U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 02/12/2021

Dear Friends,

We hope you and yours are well. This week, CDA joined forces with 55 organizations, including human rights and advocacy groups, faith-based organizations, Cuban-American groups, environmental and academic organizations, and business groups, to send a letter to the Biden-Harris administration urging them to take immediate action to fulfill President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to reverse failed Trump administration Cuba policies and pursue a policy of engagement. Read our press release here and the full letter here

Yesterday, Cuba reported 823 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 4,748 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight decrease from the previous day. The number of deaths has increased by 111 since the beginning of the year, bringing the total to 257 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 we interviewed Ricardo Torres Pérez, Cuban economist, and Oniel Díaz Castellanos, Co-Founder of AUGE, a private Cuban business development and communications team, about their preliminary impressions of the newly announced reforms aimed at Cuba’s private sector. 

To read this week’s interview with Oniel Díaz Castellanos and Ricardo Torres Pérez, visit the “In Cuba” section.

This week, in Cuba news…


U.S. Senators introduce bipartisan resolution in support of Cuba’s San Isidro Movement

On Monday, Senator Robert Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a resolution, cosponsored by Senators Marco Rubio (FL), Richard Durbin (IL), and Benjamin Cardin (MD), in support of Cuba’s San Isidro Movement (MSI), a collection of artists and activists who have protested against restrictions on artistic freedom on the island. The resolution–“expressing solidarity with the San Isidro Movement in Cuba, condemning escalated attacks against artistic freedoms in Cuba, and calling for the repeal of laws that violate freedom of expression and the immediate release of arbitrarily detained artists, journalists, and activists”–comes after artists and activists in the group 27N recently protested in front of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture (MINCULT). 27N, while separate from MSI, also advocates for greater artistic freedom in Cuba and was created after the MSI-related protests last November. The resolution, among other things, calls on Cuba’s government to release the detained rapper Denis Solís, to repeal Decrees 349 and 370 in Cuba’s constitution, which, according to the resolution, limit free artistic expression in Cuba, and asks Cuba’s government “to engage in a meaningful dialogue process with the members of the San Isidro Movement” as well as with other artists and activists.

MSI was founded in 2018 around the belief that Decree 349 violates artists’ right to express themselves freely by requiring them to register with the government in order to create work. In November 2020, members of MSI went on a hunger strike in response to the arrest of Denis Solís. A day after Cuban authorities broke up the hunger strike, more than 300 artists, activists and members of the public engaged in a rare public protest outside MINCULT to denounce censorship and what they referred to as “state repression” and to further call for Solís’s release.

Classified assessment found slow and chaotic response to brain injuries affecting diplomats in Cuba

A long-classifed June 2018 report from the U.S. State Department’s Accountability Review Board on the symptoms suffered by U.S. Embassy personnel in Havana in late 2016 and early 2017 was published in a redacted form on Wednesday by the National Security Archive, The Washington Post reports. The 35-page report indicates that the Trump administration’s slow and disorganized response to the health incidents makes it more likely that researchers and investigators may never determine the cause of the incidents. The report found that “the single most significant deficiency in the [state] department’s response” was that no senior official “was ever designated as having overall responsibility” for investigating the incidents. As a result of this lack of leadership of the Trump administration, in part due to vacant senior positions in the State Department, no “whole-of-government” effort to determine the cause and nature of the health incidents and to support those who were afflicted ever came together.

The report further states that the significant reduction in U.S. Embassy staff following the incidents did not follow “standard Department of State procedures” and did not involve “any formal analysis of the risks and benefits” of reducing the number of staff, although Foreign Service rules require such an analysis. The convening of the Accountability Review Board that authored the June 2018 report was delayed for over a year, despite being required by law to convene within 60 days after a security related incident of this nature. On Thursday, at a press briefing, Department of State spokesperson Ned Price stated that this week the State Department elevated the coordinator role for the ongoing investigation into the health incidents to a “senior-level position” who will report directly to the department’s senior leadership.

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. Similar incidents were later reported in 2018 by U.S. personnel in China. The incidents led to staff reductions in 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents in Cuba and China, see our memo.

