U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 12/03/2021

Dear Friends,

We are incredibly grateful for your generous support this Giving Tuesday and for the various ways you’ve uplifted and supported our work throughout 2021. If you haven’t given yet and are able, there’s still time to make your tax-deductible contribution before the end of the year.

Yesterday, Cuba reported 114 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 647 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 962,892 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 8,306. Approximately 89 percent of the Cuban population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and 83 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Cuba is hoping to reach full vaccination by the end of the year. Due to high immunization rates and slowing infection rates, Cuba welcomed back international travelers on November 15. 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

After Historic Protests, Biden ‘Hit The Pause Button’ On Cuba Policy, Senior Official Says

The future of U.S. policy towards Cuba was put “on pause” following the widespread protests in Cuba on July 11 according to the Biden-Harris administration, NBC News reports. On Tuesday, National Security Council’s Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez, spoke about how the Biden-Harris administration decided to “hit the pause button” on enacting or updating U.S. policy towards Cuba after the July 11 protests in part due to President Biden’s strong concerns over “matters of human rights, matters of democracy.” Mr. Gonzalez’s statement mirrors statements made in November by President Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, that the circumstances from which U.S. policy must be derived from changed after July 11 and that, in response to those changing circumstances, the U.S. was reevaluating its policy towards Cuba. Previous to the July 11 protests, the Biden-Harris administration made clear, including as recently as June 29, that although they were concerned about human rights in Cuba and that Cuba policy was under review, Cuba policy was not a priority.

Following the July 11 protests, the Administration announced a review of remittance channels, including the creation of a Remittance Working Group, a review of the reestablishment of consular services and the restaffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana (in September the Administration began allowing some adult family members to accompany diplomats posted there), and has shown particular interest in facilitating “safe and secure” internet access throughout the island. The Administration’s recent announcement of a “pause” appears in stark contrast to the numerous post-July 11 announcements of reviews, working groups, and statements related to remittances, consular services, and internet access, as well as the U.S.’s stated commitment to explore ways to support the Cuban people. In his statement on Tuesday, Mr. Gonzalez reiterated that the Administration has spent substantial time exploring means to facilitate free and consistent access to the internet, but has found that there is “no really technical, easy fix, nor is the technology there to have internet connectivity, so we should be focusing on censorship circumvention.” Exploring ways of providing internet access to Cubans has been a cause that members of congress have been vocal about. Most recently, at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Biden-Harris administration’s Policy Priorities for Latin America and the Caribbean on November 16, Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27) pressed Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, for information regarding any companies the agency had spoken to that could provide internet access to Cuba. In November, Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Ric Scott (FL) introduced the Patria y Vida Act to this end, and prior to the Act, in August, the pair introduced an amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution on internet access in Cuba. Numerous members of Congress, including Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27), Senator Marco Rubio (FL), Senator Rick Scott, and Representative Val Demings (FL-10) have also encouraged the Administration to sponsor the creation of a satellite-based system that could provide Cubans unrestricted access to the internet.

Mr. Gonzalez also shared that, “Even those Cuban Americans that were pro-engagement said, ‘We need to wait — we need to look at this moment and figure out how we move forward from here.’” Despite Mr. Gonzalez’s assertion about Cuban Americans, some experts have pushed back and pointed out that many Cuban Americans that are pro-engagement would like to see change now. Ricardo Herrero, a Cuban American and executive director of Cuba Study Group tweeted in response “Not sure which Cuban Americans he’s referring to but that moment was nearly FIVE months ago.” Cuban American and Associate Professor of History at Miami University Michael Bustamante also tweeted in response to the comment noting that pro-engagement Cuban Americans have called for significant humanitarian gestures and that the pause seems like an “excuse for inaction.”

Previously, the Obama administration requested the creation of a Cuba Internet Task Force to explore “challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba.” In the task force’s final report in 2019, it presented recommendations on the facilitation of increased free and consistent access to the internet. In contrast to the Biden-Harris administration’s findings, the task force identified numerous concrete steps the U.S. could take, including facilitating the export of U.S. networking tools and encryption services to Cuba, engaging with Cuba’s private sector for clarity on regulations and challenges, constructing a new submarine cable, and promoting U.S. exchange programs where Cuban students and faculty studying technology and computer science could learn from counterparts in the U.S.

