U.S.-Cuba News Brief 08/07/2020

Dear Friends,

We hope you and yours are safe and healthy. We are delighted to highlight the work of some friends of CDA. 90Miles, a new podcast, will air bimonthly episodes featuring stories from Cuban tech, culture and the arts. The first episode, released Thursday, features Founder and CEO of Cuban tech company TostoneT, Liber Puente, and an analysis by Ambassador (ret.) Jeffrey DeLaurentis.

Before this week’s news, an interview with a committed advocate for U.S.-Cuba engagement and a longtime friend of CDA, Carlos Lazo, who just concluded his cross-country bicycle trip, cycling to bring attention to the cause of ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

CDA: Tell us a little about yourself and your experience advocating for engagement between the U.S. and Cuba. What kinds of advocacy have you found most effective?

Carlos: My name is Carlos Lazo, I’m a Cuban American, and I have been advocating for improving the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. for the last two decades. I’m a U.S. veteran, I participated in the Iraq war as a combat medic, and when I came back from Iraq in 2005, I found that I couldn’t visit my children in Cuba because the Bush administration put in place restrictions that prevented Cuban Americans from going there. The decision [made by the Administration] was that Cuban Americans could only visit Cuba once every three years. [It was then that] I started fighting for change in that restriction and those policies. I found visits to the representatives, to elected officials in congress, to be very effective because they can hear first hand the experiences of Americans and Cuban Americans.

CDA: Why bicycling? How is this different from other forms of advocacy you have done?

Carlos: Why bicycling? Some friends would say that it’s difficult. The first thing that came to my mind [was a letter and petition]. A few months ago we started a petition in Change.org for the Trump administration to lift restrictions and sanctions because of coronavirus. We got more than 20,000 signatures and we sent the petition to the White House but they didn’t answer. My first idea in May when I sent several letters to the White House and they didn’t answer was to go there and ask to meet with elected officials, but I wanted to do it in a way that would call the attention of the American people. The first thing that I thought about was running from Seattle, but my children said that would take a long time, so we decided to go bicycling. [By bicycling] we could also go to different communities, talk to Americans from all backgrounds and from all political spectrums about the sanctions against Cuba, and how in this time of coronavirus it is very inhumane to keep this embargo and these restrictions against the Cuban people. This is different from what I have done before. Before, I visited congressional offices. This time I wasn’t just visiting congressional offices because I was talking to elected officials along the way, but I was also talking to the American people about the need to lift the embargo, and that was very effective. Many Americans are not aware of what the embargo is. It was different and I think it was very effective.

To continue reading the full interview with Carlos Lazo, go to the “U.S.-Cuba Relations” section of our news brief.

Cuba saw an increase in COVID-19 cases this week, particularly in Havana. The island reports  310 positive COVID-19 cases at the time of publication. For a visualization of cases, see here.

This week, in Cuba news…


Continued: CDA’s interview with Carlos Lazo

CDA: You started biking in July in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s a difficult time to be doing what you’re doing. What has surprised you most from the trip? Do you feel as though your message is being heard? What has been the response from the Cuban American community?

Carlos: One of the most surprising things about our trip for me was how committed my two children and two nephews were. They are very young and sometimes there is the feeling that young people are not committed to activism or political causes but they were doing this with all their hearts. That was very surprising. I feel that the message has been heard by many people, has been covered by the press, we’ve had meetings with some congressional offices. This is just the beginning. We think we can do more. The Cuban community also had a great response. I have a Facebook page where I have almost 50,000 followers and more than half of those are Cuban Americans. The majority of the Cuban American community supports the normalization of relations between our countries because their families are their priorities, and this Administration has brought blows against Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits. [The Administration has made it so that Airlines] can’t sell flights to the provinces and they restrict the amount of money we can send to our families. The majority of the Cuban American community, from my perspective, they want to have a normal relationship with their family on the island.

CDA: Do you have a favorite state you’ve visited so far on your trip? Which states have been most supportive? Have you met with state officials and what have those meetings been like?

Carlos: Everything was great to visit and in every state we talked to people. Two of the most important states where we had more impact, I think, were Montana and Illinois. In Montana we met with state senators, with members of the state congress, we also met with the mayor of the city of Helena, and they were very friendly and very supportive. In Illinois, we met with the chair of the Commission of Agriculture for Cuba and the United States. We also met with a lady who does films and with members of the Council of the city of Chicago. After we met with one member he promised that he would sign the petition for normalization between Cuba and the United States. The meetings have been very productive. They learned and got educated about things that they don’t know, and they were really surprised that after 60 years we still have this embargo that doesn’t make any sense.

