North Carolina’s first case of the Chickungunya virus was confirmed on June 12. Seven days later Georgia confirmed its first case. Two days after that Tennessee confirmed its second. With over 30 cases already confirmed in Florida, this mosquito-borne virus is quickly spreading.

Until 2007, Chickungunya was only found in Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Then it appeared in Italy and slowly made its way throughout Europe. In December of this past year the first case of Chickungunya was reported in the Caribbean. Now, barely six months later, the Pan American Health Organization has confirmed 5,000 cases of the virus and suspects another 160,000 cases in the region.

There is currently no vaccine for the virus or treatment for the symptoms. Those symptoms include fever, rash, nausea, chronic joint pain, swelling and headache. They usually first appear within three to seven days after infection with most symptoms abating after about a week’s time. However, the joint pain often lasts for months.

There are now 20 afflicted states and islands in the Caribbean, with Cuba being the most recent. The Center for Disease Control has reported approximately 60 total cases in the continental United States thus far. All such cases have included patients who have made recent trips to the Caribbean. The virus has been linked to the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, both of which are fairly common in the U.S. The CDC has recommended that people who are traveling to the Caribbean use bug spray and dress in long sleeves and pants to avoid being bitten by either kind.

Despite rising concerns about possible contraction of the Chickungunya virus, trips to the Caribbean remain popular among American tourists. With cruise season currently in full swing, the number of cases in the U.S. is sure to rise.

— Taylor Dow

Sources: LA Times, Island Gazette, CNN, AJC, Medpage Today
Photo: Wageningen Ur

Cuban Economic Growth
For decades, Cuba kept itself off the radar and rarely allowed access to the United States. However, Raul Castro, brother to the infamous Fidel Castro and current leader of Cuba, has recently allowed small changes to make an impact on Cuba.

After years of economic isolation and little internal growth, Castro faces a difficult job in making up for lost time. Small programs like the Cuban Emprende make a world of difference as community leaders learn how to grow their small businesses into larger, more modern companies, leading the way for Cuban economic growth.

The distribution of wealth in Cuba is skewed, with the poor representing a large portion of the population. The average Cuban worker earns around $20 a month, and little has changed in the past 50 years. Cuba has now opened the doors to looking into private investments, a monumental step in the direction of globalization.

In the past, Cuba was mostly affiliated with Latin and South America. By allowing other countries, such as the U.S., into the Cuban system, the people of Cuba are looking at a brighter economic future.

However, members of U.S. Congress seem tentative about whether this Cuban economic growth and reform are benefiting the labor rights as well as human rights of the population. Raul Castro has yet to make clear how the people are being affected by this change in internal government, so outsiders are weary of possible retribution. It is unclear as to how the U.S. will react to these changes and opening up foreign investment. Since the revolution of Cuba in the 1960s, the U.S. has not been allied with Cuba.

Chamber President Thomas Donahue recently visited the island for the first time in 15 years. He reports positive change in the direction of free enterprise, fewer government jobs and increased private hiring. Cubans are seeing a better daily life as companies begin to modernize and improve the impoverished neighborhoods as jobs become more readily available.

Raul Castro has recently implemented programs teaching Cubans how to successfully operate small businesses and create meaningful business relationships. Programs such as this offer the lower class an opportunity to support themselves in the realm of business and become potential business partners as foreign investors start to peer into Cuba’s economy.

Cuba is still in the early stages of change as its people adjust to the government’s new approach, but current conditions are looking promising as people find their new niches in a budding economy.

– Elena Lopez

Sources: Reuters, NY Times, TIME
Photo: InterNations

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) created a “Cuban Twitter” to foment unrest in the country. According to the report, the program, named ZunZuneo after the sound of a hummingbird’s tweet, attempted to create a network similar to Twitter through which Cubans could send text messages to one another on quotidian topics such as the weather, soccer and news updates.

Upon reaching enough subscribers, ZunZuneo would become a catalyst for political change by trying to trigger flash mobs of Cubans and an eventual “Cuban Spring” where tens of thousands of citizens gather to demand more rights and for the overthrow of the Castro regime. Although the program did eventually reach 40,000 subscribers, Cubans were unaware of its affiliation with the United States.

ZunZuneo also had a surveillance dimension with Mobile Accord, a contractor for the project, storing and classifying cellular usage data according to age, gender, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.”

The debate now hinges on whether the program was considered a “covert” action. Under the law, any covert action requires president authorization and Congressional notification, yet the White House and USAID have denied the supposedly covert nature of the program. The U.S. President Barack Obama administration’s spokesperson, Jay Carney, has emphasized the necessity of a “discreet” but not “covert” program in “non-permissive environments” to ensure the safety of individuals.

Carney also stressed the fact that the program was subject to congressional oversight and its role as a “development assistance” program to aid in the free flow of information to Cubans living in a setting where information and access to the Internet is heavily restricted.

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah again stressed the discreet but not covert effort of the program and claimed that the Government Accountability Office investigated and cleared the programs as legal.

This latest revelation has come on the heels of damaging revelations by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden on the National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance program which sparked indignation and mistrust between the U.S. and its allies.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: The Guardian, Associated Press, USAID
Photo: Tech Crunch

Just last week, Cuba celebrated the 16th annual Havana Cigar Festival, despite the increase in anti-smoking measures around the world.

The festival, which began February 24, is the world’s premier cigar event, with more than 1,500 enthusiasts flocking to Cuba’s capital for the week. The annual occasion is meant to introduce tobacco specialists and cigar lovers to new cigars and how they can combine with haute cuisine. Among the events at the festival were visits to tobacco farms and factories, the launch of new cigar labels and visits to locally-grown tobacco markets.

