U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 05/08/2020

Dear Friends,

Thank you to all of those who have donated and all of those who support CDA in so many ways. We are grateful for you. If you missed #GivingTuesdayNow, there’s still time to, if you can, contribute to our campaign, which we’ve extended until next Tuesday. We’re over halfway to our $4,000 goal!

This week, check out “Cuba Corona TV,” a series of mashups of Cuban art, including dance, musical performances, poetry reading, and more, performed during quarantine. Also, check out Tunturuntu pa’ tu casa, bringing Cuban concerts right to your living room (and reminding us to stay at home!).

As the pandemic continues, Cuba is reporting the most new COVID-19 deaths this week since April, though the trend of fewer new cases continues. As of press time, Cuba has reported 623 active cases, 73 deaths, 1,031 recuperated patients, and 1,729 overall positive diagnoses.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Leahy & McGovern press Pompeo & Mnuchin to confirm U.S. policy does not preclude shipments of medical equipment to Cuba during COVID-19

On Wednesday, Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-2) sent a letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin signed by 25 members of the House and Senate, urging the officials “to confirm that companies and humanitarians around the world are not precluded under U.S. law, regulation, or policy from providing medical equipment, food, other humanitarian items, and public health information, to Cuba.” The letter acknowledges Cuba’s current food and medicine shortages and explains how current U.S. regulations act as a deterrent to providing humanitarian aid to the island. The letter encourages Secretaries Pompeo and Mnuchin to avoid politicizing humanitarian aid and to consider public health and safety first and foremost.

Rubio, Menendez letter to Secretary Pompeo on Cuban doctors

On Wednesday, Senator Marco Rubio (FL) and Senator Bob Menedez (NJ) released a letter addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stating their concern that Cuba’s medical missions abroad are a “coerced forced labor scheme” and urging the Secretary to “direct the U.S. Embassies in [Italy, Qatar, South Africa, Argentina, and several Caribbean nations which accepted Cuba’s medical missions] to deliver a demarche to host government officials to inform them about the Cuban regime’s forced labor practices.” The letter also encourages the Trump administration to continue the U.S.’s tradition of providing humanitarian assistance to countries in need.

BIOMIN America Inc. Settlement over Cuban Assets Control Regulations Violations

A U.S. animal nutrition company, BIOMIN America Inc., based in Kansas, has paid the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) $257,862 to settle 44 violations of 31 C.F.R. 515.201 of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), which prohibits companies or persons under U.S. jurisdiction from engaging in financial transactions with or to Cuba, according to a notice from the U.S. Treasury Department. For five years beginning in 2012, the company reportedly “owned or controlled foreign entities” that sold foreign-produced agricultural products to Cuba’s Alfarma S.A. without proper authorization or licensing from OFAC. BIOMIN also reportedly “developed a transaction structure that it incorrectly determined would be consistent with U.S. sanctions requirements.” The disclosure of the violations to OFAC was voluntary.

Cuba calls attack on Washington embassy terrorism; police say gunman heard voices

This week, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel referred to the shooting at Cuba’s embassy in Washington, D.C. on April 30 as a “terrorist attack,” Reuters reports. In contrast, U.S. court papers describe the shooter as a mentally disturbed Cuban emigre who heard voices telling him that Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S. was his “enemy.”

As we previously reported, last Thursday’s attack was allegedly carried out by Alexander Alazo, 42, at around 2 a.m. with an AK-47-style weapon. Mr. Alazo was apprehended at the scene. The shooter fired 32 rounds toward the Cuban Embassy and, according to federal court documents, intended to shoot anyone who came out of the building, the Washington Post reports. In addition, the shooter attempted, unsuccessfully due to rain, to set fire to a Cuban flag on which he had written “Stop Lying to People. Respect. Trump 2020. USA, Land and Family.” Staff were present in the embassy at the time of the shooting.

Mr. Alazo reportedly left Cuba for Mexico in 2003 and then claimed asylum in Texas in 2007. He returned to Cuba briefly in 2014 to preach at a church there, but left after being threatened, he asserts, by Cuban organized crime groups. He believed he was being followed and reportedly travelled out of the country and moved his family frequently as a result; he received a diagnosis of delusional disorder in March and reported he was not fully complying with his prescription. Mr. Alazo is detained pending his trial for the public’s safety.

Several members of Congress condemned the shooting, including Senator Rubio (FL), Rep. Engel (NY-16), Rep. Lee (CA-13), and Rep. Bass (CA-37).

U.S. continues to organize flights out of Cuba for Americans

On April 24, 313 U.S. citizens and residents who had been stuck in Cuba throughout the COVID-19-related lockdown arrived in Miami from Havana on two charter flights organized by the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. According to ABC WPLG Local 10, the embassy is working to set up more such flights, although officials have not revealed the number of eligible U.S. residents and citizens who currently remain in Cuba. Dates have not yet been announced for the future flights. The U.S. Embassy in Havana released a statement on May 4 announcing their intention to arrange more humanitarian repatriation flights. U.S. citizens, those at a high risk of contracting severe illness, and minors with their parents will be given priority seating on any future flights.

IN CUBA

Cuba releases thousands of prison inmates amid coronavirus fears

Cuba’s government has released 6,579 prisoners from custody due to fears that crowded prisons could lead to the quick spread of COVID-19, the Miami Herald reports. In March and April, 412 people being held in Cuban jails awaiting trial were released to be monitored from their homes. The combined numbers have constituted one of the largest mass releases in multiple decades.

At the same time, Cuban police have also sentenced roughly 335 people to jail time for violating COVID-19-related regulations such as mandatory mask-wearing in public. Madrid-based human rights group the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights called the detentions “counterproductive” and stressed that Cuba’s public health restrictions allow law enforcement and the courts to impose less severe, less dangerous punishments. Other organizations are petitioning for the release of certain prisoners, including journalist Roberto Quiñones, who has been imprisoned since September 2019 for “resistance” and “disobedience.” Concerns about the sanitary conditions in prisons have heightened during the pandemic, but the government reports no COVID-19 cases in prisons to date.

Thousands of people in Cuba may have had early, undiagnosed cases of coronavirus

Recent data on “acute respiratory illnesses” from Cuba’s Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine suggests that COVID-19 may have been in Cuba sooner than initially thought, according to the Miami Herald. Cuba reported only 25 cases of the virus on March 20, when Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel announced restrictions on travel. However, the week of March 18 there were 144,095 reports of new cases of “acute respiratory illnesses,” well above the number of cases from the same week in 2019. This number increased to greater than twice the weekly average at 188,816 new cases per week by March 28. According to Dr. Aileen Marty, director of the Florida International University Health Travel Medicine Program and an expert on infectious tropical diseases, “it is very probable that many people in Cuba had the virus in March and were counted simply as Acute Respiratory Illness.” Likely cases of COVID-19 that pre-date the first reported cases in many countries have now been identified around the world, with reports from both France and the U.S, signaling that the virus may have begun circulating the globe before previously thought.

Cuban sugar harvest goes into overtime amid pandemic

Amid Cuba’s partial lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 40 sugar mills are currently operational on the island, Reuters reports. Mills have remained open beyond the usual harvest season and despite health risks, out of economic necessity. Vital sectors of the economy, including tourism, have been shuttered since late March, and the government is directing limited resources to aspects of the farming, mining, and construction sectors, which Cuba relies upon to export for income. Last year, in one of Cuba’s least productive harvests in over a century, the island’s state-run sugar company Azcuba announced an output of 1.3 million tons of sugar. Annually, Cuba is contractually obligated to sell 400,000 tons of sugar to China and domestic consumption regularly falls between 600,000 to 700,000 tons. This year, experts estimate that output will be even lower, at between 1.1 and 1.2 million tons. Azcuba spokesman Dionis Pérez told the press on May 1 that “the mills will remain open as long as conditions permit.” There have been no reported outbreaks of COVID-19 at food production facilities in Cuba.

Cuba and Decree Law 370: Annihilating freedom of expression on the Internet (SPANISH)

On Wednesday, 47 civil society organizations from around the world released a letter expressing concerns over the persecution of journalists and civil society actors in Cuba, according to the independent Cuban magazine El Estornudo. The letter’s release comes on the heels of May 3rd, which the United Nations has designated as World Press Freedom Day.

Decree Law 370 “On the Computerization of Cuban Society,” which went into effect in July 2019, is the framework under which the recent persecution has been carried out, according to the letter’s signatories. The letter provides examples of persecution faced by journalists and civil society actors, which include interrogations, confiscation of work, and fines, which if not paid, result in jail time. Such persecution, the letter claims, runs contrary to Article 54 of Cuba’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and expression, and Article 55, which guarantees freedom of the press. Among the letter’s recommendations, laid out by its signatories, is a request for international actors to protect human rights and “to demand that the Cuban Government immediately end this persecution and harassment of [Cuban journalists and civil society] and their families, return confiscated property,” as well as “allow [Cuban citizens] to fully and freely exercise their freedoms, [including their right of] free access to information.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Chinese group skirts U.S. embargo to help Cuba

This past weekend, a group of Chinese doctors who spent a portion of their careers studying in Cuba raised a total of $19,823 USD to purchase medical supplies for Cuba, the Asia Times reports. With the money, the group purchased 420 protective gowns and 38,750 masks and coordinated with Cuba’s embassy in China to ensure that the products arrived safely on the Caribbean island. Although the Chinese state has been able to deliver aid to Cuba since the island’s outbreak of COVID-19 began, a private donation by businessman Jack Ma’s charitable foundation was stymied by U.S. sanctions in early April.

Eleven specialist Cuban ICU nurses arrive [in Trinidad and Tobago]

According to the Trinidad Daily Express, eleven Cuban ICU nurses arrived in Trinidad and Tobago on May 1. The nurses are slated to begin working to support the small country’s hospitals by helping to manage and treat the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis as soon as they have completed a 14-day precautionary quarantine. As of last week, over 20 countries had received Cuban medical brigades since the beginning of the current pandemic.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Cuba: urgencias económicas actuales para un contexto post Covid-19, David J. Pajón Espina and Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, Columbia Law School

The emergence and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the world into mounting tragedy and shock. Figures for 2020 reveal a global economic debacle. For Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC adjusted its growth predictions towards a GDP contraction of at least 1.8 percent. Cuba will feel the immediate and combined impact of the disease and the negative economic shock. The authors analyze the

areas in which the Cuban authorities can take action to mitigate the impacts of the crisis and overcome it, including by expanding the private sector, incentivizing public-private partnerships, and other actions.

Celia Who?, Ana Menéndez, Guernica

In this essay, deemed a “critique of the Cuban man hero complex,” about the Cuban revolutionary Celia Sánchez, the author argues that her life “remains an enigma, despite, or because of, her place at Castro’s side.”

EVENTS

Livestream, Letters to Eloisa, Adriana Bosch, Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, May 19

Featuring the intimate correspondence of a brother to his sister living in exile, the film “Letters to Eloisa” tells the story of obscured Cuban literary genius and poet José Lezama Lima, author of a monumental novel, “Paradiso” that catapulted Lezama Lima to the heights of the literary world but placed him on a direct collision course with the Cuban revolutionary government. Part biography, and part cultural history, the film traces Lezama Lima’s rise as a literary figure in Cuba and his tragic end, alone and silenced in his Havana home. The film will be streamed online at 7PM EST, register for free here.


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