CubaBrief: Repression in the Time of Coronavirus, Day 1 of the Covid-19 Emergency in Cuba, and some good news at the OAS

Cuba’s dictatorship bills itself as a medical superpower exporting Cuban doctors around the world for profit, in an arrangement that has been identified as human trafficking by some and called slavery by others. Beyond profiting off the doctors, the Castro regime also uses healthcare to leverage support and patient treatment is conditioned on their obedience to advancing Raul Castro’s objectives. The New York Times reported that Cuban doctors in Venezuela were ordered to deny or ration care to advance Nicolas Maduro’s election prospects in the March 17, 2019 article, “It Is Unspeakable’: How Maduro Used Cuban Doctors to Coerce Venezuela Voters.”

Mary O’Grady pointed out in her March 22nd article “Repression in the Time of Coronavirus” that with the collapse in oil prices, and tourism due to the coronavirus the Cuban dictatorship is scrambling for hard currency. They are also trying to combine this with a propaganda offensive promoting their healthcare system and medical doctors by sending medical brigades to hard hit areas around the world, and using their agents of influence to provide positive media coverage.

The situation in Cuba is worrisome, but the international press has not been paying much attention. The Cuban government was welcoming tourists through mid March 2020, and claiming that Cuba’s sun and tropical temperatures would kill the coronavirus in digital ads over social media targeting Europeans. Furthermore, one of the main sources of tourism to Cuba is mainland China. This does not bode well.

Meanwhile at the Organization of American States there is some good news to share, Luis Almagro was re-elected OAS secretary general for a second term despite a strong campaign waged against him by Caracas and Havana.

The Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2020

Repression in the Time of Coronavirus

Venezuelan oil and Cuban tourism collapse. The despots scramble for dollars.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

March 22, 2020 3:47 pm ET

Given the credibility that President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden lent to Cuban propaganda while they were in office, I half-expected to see them enjoying spring break in Varadero Beach last week.

The regime said Friday it will close its borders to foreigners starting March 24. But until now Havana has been trying to make lemonade out of the coronavirus by advertising Cuban holidays as an escape from the pandemic. The independent Cuban news outlet 14ymedio reported last week that regime tour companies were boasting about the island’s state-of-the-art health-care system, saying it’s capable of taking on the contagious virus. This is known as being hard up for hard currency.

Cuba already has been denounced for treating its medical workers like chattel when it sends them abroad to earn money for the regime and indoctrinate populations. But now it’s doubling down on the scheme, claiming that Havana is stepping up to help the world in a time of crisis.

It also maintains it makes magic in its pharmaceutical labs. Doctors around the world have long relied on interferon as an immune-system booster for treating viral infections and other illnesses. But now Cuba is using its army of global influencers to promote claims that its production of a type of the drug is the cutting-edge of science.

Italian tourists have experienced a different reality. A 61-year-old from the Lombardy region of Italy died of the virus on Wednesday at Havana’s Pedro Kuri Institute for Tropical Diseases, one of the island’s best hospitals. Another Italian corona patient, confined in the same facility, complained bitterly on social media about no toilet paper, no spoons for soup, no news about her condition and no communication with doctors.

In a country where soap and water are luxuries, ramping up traffic from Europe was a precarious strategy. But desperate times spawn crackpot measures, and the Cuban economy is skating dangerously close to the edge. The regime needs dollars to maintain the police state that has kept it in power for six decades. Its problem today, in a word, is oil.

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14ymedio, March 21, 2020

Day 1 of the Covid-19 Emergency in Cuba

For weeks we had been crying out for tourism to be cut off and for the national media to warn of the seriousness of the situation. (EFE)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 March 2020 — I got up before the sun came up and had a coffee on the balcony, 14 floors above the ground. The city was still silent and dark. A few hours earlier they had announced measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus on the Island, so this Saturday we entered an unknown territory: zero hugs, social distancing, practically closed borders, hotels turned into quarantine zones and 11 million people “regulated” and unable to leave the country. (“Regulated” is a term the government applies to those it finds “uncomfortable” and bars from leaving the country.)

For weeks we had been crying out for tourism to be cut off and for the national media to warn of the seriousness of the situation, but official voices preferred triumphalism and spread the idea that we were more than prepared to face the disease. Yesterday, that arrogance was shattered. The same people who a few days before had been speaking of not creating alarm and of the superiority of the Cuban health system recognized the “silent advance of the disease,” the possible “collapse of the health system” and the need for isolation.

In an hour, we went from caricatures of nurses batting the virus away from the Island, to official faces marked by worry. In my neighborhood something has also changed since that afternoon, but many still find it hard to believe that we are facing a danger we can’t see, one that does not come with strong winds like a hurricane and that nobody can pinpoint on a map. However, even the most disbelieving have begun to have a lost look and avoid greeting each other with kisses or handshakes.

