U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 12/18/2020

Dear Friends,

Six years ago this week, President Obama announced he was normalizing relations with Cuba. In the months and years that followed, we saw the growth of Cuba’s entrepreneurial sector, expansion of Wi-Fi and mobile internet services, and environmental partnerships among many others. Sadly, several aspects of the normalization agenda have since been reversed. We teamed up with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) to write “The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement,” a policy roadmap for how the Biden-Harris administration may implement an engagement policy. We invite you to read our report and to share it far and wide with those you believe may be interested. Although this has been a challenging year in many ways, we are hopeful about 2021 and are ready to continue working hard after the holidays. We hope you enjoy our last news brief of 2020. 

For those who missed our webinar “The Latino Vote is not a Monolith: Analyzing the Cuban American Vote in the 2020 Elections” with Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) earlier this month, you may watch a recording of the event here

Cuba experienced a slight increase in COVID-19 cases this week, with 862 active COVID-19 cases at the time of publication. The number of deaths increased by one, totaling 137 deaths since March. 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

Biden plots Cuba reset in rebuke of Trump’s sanctions

According to anonymous sources close to the matter, President-elect Joe Biden plans to normalize relations with Cuba, Bloomberg reports. The sources claimed President-elect Biden will reduce restrictions on travel, remittances, and investments in Cuba, while keeping in place measures which target Cuba for human rights abuses. Investors seem hopeful that changes in Cuba policy will be implemented. The $43 million Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund (CUBA), which includes Cuba and the Caribbean and is a bellwether of sorts for investor confidence, has increased since the election. It is still unclear whether President-elect Biden will increase staffing levels at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The Embassy’s staff was significantly reduced indefinitely in 2018 following a series of mysterious health incidents which affected U.S. and Canadian personnel. 

Bloomberg reports that it is unclear how quickly Cuba policy will be implemented given the range of domestic challenges President-elect Biden will face after being inaugurated in January. Implementing new Cuba policy is also complicated by new challenges, including the fact that Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1990s, that Cuban intelligence officers have supported Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, the recent demonstration of civil unrest on the island, and Florida politics. The Biden-Harris administration has been vocal about its disapproval of Cuba’s government’s handling of the protests by the Movimiento San Isidro and by hundreds of artists, activists, and members of Cuba’s civil society outside Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. 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.” While a détente this time around does present unique challenges, a new U.S.-Cuba policy could also mean new opportunities for the U.S. For instance, according to the anonymous sources, the Biden-Harris administration may discuss Cuba reducing its presence in Venezuela, which would help resolve the crisis in Venezuela. 

Cuba rejects U.S. report on diplomat health incidents

Cuba rejects the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report which claims “directed radio frequency energy” is the most likely cause of the health incidents experienced by U.S. personnel in Havana, Reuters reports. At a news briefing in Havana, the President of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, Luís Velázquez, stated “Cuba’s Academy of Sciences disagrees with the final conclusion regarding the causes of the ailments.” The Cuban Academy of Sciences published a response to the NAS report where it stated the radio frequency energy hypothesis is a “very unlikely” hypothesis. In the report, the Cuban Academy of Sciences also points out that due to the inconsistencies in available data and the lack of data, both of which the NAS authors recognized in their report, it is not appropriate to identify radio frequency energy as the most likely cause. They also wrote that the lack of communication between Cuban and U.S. scientists has hindered progress in investigations, and that collaboration, as evidenced by partnerships between Cuban and Canadian scientists, is useful. Off the record, anonymous U.S. officials told Reuters that the U.S. cannot collaborate with Cuba on an investigation where Cuba’s government has a strong interest in the outcome. Cuba, on the other hand, stated that these incidents have been used by the Trump administration to justify its dismantling of U.S.-Cuba relations. 

Between 2016-2018, dozens of U.S. and Canadian personnel reported a variety of symptoms including headaches, dizziness, cognitive impacts, and ringing in the ears which have since been referred to by some as “Havana Syndrome.” The incidents led to an indefinite staff reduction at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, an increase in the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory level for Cuba, and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. After years of investigations by the FBI, the U.S. State Department, and many medical and scientific experts in the U.S., Cuba, and Canada, a definitive cause of the symptoms is still not known. The NAS report was submitted to the U.S. State Department in August, but was recently shared with Congress after bipartisan calls led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and made public on the NAS website. These health symptoms were not only present in Cuba. In 2018, a U.S. government employee in China reported similar symptoms. Most recently, a C.I.A. officer publicly reported that he suffered similar symptoms while working in Moscow in 2017. 

