BREAKING NEWS: Cuba Named a State Sponsor of Terrorism by Trump Administration

The Wall Street Journal January 11, 2021

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is putting Cuba on the list of countries that are considered to be state sponsors of terrorism, according to a person familiar with the decision.

The designation, which will be announced Monday, may complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s efforts to improve ties with Havana and is the latest in a series of moves by the Trump administration to try to lock in policies before President Trump leaves office.

The move rescinds the lifting of the designation under the Obama administration in 2015, during President Obama’s push to thaw relations with the island nation.

‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet Fuels Rare Protests

The New York Times December 10, 2020

Hundreds of artists and young Cubans met in front of the Ministry of Culture last month to protest recent arrests and demand greater freedom of expression.

In another era, the detention of a young Cuban dissident may have gone completely unnoticed. But when the rapper Denis Solís was arrested by the police, he did something that has only recently become possible on the island: He filmed the encounter on his cellphone and streamed it live on Facebook.

The stream last month prompted his friends in an artist collective to go on a hunger strike, which the police broke up after a week, arresting members of the group. But their detentions were also caught on cellphone videos and shared widely over social media, leading hundreds of artists and intellectuals to stage a demonstration outside the Culture Ministry the next day.

This swift mobilization of protesters was a rare instance of Cubans openly confronting their government — and a stark example of how having widespread access to the internet through cellphones is testing the power balance between the communist regime and its citizens.

“The videos had a huge impact on us,” said Tania Bruguera, one of the artists involved in the protests. “We saw that any artist in Cuba who decides to speak up, or question what the government says, or make art that asks uncomfortable questions, could receive the same treatment.”

It isn’t clear yet whether this incipient protest movement will gather the momentum and discipline needed to fundamentally transform a political system that has quashed decades of challenges — or will simply fade away. But the mere fact that such a large protest happened at all — and led to the creation of a formal movement with a name and a Facebook page — is in itself extraordinary in a country where the opposition is barely existent.

And as protesters’ demands have shifted from ending limits on artistic expression to pushing for more fundamental political freedoms, they have earned the attention of a growing swell of young Cubans not normally inclined toward activism.

“What is happening in Cuba is unprecedented,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the director of the Americas program at Human Rights Watch. “It’s an awakening.”

When President Trump came into office, he quickly rolled back the Obama administration’s reopening of relations between the two countries, which he called a “terrible and misguided deal.”

Yet one of the conditions baked into that deal — that Cuba broaden internet access — has continued to play out on the island, leading to greater pressure on the government.

Cuba first made it possible to get internet on cellphones two years ago, and now four million people can get online that way. A total of seven million Cubans — about two-thirds of the population — have some kind of access to the web, government data shows.
The government has blocked several critical websites, including Radio Martí, an anti-Castro news outlet funded by the U.S. government. But it allows access to major U.S. newspapers and Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube.

The upshot: There is a growing army of Cubans who can easily get online and use social media to organize around common causes.

Sometimes their campaigns are acceptable to the government, as was the case with the online animal rights advocates who got permission from authorities to hold a march against animal cruelty. Others, like the gay rights activists who were detained after using Facebook to organize a protest last year, were not as welcome.

The marches were small, but were among the first independently organized demonstrations on the island in decades.

“It is this awakening of civil society, facilitated by the spread of the internet and social media, which is posing this challenge to the government,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist at American University. “To what extent does a political system which prides itself on control allow the kind of civil society expression that we’ve seen growing?”

If not for Facebook, it may have been easy for the government to dismiss complaints from Mr. Solís, the detained rapper, and his artist friends.
In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

Some members of his artists’ collective, known as the San Isidro Movement, have been seen with U.S. embassy officials, a link the government has used to label them “mercenaries” intent on destabilizing Cuba.

Still, the clips of the police detaining Mr. Solís — who was later sentenced to eight months in jail for insulting law enforcement — and then cracking down on the artists’ peaceful hunger strike, did not sit well with many Cubans.

The night when the hunger strike was shut down, a much broader coalition of artists began messaging each other on WhatsApp and Facebook, and the next morning people started gathering in front of the Culture Ministry.

“We didn’t go there to defend those artists’ views,” said Ms. Bruguera, the visual artist who has been protesting. “We went there to defend the right of all artists to dissent.”

What started as anger over the arrests morphed into conversations among the artists about their frustration with limits to free expression on the island. They commiserated over their fear of government censorship or outright repression because of the art, theater or movies they produce.

“I want to do free art, without state security parked on my corner,” said Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a performance artist who led the hunger strike last month.

By nightfall, hundreds had gathered for the spontaneous protest against the government — something not seen in Cuba since the nation plunged into economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Troubadours, artists, playwrights, rappers and reggaetoneras played music, read poetry and sang the national anthem. When the ministry allowed a group of demonstrators into the building to negotiate, those gathered outside clapped every 10 minutes or so to express support.

Artists have a particular cachet in Cuba, a deeply patriotic nation that has long prided itself, including under communism, on the prowess of its cultural institutions.

