Thursday, August 23, 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Obama gets a reaction

Maybe, regardless of our views on the issue, we can all thank Senator Obama for two things: in calling for an end to restrictions on Cuban American visits and remittances, he didn’t engage in the typical pandering, and he smoked everybody else out. Here’s a roundup from news stories:

  • Senator Clinton, who had called for “some discretion” in family hardship cases last May, today calls for sticking with the status quo: “Until it is clear what type of policies might come with a new government, we cannot talk about changes in the U.S. policies toward Cuba.” (AP)

  • Senator Biden supports the status quo too. Governor Richardson was already on record agreeing with Obama. Senator Edwards wants to end restrictions on visits and maintain restrictions on remittances. Senator Dodd wants to lift the travel ban for all Americans. Congressman Kucinich wants to lift the entire embargo. (AP)

  • Governor Romney said that “unilateral concessions to a dictatorial regime are counterproductive,” and it would be wrong to “weaken our policy on Cuba until the Castro regime is dismantled, all political prisoners are freed and Cuba transitions to free and fair elections.” (AP)

  • Senator Martinez said it would be “a big error at a sensitive and critical time for Cuba” to “take away the strength the embargo now has,” and it would “throw away all the great successes of the policy of strength” pursued by President Bush. (EFE)

My favorite reaction came from a non-candidate, Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, who told AP that Obama is “well intentioned,” but his proposal sends the wrong message: “It entrenches the regime at this critical time.”

If a one-party government that has been in power since 1959 is not already entrenched, then what is?

Good reading

A week or so ago I added the Spanish-language blog Generación Y to the list at the right. Written in Havana by the thirty-something Yoani Sanchez, its vantage point is that of the generation marked by “schools in the countryside, little Russian dolls, illegal departures, and frustration.”

Its perspective is critical and irreverent. And if you get tired of my focus on Miami and Washington and politics, its frame of reference is refreshing – we Americans are not at the center of Yoani’s world.

In “Vine y me quedé,” she tells what it was like to return to Cuba – to live, not for a visit – after living in Switzerland. Apparently, as she writes, she is not the only one to make this decision, and there’s a procedure for undoing the salida definitiva. In “¿Y mi vaso de leche?” Yoani tells how the reference to providing milk for everyone was removed from the versions of Raul Castro’s July 26 speech that were printed in Cuban newspapers and replayed on television. In “Nuevo símbolo de status” she describes the difference between shopping at the market where private farmers sell their goods (lots of variety, higher prices) and the one where produce from state farms is sold.

Well worth checking out.


In Havana, near Ciudad Deportiva, one of many urban garden cooperatives that grow and sell vegetables for local consumers.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Obama reaches for Miami moderates

Senator Barack Obama is making a play for the segment of the Cuban American community that opposes the Administration’s 2004 sanctions directed at Cuban families – a “humanitarian and strategic blunder,” his spokeswoman says, that makes Cubans “more dependent on the Castro regime.”

Tonight the news broke that Obama will have an op-ed in tomorrow’s Miami Herald (the article is here) calling for unrestricted travel by Cuban Americans and easing of limits on remittances.

I’m no expert on Florida electoral politics, but I have wondered why it has taken so long for one of the Democratic candidates to make this move. In a fragmented field where none of the candidates is likely to take the full “hard-line” position, much less mine many votes in that sector, it seemed to me that one of the candidates could gain advantage by playing to the grievance of those who chafe at the once-every-three-years, no-exception travel policy, the $100/month limit on remittances, and the exclusion of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins from any visits or remittances whatsoever.

It will be interesting to see how Senator Clinton reacts, if she does at all. In the Senate, she voted in favor of travel for all Americans, but as candidate her posture resembles that of President Clinton: we can’t change U.S. sanctions unless there is change in Cuba. Obama, by contrast, is saying we should change sanctions precisely in order to promote change in Cuba, and also to do right by Cuban families.

Opposition petition drive

Last week there was an interesting AP report about a petition drive by a Cuban women’s group. The petition calls on Cuba’s legislature to debate a law to allow the Cuban peso to be used everywhere in Cuba. This proposal would force the acceptance of Cuban pesos in stores that today accept hard currency (the “peso convertible”) only. That step wouldn’t solve the problem of the Cuban peso’s low purchasing power when exchanged for hard currency, but the political point is that it is wrong that Cubans are paid in one currency, and need another to acquire some goods that are basic necessities.

The group told reporters in a Havana apartment that their petition drive is more than half complete (they have 6,000 of the required 10,000 signatures) and is plagued by government harassment; they say that government agents seize signature sheets.

The group’s press conference was announced to reporters in Cuba by the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, according to AP. I looked at the registration information for the group’s website and found that it was registered by a man in Miami Springs, Florida.

Regardless, what’s interesting about this effort is that it is focused on a discrete and very salient political issue among Cubans, it is an attempt to work within the current system to achieve change, and it gives average Cubans an opportunity to take action. In that sense, unlike other kinds of dissident activity such as human rights monitoring, news reporting, and ideological criticism of the Cuban government, this effort constitutes a more political opposition, in that it engages citizens concretely in grass roots political action.

Activist Belinda Salas commented on the prospects for change under Raul Castro; “The possibilities with the number two are more probable,” she told AP.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The nightmare scenario

Here are a few comments on a University of Miami essay by Professor Jaime Suchlicki and Jason Poblete, “When Should the U.S. Change Policy Toward Cuba.”

The authors begin by discussing the confusion involved in the terms “transition” and “succession.” I thought the Administration defined the terms pretty well: “transition” meant a change in political system, “succession” a change in leadership with the system unchanged. Then the Administration confused the issue completely, giving us one more reason not to rely on our own government for analysis of what’s going on in Cuba. In my book, what has occurred is pretty clear: Cuba’s leadership has changed, the system hasn’t.

The authors’ real point, however, is to stand up for the all-or-nothing U.S. policy in the Helms-Burton law, which provides that only a complete change in Cuba’s political system, not partial reform, can trigger any easing of U.S. sanctions. They underscore that the law provides that “a transition government cannot include either Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.” Actually, the law goes them one better; it says that a “democratically elected government” cannot include Fidel or Raul, which is worth chewing over for a minute.

Set aside your supposition about Raul Castro’s chances in a free election in Cuba – would he get 12 percent? 51 percent? 70 percent? – and contemplate that this law says that if Cuba were to free political prisoners; allow a free press, political parties, and labor unions to operate; dissolve state security; and hold elections under international observation; then the result would not be a “democratically elected” government if it were to include Raul Castro. In other words, it defines not only the processes that Cubans must follow to achieve democracy, it also sets conditions on the result. Its message to Cubans is simple: Hold an election and satisfy all our conditions, but if you elect Raul we won’t accept the result as democratic. Helms-Burton, in this sense, is purely anti-democratic. But this is the provision of the law that these authors hold up virtually as sacred writ in an essay devoted to democracy in Cuba and the constancy of democratic principles in U.S. foreign policy. Go figure.

Regarding those principles, the authors try mightily to cram the current U.S. approach toward Cuba into the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy, implying that any deviation amounts to “supporting regimes and dictators that violate human rights.” They reach back to the Ford Administration, ignoring that Ford offered to normalize relations without demanding that Cuba change its political system. They ignore that Presidents of both parties have long promoted American contact with citizens and officials in communist countries as a means of promoting U.S. influence, all the while maintaining our moral disapproval of the communist system. They ignore the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act, a law embraced by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, which offered to ease U.S. sanctions in response to political or economic openings in Cuba – the precise opposite of the Helms-Burton approach.

There’s more. They set up an old straw man, claiming that proponents of engagement with Cuba believe that engagement will produce regime change. (Some do, I’ll admit, but they are wrong. There are many benefits to engagement, but if you want regime change the only honest path is to make an unjustifiable call for military action.) They make the tired and customary insinuation about the motives of proponents of engagement. They argue that the tourism industry “is the one area of the economy on which the government, besides oil exploration, on which [sic] the future economic survival of the island depends.” Nonsense. They suggest negotiations with Cuba, which now makes us all dialogueros, I guess. Jason and Jaime, welcome to the club.

Beneath it all, my hunch is that the authors are beginning to grapple with a scenario that may soon confront us.

No one knows whether, when, or how much Raul Castro would liberalize Cuba’s economy. But what if he does, even in small ways, as Suchlicki himself expects? What if an opening produces positive economic results? What if those results earn him some political approval from Cubans who are sick of orthodoxy and eager to have opportunities to provide for themselves and their families?

What if Americans would react by saying that a degree of liberalization, even if limited, is a positive development? How would we react to a scenario where Cuban policies are changing and Cubans of all political persuasions are debating what should come next? The next question would be to ask, pragmatically, what to do? Are there any tools in U.S. policy that would encourage a greater opening?

At that point, we would crash right into the big question posed by Suchlicki and Poblete. And the answer, they remind us, is dictated in our law: We would do absolutely nothing until Cuba’s political system is transformed and Raul Castro is gone.

We would greet a scenario of new possibilities as spectators with our feet in concrete. We would make the perfect the enemy of the good, which is not a typical American approach.

In that scenario, Americans might then look for different options. The system of laws enacted in response to Fidel Castro might lose their sacrosanct quality. The Calle Ocho argument that anyone who seeks a different approach toward Cuba is abandoning democratic values and supporting dictatorship, might seem a little ridiculous.

That’s why an economic opening in Cuba after Fidel would be a hopeful sign for some, and the political nightmare of a lifetime for others.

Odds and ends

  • In Bogota, President Uribe’s peace negotiator expects that Colombia’s next round of talks with the ELN guerrillas that begin Monday in Havana will end with the signing of an agreement to “end hostilities.”

  • The Internet version of the U.S. Interests Section’s famous electronic signboard is stuck on July 16.

  • Senator Dodd on Cuba: the candidate calls for the United States to “engage with the Cuban people in support of a peaceful transition to democracy.” H/T: Uncommon Sense.

  • From the department of dubious distinctions, Cuba’s journalists’ union gives an award to Max Lesnik, and Max is there to accept.

Havana, Plaza Vieja

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cuban armed forces

A reader in Puerto Rico, Raul Colon, kindly contributed an article on the current state of the Cuban armed forces. He discusses changes in force structure and their impact on Cuban military doctrine. I posted his article here (pdf).

Odds and ends

  • Repsol’s plans to continue deep offshore oil exploration have slipped from early 2008 to late 2008.

  • The current government of Panama apparently sees something fishy in the pardon extended to Luis Posada Carriles and three associates in 2004, in the final days of the term of President Mireya Moscoso. Three officials will be tried for abuse of authority next January.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Two Hungarians expelled from Cuba, reportedly they were part of an “unofficial delegation of European politicians on a tour of Cuba, organised by US-based Freedom House.”

  • Ten years after the Pope’s visit, the AP looks at the church in Cuba.

  • The Cuban side initiates another round in the fight over the migration accords and the fact that the United States will fall short of issuing 20,000 immigrant visas in Havana during the fiscal year that ends September 30.

  • Cuba Gooding has a new movie and the reviews are not good.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tom Casey, off the reservation

Why should Americans be permitted to travel freely to Cuba?

It would emulate the policies we pursued toward Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – including through the Helsinki accords, which we judged to be in our interest even though we knew full well that the communist countries would not comply with all their terms – that democrats in those countries welcomed and believe contributed to their success.

It would foster communication, freeing universities, charities, churches, and citizens – left, right, and center – to exchange information, ideas, and arguments with Cubans in and out of government who constitute the post-Castro Cuba that we want to influence. It would stop our reliance on government programs, government grantees, and government-licensed travelers to communicate with Cuba.

It would bury the Administration’s pretense that sanctions, aid to dis- sidents, and broad- casts are going to change Cuba’s political order, and it would put us more realistically in a play for long-term influence.

It would increase American knowledge of a place we all care so much about. It would take a big chunk out of the Cuban government’s argument that the United States is the enemy.

If your supreme goal is to deliver aid to Cuban dissidents, it would achieve that far better than the current government system, which operates with the efficiency of Amtrak, the speed of the U.S. Congress, the frugality of our Department of Agriculture, the accounting standards of Enron, and the discretion of Britney Spears.

It would increase the income of lots of average Cubans in the tourism industry and in private businesses, both legal and black market, improving their living standards and their independence. It would enable lots more Cubans to enter private business.

It would increase the government’s income, but considering that Cuba’s economy is growing now at a 9.5 percent clip, it would make no decisive difference at the margin.

It would end the bizarre system of travel licensing that requires, for example, that if you want to donate Bibles or baseballs to a Cuban church, you need a license from one federal agency to travel and another license from another agency to “export” your donation. It would end the restrictions on family visits – can anyone think of another case where America has targeted economic sanctions against families to reduce their contacts and acts of charity? – that make even the strongest supporters of the embargo wince.

It would heed the advice of Pope John Paul II – “Open the doors to Cuba” – and that of Cuba’s Catholic bishops and many dissidents. (Have you noticed that neither Havel nor the Eastern European governments and NGO’s that work on Cuba issues – whose experience with communism is manifest – have ever endorsed American travel restrictions or called on other countries to adopt them?)

It would create a situation where all the restrictions on travel are imposed by the communist government, and none by the government that leads the free world, which would kind of make intuitive sense. It would have zero opportunity cost for Washington, and it would not threaten the part of U.S. policy that is strong, which is its human rights advocacy.

One could even argue that it would strengthen that advocacy. To wit: It would allow State Department spokesman Tom Casey to say what he said on Tuesday, invoking a basic freedom that the Cuban government denies, and be taken seriously:

"Well, look, the leading cause of instability and misery in Cuba is the Cuban Government and whether it’s Fidel Castro or Raul Castro, the problems in Cuba will only continue so long as there is a dictatorship in power that doesn’t give people the right to freely choose their government, to decide how they want to live, and to freely travel."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Vigilia Mambisa writes the President, says it’s time to get busy. See Rui’s post.

  • They left out the word anexionista, but otherwise it’s all here: the Posada Carriles case, the accusations against the Cuban American National Foundation, etc. A special section of Granma on-line in the face of “lies and infamy from the Miami mafia.”

Santa Maria del Rosario

Guantanamo hunger strike

Mostly, when we hear of the wet foot/dry foot policy, it’s when migrants are intercepted at sea and returned to Cuba. Others, however, are sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo because when they are interviewed on the Coast Guard vessels, their statements indicate that they might qualify for refugee status because they establish a well founded fear of persecution if they were to be returned to Cuba.

In Guantanamo they are interviewed further, and a final decision is made. If they do qualify, the United States finds a third country to accept them for resettlement. That way, the thinking goes, the United States honors its obligation not to return people to a place where they face persecution, and at the same time avoids sending a signal to Cubans that getting picked up by the Coast Guard is the first step to gaining entry to the United States. (The U.S message is that rather than take to sea, they should go to the U.S. consulate in Havana where they can be receive a refugee visa to come to the United States if they qualify.)

The problem for those in Guantanamo is that, as Wilfredo Cancio reports in today’s El Nuevo Herald, the process takes a long time – he interviews one Cuban who has been at the base for more than two years; another has been there one year and three months. 22 of the 44 Cubans on the base are now in the tenth day of a hunger strike, Cancio reports, protesting the length of their stay and their treatment by U.S. authorities.

Representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an organization that helps to resettle refugees around the world, assist U.S. authorities at Guantanamo.

One of the hunger strikers and his pregnant wife were offered resettlement in Hungary. But for “reasons of idiosincracia” and the language barrier, Cancio reports, they declined to go to Hungary and at that point the IOM apparently withdrew its sponsorship of the couple.

The article does not tell if any other protesters have rejected similar offers of resettlement.

I don’t blame anyone for wanting to come to America. And maybe, as the protesters allege, they are mistreated at Guantanamo. But if the real grievance is that they oppose resettlement in third countries, then I find it hard to side against the U.S. government on this one. There are about ten million refugees in camps and holding centers around the world, and millions more who are displaced within their own countries. Very few receive offers of resettlement; the United States, for example, only admits about 50,000 refugees per year. Hungary, in the scheme of things, is not a bad option.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

More reaction to July 26 speech

Many of the reactions to Raul Castro’s July 26 speech were based on well founded caution about leaping to conclusions about mere signals that seem to point to policy changes. Oswaldo Paya’s reaction is here, Martha Beatriz Roque’s is here (pdf) to and a wire story rounding up opinions of several dissidents is here.

I’ll highlight two that appeared in Spanish only.

Rafael del Pino, a general in the Cuban air force who defected in 1986, wrote an article in El Nuevo Herald in which he called Raul “general” and “compañero ministro,” and urged him to undertake reforms that would improve Cuba’s economy without abandoning socialist principles or threatening Cuban sovereignty. He tells his former superior that those around him will not deliver frank advice. “All the economic problems” that Raul cited in his speech, he says, “can be resolved by lifting the blockade on Cubans on the island, giving them the right of property over the means of production.” “Be a revolutionary again,” he says; “Apply the pragmatism that has always characterized you.”

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said that the past year has produced no reforms, but has brought the “minimal steps” of “relatively less political mobilization” and “greater respect for television schedules,” by which he must mean a reduction in political oratory. But he called it a “concrete speech” that could create expectations for economic reform, and that offered a “series of criticisms that for a long time have been put forward by the peaceful Cuban opposition and received a response of repression and jail from the regime.” Many of Raul’s concepts are “realistic,” Chepe says, but he takes a wait-and-see attitude: “In the next months one will see if [the speech] truly constitutes the beginning of economic changes that lead to a process of reconciliation…[and] could permit a soft landing for Cuban society toward democracy, after so much time of confrontations and hate.”

[News agency photos]

Cathedral, Havana

Migrants opting for the Mexico route

Some years ago, the combined efforts of U.S. and allied drug enforcement agencies succeeded in reducing drug traffic form the Andean region through the Caribbean. Much of this traffic was displaced and now moves through “land bridge” through Central America and Mexico.

A similar effect seems to have taken place for similar reasons when it comes to Cuban migrants who try to reach the United States without a visa. For people in Miami who decide to pay alien smugglers to get Cubans out of Cuba, it seems a safer bet to pay those who bring migrants to Mexico rather than directly to U.S. shores. Better to take one’s chances passing through Mexico rather than going straight to Florida, risking interdiction by the Coast Guard and having to start the process all over again.

The Miami Herald wrote about this phenomenon last week, and there were other reports about murders of people allegedly involved in the smuggling of Cubans. AP reported on the ins and outs of smuggling via Mexico.

The official figures discussed in these articles are as follows for 2005-2007, reported by fiscal year (October 1 to September 30).

Coast Guard interdictions of Cuban migrants were 2,712 in 2005, 2,810 in 2006, and 2,049 to date in 2007, with two months left in the fiscal year.

Cubans arriving at ports of entry – this excludes legal immigrants and those who arrive on Florida beaches – numbered 8,994 in 2005, of which 7,267 came across the Mexican border; 10,329 in 2006, of which 8,639 came via Mexico; and 10,433 to date (July 22) in 2007, of which 9,296 came via Mexico.

Odds and ends

  • In an interview, Miami-Dade Democratic party chairman Joe Garcia gives his views on the Cuban-American community and some of the possibilities in Cuba and in U.S. policy.

  • Preparations are proceeding for elections to local assemblies in Cuba, to be held October 21. I have seen no word on the next step, which is to set the date for the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly. To remain in office, Fidel Castro must be re-elected to the National Assembly; Article 74 of Cuba’s constitution provides that the National Assembly “elects, from among its deputies, the Council of State,” [emphasis mine] which includes the President of the Council of State who is, “at the same time, the head of state and head of government.” In other words, if he doesn’t run, he effectively resigns.

  • For an example of the public diplomacy impact of Cuba’s medical programs, see this Nicaraguan newspaper report on the arrival of 59 Nicaraguans graduated from Cuba’s Latin American Medical school, the fourth group of Nicaraguans to graduate in eight years. The new graduates will spend their “servicio social,” the sixth year of their medical education, in communities in Nicaragua’s sparsely populated Atlantic coast, working alongside 40 Cuban doctors who are already working there.

Monday, August 6, 2007

It would be great if we could see it

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana organized a videoconference between a group of Cuban dissidents and five of the six Cuban American members of Congress on August 2. Cubanet’s report contains no direct quotes and not much detail, but there’s this passage on TV Marti:

“Another point that was debated was the broadcasts of Television Marti to the island. On this point a consensus was reached regarding the value of these broadcasts. It was specified that work should be done so that the signal may fulfill its purpose. The engineer [Felix] Bonne called for a search for viable technological solutions that would bring this effort to a good end.”

H/T: Penultimos Dias.

Odds and ends

  • Speaking of straws in the wind, at Penultimos Dias there’s an item on the Battle of Ideas, Valenciaga, the Mesa Redonda crew, and what keeps them busy. And Rui Ferreira cites a report in a Chilean newspaper that suggests that Raul Castro’s speech last week was written by Carlos Aldana, the sidelined former ideology chief of the Communist Party.

  • Shoot Down, a new documentary on the 1996 downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes and the events leading up to it, is to be released in October; here’s Pablo Bachelet’s preview in the Herald.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Buy a card, call la Yuma

Two women speak out

Last week I posted an item about the titles that the Cuban media attach to Carlos Valenciaga, Fidel Castro’s chief of staff. Today I’m noting statements by two Cuban women on the issues confronting Cuba. These are straws in the wind, and I think that at this time in Cuba’s history, things like this are worth a look, even though we don’t know how important or how predictive they are.

The first item is one that Cubans in and out of Cuba have already debated thoroughly: a critical essay by Soledad Cruz that bounced all over the Internet last week. I don’t know the author and I don’t know anything about her personal background or political ties; if you read Spanish and search, you’ll find plenty on that. But she’s a long-time journalist who writes for Juventud Rebelde and Granma, and once served as Cuban ambassador to UNESCO.

“Who tells the truth, better serves la patria,” she begins. She recalls Fidel Castro’s November 2005 speech and his warning that the revolution could be “reversible” due to “internal problems.”

And she goes on to cite quite a few problems: low salaries that drive people to black market activity to meet their basic needs; centralized economic policies that prevent Cubans from using individual initiative to improve their incomes; travel restrictions; property restrictions (“nothing is truly yours”); restrictions on contact with foreigners; and more.

As for Cuba’s current political moment:

“…if we want there to be 21st century socialism, we have to avoid the same errors that demonstrated its failure in the 20th century…Cuba must do away with all the formulas and methods borrowed from those who supposedly had greater experience, but who disappeared due to their own rigidity. [Cuba] also must ensure that its internal agenda is not set by the United States, with its provocations, much less by the desnaturalizados of Miami. And in this Fidel and Raul have a great responsibility as guarantors of the socialist changes that must be produced before they disappear as living leaders. In spite of corruption and other ills, there are millions of Cuban revolutionaries disposed to participate in the necessary transformations, who know that there is nothing that hurts the best ideas more than stagnation…”

And then there was an EFE interview with Mariela Castro, Raul’s daughter, who says that Cuba is prepared for “necessary transformations” in economic and social policy and in mechanisms of governance, looking toward the day when “the historic [first-generation] leaders are no longer there.”

Cuba is a country that needs permanent debate,” she says, “but the problem is that not all dirigentes know how to conduct participatory processes, and that is too bad.”

And regarding Fidel:

“We are learning to live with our leader getting old, and when people grow old they have to let themselves be cared for, something Fidel never permitted. Fidel always dedicated himself to caring for us. For the first time, the people are assimilating the process of his growing old, the process by which the revolution has to continue without him, be it with my father or with other leaders who may come…”

I will say this much: every week now, someone who counts is finding a way to indicate indirectly that Fidel Castro is not returning to office. This is not surprising in light of everyone’s collective intuition about Fidel’s medical condition. But somebody has to be president. And my hunch is that Raul Castro is more president today than he was one month ago. Only actions matter in the end, and since Raul has marked the economy as a priority, that’s what I’m watching.

[Reuters photo]

"La Yuma"

Why do Cubans call our country la Yuma?

It has to do with a 1957 film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma. It’s a Western tale of morality and courage based on an Elmore Leonard short story.

It’s said that it was screened in Cuba at a time when most of the movie fare came from the Soviet bloc, and it caused a big sensation among Cubans. So much so that it gave rise to one of the great oddities of Cuban slang: the use of the Arizona town’s name as a nickname for the United States.

I say “it’s said” because that widely told account of the origin of the term comes with many variations. Maybe some readers will add some of their own.

Now why is it possible that the nickname will stick for a few generations more?

Because a remake is in the works and set for release next month.

Russell Crowe gets the Glenn Ford role of Ben Wade, the outlaw who must be nabbed, put on the train, and made to stand trial.

If you want to know the ending, see the movie for yourself.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Capitolio again

Party discipline

Things went a little crazy in the House of Representatives last night when Republicans walked out in protest, charging that the majority Democrats manipulated a vote to change its result.

At issue was a Republican motion to ensure that no funds in an agriculture spending bill would go to illegal immigrants. As time ran out, the Republicans were losing – barely – when “GOP leaders persuaded three Latino Republicans who had voted with the Democrats to change their votes,” the Washington Post reported, resulting in an apparent GOP victory that the Democrats did not recognize, then reversed with some arm-twisting of their own.

Those three, The Hill newspaper reports, were Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

"A national anesthesia"

It is hard to imagine the United States deciding that it would no longer grant 20,000 immigrant visas per year (which I would not advocate) or deciding to return “dry foot” Cubans who reach U.S. soil illegally and with no claim to refugee or asylee status (which would be a bitter pill, but one I would advocate with reluctance).

But the article quoted below puts its finger on what I have long found, when talking to people in Cuba, to be the number one political fact on the island – that the widespread desire to emigrate and the possibility, however small, of doing so successfully, blocks the vast majority of Cubans from ever thinking of political opposition. (For many, to be sure, there are other reasons too.) And I would add that the immigration policies mentioned above make it hard to argue that the so-called hard-line U.S. policy is a serious strategy to promote change in Cuba. At any rate, here’s how Adolfo Rivero Caro puts it in “Anestesia Nacional,” an op-ed in today’s El Nuevo Herald:

“The masses are not going to confront the dictatorship of the Castros as long as el exilio guarantees them a privileged means of emigrating. A political struggle against a dictatorship involves sacrifice, pain, and blood. Few seek it out deliberately. For that, they are heroes. What the immense majority wants is to leave the country. But political opposition is an obstacle to achieving this objective. And not only that. The hope of emigrating makes any mistreatment, any humiliation, any misery tolerable. And that sentiment spreads throughout the island, acting truly like a national anesthesia. In reality, the elimination of this strange privilege would be much more dangerous for the dictatorship than maintaining the embargo.”

Havana, Parque Central

It seems like something that they say to tourists, that’s not really true, but it is true. The so-called “hot corner” really does exist. It’s a seemingly permanent argument, often about baseball, under the trees beside the statue of Marti in the Parque Central, the beautiful republican square at the top of the Paseo del Prado.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The (geopolitical) greatness of Fidel

Via Cubapolidata, a good read in itself, here’s an item on Fidel Castro and Cuba from Stratfor, a commercial service that sells news and analysis with an “intelligence” cachet.

The thesis is this: that geography is destiny; that Cuba, being small and close to the United States, is destined not to oppose U.S. interests; and that Fidel Castro is a figure of world-historical proportions because he defied geography’s destiny and gave Cuba a geopolitical weight and importance far out of proportion to its size and incongruent with its location.

And that Raul will not fill Fidel’s shoes, so Cuba without Fidel will soon return to what Stratfor views as Cuban proportions. “Raul’s call for better relations,” the logic goes, “is not so much a bold stroke of statecraft but an admission of the inevitable.”

I’m not so sure. In my estimation, there’s a lot in the Cuban case that doesn’t fit the geography-is-destiny thesis.

I don’t think Raul’s discussion of U.S. relations was rooted in weakness or was a sign of resignation; if anything he was resigning himself to the fact that the current Administration won’t enter a dialogue no matter how many times Cuba offers.

As for threats, the military threat is gone already, and the ideological threat, such as it is, extends beyond Cuba, does not depend on Fidel, and is no longer Marxist-Leninist in nature. And if the United States can’t respond to the ideological challenge of Venezuelan largesse and Cuban medical aid, then we’re not as big as Stratfor thinks.

Havana, next to Cine Payret

Falcoff on Cuba

Sharp and unsentimental, Mark Falcoff covers the waterfront in a wide-ranging on-line discussion on the Washington Post website. A sample:

Cabarete, Dominican Republic: Do you believe the [U.S. government]-funded Cuba democracy promotion activities have been useful in preparing Cuba for a transition to democracy? In what way could they be more useful?

Mark Falcoff: I do not think they have been particularly successful or are likely to be. The only thing they have done is to discredit those who take US money.

Venezuela, Cuba, and oil

Venezuela is joining the search for offshore oil in Cuba’s Gulf waters, it was announced yesterday. The exploration will take place in “six blocks covering some 10 thousand square kilometers,” according to Presna Latina. Meanwhile, AP cites Venezuela’s PDVSA saying the project begins tomorrow.

Presumably, that means that meetings, not actual drilling, start tomorrow. A friend in the industry points out that high oil prices are a two-edged sword for Cuba – they make deep-water exploration attractive, but they also ensure that the rigs capable of exploring in Cuba’s deep Gulf waters are tied up in other areas that, like Cuba’s, used to be economically marginal but are now worth exploring. As a result, if a company decides today to drill off Cuba’s coast, it will take more than a year for a rig to arrive and for drilling to begin.

I don’t doubt that Cuba’s prospects for finding Gulf crude are promising, but they are long term. The real action, right now, involves the enhanced recovery that is boosting oil and gas production along the coast between Havana and Varadero.

Meanwhile, today’s Miami Herald reports on the increasing importance of Venezuela’s current support.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


"Raul lit a flame that shall burn for eternity"

What to make of Fidel Castro’s cryptic July 31 “reflection?” (English here, Spanish here.)

He calls it a “proclamation” and refers to “questions as to when I will take up again what some call power.” He goes on to make no clear proclamation, and he leaves those questions hanging right there.

It sounds as if he is passing the torch to Raul, but Fidel reiterates that he is being consulted on all major decisions. He seems to be saying that he will remain content in his current role, commenting in the newspaper, not returning formally to office, “struggling” in the realm of ideas.

The question that matters is not whether he returns formally to office, but rather how Fidel Castro influences policies from his current position. And we are not likely, to say the least, to learn about the conversations between Raul and his brother about “every important decision.”

Our only real guide will be the course the government takes in the economic policies that Raul has marked as a priority.