Many key China issues still ‘under review’ at Biden’s first 100 days

By Michael Martina and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days come to a close this week, a number of key policy positions and contentious issues remain “under review,” to use the White House’s terminology.

They stretch from deep-seated economic issues a generation in the making to controversial policies introduced by Republican President Donald Trump’s government, which preceded the Democratic Biden administration.

Many relate to China, the United States’ strategic competitor, a rivalry that Biden has starkly defined, most recently in a speech to Congress on Wednesday, as a struggle between democracy and autocracy for control of the global economy in the 21st century.

The Biden administration has begun to flesh out an overarching strategy to compete with China that relies on renewing relations with partners like India and allies like Japan and South Korea, and heavy domestic investment.

But critics say slow reviews of specific policies could cost U.S. companies and the economy.

After Biden’s speech, Republican Senator Mitt Romney told reporters, “I don’t believe we yet have as a nation a comprehensive strategy to deal with a China intent on dominating the world, eventually.”

“We don’t have the luxury of time to sit around and marvel at the problem,” said one Republican aide in the House of Representatives, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We need action and specific policies in place.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the Republican criticism of their policy reviews. Democrats argue privately, however, that the administration is still racing to get crucial jobs filled.

Biden has yet to name an ambassador to China and many other countries, or to fill a key post at the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which oversees exports of critical U.S. technology to China.

Administration officials have said they will look to add “new targeted restrictions” on some sensitive technology exports to China in cooperation with allies, but have not offered further details.

TARIFFS ON CHINESE GOODS

The Biden administration has said it will conduct a thorough review of U.S. tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on nearly $400 billion worth of Chinese goods, but it has not given a deadline.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a recent interview that the United States was not ready to lift the duties, in part because of the leverage it gives American negotiators.

The tariffs cost U.S manufacturers $80 billion, the Tax Foundation think tank reported last September. China has fallen short of pledges to buy U.S. goods made in a January 2020 trade deal.

SUPPLY CHAIN REVIEW

Biden launched a 100-day review of risks to critical supply chains in February, citing the United States’ need for secure, diverse, dependable goods in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries, and rare earth minerals.

The Defense, Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, Transportation, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services departments are expected to submit reports addressing supply chain resiliency due one year after the February order.

INVESTMENT BAN

The Biden administration also has not addressed how it will use a tough sanctioning tool introduced by Trump that would prohibit U.S. investments in Chinese companies that the previous administration said were owned or controlled by the Chinese military.

NORTH KOREA

The Biden administration has signaled for weeks it is finalizing a broad review of North Korea (Successive U.S. administrations have sought to persuade the Stalinist country to part with its nuclear weapons.) A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday the administration was “closer to the end of that review than we are to the beginning,” but offered no details.

The White House has shared little about the review and whether it will offer concessions to get Pyongyang to return to talks. It has simultaneously signaled a hard line on human rights, denuclearization and sanctions, while making diplomatic overtures that officials say have been rebuffed by Pyongyang, which has long demanded economic sanctions relief.

CUBA, VENEZUELA

Biden promised during the 2020 presidential campaign to reverse parts of Trump’s harsh measures against Cuba, and aides have said they are looking especially at Trump’s last-minute decision to designate Havana as a state sponsor of terrorism.

But the new administration appears to be in no rush. And any significant move of this type would risk a political backlash in the crucial swing state of Florida ahead of the 2022 congressional midterm elections. Trump’s hardline approach was popular among the Miami area’s large Cuban-American population, helping him win the state in November though he lost the presidential election.

Among the other issues still being decided are how to craft a new policy on Venezuela, where Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions failed to dislodge socialist President Nicolas Maduro, and how to close the internationally condemned U.S. military prison for foreign suspects at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

(Reporting by Michael Martina, Matt Spetalnick, David Brunnstrom, Andrea Shalal, Trevor Hunnicutt and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Heather Timmons and Jonathan Oatis)

Cubans turn to herbal remedies, barter amid medicine scarcity

By Rodrigo Gutierrez

HAVANA (Reuters) – Dayana Rodriguez says her son is overwhelmed with scabies but she has not been able to find any of the treatments prescribed by their doctor at the poorly-stocked pharmacies in Havana so she is now turning to a herbal remedy instead.

Even as Cuba is leading the race to become the first country in Latin America to develop its own COVID-19 vaccine, the country is suffering acute shortages of basic medicines amid its worst economic crisis in decades.

“There aren’t any of the ones they prescribed him, Benzyl benzoate, or the other one for itching too that used to be in all the pharmacies,” said Rodriguez, buying medicinal plants at a shop on a commercial boulevard in Central Havana.

Nine families in Havana told Reuters they were struggling to treat outbreaks of scabies, a highly infectious yet preventable skin disease, due to medicine shortages.

Three doctors consulted by Reuters who declined to be named said they had resorted to advising their patients to boil up a mix of herbs to apply to their skin to provide temporary relief for scabies as it was futile to prescribe medicines that are scarce. One of those doctors also recommended a veterinary treatment for one of his patients.

Cuba’s healthcare system, built by late leader Fidel Castro, is one of the revolution’s most treasured achievements, having produced results on a par with rich nations using the resources of a developing country and in spite of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

But cash woes in the ailing state economy since the fall of former benefactor the Soviet Union have taken their toll on both healthcare facilities and the availability of medicine.

Over the past few years, the decline in aid from ally Venezuela, new U.S. sanctions and the pandemic have plunged Cuba into its worst economic crisis since the 1990s.

Health Minister Jose Portal reported on state television last year that as of June around a 116 basic medicines were scarce. Of those, 87 were produced locally and 29 imported.

Florencio Chavez, who has run a medicinal plant shop for 25 years, recommends guacamaya francesa, cundeamor, neem, Parthenium hysterophorus to treat scabies. He says demand for herbal remedies has risen in recent years.

Cubans have also set up groups on social media to barter medicines or other products for those they need, while the black market is thriving on the streets and online.

CHRONIC SHORTAGES

Cuban authorities started talking about chronic shortages of drugs, including basic ones like those treating hypertension and contraceptives due to a cash crunch in 2017, saying it had had to slash imports of inputs necessary for local production.

Last year, the country said shipping delays due to the pandemic had exacerbated the situation, as had U.S. sanctions.

While medicine is theoretically exempt from sanctions, the sanctions still are a strong disincentive to overseas medical providers, who might risk being fined, and the embargo hurts the economy across the board so there is less cash for imports.

Some senior citizens like Yolanda Perez, 80, who suffers from glaucoma, complain they do not have the stamina needed to line up at pharmacies overnight in the hope of grabbing their share of scant deliveries.

“It’s been six months since I was last able to get my latanoprost,” the drug that helps prevent her from going blind, she said.

Authorities in the eastern province of Holguin in January warned Cubans not to turn to the black market though because some drugs were not what they advertised and could even be harmful.

“The problem is people are despairing over the lack of medicine,” wrote a reader identified as Arcela under an article on the topic in state outlet Juventud Rebelde. She said her sister had had to buy black market antibiotics.

“That’s why they resort to these methods.”

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Christian Plumb and Aurora Ellis)

Sugar harvest no sweetener for Cuba’s ailing economy

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) – Hopes in Cuba that sugar exports would soften an economic slowdown and plug an exchangeable currency gap appear in vain, with state media reports of output at least 200,000 metric tons short of forecasts for the end of February.

While no longer a top export and behind other foreign revenue earners such as medical services, tourism, remittances and nickel, sugar still brings Cuba hundreds of millions of dollars a year from exports, including derivatives, while also producing energy, alcohol and animal feed at home.

Like other industries, agriculture and cane cultivation face structural problems in the Communist-run import dependent command economy, which the government is only just addressing.

In the last six months it has adopted monetary and other market-oriented reforms, but these will take time to kick in.

