U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 02/28/2020

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This week, in Cuba news…


Cuba featured heavily in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary race this week. 

In an interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday, presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders defended comments he made decades ago about Fidel Castro, saying “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program.” In response to Anderson Cooper’s comments about Cuba’s imprisonment of dissidents, Sanders responded, “that’s right, and we condemn that.” 

The literacy campaign to which Sanders is referring was implemented by Fidel Castro in 1961. According to a UNESCO report written following a 1964 UNESCO mission to Cuba, the highly organized literacy campaign decreased Cuba’s country-wide illiteracy rate from a 1953 level of 23.6 percent to a 1961 level of 3.9 percent. Within its first year, over 700,000 Cubans became newly literate. However, Cuba’s education system has been criticized for demanding revolutionary allegiance as a part of basic education and stifling oppositional beliefs in children and families.

In South Carolina during Tuesday’s democratic presidential primary debate, Sanders was asked by moderators and his fellow candidates about his comments, to which he responded by explaining that he condemns authoritarian regimes “all over the world,” including in Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, and Cuba. He went on to say that his comments on Cuba were the same as Barack Obama’s comments on Cuba, referencing the former President’s comments during a 2016 visit to Buenos Aires when he said, at a town hall, that he told Raúl Castro, “Look, you’ve made great progress in educating young people. Every child in Cuba gets a basic education. That’s a huge improvement from where it was. Medical care. You know the life expectancy of Cubans is equivalent to the United States despite it being a very poor country, because they have access to healthcare. That’s a huge achievement, [Cuba] should be congratulated.” Obama then went on to comment on Cuba’s poor economic situation and how one must ask how to achieve the “goals of equality and inclusion but also recognize that the market system produces a lot of wealth and goods and services and innovation and also gives individuals freedom because they have initiative.” 

In response to Sanders’ assertion that “Cuba made progress on education,” some in the audience booed. Presidential candidate and former Vice President to Barack Obama, Joe Biden, argued that Obama “did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government.” Presidential candidate and Mayor of South Bend Indiana Pete Buttigieg asserted that “we’re certainly not going to win [the election] by reliving the Cold War.” Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar chimed in that she “leads the bill to lift the embargo,” referencing S.428 The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2019, and that she “went with Barack Obama when he went to Cuba” and has “seen firsthand how the Cuban people are way in front of their leaders. They like America. They want to be entrepreneurs, and the way that we embrace them, and not the socialist regime, is by opening up Cuba and starting to do business with them.” 

In Cuba, Sanders’s comments were covered by Cuba’s state-owned media Granma on Tuesday with front-page coverage. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who splits her time between New York and Havana, said “yes, they taught us to read and write, and then they forbade us to read what we want and write what we think.”

The week’s events spurred debate in the Cuban American community as well. Offering criticism of the Cuban government’s education system, Cuban American author Andy Gomez told NPR in an interview that “Not every book is available or – freely to all the citizens in Cuba, including children. The government decides what books are allowed.” Other Cuban Americans spoke out against Sander’s critics. In an op-ed in Latino Rebels, Carlos Calzadilla-Palacio, the grandson of a Cuban political prisoner who grew up with Cuban parents in South Florida, shared that “These disingenuous attacks against Bernie Sanders have been deeply offensive and hurtful, as I see these political hacks using my grandfather’s suffering and that of other political prisoners to advance their cynical political agenda.”

Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart introduced a Republican-backed resolution on Thursday condemning Sanders’s remarks. The Miami Herald reports that he sought to append the measure to an unrelated bill, sponsored by Rep. Shalala (FL-27), that was under consideration on the floor, to ban flavored tobacco products. Rep. Diaz-Balart’s  measure was defeated 224-189 in a procedural vote that both Reps. Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26), two Democratic Members from south Florida, did not attend. In a statement, Rep. Mucarsel-Powell said, “House Republicans attempted to use an underhanded maneuver to derail an important public health bill to protect our children from a vaping epidemic… It is shameful that they attempted to create a false choice between standing with the Cuban community and a generation of children whose health is at risk.” 

President Donald Trump, the Republican incumbent, did not weigh in on the week’s events. 


