U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 03/19/2021

Dear Friends,

The Fund for Reconciliation and Development is circulating an online petition in support of the restoration of President Obama’s Cuba Policy by the Biden-Harris administration. The petition is available for signing here.

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Yesterday, Cuba reported 735 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 3,575 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight decrease from the previous day. Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Granma, reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 396, 93, and 62 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 387. 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

Cuba accuses Washington of stoking irregular migration after boat tragedyWhat is happening is inhumane’: 100,000 Cubans in limbo as visa backlog grows

In the wake of an increase in the number of Cubans attempting to cross the Florida Straits to the U.S., Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) released a statement this week saying that current U.S. policies stoke irregular migration from Cuba, Reuters reports. The statement comes after a boat carrying over a dozen Cuban migrants attempting to reach the U.S. capsized last week near the Bahamas. Later, a Royal Bahamas Defense Force ship rescued 12 of the migrants and recovered one body. However, several of the migrants from the capsized vessel were not found, including two children and their mother. A note published by Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior on Sunday stated that after an unsuccessful two-day effort to search for the missing migrants, the Ministry was ending the search operation. MINREX’s statement cited two U.S. policies as incentivizing irregular migration: the current suspension of visa processing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the continued enforcement of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allows certain Cubans living in the U.S. to apply for permanent residency. The statement further said that the U.S. has not honored its commitment to process 20,000 Cuban immigrants annually, as required by a migration agreement signed in 1994 under President Bill Clinton. In response to the statement from MINREX, a U.S. State Department official said that residents of Cuba may have their visas processed at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, and that the U.S. is committed to supporting “safe, orderly, and humane migration from Cuba.”

The Miami Herald reports that Cubans and Cuban Americans living in the U.S. have filed over 100,000 unprocessed immigration cases, which are on hold due to the suspension of visa processing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. According to a U.S. State Department report, 78,228 Cubans were on a waiting list for immigrant visas with the National Visa Center as of last November. An additional 22,000 Cubans are in a state of limbo after filing applications with the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program (CFRP), which was established in 2007 and allows certain U.S. citizens or permanent residents to apply for parole for family members in Cuba so that they may come to the U.S. without waiting for immigrant visas. The program was created to help ensure that the U.S. met the agreed to annual quota of 20,000 Cuban immigrant visas. All CRFP processing in Havana has been suspended since 2017 due to a reduction in staff at the embassy in Havana. On Sunday, more than 200 people gathered at the Ermita de la Caridad in Miami for a “prayer for the Cuban family,” organized by groups that advocate for the reestablishment of the CFRP. Also in attendance were staffers representing various congressional offices, including those of Representatives Carlos Giménez (FL-26) and María Elvira Salazar (FL-27).

Since 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has been operating with essential personnel only, resulting in the complete halt of consular services, leading to delays in the processing of visas for Cubans and Cuban Americans. Cubans seeking to access consular services must travel to Guyana, a journey which is expensive and inaccessible to many. Traveling to Guyana has been especially difficult since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; all flights between Cuba and Guyana have been cancelled. A spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard told Reuters that during this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has intercepted 87 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 migrants in the entirety of fiscal year 2020. In fiscal year 2019, the Coast Guard intercepted 314 migrants from Cuba. For a graph of the number of Cuban migrants intercepted by the Coast Guard over the past 18 years, see this article from El Nuevo Herald.

Bill would block Biden from delisting Cuba as state sponsor of terrorismU.S. terrorism sponsor listing further complicates Cuba banking

Last Wednesday, Senators Marco Rubio (FL), Ted Cruz (TX), and Rick Scott (FL) introduced the Fighting Oppression until the Reign of Castro Ends (FORCE) Act, which, would prevent the Administration from removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorisms (SSOT) until Cuba meets requirements set out in the LIBERTAD ActThe Hill reports. Those requirements include the release of all political prisoners, the guarantee of the human rights of the Cuban people, and the institution of democratic elections. The introduction of the bill comes two months after Representative María Elvira Salazar (FL-27) introduced companion legislation, also titled the FORCE Act, in the House of Representatives. Last Wednesday, Senators Rubio, Cruz, and Scott also sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) voicing their collective objection to legislation that would amend U.S. Cuba policy. Their letter was sent the day after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the current Administration is reviewing the decision made by the Trump administration to reinstate Cuba on the SSOT list.

Cuba’s return to the SSOT list has introduced further obstacles for foreign banks that want to engage in transactions with the island, Reuters reports. Five Havana-based foreign businessmen and diplomats told Reuters that the few Western banks previously willing to navigate U.S. financial sanctions on Cuba have all either stopped transactions with the island or implemented more onerous layers of compliance. One of the businessmen said the increased caution among banks is “undermining Cuba’s ability to insert itself into global production chains.” Embassies in Cuba have also been affected by the country’s reinstatement on the SSOT list, with one diplomat from Asia stating that his country’s embassy has had difficulty accessing its accounts and that both the embassy and its diplomats have had trouble engaging in financial transfers since the relisting. John Kavulich, President of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council said that even though most corporate executives think the Biden-Harris administration will eventually remove Cuba from the list, financial institutions continuing their transactions with the island “have been required to expand their internal compliance.”

In a widely criticized move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned Cuba to the SSOT list a little over a week before former President Donald Trump left office. Previously, Cuba had been removed from the list by the Obama administration in 2015. The three other countries on the SSOT list are Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

New poll shows Cuban American voters align with GOP

A new poll by Bendixen & Amandi International of 400 Cuban American Florida voters found that a majority of those polled belong to the Republican Party and oppose a return to Obama-era Cuba policy, Politico reports. Those polled were all registered voters who participated in the November 2020 election. 60 percent of those polled belong to the Republican Party and 66 percent oppose returning to President Barack Obama’s policies toward Cuba. In April 2015, a poll conducted by the same organization with Cuban American Florida voters found that 51 percent supported President Obama’s announcement that his administration would begin normalizing relations with Cuba. 

The new poll shows a similar shift in opinion since 2015 when it comes to specific policy issues, such as maintaining the U.S. embargo on Cuba and easing travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. 66 percent of those polled thought the U.S. embargo should continue, compared to only 36 percent who did in April 2015. 35 percent of those polled were in favor of easing travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, compared to 56 percent in favor in the April 2015 poll. However, only 43 percent of those polled approved of the Trump administration’s decision to suspend the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, as opposed to 50 percent who disapproved of the decision. Similarly, 50 percent of those polled would support reinstating the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed Cuban migrants who made it to U.S. soil to remain in the country while those interdicted at sea were repatriated to Cuba. The policy was ended by President Barack Obama in January 2017. 

Fernand Amandi, president of Bendixen & Amandi, said that much of the gains Democrats had made with Cuban American voters during the Obama administration “seemed to have been wiped out as a result of Trump’s four years in office.” Amandi further stated that, as a Cuban American, he found it “very troubling” that 40 percent of those polled did not believe the results of the 2020 election. Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, said that since the Biden-Harris administration has yet to fully address U.S.-Cuba policy, the “dominant messaging that still maintains a grip over public opinion is what you had under the previous administration,” and predicted this will continue until the current Administration turns to Cuba policy. Offering a similar perspective, Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University Michael Bustamente said that “leadership matters in terms of driving a message” and that the Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to again shift public opinion in South Florida. He also discussed in a Twitter thread what he viewed to be problems with how the poll was conducted in accurately gaging Cuban American opinion. Mr. Bustamente pointed out that the poll only surveyed Cuban American voters, not the Cuban American community at large, and that it did not distinguish between Cuban American travel to the island and general travel to the island in its question about travel restriction to/from Cuba. The new poll has a margin of error of +/- 4.9 percentage points.

Cambridge passes Policy Order calling for an end to the US embargo of Cuba

On Monday, the City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts unanimously adopted a policy order calling for the end of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Massachusetts Peace Action reports. The policy order, introduced by Councilor Patricia Nolan, calls for “the immediate restoration of engagement with the Republic of Cuba” and urges the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that will end the embargo and the travel restrictions in place between the two countries. In early October of last year, the Cambridge City Council unanimously adopted another policy order that called for medical and scientific collaboration with Cuba, especially on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The resolution ordered the City of Cambridge to “actively explore” such collaboration. Cambridge is home to such research institutions as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which both have a history of collaborating with Cuba on medical and scientific research, as well as the biotechnology company Moderna, the developer of one of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in use in the U.S. 

Cambridge is the second city in a month’s time to call for the end of the embargo, following the Chicago City Council, which unanimously passed a resolution on February 24 calling for the “immediate restoration of engagement with the Republic of Cuba.” Many other local governments and local government bodies, such as Milwaukee Board of School Directors, have adopted similar resolutions calling on the Administration to pursue engagement with Cuba.

IN CUBA

Cuba approves second homegrown COVID vaccine for late phase trialsCuba plans to have required vaccines in August to immunize its populationMinimal adverse effects from Soberana 02 reported after first week of Phase III trial

On Thursday, Cuba’s drug regulatory authority approved the island’s Abdala vaccine for Phase III trials, making it the second COVID-19 vaccine from Cuba to enter the final phase of clinical trials, Reuters reports. The Phase III trials will take place in Cuba’s eastern provinces and will include 48,000 volunteers between the ages of 19 and 80, who will be given three doses of the shot. Authorities in Cuba plan to begin recruiting volunteers for the clinical trial next week. The study should be completed in July, with initial results ready to be published by August. The other Cuban COVID-19 vaccine currently in Phase III trials is the Soberana 02 vaccine.

On Wednesday, Eduardo Martínez, president of the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries of Cuba Business Group (BioCubaFarma), confirmed that by August Cuba will have manufactured enough doses of its vaccines to immunize its entire population, according to OnCuba News. Mr. Martínez further stated that after Cuba had produced enough vaccines for its population, it would continue to produce them to supply them to other “friendly countries.” According to OnCuba News, BioCubaFarma announced last Saturday that after the first week of Phase III trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine, participants in the trial experienced only mild adverse effects and discomfort. In a Twitter thread, BioCubaFarma stated that in the first week of the trial 4,778 volunteers had been vaccinated. The group further stated that, at the close of the day last Friday, there were 40 functioning vaccination centers on the island, a number which should increase in the coming days. Last Friday, BioCubaFarma also announced on Twitter that 100,000 doses of Soberana 02 had been sent to the Pasteur Institute in Iran, where Phase III trials will also be conducted, per an earlier agreement. Although Iran is currently the only other country that has agreed to host trials for the Cuban vaccine, Mexico has indicated that it could be interested as well. 

The Phase III trials in Cuba for Soberana 02, the most clinically advanced of Cuba’s vaccines, are currently being held in Havana with volunteers between 19 and 80 years of age. 44,010 volunteers will participate in the trials for the vaccine on the island, in which some participants will be given two doses of Soberana 02, others will be given two doses of Soberana 02 and a booster shot of Soberana Plus, and others will receive a placebo. Soberana Plus (also referred to as Soberana 01A) is specifically designed to prevent reinfection for people who have already had COVID-19. Besides the Soberana 02, Soberana Plus, and Abdala vaccines, Cuba has two other vaccines that have already progressed through various stages of clinical trials: the Soberana 01 and Mambisa vaccines. Cuba’s government hopes to be able to use Soberana 02 to vaccinate the island’s entire population by the end of the year.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

What is happening is inhumane’: 100,000 Cubans in limbo as visa backlog grows, Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald

In this article, Nora Gámez Torres discusses the plight of thousands of Cuban families unable to reunite due to the suspension of visa processing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. She describes the personal experiences of many Cuban Americans who have waited for years in the U.S. for relatives in Cuba to be given the opportunity to come to the country. She details the circumstances that prompted the reduction in staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and subsequent suspension of visa processing. Ms. Gámez also discusses the activist efforts in the U.S. pushing for the resumption of consular services in Havana.

Cubans are embarking on treacherous sea journeys as the economic crisis worsens, Patrick Oppmann, CNN

In this video, Patrick Oppmann discusses the recent surge in irregular migration from Cuba to the U.S. Mr. Oppmann interviews two women in Cuba who have each had family go missing after a boat capsized this month carrying migrants attempting the dangerous journey across the Florida Straits. He also discusses the various factors that are likely spurring the surge in migration from Cuba, including the backlog of visa applicants from the island.

Cuban voters – and Congress members – want it both ways on Cuba and immigration, Tim Padgett, WLRN

In this opinion piece, Tim Padgett argues that the findings of a recent poll of Cuban American voters in South Florida show a contradiction in their political views. Specifically, Mr. Padgett notes that 50 percent of those polled would like the Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CFRP) program to be reinstated, while at the same time a majority of those polled say the Biden-Harris administration should not move away from the previous Administration’s hardline Cuba policies, which included the suspension of the same CFRP program. Thus, Mr. Padgett claims that many Cuban Americans “want it both ways” with regards to U.S.-Cuba policy, desiring certain policies of engagement while also favoring a hard-line.

New poll shows how much Trump, GOP radicalized Cuban American voters in Florida, Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald

In this opinion piece, Fabiola Santiago discusses the findings of a recent poll of Cuban American voters in South Florida, which found that 40 percent of those polled did not accept the November election results. She argues that this disbelief in the election is the result of continued messaging coming from the former president and the Florida GOP. She also discusses the importance of Cuban American voters in Florida for state and national elections.

The expansion of the private sector in Cuba (Spanish), David Pajón Espina, Cuba Capacity Building Project: Columbia Law School

In this paper, David Pajón Espina discusses the development of the private sector in Cuba and the recent private sector reforms implemented by Cuba’s government. He discusses specific economic policy changes on the island, analyzing their effect on Cuba’s economy and private sector. He also details how changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba and the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the island’s private sector and offers some critiques of the recent reform efforts.

The scene from Cuba: How it’s getting so much right on COVID-19, Jennifer Ruth Hosek, The Conversation

In this article, Professor Jennifer Hosek discusses Cuba’s approach to confronting the COVID-19 pandemic both domestically and abroad. Professor Hosek details the public health measures Cuba has taken to control the virus as well as the current efforts on the island to produce COVID-19 vaccines, two of which are in Phase III trials. She also writes on the way in which local communities in Cuba are acting to fight the spread of the virus and on the economic costs that the pandemic has ladened on the island.

Cryptocurrencies in Cuba: What about their legal status? María Lucía Expósito, Cuba Study Group

In this article, María Lucía Expósito discusses the burgeoning use of cryptocurrencies in Cuba and the current lack of legal framework regulating their use. She discusses the appeal of cryptocurrencies to those in Cuba and the current efforts to develop regulations for the usage of digital currencies on the island. She also details the various methods by which Cubans trade and discuss cryptocurrencies.

The handbook for artists in danger, Rachel Spence, Financial Times

In this article, Rachel Spence discusses the recently published digital book, A Safety Guide for Artists, which offers a roadmap for artists to protect themselves from persecution. Ms. Spense writes on how the book draws on the experiences of artists like the Cuban performance artist and activist Tania Bruguera, a member of the island’s 27N collective. She also discusses the state of artistic freedom in various countries around the world, including Cuba, and details the experiences of other dissident artists.

New era beckons for Cuba, without a Castro in powerFrance 24

This article from Agence France-Presse (AFP) discusses the impending retirement of Raúl Castro from his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. The article discusses how Cuba’s policies and politics might shift once the current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, also assumes the role of First Secretary. Through discussion with experts like Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, the article details the tasks and opportunities waiting for the new executive. 

Cuba’s cigar-makers optimistic despite pandemic, Chelsey Dulaney, Deutsche Welle

In this video, Chelsey Dulaney interviews a tobacco farmer and a cigar factory manager in Cuba about the experiences of the island’s tobacco industry during the pandemic and their hopes for the industry in the near future. Ms. Dulaney discusses the current state of Cuba’s cigar exports and how factors beyond the pandemic, such as U.S. sanctions, have impacted the industry. 

The ecosystem of Cuban music in 20 female names (Spanish), AM:PM

This article from the Havana-based music magazine AM:PM provides a list of 20 leading women involved in the Cuban music industry. The article discusses women performers, songwriters, record producers, academics, musicologists, and others that are influencing the music scene on and off the island. 

Jazz Legend Arturo Sandoval on Escaping Cuba to Pursue His Passion, Giselle Fernandez, Spectrum News 1

In this episode of LA Stories with Giselle Fernandez, Ms. Fernandez interviews the 10-time Grammy and Latin Grammy award winning jazz musician Arturo Sandoval. Mr. Sandoval discusses his upbringing in Cuba, where he first learned to play the trumpet, and his ventures into the musical world on the island. He also discusses his friendship with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, who helped Sandoval and his family leave Cuba for the U.S.

The story of Cuban actress Estelita Rodriguez in the new book ‘Find Me in Havana’, Catie Switalski Muñoz, WLRN: Sundial

In this episode of WLRN’s podcast Sundial, Catie Muñoz discusses Estelita Rodríguez, a Cuban actress and singer from Havana who was prominent in 1950s Hollywood before she was murdered at the age of 37. Ms. Muñoz plays clips from an interview in which WLRN’s Luis Hernández talks with the author Serena Burdick, whose recent historical fiction book Find Me in Havana focuses on the life of Estelita Rodríguez.

EVENTS

Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami FL, ‘Viento y Tiempo’: Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymée Nuviola, March 20

The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County is hosting a socially distanced musical performance by Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymée Nuviola. Mr. Rubalcaba and Ms. Nuviola will perform selections from their highly acclaimed 2021 Grammy-nominated album Viento y Tiempo. The album, recorded live in 2020 at The Blue Note in Tokyo, reunites virtuoso pianist Rubalcaba and powerhouse vocalist Nuviola—childhood friends—in a heartfelt tribute to their early lives in Cuba, their mothers, and the music that surrounded them growing up. To read more about the event and Viento y Tiempo see this article from El Nuevo Herald.


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