Cuba Central News Brief: 2/16/2018

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Doctors find neurological damage to Americans who served in Cuba, but cannot identify cause

University of Pennsylvania doctors found evidence of brain injury among diplomats who suffered mysterious ailments in Havana, reports the Washington Post. Their article published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) describes the symptoms experienced and the evidence of brain injury, including manifestations of vision and balance abnormalities that could not have been manipulated. The University’s Center for Brain Injury and Repair investigated 21 people, who were found to have concussion-like symptoms but no evidence of physical trauma nor significant brain abnormalities.

The study identified no definitive cause for the diplomats’ ailments. Addressing the sounds heard by some of the affected diplomats, the article states that, “it is currently unclear if or how the noise is related to the reported symptoms.” An accompanying editorial by JAMA noted that some of the abnormalities studied were based on patient self-report and subjective measures, concluding, “before reaching any definitive conclusions, additional evidence must be obtained and rigorously and objectively evaluated.”

For a detailed account of the U.S. investigation, see the ProPublica article published this week, also linked below in RECOMMENDED READING.

U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogue convenes in Washington

This week senior officials from Cuba and the U.S. met in Washington to advance bilateral cooperation on regional security issues. A U.S. Department of State media release described a series of meetings on combatting human trafficking. The exchange was hosted by the State Department and included the Departments of Justice, Labor, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services.

Cuba’s delegation was led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included officials from the Ministry of the Interior, the General Prosecutor, and Cuba’s Central Bank. Prensa Latina reported that this week’s exchange included a technical meeting to combat money laundering and took place “in a climate of respect and professionalism (sic).”

Trump’s budget includes drastic cuts to Radio and TV Martí

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget would significantly cut funds for Radio and TV Martí and Martínoticias, as well as the broader Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), reports the Miami Herald. The proposal would cut OCB’s budget to $13.6 million, less than half of what it received in fiscal year 2017, and would reduce its full-time staff from 113 to 51.

The OCB and its Martí outlets have a mission of promoting “freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming” and have been criticized in the U.S. for their high cost and lack of objectivity. Cuba’s government considers their activities, as well as USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion program, subversive initiatives designed to undermine Cuba’s sovereignty.

While the president’s 2018 budget proposal eliminated Cuba democracy funding altogether, the 2019 budget includes $10 million for the programs. The actual present enacted level, as approved in fiscal year 2017, is the traditional $20 million. The 2019 budget cuts are in line with broad proposed reductions in global democracy promotion programs, and likely do not represent a shift in the Administration’s approach to democracy promotion in Cuba.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba creditors offer “very significant relief” in debt proposal

The London Club offered a sizeable debt relief proposal to Cuba in January, reports Reuters. Cuba has defaulted commercial creditors in the London Club of commercial banks, which hold $1.4 billion worth of Cuban debt, effectively excluding Cuba from international capital markets. The proposal is seen as a move by the creditors to increase pressure on Cuba to meet a portion of its obligations.

A lawyer representing the London Club invoked the 2015 agreement in which the Paris Club forgave $8.5 billion in Cuban debt, saying that “the London Club offer draws on certain features of the deal with the bilateral creditors but in some respects it is even more generous to the Cubans.” The Paris Club deal included payment structured over 18 years and the option to swap debt for equity stake in projects in Cuba. Cuba has already paid the first two installments under that deal, as we previously reported.

RECOMMENDED READING

The Sound and the Fury: Inside the Mystery of the Havana Embassy, Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica

This in-depth report, based on interviews with U.S. diplomats and officials, examines how the mystery surrounding the ailments suffered by U.S. personnel in Havana provided political justification without evidence for policy changes toward Cuba.

El Salvador Update: Hard Times and Inconvenient Truths, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, El Salvador expert and CDA Advisory Board Member, provides a deep look into El Salvador’s ongoing domestic strife and international relations in the run-up to forthcoming midterm and presidential elections.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

First Listen: Alfredo Rodríguez, ‘The Little Dream’, Jackson Sinnenberg, NPR

Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez is part of a young vanguard of exciting and boundary-pushing Cuban jazz musicians. Stream his new album before its official release on February 23.

From Hip-Hop to Jazz to Reggae, Here Are the Cuban Artists You Should Be Listening to Today, Marjua Estevez, Billboard

Billboard explores Cuba’s contemporary music scene and highlights some of the island’s rising stars.

Cuba Central News Brief: 2/9/2018

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Trump administration launches Cuba Internet Task Force; Cuban independent media say “no thanks”

This week the Trump administration’s new Cuba Internet Task Force convened for the first time in Washington, drawing criticism from Cuban independent media as well as Cuba’s government, reports Reuters. The task force was ordered by President Trump’s June 2017 National Security Presidential Memorandum and includes officials from the Departments of State and Commerce, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Cuba Broadcasting, reports the Associated Press.

The Task Force charter states that its mandate is to examine expanding internet access in Cuba, including through U.S. federal government support of programs to promote freedom of expression. Cuba’s government views the Task Force as a means for the U.S. to violate Cuba’s sovereignty and promote subversive action in Cuba, and handed a formal note of protest to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, reports Reuters. Retired USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years after distributing satellite communications equipment, criticized the Task Force, saying that “until the government of Cuba wants the kind of assistance United States is capable of providing, the United States shouldn’t be doing stuff there,” reports Reuters.

Cuban independent media, which has grown in recent years thanks to expanded internet access on the island, also criticized the formation of the Task Force. Young Cubans like Elaine Díaz, founder of the independent environmental policy website Periodismo de Barrio, are concerned that U.S. involvement could “damage the credibility of the independent media.” Cuban independent media began receiving attacks from Cuban pro-government bloggers immediately following the State Department’s announcement of the Task Force in January, reports Reuters. Díaz would refuse any money from the U.S., saying “these media are called independent, and that means independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government.”

The Task Force, which has no budget nor authority to implement policy, will submit its recommendations to the Secretary of State by February 2019.

U.S. promise to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans is jeopardized by U.S. Embassy cuts

The shut-down of consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Havana due to the September 2017 Ordered Departure of personnel may result in the U.S. violating migration agreements with Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. Visa processing for Cuban travel to the U.S. has been suspended, with exceptions for emergencies and for Cuban officials. Separately, the U.S. political asylum program was suspended by the Trump administration for four months and capped at 1,500 refugees from Latin America for Fiscal Year 2018. Cubans applying to immigrate to the U.S. must travel to Colombia for visa interviews, as we previously reported.

A State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. will face challenges to meet the commitment to issue 20,000 Cuban immigrant visas and travel documents in FY 2018. At its origin, the immigrant visa agreement was designed to regularize migration and was negotiated in 1994 as the resolution to the balsero crisis, during which thousands of Cubans made the dangerous and risky voyage to the U.S. in makeshift rafts.

The Ordered Departure will expire on March 4, but the State Department has given no indication if the Secretary will increase Embassy Havana staffing at that time.

Cuba grants visa to senior U.S. diplomat to lead Havana embassy

Cuba has issued a visa to Philip Goldberg, the U.S. diplomat who will lead the U.S. mission in Havana, reports Reuters. Goldberg, who previously served as ambassador in the Philippines, ambassador in Bolivia (from which he was expelled by the Bolivian government), chief of mission in Kosovo, and assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, will be the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to serve as chargé d’affaires in Havana. Goldberg is expected to serve a limited term in Havana and will likely lead a small team of Embassy staff due to the September 2017 Ordered Departure.

U.S. and Cuban takes differ on health incidents

Cuban investigators dismissed charges that the mysterious symptoms experienced by 24 U.S. diplomats in Havana were caused by an attack, theorizing that they could be manifestations of psychosomatic illness or mass hysteria, reports the Miami Herald. The doctors and law enforcement officials leading Cuba’s investigation into the incidents point out that the apparent lack of uniform auditory damage and the concussion symptoms experienced are inconsistent with the capabilities of any known sonic device. They also argue that a viral or toxic cause seems unlikely, as symptoms were not spread to others in close proximity to the affected people. Cuban investigators have complained that the U.S. has not shared substantive information that would allow a serious forensic investigation, such as audiograms, MRIs, or CAT scans.

In contrast, the University of Miami doctor who examined the affected U.S. personnel in Havana rejected the notion that stress could have caused the symptoms, reports the Miami Herald. Dr. Michael Hoffner, an otolaryngologist and concussion specialist, is an author of two medical articles that describe the details of the case. The publication of those articles is reportedly pending approval by the State Department. The FBI’s investigation has ruled out a sonic attack as the cause of the symptoms. The State Department said in a statement, “We still do not have definitive answers on the source or cause of the attacks. The investigation into the attacks is ongoing.”

IN CUBA

Cuba Will Tune Tax Controls in 2018, Assures the Government

Cuban Minister of Finance Meisi Bolaños announced plans to tweak Cuba’s tax system in 2018, reports Prensa Latina. The actions aim to enforce compliance under the new system that began implementation in 2013. Cuban authorities cited tax evasion in their recent curtailment of licenses for the private sector, as we reported. National revenues in 2018 are expected to reach $57.2 billion (for useful background on Cuba’s currency system, see the article by Ricardo Torres below in RECOMMENDED READING), of which 75 percent will be collected from taxes. That leaves an 11.7 billion peso shortfall in a budget that primarily funds education, healthcare, and social services.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Commercial creditors seek talks on $1 billion Cuban debt

The Cuban London Club group of commercial creditors wants to begin negotiations with Cuba on the repayment of $1 billion from the 1980s, reports CNBC. The group has retained a U.S. attorney, signaling its willingness to take the matter to court if they cannot find a negotiated settlement soon. Repaying the commercial debt is a key hurdle to overcome for Cuba to access international capital markets and to attract large-scale foreign investment.

In 2015, the Paris Club of major creditor nations agreed to write down the bulk of Cuba’s $11.1 billion debt, marking an important step for Cuba’s re-integration in the international financial community. Cuba has begun making payments to the Paris Club, as we previously reported.

RECOMMENDED READING

Cuba’s dual currency is due for revision, Ricardo Torres, Progreso Weekly

Prominent Cuban economist Dr. Ricardo Torres explains Cuba’s dual currency system and argues for the urgency of addressing this key economic issue.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING

Ibeyi Tiny Desk Concert, National Public Radio

Afro-Cuban twin sisters perform at NPR’s Tiny Desk, invoking Yoruban deities and blending cultures and languages in their music.

Cuba Central News Brief: 2/2/2018

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba inaugurates José Martí statue as symbol of friendship

On Sunday, Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal inaugurated a statue of Cuban national hero José Martí in the presence of Cuba’s top leadership and U.S. officials and business leaders, reports Reuters. The statue, a replica of Martí that stands in New York’s Central Park, depicts the Cuban independence champion on horseback at the moment of his death in battle.

Among the attendees were U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee, Karen Bass, and Roger Marshall, who traveled to Cuba with CDA on a fact-finding delegation and exchanged greetings with President Raúl Castro, as reported by the Miami Herald. The $2.5 billion statue project was spearheaded by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and given as a gift to the people of Cuba to, as stated by Joseph Mizzi, chairman of the board of trustees of the Bronx Museum, “symbolize the friendship of the people” of Cuba and the U.S.

U.S. travelers to Cuba slowed in the second half of 2017

U.S. travel to Cuba slowed in the second half of 2017, reports the Miami Herald. Cuba received a record 4.7 million international visitors last year, including 620,000 U.S. travelers, but tour operators and other hospitality industry leaders say that those numbers are falling off. The Melia Cohiba hotel in Havana saw a 25 percent drop in U.S. guests during December and January, and tour companies like Insight Cuba are reporting empty flights to the island.

The travel industry points to confusion about the U.S. administration’s statements and policy changes announced in June 2017 and the U.S. travel warning issued in September as having driven U.S. travelers away. A State Department spokesperson reported that, since the end of September, 19 U.S. citizens contacted the Department to report health symptoms after visiting Cuba. The reports remain unverified. Tom Popper of Insight Cuba organized the first Cuba Media Day conference in Havana last week to dispel fear and confusion around travel to Cuba. This month, the Madrid International Tourism Fair awarded Cuba “safest country in the world.”

IN CUBA

Fidel Castro’s eldest son ‘Fidelito’ commits suicide

Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, eldest son of Fidel Castro, committed suicide on Thursday, reports Reuters. Known as “Fidelito,” Castro Diaz-Balart had been receiving treatment for depression in the months before his death at age 68. He was a nuclear scientist who ran Cuba’s national nuclear program from 1980 to 1992. At the time of his death he was Vice President of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a scientific counselor to the Cuban Council of State. Fidelito was the son of Mirta Diaz-Balart and first cousin of U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and former Member of Congress Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Cuba cancels sugar exports; Hurricane Irma, January rains hit harvest

Cuba cancelled January sugar exports in the wake of recent heavy rain and damage from Hurricane Irma, reports Reuters. The head of Cuba’s state sugar company Azcuba said that Cuba is struggling to meet local demand with a harvest at just 31 percent of planned output. Hurricane Irma, which hit Cuba as a Category 5 storm in September 2017, severely disrupted the island’s sugar industry, destroying 740,000 acres of sugarcane and damaging 40 percent of sugar mills, as we previously reported.

Of the 53 sugar mills scheduled for operation this season, only 29 have re-opened and 14 are shut due to heavy rain, according to Azcuba.

Cuba’s private sector stagnant under rule changes

Entrepreneurs in Cuba’s nascent private sector are cancelling plans to expand or open new businesses under a suite of restrictions, according to the Associated Press. Cuba stopped issuing new licenses for private businesses in August and closed several private restaurants as a response to apparent criminal activity like tax evasion and the rapid pace of labor changes. In December, new rules were announced dictating that individuals may now only hold a single private business license and Cuban cooperatives’ operations will be limited. Small business tax policy is also under review.

Cuban economist and Communist Party member Esteban Morales sees potential in expanding rather than restricting Cuba’s private sector: “Self-employment generates jobs that the state can’t. That’s something that hasn’t been taken advantage of before, and would be very smart to do.” The number of self-employed Cubans has tripled since Raúl Castro began implementing economic reforms in 2010, accounting for 12% of the country’s workforce in 2017.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba seeks to diversify oil imports and expand renewable energy

This week Cuba announced agreements to increase oil imports from Algeria and to promote renewable energy on the island with European Union financing. Prensa Latina reports that the EU will contribute 18 million euros ($22.4 million) over five years in a program that marks the bloc’s first financing to the island since the EU-Cuba bilateral cooperation agreement came into force in 2017. The announcement comes on the heels of the visit of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, about which we previously reported.

The EU financing will contribute to Cuba’s $4 billion renewable energy expansion plan aiming for 24 per cent of the island’s electricity generation by 2030.

Cuba also signed a deal with Algeria to increase oil imports as supplies from Venezuela decline, reports Oilprice. Algeria sent 2.1 million barrels of oil to Cuba in 2017, as we previously reported. Sources at Algerian state oil firm Sonatrach indicated that 2018 deliveries to Cuba will remain at 2.1 million barrels. Details of the new agreement, including any increase in deliveries, have not been released, however Reuters suggested that a recent agreement for Cuba to send more doctors to provide services in Algeria may portend increased oil deliveries under a barter arrangement.

EU offers to assist Cuba with monetary consolidation: EU official

A high level European Union delegation visited Havana this week to strengthen engagement with Cuba and offer technical advice on the country’s currency consolidation, reports Reuters. For more than a decade, Cuba’s monetary system has incorporated a national currency used in local transactions (CUP) and a convertible peso (CUC) used in trade and by foreign visitors, with an exchange rate of 24 CUP to 1 CUC.

According to economists, Cuba’s monetary system masks inefficiencies in the economy, due in large part to differing exchange rates for different entities in Cuba. Currency unification will imply a devaluation of the official exchange rate, according to observers.

Cuban President Raúl Castro has made the monetary consolidation a top priority in Cuba’s economic updating process, saying in December 2017 that the currency unification could no longer be delayed. More than 200 Cuban specialists are working the issue, according to the chairman of Cuba’s Economic Policy Commission.

RECOMMENDED READING

Yes, You Can Still Visit Cuba Legally—and It’s Safe, Paul Brady, Condé Nast Traveler

Travel writer Paul Brady recounts his recent trip to Havana to cover the U.S. travel industry’s Cuba Media Day, highlighting the open avenues for U.S. travel to Cuba and continued flow of repeat U.S. visitors to the island.

Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Castro’s Cuba, Vicki Huddleston

Vicki Huddleston, top U.S. diplomat in Cuba under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, chronicles the past several decades of U.S.-Cuban relations. Pre-order available for March 13 hardcover book release.