IN CUBA

After 26 years, Cuba does away with artificial hard currency, raises workers’ salariesCuban economy shrank 11% in 2020, government says 

In addition to implementing currency unification next year, Cuba will also raise salaries and pensions, leading to increases in prices of basic goods and services, the Miami Herald reports. The monthly minimum wage for workers in the state sector will increase from 400 Cuban pesos (CUP) ($17) to 2,100 CUP ($88). The minimum monthly social security pension will increase from 300 CUP ($13) to 1,520 CUP. While wages and pensions will increase, the prices of utilities, food, and medicines will also increase significantly. The costs of basic over-the-counter medicines, landlines, and cell phones will also increase. However, the prices of medicines used to treat chronic conditions will remain the same. According to unofficial data shared by Cuban economists, with increases in prices of basic goods and utilities basic living costs will increase to about 1,500 CUP monthly per person, a change which is especially concerning for senior citizens who depend solely on government pensions to live. 

Experts, including Cuban American economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, have predicted currency unification, which will be implemented on January 1, will lead to massive inflation and a decrease in Cubans’ purchasing power. Dr. Mesa-Lago stated that one way to combat these effects is to expand the private sector and small businesses. Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, a Cuban economist who worked for multiple years at the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, stated that the upcoming changes are “risky but necessary,” recognizing that the reforms will harm those who have been saving for years for retirement. He also added that expanding the number of micro, small, and medium enterprises, and reforming Cuba’s bureaucracy to more easily allow foreign investment will help cushion the negative impacts of the reforms.

Economic reforms are much needed in Cuba as it faces the worst economic crisis since the 1990s. Cuba’s economy, which was already struggling prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, has significantly worsened due to a seven month pause on tourism, increased sanctions from the U.S. government, decreased remittances from the U.S., fewer oil shipments from Venezuela, and domestic inefficiencies. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) predicted that the Cuban economy would shrink by 8 percent in 2020 due to COVID-19, but the effect was greater. Yesterday, Cuba’s Minister of the Economy Alejandro Gil stated that the country’s economy shrank 11 percent this year, Reuters reports. Speaking at a year-end session of Cuba’s Parliament, he also predicted that Cuba will experience 6-7 percent growth in 2021 and that it will likely take two years for Cuba’s economy to fully recover. Minister Gil stated that Cuba received only 55 percent of the hard currency it planned for, citing a combination of negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. sanctions, and domestic inefficiencies as explanations. At another meeting this week with a Parliament commission, Minister Gil stated that Cuba’s imports decreased 30 percent compared to 2019 amounts. Cuba imports over 50 percent of its food, fuel, and other goods, so this decrease has led to widespread shortages

Russia cancels many investments in Cuba [Spanish] 

Russia cancelled the majority of its investment plans in Cuba due to inaction from Cuba’s government, El Nuevo Herald reports. Oleg Kucheriáviy, Executive Secretary of the Russian-Cuban Intergovernmental Commission for Commerce, Economic Cooperation, Science, and Technology, told Russian media that of a total of sixty planned cooperative projects, only ten are currently functioning. The cancelled investments total €1 billion euros, according to Russian media. According to El Nuevo Herald, Secretary Kucheriáviy also stated that the latest session of the Intergovernmental Commission was cancelled because of silence and procrastination from Cuba’s government. It is currently unknown which ten projects will be carried out. Some of the planned collaborations included modernizing Cuban railroads next year and updating Cuba’s steel corporation, Antillana de Acero. According to El Nuevo Herald, since 2019, Cuba’s relationship with Russia has been strained since Cuba failed to make debt payments. Cuba’s Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas blamed the failure to pay off its debt on the U.S. embargo and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia is one of Cuba’s main economic partners, and its economic partnership with the country is particularly valuable as Cuba faces a dire economic crisis

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

For Biden’s Cuba policy, quid pro quo incrementalism is doomed to fail, Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande, The Sun Sentinel 

In this opinion piece, Peter Kornbluh, Director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, and William LeoGrande, Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., argue that rather than adopting a Cuba policy grounded on “quid pro quo incrementalism”, President-elect Joe Biden should decisively implement a U.S.-Cuba policy based on engagement. Mr. Kornbluh and Mr. LeoGrande argue that doing so will allow the U.S. to achieve a successful détente while advancing the interests of the U.S. and the Cuban people. 

Cuba’s dissident protest shows need for more U.S. engagement, Michael Bustamante, Financial Times 

In this op-ed, Michael Bustamante argues that the Biden administration should implement a U.S.-Cuba policy based on engagement. Mr. Bustamante writes that it was the Obama administration’s engagement policy which led to many changes in Cuba which created the conditions for the recent demonstration of civil unrest of hundreds of Cuban civil society members. Mr. Bustamante ends his piece by arguing that the more Cuba’s domestic events are tied to U.S. policies of hostility, the more excuses Cuba’s government will have to ignore Cubans’ calls for domestic reform.  

