U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 04/16/2021

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, Cuba reported 1,040 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 4,750 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a slight increase from the previous day. Havana, Matanzas, and Santiago de Cuba reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 567, 158, and 86 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 500. 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…


USAGM pick to lead Cuba broadcasting draws criticism from Senator

Kelu Chao, the acting chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), has hired Sylvia Rosabal to be the new director of USAGM’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Voice of America reports. Ms. Rosabal, born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents, is an award-winning long-time journalist and former senior vice president of the news division at Telemundo Network. She will replace Jeffrey Scott Shapiro as the director of OCB, after Mr. Shapiro resigned in late January. Ms. Rosabal was also a whistleblower named in a court case brought against Michael Pack, the former CEO of USAGM; Mr. Pack’s controversial tenure at USAGM provoked bipartisan criticisms regarding personnel firingeditorial interference, and other actions.

In response to the announcement of Ms. Rosabal’s appointment, Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the highest-ranking Cuban American senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement, in which he said that while he “respect[s] Ms. Rosabal’s journalism credentials” he does not believe she “is the right person to lead the OCB.” Sen. Menendez said he is concerned that Ms. Rosabal “is of the view of accommodation with the Cuban regime,” and that, as such, Mr. Menendez will seek “specific information on how she intends to promote the cause of freedom” in Cuba. Last Wednesday, a group of bipartisan bicameral members of Congress wrote to President Joe Biden, asking that he increase OCB’s budget to at least $30 million, after the program’s budget cuts in FY2020 and FY2021.

The OCB runs Radio and TV Martí, which broadcast programming from the U.S. to Cuba “to promote freedom and democracy.” Wilfredo Cancio Isla, former news director of Radio and TV Martí, said that new leadership is coming at a “crucial moment” for the survival of the stations, expressing his wish that Ms. Rosabal address some of the “deep problems afflicting the workforce and professional production” at the office. 

In the Cuba policy roadmap The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement, CDA and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) recommend that TV and Radio Martí be reformed, their offices returned to Washington, D.C., and their operations merged into the broader Voice of America offerings.

For the second day in a row, a group of Cuban migrants lands in the KeysCoast Guard repatriates 14 migrants to Cuba

On Saturday morning, a group of six Cuban migrants arrived via boat in the Middle Keys city of Marathon, the Miami Herald reports. The day before, 13 Cuban migrants had landed in the same city. Both groups will be processed for removal by the U.S. Border Patrol, after which they will likely be repatriated to Cuba by the U.S. Coast Guard. In a separate incident on Tuesday, the Coast Guard repatriated 14 Cuban migrants after interdicting the group on Saturday, approximately 35 miles northwest of Key West.

So far this fiscal year, the Coast Guard has interdicted 166 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 in fiscal year 2020, and 314in fiscal year 2019. Some immigration and Cuba experts believe that the recent increase in irregular migration from Cuba could be due to worsening economic and humanitarian conditions on the island, combined with the hope that the Biden-Harris administration may be more accepting of undocumented immigrants.


Raúl Castro is slated to step down from the Communist Party. Is Cuba in for a change?; Cuba replaces 2 high-ranking ministers ahead of Communist Party Congress

Cuba’s former President and current First Secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, Raúl Castro, 89, is expected to step down from his position at the party’s Eighth Congress, which begins today, the Miami Herald reports. Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel, 60, is expected to assume the role of first secretary, considered the most powerful political position on the island. Cuba’s government has labelled this party congress as “the Congress of Continuity,” as Cuba engages in “the gradual and orderly transition of the main responsibility of the country to new generations.” Even if Mr. Castro does resign his post as first secretary as planned, he will likely remain a political force in the party and could retain a role on Cuba’s Political Bureau. The politburo, an organ of the Cuban Communist Party, is considered the most important political decision-making body on the island. It is presided over by the first secretary and is currently composed of 17 members, many of whom occupy the most senior government positions in the country, such as the president, vice president, president of the National Assembly and Council of State, and the ministers of foreign affairs and the armed forces. 

If Mr. Díaz-Canel assumes the post of first secretary, he will be only the third person to hold the position, following the brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro. Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother as first secretary in 2011, stepped down from his role as president in 2018, allowing Mr. Díaz-Canel to assume the position. In 2016, at the last party congress, Raúl Castro announced that he would step down as first secretary in 2021 due to the “inexorable laws of life.” José Ramón Machado, Mr. Castro’s 90-year-old deputy, is also expected to resign.

