U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 02/26/2021

Dear Friends,

Thank you to those who attended the Cuba Entrepreneurship Panel which we co-hosted with the 90 Miles Podcast, Cuba Educational Travel, the CubaOne Foundation, the Cuban American Student Association at NYU, and Engage Cuba on Wednesday. Four Cuban entrepreneurs and economists joined us to share their stories and insights about the current state of entrepreneurship in Cuba. We encourage you to continue the conversation by following our panelists and their businesses on social media. In case you missed it, a recording of the event is available here.  

CDA is hiring two remote summer interns! Interns work in three key areas: Policy and Advocacy; Communications and Social Media; and Nonprofit Development. The deadline to apply is March 15. Visit our website to learn more about the internship and to read reflections from past interns. 

Yesterday, Cuba reported 875 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 4,336 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight decrease from the previous day. Havana, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 462, 84, and 70 new cases reported respectively in each province. The number of deaths has increased by 168 since the beginning of the year, bringing the total to 314 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

CIA launches task force to probe invisible attacks on US diplomats and spies

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has put together a task force that will focus on the series of debilitating health incidents suffered by 40 U.S. government personnel, including CIA officers, in Cuba, Russia, and China, CNN reports. The task force, created at the end of 2020, will provide affected personnel with medical care and resources. It will also ensure that processes are in place to address any future instances of the health incidents. Additionally, on Wednesday, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, President Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA Director, William Burns, stated that he would prioritize care for those officers who were affected by the incidents, and that he would “make it extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the attacks.”

While various U.S. federal agencies, including the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the State Department, all have ongoing investigations into the health incidents, so far those investigations have largely been siloed. However, sources familiar with discussions at the National Security Council (NSC) told CNN that the NSC is considering uniting the various agency efforts under one roof. Recently, State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated that the State Department was elevating the coordinator investigating the health incidents to a senior-level position at the department. Last week, CNN also reported that the Biden-Harris administration is reviewing the Trump administration’s decision to reduce staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana–a decision made in the wake of the reported health incidents. 

The increased focus on the series of health incidents comes shortly after a report from the U.S. State Department’s Accountability Review Board was published by the National Security Archive. The report, among other things, indicatedthat the Trump administration’s slow and disorganized response to the incidents increases the likelihood that researchers and investigators will never determine their cause. While the cause of the symptoms is still unknown, a study released late last year from the National Academy of Sciences stated that “directed” microwave radiation was the likeliest explanation for the symptoms experienced by U.S. personnel. However, scientists such as Dr. Mitchell Valdés Sosa, the lead doctor of the Cuban Academy of Sciences’ committee to study the health incidents, have continuously dismissed the microwave energy theory as being the cause of the health incidents. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.

As Cuba’s economy worsens, desperate rafters risk their lives at seaPresident Biden continues national emergency with respect to Cuba

The U.S. Coast Guard has recently seen an increase in the number of Cuban migrants attempting to reach the U.S. on makeshift boats and rafts, the Miami Herald reports. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, stated that “deteriorating life conditions” in Cuba and “the illusion of getting to the United States under a president who is more tolerant of undocumented immigrants” are likely major factors causing the increase in migrants. So far this fiscal year, which began in October 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted more than 100 Cuban migrants attempting to come to the U.S. through the Florida Straits. According to the Miami Herald, the Coast Guard interdicted only 49 Cuban migrants in the whole of the last fiscal year. However, Ramón Saúl Sánchez, a Cuban exile who helps Cuban migrants who successfully make it to the U.S., said the Coast Guard figures do not capture the scale of the situation, as those who arrive in Florida without being interdicted are not included and that data and go stay in Florida as undocumented residents.

On Sunday, U.S. authorities rescued six Cuban men and two pregnant women after their makeshift boat capsized north of West Palm Beach. The eight Cubans had spent 16 days at sea in a boat reportedly powered by an uncovered car engine. All eight were taken to local hospitals and are now in the custody of federal authorities. Also on Sunday, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued five Cuban men near the Port of Palm Beach who had attempted to reach the U.S. by raft. This group had also been at sea for 16 days and was later repatriated to Cuba. 

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden continued the “national emergency with respect to Cuba and the emergency authority relating to the regulation of the anchorage and movement of vessels,” which has been extended annually since it was originally set out in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. President Clinton proclaimed the emergency in response to the destruction of two U.S.-registered civilian aircraft, belonging to the Miami-based exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, by Cuba’s government while the aircraft were flying in international airspace north of Cuba. A notice on the continued national emergency cited, among other reasons for the continuation, the fact that “the unauthorized entry of any United States-registered vessel into Cuban territorial waters…could facilitate a mass migration from Cuba.”

Song by Miami-based Cuban musicians featuring Gente de Zona goes viral, sparks state response

The song “Patria y Vida,” recently produced by a group of Cuban singers from Miami and Cuba, is challenging Cuba’s government and eliciting strong reactions from both those who agree and disagree with the song’s political message, the Miami Herald reports. Randy Malcom and Alexander Delgado of the duo Gente de Zona, Grammy winner Descemer Bueno, and rapper Yotuel, collaborated with the Cuba-based rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky to produce the song, which repurposes the slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) with the lyric “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”). The song, which expresses frustration with Cuba’s government and support for the San Isidro Movement (MSI), currently has over two million views on YouTube. The music video for the song features video clips of government crackdowns on protestors, while the song’s lyrics refer to ideological rigidity, food shortages on the island, and the mass emigration of young Cubans to other countries.

The song’s popularity has provoked a strong backlash from Cuba’s government, with Cuban state media and government officials labelling it as unpatriotic and lacking in artistic value. The state newspaper Granma called the song “annexation vomit,” while Cuba’s President, Miguel Díaz-Canel took to Twitter writing (in Spanish), “We shouted Homeland or Death a thousand times last night.” The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (known by its Spanish acronym UNEAC) also released a statement critical of the song, entitled “To die for the Homeland is to live!” which describes their “indescribable disgust” with the song. U.S. policymakers have also chimed into the debate, with Samantha Power, President Joe Biden’s nominee for USAID Administrator, tweeting that the song gives an “interesting look at the new generation of young people in Cuba and how they are pushing back against government repression.” Professor Ana Dopico, Director of the Hemispheric Institute at New York University, wrote in a Twitter thread that the singers’ “demand for nation AND life, not the nation or death, is unprecedented in recent Cuban popular music.” Professor Dopico also wrote that “the demand for life clearly resonates with the global Black Lives Matter” movement, and that “the naming of political victims” and the use of “documentary footage” “has a long genealogy in Black radical art and music.”

The two Cuba-based singers, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, are both part of MSI, a collection of artists and activists who have protested against restrictions on artistic freedom on the island. 

U.S. settles with BitPay for apparent sanctions breaches

BitPay, one of the largest cryptocurrency payment processors, has agreed to pay $507,375 as part of a settlement with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) due to BitPay’s apparent violations of multiple sanctions programs, including sanctions on CubaReuters reports. OFAC had detected 2,102 instances between 2013 and 2018 in which BitPay allowed transactions to occur by people apparently located in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and the Crimea region of Ukraine. These transactions totaled around $129,000

Cryptocurrencies have gained popularity in countries under U.S. sanctions and sanctions from other countries, because they are seen as a way of getting around the international financial system. In Cuba, many citizens use digital currenciesto purchase goods online and to receive remittances. Alex Sobrino, the founder of the group CubaCripto, which provides a forum on various social media platforms for Cubans to debate and trade cryptocurrencies, stated that Cuba is “the country in the Caribbean with [the] most crypto activity.” Last week, the Fintech Times reported that 50.4 percent of all enquiries made in Cuba on the website TradingView, one of the largest online trading communities, had to do with cryptocurrency assets. Cuba is the only country in the world where over half of enquiries on the website concerned cryptocurrency, according to data analysis done by the company. 

IN CUBA

Cuba imposes new restrictions in Havana to slow COVID-19 spreadSoberana 02 vaccine candidate starts large-scale production

In an attempt to curtail the spread of COVID-19, Cuban authorities are closing streets and using barricades to control movement in certain parts of Havana where there are higher numbers of cases, Voice of America reports. In the municipality of Centro Habana, the police are only allowing residents to enter the area, prohibiting those who do not live in the municipality from entering. In other parts of the capital, such as Old Havana and Arroyo Naranjo, police have closed blocks and buildings and are restricting passage on some streets. These restrictions come after authorities in Havana earlier this month imposed a curfew in the city from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., during which only authorized vehicles and personnel are allowed outdoors.

Large-scale production of the island’s Soberana 02 vaccine has already begun, according to OnCuba News. The mass production is being done in preparation for the vaccine’s final phase of clinical trials in March, during which 150,000participants in Cuba and Iran will be vaccinated. The production of the vaccine, developed by the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana, is taking place at the National Center for Biopreparation. On Thursday, Cuba’s President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, tweeted that mass production has also begun for the island’s Abdala vaccine in preparation for phase three trials that will begin in March in Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo.

The Soberana 02 vaccine is administered through three doses, set two weeks apart, and does not need the deep freeze required by some other COVID-19 vaccines. Previously, scientists in Cuba, including the General Director of the Finlay Vaccine Institute, have said that if trials for Soberana 02 prove successful, Cuba could be able to offer vaccination to tourists who visit the island. Cuba’s government has stated that it plans on producing 100 million doses of the vaccine this year. The Soberana 02 vaccine is one of four vaccines in Cuba undergoing clinical trials, along with the Soberana 01,Abdala, and Mambisa vaccines. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Cuba: Challenges for U.S. Policymakers in 2021, Mark P. Sullivan & Dianne E. Rennack, Congressional Research Service

In this report from the Congressional Research Service, Mark Sullivan and Dianne Rennack discuss factors for Congress to consider when deliberating over the future of U.S.-Cuba policy. They detail the U.S. policy background with regards to Cuba as well as recent developments on the island, such as the government crackdown on the San Isidro Movement and the severe contraction of Cuba’s economy in 2020. They also list the changes in U.S.-Cuba policy made under the Obama and Trump administrations and discuss different approaches Congress may consider taking with U.S.-Cuba policy.

Virtual Interview: Cuba, Immigration, and Repression, Gloria Ordaz, Telemundo 51 Miami

In this segment from Telemundo 51 Miami, Gloria Ordaz interviews Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of the San Isidro Movement in Cuba, Ricardo Herrero, the Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group, Cuban American Representative Carlos Giménez (FL-26), Cuba-focused academics, and others about their perspectives on past, present, and future U.S.-Cuba policy, on Cuban immigration to the U.S., and on recent developments in Cuba. The segment also includes a clip from a previous interview with Juan González, Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council, in which he discusses the basic framework for the Biden-Harris administration’s policy toward Cuba.

Part 1: A consequence of relisting Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, Robert L. Muse, Global Americans

In this article, Robert L. Muse discusses the legal ramifications of the Trump administration re-adding Cuba to the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Mr. Muse details the history of lawsuits made in Florida courts against Cuba, stating that many of these lawsuits have not met the jurisdictional requirements of the statute under which they occurred. He ends by arguing that President Joe Biden should quickly remove Cuba from the list to avoid further damaging the prospects of one day engaging with the island nation.

Sixty Years of Failure: Time to End the Cuban Embargo, Duncan Mathewson, International Policy Digest

In this article, Duncan Mathewson argues that the U.S. should end its trade embargo on Cuba, stating that while the policy may have had some merit during the Cold War, it has long outlived its use. Mr. Mathewson details the potential benefits for the Cuban people that could come from lifting the embargo and the strategic sense it makes for the U.S. to do so. He ends by discussing the mass international opposition toward the embargo and the ways in which the sanctions policies stand in the way of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Cuban Artist Aymée Nuviola on Embracing Her Black Identity Through Music: ‘We Have So Much to Offer’, Jessica Roiz, Billboard

In this article, Jessica Roiz talks with the Cuban artist Aymée Nuviola about her new album, Viento Y Tiempo, currently nominated for best Latin Jazz Album for the 2021 Grammy Awards, and how her Black identity has informed her music. Ms. Nuviola discusses the racism that she had experienced while working in Cuba and her experiences surrounding her migration to Miami in June 2004. She also discusses the Afro elements of Cuban music and the musical community that she found after moving to Miami.

Fernando Hidalgo, Cuban-Born TV Host, Dies at 78, Christina Morales, The New York Times

In this article, Christina Morales discusses the life and career of the Cuban American television host Fernando Hidalgo, who died on February 15 in Coral Gables, Florida. Ms. Morales details how Mr. Hidalgo, who was born in Cuba in 1942 and later moved to Chicago as a teenager, began and hosted his popular show, “El Show de Fernando Hidalgo,” for 14 years. She also discusses his career prior to starting his hit show and his 2019 film “Ernesto’s Manifesto,” in which he starred. 

Prison has not discouraged Cuba’s leading dissident, José Zepeda, Open Democracy

In this article, José Zepeda interviews the Cuban dissident and human rights activist, José Daniel Ferrer. In the interview, Mr. Ferrer–who, after spending eight years in jail in Cuba, founded the Patriotic Union of Cuba in 2011, an umbrella organization for Cuban opposition groups–discusses his views on non-violent protest, his thoughts on the current state of Cuba’s government, and other topics.

The unintended environmental benefit of Cuba’s isolation, Katarina Zimmer, National Geographic

In this article, Katarina Zimmer discusses research, recently published by a collaboration of American and Cuban scientists, on the relative lack of invasive plant species in Cuba when compared to the ecologies of other Caribbean islands. Ms. Zimmer writes about how Cuba’s relative isolation from the outside world since 1959 likely contributed to the island acquiring fewer invasive plant species from abroad. She goes on to discuss the details of the recent study and the pathways by which invasive plants come to the Caribbean, most often by tourism and trade.

How Cuba’s artists took the kitchen to earn their crust in lockdown, Ruaridh Nicoll, The Guardian

In this article, Ruaridh Nicoll talks with various artists in Cuba who have decided to put their respective creative talents to use by opening up food businesses on the island. He writes about how different artists, or groups of artists, have recently opened up pie shops, jam shops, bakeries, and vegetarian eateries. Mr. Nicoll also discusses the economic crisis in Cuba that prompted some of these shifts into the food business and the state of food shortages that currently beset the island. 


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