Joe Biden and Cuba, after Obama and in spite of Trump, Carlos Alzugaray Treto, OnCuba News [Spanish]

In this essay, Carlos Alzugaray Treto discusses the history of past Democratic presidents’ attempts to normalize relations with Cuba, identifying takeaways for President-elect Joe Biden. Mr. Alzugaray discusses the current context in which a new U.S.-Cuba policy would be implemented, and argues that his experience as President Obama’s vice president would be an asset if President-elect Biden decided to return to an engagement Cuba policy. 

Biden’s promised Cuba reset has big tech implications, Nancy Scola, Politico 

In this article, Nancy Scola writes about how American tech companies may be looking to expand or begin doing business in Cuba as Cubans’ demand for faster internet connection and newer technology continues growing. Ms. Scola writes that potential changes in U.S.-Cuba policy under a Biden administration may benefit both groups. 

Cuba cracks down on artists who demanded creative freedoms after ‘unprecedented’ government negotiations, María Isabel Alfonso, The Conversation

In this article, María Isabel Alfonso presents a summary of the recent protests in Cuba by the San Isidro Movement and other members of Cuban civil society. She compares open demonstrations of opposition during the beginning of the Cuban Revolution to the current moment. This article is also available in Spanish.

Cuba: San Isidro movement and allies under frightening levels of surveillance, Amnesty International 

In this article, Amnesty International describes the many reported instances of surveillance and harassment which members of Cuba’s San Isidro Movement are facing. Amnesty International is continuously tracking reported incidents, and points out that the level of surveillance present violates international law. 

Art and Freedom of Expression in Cuba, Throughout the 21st Century, Pablo Helguera, Hyperallergic 

Yesterday, Pablo Helguera published an essay he wrote in 2015 after Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was detained by Cuba’s government. Five years ago Ms. Bruguera planned to perform a work about the need for greater freedom of expression in Cuba and was detained. Mr. Helguera wrote this essay at that time but was prevented from publishing it by the leadership of the museum where he worked. Following that incident, Ms. Bruguera has been detained and interrogated by Cuba’s government on multiple occasions, including recently, following her involvement in the protests at the end of November. Mr. Helguera decided to publish the essay to contextualize the debates about art and freedom of expression in Cuba which are taking place today.  

Cuba’s Racial Reckoning, and What It Means for Biden, Javier Corrales, Americas Quarterly 

In this essay, Javier Corrales argues that the group of hundreds of Cubans who protested outside Cuba’s Ministry of Culture in November (which is now being called N27) is challenging three norms in Cuba: (1) the ban on group protests, (2) the ban on complaints about Cuba’s system of discipline, and (3) taboos on talking about race and racism in Cuba. Mr. Corrales argues that President-elect Biden should keep this important context in mind when tackling U.S.-Cuba policy, and that he should strive to create a nuanced policy, instead of a binary policy.

Cubans in Stewart Detention Center, Liudmila Morales Alfonso and Eric Caraballoso, OnCuba News [Spanish] 

In this article, Liudmila Morales Alfonso and Eric Caraballoso discuss the experiences of Cuban migrants being held at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The article features testimony from Yosvel Ferrer Hurtado, 40, a Cuban migrant who has been held at Stewart for fifteen months. 

Mónica Baró on Committing Independent Journalism in CubaRoads & Kingdoms 

This article features an edited and condensed transcript of Nathan Thornburgh’s podcast interview with Mónica Baró, an independent journalist in Cuba. Ms. Baró discusses why she wanted to become a journalist, the risks she faces as an independent journalist in Cuba, and what she believes the greatest problems Cuba faces are. The full podcast episode is available for listening here

Afro‑Cuban Artist, Cook, and Queer Activist Nancy Cepero on Questioning EverythingRoads & Kingdoms

This article features an edited and condensed transcript of Nathan Thornburgh’s podcast interview with Nancy Cepero, an Afro-Cuban vegan chef, queer anti-racist activist, and artist. Ms. Cepero speaks about her work trying to change Cuba’s food culture, the need for self-care in the Black and queer communities, and her hope for Cuba’s future. The full interview is also available for listening here

The Story of a Latino Theater Owner, from Cuba to Kansas City, Vicky Díaz-Camacho, Flatland 

In this article, Vicky Díaz-Camacho interviews Yosmel Serrano, a Cuban immigrant living in Kansas City who is an electrician by day and owner of the independent movie theater Selva de los Relojes (The Jungle of Clocks) by night. Mr. Serrano shares his experience immigrating from Havana to Miami in 2010, why he decided to move to Kansas City, and the goals he has for expanding his movie theater in the future. 

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 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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