U.S.-Cuba News Brief 01/21/2022

Dear Friends,

CDA is seeking two remote summer interns! Interns work in three key areas: Policy and Advocacy; Communications and Social Media; and Nonprofit Development. The deadline to apply is March 15. Visit our website to learn more about the internship and to read reflections from past interns. Stay tuned on social media to learn more about what our spring interns are up to!

Yesterday, Cuba reported 3,392 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 17,313 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island. The total number of cases since March of 2020 is 1,015,203 and the total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 8,353. Approximately 94.2 percent of the Cuban population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and 87.5 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

Most ‘Havana Syndrome’ Cases Unlikely Caused by Foreign Power, CIA Says

The majority of unexplained health incidents that have impacted U.S. personnel since 2016 are unlikely to have been caused by a foreign adversary, The New York Times reports. According to interim findings of a comprehensive study by CIA officials, recent investigations have found explanations for most of the 1,000 cases of unexplained health incidents reported to the U.S. government, including “environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress.” Still, a significant number of cases remain unexplained and two dozen of those cases remain under investigation by the CIA under the possibility of “yielding clues to whether a foreign power is responsible for some of the unexplained health incidents,” according to CIA officials. CIA Director William Burns stated that investigations into the incidents which have caused real symptoms for U.S. personnel will continue with “analytic rigor, sound tradecraft and compassion.”

Despite a commitment to additional research, many current and former U.S. personnel affected by the unexplained health incidents expressed their dissatisfaction with the CIA’s recent findings. In response to the interim report, a group of victims released a statement alleging that the CIA is attempting to prematurely close the case, undermining efforts made by other government agencies. The victims also called the determinations made in the interim report a breach of faith. The findings could also affect who qualifies for compensatory payments under a payment plan for victims, the HAVANA Act, which was signed into law last year by President Biden, payments from which will begin in April. In addition to the CIA’s interim report, the Department of Defense, along with an independent expert panel, is also in the midst of an investigation into the incidents and intends to publish a report.

Anomalous health incidents have been reported by U.S. personnel as recently as January 2022, when internal reports made last summer by personnel at the U.S. Embassies in Paris and Geneva came to light. Despite numerous allegations of Russian, Chinese, or Cuban involvement in the unexplained health incidents since they were first reported between 2016 and 2017 by the Trump administration, evidence to support such claims has yet to be identified. Health incidents have now been reported in numerous countries, including China, Austria, India, Vietnam, Colombia, and Germany, among other countries. The U.S. Embassy in Havana has operated with limited staff since September 2017, when most personnel were recalled because of the first reported health incidents. In September 2021, the U.S. Department of State announced that it would begin allowing diplomats to be accompanied by some adult family members at the embassy. The announcement marked the first step towards enacting President 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. Restaffing the embassy is crucial to pursuing U.S interests in the relationship with Cuba. To read CDA’s recommendations on embassy restaffing, see our memo.

Icelandair to Fly Between US and Cuba Despite US Airline Pushback

Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation authorized Icelandair, Iceland’s flagship airline, to conduct charter flights between the U.S. and Cuba, Business Insider reports. The airline is authorized to operate 170 round-trip flights between Miami, Florida, Orlando, Florida, and Houston, Texas to Havana, Cuba between February 1, 2022 and March 31, 2022. U.S. airlines Swift Air, World Atlantic Airlines and Global Crossing Airlines expressed objections to the authorization on the basis that the additional flights would, according to Global Crossing Airlines, “impose an economic hardship on the current U.S. carriers.” Icelandair responded that the Department of Transportation had no other applications for the allotted flights under consideration so it was not taking spaces away from U.S. carriers.

The Department of Transportation allows 3,600 charter flight trips to Cuba annually, which both domestic and international airlines can bid for. Currently, American Airlines, JetBlue, and United offer flights to Cuba. U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba must still abide by Department of Treasury regulations and travel under one of the 12 general license categories or apply for a specific license, as tourism is prohibited under U.S. sanctions.

A Cargo Of Powdered Milk Donated By US Organizations Arrives In Cuba (Spanish)

Last Saturday, three U.S. grassroots advocacy organizations, Puentes de Amor, Code Pink, and The People’s Forum, traveled to Havana with a shipment of seven tons of donated powdered milk which will be distributed to pediatric hospitals, OnCuba reports. The powdered milk, a product which is currently scarce in Cuba, was received and will be distributed by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Havana, a Christian-inspired association that works in service of the local community and promotes international solidarity. According to Cuban American U.S. veteran Carlos Lazo, who leads Puentes de Amor, the donation symbolized the groups’ opposition to the U.S. embargo and sanctions against Cuba, which Mr. Lazo referred to as “a crime.” According to the organizations, the donation was funded by individual donations from people, including Cuban Americans, throughout the U.S., and represents “the growing rejection among the US public of their government’s economic policies aimed to strangle the Cuban economy.”

The shipment follows a November 2021 donation of canned tuna and pasta from Puentes de Amor, Code Pink, and The People’s Forum which was distributed throughout the island’s eastern provinces. The shipment also builds off of the Syringes for Cuba Campaign by Global Health Partners and The Saving Lives Campaign, supported by The People’s Forum and Code Pink, which delivered four million syringes to Cuba as the island faced a shortage amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to OnCuba, in 2021 Cuba received 135 donations–the majority of which were medical-related aid to assist with Cuba’s pandemic response–from 40 countries.

