U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 12/4/2020

Dear Friends,

We hope you and yours are well. We have a busy blast this week! A big thank you to all those who donated for Giving Tuesday! It’s not too late to donate – you may support our work by donating on our website

Cuba experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases this week, with 623 active COVID-19 cases at the time of publication. Cuba’s total number of deaths since March is 136. For a graph of case numbers since March, see here. For a detailed breakdown of all COVID-19 data, visit this website.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuban American Alejandro Mayorkas tapped to lead DHS 

President-elect Joe Biden nominated Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American, to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), NBC News reports. If confirmed by the Senate, he will be the first Latino DHS Secretary. Mr. Mayorkas will lead the department’s anti-terrorism and immigration reform efforts, and is expected to overhaul President Trump’s hardline immigration policies. His nomination has been met with approval from multiple immigrant advocacy groups and Latinos. In a press statement, Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the highest-ranking Cuban American in Congress, stated that Mr. Mayorkas is “a smart and natural pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security.” Greisa Martínez Rosas, Executive Director of United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group, praised the nomination, tweeting that Mr. Mayorkas has a clear mandate to enact “bold & swift executive actions that bring accountability to ICE & CBP & reunite our loved ones.” 

Mr. Mayorkas was the highest-ranking Cuban American in the Obama administration, serving as Deputy Secretary of DHS. He traveled to Cuba in October 2015 while serving as Deputy Secretary; his agenda focused on trade and travel security. While working in the Obama administration, Mr. Mayorkas was instrumental in helping shape DACA, a program which allows young immigrants without legal status to work and study in the U.S. Prior to that, he was Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services under DHS. 

Mr. Mayorkas was born in Cuba to a Romanian Jewish mother and a Cuban-born father with Sephardic roots. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was an infant. In a tweet posted the day he was announced as the nominee to be DHS Secretary, Mr. Mayorkas said that the U.S. provided a “place of refuge” for him and his family. 

Marco Rubio has encountered difficulties with Biden’s secretary of state nominee over Cuba

Anthony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s Secretary of State nominee, has encountered difficulties with Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio (FL) in the past on Cuba policy, the Tampa Bay Times reports. In 2014, at his confirmation hearing for the Deputy Secretary of State position in the Obama administration, Sen. Rubio asked Mr. Blinken how he would respond if President Obama attempted to “unilaterally” lift sanctions on Cuba, to which Mr. Blinken responded that “anything that in the future that might be done in Cuba would be done in real consultation with the [Senate Foreign Relations] committee.” Mr. Blinken was eventually confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State with a 55-38 Senate vote. When Mr. Blinken later appeared in 2015 in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Rubio reminded Mr. Blinken of his previous statements, to which Mr. Blinken replied that he in fact did not live up to those standards and “could have done a better job in engaging with you [Sen. Rubio] and consulting with you [Sen. Rubio] in advance.”

To serve as Secretary of State in the Biden-Harris administration, Mr. Blinken will need to be confirmed by a simple majority in the Senate. In a November 18 interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Sen. Rubio stated he predicts Senate confirmation hearings will be contentious, since the “atmosphere in the Senate has changed” and Democrats were “unfair” to President Trump’s nominees. It is still unclear which party will lead the Senate and how Senate confirmations will play out. 

Barnes and Cuban American Diaz launch campaigns for Florida Democratic Party chair

Former Miami Mayor Manny Díaz, a Cuban American, will be running against Nikki Barnes for Florida Democratic Party chair, Politico reports. Mr. Díaz, who immigrated to Florida from Cuba in 1961, announced his candidacy on Tuesday, focusing on the need to strengthen Florida’s Democratic Party, and engage with voters year-round. His campaign will be led by Marcus Dixon, former Policy Director for Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (FL-24). Carlie Waibel, the Florida Communications Director for the Biden-Harris campaign will serve as his Communications Director. He has received the support of billionaires including Mike Bloomberg and Miami billionaire Jorge Pérez. Mr. Díaz is well-known since he served as Miami Mayor from 2001-2009 but, according to Politico, he will have to win over the support of progressives and Black party officials. 

