U.S.-Cuba News Brief 04/30/2021

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, Cuba reported 1,046 new cases of COVID-19, and on Wednesday Cuba recorded a record 18 deaths in one day. There are currently 5,404 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, and Havana continues to be the epicenter of new cases. The total number of deaths since last March is 644, but most fatalities have come over the last three months. 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

U.S. investigating possible mysterious directed energy attack near White House

U.S. federal agencies are investigating at least two possible occurrences of health incidents, similar to those that allegedly occurred in Havana, inside the U.S., including one near the White House, CNN reports. The incident near the White House affected a National Security Council official while the other incident affected a White House official while she was walking in a Virginia suburb in 2019. Earlier this month, officials from the U.S. Defense Department briefed members of Congress on the Senate and House Armed Services committees on the suspected health incidents and the vulnerability of U.S. troops abroad to similar incidents, which officials suspect may be intentional “directed energy” attacks. According to Politico, in these briefings the defense officials said that the origin of the technology required for the suspected attacks is “more likely than not in Russia.”

While U.S. federal agencies, including the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Defense have ongoing investigations into the health incidents, those investigations have so far also largely been inconclusive regarding the cause of the incidents. A National Academy of Sciences study released late last year stated that “directed” microwave radiation was the likeliest explanation for the symptoms, which also afflicted U.S. personnel in Russia and China. However, many scientists have either viewed with skepticism or outright dismissed the microwave radiation theory. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.

Sen. Rick Scott leads resolution honoring José Daniel Ferrer

Senators Rick Scott [FL], Marco Rubio [FL], and Ted Cruz [TX] introduced a resolution, S.Res. 173, commending the actions of Mr. Ferrer and UNPACU “to uphold fundamental freedoms in Cuba” and condemning Cuba’s government. In a press statement, Sen. Rubio referenced that Mr. Ferrer had “once again” been incarcerated at the time of the introduction of the resolution. The resolution came shortly after Mr. Ferrer and other members of UNPACU ended a 21 day hunger strike to demand the end of the heavy police presence outside of their headquarters. Mr. Ferrer said that those striking at the headquarters were defending their right to deliver food and aid to people in Santiago de Cuba, who reportedly suffered harassment from state security forces for receiving aid from UNPACU. According to the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, police left the headquarters on April 9, resulting in the end of the strike on April 11.

Cuban-born veteran a leading contender to be Biden’s Navy secretary

Carlos Del Toro, a Cuban American Navy veteran and current president and CEO of SBG Technology Solutions, is a likely front-runner to be President Joe Biden’s pick to serve as secretary of the Navy, Politico reports. According to three people familiar with the discussions, the Biden-Harris administration would like to choose a person of color to leady the Navy and has recently been considering Mr. Del Toro, who was born in Havana before immigrating to the U.S. in 1962.  A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983, Del Toro has been deployed numerous times at sea, including in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. The role of secretary of the Navy is one of the few top positions at the Department of Defense for which the Administration has yet to name a nominee. 

Cuban migrants rescued off Keys on a raft, Coast Guard says. That’s not where they stayed

On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard repatriated two Cuban migrants, the Miami Herald reports. Last Thursday, the two men were taken on board a Coast Guard vessel after having been picked up by a private ship 70 miles southwest of Marathon. The two men were waving their arms from their raft when they were taken on board the private ship. Sea interdictions have been increasing. So far this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted 195 Cuban migrants, compared to 48 in fiscal year 2020, and 314 in fiscal year 2019.

IN CUBA

Massive intervention with COVID-19 vaccines will begin in May in Havana

Last Thursday, María Elena Soto Enetenza, head of the National Department of Primary Health Care in Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP), confirmed the announcement made in March by Cuban health authorities, that Cuba would begin a large scale intervention study in Havana in May with the island’s Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines, OnCuba News reports. The “intervention”  will see 1.7 of the 2.1 million inhabitants of Havana vaccinated. Ms. Soto stated that medical authorities would vaccinate an average of 85 subjects per clinic per day for the study and that those over 60 years of age will receive the vaccine first, followed by other age groups. Cuba began another intervention study with 150,000 frontline workers in Havana on March 22, using the Soberana 02 vaccine.