To read CDA’s recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration on internet, technology, and communications, as well as recommendations in other areas the Administration announced intentions to explore, see our comprehensive memorandum.

U.S. Imposes Visa Restrictions On Nine Cuban Officials

On Tuesday, the U.S. announced visa restrictions on nine unnamed Cuban officials in response to Cuba’s government’s repressive response to planned demonstrations in November, Reuters reports. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the sanctions were placed on high ranking officials at the Ministry of the Interior and Revolutionary Armed Forces who were “implicated in attempts to silence the voices of the Cuban people through repression and unjust detentions.” In October, ahead of the planned November 15 protests, the U.S. stated that it would likely introduce such additional sanctions should protesters be prosecuted or have their individual rights challenged at the protests. Following the July 11 protests, the U.S. also enacted four rounds of sanctions on individual Cuban officials. The targeted sanctions have been seen as largely symbolic and unlikely to have a significant effect on Cuban officials, as the island is one of the five countries that are already subject to comprehensive U.S. sanctions. Ricardo Herrero, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group, argued that adding individual sanctions without removing any of the blanket sanctions, specifically those which prevent Cubans access to online services, “doesn’t promote freedom of expression. It promotes bewilderment & resentment.” The aforementioned sanctions are in addition to widespread sanctions on Cuba and sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT), and its Minister, General Lazaro Alberto Álvarez Casas under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in January of 2021 for “serious human rights abuse[s].”

CIA Director Warns Russian Spies Of ‘Consequences’ If They Are Behind ‘Havana Syndrome’ Incidents; Canada Diplomats Say Ottawa Mishandled ‘Havana Syndrome’ Crisis

During a visit to Moscow in November, CIA Director William Burns told Russian intelligence services that there would be ‘consequences’ should Russia be found responsible for the unexplained health incidents that have impacted U.S. personnel, The Washington Post reports. Russia has previously denied involvement in the unexplained health incidents, however, according to the Washington Post, the CIA Director’s warning, while it didn’t assign blame to Russia, suggests that the U.S. suspects Russian involvement. Director Burns told the Russian intelligence services that such harm caused to U.S. personnel and their family members would be inappropriate and egregious behavior for a “professional intelligence service.” The CIA Director’s warning also suggests that the U.S. still has yet to determine a cause of the unexplained health incidents, despite over four years of investigations.

Void of answers and amidst growing concerns from U.S. diplomats and members of Congress of “a significant, unmitigated threat to our national security,” the Biden-Harris administration has increased investigative and management efforts surrounding the unexplained health incidents impacting U.S. personnel. In November, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. had begun developing and deploying new technology at U.S. missions around the world which would help identify potential causes of the health incidents and protect U.S. personnel, and highlighted various improvements to and mechanisms for greater transparency and communication. Secretary Blinken also announced new coordinators of the Health Incident Response Task Force after previous coordinators received complaints of inattentiveness from affected personnel and a letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators reiterated such concerns. Retired ambassador Margaret Uyehara will serve as senior care coordinator for affected personnel and Ambassador Jonathan Moore will serve as the new head of the Health Incident Response Task Force.

Meanwhile, Canadian personnel impacted by the unexplained health incidents have filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government for its mismanagement of its response to the health incidents and negligent support provided to impacted personnel, France 24 reports. 18 Canadian diplomats are suing the Canadian government for taking too long to evacuate diplomats and to provide them with medical support. Despite official government reports which recognize 14 cases of the unexplained health incidents, with the most recent case reported in 2018, the impacted personnel say that the number of cases is closer to 30 and continues to increase, with two cases reported in 2021. Following the initial reports of health incidents impacting U.S. and Canadian personnel between 2016 and 2017, both the Trump administration and the Canadian government announced staff reductions at the embassies in Havana. However, the impacted Canadian personnel have complained that, particularly in comparison to U.S. personnel, their complaints have largely been ignored.

