U.S.-Cuba Brief: 08/27/2021

Dear Friends,

Happy Friday!

This week, CDA highlights Project EL PAN. The project aims to support the Cuban people by leveraging collaboration between Americans and Cuban Americans. Donations go toward purchasing and shipping food and hygiene products to the island as it faces dire food, medicine, and material shortages amid an economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

CDA, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), and other key allies in the U.S.-Cuba space have compiled and released a packet of resources including statements, analyses, and talking points that provide an overview of U.S. sanctions and restrictions that hamper efforts to provide humanitarian relief. The document, Collective Call of Action, Talking Points, and Analyses on Cuba’s Humanitarian Crisis also provides guidance on the most effective advocacy tools to alleviate the crisis in Cuba.

Yesterday, Cuba reported 7,639 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 47,131 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a decrease from last week. Pinar del Río reported the highest number of new cases at 914 and highest mortality rate with 15 deaths. Havana follows closely with regards to new cases at 911. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 627,311 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 4,984. 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

Kamala Harris Trip Delayed Over Possible ‘Havana Syndrome’ Case

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delayed her trip to Vietnam following the announcement by the U.S. Department of State that two additional health incidents affecting U.S. personnel had been reported in Hanoi, Vietnam, BBC News reports. The two U.S. officials affected were evacuated following the health incidents and are reportedly not the first cases reported in Vietnam. After an assessment by the State Department, Vice President Harris continued with the trip to Hanoi.

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 possible incidents were later reported by U.S. personnel in other countries, including the U.S. itself, China, Russia, Germany, Poland, Georgia, Austria, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In the past five years, it’s now estimated that over 200 U.S. personnel around the world, including in the U.S., have been affected by these mysterious episodes. As part of the Administration’s response efforts, in May, CIA Director Bill Burns began receiving daily briefings on reported cases. Additionally, in June, the White House National Security Council announced the creation of the two panels to investigate the health incidents following increased pressure from U.S. Senators and impacted U.S. personnel. One, led by the CIA, is investigating the cause, while the other is focused on discovering technology that could block or detect incidents. Also in June, the U.S. State Department implemented a pilot program to keep a record of U.S. personnel and their families before they move to posts abroad. Despite the increased prioritization by the Biden-Harris administration, information concerning the health incidents remains limited. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.

Coast Guard Returns 19 People To Cuba After Making Four Stops Off The Florida Keys; Cuba Reports On The Non-Return By The U.S. Of Two Rafters Intercepted At Sea (Spanish);US Coast Guard repatriates 24 Cubans intercepted in Bahamas (Spanish)

Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard returned 19 Cubans who were intercepted in the Florida Straits while traveling by sea from Cuba to the U.S., FL Keys News reports. The 19 people were intercepted in four different stops in the beginning of August. On Monday, Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT) claimed that two of the Cuban migrants who were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard had not been returned to Cuba by U.S. authorities. The Ministry of the Interior also alleged that one of the intercepted vessels was aided by “foreign support” originating from the U.S. The alleged non-return of Cuban migrants, if found to be true, would put the U.S. in violation of migratory agreements signed by the U.S. and Cuba in 2017 intended to safeguard regular, safe, and orderly migration. Last Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a vessel with 24 Cuban nationals off the coast of the Bahamas, according to Miami, Florida news outlet WSVN. The migrants were repatriated on Wednesday.

So far in FY2021, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted approximately 663 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 Cuban migrants in FY2020 and 313 interdictions in FY2019. Experts on Cuba have theorized that the recent spike in migration can be attributed to the island’s current economic and humanitarian crisis, the absence of accessible migration channels, and the treatment of local activists, including those taking part in the San Isidro Movement and the July 11 protests.

IN CUBA

Cuba To Recognize, Regulate Cryptocurrency

On Thursday, Cuba’s government announced in its Gaceta Oficial (Official Gazette) new laws governing the use of digital assets, notably including cryptocurrencies, Al Jazeera reports. Under Resolución 215 (Resolution 215), Cuba’s Central Bank will be the regulator of the use and provision of services related to digital assets “for reasons of socioeconomic interest.” While the details of the regulations remain to be seen, Resolution 215 also explicitly states that cryptocurrencies are not allowed to be used for illegal activities.

Cuba’s government has expressed interest in cryptocurrency before; in 2017, Cuba began evaluating ways of making the use of cryptocurrencies legal from an institutional standpoint. In 2019, a note released by authorities from the Central Bank of Cuba, along with the Institute of Cryptography in the Mathematics and Computation department at the University of Havana, declared that a regulatory framework was being defined in order to legislate the currency as a way to boost the island’s struggling economy. More recently in 2021, the idea was highlighted at a party meeting on April 19, where President Díaz Canel highlighted his interest in digital currencies and referred to the “convenience of using cryptocurrencies [as part of] the national economy.”

The use of cryptocurrencies has become increasingly common due to the difficulty faced with receiving and using U.S. dollars on the island, including remittances. While controversial, cryptocurrencies are increasingly popular digital assets because they are independent of any central bank and can be sent in anonymous transactions. According to Bitcoin News, Cuba experienced an increase in the use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin following the termination of Western Union’s remittance services on the island in 2019 under the Trump administration.  Cryptocurrency has also gained popularity as an alternative way to send and receive funds in the face of Cubans’ inability to use digital financial services such as PayPal and Venmo. With digital tokens, such as Bitcoin, on platforms like Bitremesas and Qbita, which allow users to send remittances via digital currencies, Cubans can make online purchases, invest and trade stock, and send remittances larger than those permitted by U.S. sanctions. Bitremesas’ independence from state-run banks and the decentralized nature of cryptocurrencies makes it difficult for the U.S. government and Cuba’s government to monitor transactions.

According to Mario Mazzola, founder of Qbita, Cuba’s first person-to-person Bitcoin exchange, speaking on Cuba’s boom in cryptocurrency in late 2020, the rise of Bitcoin in Cuba was also a result of Cubans using the currency to “avoid inflation and the negative impact of the devaluation of their savings” when Cuba announced currency reunification. Entrepreneurs in particular have turned to crypto. According to Erich Garcia, founder of Bitremesas, a person-to-person Bitcoin exchange platform designed for the transfer of remittances from abroad to Cuba, in late 2020, due to the lack of regulation of cryptocurrency by Cuba’s government, “many entrepreneurs are migrating their commerce to this global and more powerful currency.”

Cuba: New Institute Of Information And Social Communication Replaces The ICRT; Cuba Creates A New Institute For Territorial Planning And Urbanism (Spanish)

Cuba’s government announced in its Gaceta Oficial (Official Gazette) that the State Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) will be replaced by a new entity called the Institute of Information and Social Communication in order to “promote the culture of dialogue and consensus in society,” OnCuba News reports. Published on Tuesday, Decreto Ley 41 (Decree Law 41) had two articles which terminated the ICRT and created the Institute of Information and Social Communication. According to Decree Law 41, the new institution is meant to fill “the absence of an organism that conducts and controls the social communication system to strengthen the country’s institutionality.” The Decree Law also emphasizes that any communication in the form of radio, television, print press or other mass media are the property of the state and cannot be private property. The exact structure and function of the new entity remain unknown but will be defined by the Council of Ministers within 30 days of the publication of Decree Law 41.

The restructuring of the Cuban social communication system follows the introduction last week of a heavily criticized package of laws, including Decreto Ley 35 (Decree Law 35), that impose tighter restrictions on social media, including limits on content which hurts “the country’s prestige,” the dissemination of false news, content which “incites mobilizations or other acts that upset public order,” and content that aims to “subvert the constitutional order.” The law has received pushback on the basis that it is a form of censorship and limits freedom of expression.

Additionally, Tuesday’s edition of the Official Gazette also announced the restructuring of the governing body of territorial and urban planning, OnCuba News reports. Decreto Ley 42 (Decree Law 42) stated that the Institute of Physical Planning will be replaced by the National Institute of Territorial Planning and Urbanism to manage the design, construction, cadastral maps, architecture, and planning related to land use in Cuba.

Cuba Allocates 1800 Million Pesos To An Agricultural Development Fund (Spanish)

Cuba recently approved a 1.8 billion peso agricultural development fund, expected to be implemented in September of this year, OnCuba News reports. The fund will prioritize farmers producing rice, plantains, yuca, fruit, pork, and beef, and will require farmers to comply with regulations that dictate where they sell their crops, systems used to produce those crops, and irrigation. Beneficiaries will be charged interest and will be required to repay the amount received at the end of their crop cycle.

Cuba’s agricultural sector has faced a lack of investment for years and suffers from low domestic food production, importing nearly 70-80 percent of its food supply.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Vietnam Says Cuba To Supply COVID-19 Vaccine, Transfer Technology; Díaz-Canel Thanks The President Of Vietnam For Donation Of 12 Thousand Tons Of Rice To Cuba (Spanish)

On Tuesday, the Vietnamese health ministry announced that Cuba will supply Vietnam with its domestically produced Abdala vaccine and vaccine production technology by the end of the year, Reuters reports. Recently, Vietnam has faced a spike in infections and deaths related to COVID-19, despite having contained the disease for much of the pandemic. Given the recent outbreak, Vietnamese officials have sought vaccines from international partners, including Cuba and the U.S. It is unclear how many doses of the vaccine Cuba will send to Vietnam. Vietnam is in the early stages of its vaccine program, with only 1.9 percent of its population vaccinated. This is in contrast to Cuba’s vaccine inoculation program, which has administered partial or complete vaccine doses to an estimated 46 percent of its population.

Also on Tuesday, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel reiterated “the excellent state of political ties” between Cuba and Vietnam, while thanking Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc for donating 12 thousand tons of rice to Cuba, OnCuba News reports. Both presidents expressed a shared “will to continue intensifying cooperation in the confrontation with COVID-19.” Vietnam and Cuba have a history of cooperation and Vietnam has previously donated rice to Cuba. Additionally, the two countries signed several bilateral agreements aimed at strengthening economic ventures and cooperation, specifically in the sectors of agri-food, aquaculture, biotechnology, and oil exploration.

Díaz-Canel Thanks Putin For The Help Received From Russia In The Middle Of The Pandemic (Spanish)

On Wednesday, Cuba’s President Díaz-Canel spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin to thank Russia for the donations of humanitarian aid and for Russia’s support with managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Cuba, OnCuba News reports. Both leaders also reiterated the strong bilateral relationship between Cuba and Russia that is rooted in a “long tradition of friendship and mutual aid.” In recent weeks, Russia has made multiple deliveries of humanitarian aid to Cuba, totaling approximately 150 tons. Russia and Cuba have a longstanding relationship since the time of the Soviet Union. Russia is one of Cuba’s main economic partners and has made significant investments on the island. However, in late 2020 Russia cancelled many of its investment plans with Cuba due to inaction on the part of Cuba’s government.

Italian Plane Flies to Cuba With Medical Supplies to Fight Coronavirus (Spanish)

A plane containing over 200 cubic meters of donated medical supplies, drugs, and medical equipment to combat COVID-19 in Cuba has departed from Italy, OnCuba News reports. The donation is estimated to value over 1.5 million euros and is intended for hospitals in Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Guantánamo, and Ciego de Ávila. This is the second large shipment of humanitarian aid from Italy in the past month. In the beginning of August, Italy’s government donated 120,000 euros to the World Food Program (WFP) to provide “50 metric tons of beans and oil” to Cuban hospitals in Havana and Matanzas. Representatives from Italy’s government have shared that the donations are reciprocation for Cuba’s shipment of medical brigades to Italy in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

Remittances To Cuba: A U.S. Policy Explainer, Matthew D. Aho, Cuba Study Group

Following the July 11 protests and the subsequent tightening of US sanctions on family remittances, this explainer discusses the realities behind common misconceptions surrounding remittances in Cuba in a FAQ style explainer. In particular, Mr. Aho discusses the current state, functionality, and restrictions on remittances as well as remittance processing fees.

Non-State Sector Activities Search Engine (Spanish), El Toque

On Monday, independent Cuban multimedia platform El Toque released a search engine for non-state sector activities that allows those in Cuba wishing to start an independent business to see if their idea is possible under Cuba’s legal framework.

It’s Not Just The U.S. Embargo, Carlos Alzugaray, International Politics and Society

This article by former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray discusses the role of the U.S. embargo and more importantly, according to Alzugaray, the role of Cuba’s government in the current problems faced by the Cuban people. While tracing the roots of the July 11 protests and of the current nature of Cuba’s government, Mr. Alzugaray observes, “Yet while these difficulties certainly are caused by the US embargo, they are in no small part also the result of governmental inadequacy and poor policy.”

Cuban Agriculture: Strategic But Inert, Miriam Leiva, Cuba Study Group

In this essay, Miriam Leiva explains the difficulties in reforming Cuba’s agricultural sector. The essay discusses the changes proposed by Cuba’s government aimed at fixing the agricultural sector, explains their potential successes and failures, and offers suggestions on how to successfully generate change in the sector amidst one of the worst crises in Cuban agriculture to date.

Protests In Cuba: “Those Who Protested On July 11 Were The Losers Of State Capitalism And Among Them Are Afro-Cubans” (Spanish), Guillermo D. Elmo, BBC News World

This article features an interview with historian Alejandro de la Fuente, a professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University who specializes in racial discrimination in Cuba. The interview focuses on the relationship between Cuba’s government and Afro-Cubans, the active role that Afro-Cubans played in the July 11 protests, recent economic changes that have disadvantaged Afro-Cubans, and the treatment and role of Afro-Cubans going forward.

Miami Exiles Say Invade Cuba, Venezuela? Americans Don’t Want Another Afghanistan Tim Padgett, WLRN

In this opinion piece, author Tim Padgett challenges the suggestion offered by some Cuban, Venezuelan, and other Latin American exiles in South Florida that the U.S. should militarily intervene in their home countries. To do so, the author puts the reality of military intervention in a country like Venezuela in conversation with the realities of the current crisis in Afghanistan.

Cuba: Telecommunications Decree Curtails Free Speech, Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch responded to the legislation announced by Cuba’s government last week regarding the regulation of telecommunications, such as Internet and radio, by encouraging governments in Latin America, the European Union, and the U.S. to condemn the new Internet restrictions. The article discusses the new legislation, cybersecurity legislation in international law, and the accessibility of the internet in Cuba.

Cuba’s Private-Sector Law Comes With Restrictions — And A Ban On Cuban American Investment, Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald

This article discusses the new legislation concerning small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly as it pertains to various restrictions such as the exclusion of Cuban American and Cubans living abroad as partners.

EVENTS

U.S., Cimafunk U.S. Tour, August 26-September 3

Afro-Cuban funk sensation Cimafunk announced eight tour dates as part of his Northeast U.S. Summer Tour 2021. The tour will include performances in major U.S. cities including New York, Washington D.C, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. To purchase tickets, click here.

Virtual, Cuba: An American History: Ada Ferrer with Ben Rhodes, September 9

Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University Ada Ferrer will speak about her new book “Cuba: An American History,” which examines Cuba’s history and relationship with the U.S. in this live stream on September 9 from 7PM-8PM EST. The conversation will also feature former senior advisor to President Obama, Ben Rhodes.

Virtual, Cuba: An American History: Ada Ferrer with Ana Menéndez, September 14

Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University Ada Ferrer will speak about her new book “Cuba: An American History,” which examines Cuba’s history and relationship with the U.S. in this live stream on September 14 from 7PM-8PM EST. The conversation will also feature writer and professor, Ana Menéndez.


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