U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 04/02/2021

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, Cuba reported 1,077 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 4,517 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Havana, Granma, and Matanzas reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 516, 116, and 98 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 429. 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…


Cubans stage caravan to protest U.S. trade embargo, sanctions

On Sunday, hundreds of people in Cuba participated in a caravan on the Malecón roadway in Havana to protest the U.S. embargo on the island, Reuters reports. The caravan in Havana was joined by similar protests and caravans in over 50 cities around the world, including Tampa, Miami, New York, and Las Vegas in the U.S. The organizers of the caravans hope their actions will help convince the Biden-Harris administration to pursue a policy of greater engagement with Cuba. On the Malecón, protestors waved Cuban flags, honked their car horns, and yelled “down with the embargo” as they passed the U.S. embassy building. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, who was the highest-ranking Cuban government official present at the protest, told reporters that the embargo is “harmful, illegal, immoral, [and] criminal” and that it should be lifted.

The Biden-Harris administration has emphasized on multiple occasions that its 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 freedom in Cuba. In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that although the past administration’s Cuba policy is under review, no conclusions about a new policy have yet been reached. However, the Administration is coming under increasing pressure to formulate its policy toward Cuba. In February, Senator Ron Wyden (OR) 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. In early March, 77 House Democrats sent a letter to President Biden urging him to reverse former president Trump’s Cuba policies. On Monday, Ben Rhodes, who served as Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama administration and played a key role in normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, tweeted, “There’s no reason for the Biden Administration to stick with Trump’s failed reversal of the Cuba opening and plenty of good reasons for the Cuban people and US interests to reopen relations ASAP.”

From Liechtenstein to Hong Kong: How Cuba uses shell companies to thumb its nose at embargo

A new Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald and McClatchy investigation has revealed a network of hidden shell companies that have allowed Cuba to borrow money and access ships to bring goods to the island while avoiding U.S. sanctions, the Miami Herald reports. According to the investigation, at the top of the network of Cuban shell companies sits Acemex Management Company Limited, incorporated in Liechtenstein in 1984 and in Hong Kong in 2007. Acemex, which has never been sanctioned by the U.S., has provided cover for dozens of other companies whose links to Cuba had to be disguised in order to operate effectively abroad, including with money lenders in Europe and Asia. The investigation indicates that Cuba’s reliance on the network of shell companies has varied depending on the degree of pressure the U.S. was putting on the island at the time. 

U.S. financial sanctions jeopardize the U.S. assets of any company that does business with another company sanctioned by the U.S. To counter this extraterritorial reach, Acemex “convinced banks to lend it money to buy ships” by telling the banks “that they were not Cuban,” according to one of the sources interviewed. However, the source further stated that it was an “open secret” that companies like Acemex really belonged to Cuba’s Ministry of Transport. Previously, documents leaked in 2016, dubbed the Panama Papers, showed how in the early 1990s Cuba created a string of hidden companies in Panama, the Bahamas, and the British Virgin Island to buy and sell goods, while avoiding U.S. sanctions. Additionally, recent reporting from the Miami Herald, in collaboration with the global OpenLux investigation, showed how Cuba has used the European nation of Luxembourg to register offshore companies and evade sanctions.

The U.S. embargo on Cuba, codified in such laws as the Helms-Burton Act (LIBERTAD Act), includes a variety of sanctions measures that make it very difficult for Cuba to do business not only with U.S. but also foreign companies, due to the extraterritorial reach of the sanctions.


Cuba’s tourism workers reinvent themselves as lockdown lingers

Many Cubans who previously worked in Cuba’s tourism sector have transitioned to other jobs as the island continues experiencing a significant decrease in tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters reports. According to Cuba’s Prime Minister Manuel Marrero, some 8,200 former employees of the state tourism sector have transitioned to working for hospitals, isolation centers, and other health institutions to support Cuba’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Still others, such as those interviewed by Reuters, have become repairmen or night guards.

