HAVANA TIMES — Below, readers will find 12 highly important events that made headlines and had a significant impact on Cuba and Cubans during 2014.
These were selected on the basis of their impact on the country’s political, economic and cultural spheres and are listed in chronological order, not in terms of their importance.
Selecting news always means placing these in a hierarchy and involves possible omissions and disagreements among you, the readers. That said, the year’s top news item both for and in Cuba was doubtless Barack Obama’s announcement that relations with Raul Castro’s government were being normalized and a new era of bilateral relations was beginning.
We are also aware of the fact that, in the last 48 hours of the year, a wave of arrests involving human rights activists, artists and independent journalists took place, as a result of Tania Bruguera’s call to participate in an artistic performance at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion.
Though the incident is significant in and of itself, it is still developing and its repercussions extending into the beginning of 2015, which is why we have decided not to include it in this selection.
- The European Union begins negotiations with Cuba. The 28 members of the European Union (EU) decided to green-light negotiations aimed at a political and cooperation agreement with Cuba, a process which the Cuban government agreed to. The step taken by the EU marked the beginning of a thaw in relations between the European bloc and the island, stagnant since the adoption of the Common Position, which in 1996 had made the re-establishment of bilateral cooperation dependent on political reforms and respect towards civil liberties. With this measure, European countries seek to support the reforms undertaken by Raul Castro’s government and foster greater respect towards human rights in the country. Cuba is the only Latin American country with which Brussels has no cooperation agreement. To date, two rounds of negotiations have been held in Havana and Brussels (in April and August). The third round, originally scheduled for January 8 and 9 in Havana, has been postponed at the request of the Cuban government and a new date has not yet been set. The EU is confident a new political and commercial agreement will be finalized in a little less than two years.
- Cuban medical doctors desert in Brazil. Doctor Ramona Matos Rodriguez abandoned Cuba’s medical mission in Brazil in February and became the first professional from the island to break with the Mas Medicos program and request asylum in the South American country. 51-year-old Matos’ desertion unleashed an avalanche of desertions from the Cuban mission in rural areas of Brazil and public statements condemning the established contracts, serving as the catalyst for changes to the payment system used with professionals sent to the country by Raul Castro’s government. Cuban doctors began earning US $ 1,245 a month, a considerable bump from the US $ 400 they had been receiving till March. An additional 600 dollars that were being deposited in accounts held by the professionals in Cuba began to be paid directly to these as part of their salaries in Brazil.
- The Zunzuneo scandal and its repercussions for Cuba policy. In May, the Associated Press (AP) revealed that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had implemented a program based on cell phone messages known as “Zunzuneo,” especially designed to send messages to Cubans on the island. Though the program was discontinued in 2012, the Zunzuneo scandal prompted the US State Department to review some of the programs aimed at promoting democracy in countries that are hostile towards the United States. The AP later published a series of reports on other USAID operations and programs that involved the hiring of Latin American contractors, paid to travel to Cuba and establish contacts with young people in the country and consolidate cooperation initiatives that would have an impact on the island’s hip-hop movement. USAID denied at all times that these programs were secret or covert, but the reprimand was inevitable. At the close of the year, USAID Chief Rajiv Shah announced he would tender his resignation.
- A New Foreign Investment Law in Cuba. The Cuban government set in motion a new Foreign Investment Law, approved by the National Assembly of the People’s Power during an extraordinary session held in March. With the new legislation, which came to replace Law 77 of 1995, the Cuban government seeks to inject some US $ 2.5 billion a year into its ramshackle economy. The law, which came into effect in June, envisages up to 15% in profit tax cuts and offers other benefits to incentivize investors. The area Cuban authorities are most interested in is the Mariel Special Development Zone (though the legislation applies to all of the country’s economic sectors).
- Cuban baseball players break into the Big Leagues. 2014 was a year when many Cuban baseball players made it to the Major Leagues. It also saw a wave of desertions and losses that have placed Cuban baseball and its regular series in a profound crisis. Some 30 Cuban players figured in the official rosters of Major League teams during the 2014 season, taking in a total of US $ 92 million. Five of these players were in the Stars Game, and Yoenis Cespedes won the Home Run Derby for the second consecutive time. Around 40 Cuban players were in the Minor Leagues, while 73 await permission from the Treasury Department or contracts with a franchise. Jose Dariel Abreu (now with the Chicago White Sox) was chosen Rookie of the Year. In August, Rusney Castillo signed a US $ 72.5 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, the highest figure offered a Cuban-born player. Yasmani Tomas followed in his footsteps in November with a US $ 68.5 million contract signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
- Rafters crisis in Manzanillo and a new rise in illegal immigration. A group of 17 Cuban rafters was rescued by the Mexican Navy off the coast of Yucatan at the end of August. They were on a six-meter-long boat built out of welded aluminum sheets and sealed with resin. They strayed for 24 days. Two of the Cubans rescued died as a result of severe dehydration. The scope of the tragedy multiplied days later when authorities determined there were originally 32 passengers on board the makeshift vessel; that some died of thirst and the survivors had no choice but to throw the bodies into the sea, all the while drinking blood and urine to remain alive. It is the worst disaster to befall Cuban rafters in the high seas in two decades. The case was only the most dramatic element of the wave of Cubans who are desperately leaving the island by sea and revealing the fragility of the economic reforms implemented by Raul Castro. Four corpses also washed up on the coasts of Florida at the end of August, following the capsizing of another vessel that attempted to reach US soil. At the close of the 2014 fiscal year, the figures could not have been more alarming: 2,059 Cubans had been intercepted in the Strait of Florida, 815 managed to reach land and 22,567 entered the country through different entry points and airports with the intention of requesting asylum in the United States.
- Cuban government puts new Customs measures into effect. As part of a new package of measures aimed at combatting the trafficking of goods through messengers or mules, Cuban authorities implemented a number of drastic restrictions on the import of personal items, household appliances and computer equipment on September 1. The resolutions passed by Customs and the Ministry of Finances and Prices set strict limits on personal use items on a broad range of products (381 different product categories altogether), closing the doors on the large cargos of products brought by visitors from Latin America and the United States. Fees of up to 100 percent the price of the packages sent to Cuba, applicable when the package is over three pounds in weight, also began to apply.
- Cuba sends medical doctors to combat Ebola in Western Africa. As part of the global effort to combate Ebola in West Africa coordinated by the World Health Organization, Cuba decided to send its medical doctors to join the battle against the deadly epidemic. The first brigade of 165 professionals, made of 62 medical doctors and 103 nurses, was seen off by President Raul Castro on October 1. Twenty days after arriving in Comakry, Guinea, the first Cuban professional, economist Jorge Juan Guerra, died, presumably as a result of malaria complications. At the close of November, Cuban doctor Felix Baez Sarria became infected with Ebola and was transferred to a hospital in Switzerland. Baez recovered and returned to Cuba on December 7, and is planning to rejoin the Sierra Leone mission in January. Cuba’s work in the fight against Ebola was praised by the United States.
- Bailando sweeps the board and becomes song of the year. Bailando (“Dancing”), which became the year’s music super-hit, caught on around the world. The piece, by Cuban musician Descemer Bueno and featuring the band Gente de Zona and Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias, won Best Song of the Year, Best Urban Performance and Best Urban Song at the 15th Latin Grammy Awards, giving Cuban music much impetus on the international market. Enrique Iglesias sang the song for the first time during the Billboard Latin Music Awards in April. By October, it had become the longest-lasting number one hit in the history of the Hot Latin Songs Billboard, breaking Shakira’s 25-week record. With a bilingual version, Bailando also made it to the top of the Dance Club Songs Billboard, became number 12 in the Hot 100 Billboard and was among the year’s Top 40 songs.
- The New York Time’s anti-embargo campaign. In October, as part of an unprecedented editorial campaign for a major US newspaper, The New York Times published a series of editorials which questioned Washington’s Cuba policy, proposed the exchange of contractor Alan Gross for the Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States and called for the relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the Castro regime, as a strategy for bringing about political change on the island. Ten editorials have been published to date, and their proposals fit the new Cuba “road map” announced by the White House. An eleventh editorial which criticizes the Cuban government’s treatment of the Tania Bruguera case was published this past Tuesday.
- Alan Gross released in exchange for the three Cuban spies. Following a decision of historical importance for relations between Havana and Washington, US contractor Alan P. Goss was released in the morning of December 17 in exchange for the three Cuban spies who remained in US prisons. Though Washington insisted the exchange was actually for a Cuban-born CIA spy and that Gross was released for “humanitarian reasons,” the reasons behind the exchange were obvious: 65-year-old Gross had become the chief obstacle in the way of bilateral relations between the two countries.
- Barack Obama announces Cuba policy change. Hours after the release of Alan Gross, President Obama appeared on US national television to announce a new course in Washington’s policy towards Cuba, involving the beginning of talks to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries. The announcement marked an unprecedented and pivotal change in White House policy towards the Castro regime, setting in motion a thaw in the diplomatic and commercial relations which were suspended in 1961. It is, without a doubt, the most important news for Cuba and Cubans in the year that has just ended.