U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 12/11/2020

Dear Friends,

We hope you and yours are well.

Cuba experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases this week, with 839 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

‘Havana Syndrome’ likely caused by pulsed microwave energy, government study finds

The neurological symptoms experienced by U.S. diplomats and government workers in Cuba and China were most likely caused by “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy” according to a National Academy of Sciences report publicly released on Saturday, NBC News reports. The report did not conclusively state directed energy was the cause or rule out other possible causes. It also did not conclude that the directed energy was delivered intentionally, but leaves that as a possibility. The medical and scientific experts who wrote the report were unable to conclusively identify the actor/source of the incident.

The report, which was submitted to the U.S. State Department in August, was shared with Congress after bipartisan calls led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH). Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) publicly reacted to the report’s release, pointing out that several Members of Congress and others who accused Cuba’s government of being responsible did so baselessly, and that no report has found any evidence suggesting they were responsible. He also stated that “The Trump Administration’s handling of these incidents has been sluggish, superficial, disjointed, overly secretive, and infected by politics.” Republican senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Susan Collins (ME) filed a bill on Tuesday to ensure CIA and State Department officials and their dependents who were affected by the health incidents receive additional compensation to ensure they can receive adequate health coverage. D.C. attorney Mark Zaid, who was hired by some victims to fight for greater compensation, stated that this bill is a good first step but does not cover other federal employees who have worked at the U.S. Departments of Defense and Commerce, among other offices.

In 2018, 26 U.S. personnel from U.S. Embassy Havana were found to have suffered symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, cognitive impacts, and ringing in the ears as a result of what the State Department called at the time a “health attack” and which some refer to as “Havana Syndrome.” Canadian diplomats in Cuba and their families were also affected; the government reports 14 affected individuals to date. U.S. personnel were first examined by medical professionals in Florida, and then the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. In May 2018, Sec. of State Mike Pompeo said that a U.S. Government employee from the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, China presented symptoms in which “the medical indications are very similar and entirely consistent,” with those in Cuba. Fifteen additional U.S. personnel from China were evacuated for medical evaluation. In October 2020, it was reported that a C.I.A. officer suffered extreme vertigo and lasting post-incident symptoms at a Moscow hotel in 2017. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents in Cuba and China, see our memo.

Cuban-Americans send supplies to state health center in Cuba

A shipment of medical supplies worth $100,000 donated by Cuban American businessmen and politicians arrived in Havana on Thursday, the Associated Press reports. Businessman Saúl Berenthal and former Florida Congressman and ex-Director of the Cuban American National Foundation Joe García helped organize the donation of over 100 packages, which was received by the Director of the Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Diseases, Manuel Romero, and officials from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Berenthal stated that the donation was made with all the necessary permits from the U.S. and Cuba. The donations include protective masks, biosafety suits, gowns and other medical and health supplies to help Cuba combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands of Cubans in South America planning caravans to the U.S. border to seek asylum

Cuban migrants currently residing in Chile, Uruguay, Guyana, Suriname, and Peru are planning to join other migrants in caravans heading to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek political asylum, the Miami Herald reports. Over 500 Cuban migrants have been stranded in Suriname since March 2020 when the Trump administration announced it would be closing the U.S. border to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Suriname and Guyana have become transit countries for Cubans en route to the U.S. or countries such as Chile and Uruguay with high Cuban populations since they allow Cubans unrestricted entry to the country. According to Suriname’s Foreign Minister Albert Ramdin, the migrants have requested humanitarian and technical assistance from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross, and the International Organization for Migration. In a press statement issued to its embassy in Suriname, Cuba’s government said the U.S. is responsible “to a large extent” for the migration crisis.

The U.S. permanently reduced its embassy personnel in Havana in 2018 following a series of mysterious health incidents which caused various neurological symptoms among U.S. personnel. U.S. visas for Cubans have since been processed in third countries throughout Latin America. Non-immigrant visas issued to Cubans decreased from 16,335 in 2017 to 6,959 in 2018 and to 10,167 last year. According to the U.S. State Department, immigration visas totaled 7,748 in 2019. That policy change, combined with the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy and the suspension of the Cuban Family Reunification Program in January 2017 have significantly limited Cubans’ options to migrate to the U.S.

Activists mark Human Rights Day in solidarity with Cuban dissidents at Miami’s Freedom Tower;Cuban American caravan protesting U.S. embargo on Cuba

On Thursday, a group of activists held a demonstration in solidarity with activists in Havana outside of Miami’s Freedom Tower in celebration of the United Nations’ Human Rights Day, ABC Local 10 News reports. The demonstration was led by Rosa Maria Payá, daughter of the late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá. Ms. Payá stated the goal of the demonstration was to raise awareness about the Cuban activists on the island, including members of the San Isidro Movement. The Miami Freedom Tower is a historic landmark of the Cuban American community which was used in the 1960’s as a federal government processing center for Cuban refugees.

Cuban Americans also brought attention to Cuba in a caravan of cars and bicycles which was held on November 29 in Miami. The event was organized by Cuban American engagement advocate Carlos Lazo and many Cuban American YouTubers. The caravan was held to advocate for an end to the U.S.-Cuba embargo and U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

IN CUBA

Cuba to devalue peso steeply in January in major monetary overhaul

In a televised address on Thursday night, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel, sitting alongside Cuba’s former president and current First Secretary of the Communist Party, Raúl Castro, announced that Cuba will begin the currency unification process on January 1, Reuters reports. The long-awaited reform will end the circulation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and devalue the Cuban Peso (CUP) by fixing its exchange rate to 24 per U.S. Dollar (USD) on January 1. For almost thirty years, CUC have circulated with an exchange rate pegged to USD which varied depending on what sector of the economy the exchange was taking place. For state-owned businesses, the CUC exchange rate was 1 CUP to 1 CUC while for public and joint ventures, as well as wages in the island’s special development zone and transactions between farmers and hotels, it was 24 CUP for 1 CUC.

President Díaz-Canel recognized this will not be a “magic solution” to all of Cuba’s economic difficulties, but did state that this reform will “allow the Cuban economy to be in a better state to carry out the changes its economic model requires.” He also acknowledged that this will be among the most challenging economic reforms Cuba’s government has undertaken, but emphasized that “no one will be left destitute.” President Díaz-Canel stated that those who raise prices in extreme ways will face severe sanctions, adding that the government will continue to provide universal and free healthcare and education, some subsidized food, and other free social services.

Economists have long warned about the negative effects currency unification will have but argue that this is a necessary reform. Some economists and government officials have predicted triple-digit inflation. Cuba’s government predicts that the initial devaluation will lead to a five-fold increase in average state wages and pensions. The wage increase will not apply to about 2 million of the 7 million Cubans in the private-sector labor force and the informal sector. Cuban economist Pedro Monreal reacted to the announcement in a Twitter thread, pointing out that Cuba should prepare for the possibility of high inflation reducing Cubans’ average buying power. Cuban economists estimate that about 40 percent of state companies currently operate at a loss and that only some will benefit from the reform and others will go bankrupt. In October, Marino Murillo Jorge, Head of the Commission for the Implementation and Development of the Guidelines [Lineamientos], clarified that Cubans will have enough time, likely at least six months, to either trade their CUC for CUP or to spend all their CUC until they run out. It is still unclear what this reform will mean for Cuba’s dollar stores, which currently allow Cubans to purchase products using dollars and other tradable currencies added to a bank card.

Cuba says it will open its economy to majority-owned foreign investments;Cuba attracts $1.9bn in foreign investment despite US sanctions

Cuba will now allow foreign investors to have majority ownership in projects on the island, the Miami Herald reports. Up until now, Cuba’s government has required that businesses have majority-Cuban ownership. Cuba hopes the reform will help it attract more foreign investment. Its flagship project to attract foreign investment, the Mariel Special Development Zone, has failed to generate the expected revenue. When it opened in 2013, Cuba’s government expected it would raise at least $2.5 billion annually and a total of $12.5 billion in its first five years. During its first five years, it actually raised less than 10 percent of its goal at $1.19 billion according to government figures.

Cuba recently reported that it attracted $1.9 billion in foreign investment over the last year. Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca stated in an online news conference that this was no small feat, given the “economic war” being waged by the Trump administration and other circumstances which have negatively affected Cuba’s economy. He pointed out that Cuba has reduced obstacles for foreign investment recently and that upcoming market-oriented reforms, including currency unification, should further facilitate foreign investment on the island. Cuba increased the amount it generated last year from foreign investment, which was $1.7 billion, though it aims to bring in $2 billion to $2.5 billion annually. Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Ana Teresita González stated that in its 2020-2021 Foreign Investment Opportunities Portfolio, Cuba listed 503 foreign investment opportunities in various areas including tourism, food production, transportation, and energy, totaling a value of about $12 billion.

Clinical trial with Abdala vaccine candidate begins in Santiago de Cuba

Cuba’s fourth COVID-19 vaccine, the Abdala vaccine, began clinical trials last Thursday at General Saturnino Lora Hospital in Santiago de Cuba, OnCuba News reports. The hospital director Rafael Suárez stated that the study has two phases and includes 800 volunteer participants. During phase one of the clinical trials, which will run into February, the vaccine will be administered to 200 volunteer participants. During phase two it will be administered to the remaining 600 volunteers. Abdala is the second vaccine developed by the Havana Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology to begin clinical trials; the Mambisa vaccine was also approved to soon begin clinical trials.

Cuba’s first two vaccines, Soberana 01 and Soberana 02, which were developed by the Finlay Vaccine Institute have been undergoing clinical trials for several months now. Vicente Vérez, the director of the Finlay Vaccine Institute, stated that both of those vaccines are showing “encouraging process.” Cuba was the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the thirtieth in the world, to authorize clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Cuba: COVID-19 rules used to intensify repression

Cuba’s government is using COVID-19 regulations to harass and imprison dissidents, according to Human Rights Watch. The most recent example is from Thursday, November 26 when Cuban authorities broke up a ten-day hunger strike, evicting fourteen members of Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) who were staying in the movement’s headquarters, citing a violation of COVID-19 health protocols. Human Rights Watch claims these new forms of repression which are justified by COVID-19 began in July, and identified 35 people in Cuba who have been detained, charged fined, or sentenced to jail time for allegedly not wearing a face mask properly, hosting parties, or “spreading an epidemic.” Some of those interviewed shared they were not allowed to make a phone call upon being arrested, others were not allowed to have legal representation during criminal proceedings, and still others were beaten by police either while being detained or while serving time in prison. Human Rights Watch points out that international laws, including basic human rights laws, cannot be violated even during an emergency, such as a pandemic.

Tania Bruguera under house arrest in Cuba as anti-government protests escalate

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera is under house arrest after being detained on Friday, December 4, according to her sister, Deborah Bruguera, The Art Newspaper reports. Deborah Bruguera stated that she believes Cuban authorities are currently building a case against Tania Bruguera. In a Facebook post, Deborah Bruguera shared details of the detention. Tania Bruguera was planning to leave Cuba for work travel and she shared with her sister that police stated they would “help her leave the country.” Tania Bruguera has since decided not to travel for work, and is putting all work projects on pause, until the situation with independent artists is resolved.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (Instar), an arts institution founded by Tania Bruguera in 2015, stated there were police officers outside the building, despite there being no illegal items inside. Tania Bruguera was one of the hundreds of artists, activists, and members of the public who protested outside Cuba’s Ministry of Culture (MINCULT) on November 27 and was one of the 32 artists who spoke with Cuban Vice Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas. The meeting outside MINCULT took place spontaneously, in reaction to Cuba’s government’s treatment of Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) protestors over the last few weeks. A detailed summary of the events are available here.

Cuba regulates international cooperation “without conditions” or “interference in internal affairs”

On December 1, Cuba’s government published a series of new regulations related to international cooperation in its Gaceta Oficial, OnCuba News reports. The regulations will be made effective on March 31, 2020 and will establish that all international cooperation which Cuba gives and receives will be free from “economic, political or social conditions that imply interference in internal affairs.” Magalys Estrada, the General Director of the Economic Collaboration of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment (MINCEX), stated that Decree-Law 16/2020 will now grant the Council of Ministers the authority to approve cooperation proposals, a process which was previously managed by Cuba’s former Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Collaboration and other ministries, depending on the project. Ms. Estrada said that the resolutions aim “to make all legal processes and procedures more flexible,” especially as Cuba’s international cooperation continues to expand. International cooperation refers to any disaster/emergency aid, economic aid, and technical aid. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Could Trump’s exit make it easier for Cuba to fight drug crime?, Patrick Oppmann, CNN

In this article, Patrick Oppmann discusses how the deterioration of U.S.-Cuba relations have left Cuba less equipped to combat drug smuggling, human trafficking, and counterterrorism. Law enforcement cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba is one area where both countries collaborated under the Obama administration, and Mr. Oppmann points out that both Cuban and U.S. officials hope that this is an area where they may reengage under the Biden-Harris administration.

