Friday, June 27, 2008

Reactions to the EU decision (Updated)

Miriam Leiva of the Damas de Blanco, in El Nuevo Herald: “One hopes that the EU possesses information about the real intentions of Raul Castro and the possibilities that the average citizen doesn’t know about.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos says the Cuba-EU dialogue will continue for more than one year, and to end it after one year would be “to flagellate ourselves and have no capacity for influence.”

A French analyst, via AFP, says the decision “was a failure for American diplomacy, which did everything possible through pressure on eastern European countries, like the Czechs or the Poles, to get a different result.”

And Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, in a statement distributed by the Republican Policy Committee, say there is “no more intense, dedicated, or incessant advocate in the international community on behalf of the Cuban dictatorship, and thus of the horrors, the brutality, and the discrimination being suffered by the Cuban people at the hands of the dictatorship, than the Spanish government of Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero.”

[Update: Vladimiro Roca and Martha Beatriz Roque issue a statement saying the European democracies, “led by the hand by Spain,” reached a “reproachable” decision. In one year’s time, “the consequences that the internal opposition and the Cuban people will have paid will be irreversible,” they say, implying that Cuban repression varies according to the posture of foreign governments. (H/T Penultimos Dias)]

Odds and ends

  • A gay pride march in Havana didn’t get off the ground, as activists were detained in advance. McClatchy’s report says the event was “organized with Florida’s Unity Coalition” and did not have the approval of Mariela Castro’s organization.

  • The blog of Rui Ferreira and Helena Poleo, both of the Nuevo Herald, is now Elblogaldia.com. And while you’ll have to go elsewhere to read about the intrigue regarding Los Miquis de Miami, it seems that anonymous, acerbic, informative blog has bitten the dust. Too bad.

  • It’s not exactly the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but this video is part of how campaigning is done these days, in this case in the Miami-Dade Congressional races, from the Democratic perspective.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The EU decision was unconditional

In all the discussion of the EU decision to lift its 2003 Cuba sanctions, and in all the spin from various delegations and others, one could get the impression that the decision to lift sanctions had strings attached in the form of human rights conditions.

The text is now available (at Encuentro, here), and it’s pretty clear that the decision was unconditional.

The EU document stresses Europe’s desire to see human rights improvements and its commitment to pursue a dialogue with Cubans in and out of government to “promote respect for human rights and real progress towards a pluralist democracy.”

The only thing that might be called a “condition” is in the final paragraph, and it has to do with the new “political dialogue process,” not the sanctions decision. “Relations with Cuba” will be evaluated in one year’s time, and “the dialogue will continue if the Council decides that it has been effective.”

So the sanctions are gone. If the EU sees no human rights progress, the formal “dialogue” may end, but a new debate and decision would be needed to reimpose sanctions. That seems unlikely, considering that the countries that were uneasy about lifting the sanctions declined to use their veto, and in an effort to reimpose sanctions, those who oppose new sanctions would be able to block EU unanimity.

Will the EU decision have any impact beyond the diplomatic sphere?

Note this part of the statement: “The EU reiterates the right of the Cuban citizens to decide independently about their future and remains ready to contribute positively to the future development of all sectors of Cuban society including through development cooperation instruments.”

And this from EU Commissioner Louis Michel, June 20: “This decision clears the way for a more open and frank dialogue between Brussels and Havana on a range of issues including human rights, the environment, science and technology. We can now look forward to improving and deepening cooperation on issues of common interest such as climate change or external development assistance.”

Hotel Plaza, Bacardi building

Odds and Ends

  • If the United States and Cuba were to start a dialogue, what would Cuba propose to discuss? Columnist DeWayne Wickham visits Minrex and gets some answers. (H/t: Rui Ferreira)

  • U.S. Congressman (and blogger) Thaddeus McCotter sums up his “disappointment” with the EU decision to lift its 2003 sanctions: “Oh, Sister Europa, another betrayal of Lady Liberty’s Cuban children in your mounting annals of shame!” Oh, Thaddeus! What are “mounting annals?”

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Gold stars for Cuban kids (Updated)

In 2001, when UNESCO tested elementary school kids across Latin America and the Caribbean for math and language attainment, the test results from Cuba didn’t seem to make sense.

As Christopher Marquis wrote then in the New York Times, the “performance of Cuban third and fourth graders in math and language so dramatically outstripped that of other nations that the United Nations agency administering the test returned to Cuba and tested students again.” They tested again, and the results didn’t change.

A just-released UNESCO education study of third and sixth graders’ math, language, and science achievement has just been released, and it’s no mystery why Granma is crowing over the results.

Cuba creamed the rest of Latin America.

Cuban education has its problems – teachers leaving for better-paying jobs, the use of young, inexperienced maestros emergentes, ideological content – but these test results tell a striking story.

In every area tested – third grade math and reading, and sixth grade math, reading, and science – Cuban students had by far the highest average achievement level. Cuba is the only country whose average score in any area was more than one standard deviation above the regional average, and Cuban students achieved that distinction in four of five categories – sixth grade reading being the only exception.

You can see the study, with charts depicting all this, here (in Spanish, pdf, 50 pages). A Reuters Spanish story is here.

[Update: Did Cuba pull the wool over the testers' eyes and rig the tests? At Encuentro, a writer thinks so, and so do some of the commenters.]

Helping hands

One Canadian couple, three sons, seven grandchildren, help from friends and neighbors, lots of drive, and a huge sense of charity – and the result is possibly the largest foreign NGO operating in Cuba, with $4 million in donations per year. The Ottawa Sun writes about John and Marion Dubois of Woodstock, Ontario, and their charity, the Dubois Charitable Foundation.

The Dubois Charitable Foundation receives no government money.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The State Department says the EU will be announcing “benchmarks” by which it will assess its dialogue with Cuba. AFP story here, Cuban Colada story here, with link to the State Department spokesman’s comments. And Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon says the United States is focused on political change in Cuba, while Europe concentrates more on economic reform.

  • On Cuban emigration: the St. Petersburg Times documents “a steady stream of young stars” from many fields leaving the island, and the Arizona Republic looks at a new Cuban community in Phoenix.

Guardavecinos

Sunday, June 22, 2008

More on Cuba oil

El Nuevo Herald has a detailed report on the Cuba oil issue, including hints that Brazil’s Petrobras may be about to join companies already involved in offshore exploration. It also has some terrific graphics:

  • A map that shows how that zone (and some onshore areas) has been divided into blocks where foreign companies can buy exploration rights, and the companies that have acquired rights to date.

  • A map that shows where the action is, and has been for the past decade: along the coast between Havana and Varadero, with expanding onshore oil and gas production, including onshore wells that use directional drilling to reach oil that lies several kilometers offshore.

The article also quotes members of the Florida Congressional delegation that would like to block Cuban exploration in Cuba’s Gulf waters.

“I believe the message should be clear that we will not permit the Cuban regime to put the Florida coasts in danger,” said Senator Mel Martinez in comments that, to readers in Cuba, must sound as if he thinks he is in charge of their country.

The Senator goes on to say he’s opposed to renegotiating the U.S.-Cuba agreement that defines the maritime border. It’s hard to tell what he’s talking about – the agreement was negotiated during the Carter Administration and in the absence of Senate ratification, it has been reaffirmed by every President since Jimmy Carter. Including President Bush. No U.S. Administration has talked about “re-negotiation.” (More on the agreement here.)

The Senator and others who want to restrict offshore drilling have more immediate problems, though. With gas at $4 per gallon, even Florida’s governor is moving toward supporting offshore drilling. And Republican politicians, starting with Vice President Cheney, are mentioning Cuba’s offshore drilling as something that makes sense.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Cuba’s Olympic baseball team, preparing for Beijing, hosts a weekend series with the Santa Barbara Foresters of the California Collegiate league.

  • Bring back “the Miami relatives” – Delfin Gonzalez, great-uncle of Elian, holds a press conference today to “denounce,” as the Herald puts it, two Obama advisors who were involved in the saga, one as attorney for Elian’s father, the other as Deputy Attorney General.

  • Interested in taking stock of 50 years of Cuban socialism? Queen’s University in Ontario is announcing a conference on that theme next spring, and issued a call for academic papers.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

EU sanctions lifted (Updated)

Over dinner, the EU’s foreign ministers debated their Cuba sanctions, imposed in 2003 and suspended since 2005, and decided to lift them altogether. Reuters account (English) here; AFP’s here; Spain’s El Pais has more detail here.

According to El Pais, the EU document says the EU will enter a dialogue with Cuba that is “reciprocal, unconditional, nondiscriminatory, and geared toward obtaining results.” It will include “all potential areas of cooperation, including political sectors, human rights, economic, scientific, and cultural.” The dialogue’s effectiveness will be reviewed after one year.

The EU’s commitment to maintain contact with the Cuban opposition was reaffirmed, as was the EU’s commitment to “underscore to the Cuban government its point of view with regard to democracy, universal human rights, and fundamental liberties.” The EU will call on the Cuban government “to improve in an effective way the human rights situation through, among other things, the unconditional liberation of all political prisoners, including those who were detained and jailed in 2003.”

Update: Dissidents in Cuba largely opposed the EU decision, with Martha Beatriz Roque having the strongest reaction: “We are going to expect horrible things to happen to the opposition…their aggression will double,” she told AFP. From the Guardian, Oswaldo Paya’s reaction:

However, a leading Cuban dissident, Oswaldo Paya, said he hoped the move did not signify the EU's approval of the new administration.

”This regime has not announced any change that is significant for rights or liberty, and we know we have to conquer that ourselves,” Paya said.

The EU move is a setback for the Bush Administration, which had lobbied against it and for years has worked directly and indirectly to influence EU policy.

Comments from the Czech foreign minister are covered here.

Yesterday’s move probably means that these sanctions are gone for good. Their repeal required a unanimous decision, and it’s very telling that given the range of EU member governments’ opinions on Cuba, none exercised a veto – not even the Czechs, who have been closely aligned with the Bush Administration. As I read the reports of the decision, there is nothing in the annual review that implies that a negative result would reverse yesterday’s decision.

Reading between the lines, my guess is that the EU: 1) has not changed its objectives but wanted a change in tactics; 2) saw no sense in an annual debate over sanctions that were suspended years ago; 3) judged that the changes in Raul Castro’s first 100 days are small, positive, and to be encouraged; 4) wants to maintain support and continued contact with Cuba’s dissidents (which is probably greater than ours since their diplomats travel outside the capital and ours don’t) and will do so; 5) judged that change in Cuba, now and on the immediate horizon, is being driven not from the opposition but from within the system, and to encourage that change it’s necessary to have greater contact.

Beyond the diplomatic sphere, there may be another practical impact. A reader in Europe writes that when universities or other organizations seek EU funding for projects in Cuba, “Havana refuses to have anything to do with any projects that are funded by the EU or governments in the EU that are perceived as being in favour of the ‘sanctions.’” If that attitude changes, contacts between European civil society, supported by Brussels, could increase.

El Morro

New poll in Miami Congressional districts

A new poll covered in today’s Herald shows that in the Congressional districts represented by Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, a nearly two-to-one majority of voters favors ending restrictions on Cuban American travel to Cuba and family remittances, and slightly narrower majorities favor ending restrictions on all Americans’ travel to Cuba.

Older voters strongly favor current policy and younger voters support these changes, the pollster says – although in the summary materials (pdf) available on the Herald’s website, there are no numbers to illustrate this generational split.

The poll was sponsored by the Foundation for Normalization of US/Cuba Relations.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Odds and ends

  • A House subcommittee yesterday included language in an appropriations bill to return to the Cuban American family travel rules that were in effect before 2004: visits allowed once per year, and visits to cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. are permitted. No action was taken regarding remittances. Also, language was included to change the requirement that companies that sell agricultural products to Cuba must receive payment before the shipment leaves the United States. The legislative language that was approved doesn’t seem to be available. Reuters coverage here.

  • From the Tampa Tribune, an interesting article on U.S. nationals’ property claims in Cuba. It seems that investors, sensing the possibility that claims might be settled soon, are offering to buy claims from those who lost property and registered their claims decades ago with the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. The Commission issued this notice last March reminding everyone that no negotiations are occurring between Cuba and the United States to settle the claims, and that – investors take note – if you buy a claim and the two governments reach a settlement, your share from Uncle Sam won’t be more than you paid for the claim. If someone has a clearer sense of this, please say so – but it seems to me that it would only make sense for an investor to buy a claim if he expects that, before the two governments negotiate, he could take the claim and get paid directly by Cuba.

  • In an introduction to a new book, Fidel Castro recognizes blogger Yoani Sanchez and laments “that there are young Cubans who think that way, special envoys that serve as point men and a neocolonial press from the old Spanish metropoli that gives them prizes.” So if you differ, and in this case if you use the Internet and get recognition, you’re an agent of a foreign power.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Can we talk?

This year’s election gives us a clear contrast between candidates with differing views on diplomacy in general, and specifically regarding Cuba.

Senator Obama says it is “ridiculous” to think that “somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them.” He says he is “willing to meet with the leaders of all nations, friend and foe. [Obama] will do the careful preparation necessary, but will signal that America is ready to come to the table, and that he is willing to lead.”

Senator McCain says that Obama is mistaken: “Senator Obama proposes to conduct presidential summit meetings with the world’s worst dictators…While [McCain] supports robust diplomacy with our allies and adversaries, he would not rush to bestow the prestige of unconditional presidential meetings on the world’s worst dictators.” (Click on “Foreign Policy” here.)

The McCain charge about a “rush” to “presidential meetings” is in response to an Obama answer at last year’s CNN/YouTube Democratic debate. Asked if he would be “willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries,” Obama said, “I would.” He went on to criticize President Bush’s foreign policy and to praise the way Presidents Kennedy and Reagan conducted relations with adversaries such as the Soviet Union.

Obama has since emphasized that he is not looking for “a social gathering” with Raul Castro, and that his diplomacy with Cuba would involve “careful preparation” and a “clear agenda” to “advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.” (See his May 23 Miami speech here.)

So the issue is joined. Since it is central to Obama’s critique of the Bush foreign policy, and because McCain won’t let Obama forget his “I would” answer in the CNN/YouTube debate, the argument will surely continue. Coupled with Obama’s proposal to end restrictions on Cuban American travel and family remittances, and McCain’s opposition to that proposal – and a neat division on that issue between the three Miami Congressional incumbents and their Democratic challengers – it makes for a clear choice in Miami-Dade in November.

Now, what if we actually did try to start talks with Cuba?

Senator Obama looks for a dialogue that would get to the big political issues. Apart from the fact that he envisions a direct diplomatic approach, his idea isn’t very different from tit-for-tat offers that President Bush has made on a few occasions. From Obama’s Miami speech:

“I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations. That's the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy.”

My bet is that it’s far more likely that the two countries, if they were to meet and listen to each other’s proposals for talks, would start small.

They could revive the twice-yearly discussions about the implementation of the Clinton-era migration accords, which President Bush has honored, and about which both sides have complaints.

They could talk about law enforcement issues involving alien smuggling, drug trafficking, and other matters. President Bush, following President Clinton’s practice, has continued to assign a U.S. Coast Guard officer to our diplomatic mission in Havana – a sign that even an Administration that is skeptical of Havana’s intentions judges that the Cuban government cooperates usefully in some law enforcement matters.

They could talk about terrorism and related issues – Havana’s proposal that the two sides reach a formal agreement on anti-terrorism cooperation, Washington’s desire to secure the return from Cuba of fugitives from American justice, and more.

If the U.S. negotiators were to follow President Reagan’s model, they could propose sports, cultural, academic, and other exchanges – in both directions.

Finally, considering all the talk about Cuba drilling for oil in its Gulf waters, and U.S. desire to protect Florida’s marine environment, it seems negligent not to have experts on both sides talk about what would happen, and what they would all do, in the event of a spill.

Time will tell if a future American government would be interested in pursuing these issues, and if Cuba would be interested. When Senator Obama gave his speech in Miami, the coverage in Cuban media was pretty straightforward, which makes me guess that for Cuba’s part, the answer is, “If you are interested in talking, so are we.”

New kids on the block

From London Metropolitan University, a new on-line journal with diverse content, The International Journal of Cuban Studies. And from the Canada-based organization FacilitaciĆ³n Digital Ciudadana, a new website, “Con Cuba,” that “aspires to contribute to bridge-building and the most effective cooperation between Cuban civil society and that of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Malecon

Can we listen?

Hector Palacios, a Cuban dissident released from jail and allowed to travel abroad last fall for medical treatment, tells AP that he plans to return to Cuba next month along with his wife Gisela Delgado, leader of the independent libraries in Cuba.

