CubaBrief: Havana’s economic reforms fail. Maduro bans opposition and Brain abnormalities in US Embassy patients in Cuba.

The headline on a well-documented article by The Miami Herald’s Nora Gamez Torres is true: “Raúl Castro’s economic reforms were supposed to make life better in Cuba. Didn’t happen.” Cubans are facing increased shortages, and the disastrous two currency system continues to exploit Cubans. Raul Castro, despite many efforts by the Europeans who forgave tens of millions of dollars of Havana’s debt, might not be able to make Cuba’s expected payments, negotiated as part of the debt restructuring. The article says the government has stopped issuing new licenses for the self-employed and mentioned the impact of Trump’s new policies on Raul Castro’s timid reforms. Missing in the article was the recent report by Amnesty International which denounced that the regime’s self-employment policies are a tool of repression. Anyone the government believes is not a 100% supportive did not get a license; and the tragic and little understood reality reported by The New York Times, [December 8, 2016] “Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates.”

In addition, you may want to read “Doctors identify brain abnormalities in US Embassy patients in Cuba,” Associated Press, December 6, 2017 and “Venezuela opposition banned from running in 2018 election,” BBC News, December 11, 2017.



The Miami Herald, December 11, 2017

Raúl Castro’s economic reforms were supposed to make life better in Cuba. Didn’t happen

By Nora Gámez Torres

Raúl Castro promised a better life for Cubans when he launched timid economic reforms and opened a few doors to private business. But after a decade in power, he will likely retire in the spring with the economy in recession for the second year in a row — an economic outlook that is worse than when he took control.

“There is little hope that the economy will finish 2017 with positive growth,” Cuban economist Pavel Vidal warned in the latest issue of the Cuba Standard magazine. “Our GDP [Gross Domestic Product] forecast for 2017 is in the range between -1.4 % and -0.3 %.”

Vidal heads the team that created the magazine’s independent index for evaluating the Cuban economy, the Cuba Standard Economic Trend Index, that correctly predicted the island’s recession last year.

Castro has said he will retire as president of the Councils of State and Ministers in February, when a new parliament selects a new national leadership. But he is expected to retain the job of first secretary of the powerful Communist Party of Cuba.

Although Castro started a limited string of reforms in a bid to jump-start the stalled economy he inherited from his late brother Fidel, he has been stymied by resistance from bureaucrats and lack of foreign investment.

“In many ways, Raúl Castro’s 10-year presidential rule, ending in February 2018, has been utterly disappointing,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba analyst at the Brookings Institution.

“Cuba’s economy is stagnant and economic reform has stalled,” Feinberg added.

The Cuba Standard report said positive results in agriculture, the sugar harvest, construction and tourism contributed to an upward tick in GDP in the first semester of this year, when the government claimed a 1.1 percent GDP growth. But that was not enough to make up for the overall loss of Venezuelan oil subsidies, low sugar and nickel prices, and damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

The government has not published official damage estimates for Irma, a Category 5 storm that lashed the northern coast of central Cuba. But Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca has said they total “many millions.”

The Castro government also stopped issuing licenses for new private businesses. Coupled with President Donald Trump’s new policies, the move could cause the first contraction of that sector since it was expanded in 2010.

The Cuba Standard report noted that although there is no data to support its analysis, it’s very probable that Trump’s decision to limit U.S. travel to Cuba and business deals with its military, as well as the mysterious incidents suffered by U.S. diplomats in Havana, will dampen the foreign investment and tourism sectors — including family restaurants and bed and breakfasts.

Although U.S. business relations with Cuba before Trump were mostly limited to airlines and cruise ships, the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations had reduced the perception of risk for investors, lenders and exporters who were betting that all U.S. sanctions on the island would soon be lifted.

But growing tensions with the United States and the poor performance of the economy have dampened investors’ enthusiasm. The Cuba Standard Business Confidence Index, which hit a high of 65.3 percent in 2015, has dropped by more than half and experts predict 2018 will be even worse.

The Cuban government, meanwhile, is also under pressure to pay the debts it recently renegotiated with the Paris Club and other lenders. The island faces “financial limitations at this time,” said Malmierca, repeating the same mantra of the past two years.

Restrictions on foreign credits and a shortage of hard currency revenues will likely force reductions in imports, the Cuba Standard report noted.

Cubans should get ready for more shortages, especially hard-felt during the upcoming holiday period, experts said.

China, Cuba’s largest trade partner, already announced a 29.8 percent cut in exports to the island over the past year because of Havana’s debt woes, Reuters reported.

And although Castro managed to diversify the island’s trade and investment partners, after two five-year terms in power he will leave behind an economy that produces fewer goods and is even more dependent on the export of services like medical personnel.

Following Vidal’s assessment, under Raúl Castro, manufacturing, retail and services like education and public health all dropped. All sectors of the economy that produce goods, with the exception of construction, lost ground from 2008 to 2016. The biggest growth was in tourism and telecommunications, he wrote.

Castro also has failed to resolve one of Cuba’s main problems: its two currencies. The many different exchange rates between the Cuban convertible peso, known as CUC, the national peso known as CUP and the U.S. dollar make it impossible to be sure that the government’s economic data are true.

“The postponement of monetary reform [to unify the two currencies] has in no way been favorable,” said the Cuba Standard report. “The price paid by the economy during all this time, in terms of transaction costs, competitivity, accounting transparency, and inefficient allocation of resources, is incalculable.”

The slow pace and limited scope of the reforms launched by Castro have been noted even in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba.

“Doubts, fears of the ghosts of the market and muffled domestic resistance can be seen in the delays in negotiations and stumbling blocks for foreign business people to hire Cuban workers and services,” one journalist wrote about the reforms.

“Without prosperity, socialism will always be a utopia,” the writer added.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

ABC News, December 6, 2017

Doctors identify brain abnormalities in US Embassy patients in Cuba

WASHINGTON — Dec 6, 2017, 5:47 PM ET

By Josh Lederman, Associated Press

The Associated Press

Doctors treating the U.S. embassy victims of suspected attacks in Cuba have discovered brain abnormalities as they search for clues to explain hearing, vision, balance and memory damage, The Associated Press has learned.

It’s the most specific finding to date about physical damage, showing that whatever it was that harmed the Americans, it led to perceptible changes in their brains. The finding is also one of several factors fueling growing skepticism that some kind of sonic weapon was involved.

Medical testing has revealed the embassy workers developed changes to the white matter tracts that let different parts of the brain communicate, several U.S. officials said, describing a growing consensus held by university and government physicians researching the attacks. White matter acts like information highways between brain cells.

Loud, mysterious sounds followed by hearing loss and ear-ringing had led investigators to suspect “sonic attacks.” But officials are now carefully avoiding that term. The sounds may have been the byproduct of something else that caused damage, said three U.S. officials briefed on the investigation. They weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly and demanded anonymity.

Physicians, FBI investigators and U.S. intelligence agencies have spent months trying to piece together the puzzle in Havana , where the U.S. says 24 U.S. government officials and spouses fell ill starting last year in homes and later in some hotels. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he’s “convinced these were targeted attacks ,” but the U.S. doesn’t know who’s behind them. A few Canadian Embassy staffers also got sick.

Doctors still don’t know how victims ended up with the white matter changes, nor how exactly those changes might relate to their symptoms. U.S. officials wouldn’t say whether the changes were found in all 24 patients.

But acoustic waves have never been shown to alter the brain’s white matter tracts, said Elisa Konofagou, a biomedical engineering professor at Columbia University who is not involved in the government’s investigation.

“I would be very surprised,” Konofagou said, adding that ultrasound in the brain is used frequently in modern medicine. “We never see white matter tract problems.”

Cuba has adamantly denied involvement, and calls the Trump administration’s claims that U.S. workers were attacked ” deliberate lies .” The new medical details may help the U.S. counter Havana’s complaint that Washington hasn’t presented any evidence.

Tillerson said the U.S. had shared some information with Havana, but wouldn’t disclose details that would violate privacy or help a perpetrator learn how effective the attacks were.

“What we’ve said to the Cubans is: Small island. You’ve got a sophisticated intelligence apparatus. You probably know who’s doing it. You can stop it,” Tillerson said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The case has plunged the U.S. medical community into uncharted territory. Physicians are treating the symptoms like a new, never-seen-before illness. After extensive testing and trial therapies, they’re developing the first protocols to screen cases and identify the best treatments — even as the FBI investigation struggles to identify a culprit, method and motive.

Doctors treating the victims wouldn’t speak to the AP, yet their findings are expected to be discussed in an article being submitted to the Journal of the American Medical Association, U.S. officials said. Physicians at the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania who have treated the Cuba victims are writing it, with input from the State Department’s medical unit and other government doctors.

But the article won’t speculate about what technology might have harmed the workers or who would have wanted to target Americans in Cuba. If investigators are any closer to solving those questions, their findings won’t be made public.

The AP first reported in August that U.S. workers reported sounds audible in parts of rooms but inaudible just a few feet away — unlike normal sound, which disperses in all directions. Doctors have now come up with a term for such incidents: “directional acoustic phenomena.”

Most patients have fully recovered, some after rehabilitation and other treatment, officials said. Many are back at work. About one-quarter had symptoms that persisted for long periods or remain to this day.