Anomalous health incidents have been reported by U.S. personnel as recently as October 2021, when personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia reported incidents a week before Secretary Blinken was scheduled to visit Colombia. 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. Amidst growing concerns and criticism, President Biden signed the “HAVANA Act” into law in October 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. Since the initial reports, incidents have reportedly impacted over 200 U.S. personnel around the world, including in the U.S., China, Russia, and Austria among other countries.

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.

The Art-tivist Movement in Cuba: One Year and No Dialogue

On Saturday, the U.S. Department of State commemorated the one-year anniversary of peaceful demonstrations led by artists and activists in Cuba on November, 27 2020, referred to as 27N, and criticized Cuba’s government for silencing Cubans’ repeated calls for dialogue and increased freedoms in a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The demonstrations consisted of a peaceful sit-in of nearly 300 Cubans calling for freedom of expression at the Ministry of Culture in Havana and led to an agreement of preliminary dialogue between the government and the demonstrators. Although Cuba’s government initially agreed to dialogue with the protestors, the dialogue never occurred. Cuba’s government claimed that protesters violated the terms of their initial agreement, while protesters reported and denounced instances of intimidation and arrests by Cuba’s government ahead of the meetings. Secretary Blinken’s statement reflected on 27N, as well as more recent demonstrations in July and November, and reaffirmed the U.S.’s solidarity with the Cuban people as well as its condemnation of Cuba’s government. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez responded to Secretary Blinken’s statement in a tweet accusing the U.S. of attempting to destabilize and overthrow Cuba’s government by stirring dissent.

18 Migrants From Cuba Arrive In The Florida Keys On A Small Wooden Boat

Over the past week, the U.S. Border Patrol intercepted 18 Cuban migrants from Matanzas, The Miami Herald reports. Amidst a renewed wave of migration by Cubans by sea, the arrival of Cuban migrants in the Florida Keys has been an increasingly common scene. So far in fiscal year 2022, which began October 1, around 250 Cuban migrants have been interdicted at sea, which is roughly 25 percent of interdictions from the previous year. In fiscal year 2021, the Coast Guard interdicted 838 Cuban migrants, compared to 49 Cuban migrants in fiscal year 2020 and 313 interdictions in fiscal year 2019.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there were more than 39,000 Cuban migrants total who attempted to reach the U.S. in fiscal year 2021. The majority of those migrants attempted entrance through the U.S.’s southern border with Mexico. In the previous fiscal year, there were significantly less Cuban migrants reported, with about 14,000.

IN CUBA

Cuba To Upgrade Homegrown COVID-19 Vaccine To Confront Omicron; Cuba Tightens Restrictions On Eight African Countries Over Omicron Concerns

In response to the new Omicron variant, Cuban health authorities announced efforts to upgrade its domestically produced vaccines, Reuters reports. The director of Cuba’s Finlay Institute for Vaccines, Vincente Verez, announced on Tuesday that while the Omicron variant has yet to be detected in Cuba and Cuba’s Soberana vaccine would provide some protection against the new variant, researchers are developing a variant of the Soberana vaccine that will be able to better protect against the Omicron variant. In addition to new research efforts, this week Cuba announced tighter restrictions on passengers from certain African countries as a preventative measure against the new variant. Beginning on December 4, travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, and Mozambique will be required to provide proof of vaccination, three PCR tests, and complete a seven-day quarantine. Additionally, travelers from other countries including Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong, and Turkey, will be required to take two PCR tests before entering the island. The new restrictions come only two weeks after Cuba eased entry requirements and encouraged visitors to travel to the island beginning on November 15.

In May, Cuba’s government began a widespread vaccination campaign using the Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines and has since fully vaccinated nearly 83 percent of the population. After facing sustained high infection rates in recent months, Cuba has begun to see both infections and deaths from COVID-19 fall significantly, which is largely due to their rapid immunization efforts.

Cuba Launches 12.5 Billion Dollars’ Worth Of Foreign Investment Projects

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment (MINCEX) announced a new portfolio of business opportunities worth an estimated $12.5 billion in an effort to attract foreign investment and grow Cuba’s private sector, OnCuba News reports. The 678 proposed projects under the Portfolio of Business Opportunities with Foreign Investment are mostly in the food, biopharmaceutical, tourism, and energy sectors. MINCEX Minister Rodrigo Malmierca stated that the initiative is key to the development of the country and intended to “attract foreign capital in a more proactive way, facilitating business, eliminating bureaucracy and promoting new opportunities.” The business portfolio also seeks to eliminate barriers to investment, including the prohibition on foreign bank accounts being linked to these projects in Cuba. Corporate banks, investment banks, non-banking financial institutions, and international finance markets have all been approved to participate in the new portfolio initiative.

