U.S.-Cuba News Brief 05/07/2021

Dear Friends,

This week, several U.S. senators spoke out about increased domestic reports of health incidents like those that affected U.S. personnel in Cuba in 2016-2017, Cuban authorities ended a week-long hunger strike by dissident artist-activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and Cuba announced the members of the commission in charge of drafting a new Family Code for the island that will likely offer greater clarification on the legality of same sex marriage.

Yesterday, Cuba reported 1,162 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 5,631 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island. Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Artemisa reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 684, 91, and 47 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 713, 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.

According to Global Health Partners, Cuba currently faces a shortage of 20 million syringes that will be needed to vaccinate the island’s population against COVID-19. Global Health Partners and the Saving Lives Campaign are currently accepting donations to send medical syringes to Cuba for use in COVID-19 vaccination.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Senate intel leaders vow to ‘get to the bottom’ of increasing directed-energy attacks

Following reports that the U.S. government is investigating domestic occurrences of health incidents suspected to be similar to those that afflicted U.S. personnel in Havana, Russia, and China, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said last Friday that they would “get to the bottom” of these “mysterious attacks,” Politico reports. Senators Mark Warner (VA) and Marco Rubio (FL), the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee respectively, released a statement saying that the health incidents, which the senators refer to as “attacks,” appear to be increasing. The senators welcomed CIA Director William Burns’ focus on these mysterious incidents and said that the Intelligence Community will work together to better understand the “technology behind the weapon” responsible for the incidents. Representative Adam Schiff (CA-28), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that his committee would continue to hold events on the issue and that the U.S. government has been working “quietly and persistently” regarding the incidents since their first reports.

The statement from Senators Warner and Rubio followed a Senate Intelligence Committee briefing with CIA officials last week during which senators expressed their frustration that intelligence officials were only now communicating significant information regarding the health incidents to the committee, according to CNN. Senators also urged that the officials, who they claim initially mishandled the incidents, must be held accountable. The officials who briefed the senators reportedly discussed previously unreported suspected cases of the health incidents that occurred in a European country this year.

The senators’ statement also came one day after Politico reported on an ongoing investigation into suspected cases of the health incidents among several U.S. officials in Miami. The same day as Politico’s reporting, CNN reported on investigations by federal agencies into two other suspected domestic occurrences of the health incidents, including one near the White House, which afflicted a National Security Council official. The previous week, Politico reported that earlier in the year Department of Defense officials had briefed certain members of Congress on the Pentagon’s ongoing investigations into similar health incidents reported by U.S. troops abroad.

Between 2016 and 2017, dozens of U.S. and Canadian personnel working in Cuba reported a variety of symptoms including headaches, dizziness, cognitive impacts, and ringing in the ears. Similar incidents were later reported by U.S. personnel in other countries, including China and Russia. The incidents led to staff reductions in the U.S. Embassy in Havana, an increase in the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory level for Cuba, and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington, D.C.

While U.S. federal agencies, including the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Defense have ongoing investigations into the health incidents, no definitive cause of the incidents has been publicly reported. A National Academy of Sciences study released late last year stated that “directed” microwave radiation was the likeliest explanation for the incidents. However, other scientists have dismissed the microwave radiation theory. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.

Two Cuban migrants stopped in Styrofoam raft off the Florida Keys

On Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard stopped two Cuban migrants about eight miles off the coast of Key Largo, the Miami Herald reports. After being transported to a hospital in Miami-Dade County for medical attention, the two migrants were transferred by the Border Patrol to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They will likely be repatriated to Cuba. 

Recently, reports of irregular migration from Cuba to the U.S. have been increasing. At its last reporting, the U.S. Coast Guard stated that 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. Advocates for reopening consular services in Havana warn that the economic crisis in Cuba and a lack of legal avenues for Cubans to travel to the U.S. could lead to more dangerous sea crossings. 

IN CUBA

Cuban government ends leading dissident’s hunger strike

On Sunday, Cuban authorities ended a week-long hunger strike by Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), when they transported Mr. Otero to a local hospital early that morning, Reuters reports. The Havana Department of Public Health stated that Mr. Otero was referred to the hospital for “voluntary starvation” and was in a stable condition. The health department further stated that the hospital had not found signs of malnutrition or chemical imbalances in Mr. Otero––a claim that was met with skepticism by members of MSI. Reportedly, Mr. Otero’s house had been surrounded by Cuban police while he was on his hunger strike, with no one allowed in or out of the residence. In his hunger strike, Mr. Otero had been protesting police harassment and restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba and had been demanding the return of artwork which he says was stolen from him or destroyed by Cuban authorities during a police raid.

The day before Cuban authorities ended the strike, Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. State Department, tweeted expressing concern for Mr. Otero and urging Cuba’s government to “take immediate steps to protect his life and health.” The U.S. Embassy in Havana and foreign officials, including from the EU, have also expressed their concern for Mr. Otero’s wellbeing since his hospitalization.

Mr. Otero’s hunger strike came a few weeks after José Daniel Ferrer and other members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) ended a 21 day hunger strike on April 11 to protest alleged police harassment.

Commission in charge of drafting Family Code announced

Last Friday, Cuba announced the names of the 31 members of the commission that will prepare and present a draft of the island’s new Family Code to the legislature this year, OnCuba News reports. The names of the 31 members were published in Cuba’s Gaceta Oficial under Agreement Number 149. According to the Agencia Cubana de Noticias, the commission will be responsible for conducting studies and consultations as they prepare the draft of the new code. In late March, Cuba’s Council of State approved the appointments of the members of the commission, but did not release their names. According to the Associated Press, Cuba plans to begin a national referendum process for the Family Code in July, after it is presented to the legislature. 

Among the members of the commission is Mariela Castro Espín, director of the National Center for Sex Education and Raúl Castro’s daughter, who stated that she feels “very hopeful” the Family Code will gain the support of the majority of people in Cuba and that it will “give rise to the recognition and guarantee of diverse families.” Some activists have criticized the composition of the commission, noting that all those appointed are civil servants or have ties to the state Communist Party, leaving out those from independent civil society organizations.

The island’s new Family Code is expected to address the question of same-sex marriage in Cuba. The legalization of same-sex marriage was widely debated in 2018 during the drafting of Cuba’s new constitution, approved in early 2019 in a national referendum. In the constitution’s initial draft, the language defining marriage was broadened 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 broadened definition of marriage and threatened to vote against the constitution if it was included. Subsequently, the Constitutional Reform Commission decided to omit a precise definition of marriage in the new constitution, preferring instead to define marriage in the Family Code, and leave the debate for the Family Code’s revision.

Cuba approves sale of beef, milk, and their by-products

This Wednesday, Cuba published two resolutions in its Gaceta Oficial which outline the new regulations on the sale of beef and milk products announced last month, along with other measures to boost food production, OnCuba News reportsResolution 139/2021 and Resolution 140/2021, which take effect 30 days from their date of publication, still require cattle farmers to sell a certain quota of their production to the state at state-set prices. Furthermore, cattle farmers are obligated to maintain the growth of their herd and to obtain proper registration to slaughter their cattle. The regulations also establish additional areas in which the slaughter of cattle and sale of beef may take place, according to the Agencia Cubana de Noticias.  

Since 1963, it has been illegal for Cubans to slaughter their cows or sell beef and dairy products without the permission of the state. The livestock reforms come as Cuba faces a food shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and increased U.S. sanctions. Some Cuban economists say that deregulation could help boost production in the island’s agricultural sector.

Phase III doses application of Abdala candidate clinical trial ends in eastern Cuba

On Saturday, Cuba finished administering the third and final doses for the Phase III clinical trials of the island’s Abdala vaccine, OnCuba News reports. The Phase III trials for the Abdala vaccine include 48,290 volunteers in the provinces of Granma, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo. Scientists will now monitor the rate of COVID-19 infection among those involved in the study, some of whom received a placebo, to determine the vaccine’s efficacy. 

The Abdala vaccine is also currently being administered to healthcare workers and other high-risk people in “intervention studies” in Havana and eastern Cuba. It will also be used along with the Soberana 02 vaccine, the only other Cuban vaccine to so far reach Phase III trials, in a large-scale intervention study this month, which will see 1.7 million of the 2.1 million inhabitants of Havana vaccinated. 

In addition to the Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines, Cuba has three other vaccines in clinical trials: the Soberana 01, Soberana 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.

Pandemic and economic crisis dampen May Day in Cuba

For the second year in a row, Cuba cancelled its May Day march this past Saturday, as the country sees rising cases of COVID-19 and faces an economic crisis, Reuters reports. May Day, or International Workers Day, is reportedly Cuba’s second most important national holiday, following only January 1, when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces declared victory in 1959. For the occasion this year, only small groups of dignitaries gathered in public squares, which are usually the sight of large flag-waving crowds on the holiday. Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel released several tweets related to the holiday, congratulating Cuban workers for their efforts to “survive the pandemic under a reinforced blockage and still move forward.” Ulises Guilarte de Nascimento, head of the Cuban Workers’ Confederation, spoke on Friday on state television about the struggles Cuban workers have faced in recent times and on Saturday spoke to a small group of national leaders in Havana’s Revolution Square. Some small groups of workers rallied to celebrate the holiday, and many hung Cuban flags from windows and balconies.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Venezuela to begin clinical trials of Cuba’s Abdala vaccine candidate

On Monday, Venezuela’s Health Minister Carlos Alvarado announced that this month Venezuela would begin Phase III trials for Cuba’s Abdala COVID-19 vaccine candidate, Reuters reports. Mr. Alvarado also announced that while clinical trials are ongoing, Venezuela will ready its national laboratories with the goal of  producing “doses for 4 million people” of the vaccine. In April, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro announced that the country had signed a deal with Cuba to produce two million doses of the Abdala vaccine in Venezuela each month during August and September of this year. 

China becomes top market for Cuba’s legendary cigars

On Tuesday, the Cuban state-owned Habanos S.A. cigar company announced that last year China replaced Spain as the top destination for its cigars, Reuters reports. The company also announced that global revenue had declined by 4 percent to $507 million, amidst a sharp decrease in tourism to the island during the COVID-19 pandemic. Habanos S.A.’s usual festival for tobacco retailers and aficionados has been replaced this year by three days of virtual events, which began on Tuesday. According to the company, Europe has remained the greatest regional market for Habanos, with 50 percent of sales going to the region, followed by Asia-Pacific with 16.2 percent of sales. Habanos officials further stated on Tuesday that while sales in Europe and Asia-Pacific have risen 2 percent and 10 percent respectively, revenue has dropped by 31 percent in Africa and the Middle East and by 21 percent in the Americas. Due to the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, the island cannot sell its cigars to the U.S., the largest international cigar market. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIEWINGS

The perils of leaving Cuba out in the cold, Editorial Board, Financial Times

In this opinion piece, the Financial Times Editorial Board argues that President Joe Biden should ease restrictions on remittances and direct flights to Cuba now, in order to help ordinary Cubans and prepare the way for substantive dialogues between the two countries. The Editorial Board discusses the recent change in political leadership in Cuba, recent economic reforms on the island, and the contrast between the Biden-Harris administration’s inaction on Cuba policy and then-candidate Biden’s promises regarding Cuba while campaigning. 

Liberating Cuba by land, sea and air, Adam Goodman, The Hill

In this opinion piece, Adam Goodman argues that the U.S. should engage economically with Cuba. Mr. Goodman discusses the current political, economic, and demographic situations in Cuba and the island government’s recent overtures to foreign investors. He contends that the U.S. risks seeing Cuba turn toward U.S. competitors if it does not engage with the island.

Cubans Are Still Waiting for Something New From Biden, Elliot Waldman & Michael Bustamante, World Politics Review

In this episode of the podcast Trend Lines from the World Politics Review, Elliot Waldman speaks with Michael Bustamante, assistant professor of history at Florida International University, about U.S.-Cuba relations and what the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to Cuba policy could mean for the island.

Love or Spycraft: What Landed an American Teacher in a Cuban Prison? Frances Robles, The New York Times

In this article, Frances Robles discusses the case of Alina López Miyares, a dual Cuban and U.S. citizen currently serving a 13-year sentence in Cuban prison after being charged with espionage. Ms. Robles details the sequence of alleged circumstances that led to her criminal charge in Cuba and the evidence that Cuba used against her in her trial, where she was represented by a state lawyer. Ms. Robles also writes about the ongoing efforts by Ms. López’s mother, family, and lawyer to advocate for Ms. López’s release.

Torpor and long lines feel the same in a post-Castro Cuba, Anthony DePalma, Los Angeles Times

In this opinion piece, Anthony DePalma discusses Cuba’s past May Day celebrations, including one he attended in 2018 with two friends on the island. In the context of May Day, also called International Workers Day, Mr. DePalma writes about the inability of workers in Cuba to engage in strikes, restrictions on public protest, and the consequences of public criticism of the government or Communist Party. He also discusses youth-led protest movements on the island and his view that the recent transfer of power in Cuba has done little to change Cubans’ perspectives on the future.

Old Cubans like my papi see hope for their homeland in young protestors, Ana Hebra Flaster, The Washington Post

In this opinion piece, Ana Hebra Flaster writes about recent protest movements led by young artists-activists in Cuba. Ms. Flaster, whose family left Cuba for the U.S. following Cuba’s revolution, discusses her father’s perspective on the youth-led social movements and the hope that he and other exiles carry for significant change in Cuba. She also writes about the recent song “Patria y Vida,” which expressed criticisms of Cuba’s government, and her father’s reaction to the song and the recent transition of power on the island.

Cuba: the Congress of resistance (Spanish), Lenier González, Inter-American Dialogue

In this opinion piece, Lenier González discusses the generational shift in leadership at the recent Communist Party Congress in Cuba. Mr. González writes about various issues discussed at the party congress, including economic reform, social media, the rights of LGBTIQ people and racial minorities, and state-run media. He ultimately argues that by delaying action on Cuba policy, the Biden-Harris administration is missing an opportunity to bring more openness to the island as it undergoes this shift in leadership.

Why Cuba can’t afford to let a Black activist die for demanding basic rights, Abraham Jiménez Enoa, The Washington Post

In this opinion piece, Abraham Jiménez Enoa discusses the circumstances of the recent hunger strike by Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, which was put to an end by Cuban authorities who transported him to a hospital. He argues that Cuba’s government could not let Mr. Otero die in a hunger strike at least in part due to the effects such an event would have on Cuba’s relations with other countries.

Cuba’s long biotech investments could pay off in COVID vaccines, Ruaridh Nicoll, Al Jazeera

In this article, Ruaridh Nicoll discusses Cuba’s efforts to develop and produce vaccines against COVID-19. Mr. Nicoll writes about the history of Cuban vaccine development and the island’s decision not to acquire vaccines through the COVAX initiative. He also discusses the current shortages in food and medical products on the island and Cuba’s plans for administering and exporting doses of its vaccines once they pass clinical trials.

Cuba during the pandemic – photo essay, Ruaridh Nicoll, The Guardian

In this article, Ruaridh Nicoll writes about the photography of Leysis Quesada Vera, whose photos show life in Havana during the time of pandemic. Mr. Nicoll describes some of the effects that the pandemic has had on Cuba’s society and the efforts by Ms. Quesada to capture these effects. 

In the CIA’s 1st Plot Against The Castros, Fidel Wasn’t The Target, Greg Myre, NPR

In this article, Greg Myre discusses a recently uncovered CIA plot to assassinate Raúl Castro in 1960. Mr. Myre discussesthe ultimately aborted plan with Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, who uncovered the documents related to the incident.

EVENTS

Virtual, Perspectives from Havana in a Year of Covid and Embargo – A Series of Weekly Conversations, May 11

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 final event, on May 11, will be with David Faya, a professional bassist, and Isabel Rodriguez, an archeologist and photographer, who will offer their thoughts from the perspective of the next generation. 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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