U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 04/24/2020

Dear Friends,

Cubans continue to test positive for the coronavirus, with the island reaching 818 active cases, 49 deaths, 416 recuperated patients, and 1, 285 overall positive diagnoses as of press time. This week, Cuba sent medical brigades to four countries in need–Honduras, Argentina, Cape Verde, and Qatar–while economic woes, due in part to U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, deepened.

This week, in Cuba news…


Cuban store Clandestina accuses Marco Rubio of blocking their internet site. The Senator responds. [SPANISH]

This week, Cuba’s first independent fashion brand, Clandestina, which has garnered domestic and international attention for its clothing line and creative expression, circulated a video on social media decrying the temporary closure of its online store for Havana residents, clandestinaencasa.com, according to El Nuevo Herald. The brand launched the Havana-based online store a month ago as a way to continue operating and providing for its employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S.-based e-commerce platform used by the company unsubscribed Clandestina from its services due to restrictions related to the U.S. embargo, despite allowances in the embargo for transactions related to the Cuban private sector. The brand had chosen the platform because unlike other e-commerce platforms, it allowed clients to accept manual, in-person, payments, not just online payments such as with a credit card, which is not a feasible way to pay on the island due to U.S. embargo-related restrictions.

In the video, Clandestina employees are filmed saying that they don’t know which is worse, COVID-19, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, or the economic crisis in Cuba, and blaming Senator Marco Rubio and President Donald Trump for increased U.S. sanctions on Cuba, saying, “let us live, let us work.”

Sen. Rubio responded to the brand’s video in an email to El Nuevo Herald, saying that the embargo will not be lifted until there is a democratic transition in Cuba, and that he “want[s] to send a message to young entrepreneurs in Cuba: keep fighting for a free country, where you can truly enjoy the benefits of owning an independent business that is not controlled by a dictatorship.”

Cuban American YouTube personality Alexander Otaola also chimed in, criticizing the brand in a video. Since the closing of clandestinaencasa.com, not to be confused with the brand’s main site clandestina.co, through which customers can purchase products to be shipped internationally, Clandestina has partnered with Google to launch a new site for Havana residents, which it launched on Thursday.

U.S. Embassy in Cuba sends U.S. citizens stranded in Cuba back to U.S. on charter flights

This Wednesday, the U.S. embassy in Havana issued a health alert announcing that two Delta Airlines charter flights of U.S. nationals, who have been in Cuba since the island shut its borders due to COVID-19, will be leaving Havana for Miami on Friday, April 24. On April 7, the embassy called for any U.S. citizens wishing to return home to submit their information. As of this week, those who were selected for a seat on the Delta flights back to the U.S. have been notified of their imminent departure. There are no additional flights scheduled at this time. Those who still wish to return home but have not yet submitted their information to the Embassy are being encouraged to do so now, as the Embassy works to secure more flights out of Havana.

Foreign minister: U.S. lies about medical exports to Cuba

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tweeted last Friday that the “U.S. State Department lies when insisting in medical exports, which do not exist due to the blockade. The US hide[s] real facts and manipulate[s] private donations. The blockade was conceived to harm human beings.” The statement followed the publication of a fact sheet by the U.S. Treasury Department last Thursday clarifying restrictions and exemptions on humanitarian aid to Cuba and other countries. The fact sheet issued no changes to current U.S. sanctions but stated that despite the embargo, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control “maintains several general license authorizations designed to allow for humanitarian relief and assistance to the Cuban people.”

Though there are supposed to be humanitarian allowances under the embargo framework, in practice, there are severe limitations and obstacles to delivering humanitarian assistance to Cuba. Actors across the world, including CDA, have called for an easing or end to U.S. sanctions on Cuba during the pandemic, and Cuba reports that shipments of medical aid have already been blocked by U.S. sanctions.


Cuba’s ration book stages comeback due to coronavirus pandemic

Cuba’s rationing book system of delivering groceries to the public, once slated for eventual retirement, has made a comeback in popularity since the emergence of the novel coronavirus on the island, Reuters reports. The books, known in Cuba as “libretas,” guarantee each Cuban citizen and family a certain amount of basic goods, such as rice, beans, sugar, and coffee. Rationing has been in place since the end of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and it was recently slated for elimination in favor of targeted subsidies. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. embargo, which continues to this day, have maintained the pressure on Cuba’s economy and contributed to factors causing periodic food shortages ever since. While some claim that the rationed supplies are insufficient, Cuba’s government has taken steps since the beginning of the pandemic to make more supplies available, such as adding laundry detergent to the libretas and distributing more chicken to families than ever before. In another move, in an attempt to avoid Cubans queueing up at stores for supplies, the country has moved its major commercial activity online. The process has been rocky for many Cubans who have insufficient internet access and lack of disposable income. Rationing books are guaranteeing those individuals access to food and necessities during a time when access is restricted.

Cimex recognizes tuenvio.cu online shopping site’s “very unstable operation”

Cuba’s newly open, state-run, online stores faced technical malfunctions this week, OnCuba reports. The errors reportedly occurred due to high-demand, forcing the site, tuenvio.cu, and related apps, to undergo multiple days of maintenance work. According to CIMEX, Cuba’s state-run corporation in charge of the operations, new equipment will be needed to help support the site’s function.

Last Monday, CIMEX announced that seven major shopping centers across the island would be moving their services to online stores for the first time in order to better maintain social distancing during the current pandemic.

Cuba’s private sector suffering from a lack of tourists

Since Cuba halted all tourism on March 24 in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, the island’s emerging private sector has been struggling to stay afloat, AFP reports. Restaurants such as “La Guarida,” a popular choice among celebrities from around the world, closed before the 24th in order to protect their staff and customers. The restaurant’s owner, Enrique Nuñez, told the AFP, “I have friends with restaurants in Spain, they told me what was happening, about the danger…”

The crisis came during an already difficult time for Cuba, which has suffered economically under sanctions imposed by the U.S. According to Cuban economist Omar Everleny Perez, Cuba’s tourism industry, which was worth $3.3 billion in 2018, was hit hard by the Trump administration’s restrictions on U.S. travel to the island. In a series of regulatory changes, the U.S. closed off several previously legal avenues for travel, including people-to-people travel. Furthering the damage to both Cuba and U.S. businesses, the Trump administration instituted a ban on cruise travel to the island in June of 2019.

From 2018 to 2019, Cuba’s tourism numbers dropped by 9.3 percent, and COVID-19 seems to be ushering in an even more serious downturn for many Cuban businesses. A recent report by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, lowered its economic growth estimates for the region, with Cuba’s 2020 growth rate at only one percent.

Despite financial struggles, certain Cuban private sector actors have stepped up to help their fellow Cubans as COVID-19 continues to spread across the island and the world.


Cuba will send medical team to Honduras to fight the coronavirus: health minister; Another medical brigade from Cuba, now to Argentina; Cuba sends medical team to Cape Verde to fight COVID-19, Another gesture added to Cuba’s history of solidarity

According to Honduras’ Health Minister, Alba Consuelo Flores, Cuba sent a medical brigade to the Central American country this week, Reuters reports. The delegation to Honduras, which includes four emergency surgeons, two epidemiologists, six nurses, and four biomedical technicians, arrived in San Pedro Sula on April 19, according to Cuban state-run newspaper Granma. According to a tally by Johns Hopkins University researchers, Honduras currently has 562 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has suffered 47 related deaths.

Argentina’s Minister of Health, Ginés González García, announced that Argentina would also be welcoming a team of Cuban medical professionals in the coming days, OnCuba reports. The South American nation has over 3,423 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 159 people have died from complications. The brigade to arrive in Argentina is made up of more than 200 medical professionals. According to minister García, the Cuban aid workers will not “take care of the sick on the frontline” but will instead be used to replace top specialists at hospitals where staff have been sidelined by the virus.

Another nation to receive Cuban medical aid this week was Cape Verde, according to Prensa Latina English. Five doctors and fifteen other healthcare professionals left Havana for the African country on April 22. Last week, Togo became the twentieth nation and the first in Africa to welcome aid as a part of Cuba’s medical diplomacy program. According to Cape Verde’s Minister of Health and Social Solidarity, the small country has 68 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the number is only increasing.

According to Cuban state-run newspaper Granma, a fourth brigade left Cuba this week–this time for Qatar. The gulf state is the first Middle Eastern nation to request Cuba’s medical assistance in the face of the current pandemic. According to Johns Hopkins’ reporting, Qatar has already confirmed over 8,000 cases of COVID-19 and 10 related deaths. The Qatari brigade was one of the larger ones Cuba has deployed, comprised of over 200 medical professionals.

Amidst U.S. calls for countries to refuse Cuban medical aid, the “Cuban doctors” program continues to send medical professionals around the world, including to Latin America, Europe, and Africa to help combat COVID-19.


X Alfonso’s Butterfly Effect: How One Cuban Doctor Was Inspired to Create a Healing Challenge Amid Coronavirus, Judy Cantor-Navas, Billboard

Cuban anesthesiologist and emergency physician Gretel Colomé created the Stop COVID Mariposa Instagram Challenge after being inspired by Cuban musician X Alfonso. Colomé, who has been helping combat COVID-19 in Barcelona, listens to X Alfonso’s music to cope, and found hope in the messages of rebirth she heard in his music. Moved also by the butterfly motif he uses in his most recent album, Colomé started drawing butterflies and encouraging others to do so too, as a symbol of that hope. Butterflies, accompanied by the words, “keep fluttering your wings until we can fly together again,” have made their way to hospitals and onto surgical masks. Billboard’s Judy Cantor-Navas looks at how the challenge is an example of the power of music from Cuba to Spain, and beyond.

Cuban surfer Yaya Guerrero is making waves, Isabel Albee, Cuba Educational Travel

Cuba’s top female surfer and climate activist Yaya Guerreo spends her time giving back by teaching young Cubans to surf, holding workshops on caring for the environment, teaching surfing as a therapeutic tool for special education students, and leading beach cleanup efforts. Although surfing isn’t recognized as a sport on the island and there isn’t much “surfer culture,” she works to promote the sport, and also to dismantle gender differences within it by teaching separate classes for boys and girls and focusing on empowering young girls. Isabel Albee of Cuba Educational Travel explores the activist’s career and leadership–in English and Spanish.

With tires and rice bags, Cuba’s athletes invent home workouts, Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh, Reuters

Even without access to trainers and professional equipment, Cuba’s professional athletes have found innovative ways to train at home. Triathlete Leslie Amat borrowed an above-ground pool from her trainer’s young daughter when the COVID-19-related orders to stay at home came in, while baseball player Santiago Torres has taken to hitting car tires with a bat in order to maintain his batting skills. Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh give readers an inside look at the adaptability of top Cuban athletes in the face of global the pandemic–from a safe distance.

Take me to your Lada: Cuba’s passion for a little Russian box, Ruaridh Nicoll, The Guardian

Despite its small size and boxy frame, the Lada–a model of car first produced in Russia 50 years ago during the Cold War–continues to be one of the most commonly found cars in Cuba. Because American and Western European models have for so long been unavailable for purchase on the island, many Cubans own Ladas. They sell for the equivalent of $17,800 USD on the car market and their owners treat them as part of the family, changing spark plugs and repainting them as needed. On an island where cars have been a scarce resource for decades, this small Soviet model is the pride of many Cubans.

Self-employment in the time of COVID-19, Henry Colina, Medium (SPANISH)

Henry Colina, a professor of economics at the University of Havana, explores the differences in economic struggles faced by state-employed, privately employed, and informal workers as COVID-19 radically alters the business landscape in Cuba. According to Professor Colina, the social assistance programs that have been rolled out to mitigate financial strain are less beneficial to self employed and informal workers than they are to state-employed and formal private sector workers. As the pandemic causes uncertainty across the island, social safety nets may not be equally available to every Cuban worker.

Cuba’s first P2P bitcoin exchange launches amid regulatory uncertainty, Mohammad Musharraf, Cointelegraph

Italian-Cuban cryptocurrency developer Mario Mazzola launched a person-to-person Bitcoin exchange platform in Cuba earlier this month, according to Cointelegraph. The exchange platform, called Qbita, is an all-in-one cryptocurrency platform which supports a Bitcoin wallet, a payment platform, and now a peer-to-peer exchange system. According to its founder, the platform does not suffer from the same limitations as other U.S.-based cryptocurrency systems among Cubans. Qbita also requires less storage space and bandwidth as compared to other cryptocurrency wallets currently on the market. According to Mazzola, the exchange platform is growing quickly despite internet limitations on the island. The growing popularity of cryptocurrency in Cuba has been apparent since September of 2019, when Cointelegraph reported that over 10,000 Cubans were signed up for some form of cryptocurrency platform.


Zoom, The Cuban Economy in the Context of COVID-19, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, May 1

Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies will host a webinar with Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Economics and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, to explore how Cuba’s domestic economic model, a changing relationship with its close economic partner Venezuela, and the Trump administration’s strengthening of the U.S. embargo, have converged with COVID-19 to exacerbate Cuba’s economic struggles.

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