Julio Andres Garcia, president of the Caribbean island nation’s sugar monopoly AZCUBA, said in December that the state-owned industry would produce 1.2 million metric tons of raw sugar in 2021, similar to the previous year.

Cuba’s output has averaged around 1.4 million metric tons of raw sugar over the last five years, compared with an industry high of 8 million tons in 1989.

The harvest runs from November into May with peak yields from January through mid-April.

Reuters estimates based on available data and local sources that this year’s harvest will come in under one million metric tons of raw sugar for the first time since 1908, and perhaps as low as 900,000 tons, a 25% decline.

All 13 sugar-producing provinces were behind schedule as March began, and the five largest producers Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Villa Clara, Holguin and Las Tunas provinces by between 25,000 and 50,000 metric tons of raw sugar each.

The harvest has been plagued by a dearth of fuel and spare parts for mills and machinery, cane shortages and low yields and a COVID-19 outbreak in at least one of 38 active mills.

Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons of sugar a year and has a 400,000 metric ton toll deal with China.

Tough U.S. sanctions and the pandemic, which have gutted tourism, have cut into Cuban foreign exchange earnings causing scarcity, job losses and an 11% economic contraction in 2020.

So far this year appears no better, with the pandemic keeping visitors away, no change in U.S. policy and the scarcity of foreign currency leading to shortages of fuel, agricultural inputs and a general scarcity of even basic consumer goods.

The government reported that foreign exchange earnings were just 55% of planned last year, in part because the harvest came in 300,000 metric tons short, while imports fell between 30% and 40%. It did not provide further details.

“There is no reason to believe the shortfall will be made up and every reason to believe it could become worse,” a Cuban sugar expert said, requesting anonymity due to restrictions on talking to foreign journalists.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Christian Plumb and Alexander Smith)

As pandemic eases elsewhere, some Caribbean states face worst outbreaks yet

By Kate Chappell and Sarah Marsh

KINGSTON (Reuters) – In Jamaica, which won praise for containing its coronavirus outbreak last year, patients now overflow into corridors on chairs and stretchers in some hospitals, prompting the Caribbean nation to open three emergency field hospitals.

While global new infections start to decline, a handful of countries across the Caribbean, including the larger islands of Jamaica and Cuba, are suffering their worst outbreaks since the start of the pandemic following social gatherings over year-end, quarantine violations by visitors and growing complacency.

The number of total confirmed cases has almost doubled in the first two months of the year in Jamaica. It has risen around fourfold in Cuba, eightfold in Barbados and around tenfold in St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data database.

In one of the most tourism-dependent regions of the world, authorities have had to reimpose lockdowns and curfews, while reducing flights and hiking quarantine restrictions, further delaying a revival of their fragile economies.

Some Caribbean nations have started inoculating citizens – thanks, in particular, to an Indian donation of the AstraZeneca vaccine – yet broad coverage still looks far off. Cuba is launching late phase trials of two of its own vaccine candidates this month.

“Once the capacity of the health system becomes threatened, we could see a spike not only in the numbers infected but also in those dying from the disease,” Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness warned in a broadcast address to the nation on Sunday.

The effect of COVID-19 in Caribbean countries has been mixed. In Jamaica, deaths have risen 1.4 times since the end of the year and now stand at 422. Cuba’s death toll of 324 is well under the world average per capital – a statistic the government largely puts down to a good healthcare system and experimental treatments – but the number of deaths has doubled there so far in 2021.

Tiny St Vincent and Grenadines registered its first COVID-19 death this year and has now had eight fatal victims.

While most of the Caribbean islands still have adequate hospital capacity to deal with the crisis, in Jamaica, all beds dedicated to COVID-19 isolation were full as of Feb. 26, according to the health ministry.

Holness announced more capacity was being added and lockdown restrictions tightened, including a new stay-at-home order for those aged 60 and above and a ban on access to beaches.

“We are not coping. We are physically and emotionally drained,” said a nurse who did not want to be named for fear of losing her job.

SLOW VACCINE ROLLOUT

Caribbean leaders have complained about difficulty accessing vaccines and hoarding by rich nations amid a slow rollout of vaccines by the United Nations-backed COVAX alliance created to ensure poor countries across the world are not left behind.

Jamaica, which has nearly 3 million inhabitants, will receive a donation from India of 50,000 vaccine doses on or before Thursday, Health minister Christopher Tufton said on Sunday at the briefing alongside Holness.

The island nation should also start receiving its 124,800 doses via the COVAX facility this month, and 1.8 million via the African Medical Supply Platform from April.

But depending on which vaccine is secured, Jamaica still needed to source up to an extra 1.5 million doses to fulfill its aim of inoculating at least 65 % of the population by March 2022, Tufton said.

The prospects for an immediate economic recovery in the face of a slow vaccine roll-out are dim, said Therese Turner-Jones, general manager of the Caribbean Country Department for the Inter-American Development Bank.

“It’s going to be another difficult two years ahead,” Turner-Jones said. “Absent a healthy environment, there is not much you are going to do that will get back to business as usual.”

The Caribbean Development Bank said last Thursday it projected growth of 3.8% in its 19 borrowing member countries this year after a contraction of 12.8% last year, with vaccine availability one risk to that forecast.

Still, Cuba could hold a ray of light. It already came through for the Caribbean in terms of sending doctors to neighboring islands throughout the pandemic.

Now, the regional biotech heavyweight says it is already mass producing two of its four vaccine candidates in order to launch late phase trials in March.

Should its vaccine candidates triumph – becoming the first Latin American homegrown COVID vaccines to be approved – then its neighbors and regional allies could benefit.

(Reporting by Kate Chappell in Kingston; Additional Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Chester, UK, and Rob Edison Sandiford in Bridgetown; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Trump returns Cuba to U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday announced it was returning Cuba to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Cuba was being blacklisted for “repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism” by harboring U.S. fugitives as well as Colombian rebel leaders.

Pompeo also cited Communist-ruled Cuba’s security support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which he said had allowed the socialist leader to create “a permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela.”

“With this action, we will once again hold Cuba’s government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The terrorism list decision followed months of legal review, with some administration experts questioning whether it was justified, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Trump has clamped down on Cuba since coming to power in 2017, tightening restrictions on U.S. travel and remittances to Cuba, and imposing sanctions on shipments of Venezuelan oil to the island.

Trump’s hardline Cuba policy was popular among the large Cuban-American population in South Florida.

Syria, Iran and North Korea are other countries on the list.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washinton and Sarah Marsh in Havana; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Hurricane Laura approaches U.S. Gulf Coast forcing tens of thousands to evacuate

(Reuters) – Hurricane Laura was bearing down on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday, threatening fierce winds and storm surge from San Luis Pass, Texas to Ocean Springs, Mississippi and prompting thousands to evacuate before an expected Thursday landfall.

The storm strengthened to a hurricane as its center moved northwest over Cuba early Tuesday at 16 miles per hour (26 kph)with sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (110 kph), and it was due to intensify over the next two days, the National Hurricane Center said.

The Texas city of Galveston imposed a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday after the storm’s track veered westward overnight towards to the island community of some 50,000 people. The storm was 620 miles (1,000 km) southeast of Galveston on Tuesday morning.

“It’s imperative that you make plans this morning to secure your homes and move you and your family to safety off island,” acting Mayor Craig Brown said in a statement on Tuesday.

More than 330,000 residents living in Jefferson and Orange Counties in eastern Texas were also placed under a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday.

On Monday, the mayor of Port Arthur, Texas, an oil town of 54,000 people 85 miles (137 km) east of Houston, ordered a mandatory evacuation, giving residents until 6 a.m. on Tuesday to leave.

Laura is projected to make landfall in the Texas-Louisiana border region late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning as a major hurricane, possibly Category 3 on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity, the NHC said.

“This has the potential to be the strongest hurricane to hit since Hurricane Rita,” Louisiana Governor John Edwards said at a Monday evening news conference, referring to the Category 5 hurricane that hit in 2005.

The storm comes on the heels of Tropical Storm Marco, which weakened sooner than expected and made landfall on Monday in Louisiana before dissipating.

Laura skirted the southern coast of Cuba on Monday but did not cause as much damage as it did in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where it killed at least 10 people.

The coincidence of Laura’s storm surge with high tide along the Gulf Coast from High Island, Texas to Morgan City, Louisiana could result in water levels rising as high as 11 feet, the Miami-based forecaster said.

Rainfall along the coast near the Texas-Louisiana border, as much as a foot of water in some places, was expected to cause widespread flooding.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Tropical Storm Laura to become a hurricane as it heads toward U.S.

By Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Laura strengthened in the Caribbean on Monday and was poised to accelerate into a hurricane, while Tropical Storm Marco weakened sooner than expected, sparing the U.S. Gulf Coast from two simultaneous hurricanes that had been forecast.

The dual storms have taken offline nearly 10% of the United States’ crude oil production, as energy companies shuttered operations to ride out the weather.

The changed forecast from the National Hurricane Center bought a little more time for residents along Louisiana’s coast to prepare for the one-two punch. Marco could still bring dangerous winds and rain on Monday evening, with Laura forecast to make landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast on Wednesday night.

“Having two storms in the Gulf at one particular time made the last few days pretty stressful,” said Archie Chaisson, the president of Lafourche Parish on the Louisiana coast.

The coronavirus pandemic had complicated preparations, Chaisson said, with officials modifying their shelter plans to ensure social distancing and the wearing of face coverings.

HOWLING WINDS

Laura traced the southern coast of Cuba on Monday morning, but the brunt of the storm was offshore, helping the largest island nation in the Caribbean avoid serious damage after Laura killed at least 10 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The storm downed trees in Cuba, ripped away flimsy roofs and caused minor flooding on Sunday evening, according to residents and news reports. In Jamaica, there were reports of landslides and flooded roads.

“I slept well last night, except when the wind howled,” Nuris Lopez, a hairdresser, said by telephone from a town in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains in Cuba’s eastern Granma province.

Laura was heading toward the Gulf of Mexico at 20 miles per hour (31 kilometers per hour), according to the NHC. By Tuesday, it was expected to have reached hurricane strength. By Wednesday night, stronger still, it was expected to hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, the NHC said.

By then, it could be a Category 2 or 3 hurricane on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane intensity, said Chris Kerr, a meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider.

OIL HIT HARD

Despite Marco’s weakening, with the NHC predicting it would slow to a tropical depression by Monday night, that storm still threatened to soak the Louisiana coast.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent teams to operations centers in Louisiana and Texas.

This year’s hurricane season has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing many people to weigh the risks of leaving their homes and potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

Officials in Louisiana said that testing for COVID-19 was suspended in the state on Monday and Tuesday.

Energy companies moved to cut production at U.S. Gulf Coast oil refineries after shutting half the area’s offshore crude oil output as back-to-back storms took aim at the coast.

Producers have shut more than 1 million barrels per day of Gulf Coast offshore oil production, 9% of the nation’s total output, facing a storm that is forecast to become a damaging Category 2 hurricane.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York, Marc Frank in Havana, Kate Chappell in Kingston and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Cubans cast aside coronavirus fears to search for scarcer food

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) – From the seafront capital Havana to the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains, Cubans are defying fear of the new coronavirus to search for food as global trade disruptions worsen shortages of basic goods on the Caribbean island.

Residents of all ages are trudging from store to store in the country to locate scarce goods despite recommendations from health experts to stay at home and respect social distancing guidelines to avoid contracting the highly contagious disease.

Communist-run Cuba imports more than 60% of its food, but the pandemic has forced its government to close the borders, denying it the hard currency from tourism needed to pay for goods from overseas. The leisure industry accounts for 25% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

With shortages biting, many residents are using apps to swarm shops when coveted products arrive – from chicken and cheese to powdered milk and tomato sauce – creating long lines on the streets of Havana where police attempt to keep order.

While Cuba has faced scattered shortages ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union began in 1989, they have worsened since a decline in aid from socialist ally Venezuela and a tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Now they are intensifying as the pandemic compounds Cuba’s cash crunch and disrupts international trade and food prices.

“There is a queue for everything, products are scarce,” Havana resident Luis Alberto said as he waited in a line for chicken that stretched for more than 100 meters (330 ft).

Since the first coronavirus cases were logged on the island last month, authorities have closed the borders to people and called on Cubans to only go out if strictly necessary, always wearing face masks. Disinfectant has been included on the ration cards that residents use to obtain goods.

“No one is walking around except the family doctor and nurse,” Nuris Lopez, a hairdresser, said from a medium-sized town in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra in eastern Granma province.

“But when some ground meat finally arrived the other day everyone emerged from their homes in masks and lined up with a policeman keeping order,” she said.

A soldier organizes a line of people to buy food amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in downtown Havana, Cuba, April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

‘PERFECT STORM BREWING’

President Miguel Diaz-Canel recently warned citizens they would be consuming less imported food “due to the current situation.”

When ships arrived last week with corn and rice, it was big news in the state-run media.

Cuba is not a member of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank or other multilateral lending institutions it could turn to for emergency funds.

Economy Minister Alejandro Gil has said the only solution is to “find in agriculture the main source of food for the people” but the sector is suffering an intensifying lack of inputs – like fertilizer and pesticides – partly due to U.S. sanctions.

“There is a perfect storm brewing. By May, the food situation here will be much worse,” a local agricultural expert said, requesting anonymity due to restrictions on talking with foreign journalists.

FOOD PRODUCTION IN TROUBLE

Cuba is famous for fighting epidemics and infamous for its centralized and unproductive Soviet-style agricultural system long since jettisoned by other Communist-run countries.

Many express faith in the former and not the latter.

“Cuba has the virus under control and I am sure it will stay that way,” said Emandez Maseo, a teacher in eastern Cuba. “At the same time, we are going into a critical situation, there is nothing in the markets and it is getting worse.”

Cuba has reported 396 coronavirus cases and 11 deaths, all but a few linked to travelers entering from abroad.

Much of the economy not related to tourism remains open, but it is hard to see agricultural production making up for lower imports.

Just 40% of normal fuel supplies and even less fertilizer and pesticides were used for the winter crop, according to the government. Planting began before the pandemic in November and harvesting ended in March.

The government has not reported on the results of Cuba’s most important growing season. Agriculture ministry official Yojan García Rodas told local radio that farmers were able to plant less than half the planned acreage of beans – a local staple – because they had to use oxen to till the land due to lack of fuel.

Speaking about a plague that wiped out much of the crop, Rodas said only 15% of the 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) planted could be protected by chemical pesticides.

Luis Enrique Plutin, a farmer working the fields under a hot sun with fellow cooperative members on the outskirts of Havana, was phlegmatic.

“Through sacrifice and work we can produce something, but not much, for the population,” he said. “And we can continue to produce more, but imagine the difficulties we have.”

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. issues travel ban for Cuba’s Castro over human rights accusations, support for Venezuela’s Maduro

Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday imposed U.S. travel sanctions on Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro over his support for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, and involvement in what it called “gross violations of human rights.”

Taking a direct but largely symbolic swipe at Cuba’s leadership as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s continuing pressure campaign against Havana, the State Department banned travel to the United States by Castro, Cuba’s former president and younger brother of the late Fidel Castro, as well as family members.

“Castro is responsible for Cuba’s actions to prop up the former Maduro regime in Venezuela through violence, intimidation, and repression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In addition to Castro, the State Department also sanctioned his children, Alejandro Castro Espin, Deborah Castro Espin, Mariela Castro Espin, and Nilsa Castro Espin.

The measures that Pompeo said would block their entry to the United States are likely to have limited impact. Castro last visited in 2015 to address the United Nations General Assembly. His children are also believed to have rarely traveled to the United States. Mariela Castro Espin, a gay rights activist, made stops in New York and San Francisco in 2012.

Pompeo also accused Castro, Cuba’s most powerful figure, of overseeing “a system that arbitrarily detains thousands of Cubans and currently holds more than 100 political prisoners.”

The Cuban government, which strongly rejects such accusations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was the latest in a series of punitive measures that Trump has taken against Washington’s old Cold War foe since taking office in 2017, steadily rolling back the historic opening to Havana under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump has focused especially on Cuba’s support for Maduro, a longtime ally of Havana. Earlier this year, the United States and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president, though Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as the OPEC nation’s military.

“In concert with Maduro’s military and intelligence officers, members of the Cuban security forces have been involved in gross human rights violations and abuses in Venezuela, including torture,” Pompeo said. Cuba has strongly denied the U.S. accusations.

Speaking in New York while attending the U.N. General Assembly, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza scoffed at the U.S. measure against Castro, saying it was an attempt to humiliate him.

“And neither Raul Castro nor his family even want to come to this country! We are forced to come here because the U.N. headquarters is in New York, for now,” said Arreaza, referring to a similar U.S. travel bar on Venezuelan officials and citing a Russian offer to host the United Nations in Sochi.

Last week, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of two members of Cuba’s delegation to the United Nations.

Washington has made clear that a key objective of its tough approach to Cuba is to force it to abandon Maduro, something Havana has said it will never do. However, Trump has stopped short of breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba restored by Obama in 2015 after more than five decades of hostility.

Maduro has accused Guaido – who earlier this year assumed an interim presidency after alleging that Maduro had rigged the last election – of trying to mount a U.S.-directed coup.

“Castro is complicit in undermining Venezuela’s democracy and triggering the hemisphere’s largest humanitarian crisis,” Pompeo said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington, Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)

Neurotoxin may have caused diplomats’ illness in Cuba: study

HAVANA (Reuters) – Fumigation against mosquitoes in Cuba and not “sonic attacks” may have caused some 40 U.S. and Canadian diplomats and family members in Havana to fall ill, according to a new study commissioned by the Canadian government.

The incidents took place from late 2016 into 2018, causing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to charge that diplomats were attacked by some sort of secret weapon. Canada has refrained from such charges.

The United States in 2017 reduced its embassy staff to a minimum and Canada followed more recently, citing the incidents and the danger posed to staff from what has become known as the “Havana Syndrome.”

Various scientific studies have yet to identify the cause of the diplomats’ cognitive ailments, ranging from dizziness and blurred vision to memory loss and difficulty concentrating.

The Canadian study by a team of researchers affiliated with the Brain Repair Centre at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Health Authority studied Canadian victims and even the brain of a pet dog after its demise in Canada.

The study was the first to include diplomats for whom there was baseline medical testing from before their postings in Havana, so as to better compare with the tests from afterwards. Canada started implementing the practice after diplomats first started complaining of sickness.

The researchers said they had detected different levels of brain damage in an area that causes symptoms reported by the diplomats and which is susceptible to neurotoxins. They then concluded that cholinesterase, a key enzyme required for the proper functioning of the nervous system, was being blocked there.

Some pesticides work by inhibiting cholinesterase, the report said, and during the 2016-2018 period when diplomats became ill normal fumigation in Cuba was stepped up due to the Zika epidemic in the Caribbean.

The report said the diplomats’ illnesses coincided with increased fumigation in and around residences where they lived. One of the authors of the study, Professor Alon Friedman, clarified in an email to Reuters that both Canadian and Cuban authorities were fumigating.

“We report the clinical, imaging and biochemical evidence consistent with the hypothesis of over-exposure to cholinesterase inhibitors as the cause of brain injury,” the study concluded while cautioning that other causes could not be ruled out and more study was needed.

Friedman said it was not clear whether the broader Cuban population was affected by the fumigation and if not, why, but his team was planning a further study on this together with Cuban scientists.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Leslie Adler)