Earlier this year, the U.S. said doctors found patients had suffered concussions, known as mild traumatic brain injury, but were uncertain beyond that what had happened in their brains. Concussions are often diagnosed based solely on symptoms.

Studies have found both concussions and white matter damage in Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who survived explosions yet had no other physical damage. But those injuries were attributed mostly to shock waves from explosions. No Havana patients reported explosions or blows to the head.

Outside medical experts said that when the sample of patients is so small, it’s difficult to establish cause and effect.

“The thing you have to wonder anytime you see something on a scan: Is it due to the episode in question, or was it something pre-existing and unrelated to what happened?” said Dr. Gerard Gianoli, an ear and brain specialist in Louisiana.

As Cuba works to limit damage to its reputation and economy, its government has produced TV specials and an online summit about its own investigation. Cuba’s experts have concluded that the Americans’ allegations are scientifically impossible.

The Cubans have urged the U.S. to release information about what it’s found. FBI investigators have spent months comparing cases to pinpoint what factors overlap.

U.S. officials told the AP that investigators have now determined:

— The most frequently reported sound patients heard was a high-pitched chirp or grating metal. Fewer recalled a low-pitched noise, like a hum.

— Some were asleep and awakened by the sound, even as others sleeping in the same bed or room heard nothing.

— Vibrations sometimes accompanied the sound. Victims told investigators these felt similar to the rapid flutter of air when windows of a car are partially rolled down.

— Those worst off knew right away something was affecting their bodies. Some developed visual symptoms within 24 hours, including trouble focusing on a computer screen.

The U.S. has not identified any specific precautions it believes can mitigate the risk for diplomats in Havana, three officials said, although an attack hasn’t been reported since late August. Since the Americans started falling ill last year, the State Department has adopted a new protocol for workers before they go to Cuba that includes bloodwork and other “baseline” tests. If they later show symptoms, doctors can retest and compare.

Doctors still don’t know the long-term medical consequences and expect that epidemiologists, who track disease patterns in populations, will monitor the 24 Americans for life. Consultations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are underway.


AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.


Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at Follow the AP’s coverage of the Cuba attacks at

BBC News, December 11, 2017

Venezuela opposition banned from running in 2018 election

11 December 2017

Venezuela’s President, Nicolás Maduro, says the country’s main opposition parties are banned from taking part in next year’s presidential election.

He said only parties which took part in Sunday’s mayoral polls would be able to contest the presidency.

Leaders from the Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action parties boycotted the vote because they said the electoral system was biased.

President Maduro insists the Venezuelan system is entirely trustworthy.

In a speech on Sunday, he said the opposition parties had “disappeared from the political map”.

“A party that has not participated today and has called for the boycott of the elections can’t participate anymore,” he said.

In October, the three main opposition parties announced they would be boycotting Sunday’s vote, saying it only served what they called President Maduro’s dictatorship.

President Maduro says his party won more than 300 of the 335 mayoral races being contested. The election board put turn out at 47%.

Venezuela has been mired in a worsening economic crisis characterised by shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation.

Maduro divides and conquers

Katy Watson, BBC Latin America correspondent – Barquisimeto, Venezuela

Mr Maduro’s pronouncement is designed to provoke the opposition. Especially since he justified the move saying it was a condition set out by the National Constituent Assembly – a body that the opposition refuses to recognise because they say it is undemocratic.

Mr Maduro has lost popularity because of the worsening economic crisis. In the face of criticism, his strategy has been one of “divide and conquer” – find ways of weakening the opposition to make them less of a threat.

And he hs succeeded – he has imprisoned some of the most popular opposition leaders like Leopoldo López. He has prevented others like Henrique Capriles from running for office. And now this threat – banning the most influential parties from taking part in future elections. The opposition is in crisis and Mr Maduro is gloating.

Mr Maduro said he was following the criteria set by the National Constituent Assembly in banning opposition parties from contesting next year’s election.

But the assembly, which came into force in August and has the ability to rewrite the constitution, is made up exclusively of government loyalists. Opposition parties see it as a way for the president to cling to power.

The presidential vote had been scheduled for December 2018, but analysts say it could now be brought forward.

Venezuela, in the north of South America, is home to more than 30 million people. It has some of the world’s largest oil deposits as well as huge quantities of coal and iron ore.

·  What has Venezuela’s constituent assembly achieved?

Despite its rich natural resources many Venezuelans live in poverty. This led President Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, to style himself as a champion of the poor during his 14 years in office.

Now the country is starkly divided between supporters of President Maduro and those who want an end to the Socialist Party’s 18 years in government.

Supporters of Mr Maduro say his party has lifted many people out of poverty, but critics say it has eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy.