Friday, February 29, 2008

More from Cardinal Bertone

It would be nice if Cardinal Bertone would give a few more interviews next week because every time he does, he tells us a little more about his exchanges in Cuba.

Today, he told L’Osservatore Romano (see Catholic News Agency story) that Raul Castro raised the issue of the Cuban convicts known as “Los Cinco” who are serving terms in U.S. penitentiaries. Castro suggested that a swap could be negotiated – for whom, he did not say.

If he has dissidents I mind, I doubt the negotiation would go very far. If he were to offer escaped New Jersey cop-killer Joanne Chesimard or other fugitives of her ilk who enjoy refuge in Cuba, that might be another matter. The United States and Cuba have a century-old extradition agreement that is in force, but effectively suspended since 1959. The presence in Cuba of fugitives from American justice is one of the Administration’s justifications for maintaining Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

A Reuters story adds detail about Cardinal Bertone’s discussion of church matters, including the church’s legal status (the Cuban Catholic church is not registered as a legal entity with the Cuban justice ministry, based on its view that its legitimacy comes from another place), the legal status of its charitable arm Caritas, construction of new churches, etc.

Please keep talking to reporters, your Eminence. We like the info.

"Musical diplomacy"

The visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea has been noticed in Cuba. Miriam Leiva, a former Cuban diplomat and leader of the Damas de Blanco, wonders in an essay (pdf) why Washington “is not capable of an intelligent policy” toward Cuba. She notes the affinities and affection between Cubans and Americans, and says U.S. restrictions “are eliminating an injection of friendship, experiences, and democracy.”

Odds and ends

  • Cuba signs UN human rights conventions, but says it will state unspecified “reservations or interpretive declarations” in the future. AP story here; provisions of the conventions here; discussion of Fidel’s opposition, expressed in 2001 and reiterated last year, here.

  • Twenty-four senators call on the Administration to review its approach to toward Cuba, promote trade and travel, and end a “policy based on sanctions, passivity, and waiting.” Their letter here (pdf); the signers are Senators Baucus, Enzi, Dodd, Landrieu, Wyden, Crapo, Feingold, Craig, Johnson, Lincoln, Pryor, Cantwell, Hagel, Bingaman, Stabenow, Conrad, Dorgan, Roberts, Feinstein, Murray, Specter, Harkin, Akaka, Boxer.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Now is not the time"

From President Bush’ press conference today:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. I'd like to ask you about another issue that's kind of come up on the campaign trail, in terms of discussion, which is, this is a point of view that has been espoused, that we would be better off if we talked to our adversaries, in particular, Iran and Cuba, you know, without preconditions. And as President, you have obviously considered and rejected this approach. And I'm wondering if you can give us a little insight into your thinking about this, and just explain to the American people what is lost by talking with those when we disagree?

THE PRESIDENT: What's lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs? What's lost is it will send the wrong message. It will send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners. It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.

I'm not suggesting there's never a time to talk, but I'm suggesting now is not the time -- not to talk with Raul Castro. He's nothing more than an extension of what his brother did, which was to ruin an island, and imprison people because of their beliefs.

I had these wives of these dissidents come and see me, and their stories are just unbelievably sad. And it just goes to show how repressive the Castro brothers have been, when you listen to the truth about what they say. And the idea of embracing a leader who's done this without any attempt on his part to release prisoners and free their society would be counterproductive and send the wrong signal.

[Photos of President Bush reviewing troops with the presidents of China, above, and Vietnam, below. The State Department's human rights report says there are "tens of thousands" of political prisoners in China and there are "no reliable estimates of the number of political prisoners" in Vietnam.]

The Vatican's diplomacy, and ours

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, has concluded a very well timed, week-long visit where he acted as a diplomat, exchanging views with Cuban autorities, and as a pastor, addressing himself to Cuban Catholics and clergy. Sometimes he acted in both capacities at once, urging the Cuban government to take actions that would favor Cuba’s church and its laity.

He met Cuba’s president and foreign minister, and traveled all around the country. His itinerary is linked here. What follows is some news about the visit, some of which only appeared in Spanish.

Cardinal Bertone inaugurated a statue of Pope John Paul II in Santa Clara; his remarks on this and other occasions during the visit are at the Cuban bishops’s website.

Cardinal Bertone told a Vatican news agency (via Reuters) that the church has been promised “more openings in written media and radio, and in certain exceptional cases, even television.” Cautiously, he noted, “It always starts with promises.”

He did not ask “directly” for the release of political prisoners, but according to AP he told reporters that with “utmost respect for the sovereignty of the country and its citizens, I expressed to President Raul Castro the Church's worries for prisoners and their families.” (Scroll down to the next post for his views on the U.S. embargo.)

Instead of returning directly to Rome, Cardinal Bertone stopped in Madrid, where he spent a few hours at the airport, met Deputy Foreign Minister María Jesús Figa and celebrated mass. According to the Madrid newspaper ABC, Spain advised the Vatican in advance of the Cardinal’s visit to Cuba, and the airport discussions covered human rights and a general review of the Cardinal’s trip.

In Cuba, dissident leader Oswaldo Paya lamented that Cardinal Bertone gave an “impression of satisfaction” (complacencia) with the government that “is not just with the Cuban people and the Cuban church, and there is no reason not to say that in Cuba there are political prisoners, who are in prison for defending truth and human rights.”

