Biden backtracked on his campaign promise to reverse Trump’s draconian sanctions on Cuba and is maintaining them, despite the pandemic and Raul Castro’s departure from the country’s leadership. Documentary filmmaker Reed Lindsay joins host Greg Wilpert to talk about what this has meant for Cuba.
Welcome to theAnalysis, I’m Greg Wilpert. Last week, Raul Castro stepped down as leader of Cuba’s Communist Party. One could say that this signaled the end of an era, although one could also say that it has been a long drawn-out end. With the death of Fidel Castro in 2016, Raul Castro stepping down from the presidency in 2018 and turning it over to Miguel Diaz-Canel. And now, three years later, Diaz-Canel also takes over the leadership of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, Cuba is facing a severe economic crisis first caused by the intensification of U.S. sanctions against Cuba during the Trump presidency, and now the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Joining me to discuss the current situation in Cuba is Reed Lindsey, who joins me from Cuba’s capital, Havana. Reed is a documentary filmmaker, and the director of the film series The War on Cuba, which was produced by the film organization Belly of The Beast, which is available on social media and YouTube. Thanks for joining me, Reed.
Thanks Greg for having me.
So let’s start with the party Congress and Raul Castro stepping down. Raul himself emphasized the slogan of continuity, but how is Raul’s departure being perceived by ordinary Cubans? Is it more associated with more of the same? Or are there expectations that some things will change? And if so, what?
Well, I think when it comes to Raul and you could probably say the same about Fidel, there was a much greater focus on it in the United States than in Cuba as far as the possibility of change. That this Congress got a lot of coverage in the U.S. and internationally, and people asking this question about what does this mean for Cuba? Will there be a big change? I can’t say that I noticed a lot of ordinary Cubans talking about this much. I think that continuity is assumed, and I also think that right now, the economic situation is so dire at the moment that most Cubans are very focused on the day to day trying to get through the economic crisis, this COVID crisis, which is related to the economic crisis, and the recent Communist Party Congress is sort of something that everybody knew was going to happen anyway, and not something that people were really focused on as something that was going to produce any kind of political change.
As you mentioned, the two main challenges that Cuba is facing and also, as I mentioned in the introduction are the economic crisis and the sanctions, and the pandemic. So let’s start with the sanctions and the economic crisis, which is also the main topic of your film series, The War on Cuba. Give us a brief overview as to how the U.S. Cuba relationship has evolved since Obama’s opening towards Cuba in 2014 and 2015?
Yes. Obama ushered in historic change with Cuba, engagement with Cuba, and it seemed a real fundamental change in the way politics and policy around Cuba happened in the United States. I mean, for many years to win an election in the United States, you needed to pander to the Cuban-American hardliners in Florida, and Obama seemed to break with that and engaging with Cuba, and it seemed like there was a political calculation behind it. In other words, I don’t need them to win Florida, and he didn’t. Because of the changing demographics, it seemed the waning influence of the Cuban-American community in Florida, greater numbers of Latin American immigrants from other parts of the Americas. Younger. Older Cuban-Americans who are more hardliner in their views dying out, and younger generations not caring so much and not wanting this embargo to continue, and it seemed things had really changed and there was no going back.
In fact, during the Republican primaries in late 2015, early 2016, we interviewed Cubans about the Republican candidates and asked them what their thoughts were. It was really interestingbecause a lot of them saw Trump not favorably, they all preferred the Democrat, they all preferred Clinton, but they didn’t see Trump as a threat to Obama’s policy. In fact, we have one great clip in The War in Cuba, of a young man saying that it was irreversible.
When we asked him, we thought things could change the Republican candidate. He said, absolutely not. It’s irreversible. We can’t go back now. Cat’s out of the box. It’s over, but Trump was elected and things did go back. Not only they go back to how they were before Obama, it was even worse in some ways. There are some ways in which Trump’s policy towards Cuba was worse than ever.