CDA: If you had the opportunity to sit down right now with key decision makers on this issue, what would you say to them?

Carlos: If I had the opportunity to sit down with decision makers on this issue I would tell them that, first of all, the Cuban people, the regular people, are the ones who are suffering from the sanctions. I think that it’s important for our congress to have a more constructive relationship. We need to build bridges of love, to bring our countries together. We are neighbors, we are in the middle of a pandemic, we should give priority to cooperation, and sanctions should be eliminated for the sake of the two countries: Cuba and the United States.

Carlos Lazo writes to Trump and Biden with the same message: “Respect and love for Cuba”

Cuban American Spanish teacher and retired U.S. military Sergeant Carlos Lazo, along with his two sons, have been cycling from the U.S. west coast to the east coast to advocate for “building bridges of love between our two peoples” and to urge the Trump administration to lift economic sanctions on Cuba during the coronavirus pandemic, OnCuba reports. The trip ended this week in Washington, D.C. where the group gathered in front of the White House. Mr. Lazo penned letters to President Donald Trump and Presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, urging them to ease sanctions, and while in Washington met with congressional offices and advocacy groups.

Florida GOP moves to sink Bass over Cuba; Leading Democratic VP contender Bass defends stance on Cuba

One of Vice President Joe Biden’s potential running mates, Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), is an outspoken advocate for U.S.-Cuba engagement, and her record on the issue has come into recent focus in the context of the U.S. presidential campaign. Numerous outlets are reporting on Rep. Bass’ history of travel to the island and use of the phrase “Comandante en Jefe” in a statement on Fidel Castro’s passing, and the ways in which her stance on Cuba engagement may influence voters in Florida. Rep. Bass traveled with a delegation to the island in 2015 as part of former President Barack Obama’s efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations, in addition to other trips focused on humanitarian issues, cultural exchange, and U.S.-Cuba engagement, some with CDA.

Rep. Bass told MSNBC that “it’s certainly something that [she] would not say again,” and that her intent was to express her condolences to the Cuban people and that she was unaware of the political weight of the phrase among Cuban exiles.

‘It wasn’t a friendly relationship.’ Former top diplomat in Havana talks about U.S.-Cuba relations.

Mara Tekach, outgoing Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that in order to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Cuba needs to “democratize” and cease “fomenting destabilization abroad,” including in Venezuela. Ms. Tekach, who switched roles with Tim Zúñiga-Brown, will become Coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs at the State Department. Her outspoken criticisms of Cuba’s government, including her comments about repression and lack of free speech on the island, as well as the Embassy’s social media campaigns criticizing Cuba’s medical missions abroad and human rights record have set her apart from previous heads of mission, reports the Miami Herald.

Since 2017 the Embassy has been working with reduced personnel due to the still unexplained health incidents that affected staff, the last of which was reported in 2018. According to Ms. Tekach, her outspokenness was aimed at making the international community aware of the situation in Cuba and at speaking up in ways the Cuban people can’t because they “don’t have those protections.” Noting that she was still able to work with her Cuban counterparts, Ms. Tekach said that nevertheless “it was not a friendly relationship.” Before relations took a turn under the Trump administration, the U.S. and Cuba engaged on a range of bilateral issues, including environmental cooperation, law enforcement information sharing, health cooperation, and human rights. 

Court dismisses lawsuit against American Airlines under Helms-Burton law (Spanish)

This week, North Texas judge John H. McBryde dismissed a Title III Helms-Burton Act (LIBERTAD Act) lawsuit brought by Cuban American Robert M. Glen against American Airlines, OnCuba reports. Judge McBryde reportedly dismissed the suit because American Airlines did not act intentionally, according to judicial documents obtained by EFE. Following the ruling, Carnival Cruise Corporation requested that a case against it pending in Miami courts be dismissed under the same principle.

Mr. Glen has filed lawsuits under Title III, which allows for legal action against those benefiting from “trafficking in confiscated property,” against various companies with respect to properties that were expropriated in Cuba from his family and which have been used in Cuba’s tourism infrastructure. 

Biden: Affirms plans to re-engage Cuba; Says Latino community is diverse, ‘unlike the African American community’

On Wednesday, in an interview with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists, presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden responded to a question from NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about whether he would re-engage with Cuba by commenting that there is less diversity within the African American community than there is within the Latino community, Politico reports. “I’m specifically wondering about the Florida communities that are incredibly interested in the Cuba issue and see status given to Venezuelans while Cubans are being deported,” Garcia-Navarro asked. In response, former Vice President Biden said “The answer is yes. And by the way, what you all know, but most people don’t know, unlike the African American community with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community, with incredibly different attitudes about different things. You go to Florida, you find a very different attitude about immigration in certain places than you do when you’re in Arizona. So it’s a very different, a very diverse community.” The comment drew criticism and Biden later responded on Twitter, saying that “In no way did I mean to suggest the African American community is a monolith—not by identity, not on issues, not at all.”


Cuba to scrap ‘too restrictive’ private-sector activities list as economic pressures grow

Cuba’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security announced on Thursday new self employment reforms, Reuters reports. The reforms include the elimination of the list of license categories for which self employed Cubans can apply for a business license. According to Marta Elena Feito, Cuba’s Labor Minister, the list had become too restrictive in pandemic times. 

Since Cuba began a process of “updating” its socialist economic model, the government has issued a list of authorized business activities in which entrepreneurs can engage. There is still no Enterprise Law in Cuba, so individuals must register themselves as entrepreneurs and acquire a license, rather than registering and/or licensing a business. The elimination of the list, or its replacement with a list of prohibited activities, has long been requested by Cuban entrepreneurs and economists as a means to spur private sector growth. Oniel Díaz, co-founder of Cuban business development and communications team AUGE, celebrated on Twitter that the six proposals made by entrepreneurs in an August 2017 letter that was later presented at a meeting between a group of entrepreneurs and Cuba’s Minister of Labor were becoming a reality.

The decision comes after an announcement made by the island’s government last month that it would begin a series of economic reforms to confront the severe economic crisis Cuba is currently facing, including easing current restrictions on the non-state sector. According to Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel, in creating the plan, they also considered recent public debate in academia and on social media platforms. After last month’s announcement, Cuba’s Transport Ministry reportedly met with leaders of private sector transport initiatives to discuss their achievements and potential areas for cooperation.

Entrepreneur Camilo Condis reacted with excitement to yesterday’s announcement, but noted that “Now it remains to be seen how and when they will implement this.” Those who would like to join the private sector will still need to apply for a license and the Cuban government will ultimately retain discretion in licensing decisions, Reuters reports. Cuban economist Pedro Monreal’s initial reaction noted that the reforms fail to address in a concrete way, “the enormous number of people of working age who do not work or study, the low productivity of agriculture and the establishment of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs or PYMES in Spanish) that allow for quality employment.” Instead of focusing on “perfecting” private sector employment, which Mr. Monreal calls “untimely,” he recommends focusing more on SMEs which will, in his evaluation, “raise the productivity ceiling in the short term.” Overall, Mr. Monreal concludes that the best mechanism to increase employment is Cuba’s private sector, but that the continued lack of institutional structure for self employment hinders its development. 

In recent weeks, CDA has been interviewing Cuban economists and entrepreneurs to hear their reactions to this new iteration of economic reform measures. In last week’s conversation, Oniel Díaz told CDA that “these measures have taken place at the worst possible moment, during an unprecedented global crisis that is going to sink the Cuban economy much more. But on the other hand, this same crisis seems to be the decisive element for the government to mobilize to implement many of the changes that have been urgently needed for years.”

New measures proposed to confront COVID-19 in Cuba’s capital (Spanish); Cuban borders to remain closed until further notice; Some Cubans returning from Venezuela test positive for COVID-19

On Thursday, Cuba’s Provincial Defense Council proposed a new set of measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on restricting movement and activities within and around Havana, Prensa Latina reports. The measures include restricting access to Havana for those from nearby municipalities; limiting the hours of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs to a 9PM closing time, limiting city transport after 11PM; decreasing travel between the municipalities of Havana, Matanzas, Artemisa, and Mayabeque; and prohibiting state collective transport as well as private. “Frankly, we are in a backslide, almost a regrowth, that endangers what has been achieved,” said the president of Cuba’s Provincial Defense Council.

The new measures followed a Tuesday announcement by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that, aside from humanitarian flights and repatriation flights for Cubans that were abroad when the lockdowns began, the island’s borders will remain closed, OnCuba reports. All those arriving on such flights must still undergo a 14 day quarantine in a Havana isolation center. Cuba’s cays still remain the only destination open to foreign tourism.

