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.