U.S.-Cuba News Brief 03/06/2020

Dear Friends,

For those of you in the D.C. area, join us next Friday, March 13, for a book presentation and expert commentary with Lisette Poole and CDA staff regarding regional migration, including migration trends from Cuba to the U.S., and how U.S. policy impacts those trends. Poole will present her bilingual book, La paloma y la ley (The dove and the law), which follows two Cuban migrant women, Marta Amaro and Liset Barrios, on their journey to reach the United States. Poole joined Amaro and Barrios as they crossed several borders over 51 days in 2016. Find more information about the event linked here.

Interested in engaging the Americas? CDA might be the place for you! We are seeking a Development and Operations Coordinator, a 2020 Fellow, and two summer 2020 interns!

This week, in Cuba news…


Western Union suspends sending of remittances to Cuba from all over the world except the United States

On February 26, the financial services company Western Union stopped allowing money transfers to Cuba from any country other than the U.S., OnCuba reports. According to Western Union spokesperson Margaret D. Fogarty, the suspension is “due to the unique challenges of operating remittance services from countries outside of the United States to Cuba.” Western Union, which was reportedly considering the move last week, was a quick and relatively inexpensive way to transfer funds to Cuba, according to Julio Lopez of Canada who sends money to his sister on the island. Other options for him include financial services companies or transferring the money directly through Canadian banks, all of which come with more transaction fees than Western Union.

Former prisoner recalls Sanders saying, “I don’t know what’s so wrong” with Cuba

On Wednesday, Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen formerly imprisoned in Cuba for bringing illegal communications equipment into the country, recounted to NPR a conversation he had with presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders when Sanders was in Cuba 6 years ago with a congressional delegation. Gross’ interview this week comes on the heels of comments made by Sen. Sanders (VT) on 60 Minutes and on the presidential debate stage regarding perceived accomplishments of Fidel Castro’s government; see our reporting on last week’s events here. In 2014, Senators Sanders and Tester (MT) and then Senator Heitkamp (ND) visited Mr. Gross in prison as a part of a U.S. effort to press for Gross’s release. According to Mr. Gross, Senator Sanders at one point commented that he didn’t see “what was so wrong with this country [Cuba.]” Mr. Gross says that he, who was serving as a prisoner in Cuba at the time, took personal offense. He also told NPR that during his time in prison, he was malnourished and deprived of necessities such as sunlight, civilian clothing, and access to health care.

Gross was arrested for crimes against the Cuban state in 2011 and was given a 15 year sentence. The charges were in reference to his actions working for the Maryland-based development contractor Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), which had a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The contract provided funds for Gross to clandestinely provide telecommunications equipment to the Jewish community in Cuba between 2009 and 2014 and was funded under authorities included in the Helms-Burton Act, which explicitly calls for regime change. After the Obama administration negotiated his release as a humanitarian gesture in December 2014, Mr. Gross was released and sent back to the U.S. after serving only five years.

For more information on how Cuba policy is playing a role in the 2020 presidential race, see CDA’s recent special feature election coverage.

Scientists Meet in Havana on Diplomats’ Mystery Illnesses

On March 2nd and 3rd, scientists from Cuba, the U.S., the U.K., and Canada met in Havana for a conference on the mysterious symptoms experienced by U.S. and Canadian embassy personnel in Cuba starting in 2016, the Associated Press reports. The conference, titled “Is There a Havana Syndrome?” considered possible explanations for the symptoms.

Among other things, participants discussed a September 2019 study conducted by a group of Canadian scientists led by Dr. Alon Friedman, M.D. that explored the possibility that neurotoxins in chemicals used to fumigate Canadian diplomats’ homes caused the symptoms. The study focused on the symptoms (headaches and loss of balance as well as sleep, concentration, and memory difficulties) experienced by Canadian diplomats and their family members, most of those whose homes were fumigated to prevent the spread of Zika virus in 2016 and 2017.

Scientists at the conference also considered the theory of mass hysteria as a possible explanation for the symptoms. According to Mark Cohen, a psychiatry professor at UCLA, “There is a cluster of reports of people who are sincerely suffering and whether the cause is some sort of magical ray-gun or some sort of chemical exposure or is purely psychogenic…we don’t know,” said Mark Cohen, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who attended this week’s conference. Cohen’s statement echoes the larger consensus of the conference–that the cause of the symptoms is still unclear. Cuban scientists dismissed the possibility of any form of attack aimed by Cuba’s government at foreign diplomats. Dr. Mitchell Valdés-Sosa, a Cuban neuroscientist, told the AP, “We believe the truth will come out with the passage of time…obviously, we don’t believe the idea that the diplomats were attacked.

On Monday, CNN’s Patrick Oppmann tweeted “Cuban researchers say they invited doctors from University of Miami and University of Pennsylvania who treated US diplomats to attend [the] conference but they chose not to…US has said much info remains sensitive/classified.” Oppmann also reported that conference members determined that a recording published by the Associated Press in October 2017 and alleged to capture harmful sound waves was actually a recording of a rare species of cricket.

The controversy surrounding U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba reached a peak in late 2017 when the U.S. recalled all non-essential personnel from its embassy in Havana and called for an equivalent reduction of staff at the Cuban Embassy in D.C. in response to initial reports of mysterious health incidents. Embassies remain at reduced staff levels. The conference was live streamed on Youtube. The March 3 discussions can be found here and the March 4 discussions can be found here.

Feds deport 119 Cubans back to Havana on Miami Flight

On Friday, February 28, U.S. immigration officials deported 119 Cuban nationals on a flight that departed from Miami en route to Havana, the Miami Herald reports. Cuban detentions have increased under the Trump administration. In FY2019, the Trump administration began deportation proceedings against 25,044 Cubans, most of whom had requested asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the Miami Herald, as of January of this year, more than 20,000 of deportation cases regarding Cubans are still unresolved. ICE reported 1,179 removals of Cubans in FY2019, an increase from 463 Cuban removals reported in FY2018. As of April 2019, 37,000 Cubans faced orders of removal. The 119 Cubans who left Miami on Friday make up the second largest group to be deported at once under the Trump administration. In September of 2019, the federal government deported 120 Cubans on a similar flight to Havana.

This YouTube star made his mark among recently arrived Cubans–and got them to act; Louisville Cuban caravan calls for change amid worries in U.S.

Cuban Americans in Miami marched down Calle Ocho last weekend after Cuban American YouTube star, Alexander Otaola, urged his followers to “make noise in Miami, to show their appreciation of President Donald Trump’s hard line toward the island, and their disdain for Cuba’s government,” the Miami Herald reports. The march opposed Vermont Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ comments on 60 Minutes last week on Cuba’s literacy program, and opposed socialism and communism in the U.S.

Otaola, who came to Miami from the island in 2003, began creating videos on “celebrity gossip” and musicians and celebrities popular among the recent diaspora, but lately has delved increasingly into politics. Otaola’s audience of young Cuban Americans is one that Florida International University’s poll of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade county indicates is supportive of U.S.-Cuba engagement, “but it is more complex,” according to Ricardo Herrero, executive director of Cuba Study Group. “Paying exorbitant fees to [the Cuban government] to renew their Cuban passports rankles them, as does sending remittances to maintain working-age relatives who can’t make ends meet in Cuba’s closed economy. Those who put money into private sector businesses can’t even count on Cuban law to protect their investments.” Some think that “the Cuban government squandered the opportunity to reciprocate Obama’s opening” with the island in late 2014, a move “[the recently arrived diaspora] overwhelmingly supported,” Herrero said.

On February 29, Cuban Americans in Louisville, Kentucky held a similar event that included a caravan and a rally in opposition to Cuba’s government, The Louisville Courier Journal reports. More than 150 Democrats and Republicans attended the event. Some held signs saying “No Socialism in America,” “Cuba Libre,” and “Make Cuba Great Again,” while others held Trump signs. The rally included speeches and a rendition of Cuba’s old National Anthem.


Cuban press denies rumors about cases of coronavirus on island

Cuban officials denied rumors which circulated on social media over the weekend of three cases of COVID-19 in Cuba, OnCuba reports. On February 28, Cuba’s Minister of Health José Ángel Portal tweeted that Cuba has no cases of Coronavirus and is being vigilant with surveillance and border control in order to minimize the risk of the virus’ spread to Cubans. The island’s medical authorities have repeatedly insisted that there are no confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Cuba, although they have detected certain people suspected of presenting with symptoms of the disease, which originated in China and was first detected in Latin America–specifically in Brazil–on February 26. Francisco Durán, Cuba’s national director for epidemiology at the Ministry of Public Health, said in a state television newscast that individuals who had recently travelled to COVID-19 hotspots and those presenting with pneumonia-like symptoms had been isolated at various hospitals and inside the country’s Institute of Tropical Medicine.

Cuban authorities have recently been focused on creating a widely available Coronavirus testing kit and developing an application designed to provide information about the virus and its symptoms as well as updated news alerts regarding containment efforts which is available for free download on Android devices.

Wife of Cuba’s leading dissident says his trial was a “farce.” Now the family waits for a verdict.

On March 12, a Cuban court will decide the sentence for well-known political dissident José Daniel Ferrer, NBC Latino reports, for assault charges following an October 1, 2019 arrest. Ferrer is formally facing charges of assault, though 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 for his acts of political dissidence. Ferrer’s wife now claims that his trial was unfair. Nelva Ortega told NBC Latino that she was only notified about her husband’s February 26 trial the night before it was held. She also alleges that Ferrer was shackled for hours prior to his trial and only allowed to speak for mere minutes during the 12 hour proceeding. He was previously imprisoned between 2003 and 2011 in what was known as the “Black Spring” when 75 protestors and activists were arrested across Cuba.

As we reported previously, Ferrer’s case has sparked a great deal of international interest, including recent letters, statements, and resolutions of condemnation from U.S. and international actors.

Díaz-Canel: This economic plan requires rigor, discipline and control

At a meeting of Cuba’s Council of Ministers in late February to discuss the country’s economic performance, Cuba’s president Miguel Díaz-Canel outlined the urgency with which Cuba must approach its economic goals in the coming year. According to Cuban state newspaper Granma, the President called for “rigor, discipline, and control” and declared that Cuba’s government “cannot admit any failure to meet projections with the excuse of fuel shortage.” While Minister of Economy and Planning Alejandro Gil Fernández reported at the meeting that Cuba all but met its economic goals for the first month of 2020, Cuba does currently face severe shortages in products such as petroleum for fuel or basic toiletries. In his address, President Díaz-Canel insisted that Cuba’s government keep its focus firmly on meeting economic projections despite “hostile U.S. policy and continuing efforts to prevent fuel from reaching the island.” Since mid-2017, the Trump administration has been ramping up sanctions on Cuba, some of which have been targeted to prevent Cuba’s ability to import petroleum. In January, CDA published a  memorandum on changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba under the Trump administration.

Tourism to Cuba drops significantly, official figures show

According to new data from Cuba’s National Bureau of Statistics and Information, 95,856 fewer tourists visited Cuba in January 2020 compared to January 2019, the Miami Herald reports. The 19.6 percent drop in tourism as compared to January 2019, coupled with a corresponding 70 percent drop in U.S. visitors, is a blow to Cuba’s tourism industry. Tourism is one of Cuba’s most important sources of income, generating roughly $3 billion annually, though it took a hit in 2019. The new data indicates that the drop in industry profits is not over yet. The Miami Herald reports that U.S. policies, including sanctions, the ban on cruise travel to the island, and flight route cancellations, are wreaking economic havoc on Cuba’s tourism sector. One Cuban, Humberto Herrera, blames “Trump sanctions” currently in effect, which prevent certain types of U.S. travel to the island.

Beginning this month, Cuba will only sell construction materials via credit cards [SPANISH]

Beginning in March, Cubans buying construction materials in the provinces of Mayabeque, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo, and Isla de la Juventud will be required to do so with a credit card Granma reports. In April, the new regulation will be applied in Havana and all other provinces. According to the Ministry of Internal Trade, exceptions will be made for those affected by environmental disasters over a still undetermined time period and those with loans approved by the Central Bank of Cuba between 2012 and 2019. The reported goal of the new regulation is to increase transparency in the sale of certain products.

Havana begins to define future urban profile with prospective Bay Development plan [SPANISH]; Havana counts on its bay for future development

The Bay of Havana, located in the city’s geographic and population center, will also become its center of commerce under Cuba’s prospective plan for Havana Bay development, according to Cubadebate. The new plan, which places an emphasis on the Bay’s role in Cuba’s future economic growth, will reportedly proceed with respect for sustainability and equity. The plan currently contains action items in spheres such as transportation, recreation, green areas, residential development, and production, that will be implemented across several stages. According to Cubadebate, officials anticipate facing some obstacles to the bay region’s development, including its massive geographic size, as well as the likely increase of pollution associated with increased industrialization.

According to Prensa Latina, the area surrounding the Bay of Havana has already been the center of attention and concern for ecologists, architects, city planners, scientists and governmental entities for years. The general consensus is that the area boasts a great deal of potential.

First decree-laws of 2020 approved in Cuba

On Thursday, Cuba’s Council of State approved the first two decree laws of this year, OnCuba reports. The two decrees were on the National System of Document and Archive Management and on the creation of a national commission to address the issue of genetically modified organisms in Cuban agriculture. This year the National Assembly is scheduled to approve 14 decree-laws.

Cuba: birth, marriage and death certificates will not have an expiry date

Last Thursday, Cuba’s Ministry of Justice published resolution number 115, altering aspects of state birth, death, and marriage certificates. All official certificates going forward will include a statement explicitly confirming that they have no expiration date. In addition, marriage certificates will no longer include the names of the married couple’s parents and death certificates will omit the place of birth and the marital status of the deceased. According to OnCuba, Cubans have long expressed grievances regarding the long, bureaucratic process of obtaining official state certificates and the new resolution is meant to simplify the processes.

Marabou charcoal consolidated as a leading agricultural export

Despite its product being struck from shelves of U.S. retailers last year, Ceballos Agroindustrial Enterprise continued to export artisan Marabu charcoal to Europe in 2019, Granma reports, in the amount of 21,951 tons.

In September 2019, Amazon and FOGO Charcoal (a Miami company), were hit with a Helms-Burton Title III lawsuit by Daniel A. Gonzalez for selling marabu charcoal, an artisanal charcoal made from an invasive weed. Gonzalez claimed the companies were selling charcoal produced on land previously owned by his grandfather in Cuba’s Oriente province, PRNewswire reported at the time. The Helms-Burton Act’s Title III allows people in the U.S. to sue companies doing business in Cuba that are profiting off of land expropriated after the 1959 Cuba revolution. According to FOGO’s website, marabu charcoal is no longer sold by the company. Amazon also no longer offers the product.

Marabu charcoal was the first Cuban export to the U.S. Because the product is produced by worker-owned cooperatives in Cuba, 2016 U.S. regulatory changes permit its export to the U.S. The first shipment arrived in January 2017 as we reported at the time.


Cuba and the European Union discuss energy cooperation (SPANISH)

Delegations from Cuba and the European Union (EU) met in Brussels on Monday where they discussed energy cooperation, Ahora reports. The discussion was held as part of a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement that Cuba and the EU signed in 2016.


Patrick Hidalgo, Obama appointee worked on Cuba, dead at 41, Michelle Marchante, Miami Herald

The Cuba policy community lost a champion and a friend this week. Patrick Hidalgo, a former appointee in the Obama administration, and a Miami-Dade political organizer, died in Miami. His sister said on Facebook that he died of heart failure. Patrick was dedicated to making the world a better place; one of his chief focus areas was bridging the divide between the U.S. and Cuba.

How the Democratic candidates should talk to voters about Cuba, Max Paul Friedman, Philip Brenner, and Eric Hershenberg, The Hill

Four Cuba scholars propose a different foreign policy map for 2020 candidates interested in improving relations with Cuba.

Cuban Funk Sensation Cimafunk joins forces with New Orleans’ heavyweights The Soul

Rebels and Tarriona “Tank” Ball on “Caliente”

Cuban funk group Cimafunk, New Orleans-based group The Soul Rebels, and Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank and The Bangas join forces on a new single “Caliente,” out this Friday. “Caliente is an experiment of shared cultures and origins. We wanted to bring out Cuba and New Orleans, both rooted in African heritage,” says Cimafunk. “And we want people to dance and feel good while they explore these connections, which is why we made it fun, contagious and danceable.”

New photo reveals Cuban Navy’s secret submarine, H I Sutton, Forbes

A tourist’s photo captures a Cuban military submarine that has long been shrouded in secrecy.


Washington, D.C.: Lisette Poole Book Talk, March 13

Photojournalist Lisette Poole‘s bilingual book, La Paloma y la ley (The dove and the law), follows two Cuban migrant women, Marta Amaro and Liset Barrios on their journey to reach the United States. Poole joined Amaro and Barrios as they crossed several borders over 51 days in 2016. Join us for a book presentation and expert commentary from CDA regarding regional migration, including migration trends from Cuba to the U.S., and how U.S. policy impacts those trends. Find more information about the event linked here

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. Contact info@democracyinameriacs.org for a promo code!

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.

Gibarao, Cuba: Gibara Film Festival, July 5 – 11

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.

Support CDA: Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the Cuba Central News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty. Make your 100% tax-deductible gift now!

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