U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 03/12/2021

Dear Friends,

CDA is hiring a Fellow and two remote summer interns! CDA seeks a uniquely qualified applicant for the 12-month Fellowship with a special interest in all things Cuba, a thirst for activism, and an interest in pursuing a professional career in the foreign policy NGO community. CDA also seeks two summer interns. Interns work in three key areas: Policy and Advocacy; Communications and Social Media; and Nonprofit Development. More information on the Fellowship is available here and on the internship here. 

The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) is collecting signatures for a petition to President Joe Biden, asking him and his Administration to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. The petition urges the President “to take swift and comprehensive action to lift travel restrictions to and sanctions on the island, encourage Congress to end the travel ban and trade embargo, and fully normalize diplomatic ties with Cuba.” You may sign onto the petition here.

CDA is partnering with Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) to host a virtual panel, “Moving Forward: How the Biden-Harris administration should engage the Latinx Community” on March 16. For more information, please visit the Events section of our news brief and/or this website

Yesterday, Cuba reported 762 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 4,696 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight decrease from the previous day. Havana, Granma, and Pinar del Río, reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 368, 105, and 65 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 365. 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

White HouseBiden reviewing Trump’s listing of Cuba as terrorism sponsorAny change in policy towards Cuba will go through Miami, says Secretary of State (Spanish)Sens. Rubio, Cruz, Scott send letter to Senate leadership on Cuba

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a press briefing that the Biden-Harris administration is reviewing the Trump administration’s decision to reinstate Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST), Reuters reports. Ms. Psaki stated that the Administration is “committed to carefully reviewing policy decisions made in the prior administration, including the decision to designate Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.” 

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during which he responded to a series of questions on Cuba, El Nuevo Herald reports. In response to a question from Representative María Elvira Salazar (FL-27) on future changes to U.S.-Cuba policy, Mr. Blinken stated that the Administration “will absolutely consult and engage with Cuban Americans on anything having to do with Cuba.” In response to another question from Rep. Salazar on whether Mr. Blinken would commit to implementing the Helms-Burton law until Cuba democratizes, the secretary stated, “We will always implement the law.” During questions from Representative Albio Sires (NJ-08), Mr. Blinken stated that although the past administration’s Cuba policy is under review, no conclusions have yet been reached and that whatever changes will be made to current Cuba policy will be done in close consultation with Congress. 

At a press briefing on Thursday, Department of State spokesperson Ned Price reiterated that Cuba policy is under review and that Members of Congress will be consulted closely during the review process, but clarified that this does not mean that Cuba policy “is in any way on the back burner.” Mr. Price also emphasized that the Biden-Harris administration’s Cuba policy will be guided by two core principles: support for democracy and human rights, and the idea that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for the U.S. 

Also on Wednesday, Senators Marco Rubio (FL), Ted Cruz (TX), and Rick Scott (FL) sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) voicing their collective objection to “any motions or consent requests with regard to any legislation that seeks to amend our nation’s policy towards Cuba.” In the letter, the Senators praised the actions taken by the Trump administration to impose further restrictions on financial transactions with Cuba. The Senators’ letter came after Senator Ron Wyden (OR) last month introduced the U.S.-Cuba Trade Act of 2021, which would effectively end the U.S.’s embargo on Cuba and establish normal trade relations with the island.

Debate over the direction of U.S.-Cuba policy under the new administration has drawn many voices in Congress. Last Tuesday, 79 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to President Biden, urging him to reverse President Trump’s Cuba policy changes. In January, Representative Jim McGovern (MA-02) sent a letter to then President-elect Joe Biden urging the new Administration to act quickly to repair relations between the U.S. and Cuba. At a recent event co-hosted by CDA, Rep. McGovern also urged the Administration “to act with passion and purpose so that we can finally embrace a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations.” Meanwhile, at an event last month, several Cuban American senators, representatives, and other elected officials pushed back against the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. At the event, Senator Robert Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and highest-ranking Cuban American senator, stated that the U.S. must make sure its diplomatic efforts “produce tangible results” on issues of democracy and human rights in countries like Cuba.

