U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 06/04/2021

Dear Friends,

Happy Friday! We hope you and yours are well.

For your weekend reading list, be sure to check out Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy written by Ted A. Henken and Sara García Santamaria. This collection of essays explores the evolution of internet access in Cuba and the impact that increased levels of access have had on Cuba’s cultural, economic, social, and political spheres.

Public health authorities have released Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, artist and leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), from Havana’s General Calixto Garcia University Hospital after nearly four weeks at the facility with limited communication. Mr. Otero intends to share his experience with the public and emphasized that the struggles against state censorship on the island are not over. Last week, Amnesty International declared Mr. Otero a “prisoner of conscience” while local artists in Havana asked the Museum of Fine Arts to remove their work until authorities released the activist and government surveillance ended.

After struggling to obtain visas to travel to the U.S. to participate in the Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Cuba’s international baseball team made it to the U.S., but will not be competing in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately, the team was eliminated from the tournament after losing games against Venezuela and Canada this week. While playing against Venezuela, protesters surrounded the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches stadium in West Palm Beach, Florida. The protesters stood outside of the stadium during the game and held Cuban and Venezuelan flags while demanding reforms in both countries.

Health authorities have opened a total of 473 vaccination sites in Havana to administer the Abdala vaccine. As Cuba extends its vaccination campaign throughout the island, Argentina has expressed interest in collaborating with the production of the Abdala and Soberana II vaccines. In response to economic shortages on the island, Cubans and others abroad have begun campaigns to collect needles and syringes. The Saving Lives Campaign and Global Health Partners have founded an online initiative to provide the island with much needed medical supplies. Without donations, the shortages have the potential to halt vaccination efforts.

Yesterday, Cuba reported 146,696 cases of COVID-19. There are currently 5,798 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Havana reported the largest number of new cases by far compared to other provinces at 455. The total number of deaths since last March is 992. For a graph of case numbers since March 2020, 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…


Protests Take Place Outside Olympic Baseball Qualifier Between Cuba and Venezuela

This week, Cuba’s national baseball team faced off against Venezuela and Canada in hopes of qualifying to compete in the Tokyo Olympics later this year, NBC Miami reports. During the team’s opening game against Venezuela on Monday, Venezuela finished first with a score of 6-5. Meanwhile, protestors displayed signs inside and outside of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where the tournament was held, demanding new leadership in Cuba and Venezuela. As of now, no arrests have been made, although authorities escorted one individual out of the stadium after they ran into the field with a sign saying, “Free Cuba.” Cuba’s national baseball team also lost against Canada on Wednesday with a score of 6-5. The team’s second defeat eliminated them from the Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament, meaning they will not progress to the Tokyo Olympics.

Initially, the team struggled to obtain U.S. visas that would allow them to travel to Florida and compete in the Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Due to the suspended consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the team initially sought U.S. visas in Mexico, Panama and Guyana. After minimal progress just weeks before the tournament, the team turned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Despite suspended consular services since 2017, the U.S. Embassy ultimately agreed to process the visa applications a mere two weeks before the scheduled tournament, and granted the visas last Tuesday. Upon arrival on Wednesday, César Prieto, a player on the team, appeared to have defected. Experts theorized that Prieto’s departure may have weakened the national baseball team’s prospects in making it to the Tokyo Olympics, as he was considered one of the team’s best players. Cuba currently holds three Olympic gold medals and two Olympic silver medals in baseball.

Coast Guard Suspends Search for 10 Cuban Migrants Missing Off Florida

On Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search for ten missing Cuban migrants, NBC News reports. After a boat leaving Puerto de Mariel, Cuba, capsized last Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued eight people, pronounced two people dead, and identified ten people as missing. Following the discovery of the boat 16 miles southwest of Key West, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, Customs and Border Protection, and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission searched an area of over 9,000 miles for the missing migrants. The U.S. Coast Guard searched for over 123 hours before deciding to suspend the search efforts. Captain Adam Chamie, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector in Key West, stated on Sunday that the decision was “difficult” while also sending his “deepest condolences” to the families and loved ones affected. Since the start of fiscal year 2021 on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted 323 Cuban migrants. The number of interdictions has increased in comparison to previous years, with 49 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2020 and 313 interdictions in fiscal year 2019.


Dissident Artist Released from Hospital After Four Weeks

On Monday, public health authorities announced the release of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), from Havana’s General Calixto Garcia University Hospital, Al Jazeera 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. Upon his release, public health authorities shared that Mr. Otero expressed “gratitude to the personnel that looked after him.” Despite these claims, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s stay at the closely guarded facility raised international and local concerns. Last week, Amnesty International declared the activist a ‘prisoner of conscience’ and demanded his immediate release. In addition, the San Isidro community questioned why Mr. Otero was being held at the hospital despite his seemingly stable condition. Following his release, Mr. Otero stated that authorities took away his cell phone upon entering the hospital and prevented him from communicating with his family. Mr. Otero also noted that he would soon “recount everything that happened.” 

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara began his hunger strike in protest of state surveillance and restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba. Specifically, Mr. Otero demanded state authorities return his artwork or provide financial reimbursement for damages to his work that occurred during an alleged police raid. The activist 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, Mr. Otero has experienced multiple encounters with state security, including an arrest in late February of 2020 and high levels of state surveillance.

Cuba’s Government Approves Small and Medium-sized Private Enterprises, But With Limitations

This week, Cuba’s Council of Ministers approved the perfeccionamiento de actores de la economía cubana or “improvement of Cuba’s economic actors,” which includes guidance related to state enterprises, self employment, non-agricultural cooperatives, and small and medium size enterprises, OnCuba News reports. The improvements give the go-ahead for the creation of a legal framework for private micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs or PYMES in Spanish). Although the legislation still needs to be written, the move marks the beginning of action beyond the mere theoretical approval of SMEs by Cuba’s government. In the absence of a framework for SMEs, those in Cuba’s private sector have been required to register themselves and acquire a license as individual entrepreneurs, rather than registering as and/or licensing a business.

The long-awaited move to legalize SMEs is expected to expand the island’s private sector. Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel expressed that the limited expansion of the private sector will allow Cuba’s government to focus more on the island’s labor force in hopes of “perfecting” Cuba’s economy. Still, Cuba’s Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz emphasized that the expansion will be limited, as it “will not lead to a privatization process,” and that the state sector will remain dominant in Cuba’s economy. Private enterprises will also be limited in the scope of their activities, for instance, they cannot focus on computer programming, offer translation services, design clothing for retail, or fall within the healthcare, telecommunication, energy, or defense sectors. Oniel Díaz Castellanos, co-founder of the Cuban business development and communications team AUGE, notes that it appears that the list of prohibited activities for self employed Cubans or cuentapropistas will act as a guide of prohibited activities for SMEs as well. He also shares that “all standards for TCP [trabajo por cuenta propia or self employment], SMEs and CNA [non-agricultural cooperatives] will be issued together which tells us that the wait continues.” John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc., states that other aspects of the reform “expand” the engagement possibilities between the U.S. and Cuba as they authorize individuals and companies in the U.S. to “deliver direct investment and direct loans” to the island’s private sector.

Cuban economists and entrepreneurs have long called for SMEs. In 2020 when Cuba’s government announced economic reforms but came short of addressing SMEs, many Cubans weighed in. Cuban economist Pedro Monreal evaluated that legalizing SMEs would “raise the productivity ceiling in the short term” more than other economic measures taken by the state. Cuban economist Pavel Vidal asserted that since Cuba does not depend on the support of multilateral institutions to ensure successful economic reform, small and medium-size companies would be a key to success for Cuba’s economy. Oniel Díaz Castellanos, co-founder of the Cuban business development and communications team AUGE, also recommended the legalization of SMEs as a way for Cuba to “strengthen self employment and small business.”

Market-oriented reforms have been underway in Cuba for years but the pace of implementation has been sluggish. In February, Cuba made notable headway when it shifted from using a list of prior approved possible activities in which private business owners or cuentapropistas could work to a list of prohibited activities, and expanded the number of professions in which private businesses could participate from 127 to over 2,000. The move was a significant shift in the way Cuba’s government approached private sector regulation. In May 2016, Cuba announced plans to legalize SMEs in a 32-page document titled “Conceptualization of the Cuban Economic and Social Model of Socialist Development.”