Both the Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccine are currently in Phase III clinical trials. Although Cuban authorities have toutedthe efficacy and safety of both vaccines, according to OnCuba News, Cuba has so far not published updated data on the vaccines’ efficacy. In addition to the Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines, Cuba has three other vaccines in clinical trials: the Soberana 01Soberana Plus (Soberana 01A), 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.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Iran begins Phase III of clinical trials with Cuban Soberana 02 vaccine candidateParaguay would ask Mercosur countries to negotiate Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccinesArgentina interested in manufacturing Cuban vaccine against COVID-19Mexican president to thank Cuba’s Diaz-Canel for coronavirus medics on phonecall

On Monday, Iran began Phase III clinical trials for Cuba’s Soberana 02 vaccine, OnCuba News reports. The study will involve 24,000 volunteers in seven provinces of the country. 100,000 doses of the Soberana 02 vaccine arrived in Iran in March, per an agreement signed between the Pasteur Institute of Iran and the Finlay Vaccine Institute of Havana. Cuba will also transfer the necessary technology to produce the vaccine domestically to Iran. Alireza Biglarí, the director of the Pasteur Institute, stated that Iran hopes to eventually make “two million doses” of the vaccine per month and that it will be used for general vaccination in the country beginning in June. 

Following Iran, Venezuela has also signed an agreement, announced on April 12, with Cuba to produce two million doses of Cuba’s Abdala vaccine each month during August and September of this year. Other countries are in talks with the island about possibly producing its vaccines domestically once they are approved.

According to OnCuba News, last Friday, Cuba’s Ambassador to Paraguay Raúl Gortázar met with the Paraguayan delegation to the Mercosur Parliament and discussed cooperation regarding COVID-19 vaccines. The three Paraguayan politicians who met with Mr. Gortázar included Ricardo Canese, who stated that they are urging Paraguay and the other members of the South American trade bloc Mercosur, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, to consider an alliance with Cuba to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benítez stated that “nothing is ruled out” when asked about purchasing Cuban vaccines if they get official approval. In recent weeks, the Paraguayan Executive and Legislature have contacted authorities in Cuba to discuss access to Cuba’s vaccines once they pass clinical trials.

According to MercoPress, on Wednesday, Cuba’s Ambassador to Argentina Pedro Pablo Prada met with Argentina’s Foreign Minister Felipe Solá to discuss the possibility of Argentina producing one of Cuba’s domestically developed COVID-19 vaccines. According to a tweet released by Minister Solá, the pair also discussed a Cuban “nasal drug” that works to stop the virus from entering the mucous membranes. Reportedly, Argentina’s Health Minister Carla Vizzotti is discussing these matters with the developers of Cuba’s vaccines. In a radio interview, Cecilia Nicolini, advisor to Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, stated that the government was keeping open the possibility of hosting clinical trials for or producing Cuban vaccines. She also stated that President Fernández had already discussed vaccine cooperation with Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

According to Al Jazeera, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador thanked Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Tuesday for Cuba sending around 1,000 health workers to Mexico to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. President Díaz-Canel also thanked President Obrador on behalf of the Cuban medical personnel, and reaffirmed Cuba’s willingness to expand bilateral cooperation with Mexico.

Cuba creditor makes fresh effort to settle Castro-era debts

The largest holder of Cuban debt in the London Club of private creditors, CRF I Ltd., an investment firm, has offered Cuba a deal it says would help the island reenter international debt markets, Bloomberg reports. In a March 18 letter from CRF addressed to Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel, CRF reportedly offered to convert about $1.4 billion of the debt into a zero-coupon loan with no payments until 2026. According to the letter, the offer would constitute a 60 percentdecrease from net present value of the securities. CRF stated that if Cuba accepted the agreement, it would help the island begin to improve its reputation in global finance and that other creditors in the London Club, which holds about $4 billion in Cuban loans and other securities, would likely agree to similar accords.