State Dept. appoints official to oversee ‘Havana Syndrome’ response

Today, the State Department announced that Pamela Spratlen, former U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, will oversee the department’s response to the series of health incidents that affected U.S. personnel in Cuba, Russia, and China, The Hill reports. Ms. Spratlen, who most recently served as a senior advisor of the Office of Inspector General, will now serve as a senior advisor to the State Department’s Health Incident Response Task Force. In line with previous statements from the department, Ms. Spratlen will serve in a senior-level position and have direct access to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Mr. Blinken stated that Ms. Spratlen “will streamline our coordination efforts with the interagency community, and reaffirm our commitment to make certain that those affected receive the care and treatment they need.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price also announced that the agency task force includes a position whose sole responsibility is engaging with those who may have been affected by the health incidents.

The State Department’s announcement comes after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stated last week that its own agency task force was expanding its efforts to determine the cause of the health incidents, which also affected CIA officers. While multiple U.S. federal agencies have investigated the health incidents, no investigation has definitively determined their cause. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.

Eight migrants from Cuba were stopped off the Florida Keys. They were quickly sent back

On Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard repatriated eight Cuban migrants, the Miami Herald reports. Last Tuesday, seven of those migrants had been interdicted off the coast of Islamorada while the other migrant, travelling alone, was interdicted off the coast of Duck Key. In a news release put out by the Coast Guard, Lieutenant Commander Mario Gil, the Coast Guard Liaison Officer at U.S. Embassy Havana, stated with regards to Cuban migration across the Florida Straits, “The loss of life is too great to make these trips in unsafe vessels.” The Coast Guard has recently seen an increase in the number of Cuban migrants attempting to reach the U.S. So far this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted 87 Cuban migrants in the Florida Straits, compared to only 49 interdictions in fiscal year 2020.

IN CUBA

Cuba expects to begin COVID-19 vaccine trials in children in April

Researchers in Cuba hope to begin clinical trials in April for a COVID-19 vaccine designed for children ages 5 to 18, OnCuba News reports. Dr. Dagmar García Rivero, Director of Research at the Finlay Vaccine Institute, stated at a press conference last Thursday that the clinical trials with children will require “higher regulatory rigor” and that the plans are currently being reviewed by Cuba’s Research Ethics Committee. She further stated that the trial would initially involve children between the ages of 12 and 18 and then, if the first part of the trial proved safe, would move onto children between the ages of 5 and 12. Currently none of the COVID-19 vaccines approved in other countries are designed for use in children. 

Cuba also recently began developing a fifth COVID-19 vaccine, Soberana 01A/Soberana Plus, specifically designed to prevent reinfection for people who have already had the disease. This fifth vaccine joins the four other Cuban vaccines that have already progressed through certain stages of clinical trials: the Soberana 01Soberana 02Abdala, and Mambisavaccines. Last week, Cuba began Phase III trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine, which Cuba’s government hopes to be able to use to vaccinate the island’s entire population by the end of the year.

Cuba to promote investments by Cubans residing abroad

Cuba’s government is inviting Cubans residing outside the island to invest in projects listed in the island’s Portfolio of Opportunities for Foreign Investment, which details foreign investment opportunities in Cuba, OnCuba News reports. On Wednesday, Katia Alonso, Business Director of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment (MINCEX) in Cuba, statedat a press conference that the portfolio includes 503 opportunities, valued at a total of $12 billion, many of which are small and medium enterprises. According to Ms. Alonso, the focus on smaller projects is intended to give ordinary Cubans residing abroad the opportunity to invest. Although Cubans living abroad were never legally banned by Cuba’s government from investing in businesses on the island, there has long been a stigma among Cuban authorities against allowing Cuban businessmen who live abroad to bring their capital to the island, OnCuba News reports.

