U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 07/02/2021

Dear Friends,

Happy Friday! We hope you and yours are staying safe and cool during this heat wave. 

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This week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan González, spoke in interviews on the status of U.S.-Cuba relations. Both officials confirmed that the Biden-Harris administration continues to review Cuba policy while noting once again that it has not been a priority for the Administration these past five months. The officials noted the Administration’s human rights concerns and suggested that consular services and remittances may be restored. The interview comes after many were left questioning the prospect of engagement under the Biden-Harris administration following the U.S.’s vote against an annual resolution condemning the embargo on Cuba last week at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly. 

Meanwhile, healthcare professionals in Havana have begun efforts encouraging Cuban residents to receive either the Abdala or Soberana 02 vaccines. As healthcare workers visit individuals in Havana, the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus has reportedly reached the nation’s capital. Being about 64 times more infectious than the already present Alpha variant, the healthcare sector continues to compete against rising COVID-19 cases and a lack of available syringes.

Yesterday, Cuba reported a record number of COVID-19 cases at 3,308. There are currently 17,434 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Matanzas reported the largest number of new cases by far compared to other provinces at 916. The total number of deaths since March 2020 is 1,322. 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…


Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Lucia Duraccio of RAI TG1

This week, in an interview with Lucia Duraccio from the Italian news program RAI TG, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken reaffirmed that the Biden-Harris administration is completing a review of Cuba policy while noting that Cuba has not been a priority for the Administration during the first five months since taking office, according to a State Department press release. After being pressed on the importance of dialogue with Cuba, Secretary Blinken replied: “We’ve never resisted dialogue anywhere. The question is: What is the overall policy? And that’s what we’re reviewing.” 

In a recent interview with CNN, Juan González, Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere of the U.S. National Security Council notes that the Biden-Harris administration continues to express interest in removing restrictions on sending remittances to the island. Mr. González also mentions the potential of reestablishing U.S. consular services in Cuba. While restoring bilateral relations between the U.S. and Cuba remains a possibility, the NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere emphasizes that the island’s “deterioration of the human rights situation” is still a matter of concern for the Administration. 

Cuban Government: U.S. Embargo Causes Losses of 9.157 Billion Between 2019 and 2020

Prior to last week’s UN General Assembly session, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, announced that the U.S. embargo cost Cuba 9.157 billion dollars between April 2019 and December 2020, OnCuba News reports.Mr. Rodríguez noted that “the human damage, suffering, and shortages caused to Cuban families are incalculable.” The island has also suffered immense economic loss fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The projected losses were part of a report presented by Cuba at the annual UN General Assembly vote in a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo on the island, which received an overwhelming 184 votes in favor. Prior to this report, Cuba’s government estimated that the U.S. embargo had cost the island 5.570 billion dollars from April 2019 to May 2020. At the time, Cuba’s government posited that the U.S. embargo had hindered its ability to adequately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic on the island.

Iranian Ships once Believed to be Headed toward Venezuela Change Course, U.S. Officials Say

Two Iranian warships previously suspected to be heading towards Venezuela and to potentially dock in Cuba have changed course, Politico reports. After completing more than half of the journey across the Atlantic, the ships now appear to be heading into the Mediterranean with a potential destination of Syria according to the website TankerTrackers.com. Initially, U.S. officials posited that the ships were headed to Venezuela given that the country reportedly considered purchasing missiles from Iran last year. There was also concern among U.S. officials that the ships would attempt to dock in Cuba considering the island’s close ties to Venezuela. Satellite imagery from late April identified seven Iranian fast-attack crafts normally associated with the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on the deck of one of the two warships before they began their journey in May. 

U.S. officials claim that the ship’s change in course comes because of a diplomatic campaign urging countries in the Western hemisphere to turn the ships away. Last month, the Biden-Harris administration requested through diplomatic channels that Venezuela and Cuba’s governments not allow the ships to dock and worked with other countries in the region to ensure that the ships were deterred. 


Artists Demand Release of Dissident Artist Detained in Cuba

Over 140 Cuban artists and intellectuals have signed onto an open letter demanding the release of Cuban artist and activist Hamlet Lavastida, Hyperallergic reports. Cuban authorities detained Mr. Lavastida on June 26 in Havana while the artist quarantined at a government center after arriving in Cuba from Berlin. The artist was arrested under charges of “instigation to commit a crime” and sent to Villa Marista, a high-security prison in Havana. The charges stemmed from a private conversation between Mr. Lavastida and members of the independent movement 27N. The artist mentioned a possible project consisting of marking Cuban currency with the 27N symbol in the discussion. In the open letter, fellow artists and intellectuals claim that the project was never realized while expressing outrage over “by the violation of the privacy of citizens, the unjust accusations against our colleague and, fundamentally, the fact that an exchange of ideas and the exercise of imagination are qualified as a crime.” Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Yoani Sánchez Cordero, Tania Bruguera, among many others have signed the letter. The arrest of Mr. Lavastida follows the arrests of other artists and activists this year, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Maykel Osorbo, and Esteban Rodríguez. Independent groups such as the San Isidro Movement have denounced the arrests as crackdowns by the government on artistic expression and political opposition on the island. International NGOs have also expressed concerns. This week, Human Rights Watch alleged that Cuba’s government was silencing dissent through arbitrary arrests, state surveillance, and network blackouts. In May, prior to his release, Amnesty International urged authorities in Cuba to release artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was being held at Havana’s General Calixto Garcia University Hospital. The artist and activist was transported to the facility on May 2, cutting off his hunger strike, and held there with limited communication to the outside. The NGO deemed him a “prisoner of conscience.”  

Telégrafo Hotel to Reopen as Havana’s First LGBTQI+ Hotel 

The Spanish Chain Axel Hotel and the Gaviota Tourism Group have announced the reopening of the Telégrafo Hotel in Havana as a hotel focused on LGBTQI+ clientele, according to Cuba Business Report. Silvia Pérez, the Director of Communication and Marketing at Axel, shared that Axel facilities will serve as spaces that promote inclusivity and diversity. The Telégrafo Hotel is in Old Havana at the corner of del Prado and Neptune Street and boasts 63 rooms, a restaurant and bar, a pool, and a gym. According to Ana Belkin Perdomo, the head of the Research and Teaching Department of the National Center for Sexual Education of Cuba (CENESEX), all staff at the hotel will undergo training from CENESEX in the coming months. 

While intended to uplift the LBGTQI+ community, the reopening of the Telégrafo Hotel has been met with backlash from Cuba’s civil society. Cuban activist and actress Kiriam Gutiérrez Pérez expresses frustration with the hotel and with the slow pace of pro-LGBTQI+ institutional reform in Cuba, declaring, “We don’t want hotels, clubs, restaurants, or bars. We want rights, we want the legalization of same-sex marriage, we want assisted reproduction for same-sex couples, we want protection for trans children, we want laws that penalize homophobia and transphobia, we want a Gender Identity Act.” Independent activists have also accused Cuba’s government of “pink washing.” A phrase commonly used to define governments that adopt seemingly progressive policies that do very little on an institutional level to advance the rights of minorities.  

While the hotel is Havana’s first LGBTQI+ hotel, it is not the island’s first. In 2019, Cuba welcomed its first hotel catering to LGBTQI+ clientele, the Gran Muthu Rainbow Hotel, in Playa Playuelas, Cayo Guillermo. The hotel is run by MGM Muthu Hotels, a European company.  

As Infections Rise, Cuban Doctors Fan out to Encourage COVID-19 Jabs

Healthcare workers in Havana have begun visiting residents to encourage and inform them on how to receive the island’s domestically produced Soberana 02 or Abdala vaccines, Al Jazeera reports. Last week, Cuba’s state-run biopharmaceutical corporation BioCubaFarma announced that according to preliminary data collected from Phase III clinical trials, the Soberana 02 vaccine has 62 percent efficacy levels after the first two doses of the three-dose regimen. Experts estimate that a third shot would bring the vaccine’s efficacy levels to about 85 to 95 percent. Earlier last week, BioCubaFarma also announced that the Abdala vaccine proved to be 92.98 percent effective after three doses. Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian lawyer living in Havana, notes that Cuba might become the most vaccinated country in Latin America in the next six months. Mr. Biniowsky emphasizes that this is in part due to the trust in science throughout Cuban society which makes anti-vaccination sentiments highly unlikely. While the island currently has about eight doctors for every 1,000 citizens, it also faces a severe shortage in syringes.

Thus far, about 2.2 million Cubans have received the first dose of one of the two vaccines and almost one million have received the third and final dose. As the vaccination campaign continues in Havana, the nation’s capital has experienced a decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases from more than 600 cases to about 300. Nonetheless, areas elsewhere on the island continue to experience spikes in COVID-19 cases, reaching numbers as high as 916 reported cases in Matanzas this week. While Cuba’s healthcare system struggles to vaccinate its entire population due to shortages in syringes, the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus has reportedly reached Havana. Dr. Emilio Delgado, provincial director of health in Havana, emphasizes that this variant is 64 times more infectious than the Alpha variant which has been present in Havana for several months now. While it is unclear whether the Delta variant is more lethal, concern remains over the higher infection rates as they can cause “more hospitalizations and greater pressure on health workers, which increases the risk of death.” 

Earthquake Rattles West Cuba, Prompting Evacuations but No Casualties

On Tuesday, an earthquake with a reported magnitude of 4.7 was recorded about 43 miles from Havana, France 24 reports. Despite occurring near the Candelaria municipality of Artemisa, the earthquake prompted evacuations throughout the island’s capital. No damages or injuries have been reported. The earthquake is the fourth to hit the island this year. 


Mexico Returns 89 Cuban Irregular Migrants to the Island

Last week, Mexico’s government repatriated 89 Cuban migrants in compliance with a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two countries to enforce official migration flows, OnCuba News reports. Ernesto Soberón, Cuba’s general director of Consular Affairs and Cuban Residents Abroad, attributed increases in irregular migration to the suspension of U.S. consular services and visa processing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana suspended its consular services after U.S. officials in Havana reported experiencing mysterious symptoms between 2016 and 2017. Despite the occurrence of similar health incidents in various countries, including Russia, China, and the U.S., the U.S. Embassy in Cuba remains the only location with suspended consular services. As a result of the suspended services, Cubans hoping to obtain a U.S. visa often seek unofficial migration routes or have been required to make long and cost-prohibitive trips to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, which is one of the few countries that does not require visas for Cubans to enter. Cuba’s government suspended direct flights to Guyana in January of 2021 due to COVID-19 precautions and, as such, Cubans must travel “through Russia, Turkey, with stops in Colombia, Panama and finally Guyana. That trip takes three days” according to a Cuban woman who has had to cancel her Visa appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana given the present obstacles. Other flights go through Dubai and can take up to four days. The indirect flights to Guyana range from $4,700 to $7,000. The obstacles faced by Cubans trying to get to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana have only increased during the pandemic, making the prospects of family reunification, and migrating through official channels increasingly difficult.

Iran Authorizes Emergency Use of Cuban Vaccine Candidate Sovereign 02 (Spanish) 

On Tuesday, the Islamic Republic of Iran approved the emergency use of the Cuban vaccine candidate Soberana 02, OnCuba News reports. The vaccine’s emergency use in Iran follows last week’s reports that the vaccine was 62 percent effective after the first two doses of the vaccine’s three dose regimen. Iran began Phase III clinical trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine in April. The study involved 24,000 volunteers in seven provinces of the country. While currently still taking place, thus far Phase III clinical trials for the Soberana 02 vaccine in Iran have further emphasized the vaccine’s safety. While known in Cuba as Soberana 02, the vaccine will be marketed as Pasteur in Iran. 


Fear of Florida: Why Biden Doesn’t Act on Cuba, William M. LeoGrande, The Hill 

In this opinion piece, Professor William LeoGrande writes that the Biden-Harris administration’s failure to re-engage with Cuba is due to a fear of losing votes in Florida and a desire to mitigate potential political risks associated with engagement policies between the U.S. and Cuba. Professor LeoGrande notes, however, that the campaign’s poor performance in Florida and among Cuban Americans was a result of a lack of engagement with these constituencies on the Cuba issue, leaving the stage largely to Republicans. He also notes that strong leadership on the issue, instead of sidestepping it, has yielded positive results, such as when Former President Barack Obama won 48 percent of Cuban American votes in the 2012 presidential election while supporting less antagonistic policies toward Cuba. President Obama also secured a 56 percent approval rating with Cuban Americans two years after executing those engagement policies. The lessons set forth by the Obama administration emphasize the importance of promoting an informed Cuba policy, despite perceived political barriers.

Cuba’s Shortage of Vaccine Syringes: Here’s How You Can Help, Cynthia Carris Alonso, Startup Cuba.TV

This article highlights an international campaign to help fund and compile syringes for Cuba.. Global Health Partners (GHP), a coalition of nonprofit organizations that foster exchange programs and humanitarian medical aid to Cuba, among other initiatives, have begun a Syringes for Cuba Program. The program hopes to raise enough funds to purchase at least 10 million syringes for the island. 

The Beautiful Disappearing, Lisette Poole, Bridges to Cuba 

In this blog post, photojournalist Lisette Poole recalls her experience living and working for five years in Cuba and reflects on living alone as a woman in Havana. She writes about how she was drawn to reggaetón culture, a genre of music that is pervasive on the island yet prohibited by the state. “Most international journalism focused on Cuba’s restrictions, but I felt more interested in where Cubans found freedom,” she says of the scope of her work. Ms. Poole explores the hypersexualized culture of reggaetón and contrasts the explicit sexualization in reggaetón culture with the implicit sexualization she felt while walking the streets of Havana every day.

Biden’s Failure to End Trump’s War on Cuba Is Threatening Lives, Danny Glover, The Nation

In this article, American actor Danny Glover urges the Biden-Harris administration to lift the economic and trade embargo on Cuba and highlights the human damage caused by the Administration maintaining Trump-era policies. Mr. Glover states, “If human rights are to be a core pillar of U.S. policy, as a White House spokesperson recently declared, then the embargo must end.” The actor and political activist highlights precisely how the embargo and additional sanctions imposed by the Trump administration continue to harm Cubans on the island. Specifically, he calls attention to syringe shortages which further delay Cuba’s vaccination campaign amid the island’s most significant COVID-19 spike. 

Protecting Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen, Environmental Defense Fund

This panel previews and discusses the documentary Los Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen). The documentary showcases Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen National Park in the Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila provinces while also highlighting scientific efforts to preserve it. Jorge Perugorría, the director of the film, explains the process of creating the documentary, while Yociel Marrero Baez, from the Cuba-based NGO Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Humanity and Nature, emphasizes how important U.S.-Cuba relations are in preserving the environment. 


Virtual, Cuba’s Digital Revolution: A Virtual Event with Ted A. Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria, July 9 

Independent bookstore Books & Books and the Cuban Research Institute will host a virtual event with Ted A. Henken and Sara García Santamaria, on their new book Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Police, on July 9 at 12 PM EST. The book explores how Wi-Fi access in Cuba has impacted the island’s cultural, economic, social, and political arenas. The work also 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. To register for the event, click here.  

Gran Canaria Island, Spain,The 30th edition of the Festival Internacional Canarias Jazz & Mas, July 1-25

Afro-Cuban funk sensation Cimafunk will perform on Friday, July 2 at 8PM and Saturday, July 3 at 8PM at the 30th edition of the Festival Internacional Canarias Jazz & Mas held on Spain’s Gran Canaria Island.

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