In Miami this week, it’s not hard to find much harsher criticism of him and the Vatican.

In fact, Cardinal Bertone seems follow the approach that President Bush takes in Beijing. In 2006 President Bush said he soft-pedals his public remarks about the communist Chinese leadership because “nobody likes to be lectured in the public arena.”

The Vatican, more than any state, has a long-term perspective. In Cuba it is engaged in face-to-face diplomacy, in support of a local church that steadily presses for more space to preach the Gospel and carry out works of charity. Its diplomacy, like President Bush’s, may be quiet in public, but that is hardly reason to question either’s commitment to human rights. In any event, the Vatican’s views on the “false messianic idea” of “atheistic communism” have long been clear.

Diplomatic contact is not going to transform Cuba, but I’ll bet that in time, the Vatican’s approach will help Cuba’s church to gain more space to do good works for Cubans, believers and non-believers alike.

This week, the U.S. intelligence community again noted that Cuba is stable and that while one can imagine a less stable scenario, signs of it are not on the horizon.

Other governments apparently share this assessment and are using their diplomacy to advance their interests and values. Spain, the EU, and Canada all engage with Cuba, building contacts and communication while addressing human rights. Brazil has offered political and economic support. Mexico is normalizing relations with Havana. On the other side of the fence, Venezuela and China have their strategies too.

Cardinal Bertone’s visit and his direct flight to Madrid are only the latest indicators of where the United States finds itself in this diplomatic picture: out of it.

[Photos of cathedrals in Santa Maria del Rosario, Santiago, and Bayamo.]

"Ethically unacceptable"

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, spoke Monday at a press conference at Cuba’s foreign ministry. From a partial transcript published in Granma, here is his response to a question about the Vatican’s view of the U.S. embargo and how the Vatican can work to have it lifted. In Spanish, he used the word bloqueo.

“…the Holy See confirms exactly the words of John Paul II. The embargo is ethically unacceptable, it is an oppression for the Cuban people. It is not the means to help the Cuban people to claim their dignity, their independence; it is a violation of the independence of the people. This is the truth. The Vatican confirms this judgment and makes attempts to impel the United States to eliminate this embargo. I myself have asked that the government of the United States permit the reunification of relatives in Cuba. It is a humanitarian measure, the most reasonable one that one could think and that can be done. We will make our efforts in this direction as representatives of the Pope and the Holy See.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cuba 1954

Via Babalu, a terrific photo album posted on Picasaweb, “Fotos de Cuba Obras Publicas circa 1954.” Pictures from all over Havana including the Parque Central, Centro Habana, Miramar, Malecon, Prado, a brand-new tunnel under the Almendares (the one at Linea?), and more, with a focus on new public works and their builders. A strolling Batista, above.

Odds and ends

  • In the Financial Times, Bay of Pigs Veteran and Brothers to the Rescue chief Jose Basulto on U.S. sanctions: “The current type of tightening hurts the individual victims more than it damages the government...It has done more damage to the cause than anyone else. Revenge hurts the people of Cuba more than the government.”

  • Also thinking about legislation, but not thinking too hard at all, is the Honorable Eddy Gonzalez, a Florida State Representative from Hialeah. He wants a new state law to prohibit any U.S. citizen or resident who traveled to Cuba to receive medical education from serving a residency, receiving a license, or practicing in Florida. Read his announcement at Babalu, here. Read the comments too, where you get the feeling that some readers think (I’m guessing here) that their intelligence is being insulted. This would apply to perhaps a handful of Florida residents, if any exist at all, who received free medical training at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), and who would have to undergo additional coursework and testing before receiving a Florida medical license. Meanwhile, Cubans who grew up there, became doctors, and immigrate to Florida will still be free to become American doctors if they clear the licensing hurdles. There’s a difference, I know. And maybe with this, Eddy will bring down the regime.

William F. Buckley, R.I.P.

A sad day for American conservatism, and a reminder of its more civil days. William F. Buckley knew Latin America, having started his career in Mexico with the CIA in 1951. He traveled to Cuba when Pope John Paul II made his visit in 1998; his impressions here.

Peso speculation

Ever since the early 1990’s when the Cuban peso’s value dropped to about 150 to the dollar, Cuba’s central bank has kept its value stable, about 20-25 to the dollar. Yesterday, the Washington Post reports, the talk of ending the dual-currency system led Cubans to unload their convertible pesos and buy the old currency, anticipating that its value would soon increase. Apparently the “frenzy” subsided when the government reiterated that no sudden change is being contemplated.

Meantime, a Cuban economist speculates in this Reuters report that there might be a different solution to the purchasing power problem: Cuba could cut the mark-up on goods sold in hard currency stores. I’m told that the mark-up is now 140 percent, so that an item that costs a dollar to import wholesale is sold at retail for $2.40.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Granma publishes a statement by Cuba’s Catholic bishops in which they call on the new executive and legislature to heed the calls for change expressed by Cubans in last year’s debate.

  • On ABC’s “This Week,” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, remarks on talks, trade, and contacts with Cuba: “I have believed for a while that we should be looking at a new strategy.”

  • And what about Julio Casas Regueiro, the new vice president and defense minister, succeeding Raul Castro? According to Raul, he’s “very stingy.” He is in charge of the military’s enterprises and the process of state enterprise reform called perfeccionamiento empresarial, which began in the military enterprises and was extended to civilian enterprises. A friend suggests to me that his promotion is a sign that this process will now be more prominent in Cuban economic policy. If it interests you, here’s a study of it (pdf). And here’s a story on Regueiro from La Jornada.