In a case which is still ongoing, CRF sued Cuba’s government and its state-owned Banco Nacional de Cuba in a London court last February to repay debt on which the island had defaulted. Previously, CRF, which has held Cuban debt since 2009, has attempted numerous times to reach a settlement with Cuba, including with a 2018 offer which received no response. In 2015, Cuba reached an agreement with the members of the Paris Club in which $8.5 billion of debt was forgiven. However, Cuba missed payments to the Paris Club nations in 2019, and last year, the two sides agreed to halt payments for the year as Cuba faces a liquidity crisis amidst its severe economic downturn.

Canadian diplomats say their government is withholding info on more ‘Havana Syndrome’ brain injury cases

Last week, nine Canadian diplomats sent a letter to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, accusing the government of withholding information about “at least three additional cases” of the mysterious health incidents that afflicted U.S. and Canadian personnel in Havana, NBC News reports. The writers of the letter state that in a February briefing with Canadian diplomats who served in Cuba between 2017 and 2020, Canada’s government said that it planned to increase its embassy staffing in Cuba, justifying the move by saying there had been no new health incidents since 2018. The writers of the letter allege that there were in fact at least three cases of the health incidents among Canadian personnel in 2019 and 2020. They further say that since March 2020, 25 Canadian diplomats have been evaluated at Dalhousie University for potential brain injuries, although it is unclear how many of those evaluated were given a positive diagnosis.

The diplomats who wrote the letter say they were informed in February that Canada’s police force was still investigating the health incidents, although the diplomats state that there have been “unacceptable delays” in the investigation and in providing assessments for some of those possibly affected. Canada’s investigations have not determined the cause of the health incidents, although one government study suggested that overexposure to pesticides could have been responsible. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS

Biden must seize the moment on Cuba, Editorial Board, Boston Globe

In this opinion piece, the Boston Globe Editorial Board argues that it is time to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, or, at least, to roll back the additional restrictions imposed by the former Trump administration. 

Cuba After the Castros, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

In this article, John Lee Anderson discusses the resignation of Raúl Castro from his post as head of the Communist Party in Cuba, offering different perspectives on what it might mean for the island’s future. Mr. Anderson writes about growing discontent and public activism in Cuba, the island’s current economic crisis, and the prospect of future government-led reforms. 

What changes in Cuba without the Castros in power? (Spanish), Sonia Alda Mejías, The Conversation

In this opinion piece, Professor Sonia Alda Mejías discusses what she views to be the slow pace of economic reform in Cuba and the prospects for further reform measures with new political leadership on the island. Professor Alda argues that given the grave economic situation in Cuba, Cuba’s government needs to open up the economy more to market force in order to survive. She also considers the prospect of economic change stimulating some changes in Cuba’s political structure.

Follow the Science. Build a Policy. They Will Come: Leadership Matters, Guillermo J. Grenier, OnCuba News

In this opinion piece, Professor Guillermo Grenier writes that analyses of polling data on Cuban American political opinion over the years shows that the narrative regarding U.S.-Cuba relations coming from the White House has a significant effect on Cuban American opinions regarding U.S-Cuba policy. With these findings, Professor Grenier arguesthat the Biden-Harris administration should adopt a “build it and they will come” approach to Cuba policy: that by constructing their own policy and messaging regarding Cuba, Cuban American opinion will follow in the direction of the narrative. 

Can the U.S. and Cuba get along now that the Castros are gone? Mike Bebernes Yahoo! News

In this article, Mike Bebernes discusses the transition in power from Raúl Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel as head of Cuba’s Communist Party and outlines diverging opinions in the U.S. Congress and among thought leaders over how best to approach Cuba policy and the messaging coming from the Biden-Harris administration on the issue. 

Cubans Are Using Twitter’s New Live Audio Platform to Slip Past Government Censors, John Sakellariadis, Slate

In this article, John Sakellariadis discusses the growing popularity of “This Week in Cuba” a Twitter-based live audio chatroom where activists, influencers, and journalists host weekly open conversations about Cuban politics and issues on the island. 

Can Cuba beat COVID with its homegrown vaccines? Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, Nature

In this interview, Emiliano Mega talks with Dr. Vicente Vérez, general director of the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana, about Cuba’s efforts to develop and produce its own vaccines against COVID-19. Dr. Vérez discusses the Soberana series of vaccines developed by the Finlay Institute, their ongoing clinical trials, their expected efficacy, and the origin of the name “Soberana.” Dr. Vérez also talks about Cuba’s decision to not join international vaccine distribution efforts like COVAX and how the U.S. trade embargo has affected vaccine development. 

Pan-Corona: Cuban-Chinese research to anticipate next epidemics, Lorena Cantó, OnCuba News

In this article, Lorena Cantó discusses the joint Pan-Corona project between Cuba and China to develop a generic vaccine that will protect against different types of COVID-19, including future strains. Mr. Cantó writes about how the scientists involved in the project hope to make the generic Pan-Corona vaccine. She also discusses the difficulties Cuban scientists have faced conducting research due to the U.S.’s economic embargo on the island and how vast amounts of information sharing internationally during the pandemic have helped spur progress on the initiative.

Cuban engineers’ dreams take flight with home-grown dronesFrance24

This article discusses Alasoluciones, a group of five engineers and three technicians in Cuba who make small drones largely by hand and from cheap, local materials. The article details how the recent expansion of the private sector in Cuba has allowed Alasoluciones to expand their work, including by taking up a spot at a recently opened “science and technology park” in Havana. The engineers also discuss how they are preparing for a law on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that they hope Cuba’s government will soon enact.

Why Cuba could be the next big cruise holiday destination, Sara Macefield, The Telegraph

In this article, Sara Macefield discusses the cautious optimism among some in the cruise industry about returning to Cuba as pandemic travel restrictions loosen up and in anticipation of the expected review of U.S. travel restrictions by the Biden-Harris administration. Ms. Macefield writes about the boom in cruises visiting Cuba during the Obama-era detente between the U.S. and the island nation and the subsequent crash in cruise tourism as former President Donald Trump reversed the detente. She also discusses the likelihood of the Biden-Harris administration revising U.S. travel restrictions regarding Cuba.

The Driving Beat of Cándido Camero’s Conga, John Edward Hasee, The Wall Street Journal

In this article, John Edward Hasee discusses the life of the late Cándido Camero, a Cuban American conga player who helped popularize the instrument and Afro-Cuban music in the U.S. though his decades-long career. Mr. Hasee writesabout Mr. Camero’s influence on American jazz music and his innovations when it came to playing the congas. He also discusses Mr. Camero’s upbringing in Havana, his musical work in New York, and the admiration others express for his musicianship and personality. 

New Documentary ‘Revolutionary Rent’ Will Chronicle Staging of Broadway Classic in Cuba, Jon Blistein, Rolling Stone

In this article, Jon Blistein writes about the upcoming documentary from HBO, Revolution Rent, which will document the efforts by Andy Señor Jr. to stage a production of the Broadway hit Rent in Cuba in 2014. Mr. Blistein writes about how Mr. Señor Jr., who was an original cast member in the Broadway show, travelled to Cuba to stage the first Broadway musical on the island in 50 years. He also details Mr. Señor Jr.’s reaction to having this documentary end up on HBO.

EVENTS

Virtual, Perspectives from Havana in a Year of Covid and Embargo – A Series of Weekly Conversations, May 4

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 6 p.m. EDT. The fourth event, on May 4, will be with Nancy Morejón, one of the foremost voices in Cuban poetry today, who will offer her thoughts from the perspective of a poet and writer. 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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