Cuba shares plans for a single currency and more during a visit by U.S. lawmakers

Cuban leader Raúl Castro talks to Sen. Patrick Leahy and other U.S. members of Congress on Feb. 20th.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro talks to Sen. Patrick Leahy and other U.S. members of Congress on Feb. 20th. Cuban Foreign Ministry

Cuba, which has been operating under two currencies for the past two decades, may soon go back to a single one, a U.S. congressional delegation visiting the island this week said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“Cuban officials repeatedly said this was the year to get it done, to unify the currency,” said Oregon Democratic Sen Ron Wyden during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

“They say it is very complicated because it affects wages throughout the island and the government...but they do hope to do that this year,” Florida Rep. Kathy Castor (Tampa-D) told the Miami Herald.

In a speech before the National Assembly in December, Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who has promised to leave office in April, said that the monetary unification on the island could not be delayed anymore — both Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and Cuban pesos circulate on the island.

Spearheaded by longtime normalization advocate Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a Democratic congressional delegation traveled to Havana on Saturday to meet with members of the Cuban government and the private sector to discuss “the presidential transition in Cuba” and “U.S. and Cuban investigations of health incidents involving U.S. government personnel in Cuba,” Leahy said in a statement prior to the visit.

WLPG Local 10 reported that the delegation — comprised of Leahy, Wyden, Castor, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, representatives James McGovern, of Massachusetts, and Susan Davis, of California — asked the Cuban government to eliminate the 13 percent exchange tax on the U.S. dollar with respect to the CUC, the local convertible currency. The Cuban officials responded by saying “they would like to do that but they have said that in the past,” Castor added.

The delegation also addressed the impact of the new regulations issued by President Donald Trump and the reduction of the embassy staff in Havana, as well as other issues of bilateral cooperation.

On Tuesday afternoon, all members of delegation, except Castor, were received by Castro, with whom they held an “animated” discussion, Leahy told reporters. Castor returned to Florida on Tuesday.

McGovern said Castro assured them that his government would not abandon “some of the ongoing negotiations” with the United States.

Despite issuing tighter restrictions on travel and financial regulations, the Trump administration has maintained bilateral talks on key issues such as migration, the fight against drug trafficking, cyber security and law enforcement, among other issues.

Prior to the meeting with Castro, the delegation met with Carlos Fernández de Cossio, who replaced Josefina Vidal as director for U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry. At the meeting, Fernández de Cossio “emphasized that there is no evidence that attacks have occurred against U.S. diplomats in Cuba,” the Cuban Foreign Ministry wrote on Twitter.

“I have no idea what happened to our diplomats here,” McGovern said at the press conference. “U.S. agencies who are investigating this matter...also don’t seem to have clue of what happened here...we may never know what happened.”

Echoing Havana’s complaints, Wyden also called for more collaboration between the two governments in the investigation of the health incidents that affected at least 24 diplomats, family members and intelligence agents who were stationed in Havana.

“I believe we need to put our best minds on this and invite and expect the hosts to participate in getting this resolved so that our two countries can progress and move forward together,” he said.

Recently, doctors who treated affected Americans reported in a medical article that they could not explain the symptoms of concussion experienced by some of the victims. Many also presented symptoms that lasted for months and were not psychosomatic, the doctors wrote. The Department of the State has said it does not know who perpetrated the alleged attacks.

Castor said the delegation met with Cuban medical experts and investigators who addressed the article in The Journal of American Medical Association. The experts, she said, seemed to acknowledge that “something happened, but it just remains a mystery.”

The congresswoman said that the word “attacks maybe too strong” but that she was briefed by several U.S. agencies and the consensus is that “something was directed at folks” in Havana. “I don’t see a motivation of the Cuban government itself to have done harm [to our diplomats] but we don’t know.”

At the press conference, McGovern said the warning to “reconsider travel to Cuba” issued by the State Department after the alleged attacks was “a mistake” and that he felt “safe” on the island. The congressional delegation also lamented the cuts of the embassy staffing in Havana, which prevents the issuance of visas and the improvement of relations.

“We need to get back our embassy fully staffed and we have been reassured there is no conceivable way of granting the number of visas that we have agreed. There is no way we're going to have improved relations if we don’t have the personnel to do it,” Leahy said.

Castor was also concerned about the impact on families across the Florida Straits.

“It is vital that the State Department restores staffing, especially in consular affairs, to ensure that families in Florida and Cuba can continue to see each other,” she said.

Leahy did not share details of his private conversation with Castro about the upcoming transition of government leadership. The delegation did not meet with Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro’s presumed successor. Last week, Díaz-Canel met with the president of Namibia.

“We had hoped to meet Díaz-Canel and I look forward to meet him in the future,” Castor said, adding she had never met Fidel or Raúl Castro and she wanted to “turn the page and look to the future.”

The Tampa representative said the delegation also met with Cuban entrepreneurs who said Trump’s Cuba policy was hurting their businesses.

“Cuba is changing and soon it will experience a historic generational change in its leadership,” McGovern said. “Regrettably in this moment of this nation’s history U.S. engagement is limited.”

This report was supplement with information from WLPG Local 10

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres