U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 01/15/2021

Dear Friends,

We hope you and yours are staying safe and healthy. 

In celebration of CDA’s 14th anniversary, we are hosting an online auction! Our items include clothing, books, candles, and more created by Cuban or Cuban American creatives and entrepreneurs, as well as a Fender American Acoustasonic guitar. All proceeds will go to support CDA’s work advocating for a U.S.-Cuba policy based on engagement. 

It is with a heavy heart that we share that CDA friend Albor Ruíz, a Cuban American journalist and writer, passed away last week at age 80. Mr. Ruíz immigrated to the U.S. from Cardenas, Cuba in 1961 at age 20 and graduated from the University of Florida. He had a decades-long career as a journalist and was a 2003 inductee of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Hall of Fame. His ashes will be scattered in Varadero, Cuba, a wish he wrote about in his famous poem “Por si muero mañana” (“In case I die tomorrow”). Our deepest condolences to his loved ones. 

Yesterday, Cuba reported 547 new COVID-19 cases (with a total of 3,960 active cases), ending a six-day streak of record-breaking numbers of new cases per day. In January alone, Cuba has experienced seven days of record-breaking new cases per day, according to EFE’s Lorena Cantó as reported by CNN’s Patrick Oppmann. The number of deaths has increased by 16 since December, bringing the total to 162 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…


United States Places Global Magnitsky Sanctions on the Cuban Ministry of Interior and its Minister

On Friday, the U.S. State Department imposed sanctions on Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT), and its Minister, General Lazaro Alberto Álvarez Casas under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, according to a press statement by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The statement alleges MININT and Minister Álvarez Casas are connected with “serious human rights abuse[s]”, including the detention of prominent Cuban political opposition activist José Daniel Ferrer from October of 2019 until April 2020, during which Ferrer alleges he suffered physical and psychological mistreatment. MININT oversees state and citizen security, including the island’s police force and prisons. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez denounced the move in a tweet, calling the “inclusion of Cuban individuals and entities in unilateral and illegitimate lists as a coercive measure against our country.” 

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act, also known as the Russia and Moldova Jackson–Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, was signed into law in December 2012. The Act allows the President to impose economic sanctions on and bar foreign persons involved in human rights abuse or corruption from entering the U.S. 

Pompeo Returns Cuba to Terrorism Sponsor List

On Monday, in a move widely condemned as politicized, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Cuba’s addition to the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, the New York Times reports. In a press statement, Secretary Pompeo cited Cuba’s refusal to extradite ten leaders of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (also known by the Spanish acronym “ELN”) and its alleged interference in Venezuela as justification for the designation. While the Biden-Harris administration could undo the designation, it could take some time since it would require a formal review process by the State Department. Cuba joins just three other countries on the list: North Korea, Syria, and Iran. 

The designation adds additional trade and economic sanctions to those already in place under the embargo and to those extended under the Trump administration. It is still unclear how the move will affect the commercial relations that have initiated since Cuba was removed from the list in 2015. The designation may impede legal financial transactions involving U.S. financial institutions and affect airlines, insurance companies, and exports of computer software and technology to Cuba. It may also impact students and academics in Florida because of a 2006 Florida statute which prohibits the use of public funds for travel to countries on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List.  John Kavulich, President of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, told BBC that the move will be yet another disincentive for U.S. companies and other countries to do business in Cuba. 

The decision has been met with swift backlash by many who see it as a politically motivated last-minute move to prevent President-elect Joe Biden from undoing the current Administration’s Cuba policy. Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel said the designation was made in “the death throes of a failed and corrupt administration.” Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called the designation a “hypocritical” one marked by “political opportunism.” Multiple Members of Congress, including Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Congressman Gregory Meeks (NY-05), Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), Congressman Jim McGovern (MA-02), and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13), strongly criticized the designation. The policy recommendation for the Secretary of State  reportedly stemmed from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs instead of its Counterterrorism Bureau as is standard process. Ben Rhodes, who served as Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama administration and played a key role in normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, stated this as evidence of a politically motivated process. On Thursday, Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the decision “regrettable” and stated that placing a country on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List because of its participation facilitating peace efforts could set a negative precedent for peace efforts. CDA released a press statement condemning the decision. 

Pushback also came prior to the announcement from a group of U.S. religious organizations who urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to add Cuba to the State Sponsors of Terrorism List in a letter, and a joint letter to Secretary Pompeo from Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN), Patrick Leahy (VT), Ron Wyden (OR), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Jack Reed (RI), Jeff Merkley (OR), Sherrod Brown (OH), Martin Heinrich (NM), and Tina Smith (MN).

Cuba was first added to the State Sponsors of Terrorism List in 1982 under the Reagan administration and removed in May 2015 following an extensive interagency review process shortly after President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba. 