Cuba: Pursuing Halfway Economic Reforms, Ricardo Torres, AULA Blog

In this essay, Cuban economist Ricardo Torres argues that while pursuing much-needed economic reforms, Cuba’s government is prioritizing caution and stability to protect its legitimacy domestically and internationally. Mr. Torres argues that instead, Cuba should prioritize implementing deeper structural reforms which are crucial in order for the country to overcome its decades-long lethargy, especially since it cannot count on the support of international financial institutions.

They Call Us Enemies of the Cuban People, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, The New York Times

In this opinion piece, Cuban writer and journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez argues that the protests in Cuba, which were started by the San Isidro Movement (MSI) but have come to involve many others from Cuban civil society, should lead to a national conversation with Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel and must result in changes in Cuba. Mr. Álvarez, who is the Director of El Estornudo, an independent Cuban digital magazine, was one of 14 detained during the hunger strike at the MSI headquarters. He was also one of multiple victims of a recent state-television smear campaign following the MSI protests. This opinion piece is also available in Spanish.

‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet Fuels Rare Protests, Ed Augustin, Natalie Kitroeff and Frances Robles, The New York Times

In this article, Ed Augustin, Natalie Kitroeff, and Frances Robles discuss how increased access to social media, the internet, and cell phones are one important factor which explains why the San Isidro Movement and calls for dialogue from hundreds of Cuban activists, artists, and members of civil society have gained widespread domestic and international attention. This article is also available in Spanish.

“All of Cuba is Awakening,” says artist Luis Manuel Otero, EFE

In an interview with EFE, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, one of the most visible members of the San Isidro Movement, discusses what changes he would like to see in Cuba, and his experiences being detained and going on a hunger strike.

Amaury Pacheco from Cuba’s San Isidro Movement speaks, Havana Times

In an interview with the Havana Times, Amaury Pacheco, a member of the San Isidro Movement, discusses his experience alongside 31 others engaging in a dialogue with Cuba’s Vice Minister of Culture, the concerns and demands he raised, and his reaction to Cuba’s government backtracking on their agreements.

Three voices of Cuban cinema: betting on dialogue and not on violence, Eric Carabolloso, OnCuba News

In this article, Eric Carabollosointerviewed three Cuban film figures: Fernando Pérez, Claudia Calviño, and Luis Alberto García on their thoughts about the protest of hundreds of artists, activists, and civil society members outside the Ministry of Culture on November 27, the San Isidro Movement, and the need for dialogue in Cuba.

Biden, Trump – the whole world – should support Cuban artists protesting regime’s repression, Andrés Oppenheimer, The Miami Herald

In this opinion piece, Andrés Oppenheimer urges President-elect Joe Biden, President Trump, and other international leaders to support the Cuban artists who protested outside Cuba’s Ministry of Culture in one of the biggest demonstrations on the island since the 1959 revolution. Mr. Oppenheimer writes that while members of President-elect Biden’s transition team have publicly expressed support for the group, President-elect Biden himself should seize this opportunity to begin fulfilling his promise to rebuild America’s international alliances and defend human rights around the world.

How an unexpected art influence served up a colorful assemblage of Cuban artwork in Kendall, Alona Abbady Martínez, The Miami Herald

In this article, Alona Abbady Martínez highlights the accomplishments of Leonardo Rodríguez, a Cuban art collector and founder of the Kendall Art Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 2016 which displays Mr. Rodríguez’s personal art collection. Mr. Rodríguez recounts his upbringing and discusses the importance and significance of his work, as well as the importance of assisting and supporting Cuban artists.

A Madison native’s love letter to Cubans and their vintage cars, Doug Moe, Madison Magazine Columns

In this article, Michael Shapiro discusses the inspiration behind his new bilingual book, “Under Cuba’s Hood: What Cubans Say About their Old American Cars.” His fascination with old American cars in Cuba began after a 1998 visit to Havana, followed by several others over the years.

EVENTS

Miami, FL; Musical Theater: “Cuba Under the Stars”, December 10-February 28

“Cuba Under the Stars,” is a musical theater production produced and directed by Peter Regalado and Miguel Ferro which showcases a love story, told through Cuban nostalgia. The show was inspired by Regalado’s relationship with his Cuban American wife and how they have embraced Cuban music and culture. The production will be held at the Miami-Dade County Fair Expo Center’s outdoor venue. More information is available here.

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 here and 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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