As part of a series of economic reforms, in March Cuba began allowing foreign investors to have majority ownership in projects on the island. The reforms came after Cuba’s flagship project to attract foreign investment, the Mariel Special Development Zone, failed to generate the expected revenue of $12.5 billion in its first five years, instead generating only $1.19 billion. As part of its effort to attract more foreign investment, in December Cuba held the virtual Cuba 2020 Business Forum in place of the Havana International Trade Fair, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sugar harvest no sweetener for Cuba’s ailing economy

Cuba’s state media is reporting that sugar production on the island is at least 200,000 metric tons short of what was forecasted for the end of February, Reuters reports. All 13 of Cuba’s sugar-producing provinces were behind schedule at the beginning of the month. In December, Julio Andres García, President of Cuba’s state-owned sugar company AZCUBA, predicted that the industry would produce 1.2 million metric tons of raw sugar in 2021, similar to the 2020 production total of 1.3 million metric tons. However, Reuters estimates that this year’s harvest could produce as little as 900,00 metric tons, around a 25 percent decline from last year. Cuba has not produced under one million metric tons of sugar in a given year since 1908, producing an industry high of 8 million tons in 1989. This year’s harvest has been impeded by shortages of fuel, spare parts, and sugar cane, low crop yields, and the COVID-19 pandemic; at least one in every 38 sugar mills on the island has experienced an outbreak of COVID-19. 

While no longer one of Cuba’s top exports, sugar brings the island hundreds of millions of dollars a year through foreign sales. Cuba’s sugar harvest lasts from November to May, with the crop producing peak yields from January to mid-April. Annually, Cuba is contractually obligated to sell 400,000 metric tons of sugar to China, and domestic consumption regularly falls between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons.

Cuba to have an Observatory to record data on gender-based violence

Last Friday, the Federation of Cuban Women (also known by the Spanish acronym FMC), announced that Cuba will create a Gender Observatory to record statistics on femicides and other forms of gender violence on the island, OnCuba News reports. According to a Cuban official, the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean will advise the creation of the Observatory. Teresa Amarelle, General Secretary of the FMC, stated that the Observatory’s goal is to “demonstrate the country’s reality” when it comes to gender violence. While Cuba does not currently keep public statistics on gender violence, civil society groups on the island have published updated figures on the issue during the last two years. One such group, Yo Sí Te Creo en Cuba, along with the magazine Alas Tensas, record that at least six women on the island have been killed by their partners this year, while almost 30 were killed in 2020. The most recent official statistics on gender violence, from the 2016 National Survey on Gender Equality, show that 26.7 percent of women surveyed on the island between the ages of 15 and 74 were the victims of some form of domestic violence in the 12 months prior to the study. 

Currently civil society in Cuba is advocating for the implementation of a comprehensive law against gender-based violence on the island. In November 2019, forty Cuban women submitted a request to Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power for such a law. According to the UN, the COVID-19 pandemic has more significantly affected women in multiple ways, including by increasing the rates of domestic violence. This increase in violence prompted UN Secretary General António Guterres to call for “peace in homes.” In Cuba, independent platforms like Yo Sí Te Creo en Cuba offer telephone counseling services to victims. Some of the particular effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Cuban women and women around the world are explained in a publication by CDA’s Acting Executive Director María José Espinosa Carrillo and Cuban sociologist Ailynn Torres Santana, Cuba’s Policies to Confront the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Dissident rappers trigger lyrical battle for Cuban hearts and minds

Last week, five artists in Cuba responded to the viral song, “Patria y Vida,” by releasing their own song, “Patria o Muerte por la Vida,” which was published on official Cuban government websites, the Financial Times reports. The new song, sung by artists Raúl Torres, Annie Garcés, Dayana Divo, Karla Monier, and Yisi Caliber, rebuts the political message of the earlier song, which was critical of Cuba’s government and expressed support for the island’s San Isidro Movement (MSI). The new song offers such lyrical retorts as “You can cash in by licking the arrogance of the empire,” in reference to the U.S., where many of the singers of “Patria y Vida” reside, and “You can cash in by singing that you’re against poverty from a satin sofa.” “Patria o Muerte por la Vida” currently has over 800,000 views on YouTube, receiving about 13 times more dislikes than likes.