The likely transfer of power to Mr. Díaz-Canel has garnered much analysis and speculation as to how Cuba might change under new leadership. William LeoGrande, professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University, commented that if Mr. Castro and other members who are veterans of the revolution do resign, this could improve Mr. Díaz-Canel’s ability to implement overdue economic reforms. Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, stated that although there is pressure from some factions to “fundamentally” change the Cuban system as Mr. Díaz-Canel assumes power, “there’s also a lot of resistance” to such structural reform. Most analysts do not expect that Mr. Díaz-Canel and the new generation of Cuban leaders will make sweeping changes to the state system, and many believe that Mr. Castro will remain the island’s most influential political figure.

Besides Mr. Castro’s replacement, the congress will also review Cuba’s pandemic response, signs of growing public discontent, and the economic policies announced at the Sixth Party Congress in 2011, of which, according to Reuters, only 70 percent have been implemented. The congress will likely also discuss what further measures Cuba should take to control the rapid inflation that followed recent monetary reforms.

Two high-ranking ministers in Cuba’s government have been replaced in anticipation of the congress, the Miami Herald reports. On Thursday, state media announced that Álvaro López Miera, 77, would replace Leopoldo Cintra Frías, 79, as minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. On Tuesday, officials announced that Ydael Jesús Pérez, 48, would replace Gustavo Rodríguez, 57, as minister of agriculture.

State media reported that Mr. Castro and Mr. Díaz-Canel recommended the replacement of Mr. Cintra Frías. In January 2020, the U.S. State Department sanctioned Mr. Cintra Frías for his involvement in supporting the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Andy Gomez, former senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said that the personnel changes could be part of a larger, pre-planned generational change for Cuba’s government.

Cuba loosens regulations on killing cows and selling beef

In a meeting on Tuesday, Cuba’s government announced new measures to boost food production, including loosening regulations that had mandated that beef and dairy products could only be sold to the state, Reuters reports. Now, ranchers in Cuba will be allowed to use cattle for their own consumption and for private sales after meeting state quotas and as long as it “will not result in a reduction of the herd.” Since 1963, when a hurricane killed 20 percent of Cuba’s livestock, it has been illegal for Cubans to slaughter their cows or sell beef and dairy products without the permission of the state.

The livestock reform comes as Cuba faces a food shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and increased U.S. sanctions. Before the pandemic and increased sanctions, Cuba had imported 60 percent of its food; however, according to Cuba’s government, imports contracted by 40 percent in 2020. Agricultural production, which was already stagnant, declined precipitously in 2020 as well. Some Cuban economists say that deregulation could help boost production in the island’s agricultural sector. Cuba’s government is expected to announce further agricultural measures in an upcoming Mesa Redonda (The Roundtable)the government’s televised official channel of communication.

Decree-Law on Animal Welfare published in Cuba

Last Saturday, Cuba’s government officially published Decree-Law 31 on Animal Welfare, OnCuba News reports. The decree, which was approved by Cuba’s Council of State on February 26, regulates “the principles, duties, rules and purposes regarding the care, health, and use of animals,” according to the Agencia Cubana de Noticias. The decree-law stipulates that owners, holders, or other possessors of animals must provide for their animals’ basic needs; it also includes regulations regarding animal living conditions and other issues, such as scientific experiments involving animals, the handling of strays, and veterinary practices. The decree-law prohibits people from inducing animals to fight each other, with the exception of cockfights sponsored by state-supervised clubs. It also allows for the religious sacrifice of animals, as long as the sacrifices are “carried out rapidly and compassionately, to avoid pain or stress.” Responsibility for implementing the animal welfare policy is delegated to the National Center for Animal Health at Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG). Fines for violations of the decree-law, which will enter into force 90 days after its publication date, may range from 500 to 4,000 pesos.

The publication of the decree-law comes after long-time advocacy on the part of Cuban civil society in support of an animal welfare law. In 2019, advocates for animal welfare marched in what was thought to be the first officially approved independent protest in modern Cuba’s history. In February of this year, a few dozen animal-rights activists assembled again in front of MINAG to ask for the animal welfare law. In response to other requests from animal rights activists, Cuba’s recent expansion of the non-state sector on the island allows for the private sector to engage in veterinary medicine for the care of family pets.

Second phase of trials with Soberana Plus in convalescent COVID-19 patients approvedVenezuela to produce Cuban COVID vaccine: MaduroCuba says it’s ‘betting it safe’ with its own Covid vaccine

Last Friday, Cuba’s regulatory Center for State Control of Drugs and Medical Devices (CECMED) approved the island’s Soberana Plus (Soberana 01A) vaccine for Phase II clinical trials, OnCuba News reports. Soberana Plus is currently the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine candidate in clinical trials designed specifically for recovered COVID-19 patients, according to OnCuba News. The Phase II trials will include participants ages 19 to 80 who have had mild, moderate, or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

According to Al Jazeera, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro announced that Venezuela has signed a deal with Cuba to produce the island’s Abdala vaccine domestically. Mr. Maduro stated that laboratories in Venezuela will produce two million doses of the vaccine each month during August and September of this year. The Abdala vaccine is one of two Cuban COVID-19 vaccines currently in the final phase of clinical trials; the other is the Soberana 02 vaccine. Venezuela, which along with Iran is participating in Phase III trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine, will also participate in Phase III trials for the Abdala vaccine.

In response to questions from NBC News, Dr. Vicente Vérez, the general director of the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana, stated that the safety profile of Soberana 02 is “very good” and that the vaccine has “evidence of certain efficacy.” Also responding to questions from NBC News, Dr. Eduardo Martínez Díaz, president of the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries of Cuba Business Group (BioCubaFarma), stated that “only slight and moderate side effects” have been seen in a “small percentage of volunteers” during the vaccine’s study. The second stage of the Phase III trials for Soberana 02 began last Monday44,010 volunteers are involved in the Soberana 02 trials in Cuba.

In addition to the Soberana 02, Abdala, and Soberana Plus vaccines, Cuba has two other vaccines in clinical trials: the Soberana 01 and Mambisa vaccines. Cuba aims to vaccinate six million people on the island by August and all 11 million inhabitants by the end of the year.


The memo: Biden’s five biggest foreign policy challenges, Niall Stanage, The Hill

In this opinion piece, Niall Stanage details what he views to be five of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing President Joe Biden. Listed among the five challenges is “Clarity on Cuba,” with Mr. Stanage writing that President Biden faces competing pressures from Congress regarding U.S. policy toward the island. Mr. Stanage also discusses the political significance of U.S.-Cuba policy and how President Biden’s actions on Cuba in office have compared to remarks made on the campaign trail.

‘There aren’t sugar daddies.’ Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel faces tough choices amid Castro exit, David Ovalle, Miami Herald

In this article, David Ovalle discusses the expected transition of Cuba’s Communist Party leadership between Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel, offering the perspectives of several Cuba experts on what one should expect if Mr. Díaz-Canel replaces Mr. Castro as first secretary. Mr. Ovalle details Mr. Díaz-Canel’s decades-long political career, in which he worked his way up the ranks of the island’s Communist Party to hold his current position of president of Cuba. He also discusses the challenges that Mr. Díaz-Canel will face should he assume the role of first secretary, including the island’s economic crisis, increased public protests and activism, increased usage of the internet and social media, and the current rise in COVID-19 cases on the island.

Cuba’s budding civil society asks to be heard as island prepares for historic congress, Mario J. Pentón, Miami Herald

In this article, Mario Pentón discusses the recent growth of Cuban civil society and activism on the island in the context of Cuba’s upcoming party congress. Mr. Pentón details the genealogy of the San Isidro Movement, which has organized public protests in Cuba, and the government’s varied responses to civil society and dissident actions. He also writes about the history of artistic freedom and censorship in Cuba and how increased signs of social tension have intersected with Cuba’s current economic crisis. 

A feared general, he also shook hands with Obama. What will Raúl Castro’s legacy be? Andres Viglucci, Miami Herald

In this article, Andres Viglucci details the life and career of Raúl Castro, from his youth in rural eastern Cuba, to his time as a revolutionary with his brother Fidel, to his various roles in Cuba’s government. Mr. Viglucci discusses the ways in which Raúl Castro helped build the Cuban state and his recent efforts to implement some economic reforms in the largely state-controlled economy. He also discusses to what extent Mr. Castro is likely to retain control of Cuba’s government once he retires from his position as first secretary, and what Mr. Castro’s main legacy will be for those in Cuba.

Cuba Moves Into the Post-Castro Era, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

In this article, Peter Kornbluh discusses the origins of the Cuban Communist Party in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. He writes about the expected retirement of Raúl Castro and his legacy of “tentative reform” on the island. He also discusses the historic opening between the U.S. and Cuba made under President Barack Obama, how the Trump administration reversed this opening, and how the Biden-Harris administration has yet to take much action to change President Donald Trump’s Cuba policies.

Analysis: Cuban Communists under pressure to accelerate economic reforms, Marc Frank, Reuters

In this article, Marc Frank discusses the pressure on Cuba’s government to take further and quicker action to address the island’s economic crisis, as the Cuban Communist Party meets this weekend for its Eighth Congress. He offers opinions from Cuba experts on what a transition of power from Raúl Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel could mean for the pace and scale of economic reforms. He also details several of the reform measures Cuba has already taken and the current state of the island’s economy.

Here Comes Another Cuban Communist Congress. More Marxist Meltdown? Tim Padgett, WLRN

In this opinion piece, Tim Padgett discusses the upcoming Cuban Communist Party congress and the expected transition in power from Raúl Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel. He criticizes what he views as reticent efforts to reform the island’s largely state-run economy. Mr. Padgett also critiques Cuba’s response to U.S. engagement with the island in 2016, writing that the 2016 party congress served as a venue for retrenchment rather than economic and political reform.

Analysis: Raised fist, dangling handcuffs: a snapshot of Cuban dissent, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

In this article, Sarah Marsh offers her analysis of a widely circulated image of the Cuban dissident rapper Maykel Castillo: the photo of Mr. Castillo, with a handcuff dangling from one wrist, was taken after he evaded arrest and joined residents of the San Isidro neighborhood in Havana in a protest on Sunday, April 4. Ms. Marsh discusses this protest in the context of increasingly visible public dissent in Cuba. She also discusses how Cuba has responded to some of the activist and dissident efforts and the role of U.S. funding for Cuban civil society groups and activists. 

Sixty years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, no regime change appears likely in Cuba, Sarah Moreno, Miami Herald

In this article, Sarah Moreno talks with members of Brigade 2506, the group of Cuban exiles involved in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the 60th anniversary of which will be this Saturday, the day after the Cuban Communist Party begins its Eighth Congress. Ms. Moreno discusses the history of the Bay of Pigs invasion as well as the involvement of Afro-Cubans in the Brigade. She also discusses recent protest movements in Cuba and the lack of expectation that the resignation of Raúl Castro as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party will yield significant changes in Cuban society.

The Path to the VIII Party Congress: Cuban Politics Between the New Government and Contemporary Society, Rafael Hernández, Cuba Study Group

In this article, Rafael Hernández discusses several public policy issues in Cuba and offers his perspective on the current political moment on the island. He lists his insights into the current status of Cuban policies and politics and writes about what he thinks Cuba must do to combat its ongoing economic crisis. He also addresses questions regarding how the COVID-19 pandemic has intersected with economic reforms, the political climate, the legislative process, and other issues on the island.

Cuba deserves praise –– and needs reforms. But it’s for Cubans to decide, Manuel R. Gómez, The Washington Post

In this letter to the editor, Manuel R. Gómez, the founder of the Cuban American Committee in Washington, responds to the recent editorial, “A hunger strike in Cuba reveals a deepening crisis,” from The Washington Post’s Editorial Board. In his letter, Mr. Gómez expresses his concerns about the editorial and its focus on what he deems to be disputed complaints from dissident groups on the island. Mr. Gómez says that, in addition to critiques, many aspects of Cuban society deserve praise, and that reform efforts should be driven by Cubans, not the U.S.

How Cubans earn a living from standing in line, Andreas Knobloch, Deutsche Welle

In this article, Andreas Knobloch writes about how some in Cuba are making money by waiting in long lines at grocery stores and then selling their spot in line to others. He discusses how lines at stores that sell basic goods have become often staggeringly long as a result of Cuba’s current economic crisis. Mr. Knobloch also discusses the need for hard currency, sometimes U.S. dollars, to pay for goods at many stores given Cuba’s recent currency reforms.

Gabriel Sanchez’s Cuban Portraits Grapple With Home and Belonging, Caroline Ellen Liou, Hyperallergic

In this article, Caroline Liou discusses the artwork of the Miami-born Cuban painter Gabriel Sanchez. Ms. Liou writes about how Mr. Sanchez’s paintings wrestle with what it means for him to return to Cuba and represent others on the island in his artwork. She also describes several of the paintings, their themes, and the style in which Mr. Sanchez paints.


Virtual, Perspectives from Havana in a Year of Covid and Embargo – A Series of Weekly Conversations, April 20

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 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 second event, on April 20, will be with Luis Montero Cabrera, professor of chemistry at the University of Havana, who will offer his thoughts from the perspective of science and healthcare. 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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