Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Price freeze, policy freeze (Updated x2)

With the hurricanes gone, the country officially in recovery phase, and huge challenges looming to restore half a million damaged homes and a flattened agriculture sector, one might think the Cuban government would reach into the economic policy toolkit for solutions.

Not so, at least not so far.

Until yesterday, the only hint of something new was a vague one, when Fidel Castro wrote on September 7 that “Russia, Vietnam, China, and others expressed the disposition to cooperate as much as possible in investment programs that we should undertake immediately to re-establish production and to develop it.”

In the same essay, he noted that Venezuela’s aid offer is “the most generous gesture of solidarity” that Cuba has ever known.

“Steady as she goes” seems to be the guiding concept in economic policy.

In the one area where major change seems to be under way, the farm sector, Cuba is proceeding with the distribution of idle state lands to people who will use it to grow food. More than 18,000 people and 221 “personas juridicas” (cooperatives, I assume) filed papers to acquire new farmland in the first few days after the government started accepting applications, according to this Cuban media report.

Three of four applicants have no land now, the report says, representing an influx of new producers – a positive sign in a sector where it’s generally believed that it’s hard to find people who want to work.

Raul Castro made an appearance in Pinar del Rio last week and reiterated his concern about salaries, purchasing power, and work incentives: “People have to feel the need to work,” he said. He reiterated that Cuba’s commitment to equality doesn’t exclude higher pay for higher productivity: “You work more than me and you sacrifice more than me, and you have to receive more than I do.”

In the same appearance, he addressed the dual currency/dual salary system that is at the heart of the work incentive problem – but he said it “might be audacious” to think that Cuba could unify its currency within five years.

What to do to revive food production? There are numerous reports that Cuban farmers are doing what they know how to do after hurricanes, which is to plant short-cycle crops as fast as they can (see AP story here or video linked here).

But price increases are a problem. According to this report, prices in the agros, the farmers markets where producers sell their surplus at market-driven prices, have doubled since the hurricanes.

The government’s response is to institute price controls. Yesterday’s Granma carried a front-page announcement under the headline “Information for our people” that warned against theft and speculation, stated that previously planned food imports are “guaranteed” and new imports to replace lost domestic production are being contracted, stated that the government will not raise prices on food that it sells and that prices in the agros will be capped. (AP story here.)

Over the years, Cuban data have shown that about two thirds of their products come from private farmers, the most productive in Cuba. To my knowledge, this is the first time that prices will be controlled since the agros began operation in 1994. Until now, supply and demand has been the rule.

One can understand that any government would protect against price gouging, but that’s not what is happening here. “Provisionally,” the announcement says, for a “group of basic products,” vendors may charge no more than the prices that were prevailing in the markets before the hurricanes struck.

So prices will be frozen for the producers who are being called upon to increase production, who face higher production and transportation cost due to the government’s recent fuel price hike, and who surely face additional costs related to the hurricanes, such as repairing their homes, or hiring extra labor to clear fields and get new crops in the ground.

This is not a signal that will increase production.

Indeed, today’s El Pais reports that an “employee” of a Havana agro (that could mean a private vendor or a state administrator, the article doesn’t specify) predicts that the price controls will backfire. Producers will not want to bring product to market, he said, and he predicted that the agro “will be bare in a week.”

Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has visited Cuba twice in one week.

Maybe his help will be enough.

Update: There are several reports about the markets, both state and private, with less supply and less variety of products in recent days: EFE and Juventud Rebelde (Spanish), and EFE and IPS (English). The immediate cause of the reduced supply seems to be, obviously enough, that the hurricanes ravaged so many crops in the fields. But price controls are pinching, too. The EFE article cites a market vendor who is not selling onions because his supplier’s price to him, and the maximum price he can charge at retail, are exactly the same. In other words, no margin.

Update: La Jornada’s article today is more concrete than those cited above. The products subject to price controls are: three types of plantains, three types of beans, garlic (three sizes), malanga, boniato, yuca, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and rice.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Cubaencuentro has an interview with Eliecer Avila, the student at the information technology university who challenged National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon at a question-and-answer session earlier this year.

  • The Cuban American National Foundation says its license to provide hurricane relief aid was renewed, but with a new condition: donors cannot earmark contributions for specific individuals in Cuba, such as family members.

The migration numbers prove...nothing

The U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 2,134 Cubans trying to reach the United States without a visa last year – that’s 25 percent fewer than the year before, according to figures from the just-concluded 2008 fiscal year reported in the Herald.

Actually, the Coast Guard’s data tables show that 2008 interdictions were more than 25 percent lower than in any of the three previous fiscal years.

What conclusions can we draw?

None at all, in my opinion.

Everyone knows that huge numbers of Cubans would like to emigrate to the United States. After all, half a million applications came into the U.S. consulate when the visa lottery program was instituted during the Clinton Administration, with many applications on behalf of entire families.

But there’s a temptation to discern big political trends in the ups and downs of migration statistics – a feat that the actual statistics don’t allow us to perform. (If you don’t agree, maybe you would want to argue that the 25 percent drop in interdictions tells us that more Cubans are staying put because they are increasingly hopeful and confident under the Raul Castro government.)

