Miami-Dade Leaders Think Cuba Is Partly to Blame for Coronavirus Spread

Miami-Dade Commissioners Javier Souto and Esteban Bovo
Miami-Dade Commissioners Javier Souto and Esteban Bovo Photos via Miami-Dade County
click to enlarge Miami-Dade Commissioners Javier Souto and Esteban Bovo - PHOTOS VIA MIAMI-DADE COUNTY
Miami-Dade Commissioners Javier Souto and Esteban Bovo
Photos via Miami-Dade County
Countless unknowns surround COVID-19, including the length of the incubation period, whether people who have recovered from the disease can become reinfected, and why some cases are so much more severe than others.

But one thing some Miami-Dade leaders seem to know for sure is that Cuba must be responsible — at least in part — for the surge of COVID-19 cases in South Florida, particularly in Hialeah. County Commissioner Javier Souto, whose district includes parts of Kendall and Westchester, has even implied that Cuba might be weaponizing the novel coronavirus and exporting it to Miami.

"It is well known that the Cuban government after the Bay of Pigs and so on — and the Missile Crisis — began experimenting and getting a lot of support from the then-Soviet Union in biological warfare and all kinds of different weapons," Souto said at a livestreamed commission meeting this past Tuesday. "They have... weaponized certain diseases and certain things. This might very well be some sort of moment that they are trying to capitalize and use to [inflict] one more wound on us, on the USA."
During the remote meeting, commissioners approved a resolution pushing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to prohibit travel to and from Cuba for at least 60 days. The resolution cites concerns about the Cuban government's denial of COVID-19 cases on the island, the strong diplomatic relations between Cuba and China, the "rogue nature of both governments," and the island's proximity to South Florida.

"The risk of the pandemic is far too great to continue to allow travel to and from countries that are not presumably forthright and are not well equipped to detect and contain COVID-19," the resolution reads. The commission initially planned to vote on the measure last month, shortly after Cuban officials announced the island's first three positive cases.

Long before the new coronavirus became a worldwide concern, the U.S. Department of State in October imposed air travel restrictions on Cuba for its support of Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. And last week, travel between the two countries became even more difficult when Cuba suspended all international flights to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Commissioner Esteban Bovo, the primary sponsor of the Miami-Dade resolution, concedes that the vote Tuesday was symbolic but says the United States can't and shouldn't leave it up to Cuba to control travel.

"Cuba can turn that spigot on any time," Bovo tells New Times.

At the county's meeting, Mayor Carlos Gimenez and several commissioners said the Cuban government can't be trusted to report true numbers of COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday, 457 people had tested positive on the island and 12 people had died, according to the Miami Herald.

"You can't believe anything that's coming out of Cuba, just like you can't really believe anything that's coming out of China," Gimenez said during the meeting.

But so far, the county has not called for travel restrictions from other countries or states recognized as COVID-19 hot spots. Bovo acknowledges the risks of continued travel from places such as New York, but he says at least those travelers have been tested at the airport and ordered to isolate under an executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"We have a better compass on how to handle that," Bovo says.

Bovo says he's more concerned about travel from "dictatorial" countries where information doesn't flow freely and the press can't fact-check government claims as easily.

"People here from our community are going to grocery stores and everywhere, dealing with people, and they're contagious."

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Mistrust among governments during pandemics is not new. In the summer of 1981, Fidel Castro's government blamed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for introducing a new strain of dengue fever in Cuba that led to about 350,000 infections and more than 150 deaths. But that same mistrust can easily breed conspiracy theories and misinformation.

The commissioners and mayor offered no proof for their statements about travel to and from Cuba playing a role in the surge of local cases. Aldo Gonzalez, Souto's chief of staff, tells New Times it would probably be best for the county to reject flights from known hot spots, but what's happening in Cuba is a bigger question mark than what's happening in the United States.

"We know how many people have come here from [Cuba]," Gonzalez says. "People here from our community are going to grocery stores and everywhere, dealing with people, and they're contagious. They might not know they're contagious. It's like a never-ending cycle type of thing."

Anecdotally, Bovo says many people in his district, which includes Hialeah, travel to Cuba to see family.

"Many have come over the last ten or 15 years," he says. "Hialeah has always been a place where people start their journey. I don't want to be someone to stand between family visits, but I believe this is a health issue."

The Trump administration's October sanctions restricted U.S. commercial flights to and from Cuban airports except the one in Havana. Indira Pardillo, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, says that move didn't curtail travel to the island much; it simply increased flights to Havana.

Bovo says Miami International Airport (MIA) historically sees as many as 18 flights a day to or from Cuba. On and after March 10, when the Trump administration's most recent restrictions took effect, MIA saw about nine arrivals from and nine departures to the Havana airport daily, according to Pardillo.

From February 1 until April 2 — when Cuba suspended all flights amid the coronavirus crisis — MIA received 1,017 planes carrying 116,160 passengers from the island. In that same period, MIA cleared 1,016 planes carrying 112,645 passengers to Cuba.

A recent USA Today story analyzed the travel destinations of Floridians who had later tested positive for COVID-19. Those residents had traveled to 46 other states and to every continent except Antarctica. 
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Alexi C. Cardona is a staff writer at Miami New Times. A Hialeah native, she's happy to be back home writing about Miami's craziness after four years working for Naples Daily News.
Contact: Alexi C. Cardona