Mr. Díaz will be running against Nikki Barnes, a Black woman from Wakulla County in northern Florida. Ms. Barnes stated that Democrats are nearly “powerless” in the state and that it is time for “a fresh perspective, a new vision, and new leadership.” Leslie Weems, a Democratic activist, stated that the chair should be someone who “represents the most loyal base of support for Democrats: Black people.” The party chair race will be decided in January. The race comes at a particularly important moment since Florida Democrats have been struggling, losing all but one of the past twelve state races, losing Florida in the presidential election, and losing two Congressional seats in South Florida. 

Cuban migrants make Florida Keys landing in a small boat, but they’re likely not staying

Six Cuban migrants landed on the shore of the Florida Keys in a small boat on Monday morning, the Miami Herald reportsAccording to Border Patrol Agent Adam Hoffner, the four men and two women are currently in federal custody but will likely be sent back to Cuba. The number of Cubans who have been interdicted at sea since the U.S. government ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in January 2017 decreased considerably and almost immediately. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy allowed Cubans who made it to U.S. soil (“dry feet”) to be paroled in and access a path toward citizenship while those apprehended in the ocean (“wet feet”) were returned to Cuba.

IN CUBA

Cuban leadership confronts a rare dissident movement

In Cuba, calls for freedom of expression are coming to a head following the arrest of rapper Denis Solís, an ensuing hunger strike, and broadscale calls for reforms from many in Cuban civil society. On November 9, rapper Denis Solís was detained after confronting a police officer who illegally entered his home. After a two-day trial, he was charged with contempt and was sentenced to eight months in prison, AP News reports

Solís is a member of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), a group of independent Cuban artists, activists, journalists, intellectuals and students from different backgrounds. The group was founded in 2018 after staging a performance in front of Cuba’s National Capitol Building in Havana. Group members believed Decree 349 in the Cuban constitution violated artists’ right to express themselves freely. According to their website, MSI promotes and defends freedom of expression and association, and the creation of art and culture in Cuba in order to empower society toward a future with democratic values.

In response to Solís’ arrest, eight members of MSI went on a hunger strike protesting for his release. On Thursday, November 27 authorities broke up the ten-day hunger strike, evicting everyone who was staying in the movement’s headquarters, citing a violation of COVID-19 health protocols. Fourteen dissidents, including five still on hunger strike, were detained. The dissidents said authorities took and reset their cellphones, deleting images of the confrontation. Most members were released shortly after being detained, but Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was taken to the police station and transferred to a hospital where he remained under surveillance until being released the evening of December 1. On Wednesday, December 2, he was detained once again and placed under house arrest in his grandmother’s house. Some Cubans reported that social media platforms, such as WhatsApp and Cuba-focused news sites like the Miami Herald, were briefly shut down over the weekend to prevent news of the raid from being publicized online. 

On Friday, November 28, a rare public protest in Cuba of more than 300 artists, activists and members of the public took place outside the Cuba’s Ministry of Culture (MINCULT) to denounce repression, censorship, and what they referred to as “state repression” after Cuban authorities cracked down on MSI. This protest ended early Saturday after demonstrators and Cuban officials engaged in an unprecedented dialogue. Cuban Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas and several directors of several associations affiliated with Cuba’s Communist Party spoke with delegates of the demonstrators and agreed to engage in talks on “an agenda of multiple topics with proposals by both sides.” Today, MINCULT said it will not meet and dialogue with members of MSI, saying it will not work with those whose activities are financed by the U.S. government. 

Following the MINCULT meeting, Cuba’s government backtracked from the agreement and called in Chargé d’Affaires Timothy Zúñiga-Brown, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Cuba, denouncing him for “grave interference in Cuba’s internal affairs.” That same day, President Díaz-Canel published a series of tweets stating, “Sovereign Cuba accepts no interference… The revolutionary ones will fight back.” He also accused MSI of being a “reality show” on social media created by “U.S. imperialists.” Cuban state television broadcasted several programs portraying Solís as a U.S. partner in efforts to undermine Cuba’s government, citing alleged connections with U.S. diplomats and some Cuban American exiles who have been accused of terrorism by Cuba’s government, . On Sunday, President Díaz-Canel appeared at a counterprotest called “La Tángana” in Havana’s Parque Trillo. Cuba’s government claimed this was a spontaneous gathering of people in defense of the Revolution while others doubt that was the case.

Many in Cuba’s civil society and the U.S. have publicly reacted to the events. A group of Cuban intellectuals signed a declaration which they called “Articulación Plebeya”, supporting this opportunity for dialogue and “to enable an environment of dialogue and reconciliation in Cuba and in all the places in the world where they [Cubans] live”. Q de Cuir, a Cuban LGBTIQ+ independent digital magazine released a statement demanding that Solís receive a fair judicial process although they “reject Solís’ homophobic and misogynistic speech.” Several Cuban artists, including Carlos VarelaDaymé Arocena, and Leoni Torres have publicly reacted to the incidents, calling for dialogue and listening, emphasizing that Cuba belongs to everyone. 

On November 24, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “The United States stands with Cuba’s people,” and urged for Mr. Solís’ release. On November 25, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, tweeted, “No one should have to go on a hunger strike to be heard by their own government. I stand with the members of @Mov_sanisidro and join them in demanding the Cuban government’s immediate release of Denis Solís.” On November 29, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tweeted, “We support the Cuban people in their struggle for liberty and echo calls for the Cuban government to release peaceful protestors. The Cuban people must be allowed to exercise the universal right to freedom of expression.”

Over the weekend, approximately 300 people in Miami, including Cuban YouTuber Alex Otaola, protested in front of the Cuban restaurant Versailles in Little Havana in support of MSI and additional sanctions against Cuba. The event became chaotic once a counter protestor arrived. Five people, including Otaola, were detained briefly by police and later released. 

Cuba frees well-known political prisoner in delicate health [Spanish]

Cuba’s government released political prisoner Silverio Portal, 72, due to poor health, El Nuevo Herald reports. Mr. Portal was imprisoned for contempt and public disturbance. Since his imprisonment in 2018, Mr. Portal’s health has deteriorated. A major blood clot left part of his face paralyzed. He has also had two strokes and suffers from hypertension. His family also said he lost his vision in one eye due to violence from prison guards. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International urged Cuba’s government to release Mr. Portal because of his poor health. The U.S. House of Representatives also denounced his imprisonment in a resolution which passed with bipartisan support. 

Cuba’s government replaces FINCIMEX with REDSA to process remittances [Spanish] 

In a bid to resolve U.S. sanctions pressures, Cuba’s government announced it will allow the company REDSA (Servicios de Pago Red S.A.) to process family remittances sent from foreign countries to Cuba, replacing FINCIMEX, 14ymedio reports. Up to this point, remittances have been managed by FINCIMEX, which was used by Western Union and other remittance forwarding services. FINCIMEX and its subsidiary American International Services (AIS), were added to the U.S. State Department’s Cuba Restricted List in recent months. In November, after new regulations were published requiring that remittance services be processed in Cuba through a non-military entity, Western Union ended operations on the island. 

Cuba’s currency unification will begin in 2021 [Spanish]

Some predict that Cuba’s currency unification and other monetary reforms will not take place until 2021, Directorio Cubano reports. According to some experts, it will be implemented on January 1, since the beginning of the month would be the best organizational choice. The reform will begin when Cuba’s Central Bank announces that the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) will no longer legally be allowed to circulate, meaning Cuba’s government will not be allowed to issue CUCs, but those who have CUC will be able to continue using it while the state collects CUCs until eventually they are no longer in circulation. On the first day of the reform, Cuba’s new exchange rate will also be announced, which will pin the Cuban Peso (CUP) to the U.S. Dollar, devaluing the CUP. 

Cuban economist Pedro Monreal said that the state of uncertainty about when the reforms will be implemented, and what their effects will be, is a kind of “planned uncertainty.” He stated that the lack of public information about salaries and prices of goods not only affect consumer confidence, but they also affect the market’s prices and supply of goods. Currency unification and other monetary reforms have long been awaited in Cuba. Much uncertainty has surrounded the process since Cuba’s government announced on July 16 that a series of reforms would take place. The plan includes both new and old goals and measures, some of which have been pending approval for years.

Cuba reopens but faces challenge wooing back tourists

Cuba recently reopened to foreign tourists, but rates are far from comparable to those before the COVID-19 pandemic, Yahoo News reports. Cuba adopted the slogan “Cuba, a safe destination,” placed permanent medical teams in every hospital, and is requiring PCR COVID-19 tests from all travelers upon arriving on the island, among other measures, in an effort to make traveling to the island safe and ensure travelers feel safe visiting Cuba. Some hotels, including many of the Spanish hotel chain Meliá Hotels International, are offering long-term stays of two to three months to travelers who want to escape winter in the hopes of drawing many tourists to the island. Cuba’s tourism industry was hoping for a bump in tourism numbers in Havana during its high season of November-April since the city opened its international airport on November 15, but the results have not matched expectations. Meliá is only operating 10 of 34 hotels throughout the island, and predicts tourism numbers won’t return to normal for another two years. 

While opening fully to tourism represents economic opportunities, it does pose a public health risk, which Dr. Francisco Durán, National Director of Epidemiology at the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, recognizes. So far, several cases of COVID-19 have been discovered among British and Russian tourists, and Dr. Durán stated it is important for Cubans and travelers to be aware of the risks so they take the necessary precautions. 

As a UNESCO World Heritage city, Havana attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Havana visitors generally generate more revenue than beach tourists because in addition to staying in the city, they also purchase tours to visit other parts of the island. In 2019, tourism generated $2.6 billion for Cuba. Many were hoping tourism could help Cuba’s economy bounce back from a dire economic crisis, the likes of which it has not faced since the major economic crisis of the 1990s known as the “Special Period.” 

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Business forum to be held in Cuba next week [Spanish] 

The virtual Cuba 2020 Business Forum, which will be held from December 8-9, is currently accepting registration from participants Prensa Latina reports. The event will replace the Havana International Trade Fair (FIHAV), which was canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event, which is being promoted by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment (MINCEX) and the Center for the Promotion of Foreign Trade and Investment (ProCuba), is meant to facilitate foreign investment on the island and promote Cuba’s exports. Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, stated this event also aims to strengthen ties between the country’s non-state and state sectors. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Will Biden make major changes to U.S. policy on Cuba?Latin America Advisor, The Inter-American Dialogue

In this Q&A, four Cuba policy experts predict what President-elect Joe Biden’s Cuba policy will look like over the next four years. Interviewees include Lenier González, Resident Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and Cofounder of Cuba Posible; Anya Landau French, consultant at Akin Gump; Jaime Suchlicki, Director of the Cuban Studies Institute; and Kirby Jones, former President of Alamar Associates. 

Biden wants to re-thaw relations with Cuba. He’ll have to navigate Florida politics, Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post

In this article, Anthony Faiola and Karen DeYoung argue that if President-elect Joe Biden wants to undo President Trump’s hardline Cuba policy, he will have to balance holding Cuba’s government accountable on important issues, including human rights, with implementing U.S. policies which will benefit Cubans on the island, Cuban Americans, and Americans. Mr. Faiola and Ms. DeYoung also argue that this has been made especially challenging given the recent protests in Havana, but point out that Cubans on the island are still hopeful that President-elect Biden’s Cuba policy will benefit them. 

There’s poetic justice in Biden appointing a Cuban American to lead Homeland Security, Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald

In this opinion piece, Fabiola Santiago celebrates President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Cuban American immigrant Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Ms. Fabiola writes that the move represents a shift to a “humans-first America” and represents an Administration which will respect and value immigrants and refugees. 

How Democrats can win back the Cuban-American vote, Alexandra Martinez, CNN

In this opinion piece, Cuban American Alexandra Martinez argues that the Democratic Party can win over Cuban Americans once more, so long as they go into Cuban American communities and effectively communicate what they stand for, and how their policies will benefit the communities, many of which are working-class.  

While Cuban-Americans in Florida came out big for Trump, Cubans stuck in Mexico pinned their hopes on Biden, Luis Chaparro, Business Insider 

In this article, Luis Chaparro interviewed Cubans who are currently living in Mexico while they await asylum hearings in U.S. immigration courts. Many Cubans Mr. Chaparro spoke with were happy Joe Biden was elected president and have hope that he will implement immigration policies that are more favorable to those hoping to enter the U.S. from Mexico, especially since President-elect Biden nominated Cuban American Alejandro Mayorkas to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

How Hispanic voters swung Miami right, Patricia Mazzei, The New York Times

In this article, Patricia Mazzei analyzes the factors which led to many Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County, including Cuban Americans, to vote for President Trump in greater numbers than they did in 2016. The article discusses the unique circumstances at play in Miami, including the fact that the city is different from other large immigrant cities since the Latino community controls “the levers of power.” 

Cuba’s raid on dissident creatives shows how much the government fears the power of art, Editorial Board, The Washington Post 

In this opinion piece, the Washington Post’s Editorial Board argues that Cuba’s government response to the San Isidro Movement shows how powerful art and artists’ free expression is. 

I was at the doors of the Ministry of Culture, Aldo Álvarez, Nuevos Espacios Blog- Cuba Study Group 

In this essay, Aldo Álvarez reflects on his experience participating in last week’s protest in front of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture with over 300 artists, scholars, and activists. Mr. Álvarez writes that Cuban society is heterogenous, and that it is time for dialogue and to listen to those with perspectives different from one’s own so that Cuba’s social fabric may begin to heal. 

Cuba: the Trees and the Forest, Aliana Bárbara Lόpez Hernández, La Joven Cuba [Spanish] 

In this essay, Cuban professor Aliana Bárbara Lόpez Hernández writes that the conditions to push for transformation on the island have been in place for a long time, and argues that the question is not if Cuba has to change but how. She discusses the role of the Movimiento San Isidro and emphasizes the need for nonviolent calls for change.  

What will happen when Cuba unifies its currency? Economists say it won’t be good, Mario J. Pentón, The Miami Herald 

In this article, Mario J. Pentón predicts that Cuba’s currency unification may result in widespread inflation, lower salaries, and decreased buying power for Cubans. Mr. Pentón interviewed Cuban and Cuban American economists Pedro Monreal, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, and Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva about what they believe the impacts will be, and how negative consequences may be reduced. 

Tech entrepreneurship in Cuba: the pandemic points to the road ahead, Rta. Sandra Madiendo Ruíz, Nuevos Espacios Blog- Cuba Study Group 

In this essay, Rta. Sandra Madiendo Ruíz argues that the ways private businesses have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and advances in technology across the island, can help experts predict how entrepreneurship in Cuba will evolve in a post-pandemic world. This article is also available in Spanish

Yurena Manfugás: “The Feminist Struggle Needs to be for All Women,” Inter Press Service en Cuba [Spanish]

Inter Press Service en Cuba interviewed Yurena Manfugás, a Cuban student and intersectional feminist activist, in recognition of the United Nation’s campaign, “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.” Ms. Manfugás shared what she believes Cuba should do to end gender violence, what it’s like to be a feminist activist in Cuba, and about the importance of having an intersectional lens the feminist movement. 

Pandemic upends plans, lives of renowned Cuban musicians, Andrea Rodríguez, AP News 

In this article, Andrea Rodríguez writes about how Cuban musicians, who heavily depend on tourism and travel to earn a living, have turned to the internet and other kinds of work to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

EVENTS

Virtual; Charity Auction: “Cuban Heritage Collection”, December 1-December 13

The Pan American Art Projects (PAAP) Gallery is hosting a virtual charity auction called “Books and Artworks” which will auction Cuban books and art from the early 20th century to the present. PAAP will donate 25 percent of the proceeds to the University of Miami Libraries’ Cuban Heritage Collection. More than 200 books and art pieces can be viewed hereand the virtual live auction will be held on December 13.

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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