U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 09/17/2021

Dear Friends,

This week, CDA issued a comprehensive memorandum which discusses and recommends detailed policy actions the Biden-Harris Administration could take to best support the Cuban people as they face a dire humanitarian crisis during the pandemic. The memo was accompanied by a press release and also provides a timeline of the Administration’s actions on Cuba from day one to present. To access a complete and detailed version of the timeline, click here. To read the full press release, click here.

Yesterday, Cuba reported 8,291 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 39,075 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island. Pinar del Río reported the highest number of new cases for the third consecutive week at 1,629. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 784,416 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 6,676. Cuba is hoping to vaccinate 90 percent of the population by November and currently, there is approximately 55 percent of the population partially or fully vaccinated. 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

‘Havana Syndrome’ Becomes ‘Unexplained Health Incidents’ As US Backs Down on Blaming Cuba; Cuban Scientists Say No Evidence of Attacks on Diplomats

This week, Newsweek reported that the U.S. State Department will refer to the health incidents that have impacted U.S. personnel as “unexplained health incidents” or “UHIs” instead of as “Havana syndrome.” The official name change reflects the widespread occurrence of such incidents, which, since the initial reports, have reportedly impacted over 200 U.S. personnel around the world, including in the U.S., China, Russia, and Austria among other countries. Additional cases have been reported as recently as August, when two health incidents affecting U.S. personnel were reported in Hanoi, Vietnam causing U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to delay her trip to Vietnam. A spokesperson from the U.S. State Department also noted that the name change reflects naming guidelines established by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015 which advocate for more generic descriptive terms and advocates against using geographic locations, which has been a topic of conversation since the outbreak of coronavirus in China in 2019. The U.S. State Department spokesperson reiterated that the U.S. government continues to investigate the health incidents and “is actively examining a range of hypotheses but has made no determination about the cause of these incidents or whether they constitute an attack of some kind by a foreign actor.”

Prior to the announcement from the U.S. State Department, Cuba’s government issued a report from Cuba’s Academy of Sciences on Monday rejecting allegations that the mysterious health incidents that impacted U.S. and Canadian personnel in Havana were directed attacks, AP News reports. The report questions whether the variety of symptoms could be referred to as a single syndrome and whether such occurrence was possible under basic laws of physics.

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. Two weeks ago, 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 announcement marked the first step towards enacting U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise to re-staff the embassy and resume consular services on the island. The U.S. State Department emphasized its continued focus on the safety of its personnel considering the unexplained health incidents and announced it would provide additional services at the embassy and for those who have been impacted by the health incidents.

Currently, there are two panels investigating 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.

Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley Asked Miguel Díaz-Canel to Pardon Peaceful Protesters

During a visit to Havana last week, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, met with Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel and asked him to pardon peaceful protesters detained after the July 11 protests, The Miami Herald reports. In a blog post published after his trip to Cuba, Cardinal O’Malley shared that he asked President Díaz-Canel “for clemency for those involved in the demonstrations in a nonviolent way.” The archbishop also asked President Díaz-Canel to allow Catholic groups to send humanitarian aid to the island to support the Cuban Church’s efforts in “[addressing] the scarcity of food and medicine.”

Cardinal O’Malley has a history of facilitating engagement with Cuba. In 2014, the archbishop participated in back-channel negotiations between the Obama-Biden administration, the Vatican, and Cuba’s government to restore diplomatic relations. As such, the meeting last week has led to speculation of the possibility of similar intentions of rapprochement under the direction of the Biden-Harris administration.

IN CUBA

Draft of Cuba’s New Family Code Opens Door For Gay Marriage; Cuba Publishes a Proposal for a Family Code, a New Legislation (Spanish)

On Wednesday, Cuba’s Ministry of Justice published a draft of the island’s new Family Code which includes language that would open the door to same-sex marriage and the ability for same-sex couples to adopt children, AP News and ElToque report. The document was initially slated to be released to parliament in July 2021. The much anticipated draft removes gender from the definition of marriage, defining marriage as “the voluntarily arranged union of two people with legal aptitude for it, in order to live together, on the basis of affection and love.” Other changes include broadened definitions of and structures for family, such as the legal recognition of “multiparentality,” meaning that an individual can legally have more than two parents, and the recognition that family relationships are not based solely on biological components or blood relation, but also affiliation. Solidarity gestation, when a person carries out a pregnancy for a different individual or couple, is also permitted as long as it is not done for profit. The legal procedures for adoption are also simplified in the draft. Additionally, the draft contains articles regarding gender violence and gender equality, the physical punishment of minors, the elderly and people with disabilities, types of kinship, guardianship and care, the rights and duties of family members, and parental responsibility. The proposal will be open to comment from activists and experts either on social media or through emailing familia@minjus.gov, and a new version will be presented to Cuba’s Parliament, the National Assembly of People’s Power, in December, from there, the draft must be passed by a popular referendum for which it will be presented in 2022, before being enacted.

While the new code offers much needed updates, Cuban civil society groups have offered suggestions and criticism for how the code should continue to be expanded, as well as criticism over fundamental rights being determined via referendum as opposed to being guaranteed. Cuban independent digital magazine Tremenda Nota, notes that despite clear advances, “the draft never refers to trans and non-binary people,” nor does it address “Respect for the gender identity of trans minors on the part of their families, and in particular of those who have “parental responsibility.” It also notes the lack of transparency in the drafting process, including its timeline, and members of the commission (names were later released), and lack of involvement by openly LGBTQ+ members in the commission charged with drafting the new Family Code.

The legalization of same-sex marriage was widely debated in 2018 during the drafting of Cuba’s new constitution, approved in early 2019 in a national referendum. In the 2019 constitution’s initial draft, the language defining marriage was broadened to include the possibility of same-sex marriages. The previous constitution had defined marriage exclusively as between “a man and a woman.” However, many religious groups on the island, including evangelical churches and some sectors of Cuba’s Catholic Church, campaigned against the proposed broadened definition of marriage and threatened to vote against the constitution if it was included. Subsequently, the Constitutional Reform Commission decided to omit a precise definition of marriage in the new constitution, preferring instead to define marriage in the Family Code, and leave the debate for the Family Code’s revision.

LGBTQ+ rights continued to be debated in the public sphere during the lead up to the draft of the new Family Code, with independent groups, churches, and the state often butting heads. Many independent groups in Cuba led efforts aimed at expanding the breadth and scope of reforms pursued by the government through holding events, facilitating discussions, and providing informative resources. In May, Plataforma 11M, an independent movement composed of a collective of independent LGBTQ+ activists and groups in Cuba that advocates for rights, public policies, and social initiatives to address challenges of the LGBTQ+ community in the country, held a series of virtual actions and events throughout the month of May. Alianza Afro-Cubana, an independent Afro-LGBTQ+ group in Cuba, released a series of videos Camino al Código de las Familias (Road to the Family Code) featuring LGBTQ+ Afro Cubans and their reflections. CENESEX, Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education also held events in May in celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). In response to these efforts advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, also in May, Cuba’s Pentecostal Evangelical and Methodist churches published official statements against same sex marriage being permitted in the new Family Code.

Cuba: Postponement of the Sex Education Program That Provoked the Protest of Several Christian Churches (Spanish)

On Tuesday, Cuba’s Ministry of Education (MINED) announced it would postpone the execution of Resolution 16, according to Tremenda Nota. The resolution, which was approved in February, would implement a comprehensive sexual education program in Cuban schools that would include foci on gender, sexual and reproductive rights and health, discrimination based on skin color, and human trafficking prevention, among other topics. The curriculum received pushback from the island’s Catholic Bishops, who claim it promotes “gender ideology” and that parents should be the ones responsible for the sexual education of their children. Over 20 Christian denominations have pushed back against the program. According to MINED, the postponement is a result of a lack of resources and materials to carry out the program due to the island’s “economic and epidemiological situation,” however, Tremenda Nota reports that “LGBTQ+ activism was not convinced by these arguments.”

In response to the postponement, Ahora Si, an independent campaign for LGBTQ+ rights in Cuba released a letter to Cuba’s Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella expressing disagreement with the program’s delay and suggesting that television and internet be used as an alternative means to carry out the program given the pandemic, and requesting a specific date of implementation. The campaign also encouraged others to contact the group to add their names as signatories. LGBTQ+ activists responded by calling the delay a “cheap excuse,” noting that even during the Special Period and throughout the pandemic there were sufficient resources for education. Others alleged MINED was panicking due “to the threats that have been made to them from the fundamentalist groups.” Alianza Afro-Cubana, an independent community project that works to defend the rights of AfroLGBTQ+ people in Cuba released a statement on Twitter criticizing the decision and calling it “absurd” and “unthinkable.”

Cuba Struggles to Keep the Lights on Given Decrepit Grid

On Friday, Cuba’s state media reported that blackouts experienced throughout the island since June were a result of poor and aging infrastructure and maintenance, Reuters reports. According to officials, residents should prepare for more outages. The island’s power plants are 35 years old on average, with smaller backup generators averaging 15 years old. According to Edier Guzman Pacheco, director of thermal generation at Cuba’s Electric Union, suppliers that were to provide parts for two new generators for the island backed out due to U.S. sanctions enacted under the Trump administration. The challenges have been exacerbated by Cuba’s economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuba’s Energy and Mining Minister Livan Arronte Cruz promised to keep the public informed and assured that “No one should think we are doing this intentionally to annoy the people.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuban Leader in Mexico for New Latin America ‘Pink Tide’ Summit;Mexico Highlights Cuban Leader’s Visit on Independence Day

Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited Mexico on Thursday to attend Mexico’s 200th anniversary of independence and a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Reuters reports. During the Independence Day celebration, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on the U.S. to lift the embargo on Cuba and act with “political sensitivity” in response to Cuba’s humanitarian and economic crisis. Mexico has been supportive to Cuba throughout the pandemic, expressing solidarity with the island and sending them donations of syringes, oxygen tanks, face masks, powdered milk, cans of tuna, beans, flour, and cooking oil. Mexico’s state-run oil company Petroleos Mexicanos also delivered gasoline to Havana. President Díaz-Canel’s trip to Mexico is his first international visit since the July 11 protests.

The summit of CELAC, which is a regional organization created by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 2011, will convene leaders from Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and others to discuss the region’s response to the pandemic and a climate change disaster relief fund. It’s also expected that President López Obrador will advocate to replace or reform the Organization of American States (OAS), which some members of CELAC criticize as being too U.S.-oriented and interventionist. For additional reactions to the summit, read this article.

Cuba Opposes Debate in European Parliament on Human Rights on the Island; What Does the Resolution Passed By the European Parliament That Condemns Governmental Repression on July 11 Imply? (Spanish)

Cuba’s National Assembly responded to debates in the European Parliament (EP) surrounding human rights in Cuba by calling in a “politicized exercise” catered to U.S. interests, OnCuba News reports. The European Parliament held a debate on Thursday to discuss human rights in Cuba and subsequently passed a resolution condemning the government’s repressive response to the July 11 protests and criticizing the ineffectiveness of the Political Dialogue Agreement signed between the European Union (EU) and Cuba. The resolution also asked Cuban authorities to repeal Decree Law 35. Degree Law 35 is a legal framework for telecommunications published one month ago that imposes tighter restrictions on social media and prohibits, among other things, content which hurts “the country’s prestige,” the dissemination of false news, and content which “incites mobilizations or other acts that upset public order.” The law has continuously received pushback in Cuba and from the international community on the basis that it is a form of censorship and limits freedom of expression. The EP also called for a general repeal of “any other regulations that restrict the fundamental freedoms of [Cuban] citizens.”

This resolution follows one passed by the EP last June which stated that Cuba has not made any progress in the area of human rights, despite the Political Dialogue Agreement between the European Union and Cuba. The European Parliament has also previously condemned human rights violations in Cuba and called for the release of political prisoners. The Cuban National Assembly deemed such discussions as promotion of the U.S.’s agenda and called it “a sad hostage of an aggressive escalation.”

Cuba Opposes Debate in European Parliament on Human Rights on the Island; What Does the Resolution Passed By the European Parliament That Condemns Governmental Repression on July 11 Imply? (Spanish)

Cuba’s National Assembly responded to debates in the European Parliament (EP) surrounding human rights in Cuba by calling in a “politicized exercise” catered to U.S. interests, OnCuba News reports. The European Parliament held a debate on Thursday to discuss human rights in Cuba and subsequently passed a resolution condemning the government’s repressive response to the July 11 protests and criticizing the ineffectiveness of the Political Dialogue Agreement signed between the European Union (EU) and Cuba. The resolution also asked Cuban authorities to repeal Decree Law 35. Degree Law 35 is a legal framework for telecommunications published one month ago that imposes tighter restrictions on social media and prohibits, among other things, content which hurts “the country’s prestige,” the dissemination of false news, and content which “incites mobilizations or other acts that upset public order.” The law has continuously received pushback in Cuba and from the international community on the basis that it is a form of censorship and limits freedom of expression. The EP also called for a general repeal of “any other regulations that restrict the fundamental freedoms of [Cuban] citizens.”

This resolution follows one passed by the EP last June which stated that Cuba has not made any progress in the area of human rights, despite the Political Dialogue Agreement between the European Union and Cuba. The European Parliament has also previously condemned human rights violations in Cuba and called for the release of political prisoners. The Cuban National Assembly deemed such discussions as promotion of the U.S.’s agenda and called it “a sad hostage of an aggressive escalation.”

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara Is on the 2021 TIME100 List, Ai Weiwei, Time Magazine

Time Magazine listed Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara as one of the 100 most influential people of 2021. The list, released annually, features individuals from various fields and locales who are deemed influential in changing the world. Otero is recognized for his “art, his unignorable fight for freedom of expression and his uncompromising stance against autocracy reveal the power of resistance,” according to the author of his profile, Ai Weiwei.