Last week during Cuba held its 2nd Business Forum where economic authorities and leaders in Cuba again emphasized efforts to attract foreign investment by highlighting investment opportunities for foreign businesses. Authorities including MINCEX Minister Rodrigo Malmierca and Cuba’s Minister of Economy, Alejandro Gil, spoke about the recent changes in Cuba’s financial system that have generated new investment opportunities for foreign finance companies and new partnership opportunities with private businesses in Cuba. In October, it was announced that the recently legalized micro, small, and medium size enterprises (SMEs or PYMES in Spanish) would be allowed to participate in Cuba’s annual international business fair for the first time. The Forum featured a space for virtual product stands and gave a platform to businesses and SMEs to pursue business opportunities and showcase their products and services to potential investors.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cubans Can Travel To Nicaragua Without Visas; Nicaragua Eliminates Visa Requirement For Cubans

Cubans will now be able to travel to Nicaragua without visas, according to a statement from Nicaragua’s Interior Ministry last week, Reuters reports. While Nicaraguan officials stated that the new policy is intended to promote commercial exchange, tourism, and humanitarian family relations, there is speculation that this change will increase the number of Cubans migrating toward the United States’ southern border. Nicaraguan Vice Minister of the Interior, Luis Cañas, said that the change was due to a high number of visa applications from Cubans with relatives in Nicaragua.

Given the continued increase in the number of Cubans migrating to the U.S., including a renewed wave of migrants arriving by sea, likely due to the current economic, political, and COVID-19 crises on the island, the removal of the visa requirement could lead to large waves of Cuban migrants who wish to take advantage of the land route to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Some experts have noted that in the context of the social unrest on the island, an easier route through Nicaragua could act as a way for the government to release some of the pressure. Referencing the Mariel boatlift and Balsero rafter crisis, former professor at the University of Miami, Any Gomez, shared “The Cuban government has always been very good where there is social pressure, as we see it now, they raise the top of the pressure cooker and let some of the pressure escape.”

Cubans were previously prevented from traveling through Nicaragua in 2014 during an immigration crisis along the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The move was viewed as an attempt to appeal to the U.S., despite close relations between Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Cuba’s government. However, the relationship between the U.S. and Nicaragua has been deteriorating recently due to U.S. concerns over the legitimacy of recent elections in Nicaragua.

‘This Is A New Wave’: Hundreds Of Cubans Seek Refuge In Greece 

In addition to the mass waves of Cuban migrants traveling to the U.S., Greece has recently experienced a large influx of Cuban migrants traveling through its borders, Al Jazeera reports. On October 28, Greek authorities identified 130 Cubans attempting to fly from Zakynthos, Greece to Milan, Italy. Upon identifying the large number of Cuban migrants, Greek authorities pulled them aside at the airport, threatened to transport them to a local precinct, and eventually gave them written orders to leave Greece. The arrivals of Cuban migrants are reportedly in the hundreds and have consisted of mostly students and professionals under the age of 50. Of the Cubans in Greece and interviewed by Al Jazeera, all of them cited poor economic conditions and repression as reasons for leaving.

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

‘Give Us A Break!’ Cuban Activists Say U.S. Sanctions Are Blocking Them From Online Services, TIME, Vera Bergengruen

In this article, journalist Vera Bergengruen explains how the U.S. embargo acts against the U.S.’s stated support of Cuban civil society through preventing activists, journalists, and others from accessing social media management sites, video call platforms, cloud services, software used for editing, development apps, education platforms, and cryptocurrency marketplaces. Companies’ fears of unwittingly violating U.S. sanctions have led the companies that offer such services to cut them off. According to Ms. Bergengruen, the U.S. embargo, combined with Cuba’s government’s blocking of certain news websites and of social media following the July 11 protests, creates a more difficult environment for freedom of expression and a robust civil society.