The festival concluded on Friday with a real twist: a gala dinner and humidor auction, where $1.1 million was raised for Cuba’s public healthcare system.

The festival sparked much public interest into the current state of Cuban health care, often noted as a public health care model that could inform other developing countries.

Cuba’s health care system is a private-payer system managed by the government. Its focus is on prevention and community health, with 1,000 patients per physician in urban areas. Primary care is highly valued and physicians tend to live in the same communities as their patients.

Virtually all citizens of Cuba have been vaccinated and the life expectancy of 78 is almost identical to that of the United States. The infant mortality rate is lower than that of the U.S., with fewer than deaths per 1,000 births. The literacy rate is 99 percent and health education is a mandatory part of school curriculum.

These improved health outcomes are largely due to the fact that the healthcare system addresses immediate bio-medical concerns as well as the social determinants of health such as nutrition and education.

Despite these advances, there are still major problems occurring within Cuba’s health care system. The country is far from developed and lacks basic infrastructure needed to maintain a healthy population. Resources are limited, technology is at a minimum and the Internet is often hard to obtain.

Some of these obstacles are beginning to be addressed by the Cuban government. For example, resources have been invested in developing more advanced biotechnology at the level seen in countries such as the U.S.

With the help of the generous donation to Cuba’s health care system made Friday, people might see some of these advances in the near future.

– Mollie O’Brien

Sources: Daily Journal, Chicago Tribune, The New England Journal of Medicine
Photo: National Turk

During the recent Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, Cuban president Raúl Castro expressed that Latin American and Caribbean leaders all have the ability and resources to end poverty, but merely lack the political willpower.

Approximately 26 percent of Cuba’s population is living in poverty, which is the equivalent of 11.2 million people. Over the last five years, Castro has made multiple changes in an attempt to better income gaps. But very few of these changes (such as allowing Cubans to work more than one job at a time) have made a positive impact on the economy and have actually increased poverty in Cuba.

Cuba had a thriving health care system not too long ago, but multiple hospitals and emergency clinics have recently been shut down due to scarce medicine and a reduction in government spending.

Cuba’s elderly population has been especially affected by Castro’s recent economic reforms. In terms of medical care, which is free, an increasing number of Cubans claim that in order to received proper attention they need to “give doctors under-the-table gifts.”

With the growing Cuban population aging 65 years and over, Cuba is on the verge of bankruptcy. The government cost to support health care is skyrocketing since the population of senior citizens is continuing to double.

On the 200 pesos ($8 per month) pension given to 1.6 million retirees, medicine can cost upwards of “70 pesos per month,” says Maximiliano Sánchez, a senior citizen, allowing him only “to survive, not to live.”

Sánchez explained that electricity costs him up to 40 pesos and his telephone costs him up to 20 pesos per month. With Fidel Castro’s 2005 energy reduction campaign, which forced residents to update old appliances to energy efficient ones, Sánchez now has to pay 65 pesos to the government each month. He states there is very little money left to spend on food.

Public education spending has also been reduced, but because much of the younger generation is leaving the country, there has not been a dramatic affect on the population. Without younger and physically capable people, however, Cuba does struggle with housing maintenance and hurricane damage repair. Although the birth rate is relatively low, providing housing for Cuba’s public has been difficult, and this contributes to poverty in Cuba and homelessness. Only about 21,000 houses were constructed in 2013, compared to the 111,400 erected in 2006.

– Becka Felcon

Sources: The Guardian,
Photo: Travel Adventures

Last Monday, the Brookings Institute hosted a panel of policy analysts and religious leaders to discuss recent changes in Cuba and, specifically, the role of the Catholic Church in Cuban reform.

Ted Piccone, a Brookings Senior Fellow, spoke with praise about the Church’s dynamic role at both the governmental and local levels in promoting dialogue about Cuba’s future. He also introduced Orlando Marquez, the senior editor of a major publication by the Archdiocese of Havana, who spoke about its increasing role in attacking poverty and mediating policy reform.

According to Marquez, the Cuban Church has a two-pronged approach. First, it is working locally to improve media access, establish public education, and grow businesses. Toward those ends, churches across Cuba have started publishing global news, forming partnerships to make educational programs available at every academic level, and working across sectors to offer enterprise development for Cuba’s farmers and entrepreneurs.

Second, the Church is engaging in dialogue with the government. In 2011, the conference of Cuban bishops negotiated the release of 75 political prisoners, a hard-won victory that garnered much international attention. They also urged the government to lift its crushing business regulations and tax policies on behalf of the many struggling businesspeople in their church provinces. Marquez says their impact was extraordinary.

“For the first time in about 50 years, the church has been recognized as a valid internal interlocutor,” he said. “This is new. This is very new.”

Marquez affirms that the influence of the Church as an interlocutor is key to continuing reform. The struggle for justice in Cuba, he says, is not about a battle between the ideologies of socialism and capitalism. Rather, it is a battle for the dignity of the human person, which is at the center of the Church’s ideology.

Tom Quigley, the former advisor on Latin America to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expresses similar optimism about Cuba’s future and the Church’s role in it.

“The Church in Cuba, more than any other entity, is deeply serious about reconciliation between all sectors of the Cuban family,” he said at the Brookings panel. “It hasn’t been easy—not once over these past six decades—but there have been more advances than backward moves.”

–  John Mahon

Sources: Brookings, Christian Post
Photo: Translating Cuba