U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 02/05/2021

Dear Friends,

We hope you and yours are safe and healthy. 

Congratulations to CDA’s former Executive Director Emily Mendrala who recently started a new role as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. We wish Emily the best of luck in her new role! 

Last chance! CDA’s 14th Anniversary silent auction is still open! We’ve added a number of new items including new art and photo books. Most items are from Cuban and Cuban American entrepreneurs and creatives, in addition to a Fender guitar of the same model that Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela plays. Be sure to place your bid by February 10 at 5 PM EST! 

Yesterday, Cuba reported 845 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 5,544 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight decrease from the previous day. The number of deaths has increased by 83 since the beginning of the year, bringing the total to 229 deaths since last 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

Senator Ron Wyden (OR) introduces bill to end Cuba embargoNSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan González discusses the Administration’s Cuba policy approach 

This afternoon, Senator Ron Wyden (OR), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced the U.S. Cuba Trade Act of 2021, a bill to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba and establish normal trade relations with the country. The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Richard Durbin (IL), and Jeff Merkley (OR). In a press statement, Sen. Wyden called the embargo an outdated policy and stated that “Congress has a moral and economic obligation to the American people to improve U.S.-Cuban relations as swiftly and safely as possible.” If passed, the bill would repeal the Trading with the Enemy Act and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, and it would amend certain sections of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. In 2017, Sen. Wyden introduced similar legislation

In an interview with Univision, Juan González, the White House National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, stated that President Joe Biden seeks to lift remittance restrictions and allow those in the U.S. to travel to Cuba. Mr. González also criticized the Trump administration’s Cuba policy stating that it only served to punish Cuban Americans and Cubans on the island in the middle of a pandemic while failing to push for a more democratic system in Cuba. He reiterated White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s comments on the Biden-Harris administration’s Cuba policy approach, as one grounded in advancing U.S. national interests that will also help Cuban’s determine their own futures. 

Mayorkas confirmed as Secretary of Homeland Security

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Alejandro Mayorkas by a 56-43 vote to serve as President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Politico reports. Secretary Mayorkas’s confirmation was the closest confirmation vote for President Biden’s Cabinet so far. Mr. Mayorkas, a Cuban American, is the first Latino and first immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency responsible for, among other things, U.S. immigration policy and counterterrorism efforts. After his confirmation on Tuesday, President Biden signed three executive orders related to immigration with Mr. Mayorkas present in the Oval Office. These orders, focused on collaboration with regional and international actors, addressing root causes of migration, improving access to legal pathways of migration to and integration into the U.S., and family reunification, also direct Mr. Mayorkas to lead a new interagency task force to reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration, to review the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy), and to review a 2017 decision to rescind the Central American Minors Program, among other directives.

Mr. Mayorkas was the highest-ranking Cuban American in the Obama-Biden 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-Biden administration, Mr. Mayorkas was instrumental in helping shape the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which provides young immigrants who qualify temporary relief from deportation and work authorization. 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.

CDC Report on the ‘Havana Syndrome’: Medical Mystery Remains Unsolved

A 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the symptoms suffered by U.S. embassy personnel in Havana in late 2016 and early 2017, often referred to as “Havana Syndrome,” was published in its unredacted form on Tuesday by the National Security Archive. The report, titled “Cuba Unexplained Events Investigation–Final Report,” was first alluded to in a report on the same subject from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which leaked to the press in December 2020. 

The CDC report states that although the CDC conducted a two-year investigation into the symptoms reported by U.S. personnel, they could not determine the nature of the symptoms nor what caused them. The study reviewed the cases of 95 individuals, finding among them 15 presumptive cases, 31 possible cases, and 49 not likely cases. The report also confirms some details about how the State Department handled the cases, including by developing a clinical protocol called HABIT, or “Havana Acquired Brain Injury Tool,” to screen personnel for the symptoms reported by those in Havana.

Between 2016-2017, dozens of U.S. and Canadian personnel working in Cuba reported a variety of symptoms including headaches, dizziness, cognitive impacts, and ringing in the ears. 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. The FBI, the U.S. State Department, and many medical and scientific experts in the U.S., Cuba, and Canada have all investigated the incidents, but a definitive cause is still not known. The December 2020 NAS report stated that the symptoms were most likely caused by “directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy,” although the report was ultimately inconclusive and rejected by the Cuban Academy of Sciences. In a recent interview, Dr. Mitchell Valdes Sosa, Director of the Cuban Center for Neuroscience in Havana and the lead doctor of the Cuban Academy of Sciences committee to study the health incidents remarked that the radiofrequency theory put forward in the NAS report was “unsubstantiated” and “completely debunked by many scientists.” 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. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents in Cuba and China, see our memo.

The Elders call on President Biden to reverse the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism

On February 2, The Elders, a group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, published a statement calling on President Joe Biden to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to add Cuba to the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The statement expressed concern that the Trump administration’s reasons for placing Cuba on the list included Cuba’s refusal to extradite members of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (also known by the Spanish acronym “ELN”). The Elders count among their members global leaders such as Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland, Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations Secretary General, and the same Juan Manuel Santos.

In April 2018, Cuba began hosting the Colombian Peace Process in Havana after Ecuador, the original host, abandonedthe process. Cuba asserted it was following the Peace Talk Protocols, signed by both Colombia and the ELN at the beginning of negotiations, by refusing to extradite members of the ELN to Colombia. Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also condemned the Trump administration’s decision to cite Cuba’s refusal to extradite members of the ELN as a reason for placing Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, stating that this action could serve to make countries more hesitant to act as facilitators in future peace processes. Multiple Members of Congress, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez also expressed their opposition to the announcement. CDA released a statement denouncing Cuba’s addition to the list, which is available on our website.

IN CUBA

Cuba to quarantine travelers amid COVID-19 surgeCuba declares curfew in Havana as COVID-19 surges

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) announced last Saturday that as of February 6 most travelers entering Cuba will have to quarantine for up to a week, with different rules governing different classes of travelers, Reuters reports. Tourists will be required to remain in their hotels at their own expense while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test taken on their fifth day in the country; Cuban residents returning to the island will be required to stay in special centers at no personal cost. Non-resident Cubans, including Cuban Americans, traveling to the island will be isolated in designated hotel facilities, with the travelers assuming the costs of the hotel stay. Diplomats, businessmen, foreign students, health workers, and journalists will each have their own protocols and locations for quarantine. Additionally, some resortsisolated from the general population may have looser public health restrictions. 

MINSAP also announced that the number of weekly flights from several countries including the U.S. will be further reduced, after already limiting some flights starting January 1. American Airlines, Jet Blue, and Southwest will each be allowed one weekly flight between the U.S. and Havana. 

As an additional public health measure, beginning the evening of Friday, February 5, a curfew will be implemented in Havana from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. during which only authorized vehicles and personnel will be allowed outdoors in the city, Reuters reports. Cuba has recently experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. The island reported almost as many deaths from the virus in the month of January as in the previous six months combined and reported more pediatric casesof the virus in January than in all of 2020. The surge in cases comes after airports on the island began reopening for international travel in November. 

Another Cuban COVID-19 vaccine candidate goes to phase II of clinical trialsCuba plans to test its vaccines on minors this month

Cuba’s Abdala vaccine advanced to Phase II trials on February 1, OnCuba News reports. The Abdala vaccine was developed by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana and is the second Cuban vaccine to progress to Phase II trials, following the Soberana 02 vaccine. According to Dr. Rafael Suárez, Director of the hospital, volunteers experienced only a “few adverse reactions” during Phase I trials. Recently, an independent committee evaluated the data from the Abdala vaccine’s Phase I trials and also found favorable results. 

Both the Abdala and the Mambisa vaccines were developed by Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. The two other Cuban vaccine candidates, Soberana 01 and Soberana 02, were developed by the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana. Cuban scientists hope the Soberana 02 vaccine, currently in Phase II trials, will advance soon into Phase III and then be used in mass vaccination on the island. The Soberana 01 vaccine will likely enter Phase II-III in March with 40,000-50,000 people involved in the clinical study. Dr. Vicente Vérez, General Director of the Finlay Vaccine Institute, stated on Thursday that the institute should be able to produce one million of its vaccines by April. Dr. Vérez also recently announced that the institute plans on including minors in vaccine trials for both the Soberana 01 and 02 vaccines by the end of February, according to OnCuba News.

Cuban artists file legal motion for culture minister’s removal

Artists from the 27N Movement have filed a petition to Cuba’s parliament, the National Assembly of People’s Power, requesting that Aldipio Alonso, Cuba’s Minister of Culture, be removed from his position, Hyperallergic reports. The request, filed on Wednesday morning by the activists Solveig Font and Carolina Barrero on behalf of more than 1,250 artists, comes shortly after members of 27N protested outside the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT) on January 27 over arrests made that morning of some group members. Many prominent cultural figures in Cuba signed the request, including artist Tania Bruguera, writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez, artist Sandra Ceballos, historian Rafael Rojas, and painter Tomás Sanchez.

The January 27 protest occurred in response to the arrests of artists and activists Tania Bruguera and Katherine Bisquet and journalist Camila Acosta. Minister Alonso, who met the protestors outside the MINCULT building, can be seen on video swiping at reporter Mauricio Mendoza, one of the protestors and a correspondent for the Spain-based independent news source Diario de Cuba, attempting to hit away his phone in a moment of tension between ministry officials and the demonstrators. According to protestor and visual artist Julio Llópiz-Casal, some demonstrators were eventually put onto a bus by police and taken to a police station in Havana. They were released from the station later that day along with Ms. Bruguera, Ms. Bisquet, and Ms. Acosta. 

27N is a network of artists and activists created on November 27, 2020 after hundreds gathered for a protest outside MINCULT in response to the arrest of rapper Denis Solís and others to denounce censorship and what they referred to as “state repression.” The text of the legal request filed by 27N on Wednesday can be read on their Facebook page.

Cuba establishes differentiated prices for private carriers’ fuel

As of February 1, Cuba will sell fuel at different prices to the state and non-state sectors of the economy, OnCuba Newsreports. The state-owned Cuban Export Import Corporation (CIMEX)recently announced the new prices for self-employed workers who provide passenger and/or cargo transportation services. The new prices include 14.66 Cuban Pesos (CUP) for one liter of regular gasoline, down from 25 CUP previously. 

These price changes come as Cuba’s government began implementing a series of monetary reforms, including the unification of the dual currency system, on the island. As part of the currency unification process started in January, Cuba’s government began implementing a gradual reduction in government subsidies to state companies and on basic goods and utilities, while implementing price controls. Cuba’s government also implemented an increase in state wages and pensions. 

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba’s imports from China slump 40% in 2020, extending long decline

Cuba’s imports from China fell from $791 million in 2019 to $483 million in 2020, continuing a precipitous decline in Chinese exports to Cuba since 2015, according to the Chinese Customs Office, Reuters reports. The decrease is significant since Cuba previously imported $1.9 billion of Chinese goods and services in 2015 and $1.1 billion in 2018. Cuba imports a broad array of goods from China including machinery, transportation equipment, raw materials, and food. Despite China and Cuba being political allies and economic partners, Chinese diplomats and businessmen have been frustrated with business practices in Cuba and with problems receiving payment for the goods and services they sell to the island, according to anonymous diplomats and businessmen who spoke with Reuters. While Chinese trade with Cuba steeply declined between 2019 and 2020, Chinese trade with Latin America declined less than a percent.

Donation with medical supplies arrives at port of Mariel

On Wednesday, a donation of hospital equipment and medical supplies sent from Cubans residing in Canada arrived at the port of Mariel in Havana, OnCuba News reports. The donation, valued at 586,323 Canadian dollars (about 457,055 U.S. dollars), includes such supplies as artificial respiration fans, a general anesthesia machine, hospital beds, and equipment for orthopedic, gynecological, and pediatric care. Various organizations in Canada, including the Juan Gualberto Gómez Association of Cuban Residents in Canada, along with other Canadian institutions and private individuals participated in the “Sí por Cuba” project to raise money for the medical supplies, which left the port of Halifax on January 25. Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel expressed his appreciation for the shipment via Twitter on Wednesday.

U.S. sanctions have hampered the donations and sale of humanitarian and medical supplies to Cuba during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there are humanitarian allowances within the sanction regimes, in practice there are various limitations and obstacles which limit the delivery of humanitarian assistance from the U.S.

RECOMMENDED READINGS

A Return to Détente With Cuba, Richard E. Feinberg, Foreign Affairs

In this article, Professor Richard Feinberg reviews former President Barack Obama’s efforts to improve U.S. relations with Cuba and details the benefits that President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba had for U.S. interests. Professor Feinberg goes on to discuss the possible actions that President Joe Biden could take to walk back the Trump administration’s hard line Cuba policies. He explains why Cuba is ripe for reform should the U.S. decide to re-engage with the island. Professor Feinberg further discusses the domestic politics involved in U.S. Cuba policy and urges the Administration to pursue engagement with Cuba despite opposed voices in south Florida.

