Cuba’s ‘Major Victory’ in the Fight against HIV

July 2, 2015

by AQ Online

Lost in the fanfare surrounding President Obama’s plans to re-open the U.S. embassy in Cuba was an announcement that may prove even more significant for the island’s inhabitants.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that Cuba had become the first country to successfully eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and Syphilis. By the WHO’s standards, that means that transmission levels are low enough not to constitute a risk to public health.

In a statement, WHO Director General Margaret Chan said that "eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible," and that Cuba’s efforts marked a "major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections."

While remarkable, Cuba’s feat shouldn’t be surprising. The country already boasts the lowest HIV rate in the hemisphere, tied with Costa Rica and Nicaragua at just 0.2 percent of the adult population. One key to that success is a cost-free healthcare system that ensures expectant mothers access to essential care.

In 2014, 100 percent of pregnant Cuban women—both those who knew their HIV status and those who did not—received the WHO’s recommended minimum of four prenatal care visits, according to the organization’s 2015 World Health Statistics report. Globally, only 64 percent received at least four visits.

Early access to prenatal care, along with concurrent HIV testing and treatment, has been a pillar of Cuba’s collaboration with the World Health Organization. In 2013 and 2014, more than 95 percent of pregnant women in Cuba knew their HIV status and more than 95 percent of those who were HIV-positive received antiretroviral drugs. In 2013, only two babies in Cuba were born with HIV.

"Cuba’s success demonstrates that universal access and universal health coverage are feasible and indeed are the key to success, even against challenges as daunting as HIV," said Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the UN’s Pan American Health Organization.

Still, despite progress fighting HIV, the country’s universal healthcare system is not without its drawbacks. After a raise last year, doctors in Cuba only make about $60 a month, and many have used the country’s medical missions program as a way to immigrate to other countries. In 2013, roughly 1,300 Cuban medical professionals defected to the U.S.

As Cuba’s economy and its relationship with the U.S. changes, its healthcare outcomes may change as well. Cubans—and the world—will be watching to see if their small country can hold on to this year’s big accomplishment.

Tags: Cuba, Healthcare, HIV/AIDS

Cuba’s Internet: scarce, expensive and still censored

June 19, 2015

by AQ Online

Cuba still lags far behind its Latin American counterparts on internet access, despite this week’s announcement that the government will provide Wi-Fi access to 35 state-run computer centers. Since the country’s first, humble 64kbit/s connection was established in 1996, not much has changed. Only 3.4 percent of Cuban households are connected, and a mere five percent of the population has occasional access to the Web, thanks largely to state agencies, foreign embassies and black market deals. As a result, it’s no surprise that the country continues to rank as having one of the world’s most repressive climates for information and communication technologies.

Internet usage has increased by over 100 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2008, where 44 percent of the population enjoyed regular internet access in 2014 (figures that align with worldwide trends in connectivity). In Cuba, however, the government’s telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, strictly regulates citizens’ network access. The majority of Cubans are only allowed to see a kind of intranet, which mostly comprises a Cuban encyclopedia, Cuban websites, a national email network and foreign websites that support the Cuban government.

Barriers to internet access in Cuba are not only a question of political will and weak infrastructure, but also of affordability. Thursday’s announcement revealed that, in July, the hourly price of internet access will be reduced from $4.50 to $2–a price that remains highly unaffordable for most on the island.

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Tags: Cuba, U.S.-Cuba relations, Internet in Cuba

Cuba Officially Removed from U.S. Terrorism List

May 29, 2015

by AQ Online

The era of acrimonious relations between Cuba and the U.S. may soon come to a close as Cuba’s designation on the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT) has officially been rescinded after a final decision from Secretary of State John Kerry today.

On April 14, President Barack Obama announced his plan to remove Cuba from the list after declaring that Cuba had “provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” Cuba’s inclusion on the SSOT list—where it was listed alongside Iran, Sudan and Syria—had been cited by Cuba as a major impediment to restoring relations.

Congress’s 45-day window to block Obama’s decision to lift the SSOT designation expired today with no override from Congress—despite the fact that Obama’s decision was initially met with mixed reactions.   Cuba will also be removed from the Department of Treasury’s sanctions list, “a place reserved for nations that repeatedly provide support for international acts of premeditated, politically motivated violence against non-combatants,” according to the Bradenton Herald.

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Tags: Cuba, SSOT, U.S.-Cuba relations

U.S. Decision to Remove Cuba from Terror List Receives Mixed Reactions

April 15, 2015

by AQ Online

On Tuesday, President Obama’s announcement of his intention to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT) was received with both praise and dissent from Cuban and U.S. politicians. Despite the controversy, the announcement marks a significant change in not only U.S.-Cuba relations, but also U.S.-Latin America relations.

The announcement followed President Obama’s meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last week, where Cuba made an inaugural appearance and where the two countries’ heads of state met officially face-to-face for the first time since 1959. Cuba’s designation as an SSOT was one of the “sticking points” in the negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.

President Obama said that Cuba had "provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest added that although the U.S. still had differences with Cuban policies and actions, they were not "relevant" to the terror list.

The director of U.S. relations at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal, acknowledged the U.S.’s move in a statement: “The government of Cuba recognizes the just decision made by the President of the United States to remove Cuba from a list on which it never deserved to belong [...] As the Cuban government has reiterated on multiple occasions, Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism.”

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Tags: Cuba, U.S.-Cuba relations, U.S.-Cuba policy

Cuba, U.S. Conclude First Dialogue on Human Rights

April 1, 2015

by AQ Online

With the conclusion on Tuesday of the first formal talks between Cuba and the United States on human rights, both countries agreed that they were capable of holding a “respectful, professional [and] civilized conversation” on the issue of human rights. 

Representatives from both countries met yesterday in Washington DC in the first of many dialogues to be held between the U.S. and Cuba as part of the process to normalize bilateral relations, first announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.

The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Meanwhile, Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, headed the Cuban delegation.

Cuban Ambassador Anaysansi Rodríguez Camejo acknowledged “differences” between the two sides in terms of how human rights “are protected and promoted in their respective countries as in the international arena.”

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Tags: Cuba, Human Rights, U.S.-Cuba relations

Tone Down the “Winners and Losers” Talk on Cuba

March 18, 2015

by Johanna Mendelson Forman

Cuba is the Groundhog Day of the twentieth century. That the United States’ policy of isolation and permanent embargo went on into the 21st century is testimony to the endurance of both Americans and Cubans in making a failed policy become a third rail in U.S. domestic policy.

Not that there weren’t attempts at reconciliation over the last five decades. Nevertheless, changes are taking place now that will finally help move the United States beyond the outdated Cold War posturing to the realpolitik that its policy toward Cuba deserves.

Roughly three months have passed since President Barack Obama announced his policy shift on Cuba. The December 17 announcement, which took many by surprise, was long in the making. It reflected a cautious diplomacy that ended fifty years of a failed policy.

Almost everyone connected with Obama’s simple logic that if something has not worked after fifty years, it was time to try something new! But creating something new after such a long period of propaganda and disinformation will take hard work on the part of both the U.S. and the Cuban government.

After 50 years of Cuba’s isolation, it will take time to build trust between the two governments.

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Tags: Cuba, Enrique Klauze, U.S.-Cuba relations

Cuba after Netflix

February 25, 2015

by Lawrence Gutman

Cue the House of Cards metaphors. On February 9, Netflix announced via Twitter its release of content in Cuba. It’s been two months since the resumption of U.S.-Cuban diplomacy and Frank Underwood’s journey to the White House can now be viewed within sight of the Plaza of the Revolution.  

Of course, few on the island actually received Netflix’s tweet. Approximately five percent of Cubans have regular internet access, Cuban broadband is among the slowest in the world and Netflix’s $7.99 monthly fee is prohibitively expensive for a vast majority of Cubans.  For the foreseeable future, Netflix’s Cuban clientele will consist of tourists, visiting businesspeople and journalists, government personnel, and private computer owners with access to foreign subscriptions and/or cash remittances from abroad.

It may be a small and symbolic investment, but Netflix’s expansion into Cuba is an investment nonetheless. The tech giant’s foray is adding to a growing sense of commercial momentum that is attracting the attention of investors, drawing the island closer to North American capital and eroding support for the half century-old embargo.  This momentum will begin to disabuse many U.S. firms of their “wait and see” approach to assessing Cuban markets and devising investment strategies. It will also give elected officials cover to rethink their advocacy for an unsuccessful policy toward Cuba and the chance to garner support from the business community. Though the embargo remains in place with congressional backing, it now faces unprecedented opposition.

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Tags: Netflix, Cuba, US Policy in Cuba

U.S.–Cuba Agreement: Diplomacy At Its Best

December 18, 2014

by John Parisella

That there would be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seemed inevitable.  After all, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Castro brothers are getting on in years.

And yet, there is a sense that a new era is beginning with the joint Barack Obama–Raúl Castro announcement, and an air of optimism and hope in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The fact that Pope Francis, Obama, Castro, and the government of Canada all converged to bring an end to a relic of the Cold War is a major part of the story.  My country, Canada, never went along with the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960.  This made Canada a facilitator, and a credible factor in bringing two mutually suspicious parties together.  Meetings in Toronto and Ottawa occurred throughout 2013 and 2014 with Canadian assistance.

The first pope from the Americas, who seized the opportunity to make a difference, to build bridges, and to improve the lot of the Cuban people by using his good offices, may have been the closer on the deal.  If Obama is the commander-in-chief, Pope Francis is the inspirer-in-chief.

Obama deserves much credit for his courage and his vision. Clearly, this president knows his history. Just as Nixon went to China and Truman set up the Marshall Plan for Europe in the post-World War II era, Obama knew that he had to do something different with a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. shore.  In the realm of values and legacy, setting up diplomatic relations with Cuba is far better than sending prisoners to Guantánamo.

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Tags: Cuba, Cuba-U.S. relations, Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Raul Castro

Cuba Releases Alan Gross on Humanitarian Grounds

December 17, 2014

by AQ Online

Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross from prison today on humanitarian grounds, paving the way for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged espionage after he was arrested in December 2009 for bringing satellite equipment to Cuba.

This month marked the 5th anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, and his health has been deteriorating. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” his wife, Judy Gross, said. A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged Obama to “act expeditiously…to obtain [Gross’s] release” in November.

The State Department has maintained Gross’ innocence and repeatedly demanded his release, stating that it is “an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”

President Obama publicly acknowledged last week that the U.S. was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release. Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon, along with a broad range of diplomatic measures expected to move towards normalizing the Cuba-U.S. relationship for the first time since the 1961 embargo.

Cuban President Raúl Castro is also expected to speak at noon about Cuba’s relations with the United States. Gross’ release comes ahead of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, where Cuba is to participate for the first time and Obama is expected to meet with Castro.

Read more of AQ's Cuba coverage here.

Tags: Cuba, Alan Gross, Cuba-U.S. relations, Barack Obama

These Are a Few of My Favorite [AP] Words

September 7, 2014

by Christopher Sabatini

If there are two things that inspire me it’s a ramped up, over-the-top, scurrilous AP story about democracy promotion and a Broadway musical--especially a Rodgers and Hammerstein production.  So, here is my adaptation of the classic Sound of Music,  “My Favorite Things,” based on the recent series of articles published by AP on USAID’s democracy program in Cuba.  The non-bracketed, italicized parts are sung to the music of “My Favorite Things.” 

Calling USAID agents,
when they’re just bureacrats.

[As in the Zun Zuneo story, where it refers to “agents of the US government, working in deep secrecy..”   USAID officers are not agents.  They may be poorly dressed, overly earnest bureaucrats. But agents?  No one describes them that way--except AP.]

Saying a source,
“slipped” someone numbers.

[As in the Zun Zuneo story which says that a key contact “slipped the phone numbers to a Cuban engineer” in London.  Slipped?   It’s a nice verb, but is there really evidence that the numbers were slipped, spy-like, to contact, say, on a park bench?  The story doesn’t say that, but damn it sounds nice, doesn’t it?  Shame it didn’t involve polonium and tea.  Though who knows?  Maybe it did.  Let’s just say so, anyway.]

Referring to Gross,
on a top “secret mission.”
These are a few of my favorite words!
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Tags: Cuba, Associated Press