These more recent reforms are derived from landmark economic reforms approved during Cuba’s Sixth Party Congress in 2011 aimed to modernize Cuba’s economy. The reforms  included a gradual elimination of the ration system, expanding Cuba’s private sector, allowing increased autonomy for Cuba’s state sector, and adjusting regulations around the import and export of goods. As of April of this year, according to Reuters, only 70 percent of the economic reforms discussed in Cuba’s Sixth Party Congress had been implemented on the island.

About 500 More Sites in Havana for Health Intervention with Abdala

Cuba’s health authorities opened a total of 473 Abdala vaccination sites throughout Havana this past weekend as part of the second phase of vaccination efforts in Cuba, OnCuba News reports. Specifically, 196 sites in Boyeros, 189 sites in Arroyo Naranjo, and 88 sites in Cotorro. Each of these municipalities are located in the island’s capital of Havana. Dr. Nilda Roca Menéndez, provincial deputy director of health in Havana, affirmed that these new vaccination sites are aimed to vaccinate more than 378,000 people in Havana. Havana’s current vaccination plan hopes to vaccinate the capital’s entire population by the end of August. 

Earlier this month, Cuba began its mass vaccination campaign against the COVID-19 virus in Havana using the country’s Soberana II and Abdala vaccines. Once the clinical trials for the Soberana II and Abdala vaccines are complete, the island hopes to sell the vaccines to countries in Latin America and Africa. Mexico and Argentina have already communicated interest in Cuba’s homegrown vaccines. Venezuela expressed intent to produce the Abdala vaccine domestically and Iran is hosting Phase III clinical trials for the Soberana II vaccine.


Argentine Minister of Health Meets with Cuba’s President

On Saturday, Carla Vizzotti, the Argentine Minister of Health, met with Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel to discuss the progress of the island’s vaccination campaign and the production of the Abdala and Soberana II vaccines, Prensa Latina reports. During the visit, Ms.Vizzotti emphasized that Argentina remains interested in Cuba’s homegrown vaccines and is willing to “collaborate in whatever way it can.” While in Havana, Ms.Vizzotti toured the production plant of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology of Cuba.

Since this meeting, Cuba has received 380,000 syringes and 359,000 needles collected by the Argentine Movement of Solidarity with Cuba (MasCuba), the Union of Cuban Residents in Argentina (URCA), and other solidarity groups in Argentina. While Cuba intends to vaccinate 70 percent of its population by the end of August, mass shortages in medical supplies due to a  current economic crisis fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. sanctions threaten the island’s goal. In response to the mass shortages, organizations consisting of Cuban migrants and those standing in solidarity with the island have begun campaigns to donate medical supplies. Countries including the UK and Italy have also demonstrated efforts to bring syringes and needles to the island.


Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy, Ted A. Henken and Sara García Santamaria

In this collection of essays, Ted A. Henken and Sara García Santamaria explore how Wi-Fi access in Cuba has impacted the island’s cultural, economic, social, and political arenas. While doing so, the book examines the impact that extended levels of internet access have on transitional democracies and precisely to what extent these increased levels of access influence Cuba’s state government policies.

Cubans Turn to Pigeon Breeding as an Escape from COVID-19, Reuters

This article discusses increases in pigeon breeding throughout Havana and interviews Pedro Marrero, president of the Club de Promoción de Palomas orClub for the Promotion ofPigeons. Mr. Marrero highlights the comfort brought by these birds during the COVID-19 pandemic in the face of decreased mobility for many on the island due to state-mandated quarantine.

Bakosó: Cuban Grooves Meet Afrobeats, Felix Contreras, Alt.Latino

In this episode of NPR’s Alt.Latino, host Felix Contreras sits down with Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi and Kahil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, the producers of the film Bakosó: Afrobeats de Cuba. The film begins in Santiago de Cuba and collaborates with DJ Jigüe, the Santiaguero responsible for Cuba’s first independent Afro-Cuban music label. The film explores the evolution of the music genre of “bakosó” on the island, a genre heavily influenced by contemporary African music.

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