Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Have they taken that old Miami bumper sticker phrase and made it their own in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba?

For better or worse, maybe so.

Regarding the year that has now passed since Fidel Castro delegated executive authority, a few things stand out.

The rumors in late 2006 about Fidel being near death may have been true; in June he confirmed that he had “hovered between life and death.”

There has not been a single sign that the Cuban government’s control was diminished, much less at risk in any way – not at the moment of the July 31 announcement, not during the long absences and periods of uncertainty, not at any time in the year.

No disruptions: Cubans continued going to work, farmers continued delivering their produce to market, street demonstrations did not take place.

The number of political prisoners is down, but the human rights situation is fundamentally unchanged.

In Miami, the year began with street celebrations and ended back where things were on July 30, 2006.

Nobody – not the opposition, not the U.S. government, nobody – seized the moment.

Come to think of it, was there a moment to seize?

Outsiders discussed, strategized and debated about transition and succession and pressure points and the right posture for the European Union to adopt toward Cuba. The U.S. Secretary of State talked about what America would and would not “tolerate.” Meanwhile, in plain sight, the Cuban government carried off a succession, albeit without the final element of the head of government legally relinquishing his office – yet.

Right after the big announcement, the Bush Administration called for Cubans to effect change. Eleven months later, sights were lowered considerably. On June 29, 2007, President Bush said that when “the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away,” the United States will “call the world together to promote democracy as the alternative to the form of government they [the Cuban people] have been living with.”

“No problem” is not exactly right. Cuba has problems, big problems, and its government has problems. Some may only come into view when Fidel Castro definitively leaves office. Many have been identified by Raul Castro and others in government.

Apart from Fidel’s absence, the biggest new political fact in Cuba may be the expectations that Raul Castro has created, that he will tackle those problems. His moves so far seem to be those of a man with limited room for maneuver.

This has been a year without precedent. It has not been a year of crisis.

[News agency photos]

"I don't care about the perceptions"

I wanted to make a few additional comments on Radio/TV Marti.

I listen to Radio Marti from time to time; anyone can listen through its website. My general impression has been that the presentation if the news is straight, but in some cases when there’s an issue that is politically sensitive in Miami, bias creeps in.

And then there have been episodes that show a huge gap between Marti and normal journalism. Among the most famous were when Marti decided not to carry a live broadcast of President Carter’s address at the University of Havana, or when it delayed for hours the news that Elian Gonzalez had been seized by federal agents.

I think the survey that Marti commissioned to measure its audience, covered in the recent AP story, is another such episode.

You don’t have to be a journalist to know that no editor in print or broadcasting measures his own audience.

The only credible measures are independent ones. In newspapers, it’s the Audit Bureau of Circulations. In radio, it’s Arbitron. In television, it’s Nielsen.

At Radio/TV Marti, they chose one of their own contractors, one who according to AP “has had several other contracts to improve Marti programming.” So that even if the contractor’s survey work was impeccable, outsiders would have reason to doubt it, but Marti’s management apparently saw no issue here. The contractor, equally untroubled, said, “I don't care about the perceptions.” Again, good enough for government work.

The survey, with positive results, wsa leaked to the Miami Herald during the week when Marti’s budget was being considered in a House committee.

Then there’s the question of research methods. I’ll grant that this is not a simple subject to research, but it’s not impossible. In the past, Marti has paid foreign research firms to do the research in Cuba, which would seem to make sense because the audience is there, and a researcher could report on both audience reaction and signal quality.

But no – Marti chose a contractor that worked exclusively in the United States. The questions about Radio and TV Marti were directed to recent immigrants, who may or may not have thought the pollsters were connected to the U.S. government, and who may or may not have wondered if their answers could possibly affect their government-provided hhealth, employment, income, and educational benefits.

The contractor says he is “open for any kind of examination of our work product.”

If so, he should release his report. It’s unclassified, and if it’s good enough to give to the Miami Herald, it’s good enough to give to the rest of us.

We paid for it, after all.


Let me count the ways....

The Republican candidates want to court the Cuban American vote. The problem is that they uniformly like the embargo, with the exceptions of Brownback who voted in favor of travel to Cuba, and Ron Paul, whose libertarian philosophy leads him to oppose the embargo entirely.

So how to break from the pack and love-bomb Calle Ocho with real impact?

Let’s recap.

Giuliani is the most endearing; he professes a love for Cuban food and says his wife is learning Spanish. Thompson loves Gloria Estefan and quotes her with ease, but that may be problematic now because she has Carlos Santana on her new CD and Santana wore a Che Guevara t-shirt, and you can read Babalu for the rest (see 7/24 here). So he may have some work to do.

Mitt “Patria o Muerte” Romney, playing a little catch-up, was in Florida over the weekend making good sense on trade but avoiding an ethanol subsidy question like the plague. From the AP account of his visit:

Romney also spoke to veterans of the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion at their small museum in Miami‘s Little Havana neighborhood and promised to seek out their intelligence expertise on Cuba if elected president.

Hasta la victoria siempre!

But seriously, there’s a real chance that candidates will move beyond symbols and gestures and promise real change in policy as the election nears, or if McCain drops out and his supporters are up for grabs.

Will one promise to repeal wet foot-dry foot? (I still wish someone could confirm that Giuliani promised that on his last trip to Miami.) Will one promise to add a second plane to broadcast Radio/TV Marti from the U.S. airspace south of the Keys, or to fly the plane over international waters, right up to Cuban airspace?

This is a serious question. What is left for them to propose, to promise?

Odds and ends

  • Not that I aspire to run an election analysis blog, but when the Clinton-Obama flap about dealing with dictators occurred, I scored the fight in Hillary’s favor. Each side apparently sees advantage in it, because each side keeps the flap going. A view contrary to mine is here, at Uncommon Sense.

  • Armengol went on vacation but not before filing a column, “El marabú del exilio,” that should hold everyone until he returns.

  • If you want to see the full range of Cuban American opinion on U.S. migration policy, and quite a few comments on how it relates to U.S. attempts to foster change in Cuba, check this out at Babalu. One thing that comes through is resentment toward Cubans who arrived here recently and return to visit family, based on their alleged hypocrisy for coming here as refugees fleeing repression and returning to the place that repressed them. The problem is that the vast majority of Cubans who come here are not refugees or asylees under our law. That is, they don’t get in by making any claim about persecution, nor are they asked to make such a claim, so there’s nothing for them to be hypocritical about. Either they get a normal immigrant visa from the U.S. consulate, or they just arrive without visas, which makes them illegal immigrants. Then they are paroled in, which makes them legal. Then they are treated under our social services system as if they were refugees, which may account for the confusion. An earlier discussion of this is here.

  • In Hudson County, what sounds like a very nice ten-piece band of the old school sprouts up. Cubanoson’s website is here.

  • A word of explanation: On very few occasions, I have deleted comments posted on this blog. Once because a comment was in bad taste, and every other time because the comments, to my amazement, were spam.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cementerio Colon

“Virtual” television

The signal of TV Marti – a “virtual” television station, as a dissident in Havana once described it to me – barely reaches Cuba, according to dozens of recent Cuban immigrants interviewed by the Associated Press.

An interesting nugget in the article: TV Marti’s idea of independent survey research is to hire one of its own contractors to report on whether the audience is growing. Good enough for government work, as the saying goes.

Odds and ends

  • Just as the “Sicko” publicity begins to die down, the U.S. government seems to be preparing a lifeline. Michael Moore says he is being subpoenaed; Reuters reports it’s not quite so. At Babalu, they are cheering the feds on, which surely adds to Moore’s delight and sense of victimhood.

  • In El Nuevo Herald, Manuel Cereijo defines what’s needed to build democracy and markets in Cuba, and then tells el exilio that “we have to take new and different initiatives” and employ “different, visionary, daring tactics.” Which initiatives and tactics, he doesn’t say. Manuel, can you write a little more?

Gotta go...

Four desertions from the Cuban team at the Pan American Games, a Fidel commentary complaining about it, a rumor of a mass defection after the closing ceremony, Brazilian video of Cuban athletes selling their uniforms, and the Cuban team heads to the airport a day early, in a hurry. They barely collect their luggage and they skip a medal ceremony where bronzes for the volleyball team awaited. Sad.

“A summer night’s dream”

That’s the title of a July 15 post on the blog Todo el Mundo Habla that contains an interesting idea: that Cuba’s dissidents should put themselves forward as candidates in the just-announced municipal elections, or in the provincial and national legislative elections to come.

The author is a 29-year-old Cuban who lives in Spain. The placement of just one oppositionist’s name on a municipal ballot, she argues, would be “a big step for the cause.” And even if they fail to get a single name on a ballot, “they would make themselves known in the neighborhoods and above all it would be a demonstration that they want to do something tangible to become part of a system that has to be reformed by Cubans from within.”

So she’s saying that the dissidents need to make themselves known among Cubans, that they need to show that they want to do “something tangible,” and that those who would join the system and work from within are worthy, and they advance “the cause.”

Her assumptions are quite different from those that prevail in Washington and Miami. Are they too harsh?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Santiago, El Morro again

Just in case you're tired of politics, a few photos. 'Til Monday....

Dialogue with the Cuban military?

Brian Latell, former national intelligence officer for Latin America, reportedly told Radio France Internationale that U.S. military officers tell him they have been in touch with their Cuban counterparts, including in the Dominican Republic. The contacts, he says, could only have occurred with the approval of Raul Castro.

Right. And with George Bush’s blessing, too. Lincoln, call your office!

With due caution, Latell describes the report as unconfirmed.

Contacts with the Cuban military would certainly be a sign of new thinking in the Bush Administration. “Hard-liners” in and out of government can be found on both sides of this question. Some advocate such contacts because the Cuban military, to say the least, has a role in determining Cuba’s future course, and U.S. messages might be delivered better in person than by shouting across the straits, and we might learn something useful. Others have opposed the idea, arguing that Cuba’s military should focus on issues inside Cuba rather than on a dialogue with Americans, and U.S. officers are unlikely to gain useful information.

AFP English report is here. H/T: Penultimos Dias.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lailí Pérez Negrín

At Penultimos Dias, Ernesto asks that we all publicize the case of the disappearance of Lailí Pérez Negrín, 37, who left Dominica last August by boat, seeking to reach Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. More here, including a statement by her brother indicating that she may have made it to Puerto Rico. She needs prayers and her brother Pedro needs information; write him here: pedrooperez@yahoo.com.

