U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 03/05/2021

Dear Friends,

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 777 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 4,551 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight decrease from the previous day. Havana, Mayabeque, and Granma, reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 333, 65, and 60 new cases reported respectively in each province. The number of deaths has increased by 195 since the beginning of the year, bringing the total to 341 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…


79 Democrats urge President Biden to reverse the Trump administration’s cruel policy towards Cuba; Chicago City Council passes resolution calling for Cuba engagement

On Tuesday, 79 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to President Joe Biden “urging him to take swift executive action to reverse the Trump Administration’s draconian policies toward Cuba, return to the diplomatic path charted by the Obama–Biden Administration, and pursue an ultimate end to the nearly six-decade-long economic embargo.” In the letter, the representatives urge President Biden to quickly end restrictions on travel and remittances, writing, “With the stroke of a pen, you can assist struggling Cuban families and promote a more constructive approach.” They also urge President Biden to restaff the U.S. Embassy in Havana, to reverse the Trump administration’s last minute decision to place Cuba back on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and to reengage diplomatically with the island on areas such as health and security. 

The effort was led by Representatives Bobby Rush (IL-01), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Barbara Lee (CA-13), and Steven Cohen (TN-09). The letter’s signatories included, among other members, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks (NY-05), the Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters (CA-43), and the Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rosa DeLauro (CT-03). Peter Kornbluh, Director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, stated that the effort “will help empower U.S. foreign policy officials in the Biden administration who seek to rebuild what Trump destroyed–a constructive, productive and civil approach toward Cuba and its people.” However, a White House official told Reuters last weekend that Cuba policy is not currently one of the Biden-Harris administration’s top priorities, which include the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic economic recovery, and rebuilding international alliances.

The 79 representatives who signed onto the letter join many non-governmental organizations and local governments in advocating for the Biden-Harris administration to pursue a policy of engagement with Cuba. On February 24, the Chicago City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the end of the embargo and the “immediate restoration of engagement with the Republic of Cuba.” The following day, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors unanimously adopted a resolution, sent to President Biden and members of Congress from Wisconsin, calling on the Administration and other authorities to “to promptly invite negotiations with their Cuban counterparts to explore mutually beneficial cooperation” as a step toward normalization of relations between both countries.

On February 10, 56 organizations, including CDA, sent a letter to the Biden-Harris administration urging immediate action to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations. To read CDA’s report, co-authored with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), on how the Biden-Harris administration may implement a policy of engagement toward Cuba, visit our website.

C.I.A. to expand inquiry into mysterious health episodes overseas

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stated this week that an agency task force is expanding its efforts to determine the cause of health incidents suffered by U.S. government personnel, including CIA officers, in Cuba, Russia, and China, The New York Times reports. The task force, which was created at the end of 2020 by former CIA Director Gina Haspel, will work with the State Department and other government agencies to try to determine if the health incidents were caused by deliberate attacks and, if so, who was responsible. While the existence of the task force was first reported last week by CNN, the announcement on the task force’s new efforts comes after William Burns, President Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA Director, stated in his confirmation hearing that he would make investigating the health incidents an “extraordinarily high priority.” The group is made up of medical experts, intelligence officers, and officers specializing in human resources, privacy, and civil liberties. 

The CIA joins the State Department in reinvigorating efforts to investigate the health incidents; recently, State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated that the department was elevating the role of the coordinator investigating the health incidents to a senior-level position.

While 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, have investigated the health incidents, those investigations have largely been inconclusive regarding the cause of the incidents. A National Academy of Sciences study released late last year stated that “directed” microwave radiation was the likeliest explanation for the symptoms. However, many scientists have either viewed with skepticism or outright dismissed the microwave radiation theory. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.

