U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 06/18/2021

Dear Friends,

Happy Friday! We hope you and yours are well.

CDA is seeking two fall interns! Interns work in three key areas: Policy and Advocacy; Communications and Social Media; and Nonprofit Development. Internships may be completed remotely or in-person. The deadline to apply is August 5. Visit our website to learn more about the internship and to read reflections from past interns. 

This week the Biden-Harris administration announced the composition of two panels made up of experts inside and outside of the White House to investigate the health incidents affecting U.S. personnel abroad and more recently in the U.S. For the latest information and a detailed timeline concerning the health incidents, refer to our recently updated memorandum.

Next Tuesday, June 22, CDA, Oxfam, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) will host a webinar discussing Oxfam’s recent report on the impacts of U.S. sanctions on women in Cuba and vulnerable populations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event will be live-streamed in English via Zoom on Tuesday, June 22 from 9:30 AM-10:30 AM EST. To join, register here and for additional information contact Stephanie Burgos at stephanie.burgos@oxfam.org 

Yesterday, Cuba reported 164,896 cases of COVID-19. There are currently 7,748 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 328. The total number of deaths since March 2020 is 1,132. For a graph of case numbers since March 2020, see here. For a detailed breakdown of all COVID-19 data, visit this website

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Biden-Harris Administration Forming New Panels of Experts to Study ‘Havana Syndrome’

The Biden-Harris administration has begun forming two panels to study health incidents experienced by U.S. personnel, Miami Herald reports. The White House National Security Council is including experts from inside and outside of the U.S. government to form the panels. The distinguishing characteristics of each panel have not yet been disclosed. Dr. David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, notes the importance of collaboration on this investigation, “more can be accomplished if the right questions, kinds of experts and data are brought together in a synergistic manner.” Last year, Dr. Relman chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that examined cases of the health incidents and published a report on its findings for the Trump administration. The panel will build from Dr. Relman’s previous efforts and findings. 

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 around the world 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. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.

Tampa Cigar Company Wants to Bring Cuban Tobacco Back to Florida 

The J.C. Newman Cigar Company has petitioned the U.S. State Department to allow the Florida-based company to import Cuban tobacco, Orlando Sentinel reports. The J.C. Newman Cigar Company seeks to utilize Obama-era regulations that allow U.S. businesses to import goods and services produced by private businesses in Cuba. Drew Newman, general counsel for J.C. Newman, suggests that the regulation would help develop independent Cuban entrepreneurship, noting that “authorizing the importation of raw tobacco grown in Cuba would allow us and other American cigar makers to support independent Cuban entrepreneurs.” 

Current U.S. policy makes it difficult for U.S. companies such as The J.C. Newman Cigar Company to conduct business in Cuba and to import goods and services from the island. Under the Obama administration, regulations were created to ease trade restrictions between U.S. businesses and private businesses in Cuba. In 2017, such regulations allowed the exportation of charcoal from Cuba, which was the first legal export from Cuba to the U.S. in over half a century. The Obama administration also lifted existing monetary restrictions on the importation of Cuban cigars and rum, announcing in 2016 that U.S. travelers could purchase and resell unlimited amounts of the products so long as they were for personal consumption. However, the Trump administration removed and reversed many of those programs and policies aimed at fostering relationships between U.S. businesses and private businesses in Cuba. In 2020, the Trump administration also banned U.S. travelers from purchasing Cuban cigars and rum.

Senator Menendez Delivers Floor Remarks Concerning the Pan-American Health Organization

On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) raised concerns involving the Biden-Harris administration’s decision to file an amicus brief in the Ramona Matos Rodriguez, et al., v. Pan American Health Organization case, the Senator’s newsroom reports. The case involves allegations of “human trafficking” facilitated by the international public health agency’s involvement with Cuba’s medical missions abroad. In the speech, Senator Menendez urges the Biden-Harris administration to restrict Cuba’s ability to export doctors as he calls into question the labor conditions of the state-sponsored foreign missions. The Senator’s objection to the island’s doctor program is not new, as he also condemned the medical missions in 2019 alongside U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (FL). 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba sent more than 1,500 doctors to over 20 countries around the world, including 217 Cuban doctors to South Africa. In return, South Africa shipped medical supplies to Cuba. While the island had enough doctors to treat COVID-19 patients domestically and in select countries abroad, Cuba faced immense shortages of medical supplies due to increased economic restrictions sanctioned by the U.S. In March of 2020, the island also notably dispatched 52 doctors to Italy. In 2014, Cuba sent more than 460 doctors and nurses to West Africa to respond to recent Ebola outbreaks in the region and in 2010 the program received international recognition for their work in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. The program was started shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and remains a central component to Cuba’s economy and foreign relations.  

