U.S.-Cuba News Brief 05/14/2021

Dear Friends,

Reports of additional cases of health incidents similar to those experienced by U.S. personnel in Cuba and China continue to emerge, some even allegedly occurring in Washington, DC. 

Members of Congress and many of the diplomats and intelligence officers affected are pushing for more transparency in the investigation, but answers remain elusive. Cuba unfortunately continues to bear the brunt of the consequences, singled out as the only country to have the U.S. embassy drawn down and consular services suspended. Opponents of engagement utilized the incidents, which were originally called “sonic attacks,” to push the Trump Administration to roll back President Obama’s Cuba opening. The incidents are now reported to have happened across the globe, including close to the White House, but the Cuban people continue to suffer the consequences. 

U.S. sanctions continue to affect companies operating in good faith, as is the case with Biomin America, the latest company to be hit with fines by OFAC. COVID-19 continues to spread in Cuba with over 1,000 new cases daily as the government pushes forward with mass vaccination with Cuban vaccines. Meanwhile, some innovative Cubans have taken to using cryptocurrency, which given its decentralized nature and independence from government regulation, offer a way to carry out transactions complicated by the U.S. embargo. 

Independent activists held virtual events to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the first independently organized LGBTQI+ march in Cuba. Independent groups and government organizations are keeping a close eye on the development of Cuba’s new Family Code, which is expected to address the question of same-sex marriage in Cuba, and which will be presented to the legislature in July.

All this and more in this week’s Cuba News Blast…

Yesterday, Cuba reported 1,277 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 6,453 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Havana, reported the largest numbers of new cases by far compared to other provinces at 657. The total number of deaths since last March is 785. For a graph of case numbers since March, see here. For a detailed breakdown of all COVID-19 data, visit this website. In response to rising COVID numbers, Cuba’s government has begun a mass vaccination campaign despite the fact that the vaccines’ Phase III clinical trials have not concluded. Cuba’s struggling economy is also suffering in the face of the pandemic. 

This week, in Cuba news…


Mysterious Ailments Are Said to Be More Widespread Among U.S. Personnel; Claims of Microwave Attacks are Scientifically Implausible

U.S. government officials now indicate that more than 130 people have been affected by health incidents similar to those that afflicted U.S. personnel in Havana, Russia, and China, The New York Times reports. Cases have also been reported in the U.S. Initially, the cases concentrated in China and Cuba and included 60 individuals within the C.I.A., the State Department, and the Defense Department. These numbers excluded a portion of C.I.A. agents. The new cases reflect an ongoing effort made by the Biden-Harris administration to further investigate reported cases in Europe and Asia. Despite these ongoing efforts, the Administration has not been able to provide further details pertaining to the incidents. 

In an opinion piece in Foreign Policy, Cheryl Rofer states that the evidence pointing to a microwave weapon as the source of the health incidents is exceedingly weak. Ms.Rofer states that microwave beams do not heat things from the inside out, and therefore if the beams were the culprit, those affected would have experienced visible wounds. Additionally, Ms.Rofer highlights the lack of evidence outlining exactly how a microwave weapon operates. A hypothetical microwave weapon would be hard to obscure, given the great size of the generator needed to power it.

Washington Fines Agricultural Company for Selling Food to Cuba Without Informing the Government; Powerful Cuban-American businessmen sued for allegedly marketing Cuban sugar

Biomin America, a U.S.-based company specialized in animal nutrition, was fined $257,862 by the U.S. Treasury Department for violating forty-four Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations, OnCuba News reports. The company, which is a joint venture with partial ownership and subsidiaries abroad, reportedly carried out thirty transactions of agricultural products to Cuba between July 2012 and September 2017. Although the transactions were initiated through a foreign subsidiary and the products were not produced in the U.S., due to Biomin’s partial U.S. ownership, OFAC regulations required the company to obtain an export permit to do business with Cuba. Due to the non-deliberate nature of the violations, the Treasury Department took no further action.

ASR Group International Inc, the largest sugar refinery in the world, has been sued under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act (LIBERTAD ACT) in a Miami district court, OnCuba reports. ASR Group International Inc. is owned by Cuban American brothers Alfonso and José Fanjul. The suit was brought against the company by Francisco Sugar Company, a New Jersey based company with owners who also have roots in Cuba. The suit alleges that ASR Group International Inc. purchased sugar cane grown on farmland in Cuba formerly owned by the Francisco Sugar Company, and exported it from the Port of Guayabal to a ASR refinery in London. The Fajuls have pushed back against these allegations, claiming they are “absolutely false” and “offensive.” Additionally, after reviewing public records concerning the alleged shipments, it has been confirmed that the company shipped sugar to Peru instead of London in 2016. Francisco Sugar Company, however, has not dropped the complaint. 

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. 


LGBTI+ Activists in Cuba Celebrate the Second Anniversary of Havana’s Historic May 11 March (Spanish); CENESEX Announces IDAHOT Celebrations

On Tuesday, Plataforma 11M, a movementcomposed of a collective of independent LGBTQI+ activists and groups in Cuba that have joined together to advocate for rights, policies, and social initiatives for the LGBTQI+ community on the island, kicked off a series of virtual actions and events, Tremenda Nota reports. The events and actions served to commemorate the Platform’s first anniversary and the second anniversary of the island’s first LGBTQI+ march organized by independent activists that took place in Havana on May 11. The virtual events and actions, including Twitter campaigns and interviews and voice chats held over the app Telegram, span from May 11-May 15, and focus on the experience of transgender people in Cuba, family law, digital activism, and the island’s Family Code, among other topics. Last week, Cuba announced the members of the commission that will prepare and present a draft of the island’s new Family Code in July. The commission includes Mariela Castro Espín, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), and is widely expected to address the question of same-sex marriage in Cuba.

Cuba’s first independent LGBTQI+ march occurred on May 11, 2019 after CENESEX canceled Cuba’s annual parade or conga celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). During the event, more than 100 attendees walked from Havana’s Central Park down to the seafront boulevard before being stopped by dozens of security officials, where at least three activists were arrested by plainclothes policemen. The march is considered to be the second independently organized march in Cuba carried out without authorization from the state.

This year, CENESEX will celebrate Cuba’s 14th annual IDAHOT by hosting a series of virtual events from May 4 through May 30 intended to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, The Washington Blade reports. The program will include a forum dedicated to combating stereotypes around LGBTQI+ couples and families; a panel that will discuss ways to combat homophobia in the community; tips on how to hold more inclusive conversations; and a book reading around the topic of cyberactivism. 

Cuba Deploys Homegrown Vaccines, Hoping to Slow an Exploding virus outbreak

On Wednesday, Cuba began a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 in Havana using the country’s Soberana II and Abdala vaccines, which have not yet completed Phase III clinical trials, The New York Times reports. The campaign, which aims to vaccinate a total of 1.7 million people, comes as an “emergency step” taken by the island to combat recent outbreaks. Scientists in Cuba argue the two vaccines pose minimal risks despite not having completed the Phase III trials.

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health has announced that about 70,000 Cubans have already received the first dose of the Abdala vaccine since the beginning of the vaccination campaign on Monday. Among those that recently received the Abdala vaccine are healthcare workers, medical students, immunocompromised individuals, and those in select territories. Cuba aims to distribute the Abdala vaccine in Havana this week to about 400,000 adults. In addition, the island hopes to administer the Soberana II vaccine throughout the island in June. Thus far, according to Vicente Vérez Bencomo, the director of the state-owned Finlay Institute of Vaccines in Havana, two doses of the Soberana II vaccine proved to be 80 percent effective in creating antibodies against the COVID-19 virus. Mr. Vérez adds that a third booster shot increases the prospects of antibodies to 100 percent and that the state will release a final report concerning the Soberana II vaccine in June. 

Trust Investing in Cuba: Opportunity or Scam?

In late April, Ruslan Concepción, the director in Cuba of the cryptocurrency platform Trust Investing, was arrested while attempting to board a flight and remains detained, OnCuba News reports. Agents reportedly considered his source of income illicit. Trust Investing defines itself as a “crypto asset management company,” though others consider it a pyramid scheme. The National Securities Market Commission of Spain, (CNMV) and the Securities Market of the Republic of Panama (SMV) have denounced the legitimacy of Trust Investing and similar companies dedicated to the flow of cryptocurrencies. Despite the number of discrepancies surrounding this informal business system, more than 70,000 people in Cuba are estimated to have ties with Trust Investment. According to Adalberto Hernández Santos, Master in Education in the United Kingdom and Specialist in Digital Literacy, “All this comes in the context of the pandemic, where uncertainty has increased, where tourism and sources of work have decreased. People saw TI then as a promise to be able to invest and obtain a certain benefit in a very short term, without doing anything.” 

While Trust Investing and similar companies have become controversial, cryptocurrencies remain popular digital assets. According to Bitcoin News, Cuba experienced an increase in the use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin following the termination of Western Union’s remittance services on the island. As a result, platforms like Bitremesas, which allow users to send remittances via digital currencies, have become widely used. Bitremesas’ independence from state-run banks and the decentralized nature of cryptocurrencies makes it difficult for the U.S. government and Cuba’s government to monitor transactions. However, given the increased usage of cryptocurrencies on the island, Cuba’s government has shown interest in analyzing how the island could use this currency to alleviate Cuba’s current economic crisis. The idea was highlighted at a party meeting on April 19. Since then, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz Canel has referred to the “convenience of using cryptocurrencies [as part of] the national economy” while affirming that the Cuban government does not support pyramid schemes. 

Electronic payments extended to grocery stores in Cuba

On Friday, on Cuba’s Mesa Redonda (The Roundtable), the government’s televised official channel of communication, Miriam Pérez, Cuba’s deputy minister of domestic trade, announced plans to allow those in Cuba the option to pay with quick response (QR) codes in grocery stores throughout Cuba, OnCuba News reports. Currently, the technology is concentrated in grocery stores in Havana. The usage of QR Code payment technology allows the stores to avoid transferring large cash sums and enables greater financial control, according to Pérez.


Cuba protests diplomat’s expulsion from Colombia amid protests

Last Thursday, Colombia expelled the First Secretary of Cuba’s embassy in Bogota, Omar Rafael García Lazo, on the grounds that he violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Reuters reports. The First Secretary holds the second highest position at the embassy. In response to the expulsion, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) tweeted that the expulsion was “unjust,” and was intended to subvert international attention from violent clashes between police and protestors in Colombia. Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in a press release that it “rejects” Cuba’s claims, and that Cuba sought to sow division among the Colombian people while turning a blind eye to the activities of its diplomat in Colombia.

The expulsion is not the first time Cuba and Colombia have faced tension. In 2018-2019, Cuba hosted the peace negotiations between Colombia’s government and Colombia’s National Liberation Army, (ELN). However, these talks collapsed in 2019 after the ELN bombed a police academy in Bogota. Although Colombia has repeatedly asked for the extradition of ELN members residing in Cuba, Cuba has asserted it is following the Peace Talk Protocols, signed by both Colombia and the ELN at the beginning of negotiations, by refusing to extradite members of the ELN.


Why is one of Cuba’s most rebellious artists still isolated in a government hospital?, Patrick Oppmann, CNN

In this article, CNN’s Patrick Oppmann explores speculation around the continued hospitalization of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), despite Mr. Otero’s seemingly stable condition. Nearly two weeks ago, government officials in Cuba transported Mr. Otero to a local hospital, ending the dissident activist and artist’s week-long hunger strike. Despite official claims that upon admission Mr. Otero “did not seem to have been deprived of food or water” and the fact that he has reportedly been eating and drinking, Mr. Otero has not been released. Instead, he remains in a “closely guarded hospital” in Havana. Authorities claim Mr. Otero is still undergoing testing and that his treatment is voluntary. Cuba’s authorities have not allowed communication with Mr. Otero, only providing updates on the activist’s health to the public via videos released by Cuba’s state-run media. Those close to Mr. Otero claim that he was taken for treatment against his will.

Alex Cuba – Hablando x Hablar

On April 29, Cuban artists Alex Cuba and Cimafunk collaborated to release the single Hablando x Hablar (Talking x To Talk). Afro-Cuban funk sensation Cimafunk is a Cuban artist from Pinar del Río who has sold out venues in Washington D.C., Miami, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Mexico. He was named as one of the “Top 10 Latin Artists to watch in 2019,” by Billboard. Alex Cuba is a Cuban-Canadian artist born in Artemisa. Mr. Cuba has won multiple Latin Grammy and Juno awards. 

Cuba’s Chevy doctor keeping classic cars on the road, France24 

Pablo Manso, a self-taught technician from Placetas, makes a living repairing 1955-1957 Chevrolets by recreating Chevy parts in a workshop in Cuba he built fifteen years ago. His skills have earned him recognition from individuals across the island.


Virtual, Right to Live Without a Blockade: The Impact of U.S. Sanctions on the Cuban Population and Women’s Lives, May 27

Oxfam, the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Cuba, and the Cuban Association of the United Nations will host a webinar on Oxfam’s upcoming report “Right to Live Without a Blockade: The impact of US sanctions on the Cuban population and women’s lives.” The report examines how the U.S. embargo has affected the Cuban population, specifically Cuban women, and how these effects have been magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar, which will feature simultaneous Spanish-English translation, will be held from 10AM-11:30AM EST. Connection details and further information will be forthcoming. For more information, contact oxfam.cuba@oxfam.co.cu

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