Trump sanctions, lawsuits hit Cuba hard: It can’t even buy planes, transport minister says

Cuba’s Transportation Minister Eduardo Rodríguez revealed on Cuba’s state-owned television program “Mesa Redonda” on Tuesday that the ramping up of U.S. sanctions mean that foreign companies refuse to sell planes to Cuba or dock ships on the island, the Miami Herald reports. Companies have also cancelled contracts to upgrade Cuba’s aging infrastructure, including the José Martí International airport in Havana, the only airport at which the newly changed U.S. sanctions regime permits commercial airlines and public charter flights to land, and Cuba’s rail system. Some foreign companies such as French Bank Societe Generale, Panamanian bank Multibank, Swiss Bank PostFinance, and American airline company JetBlue Airlines, have limited or ceased operations in Cuba due to U.S. sanctions and the May 2019 implementation Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act for the first time. The act allows U.S. nationals to file lawsuits against entities doing business in Cuba that are profiting off of land expropriated after the 1959 Cuban revolution.  

In an appearance on Cuban television Tuesday night, Transportation Minister Eduardo Rodríguez revealed that two unnamed multinational corporations–one contracted to modernize Havana’s José Martí airport and the other to expand railway transit on the island–pulled out of their contracts out of fear of being hit with Helms-Burton lawsuits. Anxiety around doing business in Cuba is evident among other  foreign companies as well: in one recent case, Cuba’s Transportation Minister notes that Cuba was forced to buy an entire oil vessel that would not dock on the island otherwise, even though Cuba’s government had already purchased the oil the ship was transporting. 

Pompeo: An Open Letter to the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cuba 

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote a letter to Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez to request the immediate release of Cuban opposition leader José Daniel Ferrer. Ferrer is currently facing charges of assault; Ferrer’s relatives and the opposition organization he leads, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), allege that the assault charges were made in order to silence Ferrer. According to the letter, the European Parliament, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Amnesty International, journalists, and human rights organizations have also condemned the treatment of Ferrer. On January 17, Reuters reported that Cuba’s government would be seeking 9 years in prison for the activist. The U.S. Senate introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for Ferrer’s immediate release in December of 2019, following his initial arrest on October 1. Similar condemnations have been issued by the EU parliament, Amnesty International, and other NGOs. On Thursday February 27, a spokesperson for the EU’s External Affairs office released a statement saying that European Union representatives in Cuba have requested access to Mr. Ferrer’s trial which has not been granted. The spokesperson also asserted that “information available on his case suggests that Mr Ferrer is on trial for the peaceful expression of his views” and that “his constitutional rights to due process have been disregarded in the run-up to the trial.” 

U.S. continues national emergency with respect to Cuba

On Tuesday, The White House released a notice of the continuation of the U.S.’s declaration of a national emergency with respect to Cuba. The national emergency was first declared in 1996 under U.S. President Bill Clinton in the form of Proclamation 6867, which granted the U.S. Secretary of Transportation the authority to regulate all U.S.-registered vessels intending to enter or anchor in Cuban territory. The proclamation was issued following the Cuban air force’s shootdown of two U.S. civilian Brothers to the Rescue aircraft over international waters as the U.S. aircrafts searched for rafters making their way from Cuba to the U.S. The aircrafts were known to have violated Cuban airspace and dropped human rights leaflets over the island that same day. The national emergency has been renewed by every subsequent administration through proclamation. 

In 2004, President George W. Bush expanded the national emergency to regulate monetary and material support to Cuba in Proclamation 7757. President Barack Obama issued Proclamation 9398 in 2016 to modify the declaration of national emergency to reflect the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. In 2018, President Donald Trump issued Proclamation 9699, which extended the national emergency and modified language to remove language regarding the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. 

A standard rationale for continuing the 24 year old national emergency declaration is that U.S. vessels entering Cuban waters could facilitate a mass migration by bringing Cuban migrants to the U.S. Such a mass migration, according to the proclamation, “would endanger the security of the United States by posing a disturbance or threatened disturbance of the international relations of the United States.”

Miami sponsors anti-communist concert to oppose Cuban regime 

An “anti-communist concert” in Miami sponsored by the city’s government has been set for April 1, Miami Herald reports. This concert was organized alongside reports that some Cuban Americans in Miami may be returning to a hardline approach on Cuba. Artists performing include Cuban-American trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. Recently, several Cuban artists such as reggaeton group Gente de Zona and singer Haila Mompié, have been barred from performing in concerts in Miami. 


Cuba opens its annual trade fair for the key cigar sector; Cuban cigar sales increase but face challenges in 2020 

Cuba’s annual cigar trade fair began on Monday, attracting thousands of buyers to the island, the Associated Press reports. In 2019, Cuba sold $531 million worth of cigars, a 10 percent increase from the previous year, according to officials from state-owned Habanos S.A.; the company expects sales in 2020 to increase at the same rate. The strongest markets for Cuban cigars last year were Spain, China, Germany, and France. However, according to Habanos President Luis Sanchez, domestic sales of cigars decreased slightly, likely due to increased U.S. sanctions on travel to Cuba in 2019–projected to continue into 2020–leading to fewer U.S. visitors, Reuters reports. Declining sales to U.S. visitors and the coronavirus will continue to present market challenges, but according to Sanchez, Habanos is a “very global company” that can “compensate for some negative circumstances that arrive.” 

Cuba selling used cars for 1st time

Following its announcement on February 6 that the government would begin selling cars in tradable currencies rather than convertible Cuban pesos, on Tuesday, Cuba’s government began selling used cars in USD at a single outlet in Havana, Fox Business reports.  On February 18, CIMEX, Cuba’s state-owned import-export commercial company, released the prices at which the cars would be sold, ranging from $34K to $90K, prices that, as Reuters’ Sarah Marsh remarked in a tweet, are prohibitively expensive for most Cubans. In 2014, Cuba’s government legalized the sale of cars manufactured after the 1959 revolution, but only in Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC). This week’s development is a notable move in the island’s pivot towards the dollarization of certain industries.

High fines to be imposed on those who affect Havana’s image and hygiene 

Havana’s government will begin an effort to keep the city clean, which will include high fines for littering, OnCuba reports. The new initiative was announced by Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel on February 21 at the close of a National Assembly of Popular Power regular session, according to state newspaper Tribuna de la Habana. Beginning on March 1, families will be expected to deposit household waste at designated sites or risk facing a 1,500 CUP fine; those disposing of construction waste improperly will face a 3,000 CUP fine; and smaller fines of between 150 and 300 CUP will be in place for those who throw waste in the avenues, streets, parks or other common areas outside the wastebaskets, baskets or garbage deposits. The move is a part of President Díaz’s beautification and hygiene-improvement efforts in the capital city.


Cuba reaffirms our country’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights for all

At a recent UN Human Rights Council meeting, a Cuban delegation led by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parilla reaffirmed Cuba’s commitment to the promotion of human rights, state media outlet Granma reports. The UNHRC’s 43rd regular session was held between February 25 and 28 in Geneva. 

Ahead of meetings on the 25th, Minister Rodríguez tweeted about Cuba’s “commitment to the promotion and protection of all human rights for all; without selectivity, without political manipulation, without double standards.” Cuba has ratified 41 of the 61 international accords on human rights and recently served two terms on the UNHRC, ending at the close of 2018.


Cimafunk Tiny Desk Concert, NPR Music

The Afro-Cuban funk group Cimafunk performed an NPR Tiny Desk concert earlier this year. Watch the group, as Felix Contreras, says,“turn the Tiny Desk into the hippest Cuban dance spot on the East Coast.”

Get to know ReglaSOUL, a wellness resource for Afro-Cubans, Janel Martinez, Remezcla 

ReglaSOUL is a Cuban project that works to promote a holistic, plant-based, alternative lifestyle and “better access to wellness resources for Afro descendants in Cuba.” The project is the brainchild of U.S. photographer and filmmaker Amberly Alene Ellis and her husband, Cuban hip hop artist and activist Alexey Rodriguez. The pair host vegan cooking workshops and “Hip Hop for Wellness” discussion concerts. According to Remezcla, “[ReglaSOUL is] ensuring Black Cubans understand the connection between food, history, and liberation.”


Animal protectors in Cuba: the voice of the voiceless, Eric Caraballoso, OnCuba

OnCuba reports on the advocates who form Cuba’s burgeoning animal rights movement. In April 2019, the movement organized a march against the mistreatment of animals that became what is believed to be the first protest march authorized by Cuba’s Communist Party. The movement is currently campaigning for the implementation of new animal protection legislation.


Washington, D.C.: Celia and Fidel, February 28 – April 12

Imbued with magical realism, Arena Stage’s seventh Power Play imagines a conversation between Cuba’s most influential female revolutionary, Celia Sánchez, and its most notorious political leader, Fidel Castro, in a contest between morality and power.

New York, NY: Cuba and Beyond Series, February 6 – April 21 

Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies is holding a series of conferences on Cuba between February 6 and April 21. CDA’s Director of Programs María José Espinosa Carrillo will speak at the “Cuban Civil Society: What is its role?” conference on March 10. 

Havana, Cuba: The 4th Nation and Emigration Conference, April 8 – 10

The Nation and Emigration Conference will be held in Havana from April 8 to 10. The meeting is convened by Cuba’s government, draws Cuban emigrants from the island residing in the five continents, and is designed to strengthen ties with residents abroad.

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