Carnival eyes return to Cuba as Trump places new obstacles

Carnival Cruise Line indicated it is prepared to restart cruises to Cuba if the Biden-Harris administration allows cruises to resume, Bloomberg reports. Carnival began offering service to Cuba on May 1, 2016 among high demand from U.S. travelers. U.S. travelers were allowed to travel by cruise ship under a “people to people” travel license, and Cuban Americans were also permitted to do so after Cuba’s government altered a rule which stipulated that Cuban Americans could only enter Cuba by plane. This was one of multiple new or renewed avenues for engagement that was facilitated by policy changes during the Obama administration and that resulted in a surge in U.S. travel to the island. In June 2019, all cruises to Cuba were canceled after the Trump administration announced new travel regulations prohibiting them. It is unclear how Cuba’s addition to the State Sponsors of Terrorism List will affect Carnival’s plans. 

Seven Cuban migrants land in the Florida Keys; 12 Cuban migrants repatriated 

Seven Cuban migrants landed in the Florida Keys on Tuesday morning, the Miami Herald reports. The six men and one boy left Matanzas, Cuba on Sunday and were recovered by the U.S. Border Patrol without any injuries. The group will likely be sent back to Cuba. According to Yahoo News, on Monday a group of twelve Cuban men on a boat were interdicted about eight miles east of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They were repatriated to Cabañas, Cuba that same day. The U.S. Coast Guard reports it has interdicted and repatriated 47 Cubans this fiscal year, which began October 1, 2020. 

Until January 2017, Cuban migrants who made it to U.S. soil (“dry feet”) were paroled in and able to access a path toward citizenship while those apprehended in the ocean (“wet feet”) were returned to Cuba under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. Since then, the number of Cuban migrants interdicted at sea has decreased considerably. For a detailed overview of changes in U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants since 1959 to the present, see this publication by the Wilson Center. 


Grappling with coronavirus surge, Cuba suspends schools, public transport

Cuba’s government is shutting down schools and implementing new measures in some provinces in an attempt to control the worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began, Reuters reports. From January 8th to 13th, Cuba recorded daily records of new COVID-19 cases.The number of new cases in the first 12 days of 2021 totaled more than the total new cases in the entire month of December. 

Of the three-phase reopening plan, Havana is reentering Phase 0, the phase with the strongest measures to control outbreaks, and the provinces of Matanzas and Santiago de Cuba are returning to Phase 1 due to a recent surge in cases. In 34 municipalities across the country, including some in Havana, the school year will be paused and will resume next week through televised classes. There are currently 60, 693 students and 9,012 school workers across the country quarantining. 

Cuban authorities say travelers returning to Cuba from hard-hit countries such as the U.S. have been responsible for the recent surge in cases. Critics say that the long lines outside supermarkets to purchase food are also to blame since they limit Cubans’ ability to social distance. On January 1, Cuba began restricting flights from the U.S. and five other countries. Cuba will now require that all international travelers now submit proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test taken 72 hours prior to arriving on the island. Up to this point, all international travelers arriving in Cuba have been required to take a PCR test upon arrival at the airport and to quarantine in hotels for two days while awaiting the test results. Cuban citizens, nationals, and Cuban Americans who are visiting or returning to live “in the community” have been required to take a second PCR test five days after arriving and to quarantine while awaiting those test results. 

COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial advances in Santiago de Cuba

Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccine Abdala will soon advance to phase two of clinical trials, OnCuba News reports. Phase one clinical trials of the Abdala vaccine, which began in December, consisted of 132 volunteers and are being carried out at Saturnino Lora Provincial Hospital in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. So far, the only side effect volunteers have reported is discomfort at the injection site. Hospital Director Dr. Rafael Suárez stated that phase two clinical trials will begin at the end of January or early February and will consist of 600-800 volunteers ages 19-80. 

The Abdala vaccine is one of Cuba’s four COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The Abdala and the Mambisa vaccine were developed by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana. Soberana 01 and Soberana 02 were both developed by the Finlay Institute in Havana. Phase two clinical trials for the Soberana 01 vaccine are being led by Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute and are scheduled to be completed by the end of January. The Soberana 02 vaccine began phase two of clinical trials at the end of December in Havana. Last week, it was reported that Cuba is partnering with Iran to test and produce one of its COVID-19 vaccines. 


Open Letter to the Biden administration from progressive and moderate Cuban Americans, Manuel R. Gómez, Mariana Gastón, Álvaro Fernandez

In this letter to President-elect Biden, penned by Manuel R. Gómez, Mariana Gastón, and Álvaro Fernandez, and signed by over 70 progressive and moderate Cuban Americans, the authors urge the Biden-Harris Administration to move quickly to prioritize the restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The letter asserts that engagement would be in the best interest of Cuban American families who are hurting from limitations on travel, remittances, and the drawdown of embassy staff and therefore consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. According to the letter, the Biden-Harris administration also has an opportunity to influence the political future of South Florida and remedy the Democratic Party’s lack of attention to Cuban Americans, Latinos, and South Floridians.

Cuba, Though Angered by Terror Designation, Is Looking Past Trump, Ed Augustin and Kirk Semple, The New York Times 

In this article, Ed Augustin and Kirk Semple discuss the reactions from Cuba’s government and citizens to the U.S. government’s designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terror. Mr. Augustin and Mr. Kirk write that after four years of hardline Cuba policy and numerous sanctions, Cubans continue being hopeful that a Biden-Harris administration will bring positive change for U.S.-Cuba relations. 

Trump, Florida complicate Biden approach to Cuba, Celine Castronuovo, The Hill 

In this article, Celine Castronuovo discusses the impact that Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism may have for U.S.-Cuba policy in the Biden-Harris administration. Ms. Castronuovo interviews Guillermo Grenier, Professor of Sociology at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami and co-director of FIU’s bi-annual Cuba Poll, about what insight the 2020 Cuba Poll provides on Cuban American voters’ stance on U.S.-Cuba policy. 

Miami’s Spanish-Language Media Is Overrun With Trumpist Conspiracies, Nancy San Martín, Foreign Policy 

In this essay, Nancy San Martín discusses the role that Spanish-language media has played in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories among Cuban American voters in the U.S. Ms. San Martín points out that the narratives conservative media is spreading to the Cuban American community are the same ones being used across communities nationally and that they, along with Cuban American elected officials’ support for the current Administration, have incited behaviors which threaten U.S. democracy. Ms. San Martín argues that it is time for politicians to step up and set an example about how to protect our democracy. 

2020: A Summary of Cuban Feminisms, Liz Olvia, El Toque [Spanish] 

In this essay, Liz Oliva discusses both the achievements and setbacks that Cuba’s feminist movements faced in 2020. Ms. Oliva writes about the kinds of political advocacy in which many Cuban feminists participated and about the work of community organizations throughout the island. Ms. Oliva argues that if Cuba aspires to be a democratic country, women’s demands must be listened to. 

Q&A: Economist Ricardo Torres on Cuba’s Monetary Unification, Elizabeth Gonzalez, Americas Society/Council of the Americas 

Americas Society/Council of the Americas’ Elizabeth Gonzalez interviewed Ricardo Torres, Professor of Economics with the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana about the need for Cuba’s currency unification process, the effects of the reform, and what other reforms are needed for Cuba’s economy to improve and recover from the current economic crisis it faces. 

How will monetary reform affect the private sector?, El Toque [Spanish]

In this essay, El Toque staff discuss how Cuba’s currency unification will impact the private sector. El Toque staff point out that the reform will put pressure on private businesses to increase salaries similar to the pressure state businesses have already experienced. Staff also point out  that private businesses will have to raise the prices of their goods and services. The essay ends with a discussion of the impacts that currency reform may have on the economy more broadly. 

The Sunshine Economy: Cuban Currency Unification, Tom Hudson and Tim Padgett, WLRN 

In this summary of an episode from The Sunshine Economy podcast, Tom Hudson and Tim Padgett discuss what the effects of currency unification in Cuba have been since the reform began on January 1. Mr. Hudson and Mr. Padgett interviewed ordinary Cubans, Cuban private business owners, and economists about the direct impacts of the reforms thus far and about what they predict the long-term effects of the reform will be. 

Cuba’s Fledgling Entrepreneurs Are Determined To Survive The Island’s Currency Chaos, Tim Padgett, WLRN 

In this transcript of a segment from The Sunshine Economy Podcast, Tim Padgett interviews Marta Deus, a Cuban entrepreneur who owns three private businesses, about the impact of the island’s currency reform on private businesses. Ms. Deus states that her businesses have had to be flexible, strategic, and creative during this period of great uncertainty and points out the need for a legal structure which allows private businesses to more easily access capital and credit from abroad and access Cuba’s wholesale market. 


Virtual, CDA’s 14th Anniversary Silent Auction, January 7- February 10

In celebration of CDA’s 14th anniversary, we are hosting an online auction. Our items include a Fender American Acoustasonic guitar of the same model Carlos Varela plays, official merchandise from Afro-Cuban funk sensation Cimafunk, clothing from Cuba’s first independent fashion brand Clandestina, and many more items. ⁠All items, with the exception of the Fender guitar, come from Cuban or Cuban American creatives and entrepreneurs. All proceeds will go to support CDA’s work advocating for a U.S.-Cuba policy based on engagement. Anyone may bid on items and the auction will end on February 10 at 5 PM EST. 

Support CDA: Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the U.S.-Cuba News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty. Make your 100% tax-deductible gift now!

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