Kidding aside, here’s the problem.

Relative to the Cuban population, the numbers of interdictions and Cubans who arrive without visas are very small. What’s more, there are so many factors in play that it’s impossible to prove a cause when the numbers tick up or down.

2,134 is the number of those caught at sea during fiscal 2008, compared to 2,868 in 2007. That decrease is worth examining if we know that it correlates with a decrease in attempted departures, but we don’t know that that is the case.

Regardless, let’s set that aside and ask anyway: Why did the number go down?

It could have something to do with changes in the Coast Guard’s skill or luck or deployment patterns. Or, it could be caused by changes in the skill or luck of migrants or those who smuggle them.

Or, if you consider the fact that alien smuggling is an established business, it could be caused by rational market behavior: It may just be that people in Miami who want to get their relatives out of Cuba have learned that the lowest-risk option is to pay smugglers who operate on the Mexico route, bringing Cubans to the Yucatan then arranging their trip north to cross the Texas border. That would certainly explain less traffic encountered by the U.S. Coast Guard.

On top of that, there’s no way to take statistics about smuggling – or statistics that combine departures by smuggling and departures by rafts or other vessels – and draw conclusions about changes in conditions in Cuba. The incidence of smuggling, at least in part, is tied to factors that have nothing to do with Cuba, such as Miami families’ confidence in the smugglers’ ability to defeat law enforcement, or the families’ ability to afford smugglers’ fees.

We might know something about the connection between illegal departures and the public mood in Cuba – if we knew that Cubans’ perceptions of the effectiveness of U.S. enforcement were constant, and if we had actual data on the number of Cubans who attempt to leave by means other than smuggling.

But we don’t have that statistic, and we never will.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Secretary Gutierrez, for no apparent reason, issues a statement about the “Cuban Regime’s Failure” to accept U.S. aid offers. I think the Administration’s offers were made in good faith, and I think Cuba’s rejection was wrong. But if there’s the slightest chance that the aid could flow, how does a statement like this help?

  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas has a 6-minute video of an interview its staff conducted with a resident of Vinales, Pinar del Rio, which was hit by both Ike and Gustav. He describes the damage to farms and crops, his attitude about getting back to work to pick up the pieces, and the recollection of his 96-year-old father-in-law about the hurricane of ’44. With English subtitles.

  • Western Union cut its fee for wiring remittances to Cuba to $14.99, through November 14. The company’s release doesn’t say what the price was before this temporary discount, but when the service started it cost $29.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Russians Are Coming? (Take Two)

“Russian space center in Cuba” is a phrase that gets your attention.

Fox News conjures up images of “rockets in Cuba,” albeit without nuclear warheads, and former State Department official Lawrence Wilkerson discusses a “space launch facility.”

If you check out what the Russians are actually talking about, it’s not a Caribbean Cape Canaveral, and no launchpads seem to be involved.

This English-language opinion article from Novosti recalls last month’s visit of a Russian security chief to Cuba, the Russian desire to reassert itself in the Western hemisphere, and the Soviet-era history of space project cooperation with Cuba. What is under discussion now, the article says, is a “proposed Cuban space center [that] will process data received from Russian remote-sensing and navigation satellites,” and plans to “jointly use orbital telecommunications networks.”

See also this Novosti news article on the satellite system in question.

The whole thing sounds like a tracking, data, and communications station. But as they say, trust but verify.

More on the Cuba-Russia relationship here and here.

Odds and ends

  • More terrific reporting from post-hurricane Cuba from the Herald, this time from the other end of the island, Surgidero de Batabano in the west, with a short video.

  • El Nuevo Herald: Hector Palacios and Gisela Delgado return to Cuba after 11 months abroad.

  • Machado Ventura in New York: meetings with President Uribe of Colombia and others, a solidarity event, and a speech on the international economy (from Granma).

  • The "Cuba-Brazil Technical Cooperation and Work Group" is in session in Havana, looking to increase economic ties (Gazeta Mercantil).

  • After declining since the 1970’s, the Cuban American share of Miami-Dade’s Latino population is rising again, Census data shows.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cuba accepts aid, selectively

The messages from Cuba seem pretty clear on two fronts.

First, if you consider Raul Castro’s relatively low profile and Fidel’s many commentaries over the past week, is seem clear that in this crisis, it’s Fidel that is calling the strategic shots.

Second, while I would like to reserve some hope that U.S. government aid may contribute to the hurricane relief effort, it seems clear that Cuba is not going to accept U.S. aid. The Bush Administration dropped its requirement that a U.S. assessment team visit Cuba before any aid delivery, and it has shown a willingness to deliver aid directly to the Cuban government rather than to private entities or international agencies. The latest offer was made Friday, and includes building supplies. Nonetheless, as we learn from Fidel Castro’s September 16 commentary, Cuban national dignity and protection against U.S. espionage are the deciding factors for him.