Biden Administration Doesn’t Seem Inclined to Change Cuba Policy

In a speech regarding the State Department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that funding for Radio and TV Martí would decrease by seven million dollars, OnCuba News reports. Radio and TV Martí broadcast programming from the U.S. to Cuba “to promote freedom and democracy” in Cuba. The reduction of the program’s financing sparked criticism from Representative Mario Díaz Balart (FL-25) on Monday, who questioned the reduced funding and pressed the Biden-Harris administration on the future of Cuba policy. Secretary Blinken emphasized that the Administration was “reviewing” Cuba policy carefully and would consider, “the views, including yours [Rep. Díaz Balart] and other members of Congress, other stakeholders, people with different perspectives on the issue, activists, journalists, faith-based leaders, academics, experts inside and outside of Cuba.” While Secretary Blinken reaffirmed that the Administration is reviewing policies concerning Cuba, he made no comments as to whether the Administration would continue to impose the restrictions and sanctions enacted under the Trump administration. 

Since assuming office, the Biden-Harris administration has not taken an active role in Cuba policy, despite indications during the campaign that the future Administration would return to Obama-era policies. Instead, the Administration has left many Trump-era policies in place and has stated that Cuba is not a priority. 

Coast Guard Repatriates 59 Migrants to Cuba

59 Cuban migrants were repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard following four interdictions south of the Florida Keys on June 14 and 15, Sea Power Magazine reports. Lieutenant Commander Mario Gil from the U.S. Coast Guard notes that migration through sea is often “highly dangerous” and dissuaded individuals from pursuing unofficial migration paths. So far in fiscal year 2021, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted 465 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2020, and 313 interdictions in fiscal year 2019.  

IN CUBA

National Travel Agencies to Have Primacy in Tourist Services in Cuba

On June 7, Cuba published a resolution by Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) in its Gaceta Oficial, which reaffirms the state sector’s control over travel agencies on the island , OnCuba News reports. Resolution 132/2021 will go into effect next month and indicates that “national travel agencies are the only ones authorized to carry out procedures such as the issuance, reception and service of tourists, the representation of foreign tour operators, and the design and marketing of tourist packages.” National travel agencies will also oversee the sale of reservations, transportation services, and coordinate programs involving international organizations and events. The Resolution does not precisely define who can create and run these national travel agencies, but notes that Cuban nationals can participate in this sector and provide tourist services provided they receive approval from MINTUR. The Resolution leaves it unclear whether private citizens, entities, or cooperatives will now have the ability to independently offer tourist services or if individuals must work in tandem with operators in the state sector. Nonetheless, the private sector in Cuba can still legally participate in the transportation business and own restaurants known as paladares on the islandthat cater to tourists.  

Cuba to Begin Pediatric Clinical Trial with Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus

Last week, the Center for State Control of Drugs, Equipment and Medical Devices (CECMED) in Cuba approved Phase I and II clinical trials for the Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus vaccine candidates on the island’s pediatric population, OnCuba News reports. The vaccines, developed by the Finlay Vaccine Institute (IFV) of Havana, will now treat adolescents ages 3 to 18. The pediatric trial will begin with vaccinating children aged 12 to 18 before moving to vaccinate children 3 to 11 years old. The Finlay Vaccine Institute notes that the clinical trials aim to evaluate “the safety, reactogenicity and immunogenicity” of the vaccine formulas in adolescents. The approval of the clinical trials by CECMED comes as Cuba’s pediatric population has experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases throughout the island. As of May 27, the island registered more than 18,000 cases of COVID-19 corresponding to minors. 

Currently, Cuba is one of very few countries to begin clinical trials for a vaccine targeting children, and their trial notably includes children under the age of 12. Similarly, the U.S. based pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies Pfizer and Moderna are also conducting clinical trials to potentially cater to a pediatric population of 6 months to 11 years old. In May, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the expansion of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include children ages 12 to 16 after the company reported positive results offered by Phase III clinical trials in adolescents. 

