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Biden Backs Cuba Protests as Crackdown Begins

U.S. lawmakers are eager to condemn Cuba’s government after Sunday’s protests—just don’t mention the embargo.

Riot police patrol Havana, Cuba, after a demonstration.
Riot police patrol Havana, Cuba, after a demonstration.
Riot police walk the streets after a demonstration against Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Arroyo Naranjo municipality, Havana, Cuba on July 12. Yamil Lage/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden addresses Cuba protests, the World Health Organization warns against vaccine booster shots, and at least 64 people die in an Iraqi hospital fire.

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U.S. Leaders React to Cuba Protests

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden addresses Cuba protests, the World Health Organization warns against vaccine booster shots, and at least 64 people die in an Iraqi hospital fire.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


U.S. Leaders React to Cuba Protests

Cuban authorities arrested several activists on Monday as the streets of Havana went quiet following a weekend of protests at a scale not seen in decades.

In a televised address on Monday morning, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel singled out the United States for fomenting the unrest through its policy of “economic asphyxiation” typified by strict sanctions and its decadeslong trade embargo against the country.

In a sign he didn’t blame the United States entirely for the protests, Díaz-Canel had some conciliatory words for protesters—who face a historically severe economic crisis amid a pandemic-induced collapse in tourism, long-term shortages of basic goods, and regular power cuts. Díaz-Canel said it was legitimate “to have dissatisfactions, but also we have to be capable to visualize, to define when were being manipulated, where they want to separate us.”

Republican lawmakers have been vocal in their support of the protests, blaming public unrest solely on Cuba’s communist government. On Twitter, Sen. Marco Rubio chastised U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung for describing the protests as “concern about rising COVID cases/deaths.” Branding Chung’s tweet “ridiculous,” Rubio said Cubans were instead protesting “62 years of socialism, lies, tyranny and misery.”

U.S. President Joe Biden, under pressure from Rubio and others after waiting until Monday to make a statement, echoed the Republican framing, blaming Cuba’s “economic suffering” on the Havana government.

AMLOs view. This sentiment is not shared by the United States’ southern neighbor. “The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba as the majority of countries in the world are asking,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Monday, referencing a recent U.N. General Assembly vote where 184 countries demanded an end to the U.S. embargo. (The United States and Israel were the sole votes against.) “No country in the world should be fenced in, blockaded,” López Obrador said.

Local foreign policy. With so many Cuban exiles living in the United States, it’s easy to see the words of support from U.S. politicians serving a dual purpose. As other southern U.S. states turn Democratic-leaning, the state of Florida—and its large population of Cuban Americans—has become a must-win state for Republicans thinking about a White House run. A poll of Florida-based Cuban Americans taken in March underlines the community’s importance as a Republican constituency: 62 percent supported former U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2020 election while 40 percent said they did not accept the results of that election.

Whose successor? The protests are a reminder that Biden’s Cuba policy is a lot more Trump than former U.S. President Barack Obama. Biden has kept Trump-era economic sanctions in place, and in March, the U.S. State Department renewed the Trump administration’s 2020 determination that Cuba was “not cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Cuba hard-liner, commended Biden for keeping Trump’s sanctions in place. “The regime needs to understand that change [in Cuba] will bring about a change in sanctions,” Menendez said. Adding that since Cubans have now taken to the streets, “the administration will have to look at options they can exercise in support of the Cuban people.”


What We’re Following Today

WHO slams third vaccine booster. World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna on Monday as the two companies push for a third vaccine shot to further boost immunity levels against the virus. Offering a reminder that current two-dose vaccine regimens offer long-term immunity, Tedros said the “priority now must be to vaccinate those who have received no doses and protection.”

Michael Ryan, the head of the WHO’s emergencies program, was more blunt. “What part of ‘this is a global crisis’ are we not getting?” he said on Monday. “We will look back in anger and we will look back in shame if we don’t now move to use the increasing [vaccine] production capacity thats coming on line … to protect the most vulnerable, protect the front-line health workers around the world.”

Comments from the WHO came as Israel began offering a third vaccine dose to severely immunocompromised adults on Monday.

Haiti arrests. One of the two Haitian Americans arrested in connection with the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a DEA official told Reuters on Monday. The official said the suspect had even contacted the DEA following the president’s killing and had been urged to surrender to authorities.

“These individuals were not acting on behalf of DEA,” the official told Reuters. The admission comes after a DEA cap was found at the residence of Christian Emmanuel Sanon, the third Haitian American arrested on Sunday in connection with the murder plot and the alleged mastermind of the operation.

Iraqs hospital disaster. At least 64 people were killed in the Iraqi city of Nasiriya after a fire engulfed a hospital’s coronavirus isolation ward. It’s the latest hospital disaster since April when 82 people were killed after an oxygen tank exploded in a Baghdad hospital. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has ordered the arrest of the hospital’s director, the head of the regional health department, and the provincial head of civil defense in the wake of Monday’s disaster.


Keep an Eye On

Jamaica calls for reparations. Jamaica will soon ask the United Kingdom for compensation, potentially totaling billions of dollars, to address the damage done by the Atlantic slave trade in the former British colony. Although a total figure for reparations is still being debated, Jamaican lawmaker Mike Henry has suggested 7.6 billion pounds ($10.5 billion)—a contemporary figure roughly equivalent to the 20 million pounds ($20.7 million) paid in the 19th century by the British government to compensate slaveholders after the British Parliament abolished the practice of slavery.

World hunger on the rise. After five years of relatively stable numbers, world hunger shot up last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new United Nations report. The number of people facing hunger rose from 118 million people to around 768 million people in 2020—around 10 percent of the world’s population. Nearly 1 in 3 people worldwide didn’t have access to adequate food last year—320 million people more than in 2019.

Unless the world takes “bold action,” the U.N.’s goal of zero hunger by 2030 will be a pipe dream, according to U.N. agencies responsible for the report. “Our worst fears are coming true,” said World Food Programme chief economist Arif Husain. “Reversing such high levels of chronic hunger will take years if not decades.”


Coming up at FP

FP Virtual Dialogue: Fostering Resilience in Northern Central America. In the face of deteriorating political, socioeconomic, and environmental conditions, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing countries from across northern Central America. Convening leaders and experts from government, the private sector, and civil society, this virtual event will explore the changing paradigm for regional development and capacity-building that prioritizes fostering resilience and systemic reform to help stem forced migration.

FP Live: The New Economics Playbook. For our summer issue, FP asked leading economists to name and define the post-pandemic economic era. Subscribers can join FP editor in chief Ravi Agrawal this Thursday as he speaks with Antoine van Agtmael, Stephanie Kelton, and Michael Hirsh about how to define these unprecedented times.


Odds and Ends

South Korean gym-goers hoping for a high tempo playlist in their next gym class may find themselves disappointed, after new COVID-19 regulations banned songs over 120 beats per minute (bpm) during group exercise classes. (BTS’s global smash “Dynamite” sneaks in at 114 bpm while Blackpink’s catalogue is largely ruled out.) The new rules also include a treadmill speed limit of 6 kilometers (or 3.7 miles) per hour. The regulations, designed to prevent excessive breathing and the spreading of sweat among exercise participants, have been met with ridicule by politicians and gym-goers.

“So you dont get COVID-19 if you walk slower than 6 km per hour,” said Kim Yong-tae, a member of the opposition People Power Party. “And who on earth checks the bpm of the songs when you work out? I dont understand what COVID-19 has to do with my choice of music.”

“The regulations are just bureaucratic, as if those who devised them had never worked out at a gym,” Whang Myung-sug, a 62-year-old gym-goer, told Reuters.

Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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