Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Odds and ends

  • From Reason magazine, a review of Shootdown, the “scrupulously even-handed” documentary about Cuba’s downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996.

  • Cuba and Spain agree on a date for the next round of their human rights dialogue.

  • There was a parade in Miami to commemorate the birthday of Jose Marti. Los Miquis covered it (in Spanish), proving that bloggers can be great spot reporters too. It’s reverent toward Marti, much less so toward some of those on parade.

McCain sweeps Miami-Dade, wins Florida (Updated)

I haven’t seen hard numbers, but there’s lots of reporting that Cuban Americans voted in strong support of Senator McCain in yesterday’s Florida primary. The Herald reports that Senator McCain beat Governor Romney among Latinos statewide, 51-15, which would indicate that McCain benefited from being the exception to the GOP’s draconian tilt on immigration issues.

The state’s official tally shows that McCain beat Romney better than three to one in Miami-Dade.

If McCain did indeed sweep Little Havana, it’s not yet clear why. It could be that among a crowd of candidates with hardline views on Cuba policy, McCain had the most credibility. He had the endorsement of Reps. Diaz-Balart and Ros Lehtinen, and they stuck with him through thick and thin. A Washington Post reporter interviewed Cuban Americans and found that Cuba policy was not everyone’s prime motivation; “I live here, not in Cuba,” one voter told the Post. “The most important issue is the economy.”

Robert Novak claims that Senator Martinez’ endorsement helped McCain against Romney, and “more lethal…was the word spread by Martinez that he considers Romney a demagogue because of his tough stand against the immigration bill co-sponsored by McCain and Martinez.” If that’s the case – and Novak offers no evidence – then Cuban Americans voted altruistically, in solidarity with Latinos who would face Romney immigration policies such as deportation of illegal immigrants that would not affect Cuban Americans.

Finally, here’s an overview of voter behavior statewide with an interesting nugget: voters who like President Bush flocked to Romney, those who disapprove went with McCain.

Update: A St. Petersburg Times analysis says McCain won due to high turnout, and disproportionately high turnout of moderate Republicans. As for Cuban Americans, “While McCain and Romney were tied among non-Hispanic Republicans, exit polls showed Romney won just 9 percent of Cuban-American Republicans, compared to 54 percent for McCain and 32 percent for Rudy Giuliani.”

[St. Petersburg Times photo]

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Campaign odds and ends

LA Times: Mitt Romney’s campaign complains that automated phone calls, origin unknown, are distorting his position on Cuba by telling voters that he is eager to open relations with Cuba. Not so, as we know. Meanwhile, at a Sweetwater rally on Sunday, Romney donned a guayabera, a gift from Bay of Pigs veterans. County commissioner Pepe Diaz said the veteran who presented the shirt did so with tears in his eyes; he also said it would have been “a major insult” had Romney declined to accept the shirt. Nice.

The Hill: Meanwhile, Senator Clinton is distorting her own past position on Cuba. She was one of 59 Senators to vote to end the travel ban in 2003. Her spokesman, in error, claims that this was a vote on family travel only. Her current position seems narrower still: “flexibility to allow visits for immediate family members in humanitarian cases,” which sounds quite minimal, but still enough to “give hope to the Cuban people,” as she stated in the CANF questionnaire.

The Weekly Standard: As Giuliani fades, McCain seems to benefit in Little Havana.

[AP photo via]

Monday, January 28, 2008

Presidential brevity

From the President’s State of the Union address tonight:

America is opposing genocide in Sudan and supporting freedom in countries from Cuba and Zimbabwe to Belarus and Burma.”

No boundaries

Florida Senator Bill Nelson has a way to stop exploration for oil in Cuba’s Gulf waters: declare that the maritime boundary between the United States and Cuba is void, threaten U.S. sanctions against executives of foreign companies involved in exploration in Cuban waters, and apply those sanctions against the executives’ families too.

And the horse they rode in on.

This part of the Senator’s “ongoing effort to protect Florida’s coast from the ravages of oil drilling,” as a press release from his office put it, is found in S. 2503, a bill introduced last January (and in the previous Congress too) with no cosponsors.

The U.S.-Cuba maritime boundary is the result of a 1977 agreement (described here, pdf) that was never ratified by the Senate. Every two years since, including during the current Administration, the United States and Cuba have exchanged diplomatic notes that renew their commitment to the agreement, and to the boundary.

The Senator’s bill would nullify this agreement. Maybe there’s a lawyer out there who knows whether Congress can do this. One certainly wonders why the Senator doesn’t get the Senate to bring up the agreement for ratification, and vote it down.

Regardless, outside the legislative arena, the Senator is now asking President Bush not to make a new two-year commitment to the maritime boundary agreement. His staff was told that the note to that effect was sent but not yet received, according to an oil industry publication, and he asked the President to recall the note in a January 23 letter.

The Senator has good reason for concern. He notes that, “as the Gulf Stream flows, an oil spill or other drilling accident would desecrate [!] part of Florida’s unique environment and devastate its $50 billion tourism-driven economy.” And he is probably right to calculate that if his recommendations were followed, there would be enough uncertainty and fear of sanctions that foreign oil companies might abandon Cuban projects.

But one can question the effectiveness of his approach. The Senate has shown no interest in his bill. The Bush Administration might think it reckless to abandon a fair, split-the-difference maritime boundary that governs fishing, energy, and any other economic activity. Absent the agreed boundary, there would be overlapping claims of 200-mile exclusive economic zones. That could have unpredictable results – Hugo Chavez and PDVSA, I hope you’re not listening – that might not benefit Florida, much less the U.S. national interest.

If this were any country but Cuba, the United States would be talking to its neighbor about environmental issues and emergency preparedness. Indeed, American companies might be involved in the exploration – the same companies whose deep-water platforms and rigs were destroyed in the Gulf of Mexico during Katrina and other hurricanes, without a major spill.

But this is Cuba. Grand gestures will do just fine.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cuba on Flickr

I saw another blog’s samples of Cuba photos from Flickr, the Internet’s photo repository, and decided to check it out myself. If you like images of Cuba, you could easily get distracted and spend an afternoon browsing photos from all parts of Cuba, and from several eras.

This one surprised me; a 2005 shot of the mothballed Juragua nuclear plant that a Dutch visitor, Kees de Vos, took from a helicopter in 2005. This is an industrial project that collapsed with the loss of Soviet aid and, unlike the recently reactivated oil refinery nearby in Cienfuegos, there seems to be no talk of resuming work on it.

Then there’s a street scene from a photographer called “Zoom Zoom”…

…and from the small “Cuba before Castro” photo group, a 1958 shot of Paseo del Prado, apparently taken from the Hotel Telegrafo. It comes from the blog Dos Epocas.

And some of the Library of Congress’ photos recently deposited on Flickr were taken in Cuba. Here’s one, circa 1910, of American sailors encamping on O’Reilly, across from the Plaza de Armas on the grounds of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a small corner of which is seen at right.

On the trail in Florida

Odds and ends from the Florida campaign:

  • Republicans, each working hard for a slice of the Cuban American community.

  • Huckabee: Raul Castro should be indicted for the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue Shootdown, and Los Miquis reports that in a visit to Miami’s Channel 41, he promises to allow Helms-Burton’s Title III to go into effect. That’s the provision of the law that would allow Cuban Americans to sue foreign investors in Cuba in U.S. courts if their investments touch properties in Cuba to which they have a claim. Presidents Clinton and Bush have acted every six months to prevent it from going into effect.

  • McCain, with a late endorsement from Senator Martinez: Let’s go to Cuba “when Cuba is free” and find “that Cuban that came to the prison camps of North Vietnam and tortured and killed my friends. We’ll get him and bring him to justice, too.”

  • Romney’s son Craig speaks great Spanish, and uses it in a web video and radio ad in Florida.

Readers overseas might wonder why nearly all the election news from Florida is about Republicans. Florida changed the date of its election to make the state more important in the primary campaign. The national Democratic party responded by deciding that it will not seat Florida delegates at its national nominating convention this summer, and by telling its candidates not to campaign there – and they have indeed stayed away from the state.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Candidates on Cuba -- CANF questionnaire

Three cheers to the Cuban American National Foundation for submitting a Cuba policy questionnaire to presidential candidates, and three cheers to Senators Clinton and Obama for actually answering the questions. The other candidates submitted statements giving their general views on Cuba, ducking some of the questions, such as whether they would abandon the wet foot-dry foot policy and admit all Cubans to the United States – those who reach land and those picked up at sea. Clinton and Obama said “no.” Text of responses here.

Church and politics

Cuba’s Catholic church takes a lot of heat from people outside Cuba who say it is not doing enough to promote political change inside Cuba. Some of that criticism is based on current events, and on a supposition that the church has a duty to go beyond its pastoral and charitable work, and involve itself in politics directly. If you scratch the surface you find that some of the criticism is rooted in events that took place decades ago, or even a century ago when Cuba was fighting for independence from Spain, and clerics sided with the crown.

Here, in a Catholic News Agency story, dissident leader Oswaldo Paya voices praise for the church’s work in Cuban society:

“The Church is playing a key role in the evangelization and in aid to the poor, not only economically but also in a human and moral plane as well. I would like to clarify that, as a Catholic, I can only speak of the Church in third person. Our local Church has suffered persecutions and de-Christianization in very difficult circumstances, but she has always been faithful to the Gospel, to the Church and to the Cuban people. This is a reality that is often ignored by international public opinion.”

That story, in English, also talks about his colleagues in prison, and his desire for national reconciliation.

And speaking of the church, here’s a roundup from Encuentro (in Spanish) of the church’s views on church-state relations, Cuban policies, and U.S. policies.

Florida debate tonight

The Republican presidential candidates will debate in Florida tonight. They will probably sound a little friendlier to immigrants than they have in other locations, they will wrestle with the temptation to raid the U.S. Treasury to ease the burden of Florida insurance costs, and it is inevitable that they will discuss Cuba.

McCain, Guiliani, and Romney will surely reiterate their support for the current sanctions.

If they get into a detailed discussion, it will be interesting to see how they present that position. It is one thing to support the embargo as a statement of moral repugnance. It’s quite another to argue that it has practical impact.

At this website, the latest to assemble candidates’ positions on Cuba, Mitt Romney states a maximalist position, outlining “four major points of pressure that can change any regime and particularly the regime in Cuba.” They are:

“First is economic pressure. It’s important for us to maintain our sanctions… The second pillar is to exert diplomatic isolation to make sure that the Castros are recognized as tyrants … The third is to communicate more effectively to the people of Cuba and the world about the human rights abuses in Cuba. … The final pillar is military strength. America must always be ready in the event of any military incursion by Castro or Chavez against the people of America. We must always be prepared so that the leaders of those countries understand that America will never be intimidated.”

There are arguments for and against all those measures, but to argue that they will bring regime change is outlandish. Cuban Americans know it, too: American sanctions have not prevented Cuba from developing economic partnerships elsewhere, and Cuba is anything but isolated diplomatically.

I guess the details don’t matter, nor does it matter to match ends and means, or to discuss the Cuba issue in terms of real-world conditions. “I’m with you and I’ll never abandon you,” may be the real message, and for one candidate at least, the way to send that signal is to discuss the embargo as if it’s the Normandy invasion.

Thompson on Cuba -- last word

Fred Thompson’s contribution to the Cuba debate was to step on a political landmine by suggesting that there might be a national security aspect to Cuban migration to the United States. Now that his campaign is history, a top campaign aide has written a post-mortem that tells us where Thompson’s idea probably came from:

“Here on this island where I live, just off the West Coast of Florida, we regularly have high-speed boats land dozens of foreign nationals on our beaches — having totally avoided our Coast Guard and other so-called defenses. Boats this big and powerful are capable of delivering to any coastal city in America even conventional nuclear weapons. Truly miniaturized weapons, if they exist, could be carried on foot across the border into even Chicago, Washington D.C. or Las Vegas. The possibility that one of the petro-rich madmen who has promised to see America destroyed is thinking right now about finding a way to give some suicidal terrorist group an untraceable nuclear weapon is, in my opinion, too great a danger to ignore.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Cienfuegos oil refinery is now in operation, Prensa Latina reports, with the arrival of a tanker bringing crude oil from Venezuela. The refinery was a white elephant – built with Soviet aid, never put into operation, idle for more than a decade – until Venezuela sank $166 million into it. Last month’s New York Times report here.

  • Cuba bought $600 million in U.S. agricultural products last year, AP reports.

  • In his Cuba speech last October, President Bush announced that he would ask foreign governments to contribute to an “international freedom fund” for Cuba. Three months later, the idea is apparently still on the drawing board; State and Commerce are “working internally on the concept of the fund and determining what its characteristics will be,” the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America told AFP.


The CIA's estimate for Cuba's economic growth in 2007.

Centro Habana

Get me a Spanish doctor too

Dissident Hector Palacios went to Spain last October for medical treatment. With his spunk and optimism fully restored, he traveled to Warsaw and declared that the fiftieth year of Cuban socialism, which began January 1, will be its last: “Every Cuban who lives at least a year will see a free Cuba.” He also said, “We, the opposition, are prepared for the moment when Castro will disappear and we will have to assume a transition toward democracy, we are prepared and we are capable of governing the island and taking it out of the misery in which it has been left by so many years of dictatorship.”

Palacios also differed with Spain’s policy toward Cuba, saying that it’s impossible to have a “dialogue with killers, much less to talk with them about human rights.” That sounds like he is saying that no one should talk with Cuban officials about human rights issues. I have never heard him or anyone in Cuba’s opposition take that position, and I have to assume that something is missing in the account of Palacios’ statement from Warsaw.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lincoln in Havana

Speaking of Lincoln (not that Lincoln), I’ve got photos from a friend in Havana. Here is Honest Abe memorialized in Vedado at the Abraham Lincoln language school…

…in the Parque de la Fraternidad…

…and next door, inside the Capitolio.

Elections in Hialeah (Updated)

Speaking of elections, it is now guaranteed that there will be a race to watch in Florida’s 21st Congressional District and, good for voters, a real competition. Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez has announced that he will challenge Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

This story, broken last night by El Nuevo’s Rui Ferreira, is newsworthy because Diaz-Balart – notwithstanding all the fanfare about Cuban-American Senator Mel Martinez, his senior position, and his ties to the White House – seems to be the most influential outside figure when it comes to the Bush Administration’s Cuba policy; some would say he’s in charge. And while Martinez does not want to lift the embargo, the two candidates would clash on the issue of the Bush 2004 family sanctions; Diaz-Balart supports them, and Martinez wants them eased so that Cuban Americans can visit relatives in Cuba more often and send them assistance more easily. If Diaz-Balart were to be defeated, the unanimity among the six Cuban Americans in Congress would be broken.

Diaz-Balart has not run unopposed in past elections, but his opponents have not received national party support. Martinez is a different kind of challenger; he has been on the ballot, serving 24 years as mayor of the city in the heart of the district, and he has apparently secured support from national Democrats, which could lead to a well funded campaign.

Martinez was investigated for corruption charges while mayor, and while contemplating a bid for an open Congressional seat that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won. Ros-Lehtinen’s husband, the prosecutor, brought charges, as the Herald story notes, leading to “a conviction, appeal, reversal by an appellate court and two subsequent mistrials…the case was ultimately dropped.” I don’t know if this hurts Martinez or not.

Surely this race will be about more than Cuba issues. But it’s safe to say that the Cuba issue will be prominent, and the result will tell us something about Cuban Miami: whether the moderation reflected in polls and the media will ever translate into something tangible, like an election result.

A similar competition could occur this year for Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s seat. The potential challenger, Miami-Dade Democratic Chairman Joe Garcia, has not announced his intentions.

[Update: Here’s the link to the Martinez announcement speech today, 43 minutes long, alternating English/Spanish. (H/T Rui Ferreira.) The Cuba section starts around 28:00 – keep the embargo; increase U.S. funds for dissidents and make sure the money is spent in Cuba; increase family travel and remittances. At Los Miquis, opening shots from Diaz-Balart.]

Elections in Cuba

Yesterday Cuba completed its suspense-free elections for the 614-member National Assembly. “Nobody lost,” as the New York Times put it in its 88-word account; all 614 candidates received more than the requisite 50 percent.

As the passage of time necessitates, this election continues the process of replacing the revolution’s historicos with Cubans who grew up in the revolution: 60.9 percent of the legislators-to-be were reportedly born after January 1, 1959, and only 37 percent are returning incumbents.

There may come a time when this generational change could affect Cuban policy in some dramatic way. But for now, it seems to me that the importance of this electoral process is that it forces a decision on the political future of Fidel Castro, who been out of public view for nearly 18 months.

Last month, Castro seemed to hint that he could move into an an advisory, non-executive role, such as returning as a member of the Council of State – but not as its President, and therefore not as Cuba’s chief of state. Since then, the hints from Cuba that Fidel will relinquish the presidency have continued to pile up. (There have also been hints to the contrary, such as Carlos Lage and Ricardo Alarcon saying that they would vote for Fidel.) The guessing game ends February 24 when the new National Assembly chooses the 31 members of the Council of State and also chooses its President and Vice Presidents.

Friday, January 18, 2008

"Cooperation between revolutionaries"

That’s the phrase used by the “Ministro del Poder Popular para Energía y Petróleo” and the president of Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA, Rafael Ramírez, to describe the economic collaboration between Cuba and Venezuela that resulted in an agreement yesterday for 76 projects with a $1.3 billion price tag.

Cuba’s foreign investment minister, Martha Lomas, said that the two countries have 26 active joint ventures, and ten more under negotiation.

Granma’s article said the new projects “are fundamentally in reference to the agroindustry of sugar and its derivatives,” and a Venezuelan newspaper account gets more specific, referring to the signing of an agreement for “the ethanol project” and “complementary projects for the development of sugar cane derivative projects.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but these two newspaper accounts don’t specify whether these projects will take place exclusively in Cuba, or in both countries – hence one can’t say that the news is about $1.3 billion in new investment in Cuba.

But the announcement does appear to settle the confusion about Cuba’s policy toward ethanol development after Fidel Castro trashed the idea last year, and a Cuban minister later reiterated Cuba’s interest in ethanol. We’ll watch for more details, and for possible talks with Brazil. But for now the answer seems to be “yes.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Cuban American groups in Miami call on Cubans to stay home on Sunday and not participate in the electoral “farce,” and they say they will release statements to the same effect from Cuban dissidents.

  • Elizardo Sanchez’ group reports that the Cuban political prisoner population dropped from 283 to 234 last year, but the human rights situation did not improve, as the government relies less on long-term imprisonment and more on harassment and short-term detentions.

  • President Bush suspended Title III of the Helms-Burton law yesterday, as he and his predecessor have done every six months since the law took effect. His action continues to block the ability of Cuban Americans to bring lawsuits in U.S. courts against investors in Cuba whose investments touch their former properties. The President said his action “is necessary to the national interests of the United States and will expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.”

  • Guatemala’s new president says relations with Cuba will strengthen, expresses “profound appreciation” for Cuban doctors working in his country, and is talking with Cuba about possible Cuban aid to promote literacy.

Brazil's superpower move

Before Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva visited Cuba, my impression was that he was going to make a quick visit to see Fidel Castro, perhaps as a sort of farewell.

He certainly did that, but his focus was on the future: on the development of Cuba’s economy and a role for Brazil’s government and private sector, and on Brazilian engagement as a counterweight to U.S. pressure at a time when Cuba’s leadership moves toward generational change.

It was a superpower move. Coupled with Mexico’s improving relations with Cuba and others’ rapprochements with Cuba, Lula has capped Latin America’s rejection of the Bush approach to Cuba.

And he did so quietly. There was no rhetoric, least of all Bolivarian rhetoric. No fanfare, no choreography or backdrops, no grand name to his initiative. Lula signaled political support just by being there for 24 hours, and he left a $1 billion line of credit on the table.

The U.S. effort to deny hard currency to the Cuban government by blocking visits and small monetary assistance between Cuban Americans and their loved ones back home, has never appeared so ineffectual, or so small of mind and heart.

A Reuters report said: “Brasilia has the economic resources, technology and diplomatic clout to help Cuba as it approaches a crucial moment of its history without Fidel at the helm and under pressure from the United States to open up to multiparty democracy, a Brazilian foreign ministry official said…‘We want to see Cuba back in the fold and can provide the Cubans with a level of comfort in the transition ahead by not being confrontational like the United States,’ he said.”

A different foreign policy angle is discussed by David Adams in the St. Petersburg Times – that Brazil is also countering Venezuelan influence.

Lots of details of the economic package remain to be worked out. It seems that the two sides reached a framework agreement, setting objectives and defining projects and sectors where the $1 billion line of credit may be used. Talk of oil exploration attracts lots of attention, and Brazil has resources and deep-water expertise. But Petrobras is only now acquiring seismological data on the formations below Cuba’s Gulf waters, so action in this area is not imminent. And ethanol development, a potential boon to a Cuban sugar industry that was downsized just a few years ago when sugar prices had tanked, was left for another day.

As for the Castro visit, Lula found Fidel in a state of “incredible lucidity and impeccable health.” (The next day, Fidel wrote that he does not “enjoy the necessary physical capacity” to address the Santiago constituency where he is running for a National Assembly seat in Sunday’s election.) See Encuentro’s roundup, with pictures and video, here.

