U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 04/17/2020

Dear Friends,

This week, Cuba’s funk sensation Cimafunk released a cover of American singer-songwriter Bill Withers’ 1970’s hit “Lean On Me” as a tribute following Withers’ death earlier this month. During these difficult times, the song is a great reminder to come together as a community and lean on one another for support.

This week, in Cuba news…


U.S. won’t offer sanctions relief to Cuba amid coronavirus pandemic. Here is why.; Calls to loosen US sanctions as Cuba battles pandemic; Cuba says U.S. embargo is ‘obstacle’ to getting coronavirus-fighting supplies. Not so, says U.S.; U.S. blockade makes it impossible for Cuba to purchase respirators

Since late March, organizations all over the world have been calling for the Trump administration to ease sanctions on Cuba while it seeks international humanitarian resources to fight the effects of the novel coronavirus, the Miami Herald reports. Actors calling for an easing of restrictions include CDA and partner organizations, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, and Cuban Americans

Cuba considers U.S. sanctions as the primary obstacle to purchasing supplies to combat the pandemic, according to NBC. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, in a tweet last week, said the U.S. embargo is “the main obstacle to purchase the medicines, equipment and material required to confront the pandemic.” The U.S. State Department cites concerns over Cuba’s government’s management of its economy, not U.S. restrictions, as the reason Cuban citizens are suffering. Furthermore, State Department officials tweeted that the United States “routinely authorizes the export of humanitarian goods, agricultural products, medicine, and medical equipment to support the Cuban people,” and claims that aid successfully arrived in Cuba from the U.S. as recently as 2019. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a fact sheet on U.S. sanctions, clarifying restrictions and exemptions on humanitarian aid to Cuba and other countries, but issued no changes to the regulations.

The continued pressure to ease sanctions comes a  week after a shipment to the island from the charitable foundation of Chinese businessman Jack Ma was blocked by U.S. sanctions, and on the heels of Cuba’s medical supply company, MediCuba, learning that it will no longer be able to purchase ventilators from two major producers, according to Prensa Latina. This week, the U.S.-based Vyaire Medical group purchased IMG Medical and Acutronic Medical Systems, two of the world’s major suppliers of ventilators, which are used to treat severely ill patients suffering from the novel coronavirus. Due to their new ownership, both suppliers will now be subject to U.S. sanctions, according to a Cuban diplomat who spoke to Prensa Latina.

Despite U.S. warnings, Cuba’s medical diplomacy triumphs in the Caribbean during pandemic

Countries in the Caribbean have called on Cuba’s medical missions to assist them in combating the novel coronavirus pandemic despite the U.S.’s continued pressure on those countries to reject Cuban medical assistance, calling it a form of “human trafficking,” the Miami Herald reports.

According to Robert Maguire, retired director of the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program at George Washington University, “if the U.S. offered help, [Caribbean nations] would take that offer too.” According to Mr. Maguire, however, “the U.S. aid presence in the Caribbean has been pretty skimpy… This is not a surprise that the governments of the Caribbean would turn to Cuba for assistance, he added.” Ralph Gonsalves, St. Vincent and Grenadines Prime Minister, says that accepting the medical missions is not ideological and is a matter of practicality. The largest groups of Cuban medical workers were sent to countries in the Caribbean: Jamaica (140), St. Lucia (113), and Barbados (101).


As of this Friday, Cuba’s number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have reached 923. In addition, 31 patients have died on the island and 192 have recovered.

Cuba working on coronavirus vaccine

Cuba’s scientists have entered the global race towards a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, OnCuba reports. On April 10, the director of Science and Innovation at BioCubaFarma, the country’s pharmaceutical research agency, appeared on Cuba’s state-run television program Mesa Redonda to discuss several new projects designed to develop drugs to combat the virus. According to CubaDebate, five products are being researched on the island that may have preventative or mitigative effects on the novel coronavirus. On the same television program, Dr. Gerardo Guillén Nieto, director of Biomedical Research at Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), announced that Cuba currently has fifteen projects underway to combat the virus in various manners, some of which have reached their clinical trial phases.

Long before Friday’s announcement, the island has been marketing the drug Interferon Alpha 2B to the international market. The drug, which is produced by CIGB, has had beneficial effects on patients with the novel coronavirus in early trials. As of April 14, seventy-two countries have officially requested to purchase the drug in its current form, according to Cuba Business Report. In addition, Cuban officials touted an effort to create a nasal delivery system for Interferon as a part of the island’s larger pharmaceutical research effort into treatments for the novel coronavirus. Last week, Cuba’s National Director of Epidemiology announced the distribution of a new homeopathic medicine, ProvengHo-Vir amongst at-risk people on the island. CECMED, Cuba’s drug regulatory authority, approved the drug last Monday for use  “as an alternative for the prevention of influenza, flu, dengue, and emerging viral infections.”

Large shopping centers in Havana reopen as virtual stores

This Monday, Cuba’s state-run corporation CIMEX announced that seven major shopping centers across the country would be moving their services to online stores for the first time, in order to better maintain social distancing during the current pandemic, OnCuba reports. Banks and currency exchanges will remain open at one large mall, but all other services will move to a courier system. Cuba’s postal service, Correos de Cuba, will be in charge of delivering goods to people who order them online. This delivery service will only be available in Havana for the first ten days before it is rolled out to the rest of the island.

