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This week, in Cuba news…

Cuba says U.S. unfairly denying diplomatic visas

In a sign of deteriorating bilateral relations, the U.S. and Cuban governments traded barbs this week about visa delays and denials. Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement yesterday accusing the U.S. Department of State of subjecting embassy staff’s official visas to “whimsical approvals and delays,” which it describes as “unbalanced behavior [that] goes against the standards of reciprocity that are considered an essential practice in diplomatic relations.” Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel called the alleged behavior of the U.S. Government “perverse” on Twitter. The State Department responded to the Cuban allegations over visa denial saying that “the Cuban government (…) failed to issue visas to U.S. diplomats in a timely and consistent manner.”

U.S. weighs sanctions on Cuban officials over role in Venezuela crackdown

Reuters reports that President Trump’s Administration is considering sanctions for Cuba’s armed forces and intelligence officers who it accuses of advising Venezuela’s government on internal security, including efforts to repress dissent. Due to the widespread impact of the U.S. embargo in Cuba, the targeted officers are not likely to have assets in or travel to the U.S., so new sanctions would be unlikely to have a significant effect. The scale and scope of Cuba’s presence and participation in Venezuela’s affairs is largely unknown. The two countries maintain close diplomatic ties, and a top Venezuelan military official confirmed to La Opinión in September that forces from Russia, China, and Cuba had been participating in a patrolling exercises at the Venezuela-Colombia border.

Deal reached in farm bill talks

Senate and House Agriculture Committee leaders announced this week that conferees have reached a tentative deal in farm bill negotiations, Politico reports. The details of the deal — and a schedule for final votes — have not yet been released, as leaders await final cost estimates and final changes to the bill text. While Cuba provisions were not central to the negotiations between chambers, there were Cuba-related discrepancies between the two bills that will be resolved in the compromise language. As we reported in June, the Senate-passed bill includes a provision, introduced by Senators Heitkamp (ND) and Boozman (AR), to allow for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct foreign market development programs in Cuba.

Société Générale to pay $1.3 billion to resolve U.S. sanctions, money-laundering violations

Last week the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in conjunction with other agencies, announced criminal charges against Société Générale for violating U.S. embargo regulations by OFAC. The French bank agreed to pay $1.3 billion in penalties to settle allegations that it had concealed financial transactions with Cuba for over 15 years. In addition to Cuba, the bank also engaged in financial transactions with Sudan, Libya and Iran, the New York Post reports. The total amount of the transactions surpases $13 billion.

Trump Administration policies could threaten Cuban biosecurity

U.S. scientists worry that Cuba and the U.S. lack a channel of communication on biosecurity, which could expose both countries to risks associated with exotic pests. The Scientific American, a U.S.-based science and technology magazine, reports on a University of Florida study that is yet to be published, which found that Cuban scientists are mostly unaware of potentially destructive pests already on the island and that the scientists use outdated technology. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was funding the University of Florida’s research project, decided against renewing the project’s funding. While a U.S. government official says that the project has not identified any significant pests of concern, one of the scientists assesses that there could be a lack of interest in funding the project due to political reasons related to Cuba.

Bolsonaro says he discussed Cuba, Israel, trade with Bolton

Brazil’s President-Elect Jair Bolsonaro met in Rio de Janeiro with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton. During the meeting, the two discussed bilateral issues as well as Cuba and Israel.

AP reported that the first groups of Cuban doctors previously serving in Brazil have returned to Havana after Cuba decided to end its participation in the program “Mais Médicos” for underserved communities across the South American country. The decision comes after Bolsonaro vowed to pressure Cuba to accept new conditions, such as increasing the salary to the doctors who reportedly receive 25–30 percent of the $4000 Brazil pays to the Cuban government for each doctor per month and to allow doctors’ families to accompany them on medical tours. The overseas medical tours for Cuban doctors are, by policy, unaccompanied, a practice that the island imposes to prevent its professionals from defecting the program, according to AP. The exit of the Cuban doctors leaves many Brazilian communities in a precarious situation and could create a public health disaster, according to an evaluation on Bloomberg Opinion. Exporting healthcare services represents a revenue of around $11 billion each year for the Cuban government, says TIME.

Some doctors that defected from the program filed a lawsuit today in the U.S. District Court in Miami against the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the intergovernmental organization that brokered the agreement between Cuba and Brazil and received, in turn, $75 million, The New York Times report. The doctors accuse PAHO of aiding in human trafficking. The New York Times reports that the lawsuit is unlikely to proceed, as PAHO, an organization member of United Nations, enjoys immunity under the International Organizations Immunities Act. El Nuevo Herald reports that some Cubans are not returning to the island and plan to request asylum, an offer that Bolsonaro has said his government will offer to those Cuban physicians that decide to stay in Brazil.

Commission drafting proposed Constitution of the Republic of Cuba meets

Cuba’s drafting commission in charge of writing the country’s new constitution, comprised of select members of the National Assembly, met last week during five days to analyze over 700,000 proposals made by Cuba’s citizens during the popular consultation period, which ended on November 13. The commission, chaired by former President Raúl Castro, reportedly made unspecified modifications to the draft constitution and sent the new draft to the National Assembly for approval. The text with new modifications is likely to be approved by the National Assembly in full in the coming months and a referendum for its approvals will be held on February 24. As we reported previously, the constitution draft proposes the recognition of private property, the position of prime minister in Cuba’s government, and the idea of state-owned enterprises as the central pillar of the economy, and it ratifies foreign investment’s importance for the country’s development. Article 68 of the draft, establishing marriage equality, is one of the most discussed provisions, which helps to understand the diversity of opinions in Cuba’s present day society, sociologist Ailynn Torres Santana writes.

Canada weighing all options with Cuban embassy in Havana

Canada’s Ministry of Global Affairs has confirmed that another of its diplomats stationed in Havana is receiving medical attention after suffering symptoms following an incident similar to ones experienced by other Canadian and U.S. diplomats in Cuba. The incident brings the number of Canadian diplomats affected by such incidents to 13. Reuters reports the diplomat first demonstrated symptoms in the summer months. The Government of Canada hosted a briefing for media on Thursday and is allowing its diplomatic personnel to return to Canada if they wish, Global News reports. The cause of the symptoms remains unknown.

Spain’s Prime Minister visits Cuba

Last week, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited Cuba at the invitation of Cuban President Díaz-Canel, an invitation extended in a bilateral meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in September. Sánchez’s trip is the first by a Spanish Prime Minister in 32 years. During the visit, the two governments signed a memorandum to establish a framework for political dialogue, including human rights. As we reported last month, the EU and Cuba held the first Human Rights Dialogue under the EU-Cuba Agreement on Political Dialogue and Cooperation that entered into force on November 1, 2017.

Sánchez had breakfast with Spanish business representatives in Cuba. Spain is the largest investor in Cuba’s tourism industry; over 70 percent of the hotel rooms on the island are managed by Spanish companies. Spain is Cuba’s third largest trading partner, according to Cuba’s official statistics.

According to a representative of the Association of Spanish businessmen in Cuba (AEEC, in Spanish), business representatives hoped the Prime Minister would encourage progress in a number of stalled Spanish business ventures in Cuba. The source adds that Cuba owes Spanish businesses in Havana around €300 million ($341 million). The island made a commitment to prioritize Spain in certain high-profile projects such as short-range railroads and various airports, OnCuba reports. Spain’s Telefónica has also offered Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly ETECSA to connect Cuba with its broadband submarine cables in the Caribbean region, El País reports.

The Spanish Prime Minister was criticized in Spain for not meeting with dissidents in Havana; he met with members of Cuba’s civil society and the private sector.

Democratizing Cuba? Arturo López-Levy, NACLA

Dr. López-Levy, in an interview with NACLA discusses the most relevant changes proposed in the draft of Cuba’s new Constitution, details how the draft was produced and who contributed to it, and explains how the interests of different groups are revealed in the text. The scholar also analyses why the Constitution is being revisited in the middle of a generational leadership transition, and he assesses whether the new text implies an advancement of the rule of law. Finally, Dr. López-Levy explains the implications of recent U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Cuba’s president travels abroad, firms up relations, gains economic support. W. T. Whitney Jr, People’s World

The author writes about the recent travels by Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel to Cuba’s long-time allies Russia, North Korea, China, Vietnam, and Laos, and his trip to New York on the 73rd session of United Nations General Assembly. The article places special emphasis on the economic potential and opportunities that arise from those trips.

Why Cuba Isn’t Getting Much from Russia or China, Scott B. MacDonald, The National Interest

The author discusses how deteriorating U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations and the economic crisis in Venezuela have pushed Havana closer to allies such as Russia and China. However, according to the author, Beijing and Moscow would like to see market-oriented policies on the island before committing to more trade or to provide more assistance to local infrastructure needs.

With tourism to Cuba rising, U.S. state department deals a blow to nation’s hotels, Jena Tesse Fox, Hotel Management

On November 15, the State Department added 16 hotels to the Cuba Restricted List. The article weighs the implications for Cuba’s tourism industry and for foreign investors who manage assets included on the list.

Blondie in Havana, March 10–14, 2019, Teatro Mella.

Blondie, one of America’s most renowned rock bands is performing in Havana.

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The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) is devoted to improving U.S. policy toward the Americas. Currently working on all things #Cuba.