Open letter to Joe Biden calls for United States to normalize its relations with Cuba

An open letter asking for the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, originally signed by 37 intellectuals, entrepreneurs, artists, and others, most of them Cuban, was sent to U.S. diplomats in Havana and to the White House this Tuesday, OnCuba News reports. The letter, published by “La Joven Cuba,” currently has over 400 signatures and can be read in English and in Spanish. It asks the Biden-Harris administration to return to former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba and to work toward ending the U.S. embargo on the island. The letter references the current economic crisis in Cuba, made worse by increased sanctions on the island by the Trump administration. It also states that it is the “responsibility” of the U.S. to take the first step towards normalizing relations and that it is in the national interest of the U.S. to engage with “all sectors of Cuban society.”

A trio of Cubans fleeing to the U.S. got stuck on a deserted island

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued three Cuban citizens who were stranded on a deserted Bahamian island, Anguilla Cay, for 33 days, The Washington Post reports. They had been attempting to reach the United States by boat, but a mechanical failure left them stranded on the uninhabited island. The group lived off coconuts, conch, and rats for the 33 days. While conducting a routine patrol, U.S. Coast Guard aircrews saw two men and a woman on the island waving makeshift flags to attract their attention. Over the course of a two-day mission, the aircrew dropped water, food, and a radio down to the three Cubans before later hoisting them onto a Coast Guard helicopter. The three were taken to Lower Keys Medical Center, although they had not reported injuries, and are now being held at an immigrant detention center in Pompano Beach, Florida. 

Until January 2017, when the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy was terminated, 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 policy. Since then, the number of Cuban migrants interdicted at sea has decreasedconsiderably. 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.


Cuban government: Major expansion of small private-sector businesses gets green light

Cuba will expand the number of professions in which private businesses may participate from 127 to over 2,000, while keeping 124 business fields “totally or partially” within the state sector, the Miami Herald reports. The reform marks a significant shift in the way Cuba’s government approaches private sector regulation; whereas before there was a list of only 127 approved possible activities for private businesses, now the private sector will have access to all legally recognized economic activities except those 124 business fields reserved for the state. Many in Cuba have long called for Cuba’s government to use such a list of prohibited activities instead of the prior list of approved activities to regulate the private sector. While this reform was announced last July, it was approved just last Saturday by Cuba’s Council of Ministers. Those who wish to be engaged in the private sector will be allowed to have more than one business, and all currently self-employed persons will be required to re-register their businesses with the government. The newly approved activities for private businesses include software programming and veterinary medicine for the care of family pets, two business activities in which Cubans, especially programmers and animal rights activists, have long asked to be able to privately engage. Professionals still left out of the private sector expansion include architects, engineers, doctors, scientists, music and audiovisual producers, among others.

list of the 124 activities precluded from the private sector was published on Wednesday. The list bans, among many other things, the creation of independent media outlets, until now not expressly prohibited by Cuba’s government’s private sector regulations. It also bans private businesses from wholesale trade, the sugar, tobacco, healthcare, education, and communications industries, and a wide range of other professional services. Cuba’s Minister of Labor, Marta Elena Feitó Cabrera, stated over the weekend that more than 600,000 people work in Cuba’s private sector, making up about 13 percent of the labor force. Of those 600,000, some 40 percent work in the tourism industry or in public transportation. 

The move to expand the non-state sector has been met with widespread praise from Cuba-focused economists and those involved in U.S.-Cuba policy, though many have commented that further reforms, such as the legalization of small and medium sized enterprises, are needed to effectively support the private sector. Cuban economist Pavel Vidal of the Universidad Javeriana Cali in Colombia said that the expansion of the private sector was key to the success of Cuba’s monetary reforms, but cautioned that there would be initial growing pains involved for those in the sector. While economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago stated that the private sector expansion was a “positive step,” he cautioned that “the devil is in the details,” alluding to the fact that the final regulations could include more restrictions than are now apparent.

The move to expand the private sector comes weeks after Cuba’s government began implementing a series of monetary reforms, including the unification of the country’s dual currency system, the devaluation of the Cuban Peso, and the reduction of subsidies to state companies. Within the past few months, Cuba’s government has made other reforms for the non-state sector, granting private businesses access to wholesale markets and beginning to allow them to import and export, though only through state-run companies.

Interview with Oniel Díaz Castellanos and Ricardo Torres Pérez on the proposed expansion of Cuba’s private sector

CDA: What are the main changes announced for the private sector in Cuba this week? 

Oniel & Ricardo: There is a shift in the underlying philosophy. The new framework was changed from a list of 127 allowed categories (mostly rather simple activities) to a “negative” list (prohibited activities for citizens to engage in as cuentapropistas) of 124 categories. As a result, the number of private businesses and the areas where they operate are very likely to grow significantly over the coming years.

The government used the National Classification of Economic Activities (CNAE), which includes more than 2,100 different categories, as the reference for the list. This is a taxonomy based on the International Standard Industrial Classification of All Economic Activities, which is the international classification reference of productive activities. 

One of the main complaints from experts and cuentapropistas, has been the often cumbersome process to obtain a license to operate a business. In that sense, a one-stop window system will be used to streamline the application process. The Minister of Labor and Social Security indicated that approval will be automatic, provided the applicant meets all requirements. Cuentapropistas will be able to completely determine the scope of their proposed business. 

CDA: Which are the main highlights of allowed activities in the private sector? 

Oniel & Ricardo: Under the new framework, most manufacturing branches are open for entrepreneurs, including construction, most transportation services, and food processing and other light industries, which currently account for more than 50 percent of industrial value added. Additionally, modern growth sectors like most of IT, advertising, market analysis, design and business consulting will also be allowed. 

However, there are notable omissions of activities connected to lawyers, architects, engineers, news and journalism, travel agencies, tour operators and art galleries, and other activities. The inclusion of these activities would greatly enhance the transformational potential of this step. In the past, Cuban entrepreneurs managed to successfully navigate restrictions, in many cases surprising authorities with very complex endeavors. Everything indicates that this could happen again.    

CDA: How do the new changes relate to the implementation of relevant legislation for small and medium enterprises (SMEs)?

Oniel & Ricardo: This change falls short of the much-anticipated introduction of a legal framework for proper SMEs. However, it is not a substitute for it nor excludes future steps in that direction. Under the current legislative schedule, the discussion and adoption of such legislation is projected to take place in late 2022. 

Nonetheless, in light of ongoing developments, one cannot rule out a modification of the schedule. The government has at its disposal several alternatives to accelerate the implementation of necessary legal changes.  

CDA: Is this list definitive? What are the next steps?

Oniel & Ricardo: The list of prohibited activities was published as a working document, as indicated by the website of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. The publication has generated a spontaneous public debate and advocacy efforts by different interest groups, and further modifications are possible. The Ministry of Culture already said that some artistic activities which were initially included in the list of prohibited activities such as recording studios, are regulated under different legal provisions and will be allowed. Likewise, some support activities that are essential to creatives’ work like recording studios will be excluded from [the prohibited] list, as explained in a note released yesterday by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). The definitive legal norms will be adopted within a month or so, according to official statements by relevant government officials. 

In the best case scenario, this step needs to be followed by other changes that could enhance the impact on the economy, such as approval of SME’s, access to funding from Cuba’s banking sector, penetration of foreign markets, restructuring of state firms, reduction of red tape, and digitization of business and tax procedures. Under the right conditions, these changes could provide an avenue for international cooperation. Since there are stark differences in institutional capacity across provinces and municipalities, and they are the main implementers, governments, international agencies, and financial institutions could work together with Cuban authorities to guarantee the success of the reform.  


Cuba warns Colombia of possible ELN rebel attack

Cuba’s ambassador to Colombia, José Luis Ponce, warned Colombia’s Defense Minister Diego Molana that Colombia’s National Liberation Army (also known by the Spanish acronym “ELN”) could be planning an attack on Bogota, Reutersreports. Minister Molana stated in a broadcast on Monday that he received a communication from Ambassador Ponce “about a supposed terrorist attack being planned…by the Eastern Front of the ELN.” The letter from the Ambassador stated that the Cuban Embassy could not determine the “verisimilitude” of the information communicated. According to the communication from Ambassador Ponce, the ELN delegation in Cuba “expressed total ignorance” about the possible attack. In the broadcast with Secretary Molana, Colombia’s High Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos reiteratedColombia’s call for the extradition of the ELN negotiators in Cuba. Later, on Thursday, the ELN posted a statement to their website saying that the information about the possible attack on Bogota was inaccurate.