The speech

Raul’s text is available on the Granma website, English here, Spanish here.

Read for yourself and look at the comments in last night’s post, and see what you think.

If some of the quotes in that post differ from the official text, it’s because I took them from press accounts last night.

Raul takes the stage

Politics later. Let’s start with a joke.

“I came by land to see that everything is green and beautiful, but the most beautiful thing, that which most caught my eye, was how pretty the marabu is all along the highway.”

That’s Raul Castro explaining that he drove hundreds of miles rather than fly to Camaguey, where he spoke on Cuba’s national holiday, on the one-year anniversary of Fidel Castro’s last public appearance.

Marabu is a weed that takes over untilled fields. I don’t know exactly how he meant this joke, which certainly differs from Fidel’s style, and which EFE’s correspondent reported was greeted by laughter throughout the crowd. But my guess is that it’s a muy popular way of expressing dissatisfaction with the state of agriculture because, as any Cuban farmer knows, marabu in your fields is a sign of idleness and failure. Or maybe he was alluding to “Plan Marabu,” a term Cubans jokingly use to refer to the sugar ministry’s so-far-unsuccessful plan to turn idled lands over to other crop production. Marabu thrives unchallenged in lots of former sugar fields right now.

Anyway, now to the politics.

I have to think this speech marks a turning point for Cubans, sort of as if Americans were to see a Vice President giving the State of the Union address after a President was ill and out of sight for many months.

Raul gave a serious, presidential address, not a quick 15 minutes that an interim leader would deliver if he were still concerned about appearing to move too boldly into the absent leader’s space. Fidel’s name was invoked aplenty, and a book of his “Reflections” was published in Camaguey. For all the reverence, I saw not a word that would create an expectation of Fidel’s return.

Yet Fidel’s presence seems unmistakable, and not simply in the sense Raul described of his brother never failing “to bring his wisdom and experience to each problem and essential decision,” even “during the most serious moments of his illness.”

It was apparent in the gap between the problems Raul Castro described and the measures that have so far been brought to bear to address them. Fidel may be phoning it in, but his philosophy still seems to reign.

A Cuban worker’s salary, Raul said, “is clearly insufficient to satisfy all necessities, and hence has practically stopped fulfilling the role of assuring the socialist principle of each working according to his capacity and receiving according to his work.” That failure brings “social indiscipline” – read petty theft and black market activity to make ends meet – that is “difficult to eradicate.” “We know the tension to which party cadres are subjected, especially at the base, where available resources are almost never enough to cover accumulated needs.”

The solution, he said, lies in higher productivity, revived industrial production, increased foreign investment, and even “structural changes and changes of concepts.” And the solution will not come immediately because “no country has the luxury of spending more than it has.”

When Fidel Castro spoke about Cuba’s expansive black market in 2005, describing it as a threat to socialism’s long-term survival, his prescription was clear: stamp it out by enforcing the law and raising ideological consciousness. By contrast, Raul says black market activity is a direct response to the state’s inadequate pay. There’s a big difference between blaming greed or insufficient revolutionary qualities, and saying people deserve a day’s pay for a day’s work.

And there was more, including a passage where Raul fairly ridiculed the bureaucracy of milk production. “For years we have said that milk is supplied to children up to age seven,” he said. “What must be done is to produce milk so that anyone who wants can drink a glass of milk.” How many speeches are there – thousands? – where Cuba’s guarantee of milk to children is described as a triumph. Raul held it up as a sign of inadequacy.

In the past year Raul has certainly set a different style and he has changed some government policies. A brief but vibrant debate erupted in the cultural sector about repression in the 1970’s. He saw to it that the government paid its debts to farmers, and he raised prices paid to producers for milk and beef. He promised investment in tourism facilities and cut some abusive pricing that was contributing to reduced tourist visits. He allowed video equipment and auto parts and engines to be imported, and reportedly Cuban customs has reduced taxation and confiscation of Cuban Americans’ luggage containing goods for family members. He approved new labor regulations requiring greater worker discipline, and set in motion a study of the salary structure to find a way to pay workers enough to cover basic needs. There’s a rumor that Cubans may be permitted to stay in tourist hotels, and there was this sentence in a New York Times report which, if true, would be a small but very dramatic sign of a change in direction: “He has told the police to let pirate taxis operate without interference.” (Fidel threatened to put them out of business because they guzzle gas.)

These moves all make sense and many will improve public welfare. But they are small, marginal steps in relation to what would need to be done for Cuba to bridge decisively the income gap between underpaid state workers and those who work in tourism, joint ventures with foreign investors, individual licensed entrepreneurship, private farming, and a few other lines of work.

So Raul described large problems that are of great interest to average Cubans. His actions during the past year give the impression of a policymaker with limited room for maneuver. Nonetheless, he is creating public expectations that some kind of change is coming, and that in time it will measure up to the challenges he himself has defined.

He closed by quoting his brother, seven years ago: “Revolution is a sense of the historical moment, it is to change all that must be changed.”

Chew that one over.

Finally, a word about the United States since we are, of course, the center of the universe.

Alas, we were not at the center of this speech. In spite of the amount of press coverage Raul’s comments on U.S. relations with the United States received, those comments seemed perfunctory to me, a genuine but pro forma reiteration of policy, with a shot at the “erratic and dangerous” President Bush.

Raul offered an “olive branch” – but to the next Administration, which takes office in 18 months.

He has written off the Bush Administration.

The man has work to do, after all.

[AP photo]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Raul: "structural" changes needed

First reports from Raul Castro’s speech in Camaguey: EFE reports that he said “structural” changes are needed, and more foreign investment has to be encouraged. BBC notes his “olive branch” reference to the United States.

More later.

Carlos' titles

Rui Ferreira digs out of the Cuban press the fact that Carlos Valenciaga, the chief of staff in Fidel Castro’s personal office, who read the announcement on Cuban television last July that Castro was ill and delegating some of his executive powers, is no longer described as working in that capacity. He still carries two not-shabby titles – he’s a member of the Council of State and Communist Party Central Committee. But if they are no longer mentioning his chief of staff title, it seems to mean that he is not running Raul Castro’s office, and maybe it means, Rui wonders, that Fidel Castro’s equipo no longer exists as such.

Paseo del Prado

Going home again

Uva de Aragon wrote a tender and instructive essay in yesterday’s Diario las Americas, one of a series about her return to Havana in 1999.

It’s worth reading for its beauty and as a window into her experience. It’s so personal that I hesitate to make political comments about it.

But I’ll do so anyway.

It’s easy for people on my side of the Cuba policy debate to score points against those on the other side by pointing out that they don’t go to Cuba. And it’s certainly a fact that if you don’t travel there, you miss so much of the reality that is relevant to every issue we Americans examine as we debate our approaches to Cuba as a foreign policy challenge.

But this essay goes deeper than that. The separation suffered by so many Cubans is felt not just by those who left, but by those who watched them go. It can be broken. And the end of separation at a personal level can lead to thoughts, as this essay concludes, of “reconciliation with our country, which is much, much more than the government, the state, the Revolution.”

Health care myth and reality

Many blogs have commented on this essay (pdf, via Miscelaneas de Cuba) by Katherine Hirschfeld of the University of Oklahoma. It appears in the University of Miami’s journal, Cuban Affairs.

UM promotes the essay as a state-of-the-art critique of Cuba’s health care system, the perfect antidote to Michael Moore’s Sicko.

But if you read it, it’s pretty thin soup.

It has academic references out the wazoo, but considering that it’s based on nine months of research in Cuba, it contains little information. Mainly, it’s a warning to researchers not to accept the Cuban party line at face value, and to beware of measuring public opinion in a place where speech is limited. Fair enough. The essay’s main point is that foreign researchers often paint a rosier picture of Cuban health care than Cubans do, although this “is not to say that Cubans had nothing positive to say about their health care system.”

It says the research was done “in the late 1990’s;” a version of the same paper presented a year ago said it was 1996. It points out that the U.S. embargo “exacerbates material shortages on the island.” It describes the economic reforms of the 1990’s as “privatization,” which is quite a bit off the mark.

It makes the sweeping assertion that in one community, “no one used the formal health sector at all for commonplace medical complaints.” (The author keeps the name of this town a secret.) Which would mean that in that community, family doctors’ consultorios are either vacant or are mere social meeting places, that doctors don’t make house calls or otherwise have much to do.

Except, that is, to work in the black market, as illustrated in an example of a dentist who slowly gathered the wherewithal to operate on a wisdom tooth, and did so on a Saturday. There’s another example of a dental patient who got anesthesia only because she knew the nurse, and the nurse was looking out for her.

Surely, there are doctors that work on the side, and there is a black market in medical supplies and drugs, and it helps if patients know the right person inside the system.

But in Cuba one can see patients going to family doctors and clinics, and going to pharmacies to try to get prescriptions filled. The system is frayed, but it is not dysfunctional.

Then there’s another set of far-reaching claims: that there is no such thing as informed consent, Cubans have “no right to refuse treatment,” and doctors are sort of CDR’s in white coats, charged with “monitoring their neighborhoods for any sign of political dissent.”

On page 17, just when you’re ready for anecdotes and data from nine months of observation, the essay ends with a tentative conclusion. Hirschfeld poses a good question – whether Cuba’s political system distorts international perceptions of its health care system. But her intention, she says, was not “to answer this question so much as to argue for its relevance.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The good news, they say, is that there’s only one pothole on the road from Moa to Baracoa in eastern Cuba. The bad news is that it covers the entire distance between the two towns. You will average about 20 mph, but the compensation is scenery such as this.

Clinton/Obama, round two

The Clinton and Obama campaigns carry the debate into a second day; she says he was “irresponsible and, frankly, naïve” to agree to meet without preconditions with Ahmadinejad, Castro, Chavez, et al. during his first year in office. He says it’s a “fabricated controversy,” adding, “I didn’t say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon.”

Both candidates’ answers in the debate were intended to score points against the Bush Administration’s diplomatic record. But Clinton’s answer, sharply focused on the general election, reflected the concept of preparing a presidential summit, while Obama’s did not. And the question and Obama’s answer were so clear that his efforts to explain what he really said don’t ring true.

Hillary 1, Barack 0.

Odds and ends

  • Cuba’s Latin American Medical School graduates 1,800, among them eight Americans. Tuition paid: $0. This school is one element of Cuba’s international medical assisitance; in theory, many of the new graduates will go home and replace a Cuban doctor serving in a poor or underserved area. AP’s coverage here, Cuba’s AIN story here.

  • Figures on Cuban migration to the United States from the Herald’s Alfonso Chardy: 8,994 in 2005, of which 7,267 crossed the Mexican border, and 10,329 in 2006, of which 8,639 came via Mexico. I assume these figures don’t include legal immigrants who obtained immigrant visas in Havana.

  • The John Birch Society weighs in on U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants, making a hash of some of the issues, but it’s nice to know these guys are still around, isn’t it? “It is no exaggeration to say that, were it not for decades of betrayal by the U.S. government, Cuba would probably be free of Fidel Castro today…”

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Santiago, Parque Cespedes

The Coast Guard's problem

While the rest of us talk about immigration policy, the Coast Guard has the job of carrying it out.

The Wall Street Journal (link here, h/t Babalu) reported yesterday on the situation the Coast Guard confronts in the Florida Straits when alien smugglers on speedboats try to evade interdiction.

It’s easy to criticize the Coast Guard for using force, which it does as a last resort by shooting to disable a speedboat’s engine. And it’s especially easy to do so when people have died aboard those boats, as the Journal reports.

But this is the era of homeland security with a clamor to control our borders. The smugglers carrying passengers from Cuba often refuse Coast Guard orders to stop for an inspection. They are carrying illegal migrants, and who knows what else, from a country that – as candidate Fred Thompson points out – is supposedly a state sponsor of terrorism.

It is no surprise that the smugglers disobey the law and refuse to stop, considering that they have hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake in each voyage, and they face possible prosecution for alien smuggling if they are caught. At that moment, the safety of their human cargo, which became their responsibility once they took the people on board, is the last thing on their minds.

The President could announce that any migrant intercepted at sea can come to the United States, and any vessel found en route will be allowed to continue to U.S. shores. But that could provoke an exodus, a crisis in the straits, and more deaths at sea. I doubt President Bush is looking for a new international crisis, and while candidates may make promises, I doubt any President would change current policy once he or she reaches the Oval Office.

(Speaking of candidates, can anyone confirm a rumor I heard that Rudy Giuliani promised to end wet foot-dry foot while campaigning in Hialeah last week?)

In spite of the fact that the United States gives 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans, many do not want to apply and their family in America is happy to pay a smuggler, notwithstanding the risk, because a migrant that reaches land is allowed to stay.

Under the 1994 migration accords, the United States committed to return Cubans who come via alien smuggling and other “irregular” means, as the State Department explained in 1995:

Cubans who reach the United States through irregular means will be placed in exclusion proceedings and treated as are undocumented migrants from other countries, including being given the opportunity to apply for asylum.

If the United States were to make good on that commitment, it would deal a heavy blow to the alien smuggling business. But neither the Clinton Administration nor the current one has carried it out, for obvious reasons.

So U.S. policy being what it is, and Cuban domestic policies being what they are, giving so many Cubans a desire to leave, the saga in the Florida Straits will continue, with the Coast Guard assigned to deal with it.

A meeting with Castro?

Last night’s CNN/YouTube debate with Democratic candidates (transcript here) included this question: “Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”

Senator Obama’s answer: “I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous.”

Senator Clinton would not agree to make that promise, to avoid being “used for propaganda purposes.” But. she said, she would use “high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Positive political change is unlikely"

A friend handed me something that I missed last week: a comment on Cuba from the Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Thomas Fingar:

Fidel Castro’s protracted convalescence leaves the day-to-day governing responsibilities to his brother Raul. Key drivers in influencing events in post-Fidel Cuba will be elite cohesion in the absence of Cuba’s iconic leader and Raul Castro’s ability to manage what we assume to be high public expectations for improved living conditions. This year may mark the end of Fidel Castro’s domination of Cuba; but significant, positive political change is unlikely immediately. Although Raul Castro has solidified his own position as successor, it is too soon to tell what policy course he will take once Fidel has left the scene.

Fingar spoke July 11 to the House Armed Services Committee. His full statement is here (pdf, 22 pages). Just before this comment on Cuba is a more interesting passage on Venezuela, pp. 15-16.

Cuba 3, U.S. 1...

...for the gold in the Pan Am games in Rio today. Congrats to all.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

USITC study: U.S. restrictions limit exports to Cuba

Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to estimate the impact on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba if the United States were to remove certain restrictions on those exports and allow all Americans to travel freely to Cuba.

The answer is in: “The U.S. share of such Cuban imports would rise from one-third to between one-half and two-thirds if the restrictions were lifted,” USITC says. Senator Baucus says that could mean a $300 million increase in U.S. agricultural exports.

The USITC press release is here and the entire report (pdf, 180 pages) is here.

The main impact would come from removal of what USITC terms “financing restrictions” in order to allow agricultural trade to occur on “the same basis as [with] other U.S. trading partners.”

This does not mean extending U.S. government credit to Cuba. It does mean allowing “normal commercial credit,” allowing Cuba to pay via wire transfer to U.S. banks rather than through third countries in non-U.S. currency, and ending the requirement that Cuba’s payment must arrive before goods can leave a U.S. port. The current restrictions, USITC estimates, increase the cost of U.S. goods between 2.5 and 10 percent.


The beginning of the 46-kilometer causeway leading to Cayo Santa Maria.

Round two on the migration accords

When the U.S. Interests Section said that Cuba was blocking the delivery of “supplies to improve visa facilities” and thereby contributing to the consulate’s inability to issue the agreed-upon 20,000 immigrant visas this year, I thought they were talking about office equipment.

Not so. The State Department spokesman says Cuba has held up delivery of 28 shipping containers that are needed to address “U.S. concerns about building and operational safety” and to ensure “the safe and timely operation of the U.S. Interests Section.” Sounds like a construction or renovation project. He reiterated that Cuba is not allowing the Interests Section to hire local personnel to fill vacancies in the consulate, and he added that maintenance workers have not been granted visas to travel to Havana to fix consulate equipment.

Meanwhile, the Cuban foreign ministry’s Josefina Vidal “categorically rejects the affirmation by the U.S. Interests Section that we are obstructing the work of that office.” Visas for consular personnel have been granted, the santiaguera says, approvals have been granted for importation of materials to remodel the consulate, and Cuba believes the detained containers may contain materials for “subversive work in support of the counterrevolution in flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention.”

Whom to believe?

Odds and ends

  • Since we’re talking baseball, add the base-stealing El Duque Hernandez (7 IP, 4K, 1B, SB Tuesday vs. San Diego) to the list of pitchers the Yankees wish they had never traded.

  • Attention all you “acolytes” of Havana, there’s a difference between an embargo and a blockade. Frank Calzon explains.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Several bloggers (Babalu, Uncommon Sense) have discussed and linked to an odd website offering medical services in Cuba, with a partial price list for surgical procedures and a “tell us what is bothering you” response mechanism. I wrote, asked about the business, and got no answer.

“We are very good surgeons,” the website says, and it includes purported testimonials from patients who had spinal and heart bypass surgery.

Havana Hospital,” it says, is “the largest and most prestigious teaching hospital in Cuba;” it was featured in Michael Moore’s “Cannes Film Festival honored film SICKO,” and is “now open for Medical Tourism to Cuba.”

I don’t think there is any such thing as “Havana Hospital” in Havana. I do know that the hospital in the movie is the Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras, a huge, imposing building right on the Malecon. The website has photos – not of the hospital, but of a street scene with cocotaxis and the swimming pool at the Hotel Nacional.

There is nothing new about Cuba offering medical services to foreigners or promoting health tourism. Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona has gone there for drug rehab. In last week’s news, we saw that Trinidadian Prime Minister Patrick Manning returned from Cuba, where he had his pacemaker checked.

Havana Hospital” doesn’t seem to be a Cuban website. It doesn’t look or read like this one from Cubanacan or this one from Hermanos Ameijeiras itself. The site, in spite of the “testimonials,” is brand new; it was created on June 29, 2007, the day of “Sicko’s” general release in theaters. It is hosted by the American company GoDaddy.com. It was registered by another American company, Domains by Proxy, Inc., which keeps the “Havana Hospital” people anonymous.

So what is “Havana Hospital?”

My guess is that it’s an attempt by people outside Cuba to capitalize on any interest in Cuban health care generated by “Sicko” by finding surgery patients, brokering services with Cuban hospitals, and handling hotel and travel arrangements from Mexico and Canada. And to do so through a pretty clumsy effort to portray themselves as “surgeons” in the hospital that we saw in the movie.

Caveat emptor.

Car trouble in Havana

Migration accords in trouble?

Cuba says the United States is poised to violate the 1994 immigration accords by failing to issue the agreed-upon 20,000 immigrant visas in the fiscal year that ends September 30.

The charge comes in a foreign ministry statement claiming that with 10,724 visas granted by June 30, the U.S. consulate in Havana is sure to fall short in the fiscal year’s final three months.

The U.S. Interests Section says it is “unable to issue 20,000 travel documents to Cuban nationals” because Cuba will not allow the United States to send enough personnel and supplies to Cuba, and will not authorize the hiring of local personnel to fill 47 jobs in the U.S. consulate.

A statement from the Interests Section says Cuba’s actions “raise new questions about the Cuban government's commitment to the Migration Accords.” It adds that “the U.S. Government remains fully committed to the Migration Accords’ goal of safe, legal, and orderly migration.”

That contrasts slightly with the policy stated in 2002 by the State Department spokesman that “the United States is committed to full implementation of the migration accords.” One wonders if the difference in phrasing is intentional. (The story on Radio Marti’s website says the U.S. is “fully committed” to both the accords and their goal.)

If Cuba is indeed blocking the personnel that the U.S. consulate needs to function, that would be a new and serious twist, and it would certainly undermine Cuba’s complaints about slow visa processing.

I can’t find data on how many immigrant visas have been issued in Havana in the past few years, but I did find a report (pdf) that shows that one part of the consulate – the refugee section – has been working at a fast clip. In the past three years, more than 12,000 refugee visas have been issued to Cubans.

Each side has perennial complaints about the other’s conduct under the migration accords. Cuba says that the United States, by admitting Cubans who arrive on U.S. shores, violates its commitment not to admit Cubans who arrive by “irregular” means. The United States says that Cuba will not permit a new visa lottery to create a pool of new applicants for immigrant visas, and that Cuba denies exit permits to some who hold U.S. visas.

My hunch is that in spite of the rotten state of bilateral relations, and in spite of serious spats over the specifics of the migration accords, the two sides will not walk away from the accords and will continue to abide by their basic elements.

The Cuban foreign ministry statement sees things differently; failure to issue the 20,000 visas would be a “gift” to the “Cuban American mafia and its representatives in Congress,” it says. It goes on to wonder about President Bush’s musings about Vaclav Havel’s thoughts about freedom, stability, and change in Cuba.

Can’t blame them for that – even paranoids have enemies, as the saying goes.

But the migration policy that draws complaints in Miami is not the granting of immigrant visas, but the return of migrants intercepted at sea. President Bush has consistently resisted appeals to change that policy, even in 2004 when he was seeking re-election.

And if someone is really suggesting now that a little instability in Cuba – say, of the type provoked by a U.S. policy that tells Cubans that if they are picked up at sea, the Coast Guard will bring them to America – would be a good thing, then there are a few other things to consider. Cuba could conceivably turn a crisis in the straits to its own political advantage. And such a crisis, with its uncertain political effect in Cuba, would surely cause instability in Florida, which will cast 27 electoral votes next year, either for a Democrat or for a Republican.

A longer discussion of migration issues from last year is here, and a 2001 study with detail on the migration accords is here (pdf).

Back home in Hialeah

Rudy Giuliani is back in Florida for the third time in three weeks, raising money and getting a warm reception in Hialeah, El Nuevo Herald reports. He wants to promote free trade and keep close relations with Mexico and Colombia as counterweights to Chavez’ Venezuela. No word on his wife’s progress in learning Spanish. AP's coverage here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

First aid, Cuba's and ours

President Bush spoke last week at a conference on U.S. aid to Latin America and the Caribbean where he discussed both government and private efforts and highlighted examples of “how best can the United States help people in our neighborhood.”

He drew a response this week from Fidel Castro, who highlighted Cuba’s international health and education programs. “We can do things that Bush cannot even dream of,” he said.

Cuba’s foreign minister says that 31,000 health professionals, including 20,000 doctors, are providing services in 69 countries around the world. Cuba’s medical aid also includes free medical education provided at Havana’s Latin America Medical school (enrollment in 2005 was more than 10,000 students from 27 countries), and programs such as “Operacion Milagro,” which brings Latin American patients to Havana for eye surgery.

Cuba’s aid, like that of other donors, is not a matter of pure altruism. Cuba earns money from them; they are part of agreements with Venezuela that provide Cuba 90,000 barrels of oil per day. And like other providers of foreign aid, Cuba also earns political good will. In Cuba’s case the political impact is multiplied because Cuba promotes its assistance tirelessly, and its extensive programs are not what one would expect given Cuba’s economic condition.

And Cuba’s programs come in for some international criticism, too, from local medical societies that claim Cuban doctors practicing in their countries are not qualified, and from others who say Cuban doctors are underpaid.

But even after taking all that into account, the fact remains that these programs help people in need. Scan the international media, and one finds reports of Cuban doctors in neighborhoods that have never had doctors, Cubans aiding earthquake victims in Pakistan, Cuban doctors providing emergency services in Haiti in 2004 when a civil war nearly broke out and the national medical system stopped functioning.

President Bush was right to highlight American efforts in a hemisphere where American aid is often unnoticed. He wasn’t responding to Cuba’s propaganda, but some of his examples provided a counterpoint, such as when he mentioned a literacy program, a nurse training program, and the visits of American hospital ships.

He did not mention one of his direct responses to Cuba’s medical aid programs – a special immigration policy designed to make it easy for Cuban doctors serving abroad to come to the United States.

Normally, a person of any nationality who seeks and gains asylum in another country has no special claim to a U.S. visa. But last year the Administration announced a policy whereby Cuban doctors who leave their medical missions abroad can come to America. A Congressional office reports that hundreds have taken advantage of this policy.

The policy was announced as part of a package of measures that responded to Congressional complaints about treatment of Cubans in U.S. migration policy. Unwilling to abandon the “wet foot-dry foot” policy, the Administration presented a series of minor new measures, including this one for Cuban doctors. It provided no real policy explanation, leaving the implication that its purpose is to disrupt Cuba’s medical aid missions.

I won’t deny the benefit to the Cuban doctors who make it to America, and certainly the policy earned the Administration some political credit in Miami. But this policy hurts the image of the United States before foreign publics – the same ones the President seeks to influence in his conference – and it enhances Cuba’s victim status.

The United States is not about to match Cuba by sending 20,000 American doctors abroad. But rather than tangle with Cuba with his visas-for-doctors program, President Bush would do better to promote trade and market liberalization, to fight protectionism (starting with our own), to expand U.S. education and exchange programs, and to promote public and private aid as he did last week.

Using American visas to lure Cuban doctors from their missions seems mean-spirited, especially in contrast to the high moral tone the President struck when he said it “renews our soul” and “lifts our collective spirit” when we “help a neighbor in need.”


Odds and ends

  • OAS chief Insulza, questioned by reporters, reiterates that he is “in favor of talking with Cuba, because to be on the margins of a regional institution is never good for a country, and nothing says one can’t talk.” But he will not “force this dialogue” if any OAS member disagrees. “There has been some change…that leads us to think that there is a transition, a certain shift in the balance of power in Cuba,” he said. Reuters English here, EFE Spanish here.

  • CNN dukes it out, point by point, with an offended Michael Moore regarding claims he made in his movie “Sicko.”

Monday, July 16, 2007


Viva Bubba...

“Lorenzo,” a Cuban pundit quoted in Havana’s Parque Central by AP’s Will Weissert in a story on the state of free expression in Cuba:

“I’m Republican. But for me, Bill Clinton was the best president in U.S. history. The economy was strong. They threw Monica Lewinsky at him, and he just kept going. That will help his wife.”

...and viva la Yuma

A comment from a reader that is worth highlighting, on an almost-never-discussed aspect of Cuban immigration to the United States:

“What Thompson and others should be concerned about is the preferential treatment Cuban exiles still get. One of my aunts, who’s in her 70s, decided to stay in the US after receiving a visa to visit her children in the US. After two years, she gets $600 for rent expenses and over $200 in food stamps. My mother, who worked in the US for over twenty years, gets a little less through social security. Is this fair? No wonder Cuban citizens will do anything to get here! Isn't this paradise for my aunt and others like her?”

Odds and ends

  • Juan Orta, the ex-Castro aide who was named in the declassified CIA documents as an operative in a Castro poison pill plan, is the subject of a terrific profile by Gerardo Reyes of El Nuevo Herald (English version here). He was personal secretary to Castro, and ended his career as a toll collector in Miami. His sister denies his involvement in the CIA plot.

An embassy in Tripoli

Decide for yourself whether there is any useful analogy to another government that ours considers a pariah – and yes, I know we’re in a different hemisphere with different political standards – but I’ll note that President Bush named an Ambassador to Libya last week.

The restoration of diplomatic relations flows from “the historic decisions taken by Libya's leadership in 2003 to renounce terrorism and to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs,” according to the Secretary of State, who also announced an intention to end Libya’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Restored ties, she went on, “will allow us to better discuss…protection of universal human rights, promotion of freedom of speech and expression, and expansion of economic and political reform consistent with President Bush's freedom agenda.”

Not all are pleased. At National Review Online’s blog last week, Michael Rubin noted:

“…Qadhafi’s endorsement of insurgency in Iraq, his continued financing of terrorism in Asia and elsewhere, and his imprisonment of the only Libyan dissident whom Bush has ever cited in a speech, and the Libyan Supreme Court decision to uphold the execution of Bulgarian hostages (in a threat which is part of the apparent shake-down of the EU)…”

Friday, July 13, 2007

Latin bishops support Cuba's church

A Latin American conference of Catholic bishops concluded in Havana today. The bishops met Wednesday with Cuban vice presidents Carlos Lage and Esteban Lazo. They concluded their conference by expressing hope that church-state dialogue in Cuba would continue, and by calling on Cuban authorities to permit Cuba’s Catholic clergy to have greater access to Cuban jails and to offer, according to AP, “some type of religious education to youth.”

According to EFE, the new bishop of Holguin, Emilio Aranguren, expressed hope that the Cuban church will be able to undertake the same range of activities as its counterparts elsewhere in Latin America. “There are times when the mission of the church is limited and one thinks that it is only worship, preaching, giving catechism; however, the mission of the church has another dimension of charity, of service, of outreach, because the church is called to live in society, and in society it has a mission,” Aranguren said.

The conference received messages from Christian Liberation Movement leader Oswaldo Paya and from wives of political prisoners. The conference “put these situations in the hands of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops” for discussions with Cuban authorities. The Radio Marti website ran a story with a distorted headline, "CELAM asks Cuban church to dialogue with the government about opposition's demands."

[Photo of Santiago cathedral]

In Vedado, guarding Lennon's statue

Guantanamo -- the base

Speaking of Guan- tanamo, there’s the issue of the U.S. naval base there, one of the peculiarities of U.S.-Cuba relations.

U.S. rights to the base were secured in a 1903 agreement signed by Presidents Roosevelt and Estrada Palma. The base consists of two land masses, one on each side of the entrance to the bay (map here).

The base has a website with lots of historical information; it notes that it is “the oldest overseas U.S. Naval Station and the only one in a country with which the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations.”

One could add that it’s the only military base we maintain in a country where we don’t care what the host country thinks about our activities there. Well, not quite – the U.S. base commander and the local Cuban military commander have long met monthly at the gate, and both sides say these exchanges are good to maintain.

But Guantanamo is known today for the non-Navy activities that take place on the base by virtue of the fact that it’s something of a no-man’s-land with respect to U.S. law. During the Clinton Administration, when thousands of Haitians took to sea attempting to reach the United States, the Coast Guard and Navy brought intercepted migrants there to care for them until they could be repatriated or, in some cases, to evaluate their claims to refugee status. It served the same purpose for Cuban rafters when thousands of them took to sea in 1994. And today, it hosts the “Detainee Mission of the War on Terrorism following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” in the words of the base website.

The 1903 agreement provides that Cuba leases the base to the United States “for coaling and naval stations,” and that the United States is permitted “to do any and all things necessary to fit the premises for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.” Cuban officials have not been sticklers about that point. When Washington established the prison for detainees from Afghanistan, they offered support. Today, they enjoy and occasionally join the international argument about U.S. treatment of detainees there.

[U.S. Navy illustration of 1910 exercise at Guantanamo]