Thursday, July 31, 2008

Get your popcorn

Chris Simmons, described in media reports as an active duty U.S. Army officer and a top expert on the Cuban intelligence service, will appear tonight on A Mano Limpia, Oscar Haza’s program on Miami’s Channel 41.

According to Cuban Colada, “A press release issued by Simmons’ associate in South Florida, Ana Margarita Martinez, said Simmons will be here Thursday to ‘follow through on his word to publicly name Cuban spies in South Florida.’”

In addition to his government work – the Washington Times says he works for the Defense Intelligence Agency – Simmons is founder of the Cuban Intelligence Research Center, a private company that offers a variety of services, including a seminar that you can host at your company for up to 25 participants for $51,750. The Center’s website has a number of videos of Simmons on Spanish-language media, speaking English.

At Babalu, they posted a message from Simmons indicating that he will not be divulging any classified information, and he will only divulge the names of spies in which the U.S. government has no investigative interest.

Well, we can’t have everything.

What we do have is probably the most talkative member of the U.S. intelligence community in recent memory. Last November at the Heritage Foundation, he said there are probably Cuban agents working inside the U.S. government today, just as Ana Montes did. “There may be, the number may actually be in the teens, of long-term penetrations at the highest level of the U.S. government,” he said. “And we’re not talking a slipshod operation. We’re talking the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, Congress, and the White House.”

Maybe Mr. Haza will ask about that.

Parque Central

Odds and ends

  • AP: Senator Arlen Specter plans to go to Cuba, and seeks a meeting with Raul Castro.

  • If you read Frank Calzon’s letter to the Miami Herald, you come to realize that maybe we all have things backwards. One of Calzon’s employees embezzled half a million dollars in federal funds from his organization, and Calzon discovered it – so he should be congratulated. Congressional attention to the issue has nothing to do with the fact that taxpayer money went missing; rather, it’s a “political fishing expedition.” And the lack of a federal grant constitutes “punishment.”

  • Al Kamen of the Washington Post uncovers a message from the office of Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, inviting legislators to discuss “the very troubling granting of a Treasury/OFAC license to a little league team to travel to Cuba in August.”

  • Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, writing in Newsweek, takes an interesting look at Vietnam now, and muses about Cuba’s future.

  • Penultimos Dias, a great blog and resource, celebrates its second anniversary. Congratulations to the indefatigable Ernesto.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

More on Arocena

The Miami Herald reports on the campaign to free Eduardo Arocena, in jail since 1984 for “gunning down a Cuban diplomat and for several bombings in the New York City area” and also convicted for “planting nine bombs over a four-year period in the Miami area.”

I had written, as does the Herald article, that a pardon is being sought. But as a reader pointed out, the campaign is actually seeking a commutation of Arocena’s sentence. (See the campaign’s suggested letter to the Justice Department here.)

The President has the power to do either. A commutation reduces a sentence, while a pardon can imply forgiveness and erases the consequences of a conviction. (The difference is explained here.)

By seeking a commutation rather than a pardon, Arocena’s supporters seem to be recognizing that it might be politically difficult for President Bush to pardon someone who used violence against civilians on U.S. soil for political purposes – i.e. a terrorist.

On the other hand, if the White House wants to do Arocena a favor, a commutation might be easier – a reduction of punishment that doesn’t imply absolution. Except that the letter itself engages in some distinctly pre-9/11 thinking by arguing that Arocena’s actions – “to the extent that those actions violated laws of this country” – were in a just cause, to “bring about the end of a repressive regime.” The letter also makes the claim that Arocena somehow represents the Cuban American community: “This commutation is not just about Mr. Arocena, but about an entire community of Cubans that has been forced out of their home country by a brutal dictatorship.”

Meanwhile, Senator Lieberman, after meeting Arocena’s wife and leaving her hopeful that he would intervene favorably (“I’ll do my best,” he told her), has cooled. The Miami Herald asked his spokesman for Lieberman’s position on the Arocena case, and the answer was that the Senator has no position. From the Herald’s blog:

“Senator Lieberman does not intervene in criminal proceedings including requests for pardons,” according to Scott Overland, a Lieberman spokesman. “The correspondence was merely forwarded without any comment, endorsement or support whatsoever.”

Plaza de Armas

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The New York Times on the amazing variety of offerings left prayerfully by Cubans at the chapel at El Cobre, near Santiago. It’s the only place I have seen in Cuba with public displays calling for freedom for political prisoners.

  • Last week the Arco Progresista held a meeting with the purpose of uniting the center-left segment of Cuba’s opposition. Some long documents came out of the event; a speech by Manuel Cuesta Morua, and a political statement that outlines eight tasks, including creation of a “pressure group” in Washington, regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election.

  • Russia’s deputy prime minister is headed to Cuba, reportedly to discuss energy projects including on-shore oil production, and refining.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Raul's speech in Santiago

Just because last year’s speech offered a road map of sorts to some of Raul Castro’s policy actions, it was not guaranteed that this year’s 26th of July speech, delivered in Santiago, would do the same. (English text here.)

And it certainly didn’t.

Major passages of this speech were local – about investments in the water system in Santiago and other eastern cities, the “east-west water transfer system in HolguĂ­n” that shares water between provinces, etc.

Unlike last year, there was no talk about “excessive prohibitions” in the laws and regulations that affect Cubans’ daily lives, no talk about “structural changes” in agriculture or elsewhere.