And the government may have found it harder to outright reject this particular group of protesters, which included some of the nation’s most prominent artists. Jorge Perugorría, one of the most famous Cuban actors, and Fernando Pérez, a celebrated film director, both showed up that night.

“I will always go where I feel my presence can help,” Mr. Pérez said, adding he believed the protests “come from a great love of Cuba.”

The crowd also drew younger stars, like Yunior García, 38, who has worked for institutions linked to the state all his life, writing plays, short films and telenovelas for Cuban television.

“The fact that I’ve been permitted to create doesn’t mean I can stand by while others are censored,” he said.

But communication between the protesters and the ministry broke down after their initial meeting in late November. Protesters are now at an impasse with the government, and many now say they are being intimidated by the state’s security apparatus.

Several artists who were present say police vehicles are parked outside their homes, a tactic that some described as a form of house arrest. Ms. Bruguera has been detained twice by police when she ventured outside and said officers suggested she and others could be charged with “sedition and civil disobedience.”

In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch documented 34 instances in which the Cuban government has punished dissidents, including some involved with the artists’ movement, by accusing them of violating restrictions intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Nine were accused of not wearing a face mask properly.

Even holed up in their homes, however, many of the artists have continued to publicize what they say is harassment by the government in videos and posts on Facebook.

And the government has not stopped the flow of messages on WhatsApp group chats, which the protesters say is keeping the broader movement alive.

“The spark that we lit with the protest, that energy hasn’t left us,” said Luz Escobar, a journalist who attended the demonstration. “We feel that there were hundreds of people connected to it, and that was just on the streets.”

“On social media,” she added, “there are thousands.”

Western Union says suspending U.S. transfers to Cuba


Western Union said on Friday it was suspending U.S. money transfers to Cuba in 10 days due to the Trump administration’s latest sanction on the Communist-run island, in a blow to the many Cubans who rely on remittances from family abroad.
Its customers will now have to find new ways to send transfers against the backdrop of Cuba’s deepest economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

One route may be in cash via flights from the United States that are resuming next week after Cuba closed its borders early in the pandemic, while other, younger digital platforms also exist.

Remittances have become one of the top sources of hard currency in an inefficient state-run economy laboring under a crippling U.S. trade embargo.
“Today we informed our customers they have limited time to send money to their loved ones from the U.S. to Cuba,” Western Union said in a statement.

The world’s largest money transfer firm said Nov. 22 was the deadline for customers to send money to Cuba while Nov. 23 was the deadline for them to pick it up.

That way it will wrap up its Cuba operations just before the new rules take effect on Nov. 26. These ban U.S. firms from sending remittances to the country via military-controlled companies like Fincimex, Western Union’s main Cuban partner.
Western Union said it had failed to find a solution in the one-month timeframe it was given.

“Our customers have our commitment that we will continue to explore every possible option to find a solution,” it said.

It may just be a question of time, however. as the team of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has signaled he will reverse Trump’s moves hurting family ties including remittances and travel.

Democrats must understand tyranny’s long shadow before they can woo Cuban Americans

Opinion Ana Menéndez Miami Herald

Cuban-American support for President Trump is the last revenge of Fidel Castro. And not just for the endlessly repeated observation that Fidel made “socialism” a dirty word. Fidel’s gift to Trump is more complicated, and if Democrats are ever to win over more Cubans, they’ll have to commit to understanding the mind warped by tyranny.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and jubilation filled the streets, my parents sat out the celebrations. “It’s a trick,” my father declared. Fidel had taught them to ignore the evidence before their own eyes. He’d injected them with a malignant cynicism that assumed that all leaders lie — often blatantly. And in their helplessness, they took refuge in the idea that the world was subject to all-powerful forces beyond their control.

At the start of Trump’s rise, I would despair that my own parents were seemingly blind to his autocratic bent: his demonization of enemies, his blatant lies, his dangerous attacks on democratic institutions (a tendency that has taken an even darker turn as a losing Trump trashes the electoral system in order to cling to power.)

What I had failed to understand, along with many fellow Democrats, is that autocracy is often the organizing structure of the mutilated body politic. The victims of dictatorship are forever vulnerable to its methods. One can observe the same paradox at work in other émigré communities.

Some on the American left have not helped matters with their sometimes uncritical support of repressive regimes. Bernie Sanders’ praise of Castro’s literacy campaign was a blunder. If you’re an anti-Trumper having trouble understanding why, imagine him seizing absolute power and forcing you into an exile where — years hence — some politician intones, “Say what you will about Trump, but at least he didn’t start any foreign wars.”

Like many Cubans, some Democrats have fallen victim to Cold War binaries that no longer speak to our world. We still talk of “left-wing” and “right-wing” dictatorships as if they weren’t books in the same malignant series. When you attack Trump while finding gems in Castro’s legacy, you’re saying that some autocracies are better than others. Which is exactly how Trump’s Cuban-American supporters — even those who acknowledge his anti-democratic tendencies — see his rule.

