U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 10/15/2021

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, Cuba reported 2,138 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 10,277 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 930,822 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 8,018. Cuba is hoping to vaccinate 90 percent of the population by November and reach full vaccination by the end of the year. Currently, 50 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and an additional 28 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…


Lawmakers Pressure Secretary Of State To Act On “Crisis” Posed By ‘Havana Syndrome’ As Cases Mount; Cases of ‘Havana Syndrome’ Reported at U.S. Embassy in Colombia

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators called for immediate action in response to the unexplained health incidents impacting U.S. personnel, CBS News reports. The letter raised concerns over whether the U.S. State Department is responding adequately and called for Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, who was appointed to oversee the U.S. State Department’s internal task force in March, to be replaced due to complaints by impacted personnel of inattentiveness on her part. The senators noted concern over the growing number of incidents around the world, calling them “a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security.” On Tuesday, additional health incidents were reported at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia a week before Secretary Blinken is scheduled to visit Colombia, The New York Times reports. The number of affected personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia has not yet been shared. The incidents reported in Colombia mark the second time that health incidents have been reported in the days ahead of visits by high-level U.S. officials. In August, two health incidents affecting U.S. personnel were reported in Hanoi, Vietnam one day before U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to visit, causing a delay to her trip to Vietnam. Amidst growing concerns and criticism, last Friday, President Biden signed the “HAVANA Act” into law after unanimous support from both houses of Congress, which seeks more financial support and medical care for U.S. personnel impacted by the health incidents.

Last week, it was also reported that, 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. Additionally, 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.

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. In September, 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.

New Bill Expands Cuba Sanctions On Business Transactions

A bill granting the U.S. president authority to sanction non-Cubans conducting business transactions with Cuba’s defense, security, and intelligence sectors, was introduced by Sen. Rick Scott (FL) in the Senate and Rep. Byron Donalds (FL-19) in the House on Tuesday, The Miami Herald reports. If passed, the bill would grant the president “wide-ranging authority” to sanction foreign individuals and entities that conduct business with Cuba’s government. The bill would also subject individuals to sanctions for doing business with any entity with at least 25 percent ownership by an individual sanctioned by the U.S. government or a military contractor operating on behalf of Cuba’s government. The sanctions will reportedly be terminated if Cuba holds free and fair elections and releases political prisoners. The bill has received some support from additional members of Congress, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Rep. Carlos Gimenez (FL-26), Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27), however, without significantly increased support, it is unlikely to pass in the current Congress.

USDOT Authorizes Third U.S. Cargo Company To Operate Flights To Cuba

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Treasury (USDOT) authorized a third U.S.-based cargo company to complete emergency flights carrying humanitarian aid to Cuba, Cuba Trade reports. On August 17, the USDOT 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. The USDOT’s authorization permits the flights to carry humanitarian supplies and packages sent by various entities in the U.S. but does not permit the flights to carry passengers. IBC and Skyway airlines had previously requested permission to operate flights to deliver humanitarian aid in December 2020, but were denied because the flights “did not fall within the specified exceptions.” The recent authorization by the Biden-Harris administration temporarily lifts 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. At the beginning of September, officials from the Cuban Civil Aeronautics Institute (IACC) and the Cuban Aviation Corporation S.A. (CACSA) spoke with representatives of U.S. aviation companies about “possible cargo operations” to Cuba. The discussions explored the parameters of the potential flights as part of the process to obtain approval for the flights from Cuba’s government. According to Cuba Trade, despite U.S. authorization for the three aviation companies, Cuba’s government has not yet approved the flights to Cuba.

Cuban Migration By Sea To Florida Increases Amid Worsening Conditions

Amidst a renewed wave of migration by Cubans by sea, 32 Cuban migrants were found hiding in a boat in the Florida Keys on Tuesday, WLRN reports. Just the day before on Monday, a group of 17 Cuban migrants were met by police upon making landfall in Key West, according to The Miami Herald. All intercepted Cuban migrants were turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard which will likely repatriate them in the coming days. Additionally, on Thursday, 20 Cubans were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned to Cuba. In fiscal year 2021, which began on October 1, 2020 and ended September 30, 2021, the Coast Guard interdicted 838 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2020 and 313 interdictions in fiscal year 2019. So far in fiscal year 2022, over 50 Cuban migrants have been interdicted. The arrival of Cuban migrants in the Florida Keys has been an increasingly common scene. According to the Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, Jorge Duany, “The most immediate reason [for the increase in Cuban migrants] would be the July 11 protests, which can also be partly explained by the economic situation, the pandemic, the effects of the tightening of the embargo…There seems to be a general atmosphere of hopelessness among the Cuban population.”


Cuban Government Denies Authorization For Peaceful March In November (Spanish); The Cuban Government Says The November 15 March Is Illegal

Cuba’s government denied permission for island-wide demonstrations led by a broad coalition of Cubans on November 15 after determining that the reasons for the march were “illegitimate” and that the demonstrations were of a “destabilizing character,” independent Cuban news source El Toque reports. Groups of activists in Cuba, identified under the name Archipiélago, plan to hold demonstrations 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 Archipiélago to government entities across Cuba. However, in a letter to one of Archipiélago’s leaders, playwright Yunior García, Cuban authorities rejected the proposal and stated that the march was “illegal,” sponsored by foreign “subversive organizations,” and has the “open intention of changing the political system in Cuba.” Leaders of Archipiélago have also reported instances of harassment by the government and repressive tactics aimed at discouraging demonstrators. Despite the government’s ruling, organizers of the demonstrations intend to march on November 15, which is the same day that the island opens back up to international visitors. Archipiélago responded to the government’s decision in a statement on Facebook, stating, it “shows once again that the rule of law does not exist in Cuba, that they are not willing to respect even their own constitution and that they violate the Human Rights of Cubans.”

Under article 56 of Cuba’s new constitution, approved in 2019, the right to peaceful demonstrations is recognized. As such, beginning in September, members of the Archipiélago group in Havana, Holguín, and Santa Clara requested authorization from local government entities to demonstrate in public on November 20. In total, applications were sent to eight provinces across the island. However, last week, Cuba’s government announced that November 20 would become a National Defense Day, thereby challenging the original day of protest. 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. The activities will consist of military exercises in the two days leading up to November 20, which will serve as a day of civilian defense preparedness. After the announcement of the National Day of Defense, organizers said they assumed the government would also deny them authorization to march on November 20.

Cuban President Meets With LGBTQ Activists In Havana; LGBTI Activists In Dialogue With the UJC of Santa Clara (Spanish)

Last Friday, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel met with more than a dozen LGBTQ+ activists in Havana, the Los Angeles Blade reports. The Director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and daughter of former President Raúl Castro, Mariela Castro, was also in attendance at the meeting. According to a tweet from Cuba’s government, the meeting was called to continue dialogue on how improving LGBTQ+ rights fits into “constructing the country we want together.” Later in the week, LGBTQ+ activists in Santa Clara met with representatives from the local Young Communists League (UJC), Entre Diversidades reports. Activists spoke to the UJC about their experiences facing discrimination in Cuba, the need for increased education in communities and schools surrounding sexual education, the importance of increased visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in the media, and the relationship between the state and religious institutions and the LGBTQ+ community, among other topics.

The meetings with various LGBTQ+ activists take place less than a month after Cuba’s Ministry of Justice published a draft of the island’s new Family Code which included language that would open the door to same-sex marriage and the ability for same-sex couples to adopt children, among other updates. 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.” While the new code offers much needed updates, Cuban civil society groups have offered suggestions and criticism for how the Family 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, noted 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 noted 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 proposal is open to comment from activists and experts 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.

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.


Russia To Send Humanitarian Aid To Cuba Before Year’s End, Deputy PM’s Office Says; Russian Deputy PM, Cuban President Discuss Issues Of Bilateral Cooperation; Russian Deputy PM Borisov Met With Cuba’s Ex-President Raul Castro

During a state visit to Havana, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov met with multiple Cuban officials to discuss humanitarian aid, bilateral relations, and issues of trade and economic cooperation, Russian news agency TASS reports. On Wednesday, the Russian deputy prime minister met with Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Cuba’s Deputy Prime Minister Ricardo Cabrisas to discuss joint development projects and ways to bolster economic cooperation between the two countries. Mr. Borisov emphasized the importance of Cuba as a regional partner to Russia, stating “Cuba is among Russia’s priority foreign economic partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The following day, Mr. Borisov met with Cuba’s former President Raúl Castro where both representatives expressed a mutual desire to maintain good bilateral relations. Mr. Borisov also announced that Russian authorities will send at least one additional shipment of humanitarian aid to Cuba before the end of the year. Throughout the pandemic, Russia has made multiple donations of humanitarian aid to the island. 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.

Nearly 170 Children Expelled Back To Haiti From US And Cuba In One Day

On Sunday, 170 Haitian children were expelled from the U.S. and Cuba and sent to Port-au-Prince, Haiti with their parents, UNICEF reports. The children likely left southwestern Haiti after an earthquake struck the country in August and were headed to the U.S. There were seven flights from Cuba and one flight from the U.S. carrying the children to Haiti on Sunday. Of the 170 children, it’s estimated that 80 percent of them were under 5 years of age. The UNICEF Representative in Haiti, Bruno Maes, commented on the children’s expulsion stating, “They left the country early September as they had lost everything. These children are likely to leave again for the U.S. unless conditions are created for them to live decent lives in their communities…Children among these migrants are often undocumented and at high risks of child trafficking and sexual exploitation and abuse.” According to UNICEF, 18.7 percent of migrants returned on U.S. expulsion flights are children. In response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, UNICEF is calling for increased support for Haiti and for providing health services and schooling for children.


He Left Cuba For The U.S., And Wound Up Trekking Through 60 Miles Of Dangerous Jungle, John Otis, NPR News

This story by NPR News follows a Cuban migrant, named Vivó, as he travels across Panama, through the Darién Gap, which is jungle wilderness in Panama known to be dangerous for migrant travelers, in his journey to the U.S. The story details Vivó’s route and the conditions that many migrants endure while traveling throughout Central America.


Virtual, Daymé Arocena – Concerts from the Library of Congress, October 15

Award-winning Cuban singer Daymé Arocena will give a vocal performance as part of the Concerts from the Library of Congress series. Following the performance, Ms. Arocena will discuss her life and music with a library curator. The virtual presentation will stream on Friday, October 15 from 8:00pm to 9:00pm EST and will be available for viewing afterwards in the Library’s event videos collection. Stream the event on Facebook and on YouTube.

Miami, FL, FIU Music Festival 2021 – Celebrating Cuban Music, October 20

Florida International University (FIU) is hosting a live music festival in celebration of Cuban music on Wednesday, October 20 at the Wertheim Concert Hall in Miami, FL. The event will feature performances of Cuban music by the FIU Symphony Orchestra, FIU Concert Choir, the Miami Children’s Chorus, Encantus Voices and more. Purchase tickets for the event here.

Hialeah, FL, Cuba Today, October 25

Florida Grassroots Coalition and Cubanos Pa’lante are hosting an event to discuss Cuba’s past, present, and future led by experts on Cuban history, U.S.-Cuba policy, and community activists. The discussion will take place at Unbranded Brewing in Hialeah, FL on Monday, October 25 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm 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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