Before Monday’s announcement, many actors in Cuba’s private sector from restaurants to fashion brands to courier services like Mandao, a Cuban delivery service similar to Uber Eats, had already stepped up to make delivery options a possibility. Fashion brand Clandestina created “Clandestina en casa,” a web page where Cubans can order clothing and accessories for delivery to certain areas in Havana.


Cuba sends second round of medical workers to Italy amid coronavirus outbreak

On April 12, the second brigade of medical professionals departed Cuba for Italy, according to CNN World. The group is made up of twenty doctors and eighteen nurses who will aid Italy’s depleted hospital staffs with the treatment of patients ill with the novel coronavirus. The first team of Cuban healthcare professionals to arrive in Italy did so a month ago, on March 21.

Also this Sunday, a team of eleven Cuban experts arrived in Togo, a small African country hit hard by the current pandemic, Prensa Latina reports. According to official sources, Togo became the twentieth country to receive a Cuban medical brigade since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic.


Trump’s Pandemic Tactics Hurt Cubans, Too, Anthony DePalma, New York Times

As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, Cuba and the U.S. are at odds. The Times’ Anthony DePalma outlines the two governments’ back and forth on health care, Cuban doctors abroad, and U.S. sanctions. Chief among these issues have been the sanctions, which have compounded upon the pandemic and an already fragile economy to create increasingly difficult conditions for Cubans at home. DePalma describes how many Cubans are being forced to choose between waiting outside crowded stores in large groups or risk starvation, while others are unable to access basic sanitation products such as soap and toilet paper. Despite the goal of sanctions to target Cuban officials and the government, many Cubans are feeling their effects in everyday life.

Joe Biden will have to win back Cuba’s trust if he wants to revive Obama-era thaw in relations, says ex-U.S. diplomat, David Brennan, Newsweek

Newsweek’s David Brennan examines the state of U.S.-Cuba relations five years after former U.S. president Obama requested that Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism be revoked as a part of a larger campaign to normalize relations with the island nation. Brennan speaks with Ambassador (ret.) Jeffrey DeLaurentis, former top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, about mending the relationship between the two countries and steps a new U.S. administration could take to this end. DeLaurentis notes that better cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba on issues including migration, counter-narcotics and climate change could improve U.S. national security. DeLaurentis stresses that U.S. leaders would have to work hard to regain the trust of the Cuban government and people, and also notes that many Cubans have indicated that they would be willing to return to the negotiating table.

Cuba: Dealing with the Global Pandemic, Ricardo Torres, American University Center for Latin American & Latino Studies blog

University of Havana Professor Ricardo Torres explores the connections between ongoing fiscal struggles, U.S. sanctions, and the novel coronavirus pandemic and their joint effect on Cuba’s economy. His thesis: “systematic destabilization of the country is highly unlikely.”

Cuban film in quarantine: A streaming initiative to ease our lives, Yaima Leyva Martínez, IPS Cuba

During the first weekend of self-isolation due to the global spread of the novel coronavirus, Cuban film director José Luis Aparicio decided that he wanted to contribute to the trend of people keeping themselves entertained and connected through social media. That is when he started Cuban Cinema in Quarantine (CCC), a Facebook page where movie lovers across the island and the world can stream Cuban cinema from their homes. The page boasts an ever-growing library of over ninety films available to stream, provided by various producers and studios.

The promising Cuba/U.S. cooperation on cancer, César Chelala, CommonDreams.org

Dr. César Chelala describes the recent collaboration between U.S. and Cuban doctors on the development of a lung cancer vaccine based on the protein interferon, which was produced in a lab for the first time in the 1980s by Cuban researchers. On April 1, PBS Nova released a documentary on the partnership between doctors and researchers from Havana and New York State, a relationship which was first solidified on a CDA-led trade delegation to Cuba in 2015.

Coronavirus in Cuba – in pictures, Ramón Espinosa, The Guardian

Photojournalist Ramón Espinosa’s stunning photo series depicts Cuba in the era of the novel coronavirus. In Mr. Espinosa’s images, Cubans continue to shop, work, and gather as the government begins to require the usage of face masks in public.

Classic Cuban posters adapted for coronavirus times (SPANISH), Vistar Magazine

Cuba designer Annick Woungly recently adapted well-known Cuban poster art, particularly film posters, for novel coronavirus times. Many of the pieces reference public health campaigns like “Quédate en Casa” (stay home) while others alter primary visual elements to feature novel coronavirus-related imagery like masks and drawings of the virus itself. The posters pay homage to Cuban poster art while bolstering public health messaging.

Brazil’s Squandered Doctors, Isabela Dias, Slate

After Brazil terminated its participation in Cuba’s medical missions abroad program, Cuban doctors who were practicing in Brazil are now stranded and unable to practice. To practice in Brazil after the termination of the program, the doctors must verify their education through an equivalency test that has not been offered in three years. When Brazil’s Ministry of Health called on the remaining Cuban doctors to aid in the fight against the novel coronavirus, it issued a list of doctors who were eligible to practice. Some of those on the list are doctors who have left the country or passed away, while other doctors who were eligible were left off the list entirely. At a time when all available help is needed to combat the global pandemic, Cuban doctors stranded in Brazil await their chance to assist the population.


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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