U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 03/26/2021

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Yesterday, Cuba reported 832 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 3,318 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight decrease from the previous day. Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Camagüey reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 514, 74, and 51 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 413. 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…


Feds say they busted Cuban migrant smuggling ring operating out of the KeysCoast Guard repatriates 17 migrants to Cuba

On Sunday, federal agents arrested four men in Florida in relation to a scheme to smuggle immigrants from Cuba to the U.S., the Miami Herald reports. The four men face charges of knowingly and willingly conspiring to encourage and induce foreign nationals to enter the U.S. and appeared in Key West federal court for the first time on Monday. Three of the men––Alberto García, Manuel Fonseca, and Yudier Panaque––were arrested by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents as they were lowering a boat into the water at a marina in Tavernier, allegedly in preparation for a trip to Cuba to smuggle some 20 migrants from the province of Pinar del Río. The other man, Yosniel Fuentes, was arrested later that day at a house in Homestead, where authorities found a ledger with the names and phone numbers of people in Cuba. 

The arrests come as the U.S. Coast Guard is experiencing an increase in the number of Cuban migrants attempting to cross the Florida Straits to the U.S. On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard repatriated 17 Cuban migrants, according to a news release on the Coast Guard 7th District Southeast’s website. The 17 migrants had been interdicted the preceding Thursday about 54 miles south of Key West. So far in fiscal year 2021, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted 107 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 interdictions in fiscal year 2020, and 313 interdictions in fiscal year 2019. Cuba’s government recently released a statement accusing current U.S. policies of stoking the increase in irregular migration from Cuba. The statement specifically cited the current suspension of visa processing at U.S. Embassy Havana, which has effectively halted the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, a program that allows qualifying Cubans to come to the U.S. without waiting for immigrant visas.

Family of Cuban American jailed in Cuba says her health is deteriorating

The family of a Cuban American teacher, Alina López Miyares, currently serving a 13-year prison sentence in Cuba, is calling on the Biden-Harris administration to intervene and try to return Ms. López Miyares to the U.S., NBC News reports. The family says that she is suffering from kidney problems and is not receiving treatment while in prison. Cuba has also denied Ms. López Miyares, who was born in Cuba and later became a U.S. citizen, U.S. consular visits, as Cuba’s government considers anyone born on the island to be a Cuban national and does not recognize dual citizenship for those in the country. Her family and her attorney, Jason Poblete, have been advocating that Ms. López Miyares be allowed consular visits so she can receive needed medicine and so U.S. diplomats can speak with her about her case. 

In 2017, Ms. López Miyares faced espionage charges in a military court in Cuba for allegedly passing information from her husband, Felix Martín Milanés Fajardo, a former Cuban official, to the FBI and CIA. Her husband, who had previously been a member of the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations, was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Ms. López Miyares and her family maintain that she is innocent of the charges. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with the families of U.S. citizens held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, saying that their family members “are a top priority in our diplomatic engagements with both allies and adversaries.”


Nearly all Havana to receive experimental Cuban COVID-19 vaccinesCuba to vaccinate 150,000 frontline workers as part of final phase of clinical trial

On Tuesday, Cuban officials stated that almost the entire population of Havana would be vaccinated with experimental COVID-19 shots by May, Reuters reports. At a roundtable broadcast on state television, Ileana Morales, director of science and technology for Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health, said that authorities plan to vaccinate 1.7 million of the 2.1 million inhabitants of Havana by May. Ms. Morales further stated that authorities could seek emergency use authorization in June for the island’s Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines, both of which are currently in the final stage of clinical trials. This emergency use approval would allow mass vaccination of the island’s population to begin as early as June, with authorities aiming at six million people vaccinated by August and all of Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants vaccinated by the end of the year, according to Ms. Morales. 

Officials in Cuba also announced on Sunday that 150,000 frontline workers in Havana would be vaccinated as part of the Phase III trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine, Reuters reports. The administration of the vaccine to medical and other high-risk personnel began on Monday. Ms. Morales said that hopefully similar vaccination efforts for frontline workers would occur soon in Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, and Granma with the Abdala vaccine. The ongoing clinical trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine in Cuba, which are occurring in Havana, include around 44,000 volunteers. At the broadcast on Tuesday, Deputy Health Minister Carilda Peña said that Havana is registering 292 cases per 100,000 inhabitants compared to an average of 103.5 cases per 100,000 inhabitants for the nation as a whole. This week, Cuba surpassed 400 recorded deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to the Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines, Cuba has three other vaccines that have already progressed through various stages of clinical trials: the Soberana 01Soberana 01A, and Mambisa vaccines. In April, researchers in Cuba hope to begin clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine designed for children ages 5 to 18.

Cuba makes headway in Code that will address same-sex marriage

Cuba’s Council of State has approved the appointment of members to a commission that will present a draft to Cuba’s legislature of the island’s new Family Code OnCuba News reports. While the draft language of the new Family Code is unknown to the public, the legislation is expected to address the question of same-sex marriage on the island. Cuba’s National Assembly announced that those appointed to the commission include representatives of governmental and societal organizations, specialists and professors in the field, and others without providing further details on the individuals appointed. Cuba’s legislative schedule stipulates that the new draft of the Family Code be presented in March of this year, after which it will eventually be subject to a popular referendum.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in Cuba was widely debated in 2018 during the drafting of Cuba’s new constitution, which was approved in early 2019 in a national referendum. In the initial draft of the new constitution, the language defining marriage was broadened so as to include the possibility of same-sex marriages. The previous constitution had defined marriage exclusively as between “a man and a woman.” However, many religious groups on the island, including evangelical churches and some sectors of Cuba’s Catholic Church, campaigned against the proposed constitution’s broadened definition of marriage and threatened to vote against the constitution if that definition was included. Subsequently, the Constitutional Reform Commission decided to not include a precise definition of marriage in the new constitution, postponing the debate until the new Family Code would be presented for a national referendum.

Cuban journalist requests asylum in Costa Rica due to ban on entry to Cuba (Spanish); Cuba’s government denounces use of social networks against it (Spanish)

Last Thursday, the journalist Karla María Pérez requested asylum in Costa Rica after being prohibited from boarding a flight to her native Cuba, where she is a citizen, El Nuevo Herald reports. Ms. Pérez, who writes with the independent news outlet ADNCuba, was stopped at the Panama City airport, where she was transferring flights from Costa Rica to Cuba. She was told by an airport agent that she was prohibited from entering Cuba, and was presented with an audio recording from a Cuban official to that effect. Ms. Pérez was returning to Cuba, where her family lives, after completing her degree in journalism at a university in Costa Rica. She had been enrolled at a university in Cuba until 2017, when she was expelled due to her participation in an opposition movement, according to El Nuevo Herald. In response to the decision to deny Ms. Pérez entry to Cuba, several independent media outlets, human rights officials, and activists have expressed their solidarity with Ms. Pérez and condemned Cuba’s government’s decision. Additionally, six people went on Thursday to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) to protest the decision.

According to the Associated Press, in response to the protest and the series of condemnations, officials in Cuba asserted on Friday that the government had suffered a “soft coup” by opposition groups using social media to pressure the government to allow Ms. Pérez into the country. At a press conference, Yaira Jiménez, director of communication and image for MINREX, called the independent journalists who had condemned the decision “political operatives in the service of a foreign government.” Ms. Jiménez also detailed a timeline of when the various individuals, activists, human rights workers, and others had released statements in support of Ms. Pérez. 

Green Climate Fund benefits project on climate change in Cuba with financing worth millions of dollars

Last Friday, the UN Green Climate Fund (GFC) approved a $23.9 million grant for a project in Cuba to increase the climate resilience of people living in many of the island’s coastal communities, OnCuba News reports. The project, entitled “Coastal Resilience to Climate Change in Cuba through Ecosystem Based Adaptation” or “MI COSTA,” will also receive $20.3 million from Cuba’s government. It will benefit 1.3 million people in coastal towns in the provinces of Pinar del Río, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, and Granma. The GFC Board approved the grant during its twenty-eighth meeting, during which it also approved funding for several other climate-related projects around the world. The U.S. representative to the GCF objected to approving the grant for the project.

According to the GCF’s website, the MI COSTA project aims to increase the climate resiliency of coastal communities in Cuba through an “ecosystem-based adaptation approach.” As part of that approach, the project intends to restore more than 11,000 hectares of mangroves, 3,000 hectares of swamp forest, and 900 hectares of swamp grass on the island. It will also improve the health of 9,000 hectares of seagrass and 134 kilometers of coral reefs. 60 percent of the population in the targeted coastal communities on the island will be trained on how to protect ecosystems in order to enhance climate adaptation.

The project, which will be carried out over the span of 30 years, will be implemented through the Institute of Marine Sciences by the Environment Agency of Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment (CITMA). According to CITMA, without climate intervention, by the end of this century, 21 coastal communities in Cuba will disappear while another 98 will be severely affected by climate change. The GCF further states that 57 percent of Cuba’s populations live in areas that are “highly vulnerable” to flooding from intense storms and rising sea levels. 

Meteor streaks over Cuba, causes explosion

At around 10:06 p.m. local time last Friday, what many believed to be a meteorite blazed through the sky above eastern Cuba before exploding in the air, the Associated Press reports. Enrique Arango Arias, the head of the National Seismological Service in Cuba, said that the event was visible in the towns of Mosa, Sagua de Tanamo, and Maisí and that the service’s instruments had registered the wave of the explosion. He further stated that he was willing to “tentatively” say that the phenomenon was caused by a falling meteorite. However, Cuba’s Ministry of Science and the Environment later released a note saying that the explosion could have had another other cause, such as a falling meteor, meteoroid, cosmic debris, or even garbage from ships in orbiting the Earth.


Cuba and China to develop a vaccine against new strains of the coronavirusVenezuela announces its participation in clinical trials of Soberana 02 and Abdala

Scientists from Cuba and China are working together to develop a vaccine, called Pan-Corona, to combat new and future strains of the COVID-19 virus, OnCuba News reports. Official news sources in both countries have reported that scientists from Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) are working on the vaccine with their Chinese counterparts at a Joint Research and Development Center in the city of Yongzhou, China. Dr. Gerardo Guillén, director of biomedical research at CIGB said that the Pan-Corona vaccine could protect against “new strains of coronavirus that may exist in the future.” He also said that given the added challenge of protecting against unknown future strains, the Pan-Corona vaccine will be more complex than those vaccines currently in existence. Mr. Guillén further stated that in the joint collaboration between Cuba and China, China will provide scientific equipment, logistical support, and resources while Cuba will provide personnel and biomedical experience. When travel conditions permit, Cuba will send more personnel to work on the vaccine at the center in Yongzhou.

According to OnCuba News, Venezuela will participate in the Phase III trials of Cuba’s Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines. Cuba will send 30,000 doses of each vaccine to Venezuela in the first week of April. Just last week, Cuba’s drug regulatory authority approved the Abdala vaccine for Phase III trials on the island. In Cuba, these trials will be conducted in the provinces of Santiago, Guantánamo, and Granma. Phase III trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine have been ongoing since the beginning of the month, and, recently, Cuba sent 100,000 doses of Soberana 02 to the Pasteur Institute in Iran, where Phase III trials will also be conducted. Mexico and Jamaica have previously expressed interest in also hosting trials for Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines. 


Capturing Cuba’s water crisis, Christiane Amanpour, CNN

In this video segmentCNN anchor Christiane Amanpour interviews Dutch photographer and anthropologist Sanne Derks about her documentation of water shortages in Cuba. During the interview, Ms. Derks discusses her motivation for documenting the water shortages on the island and the shortcomings of Cuba’s current water system, in which 50 percent of transmitted water leaks through faulty pipelines. They also talk about the steps Cuba takes to make sure the water is safe to drink and the various workers involved in Cuba’s unique water sanitation process.

