Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bill Rogers, R.I.P.

William D. Rogers died yesterday in Virginia while riding his favorite horse.

He was a lawyer and senior American diplomat with a long and rich career. The New York Times obit points out that he turned down Henry Kissinger’s request that he join the Nixon Administration, but he agreed to enter the government as soon as President Ford took over. In the Ford Administration, he managed an attempt to normalize relations with Cuba; U.S. diplomats had several secret meetings with Cuban diplomats in New York, but Cuba left the offer on the table and later the offer was definitively sunk when Cuba intervened in Angola.

Bill never lost his interest in Cuba and always had time for those of us who wanted to learn about his experience or get his advice. We’ll miss him. R.I.P.


Don’t, Britney, don’t

“She thinks it’s her only hope,” a friend says of Britney’s Plan B. Heading to Cuba with her kids, that is. Britney Spears. There, supposedly she would be beyond the reach of U.S. law and Kevin Federline.

I’m sure the Treasury Department would have a few thoughts, and we can imagine Federline asserting his parental rights in a Cuban court.

Britney, better go back to Plan A.

Friday, September 28, 2007

More on the detentions

Here’s more reporting on the detention of about 20 dissidents in Cuba yesterday: from the Herald, AP, AFP, Reuters. Different reports still carry different numbers, but the accounts are the same: Martha Beatriz Roque and others detained in front of the justice ministry as they awaited a response to a letter demanding better conditions for prisoners, and others detained en route or at home to prevent them from reaching the ministry. Some reports say they were driven home and dropped off; not all who were reported detained have been accounted for; and there is no indication whether any will face charges, as happened in a similar incident a few years ago when a group planned a protest in front of the French ambassador’s house. The Miami-based, U.S.-funded Directorio has a list and quotes dissident Rene Montes de Oca saying that actions such as these were expected as the date of local elections approaches, because the government wants “to show domestic and international public opinion that no opposition exists and there is no consolidated civil society ready to confront all the risks to demonstrate that in Cuba there is indeed a people that wants to be free.”


Some of the billboards on view in Cuba, including some that are but one part of the government's campaign against the "Plan Bush," its term for the 2004 report of the Administration's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.

Pedro Campos interview

Pedro Campos, author of the 15 proposals discussed here, gives an interview to the BBC (Spanish, text here) where he discusses the current debate and his “absolute conviction” that the top government and party leadership are following it in detail. The core issue, he says, is to address the results of the reforms of the 1990’s – some capitalist in nature, some socialist – that created “large social differences” and uneven benefits among the Cuban workforce, “in spite of the state’s redistribution efforts.” He would like to see his and other proposals debated in all national media and submitted to a referendum within three months.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Judge Cohen ruled today that, contrary to the State of Florida’s arguments, Rafael Izquierdo of Cabaiguan, Cuba is not an unfit parent. But I was wrong in my earlier post – this decision doesn’t end the matter. The judge gave Mr. Izquierdo a strong hand, and send all parties to mediation. There will be another hearing on the girl’s welfare.

  • Different reports cite different numbers – EFE says it was 13 – but there are reports that dissidents were detained in Havana today as they prepared to join together to deliver to the Justice Ministry a letter protesting the conditions in which political prisoners are held.

  • The Mexican and Cuban foreign minsters met at the UN, and I have a report from Havana that Mexico’s ambassador there says he hopes that a visit to Cuba by President Calderon can be made before the end of the year.

Raul the reformer? -- an opposite view

Now here’s an antidote to my prediction that reforms will result from the current economic debate. Written by Alex at the Stuck on the Palmetto blog, it describes a similar airing of grievances in 1991. And it’s persuasive.

But as they say on the stock exchange, past history does not guarantee future performance. Right now, there’s a clear desire for change, the system itself says it needs change, the system is organizing discussions of change, and there is no shortage of ideas and options.

And there’s a difference in the leadership. I don’t think we’re going to have to wait too long to see if its foot is on the gas or the brakes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Three Democrats and three Republicans call on the Administration to lift travel restrictions. Their letter is here (pdf).

  • Via Los Miquis de Miami, somewhere to go if the Interior Ministry Museum in Miramar is passé.

Raul the reformer?

Why would I conclude that the economic talk in Cuba today will lead to action? My explanation here.


“Socialism allows for variations”

Here, courtesy of the Miami radio program “La Noche Se Mueve,” is an interview (Spanish, pdf) with Cuban economist Pedro Monreal, who works at the University of Havana’s Center for Research on the International Economy (CIEI).

The interview was given earlier this month when Monreal attended the Latin American Studies Association convention, which was held in Canada so that the Cuban delegation could participate.

Monreal is an academic, not a policy-making official, and he makes clear that he speaks in a personal capacity. But his comments on the Cuba’s economy and policy options are an interesting window on the ideas circulating in Cuba today.

It’s a long interview. For English-speaking readers, here are a few of the points he makes:

  • On the meaning of “structural change:” “Basically we are talking about institutional changes…eventually, including changes in types of property, organization, and systems of incentives.”

  • On political consensus: “…reforms that imply a structural modification will first require a political consensus…that today is not known; there is an intention to change, but my reading is that in Cuba there is now emerging a relatively slow process in search of a political consensus that could set the guide lines of this move to structural change.”

  • How to fix agriculture? “…I believe there would have to be a change in the way land ownership is structured…one would have to put at the disposal of private producers, family enterprises, and also cooperatives, a substantial part of the land – and not only that, but more flexible elements of land management would have to be introduced; so that not everything would be through such a centralized management, but also permitting a role for the market…”

  • On the state’s role: “I am among those who consider that a socialist state can accommodate – it’s not a contradiction – can accommodate a sector of domestic private property much more extensive than is being considered in Cuba now...I do not believe that a state must concern itself with endless things that today are done by state enterprises that do not do them efficiently and where it is proven that the private sector and cooperatives can do them much better.”

  • On credit: “…there could exist a specialized financial sector, a state bank that would specialize in providing capital to persons who can demonstrate with a plan that they can be successful…but the question as to whether the state necessarily has to concern itself with auto body work, shoe repair, making electric appliances or repairing, I don’t know, blenders or producing food – not necessarily, that can be organized on the basis of cooperatives or domestic private businesses.”

  • Are these the ideas in Raul Castro’s July 26 speech? “…I’m not very sure because, really, what the July 26 speech did was to open a process that is not at all going to be a fast process; it is a process that implies, simultaneously, a reflection, the search for a consensus, and to implement some measures, because there are things that cannot wait for a finely developed consensus, for example, the typical case of food production is a problem that I hope is resolved in Cuba in the next year…”

  • On Cuba’s dual-currency system: “My opinion is that the coexistence of two currencies is an economic disaster…there has long been a realization on the part of the Cuban government that this had to be resolved, it is not sustainable…What blocks the solution that everyone knows is necessary? What blocks it is the lack of productivity in the Cuban state sector; if the state sector that supports that currency is not productive, the problem of unifying the currency can never be resolved…”

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bush on Cuba

From the President’s address today to the UN General Assembly:

“In Cuba, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end. The Cuban people are ready for their freedom. And as that nation enters a period of transition, the United Nations must insist on free speech, free assembly, and ultimately, free and competitive elections.”

Update: The speech provoked a walkout by the Cuban delegation.

Odds and ends

  • A BBC Spanish roundup of the “thousands of debates” taking place in workplaces across Cuba. Foreign reporters have not witnessed them directly, but a hospital worker and communist youth official told BBC that workers complained about pay, work conditions, the dual-currency system, and “bad conditions” in hospitals. He wondered how it is possible that the health sector earns hard currency by providing medical services abroad, but has not raised the pay of its personnel in Cuba.

Lost in translation

Cuba’s Carlos III stores have a Canadian website where you can buy items and have them delivered to someone in Cuba. A “mattress of jetties” (ouch!) can be yours for $275.56 Canadian. I guess colchon de muelles, whatever that is, loses something in translation. Speaking of which, alongside is a poor photo taken at the buffet table in a Cuban hotel, right above a chafing dish of poached eggs. If the eggs were “embezzled” for real, wouldn’t they have gone out of the hotel instead of in?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Old assumptions, new light

With possibilities of change in Cuba appearing closer – either through policy change or Fidel Castro’s departure from office – I’m beginning to wonder if people are beginning to re-examine assumptions and to discuss in the open issues previously kept private.

Last week I posted an article from an independent Cuban journalist who argued that dissidents are not well known in Cuba and their influence is limited not only by government repression, but by their own actions too.

Now here’s another one from an independent journalist, Luis Cino. It begins by sounding like one more criticism of the way foreign reporters working in Cuba write about the opposition. But in fact he criticizes dissidents themselves – he gives no names – for dividing their own movement by accusing Hector Palacios and others, “for their disposition eventually to have a dialogue with the government, of being ‘dissidents of low expectations.’” Referring to the critics as the “intransigent ones,” he goes on to say:

“It seems to be that, according to them, a member of the opposition must inevitably support the American embargo, advocate for the Constitution of 1940, and flatly reject any kind of dialogue with the communists unless it would be in a tribunal like that of Nuremberg.”

Then there’s this article from Jorge Sanguinetty, a U.S.-based consultant and Cuba analyst who served as an economic official in the revolution’s early years. He sees Cuba caught between a need to reform and a need to avoid change that brings instability. So he predicts that if change comes, it will be gradual – but expectations could get out of control, leading to an opportunity to aid Cubans, who are “not prepared to rebel successfully,” in the task of changing their government.

How to help? “The first thing that would have to be done is to break the information blockade and isolation between Cubans,” he says. (By that he doesn’t mean spending more on Radio and TV Marti.) More visits from Cuban Americans, Sanguinetty says, could be a “very effective destabilizing force.” What blocks this force, he continues, is “the fact that we don’t know how to choose better thinkers among us to choose real leaders (not aspirants to become caudillos) and to follow them in the fight against the tyranny.” Travel with a political purpose is needed, he says, “without worrying too much that some will go to Cuba to have fun.” The current “inertia,” he says, is Raul Castro’s “best guarantee of stability.”

Now, I don’t share Sanguinetty’s implicit assumption that Cubans in Cuba need instruction about how “to rebel successfully.” Were he to visit, I’ll bet he would find that Cubans welcome visitors, and if someone wants to come from Miami to try a rebellion, they would say they are free to try, but their priority is to solve the more immediate problems before them and not to try to start a new revolution, with all the risk that would entail.

But no matter. What Sanguinetty is saying, quite sharply, is that if you want to influence Cuba you need to be there.

Ot that there is no influence without presence and contact.

Let the debate continue.

Judge Cohen's decision

A decision is forthcoming in the case of Rafael Izquierdo of Cabaiguan, Cuba, who is in the United States seeking to regain custody of his daughter. He is in court fighting the State of Florida, which argues that the daughter should remain with a foster family that has cared for her since her mother attempted suicide nearly two years ago.

The Herald summarizes the case here, and has provided daily coverage of the court proceedings.

One notable aspect of the case, as the Herald notes, has been the Cuban government’s silence. One suspects that if Fidel were in the saddle, this would be an opportunity for mass rallies and all the campaigning that surrounded the Elian Gonzalez case.

In Miami too, if you set aside questions about the State’s vigorous effort to deny the father custody, the case is less political than Elian’s; there is no equivalent of the “Miami relatives” of seven years ago, no calls that the child cannot become “a trophy for Fidel,” no national media attention, no Congressional involvement.

It all rests on the judge, and her determination whether Mr. Izquierdo is a fit parent.

One hopes that’s all that is involved.

I haven’t read all the charges and counter-charges in this sad case. If Mr. Izquierdo is found to be unfit to raise his child according to the standards we would apply to an American parent, then so be it.

But if a decision goes against him because he would raise his daughter in Cabaiguan, that would be unjust and damaging to American interests.

We who complain about the lack of rights in Cuba would be making things worse by abridging the parental rights of a Cuban man just because he lives in a communist country and chooses to live in his own country.

And we would damage the U.S. government’s ability to defend the rights of American parents who are precisely in Mr. Izquierdo’s position, seeking the return of their children from a foreign country. This is not a rare occurrence. Not to dredge up the Elian saga again, but this statement from that case from the career diplomat in charge of those issues at the time is pertinent. It outlines the challenges our diplomats face in defending Americans’ parental rights, the standards they try to uphold, and the damage we would do to American parents if we override a parent’s rights by saying we don’t like the conditions in the country where the parent lives.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Rui Ferreira of El Nuevo Herald asked El Salvador’s President Saca about the Posada Carriles case. Saca’s response was that he has never been asked – “officially” – to take Posada, but his position “has been very clear, that we would not receive him.”

Paseo del Prado

"No threat to your homes"

I wrote earlier about the way the Administration’s top Cuba spokesman, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, goes out of his way to distance the Administration from its own election-year positions that played well, one guesses, in Miami, but were political poison in Cuba. To wit, the 2004 Cuba commission report that envisioned Cubans being evicted from their homes by returning emigres, and that sounded to Cubans as if the U.S. government had a blueprint for governing every aspect of Cuba.

If you listen to Radio Marti newscasts, you hear a brief recorded statement from Gutierrez where he recognizes that “the future of Cuba is in the hands of the Cubans,” the United States is ready to provide food and medical assistance, and “we represent no threat to your security or your homes.”

So the approach is not to disavow the statements that did the damage, but rather to say something different and repeat it many times over.

Ask yourself this: If you’re in Cuba and you listen to the Radio Marti news every day, and a guy comes on from the U.S. government every day and tells you not to worry because he doesn’t threaten your home, how reassured would you feel?

While we’re on the subject, Armengol comments on Gutierrez’ speech in Miami this week.

"Weak and corrupt"

Radio Marti landed an “exclusive interview” with Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez who said that “Raul Castro’s government is weak and corrupt and will not be able to maintain itself in power.” A few details of the interview are in this story; Radio Marti provides no audio link. It would be interesting to hear the interview to see if he explained what he observes in the 14 months of Fidel Castro’s absence that leads to his assessment that the government is “weak.”

Three from the opposition

Here’s an essay (Spanish, pdf) by Rene Gomez Manzano, a prominent dissident who practiced and taught law before breaking with the system. He analyzes the legal and political conditions that lead him to conclude that it is not worth the opposition’s while to attempt to contest any seats in Cuba’s upcoming municipal assembly elections, and why the opposition will instead “continue our peaceful struggle” to change the “Machiavellian” electoral system.

And here’s an essay (pdf, original and translation) by independent journalist Miriam Leiva that I translated for a colleague and am posting here for you to read. It compares the treatment in the Cuban legal and penal system of the 75 dissidents arrested in 2003 with that received by the “Cuban Five” in the United States.

“Why is Cuba so far away?” A reflection on the pain of separation from an independent journalist, via CubaNet.

Havana lighthouse

More on the economic debate

Reuters reports on the “national debate on economic reform opened by acting President Raul Castro.” In Cuba last month, it was clear to me that this debate began months ago in Cuban institutions such as the party and state enterprises, and was moving to the grass-roots organizations such as local party committees, unions, and workplaces. This Reuters report is among the first to provide details.