Raul Castro did outline some positive economic results (tourism up, efficiencies realized in transportation), but he gave no hint of policies that would help to address big challenges that he has described starkly – aging population, declining workforce growth, income inequality, dual currency – much less an indication that, as in agriculture, he is looking at ways to change policies to liberate productive energies that could generate growth and jobs.

Instead, there was a warning of tough times ahead:

“I repeat that the revolution has done and will continue to do anything within its power to continue to advance and to reduce to the minimum the unavoidable consequences of the present international crisis for our people. Yet, we should timely explain to our people the difficulties so that we can be better prepared to face them. We must get used to receiving not only good news.”

All in all, when it comes to economic policy, it’s hard to improve on the way Alejandro Armengol put it, in a nutshell, in his blog: that the speech gave no hope “that the process of change would accelerate in the coming months, or would even continue.” We’ll see.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Congressional oversight, up close

Here are two Congressional letters regarding the USAID Cuba program. Both are from Rep. Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; one is directed to the USAID administrator, and the other to her and to the Secretary of State.

Malecon

No, the Russians are not coming

If you have little pangs of nostalgia for the Cold War, the recent story about the possibility of Russian bombers in Cuba turns out to be a big, big disappointment.

The Russians are not playing the part of the angry bear: in Moscow, the defense ministry spokesman said, on the record, that the story amounts to “disinformation and another media hoax.” The White House won’t play along, either: it’s“just speculation and hypotheticals.”

Fidel Castro is the only one who came close to playing his part. He issued a commentary (English here) that praised his brother’s silence in the matter, saying there’s no need “to give explanations.” He went on: “What is needed in times of genocide is nerves of steel, and Cuba has them. The empire knows it.”

There is still no indication that anyone ever asked Cuba’s government about the idea of basing long-range bombers or receiving them for refueling stops, and no indication of Havana’s opinion on the matter.

Odds and ends

  • Two American students at Cuba’s Latin American Medical School have written a journal article about the school and the academic experience. It’s a minor point in this article, but I didn’t know that a U.S. organization (the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization) pre-screens and briefs U.S. applicants.

  • At a blog called “Beautiful Horizons,” which a reader pointed out, Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba affably explains the facts regarding the apparent embezzlement of $500,000 or more in government funds from his organization by a former employee.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The end of Plan Marabu

When Cuba downsized its sugar sector in 2002, the theory was that the land that was freed up – an amount equal to the land already in agricultural production – would be converted to productive agricultural use.

That was the theory. In practice, much of the land remained idle, and Cubans jokingly called the operation “Plan Marabu,” a reference to the nasty bush that take over untilled fields.

Last week’s decree to turn over idle state lands to agricultural producers – state farms, cooperatives, and private farmers – aims to end that plan and start a much more productive one.

Will it work?

A recent BBC report found that in Pinar del Rio, there are obstacles: low pay, lack of equipment, and for some, lack of interest in life on the farm.

Independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, in an article he circulated this week, says we have to wait to see if a “real process of transformation” is being initiated. He argues that results would be better if if the land were given outright as property, instead of being granted for 10 years to individuals. That, he says, would eliminate the possibility that the state could take the land back if it is not used for its intended purpose, and it would give Cuban youth “tangible incentives” to return to the land.

It goes without saying that it all depends on people and incentives – if there are substantial numbers of individual farmers and cooperatives that are limited by a lack of land, and if there’s a sufficient profit motive for them to take more land and work it, then there will be results.

The incentive issue depends on the level of tax that will have to be paid for new lands, and on the terms of contracts offered to producers. (All producers have contracts whereby the state provides seed, fertilizer, fuel, and other inputs, and in return the producer pays an agreed amount of produce to the state; the rest is sold on the open market.) I heard from a friend in Cuba (but cannot confirm) that in some cases, new lands are bring offered without contracts, so that the producer would have no quota to meet, and could sell all produce on the open market.

Another limiting factor would be if farmers can’t get the equipment they need, but it seems they’ve got that one covered. Reuters reports that in one place in central Cuba, farmers are being told to place their requests: “We can ask for whatever we need. Machinery, spare parts, irrigation systems, wind mills, land clearing kits, you name it,” said a cooperative member quoted in the report. The materials are provided on credit to farmers, and it’s all supported by credits from Iran and Venezuela. Nice.

For the tourists

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chairman Berman on USAID funds

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman has withdrawn his objections to disbursement of USAID’s Cuba program funds, except for grantees under investigation:

“In response to our Committee’s concerns, USAID has announced an immediate review and an expanded audit of all Cuba democracy program participants, and I applaud this expanded oversight. Yesterday, I received assurances that USAID and the State Department are seized with the gravity of the problems in these programs and that they are actively working to correct the problems. Therefore, I have decided to release the hold placed on the $45 million in funding for Cuba democracy programs, except that funds will not be extended to those program participants that are under investigation.”

His full statement, released today, is here.

“Cuban political prisoner in U.S. jails”

That’s not Granma referring to one of “Los Cinco Heroes” serving time here for espionage – it’s from a Net for Cuba story referring to Eduardo Arocena, who is in jail after being convicted in 1984 for murder of a Cuban diplomat, conspiracy, and other charges. The story (with video) reports that Arocena’s wife asked Senator Joe Lieberman to carry letters to the President and First Lady asking for a pardon for her husband. In the video, Senator Lieberman said, “I’ll do my best,” and he told Mrs. Arocena, “I think of you like you were my family.”

The Russians are coming?

Bloomberg reports on an Isvestiya story where a “highly placed source” says that if a U.S. missile defense system is deployed in Europe, Russia may send long-range bombers to Cuba. The Washington Post reports that a Russian defense ministry spokesman would not comment, but did not deny the report. Reuters reports that:

The Kremlin declined immediate comment. The Defence Ministry questioned the story, saying it was written under a false name and quoted a source at an organization that did not exist.

There seems to be no word, in these reports or elsewhere, on what Cuban authorities thought about the idea, if indeed it was ever proposed to Havana.

Meanwhile, Professor Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami doubts that Raul Castro would welcome Russian bombers. But in his essay speculating that a “more ominous and difficult crisis” than that of 1962 “may be brewing in the Caribbean,” he says Venezuela just might accept them.

Odds and ends

  • The Export Law Blog digs into last week’s story about a Colorado company accused by the feds of violating the embargo, and is not impressed with the government’s case based on what has been disclosed so far. The company, Platte River Associates, is said to have provided software to Cuba that is used in mapping potential oil exploration areas. According to a Colorado newspaper, it seems the company sold software to Spain’s Repsol, not to Cuba.

  • USAID’s Cuba program funding has been frozen by Congress, and USAID is conducting a top-to-bottom review of the program, the Herald reports.

  • A Canadian airline inaugurates Windsor-to-Varadero flights, and the Detroit News, from just across the border, speculates that Americans will be aboard. Although, as President Nixon used to say, “That would be wrong.”

Escambray

Monday, July 21, 2008

New book on 1950's Havana

A new book arrived in the mail: Havana Before Castro – When Cuba was a Tropical Playground by Peter Moruzzi, published by Gibbs Smith. (See website here.) It’s beautifully illustrated with hundreds of images – the author’s photos, old advertisements, images dug up from archives. And as the title indicates, it’s about the Havana that visitors saw generations ago, so the emphasis is on nightlife, music, and entertainment, with recipes for various cocktails thrown in.

But it’s more than a coffee table book about Havana nights in the 1950’s. There are chapters on Cuban history and politics, and an interesting chapter on the Mob’s role in Batista’s Cuba. There’s even a diagram showing which casinos and other operations were controlled by Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante.

The author is an architectural historian, and it’s his fascination with Havana’s “built environment” that most shines through. The Hotel Riviera – the “best preserved example of mid-century Las Vegas-influenced Miami Modern resort architecture in the world” – gets its own chapter, full of details and photos about the hotel’s design and construction, and its attributes as a destination for visitors. The Riviera was financed and run by Meyer Lansky, who also served, we learn, as its kitchen director. Its architect, Igor Polevitsky, also designed the Shelborne in Miami Beach.

A chapter on the Havana Hilton (now Habana Libre) tells us that the hotel was financed by the pension fund of the Cuban catering workers’ union. A statement from Hilton Hotels International lauded the partnership, “unique in the history of private enterprise,” where “labor and capital have joined hands” so that the “operators of the hotel will, in effect, be working for their employees.”

Another chapter, “Havana Modern,” tries to balance the attention paid to Havana’s colonial center by focusing on the city’s 20th century architecture, particularly its “astounding inventory of Modern architecture.” A handy two-page guide, with photos, lists the top 25 attractions, citing their original names and functions, and their addresses. The old Office of the Comptroller is #9 on the list; it’s now the Interior Ministry, and may be best viewed from outside.

All in all, a good read, and the photo archive contained in this book’s 250 pages is alone worth the price of admission.

Friday, July 18, 2008

USAID memo on Cuba program

A memo that USAID circulated today, signed by Deputy Assistant Administrator Stephen Driesler:

This memo is sent to provide you with the latest details regarding the status of USAID’s Cuba Program. As you know, we have encountered challenges in the implementation of this important program. Audits of USAID’s Cuba Program by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2006 and the USAID Office of Inspector General (OIG) in 2007 highlighted issues with grants management. To generalize, these audits found there were internal controls issues both in USAID’s management of the grants, as well as with regard to grantee capacity. USAID responded to the GAO and OIG findings and recommendations by taking the actions stated below.

· A financial monitoring and audit contract was awarded in mid 2008 to facilitate enhanced oversight of grantees’ management of USAID funds. The OIG will oversee the USAID-contracted audits of all the grantees. The audits will review costs incurred from the grant’s inception to the present. These audits will include a review of internal controls and compliance.

· The Latin America and Caribbean Bureau (LAC) will be holding quarterly portfolio reviews of existing grantees to review status, and results of the grants and to highlight potential problems and outstanding issues.

· USAID’s Office of Acquisition and Assistance (OAA) issued additional guidance on pre-award reviews in March 2007, resulting in conduct of pre-award reviews for new awards with written findings issued prior to the awarding of grant funds. This helps ensure that findings are tracked and resolved in a timely manner.

· OAA is employing a system to track compliance with the Single Audit Act, which requires audits of NGOs spending more than $500,000 annually in Federal funds.

Grantees with expenditures below the $500,000 threshold will now be audited internally.

· LAC/Cuba program staff cognizant technical officers (CTOs) conduct systematic grantee on-site monitoring and track submission of required reporting, such as project implementation plans, monitoring and evaluation plans, program narrative reports, financial reports, etc.

· LAC/Cuba program staff has been increased and received training in grants management

· LAC is working to restructure the Cuba program to add an umbrella grant program through a contract in order to improve management capability of small grantees.

Many of these initiatives have only recently begun implementation and we believe that they will have a significant impact over time. Some are bearing fruit already, however, given the problems identified in both audits, issues with some grants have surfaced in the last few months. In particular, you are well aware of the problems with the Center for a Free Cuba (CFC) involving alleged illegitimate use of USAID grant funds by a former CFC employee. This grant was suspended in March 2008 and remains suspended. The Department of Justice and the USAID OIG are conducting ongoing investigations. Significant Congressional concern has been expressed, and the GAO is conducting a follow-on to its 2006 audit which, although broader, encompasses the CFC matter. Given the continuing investigations, significant Congressional concern and review, and the need to ensure USAID is meeting our federal management responsibilities, we have decided to wait until additional information is available from the USAID/OIG as well as other programmatic reviews and audits that USAID is undertaking, to make a decision on reinstatement of the CFC grant.

Recently, another Cuba Program grantee problem surfaced during an USAID-funded financial review of our Cuba program grantees in accordance with the first bullet above. As a result of irregularities identified during this financial review, the Executive Director of Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia (GAD) notified USAID regarding the use of GAD’s purchase card by one of GAD’s contract employees to purchase unauthorized items. Most of GAD’s funding comes from USAID, therefore it is likely that funds used to cover costs incurred under the purchase card are USAID grant funds. GAD informed USAID that the employee signed a statement admitting to his actions, and promising to repay all improperly incurred expenses. The employee gave GAD a cashier's check for approximately eleven thousand dollars ($11,000), but the amount at issue remains to be determined and is expected to be higher. USAID immediately referred this matter to our OIG and suspended the grant. The OIG investigation is ongoing and USAID/OAA is conducting a review. GAO has also been informed of this situation.

Given the information resulting from the GAO and OIG audits, as well as the problems with the two grantees detailed above, USAID has decided to conduct an immediate review of all the grants to determine where financial vulnerabilities exist and how best to address these vulnerabilities to strengthen the program for future success. All grants are currently undergoing review, and pending the outcome of these reviews, some grants will be partially suspended. Audits of partially suspended grants will be conducted, management and internal controls vulnerabilities that exist will be identified, and any that are significant will be addressed prior to reinstatement of the grant in full.

We recognize and appreciate Congress’ oversight role with regard to use of funds appropriated for USAID’s programs. USAID takes seriously our responsibility as federal managers of appropriated funds, therefore we are focused on taking the steps laid out herein to ensure the future viability of this important program. If you have any questions or need additional information please do not hesitate to let me know.

Land grants decree

Cuba has published a decree that provides for the distribution of idle state lands to Cubans – individual private farmers, cooperatives of all types, state farms – who will make it produce. It’s a sound step; there’s no more surefire way to increase food production in Cuba than to put more land in the hands of the private farmers, who are the most productive.

To my memory, the first mention of this was in Raul Castro’s July 26 speech last year. So it took nearly a year to bring the idea to full legal fruition.

Private farmers that are new and have no land can be granted 13.42 hectares – in Cuba, that’s one caballeria – and those with land can have their holdings increased until they are three caballerias in size. The grants are 10 years for private farmers, 25 years for cooperatives.

The only potential snag is that there will be a tax on the use of the land, and it’s yet to be defined.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

University building

Above the portal of the renovated building that once housed the education ministry, a reflection of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales.

Odds and ends

  • The U.S. government put out a press release about the company charged with violating the embargo by providing software to Cuba that was “used to create a model for potentially exploring and developing oil and gas within Cuba's territorial waters.” But was the company paid?

  • Dream golf – Here’s yet another news report about a golf resort/real estate project in Cuba, to be developed with foreign investors. Yet again, there’s a reference to an announcement by the Cuban tourism ministry that seems never to have taken place.

  • A campaign is under way for a Presidential pardon for Eduardo Arocena, who was convicted in federal court in 1984 of “twenty-five counts, including first degree murder of a diplomat; two conspiracies to murder diplomats; malicious damage by explosives to property used in commerce, with personal injury resulting; six counts of possession of unregistered bombs; two counts of conspiracy; and perjury before the Grand Jury.” That quote is from the decision of the appeals court judge, who denied Arocena’s appeal, saying he had engaged in “a terrorist campaign shocking in its ferocity and persistence.” The campaign’s site, hosted by the Net for Cuba news site, is here. (H/t Cuban Colada.)

  • Good eye, Dalia – We know little about Dalia Soto del Valle, wife of Fidel Castro, but she seems to have a good sixth sense. She had a bad feeling about her son’s girlfriend, Dashiell Torralba, El Nuevo Herald reports. Torralba is facing credit card fraud and identity theft charges in Miami. She gained fame when she left Cuba and sold a video of the Castro home to a Miami television station in 2002 (Penultimos Dias dug up the link). If you search Torralba’s name on YouTube, you get her television appearances where she described life amid the Castro family.

Raul grapples with demographic troubles

I got around to reading the Raul Castro speech from last Friday’s National Assembly session.

The speech mainly deals with two problems in the Cuban economy – the shrinking workforce and the need to boost farm production.

When it comes to economic policy, here’s what stood out to me.

  • Cuba will increase its retirement age in order to improve the ratio between the working and retired populations.

  • Teachers are being encouraged to return to the classroom, and Raul announced that if they do so, their pensions will not be affected. He acknowledged that in this sector, there is “a problem with wages.”

  • The government is studying the idea of allowing Cubans to hold more than one job and collect more than one salary.

  • New regulations will soon be issued to “begin granting idle land in usufruct to those who are in a position to make them productive immediately,” and “other measures” affecting agriculture will follow.

  • Raul is thinking about an income tax system that applies more broadly than the current one, which applies only to licensed entrepreneurs, artists who earn income abroad, and few others.

  • He also sent another signal that could mean the end of the libreta, the food ration book that for 45 years has delivered subsidized food to every household. He called for “the elimination of unwarranted handouts and excessive subsidies,” and repeated the line, seemingly for emphasis.

There’s no mystery about the emphasis on agriculture. Raul explained that the cost of imported rice rose 158 percent in the past year, the cost of wheat 38 percent, and the cost of powdered milk has jumped 148 percent in four years. As a result, he said, “We have to definitively reverse the trend of declining cultivated land. Between 1998 and 2007, in just nine years, it declined by 33 per cent, one third of cultivated land.” An expansion of Cuban agriculture has the potential to increase employment and incomes, increase food supply and lower prices, and save foreign exchange.

But the most striking part of the speech was the description of Cuba’s changing demographics and shrinking workforce. After citing data on life expectancy, declining birth rates, and declining overall population, Raul concluded:

“The combination of all these factors is already appearing in unfavorable trends among the working-age population – in 1980, almost 30 years ago, more than 238,000 youths reached this age, and last year it was 166,000. That is 72,000 less and estimates indicate that it will drop to about 129,000 by 2020. Those same estimates indicate, as the Labor Ministry said this morning, that by 2025 there will be 770,000 fewer citizens than now in that age bracket.”

Also:

“In 2007, people over 60 years of age…accounted for 16.6 per cent of the country’s population; the year before, they constituted 15.9 per cent…These figures will continue to increase together in a more prominent way in coming years.”

Declining workforce, declining population, declining birth rates, an aging population – these things may or may not add up to a demographic crisis, but they are certainly an economic policy nightmare.

What Raul did not mention was emigration – a factor that probably contributes to Cuba’s political stability, but adds to the economic problem, especially when the emigrants are skilled and educated. Their talents and energies are lost, and the worker/retiree ratio worsens.

The speech was not billed as a comprehensive economic policy message. But it nonetheless begs the question whether measures now under consideration are proportional to Cuba’s challenge.

It makes sense to revive agriculture, raise retirement ages, and ensure that workers are rewarded for high productivity. But absent some action to create lots of new jobs, not only on farms, it’s hard to see how Cuba’s current economic policies will measure up to the challenges Raul outlined in such harsh detail.

So I’ll stay tuned – and wonder whether ideas like this may someday be applied beyond the farm:

“I recognize and admire the great socialist state enterprise…I know of many enterprises that produce efficiently. However, this in no way contradicts the role of the cooperative in its various forms and the small farmer, notable examples of which I could also cite. These are all forms of property and production that can coexist harmoniously because none are antagonistic to socialism.”

Finally, other quotes of note:

“Recently, each time our country has adopted a measure, some US official – whether an ambassador or the president – has called it insufficient and cosmetic, though nobody here asked for their opinion.”

“…we must be aware that every wage increase we approve, or every price we establish, must be consistent with our economic possibilities. Otherwise, the amount of money circulating increases, prices automatically increase, and there is no real purchasing power increase.”

“For the worker to feel like the owner of the means of production we cannot rely solely on theoretical explanations – we have been doing that for about 48 years – nor on the fact that his opinion is taken into consideration in the labor meetings. It is very important that his income correspond to his personal contribution…”

“In socialism it is vital that the allocation of resources in the economic plans strictly reflect the available funds. We cannot expect two plus two to total five. Two plus two is four. Actually, sometimes in socialism two plus two equals three.”

“Since the fall of the Soviet Union we have not acquired more weaponry because it is so costly…we have modernized them, and it has been a great accomplishment because they adjust perfectly to the type of war we would wage if we were invaded by the most powerful country on the planet, the United States. We have acquired spare parts, in addition to those we produce ourselves, and thousands of scopes, or tens of thousands of scopes for snipers, if we are going to discuss armaments, and some smaller things, but we today are stronger than ever.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Odds and ends

  • A Colorado company faces charges for an embargo violation – providing Cuba software “to create a model of the potential exploration and development of oil and gas within the territorial waters of Cuba.”

  • Shake it off, Randy: Media personality Randy Alonso comments tersely and unhappily about the recent defeat of the Cuban baseball team at a tournament in the Netherlands. The recriminations don’t stop there, as Wilfredo Cancio reports in El Nuevo.

  • Prensa Latina reports that a petition seeking Luis Posada Carriles’ extradition from the United States to Panama is making its way through the Panamanian judicial process. The petition, PL’s story says, was initiated by “labor unions, indigenous organizations, and student movements.” (English version here.)

  • The Herald’s blog Cuban Colada found and translated part of an interview that singer Pablo Milanes, now touring abroad, gave to a Spanish newspaper. An excerpt: “What I don't understand is how everything stays the same; and that is why, as a revolutionary, I demand changes. Now we have a new opportunity, like the one that arose when the Soviet Union collapsed and we could all have found our own independent path. But we didn't. The people expect changes; the world is expecting them.”

  • Cuban Colada also added to the discussion of last weekend’s New York Times Magazine article on Miami politics. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart both declined to be interviewed for the article, but the former talked about Cuban American travel in an interview with the Herald earlier this year: “The U.S. tourism ban, which is the most important aspect of the embargo, would simply become unsustainable if Cuban American members of Congress advocated unrestricted travel for Cuban exiles. How could I ask my colleagues from other states to continue prohibiting travel to Cuba by their constituents if I were advocating unrestricted travel to Cuba for Cuban Americans?”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New report on Radio/TV Marti

The Government Accountability Office, a Congressional investigative agency, issued a report today (pdf, 30 pages) on Radio/TV Marti operations. The focus is on the contracts that paid commercial radio and television stations in Florida to carry Marti programming in the hope that their signals would reach Cuban audiences.

Contracts were given to Radio Mambi, home of commentator (and director) Armando Perez Roura, and to TV Azteca, both for about five hours per week of airtime. GAO found that the awarding of these noncompetitive contracts “did not reflect sound business practices,” and that the agency’s contracting office had “limited involvement in developing acquisition strategy.”

Radio/TV Marti’s parent agency responds in the report (see p.23) that Radio Mambi’s signal is the only one with “enough power to blanket the island at night.” The contract decisions were made in an environment of “unusual and compelling urgency,” the agency says, given Cuba’s “possible transition of leadership” and the “news of President Castro’s deteriorating health.”

The Radio Mambi contract has nonetheless been discontinued.

The report addresses contracting issues only, and doesn’t discuss whether the late-night broadcasting of Radio Marti programming on commercial AM radio had any measurable impact on the audience in Cuba.

Do as we say...

In light of the near-collapse of U.S. mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it’s ironic to recall that the first report of the Administration’s Cuba commission included an offer to teach Cuba, among many other things, how to create a “secondary mortgage market system.”

The Cubans didn’t have much interest in that offer.

But if they were to look at our way of doing business, what they see might seem, well, socialistic.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoy a unique government credit guarantee that gives them a leg up in the market and opportunities to earn huge profits. That’s why they are called “government-sponsored enterprises.” Now in trouble in spite of the advantage the government grants them, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve ride to their rescue. The idea of taking a risk and possibly failing – a pretty central element of capitalism – goes out the window, because these companies were too big to fail.

Then consider a recent World Bank report that estimates that biofuels have driven up world food prices by 75 percent. Here in our bastion of capitalism, the “market” for ethanol is artificial, sustained by subsidies to producers and a high tariff barrier that protects those producers from international competition. Americans pay in their tax bills, and at the grocery store.

No wonder we like to devise plans to reform Cuba’s economy. It’s easier than figuring out how to root out socialism at home.

Plaza de la Catedral

Monday, July 14, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Beijing Olympics will be the last where baseball is played, and the focus of international competition will shift to the World Baseball Classic (which returns next year). Sports Illustrated looks at the impact on Cuban baseball.

  • The U.S. national team defeats Cuba, 4-1, to win a tournament in the Netherlands. LA Times story here.

  • In Encuentro, an article summarizes comments by Carlos Alberto Montaner at a Madrid forum: change could come to Cuba in the near term because “all the factors that make up today’s reality – Fidel and Raul Castro, the communist party, the dissidents, the people, and outside actors such as the United States and Hugo Chavez – have realized that they can’t achieve their goals and, in small or large measure, want a change.”

News from the “sceptred isle” (Updated)

Not much of a Cuba angle here – at least not yet – but it’s too good to pass up. The Washington Post reported Saturday that a “flashy” man walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library last month and asked experts to authenticate a book he obtained “from a family library in Cuba, and he was representing the family.” It turned out to be a rare volume of the Bard’s plays, published in 1623, and the Folger experts determined that this particular book had been stolen from a British university ten years ago.

The Post had nothing on the man’s identity, but a British newspaper, the Northern Echo, caught up with Raymond Scott after he was arrested in Britain and released on bail. He got the book from “contacts in Cuba,” he said, insisting he had done nothing wrong. And why would he have walked into the Folger if he had something to hide? The Echo photographs Mr. Scott enjoying a cigar and a glass of Dom Perignon. His neighbors, interviewed by the Echo, report that he’s “an eccentric who wore rubber marigold gloves to wash the string of classic sports cars he has owned, including a rare Ferrari Dino.”

If this was the stolen volume, worth millions, why would the thief have brought it to Cuba?

[Update: The Daily Mail has more (h/t Penultimos Dias). Mr. Scott says that three friends in Cuba “allowed him to take it [the book] out of the country so that experts could confirm its authenticity.” Plus, a dancer from the Tropicana is involved.]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Cuban-American glasnost"

David Rieff’s article in the New York Times Magazine, “Will Little Havana Go Blue?,” sketches the politics of the Cuba issue in Miami this year. As an example of what he calls the “Cuban-American glasnost,” he includes this quote from Giancarlo Sopo, a Democratic campaign staffer:

“My father was a Bay of Pigs veteran. He was in one of the first infiltration teams to go into Cuba before the landing. Later, he was Jorge Mas’s right-hand man at the foundation, a Ronald Reagan supporter to his core. My father died in 1999. He died frustrated because his dreams of returning to Cuba never came true. But I don’t believe my father died so that my generation could make the same mistakes. There has to be another way.”