Mr. Palacios was in Washington last month; he was here on the day that President Bush declared to be a global day of solidarity with Cuban dissidents, but he did not attend the White House ceremony. Here and elsewhere in his travels, his message boils down to a few basic points: the Cuban government is out of options, the opposition is strong and well positioned, and the United States would do well to change some of its policies toward Cuba.

Here’s what he told AFP May 30 (my translation):

“Without dialogue, there is no peaceful change,” he opined, before pointing out “a series of points that have to disappear from the embargo,” in his opinion. “First, that Cubans [Cuban Americans] may travel to their country any time they wish, that they may send their family what they want to send, and also that U.S. citizens may visit us…”

This comment comes on the heels of Martha Beatriz Roque’s direct appeal to President Bush, in a videoconference early last month, to end restrictions on family travel and remittances. Previously, Roque had been a steadfast supporter of President Bush’s policies.

Vladimiro Roca, another dissident leader, told EFE last week that Senator Obama’s position on Cuba policy:

“…breaks the ... state of siege that it tries to maintain to justify repression and narrow-mindedness…On the other hand, McCain would help the hard line…to maintain the approach that they are beseiged by the greatest power in the world.”

Then there was this article from Oscar Espinosa Chepe who, like Palacios, was arrested in 2003 as part of the group of 75 and is provisionally out of jail for health reasons. The article appeared last month in Spain’s El Pais (but the link there is dead). An excerpt (my translation):

“Democratic countries that wish to help the Cuban people should recognize the existence of a new situation that calls for new thinking. The policy of isolating Cuba and favoring confrontation, practiced for decades by U.S. authorities, should be replaced by mechanisms of contacts, fundamentally with [Cuban] society, without excluding eventual meetings with the Cuban government, as done by the Nixon and Reagan Administrations with the Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern Europe, China, and Vietnam, and now attempted with North Korea. The goal would be to contribute to creating a less tense atmosphere, where it would be difficult for the hardliners to obtain alibis to cultivate false nationalism and to block changes…Immediate steps could be taken such as permitting Cuban Americans to visit the island and help their family and friends economically without restriction…[this step] would make people who receive assistance more independent of the totalitarian state…It would also be very valuable to promote exchanges between the American and Cuban people in all spheres, including cultural, academic, scientific, and sports.”

It is not new for Chepe to oppose U.S. sanctions, but it is new for Palacios, Roque, and Roca to do so.

And it’s not surprising to see these opinions being expressed out loud; President Bush’s term is nearing its end, and in my experience at least, Cubans on the street are not fans of American sanctions. They already have a government, after all, that builds barriers between them and the outside world – and they don’t like the idea that other governments would join in that effort.

Yesterday Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez spoke to dissidents by phone (to whom, his statement doesn’t specify).

The same question comes to mind as in the Bush videoconference: Our leaders talk to the dissidents, but do they listen?

Secretary Gutierrez' amateur hour

When the Herald asked Secretary Gutierrez’ spokeswoman to explain his new allegation that Cuba “funds anti-American terrorist activities around the world” – a charge that isn’t contained in the State Department’s terrorism report – she talked about other things instead.

Maybe he just made it up.

Or maybe someone on his staff made it up for him.

At Babalu they have published a comment by a Gutierrez aide who takes issue with a recent column by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, where Robinson criticized U.S. policy against Cuba as ineffective. The aide, Jorge Ponce, questions Robinson’s patriotism, calling him an “advocate of anything and anyone who is or pretends to be anti-Yankee,” and saying Robinson has a “longstanding honeymoon with the Castros.”

“I don't know about Eugene, but I'm all about God Bless America,” he concludes.

What class.

Odds and ends

  • Another victory for the embargo: Responding to U.S. pressure, Lloyds bank tells its customers in Britain that if they do business in Cuba, they have to take their banking business elsewhere.

  • Someone hurry up and tell Secretary Gutierrez: Reports of UFO’s in Cuba, with eyewitness accounts and a photo.

Consulado

Friday, June 13, 2008

EU sanctions decision next week

Next week, the European Union will decide whether to drop a set of sanctions that it imposed on Cuba in 2003 and suspended in 2005. Spain wants them dropped, others aren’t so sure, and Mexico’s President Calderon just supported the Spanish position in a visit to Madrid.

Press reports lean toward predicting that the sanctions will be dropped. The British government, until now not a supporter of the Spanish position, may have moved to Madrid’s side, if British press reports are accurate, through parliamentary horse trading in a matter that had nothing to do with Cuba.

“Normalization” of relations by the EU would have a symbolic meaning; in this case the EU would be rejecting appeals from dissidents in Cuba and from the U.S. government to maintain its current posture. But in concrete terms I don’t see lots of impact from dropping measures that were shelved three years ago, and it’s not necessarily the case that European human rights advocacy would decline. It might even become more effective.

China and Cuba's oil

“Even the communists have figured out that a good answer to higher prices means more supply.”

That’s Vice President Cheney speaking earlier this week, joining a Republican chorus that argues, reasonably enough, that if we want lower gas prices we should produce more oil. We could begin by ending our own prohibitions on exploiting proven reserves in Alaska, off the Gulf coast, and elsewhere.

By “communists” he was referring to China and Cuba, claiming that China is drilling in Cuba’s Gulf waters. Not quite so. A Spanish-led consortium drilled in 2004, found oil but not in commercially viable quantities, and plans to drill again next year. No one else is drilling.

China is, however, involved in Cuban energy production, as shown in this photo of a rig on the coast east of Havana. (If someone can translate the Chinese sign, please do.)

From a Cuba policy perspective, what is interesting about the Republican discussion of Cuba’s Gulf oil strategy is that Cheney, the House Republican leaders, and others are not joining the calls from Florida legislators to stop Cuba from drilling. There are proposals to do that through new sanctions on foreign oil companies, or in Senator Nelson’s case, by ending American recognition of the U.S.-Cuba maritime border.

Instead, they are saying implicitly that it’s a reasonable strategy, it’s within Cuba’s sovereign rights, and we should imitate it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

For sale

There’s a sad story in the London Times about Finca Vigia, the Hemingway house in Cuba.

There has been lots of news coverage of the American organizations that obtained U.S. government licenses, at times with difficulty, to work on this house, providing technical assistance and training to help restore the house, and to preserve and create a digital archive of the documents it contains.

The house is a museum that one views from outside, through the windows and doorways.

I have seen the docents offer to let a small group inside for a small amount of money, when no other visitors were present. Harmless enough. I have also seen a docent offer to cut a page out of a book in Hemingway’s library – a page with his signature – and sell it for ten dollars.

The writer of this Times article has seen something far worse. So as some Cubans and Americans work to preserve this treasure, others are doing the opposite. Formally, the Ministry of Culture is in charge.

Odds and ends

  • According to EFE, there will be a joint statement from the United States and the European Union today calling on Cuba to free all political prisoners.

  • The Cuban American National Foundation report on the USAID Cuba program criticized the way the Directorio Democratico Cubano, a Miami organization, carries out its program. In El Nuevo Herald today, the Directorio’s director responds.

  • AP looks at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs Museum and the plans to create another one in Miami.

  • “Food production: a priority matter” – not the most enticing headline, but if you read down in the Granma article about a provincial Communist Party meeting, it says that the Havana party chief was sacked for “errors and indiscipline incompatible with his responsibilities.” And then Maria del Carmen Concepcion, a member of the party’s national secretariat, referring to the need to solve economic problems and to “multiply person-to-person ideological work,” is quoted as follows: “Either we solve these problems, or we ourselves destroy the Revolution that cost us so much blood and sweat.” EFE story here.

Calentando el brazo

Monday, June 9, 2008

Growing profits

AP has an interesting story on Havana’s organoponicos, the small cooperatives that grow and sell food in Cuba’s cities, and calls tham a “stunning success.”

These urban gardens are not going to transform Cuba’s economy, but they are a clear success in that they generate jobs and higher-than-average income, and they provide just-picked produce for urban consumers at zero transportation cost. Raul Castro promoted them for all these reasons; the AP story says they are modeled after a project in Shanghai. They began in Cuba in 1995.

To me, in today’s context, the organoponicos are most interesting for the precedent they have set.

They are simple cooperatives where workers keep profits after covering production costs, land rent (if any), and any monthly payments for loans that paid for start-up costs such as clearing land and building sales stands and small storage buildings. There’s some more detail in this study (pdf) on page 11.

Could these profitable, stand-alone cooperatives be a model for future reforms in Cuba’s cities, where new jobs with higher incomes are needed, and the state has by its own admission failed to manage of its own small-scale service enterprises?

Odds and ends

  • Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage announced that investment projects will be delayed, and he exhorted everyone to work harder and more conscientiously in a speech to municipal council leaders. From the Reuters story:

“The country spent $1.47 billion last year to import 3.423 million tonnes of food and to import the same amount this year at current prices will cost $2.554 billion, a billion dollars more,” Lage said.

“The 158,000 barrels of oil per day that we consumed last year cost $8.7 million per day and this year costs 32 percent more, or $11.6 million per day,” he said.

  • Last week there were stories in British newspapers, which I cited here, saying that a golf course/real estate development deal was about to be announced in Havana. A week passed, no announcement. My mistake, and I should have known; for a long time, the golf hype has been way ahead of the reality.

  • Have you ever wondered about the guys in Havana with the red Havana Club vests with the words “parqueador estatal” across the back, the guys who charge you to park, and can never explain why you need to pay them to park on a public street? J.C. Orta Alonso wonders too, and wrote a letter about the issue that was published in Granma; I hope someone answers it.

Malecon & 23

Friday, June 6, 2008

Odds and ends

Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che, says the commercialization of her father’s image is “embarrassing” and contributes to class tensions. Her comments came in an Internet forum to commemorate the 80th anniversary of her father’s birth. [Photo at right from Havana’s Plaza de Armas.]

A federal appeals court upheld the convictions of the “Cuban Five” but vacated the sentences of three, and ordered a Miami judge to re-sentence them. Herald’s coverage here.

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce, in Kiev, urges the EU not to be taken in by “so-called changes” and not to change its posture toward Cuba, Reuters reports. “It is surprising that the world would rather talk about the fact that Cubans can now visit their own hotels and not talk about the fact that there are political prisoners starving in jails,” he said.

Proof that you can find everything on the Internet: a forum on fishing in Cuba.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

New Cuba poll from IRI [Updated x2]

The International Republican Institute will release a poll of Cuban public opinion today. An account of the poll appears in today’s New York Times.

The poll was in the field March 14-April 12, ending six weeks after Raul Castro took office.

On a scale of one to ten, Cubans gave Raul a 5.55 score. Younger Cubans were markedly more likely than those over 60 to support a shift to a democratic system with multiparty elections.

When asked to name the biggest problem they face, the Times account says that more than half of respondents “considered their economic woes to be their chief concern while less than 10 percent listed lack of political freedom as the main problem facing the country.”

IRI did a similar poll in October 2007 and released partial results.

[Update: IRI’s press release is here, and charts showing some of the poll results are here (pdf).]

[Update: A few comments about the poll and the results.

Polling in Cuba is not a simple proposition because a) foreigners aren’t allowed to do it, b) respondents aren’t accustomed to surveys, and c) this poll goes to sensitive subjects, to say the least.

Nonetheless, it looks like the pollsters did their best.

Assuming the results are in the ballpark, and they seem that way to me, what does the poll mean?

First, the poll was taken in weeks three through seven of the Raul Castro government, so I doubt it has much predictive value regarding Cuban opinion of Raul. Rather than use the “Do you approve/disapprove of the performance” question that gives us our presidential approval ratings (President Bush is around 31 percent now), it used a “pick a number on a scale of one to ten” question, and Raul scored 56 percent, slightly in positive territory. Regardless, in the long term it’s his performance that will matter more than first-impression numbers.

Second, the predominance of economic issues stands out. Asked to identify “the biggest problem in Cuba,” 64 percent cited cost of living/dual currency/food scarcity, which are essentially the same thing. Nine percent cited the political system. If you inflate the political number to account for fear or nervousness, you are still left with a very strong margin placing priority on fixing economics as opposed to politics.

Third, 71 percent do not believe the current government will solve the big problems in the next few years. But only a slight majority, 54 percent, believes that a democratic government would solve them, and 43 percent believe a democratic government would not.

Add it all up – and add caveats and grains of salt – and it looks like the government has a political opportunity to seize, and it is in the driver’s seat. Simply put, if it solves day-to-day economic woes, it will be addressing Cubans’ top concern, and it will accumulate political credit.

The opposition, meanwhile, would only stand to benefit from this public opinion landscape if the government fails to improve the economy, or if improvements are followed by expectations that spin out of control – and if it were to acquire a means to connect broadly with the Cuban public and take advantage of the situation.]

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Prado y Neptuno

Odds and ends

  • Who says there’s no real estate market in Cuba? The St. Petersburg Times covers the ins and outs of the permuta.

  • Next week the European Union will discuss its position on Cuba, and whether to abandon altogether the “diplomatic sanctions” that were imposed in 2003 and suspended in 2005. All the background is in this EFE report in Spanish, including a comment from the Czech delegation that democracy in Cuba is a priority, but Prague “doesn’t want to threaten” a blockade. Against whom? Spain?

  • A Cuban vice minister of agriculture, Juan Perez Lamas, gave a speech at a rice conference in Havana. According to Granma, he said Cuba’s goal is to cut rice imports by 50 percent over five years. AFP reports that he predicted a five to ten percent reduction in Cuba’s food imports next year. Cuba has been able in 2008 to do without some imports it made in 2007, he said, including 10,000 tons of beans and 18,000 tons of fresh fruit (!).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Two superpowers

Sometime this year we may resolve the debate about allowing Cuban Americans to visit their relatives freely, or to send them money freely, and our Presidential candidates will debate whether some kind of diplomacy with Cuba might make sense. And soon the Administration will issue regulations to refine again the list of items Cuban Americans may send to relatives in gift packages. In 2004, President Bush determined that no more clothing, personal hygiene items, seeds, fishing equipment, soap-making equipment, and veterinary medicine and supplies would be allowed in those packages, while food, medicine, medical supplies and equipment; and receive-only radio equipment would be allowed. Now he will add cell phones to the list of permissible items.

Brazil, meanwhile, is up to something different.

If anyone doubts that Cuba is a priority in Brazil’s diplomacy, look at last week’s visit to Cuba by Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister.

Following up on the January visit of President Lula da Silva, Amorim’s agenda mixed political support and substantial economic assistance. He was accompanied by a delegation of businessmen.

Brazil wants to be Cuba’s “number one economic partner” and to participate in the modernization of the Cuban economy, Amorim said. He believes Cuba “will be a kind of Asian tiger of Latin America, we can compare it with Vietnam.”

The visit featured an announcement that Brazil will provide technical assistance and seed for an industrial-scale soy project, initially 30,000 to 40,000 hectares in size. Agreements to form joint ventures to grow soy are possible, Amorim said.

Amorim also said he expects agreement within “two or three weeks” on a $600 million, four-year credit package for industrial and agricultural equipment and highway construction.

Amorim met Raul Castro and he extended an invitation from his President for Raul to visit Brazil.

Finally, Amorim was quoted in the Cuban media saying that Brazil and Cuba “share many visions, especially regarding the integration of Latin American and Caribbean nations, a difficult process hindered by cultural resistance of people who are not used to seeing the region united.”

I wonder who he had in mind.

More coverage of Amorim’s visit from EFE here, from ANSA here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A golf course deal?

From London, in The Times and The Telegraph, comes word that Cuba will announce a deal with British investors to develop golf course/real estate resorts that are intended to make Cuba more competitive in high-end tourism.

For months, there have been rumors that a deal of this type was in the offing, but a major sticking point has been Cuba’s resistance to allowing foreigners to own property in Cuba. (In the early 1990’s there was a condominium development in Havana, but its owners were bought out by the Cuban government.) Apparently this problem was resolved, according to the Times report, by a 75-year lease on the land for the first resort, which will allow the sale of homes for $300,000 to $2 million.

The first resort will be called the “Carbonera Country Club,” but neither newspaper report says where the 150-hectare project is to be located.

Demographic crunch

For the third straight year, Cuba’s population is declining, El Pais reports.

As more young people emigrate and fewer women have babies, the proportion of elderly and retired (and frequently dependent) citizens is increasing. When you add the fact that many young people do not work in the formal economy because salaries aren’t worth it – a phenomenon covered recently in the state media and just last week in the Herald – this looks like the beginning of a demographic train wreck.

A Cuban population researcher told El Pais that the government has approved “economic, social, cultural, and legal” measures to restore population growth. We’ll see.