to join Cuba’s Cimafunk for the five day “Getting Funky in Havana,” concert series and cultural exchange tour set for , presented by the Trombone Shorty Foundation, Cuba Educational Travel and the Havana Jazz Festival.

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