U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 01/14/2022

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, Cuba reported 3,336 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 14,037 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 992,125 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 8,332. Approximately 93.5 percent of the Cuban population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and 87.2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated (not including the booster). Cuba is hoping to administer booster doses to all citizens by the end of the month. In response to the Omicron variant, Cuba has reintroduced some restrictions on international travelers. 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

Coast Guard Repatriates 33 Cubans to Cuba

33 Cuban migrants were repatriated to Cuba on Thursday following three separate interdictions in the Florida Straits last week, according to The U.S. Coast Guard. Patrick Oppman, CNN’s Bureau Chief in Havana, noted that this news came a day after the 5th anniversary of the end of “wet foot, dry foot,” an immigration policy that gave Cubans who landed on U.S. soil a virtually unrestricted right to become legal residents. The removal of the “wet-foot-dry-foot” under the Obama-Biden administration policy was intended to disincentivize Cuban migrants from making dangerous trips to the U.S. Amidst a renewed wave of migration by Cubans, as Mr. Oppman noted, “Cubans are still risking their lives at sea” and 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, 2021, 586 Cuban migrants have been interdicted at sea, which is nearly 70 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 and an estimated 15,000 Cuban migrants did so by first traveling through the Darién Gap, a notoriously dangerous stretch of jungle located between Colombia and Panama. In the previous fiscal year, there were significantly less Cuban migrants reported, with numbers reaching only around 14,000.

IN CUBA

More Than 50 Cubans Arrested During The July 11 Protests Face Trials This Week

More than 50 Cubans will face trial this week over charges related to their participation in the demonstrations that took place across the island on July 11, The Miami Herald reports. According to the relatives of those on trial, three collective trials are taking place across the island: 21 individuals charged in Holguín, 20 individuals charged in Havana, and 16 individuals charged in Santa Clara. Some face up to 30 years in prison. Concerns have been raised over lack of transparency within the trials, as families were informed that only one family member for each defendant could be allowed in the courtroom during the proceedings and the provincial courts have reportedly been cordoned off by police forces.

Many in and outside of Cuba have voiced concerns over the lack of international news coverage of the trials and called for diplomats and international news agencies to observe the trials. Local independent news media outlets in Cuba, including El Toque have covered the detentions of children. Roxana García Lorenzo, the sister of Andy García Lorenzo who was detained on July 11 and faces trial this week, has been vocal about the need for attention and protection from the international community. In her efforts to garner international coverage, Ms. García started a campaign asking the Spanish news agency EFE to cover the trials and signed a letter, organized and sent by the organization Prisoners Defenders, to 32 governments with embassies in Cuba to request that their diplomats observe the trials. Human rights watchdogs say that over 1,000 Cubans have been arrested in relation to the protests. Trials for those accused of more serious crimes began in mid-December and resulted in sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana tweeted about the trials, calling it “outrageous” that the 57 Cubans were going to be tried “for peacefully participating in the #11J protests or sharing videos on social networks.” The tweet comes a week after the U.S. announced additional individual sanctions on eight unnamed Cuban officials over accusations of their involvement in the repression, arbitrary detention, and sentencing of protesters involved in the July 11 protests. Ricardo Herrero, executive director of Cuba Study Group, responded to the embassy’s tweet by suggesting that the U.S. could better support those on trial if they had a functioning embassy on the island, stating, “Agreed. Now if only we had a U.S. ambassador in #Cuba who could directly plead for their release to Cuban officials.” In 2017, under the Trump administration, the U.S. severely limited consular services and withdrew most staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2017. Since then, the Biden-Harris administration has begun allowing some family members to accompany diplomats in Havana and has stated that a full restaffing is under consideration. According to the U.S. State Department, “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.

