U.S.-Cuba News Brief 05/21/2021

Dear Friends, 

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Senator Jerry Moran (Kansas), and Senator Leahy (VT) introduced the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act. The bill aims to lift travel and trade restrictions for Americans looking to do business with Cuba. Specifically, the bill advocates to increase American exports to the island. According to Senator Klobuchar, “Coming off the pandemic, we have to look for new markets for our (agricultural) products, and this is one big market of 11 million people, with potential for tourism.” Allowing U.S. businesses and companies to engage with Cuba is a smart move on both the economic and humanitarian front. Lifting restrictions on trade with Cuba’s burgeoning non-state sector and with state enterprises producing goods and services benefitting the Cuban people will help bolster Cuba’s civil society, provide humanitarian relief to Cubans bearing the effects of the pandemic and the island’s struggling economy, and allow U.S. businesses to compete in a market that they have a competitive advantage in due to proximity and cultural ties. 

After struggling to obtain visas to travel to the U.S. Olympic qualifying tournament scheduled for May 31 to June 5, on Wednesday the U.S. Embassy in Havana started processing visa applications for Cuba’s national baseball team. The move comes despite the fact that consular services in Havana have been suspended for four years following still unexplained health incidents suffered by U.S. personnel that now appear to be more widespread – occurring in countries in Europe, Asia, and even in the U.S. Although the fact that the decision to process the team’s visas is a positive step, it highlights a disparity in treatment between the team and everyday Cubans. For the past three years, many Cubans have struggled to attain U.S. visas due to the requirement that they make the sometimes cost-prohibitive trip to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana. Even Cuban animator Víctor Alfonso Cedeño, whose form of cancer required a treatment only available outside of Cuba, struggled to receive a humanitarian visa to travel to the U.S. to participate in a clinical trial at a Florida hospital. The difficulties have unnecessarily separated families across the Florida Straits, and likely have contributed to the rise in sea interdictions this fiscal year.

The number of reported cases of health incidents similar to those experienced by U.S. personnel abroad continues to rise. An additional case  has been reported near the White House in Washington D.C. A National Security official reported experiencing symptoms near the entrance to the grounds. Thus far, including the aforementioned case, there have been two known cases of these health incidents on White House grounds. 

Yesterday, Cuba reported 1,197 new cases of COVID-19. There are currently 6,874 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Matanzas reported the largest numbers of new cases, with 647, 111, and 31 new cases reported respectively in each province. The total number of deaths since last March is 849. 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

Cuba Baseball Team Says U.S. has Started Processing Visas for Olympics Qualifier; Baseball Diplomacy Re-emerges in Tense U.S.-Cuban Relations

On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Havana started processing visas for Cuba’s national baseball team to travel to the U.S. for the Americas’ Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida, NBC News reports. Due to the drawdown of staff and the suspension of consular services at the Embassy in September of 2017, like most Cubans hoping to obtain a U.S. visa, the team initially struggled. The baseball team sought to obtain U.S. visas in Mexico, Panama, Guyana, and Cuba. Before the U.S. embassy in Havana processed the team’s visa applications, the team’s outfielder stated: “It is very sad what is happening, we have been training for a long time.” This will be the first time in thirteen years that baseball will be played in the Olympics, and Cuba’s participation would allow the team to compete against Colombia, Venezuela, and Canada. 

The U.S. Embassy in Havana processing visa applications for Cuba’s baseball team is particularly notable given that consular services have not been provided on the island for the past three years. The Embassy suspended its consular services after U.S. officials in Havana reported experiencing mysterious symptoms between 2016-2017. Cubans hoping to obtain a U.S. visa have since been required to make oftentimes cost-prohibitive trips to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana.  

In an opinion piece in Elite Sports NY, Tommy Goodman, former Executive Director of the Caribbean Educational and Baseball Foundation (CEBF), highlights the importance of “baseball diplomacy” and how baseball has the potential to bridge differences between the U.S. and Cuba. Mr. Goodman shares examples of how  CEBF has helped underserved communities in Cuba and the Caribbean through people-to-people contact and cultural exchange programs. 

U.S. Investigates Second Suspected Case of Mystery ‘Syndrome’ Near White House

A second National Security Council official has been affected by health incidents formerly associated with U.S. personnel in Havana, Russia, and China, CNN reports. This time, the official suffered severe symptoms near an entrance to the White House grounds weeks after the 2020 Presidential Election in November. The other incident reported near the White House also affected a National Security Council official who had attempted to enter the White House following the 2020 Election. However, the first official suffered mild symptoms, including headaches and sleepiness that lasted about a week. The two similar incidents occurred following an incident affecting a White House official in a Virginia suburb outside of Washington D.C. in 2019. According to CNN, these incidents have raised concerns due to their “rising numbers on U.S. soil – and maybe even at the President’s front door.”  

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 at 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. In the past five years, 130 U.S. personnel have been affected by these mysterious episodes. Recent efforts made by the Biden-Harris administration to investigate the incidents have expanded known cases to Europe, Asia and the U.S. CIA Director Bill Burns has begun to receive daily briefings on these cases, highlighting that these health incidents have become a priority for the Biden-Harris administration. In addition, U.S. federal agencies, including the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Defense have ongoing investigations. Despite this, information concerning the health incidents remains limited.

U.S. Coast Guard Repatriate Twenty-Two Migrants to Cuba  

Last Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard repatriated twenty-two migrants to Cuba from two interdictions, the Miami Herald reports. The first interdiction occurred 26 miles southeast of Key West while the second interdiction took place 82 miles southwest of Key West. Since last Friday, twenty-nine Cuban migrants have been stopped by U.S. authorities near Boca Grande Key, Florida. According to Thomas G. Martin, the U.S. Border Patrol Miami Sector’s Chief Patrol Agent, U.S. Border Patrol has taken the migrants into custody. So far in fiscal year 2021, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted 257 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2020, and 313 interdictions in fiscal year 2019.  

U.S. Secretary of State’s Message on Cuba’s Independence Day

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken released a message in honor of what some observe as a “day of independence” for the Cuban Republic. In the message, the Secretary of State highlighted the island’s diversity. Although May 20 commemorates the formal end of the U.S. occupation of Cuba in 1902 and is considered the founding of the Republic of Cuba, experts point to the complexity of this day. Cuba’s government and many on the island do not consider May 20 as the island’s day of independence, given that the United States still exerted control over the newly founded republic through the Platt Amendment, which granted the U.S. the right to intervene, control Cuba’s treaty relationships, and possess naval stations on Cuban territory. The U.S. has previously issued presidential messages commemorating the day during the Trump and George W. Bush Administrations.

IN CUBA 

Havana Dons Giant Rainbow Flags in Key Year for Cuban LGBT+ Rights; Cuba’s Revolutionary Debts to LGBTQI+ People Were Pointed Out by Officials and Activists on Television (Spanish)

On Monday, in celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) draped a rainbow pride flag in front of its headquarters in Havana, Reuters reports. Flags were also reportedly draped across two colonial castles in Old Havana and the University of the Arts’ Faculty of the Arts of Audiovisual Media (FAMCA) headquarters

The move comes as the country awaits a revised draft of the island’s Family Code which is expected to clarify Cubans’ rights to same sex marriage, as well as lay out regulations related to gender identity. The commission in charge of the revision includes Mariela Castro Espín, director of CENESEX and daughter of the country’s former President Raúl Castro.

Despite ongoing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, the LGBTQI+ community on the island faces other civil and social obstacles, Tremenda Nota reports. Teresa de Jesús Fernández, the national coordinator for The Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Network in Cuba, highlights the social rejection and physical violence faced by lesbian and bisexual women on the island. Additionally, Malú Cano, the Trans Network of Persons, Families, and Couples (TransCuba) coordinator, mentions the discrimination experienced by the trans community in academia and the slow process taken by the state to modify names and pronouns on legal documents. 

More than 442,000 Cubans have already received the first dose of Abdala in health intervention against COVID

Since announcing a mass vaccination campaign last Wednesday, more than 400,000 Cubans have received the Abdala vaccine, OnCuba News reports. Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) tweeted on Monday that 442,395 individuals had already received the first dose of the vaccine. Out of these 442,395 individuals, 255,896 work in the healthcare sector while the remaining portion consists of the general public in the municipalities of Regla, Habana del Este, Guanabacoa and San Miguel del Padrón. Cuba’s mass vaccination campaign against the COVID-19 virus began in Havana before Phase III clinical trials were completed for the Soberana II and Abdala vaccines. The campaign comes as an “emergency step” taken by the island to combat recent COVID-19 outbreaks. 

CubaDebate, Cuba’s national state-run online newspaper, released an analysis on the effectiveness of the Soberana II vaccine after two doses. According to the document, the vaccine was successful in reducing the spread of the COVID19 virus and the severity of the symptoms. 43,070 individuals on the island received the first dose of the vaccine while 42,479 received the second dose. The analysis also studies the number of asymptomatic cases before and after these two dosages. While reporting 130 asymptomatic cases before undergoing the two dosages, the analysis reports a total of 5 cases fourteen days after receiving the second dose of the Soberana II vaccine. 

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS 

Cuba’s Government Denounces Attempts to Link Island with Protests in Colombia (Spanish)

On Sunday, Cuba’s government denounced claims linking Cuba to the protests currently taking place in Colombia, OnCuba News reports. Cuba’s President, Miguel Díaz-Canel denounced the claims on Twitter, affirming that Cuba was committed to establishing peace rather than violence in Colombia. Additionally, Eugenio Martínez, Director for Latin America and the Caribbean of Cuba’s Chancellery spoke out against the claims, declaring that Cuba was not involved in Colombia’s domestic affairs and denouncing the violence incited by Colombian authorities against unarmed civilians. 

On May 6, Colombia’s foreign minister accused Omar Rafael García Lazo, the first secretary of Cuba’s embassy in Colombia, of violating the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. Mr. García Lazo was expelled from the South American country amid heavy protests by Cuba’s government around the accusation’s validity. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) tweeted that the removal was “unjust” and designed to deviate international attention from the

violence taking place in Colombia. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

Miami Marlins Release City-Edition Jerseys that Honor Cuba’s Havana Sugar Kings, Chris Bumbaca, USA Today 

The Miami Marlins’ city edition jerseys will honor the Havana Sugar Kings; a minor league baseball team that played in Havana from 1946 to 1960, USA Today reports. By the middle of 1960, the Sugar Kings had relocated to New Jersey, given strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Nonetheless, the Havana Sugar Kings represent the Cuban-American community in Miami and the community’s perseverance. The Miami Marlins are one of seven baseball teams to partner with Nike and Major League Baseball on the “City Connect Series” to represent the community. The Miami Marlins will wear the jerseys on May 21.

USAID in Cuba: Code Names and Counter Surveillance, Tracey Eaton, Cuba Money Project

In this blog post, journalist Tracey Eaton analyzes the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Cuban Social Society Support Program. According to Mr. Eaton, the project’s objective was to increase “bottom-up pressures” for socio-political reform in Cuba. USAID issued requests for the proposal on August 8 of 2009. By October 8 of 2009, the organization Creative Associates International received $15.5 million and a three-year contract to carry out the operation. Creative Associates International set up the operation in Costa Rica while diplomatic mail services delivered supplies to Cuba. Specifically, the mission worked with communication platforms, cuentapropistas (non-state workers), university students, the youth, and counterculture sectors on the island. However, the program ended on August 12 of 2012, given increased pressure and suspicions from Cuba’s authorities and decreased travel to the island.  

Cuban Leverages Internet to Mobilize Cycling Community, MSN Noticias (Spanish)

Yasser Gonzalez, a computer programmer and bicycle enthusiast in Havana, speaks about his program Citykleta. Mr.Gonzalez created the project in 2015, following the establishment of 35 Wi-Fi zones and greater access to mobile internet throughout the island. Citykleta advertises guided bike tours in Havana, mobilizes the biking community, and advocates for the use and accessibility of bikes in urban areas of Cuba to combat pollution. 

New Photos Reveal Details of Cuba’s Tiny, Lethal Attack Submarine, H. I Sutton, USNI News

Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR) posted a photo of the Delfín (Dolphin) Class submarine, USNI News reports. The submarine is about 70 feet long, has a crew of about five, and is armed with heavyweight torpedoes. Although this is not the first photo of the Navy’s Delfin Class submarine, it is the first time Cuba’s government has released an official image on their website. In 2020, a tourist hoping to capture Havana’s harbor unintentionally caught the most precise photo at the time of Cuba’s Delfin Class submarine. Defense analysts only had one image of the heavily guarded submarine before this image was released. Despite an increase in images, information concerning the submarine’s operational capabilities remains limited. 

EVENTS

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. The event will be live streamed in English via YouTube under CodePinkAction and Facebook under NewGoodNeighborPolicy. To join via Zoom or for further information, contact oxfam.cuba@oxfam.co.cu

Virtual, Cuba Transition: New Day or More of the Same?, June 3

The Council of the Americas will host a webinar on Cuba’s recent leadership transition on June 3 from 11AM-12PM EST. The discussion will feature Dr. Brian Latell, the author of History Will Absolve Me: Fidel Castro, and former CIA and National Intelligence Council official. Dr. Latell will analyze whether this presidential transition signifies political changes for the island or if it is solely symbolic. For further information, contact sdavis@as-coa.org 


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