Cuba closed its borders a year ago in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, effectively keeping case numbers on the island low, especially in comparison with other countries in the region. However, in November of 2020, a reopening of the country’s borders led to a surge in the number of cases. Now, visitors must comply with numerous public health measures both before and during their visit to the island, and flights to and from the island are limited. In 2020, Cuba received 1 million visitors to the island, compared with 4 million in 2019.

Cuba vaunts ‘technical sovereignty’ in COVID battle

On Wednesday, government officials in Cuba toured manufacturing facilities in Havana that produce medical gear, such as ventilators and CT scanners, used in treating COVID-19 patients, Reuters reports. During the tour, the officials touted the degree of “technological sovereignty” Cuba has achieved with regard to medical equipment, enabling them to both save money on importing such equipment and to decrease the island’s COVID-19 mortality rate. Eduardo Martínez, president of the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries of Cuba Business Group (BioCubaFarma), stated that Cuba “could save many millions of dollars” thanks to its degree of technological sovereignty.

Cuba’s government has developed domestic medical equipment manufacturing capacity partly in response to the U.S. trade embargo, which makes importing medical equipment to the island more difficult. 

More price hikes in Cuban market

Cuba’s government has announced that 124 of the 550 construction materials sold in stores on the island will experience an increase in price, OnCuba News reports. The price increase will affect 49 of the most highly demanded construction materials, building materials with imported components––such as electrical cables, nails, iron fittings, and electrical boxes––and other goods. However, Cuba’s Interior Trade Minister Betsy Díaz stated on the Mesa Redonda television program that the state will continue to subsidize many materials––including dry goods like sand, gravel, stone, and dust––keeping them at their current price levels. For construction blocks, 50 percent of the increase in the cost of production will be reflected in an increase in price, while the other 50 percent is subsidized by the state. The Minister also stated that sales of construction materials have experienced a contraction since the beginning of this year.

These price changes come as Cuba’s government implements a series of monetary reforms, including the unification of the dual currency system, on the island. As part of the currency unification process started in January, Cuba’s government began implementing a gradual reduction in government subsidies to state companies and on basic goods and utilities, while implementing price controls.


Cuba and EU continue dialogue focused on U.S. embargo

Last Thursday, officials from Cuba and the European Union (EU) met virtually for the third time to discuss “unilateral coercive measures,” including the U.S. embargo on Cuba, OnCuba News reports. According to a tweet released by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX), during the meeting, Cuba and the EU ratified their willingness to continue holding such dialogues. Cuba also thanked the EU for its support of Cuba’s United Nations resolution demanding the end of the U.S. embargo and for its condemnation of the implementation of Titles III and IV of the Helms-Burton Act (LIBERTAD Act). According to a statement released by MINREX, Cuba and the EU discussed the damages done by the U.S. embargo, which affect “both the Cuban people and the economic and commercial interests of the EU.” 

Additionally, the EU delegation shared details on existing EU and Member State regulatory provisions designed to address the “extraterritorial dimension” of U.S. sanctions on Cuba. The EU delegation further said that the bloc is constructing a “comprehensive strategy” to counter extraterritorial sanctions by the U.S. and other countries “for the years to come.” The EU officials also provided an overview of Helms-Burton cases against EU companies filed in U.S. courts, and Cuba’s delegation discussed Cuba’s legal strategies in defending Cuban companies in U.S. courts. 

Cuba’s delegation at the meeting was led by María del Carmen Herrera Caseiro, general director of multilateral affairs and international law at MINREX, while the EU delegation was led by Javier Niño Pérez, deputy director general for the Americas at the European External Action Service. The meeting was held in accordance with the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement signed between Cuba and the EU in 2016 and in force since November 2017. The last meeting on this topic between Cuba and the EU was held in November 2019.


Biden under pressure to spell out Cuba policy, Rebecca Beitsch, The Hill

In this article, Rebecca Beitsch discusses the members of Congress who are calling on the Biden-Harris administration to engage with Cuba as well as those who are trying to ensure that a hardline policy is maintained against the island nation. She notes that the Administration has not yet made any large policy decisions with regards to Cuba and discusses the various political and strategic considerations involved in Cuba policy. She quotes, among other experts, Professor Fulton Armstrong, who says that the Administration’s stalling on Cuba provides a leadership vacuum, which will be filled by members of Congress unless the Administration acts.

Against the odds, Cuba could become a coronavirus vaccine powerhouse, Anthony Faiola & Anna Vanessa Herrero, The Washington Post

In this article, Anthony Faiola & Anna Vanessa Herrero discuss Cuba’s five COVID-19 vaccine candidates and the various challenges, including U.S. sanctions, that Cuba has faced in its attempt to develop its own vaccines. They detail the political, health, public relations, and economic effects that would likely follow the approval of one or more of Cuba’s vaccines, which are currently all in various stages of clinical trials. They also write about the history of Cuba’s biotechnology industry and what countries are currently expressing interest in importing doses of Cuba’s vaccines, once they are approved.

A Soviet-era legacy, Lada cars awaken passions for Cubans, Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press

In this article, Andrea Rodríguez describes the love that many in Cuba hold for Lada cars, Russian-built automobiles that are legacies of the island’s relation with the former Soviet Union. Ms. Rodríguez discusses the recently founded Lada Cuba Club and talks with several Lada owners about their respective cars. She also briefly details the history of imported automobiles, including Ladas, in Cuba.

All Cuban athletes should have the right to represent their country (Spanish), Abraham Jiménez Enoa, The Washington Post

In this opinion piece, Abraham Jiménez Enoa discusses Cuba’s recent decision to allow a select number of Cuban athletes living and playing abroad to play for the country’s national teams, including its soccer team which recently debuted in the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers against Guatemala. He writes about how Cuba only allows athletes who left the island in a “politically correct” manner to join the country’s teams, excluding those athletes who, for example, defected from the island during tournaments abroad. He then argues that Cuba should allow all its foreign-based athletes, regardless of how they left the island or what views they have expressed since leaving, to play for the national teams.

It’s Nearly Impossible To Be An Influencer In Cuba. This YouTuber Is Doing It Anyway. Sunny García Barales, Refinery29

In this article, Sunny García Barales discusses the current state of social media use in Cuba, and how some on the island are now using it to become vloggers and influencers. Specifically, she discusses the young Cuban influencer Anabelle Vigo, and how she turned her social media and YouTube presence into a profit-earning enterprise. She details the various methods by which Anabelle earns money from social media and YouTube and how more people in Cuba are joining social media as the platforms proliferate on the island.

From Cuba to Miami, These Women Contend With Abusive Men and Countries, Danielle Evans, The New York Times

In this article, Danielle Evans discusses the recently published novel, Of Women and Salt, by Gabriela Garcia. Ms. Evans writes about the book’s principle characters, all women, and how they navigate an often brutal world. She also discusses the structure of the book, which traces multiple generations of women from Latin America to the U.S., and how Ms. Garcia both isolates and connects the stories of the different generations.

Viento y tiempo. Live in Blue Note Tokyo / Gonzalo Rubalcaba y Aymeé Nuviola (Spanish), Rosa Marquetti Torres, AM:PM

In this article, Rosa Marquetti Torres discusses the recently released album Viento y Tiempo from the Cuban artists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymeé Nuviola. She discusses the high points of various songs and the different musical styles used throughout the album. She also writes about the effect the live recording of the songs has on the album and about the long-time friendship between Mr. Rubalcaba and Ms. Nuviola. 


Virtual, Perspectives from Havana in a Year of Covid and Embargo – A Series of Weekly Conversations, April 13

Massachusetts Peace Action, the Center for Cuban Studies, the Latin American Solidarity Coalition of Western Massachusetts, and other organizations are hosting a series of five weekly discussions with leading voices from Cuba. The discussions will focus on the challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 and the U.S. embargo on Cuba have presented to those on the island and on how Havana has changed in the past year. All five events will begin at 8 p.m. EDT. The first event, on April 13, will be with Estéban Morales, who will offer his thoughts from the perspective of an economist. Each event will start with a short presentation, followed by an opportunity to ask questions and engage in dialogue. To register for the event, please click here.

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