The singers of “Patria y Vida”–rapper Yotuel Romero, Randy Malcom and Alexander Delgado of the duo Gente de Zona, Grammy winner Descemer Bueno, and Cuba-based rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky–repurposed the traditional Cuban slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) with the lyric “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”) in their song and featured clips of government crackdowns on protestors in the song’s music video. Yotuel Romero recently toldthe Financial Times that “Patria y Vida” “is a phrase of light, a phrase of rebirth.” Ricardo Herrero, Director of the Cuba Study Group, stated that the song’s lyrics “have resonated with a lot of Cubans, particularly outside the island.” Two weeks ago, Members of European Parliament (MEPs) Dita Charanzová and Leopoldo López Gil hosted Yotuel Romero and Randy Malcom, along with the leader of MSI, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, to speak on politics and art in Cuba. “Patria y Vida” currently has over three million views on YouTube.

Cuba’s soccer team calls up foreign based players for the first time

On Tuesday, Cuba made the historic decision to call up 11 foreign-based Cuban soccer players to play for the island’s team ahead of the World Cup qualifying matches, the Japan Times reports. After repeated calls to allow foreign based players to play on the national team, Cubans currently playing in England, Spain, San Marino, Costa Rica, Brazil, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, and Honduras will join the Cuban national team. Cuba’s team will compete against Guatemala on March 24 in their first match of the World Cup Qualifiers. One player who will be joining the team is Onel Herández, a forward for Norwich City and the first Cuban to play in the English Premier League. From 1961 to 2013 all professional sports were banned in Cuba and athletes could not sign full contracts with foreign teams unless they defectedfrom the island. In 2013, Cuba amended this policy to both increase the competitiveness of its national teams and to benefit from taxation on professional sports contracts. 

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Borrell says EU’s Cuba ambassador committed ‘failures’ but won’t fire him

On Thursday, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, sent a letter to Members of European Parliament (MEPs) stating that while the EU’s ambassador to Cuba, Alberto Navarro, had made “two major public communication/judgement failures in recent weeks,” he would not be fired for his actions, Politico reports. In the letter, Mr. Borrell stated that Ambassador Navarro had “presented his deep apologies” for his decisions, which included independently deciding to sign an open letter to President Joe Biden regarding U.S.-Cuba policy and stating in an interview with CubaNet that he did not consider Cuba’s government to be a dictatorship. The open letter Mr. Navarro signed urged President Biden to return to former President Barack Obama’s policy of engagement with the island. It also 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.”

Mr. Borrell’s letter came after he gave a press conference on Wednesday, during which he acknowledged that Mr. Navarro had made “mistakes” while serving as the bloc’s ambassador, but declined to say whether he would be fired. At the press conference, Mr. Borrell stated that he had “received three letters from various lawmakers questioning certain circumstances that occurred in the management of our diplomatic representation [in Cuba].” One such letter, from 16 MEPs, urged Mr. Borrell to proceed with Mr. Navarro’s immediate replacement.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Biden Should Return to Engagement With Cuba, Editorial Board, Bloomberg

In this opinion pieceBloomberg’s Editorial Board argues that President Joe Biden should take the first steps toward re-engagement with Cuba. The Editorial Board details how, in its view, the Trump administration’s Cuba policies served to harm U.S. interests, and lays out a set of initial steps the current administration should take to repair relations with the island. The Editorial Board also discusses certain steps that Cuba’s government should take to improve the bilateral relationship, writing that any improvement in relations will be temporary unless Cuba takes meaningful actions.

