U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 04/10/2020

Dear Friends,

CDA’s Director of Programs María José Espinosa Carrillo and Ailynn Torres, Post Doctoral Fellow Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung at FLACSO explore Cuba’s response so far to the novel coronavirus in a new piece entitled “Cuba’s Policies to Confront the COVIDー19 Pandemic,” published by Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation. The paper notes the steps that Cuba’s government has taken to stop the spread of the virus across the island and to respond to calls for assistance from abroad; identifies how U.S. sanctions hurt the island, particularly during a health crisis; and includes a section on the specific effects that the crisis is having (and will have) on women and girls.

This week, in Cuba news…

SPECIAL FEATURE: CUBA AND THE NOVEL CORONAVIRUS

CDA continues to follow the novel coronavirus in Cuba in this fourth special feature. On Tuesday, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz met to discuss the novel coronavirus and enhanced measures to combat its spread. President Díaz-Canel and Prime Minister Marrero announced that Cuba had entered Phase Two of the transmission of the virus, in which Cuba has identified community transmission. At that time, they also announced forthcoming measures aimed at encouraging social isolation. On Thursday, the government announced additional restrictions, including the following:

  • As of Friday, significant reductions in public transport will begin, with public transport to be halted entirely on April 11, maintaining only transportation for prioritized activities and vital services.
  • The use of face masks was made obligatory. 
  • The sale of all products except food, toiletries, cleaning products, and products sold in CUC will be halted. 
  • Large shopping centers will be closed, restaurants will only be permitted to operate until 8 PM and will only offer takeout services, and 24 hour businesses will only operate 12 hours. 
  • Mobile modules for the sale of food and cleaning products will be available for those living in areas with limited access to stores.
  • The sale of alcohol in restaurants, bars will be suspended. It will only be sold in stores and markets.

As of press time, the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Cuba has risen to 564, with 15 people having died in connection with the virus. In addition, 51 novel coronavirus patients have recuperated.

Resources about COVID-19 in Cuba: 

Cuba’s MINSAP database

El Toque analysis of the risk of different populations in Cuba for contracting the novel coronavirus

NOTABLE DEVELOPMENTS

Cubans defy social distancing out of necessity as food scarcities create long lines

Amid calls to stay at home in order to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, Cubans across the island are gathering in long lines out of necessity as they search for food that has grown scarce such as chicken and powdered milk, Reuters reports. The increased availability of Wi-Fi and mobile data over recent years has led to innovative solutions, such as Cubans sharing product availability information with each other over WhatsApp. However, this has led to crowding at such locations when goods are restocked, increasing the risk of virus transmission. Police are stationed along some lines to maintain order. 

Economic conditions are likely to worsen since Cuba’s lucrative tourism industry is shuttered during the pandemic, and, given that 60 percent of Cuba’s food is imported, the cash shortfall will likely lead to more food shortages. Reuters reports President Díaz-Canel warned citizens to expect to consume less imported food given the “current situation.”

Chinese businessman’s aid to Cuba blocked by U.S. embargo

This week, Cuban officials told the AP that a medical aid package from Chinese businessman Jack Ma’s charitable foundation headed for Cuba was blocked by the U.S. trade embargo, despite the fact that medical aid is in theory exempted from U.S. sanctions. On March 21, the Jack Ma Foundation announced its intent to donate supplies to twenty-four countries in the Americas including the U.S. and Cuba. According to Cuban officials, the donation, consisting of test kits, face masks, ventilators, and gloves, was unable to proceed to Cuba because the airliner carrying the medical supplies was owned by a company–Avianca Airlines–with a major U.S.-based shareholder who is subject to the United States’ embargo. 

On April 4, Cuba’s Ambassador to China published a statement describing how out of the roughly fifty countries promised an aid package by the Jack Ma foundation, Cuba is the only one whose aid never reached its destination. Cuban Ambassador Carlos Miguel Pereira Hernández thanked Mr. Ma for his attempt to help Cuba in its time of struggle and condemned the United State’s blockage of the medical aid donation, saying “things are always harder for Cuba.”

Last week, several actors across the world called for the suspension of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other countries in order to ease those countries’ access to medical and humanitarian aid as they face the current pandemic. Some of the  groups argued that, even though humanitarian aid is in theory exempted from sanctions, in practice, the complicated U.S. sanctions regime against Cuba deters humanitarian engagement. 

China’s government delivers medical aid to Cuba; China donates COVID-19 medical supplies to Cuba

On April 6, China’s Ambassador to Cuba and Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Public Health met in Havana to finalize China’s recent medical donation to Cuba, Telesur English reports. The aid package, meant to help Cuban healthcare professionals fight the novel coronavirus, includes 500 infrared thermometers, 2,000 sets of protective gear, 10,000 surgical masks, and other supplies such as goggles and shoe covers. On the same day, a Chinese bus production company donated 10,000 sets of protective gear and 100,000 face masks to the island nation Chinese state-run Xinhuanet news reports. Chinese Ambassador Chen Xi also announced that more aid would be arriving in Cuba in the coming weeks. Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Public Health, Luis Fernando Navarro, called the donation a clear sign of the friendship between Cuba and China, and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tweeted his thanks, adding “in times of pandemic, solidarity and cooperation save lives.”

Cuba’s private sector steps up to help novel coronavirus-stricken population 

Businesses in Cuba’s budding private sector have been aiding the Cuban people through the crisis caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus, Reuters reports. Restaurants such as Bella Ciao have been working with their local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) to deliver food to the elderly, fashion brand Dador has shifted its focus from clothing production to face mask production, and other businesses have donated toiletries and other necessities to at-risk populations.

Cuba promotes homeopathy as effective ‘weapon’ against the coronavirus

At an April 5 press conference, Francisco Durán, Cuba’s National Director of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Public Health, announced that a homeopathic compound called ProvengHo-Vir has been approved for use by the general public to “prevent” the spread of the disease, because, according to Cuban health authorities, it boosts the immune system and increases “resistance, the body’s defenses against a certain virus,” including COVID-19, the Miami Herald reports. CECMED, Cuba’s drug regulatory authority, evaluated and approved the new drug “as an alternative for the prevention of influenza, flu, dengue, and emerging viral infections,” and Cuba’s government has already begun using the product with the elderly and other at-risk groups in parts of the island. The effectiveness of the drug has yet to be tested outside of Cuba.

As we previously reported, Cuban labs have also developed a drug that may help limit complications from the novel coronavirus called Interferon Alpha 2B. This antiviral drug was developed in the 1980’s and has been used to treat HIV and dengue among other viral illnesses. Since 2003, it has been manufactured through the joint Cuban-Chinese venture “ChangHeber.”

U.S. Embassy in Havana considers charter flights during pandemic for U.S. citizens interested in returning home

The U.S. Embassy in Havana issued a health alert on Tuesday announcing it was “exploring all options to address the current travel restrictions” put in place by Cuba in response to the novel coronavirus. If commercial passenger flights do not resume soon, the Embassy is considering the possibility of charter flights for U.S. citizens in Cuba wishing to return to the U.S. Although the Embassy is still considering the move, they have instructed interested U.S. citizens in Cuba to preemptively fill out a form and to continue to follow up with commercial airlines in the event that flights are resumed before a charter flight option is in-place.

Cuba sends doctors to Mexico

Cuba announced this week that it will send medical personnel to Mexico to assist in combating the novel coronavirus, OnCuba reports. Cuba has recently sent doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to fifteen countries, including Andorra, Italy, Venezuela, Nicaragua, as well as Jamaica, Haiti, Saint Christopher, Nevis, and Barbados.

IN OTHER NEWS

U.S. allies, encouraged by Washington, said goodbye to their Cuban doctors, as coronavirus surges, some are arguing for their return

Over the past year, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil ended their participation in Cuba’s medical missions abroad programs, which send Cuban doctors to countries to fill in gaps in the countrys’ healthcare systems, following U.S. pressure, the Washington Post reports.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil, and the healthcare systems in the three countries struggle to cope, some residents of these countries express the sense that the Cuban medical missions, had they remained, could have helped spare lives. Ricardo Ramírez, a retired physician in Ecuador, says “when they left, there were no specialists to replace them.” María Bolivia Rothe, a Bolivian health official in the Morales administration claims that “Cuban doctors always went where no one else would.” While Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil are struggling without Cuban help, fifteen other countries, including Mexico, Andorra, Italy, Venezuela, Nicaragua, as well as Jamaica, Haiti, Saint Christopher, Nevis, and Barbados, recently received Cuban healthcare workers to assist in combating the virus.

The U.S. government publicly calls on countries to reconsider assistance from Cuban doctors, and has urged several countries to end participation in the program, which it claims constitues human trafficking and exploits workers while enriching the Cuban government. On Friday, U.S. representatives Francis Rooney (FL-19), Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25), and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26) released a statement “condemning the Cuban regime’s exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic for political gain, its continued trafficking of Cuban medical professionals, and spreading disinformation abroad.” In response, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released a statement criticizing the politicization of Cuba’s novel coronavirus response. WOLA’s President Geoff Thale stated “This kind of aggressive rhetoric does nothing to address any existing labor rights concerns with Cuba’s medical brigades. Rather, it uses a serious, life-threatening global pandemic as a pretext to politicize much-needed international medical cooperation.”

Cuban political dissident released from prison under house arrest 

Prominent Cuban opposition activist José Daniel Ferrer was released from prison on April 3 under house arrest, according to the Miami Herald. Despite a January statement made by Cuba’s government claiming that the state would seek a nine year prison sentence for Mr. Ferrer, he was instead sentenced to four-and-a-half years of house arrest last Friday. In an interview with the Nuevo Herald, Mr. Ferrer recounted his time in prison, alleging physical and psychological mistreatment as he awaited his trial and sentencing. Mr. Ferrer and his family members told the Nuevo Herald that despite his history of arrests, the activist would carry on “fighting for the cause of freedom in Cuba.” Mr. Ferrer also thanked the international community for its solidarity throughout his imprisonment.

Ferrer, the leader of The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), has been in prison since his arrest on October 1, 2019 on charges of assault. Ferrer’s family, along with several civil rights organizations accused Cuba’s government of arresting the activists on fabricated charges for political reasons. On February 24, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined the EU parliament, the OAS, Amnesty International, and other civil society organizations in requesting Mr. Ferrer’s immediate release.

Also, in a statement today, Senators Rubio (FL) and Murphy (CT), along with fifteen other Senators, made public a letter they wrote to Secretary of State Pompeo, urging him to “use your office to publicly push for release of Americans and political prisoners detained abroad to protect them from COVID-19.”The letter mentions Cuba along with several countries around the world. 

Cuba could be facing its worst drought in 60 years [SPANISH]

According to Cuban state-run news site CubaDebate, ninety percent of Cuba’s farmland experienced a severe lack of rainfall in March as compared to historical levels. In addition, the island’s average temperature over the course of the month was one degree celsius higher than anticipated and eight provinces reported record high temperatures for the month of March. The drought could be the worst in six decades for Cuba.

According to Reuters, the drought is worsening already existing water shortages in Havana, where almost half a million residents are without consistent access to potable water. On March 23, officials announced new measures to improve the situation as a method of combating the novel coronavirus, Prensa Latina reports. As of March 24, four out of the five reservoirs that supply Havana with drinking water had been affected by the current drought.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Cuba’s reputation as medical powerhouse tested, Marc Frank, Financial Times

Cuba’s medical diplomacy program has long been a source of pride, as well as income, for the island nation. Despite its own economic decline over the past few years and its aging, high health risk population, Cuba has sent medical teams to countries around the world as the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has worsened. Cuban doctors are providing much needed relief in the international fight against the novel coronavirus while the physical and economic health of their home country shows cracks. Mark Frank reports in the Financial Times on the diplomatic goals and domestic struggles Cuba faces as it faces the current pandemic.

Cuba’s doctors are in high demand, The Economist

Journalist Sarah Marsh explores Cuba’s decision to send roughly 800 medical professionals abroad to treat foreign cases of the novel coronavirus while they struggle to overcome their own outbreak at home and manage their ongoing economic struggles. In the face of the virus, however, officials in countries such as Italy have called Cuba’s Foreign Ministry to ask for urgent medical aid. In spite of domestic limitations and mounting U.S. pressure for other countries to turn down such aid, Cuba has answered these calls and sent doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers to sixteen countries.

Countries accept Cuban medical aid, despite U.S. encouragement otherwise, Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press

Despite the United States’ characterization of Cuba’s medical diplomacy program as a form of human trafficking, fourteen countries have accepted the help of Cuban medical professionals since the beginning of the global health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus. The AP’s Andrea Rodríguez reports on Cuba’s reliance on revenue from the export of medical services, which is up to six billion USD annually. Aside from a few U.S. victories in Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, most have ignored U.S. pleas for countries to reject Cuban medical aid. In the face of a growing pandemic, many more are accepting the aid with open arms.

EVENTS

Gibara, Holguín, 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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