U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 07/09/2021

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Happy Friday!

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This week, tropical storm Elsa prompted evacuations throughout Cuba’s southern coast. While the island credits itself in taking preventative measures amidst potential flood warnings, the evacuations have prompted concern surrounding the spread of COVID-19 given recent increases in COVID-19 cases throughout the Matanzas province. 

Meanwhile, Cuba’s national soccer team was disqualified from the Gold Cup preliminary matches after facing U.S. visa complications in Nicaragua. The team was scheduled to compete in the tournament against French Guiana on July 3 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is the second time this year a Cuban sports team has faced visa complications. Earlier this year Cuba’s national baseball team, scheduled to attend the Americas’ Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida, had to travel to Mexico, Panama, and Guyana before the U.S. Embassy in Havana made a special exception for the team and processed their visa applications in Havana. Cubans on the island, including sports teams, continue to suffer the effects of severed U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations and a lack of consular services. 

Yesterday, Cuba reported 6,422 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 24,330 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Matanzas reported a record number of new cases by far compared to other provinces at 3,559. The total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 1,451. 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…


Cuba’s Gold Cup Team Stuck in Nicaragua with Visa Issues, Saturday Game Canceled

Cuba’s national soccer team could not attend a Gold Cup preliminary match against French Guiana on July 3 in Florida due to visa complications, Miami Herald reports. The island’s national soccer team had been training in Nicaragua leading up to the tournament but could not attend the match due to COVID-19 protocols allegedly slowing down visa processing. Following the incident, the Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) noted that “Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 related travel and visa challenges, and the required COVID-19 testing regime, the [Cuba’s national soccer team’s] match against French Guiana will not take place.” As a result, French Guiana automatically advanced to the second round of the preliminary matches, facing Trinidad and Tobago on July 6. In reference to the team’s struggles in obtaining visas, Ricardo Herrero, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group, stated that “Biden’s ‘Trump on autopilot policy leads to another wasted opportunity.” The arrival of Cuba’s national team to Fort Lauderdale was highly anticipated because 18 players on the roster play professionally abroad. In March, Cuba announced it would allow players who left the island with state permission, as opposed to defecting, to play professionally abroad, and allow those that left as children to join the island’s national soccer team. Of the current Cuban national soccer team roster, only 5 players are based in Cuba. 

In May, Cuba’s national baseball team also struggled to obtain U.S. visas that would allow them to travel to the U.S. for the Americas’ Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida. Ultimately, the U.S. Embassy in Havana started processing visas for the team less than two weeks before the scheduled match, offering the team the ability to travel. The decision made by the U.S. Embassy in Havana to process visa applications for Cuba’s baseball team was particularly notable given that consular services, including visa processing, have not been provided on the island for the past three years. The Embassy drew down its staff and suspended its consular services after U.S. personnel in Havana reported experiencing mysterious symptoms between 2016-2017. Cubans hoping to obtain a U.S. visa have since been required to make often cost-prohibitive trips to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana.

U.S. Keeps Cuba on List of Countries That “Do Not do Enough Against Trafficking in Persons”

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of State upheld Cuba’s designation on the list of countries that “do not do enough to combat trafficking in persons,” OnCuba News reports. The report called particular attention to the island’s medical mission programs and alleges a “government pattern to profit from labor export programs with strong indications of forced labor.” Cuba has refuted these allegations, claiming that the island’s medical programs exemplify the island’s solidarity with countries in need under ethical labor conditions. During the 47th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council held last Tuesday, Cuba’s permanent representative for the United Nations in Geneva, Juan Antonio Quintanilla Román, emphasized that the island followed a National Plan of Action to prevent and confront the crime while protecting victims of human trafficking. Mr. Román also ratified a zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking last week and highlighted the island’s efforts to combat human trafficking on an international scale by cooperating with organizations, including the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). Aside from Cuba, the Biden-Harris administration included 16 other countries on the list. Among the countries listed were two of Cuba’s allies Venezuela and China. Countries on this list run the risk of facing sanctions that limit non-humanitarian and non-commercial aid while also being excluded from receiving loans from institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The sanctions associated with the designation would hold minimal effect on an already highly sanctioned Cuba. 

The debates surrounding Cuba’s medical missions abroad are not new. Earlier last month, U.S.  Senator Robert Menéndez (NJ) raised concerns about 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 case involves allegations of “human trafficking” facilitated by the international public health agency’s involvement with Cuba’s medical missions abroad. In his speech, Senator Menéndez urges the Biden-Harris administration to restrict Cuba’s ability to export doctors due to concerns about the labor conditions of the state-sponsored foreign missions. Last year, Senators Robert Menéndez (NJ) and Marco Rubio (FL) introduced legislation in which they stated that Cuban medical professionals were victims of state-sponsored human trafficking and asked that they be fully compensated for their work abroad. The bill, which died in the previous Congress, also required the U.S. State Department to record and publish the medical professionals’ working conditions in each country and determine whether the conditions qualified as trafficking in persons based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Similarly, the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch released a report last year detailing alleged abuses in the program, such as a restriction on health workers’ freedom of movement and freedom of expression. 


Tropical Storm Elsa Exits Cuba Trailing Heavy Rains, Takes Aim at Florida

On Monday, tropical storm Elsa brought strong winds and flood warnings to Cuba’s southern coast, Reuters reports. The tropical storm entered Cuba at approximately 2 PM EDT on Monday in the Matanzas province, about 80 miles from Havana. While there have been no reported deaths on the island, the storm prompted about 180,000 evacuations from flood-prone and vulnerable areas in southern Cuba. A portion of individuals evacuated to family homes, while others found shelter in government facilities. The evacuations have raised concerns about the spread of COVID-19 as those southern provinces currently face increased numbers of COVID-19 cases. This week, the province of Matanzas reported the greatest number of new cases out of any province on the island with over 3,000 COVID-19 cases. The province has currently become the epicenter of the pandemic on the island, reporting a COVID-19 incidence rate higher than that of Madrid at the height of the pandemic last year. Cuba’s first independent sustainable fashion brand, Clandestina, is collecting donations in Havana and sending them to Matanzas every Friday. The store encourages Cubans with the ability to donate to gather antibiotics, vitamins, face masks, soap, among other items. Initiatives sponsored by Cuban immigrants in the U.S. and Spain have also started sending medication to the island.

As large numbers of Cuban migrants attempt the dangerous journey across the Florida Straits, Tropical storm Elsa has made the already treacherous journey even more dangerous. On Monday, a boat traveling from the island to the Florida coast capsized at approximately 8 PM EDT after facing heavy currents caused by the tropical storm. The boat was spotted on Tuesday afternoon about 26 miles southeast of Key West. While the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 13 Cuban migrants, a search for nine missing people is currently taking place. 

Before reaching Cuba, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency reported one death in St. Lucia and two deaths in the Dominican Republic following the tropical storm’s course in the Caribbean. 

Cuba Approves a Second Pediatric Clinical Trial, Now with the Abdala Vaccine Candidate

Last Thursday, Cuba’s Center for State Control of Medicines, Equipment, and Medical Devices (CECMED) approved Phase I and II clinical trials for the Abdala vaccine candidate on the island’s pediatric population, OnCuba News reports. The island’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) will conduct the trials and evaluate the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness among Cuba’s pediatric population. The trial, known as “Ismaelillo,” will include 592 volunteers between the ages of 3 and 18 living in the province of Camagüey. Volunteers will receive two doses and must have consent from a legal guardian to receive the first dose of the vaccine candidate. Phase III clinical trials for the Abdala vaccine candidate began in March among those aged 19 to 80 years old in the provinces of Santiago, Guantánamo, and Granma. Since then, BioCubaFarma has announced the efficacy levels of the Abdala vaccine candidate developed at the CIGB. After three doses, the vaccine proved to be 92.28 percent effective. The CIGB hopes that Cuba’s pediatric population will experience the same promising results. 

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 in June. The trials were also targeted towards adolescents ages 3 to 18. The approval of the clinical trials by CECMED came as Cuba’s pediatric population experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases throughout the island. As of May 27, the island had registered more than 18,000 cases of COVID-19 in minors. According to data collected from late Phase III clinical trials, this vaccine regimen proved to be 91.2 percent effective among Cuba’s adult population. 

Canadian Tourists Return to Varadero

Air Canada will resume flights to the city of Varadero from Montreal and Toronto, OnCuba News reports. The airline will begin weekly flights from Toronto to Varadero on July 10, and on July 11, it will resume flights from Montreal to the island. Yandy Moreno, the operations coordinator of the Juan Gualberto Gómez airport in Matanzas, has noted, “The vacationers will be subject to the health controls established to avoid contagion of COVID-19, and the biosafety measures provided for in the protocols without losing fluidity and agility in services.” The Russian airlines Aeroflot, Azur Air, NordWind and Royal Flight, and the British-German agency TUI UK are also currently offering flights to the island.


Impact of U.S. Sanctions on Cuban and Cuban-American Women and Vulnerable Populations, María Isabel Alfonso, OnCuba News

In this opinion piece, María Isabel Alfonso, a representative of Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) urges the Biden-Harris administration to adopt policies of engagement with Cuba. Ms. Alfonso highlights the negative impact that sanctions have on Cuban women’s autonomy and overall health conditions already exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic on the island. While noting the need for domestic reform from Cuba’s government, Ms. Alfonso emphasizes the importance of lifting sanctions that allow pathways for Cuban-Americans to travel to and send remittances to the island. The opinion piece follows a recent webinar hosted by Oxfam, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), and Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) highlighting the impact of U.S. sanctions on Cuban women and vulnerable populations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Hardships of Food in Cuba (Spanish), Jessica Dominguez and Jesús Arencibia, ElToque 

This blog post highlights the current challenges that Cubans face while trying to source food on the island. The post describes common methods that many Cubans have adopted in the midst of one of Cuba’s worst economic crises since the island’s “Special Period” following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The methods include using social media platforms such as Facebook and Telegram to exchange food. The blog also emphasizes the importance of state investment in new agricultural practices and equipment that allow the island’s market supply and demand to reach an equilibrium.  

Cubans to Cheer Their Boxers and Wrestlers, but Not Ball Players, in Tokyo, Nelson Acosta, Reuters 

This article describes Cuba’s delegation of 69 athletes who will travel to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics held from July 23 to August 8. While the delegation consists of 14 disciplines, including wrestling and boxing, many Cubans are disappointed that the island’s national baseball team will not compete in Tokyo. Cuba’s national baseball team was eliminated after losing against Venezuela and Canada at the Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Florida last month. Carlos Tabares, a former national baseball team player, notes, “The absence of baseball leaves a thorn in the throat. It is a fact that has been making our country suffer a lot.” Despite the absence of baseball, the island’s athletes are still a source of pride for Cuba. In the 2016 Summer Olympics, Cuba won five gold medals and ranked 18th among 200 countries. 

They Love Their Job, Reading to Cigar Workers in Cuba, NBC News 

This article tells the story of Cuba’s tobacco factory readers, focusing on Odalys de la Caridad Lara Reyes, who has read for tobacco rollers at the La Corona factory in Havana since 1996. Beginning in 1865, many tobacco factories began electing someone to read novels to them while they worked as a way to educate themselves and pass the time. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Reyes has read the news to those in the facility thereby allowing workers to stay up to date with COVID-19 cases on the island. 

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