For example, he implemented Title III of Helms-Burton, which allows for lawsuits in the United States against companies for allegedly trafficking in stolen property. So there are Spanish companies that have joint ventures with the Cuban government, hotels, and whatnot, and they can be sued by a U.S. citizen who’s Cuban who owned that property in the past, and it was nationalized. That had never been done before.
These lawsuits don’t seem to have a lot of potential for succeeding, but they’ve really been extremely damaging in terms of stopping foreign investments, just scaring away foreign investors. On other things, Trump just rolled back everything that Obama had done. So all of the tourism from the United States that was occurring under Obama, influx the tourists from the U.S. that stopped, because they made it more difficult for U.S. tourists to go.
The commercial flights continued, but they were scaled way back. There were no more flights to provinces only to Havana. The cruise ships that were coming to the island stopped completely. This is toward the end of the administration but put Cuba back on the state sponsor of terrorism list, which is also not just a symbolic thing. It actually has a big impact, because there are consequences to dealing with a state sponsor of terror for other governments, and companies, banks, and so on.
So it’s another thing that strengthens the embargo and makes it more difficult for Cuba to have relations, commercial relations with other countries. They imposed an oil blockade, so that Cuba had great difficulty in obtaining oil from Venezuela. As a result, there was an energy crisis in Cuba. They cut back remittances. Right now, if you wanted to send money, it would be very difficult to arrange that. You literally have to probably come here with cash to be able to get any money, because, from the U.S., you can’t do it.
You used to be able to do it through Western Union. That’s no longer possible. He carried out a very strong campaign against Cuba’s International Medical Program, Cuba’s doctors. Thirty thousand doctors all around the world are on missions, many of them are altruistic, and Cuba receives nothing in return, but in some cases, Cuba does receive money in return. They use that money to subsidize the health care system. In the case of, for example, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, those doctors were sent home.
In Bolivia, it didn’t matter. Cuba doesn’t make any money there, but in Brazil, they did receive a fair amount of money, and they use that money again to subsidize the health care system. So that was gone. The U.S. government has attacked Cuba on all fronts. Even before COVID hit, the situation was very bad. In fact, in The War in Cuba, one of the people we interviewed says that things were getting as bad as they were during the special period.
The 90s have the fall of the Soviet Union when Cuba was in a major depression, and then COVID hit. Whatever Trump was unable to do, COVID has done. So the economic situation is very dire right now. The sanctions have not lifted, and they’ve only intensified under COVID, under Trump, and under Biden, it’s been the status quo so far. While there’s a lot of hope with Biden being elected that he would reassume Obama’s policy, having been vice president under Obama, and having brought in his administration some people who were very pro-engagement and directly involved in engagement, so far that hasn’t happened. His administration has given every indication that at least in the short term, it’s not going to happen. In fact, his special assistant, Juan Gonzalez, who’s also the National Security Council, the person in charge of the NSC Council for Latin American Policy came out and has said to The New Yorker and also to CNN publicly that he said that Biden is not Obama when it comes to Cuba policy that they are not going to invest political capital in the short term.
Essentially, he’s alluding to Florida and the fact that there will be a political cost for reversing Trump’s policies. It will cost them votes in Florida potentially and it’s just not something that they want to do in the short term. They might do some measures like restore the ability to send remittances, and try to make travel for family members easier, but outside of that, they’re not going to do much.
There’s one other thing that Trump did, which is very significant, he closed the embassy, because of alleged sonic attacks, which by all accounts, all the evidence we have were neither sonic nor attacks. There’s no evidence of either. Based on this idea of these alleged attacks by Cuba or Russia are some enemy of the United States and again, no evidence of attacks, but based on that, they shutter the embassy, which makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for Cubans to get a visa, to travel to the United States.
If you’re a Cuban and want to get a visa right now, you’ve got to go to Guyana, or Mexico, or Columbia, spent thousands of dollars. Wait there for two weeks while the whole process is taking place, and even then, they reject about 80 percent of the visas. So for most people, even well-known musicians who have contacts, who are getting invitations to travel and so on, they can’t go. So that’s had a huge impact on Cuba’s economy and culturally as well as far as just exchanges with the United States. There isn’t any indication Biden is going to change that, because Gonzalez also said, and this is really telling. He said when he was asked about this question about restoring consular services, he said, the thing is, we can’t do that, because of a threat to our diplomats, because of the microwave attacks or whatever it is they’re calling it these days.
He literally said whatever it is they’re calling it these days. In other words, he didn’t really seem to give much importance of whatever it is they are calling it, and they are calling it microwave attacks. Now, it’s no longer sonic attacks, now it’s microwave attacks. Although there really isn’t any evidence of any such microwave weapon that could inflict the damage that supposedly was caused on these diplomats. So there’s really no evidence that they were microwave either. The most recent study that came out about that from the National Academy of Sciences said that the microwave attacks was… It didn’t say that there were microwave attacks. It said that of all of the possibilities we consider, this seems to be more likely than the others, but still no evidence and still probably not likely to have occurred, but it still is being used politically as a pretext to not reopen the embassy.
To take that on and to reopen it would be, obviously for Biden, assuming political costs, and it’s one that the administration doesn’t seem willing to assume. In the meantime, the economy here is just in dire straits. It’s really bad. The Cubans are waiting for hours in line to get food, increasing scarcities of food, medicine, antibiotics, basic things that even during the sanctions under Trump but now with COVID, and the further tightening of sanctions, it’s even harder.
I spoke recently with an official who was telling me that, for example, banks that they were dealing with in Europe and Switzerland, they’re having more and more difficulty dealing with. They’re not accepting the transactions. The embargo is difficult. It’s not necessarily that Cuba can’t get this medication from the United States, and they can only get it from the U.S. Usually, you can get medication from another country, but let’s say Cuba wants to do business with India for the generic drug, then the problem is doing business getting the drug from India, but it’s sending the money to india because the banks there won’t accept the money, because if they do, they could be fined essentially by the U.S. So it’s very difficult for Cuba to do business. It makes it so that the cost for Cuba for obtaining anything from outside is far higher than it would be otherwise, and the result is scarcities here on the ground.
So things are very difficult now. The hope is that the vaccine, which is in the final phases right now and is coming, it will be rolled out very soon, will sort of open the country, up to tourism again, and allow the economy to get rolling once again.
Well, in the meantime though, has the Cuban government done anything to address the sanctions or the embargo and the tightening or the difficult economic situation in Cuba?
Has the government done anything to address the… In what sense?
Well, it’s of course, very difficult, but, trying to replace imports or trying to increase domestic production in some way in order to be less dependent on imports or something like that.
Yeah, the government is. Well first, the Cuban government has been dealing with the embargo for six decades, so this is an intensification of that. Obviously, it’s very difficult to identify to you who’s fault is what. On this debate with the lack of production in Cuba and Cuba’s dependence on imports for food, for example. How much fault does the embargo have? How much fault does the Cuban government have? When you read an article in The New York Times or in a mainstream publication, they will always cite mismanagement of the economy. It’s almost like they’ve got those words, they copy and paste, because it’s in every article. Cuba’s economy is terrible, because of mismanagement economy and then because of the embargo. So it’s those two things, but which is which. It’s difficult to know. Clearly, the Cuban government can take measures, and one of the measures it has been taking in recent years is opening the economy up or trying to moving in that direction at least. There is a new constitution that was passed that allows for private companies to be formed, private businesses. That is completely new. That expanded the list of what they call cuentapropistas, which are sort of small business owners. It was more restricted in terms of what activities they could do. That’s been expanded recently.
They’ve sort of been deregulating the agricultural sector. There was a law that was passed just very recently, a regulation rather, about the ability to slaughter cattle, for example. So there have been measures to try to spark more investment. There has been talk of opening up investment more to Cuban-Americans, for example, and making things easier for the private sector in Cuba to grow. So that seems to be the direction the government is moving in in terms of trying to deal with the economic situation.
It’s sort of the direction though that it was moving even when things were opening up with Obama, so I don’t think that’s necessarily. I think some of the measures are a response to depending on maybe how fast they move, a response to the embargo, and how desperate things are happening. One of the biggest economic measures in their last year, for example, has been the unification of the currency. Which, and I’m not an expert in economy, but I think the basic idea is there were two currencies, and one of the ideas behind it is that there’s a lot of state companies that are inefficient and essentially losing money because they’re selling goods in one currency and buying them in another, and by eliminating the dual currently having a single currency, the idea is that some of these companies will go out of business, and some of the business will be replaced by the private sector.
So those are the type of reforms that are going on. It’s at a slow pace, and it’s happening, but it’s also very hard in the context of the sanctions plus COVID, and the total lack of tourism, and very little economic activity. This is not quite the environment in which new businesses are flourishing or investments coming in. Everybody’s sort of braced trying to get through at least until this COVID situation improves, and tourism starts to return, and money starts to flow back into the country. I think last year the numbers were that Cuba had about half of the foreign currency that it had a year before. I mean, that’s a pretty major blow. It’s incredible the country is still afloat, given it has half the money to work with as far as a foreign currency.
All right. Now, I want to turn to the second challenge, which you already addressed, which is specifically the pandemic. One of the successes that Cuba can point to is that it has had a very low infection rate. Why has that been the case? What has Cuba done to minimize the spread of the virus?
Well, Cuba’s health care system, which is universal and free is based on preventative community-based health care. So that’s the underpinnings of the entire health care system. I’ve spoken with U.S. citizens who are graduates of Cuba’s Latin-American Medical School here who are in the U.S. on the front lines fighting against COVID in communities in the U.S., and they’ve told me we were really prepared for this because we know how to deal with limited supplies. We know how to deal with epidemics, because that’s what they’re trained in doing, and they are trained in doing it in a very preventative way.
So when COVID hit, first of all, there was a mask mandate almost immediately, which I remember talking with people in the U.S., because there was some debate earlier about the masks and whether it really worked. I think I remember talking to my mom and her saying, well, yeah, but you’re not so sure the masks maybe don’t even help. Cuba was obligatory from the very beginning. You have to wear masks everywhere, they were right about that, and it continues to this day. There’s no debate about that. You have to wear a mask. Everybody wears a mask. You don’t leave the house without it. They’re very well equipped to do this, because of the community-based health care and the fact that there’s a doctor and a clinic in every neighborhood, there’s one just a block from where I live and it’s free and they know everybody who’s in my neighborhood. They know who I am, and they know my health history, as well as all my neighbors.
So when COVID hit, they did what is called Pues quizás he, which is going door to door every day. So every day, there was a knock on the door, a doctor or nurse, sometimes dental students, medical students, sort of a whole army of mostly young people going to door to door every single day. How are you feeling? Asking are you washing your hands? Answering any questions you might have about prevention, and just nipping things in the bud, making sure that there are no symptoms, and anyone with symptoms, immediately, they would be attended to. What I think is the biggest thing that they did to keep the numbers low is contact tracing. The contact tracing is really remarkable here. If there is a COVID case, they immediately form an emergency team brigade, that is done through the local health clinic, but that is also coordinated through the larger health authorities, and municipal, and provincial.
They come to the neighborhood, and they survey the whole neighborhood. Anybody who has been in contact with a person, family members, neighbors, and so on, other people, colleagues at work. They got in a taxi. They tracked down the taxi driver. Initially, all of those people were going to isolation. They create isolation centers in schools and public buildings, and people will go, and you’d spend two weeks in isolation centers. Not the people with COVID. The people with COVID go to hospitals, everyone, that’s automatic. So there’s no question about that, and then people who are contacts with people who had COVID would go into isolation. Now, the cases have risen quite a bit since December, so there are not enough facilities for the people who are contacts. If you’re a contact, you have to stay in your home. You don’t leave your house for approximately 10 days or two weeks. If you’re coming into the country, it’s the same deal. I just recently went to the U.S. then came back, I had to isolate for eight days. I had the PCR test the day I got arrived. I couldn’t leave my house for five days. Another PCR test, two days later, came back negative, and I could leave my house.
So the other thing, though, as you mentioned is Cuba’s developing COVID vaccines, and I believe they’re five. Two of which are in the third and final phase of trials at the moment. Now, if successful, that would make Cuba probably the only developing country to create a COVID vaccine. How did this come about? And as far as you know, Cuba planning to do with these vaccines?
Well, Cuba has a real cutting edge biotech sector, despite being a country with very few resources and that faces all the challenges of the embargo. Since the 1980s, Fidel Castro took a great interest in this possibility, and they invested a lot of the few resources that they had into developing a biotech sector and the ability to not depend on the United States. That is really a response to the embargo because Cuba would be in big trouble right now like a lot in other countries are if it didn’t produce its own vaccine, because it’s sure not getting it from the U.S. Even if the U.S. wasn’t hoarding vaccines, Cuba would not be getting the vaccine from the United States and possibly not from other countries as well.
So I think a recognition of that and that Cuba had to be sovereign and not be dependent in the area of health. This biotech sector was developed. In fact, the vaccine, the one that I probably will have. They came to my house just the other day, and knocked on my door, doing a survey again trying to figure out who’s in the neighborhood to prepare for the vaccine, because it’s being rolled out in Havana.
If not right now, in the coming week in my neighborhood, it’ll be on May 8. They’ll start to distribute the vaccine, and all of Havana, close to two million people are going to be vaccinated in the coming weeks. So, anyway, the vaccine that I would be getting is called Soberana, which means sovereign. The meaning is obvious. Cuba is very proud of its sovereignty, and its biotech sector is a big example of that. There are all sorts of institutions that are dedicated to the research and development of vaccines and other medicines. Cuba produces the majority of medicines, basic medicines as well, not vaccines. Again, because they know they can’t depend on it, although that sector is also very affected by the embargo because often they can’t get the basic ingredients they need to produce them. So they have the labs. They know how to produce them. They have all the technology, but they can’t get certain reagents or the chemicals or whatever it is they need to produce the medications they need. In fact, right now, there’s a big campaign happening in the United States and around the world to donate syringes, because Cuba has the vaccines, they don’t have syringes. There’s a scarcity of syringes. So those are the type of challenges Cuba has.
It’s sort of crazy, syringe is sort of the basic thing. It’s a common thing that you can’t get here, but yet they have this incredible technology. They’re producing vaccines, whereas no other country in Latin America is doing so. Now the idea with a vaccine is that they’re producing enough not just for Cuba, for other countries as well. There are clinical trials going on in Iran, and so Iran will also be rolling out the Cuban vaccine shortly.
Cuba’s international medical program is about south-south cooperation, and I expect that the vaccine will be a part of that in terms of… They’ve announced that they’re going to have a hundred million doses by the end of the year. I don’t know… For some of the vaccines, it takes multiple doses to complete the cycle. So I don’t know exactly how many will be exported, and they haven’t really clarified that, but the expectation is that the vaccine will be going to different parts around the world. There are countries and people in different countries in the south around the world that realize they’re not going to be able to get the U.S. vaccine that they have been asking for. In fact, Columbia, which is very close to U.S. ally, there have been increasing calls in Columbia, even among mainstream publications. They’re calling for the government to try to work with Cuba to get the cuban vaccine because they know they’re not going to get it from the U.S.
OK, well, we’ve covered a lot, so I think we’re going to leave it there. I was speaking to Reed Lindsay, a documentary filmmaker and director of the film series The War on Cuba, which you can get on the bellyofthebeastcuba.com. Thanks again, Reed, for having joined me today.
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