Cuba’s struggling entrepreneurs look to Biden with hope, Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press

In this article, Andrea Rodríguez discusses the hope among some of Cuba’s entrepreneurs that the Biden-Harris administration will ease restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. Ms. Rodríguez speaks with Idania del Río and Leire Fernández, the owners of Cuba’s first independent fashion brand Clandestina, and other entrepreneurs on the island about how the shift in Cuba policy from the Obama administration to the Trump administration affected their respective businesses.

From Havana: A reaction to the proposals of the Cuba Study Group (Spanish), Jesús Arboleya, Progreso Semanal

In this opinion piece, Jesús Arboleya discusses the recent report published by the Cuba Study Group, “U.S.-Cuba Relations in the Biden Era,” which details policy recommendations for how the U.S. and Cuba can pursue bilateral engagement. Mr. Arboleya writes about the role the Cuba Study Group has played in public opinion and policy regarding Cuba and contrasts the organization’s recommendations with other views in the Cuban American community. He expresses both agreement and criticism with various aspects of the report, ultimately viewing it as an important document that he hopes will promote engagement between the two countries.

Cuba and the Battle for Remittances, Darcy Berrero Batista, Institute for War & Peace Reporting

In this article, Darcy Berrero Batista discusses the series of policy changes implemented by the Trump administration that resulted in Western Union suspending its remittance transferring services in Cuba. She further discusses the ongoing debate that surrounds Cuban remittances and the controversy over having military controlled entities process the remittances on the island. She details possible ways forward for Western Union to resume remittance transferring services in Cuba, including the recent announcement by Cuba’s government that Redsa, a non-military controlled entity, would be able to process remittances on the island.

Cuba Being on the UN Human Rights Council Is a Travesty, Elyssa Koren, Newsweek

In this opinion piece, Elyssa Koren discusses Cuba’s seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the human rights situation in Cuba. She recalls her family’s emmigration from Cuba in 1961 and more recent migrations of Cubans to the U.S. She argues that people should take seriously the efforts to remove countries which abuse human rights from the UNHRC and that reforms to the UNHRC are both needed and possible.

8M in Cuba: Pandemic and Feminism (Spanish), Alina Herrera Fuentes, elTOQUE

In this article, Alina Herrera Fuentes discusses the work of femenist movements in Cuba and other countries in Latin America. She details the civil society and government efforts to confront issues like gender-based violence and femicide in Cuba and the unique effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women on the island. Mr. Herrera also discusseswhat further reforms and initiatives are needed to combat discrimination and violence against women in Cuba.

How a Cuban Spy Sabotaged New York’s Thriving Illicit Slave Trade, John Harris, Smithsonian Magazine

In this article, John Harris discusses the efforts of the Cuban spy, Emilio Sánchez, who provided intelligence to the British government on illicit slave trading run out of New York from 1859 to 1862. Mr. Harris describes Sánchez’s motivations for becoming a spy and how he went about gathering information. He also discusses how the British government would use Sánchez’s intelligence to intercept slave ships and the historical context surrounding the illicit slave trade in the U.S. and Cuba. 

Cuba tradition alive and well, fueling Sox present, future, Vinnie Duber, NBC Sports

In this article, Vinnie Duber discusses the tradition of Cuban players coming to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox. Mr. Duber talks with Cuban players currently on the team about how the team’s Cuban connection influenced their decision to sign with the White Sox over other franchises. He also details the influence that José Abreu, the reigning American League MVP, has had on the other Cubans on the team by virtue of his mentorship and guidance.

EVENTS

Virtual, Moving Forward: How the Biden-Harris administration should engage the Latinx Community, March 16

CDA and Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) are hosting a virtual panel,“Moving Forward: How the Biden-Harris administration should engage the Latinx Community,” from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. on March 16, to discuss the most pressing issues the Latinx community faces, how these may be resolved, and how the Administration should engage Latinxs in the policy-making process. To register for the event, please click here.


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