While Cuba awaits the results of Phase III clinical trials for the Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines, about 4.5 percent of the island’s population has received the three doses required from either vaccine candidate. Since beginning the intervention program in May, the island’s capital of Havana has seen a decrease in infection rates – falling to about 370 cases from about 800 peak cases per day before the campaign’s initiation. This may not only be a result of the vaccine’s efficiency, but also reflects increased measures taken by the state to prevent the virus from spreading in Havana. According to CECMED, Cuba’s adult population has responded well to the vaccine candidates’ clinical trials and intervention program. While the island hopes to vaccinate its entire population by the end of this year, the country currently faces a shortage in syringes. In response to economic shortages, international campaigns and organizations have helped fund and compile syringes for the island, already donating over 25 million syringes to Cuba. 

Cuba Suspends the Procedures for Buying and Selling Homes in Havana, (Spanish)

Cuba’s government announced they would be suspending notarial and registration services as part of their efforts to curb COVID-19 cases in Havana, El Nuevo Herald reports. The suspension temporarily prohibits Cubans from registering to buy and sell property or obtain marriage licenses, among other services. Services for outstanding obligations such as birth and death records will continue while, “Notarial procedures that are not exceptional are temporarily limited,” according to Cuba’s Office of Population at the Ministry of Justice. Since the announcement, 15 property registries, 13 marriage palaces, and 31 notarial units have closed in Havana. While the policy aims to enforce social distancing in Havana, the decision has created additional obstacles for many Cubans. In particular, the decision was met with discontent from Cubans enduring the incredibly long process of legalizing recently purchased homes. Cuba’s government has also implemented policies restricting individual movement into Havana neighborhoods experiencing high numbers of COVID-19 cases and currently enforces a 9 PM curfew throughout the capital.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba Is Making Its Own Smartphone with China’s Help

Cuba’s state-run electronic company, the Industrial Enterprise for Informatics, Communications, and Electronics (GEDEME) announced the creation of a new smartphone made with specifications for life in Cuba, Vice World News reports. GEDEME shared the news of the Cuban cellphone on Twitter last month, announcing that it is in the process of assembling 6,000 prototypes. The smartphone is reportedly designed to conform to the specific conditions and architecture of Cuba as well as utilize a Cuban-made software. Cuba received the raw materials to produce the prototypes from the Chinese telecommunication company, Huawei.

While the release date of the smartphone remains unclear, the price is expected to be “less than half” of current smartphone prices on the island. An affordable smartphone has the potential to greatly increase internet access for many Cubans, where only 7.3 million individuals out of the island’s total population of 11.3 million had internet access in 2019. Cuba’s government also announced the creation of 50 new cellphone towers to provide “more stable” cell phone coverage. Still, the high costs to connect to Wi-Fi and limited infrastructure remain large barriers to internet access for many Cubans on the island. Additionally, there have been claims that this domestically produced smartphone might increase state surveillance on the island. Nonetheless, Dr. Michaelanne Thomas Dye, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, notes that “concerns that a government-made smartphone is a tool to spy on them [Cubans] may not weigh as heavily as one might expect.” According to Dr. Thomas Dye, state surveillance will most likely not dissuade Cubans from purchasing the smartphone, given the control that the state already possesses over internet access on the island. 

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

Omar Everleny: “dollars will always be a means treasured by private businesses,” Alfredo Prieto, OnCuba News

In this interview, Cuban economist Omar Everleny discusses Cuba’s temporary suspension of cash USD bank deposits set to take effect on June 21. According to Mr. Everleny, this policy has multiple drawbacks. First, the new policy places an immense burden on Cuba’s population who have used USD as the primary form of payment since the island introduced foreign currency-only stores. Although Cubans can use the euro in foreign currency-only shops to purchase certain foods, personal hygiene products, and home appliances, among other things, the euro remains scarce on the island. Secondly, Mr. Everleny notes that the policy will also impact families sending remittances to Cuba because it introduces additional barriers to cost and convenience. The new policy may require families abroad to exchange USD into euros before sending the remittances to Cuba, in turn adding exchange fees and making the process more expensive. 

Human Rights Won’t Happen in a Vacuum in Cuba, William LeoGrande, Responsible Statecraft 

In this opinion piece, Professor William LeoGrande notes that although the Biden-Harris administration has not made policies concerning Cuba a priority, the preservation of human rights remains a core pillar for the Administration’s foreign policy decisions. Mr. LeoGrande urges the Biden-Harris administration to adopt policies of engagement with Cuba because there remains a clear correlation between positive levels of engagement between the two countries and the improvement of human rights on the island, especially that of dissidents. 