Cuba Policy Under Biden: Change on the Horizon, Matthew D. Aho et al., Lexology

In this article, Matthew D. Aho, Pedro A. Freyre, and Augusto E. Maxwell of Akerman LLP discuss the likelihood and possible timing of the Biden-Harris administration taking action to pursue greater engagement with Cuba. They suggestthe Administration could move quickly to ease restrictions on remittance flows from the U.S. to Cuba, decrease restrictions on travel to the island, and review the prior administration’s decision to designate Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism. They also discuss the domestic political landscape surrounding decisions on Cuba policy and the experience that those in the Administration, including First Lady Jill Biden, have had with Cuba and Cuba policy.

Biden’s redo of Obama’s historic Cuba policy shouldn’t ignore Cuban Americans in Miami, Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald

In this article, Fabiola Santiago argues that the Biden-Harris administration should consult Cuban Americans as it implements changes to U.S.-Cuba policy. She argues that Cuban Americans are important stakeholders in this policy making process and that they are not a monolithic group. She then discusses the negative effects that President Trump’s Cuba policies had on the Cuban people and urges President Biden to “proceed cautiously but with commitment” in his pursuit of better relations with the island.

In a French outpost in South America, no secret EU gateway for fleeing Cubans, Boris R. Thebia, The New Humanitarian

In this article, Boris Thebia describes the migrant crisis in French Guiana, a French overseas territory currently overwhelmed by migrants and asylum seekers, many of them from Cuba, trying to reach Europe. Mr. Thebia detailsinterviews with several Cubans who travelled to French Guiana, which has no formal migrant reception centers and very little asylum accommodation, only to be left to set up their own migrant camp outside the capital city of Cayenne. He goes on to discuss the ongoing economic crisis in Cuba and the largely austere reaction from French Guiana’s government to the influx of migrants to the territory.

In the worst moment of the pandemic, Cuba tries to ‘order’ its economy but only worsens it, Abraham Jiménez Enoa, The Washington Post

In this article, Abraham Jiménez Enoa argues that the recent economic reforms implemented by Cuba’s government have complicated the lives of Cuban citizens and caused more scarcity of goods instead of alleviating the dire economic crisis on the island. Mr. Jiménez discusses the recent economic reforms that have been implemented, including the unification of Cuba’s dual currency system, the reduction of state subsidies, and an increase in many pensions and state sector salaries. He critiques Cuba’s government for not doing more to support self-employed workers and for not implementing reforms that would more significantly decentralize the economy.

Cuba gripped in dollar frenzy, peso under pressureFrance 24

This article discusses the effects of currency unification in Cuba, the supposed overvaluation of the Cuban Peso (CUP), and the presence of the U.S. dollar in the Cuban black market. The article quotes Cuban economist Pedro Monreal, who states that the CUP is massively overvalued, and Mauricio de Miranda of Javeriana University in Colombia, who says that the inability of Cuba’s Central Bank to offer the dollar at the official exchange rate gives the black market free reign over the exchange of the dollar. The article also discusses the presence of dollar stores on the island, the going rate of the U.S. dollar on the black market, and the inaccessibility of the U.S. dollar for many Cuban citizens.

How Cuba Survived and Surprised in a Post-Soviet World, Sara Kozameh, Jacobin

In this article, Sara Kozameh reviews the book We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World, by Helen Yaffe, a lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow. Ms. Kozameh discusses Ms. Yaffe’s analysis of how Cuba’s government and economic systems have persisted for so long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Specifically, Ms. Kozameh discusses the role Cuba’s government played immediately in the wake of the Soviet collapse and the economic innovations that occurred in Cuba through the 1990s and 2000s. She also highlights key political moments in recent Cuban history, such as the 2019 ratification of Cuba’s new constitution.

New Book Details Cuban Exiles’ Journeys of Courage and Resilience in the Pursuit of FreedomPR Newswire

This article discusses the recently published book, Cuban Exile Memories: Journeys of Courage and Resilience in the Pursuit of Freedom, by Talek Nantes, the author of three books and founder of a popular travel blog. The book includes over 100 stories of Cuban exiles who share their experiences leaving Cuba and their struggles of assimilation into a foreign land. 

EVENTS

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 Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela plays, and items from Cuban or Cuban American creatives and entrepreneurs, including official merchandise from Afro-Cuban funk sensation Cimafunk, clothing from Cuba’s first independent fashion brand Clandestina, and many more items. ⁠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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