Restaffing the U.S. Embassy in Havana is essential to supporting U.S. interests pertaining to human rights and empowering the Cuban people. A fully functioning embassy is important to help monitor human rights and other developments on the ground, as well as initiate a human rights dialogue with Cuba’s government and advocate against arbitrary detentions, which has been a central policy point of all U.S. administrations, including the Biden-Harris administration. At full capacity, the U.S. Embassy in Havana could also engage with and provide critical support to Cuban civil society on the island on a regular basis and in a transparent manner, thereby playing an actively supportive role in allowing the necessary conditions for Cubans to determine their own future, while ensuring that Cuba’s civil society has the tools and resources to play their critical role in the future of their country. For more recommendations surrounding how the U.S. can best support human rights in Cuba, read our memo.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Spain’s EFE Considers Leaving Cuba After Journalists’ Credentials Withdrawn

According to Gabriela Cañas, president of the Spanish newswire EFE, the news agency is considering leaving Cuba after several staff members have had their credentials revoked by Cuban authorities, Reuters reports. EFE, which is currently down to two staff members in Cuba, is reevaluating its presence on the island over concerns about the news agency’s ability to practice journalism freely. Ahead of the demonstrations scheduled for November 15 in Cuba, Cuba’s government withdrew credentials from all of EFE’s team in Cuba, before quickly reinstating two of the team members. Previously, Cuban authorities also withheld a visa for an EFE team member in July. While discussing EFE’s strategic plan and future endeavors during a press conference held by the New Economy Forum on Wednesday, Ms. Cañas stated, “They are kicking us out of Cuba. With only two journalists, we cannot keep up with the quality standards that the EFE Agency has offered up until now in the country. It’s a great shame.” Sarah Marsh, former chief Caribbean correspondent for Reuters, tweeted in response to Ms. Cañas’s statement, commenting, “Looks like you might be seeing fewer foreign media reports from Cuba in the future. Many Cuban indie journalists have already left, saying harassment makes it too difficult to do their jobs.” Foreign journalists must receive permission from Cuba’s government in order to work in Cuba.

Central American Bank Funds Cuban COVID-19 Vaccine Drive

The Central American Bank for Economic Integration loaned Cuba approximately $53.1 million to support Cuba’s vaccine production for both domestic use and international sales, Reuters reports. The loan will fund the production of an additional 200 million shots and upgrade Cuba’s vaccination manufacturing facilities. The loan from the Central American Bank, which will be overseen by the United Nations Development Program, is backed in part by South Korea and Taiwan. The Bank is one of the few multinational lenders that Cuba is a part of, largely due to lending restrictions imposed by the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

While both of Cuba’s domestically produced vaccines have gained approval by local regulatory authorities and the country’s vaccination rate against COVID-19 is the second highest in the world among countries with over 1 million people, neither vaccine has yet been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), nor undergone peer-review. Upgrades to Cuba’s vaccination manufacturing facilities could support Cuba’s efforts to receive approval from the WHO, whose vetting process has been criticized as having a “first world standard” as it requires expensive upgrades to manufacturing facilities. In September, representatives from Cuba’s healthcare sector met with the WHO to review Cuba’s domestically produced vaccines and begin the process for potential authorization, however the results of those meetings remain to be seen. 

Experts argue that Cuba’s high vaccination rate is largely because the island opted to develop its own vaccines instead of waiting to buy vaccines from wealthier nations. Cuban health authorities report 87.2 percent of the population is fully vaccinated (not including the booster) and 93.5 percent of the population has received at least one dose since their widespread vaccination campaign using the domestically produced Soberana 02 and Abdala vaccines began in May 2021. In addition to domestic use, Cuba has also donated or sold its domestically produced vaccines to Mexico, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Iran.

Venezuela Ramps Up Gasoline, Food Supply To Cuba -Documents

Since November 2021, Venezuela has increased gasoline and food shipments to Cuba, as Cuba continues to face profound shortages and oil production rebounds in Venezuela, Reuters reports. According to Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA, Venezuela has shipped at least three cargoes of various refined products and approximately 197,000 barrels of gasoline to ports in Cuba since November. Cuba has also received 222 containers and hundreds of bags of food from Venezuela since December. Venezuela has been Cuba’s second largest trading partner, only behind China, since 2020 and has a long history of providing fuel to Cuba. Due to the poor condition of PDVSA’s oil refineries and impact of U.S. sanctions, Venezuela began decreasing gasoline exports to Cuba in early 2020 until support from Iran to upgrade its oil refineries allowed Venezuela’s oil production to rebound late last year. The country subsequently resumed oil shipments to Cuba. In addition to shipments of oil, Venezuela sent shipments of humanitarian aid, food, and medical equipment to Cuba as the island battled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cuban President Arrives In Nicaragua For Daniel Ortega’s Inauguration (Spanish)

Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel attended the fifth inauguration of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega in Managua on Monday, OnCuba News reports. The election of Daniel Ortega in November 2021, the legitimacy of which has been contested by the international community, marks the Nicaraguan leader’s fifth five-year term, and second term with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president. Cuba is one of few countries to send a government representative to the inauguration.