In Diario las Americas, an opinion column questions whether the messages about reform coming from Raul Castro and other figures is a “well orchestrated campaign of confusion” designed to buy time and “strengthen” the system “for what may come.”

Well, it could be that. Or it could just be the system itself, in its own way which is not too clear to us, figuring out how to meet the challenges it has set for itself of improving output, productivity, and living standards – and moving deliberately as it chooses its policy moves and figures out how to make them work politically.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The opposition

If you take a cold look at the Cuban opposition, take your preferences out of the equation, and try to assess what it means as a political force, what do you see? In my opinion, it’s a collection of exceedingly brave people who have set forth a strong ideological alternative, but who are not well known in Cuba (or are known by the public to be penetrated by Cuban intelligence), and who – with the exception of the often-derided Varela Project petition drive – do not engage in retail politics and hence do not amount to an opposition movement in the sense that they lead or mobilize Cubans in political action. That’s not meant by way of criticism, but I do think it accurately describes their state of development.

If you think that is harsh, look at this opinion from a Cuban independent journalist published on Miscelaneas de Cuba, a web-based magazine published in Sweden. Yes, Sweden.

The author, Jaime Leygonier, writes a highly critical assessment of the opposition’s problems – those that have nothing to do, he says right up front, with the repression it faces. In fact, he says, opposition leaders “seem more boxed in by their own limitations than by those the regime imposes on them.”


  • They are “so concentrated within themselves that they negate themselves as leaders, which is to say, as guides of followers.”

  • They are “known abroad but with little influence in Cuban society.”

  • “One could say that the opposition is waiting for things to happen by themselves. But if things happen by themselves, who needs them for anything?”

  • “What social influence do they [the dissidents] count on that would lead the government leadership [la cúpula] to grant them an atom of power…If the leadership would decide on a change or, surely, the illusion of change or reforms as it has pretended many times, it doesn’t need them for anything.”

Leygonier offers some reasons to be skeptical about the prospects of reform under Raul – a good antidote to what I have written. He leads me to think that if reforms are realized, the opposition’s reaction will be interesting to watch.

San Rafael again

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Reuters on Cuban agriculture: while a policy review continues, prices paid to Cuban beef and milk producers have tripled – not a bad starting point. In El Pais, a description of the discussions now taking place within party structures.

  • At Uncommon Sense, a look at Fred Thompson’s “dodge” of the question about his own remark about Cuban migrants posing a potential security threat.

  • From the St. Petersburg Times, a report on recent voter registration trends in Miami-Dade; GOP retains a registration advantage but less so than ten years ago, and signs that new Latino voters are opting for no party affiliation.

  • It would be “an error to stick to formulas of the past” – student federation leader Carlos Lage Cordoniu (son of the vice president) in an interview with EFE last week.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Within one year"

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to be on Maria Elvira Live, the MegaTV public affairs program in Miami hosted by Maria Elvira Salazar.

The interview is on the MegaTV website in two parts.

The first clip includes the program introduction and the beginning of the interview where we discuss the prospects of economic policy change under Raul Castro.

The second clip continues on that topic, including footage of Raul Castro’s 26th of July speech, and a discussion of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The key issue was the prospect of reform. Given that I was saying that change is likely under Raul, Maria Elvira naturally asked me to state when the reforms are coming. My answer: within one year. Given the expectations Raul has raised, and the amount of discussion that the system is generating within Cuba, I have come around to the opinion that Raul will act sooner rather than later, and that he will do so with or without Fidel.

We’ll see how things turn out.

As in any interview, there are things I wish I hadn’t left unsaid. In this case, these are the following.

Regarding reform, Cuba has lots of productive energy that could be unleashed if Cuban policies were changed. The way I see it, there are two kinds of policy change that could produce results. One is administrative change: decentralization and greater flexibility for state enterprises. The other would be liberalization in the way we usually conceive it, i.e. granting more space for private economic activity. The issues for us to watch are whether Cuba policy changes, and how it changes along either or both of those lines.

Second, with regard to travel policy, I would add that if we have affection and concern for the Cuban people, I can’t square those sentiments with a policy that builds barriers to contact with them. And given our urgent interest in influencing post-Castro Cuba, I don’t understand why, as a pragmatic matter, we don’t open up to unregulated contact now with the people who live in Cuba now, who are the actors that will shape post-Castro Cuba.

Enough of all that; you can go to the tape if you wish.

Centro Habana, Calle San Rafael

Monday, September 17, 2007

"It is their country" (Updated)

Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez spoke about Cuba today (audio here, text here) and broke no new ground. He criticized Cuba’ human rights and economic policies, defended the embargo because it has denied resources to Cuba over the years, and said Cuba’s “real ideology is a fervent anti-Americanism.”

President Bush is determined to keep the current policy in place, he said: “Unless the regime changes, our policy will not.” By that I don’t think he means “regime change” per se, but rather political reform – “We are prepare to respond to genuine democratic change.” He rejected as “naive” the notion that significant change would come from Fidel Castro (which isn’t exactly going out on a limb) or Raul Castro.

Gutierrez said that the Administration is prepared “to work with Cubans on the island, with Cubans who hold positions on the island, as long as they are willing to change and obviously as long as they don’t have human rights violations,” he said. In response to a question, he recognized that there are Cubans within the system who want change but “can’t be as open as we would like,” and “one of the opportunities is to identify those people because they are there and we would like to help.”

Gutierrez also emphasized that “the future of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans on the island…it is their country.” Speaking about those who left Cuba, he said, “We are now U.S. citizens. We have moved on.” And he reiterated that the Administration has no “desire to run Cuba” and “we don’t have any military intentions” in Cuba either.

Left out of the speech was any definition of “genuine democratic change” that would trigger a U.S. response, any reference to the current talk about economic reform in Cuba, or any hint about the Administration’s thinking about the moment when Fidel Castro passes from the scene.

It seems that whenever Secretary Gutierrez talks about Cuba, he takes pains to reject Cuban government claims that the Bush Administration’s policies threaten Cuban sovereignty or the well-being of Cuban families. Unfortunately, those claims, while delivered with great political gusto to the Cuban domestic audience, are not without foundation. The Administration’s commission reports are so long and detailed that they read like a blueprint for Cuba’s future, no matter how many “If Cubans wish…” appear in the text. Cuban dissidents themselves have said as much. Those reports explicitly discuss the possibility that émigrés would return to repossess homes, and services such as health and education might no longer be free. Secretary Gutierrez’ heart doesn’t seem to be in those policies. How much more effective it would be if he would find a way for the Administration simply to disavow them rather than make the incredible claim that the Cuban government is sowing confusion about the Administration’s intentions.

As for the “opportunities” to identify Cubans who might seek reform, Gutierrez seems to imply that those are opportunities to seize someday in the future, and he showed no interest in changing the U.S. policies that block contacts between Americans and Cubans now.

All in all, Secretary Gutierrez seemed to be in a passive, distant, wait-and-see posture, making no claim that any U.S. action is creating conditions for the change the Administration wants to see in Cuba. Ho-hum.

Update: Here's the story on the Radio/TV website, which has a different emphasis than mine. The story provides no audio link, so it may be that Marti covered the story on the website but not on the air.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

A race to watch

Will Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart draw a serious challenge when he runs for re-election next year?

The buzz in Miami is that Raul Martinez, the Democrat who was mayor of GOP presidential bastion Hialeah for 24 years, is considering a bid. Republicans are taking shots at him, recalling his convictions (racketeering, extortion) that were reversed on appeal. He’s a colorful politician; he apologized this week for a tirade he issued in response to the GOP taunts.

Clearly, Martinez is unafraid. The question is whether he has decided to seek the nomination, guaranteeing that the incumbent and challenger would give us all some great political theater. Martinez opposes the Administration’s 2004 sanctions against Cuban family visits.

Odds and ends

● The chill in Cuba’s and Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with Mexico seems to have ended with new ambassadors taking their posts in Mexico City. Roy Chaderton, the Venezuelan ambassador, dressed in white, with a Nehru jacket, for the occasion. (News agency photo.)

● Ricardo Alarcon, asked about Fidel Castro’s assertion that a missile, not a plane, hit the Pentagon on 9/11, does his best. (Full transcript here, scroll down.)

● From one columnist to another, 10 questions about Fidel’s column.

● Bolivian President Evo Morales, in remarks in Cochabamba as he delivered 92 tractors, declared that Bolivia needs its own Plaza de la Revolucion. “We will ask the Cuban ambassador to advise us” in the project, he said. Continuing in the royal plural, he envisioned “millions and millions” of Bolivians gathering in the plaza “to hear us and to guarantee this process of change.”

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Just do it

If you are in Havana and find yourself at 512 Neptuno, between Campanario and Perseverancia streets, you will run across one of the most unusual examples of trabajo por cuenta propia (self-employment), and one of the most amazing examples of Cuban innovation, that I have ever seen.

In an old book warehouse, there’s a gymnasium with an open area upstairs for aerobic exercise, and the entire downstairs is full of weightlifting machines.

The gym was the idea of some locals. They got permission from municipal authorities to create it and to charge admission. They also got a license under self-employment regulations. Men pay 100 pesos for monthly membership, women pay 60 pesos, retirees and people with special needs pay nothing.

What wasn’t immediately apparent to my eye is that all the weight machines are home made. The proprietors looked at equipment in weight training magazines and decided they could make their own. So they collected scrap metal and other materials piece by piece and started welding. The result is a facility with dozens of machines with red painted steel frames that allow for every kind of exercise that I could imagine.

I first visited in 2000. My notes remind me that the founder, a retired merchant mariner named Ignacio, told me then that he runs special programs for women. Most gyms in Cuba are for men, he said, because “we’re a little machista.” “Women don’t know what exercise can do for them,” he said. “I always tell them that Demi Moore and Sharon Stone were not born that way.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"Deliberate disinformation"

A new Fidel Castro “reflection” – or, as Agence France-Presse put it, an “article attributed to Cuban leader Fidel Castro” – claims that there was “deliberate disinformation” about 9/11, including that the Pentagon was hit by a missile, not by a plane, on that morning.

This is too ridiculous to refute. But in that some years have passed, and people outside the United States might consider this Castro thesis, I’ll note a single point of information. The Pentagon is surrounded by highways. The highways were full of traffic at that hour. The people in those cars saw the plane.

One wonders how officials in the Cuban government would respond if asked about this thesis.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The stretch Lada

The Miami debate

Some bloggers “live-blog” events such as the Univision debate among Democratic candidates. (Transcript here.)

Others get to it two days later; that’s what we’re doing here.

I like Univision’s news programs, even though they move seamlessly between regular news and pure advocacy. And I liked the idea of a Spanish-language debate. I hope Republicans agree to do one too, but that seems unlikely since Senator McCain is reportedly the only GOP candidate who is willing to participate.

Having seen the debate, however, I can understand why a candidate would be reluctant to agree to this format.

The translation was incomplete, which is a real disservice to the audience and the candidates. This could have been remedied by broadcasting with a delay of several hours and avoiding the extraordinary difficulty of simultaneous translation.

The moderators, star anchors Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos, were protagonists – they directed some questions to all candidates, but they directed some questions to just a few; a dubious technique, as shown by the brief discussion of Cuba policy.

Governor Richardson made a comment about Cuba in response to a general question on Latin America – he said that we should “possibly start lifting the embargo” after political prisoners are released. There was one question about Cuba, directed to two candidates only.

The question itself was framed in a way that excluded the possibility that the United States might do something constructive now – rather, it asked how Washington would act once Fidel Castro is gone.

That was right up Senator Clinton’s alley. She advocates a stand-pat policy, i.e. do nothing until Castro is gone, and she got the first crack at the question. She gave a bland answer about talking with Latin American and European nations “to try to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy and freedom,” which is President Bush’s current approach.

The same question went to Senator Dodd, who argued in favor of engagement now.

And that was it. Senator Obama was given no opportunity to address the issue, even though he has made interesting Cuba proposals and his candidacy poses a real challenge to Senator Clinton. An odd omission.

Senator Clinton closed the debate by paying tribute to Latino achievement and asking for viewers’ support.

Jorge Ramos then closed the event, saying he wanted to “clarify” that Univision’s news division has “absolute journalistic independence.”

Havana, Centro Gallego

Smugglers and the law

A Herald article provides some interesting information on how alien smugglers operate in Miami and in Cuba; they use satellite phones and GPS devices, and send someone to Cuba who finds the potential passengers and “guides them to a staging area and on to a barrier island off the Cuban coast.” Families in Miami pay $7,000 to $10,000 once the relative arrives in the United States. And the feds are considering prosecuting those who pay the smugglers because, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they are “part of the criminal conspiracy.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

Odds and ends

● The North Korean foreign ministry seems to expect that in exchange for supposedly acting to put their nuclear program on ice, the United States will remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. And the U.S. Interests Section spread the news as one of three items on its electronic billboard (obstructed view, right).

● At Western Hemisphere Policy Watch, the anonymous authors are worried about the photos I post. I’m worried that they’re worried!!!

Senator Mel Martinez, GOP chairman, point man for outreach to Latinos.

● The feast day of Cuba’s patron saint is celebrated with 90 processions in Cuba and a Miami ceremony too. From the AP Havana story: “The image of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre accompanied Cuban soldiers in their wars of independence against the Spanish crown in the 19th century. In 1915 the veterans of the last war (1895-98) asked Pope Benedict XV for the confirmation of the virgin as the patron saint of Cuba, which was granted in May 1916…”

● It is interesting to read the recent impressions of Cuba by Anastasio Blanco posted at Babalu. Also read his exchange with readers, where he says that Cuba’s dissidents are “rather unknown inside Cuba,” that “the only people who really know about folks like Dr. Biscet and Darsi Ferrer are those with access to the internet – i.e. hotel workers or those working with foreign firms operating on the island;” that Radio Marti “is a success and has become rather popular,” and that “TV Marti is a complete failure.”

● When the Fidel-is-dead rumors were flying two weeks ago, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said there was no reason to believe that Castro had died. He then went on to float a rumor of his own, that maybe the Cuban government had started the whole frenzy. For all he knew, or for all he let on, it could as well have been the Chinese or the Jamaicans or the Turks. What Gallegos confirmed once again is that when the U.S. government talks about Cuba, all the usual standards go out the window.

More on the 15 proposals

Readers have pointed out a second essay by Pedro Campos, author of the 15 proposals on economic policy discussed here last week.

In it, Campos rejects the view of Jorge Ferrer in El Tono de la Voz, that Fidel Castro’s “superrevolutionaries” essay from last week was aimed at ending the “healthy” debate on economic policy within Cuba.

Nor did Campos appreciate the suggestion that he, Soledad Cruz, and others are positioning themselves for the post-Castro future. For good measure, Campos throws in some anti-Miami rhetoric. (Ferrer is in Barcelona, but we get the point.)

Campos pointed out that his 15 proposals are part of a debate now taking place within the system. As he made clear in the preamble to his 15 proposals, his aim is to strengthen socialism. I don’t believe, as one reader suggested, that he backed away from those proposals; in fact he didn’t address them at all in the second essay.