According to data from Cuba’s government, 29 Cubans who returned to the island after visiting Venezuela tested positive for COVID-19 between July 26 and August 3, Reuters reports. Because borders are otherwise closed, those returning Cubans were likely among the 20,000 Cuban health personnel working in Venezuela as a part of Cuba’s medical missions abroad. The cases were outlined in daily reports from the Cuban Health Ministry and few details were provided. While there have been no reports of Cubn health professionals contracting COVID-19 while working abroad in medical brigades, in April, a Cuban nurse treating patients in Dominica died suddenly. A cause of death was not reported. Cuban doctors have contracted the virus while working in Cuba.


New joint venture joins Cuba with United Kingdom

On Monday, BioCubaFarma announced that it would enter into a joint venture with UK-based SG Innovations Limited, OnCuba reports. The venture is intended to accelerate the accessibility of innovative medications from Cuba in the UK, including drugs undergoing clinical trials in Cuba to treat COVID-19. BioCubaFarma also has joint ventures with companies in China, Spain, Thailand and Singapore.


A new podcast to close the 90-mile gap, Ken Deckinger, Startup Cuba

This month, a self described “small team of Cubans, Americans and Cuban Americans (and American Cubans)” launched a podcast called 90Miles, Startup Cuba reports. The podcast aims to connect creatives, such as entrepreneurs and artists, across the Florida Straits. Startup Cuba interviews the team to learn more about what inspired them to launch the project.

Once upon a time in Chicago, Ivette Avila

The series Collective Creation In Quarantine, as its name suggests, arose amid isolation in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cuban and American artists who have joined the experience–musicians, visual artists, dancers, colleagues from the world of cinema, and children–have as their purpose to creatively document the moods, the creations in confinement, nightmares…in short, that which people feel and experience in these times of pain, uncertainty, rethinking, and hopes of change. Animation is the main mode of expression used in these 6 chapters.

Once upon a time in Chicago” starts with the filming of the daily life of this city during the quarantine made by Alex Halkin of America’s Media Initiative, recreated with animations that complement the dysfunctional and half-empty city during the pandemic, filling the real image of poetry and new meanings.

Pandemic May Be The Push To Open Cuba’s State-Controlled Economy, Carrie Kahn, NPR

The economic situation in Cuba, already grim in part due to U.S. sanctions, decreased Venezuelan oil subsidies, and internal policies, significantly worsened following the nationwide lockdown triggered by COVID-19, which began in March. This worsening has triggered a series of economic and private sector reforms, many of which have long been requested by the island’s entrepreneurs. “We cannot continue to do the same thing…because the current economic model isn’t producing results that Cuba needs,” President Díaz-Canel said July 16th on State TV. NPR’s Carrie Kahn considers how these reforms might be the opening Cuba’s economy has so desperately needed.

Greenback returns: How dollar stores came back to Cuba, Will Grant, BBC News

Cuba’s recent economic reforms have brought dollar stores to Havana, where Cubans queue up for blocks to buy goods they can only purchase in dollars, and only using a card linked to an account containing foreign currency or an international debit or credit card. BBC News’s Will Grant speaks to Cubans outside a store in Havana who highlight how, for Cubans who don’t receive dollar remittances from family in the U.S, and in a country where the state only pays employees in Cuban pesos (CUP), accessing the scarce goods available in these stores can be difficult. Mr. Grant also speaks to Iris Fonseca, who works for Finca Vista Hermosa, a privately run organic farm outside of Havana, about the related challenge of Cuba’s heavy reliance on agricultural imports, which she claims can be improved if more farms learn from the challenges of Cuba’s Special Period.

Congress put the brakes on Cuba relief to protect front-line Democrat, Aída Chávez, The Intercept

Last week, Congressman Bobby Rush (IL-1) pulled two amendments he had previously introduced to an appropriations bill for FY2021, a move which reflected concern over Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26)’s upcoming race, according to The Intercept. One amendment was aimed at temporarily preventing the enforcement of caps on remittances while the other would have prevented the Treasury Department from blocking food exports to Cuba. 

A referendum on gay marriage in Cuba is unconstitutional (Spanish), Abraham Jiménez Enoa, Washington Post

Abraham Jiménez reflects on the first birth certificate issued by the Cuban Ministry of Justice (MINJUS) that recognizes that a child has two mothers and the state of same sex marriage in Cuba. Mr. Jiménez supports same sex marriage but argues that the matter should be resolved in Cuba through legislation rather than via referendum or plebiscite, because “There is no need for majorities to recognize people’s rights, so the LGBT+ community should not allow gay marriage to be decided by plebiscite. The State has the obligation to legislate it. If it does not, the state would incur another flagrant violation of the rights of its citizens.”

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