U.S.-Cuba News Brief 05/28/2021

Dear Friends,

We wish you and yours a safe and healthy holiday weekend.

For your weekend reading list, be sure to check out Oxfam America’s new report Right to Live Without a Blockade: The Impact of U.S. Sanctions on the Cuban Population and Women’s Lives. The report advocates for a policy of engagement between the U.S. and Cuba, including lifting U.S. sanctions against the island as Cuba faces one of its most dire economic crises since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

After just over three months in office, the Biden-Harris administration’s Cuba policy continues to look much like that of the Trump administration’s path on Cuba. This week the U.S. State Department announced that Cuba would remain on the list of countries not fully cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The decision comes despite the fact that President-Elect Joseph Biden pledged during his campaign to reverse a portion of the former Administration’s policies concerning Cuba. It’s not clear if the Biden-Harris administration maintained the status quo because it has not finished its policy review on Cuba, or if it was a clear signal that it will continue to follow the Trump administration’s path on Cuba. 

Amnesty International has declared Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, artist and leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), a “prisoner of conscience.” The organization demands the immediate release of the young activist, who has remained at Havana’s General Calixto Garcia University Hospital since May 2. While organizations like Amnesty International protest Mr. Otero’s detention, local artists in Havana have requested to withdraw their art from the Museum of Fine Arts until government officials release Mr. Otero. 

Since the beginning of 2021, tourism in Cuba has decreased by 94 percent compared to the first four months of 2020. This massive decrease implies a tremendous financial loss for the island as tourism remains one of its greatest sources of income. 

Yesterday, Cuba reported 138,899 cases of COVID-19. There are currently 6,449 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Havana reported the largest number new cases by far compared to other provinces at 536. The total number of deaths since last March is 933. 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-19 numbers, Cuba’s government has begun a mass vaccination campaign. Cuba’s struggling economy is also suffering in the face of the pandemic. 

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba Remains on List of Countries That Don’t Help the U.S. Fight Terrorism

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State announced that Cuba would remain on the list of countries not fully cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts under Section 40A(a) of the Arms Export Control Act, Miami Herald reports. The list also includes Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran. The designation bans the U.S. government from exporting arms and defensive weapons, restricts U.S. foreign assistant, and imposes other financial and miscellaneous restrictions on the listed countries. Though this may be the case, the designation has little effect on the already highly sanctioned Cuba. The move serves to recertify Cuba’s presence on the list. The island was added to the list by the Trump administration in 2020 – a precursor to the Trump administration’s addition of Cuba to the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list in January of 2021.  In response to Tuesday’s announcement, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla tweeted that the continuation of the policy under the Biden-Harris administration was “irritating” and “surprising.”

The Biden-Harris administration’s decision to leave Cuba on the list of countries not fully cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts, though simply a recertification, reflects one of the first actions taken by the Administration on Cuba policy. Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics and Cuba expert at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts views the move as “a harbinger of a non-return to Obama’s engagement.” William LeoGrande, a professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington D.C., notes the move “is odd since Cuba is already on the state supporter of terrorism list, which is obviously a more severe designation than non-cooperating.” 

Diplomats Send Letter to State Department Leaders Saying, ‘Havana Syndrome’ Sufferers Are Not Getting Proper Care

On Wednesday, a letter was sent to Brian McKeon, a deputy secretary of State, voicing frustration and urging the Biden-Harris Administration to provide better care for those impacted by health incidents formerly associated with U.S. personnel in Cuba, Russia, and China, NBC News reports. Copies of the letter were also distributed throughout the offices of several U.S. senators. The letter was sent by a group of 21 U.S. government workers and their spouses who were impacted by these health incidents while abroad, including in Cuba and China. The names of the government officials who wrote this letter have not been released. A list of 11 recommendations reflecting ways to ensure care and support for those impacted and how to respond to future incidents was also included. Among the recommendations was to centralize the care of the affected patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. 

LafargeHolcim Nears Settlement Over Property in Cuba

Last week, LafargeHolcim, a Swiss company that manufactures building material, reached a settlement in a Helms-Burton Act (LIBERTAD ACT) suit brought against the company, The Wall Street Journal reports. The lawsuit, in which a group of 25 U.S. individuals claim that the Swiss company was profiting off Cuban property in Cuba formerly belonging to them, was filed in September of 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. A family who had owned the Compañía Azucarera Soledad SA located in Cienfuegos, Cuba before the 1959 Revolution, filed the initial lawsuit. The family claims that LafargeHolcim had been using this land while working in partnership with Cuba’s government. 

This suit is one of 30 similar lawsuits filed after the Trump administration ended the suspension of Title III and IV of The Helms-Burton Act (LIBERTAD ACT) in May of 2019. Title III allows U.S. nationals to sue companies operating in property formerly owned by these individuals but nationalized by Cuba’s government following the triumph of the 1959 Revolution. 