Roaring Inflation Compounds Cubans’ Economic Woes, Marc Frank, Reuters 

In this article, Marc Frank highlights the staggering inflation rates that are taking place in Cuba as a result of the island’s current economic crisis. A lack of imports, tourism, and increased levels of U.S. sanctions have further exasperated Cuba’s economy – ultimately forcing Cubans to depend on the informal market for much needed resources. Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist who currently teaches at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Colombia, estimates that inflation may increase up to 900 percent on the island this year. 

Watch Blondie Play ‘Tide Is High’ in Cuba in Clip From New Documentary ‘Vivir En La Habana’, Jon Blistein, Rolling Stones 

This article announces the North American premiere of Blondie:Vivir En La Habana (Blondie: Living in Havana) at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, NY on June 16. The film, directed by Rob Roth, documents the band’s 2019 trip to Cuba. Regarding the band’s trip to Cuba, Mr. Roth highlights, “We were there for a short period of time but we managed to pack in some really authentic conversations with people.” While in Cuba the band performed twice at Havana’s Teatro Mella, one of the performances included a collaboration with Cuban artists Alain Perez, David Torrens, and Sintesis. The official soundtrack for the film will be released on July 16th and contain six tracks from Blondie’s show in Cuba.  

90 Miles Podcast, Ft. Brett Perlmutter

Richard Branson of the Virgin Group and Rancel Ruana, founder of the Bajanda Taxi application, will sit down with Brett Perlmutter, the head of Google Cuba this upcoming Tuesday on the 90 Miles Podcast to discuss innovations on the island. 

Leoni Torres, Cimafunk and Brenda Navarrete Release Preview of Song Collaboration, OnCuba News

Last week, Cuban artists Leoni Torres, Cimafunk, and Brenda Navarrete released a new single, Aunque sea un ratico (Even if it is a Short While). The highly anticipated collaboration of the three decorated Cuban musicians is available on audio streaming services including Apple Music and Spotify. 

Havana Zoo Introduces Yanek, a Rare White Tiger, Phys.Org

This article tells the story of Cuba’s first-ever white Bengal tiger, Yanek, born in the National Zoo of Cuba in March along with three other cubs. Angel Cordero, the animals’ caretaker, stated, “We are very happy that a white tiger has been born in Cuba; it is the first time that this has happened.” Yanek’s birth is quite notable because white Bengal tigers are not known to exist in the wild. The birth of the cubs also marks the first set of tigers to be born on Cuban soil in the past twenty years.

Facing Scarcity, Cuban Model Vehicle Enthusiasts Repair Old Toys, Create New Ones, Reuters 

This article tells the story of a Cuban man, Miguel Jorda, who is a model train enthusiast living in Havana. Mr. Jorda shares part of his collection which includes a miniature 1950s U.S. town with a rare American Flyer steam locomotive gifted to him by his grandfather, who had acquired the piece before Cuba’s Revolution in 1959. The article describes the scarcity Cubans, like Mr. Jorda, face and how they use ingenuity and creativity to make up for what they lack.

Revolution Rent Documentary Premieres on HBO, Andrew Gans, Playbill

This article announces the premier of the documentary Revolution Rent on HBO this past Tuesday at 9 PM EST. The film tells the story of Andy Señor Jr. and his participation in the Broadway production of Rent, the first Broadway musical produced by an American company in Cuba in over 50 years. Victor Patrick Alvarez, co-director of the documentary, shared “Revolution Rent is about creativity in the face of adversity and the healing powers of human connection.” The film is currently available to stream on HBO Max. 

EVENTS

Virtual, The Impact of U.S. Sanctions on Cuban Women, June 22

Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), Oxfam, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) will host a webinar discussing the impacts of U.S. sanctions on women in Cuba and vulnerable populations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar will examine Oxfam’s recently released report “Right to Live Without a Blockade: The Impact of U.S. Sanctions on the Cuban Population and Women’s Lives,” published on May 25. The event will be live-streamed in English via Zoom on Tuesday, June 22, from 9:30 AM-10:30 AM EST. To join, register here and for additional information contact Stephanie Burgos at stephanie.burgos@oxfam.org 

Miami Beach, FL, Big Freeda and The Soul Rebels ft. Cimafunk, June 26

Cuban artist Cimafunk will be performing at North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach on June 26 at 8 PM EST. The Afro-Cuban funk sensation will join New Orleans-based brass band the Soul Rebels and American rapper Big Freedia. This performance follows a collaboration between Cimafunk and the Soul Rebels back in May of 2020, when the two artists composed the song Caliente (Hot) alongside Tarriona “Tank” Ball. The venue will have limited capacity and enforce CDC guidelines. For more information, please visit this website. 


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