But this quote from Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, where he discusses the Bush Administration’s 2004 restrictions on Cuban American family visits, really caught my eye:

“First of all, in 2004, we had realized that unrestricted remittances had become a cash cow for the Castro regime. As for the travel limitations, I would never criticize anyone for visiting family members. But that wasn’t the problem. What you had was a situation where people would come to Miami from Cuba, stay for a year and a day and then go back. And what this was doing was threatening the sustainability of the Cuban Adjustment Act itself, the U.S. law that gives Cubans who come to this country a special status as political exiles rather than immigrants.

“What makes Cubans different from Haitians who come here or anyone else,” Rubio went on, “if they go back and forth, that is to say, if they’re not exiles at all? In that case, why should Cubans be any different? The whole structure would have unraveled had something not been done.”

I get Mr. Rubio’s point, but I have to say that the only threat that I have seen to that “structure” of immigration policies – the Cuban Adjustment Act, the policy of admitting Cubans who arrive with no visa and no claim to asylum, the government benefits given to Cuban immigrants – was in the Senate twelve years ago, and it went nowhere.

To Mr. Rubio, if Cubans come to America and exercise their freedom to travel back to Cuba, that is a problem. Not because, as the Administration argues, it results in excessive flows of hard currency to Cuba.

The real problem is that it puts in question whether Cubans are “exiles” to begin with, and it threatens “the whole structure” of immigration policies toward Cubans. So rather than accept that some Cuban Americans view themselves as exiles and others as immigrants, and rather than contemplate a (highly unlikely) debate over those immigration policies, Mr. Rubio opts for limiting the freedom of Cuban Americans in order to force conformity.

Of course, it’s a false conformity, as anyone who has seen the Cuban American traffic in the Cancun and Nassau airports can attest.

The message seems to be, “I won’t criticize you for visiting your family, but I will use the law to stop you from doing so, because we’re exiles and we all have to act that way.”

[Photo of people waiting for arriving passengers at Havana’s Terminal 2]

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Herald writes about Senator McCain refusing a meeting with the Cuban American National Foundation that the Foundation tried to arrange alongside a fundraiser in New Orleans. Judging from the article, the action resulted in lost donations, and the McCain camp went on to attack the Foundation; it’s a “fairly irrelevant” group, according to a McCain spokeswoman.

  • The number of joint ventures with foreign investors in Cuba has dropped from 258 to 234 since the end of 2005, Reuters reports, citing testimony given in Cuba’s legislature. Officials say that investment flows have increased as the number of businesses has dropped, but no figures on that were released. There are 24 joint ventures with Venezuela.

  • El “nuevo huevo grande:” China’s news agency reports that a gallina guantanamera has hatched the biggest egg in the world, 171 grams. She survived.

  • The historic center of the city of Camaguey, founded 1528, has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.

  • The U.S. Interests Section hosted a videoconference on Monday between Willy Chirino and fans; they talked music and politics. El Nuevo Herald report here, Sun-Sentinel report here.

  • Al-Jazeera’s English service did a long piece on the politics of Miami in the presidential election (YouTube here). The anchor seemed frustrated that he couldn’t just make a speech into the camera to link the plight of the Palestinians to the Cuba debate. So he took it out on his interviewees, Joe Garcia and Ramon Saul Sanchez, both very patient guys.

On Calle Concordia

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Family travel legislation

A Senate subcommittee approved a bill that includes an amendment to end the Cuban American family travel restrictions that the Bush Administration imposed in 2004 (see Congressional Quarterly story). Last month, the House Appropriations Committee included a similar provision in its version of the same bill, the financial services appropriation that covers the Treasury Department. The provision faces many hurdles: possible amendments to remove it, a possible veto threat, and the possibility that the bill itself will not be considered due to a logjam affecting all appropriations bills, which could lead to a stopgap appropriations bill that would most likely have this and all similar policy measures stripped. Neither bill addresses the restrictions on remittances.

An opening in private transportation (Updated)

Cuba’s transportation minister announced that licenses will soon be granted to private individuals to provide transportation services in rural and urban areas, according to the Spanish news agency EFE. A resolution, described by ministry officials to EFE, will be issued that will open the way for licenses to be granted to cover routes not served by public transport. [Update: AP story in English here.]

Private entrepreneurs, trabajadores por cuenta propia, have provided transportation services since the early 1990’s, but the issuance of new licenses stopped in 1996.

Some work as regular taxi drivers, roaming and getting fares where they can, and others (boteros) work like public buses, driving back and forth on established routes across Cuban cities, picking up and dropping off passengers as they go. (There are unlicensed private taxis too; Fidel Castro ridiculed them in an aside in his last major speech in 2005, citing the guy who “drives his old car, buying and stealing gasoline all the way from Havana to Guantanamo, charging 1,000 pesos, 1,200 pesos to one of those young students who has to travel when the transportation situation is very difficult.”)

The action announced yesterday seems to apply to the boteros; the minister said that fares, routes, and schedules will be established as licenses are granted.

This decision is of limited scope, but it’s a positive sign that the government has decided to expand private entrepreneurship to provide an essential service that the government itself – in this case, after considerable investment in a new bus fleet – is not providing.

This same thinking is already evident in the agricultural sector, where idle lands are being distributed to private farmers. If it is applied to other sectors of the economy, there are many benefits to be gained in job creation, income improvement, and provision of services.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Paseo del Prado

Receivables

Challenges of the oil business in Cuba: finding the oil, extracting it, and getting paid for it.

Here’s a press release from the publicly traded Canadian company Pebercan, which is involved in oil production on Cuba’s north coast, just east of Havana. It says that after Cuba agreed to a payment schedule last year to settle a debt owed to the company, the payments have not been forthcoming. But new talks are under way, and as in past instances, the company expects “a positive outcome.”

The press release begins by citing the “context of increases in the cost of raw materials and food staples” that has made it impossible for the Cuban oil company Cupet to make its payments. That sounds like Cupet saying that it wants to make the payments but the Central Bank won’t allocate the foreign exchange, because food imports are a higher priority.

If so, it’s a sign of the worldwide food and oil price crunch that is hitting Cuba hard (see the Economist’s account, here). But regardless of the reason, the Pebercan story is not one that will encourage prospective investors in Cuba’s oil business.

New poll on Miami Congressional races

A new poll from Bendixen and Associates shows tight races in two Miami Congressional districts: Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart leads challenger Raul Martinez by a 41-37 margin, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart leads challenger Joe Garcia 44-39. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is comfortably ahead of challenger Annette Taddeo, 58-31. McClatchy report here.

Posada back to Panama?

“We ask God to sharpen our machetes because difficult times are arriving,” Luis Posada Carriles said two months ago at a Miami dinner in his honor.

He was speculating about difficult times in Cuba, but he may be the one facing difficult times, in the form of some new legal trouble.

Posada, whom President Bush’s Justice Department calls an “admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks,” was in jail in Panama when he won a last-minute pardon from outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso in 2004. He had been serving a sentence for endangering public safety and possession of explosives; those charges were brought when he and associates, apparently seeking to assassinate Fidel Castro, traveled to Panama when Castro was there, and were arrested with their explosives.

After the pardon, he entered the United States illegally and faced immigration charges, which were eventually dismissed on procedural grounds by a judge. He is living in Miami and faces deportation – if the U.S. government could find a country to take him.

Because he could allegedly face torture if extradited to Cuba or Venezuela, where he faces charges related to the 1976 bombing of the Cuban airliner in Barbados, extradition to those two countries has been ruled out.

Panama’s supreme court has now declared Posada’s 2004 pardon to be unconstitutional. With that pardon nullified, the way is now open for Panamanian authorities to seek his extradition so he can serve out his sentence.

What would the Bush Administration do if a request came from Panama? Last year, a Reuters report on a UN debate of the Posada case contained this passage:

“U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad … said the immigration judge who originally considered Posada Carriles’s case had barred his deportation to Cuba or Venezuela. But he said Washington would be prepared to send him to another country with terrorism-related charges against him.”

We’ll see.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Old friends, new space

Why the changes in Herejias y Caipirinhas, the blog that reporter Rui Ferreira started? It’s because, as Rui and co-author Helena Poleo explain, they are leaving El Nuevo Herald. But they are continuing the blog at this new address and no longer connected to the Herald, with separate pages on politics and elections, gastronomy, and immigration law. Here’s hoping that they prosper in their new digs.

Caracas


Photos from Propatria neighborhood (top) and near Plaza Chacaito.

More oil rumblings

There was an article last week in Brazilian media about Brazil’s Petrobras negotiating an oil exploration deal with Cuba. An account in English from the industry press is here.

This seems to be a case of less than meets the eye. The article is based on an interview with Fidel Rivero, a Cuban oil company official who says that “we are going to change the history of the island” by exploiting Cuba’s Gulf reserves. The negotiations with Petrobras are in the final stages, Rivero says, but one of the items still to be resolved is Petrobras’ share of the proceeds (“rate of return” is the term he uses), which would seem to be a central issue. Maybe that’s why he says he hopes to see an announcement “in the coming months.”

On the home front, left-of-center blogs are playing a game of gotcha with Republican politicians who declare that China is drilling for oil in Cuban waters. Columnist George Will and Vice President Cheney made that claim a few weeks ago, but corrected themselves promptly.

Here are the blogs’ hits on Rudy Giuliani, Senator Norm Coleman, and Congressman Mike Rogers. Of course they’re right that China is not drilling in Cuban waters, so the “Red China drilling off our shores” scare tactic doesn’t hold water.

But Chinese companies could drill there, as could companies from any other country, save the United States. The candidates’ inaccurate claims about China don’t change the fact that in the coming years, we’re likely to see additional drilling in Cuban waters, at locations closer to Florida’s shores than Florida would allow in areas it controls.

There are four policy issues that arise. First, Vice President Cheney was right: in this case, the communists are doing more to increase supplies than we are. Second, because of the Administration’s aversion to talking with the Cuban government, the United States is doing nothing to deal with the risk to our own marine environment. Third, if Cuba becomes self-sufficient in oil, or an oil exporter, its relationship with Venezuela would no longer be economically crucial. And fourth, if that were to happen, it would be very hard to argue that U.S. sanctions could be an instrument to force political change in Cuba.

Odds and ends

  • From Stars and Stripes, “Guantanamo Bay – outside the wire” – a look at the base and its 7,265 residents on “an isolated edge of an island they can never explore.” The photo gallery shows the topography, the bay, the desert-like vegetation, the big iguanas, and a museum created on the base, with a collection of crafts that Haitians and Cubans have used to get there. And this sidebar tells of the monthly meeting at the gate between the base commander and a Cuban officer – “very formal, very scripted” – but the only contact between our two military institutions.

  • Senator Jesse Helms, author of the Helms-Burton law, died last week. R.I.P.

  • From an independent journalist in Cuba, a story on preparations for the tests UNESCO used to measure elementary school achievement.