  • Raices de Esperanza, a Cuban American student association, is holding an April conference at Duke University. Information here.

  • Comments deleted here in recent days were all spam.

Bicitaxi on break

Monday, February 25, 2008

What is to be done?

Here are some thoughts about yesterday’s events and Raul Castro speech (English here, Spanish here).

First, politics.

Fidel remains present. Raul praised him as the one and only commander in chief, someone for whom there is no substitute, and he said his work will be carried on by the people even when he is no longer physically present. Raul asked the National Assembly “to allow me to continue consulting” Fidel on “decisions of special transcendence for the future of our nation, basically those associated to defense, foreign policy and the socioeconomic development of the country.” He said this even though he had already cited the part of the Cuban constitution that keeps Fidel in the governing loop, noting that Fidel remains head of the party, and the party is constitutionally the “leading force of our State and society.”

As for personnel, yesterday’s news was the concentration of veterans and close Raul associates at the top. There is more to come; Raul noted that “appointments” and the “composition of the government” will be treated in a subsequent National Assembly session.

Raul continues to call for debate – within the system:

“There is no reason to fear discrepancies in a society such as ours, where its very nature precludes the existence of antagonistic contradictions, since the social classes that make it up are not antagonistic themselves.

“The international doomsayers forecasting the death of the Revolution tried to capitalize on the criticisms made during the study and discussion of the speech made on July 26th in Camagüey. They overlooked the fact that it was debate and criticism within socialism.”

He also warned:

“It is also true that some people are inclined to talk before being properly informed. These make demands without thinking whether they are talking rationally or irrationally. As a rule, they agree with those who claim rights without ever mentioning duties…We do not deny their right to expression, provided they do it with respect for the law…But if anyone intends to put pressure motivated by their wishes to be in the limelight or by ambition, demagoguery, opportunism, simulation, arrogance or any other human weakness of a similar nature, we must face them resolutely, avoiding offense but calling a spade a spade.”

As for policy, cutting the bureaucracy is one of Raul’s priorities. He wants “a more compact and operational structure,” with fewer institutions and a better distribution of tasks. He hopes to reduce “the enormous amount of meetings, coordination, permissions, conciliations, provisions, rules and regulations, etc., etc.” He emphasized “institutionalization,” a possible sign of disinterest in new, parallel structures such as Fidel’s “battle of ideas” and social workers.

Another priority is “strengthening of the economy, which is an unavoidable premise to advance in any other area of society, given the real war waged by the United States administration against our country.”

He mentioned unspecified, apparently forthcoming proposals to improve farm production and “marketing” – the latter a reference to the regulations governing transportation and sales in the farmers markets, and the state programs that bring produce to market.

Then there’s the currency question. Cuban officials have long said that ending the dual-currency system is on their agenda, without indicating when action might be taken. Raul continued that line, saying, “We are examining, for instance, everything related to the timely implementation of comrade Fidel’s ideas on ‘the progressive, gradual and prudent revaluation of the Cuban peso’” and “we keep delving into the phenomenon of the double currency in the economy.” Recognizing that the government has numerous levers affecting purchasing power, he signaled a “comprehensive approach” that includes “the wage system, the retail prices, the entitlements and the subsidies running in the millions presently required by numerous services and products distributed on an egalitarian basis, such as those provided by the ration card which under the present conditions of our economy become irrational and unsustainable.”

Raul’s statement last December about “excessive prohibitions” left a big question mark. In his speech, he said that “in the next few weeks we shall start removing the most simple of them. Many had had the purpose of preventing the emergence of new inequalities at a time of general shortages, even when that meant relinquishing certain incomes.”

That could be a signal of an opening in Cuba’s self-employment scheme. But the next passage could point in the opposite direction, because Cuban officials have long noted that some hope that an expansion of Cuba’s trabajadores por cuenta propia could be an avenue to political independence and change:

“The suppression of other procedures, even if they might sound simple to some, will take more time for they require a more comprehensive study and changes of certain legal regulations, in addition to the fact that some of these are influenced by measures taken against our country by successive U.S administrations.”

All in all, I’m left guessing. The speech was dominated by its political context – the lack, for now at least, of any nod toward the next generation in the top leadership.

But the speech indicated actions to come, some in the near term.

Father Time makes one thing certain: Cuba is entering a period where the historicos will attempt to get policy right and hand over the reins to the next generation. This involves tackling the strategic economic challenges that have been identified, ever since Fidel’s last major speech in November 2005, as long-term challenges to socialism’s political longevity.

In short order, we’ll know what course they choose.

"Statement on Cuba's Transition"

From Secretary of State Rice, a comment on inalienable rights and a call to the international community at "this significant moment in Cuba's history." Read it here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The next generation will have to wait (Updated)

They stuck with the historicos.

There’s no surprise in Raul Castro’s election to the presidency, but the choice of Jose Ramon Machado Ventura as first vice president, and first in line of succession, was not predicted anywhere.

Machado, 77, is a veteran of the Sierra Maestra.

By his reputation, one would expect him to oppose an economic opening. On the other hand, if reforms are in store and he is in favor, then his election is a sign of consensus, across generations and ideological tendencies. As they say in the mutual fund business, past earnings are not a guarantee of future performance.

What matters for the welfare of the Cuban people, and for Cuba’s political dynamics in the year to come, are actions and results. Cuba’s government has spent the past 18 months diagnosing economic problems, evaluating policy ideas, and raising expectations that economic policy will change. This year, the government will either deliver, or disappoint.

Granma article here. Machado’s PCC bio here.

[Update: Among the points in Raul’s speech: he wants to streamline the bureaucracy, he refers to a study about “a progressive, gradual, and prudent revaluation of the Cuban peso, and “in the coming weeks” we will see elimination of some of the prohibitions that he called “excessive” last December.

If he ends the dual currency system, he will eliminate the most widespread grievance; most Cubans’ salaries don’t allow them to afford the basic necessities that they must buy in hard currency. As for the “prohibitions,” that may be the most interesting signal because he is promising action in the near term. Currency reform has been on the agenda for years.]

Decision time

Cuban media report that the closing of today’s National Assembly session will be broadcast live at 2:30 p.m.

“Our decision,” an article in today’s Juventud Rebelde, talks of the need “for many Fidels, eternal fighters to improve everything, so that the nation renews itself day by day, riding on to break every obstacle, every ambush…” To illustrate, there’s this graphic (h/t Cuban Colada):

WSJ: end the embargo

It shouldn’t go without noting that The Wall Street Journal reiterated its opposition to the U.S. embargo last week at the end of an editorial looking back on Fidel Castro’s rule. Read the editorial, “49 years of Fidel,” here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Redefining "transition"

Earlier in the Bush Administration, when the long commission reports were being published explaining how U.S. policies would bring down Cuban socialism, officials made a clear distinction between “succession” and “transition” in Cuba. The former would be a change in leadership within the system, the latter a transformation of it.

But U.S. officials have changed the way those words are used. I discussed the issue, here. More recently, at Babalu, they complained about others’ confusion about those terms, going so far as drag out dictionary definitions for all to see.

Look at State Department spokesman Sean McCormack’s comments last week.

“It’s very clear that there’s a transition underway from Fidel Castro to some other form of government. Unfortunately, at the moment, that form of government is not an elected democracy.”

It used to be that “transition” was good, and “succession” was bad. Easy to understand, and right in line with the normal meaning of the terms.

Now, the U.S. government is talking about “transition” only, but distinguishing between good transition and bad transition.

I don’t think it does the U.S. government any good to make the assertion that Cuba is moving to “some other form of government.” Has anyone else asserted that, and does anyone believe it?

Didn’t think so.

Anyway, why would the Administration fool with its terminology? I have two guesses.

First, the Administration is clearly engaging in what Senator Obama would call “the audacity of hope.” Back to Mr. McCormack at the State Department:

“Very often, when you have dictatorships that are undergoing change, there are possibilities for change…much of this will be up to the Cuban people working with the international community to help build democratic institutions…”

In other words, the idea is to keep the focus on the concept of change – You fired up? – rather than acknowledge that all we have seen is leadership change within the same system.

More important, the new terminology helps to bury the rhetorical track record established earlier in the Bush Administration.

The 2004 commission report was supposed to “accelerate the demise of Castro’s tyranny,” Secretary Rice said. The report included measures to “undermine the regime’s succession strategy.” And on the day it was released, it was said from Mr. McCormack’s own podium that “there will not be a succession” in Cuba, and “the United States, for one, will not accept a succession scenario.”

We’ll see what happens tomorrow, and who accepts what.

Odds and ends

  • The Wall Street Journal reports on golf course development. Cuban officials have talked about this for years, to make for a more diverse tourism destination and to attract higher-spending travelers. Maybe there’s some action afoot.

  • Cold water on ethanol: Reuters’ sources say that in the near term, Cuba is interested in ethanol production not from sugar, but from bagasse, the waste product from sugar milling.

  • London’s Independent gives an account of the mass offered in the square in front of Havana’s cathedral by the Vatican Secretary of State – invitation only, some top officials in attendance, Damas de Blanco standing in the back. The reporter also talked to Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Miriam Leiva in their apartment in Marianao.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sen. McCain responds (Updated)

Senator McCain issued this statement today in response to Senator Obama's comments on talks with Cuba:

“Not so along go Senator Obama favored complete normalization of relations with Fidel Castro's Cuba. Last night, he said that as president he'd meet with the imprisoned island's new leader 'without preconditions.' So Raul Castro gets an audience with an American president, and all the prestige such a meeting confers, without having to release political prisoners, allow free media, political parties, and labor unions, or schedule internationally monitored free elections.

“Instead, Senator Obama says he would meet Cuba's dictator without any such steps in the hope that talk will make things better for Cuba's oppressed people. Meet, talk, and hope may be a sound approach in a state legislature, but it is dangerously naive in international diplomacy where the oppressed look to America for hope and adversaries wish us ill.”

[Update: Obama responds.]

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Odds and ends

Lots of Cuba coverage, some prompted by the Fidel resignation. Samples:

  • Reuters looks at the future of property disputes, interviewing attorney Nick Gutierrez, whose comments on residential property are a lot smarter than the Bush Administration’s. “No one can be evicted from homes even if they're not theirs. The right of possession has to be respected,” he said.

  • The Economist has a detailed, unsentimental look at the politics of succession, economic conditions, Venezuelan aid, and prospects for reform. A prediction: “Foreign investment and small business will be encouraged again.” (H/t: Penultimos Dias)

  • Writing in Salon, Kirk Nielsen surveys the three Miami Congressional races. Whether these races will be competitive depends, among other things, on support from the national Democratic Party, a factor absent in past election cycles. “The DCCC has already funded Spanish-language radio attack ads targeting all three incumbents for voting against the expansion of the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP),” Nielsen writes.

  • Another step in Cuba’s diplomacy in Latin America, this time on the commercial side: a rescheduling of $400 in debt owed to Mexico, proceeds to be used to finance Mexican exports to Cuba. Terms were not disclosed. Bloomberg coverage here.

Texas debate: Clinton, Obama on Cuba policy

Senators Clinton and Obama addressed Cuba policy at the beginning of tonight’s CNN debate in Texas. Video clips of their statements are here (middle of the page, part of a group of clips).

They responded to a question from Univision’s Jorge Ramos: “Would you be willing to sit down with Raul Castro or whoever leads the Cuban dictatorship, at least once, to get a measure of the man?”

Senator Clinton sticks to the approach voiced so many times by President Clinton when he was in office: U.S. action depends on change in Cuba. Barring evidence of a clear change in direction in Cuba, she would have no talks, no moves in U.S. policy except for an emphasis on working with allies.

Obama would meet without preconditions but only after preparation of an agenda that includes human rights, political prisoners, free press, economic opening – “It is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends, but also to its enemies.” He would also lift restrictions on Cuban American visits and remittances. He described that as “a show of good faith.”

Herald's blog returns

Cuban Colada, the Miami Herald’s blog, is back with six reporter-contributors: Pablo Bachelet, Alfonso Chardy, John Dorschner, Jordan Levin, Renato Pérez Pizarro, and Frances Robles. Find it here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cardinal Bertone's visit

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, arrives in Havana today for a seven-day visit that includes travel to Santa Clara, Santiago, El Cobre, and Guantanamo. Plus a work session at the foreign ministry and a talk at the University of Havana’s Aula Magna.

His schedule, as released by the Catholic bishops’ conference in Cuba, is here.

Comments by Cardinal Ortega covered by AP (Spanish) here and Catholic News Agency (English) here. Granma International (English) gives Foreign Minister Perez Roque’s views on the visit.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Without Fidel

Fidel Castro announced that he “will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief” when the National Assembly meets on Sunday.

Full text of his letter to the Cuban people here.

He did not name a successor. In his letter he opens the door to the possibility that his successor could be someone other than Raul Castro, or someone not from the revolution’s first generation. “Fortunately, our Revolution can still count on cadres from the old guard…They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement.” He also made reference to “the intermediate generation which learned together with us the basics of the complex and almost unattainable art of organizing and leading a revolution.”

The meaning for Cuban policy is not clear.

Fidel plans “to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas,” he says, and he will continue to write his newspaper commentaries. But the force of his orthodox ideas will probably wane in a government that is seeking solutions to deep-seated economic problems created by excessive centralization and planning, not to mention lack of economic freedom.

As for American policy, change is unlikely, given U.S. law and the Bush Administration’s approach. Any shift in policy or exploration for opportunities will likely come in a new Administration next year.

In the meantime, Fidel Castro is leaving on his own terms, at a time of his choosing. Neither invasion, nor covert operations, nor embargo, nor a steady strengthening of U.S. sanctions since 1992, nor the current Administration’s myriad efforts have forced him from office.

He has governed Cuba for about half its independent life.

Cuba’s stability during Castro’s entire 19-month absence, and his exit by an orderly constitutional succession, do answer one question for Americans. Our “Cuba problem” will not go away on Sunday because, like it or not, it derives not from one man, but rather from a political system. Cuba has problems – many identified by its own government – and Cuban socialism will now sink, swim, or adapt on its own, without Fidel.

Monday, February 18, 2008

“A little threshold to the future of Cuba”

A new Cuban on-line magazine has just published its first edition. Convivencia is published in Pinar del Rio, edited by Dagoberto Valdes, former editor of the diocesan magazine Vitral. Its subject matter is diverse – economics, culture, human rights, civil society, and more – and so are its contributors. Check it out.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fidel's promo

Maybe Fidel Castro, as columnist, got the sense that his five-part series on Senator McCain was not catching fire with the public.

He ended his latest “reflection” asking readers’ forgiveness for “the time and space I occupied for five days” writing about McCain, and just before that, he wrote a one-sentence “tease:”

“In the next reflection I will treat an issue of interest to many compatriots, but I will not say what it is.”

We’re all waiting. On February 24, Cuba’s National Assembly will choose the next President of the Council of State.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Political prisoner release [Updated] [x2]

Following the second round of talks on human rights between Spain and Cuba, but in a decision Madrid termed “unilateral” on Cuba’s part, four Cuban dissidents were released from jail and were to travel to Spain last night, and three more are to be freed soon.

At Uncommon Sense, there’s a summary with bio information. Reuters coverage here, with comments by dissidents Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Manuel Cuesta Morua, both looking at the bright side. Martha Beatriz Roque, meanwhile, tells the Miami Herald that Spain’s government, facing elections next month, is playing the Cuba issue for electoral purposes, and its position makes her “nauseous.”

[Update: Press reports saying that early Sunday morning, four were on their way to Spain; they were to travel in a plane sent by the Spanish government; and that the Spanish government was going to ensure that there was no publicity upon their arrival so it could occur “with the greatest possible discretion.”]

[Update: According to several accounts, the choice that was offered was to get out of jail and leave Cuba, or to remain in jail. “Heart-rending,” according to Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, who traveled to Spain with his sister and several nephews; it was “very difficult to say ‘yes,’” he said. The Damas de Blanco reacted by recognizing and appreciating Spain’s efforts, and hoping that this marks the “beginning of the unconditional freedom” for the rest of Cuba’s political prisoners.]

Friday, February 15, 2008

"We are going to talk about political prisoners in Cuba"

The Center for Democracy in the Americas transcribed remarks Senator Obama made about Latin America while campaigning here in Virginia last week. There’s video at CDA’s site, here. Here’s the transcript:

I don't actually agree with Chavez's policies and how he's dealing with his people. I think he has consolidated power. I think he has strong despotic tendencies. I think that he has been using oil revenue to stir up trouble against the United States. So, he is not a leader that I admire.

But we can't, our Latin America policy can not just be "I oppose Castro" and "I oppose Chavez" and that's the end of it. Because we've been neglecting, (applause) we've been neglecting Latin America even in our own back yard. We've been so obssessed with Iraq and so obsessed with the Middle East.

In the meantime, China has been sending diplomats and economic development specialists and building roads all throughout, all throughout, Latin America. They are securing trade agreements and contracts. And we ignore Latin America at our own peril.

So, I intend to visit the countries of Latin America. I intend to put together an alliance for progress in the 21st century. We are going to strengthen trade ties. We are going to talk about human rights. (applause) We are going to talk about human rights and we are going to talk about freedom of the press and we are going to talk about political prisoners in Cuba.

But we're also going to recognize that over time what we want to develop is the kind of relationship of mutual dignity, mutual respect. We don't have, the notion that Latin American countries are a junior partner to the United States, that is outmoded. We need to be full partners with those countries, show them the respect that they deserve.

Odds and ends

  • From Germany’s Der Spiegel (in English), an interesting account of a German delegation “exploring the dictatorship's willingness to make concessions to the EU.”

  • A Cuban writer traveling in Portugal, Leonardo Padura, says that April’s meeting of the artists’ and writers’ union (UNEAC) will be important because it will propose policy changes to the government. He referred to the 1.3 million citizen opinions reportedly collected in the debate promoted by Raul Castro last year. “It has to be seen to what point the State is interested in those structural changes being really deep and essential and not simply a bit of makeup.” More at Cuaderno de Cuba.

  • It’s unanimous: in a statement, the students, faculty, and workforce of the Universidad de Ciencias Informaticas express their “profound indignation” about the way their meeting with Alarcon has been portrayed as “a scene of public discontent of the Cuban people with the Revolution and its leaders.” H/T: Penultimos Dias.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

El grito de Boise


Fifty-ninth Legislature, Second Regular Session - 2008





We, your Memorialists, the House of Representatives and the Senate of the State of Idaho assembled in the Second Regular Session of the Fifty-ninth Idaho Legislature, do hereby respectfully represent that:

WHEREAS, for some fifty years, the United States has severely restricted trade with the island nation of Cuba;

WHEREAS, although Cuba remains under the control of that totalitarian regime, its people and Americans desire to develop better relations;

WHEREAS, if there is any chance for Cuba to evolve from a totalitarian regime to a democratic government, the United States must engage that country;

WHEREAS, other nations, including Canada and China, have availed themselves of trading opportunities in Cuba, especially in the area of agricultural products;

WHEREAS, both Cubans and Americans are desirous of developing trading opportunities that might be afforded between both countries;

WHEREAS, Idaho producers of pulse crops, seed potatoes, vegetable seeds, livestock, dairy products and processed foods are ideally positioned to benefit from the market opportunities that free trade with Cuba would provide;

WHEREAS, greater interaction between the Cuban people and Americans through freer trading relationships and lessened travel restrictions can only enhance our mutual understanding and promote better economic relationships.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the members of the Second Regular Session of the Fifty-ninth Idaho Legislature, the House of Representatives and the Senate concurring therein, that Idaho supports the removal of all trade, financial and travel restrictions relating to Cuba, the lifting of trade sanctions and the establishment of permanent and normal trade relations with Cuba.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives be, and she is hereby authorized and directed to forward a copy of this Memorial to the President of the United States, the Secretary of the Department of State, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Congress, and the congressional delegation representing the State of Idaho in the Congress of the United States.

Alien smuggling, seen from both sides

There have been lots of articles about alien smuggling from Cuba, but this one by David Adams of the St. Petersburg Times is the first I have ever seen that covers an incident from both sides – in this case from Key Biscayne, Florida and Caibarien, Cuba.

It paints a horrible picture, with smugglers putting 30 people aboard boats designed for ten, and dropping the Cubans on New Year’s Eve on a sandbar so they could make their way to Florida’s shore, women and children included, through currents that claimed one life.

This incident was mentioned in an article published last month by Coast Guard’s district commander in Sun Sentinel. The article is a plea to Cuban Americans to cease paying smugglers and to have their relatives in Cuba use legal means to immigrate to the United States.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The whole thing

Alarcon and the students at UCI, 57 minutes, broken into 11 segments, here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Eliecer Avila appears

I’m glad I used a question mark yesterday. The report of the arrest of Eliecer Avila, one of the students who questioned Ricardo Alarcon in the now-famous video of the university meeting, may not be true after all.

But what actually happened may not be so clear either.

“First reports are always wrong,” they say in the military, and from the beginning there were reasons for skepticism in this case. One was that the son of Carlos Lage reportedly traveled to the student’s batey in Las Tunas – is that an eight-hour drive from Havana? – to make the arrest.

The author of the original report, human rights activist Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva (whom I described as an independent journalist yesterday), stuck to his story yesterday, according to those who contacted him. But he had related it second-hand, and those who tried to substantiate the “arrest” story yesterday got nowhere.

To add to the doubts, the story got no coverage on Cubanet yesterday (today Cubanet has a Spanish newspaper story referring to a “possible arrest”); the Radio Marti website ignored it, and so did El Nuevo Herald. Today’s Miami Herald recounts the story told by human rights activists in Cuba but says there’s “no independent confirmation.” From Madrid, Encuentro referred to the Gonzalez Leiva report but wrote that he had been “driven” from Las Tunas to Havana, avoiding the word “arrested.”

So what actually happened?

It seems that Avila did go home, and he did return to Havana. He appears in a video produced by the “CubaDebate” website, whose modest motto is “Against Media Terrorism.” (A very ample discussion is at Penultimos Dias; Encuentro also has a good summary of Avila’s statements in the video.)

There was no arrest, he says in the video, he simply went home for health reasons. When he learned that his questions to Alarcon were being twisted as part of an international “campaign,” he contacted “el companero Cesar” (Cesar Lage, son of Cuba’s vice president and a student leader) to arrange a ride back to Havana so he could set the record straight. The fact that students are taking a critical look at Cuba’s policies and questioning Alarcon, Avila says, is due to a desire “to build socialism better, not to destroy it.”

Avila didn’t disavow the strong opinions in his questions to Alarcon. But now the critic is seen in the Revolution’s embrace, rejecting the idea that he had ever stepped out of it.

So what actually happened?

If you’re still asking, I don’t blame you.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Student arrested?

There is a report from an independent journalist in Cuba that Eliecer Avila, a student from las Tunas who questioned Ricardo Alarcon at the recent university meeting, has been detained.

There are two unusual elements in the story: that the son of Carlos Lage, until recently the head of Cuba’s university student federation, is said to have participated in the arrest, and that Lage reportedly told the family not to worry because Avila would soon be appearing on the Mesa Redonda television program.

Original report here; Herald report here; translation and comment at Uncommon Sense; more discussion, including accounts of phone conversations with the Havana journalist who wrote the report, at Penultimos Dias.

Havana, Plaza Vieja

Watch what you say

Two Cubans from opposing ideological poles are seriously bent out of shape by foreign coverage of recent events in Cuba.

Former dissident Raul Rivero, now living in Spain, is worried that an “induced, false and dangerous happiness” permeates the views of reporters and others who watch and write about possible changes on the horizon in Cuba.

In his essay in El Nuevo Herald, he says there is a “dose of anesthetia” clouding everyone’s vision. For all his tough words, he doesn’t bring himself to say precisely who he’s talking about. But he is bothered by the coverage of “small gestures that do not respond to a will to liberate the structures of power” and that are “symbols of force and domination” rather than “signs of change.”

By “gestures” he means the public mention of formerly banned writers, the screening of a film that includes an interview with El Duque Hernandez, the screening of the movie Fresa y Chocolate years after the outside world saw it and acclaimed it, and coverage of rumblings inside the artists’ and writers’ union in favor of ending travel and Internet access restrictions, and legalizing the sale of houses.

Rivero ends with a call for human rights and the liberation of political prisoners.

Then from deep left field comes Juventud Rebelde writer Pablo Valiente getting on his high horse and voicing a susprisingly similar complaint. He says that foreign coverage of Cuba’s recent debates is full of simplification and distortion by those who are “searching for ‘the Revolution’s final hour.’”

A collection of “analysts, journalists, and soothsayers” are ignoring the fact that, according to Valiente, debate is nothing new in Cuba. “If there is something that has not been lacking in this revolution,” he writes, “it is the calls, not always from the base but also from the revolutionary leadership, to live permanently dissatisfied with our work, to transform it and overcome it, to criticize it and above all to seek solutions…”

Valiente claims that those who are covering the debate are expecting it to be like the opening of a Pandora’s box, unleashing something that will spin out of control. “What do they want? Political stripteases like those of the European ex-socialists?”


No one has been named in either of these critiques, so there is no one to defend, no examples of these writings to evaluate. But we can say a few things.

Maybe there is someone out there writing, as these writers suggest, that the current debate and the possibility of economic reforms are "slam-dunk" indicators that Cuba’s political system will transform itself.

If so, the prediction lacks foundation, to say the least.

As far as Valiente is concerned, I understand that there is lots of debate in Cuba, and that Cubans have a very special propensity for argument. Fair enough.

But something different and newsworthy is going on, at times in the pages of Valiente’s own paper. Until recently, I don’t recall people within the system calling for serious changes in economic policies, or Cuban media explaining that state enterprises are dysfunctional, or that domestic health care delivery suffers from the absence of medical professionals serving on foreign missions, or that official unemployment statistics are inaccurate. And the fact that Raul Castro has called on Cubans to debate would seem to indicate that the permanent debate and self-criticism lauded by Valiente had not been doing the trick.

The problem with Rivero’s complaint is similar. The Cuban government, like any government, has a large ability to make news. If the scope of discussion in speeches, media, and official institutions changes, that is going to draw attention and coverage regardless of whether we know where it will lead. There are hints of “big decisions” (Raul Castro’s words) that could affect Cuban life in substantial ways, especially in the economic sphere.

The main drama in Cuba this year, it seems to me, involves the expectations the Cuban government has raised in that regard, and whether they will be met by action. It is natural that observers are going to focus on every marginal change in debate and policy, and it is not engaging in “dangerous happiness” to do so.

Nothing could be more clear than that the Cuban leadership is working to ensure that the Good Ship Socialism will be in shape to sail on for a long time, with a new generation of leaders at the helm. Its project is continuity, not transformation. Rivero seems to think that observers don’t point this out because we’re naïve. Speaking for myself, I don’t repeat it because I think it’s obvious, and I think everyone knows it.

Friday, February 8, 2008

USAID ramps up

Got an idea for a Cuba project with a budget between $100,000 and $5 million?

The U.S. Agency for International Development has $20 million to spend and is soliciting proposals, expecting to award about 20 grants to spend that money. The range of program activities is described here, and grants can be made to nonprofits or for-profit companies. The common thread is that they are to build civil society “and thereby hasten a peaceful transition to democracy.”

This request for proposals is the result of Congress appropriating $45 million for Cuba democracy programs in fiscal 2008.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Latin diplomacy

Mexico’s ambassador in Havana tells AP that he’s optimistic that relations with Cuba will normalize this year, ending the hangover that lingered from the body-blows exchanged by Fidel and Fox a few years ago. An exchange of foreign minister visits is expected, the ambassador says, and nobody will interfere in anybody else’s internal affairs.

And an unfinished part of Guatemala’s agenda in the recent vice presidential visit to Cuba was to get Cuba to agree to establish a “school of rural medicine” in Totonicapán. The Guatemalan press reports that Cuba is reviewing a Guatemalan proposal, and Vice President Espada hopes for an agreement within months.

Full diplomatic relations with North Korea

The United States has again dangled the prospect of full diplomatic relations with North Korea’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, shown here reviewing troops.

“In the context of full denuclearization, we would be prepared to establish full diplomatic relations,” Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill told a Senate Committee. VOA report here.

I know this is a different part of the world, and I know what they say about “a foolish consistency,” etc.

Still, it’s an interesting story. There’s no mention of freedom, democracy, or human rights. Implicitly, the Administration is saying that diplomatic relations would be a means of working on those issues in the future.

Also, Hill told the Senate that the Administration is taking steps toward removing North Korea from the list of terrorism sponsors.

Cuba, incidentally, has no nuclear program that it could “denuclearize.”

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chairman Joe declares

This election year just got even more interesting with the announcement by Miami-Dade Democratic Chairman Joe Garcia that he will challenge Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart for Florida’s District 25 seat in the House of Representatives.

Rui Ferreira broke the story in EL Nuevo Herald.

Garcia, a sharp and always bilingually quotable operative, is making his first run for elective office; his career includes time as head of the Cuban American National Foundation and director of its program to resettle Cubans in the United States. Diaz-Balart, no slouch, has a background in private business and in the state legislature.

Voters are sure to benefit from a good competition between two strong candidates. Cuba policy will be only one of the issues dividing them; Diaz-Balart is a champion of President Bush’s policy, including his 2004 family sanctions that affect many District 25 constituents. Garcia supports the embargo, but says that “the Cuban family is not an impediment to Cuban liberty, but rather an instrument of it.”

Alarcon's town meeting [Updated]

Raul Castro said he wanted a debate. He told Cubans and young Cubans in particular that he wanted them to speak out, and they are obliging. National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon is the latest to find out.

Someone passed the BBC’s correspondent in Havana, Fernando Ravsberg, a video of a lively meeting between Alarcon and students of the Universidad de Ciencias Informaticas. Ravsberg’s story, in Spanish only on the BBC website, is here. Note that in the middle of the story there’s a link to a four-minute audio report where you can hear several students’ statements and questions.

It’s well worth a listen.

One student complains that candidates for the National Assembly don’t visit the University: “Who are they? Where did they come from?” Another complains that basic necessities are priced in hard currency and salaries are paid in Cuban pesos, worth “25 times less” than the convertible peso. There’s a call for more communication and interchange between government ministers and the people, so that the public can know how government is addressing problems and the people can be part of the solution.

Not included in the recording is a complaint that Cubans cannot travel freely abroad, but Alarcon’s answer is included, where he says that only a minority of people of any country travel internationally, and that Cubans travel based on merit rather than financial means, as was the case in the past. The story on the website reports that there were also questions about Internet access; Alarcon responded that he is not up to speed on that question.

What does this mean? I’m interested to know what readers think, especially those who know about the kind of debates Cuba has conducted in the past. Mr. Ravsberg deserves congratulations for his reporting, and maybe BBC London will find a way to put the video on its site so we can see it. [Update: video here, a four-minute clip.]

Not having been there, I’m hesitant to draw big conclusions. Events such as this could be a sign of a government that’s out of touch. Or they could mark a government that is confident that it can brook criticism, that benefits from an airing of criticism within the system, and has some responses up its sleeve. Time will tell.