Cuba Central News Brief: 1/19/2018

This week in Cuba news…


Tourism booming in Cuba despite tougher new U.S. policy

Cuba received record numbers of visitors in 2017 despite the tightened travel restrictions of the Trump administration, reports the Associated Press. Figures from Cuba’s government show 4.7 million visitors last year, with more than 619,000 coming from the United States, an increase of 217% in U.S. travelers from 2016.

The Trump administration announced policy changes in June 2017 that were implemented in November, rescinding the permissions for individual people-to-people travel and prohibiting transactions with certain Cuban entities with ties to the Cuban military. Those Cuban entrepreneurs whose enterprises serve U.S. travelers saw a sharp downturn in business immediately following President Trump’s June policy announcement. Many Cuban entrepreneurs have appealed to the Trump administration not to stifle travel, as we have previously reported.

Commercial flights and travel to Cuba by cruise ship were not affected by the new policy. More than 541,000 cruise ship passengers visited the island in 2017, up from 184,000 the previous year. Travel to Cuba is still legal and straightforward, as we reported last week.

Cuba and U.S. hold technical meeting on law enforcement cooperation

Interagency delegations from the U.S. and Cuba met on Tuesday in Washington to discuss cooperation on criminal matters, reports Cuba’s state news agency Prensa Latina. The discussion included dialogue regarding exchange of information in criminal investigations and was the second technical meeting convened on the topic as part of the ongoing U.S.-Cuba law enforcement dialogues started in November 2015. Most recent was a dialogue on cybersecurity, convened January 12.

The third bilateral law enforcement dialogue was held in Washington in September 2017, and addressed various national security topics, including fugitives, Cuban nationals in the U.S. with final orders of removal, and the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel in Havana. Technical discussions since 2015 have addressed a variety of other topics, including human trafficking, migratory fraud, counter-narcotics, and cybercrime.


Cuban economic data omitted from 2016 accounts

Cuba’s latest report on the country’s economy omits key details, reports Reuters. The 2016 statistical abstract, published by Cuba’s National Statistics Office in summer 2017, does not include specifics on key macroeconomic indicators, including gross domestic product, exports, debt, and money supply. It is not clear whether this specific information will be released, as it usually is within a months following the abstract’s publication.

In December 2017, Cuba announced that its economy grew by 1.6%, surprising analysts who had predicted 0.5% growth in 2017, following the 2016 recession in which Cuba’s economy shrank by almost 1%.

Cuba continues to recover from Hurricane Irma

Four months after the Category 5 Hurricane Irma ravaged Cuba’s northern coast in September 2017, the island is still recovering, reports the Miami Herald. The storm caused 10 deaths and $13 billion in damages.

Cuba is renowned for its comprehensive national and local disaster and emergency response preparedness, restoring power quickly and clearing flood damage within weeks, and repairing tourism facilities ahead of the winter season. However, a report by Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma found that of more than 156,300 homes damaged in the hurricane, more than 111,000 are still awaiting repair.

Central coastal provinces like Camagüey and Villa Clara were hardest hit, with less than a third of homes rebuilt so far. In Ciego de Ávila, 30% of educational centers, 34% of health facilities, and over 25% of businesses are yet to be repaired. By contrast, about 90% of damaged homes in Havana have been repaired.

Reuters reports the hurricane damaged 740,000 acres of sugar cane and 40 percent of the country’s mills. Cuba’s state-run sugar enterprise, AZCUBA, urges maximum efficiency in this year’s sugar cane harvest.

Cuba accepted foreign aid for Irma recovery from the United Nations, Venezuela, and notably U.S.-based organizations. U.S.-based CubaOne Foundation led a relief mission to the island in October.


The Havana health mystery, Philip Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Cuba expert Philip Peters analyzes the response to health ailments affecting U.S. diplomats in Havana and the politicization of the investigation into the incidents.

Cuba Central News Brief: 1/12/18

This week in Cuba news…


Tillerson tells AP Cuba still risky; FBI doubts sonic attack

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week that he would not send personnel back to the Embassy in Havana until Cuba’s government provides assurances that they can protect U.S. diplomats on the island, reports the Associated Press. Tillerson characterized the cause of the health ailments that afflicted 24 U.S. diplomats in Havana as “deliberate attacks,” however a new report by the FBI indicates that the Bureau’s ongoing investigation has found no evidence of sonic attacks. That report has not been released publicly

Returning from a trip to Cuba last week, Senator Jeff Flake said the Cuban Interior Ministry had received the same information from the FBI. Flake stated “There’s no evidence that somebody purposefully tried to harm somebody. Nobody is saying that these people didn’t experience some event, but there’s no evidence that that was a deliberate attack by somebody, either the Cubans or anybody else.”

On Tuesday, officials from the State Department’s Western Hemisphere, security, and medical bureaus testified before a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on the subject, saying that the Department still does not understand the nature of the incidents. Francisco Palmieri, acting Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, said that it remained Cuba’s obligation to stop the attacks. The top Cuban official for U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, forcefully rejected claims that the incidents were attacks and that the Cuban government was responsible for or aware of any actions against U.S. diplomats in Havana.

By law, the Secretary of State must convene an Accountability Review Board (ARB) to examine serious injury to diplomats serving overseas. CNN reports that retired Ambassador Peter Bodde, who led U.S. missions in Libya, Nepal, and Malawi, will head the ARB.

State Department softens travel warning to Cuba, recommends ‘reconsidering’ trip

This week, the State Department made changes to its travel alert system and downgraded the Cuba travel warning to “Reconsider travel,” reports the Miami Herald. The travel warning to Cuba was triggered in September by the Ordered Departure of diplomats in Havana in response to the mysterious ailments afflicting U.S. personnel, as we previously reported.

The new travel advisory for Cuba removes language in the original travel warning that held Cuba’s government responsible for preventing attacks on U.S. diplomats.  The advisory will be reviewed every six months. Travel to Cuba reached record levels in 2017, with over 1 million Americans visiting. Cuban entrepreneurs have already felt the impact of fewer U.S. visitors following the announcement of increased travel restrictions in June, but travel is still legal and straightforward, as the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. Also this week, Norwegian Cruise Line announced it would double its Cuba-bound fleet by May 2018, sailing from Port Canaveral in addition to Miami.

A Poor Neighborhood In Chicago Looks To Cuba To Fight Infant Mortality

Health workers in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood are receiving mentorship and advice from Cuban doctors in their efforts to lower the local infant mortality rate, reports Kaiser Health News. The program, which brought three doctors and a nurse from Cuba to Chicago for five months, is a partnership between Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health and the University of Illinois Cancer Center.

Cuba has achieved a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S., as we reported last week. Experts, such as Dr. Mary Anne Mercer of the University of Washington, point out that Cuba surveys and guarantees resources for at-risk pregnant women as a matter of course.


Algeria sends more oil to Cuba as Venezuelan supplies fall

Algeria exported 2.1 million barrels of light sweet crude oil to Cuba in 2017 and expects to make the same delivery in 2018, reports Reuters. This, along with 250,000 barrels of refined oil from Russia and a new 1.8 million barrel deal with Russian state oil company Rosneft, are intended to help offset the steep drop in Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba, which have fallen 40% since 2014. Cuba had relied on Venezuela for 70% of its fuel, including oil to refine and re-export.

In December, Venezuela formally abandoned its 49% stake in Cuba’s Cienfuegos oil refinery, which operated at just 37% of its 65,000 barrels per day capacity in 2017, due to the fuel shortage.


Cuba’s Five Issues to Watch in 2018, Elizabeth Gonzalez, Americas Society / Council of the Americas

Elizabeth Gonzalez previews key issues facing Cuba in 2018, including the forthcoming leadership transition, a new immigration policy, the economy, relations with other countries, and internet access.

Despite policy changes, many opportunities remain for US businesses in Cuba, Anya Landau French, The Hill

Anya Landau French, Senior Policy Advisor at the law firm Akin Gump, discusses opportunities for U.S. businesses to continue and deepen their engagement in Cuba.

Cuba has a lung cancer vaccine. Many US patients can’t get it without breaking the law, Sally Jacobs, PRI

Sally Jacobs, award-winning reporter, tells the stories of U.S. lung cancer patients forced to travel illegally to Cuba to obtain the medication that allows them to survive, due to new stringent U.S. travel rules.

Return is not an option

By Linda Garrett, Member of CDA’s Board of Advisors

The announcement by the Trump Administration to rescind Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans was anticipated by immigration activists following similar decisions regarding Haitians, Nicaraguans, Sudanese and others last year. Some 86,000 Honduran recipients have been left in limbo until July 2018.

TPS was meant to be temporary until Congress passed immigration reform. Administration officials now argue that these countries have recovered from the natural disasters that permitted immigrants to live and work legally in the U.S. It is time for them to return, officials say, but their temporary legal protections must be revoked before the next step: deportation.

And deportation, in the view of administration policymakers is the destiny of all undocumented immigrants, by definition “criminals.” In June 2017 then-Acting Director of ICE, Thomas Homan was unequivocal: “If you are in this country illegally…you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder and you need to be worried.”

President Trump’s frequent and bellicose warnings of the threat from “terrorist” Salvadoran gangs was likely designed to heighten anti-immigrant sentiments, end temporary protection measures and justify massive deportations.

To qualify for TPS Salvadorans must have resided in the U.S. continuously since 2001 when two earthquakes devastated the country, but many arrived during or soon after the 1980-1992 civil war. Most have jobs and pay into Social Security and Medicare. Many own businesses and homes and have seen their children graduate from college. And throughout the years Salvadorans have sent remittances from hard-earned dollars back to impoverished family members. Those remittances – a total of over $4.5 billion in 2017 alone – have continuously amounted to approximately 17% of that country’s GDP.

The 1992 United Nations-brokered peace agreement ended twelve years of civil war but the politically polarized, impoverished and violence-ridden country is not equipped economically, socially or politically to receive returned “tepescianos,” as TPS recipients are sometimes called.

Yesterday’s announcement will disrupt the lives of some 200,000 Salvadoran TPS beneficiaries and their estimated 200,000 children who have been given 18 months (until September 9, 2019) to “make arrangements for departure.” Most of the children were born in the U.S. and are citizens; parents will be forced to make the agonizing choice to either separate the family or return to El Salvador with children who face an uncertain future in a country they may not even know.

TPS holders and DACA recipients are similarly vulnerable unless the DACA program is renewed. Before filing for legal protection all were undocumented and unknown to authorities; under the new policy, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and others, and 800,000 “Dreamers” who came out of the shadows will be undocumented once again but now visible, known, and in danger of deportation.

TPS holders face months of agony. Many will look for legal alternatives, some will seek refuge in Canada or Mexico, but few will return to El Salvador, still the most violent country in the hemisphere. “There is nothing to go back to,” said Salvador Sanabria, Executive Director of the non-profit legal services agency El Rescate: “It is not an option.” Instead of leading productive lives, contributing to the U.S. economy and providing for family members in El Salvador, they will be forced back underground, leading fearful lives in the shadow economy.

Rescinding TPS for Salvadorans is another inhumane and short-sighted decision by this administration that will disrupt thousands of lives, contribute to instability in the region and certainly lead to further migration.


**Photo credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters