CubaBrief: Former Brazilian president with ten person entourage arrived in Cuba with COVID-19 on December 21, 2020. Did they bring a new variant?

Reuters quoted on June 8, 2020 Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel claiming they “could be shortly closing in on the tail end of the pandemic and entering the phase of recovery from COVID.” Official media echoed this same line at the time. Six months later and COVID-19 continues to be a challenge in Cuba, and the regime on December 28, 2020 placed new travel restrictions on flights to and from the United States, Mexico, Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Data provided by official regime sources used for the above chart.

Data provided by official regime sources used for the above chart.

However, ideological considerations apparently continue to take precedent over health concerns. Brazil right now is a COVID-19 disaster, and the Biden Administration is maintaining Brazil on its list of COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Guardian has described the COVID-19 situation in Brazil as a “complete massacre, a horror film.” This did not deter the Castro regime from inviting the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, from traveling to Cuba to take part in a Oliver Stone documentary.

According to Reuters, “Lula tested negative before flying to Cuba on Dec. 21 and then positive five days later in Havana in tests that showed that he was infected before arriving on the island.” Nine out of the 10 members of his entourage tested positive for COVID-19 and one of them spent two weeks hospitalized in Havana, reported the wire service. It is a safe bet that Raul Castro and his minion, Miguel Diaz-Canel, were already vaccinated against the coronavirus, but what about the other Cubans exposed when they came in contact with the Brazilian delegation? Did the former Brazilian president have one of the variants that is wreaking havoc in the South American country, and may be causing re-infections of individuals who have already contracted COVID-19 or been vaccinated?

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The Castro regime, which provides data on health indicators without independent experts to corroborate their claims, has been reporting that they had COVID-19 under control and until the fall of 2020 kept reporting very low numbers. There was reason to question this data.

Cuban demographer Sergio Díaz-Brisquet interviewed by Nora Gamez of the Miami Herald on May 5, 2020 explained that “preventive measures were taken late, and many have not been implemented fully, mostly because the government does not have enough resources. There is not even enough soap.” Mr. Díaz-Brisquet added in the same article that “Cuba has other health indicators such as an aged population and higher percentages of people with pre-existing conditions that would suggest they have a more serious problem.”

Cuba watchers understood that the official line did not reflect the reality on the ground. Cuban-American economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago observed in a Harvard webinar on May 1, 2020 that in Cuba, “there is no independent entity that can report its own [coronavirus] figures or criticize the government’s data.”

According to data reviewed in the Miami Herald by Nora Gamez:

“In the week ending on March 21 there were 144,095 newly reported ‘acute respiratory illnesses.’ By March 28, the number of new weekly cases of people with acute respiratory diseases rose to 188,816, more than double the weekly average this year. ‘Not only could the increase be explained by a COVID-19 outbreak, it most likely does reflect the COVID-19 outbreak based on when it started and what has been going on in the world,’ said Dr. Aileen Marty, an expert on infectious tropical diseases and director of the Florida International University Health Travel Medicine Program.”

In less than a month (March 15 – April 4th) the Cuba based, Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine, “reported 491,494 cases of acute respiratory diseases.”  This was a dramatic increase from measurements taken in Cuba over the past five years, and the months prior to March 2020.

Recurring news over 2020 by independent and outlawed Cuban news outlets was that there was a lack of medical personnel in the island and that unqualified personnel were being recruited to treat patients.

Under the Castro regime there is a history of under- reporting outbreaks of Dengue in 1997, Cholera in 2012, and Zika in 2017 that impacted not just Cubans, but visitors to Cuba. Cubans who blew the whistle during these prior outbreaks were jailed by the Castro dictatorship and declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International in 1997 and 2012 respectively.  Havana initially got away with the 2017 Zika coverup, but contact tracing cases of tourists from around the world who had contracted this virus, that causes catastrophic birth defects, led back to Cuba. Researchers reported that thousands of Zika cases had not been reported.

This history led some to reason that this was happening again with COVID-19. Castro regime officials falsely claimed throughout February and March 2020 that Cuba was a safe harbor with effective treatments for Wuhan Virus for visiting tourists. Worse yet, propaganda outlets claimed that they had a vaccine in February 2020. Now Cubans have to worry about the extent of COVID-19 in the populace while not having independent sources to verify the official story, and knowing that this regime has a poor track record of giving accurate information on disease outbreaks, especially when it gets in the way of the tourist industry or their health care claims.

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Reuters, January 21, 2021

Brazil’s Lula had COVID-19 while in Cuba for Oliver Stone film

By Reuters Staff

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva disclosed on Thursday that he tested positive for the coronavirus weeks ago on a trip to Cuba for a documentary directed by American film maker Oliver Stone.

Lula, 75, did not need to be hospitalized in Havana after scans showed he had lung lesions associated with COVID-19 and his recovery was “excellent,” said a statement from his office.

All but one of his 10-member party tested positive and remained in quarantine in Cuba, and only one of them spent two weeks in hospital with serious symptoms from the virus.

The filming of the Stone documentary was suspended because of Lula’s illness and postponed until a future date.

Lula tested negative before flying to Cuba on Dec. 21 and then positive five days later in Havana in tests that showed that he was infected before arriving on the island.

Lula, who returned to Brazil on Wednesday, thanked Cuba’s government and its public health system for the daily care he received.

“We will never forget Cuban solidarity and the commitment to science of Cuba’s professionals,” he said, as he criticized Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for the “irresponsibility” of his handling of the pandemic. Bolsonaro has played down the severity of the virus, despite Brazil having one of the worst outbreaks.

At the end of his stay in Havana, Lula met Cuban Communist Party leader Raul Castro and President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the statement said.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; editing by Grant McCool

Reuters, January 9, 2021

Cuba tightens COVID-19 measures as visitors fuel record contagion

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s top epidemiologist said on Saturday irresponsible partying over year-end, often with relatives from abroad, fueled a surge in coronavirus infections and he warned of a crackdown to prevent the spread of the disease.

Authorities in the capital at the same time announced new containment measures including suspension of interprovincial transport, cultural activities and the use of public spaces such as the famous Malecon boulevard during night hours.

While Cuba’s Communist authorities have managed to contain the country’s outbreak far better than most other Latin American governments, infections have more than doubled since they eased lockdown restrictions, and reopened borders in November.

Cubans from the large diaspora who have returned to visit, particularly from the hard-hit United States, or those returning from shopping trips abroad, have spread the virus to family members and beyond by breaking quarantine, the government has said.

Francisco Duran, head of epidemiology at the Ministry of Public Health, resumed his daily televised news briefings this week as a result and said on Saturday Cuba had registered 365 new infections over the previous day.

That brought the total for the first eight days of 2021 to 1,767, of which about 80% related to rule violations by travelers, and Cuba was on track to break its December record of 3,675 cases.

“Legal measures will be taken because we cannot jettison the sacrifice of a whole country, a whole people,” said Duran, referring in part to the lockdown that accentuated Cuba’s existing economic woes, leading to an official 11% contraction of gross domestic product in 2020.

Since the start of the pandemic, Cuban authorities have fined citizens for wearing their face masks incorrectly in public or contravening other rules, even sentencing some to jail time.

Cubans have complained that such factors as jam-packed public transport and hour-long queues outside supermarkets due to food shortages make it difficult to practice social distancing.

Authorities drastically cut flights from the United States, Mexico, Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the start of the year in a bid to contain the new surge in cases and from Sunday will require inbound travelers to provide a negative test taken within the 72 hours before arrival.

So far the island nation with an aging population of 11 million has reported just 148 deaths from coronavirus and 14,188 infections, around one-tenth the global average.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana; Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Matthew Lewis

Reuters, December 28, 2021

Cuba to allow fewer flights from United States and some other countries

By Reuters Staff

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba announced on Monday it would allow fewer flights from the United States and several other countries beginning Jan. 1, due to a surge in coronavirus cases since opening its airports in November.

Cubans living abroad and returning to visit, or returning from shopping trips, have spread the virus to family members and beyond by breaking quarantine, the government said.

Mexico, Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are also on the list. The government did not say how many flights per day would be allowed.

The health Ministry reported 3,782 COVID-19 cases from Nov. 1 through Dec. 23, of which it said 71.5% were visitors or their direct contacts.

The government said in a separate announcement that the famous Varadero beach resort had received 69,000 foreign tourists during the same period without an outbreak of the disease.

Cuba currently tests visitors upon arrival and again in five days if they are not staying in hotels. Beginning on Jan. 10, they will also need proof of a negative test within 72 hours before arrival.

While most tourists stay in hotels with international health guidelines and additional local restrictions, returning Cubans stay with family and friends. They are expected to quarantine in place until the results of the second test come back negative, as are people living in the home they are staying in.

“I had one cousin come in and she stayed inside the whole trip,” said Rafael, a Havana resident, who asked that his last name not be used.

“I saw her through a gate. But then another cousin came in and he was out the door the same night,” he said.

Cuba’s daily infection rate per capita remains low – at just 15% of the global average, according to Our World in Data – but it has doubled over the past month, according to official data.

The island nation of 11 million on Monday reported a new record of 224 cases for the previous day, with visitors contributing 65% of those cases. This brought the accumulated total since the pandemic began to 11,434 reported cases and 142 deaths.