From the early hours, the arrival of eggs and potatoes at the rationed market generated long lines and even the odd fight. The line at the bottom of the building was a sample of the aging population that lives in the neighborhood and throughout Cuba: bags, gray hair and canes. Occasionally someone who coughed caused a stir. I was finally able to buy the eggs but I couldn’t find potatoes. “At least it’s something,” I said to myself even though I’d had the illusion of mashed potatoes for lunch.

This morning a neighbor knocked on our door to ask for some water. For months the building’s motor can only be started once a day because the cistern can’t fill up. In the afternoon, when the liquid begins to run through the pipes, the residents of the 144 apartments in this Yugoslav model concrete block begin a race against the clock to store the precious liquid in tanks, buckets and pots. With the announcements this Friday, that anxiety has multiplied.

So I also stored my water reserves and took out the sewing machine that has not been used for years. In the absence of masks in pharmacies, I want to make my own protection kit for when the situation worsens. I have found a piece of cloth that can help me and I have also located a bottle of alcohol, some vitamins and a thermometer with a dead battery. We are fine, because others don’t even have that.

Getting the sewing machine going again has taken me over an hour. I’d even forgotten which way the thread had to go to get to the needle. After several attempts I managed to make a firm seam on the fabric. The sound relaxed me for a few minutes and brought me back to my childhood, when hurricane emergencies were days of storytelling around a flashlight, eating canned food, and not going to class.

As I thread, cut the pieces that will make the mask and hit the pedal of the machine, I listen to the radio. They transmit a special program on the coronavirus in which voluntarism and restlessness still alternate, along with a certain chauvinistic arrogance in response to the uneasiness before the number of patients who have tested positive, which has already reached 21, two of them in serious condition.

The presenters constantly make nationalistic allusions, point out the failures of other countries to curb infections and sing praises to the “Chinese response” to the disease. If the words specific to Covid-19 were dropped, it would seem that the announcers are speaking of some ideological battle against our neighbor to the north or of the need to over produce in some area of agriculture.

“Onions!” Shouts a vendor in the hallway and brings me back to the reality of my home, my building, and my neighborhood. “Take advantage of it now!” he adds in a tone between a merchant and a sergeant. “Come on, buy onions, they are the last!” he emphasizes and suddenly I feel that life as we knew it until yesterday has ended.

MercoPress, March 21, 2020

OAS General Assembly re-elects Luis Almagro as Secretary General

The 54th Special General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Friday re-elected Luis Almagro as Secretary-General and Nestor Mendez as Assistant Secretary-General of the Organization.

Secretary-General Almagro, from Uruguay, was re-elected with 23 of the 33 votes cast by member states. Candidate María Fernanda Espinosa, from Ecuador, obtained 10 votes and one country was absent.

Following his re-election, Secretary-General Almagro expressed his thanks to those that supported his candidacy and vowed “I will continue to dedicate all efforts to ensure more rights for more people in all the 34 member states.”

Assistant Secretary-General Nestor Mendez, from Belize, was re-elected by acclamation. He said, “I pledge my commitment to ensuring that this Organization is optimally positioned to assist each of its member states in addressing the global pandemic and other crises plaguing our world at this time.”

Both Secretary-General Almagro and Assistant Secretary-General Mendez will fulfill their second mandate for five years starting May 26, 2020. Neither of them will be eligible for re-election once they complete their second term. The Assembly was held at OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated the Uruguayan diplomat and in a brief statement said that ”with Secretary-General Almagro continuing at the helm, I am confident about the future of the OAS and the Americas“.

”Under Almagro’s principled leadership, which the member-states have now renewed, the United States will continue to work with our partners at the OAS to promote and defend democracy, human rights, security, and economic prosperity for the people of the Americas.

“Today’s vote by OAS Member States shows that even in the most challenging of times, such as what we are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic, our Hemisphere of Freedom remains steadfast in safeguarding our shared values.”

Secretary Pompeo also outlined what can be considered an unofficial agenda of US interests for the second period of Almagro.

“As we overcome the threat to public health posed by COVID-19, the peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean face other challenges, such as the full restoration of democracy in Nicaragua and Venezuela; adherence to free, fair and credible electoral processes in Guyana; and holding the Cuban regime accountable for its malign activities”.

“Opportunities abound as well, including the upcoming democratic elections in Bolivia and implementing an array of OAS programs and initiatives to boost resilience; strengthen democratic governance, human rights, and fundamental freedoms; and bolster economic competitiveness and development in the region”.