It’s important to emphasize that Cuban Americans did not hand the presidency to Trump (as too much post-election reaction had it): That dubious honor more rightfully goes to white women, 55% of whom, according to NBC News, voted for Trump. It’s important to note that his support in Florida also increased among other minority voters.

I can’t speak to how Democrats should engage voters from those groups. But I can implore them not to give up on Cuban Americans.

Instead, Democrats should emphasize their common ground with Cuban values. There are plenty of liberal Cuban Americans in Miami to help lead the way, starting with my friend Carmen Pelaez, who tirelessly led the Cubans for Biden campaign.

As I always remind my parents, I’m a liberal because of the way they raised me: to care for the poor, to work for social justice, to protect the environment. Cuban Americans have one of the highest sign-up rates for Obamacare. And everyone has an indigent Republican tio or abuelita on Medicaid or “disability.”

Yes, several heavily Cuban American districts helped hand Florida to Trump. But those same districts overwhelmingly voted to raise the minimum wage in Florida to $15 an hour — an initiative that passed thanks to their support.

My community has a lot of work to do. Racism remains endemic. Whiteness is celebrated, even by those who would not be considered white anywhere else. We are a people warped by colonialism and dictatorship and still profoundly alienated from ourselves. But our bedrock values remain surprisingly progressive, guided by José Martí’s conviction that we are free, but not to be indifferent to human suffering.

The Democratic Party would do well to engage the community on this deeper level: not as a separate and inscrutable “they”, but as equals in the fight for justice, always sensitive to the ways that exposure to tyranny can distort a peoples’ instincts of self-preservation. It’s training that will come in handy in the years to come as the Democrats begin to woo recovering Trump supporters as well.

Ana Menéndez, a writer and former journalist, is an associate professor with the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab and the Department of English at Florida International University.

Cuba welcomes first tourists in months

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba rolled out the red carpet on Friday for the first planeload of tourists to arrive on the Communist-run island in months as it struggles toward a post-pandemic new normalcy.

The import-dependent country has been plunged into crisis and scarcity by tough U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 outbreak.

The arrival was seen as a hopeful sign for tens of thousands of laid-off leisure industry employees, shuttered small businesses and hard-pressed residents in general.

An Air Canada plane arrived at midday at the Cayo-Coco airport on the northcentral coast. Air Canada Vacations, the airline’s tour business, said it would now fly weekly to Cuba and biweekly beginning next month.

Cuba closed its airports in March due to the pandemic. While some hotels are open under international sanitary regulations at resorts in isolated areas such as Cayo-Coco, there is no indication when Havana and other cities might allow foreign visitors to return.

Cuba has managed to control the pandemic in most of the country. But it is currently trying to contain a new outbreak in Havana, along with lesser outbreaks in a few other provinces.

The country has reported nearly 4,300 COVID-19 cases to date and 100 deaths.

Canada has long been Cuba’s most important tourist provider, accounting for 1.1 million of the 4.2 million arrivals in 2019, according to the government.

Industry revenues were $2.6 billion last year.

The United States bans residents from making tourist trips to Cuba as part of its decades-old trade embargo, but U.S. citizens can still travel to the Caribbean island for purposes including education.

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Cuba braces for Storm Eta after deadly toll in Central America

Honduras flood from Eta

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s meteorology office warned on Saturday of torrential rain and flooding as Tropical Depression Eta churned northwards towards the Caribbean island, and on track to Florida, after killing more than 70 people in Central America last week.

Eta could strengthen back into a tropical storm over the warm Caribbean waters before making landfall on the southern coast of central Cuba overnight, the office said, warning of coastal flooding and winds of 80-100 km per hour.

Flooding could be a problem more broadly, it said, given Cuba was already waterlogged in the wake of heavy rains of late and Eta could potentially dump more than 300mm of water on central and mountainous regions.

“As the ground is already saturated, any additional rain could provoke inundations especially in mountainous areas and along the rivers,” Cuba’s best known meteorologist Jose Rubiera said on the Friday evening news broadcast on state-run TV.

The northwestern coast, including Havana’s seafront, will probably flood moderately from Sunday to Tuesday, he said.

The government – well known for preparedness in the face of natural disasters – discussed measures on Friday to evacuate people, especially those living downstream from dams, and protect crops, homes and animals, according to state-run media.

Given Eta’s stormfront was uneven, there was the risk of torrential rain occurring across the entire country and Prime Minister Manuel Marrero warned against complacency in eastern or western regions.

The U.S. National Hurricane Centre (NHC) warned that flash and urban flooding would also be a possibility for the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, the Bahamas and southern Florida.

Tropical storm conditions were possible in the Florida Keys and south and central Florida from late Sunday, it said.

One of the fiercest storms to hit Central America in years, Eta struck Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday with winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph) before weakening to a tropical depression as it moved inland and into neighboring Honduras and Belize.

Across swathes of the mostly poor countries wedged between Mexico and Colombia, high winds, torrential rains and catastrophic flooding caused deadly mudslides and damaged hundreds if not thousands of homes.