The Cuban Government Hasn’t Won Yet, Slate, Michael Bustamante

In this article, Associate Professor of History at Miami University Michael Bustamante reflects on the planned November 15 protests in Cuba. While most reporting indicates the protestors failed, given that turnout was modest compared to the spontaneous protests that broke out across the island on July 11, Mr. Bustamante notes that this was largely due to repression and intimidation tactics used by Cuba’s government and the continued detention of those arrested on July 11. He notes that it is not clear if there is a way forward for Cuba’s government “to regain lost support (or acquiescence),” and that the country now rests in a “bitter stalemate,” with a diverse population of Cubans now vocally speaking up for their rights to be respected and a government that continues to not offer “space for true national dialogue and consensus building.”

Love Me As I Am (Spanish), El Toque, Ella Fernández

This article tells the story of Aaron, a Cuban man who was recently able to change his name, though not his gender, on his state identity card. Aaron shares what life was like for him growing up, about his path to change his name, about his current partner, and about his hopes for societal acceptance and legal rights for transgender and LGBTQ+ Cubans.

Is the Social Protest in Cuba Exhausted? (Spanish), El Toque

In this article, which describes a recent episode of the La Colada podcast, Cuban journalist Jorge de Armas interviews Cuban political analyst Enrique Guzmán and Cuban artist Camila Lobón about the post-15N climate in Cuba. The group discusses how the low turnout on 15N does not indicate that social protests are over in Cuba, how change will not be immediate, and how there is a need to “horizontalize” actions and to uplift those who are most vulnerable within society. The group goes on to question who Cuba’s government hopes to dialogue with if it isn’t open to dialogue with 27N, Archipiélago, and others.

Perspectives from Cuba of November 15 Protests and Consequences, The Fund for Reconciliation and Development

In this webinar, John McAuliff, with the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, discusses a recent trip to Havana in which he hoped to witness the protests planned for November 15. The event recounts the conversations he had with Cuban friends and experts while on his trip about the current situation in Cuba and discusses the subsequent consequences of the protests’ failure. The event also featured commentary and analysis from the chief editor of Temas magazine, Rafael Hernandez, professor of government at American University, William M. LeoGrande, the founder of Cuba travel provider, Like a Cuban, Rita McNiff, and journalist Ed Augustin.

‘We Can Dream’: Inside Cuba’s New Fidel Castro Museum, Al Jazeera, Ruaridh Nicoll

This article describes a new museum in Havana, the Centro Fidel Castro Ruz, which opened last weekend in a ceremony attended by Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and Fidel’s brother and former Cuban president, Raúl Castro. The museum is supposed to serve as a study center and library since, according to Raúl Castro, “[Fidel] strongly opposed any manifestation of cult of personality.” The article also describes the scope and funding of the museum, as well as the museum’s efforts to connect Fidel Castro’s legacy with Cuban national independence hero and poet, Jose Martí, in an effort that, according to author and professor Ada Ferrer, would horrify Cubans in the U.S. “because Martí is a hero to everybody.”

The Ruins of Leisure in Cuba (Spanish), El Toque, Meilin Puertas Borrero and Walter Frieiro

In this article, the authors explore how and why the landscape of the city, cultural spaces, and the structures supporting leisure activities in Havana have changed since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The article also compares the dilapidated facilities once dedicated to leisure and culture for Cubans with the city’s new buildings dedicated to tourism and to be used by international travelers.

“Encourage & Enable” Not The Same As “Access & Use.”, U.S. – Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Inc.

This article discusses the disconnect between many U.S. politicians’ calls for increased access to free, safe, and secure internet for Cubans, and the current U.S. policies which prevent access to many U.S. internet-based programs and applications for Cubans. The article also argues that U.S. policies which impede access to many programs, applications, and services, also serve to impede the growth of Cuban civil society.

Cuban Memes: Nicaragua and the Free Visa (Spanish), El Toque, Enrique Torres

While describing the recent removal of a visa requirement for Cubans traveling to Nicaragua and the subsequent consequences of the policy change, this article explains and showcases some of the memes that have been created by Cubans about the policy change. The memes, created by “memeros,” can be seen as a reflection of the current political and social discussion amongst Cubans in a humorous manner.


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