Five Myths About Cuba, Ada Ferrer, Washington Post

This article written by Ada Ferrer, author of “Cuba: An American History” and Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University, debunks myths and misconceptions about Cuba and the history of U.S.-Cuba relations. Specifically, she explains that the true nature of the Cuban revolution was not communist, that the U.S. and Cuba had a difficult relationship before the Revolution, and that Cuban Americans in Miami come from a variety of backgrounds and migratory waves. The article also counters the idea that the island is “frozen in time” and argues that the embargo, while a failed policy, is “neither the explanation for Cuban government failures nor a path to regime change or democracy.”

Cuba Opens Door to More Private Business, But Red Tape Looms, Andrea Rodríguez, AP News

This article analyzes the new reforms surrounding private enterprise in Cuba and the potential risks associated with them. The author explains the reforms to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and how far reaching their impact is prescribed versus how far reaching their impact may be in practice.

DC Shoes Partners with Cuba Skate for Shoe Launch and Short Documentary, DC Shoes, Instagram

DC shoes announced a limited-edition shoe design in collaboration with Cuban non-profit Cuba Skate. The sneaker will be available beginning September 18. Additionally, the pair collaborated on a short documentary highlighting the work that Cuba Skate does in developing a skateboarding community in Cuba and in supporting youth in Cuba by helping them develop useful life skills.

Latina, Cubana, Musulmana (Spanish), Maryam Camejo, Periodismo del Barrio

In this podcast, two women describe their experience and treatment in Cuba after converting to Islam. The women explore their conception of their own identity and their experiences with gender Islamophobia in institutional spaces. The podcast episode is part of the series “Going to Fall: For a Country Without Patriarchy.”

It is Time to Stop Playing Jenga with US Foreign Policy, Aaron Schneider and Arturo Lopez-Levy, Al Jazeera

This opinion piece compares U.S. foreign policy to a game of Jenga in which one person loses but nobody wins. The authors argue that U.S. foreign policy has a legacy of prioritizing short-term bias over the “long-term benefits of a consistent policy of engagement and diplomacy,” citing Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua as examples of failed, Jenga-like U.S. foreign policy endeavors.

Bachelet’s Unjustified Silence on Cuba (Spanish), Elroy Viera Cañive, El Toque

This opinion piece written by Elroy Viera Cañive, a Cuban journalist and the legal director for Colectivo+Voces, criticizes the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, for not including or mentioning Cuba in her annual report to the Human Rights Council. The article explores the relationship between Cuba and various organs of the United Nations, as well as analyzes the history of human rights in Cuba. Colectivo+Voces is a collective of actors in Cuban civil society working to empower Cubans through communication tools such as the independent Cuban news source El Toque.

Less Medicine: DHL “Temporarily” Suspends Shipments to Cuba (Spanish), El Toque

Written for independent Cuban news source El Toque, this article explains the recent and abrupt cancellation of shipments and services to Cuba by the international courier and delivery service DHL. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, DHL became one of very few ways to ship donated supplies and medicines to Cuba. The author describes the impact of the cancellation of shipments as particularly devastating to the influx of humanitarian aid packages.

Quarantine Sites (Spanish), Leysis Quesada Vera, Periodismo del Barrio

This article written in independent Cuban news source Periodismo de Barrio describes what quarantine for COVID-19 looks like in Cuba from a first-hand account. The article also includes images of COVID-19 prevention and quarantine protocol in the streets of Havana.

EVENTS

Virtual, Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile, September 20

Associate Professor of History at Miami University Michael Bustamante will speak about his book “Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile,” which examines Cuba’s contested memories of the Revolution, its roots, outcomes, and results, and how that has shaped Cuban history since. The event will be held virtually on September 20 from 1PM-2:15PM EST. To register for the event, click here.

Virtual, Climate Resilience in the Caribbean Lessons from Puerto Rico and Cuba, September 23

The Environmental Defense Fund is hosting a conversation with non-profit, academic, and government leaders on the resilience of Caribbean countries facing the effects of climate change and the importance of adopting policies and strategies that respond to climate change globally. The event will be held virtually on September 23 at 2PM EST. To register for the event, click here.

Virtual, Guantánamo, Cuba, and the Arts, September 24

Alejandro de la Fuente, Professor of Latin American History and Economics at Harvard University, will moderate a discussion with Esther Whitfield, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Hispanic Studies at Brown University, on her recently published paper about the relationship between the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the arts. The event will be held virtually in English on September 24 from 12PM-2PM EST. To register for the event, click here.


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