Happy Labor Day! As we begin the three-day weekend, let’s take a moment to honor and recognize the American labor movement and the contributions of laborers to our national achievements.
Yesterday, Cuba reported 6,927 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 32,132 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, a decrease from previous weeks. Pinar del Río reported the highest number of new cases for the second consecutive week at 895. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 672,599 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 5,538. 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…
The U.S. Department of State announced that it will begin allowing diplomats to be accompanied by some adult family members at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the Miami Herald reports. The announcement marks the first step towards enacting U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise to re-staff the embassy and resume consular services on the island. A week after the J11 protests on July 19, the Biden-Harris administration ordered the U.S. State Department to review the potential restaffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and examine the possibility of reestablishing diplomatic and consular services, as well as how best to support civil society engagement on the island. A spokesperson from the State Department emphasized the Department’s continued focus on the safety of its personnel, stating, “We have done our utmost to ensure that our staff on the ground can work safely and securely in Havana, and will sustain this approach while augmenting our staff there. The Department will continue to prioritize the safety and security of our personnel and ensure that those who were medically evacuated get the treatment and support they need.” As part of those efforts, the embassy will provide a nurse and community coordinator for the diplomats and their adult family members.
Following the initial reports of health incidents impacting U.S. personnel between 2016 and 2017, the Trump administration announced 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. The personnel working in Cuba reported a variety of symptoms including headaches, dizziness, cognitive impacts, and ringing in the ears. Since then, over 200 U.S. personnel around the world, including in the U.S., have been affected by these mysterious episodes. Additional cases have been reported as recently as last week, when two additional health incidents affecting U.S. personnel were reported in Hanoi, Vietnam causing U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to delay her trip to Vietnam.
The staff reductions and suspension of consular services in 2017 caused great disturbance to Cubans seeking to travel and/or migrate to the U.S. Since 2017, both the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program (CFRP) and consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana have been suspended, resulting in an estimated 100,000 unprocessed migration cases. In order to obtain a visa, Cubans must often make cost-prohibitive trips to U.S. Embassies in third-party countries, such as Guyana.
Various groups and organizations within the U.S. government have convened to investigate the health incidents. 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.
A majority of Americans don’t believe the embargo has been an effective policy and prefer a policy of diplomatic engagement according to a recent survey, PRNewsWire reports. The study contained responses of over 1,000 American adults on their opinions about U.S. policy towards Cuba and revealed that the Democratic party was overall seen as “more effective on Cuban foreign policy” than the Republican party, with 40.2 percent of respondents aged 18 to 24 favoring Democrats versus 25.6 percent favoring Republicans. However, respondents also said that Republican Senator Marco Rubio (FL) was the “most proactive” lawmaker. President Joe Biden followed closely behind Senator Rubio and “none of the above” was the next most frequently selected answer. In terms of policy measures, diplomatic engagement is the most favored with 41 percent of respondents favoring diplomatic engagement, while sanctioning officials from Cuba’s government is the second most favored policy measure.
Two weeks after the Biden-Harris administration authorized emergency flights of humanitarian aid to Cuba for two U.S.-based airlines, Cuban aviation entities spoke with U.S. aviation companies about “possible cargo operations” to Cuba, OnCuba News reports. Officials from the Cuban Civil Aeronautics Institute (IACC) and the Cuban Aviation Corporation S.A. (CACSA) spoke with representatives of U.S. charter companies interested in beginning or continuing to operate cargo flights to Cuba. On August 17, the U.S. Department of Treasury authorized two Miami-based airlines, IBC and Skyway airlines, to complete up to 20 trips each to deliver humanitarian aid and diplomatic cargo across the island until the end of September 2021. The discussions this week explored the parameters of the potential flights as part of the process to obtain approval for the flights from Cuba’s government. The U.S.’s authorization would permit the flights to carry humanitarian supplies and packages sent by various entities in the U.S., but they would be unable to carry passengers. The authorization by the Biden-Harris administration is temporarily lifting a ban imposed by the Trump administration in August 2020 which suspended all charter flights operating between the U.S. and Cuba in an attempt to increase economic pressure on Cuba’s government.
U.S. Republican lawmakers, including Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27), introduced legislation aimed at providing consistent and free access to wireless communications in Cuba, according to a press release from the congresswoman’s office. The “American Freedom and Internet Access Act of 2021,” also known as Operation Starfall, requests American intelligence to “deploy stratospheric balloons, arrow stats or satellites capable of rapidly delivering the Internet anywhere on the planet from the stratosphere or higher.” If enacted, Operation Starfall would task the Secretary of the Air Force to create a strategic plan to implement wireless infrastructure that would ensure cellular connection amidst natural disasters or domestically induced internet blackouts. Rep. Salazar also argued that the creation of such technologies would benefit U.S. interests both domestically and abroad, stating that it could “improve homeland security and be ready to restore internet, freedom, and prosperity to those in need.”
Following the protests that began on July 11 (J11), the U.S. has again begun exploring facilitating greater internet access and freedom of expression in Cuba. Immediately following the J11 protests, President Biden stated that the U.S. was exploring how to provide technology capable of reinstating internet access in Cuba. Additionally, numerous members of Congress have also encouraged the Administration to sponsor the creation of a satellite-based system that could provide Cubans unrestricted access to the internet. In August, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office on Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) reiterated their support of internet freedom in Cuba in a fact sheet and press release, thereby signaling that they were ready to prioritize the review of licensing and authorization requests related to expanding internet access in Cuba. Additionally in August, the U.S. Senate adopted an amendment introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Rick Scott (FL) to the Senate Budget Resolution that directs the Biden-Harris administration to “facilitate free, open, and uncensored access to the internet for the people of Cuba” through the creation of a Deficit Neutral Reserve Fund (DNRF) in the Senate’s next budget reconciliation bill. The fund would contribute to “build[ing] up and deploy[ing] existing technology on the island.”
Members of Congress have previously expressed interest in facilitating internet and telecommunications services throughout the island as well. In 2015, Representative Kevin Cramer (ND) and Senator Tom Udall (NM) introduced the Cuba DATA Act. While the bill was never passed, it authorized the President to allow U.S. nationals to export telecommunication devices to Cuba; provide telecommunication services throughout the island; establish facilities that offered telecommunication services throughout the island; conduct transactions that allowed the services to take place; and “enter into, perform, and make and receive payments under a contract with any individual or entity in Cuba regarding the provision of telecommunications services involving Cuba or persons in Cuba.”
Additionally, in 2017, the Department of State announced the creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF), which identified challenges and offered “recommendations for expanding effective Internet access and the free and unregulated flow of information in Cuba” in its final report in 2019. U.S. officials have also advocated for creating a fiber-optic cable that would connect Cuba to the U.S. and enhance internet access on the island. Currently, the Guantanamo Bay to Dania Beach Submarine Fiber Optic Cable System (GTMO-1), spanning about 950 miles, connects the Defense Information System Network (DISN) Facilities in Miami, Florida and U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba (GTMO). The cable does not provide internet outside of the naval base. Google and ETECSA, Cuba’s government owned telecommunications company, signed a memorandum of understanding in 2019 aimed at facilitating increased internet access throughout the island. The partnership required the establishment of a physical connection between Cuba’s telecommunications company and a Google “point of presence.” At the time, the nearest points were in Florida, Mexico, and Colombia. While Google servers went live on the island in 2017, allowing Cubans to stream YouTube videos at faster rates, the technology company’s efforts on the island date back to 2016. In 2016, Google partnered with Cuban artist Alexis Leiva Machado, known as Kcho, to open a WiFi center.
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez expressed solidarity with those in the U.S. impacted by Hurricane Ida, OnCuba News reports. Mr. Rodríguez tweeted his wishes for a “speedy recovery to the southern U.S. territories affected by Hurricane Ida” on Wednesday and sent wishes again to those impacted in the northeastern part of the U.S. on Friday. Hurricane Ida hit the western part of Cuba on August 27, before intensifying in its path towards the southern part of the U.S., where it caused immense damage. The hurricane caused massive power outages, killed at least six people, and has caused major flooding and destruction throughout parts of the United States. In Cuba, the hurricane caused damage to agriculture and housing, although official reporting has suggested that the hurricane did not leave “major damage.”
This past week, dozens of Cuban migrants have been intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in a recent wave of unofficial migration by sea, The Hill reports. All migrants have been processed for removal proceedings and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So far in FY2021, which began on October 1, 2020, the Coast Guard has interdicted nearly 700 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 Cuban migrants in FY2020 and 313 interdictions in FY2019. Since the removal of the “wet-foot-dry-foot” policy, Cuban migrants are subjected to the same laws as nationals from other countries and no longer processed in an expedited process. 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.
Cuba will begin using the Chinese manufactured Sinopharm vaccine in addition to the domestically produced Abdala and Soberana 2 vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters reports. The Sinopharm vaccine will be the first foreign-manufactured vaccine to be used in Cuba. Cuban health authorities will begin to deploy two doses of Sinopharm combined with one booster shot of a Cuban vaccine. The combination is stated to have an efficacy rate of 90 percent, although it is unclear where the data regarding efficacy rate came from. Cuba’s government has previously stated that they would be able to produce enough vaccines for the entire population by September and that they were not looking to use foreign-produced vaccines. Last month, President Biden offered to send vaccines to Cuba if they were administered by an international organization, however, President Díaz-Canel rejected the offer, saying that if the U.S. truly wanted to support Cuba, it would remove sanctions instead. Cuba also previously refused participation in the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative, which allows countries to buy vaccines at discounted rates or receive donated vaccines. The sudden use of a foreign vaccine has caused some speculation over Cuba’s homegrown vaccines and immunization plan, however Cuba’s government has maintained confidence in its vaccines and stated that the use of Sinopharm is intended to “[expand] and [accelerate] the vaccination process against COVID- 19.”
China has been an active supporter of Cuba in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Director of Science, Technology and Innovation of Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health, Dra. Ileana Morales, the Beijing Institute of Biological Products donated “around 250,000 doses of the vaccine.” This week, China also sent 22 tons of humanitarian aid to Cuba which included masks, gloves, personal protective equipment, antigen tests, and other medical supplies. Previously, China has sent 150 oxygen concentrators to Cuba in August and sent 30 high performance lung ventilators which arrived in Cuba on July 31, as well as donations of syringes.
In addition to donations, representatives from the Chinese government have spoken out in support of Cuba’s government and against U.S. sanctions against Cuba, both those recently introduced by the Biden-Harris administration and the longstanding U.S. economic embargo. On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a phone call to President Díaz-Canel that China was “willing to walk together with Cuba in building socialism and be good partners in pursuing common development.” A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry also said previously that the recently introduced U.S. sanctions violate “the basic norms governing international relations” and urged the U.S. to stay out of Cuba’s domestic affairs. Additionally, the spokesperson credited the island’s current economic crises largely to the U.S. economic and trade embargo. According to the spokesperson, the “right way” to support the island is through cooperation and humanitarian assistance. In recent years, China has become one of Cuba’s largest trading partners and allies.
This week, it was announced that Cuba will begin vaccinating children ages 2 to 18 as part of their efforts to vaccinate 90 percent of the population by December, Reuters reports. Health officials will vaccinate adolescents with the Soberana 2 vaccine first and younger children will begin receiving the vaccine in mid-September. Efforts to vaccinate Cuba’s adult population using the Abdala vaccine will also be increased this month, with the goal of administering at least the first dose of the three-dose regimen to all eligible adults by the end of September. It’s currently estimated that nearly 50 percent of Cuba’s population has been partially or fully vaccinated by one of Cuba’s two domestically produced vaccines. Both vaccines have gained approval by local regulatory authorities, however, neither have undergone peer-review.
The clinical trials for the Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus vaccine on the island’s pediatric population, conducted by Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute (IFV), began in June and were completed in early August, with stated goals of approving the vaccine for the general public at the end of the month. The IFV found that the vaccine was safe in the pediatric population and elicited a stronger immune response than in adults. In adult populations, the Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus vaccines showed a 91.2 percent efficacy level against COVID-19. Cuba’s other homegrown vaccine, Abdala, is also currently undergoing clinical trials in pediatric populations. In adult populations, the Abdala vaccine has shown a 92.28 percent efficacy level.
The World Health Organization (WHO) will meet with representatives from Cuba’s healthcare sector to review Cuba’s domestically produced vaccines and begin the process for potential authorization, OnCuba News reports. While Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines, Abdala and Soberana, have received authorization from Cuba’s Center for the State Control of Medicines, Equipment and Medical Devices (CECMED) for use in Cuba, the homegrown vaccines do not have emergency use approval from the WHO despite claims circulating earlier this week. Without authorization from the WHO, Cuba’s vaccines cannot be purchased by other countries through the Revolving Fund of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). WHO approval also permits the vaccines to be distributed by COVAX, a United Nations sponsored mechanism aimed at facilitating access to vaccines and allows the vaccines to be sold in the international market, instead of exclusively through bilateral agreements.
Cuban cuentapropistas, or entrepreneurs, will once again be able to make financial transfers between their business accounts used for imports and their personal accounts in freely convertible currency, ElToque reports. This decision reverses a previous suspension of services that began on July 29. Cuban business owners utilizing this service did not receive official notice of the suspended services and instead discovered the suspension through verbal communication from branches of the Central Bank of Cuba while attempting to make such transfers. The suspension of these transfer services required Cuban business owners to complete transfers to authorized importing companies and receive funds from cash deposits in freely convertible currency, excluding the U.S. dollar or transfers from accounts abroad.
Cuban entrepreneurs impacted by the restrictions shared frustration at the lack of communication surrounding the restrictions and claimed that the restrictions hindered the import process through foreign trade companies. One impacted cuentapropista, Armando Cabrera, shared their frustration with the restrictions, stating “For more than a month we could only use our money in those accounts to pay importers. It was not possible to make or receive transfers from other self-employed, which hampered our work agreements and shortened the ways to recharge our accounts. We were also unable to send credit to our personal accounts at MLC.” The lack of communication has also created distrust of Cuba’s Central Bank for some Cuban business owners. Mr. Cabrera shared his frustration with the restrictions, “It is not right that they practically freeze our money without clarifying why.”
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba and Argentina strengthened bilateral cooperation in agriculture and reiterated their desire to strengthen bilateral economic and trade relations this week, OnCuba News reports. During a visit to Havana this week, Argentine Secretary of International Economic Relations Jorge Neme met with various Cuban officials including Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez. Mr. Neme and Mr. Rodríguez expressed a mutual desire to maintain solidarity and noted the “good state” of relations between the two countries. Secretary Neme also expressed interest in implementing “food sovereignty development projects in Cuba.” Later in the week, the representatives announced joint efforts to develop technical cooperation projects and business models in Cuba’s agricultural sector with the shared mission of “[promoting] greater food production in Cuba, which contributes to strengthening food sovereignty and import substitution on the island, while opening up opportunities for Argentine companies in the Cuban market.” The joint efforts will seek to strengthen local production capacities in Cuba and sustainably improve the productivity of the Cuban agricultural sector.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba and Argentina have sought closer ties and increased cooperation. In May, Carla Vizzotti, the Argentine Minister of Health stated interest in purchasing Cuba’s domestically produced vaccines to be used in Argentina. The Argentine Minister of Health met with Cuba’s President Díaz-Canel to discuss the progress of the island’s vaccination campaign and the production of the Abdala and Soberana II vaccines. During the visit, Ms.Vizzotti emphasized that Argentina would be willing to “collaborate in whatever way it can” with the production of Cuba’s homegrown vaccines. Following the meeting, Cuba 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.
On Tuesday, Cuban biopharmaceutical enterprise CIMAB S.A. and Mexican biopharmaceutical enterprise Neuronic Mexicana S.A. de C.V. announced a joint venture in the Mariel Special Development Zone, OnCuba News reports. The joint venture project, IncuBio S.A., is hoping to attract risk capital and investors to fund proof-of-concept clinical trials and licensing of biotechnological products such as NeuroEPO, which is currently being evaluated to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Ataxia. The new enterprise will be based at Cuba’s Mariel Special Development Zone, Cuba’s flagship project to attract foreign investment. When it opened in 2013, Cuba’s government expected the Mariel Special Development Zone to raise at least $2.5 billion annually and a total of $12.5 billion in its first five years. However, during its first five years, it actually raised less than 10 percent of its goal at $1.19 billion according to government figures.
CIMAB S.A. is the Cuban enterprise tasked with the development and administration of businesses related to biotechnological products developed in Cuba. Since the incorporation of IncuBIO S.A., CIMAB S.A. has become a shareholder of five joint ventures in China, Thailand, Singapore, and Cuba.
RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS
‘A Unified Feeling’, Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, Penn Today
In this interview with Professor Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, the Cuban-born professor discusses characterizations of the protests in Cuba that began on July 11 (J11), the response from Cuba’s government to the protests, how the protests will impact Cuba’s future, and the sense of unity she has found amongst Cuban nationals and those living abroad since the J11 protests. Professor Casamayor-Cisneros suggests that the path forward must include simultaneously listening to Cuban voices, particularly Afro-Cubans, ending the embargo, and holding Cuba’s government accountable for their actions.
SMEs in Cuba: New Scenario, Old Problems, and Possible Solutions, Aldo Álvarez, Cuba Study Group
In this essay, Aldo Álvarez explains Cuba’s new law governing small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), discusses current obstacles to the potentially prosperous allowance of foreign direct investment in SMEs, and suggests solutions to fully empower the new regulations.
When It Comes to Hurricanes, the U.S. Can Learn A Lot From Cuba, Mikael Wolf, Washington Post
Mikael Wolfe chronicles the history of hurricane preparedness and response in Cuba to highlight areas where the U.S could act to further minimize the loss of life and property from increasingly extreme storms exacerbated by climate change. He argues that the United States needs a better systemic approach and could learn a lot from the historical success of Cuba’s Civil Defense System, stating “The United States would be wise to actively and directly cooperate with Cuba — both because many of the same hurricanes strike both countries, but also because Cuban authorities have a long and successful history of managing such disasters.”
Pavel Vidal: “You Have to Be Cautious With Cryptocurrencies” (Spanish), Pavel Vidal Alejandro, El Toque
This opinion piece published by independent Cuban news source El Toque suggests that Cuba’s new regulations concerning cryptocurrencies should be approached with great caution given their limitations, potential volatility, and drawbacks. The article recognizes the substantial opportunities cryptocurrencies present, such as “[avoiding] sanctions and [generating] net benefits,” as well as financing SMEs from abroad, but puts caution on seeing cryptocurrencies as an equal trade for traditional banking and the solution to economic struggles in Cuba.
TV Shows and Movies by toDus, Goodbye Weekly Package (El Paquete Semenal)? (Spanish), Alberto C. Toppin, El Toque
According to this article in El Toque, Cubans have been turning to a new source to obtain and stream tv shows and movies. The server, called toDus, is a messaging application developed at Cuba’s University of Information Sciences and has allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to download multimedia content at lower prices and at faster rates than El Paquete Semenal (the Weekly Package). The article explains the technology behind the server that has allowed it to become a popular source to obtain tv shows, movies, and other audiovisual content.
What Is Known About the New Institute of Information and Social Communication of Cuba? (Spanish) OnCuba News
In this article, OnCuba News explores the new Institute for Information and Social Communications (ICRT), which was announced last week by Cuban authorities. The article poses questions about the ICRT regarding its origin, purpose, structure, functions outside of information and social communications, and impact on other media, among other topics.
Republican Cuban Americans Aren’t Going to Free Cuba with Partisan Attacks on Biden, Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald
In this opinion piece, Fabiola Santiago discusses the domestic politics and competing narratives surrounding Cuba policy in the United States. The article suggests that misplaced blame and unnecessary contention aimed at garnering domestic support is causing confusion and inaction from the Biden administration on Cuba policy.
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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