Cuba Central News Brief: 1/12/18

This week in Cuba news…

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

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.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

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.

RECOMMENDED READING

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.