“I think Fidel is ready to assume a political role in Cuba and the political role that he has in the history of a globalized world,” Lula said before his departure.

“A political role in Cuba” – that sounds a little different than “a return to office.” We’ll see.

More here.

Cementerio Colon

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Huckabee: Keep Cubans out (Updated)

According to Fox News, Governor Mike Huckabee proposed halting immigration from countries that are listed as state sponsors of terrorism, which includes Cuba. His advisor then backed away from the proposal.

This is the same mistake that Fred Thompson made months ago (discussed here and here). Trying to make a secure borders/anti-immigration point, both he and Huckabee went too far and hurt themselves among Cuban Americans.

For candidates, it works politically to call Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism in order to denounce the Cuban government.

But it does not work politically to say that immigration policies toward Cubans should be applied as if Cuba posed an actual threat of terrorism against the United States – say, by infiltrating operatives posing as normal migrants. That would mean an end to no-questions-asked admissions of Cubans who arrive without visas on Florida shores or at U.S.-Mexico border crossing points. And that definitely does not work politically in Miami-Dade.

Our current immigration policy is an invitation to the Cuban government to infiltrate whoever it wishes, mixed in with all the other Cubans who come by raft or speedboat, or who just show up at a border station. The policy is a sign that the Administration sees no danger of terrorism from Cuba. On the day that policy changes, we’ll know our government thinks otherwise.

[Update: Governor Huckabee backtracked, saying he wants a review of immigration procedures with regard to people coming from countries in the list of state sponsors of terrorism. AP quoted him as follows: “I think we just need to do a more thorough job of ensuring that when people come here, and they come from nations that the State Department has designated as terrorist nations, that we are diligent in background searches.”]

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Code Pink in Miami

Since my enthusiasm for the ladies of Code Pink is limited, and I have written before about Luis Posada Carriles, I didn’t write about the ladies’ recent protests in Miami against the man whom the Bush Justice Department calls a “mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks.”

Just as well; the blog “Los Miquis de Miami” wrote quite an account. It was just a handful of Code Pink activists, but they drew a large counter-protest because their message was so provocative and they were on the hallowed grounds of Versailles, a wonderful and reasonably priced restaurant and bakery on Calle Ocho.

Eggs and water were thrown at the ladies and at a French television crew. Mission accomplished all around.

Los Miquis’ conclusion:

“Perhaps some of the hands that throw eggs (and other things) in Miami are moved by castrismo, although there is also the terrible possibility that the Cuban problem is not rooted in Castro, but rather in the fact that Castro is Cuban.”

Lula bets on Raul

The President of Brazil, now visiting Havana after attending the inauguration ceremony in Guatemala, is about to announce a series of economic agreements, including substantial credits, to Cuba.

This is a vote of confidence in Cuba’s government and economic potential on the part of South America’s largest democracy and economic powerhouse. It is one more sign of American isolation on the Cuba issue. No country on earth buys the U.S. theory that Cuba’s government is on its last legs, or agrees that there’s any benefit in trying to squeeze the island’s economy through sanctions.

The wire stories available now (Reuters and AP) are based on pre-briefings from Brazilian diplomats, and they differ regarding the terms of the deals that will be announced.

But the deals are substantial: “$1 billion in credit for food, road building, nickel mining and other development projects,” according to Reuters; “a deal to begin exploratory oil drilling in Cuban waters within two years,” according to AP; construction of a lubricants plant; refurbishment of a nickel plant (the Pedro Soto Alba in Moa?); and biotechnology.

Also, encouragement of private Brazilian investment through credits to support Cuban exports through Brazilian companies, provided that Cuba provides collateral.

There is one issue that screams out by its absence: ethanol. This is hard to figure considering Brazil’s previous interest in ethanol development in Cuba, Cuba’s announced policy of being open to sugar/ethanol investment, the economic advantages of sugar-based ethanol and Brazil’s state-of-the-art expertise in producing it, Cuba’s ability to produce sugar, the high price of ethanol today, and the short period of time (two to three years, an industry friend tells me) to go from groundbreaking to production. I wonder how officials will discuss this if they face reporters on Tuesday.

Finally, a humble suggestion: If they are going to spend millions on road construction, could they consider spending a small part of that budget on signs that tell you where Cuba’s roads lead?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Odds and ends

  • It’s nice to have readers in Camaguey and Hialeah and lots of other places – but last week a new reader appeared from Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Welcome.

  • Last weekend, Cubans saw the pitcher El Duque Hernandez on state television for the first time since his defection. Fuera de Liga, a 2003 documentary on the Industriales baseball team on which El Duque played, was shown on television after being suppressed since it was produced. It includes ten minutes on Cubans who have left Cuba to play abroad, and El Duque is interviewed in that part. Reuters coverage in English is here, El Pais in Spanish is here. The El Pais report says the documentary was preceded by a discussion in which an announcer acknowledged that the film was banned until now.

  • It’s the new year, why not say something nice about the U.S. Interests Section? The jokes and taunts that appeared on their electronic signboard are long gone. Now, it seems to be all news items. Last week, to their credit, they put up this item about a lawyer in a British court defending two men who had been detained and interrogated at Guantanamo, and face extradition to Spain:

“El abogado de dos ex detenidos en Guantánamo dijo este miércoles a un tribunal británico, que examina la extradición de ambos a España para ser juzgados por terrorismo, que el Gobierno español está "profundamente implicado" en el interrogatorio de ambos en la base naval de EEUU en Cuba.”

See it for yourself

I missed this Herald editorial from last week calling for the Florida law restricting academic travel to Cuba to be overturned in court.

It later occurred to me that an Oklahoma professor who delivered a critical assessment of the Cuban health care system at the University of Miami last week, would not have been able to go to Cuba to do her research had she worked at a Florida state university with that law in effect.

At any rate, the professor, Katherine Hirschfeld, spoke of a dengue epidemic kept “secret” when she was in Cuba – ten years ago. Maybe it was so at the time, but it rings more than a little funny to anyone who lives there or has been there since, and has seen Cuba’s quasi-military anti-dengue campaign in action: announcements in the media, trucks spraying insecticide in the streets, men going door-to-door with shoulder-carried fumigation equipment, leaving a sticker on the door of every apartment they fumigate.

More on Hirschfeld here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Odds and ends

  • AFP reports on Cuba’s role in the release of hostages held by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas; the Cuban ambassador to Venezuela was on the Venezuelan aircraft that entered Colombia to pick up the hostages. And in this Reuters report, Colombian officials and others speculate that the capture of a top ELN guerrilla leader may help to advance peace talks between the government and that group. Those talks have taken place in Havana, so far without result.

  • In Toronto, a worthy charity in trouble: Not Just Tourists, a group that organizes delivery of suitcases full of medical supplies carried by Canadian tourists.


Just a joke

From the Spanish-language blogs, something from the “You Learn Something New Every Day” department: on December 28, the equivalent of our April Fool’s Day, Spanish journalists write bogus news stories that seem plausible – except that they tip readers off to the joke by including one absurd “fact.”

In this tradition, Barcelona-based blogger Jorge Ferrer wrote an item on December 28 titled, “Secrecy around visit of Fidel Castro to El Rincon yesterday afternoon.” He described a visit by Castro, his entourage, motorcade, and ambulance to a chapel just outside Havana to seek St. Lazarus’ blessings for his health.

“Witnesses” in his story said he was dressed either in sackcloth or a beige track suit; they differed as to whether Castro approached the chapel on his knees, or crawling. Ferrer thought that was enough to let readers in on the joke, but for good measure he threw in an unrelated paragraph about Raul Castro’s daughter implying that her father is gay.

It didn’t work, as Ferrer describes in amusing detail here. La Nueva Cuba, which bills itself as the “primer periodico cubano independiente en la Internet,” ran the story, in edited form, with Ferrer’s byline. To Ferrer’s his surprise as he read the story in Barcelona, it had Havana dateline too. Days later Miami’s Radio Mambi also ran with the story.

Ferrer says that Miami’s Channel 51 was interested in the story, but called him first to verify. For others, apparently the story fell into the category of “too good to check.”

This is a reminder of the editor’s maxim that when you start to fall in love with a story, that’s when you get in trouble. I had a minor experience along these lines when I wrote this fictitious letter from Fidel Castro to President Bush, and heard from readers and news organizations who thought it might be real. It wasn’t. But that was some time ago, and I wonder if Fidel feels he has properly thanked President Bush for a few other things that have occurred over the past year. We’ll see.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Odds and ends

● The idea of a new Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami is some- thing of a local con- troversy because of its size and because the building would occupy some rare parkland on Biscayne Bay near the basketball arena. A rally for the museum project was held December 29 at the Orange Bowl, site of a 1962 event where President Kennedy met veterans of the failed assault. “We gave President Kennedy the flag of Assault Brigade 2506 and he promised to return it in a free Cuba,” one veteran told El Nuevo at the rally. “I remember telling him, ‘Mr. President, we will return.’ We truly believed he was sincere in what he said that day.”

Diario las Americas reprints Professor Luis Aguilar’s essay about the prophet describing Cubans; a sweet and very sharp character sketch.

● Cuba’s oil output declined slightly last year and natural gas production – visible in the new gas plants on the coastal highway east of Havana – increased by about one third, according to official data in this Reuters report. Meanwhile, Cuban officials are painting an optimistic picture of future deep offshore oil production, based on seismic tests, according to this report in a Venezuelan newspaper. The report ends by noting that “the convalescing Fidel Castro” last week ordered the purchase of drilling equipment.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Professor Luis Aguilar, R.I.P.

No eyes twinkled brighter, and no Georgetown professor’s history lectures were infused with more joy than those of Luis Aguilar, who passed away in Miami last night.

In a lecture in his Revolutionary Movements in Latin America course, he used an anecdote to teach that the concept of democracy carries different meanings in different places. Professor Aguilar told us about a political rally he attended in rural Peru, where he stopped listening to the high-minded rhetoric and approached a campesino at the back of the crowd to ask him what democracy meant to him. “La democracia,” he replied, “es que nadie me pegue” (“that no one beats me”).

He was Cuban to the core – maybe that’s why he had such a sense of hospitality that he invited students to his home one night to drink wine and talk – but his national experience was not central to his teaching. He had attended school with Fidel Castro and his impressions of that experience, as I remember, almost had to be dragged out of him by students.

His post-professorial newspaper articles in El Nuevo Herald nearly always included references derived from his classical education that made me scramble for the reference books.

Those articles also evinced a generous spirit; Armengol reprints a poetic one in his blog, where a prophet answers the question, “When are we going back to Cuba?”

El Nuevo’s obituary is here.

[Herald photo.]

Friday, January 4, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Cuba Study Group’s idea to aid in the provision of micro-loans to Cuban entrepreneurs is a good one. But its Mexican partner is not so good, as Babalu points out here, citing a Business Week piece on the partner’s abusive practices toward poor and inexperienced Mexican borrowers.

  • Will El Duque and his brother Livan Hernandez both pitch for the Mets this year? Estancia Cubana speculates here.

  • Cuban television personality Carlos Otero explains his decision to leave Cuba, how he managed to leave with his family, and his plans for the future in an interview at Encuentro. If the link doesn't work, find it on the front page here.

Florida's universities and Cuba research

The Palm Beach Post and the Herald report on an interesting development regarding the amazing 2006 Florida law that bans Florida colleges and universities from conducting academic travel to Cuba.

The law is under challenge in federal court because, in addition to controlling the use of state government money, it also bars state schools from using money they raise privately to carry out research projects in Cuba.

Last month, Florida’s Board of Governors, a government body that oversees state colleges and universities, asked the court to overturn that last part of the law so that research could be conducted with non-taxpayer funds. (Mambi Watch fills in a lot of the context.)

Florida Representative David Rivera, champion of the original law, is sticking to his guns. Even if no specific appropriation is involved, a professor planning to do Cuba research would “be using his desk, his phone, his computer to execute that travel,” he told the Herald, and that’s too much to bear. Furthermore, “Anyone who understands the totalitarian nature of the Castro regime and its absolute control over information would conclude that research trips to Cuba are completely void of credibility,” Rivera told the Post.

The first thing to say here is that it’s good Mr. Rivera was not in charge when armies of American academics were trying to understand the Soviet Union.

But more to the point, Mr. Rivera is operating from a perfectly insulated bubble, inhabited only by him and his assumptions. Apparently he does not travel to Cuba to see what kind of information-gathering is possible. And he doesn’t read real research that is done in Cuba, much of which makes no reference at all to government information, or shines a critical light on government information. Leave aside all the topics in Cuba that matter to Florida and other parts of America – agriculture, environment, economic development – it is impossible under Florida law for a state university professor to get a grant to go to Cuba, do nothing but interview dissidents, and come back and publish their words.

It’s sad for Florida that a university system that could lead our nation in producing research on Cuba is shackled by this law. And sadder still that there’s a real constituency for it. But it’s encouraging to see a state government body step out and agree with those who are fighting it in court.