U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 03/13/2020

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This week, in Cuba news…


Carlos Gimenez, commissioners call for suspension of travel between Cuba and Florida

On Thursday, after Cuba reported its first three confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the island, Cuban-born Miami-Dade County Mayor, Carlos Gimenez, called on President Donald Trump to halt travel between the U.S. and Cuba, saying “I don’t believe anything the Cuban government says. So I think there’s a heck of a lot more coronavirus going around Cuba right now,” the Miami Herald reports. His remarks occurred just shortly before he announced he would be self-quarantining due to encounters with a member of Brazil’s visiting presidential delegation days earlier who subsequently tested positive for the virus. NBC 6 South Florida reports today that Gimenez’s office said the Mayor tested negative for the virus, while Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who also attended events with the visiting Brazilian delegation, tested positive for COVID-19. Gimenez is also running for Congress as a Republican, vying to unseat Freshman Democrat Rep. Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26) in November. Responding to the Florida politicians’ calls to halt travel,  Ric Herrero, the Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group, said in a Tweet on Thursday, that it is “Hard to overstate how reckless and irresponsible it is to place COVID-19 mitagation efforts at the service of partisan priorities.”

Two Miami-Dade county commissioners, Esteban Bovo and Rebeca Sosa, introduced a resolution on Tuesday urging the Federal Aviation Administration to prohibit travel to and from Cuba due to concerns related to Cuba’s government’s transparency about cases of the novel coronavirus on the island. The county’s commission will vote on the resolution next Tuesday; passage would direct the county’s federal lobbyists to press for the measure in Washington.

Bernie Sanders denies telling political prisoner ‘I don’t know what’s so wrong with’ Cuba

Former USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was jailed in Cuba from 2011 to 2014, recounted to NPR on March 4 a conversation he had with Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) during his imprisonment. Allegedly, when Senator Sanders visited Cuba on a congressional delegation in 2014, he remarked to Mr. Gross “I don’t know what is so wrong with this country [Cuba],” as we reported previously. Mr. Gross’ allegation came 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 CDA’s reporting on the issue here.

On Fox News Sunday this week, Senator Sanders denied having made such a comment, saying “I remember that trip very well, and I remember the terrible conditions that Mr. Gross lived in…his teeth were rotting. I did not make that statement. Why Mr. Gross is saying that, I have no idea. But I did not make that statement.” Watch the Senator’s complete response here, and read more about how Cuba policy is playing a role in the 2020 presidential race in CDA’s recent special feature on election coverage.


Cuba reports the first three cases of coronavirus on the island; Cuba confirms fourth case of new coronavirus

Cuba’s Ministry of Health released a statement on March 11 confirming that three Italian tourists in Cuba have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, the Miami Herald reports. The tourist’s cases are the first confirmed cases on the island. According to the report, four Italian nationals arrived in Cuba on March 9 and stayed at a hostel in Trinidad until they were moved to the Pedro Kourí Tropical Medicine Institute in Havana for isolation and testing almost immediately upon their arrival. The Ministry also reported that the fourth Italian tourist from the group, who tested negative for the novel coronavirus, and seven Cubans with whom the affected had physical contact are currently being monitored. In addition, 30 travellers unrelated to the three with coronavirus have been admitted to the Tropical Medicine Institute, none of whom have tested positive.

As of March 13, Cuba’s Public Health Ministry confirmed that a fourth individual on the island has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, Prensa Latina reports. The latest patient is a resident of Santa Clara, Cuba and the partner of a Bolivian national. The individual recently visited the Lombardy region of Italy, re-entered Cuba on February 24th, began experiencing symptoms on the 27th, and was admitted to the hospital the next day. The Pedro Kourí Institute was notified of the diagnosis on Thursday, March 12. So far, other contacts have tested negative for the virus.

CNN reported on Thursday that a factory in Sanctí Spiritus, Cuba is manufacturing masks out of the material it normally uses to make pants for school uniforms. Cuba’s Ministry of Health also posted a video on YouTube showing Cubans how to make their own masks.

On Wednesday, Cuban state newspaper Granma reported that Cuba’s Council of Ministers met during the week to update their Plan for the Prevention and Control of the novel coronavirus. First Secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party Raúl Castro led the meeting at which the plan, first approved in January, was altered to better prepare for the global spread of COVID-19. Mr. Castro placed an emphasis on community efforts, saying “All the work we do with the people is important, to ensure that they are well informed, well prepared and can participate.” On Tuesday, Prensa Latina reported that Cuba was taking surveillance and control measures–especially at airports–in order to ensure that any cases of coronavirus would be caught swiftly. On Monday, Granma reported that special public health training was underway across the country and that the “Cuban health system was ready for COVID-19.”

For CDA’s past reporting on Cuba’s response to the novel coronavirus, see last week’s news brief.

Cuban merchants stage unusual march in central town of Santa Clara

On Thursday, a group of small vendors in Santa Clara, Cuba held an independent march in response to “excessive regulation of the private sector,” Reuters reports. Dozens of individuals marched against Cuba’s ban on the selling of imported goods by private entrepreneurs which is intended to prevent hoarding. Marchers shouted “We want commerce! We want a solution! We want answers!” And reportedly expressed their complaints to the head of the Communist Party in Villa Clara, Cuba.

No relationship between monetary unification and elimination of the CUC in state-run establishments

OnCuba reports on Cuba’s recent announcement that state-run restaurants and commerce must only conduct sales in Cuban Pesos (CUP) and not in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Domestic Trade asserts the move is about the “greater control” the state gains through having single accounting records for product sales. The measures are expected to affect only 10 percent of state-run businesses, given that most already sell goods only in CUP.

Imprisonment of Cuba’s ‘art-ivist’ sparks charges of censorship

The recent imprisonment of Cuban artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on charges of insulting national symbols (in this case the Cuban flag), and damaging property has sparked outrage across the island, Reuters reports. The charges come with a one-year prison sentence if Mr. Otero is convicted; he currently awaits trial. Meanwhile, over 3,000 Cuban artists, intellectuals, and activists have signed a petition for his release, on the grounds that his imprisonment is a form of censorship. Some have also turned to social media to denounce the arrest, like Cuban singer-songwriter, Haydée Milanés, who asked for his immediate release on a Twitter post.

Lawyers and Journalists have analyzed the validity of the accusation. Julio César Guanche, a renowned Cuban  intellectual, professor, and researcher, provided historical background on Cuba’s flag as a symbol of resistance and heterodoxy, and argued that “Being against [Mr. Otero]’s incarceration is not the same as sharing his political agenda. His work can be very interesting, or not; have bad taste or civic substance; but that is not what is important here,” what is important is that he is  posing what he considers vital questions, “how pluralism and differences are processed in Cuba, how resistance is exercised against what is experienced as unjust, what is the legitimate space to dissent, what right do we have to participate in the public space, what should be the width — virtue— of the patriotism that we want to defend in the homeland that we want to live.”

63 percent of Cubans have access to the internet, according to the government [SPANISH]

According to Cuba’s government, 7.1 million, or 63 percent of Cubans had access to the internet at the close of 2019, OnCuba reports. Of those with internet, 3.4 million Cubans have mobile data and more than half a million people have access to 4G, launched just a year ago. More than 6 million cell phone lines and 1,500 public WiFi networks are active on the island. Cuba’s Minister of Communications, Jorge Luis Perdomo delivered the news in a report at the end of February, along with his goals for 2020, which include increased cybersecurity, a television digitization program, and the diversification of Internet access. According to OnCuba, Mayra Arevich, the president of Cuba’s state-run telecom company ETECSA, recently acknowledged Cubans’ general disapproval of internet prices and announced an investment plan to improve upon the issue.For more information on Cuba’s telecommunications industry, its goals for 2020, and the campaign for lower internet prices across Cuba, see CDA’s previous reporting.

Episcopal, Cuban churches celebrate reunion after more than half-century apart

According to theEpiscopal News Service, Cuba’s Episcopal Church has officially returned to The Episcopal Church as the Diocese of Cuba after more than 50 years of separation, according to the Espiscopal News Service. On March 6, Cuba’s Episcopalians came together to celebrate with a service at Havana’s Holy Trinity Cathedral. Cuba’s church began the process of reintegration in 2015 when its assembly voted to return to the larger Episcopal church on the heels of the U.S. government’s effort to normalize relations with the island. In 2018, the Episcopal church’s Council of Bishops voted unanimously to support the reunion and the decision was finally affirmed by the church’s executive council this February.


Fuel, flour, diapers: Cubans turn to social media for the basics, Andrea Rodriguez, AP

As Cubans face shortages of basic goods, including food, toiletries, and fuel, many have turned to WhatsApp groups, Instagram, and Facebook to find goods and share information. Cuba’s recent efforts to expand internet and rollout of mobile data, including 3G and 4G, has meant that more Cubans are able to participate in group chats online that save them time tracking down goods, though not all can afford internet access. 

The preventable death of an asylum seeker in a solitary cell, Nomaan Merchant,Associated Press

In October 2019, Cuban asylum seeker Roylan Hernández Diaz died by suicide in solitary confinement while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in a Louisiana prison. The Associated Press conducted an investigation into Hernandez’s death and found that surveillance video reveals the jail neglected to observe Hernandez properly while he was in solitary confinement, where he was placed due to going on a hunger strike, and that the jail also failed to respond adequately to several warning signs that Hernandez “deserved more attention.” These warning signs included a history of intestinal issues, several mental health referrals which Hernandez refused, and Hernandez’s hunger strikes.

Cuban immigrants have enjoyed special privileges. Public charge changes that for some, Daniel Shoer Roth, Miami Herald

Miami immigration attorney Angel Leal explains how some Cuban migrants may be affected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s 2019 public charge rule, but others may not.

Welcome, Mr. Día Cero. Will miracles come with monetary unification in Cuba? [SPANISH], Dr. C Juan Triana Cordoví, OnCuba

In this opinion piece, Dr. C. Juan Triana Cordoví explores the possible effects of monetary unification in Cuba. “Día Cero” (or “Day Zero”) is the name Cubans have given to the elusive date when monetary unification will finally be implemented. Dr. Triana posits that many of Cuba’s economic problems will likely persist after currency unification occurs.He argues that while the change will bring positive promise, it will not be the “magic wand” that resolves all of the country’s problems. He asserts that many issues need to be resolved separately, such as lack of money to settle defaulted loans, bureaucratic resistance, and the struggle to balance imports and exports, to name a few.


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!

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.

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