U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 10/08/2021

Dear Friends,

This weekend, be sure to check out Cimafunk’s new album, El Alimento. El Alimento is the second album from the Afro-Cuban funk group and features collaborations with George Clinton, Lupe Fiasco, CeeLo Green and more. Listen to the album here, and for tickets to see Cimafunk live, click here.

Yesterday, Cuba reported 3,396 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 19,493 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island. Pinar del Río reported the highest number of new cases for the sixth consecutive week at 766. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 911,337 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 7,777. Cuba is hoping to vaccinate 90 percent of the population by November and reach full vaccination by the end of the year. Currently, almost 50 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and an additional 36 percent is partially 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…


‘Havana Syndrome’ Noises Were Likely Crickets, Not Super Weapons, State Department Report Says

According to a declassified U.S. State Department report, crickets instead of any sort of technology or weapons are more likely to be responsible for the noises associated with the health incidents impacting U.S. personnel, Rolling Stone reports. The declassified report was written by researchers from the independent science advisory group JASON, who analyzed audio and visual recordings of high-frequency sounds taken by U.S. personnel. Following the analysis, JASON could not identify any source of energy that could cause the reported symptoms nor any audio or visual signals. Instead, the scientists matched the sound to a cricket and suggested that other hypotheses remain possible.

In September, 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. Last week, the House also unanimously passed the “Havana Act” from the Senate which seeks to get more financial support and medical care for U.S. personnel impacted by the health incidents.

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. For a timeline and more detailed information on the health incidents, see our memo.


Cuba Calls National Defense Day on Date of Dissident Protest

Cuba’s government announced today that November 20, which is the same date that protesters in Cuba petitioned to demonstrate across the island, would become a National Defense Day, Reuters reports. Cuba will conduct annual military exercises in the two days leading up to November 20, which will serve as a day of civilian defense preparedness. Annual military and civilian defense exercises are part of the Cuban military doctrine “War of the Whole People,” which is designed to prepare the island for an invasion by the United States. Groups of activists in Cuba, identified under the Facebook group name Archipelago, have been planning to hold demonstrations on November 20 to march “Against violence, to demand that all the rights of all Cubans be respected, for the freedom of political prisoners and for the solution of our differences through democratic and peaceful means,” according to the documents submitted by Archipelago to government entities across Cuba. Beginning in September, members of the Archipelago group in Havana, Holguín, and Santa Clara requested authorization from local government entities to demonstrate in public five days after the island opens to international travel. Cuba’s government has yet to respond to their requests to protest. The group reportedly has as many as 20,000 members in Cuba and internationally.

Jailed Cuban Artist Otero Alcántara Is On A Hunger Strike, Other Activists Join Protest

Last week, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, artist and leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), began another hunger strike to call attention to protesters incarcerated following the July 11 protests and to protest restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba, The Miami Herald reports. Mr. Otero is currently in a maximum-security prison after being arrested on July 11 for attempting to join the demonstrations and faces charges of assault, contempt of the authorities, and resisting police. He reportedly started the hunger strike on September 27, according to reporting from Mr. Otero’s partner, Claudia Genlui. Mr. Otero’s family and friends have otherwise not been updated on the status of his condition in prison. Amnesty International has previously declared Mr. Otero a “prisoner of conscience.” Following the announcement of the activist’s hunger strike, two additional activists, art historian Carolina Barrero and poet Afrika Reina, started a voluntary fast in solidarity with Mr. Otero.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara previously went on a hunger strike in April in protest of state surveillance and restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba after Cuban authorities allegedly damaged and stole Mr. Otero’s artwork during a police raid. Amnesty International declared Mr. Otero a “prisoner of conscience” in May. The activist has been protesting against Decree 349, a policy aimed at censoring artistic expression on the island, since 2018 with the founding of the San Isidro Movement. Since then, Mr. Otero has experienced multiple encounters with state security, including an arrest in late February of 2020 and high levels of state surveillance.

Tania Bruguera Agreed to Leave Cuba in Exchange for Release of 25 Prisoners

Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera announced this week that she agreed to leave Cuba on the condition that 25 individuals would be released from prison, Hyperallergic reports. Specifically, the artist called for the release of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Hamlet Lavastida who was released and exiled last week, rapper Maykel Castillo Osorbo, who is one of the two Cuba-based singers feature in the viral song Patria y Vida (“Homeland and Life”) and has been detained since May, and Luis Robles, who was arrested in December for holding a sign in the street. Ms. Bruguera also shared that she leveraged her acceptance of a position as a senior lecturer in media and performance at Harvard University while bartering with Cuba’s government over her departure and the release of the 25 individuals. According to Tania Bruguera, her negotiations may be the first instance of an activist negotiating the release of another activist in Cuba, instead of the process being facilitated by another government. The negotiations resulted in the release of some artists including Hamlet Lavastida and Ms. Bruguera’s sister, Deborah Bruguera. Ms. Bruguera also urged a boycott of the 14th Havana Biennial, which is the largest visual arts event in Cuba and is set to take place on November 21. The artist and activist argues that the biennial is a “smokescreen” amidst a severe economic crisis, immense food and medicine shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic, and frequent detainment of artists.


Cuban Baseball Players Defect During Tournament in Mexico;Cuba Lashes Out After Young Baseball Players Defect in Mexico

In the largest defection of Cuban athletes in years, nearly a dozen members of Cuba’s U-23 national baseball team defected while playing in a tournament in Mexico, BBC News reports. The players who defected have yet to be identified and the remaining players returned to Cuba on Monday. Officials from Cuba’s National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation (INDER) responded to the mass defection by criticizing the players for “weak morals and ethics.” INDER also criticized the U.S. for having policies that force players to defect in order to play professionally in the U.S. and likened recruiting practices by Major League Baseball (MLB) to human-smuggling. Most of the players who defected will not stay in Mexico and are now bound for the U.S. According to Francys Romero, a Cuban American sports journalist who specializes in Cuban baseball players, only a few of the players will make it to the MLB while others will have to consider switching careers.

This past May, four members of a Cuban baseball delegation including César Prieto, a top prospect from Cuba’s national baseball team, defected while playing in the Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Florida. The lack of a federal agreement between the U.S. and Cuba means that Cuban players must defect to play professionally in the U.S. and strained U.S.-Cuba relations prevent Cuban athletes from a regular hiring process. In 2019, the former Trump administration prevented the implementation of a deal between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed Cuban players to play in the U.S. without defecting from their country. As it stands, Cuban players in the MLB cannot return home at will and anyone who has “deserted” the island cannot return to Cuba for eight years.

Nicaragua Authorises Two COVID-19 Vaccines From Cuba, Cuban Firm Says

According to Cuba’s state biopharmaceutical corporation BioCubaFarma, Nicaragua authorized the use of two of Cuba’s domestically produced vaccines, Abdala and Soberana, for emergency use, Reuters reports. Nicaragua’s Vice President Rosario Murillo announced the arrival of the vaccines and stated that they would be administered to children aged 2 to 17. It’s expected that Nicaragua will purchase 7 million doses in total. Nicaragua joins Venezuela, Vietnam, and Iran in granting emergency use of Cuban vaccines. Both the Abdala and Soberana vaccines have gained approval by Cuban regulatory authorities, however, neither have yet been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) nor have they undergone peer-review. Last month, representatives from Cuba’s healthcare sector met with the WHO to review Cuba’s domestically produced vaccines and begin the process for potential authorization.


The U.S. Needs a Sanctions Policy That Works, Christopher Sabatini, The New York Times

This opinion piece from the New York Times explores how “sanctions have become one of the central pillars of U.S. policy” and how the frequent and broad use of sanctions should be reassessed. The article specifically mentions Cuba as an example of a failed use of sanctioning to achieve change, saying that the additional sanctions implemented by the Biden-Harris administration following the July 11 protests were “another ineffective move, since the existing sanctions had failed to prevent the original crackdown.”

Why Cuba and the United States Are Forever Linked, James Devitt, NYU 

Historian, professor at New York University, and author Ada Ferrer was interviewed by NYU about her recently published book Cuba: An American History, the July 11 protests, and the future of both Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations. Ms. Ferrer also discusses the modern relationship that many Cuban Americans have with Cuba, the role of Fidel Castro in understanding Cuban history, and how the U.S. can’t be a liberator for Cuba.

Cimafunk’s Quest to Create One Nación Under a Groove, Ed Morales, The New York Times

This article features an interview with lead singer of Afro-Cuban funk sensation Cimafunk, Erik Iglesias Rodríguez, about the creation of and meaning behind his new album, El Alimento, which is out Friday, October 8 and features collaborations with George Clinton, Lupe Fiasco, CeeLo Green and more. In the interview, Cimafunk discusses why he chose the name “El Alimento,” cultural influences and blending in his music, and creating a new type of funk music. For tickets to see Cimafunk live, click here.

Joe Biden is Missing His Opportunity to Help Cuba Overcome Its Past, Clara Ferreira Marques, Bloomberg

In a Q&A with Ada Ferrer, this article explores Cuba’s legacy of slavery and belief that it could transcend racism, the outsized role of the U.S. in Cuban history, and the staying power of Cuba’s government. The article also comments on what may be expected from Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations in the future in the context of the July 11 protests and decisions by Cuba’s government and by President Biden.

The Subtle Brutality of Cuba’s War on Press Freedom, Jason Rezaian, Washington Post

This opinion piece discusses the new forms of censorship, or current “suppression of free expression,” in Cuba since widespread Internet access arrived in Cuba. Whereas Cuban state security would previously imprison critics, the article argues that Cuban state security believes they can get rid of criticism through internet shutdowns, intimidation, and sending critics into exile out of the country.

Cryptocurrencies in Cuba: First Steps for Their Regulations (Spanish), Olivia Marín Álvarez, Periodismo del Barrio

This article published by independent Cuban news source Periodismo del Barrio discusses the recent authorization of the use of digital currencies in Cuba. Specifically, the article explains what digital assets are, how they work, potential benefits and risks of adopting digital currencies in Cuba, and regulation of digital currencies.

The Advantages of Combining COVID-19 Vaccines (Spanish), María Carla Gáciga, El Toque

This article discusses the debate surrounding mixing COVID-19 vaccines in light of Cuba’s recent announcement of using Cuba’s Soberana-Plus vaccine in conjunction with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. Among other things, the article explains that the Soberana Plus vaccine, like Russia’s Sputnik V, was created as a booster vaccine that can be used as a booster in combination with any other vaccine.

Cimafunk Celebrates His New Album, El Alimento, with a Concert at the North Beach Bandshell, David Rolland, Miami New Times

Cimafunk’s lead singer, Erik Iglesias Rodríguez, is interviewed about the path to his music career and his experience collaborating with the album’s producer and various artists on the group’s new album, El Alimento, released on Friday, October 8. El Alimento is the second album for Cimafunk and follows their debut album, Terapia, which was released in 2017. The group is currently on tour and will be performing songs from the album for the first time in Miami, FL on October 16. For tickets, click here.


Virtual, Update: Cuba – Cuba and Beyond, October 12

Columbia University will host a discussion between Dr. Gabriel Vignoli of The New School University and Dr. Hope Bastian of Wheaton College as they explore the current situation in Cuba and updates on the island since the July 11 protests. The event is part of Columbia University’s Cuba and Beyond series and will take place from 6:00pm to 8:00pm EST. Register for the virtual event here.

Virtual,New York and the International Sound of Latin Music, October 14

Benjamin Lapidus will discuss how New York City became a nexus of music exchange and collaboration for musicians from the Caribbean in the 20th century, as well as the impact that those musicians had on New York and beyond. The virtual event will take place from 6:30pm to 8:00pm EST. Register for the event here.

Virtual, Cuban Plagiarisms: How Shopkeeper Bernardo May Sold Nineteenth Century Havana, November 8

Visiting Cuban scholar at Florida International University, Justo Planas, will discuss the origin and impact of Frenchman Frédéric Mialhe’s rendering of Havana that defined European views of the nineteenth century Havana. The virtual lecture hosted by Florida International University begins at 1pm EST. To register for the event, click here.

Virtual, Dancing with the Revolution: Power, Politics, and Privilege in Cuba, November 9

Author and Professor at Northern Arizona University Elizabeth B. Schwall will speak about the intersection of dance artists and political movements, as well as how the very influential dancers showed their support for or criticism of political regimes and cultural biases. The virtual book presentation hosted by the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University will begin at 7pm EST. Register for the event here.

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