IN CUBA

Mass Trials in Cuba Deepen Its Harshest Crackdown in Decades

This week, over 60 Cuban citizens, including some as young as 16, facing charges related to July 11 (J11) protests that took place across the island last summer were put on trial, The New York Times reports. Demonstrators face charges including sparking “public disorder,” assault, police resist, “disrespecting the flag,” and “inciting sedition,” the latter charge which carries a hefty sentence. This week’s trials follow trials of at least 50 demonstrators last week, as well as trials in December and August 2021. According to the Washington Post, by the end of the week, 300 demonstrators will have been tried in total thus far. While a number of sentences are still pending, of those that have already been sentenced, some have faced up to 30 years in prison.

 In the aftermath of the J11 protests, local activists and international organizations have decried the use of mass trials, lack of transparency, detention and trials of minors, and the harsh sentencing of a man with a mental disability, among other issues. The detentions and crackdowns were some of the largest in Cuba in decades, and according to The New York Times, were notable in that they affected those who had not previously been directly involved in politics. William M. LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, theorizes that “The state is trying to send the message that there are dire consequences to rebelling against the government. “According to Elaine Rodríguez, a Miami resident whose brother Maykel Rodríguez was charged with sedition for throwing a rock at a police officer, which he denies, “The lawyer said that these are measures aimed at serving as an example to others.” Salomé García from the Justice J11 group says she doesn’t believe the government has “any intention of changing” or “of allowing Cuban society any participation in determining its destiny.” Cuba’s Prime Minister Manuel Marrero praised Cuba’s judicial bodies, meanwhile, at an event on Sunday, noting their “professionalism” and the “success with which…[they] have been carrying out their work.”

As we reported last week, 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 30 years in prison. 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 faced trial last week, has been vocal about the need for attention and protection from the international community and started a campaign asking the Spanish news agency EFE to cover the trials. Ms. García 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.

RECOMMENDED READINGS & VIEWINGS

Dicho Capricho (Spanish), Howard Collado

This week, Cuban music artist Howard Collado released his first single “Dicho Capricho.” Learn more about him, his musical trajectory, and his current projects in this interview.

As Cuba Tries More Protesters, Is It Making An Example Of Historically Defiant Holguín?, Tim Padgett, WLRN

This article recounts Holguín residents’ long history of fighting for freedom and democracy during the war for Spanish independence, the Batista dictatorship, the Castro government, and now under current leadership. The article discerns Holguín as a key location of resistance not only because of their history, but also because of their large population of youth who participated in the July 11th protests.

Forgotten Plans of Cuban Agriculture (Spanish), Miguel Alejandro Hayes Martínez, El Toque

This article examines plans by Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture to complete over 50 agricultural production projects from 2017-2019 with final completion scheduled for 2021. The article notes that a year after the projects were due to be completed, the Ministry has not provided updates, and expresses concern over a recent 11 percent decrease in investments in agriculture.

Forbidden Architecture in a Changing City (Spanish), Ely Justinani, El Toque

This article informs of an ongoing campaign to make architecture a legal activity for the private sector in Cuba. A letter signed by over 700 architects and delivered to officials in Cuba’s Ministry of Construction last September has resulted in several meetings where the architects could voice their concerns, however, signatories have called the Ministry’s responses “vague arguments” defending the ban.

Opinion: Loosen Travel Restrictions To Cuba To Encourage Reform From Within, Ana Alejo, The Colorado Sun

In this opinion piece, board member of World Denver–a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado that aims to increase knowledge of world affairs in the Denver area–Anna Alejo, connects the Coloradan urge to visit the island and collaborate with Cubans to the Cuban goal of expanding their businesses and contributing to a diverse economy. The opinion piece also urges the Biden administration to, at minimum, resume U.S. flights into Cuba as a way to “support the aspirations of Cubans.”

Cuba’s Shelves Are Empty, Dissidents Are Stepping Up (Spanish), Vice

This Vice news piece explores food and goods shortages and the current economic crisis in Cuba. Vice journalists visit Cuba during the recent surge of COVID-19 cases where they report on the situation on the ground and observe the distribution of medicine and goods organized and sent to Cuba by Cuban activists and exiles in Spain in order to help alleviate the economic and health crisis.

Why Cuba’s Extraordinary Covid Vaccine Success Could Provide the Best Hope For Low-Income Countries, Sam Meredith, CNBC

This article reports that the World Health Organization’s potential approval of Cuba’s three vaccines could mean vaccination for millions who live in low-income countries. Cuba’s subunit protein vaccines are cheaper to produce and do not require freezing, which makes them a promising option for low-income countries.

EducUp: An Online University Created by Cubans and with Almost One Million Users, (Spanish), Laura Seco Pacheco, El Toque

This article introduces an educational Startup launched by several Cuban-Americans called EducUp. Their platform contains over 50 courses and is both phone-accessible and free. According to the article, EducUp already has almost one million users and the founders anticipate the platform will be used by four million users by 2023. One day they hope to expand their services to 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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