U.S.-Cuba News Brief 04/23/2021

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, Cuba reported 1,241 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 5,623 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Havana, Matanzas, and Holguín reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 727, 140, and 100 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 569. 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 House says shift in policy on Cuba not one of Biden’s top priorities

In a press briefing last Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that a shift in U.S.-Cuba policy is not one of the Biden-Harris administration’s top foreign policy priorities, Reuters reports. Ms. Psaki’s statement came in response to a question asking why President Joe Biden has not shown more movement regarding U.S. sanctions on Cuba and if the Administration had a reaction to then-First Secretary Raúl Castro’s plan to step down from his role as head of Cuba’s Communist Party. In her response, Ms. Psaki reiterated that the Administration’s policy toward Cuba would be governed by two principles: “support for democracy and human rights” and “our belief that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity” in Cuba. Even though “a Cuba policy shift or additional steps” on Cuba policy are not among the President’s foreign policy priorities, Ms. Psaki stated that U.S.-Cuba policy is an issue the Administration “will remain engaged in and focused on.”

According to OnCuba News, a senior administration official later confirmed that President Biden does not consider Cuba a priority issue; however, the official also stated that the White House is committed to “reviewing the policies decided in the previous administration, including the decision to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.” In a widely criticized move, the Trump administration reinstated Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism toward the end of President Donald Trump’s term.

Ms. Psaki’s statements come a week after Juan Gonzalez, special assistant to the President and senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the U.S. National Security Council, stated in an interview with CNN that President Joe Biden “is not Barack Obama” with regards to U.S.-Cuba policy. While campaigning, then presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden stated that he would “in large part” go back to the Obama-era policy of engagement with Cuba, and, later in the campaign, then-candidate Biden said that he would reverse President Donald Trump’s Cuba policies that “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

South Florida Republicans: Jump-start Cuban reunification program from Guantánamo Bay

On Tuesday, U.S. Representative Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25) introduced legislation that would codify and effectively restart the Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CRFP) Program by allowing Cubans in the program to receive consular services at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, the Miami Herald reports. Representatives Stephanie Murphy (FL-7), María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), and Carlos Gimenez (FL-26) co-sponsored the legislation, entitled the Cuban Family Reunification Modernization Act of 2021. The bill would have U.S. officials conduct in-person interviews and provide other pre-screening services to Cubans in the reunification program at the base. Cubans would not be allowed to apply for asylum at the base, and the naval station’s commander would have the authority to shut down consular services if he believed the security or operation of the base were being jeopardized, according to a statement made by Rep. Díaz-Balart at a press conference.

The proposed legislation has been met with some criticism. In a Twitter thread, Michael Bustamante, assistant professor of history at Florida International University, stated that using the U.S. base in Guantánamo for consular services was a “nonstarter,” writing that neither Cuba’s government or the U.S. navy would be eager to use the base in this way. The proposal has also received criticism from Cuba, with a state news program characterizing the idea as “totally unacceptable for Cuban authorities.”

The CFRP program, established in 2007, allows eligible 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. While the program still exists, all CRFP processing in Cuba has been suspended since 2017 due to a reduction in staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The staff reduction, which occurred in response to a series of still unexplained health incidents that afflicted U.S. personnel at the embassy, has resulted in the complete halt of consular services. Cubans seeking to access consular services must travel to Guyana, a prohibitively expensive journey for many made even more difficult by pandemic-related travel restrictions. According to the Miami Herald, as of mid-March, 22,000 Cubans were in a state of limbo after filing applications with the parole program. 

The CRFP program was created to help ensure the U.S. met its annual quota of 20,000 visas to Cubans, as agreed to in the 1994/1995 immigration accords between the U.S. and Cuba. However, in a recent interview with CNN, Juan Gonzalez, special assistant to the president and senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the U.S. National Security Council, stated that currently the U.S. is not complying with the immigration accords due to safety concerns about personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Exxon demand for millions lost in Cuba survives court fight

A D.C. district judge ruled on Wednesday that a 2019 Helms Burton Act (LIBERTAD Act) Title III lawsuit by Exxon Mobil Corp. against Cuba’s Corporacion Cimex SA (CIMEX), CIMEX (Panama), and Union Cuba-Petroleo (Cupet) could move forward, Bloomberg reports. Exxon is seeking nearly $72 million over expropriated properties including service stations, oil storage tanks, a marine terminal and a refinery. The Cuban companies are seeking to dismiss the suit on the basis that as foreign government agents they are not liable according to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The judge ruled that an exception in the Act could allow the suit to move forward. The ruling allows Exxon to conduct exploration to provide additional evidence that the company’s claims are viable.

The suit joins over 30 similar suits filed after the Trump Administration allowed Title III and IV of The Helms-Burton Act (LIBERTAD Act) to go into effect in 2019 after over 20 consecutive years of waivers by previous presidents. Title III allows U.S. persons to sue those “trafficking” in properties nationalized by the Cuban government after the 1959 revolution. Both individuals and corporations have filed cases. 

IN CUBA

Raúl Castro says he will step down, marking end of era as Cuba faces economic crisisThe transfer speech of Raúl Castro in twelve points (Spanish)

In remarks made last Friday at the Cuban Communist Party’s Eighth Congress, Raúl Castro announced he was stepping down from his role as first secretary of the party, considered the most powerful political position on the island, the Miami Herald reports. In his speech, Mr. Castro, who turns 90 in June, stated that his time as first secretary ended “with the satisfaction of having fulfilled my mission and the confidence in the future of the fatherland.” Reportedly, Mr. Castro is building an estate in his native province of Oriente in eastern Cuba where he intends to enjoy his retirement. However, many analysts expect Mr. Castro to remain a political force on the island, and Mr. Castro himself said in his speech that even in retirement he would remain “ready, with my feet in the stirrups, to defend the fatherland, the revolution, and socialism.” Mr. Castro announced at the last party congress five years ago that he would be stepping down from his position as first secretary in 2021. His resignation marks the first time in over 60 years that one of the Castro brothers does not occupy Cuba’s top political position.

According to elToque, in his speech on Friday, Mr. Castro also discussed several of the economic reform measures Cuba has recently carried out, including the expansion of the private sector and the partial dollarization of the economy during the current economic crisis. Furthermore, Mr. Castro discussed the series of monetary reforms Cuba has implemented, including the unification of the country’s dual currency system, the devaluation of the Cuban Peso, and the reduction of state subsidies. Regarding further reforms to the island’s ailing economy, Mr. Castro stated that “it is imperative to give greater dynamism” to the process of updating the economic system and reiterated his criticism of “inertia” and “lack of initiative” in state companies. However, he also warned that there are “limits that must not be crossed” in order to protect Cuba’s socialist system; specifically, Mr. Castro expressed his strong disagreement with those who demand the private sector be allowed to import goods from abroad directly, instead of through state-run intermediaries. Mr. Castro also stated Cuba’s willingness to dialogue and build a new relationship with the U.S., while reiterating Cuba’s opposition to measures that would compromise “the principles of the revolution and socialism” or the island’s sovereignty.

While the government is under pressure to make more market-style reforms, some experts have expressed skepticism that Cuba’s government will take further significant measures to liberalize the economy. Richard Feinberg, Cuba expert and professor of international political economy at the University of California San Diego, said that there is a “significant wing of the Communist Party that is not enthusiastic about major reforms” and that Mr. Castro’s comment regarding the “limits” that reform measures must not cross highlights the ambivalent feelings within the party. Other analysts contend that the island’s dismal economic situation will force Mr. Díaz-Canel to implement policies to enhance production, investment, and efficiency. Oniel Díaz Castellanos, co-founder of AUGE, a Cuban business development and communications consultancy, stated “there is no going back” with regards to economic reform and that political will exists to “open more economic spaces” while staying within certain limits. William LeoGrande, professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University, stated that if Cuba’s “government and the party cannot get the economy growing, they will face real political peril.” 

Miguel Díaz-Canel is named Cuba’s next Communist Party chief, replacing Raúl Castro

On Monday, Cuba’s current President Miguel Díaz-Canel was formally named first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, after Raúl Castro announced he was stepping down from the position last Friday, the Miami Herald reports. Mr. Díaz-Canel, who will hold the positions of president and first secretary concurrently, has long been expected to replace Mr. Castro as first secretary of the party. After being elected, Mr. Díaz-Canel rose to give a speech in which he vowed to consult his predecessor on “strategic decisions for the future of the nation,” saying that Mr. Castro would “always be present.” Mr. Díaz-Canel’s remarks were in keeping with his repeated emphasis on the theme of “continuity” with regards to the current changes in political leadership on the island.  

During the party congress, Cuba also reshuffled the members of the island’s political bureau, an organ of Cuba’s Communist Party considered the most important political decision-making body on the island. Changes to the politburo include the appointments of Brigadier-General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja and Prime Minister Manuel Marrero. Mr. López-Calleja heads GAESA, the economic branch of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, which controls as much as 80 percent of Cuba’s economy. Mr. López-Calleja, who was sanctioned by the U.S. late last year, is also Raúl Castro’s former son-in-law. Prime Minister Marrero, considered by some to be more reform minded, is a former businessman who ran Gaviota, a Cuban tourism company linked to the military. Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Álvaro López Miera, 77, who fought in Cuba’s revolution as a teenager, will be the only remaining member of the politburo from the “historic generation.” José Ramón Machado Ventura, 90, and Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, 88, stepped down from the politburo during the party congress. Mr. Machado also stepped down from his role as second secretary of the party; no replacement has yet been announced. Mr. Valdés will retain his position as one of the six deputy prime ministers. Jorge Luis Perdoma Di-Lella, a telecommunications engineer, was also appointed to be the role of deputy prime minister, replacing Roberto Morales Ojeda. Cuba’s politburo now has 14 members, compared to its previous size of 17 members.

The transfer of power between Mr. Castro and Mr. Díaz-Canel has prompted some Cuba experts to express doubt with regards to how much significant change this change in leadership will entail. Ted Henken, Cuba expert and associate professor at Baruch College, stated that the habits embedded in Cuba’s government will not change easily, “whether it’s Díaz-Canel or somebody else.” 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. When questioned about whether the Administration had any comment on Mr. Castro’s retirement, the State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that “it is for the Cuban people to speak to the results of the Cuban party congress.”

Cuba’s Communist Party meet-up is closed door. Online, Cubans have plenty to sayCuban dissidents decry harassment, as congress denounced ‘counterrevolution’ attempts;

On Monday, Cuba’s 8th Party Congress discussed the internet and social media and its uses by dissidents for “subversion,” the Miami Herald reports. On Friday, Cuba’s then-First Secretary Raúl Castro stated in his opening speech that “the domestic counterrevolution, that lacks a social base, leadership and organizational capacity, continues to decrease in the number of its members and its social impact, concentrating its activism on social networks and the internet.” On Sunday, the congress passed a resolution which, in part, denounces the use of social media as a “program of ideological and cultural influence deployed by the enemy, focused on the breakdown of national unity and the aspiration that social networks become channels of subversion.”

The comments come as Cuba has spent the past few years undergoing an expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots, in-home Wi-Fi, and, in 2018, the introduction of mobile internet data. The expansion and introduction of mobile data has allowed Cubans to take to the internet and social media en masse to promote and share ideas and debate directly with government officials in a way that was previously unprecedented. Dissidents have increasingly taken to the internet and social media to air grievances.

Dissidents in Cuba, including Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, allege that during Cuba’s four day Communist Party Congress, state authorities prevented them from leaving their homes and shut off their internet access, Reuters reports. According to Ms. Bruguera, “State security rang us up to say they would not let anyone leave their homes during the congress, not even to put out the rubbish.” According to Yahoo! News, at least 20 Cuban artists and journalists reported on Twitter that they were prevented from leaving their homes during the congress by police. Many of those artists belong to the San Isidro Movement (MSI), a collection of artists and activists who have protested against restrictions on artistic freedom on the island, and the group 27N, which also advocates for greater artistic freedom in Cuba and recently protested in front of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture (MINCULT).

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Russia, Cuba seek closer ‘strategic partnership’

On Tuesday, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called President and First Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba to discuss strengthening the “strategic partnership” between the two countries, France24 reports. The call from Mr. Putin came one day after Mr. Díaz-Canel was elected to replace Raúl Castro as the Cuban Communist Party’s first secretary, considered the most powerful political position on the island. According to a tweet released by Russia’s embassy in Cuba, the two leaders also confirmed their willingness to “coordinate efforts in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.” Earlier in the day, Russia’s government also released a statement from Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, in which she discussed Russia’s historical relationship with Cuba and reiterated Russia’s support for the island. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

Biden must seize Cuba opening as Raúl Castro steps down and Miguel Díaz-Canel steps up, Elena Sheppard, NBC News

In this opinion piece, Elena Sheppard claims that the election of Miguel Díaz-Canel as first secretary will likely bring more of the same policies seen under Raúl Castro, including a slow opening up of Cuba to the world and to a more market-based economy. Ms. Sheppard argues that Mr. Díaz-Canel’s stature as a “company man” rather than a member of the “historic generation” that fought in the revolution offers an opportunity for President Joe Biden to implement policies of engagement with the island. She also discusses recent protest and civil liberties movements in Cuba and the ways in which the U.S. embargo is harmful to Cubans on the island.

Biden should pursue a full engagement with Cuba, Arturo Lopez-Levy, Responsible Statecraft

In this opinion piece, Arturo Lopez-Levy argues that in the wake of Raúl Castro’s resignation, President Joe Biden should implement a comprehensive policy of engagement with Cuba. Mr. Lopez-Levy reviews the Obama-era opening toward Cuba and the reversal in Cuba policy made by the Trump administration. He also stipulates reasons for engagement with Cuba, how the U.S. should pursue a policy of engagement, and the likely results of implementing such a policy.

Amid Silence, Cuba Calls on Biden to End ‘Cruel’ Blockade He Too Sought to Change, Tom O’Connor, Newsweek

In this article, Tom O’Connor discusses the current status of U.S.-Cuba relations with Carlos Fernández de Cossío, general director of U.S. affairs at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Fernández de Cossío expresses his frustration that the Biden-Harris administration has not yet reversed some of former President Trump’s Cuba policy decisions, including the reinstatement of Cuba onto the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Mr. O’Connor also details the recent history of U.S-Cuba relations and the current competing political pressures regarding Cuba policy, including divided views in the U.S. Congress.

Cuba’s economic woes may fuel America’s next migrant crisis, William M. LeoGrande, The Conversation

In this opinion piece, Professor William LeoGrande argues that the conditions which led to previous Cuban migrant crises are again present, portending a possible wave of attempted irregular migration from Cuba to the U.S. in the summer. Professor LeoGrande details the current economic crisis in Cuba, the large number of Cuban asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the lack of legal channels of migration from Cuba to the U.S. due to suspended consular services on the island. He also lists a series of policy changes that the Biden-Harris administration could implement to head off the possible migrant crisis from Cuba. 

As Castro Reign Ends, Cuba is Mired in a Debt Debacle Once Again, Ezra Fieser, Bloomberg

In this article, Ezra Fieser discusses the current state of Cuba’s economy and the island’s inability to make good on debt repayment deals it had previously signed. Mr. Fieser writes about the brief moment of optimism with regards to the island’s ability to re-enter global finance that came after the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba. He also details the specifics of Cuban foreign debt and discusses the hope that Cuba’s current economic crisis may spur needed reforms on the island and that Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines may offer the country a source of revenue.

Cuba’s Post-Castro Leaders Must Deliver the Goods, William M. LeoGrande, World Politics Review

In this opinion piece, Professor William LeoGrande discusses the economic challenges that Miguel Díaz-Canel will have to confront as first secretary and the ailing state of Cuba’s economy. Professor LeoGrande details some of Cuba’s recent economic reform measures, their effects on Cuban society, and the need to address low productivity in state enterprises. He also discusses comments made by Raúl Castro at the party congress last weekend and the media battle on the island between state publications and independent media outlets.

Cuba’s new leadership will have to deliver results fastThe Economist

This opinion piece argues that lacking the historic status of the Castro brothers, Cuba’s new President Miguel Díaz-Canel will be judged primarily on the results he brings to the island, which is currently in economic crisis. The article discusses the gradual economic reforms implemented under Raúl Castro’s tenure and the more recent monetary reforms implemented by Mr. Díaz-Canel. It also details the growing voices of activists and dissidents on the island and remarks made at the recent Communist Party congress regarding further economic reform.

What’s next for Cuba and the United States after Raul Castro’s retirement, Joseph J. Gonzalez, The Conversation

In this opinion piece, Professor Joseph Gonzalez argues that while it may be difficult for U.S. President Joe Biden and Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel to initiate an opening between the two countries like that seen under the Obama administration, liberalization on the island will still continue. Professor Gonzalez discusses the rise of entrepreneurship in Cuba, the island’s recent economic reforms, and recent protest movements in favor of free speech and freedom of expression. He also discusses the opinions and sentiments of young Cubans on the island, arguing that generational change will be a contributing factor to further reforms in Cuba.

End of an era in Cuba? For exiles in Miami, Raúl Castro’s exit is just ‘more of the same’, Adriana Brasileiro, Mario J. Pentón, & Andres Viglucci, Miami Herald

In this article, Adriana Brasileiro, Mario Pentón, and Andres Viglucci talk with Cuban Americans in Miami about their reactions to Raúl Castro stepping down from his position as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. They detail the largely muted and ambivalent sentiments that many Cuban Americans feel in response to Mr. Castro’s retirement and a prevailing sense of skepticism that the change in political leadership will bring substantive change to the island. Those interviewed also give their thoughts on Miguel Díaz-Canel, the party’s new first secretary. 

Explainer: What is Cuba’s Communist Party Congress and why is it being watched closely? Adriana Brasileiro, Miami Herald

In this article, Adriana Brasileiro details the principal structures of Cuba’s government and Communist Party. She describes the origins and ideology of Cuba’s Communist Party and the role of the Communist Party congress. Ms. Brasileiro also details the executive and legislative branches of Cuba’s government as well as its organizations at the grassroots level.

60 years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, many Cuban Americans’ distrust of the Democratic Party still affects national politics, Boris Sanchez, CNN

In this article, Boris Sanchez discusses the lasting effect that the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, launched under the Kennedy administration, has had on Cuban American political opinion. Through conversations with veterans of Brigade 2506, which carried out the attempted invasion, Mr. Sanchez details the circumstances and aftermath of the failed attack and how memory of it has persisted in the Cuban American community. He also discusses current Cuban American voting patterns and political alignment, talking with Cuban American Senators Bob Menendez (NJ) and Marco Rubio (FL).

After 60 years, Bay of Pigs disaster still haunts veterans who fought, Bill Newcott, National Geographic

In this article, Bill Newcott details the history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Mr. Newcott writes about the invasion’s planning, the training of those who were a part of the attack, the fighting on the island, and the mission’s eventual failure, due at least in part to withdrawn U.S. air support. He also talks with veterans of the invasion who offer their memories and opinions on the failed attack. 

CIA assassination plot targeted Cuba’s Raul Castro, Peter Kornbluh, National Security Archive

This article describes declassified documents regarding a planned 1960 CIA assassination attempt on Raúl Castro, which were recently published by George Washington University’s National Security Archive. The article, which includes PDF scans of six U.S. government documents, discusses the plan to assassinate Mr. Castro by convincing the pilot of a plane transporting him from Prague to Havana to arrange an “accident” during the flight. The article also describes how the plan was not actually carried out.

‘Blowback’ Podcast Tackles America’s Meddling in the Cuban Revolution, Jon Blistein, Rolling Stone

In this article, Jon Blistein discusses the forthcoming second season of the history podcast Blowback, which covers Cuba’s revolution and U.S. involvement on the island in the revolution’s aftermath. Mr. Blistein interviews the podcast’s hosts, Brendan James and Noah Kulwin, who talk about various competing narratives of Cuba’s revolution, the legacy of Fidel Castro, and other topics, including current U.S.-Cuba relations.

EVENTS

Virtual, Perspectives from Havana in a Year of Covid and Embargo – A Series of Weekly Conversations, April 27

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 third event, on April 27, will be with Marta Núñez Sarmiento, sociologist and retired professor at the University of Havana, who will offer her thoughts from the perspective of a sociologist and feminist. 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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