The interesting issue here, in my view, is the nature and limits of the economic policy debate in Cuba today. I won’t interpret Campos’ views, but I’ll give my own sense of where things are.

In November 2005, Fidel Castro gave his last major policy speech at the University of Havana. He identified Cuba’s economic troubles as a threat to the long-term survival of socialism. He focused particularly on black-market activity, and his policy views were clear as a bell: more centralization, more law enforcement, more social workers in the gas stations.

Then Fidel fell ill.

Then others continued to take up the theme of the economy, but in a different way, pointing out that the black market is the result, not the cause, of Cuba’s severe income inequality. And that a family that lives on a peso-only salary can’t cover its basic needs. The October 2006 Juventud Rebelde series exposed many state enterprises as dysfunctional and showed examples of enterprises that would cease to function if their employees were to work strictly by the book.

So Fidel kicked off the debate, but its terms seem broader than they would be if he were the sole referee. Among the many questions to be answered, the big one is what Raul meant on July 26 by “structural” change.

In the end what counts are results, and I’m making no predictions on that score. But I don’t believe that last week’s “reflection” shut the process down, and I think we’re in for a very interesting time ahead.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

“Where things move in slow motion”

Simon Romero in the New York Times gives an account of how the ELN gets along in Cuba: medical treatment, a house at el Laguito, visits to jazz clubs, walks in Old Havana. And this on the status of negotiations with the Colombian government:

The recent talks ended late last month on a note of bitter discord. The E.L.N. rejected a proposal for its leaders to be transferred outside Colombia. (Another round of talks has been taking place in Venezuela this week, but details have not been made public.) Cuba’s future role as a base for talks, meanwhile, remains uncertain.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Catching up from late August, I came across an AP story on the visit to Prague and Budapest by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s hard to think of a statement that would do more to cement current Spanish views in place than this:

“In the EU, there is too much acceptance of the supposed leadership from Spain on the issue of Cuba,” said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida. “Spain still seems to be in the 19th century, defending colonial interests with regards to Cuba. Why this Spanish consensus of support for the regime in Cuba? That's why countries like Hungary must be assertive.”

  • Back to the present: The Senate, following the House, votes to provide President Bush’s full budget request for Cuba democracy activities, about 400 percent the level of previous years. Prague hotels, get ready.

  • “There is a lot to do in Cuba. The solution will not come the day Castro dies.” In Diario las Americas, Uva de Aragon’s concluding essay on the experience of traveling to Cuba.

  • Corruption charges against 11 NJ politicos, too delicious for Granma to pass up.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Que linda la novia

15 proposals

Via Kaos en la Red, we have an interesting set of ideas about economic policy from Pedro Campos, a retired diplomat and researcher at the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the United States. His “15 concrete proposals to revive socialism in Cuba” respond to the Cuban communist party’s call for debate over Raul Castro’s July 26 speech, which itself called for “structural changes.”

Campos’ ideas are not revolutionary in our sense of the word.

But they are “revolutionary” in Cuba’s context in two ways: they fit within a discussion that the leadership has started, and they buck the tendency of recent years by arguing for decentralization and a degree of private initiative.

Campos believes his measures would “guarantee the continuity of the revolution, the deepening of socialism, and wide public support.”

They include:

  • Ending the dual-currency system, making Cuba’s convertible peso the single currency, keeping hard-currency retail prices unchanged while adjusting the prices for goods and services now bought in Cuban pesos. [Could Cuba’s central bank pull that off?]

  • Returning the convertible peso to par with the U.S. dollar and charging only minimal exchange fees to stimulate tourism, remittances, and “controlled foreign investment.” [This would end a penalty of nearly 20 percent paid since 2005 by those exchanging dollars for convertible pesos.]

  • In Cuban enterprises, allowing the election of management, allowing enterprises to debate and determine their plans and operations, instituting profit sharing, and allowing enterprises to contract with each other across sectors.

  • Liberalizing agricultural policy, distributing land to individuals and new small cooperatives, creating banks to lend to farmers, and “full liberalization of the internal market” for all farm and fishery products. [The last suggestion would end the state’s monopoly on beef, dairy products, shellfish, and many other items.]

  • Ending the libreta (ration book), which now provides heavily subsidized staples to every household, and replacing it with subsidies for the needy only.

  • Addressing the transportation problem through new enterprises and cooperatives and by bringing private taxis into cooperatives.

  • “Free issuance of all licenses for self-employment,” elimination of the current non-refundable monthly tax payment (cuota fija mensual), elimination of all tax for those earning less than 100 convertible pesos monthly, and reducing the rates in the progressive tax schedule that determines how much small entrepreneurs now pay at year’s end.

It’s not clear to me how his ideas for state enterprises would play out in practice.

As for the rest, I believe that the currency unification, if feasible, would be immensely popular.

The ideas on agriculture policy and self-employment would generate increased production, a reduction in black market activity, and most likely an increase in tax revenues.

The political impact would be equally interesting. At minimum the measures would generate a sense of relief and change in direction in Cuba, probably increasing political support for the government. In Miami and Washington, some of the issues discussed here would come into play.

A note to readers

I want to clarify something and hopefully save some readers some aggravation.

I notice that when I post some things, like a photo of an urban garden cooperative or a citation of a Fidel Castro “reflection,” that some readers assume I am in agreement with a writing that I cite, or that I think the cooperative represents the ideal thing for the Cuban people.

Not so.

The pictures are from my collection unless I note otherwise. I put them up because I hope readers will like them. They break up the text. If they illustrate something I may add a caption.

When I cite writings that I pick up here and there, it’s because I think they are interesting or significant in what I am trying to do, and what I assume readers are trying to do, which is to figure out what is going on in Cuba. Which includes, for my part, reading things I don’t necessarily agree with.

As for the “reflections,” some readers believe that Castro is dead and the writings are not his own. Fair enough. I don’t share those assumptions. Right now our environment on that question is information-free. Someday, we’ll know the story.

But those “reflections” sure sound like Castro and they track with what we know of his views. And beyond the Fidel question, they sometimes represent a very distinct point of view in the debate on economic policy taking place in Cuba today.

That debate may not take place within parameters that we like, it takes place in a political system that most of us surely don’t like, but it is a real debate nonetheless. My impression is that it is gathering steam. I have no idea where it will end or the results it will produce. But I do believe it’s worth watching.

So I take the point about Fidel. I appreciate all comments.

And on economics, more soon.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Skating in Matanzas

Odds and ends

  • Diario las Americas’ editorial (English here, Spanish here) offers a grim view of the recent diplomacy between Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia, including the very cordial summit last week between Presidents Uribe and Chavez. “The position of the tyranny in Havana consolidates, and the Chávez government emerges as an arbitrator,” it reads. Who knows if the maneuvers aimed at a peace agreement in Colombia and the release of hostages held by Colombian guerrillas will ever bear fruit; for now there’s the ongoing spectacle of President Bush’s favorite Latin leader viewing his least favorites as legitimate interlocutors.

  • Encuentro reports on an article in Vitral, the Pinar del Rio diocesan magazine, calling for the Cuban state to permit religious schools. It calls for overcoming “the anachronism of thinking that the only one in society charged with and responsible for the work of education is the state school, because this is not a right belonging only to the state.” Encuentro’s article is here; I couldn’t find the complete Vitral article itself. Update: reader Juan Cuellar found the editorial here.

  • Uncommon Sense has an interesting report on the arrival in the United States, with a normal immigrant visa, of a man who apparently worked in state security and testified for the prosecution in the 2003 trials following the arrest of the 75 dissidents. Presumably, this is the kind of guy our government would not want to let in. If all the details are as reported, we would have to conclude that our consulate in Havana does not have a list of the agents who testified in those trials, which were not open to the public, but were amply covered and were attended by defendants’ families, with whom U.S. diplomats have ample contact. With immigration procedures this loose, and with a no-questions-asked policy for thousands of Cubans arriving each year by boat and at the Mexican border, can anyone believe that the post-9/11 Bush Administration really believes that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism?

Threat from the left

If you puzzle over how Cuban economic policy is made these days, then you might find Fidel’s latest “reflection” intriguing. (AP story here.)

He tells how he reads commentary about Cuba from all over the world, and he takes on the foreign leftist “superrevolutionaries” whose counsel for Cuba is the “pure poison” of “neoliberalism.”

It’s not clear precisely who he is talking about, but it would be nice if he would provide some links, because the rest of us would be interested in reading arguments in favor of opening up the Cuban economy written from a hard left perspective.

Regardless, Fidel’s own preferences are clear.

Regarding foreign investment, for example, he says “one cannot do without” some joint ventures because they bring access to essential markets. But there’s a political reason to limit them, he says, because “neither can one inundate the country with money without selling sovereignty.” Sort of the opposite of the U.S. hard-line argument that doing business with Cuba “props up” the current system.

When it comes to ethanol, Fidel is still against it – both globally and if made from Cuban sugar cane. The “superrevolutionaries” see in ethanol an “energy advantage for the island,” while he contends that it would lead to doubling or tripling of world food prices. That is based, one guesses, on the zero-sum supposition that production of crops for ethanol comes at the expense of land devoted to food production.

That has long been his view, although as we learned last May, Cuban policy at least in principle is open to ethanol production.

Marti in Matanzas

Monday, September 3, 2007

Odds and ends

  • How do you say chutzpah in Spanish? Here’s Orlando Bosch in Diario las Americas, criticizing “liars, cynics, and traitors” in the Cuban government for executions and other acts that caused “the pain of thousands of Cubans.”

  • Two additions to the blog list at right: Stuck on the Palmetto, all about Miami with recent commentary on the role of blogs in the recent Castro-is-dead rumors; and The Havana Note, a group blog just launched by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation.

  • Miriam Leiva on the “Cuban Five” in jail here and the 75 jailed in Cuba in 2003. Regarding recent releases of political prisoners in Cuba, she writes: “The reduction in the number of political prisoners is the result of releases from prison due to the completion of sentences, not the rectification of injustices committed against them.”