César Prieto: Cuban Baseball Player Defects on Florida Trip 

Cuba’s national baseball team arrived in Florida on Wednesday after obtaining visas from the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Tuesday, BBC reports. Upon the team’s arrival in Florida, Journalist Francys Romero tweeted that César Prieto, a player on the team, appeared to have defected. Cuba’s national baseball team had initially sought to obtain U.S. visas in Mexico, Panama, and Guyana. However, after minimal progress just weeks before the Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida, the team turned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The U.S. Embassy ultimately agreed to process the visa applications on Wednesday of last week. This was particularly notable because consular services have been suspended at the U.S. Embassy in Havana since 2017, after U.S. officials on the island reported experiencing mysterious health symptoms between 2016-2017. Since then, Cubans hoping to obtain U.S. visas have had to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana. This requirement often prevents Cubans from attaining the visa given its financial expense.

IN CUBA

Amnesty Calls Hospitalized Cuban Dissident ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ ; Cuban Artists Ask Museum of Fine Arts to Remove Their Work from Display While Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara Remains in Government Custody

On Friday, Amnesty International declared Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), a ‘prisoner of conscience,’ Reuters reports. Government officials in Cuba transported Mr. Otero to Havana’s General Calixto Garcia University Hospital on May 2, ending the dissident activist and artist’s eight-day hunger strike. Since then, government officials have held Mr. Otero in a closely guarded hospital room with limited communication and restricted visits. Despite videos released by Cuba’s state-run media affirming that Mr. Otero is not being detained or prosecuted, supporters of the San Isidro Movement have questioned why the activist remains in the facility. Erika Guevara-Rosas, America’s director of Amnesty International, states, “Luis Manuel must not spend one more day under state custody. He has been detained solely because of his consciously held beliefs and must be released immediately and unconditionally.” Artists in Havana are also protesting for his release by asking that the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana remove their artwork from the museum and the museum’s web page until Mr. Otero is released and government surveillance of the artists ends. The artists’ message is that so long as Mr. Otero is incommunicado, their art will also not connect with Cuba’s public. 

Mr. Otero began his hunger strike in protest of state surveillance and restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba. Specifically, Mr. Otero had been demanding the return of artwork or financial reimbursement for damages to his work by state authorities, authorities who he says stole from him during a police raid. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has been protesting against Decree 349, a policy aimed at censoring artistic expression on the island, since 2018, with the founding of the San Isidro Movement. Since then, the activist has experienced multiple encounters with state security, including an arrest in late February of 2020, and high levels of state surveillance. 

Tourist Arrivals to Cuba Register 94% Drop So Far This Year ; Air Canada to Resume Flights to Cuba

Tourist arrivals to Cuba have dropped roughly 94 percent in the first four months of this year compared to the same period in 2020, OnCuba News reports. Last Friday, Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) released data concerning these claims. According to the ONEI, the island only reported about 64,712 tourists in the first four months of 2021 while reporting 983,099 tourists in the first four months of the previous year. This is a stark decrease and given that tourism makes up a large portion of the Cuban economy, it has likely contributed to the island’s economic woes. However, Air Canada has announced it is resuming weekly flights to Varadero and Cayo Coco from Toronto and Montreal. The flights will begin to depart from Canada on July 3 and the airline will actively monitor COVID-19 guidelines and regulations.  

Why People Leaving Cuba Can No Longer Exchange Local Bills; Cuba Will Charge a Mandatory Quarantine in Dollars to Residents Traveling at Some Airports (Spanish) 

Last week, Cuban officials announced that travelers will no longer be able to exchange the Cuban peso (CUP) back into dollars, euros, or other hard currencies at airports, Al Jazeera reports. Cuba’s government has closed the airport departure lounge exchange booths given the decreased levels of tourism that have resulted in a lack of hard currency. Tourists will now have to spend CUP while on the island or leave Cuba in possession of the local currency. The policy comes as Cuba works to boost its economy after suffering immense losses triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and heavy U.S. sanctions. 

Starting on June 5, Cuba will require tourists arriving at airports in Varadero and Cayo Coco to quarantine in hotels for six days. Individuals will have to pay for their stay in U.S. dollars and must reside in the provinces of Varadero or Cayo Coco until a second PCR test is completed on the sixth day of quarantine. Once the results of the PCR test are negative, the individual can travel to other provinces. This policy aims to increase the flow of U.S. dollars throughout Cuba, as tourists will pay for their stay at these facilities with the U.S. dollar directly rather than exchanging the dollar for the CUP. Reductions in tourism following the COVID-19 pandemic have decreased the liquidity of the CUP. The policy aims to increase the CUP’s liquidity as the island faces severe inflation. Additionally, the policy also hopes to mediate a surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the island. 

Church in Cuba declares Itself Against Same-Sex Marriage and Calls for a Law Guaranteeing Freedom of Worship (Spanish)

The Pentecostal Evangelical Church and Methodist Church in Cuba have published official statements against the inclusion of same-sex marriage in the revision of the island’s Family Code, which will be presented to Parliament in July, Tremenda Nota reports. The groups allege that same sex marriage does not coincide with the values set forth by the Cuban Revolution or the precedent set forth by religion. In its statement, the Methodist Church requested that the state implement policies that protect freedom of expression and worship. While it is still unclear whether or not the revision of the island’s Family Code will open the door to same sex marriage, Mariela Castro Espín, the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and a member of the commission that will revise the Family Code, has stated that she believes the new Family Code will “give rise to the recognition and guarantee of diverse families.” 

In October of 2020, Plataforma 11M, a movement composed of a collective of independent LGBTQI+ activists and groups in Cuba made a statement against the Alliance of Cuban Evangelical Churches and asked the government to create legislation that protected and recognized the rights of the LGBTQI+ community on the island. In the statement, the movement noted “A law is necessary to regulate and criminalize the attempts of some Christian denominations and organizations to diminish, interfere, impede or deny the rights of individuals.” The Alliance of Cuban Evangelical Churches had been expressing heavy opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage on the island.

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’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

China to Donate 5,000 Solar Panels to Cuba

China will donate 5,000 solar panels to Cuba as part of China’s government’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), OnCuba News reports. In 2018, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz Canel highlighted the importance of the BRI during his visit to China when signing a Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation between the two countries. China has been a top trading partner for Cuba. In 2017 it was the island’s most active trading partner. As of 2019, China was Cuba’s second largest trading partner, behind Venezuela. 

China’s President Xi Jinping proposed the BRI in the fall of 2013. Under this policy, “Chinese banks and companies seek to fund and build roads, power plants, ports, railways, 5G networks, and fiber optic cables around the world.” The initiative initially targeted countries in Central, South, and Southeast Asia, although in 2017 it extended into Latin America. The BRI aims to promote an interconnected world stage where China can gain economic influence while competing with the U.S. Thus far, 139 countries have affiliated with and endorsed the initiative. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

Alex Cuba Releases New Album, Recorded in His Smithers Living Room,Brittany Roffel, CBC News 

Last Friday, Alex Cuba released his new album Mendó, with collaborators including Lila Downs, Gian Marco, and Raul Midon. Mr. Cuba recorded the album in his living room in Smithers, British Columbia, and states, “This year of the pandemic, you know, has left me with something beautiful inside of me. I now believe that magic can happen anywhere music-wise.” Brianna McCarthy, an artist from Trinidad and Tobago, designed the album’s cover to reflect the singer’s African heritage. 

Oxfam Urges Biden to Normalize Ties with Cuba, France 24

On Tuesday, Oxfam released a report titled “Right to Live Without a Blockade: The Impact of U.S. Sanctions on the Cuban Population and Women’s Lives.” The report urges the Biden-Harris administration to lift economic sanctions and normalize bilateral relations between the two nations. On Thursday, the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Cuba and the Cuban Association of the UN also hosted a webinar highlighting and analyzing the issues raised in the report. 

The Youth of Cuba’s Tiny Jewish Minority, Rachel Wisniewski, NPR 

In this article, NPR’s Rachel Wisniewski photographs Cuba’s Jewish minority in Havana, specifically the Beth Shalom synagogue in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. The piece illustrates how the Jewish community in the Vedado neighborhood has experienced decreased mass attendance and monetary donations and increased sentiments of isolation within the community due to a lack of tourism on the island. 

Water as a Natural Bridge, Dr.Anmari Alvarez Alemán, The Magazine of Florida Humanities 

In this article, Dr.Anmari Alvarez Alemán, the Caribbean program director at Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, highlights the importance of countries working together to protect shared ecosystems and ecological processes. Particularly, manatees, sharks, dolphins, and turtles that have been recorded to travel from Southern Florida into Cuba’s territorial waters. This migratory path reflects a shared responsibility concerning the U.S. and Cuba to protect the habitat of these animals and collaborate on research, according to Dr.Alemán. 

Hunger as a Weapon: How Biden’s Inaction Is Aggravating Cuba’s Food Crisis, William M. LeoGrande, Common Dreams 


In this opinion piece, Professor William M. LeoGrande urges the Biden-Harris administration to overturn the Trump administration’s policies prohibiting remittances and U.S. resident travel to Cuba. Mr.LeoGrande highlights that while the Biden-Harris administration reviews Cuba policy, Cubans on the island continue to suffer the consequences set forth by these policies. The former Administration’s economic sanctions on the island and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated Cuba’s economy, leading to immense food shortages and long lines that could potentially lead to increases in COVID-19 cases throughout the island.


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