In 2018-2019, Cuba hosted the peace negotiations between Colombia’s government and the ELN; however, these talks collapsed in 2019 after the ELN bombed a police academy in Bogota. Although Colombia has repeatedly asked for the extradition of ELN members residing in Cuba, Cuba has asserted it is 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. 


U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, Scott B. MacDonald, Global Americans

In this article, Scott MacDonald discusses the history of U.S.-Cuba relations, the changes in U.S. Cuba policy under the Obama and Trump administrations, Cuba’s current economic situation, and what possible opportunities exist for the Biden-Harris administration to pursue greater engagement with the island. He details the causes for the hostile relations present between the U.S. and Cuba during the Cold War and the steps Cuba has taken toward some economic liberalization. He also discusses Cuba’s economic and political relations with other countries such as Venezuela, Russia, and China.

A Simple Reset Won’t Make U.S.-Cuba Ties More Sustainable, Benjamin Wilhelm, World Politics Review

In this article, Benjamin Wilhelm argues that in order for the U.S. and Cuba to effectively reach a detente, both sides will have to take steps on their own to improve relations. Mr. Wilhelm quotes Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, who says that President Joe Biden will need to pursue patient engagement with Cuba in order to both better relations with the island and encourage reform. Mr. Wilhelm also discusses how attitudes toward engagement with Cuba have changed among Cuban Americans in south Florida as detailed in Florida International University’s Cuba Poll.

Opportunities for the Biden Administration to Reverse Failed Trump Policy on Cuba — Part 1, Emily P. Grim, National Law Review

In this article, Emily Grim argues that President Joe Biden should, by executive action, restore regulations on remittances sent from the U.S. to Cuba to their status before President Donald Trump took office and loosen restrictions on travel from the U.S. to Cuba. Ms. Grim details the restriction on remittances and travel imposed by the Trump administration and explains why loosening these restrictions is in line with U.S. foreign policy goals.

It’s time for Biden’s Cuba, John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco, The Hill

In this article, Professor John Gronbeck-Tedesco argues that President Joe Biden should pursue rapprochement with Cuba and analyzes the domestic political landscape that will influence the extent to which he is able to do so. Professor Gronbeck-Tedesco discusses the Cuban American vote in the context of U.S.-Cuba policy and details the margins by which Cuban Americans voted for past Presidents. He also discusses the support from the agriculture and business community for greater U.S. engagement with Cuba.

With COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba’s medical system faces its biggest test yet, Nora Gámez Torres & Mario J. Pentón, Miami Herald

In this article, Nora Gámez Torres and Mario Pentón discuss the ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases in Cuba and the shortages that are befalling the medical system on the island. They cite interviews with multiple doctors in Cuba who tell the story of growing numbers of cases, depleted hospital staff capacity, and shrinking levels of medical supplies. Ms. Gámez and Mr. Pentón also detail the public health measures being taken on the island and discuss Cuba’s international medical missions.

With the country labelled a ‘terror sponsor’ and the government claiming activists are CIA agents, Cuba’s artists are stuck in the crossfire, Gabriella Angeleti, The Art Newspaper

In this article, Gabriella Angeleti details the effects of the Trump administration’s hardline Cuba policies, including the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, on artists and the cultural sector in Cuba. She discusses the current state of artistic freedom in Cuba following the passage of Decree 349 in 2018, which requires artists to acquire a government-issued license to create work. Through comments from art dealer Bryan Toth, Ms. Angeleti also relates the growing international interest in Cuban art.

Day Zero: how and why Cuba unified its dual currency system, Helen Yaffe, London School of Economics

In this article, Helen Yaffe of the University of Glasgow discusses the process, intricacies, and impact of the unification of Cuba’s dual currency system. She relates the history of the dual currency system and the economic context surrounding Cuba’s government’s decision to do away with it. She details the specifics of the policy change, including what it means for state workers, the private sector, importers and exporters, foreign investors, and others involved in Cuba’s economy.

How Cubans make island Internet work for them, Cassandra Brooklyn, Ars Technica

In this article, Cassandra Brooklyn details the recent expansion in internet access in Cuba, discussing the various ways Cubans are using the internet to promote their businesses, communicate with those on and off the island, and engage in other activities. She discusses both the expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots across the island as well as the introduction of 3G and 4G data plans for mobile phones. Through discussions with many small business owners on the island, Ms. Brooklyn writes about the public’s reaction to expanding internet access as well as the urban-rural divide that runs through many Cuban’s ability to be online.

Photographer Richard Sharum Got to the Heart of Cuba Through its Campesino People, Anna Lowery, Dallas Observer

In this article, Anna Lowery discusses the recently released book from Dallas-based photographer Ricahrd Sharum, Campesino Cuba, which highlights those who live in Cuba’s rural regions. Ms. Lowery highlights an interview with Mr. Sharum, who discusses the motivation for making the book, the inspiration for his photography in general, and the realizations he had while photographing for the book in rural Cuba.

Jazz Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba on ‘Viento Y Tiempo’ & How Afro-Cuban Culture Has Inspired His Music, Griselda Flores, Billboard

In this article, Griselda Flores interviews the Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba on his life, his musical career, and his latest album with Aymée Nuviola, Viento Y Tiempo. In the interview, Rubalcaba discusses the influences that have shaped his music, including the neighborhood of Havana in which he grew up, his mother, and the various genres of music, particularly Afro-Cuban music, he listened to as a child. Rubalcaba also discusses the motivation for his latest album, recorded live at the Blue Note Tokyo jazz venue with fellow Cuban Aymée Nuviola.

Pedro Gomez, a Pillar of Baseball Coverage for ESPN dies at 58, Neil Vigdor, The New York Times

In this article, Neil Vigdor pays tribute to the life and career of Pedro Gomez, the son of Cuban refugees, who covered Major League Baseball for ESPN and died last Sunday at his home in Phoenix, Arizona. Mr. Vigdor details the widespread sadness and admiration expressed in tributes to Mr. Gomez from those who knew him, worked with him, and looked up to him. Mr. Vigdor ends by relating Mr. Gomez’s “surreal” experience travelling to Cuba with his son, a pitcher in the Minor League, in 2016 to watch a U.S. Major League Baseball team play the Cuban national team.

The legacy of Cuban ‘wonder’ José Méndez, Jake Crouse, MLB

In this article, Jake Crouse discusses the remarkable baseball career of the Cuban pitcher and Hall of Famer José Méndez, who began playing in the Cuban League in 1908 and later played in the Negro National League in the U.S. Mr. Crouse details Méndez’s performances against U.S. major league teams while playing in Cuba and his efforts to lead the Monarchs baseball team to multiple Negro National League pennants while playing in the U.S. He ends by writing about how racism in America prevented Méndez from having a Major League career but how nevertheless the great pitcher left his legacy on the sport of baseball.


Virtual, Cuba-US Working Together Again: Lessons from Environmental Cooperation, February 22

Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies is hosting an event co-sponsored by the University’s Cuba Program, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the American College of Environmental Lawyers (ACOEL), and the Fundación Antonio Nuñez Jiménez (FANJ), to analyze past Cuba-US cooperation on environmental and sustainability issues. Speakers will include leading experts from Cuba and the US exploring current challenges to cooperation. The conference will consist of two Zoom sessions, from 10 a.m.-12:30 pm. EST and from 1:30 p.m.-4:00 p.m. EST. See the event page for more details and to register for the event.

Virtual, Cuban Entrepreneurship Panel, February 23

The 90 Miles Podcast, Cuba Educational Travel, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Cuba One Foundation, the Cuban American Student Association at NYU, and Engage Cuba are hosting a panel analyzing entrepreneurship and the private sector in Cuba through discussions with Cuban entrepreneurs and economists. Join us at 3:00 p.m. EST on February 23 for discussions with Oniel Díaz Castellaos, Co-founder of AUGE, Adriana Heredia Sánchez, Founder of Beyond Roots, Cristina Figueroa Vives, Art Curator at Estudio Figueroa-Vives, and Carlos Gómez, CEO and Founder of Wajirosfilms.

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