Cuba Could Be the First Latin American Country To Make A Vaccine, Jason Beaubien, NPR

In this article, Jason Beaubien discusses Cuba’s ongoing effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines, two of which are in the final stage of clinical trials. He details the island’s plans for vaccine distribution and exportation and the prospect that travelers who visit the island may be able get vaccinated at the airport when vaccines become available. Mr. Beaubien also discusses Cuba’s decision to not try to acquire COVID-19 vaccines either from multinational pharmaceutical companies or the COVAX initiative, instead betting all on its domestically developed shots.

Cuban brand Clandestina returns to New YorkOnCuba News

This article from OnCuba News discusses the return of Clandestina, Cuba’s first independent fashion brand, to New York City. Clandestina currently has their collection, entitled “No winter island,” on display in The Canvas, a photography, artist, and design studio in Manhattan. The article also discusses what’s behind the name of the collection and the years-long collaboration between The Canvas and Clandestina.

El Toque Publishes Multimedia Special on Cuba’s Weekly Package (Spanish), elTOQUE

This article discusses elTOQUE’s new multimedia special on “the weekly package” (“el paquete semanal”), a compendium of audiovisual content like movies, TV series, magazines, and music that is traded and exchanged on USB drives throughout Cuba. The article discusses how the weekly package emerged over a decade ago in response to scarce Internet resources in Cuba and how it allows Cuban residents to engage with content that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. The article also details the year-long process through which elTOQUE investigated the use of the weekly package in Cuba and lists the five reports included in their multimedia special on the topic.

Cuba Is Stocking Up on Overseas Players. What’s the Goal? Jon Arnold, The New York Times

In this article, Jon Arnold discusses Cuba’s decision to allow foreign-based Cuban soccer players to suit up for the national team as Cuba plays in the World Cup qualifiers, which began for Cuba on Wednesday. He details the various players who have joined Cuba’s team from abroad and notes that, as opposed to other Cuban athletes who defected from the country, all of these athletes either left the island as children or were given permission to go abroad. Mr. Arnold also writes that Cuba’s government has given no official explanation as to why this decision was made at this time, or whether it is a stepping stone toward allowing other Cuban athletes abroad to play for the country’s national teams. 

Cuba: can tourism be done in a pandemic? (Spanish), Rosa Muñoz Lima, Deutsche Welle

In this article, Rosa Muñoz Lima details the current COVID-19 situation in Cuba and the steps that Cuba is taking to make tourism to the island safer given the pandemic. She lists the various public health requirements that tourists to the island must meet both before their flight to Cuba and during their stay on the island. She also discusses the potential for “vaccine tourism” to the island once Cuba’s vaccines are approved and the state of the island’s tourist sector over the past few years.

‘Plantados:’ Cuba’s prison hell comes to Miami movie theaters this week, Sarah Moreno & Arturo Arias-Polo, Miami Herald

In this article, Sarah Moreno and Arturo Arias-Polo discuss the new film, Plantados, from director Lilo Vilaplana, which depicts the experiences of political prisoners in Cuba who served more than 20 years in jail, refusing to accept re-education plans in exchange for shortened sentences. The reporters write about the filming of the movie, which occurred in Puerto Rico and Miami, and about those former prisoners who served as advisors for the film. They also detail some of the abuses that the prisoners suffered while in jail and discuss some of the movie’s plot.

A debut novel about migration, family and survival is everything ‘American Dirt’ wasn’t, Doranny Pineda, Los Angeles Times

In this article, Doranny Pineda discusses writer Gabriela Garcia’s debut novel, Of Women and Salt, which tells the story of five generations of mothers and daughters and their various immigrant stories. Ms. Pineda writes about how Ms. Garcia, who is the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants to the U.S., drew inspiration for the novel from her own life, the lives of members of her family, and the stories of women she met in immigrant detention centers. She also describes some of the main themes and narrative lines of the novel and Ms. Garcia’s education as a writer.

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