In November, Nicaragua’s Interior Ministry announced that Cubans will no longer need visas to travel to Nicaragua. 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 and could act as a way for Cuba’s government to release some of the discontent building on the island. In addition to the favorable relaxation of visa requirements, Nicaragua and Cuba have provided support to each other throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Nicaragua has donated food to Cuba to alleviate shortages, while Cuba donated one million doses of its domestically produced Abdala vaccine to Nicaragua.

Russia “Won’t Exclude” Putting Military Hardware in Cuba or Venezuela Amid “Unsuccessful” Talks with U.S. Over Ukraine

On Thursday, following two rounds of talks involving The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the U.S., and Russia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who participated in the discussions, stated he would not confirm nor deny whether Russia would establish a military presence in Cuba or Venezuela, CBS News reports. During the discussions, the parties failed to come to an agreement surrounding NATO expansion and membership. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan responded on Thursday that if Russia does move towards stationing military in Cuba or Venezuela that the U.S. would “deal with it decisively.”

Russia and Cuba have become closer allies since tensions between the U.S. and Cuba reignited during the Trump administration, causing Minister Ryabkov’s statement to spark fears of another Cuban Missile Crisis. According to The Miami Herald, some Cuban-Americans and U.S.-Cuba policy experts have hopes that such conflict would encourage the U.S. to re-engage with Cuba in order to regain Cuba in the U.S.’s sphere of influence and decrease Russian involvement in the region.

Russia has requested that NATO refrain from expanding further east and that it denies membership to Ukraine, which U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the U.S. was not willing to do. Russia’s increased military presence at the Ukrainian border has led to fears that it will invade the country, a move the U.S. hopes to prevent.

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

Government Ratifies Prohibition Of Non-State Guides And Tourist Agencies (Spanish), Ely Justiniani Pérez, El Toque

In this piece, Cuban independent news source El Toque provides a timeline of a year of advocacy by Cuban tour guides to legalize private tour operation and to allow individuals to apply for a self-employment license to operate tours. This week, Cuba’s Minister of Labor and Social Security affirmed the prohibition on private tour operation in a letter sent to the group “Tour guides for their legalization as self-employed workers (Cuba),” which had been advocating through petitions and meetings with government officials. According to the prohibition, tourism activities are to be operated by the state and “are not allowed to be marketed by natural persons, nor authorized to exercise by micro, small and medium-sized private companies, non-agricultural cooperatives and self-employed workers.”

Op-ed: The US Should Use Agricultural Trade To Help Cuba And Build Lasting Economic Bridges, Paul Johnson, Chicago Tribune

In this opinion piece, Paul Johnson, chair of the United States Agriculture Coalition for Cuba and partner at FocusCuba Consulting, argues that in order for the U.S.’s foreign policy to reflect its values and serve national interests, the U.S. should attempt to alleviate Cuba’s food crisis and use agricultural trade to facilitate cooperation. Mr. Johnson shares that agricultural relations have bipartisan support as well as support from rural and urban communities in the U.S. and would effectively support the Cuban people.

Milestones Of Cuban Civil Society In 2021, El Toque Legal

In this article, Cuban independent news source El Toque, discusses key moments in the development of Cuban civil society in 2021. Among them are January 27, which saw artists violently repressed for protesting outside the Ministry of Culture. This was followed by highlights such as February 19, when animal rights activists gathered in front of the Ministry of Agriculture to protest the lack of animal rights laws. On March 18, Cuban journalist, Karla María Perez, was denied reentry to Cuba from Costa Rica and several journalists in Cuba raised concerns about her circumstances to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. July 11 marked historic, island-wide protests regarding many grievances. The article goes into further detail for each of these events and covers more throughout the year.

Cuban Institutions that Support Entrepreneurs, Glenda Boza, Cuba Study Group

In this article, Glenda Boza, a journalist for El Toque, describes how the legalization of small and medium size enterprises, new legislation around non-agricultural cooperatives, and new policies around self-employment allow for increased freedom for entrepreneurs. Many of these changes, she posits, are related to the July 11 protests in Cuba and the government’s desire to boost the economy to relieve “social pressure.” In conjunction with such developments, environmentalist and engineer, Yociel Marrero, organized the island’s first Fair of Products, Services, and Ideas in Havana. Marrero is also promoting “corporate socio-environmental responsibility” among new businesses through his organization, Foundation Antonio Núñez Jimenez of Nature and Man (FANJ).

Products And Services That Can Be Paid With Cryptocurrencies From Cuba (Spanish), Alberto C. Toppin, El Toque

This article informs that cryptocurrencies are providing Cubans an avenue to pay for online products and subscriptions, something that formerly necessitated a foreign debit/credit card provided by someone abroad. Exchange sites such as HeavenEx now allow Cubans to purchase Visa and Mastercards using cryptocurrency and QvaPay allows Cubans to make international bank transfers. Among the services Cubans can now purchase are Apple+, Netflix, and Spotify. Previously, Cubans were unable to make transactions to banks abroad that required USD but can now bypass this obstacle through cryptocurrency.

Cuban Mothers Denounce Government For Holding Minors In Prison For Protesting, Jorge Carrasco, NBC News

This article delineates some cases of the over 45 minors who were detained after the July 11 protests last year, of which 14 minors are still awaiting trial from prison. As a result of the detainments, several mothers have been outspoken about their children being questioned without an adult present and contracting diseases in prison.

Covid-19 In Cuba: The Abnormal In The New Normal (Spanish), Walter Frieiro, El Toque

This article recounts the effect and history of COVID-19 in Cuba and describes the island’s new normal. Specifically, this article describes how some behaviors, such as social distancing in long lines or on the bus and close physical contact and greetings, have ostensibly returned to Cuba, albeit with more masks and disinfectants.

The Disinformation Of 2021: COVID, ETECSA and MLC (Spanish), Defacto, El Toque

This article describes the most common topics around which misinformation was circulated throughout 2021 in Cuba, which included COVID-19 and vaccines, MLC (freely convertible currency), the July 11 and November 15 demonstrations, and ads from ETESCA (Cuba’s state telecommunications company). It also lists the most commonly heard lies or mistruths for each topic.

Cuban Asylum Seekers in Greece ‘Forcibly Expelled’ to Turkey, Melissa Pawson, Aljazeera

This article recounts the alleged violent expulsion several Cuban nationals faced in Greece. In October, over 30 Cuban nationals were allegedly expelled from Greece and are currently in Turkey. According to Corinne Linnecar, a refugee support organization in Greece, “these practices are exacerbated by challenges in accessing asylum in Greece.”

In Cuba, Queueing For Hours ‘Just To Be Able To Eat’, France 24

This article reports that lines in Cuba for food products and other necessities have severely worsened over the course of the pandemic. According to the article, the scarcity of products and exorbitant wait times are due to tightened sanctions under the Trump administration, a new monetary policy, and severe drops in tourism, all of which contributed to the 70 percent inflation rate reported for 2021.

Biden’s Low Profile On Guantanamo Rankles As Prison Turns 20, Ben Fox, AP News 

This article cautions that the Biden administration, similarly to the Obama administration, shows no intentions of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba as it nears its 20th year of operation. Thirteen prisoners on site have been cleared for release and advocates are urging the Biden administration to facilitate their resettlement.

Op-Ed: Will Guantanamo Bay Prison Ever Close?, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, Los Angeles Times

In this opinion piece, written by Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer for a former Guantanamo Bay Prison detainee, Mr. Colangelo-Bryan recounts his visits to Guantanamo Bay to visit with his client and questions what the U.S. has gained from maintaining its presence and operations at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

EVENTS

Virtual, Delivering Cuba Through the Mail: Cuba’s Presence in Non-Cuban Postage Stamps and Envelopes, January 24

Emilio Cueto, an independent collector and researcher of postage stamps and envelopes, will speak about the many iterations and appearances of Cuba-related images in foreign postage stamps, commemorative envelopes, and postcards. While discussing his newly published book titled “Delivering Cuba Through the Mail,” Mr. Cueto will describe why and how Cuba has made unusual appearances on other countries’ postage stamps. The virtual book presentation hosted by the Cuban Research Institute at the Florida International University and Books and Books will begin at 12:00pm EST. The event will be conducted in Spanish. Register here.


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