U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 11/20/2020

Dear Friends,

We hope you’re all doing well. Today CDA joined forces with seven other organizations to denounce the Trump administration’s latest Cuba remittance restrictions which have resulted in Western Union, Cuba’s main remittance sender, announcing the closure of its Cuba operations. The statement is available on our website in English and in Spanish.

Cuba experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases this week, with 363 active COVID-19 cases at the time of publication. Cuba’s total number of deaths since March is 131. For a graph of case numbers since March, see here. For a detailed breakdown of all COVID-19 data, visit this website.

Over the next few weeks, we will be interviewing Cuban Americans and Cubans to reflect on the results of the U.S. presidential election and share their hopes for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations in a Biden-Harris administration.

This week we interviewed Manuel R. Gómez. Manuel is a Cuban American occupational and environmental health and safety professional who lives with his family between Washington, D.C. and Miami Beach. Manuel was the founder and Executive Director of the Cuban American Committee for the Normalization of Relations in the 1970s and 80s. He was formerly a member of the CDA Board of Directors.

To read this week’s interview with Manuel R. Gómez, visit the “U.S.-Cuba Relations” section.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Congressman McGovern and Congressman Engel condemn Trump administration restrictions on remittances to Cuban families

Congressman Jim McGovern, Chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Congressman Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement condemning the Trump administration’s latest restrictions on remittances to Cuban families. In the statement, they refer to the Treasury Department’s decision to forbid U.S. remittance service providers from using Cuba’s most widely used financial intermediary, a decision which is forcing Western Union to close its operations in Cuba next week. They wrote that this move will “hurt the Cuban people most” and prohibit Cuban Americans from supporting their families on the island. They end the statement by saying that implementing this regulation in the middle of a public health and economic crisis on the island is “cruel, heartless and frankly ineffective,” and call on the Trump administration to “reverse course, and to expand, rather than further contract, the channels of contact and support between the Cuban people and their families and loved ones in the United States.” Today, CDA, along with seven partner organizations, published a statement denouncing the Administration’s latest restrictions.

Western Union will end its remittances business to Cuba

Western Union announced it will end service to Cuba November 26 following the Trump administration’s latest policy change, the Miami Herald reports. Customers in the U.S. have until 11 pm on November 22 to send remittances, and Cubans on the island have until 6 pm November 23 to pick them up. The 400 Western Union locations across the island will close after this date. Remittances are an important lifeline for many Cubans, especially as the island faces the worst economic crisis since the Special Period of the 1990s.

Western Union has provided remittance services to Cuba for over 20 years. The new regulations require that remittance services be processed in Cuba through a non-military entity. Up to this point, remittance forwarding services have been managed by FINCIMEX, which is used by Western Union and other remittance forwarding services. FINCIMEX and its subsidiary American International Services (AIS), were added to the Cuba Restricted List, due to their ownership by GAESA. GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A.) is the economic branch of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces and controls more than 50 corporations in Cuba’s most profitable sectors, including tourism and remittances. Alternative ways of sending remittances include sending cash on flights to Cuba from the U.S., using Miami-based agencies like VaCuba or Cubamax, the Spanish website Tropipay which sends euros, or Bitremesas, which uses cryptocurrencies.

U.S. agency denies exemptions for Cuba cargo relief flights: statement

The U.S. Transportation Department denied exemptions for two U.S. charter flight companies to deliver humanitarian cargo to Cuba, Reuters reports. The two companies applied for permission to deliver food, medicine, hygiene and medical supplies, all of which they argued were humanitarian in nature. The State Department stated that the flights did not meet exemption guidelines and “would not be in the foreign policy interests of the United States.” One of the companies, Skyway, argued that the flights should be permitted to address some of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cuba, including widespread food and medical supply shortages. U.S. companies have had to apply for exemptions since October 13, when the State Department’s suspension all private charter flights to Cuba took effect.

Airbnb reveals potential noncompliance of U.S. sanctions

The home-sharing company Airbnb made voluntary disclosures to the U.S. Treasury Department about potential noncompliance with U.S. sanction laws, the Wall Street Journal reports. Airbnb conducted an internal review and has since been in contact with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The internal review focused partly on its compliance with OFAC’s Cuba program. In its report, Airbnb stated that in 2015 about 1,000 new hosts in Cuba offered private homestays after an increase in travel from the U.S. following the Obama administration’s easing of travel restrictions. While it is still unclear if Airbnb committed a sanctions violation, if OFAC finds violations, the company may be subject to civil penalties and litigation.

Federal judge green-lights Cuban doctors’ human-trafficking lawsuit against health group

A federal judge ruled that a group of Cuban doctors’ lawsuit against the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) may continue, the Miami Herald reports. U.S. District of Columbia Judge James Boasberg denied PAHO’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A group of Cuban doctors who worked in Brazil and now live in the U.S. filed the lawsuit against PAHO claiming the organization benefited from a “forced labor scheme” since 2013 in Brazil. The doctors allege that PAHO served as a “financial intermediary” between Brazil and Cuba’s governments, using a CitiBank account in Washington, D.C. to transfer $1.3 billion from Brazil to Cuba and keeping $75 million. The doctors also claim they received only $1,000 of the $10,000 Brazil paid Cuba monthly per doctor. They stated that PAHO deposited $600 of those in a frozen bank account in Cuba which could only be accessed upon their return to the island if they completed the medical mission. They also allege that once in Brazil, they faced a number of human rights violations at the hands of Cuban government agents, some who worked as PAHO advisers, including having their passports withheld and movements controlled.

Since 2013, over 10,000 Cuban doctors have worked in medical missions in Brazil’s Mais Médicos program. The Trump administration has been vocal about its opposition to Cuba’s medical missions, even including the program in its 2020 version of the annual State Department Trafficking in Persons report. At the virtual 75th United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, Cuba’s president Miguel Díaz-Canel and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla critiqued the U.S. for attempting to prevent Cuba from carrying out its international medical missions.

Interview with Manuel R. Gómez

CDA: What do you believe are the main takeaways of the Cuban American vote in Florida this presidential election?

Manuel: The Cuban-American vote was no doubt a factor in the Trump victory in Miami-Dade county, but it was not the deciding factor. The media has made much of the 55% margin of Trump’s victory among Cuban-Americans, but, despite this apparent reversal in a decades-long trend in our community towards finding a modus vivendi with our country of origin, this vote is likely only a temporary setback of the trend, and not so large. There is a 45% of the community that did not vote for Trump. In his election victory over Gore, George W. Bush’s margin of victory was estimated to be as high as 70-80% among Cuban-Americans, yet only a few short years later, Obama received around 45% in both his 2008 and 2012 elections, and Hillary Clinton did even better, earning about 50% of the Cuban-American vote despite her defeat by Trump in 2016. In addition, observers agree that the political climate in Cuban Miami has been suffocatingly right-wing and “tough on Cuba” for a long time, so it should be no surprise that Cuban-Americans, many of whom have traditionally voted Republican, would be persuaded temporarily by the pied-piper demagogy of Donald Trump, as were more than 70 million other Americans.

Sadly, the vote for Trump was in spite of the many cruel measures his administration has taken against our community: the almost complete elimination of any means to send money to our families on the island, the elimination of all flights except to Havana, and the closure of the consular services, which cut off visas for family reunification by emigration, or by visits to the US. And there is plenty more proof that Cuban-Americans want normal contacts with the island. In 2018, more than half a million of us travelled there, and tens of thousands of Cubans visited here [the U.S.], yet only two decades or so ago, one could not even talk in the Miami area about visiting Cuba, because it was considered treason by many and often resulted in severe social ostracism or even violence.

CDA: How do you think a Biden-Harris administration should approach U.S.-Cuba policy? What do you believe the Administration should prioritize?

Manuel: Despite the many challenges facing it, the new Administration should make it a priority, first, to reverse those measures that so directly affect our families on travel, remittances, and consular services in Havana for family reunification. Secondly, our new president should move as soon as possible to work more closely with our community by addressing our bread and butter issues here at home, along with moving towards engagement with Cuba for our benefit. It is long past the time when Democrats try to win our sympathy by being more Trumpian than Trump, such as by visiting the headquarters of the 2506 Brigade as if that constituted a Cuba policy, or by promising to cause changes on the island that no administration can ever bring about. Make no mistake, I understand the pain. My wife’s uncle served on that brigade and served two years in jail, but that is ancient history now; Cuba is not ever going to become the mythical Havana of 1958. Our community and our families in Cuba are hurting badly because of the immigration-related measures, but also because of the myriad other measures against the island, too many to detail here, and which are especially cruel in the middle of a worldwide COVID-19 catastrophe.

The Administration can start by moving rapidly to kick start and reinvigorate all the policies of engagement with the island that Biden and President Obama initiated in 2014, especially the more than 20 bilateral agreements that are now mostly frozen. These areas of cooperation were beneficial for both our countries, and they opened the way to even more valuable cooperation. They need to be strongly embedded. While the Cuban government may be initially cautious, in light of the last four years and the somewhat ambivalent statements by Biden and Harris about Cuba policy during the campaign, retaking these agreements will send an important message of good intentions on these matters of common interest.

In a more fundamental way, the new administration should also move decisively to end the useless and cruel embargo, something which even distinguished legal experts argue can be done with Presidential power alone, without legislative actions. We must not forget what President Obama said in his historic speech on March 22, 2016 in Havana: “what the United States was doing was not working…..the embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them.” That is even more true today, when the COVID-19 crisis is severely punishing Cuba and us alike. 

CDA: Cuban Americans have an important vantage point on issues related to U.S.-Cuba engagement, and perspectives vary throughout the Cuban American community. How should a Biden-Harris administration engage Cuban Americans on policy issues?

Manuel: Our community faces many issues in common with other immigrant groups, and with our society as a whole. It is crucial for the administration to start working with us to address these issues, while also acting on the Cuba policy items, which are of national import, not just the province of Cuban-Americans. These issues are understandably painful for all; we left our country thinking we would soon return, but that dream is over. Only a concerted effort on both ranges of issues—domestic and Cuba policy–can hope to succeed in winning a larger percentage of the Cuban-American vote, as Democrats will need to do, in the elections of 2022 and 2024. As many activists in the Latino communities have pointed out, Democrats cannot expect to win among us if they only show up at the last minute, yet the Democrats showed with us very late, while the Republicans had been actively there all along.

On the domestic front, a Biden administration must rapidly revert all the vicious measures against immigrants of the Trump administration, so that our migrants now barely surviving just inside the Mexican border—as well as many other Latin-American migrants who are also there—can safely seek legal access to the US. There are also two social problems that are somewhat more severe among Cuban-Americans than among many others in our society. First, our community is far older (27% over 65) than other Latino immigrants or the population as a whole (16% over 65). This looms as a potentially serious social problem, in light of the poor services available to all senior citizens in our country today, and likely to aggravate in the future for the entire society.  Second is the poor health insurance coverage and grave concerns about its excessive costs, which are compounded by the threats to the survival of Obamacare. It is notable that Hialeah, the quintessential Cuban city in the US, with the largest concentration by far of Cuban-Americans, is also the city with the highest proportion of Obamacare participants in the country.

So, yes, my recipe for the Biden administration for working with my community is simple, even if it has never been tried before. First, vigorously pursue a policy of engagement with Cuba, because it is good for our country, for Cubans on the island, and for my community in the US. Secondly, start working now with us on our domestic bread and butter issues, which are also those of other Americans.

IN CUBA

Cuban state to shed thousands of eateries, eliminate subsidies

Cuba will stop subsidizing thousands of eateries and convert them into private-run and cooperative businesses, Reuters reports. The move is part of a broader monetary reform which is expected to take place before the end of the year. It is also seen as part of Cuba’s shift to a more market-style socialism similar to China and Vietnam, rather than a Soviet-style system. Cuba’s gastronomy sector, most of which is nationalized, is known for poor service and theft.