Cubans residing in the US and Canada ride in caravans for the end of the embargo (Spanish)

On Sunday, Cuban and other residents of the U.S. and Canada rode in bicycle and car caravans in eight cities across the U.S. and Canada to show their support for ending the U.S. embargo, OnCuba News reports. The caravans–which occurred in the cities of Miami, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Minneapolis, Ottawa, and Montreal–were organized by the organization Puentes de Amor, led by Cuban American U.S. veteran Carlos Lazo. A post on the Puentes de Amor website regarding the caravans asks President Joe Biden to lift sanctions on Cuba that hurt the Cuban people, reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana, allow families to send remittances to the island, resume operation of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, ease restrictions on U.S. travel, and re-establish scientific, economic, and cultural ties between the two countries. According to OnCuba News, Puentes de Amor has hosted seven previous caravans in support of ending the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Last year, Mr. Lazo embarked on a 3,000 mile bike journey from Seattle, WA to Washington, D.C. to bring attention to the impact of the Trump administration’s sanctions on Cuba during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read our August 2020 interview with Mr. Lazo, click here.

Coast Guard stops 2 Cuban migrants off the Florida Keys. They say there were at sea 10 days

On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted two Cuban men attempting to reach the U.S. through the Florida Straits, the Miami Herald reports. The two men, who were in good health, stated that they had been at sea for ten days before they were picked up by the Coast Guard eight miles off Plantation Key. The men were repatriated to Cuba that same day, according to a news release put out by the Coast Guard’s 7th District Southeast. The Coast Guard has recently seen an increase in the number of Cuban migrants attempting to reach the U.S. on makeshift boats and rafts. So far this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted 74 Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits, compared to only 49 interdictions in the last fiscal year.


Cuba starts late stage trials of COVID-19 vaccine candidate in Havana

This week, Cuba began the third and final phase of clinical trials for its Soberana 02 vaccine for COVID-19, Reuters reports. Participants in the placebo controlled trial, which will include 44,000 volunteers between the ages of 19 and 80 in Havana along with thousands of volunteers in Iran and Venezuela, will receive two shots of the vaccine administered two weeks apart; some participants will receive a third booster shot of another Cuban experimental vaccine. According to authorities in Mexico and Cuba, Mexico could also potentially take part in the clinical trial. While initial results are expected by May, the Phase III trial is expected to be completed in November with final results available in January 2022. Cuba also expects Phase III trials for its Abdala vaccine to begin later this month in Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo. 

If the vaccine trial is successful, Cuba has stated it will use it to inoculate its entire population of 11 million people this year, export the vaccine to other countries (unlike many other COVID-19 vaccines, Soberana 02 does not require special refrigeration), donate doses to the poorest nations, and offer it to tourists who visit the island. Dr. Vicente Vérez, the General Director of the Finlay Vaccine Institute, which developed the Soberana 02 vaccine, has said that Cuba has the capacity to produce around 100 million doses this year. Mexico, Venezuela, and Jamaica have expressed interest in buying Soberana 02 should the trials prove successful. Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) stated on Wednesday at a press conference that PAHO could not yet make an agreement for the distribution of Cuba’s vaccine at this stage in clinical trials. Dr. Barbosa stated that all vaccines must meet the same requirements, completing all clinical trials and presenting a dossier demonstrating their quality, safety, and efficacy. 

The Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines are two of four vaccines in Cuba undergoing clinical trials, along with the Soberana 01 and Mambisa vaccines, which are in earlier clinical stages. According to Cuba’s government, Cuba already produces 13 medicines, half of which were developed in Cuba, used to fight and treat COVID-19.

Cuba approves animal welfare law after civil society pressure

Cuba’s Council of State has approved a decree on animal welfare following decades-long advocacy from Cuban civil society, Reuters reports. While the exact legislation has not yet been published, the decree will regulate, among other things, scientific experiments involving animals, the handling of strays, and veterinary practices. The decree will also regulate animal sacrifices, which occur often by rivers and along the coast of Cuba as part of religious rituals, so that they are conducted in a “compassionate and rapid manner, avoiding pain and stress.” Fernando Gispert, President of the Havana branch of the Cuban Association of Veterinary Medicine, stated that “Cuba was one of the few countries in Latin America that didn’t have an animal welfare law so to have one now is an immense joy.” Beatriz Batista, one of the leaders of the animal welfare movement, stated that the activists’ effort “has set an example for all communities that want their voice to be heard” by Cuba’s government.

In another win for animal welfare advocates, as part of Cuba’s recent expansion of the non-state sector on the island, the government allowed the private sector to engage in veterinary medicine for the care of family pets. While Cuba’s civil society had long raised the issue of animal welfare, recently those involved in the movement have opted for more public forms of advocacy, organizing social media campaigns and public protestsIn 2019, advocates for animal welfare marched in what was thought to be the first officially approved independent protest in modern Cuba’s history. 


EU summons ambassador to Cuba over letter to BidenCuba artists testify about rights violations before European Parliament

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has summoned the EU’s ambassador to Cuba, Alberto Navarro, back to Brussels following controversy over Ambassador Navarro’s decision to sign onto an open letter addressed to President Joe Biden, Politico reports. The open letter, which was originally signed by a number of Cuban intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and artists, urged President Biden to return to former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with the island. The letter further asked the U.S to “stop being a hostile neighbor” to Cuba and urged the U.S. government to “stop interfering in [Cuba’s] domestic affairs.” Last Wednesday, 16 Members of the European Parliament (MEP) sent a letter to Mr. Borrell criticizing numerous actions taken by Ambassador Navarro, including his decision to sign the open letter to President Biden. An EU spokesperson declined to comment on whether Mr. Borrell would remove the ambassador, stating that the ambassador was summoned to Brussels “to provide explanations.”

According to Jurist, last Friday, MEPs Dita Charanzová and Leopoldo López Gil, both of whom signed the letter calling for Ambassador Navarro’s resignation, hosted Cuban artists and dissidents to present testimony to the European Parliament about human rights violations by Cuba’s government. Among those Cubans who testified were the singers Yotuel Romero and Randy Malcom, two of the six singers whose recently released song “Patria y Vida” has provoked a strong backlash from Cuba’s government. The song, which repurposes the slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) with the lyric “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), expresses frustration with Cuba’s government and support for the San Isidro Movement (MSI). Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of MSI, also presented testimony at the event.


Experts: Cuba and the US ‘Should act faster than they ever have before’ (Spanish), Amaury Valdivia, elTOQUE

In this article, Amaury Valdivia discusses two recent reports on U.S.-Cuba policy, “The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement,” authored by CDA and the Washington Office on Latin America, and “U.S. Cuba Relations in the Biden Era,” authored by the Cuba Study Group. Ms. Valdivia details the recommendations made by these two reports for how the Biden-Harris administration may pursue engagement with Cuba.

A Window of Opportunity Opens for Cuba and the United States to Build a Functional Relationship–Interview with Carlos SaladrigasInter-American Dialogue

In this interview, Carlos Saladrigas, Chairman of the Cuba Study Group and member of the Inter-American Dialogue, discusses the policy proposals put forward for the Biden-Harris administration in the Cuba Study Group’s recently published report, “Relations between the United States and Cuba in the Biden era.” Mr. Saladrigas comments on the current opportunity to pursue a policy of engagement with Cuba and details steps the Administration can take to improve relations with the island. He also discusses the role for Cuban Americans in the U.S.-Cuba relationship and details reforms he believes Cuba’s government should take to support the bilateral relationship.

Part 2: The unlawful basis for Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, Robert L. Muse, Global Americans

In this article, the second in a two-part series, Robert L. Muse discusses the Trump administration’s decision to re-add Cuba to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, arguing that there is no legitimate legal basis for Cuba’s placement on the list. Mr. Muse discusses the reasons given by the State Department for Cuba’s placement on the list, examining case history and treaty language to argue why the purported reasons are immaterial to the matter. He also offers a historical account of the political crime exception included in the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Cuba and in extradition treaties more generally.

Support Cuba’s emerging market economy by ending the blockade, Benjamin Powell, The Hill

In this opinion piece, Professor Benjamin Powell argues that the U.S. government should repeal its embargo on Cuba and allow U.S. businesses to trade with Cuban entrepreneurs so as to help grow Cuba’s private sector and encourage further economic liberalization on the island. Professor Powell discusses the recent decision by Cuba’s government to significantly expand the private sector and details the recent history of private sector liberalization in Cuba. He also discusses his personal experience as a traveler on the island with Cuba’s state and private sectors.

DeFacto Will Verify Information For You (Spanish), Jessica Domínguez Delgado, elTOQUE

In this article, Jessica Domínguez Delgado discusses the recently developed Cuban fact-checking service DeFacto, which aims to combat the spread of misinformation in Cuba. Ms. Domínguez writes about the DeFacto chatbot, which responds to messages over Telegram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger with fact-checked, reliable information. She also discusses how the service was developed and how it provides users with credible information.

The Cuba of the future is that of ‘Patria y Vida’ (Spanish), Abraham Jiménez Enoa, The Washington Post

In this opinion piece, Abraham Jiménez Enoa discusses the significance of the recently released song, “Patria y Vida,” and the strong reaction by Cuba’s government to the song’s reformist political message. He discusses the context of the song and the ways in which it seeks to alter the relationship between Cubans and their country. 

Cuba’s quest for vaccines, Christiane Amanpour & Candace Johnson, CNN

In this video segmentCNN anchor Christiane Amanpour interviews Candace Johnson, President and CEO of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York, who has worked with scientists in Cuba to bring their unique lung cancer vaccine, CIMAvax-EGF, to the U.S. for clinical trials. In the interview, Ms. Johnson discusses the innovativeness of Cuban scientists and the relationship between their effort to develop a lung cancer vaccine with their current efforts to develop COVID-19 vaccines. Ms. Johnson also discusses Cuba’s past and present use of medical diplomacy, which has included sending doctors to other countries to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sixty Years Later, the Bay of Pigs Remains a Cautionary Tale, Max Hastings, Bloomberg

In this opinion piece, Max Hastings chronicles the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, using the incident to argue that intelligence agencies should be treated with some degree of skepticism. Mr. Hastings details the thinking behind the invasion, the steps undergone to prepare for it, the sequence of the actual attack, and the consequences of its utter failure.

Dreaming of Cuba? Here’s How to Feel Like You’re in Havana Anytime You’d Like, Tony Perrotter, The Wall Street Journal

In this article, Tony Perrotter details books, songs, meals, drinks, and movies that offer windows into life in Cuba for those not able to visit the island. The author John Lee Anderson recommends four books for those wishing to learn more about Havana; Rafa Escalona, the Editor of the Havana music magazine “AM:PM,” recommends Cuban artists and songs for listening; Enrique Nuñez, the owner of La Guarida restaurant, recommends his favorite Cuban meals; and Mr. Perrotter himself discusses classic Cuban drinks and movies featuring the city of Havana.

How the Contradictions of Socialism Make Cuban Art Great, Nato Green, Hyperallergic

In this article, Nato Green discusses the state of the arts in Cuba. Mr. Green details the educational pathways for students in Cuba who decide to pursue the arts and describes the large availability of art performances and classes on the island. He also discusses the tension that arises between government censors and artists and the recent protests over restrictions on freedom of expression on the island.


Virtual, What Will It Take to Salvage Cuba’s Economy?, March 9

The Inter-American Dialogue is hosting a virtual panel from 2 to 3 p.m. EST on March 9 to discuss Cuba’s economy and recent economic reforms on the island. The panelists will include Pavel Vidal Alejandro, Professor of Economics at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana de Cali, Colombia, Ted Henken, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Baruch College of the City University of New York, and Vicki Huddleston, retired U.S. Ambassador and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. To register for the panel, please visit their website.

Virtual, It Ain’t Over. Who lives? Who dies?, March 10

On March 10, the Center for Global Studies at Purdue Northwest is hosting a virtual panel from 9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. with scholars from around the world to discuss the diverse national responses to the coronavirus pandemic and the consequences of these responses for the citizens in their country. The panelists will include Dr. Luis Alberto Montero Cabrera, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Havana in Cuba, Dr. Gilson Shwartz, Professor of Communication at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, Nguyen Thi Trang, Professor of History at the Thai Nguyen University of Education in Vietnam, and Subhasis Bandopadhyay, Professor of Sociology at the Institute for Engineering, Science, and Technology in India. To register for the panel, please visit their website.

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