Since 2011, thousands of private eateries have opened and successfully competed with state-owned ones. That year, 958 out of 1,900 state-owned eateries in Havana were turned into cooperatives and privately-owned eateries. Of those, 60 percent were able to improve service and increase wages by 600-800 percent. That reform process was halted the same year, but an anonymous source told Reuters that over 70 percent of the remaining state-owned Havana eateries will be reformed under the new forthcoming regulations. When speaking to Cuba’s National Assembly last month, Cuba’s Minister of Economy Alejandro Gil stated that the gastronomy sector has to be reformed and that eateries must “pay their own way.”

They demand immediate release of activist Denis Solís [Spanish]

Members of the organization Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) demand the immediate release of activist and rapper Denis Solís, CiberCuba reports. A statement published by MSI says that Mr. Solís was violently arrested without clear cause last Monday in the Havana neighborhood of San Isidro. They also stated that Mr. Solís was not allowed to call his family upon being arrested, that state security officials visited his home and intimidated his family, and that Mr. Solís was transferred to Valle Grande prison. Following his arrest, multiple activists and artists have subsequently been arrested for standing outside the police station on Cuba and Chacón streets in Old Havana and demanding that Mr. Solís be released. In their statement, MSI also claimed that the use of violence and abuse of power in Cuba has become a norm, and has only worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. MSI is a movement which advocates for democratic values and freedom in Cuba.

Another three-story building collapses in Havana. Families live among ruins [Spanish]

A three-story building collapsed in Havana early Monday morning, leaving over a thousand people without a home, El Nuevo Herald reports. Despite not having access to potable water or bathrooms, the families are refusing to vacate the building until the state guarantees them a new home. Buildings frequently collapse in Havana, since many are old and in need of repair, but Cuba’s government lacks the funds to fix them. According to some estimates, 40 percent of the buildings in Havana need to be repaired. In 2018, there was a housing shortage of almost one million homes across the country.

Cuba to charge health tax to all those who arrive in the country as of December

Cuba will include an additional $30 “health tax” in international travel tickets of all Cuban and foreign travelers who arrive on the island, OnCuba News reports. The fee, which may be paid either in USD or any other convertible currency, will be charged starting December 1 and is mandatory for all Cuban nationals and foreign travelers who enter the country through international airports, ports, and marinas. The fee will cover the cost of the PCR test and additional sanitary protocols being implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Crew members of aircraft or ships which stay on the island less than 24 hours will not be required to pay the fee.

Havana’s José Martí International Airport reopened on November 15, allowing U.S. travelers to visit the island for the first time since the airport closed in March. It is the only airport which provides service to the U.S. since the Trump administration banned flights from the U.S. to all destinations in Cuba other than Havana in December 2019.

Cuba announces suspension of passport extension for residents living abroad [Spanish]

On Monday, Cuba’s government suspended the requirement of a passport extension for Cuban citizens currently living abroad, the Miami Herald reports. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) stated this policy will be in place until further notice and that Cuban citizens currently residing in foreign countries may return to Cuba with an expired Cuban passport. MINREX had temporarily suspended payments for passport extensions until the end of October after several Cuban consulates informed their citizens they would have to resume paying the fee which had been waived since March 19 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuban Decree 302 stipulates that a Cuban citizen living abroad must re-enter Cuba at least once every 24 months “to maintain the status of ‘Cuban citizen residing abroad.’” If more than 24 months pass without visiting Cuba, citizens may request an extension for their time abroad and pay a fee which varies depending on the country of residence.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Meeting Cubans 4 Trump, Ariana Hernández-Reguant, The North American Congress on Latin America

In this essay, Ariana Hernández-Reguant, a cultural anthropologist, writes about her ethnographic research about and formal interviews with Cuban voters in Hialeah, Florida. Dr. Hernández-Reguant explores what a vote for Trump means for these Cuban immigrant voters, arguing that to them it represents a vote for Cuba, a vote for America, and a way to fulfill the self-made immigrant fantasy. 

Members of Cuban civil society send an open letter to the U.S. president-elect, 23 y Flagler [Spanish]

Some members of Cuban civil society published an open letter to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. In the letter, they urge President-elect Biden to make good on the promise he made during the campaign to restore U.S.-Cuba relations to what they were during the Obama administration. The authors of the letter list policy changes they believe should be prioritized. The full letter is available in English and in Spanish here.

Cuba’s Economic Crisis Is Spurring Much-Needed Action on Reforms, William LeoGrande, World Politics Review

In this essay, William LeoGrande, Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., discusses the major causes for Cuba’s dire economic crisis, and the ways it has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. LeoGrande argues that Cuba’s decision this summer to begin implementing long-demanded reforms could boost productivity in one or two years, but that shorter-term economic relief will depend on circumstances beyond Cuba’s control, including when the COVID-19 pandemic will subside, allowing tourism to return to high levels, and the policies of the incoming U.S. president. 

Remittances with cryptocurrencies: A new way to send money to Cuba, Glenda Boza Ibarra, El Toque [Spanish]

In this article, Glenda Boza Ibarra discusses the growing popularity of cryptocurrencies as a method of sending remittances to Cuba. She argues that the benefits of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are that they are a quick way to send remittances without paying sending fees and that they currently cannot legally be sanctioned by the U.S.

How Do Cubans Use Cryptocurrencies?, Kmilo Noa, Nuevos Espacios Blog

In this article, Kmilo Noa discusses the ways Cubans are using cryptocurrencies on the island, the fears that are associated with using them, and what their role may be in the future. The article is also available in Spanish.

Video: ‘Reinaldo Arenas was a very happy man in New York’, Diario de Cuba

In this video, René Cifuentes, a friend of the late Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas and member of the editorial board of the magazine “Mariel,” speaks about Mr. Arenas’ life and his time living in New York. The video features images and videos of Mr. Arenas, as well as original recordings from Mr. Cifuentes’ answering machine.

Ailed Duarte on the unique pressures and pleasures of tattooing in Cuba, Nathan Thornburgh, The Trip Podcast

This article features a transcript of a podcast interview with Ailed Duarte, co-founder of the tattoo parlor La Marca Studio in Old Havana. Ms. Duarte discusses her experience bringing tattoo art, which was once illegal in Cuba, into the mainstream, and about organizing the first international tattoo convention in Havana. The podcast episode is available for listening here.

EVENTS

Virtual; Webinar: “We are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World”, November 24

This panel will comment on Dr. Helen Yaffe’s new book “We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World,” which explores the reforms Cuba has implemented since the collapse of its main economic partner, the Soviet Union, in the 1990s. It will also discuss the current economic crisis the island is facing and the impact of the U.S. elections on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Arlington, VA; Photo Exhibit: “Greg Kahn: Havana Youth”, August 27-November 24

Greg Kahn, a documentary fine art photographer, released a photo exhibit that demonstrates what it means to be a Cuban “Millennial” or “Gen-Zer.” Mr. Kahn highlights a generation which was born either slightly before or during Cuba’s economic crisis of the 1990s known as “the Special Period.” His photographs show how these generations are “redefining what it means to be Cuban.” This exhibit is available for viewing in person by appointment only at the Cody Gallery of Marymount University in Arlington, VA.

Virtual and Syracuse, NY; Photo Exhibit: “Waiting for Normal”, October 22-January 17

Joe Guerriero, a documentarian and photojournalist, is unveiling a new photo exhibit called “Waiting for Normal” which tells the stories of Cubans affected by the embargo. Mr. Guerriero, who has been visiting Cuba since 1999, created the exhibit which features 32 photos taken during his travels to the island from 1999 to 2019. He said he hopes his photos “help people understand how the embargo has impacted Cuban society over time.” The exhibit is available for viewing in person at ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse, NY and virtually.


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