In a September 20 commentary, Fidel complains that some U.S. government aid is being channeled through political groups that want to change Cuba’s form of government. That, in his view, taints any U.S. offer.

But even if you agree with Castro’s qualms about the Bush Administration’s offers, what to make about an apparent Cuban decision, reported by EFE, to reject aid from all but two member states (Belgium and Spain) of the European Union? The reason, EFE reports, is that Cuba maintains a policy of “not accepting direct aid from nations that have not normalized cooperation agreements” with Cuba. Amazing.

Where does all this leave Cubans in affected areas? Here’s a report from the Miami Herald, from Banes and Gibara in Holguin province, where locals are working on their own as they wait for substantial aid to arrive.

The longer-term question is whether Cuba’s relief and recovery requirements will be met effectively by relief provided by the government and international sources. Here’s hoping all the sources of aid – governments, international relief agencies, and family members working within and around the Administration’s restrictions – can succeed. In his September 20 commentary, Fidel Castro says that in addition to offers of cash and material aid that he doesn’t quantify, more than $1 billion in “loans and soft credits” have been offered by Russia, Angola, China, Vietnam, “and others.”

Odds and ends

  • Man of Two Havanas, the film about Max Lesnik by his daughter Vivian Lesnik Weisman, will screen in Miami this week. Herald story here, my note on the film here.

  • Cuban Vice President Machado Ventura is in New York, heading the Cuban delegation to the UN General Assembly. Cuban preview here (ACN), Herald coverage of a Harlem rally here.

  • The Cupet-PDVSA joint venture considers reactivating the pipeline from the Cienfuegos refinery to the Matanzas supertanker terminal, Oil & Gas Journal reports.

  • This column by Deroy Murdock is about the U.S. economy, a little off topic, but it makes you think that when it comes to building socialism, maybe we have more in common with Cuba than we thought. And while I’m at it, there’s this comment from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in an AFP roundup of Latin American opinion of the U.S. financial crisis; Lula said he sees “with sadness that important banks that came by giving opinions, saying what we should or should not do, measuring country risk, recommending to investors whether Brazil was trustworthy or not, are calling their creditors…[what these banks determined] was not the free movement of capital, generating jobs and wealth, but rather speculation…they turned some sectors of the financial system into a casino and they lost at the roulette wheel…”

Monday, September 22, 2008

Last week's hearing

The post about last week’s Congressional hearing set off a long thread of comments among readers that are doing just fine defending their respective points of view. I’ll add just a few things.

It was a very thorough hearing, lasting six hours with about two hours of interruptions for votes in the House. It’s beyond dispute that all points of view were aired thoroughly, and at length. The hearing was about the Administration’s Cuba family sanctions – but the entire discussion was in the context of the suffering caused by the hurricanes, and what the United States should do.

In response to a reader’s question: Yes, Ninoska Perez was definitely there. Her statement, along with almost all the other witnesses’ statements, is here.

Unless I missed something, I don’t think anyone used the Secretary of Commerce’s ridiculous argument that people in Cuba have no use for cash. There was plenty of debate about remittances and family assistance, from all angles. The chairman, Rep. Delahunt, has now introduced a bill to suspend the family sanctions (visits, remittances, gift parcels) for six months; his bill does not include the additional provision (included in Senator Dodd’s legislation) to allow a six-month period where Cuba could buy goods that can be used in home repair.

From my point of view, I would love to see the family sanctions suspended or repealed, but I see no possibility that the President will do that, and only a slim chance that Congress will do so in the final week of its session, as it prepares to debate a trillion-dollar program to address the financial crisis.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Today's hearing

Testimony (pdf) submitted by yours truly.

Secretary Gutierrez strikes again

From Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, speaking to reporters in Miami yesterday:

“What we are hearing from Cubans in Cuba is they don't need money because there's nothing to buy.”

I guess he’s unaware of appeals that dissidents such as Martha Beatriz Roque and Oswaldo Paya, both representing their organizations, made to President Bush in the wake of the hurricanes. Or the appeal that Roque made in May to President Bush in a videoconference from Havana, in which Gutierrez participated.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Odds and ends

  • El Nuevo Herald: Senators Dodd and Lugar present an amendment to suspend U.S. sanctions affecting visits and remittances to family members in Cuba, and to allow Cuba to purchase construction materials.

  • “Official information” on preliminary damage assessments is published in Granma; it has lots of detail, including information on the degree to which electric power has been restored in each province.

  • Reuters: Cuba accepts a political dialogue with the European Union. The Czech government says it’s a positive step but wants to see concrete results.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

$5 billion

Here’s a roundup of reports on damages from Gustav and Ike. The blow to food supply is particularly severe: crops lost in the field, stocks damaged in warehouses, and Cuba’s capacity to import affected by losses in sectors that generate foreign exchange earnings. It’s not yet clear how foreign assistance will measure up to this challenge, or how long it will take for farm production to return to normal. Beans cost 20 pesos per pound in farmers markets, more than double the norm, according to a report Rui Ferreira has from Havana.

  • Cuban housing officials now say 514,875 housing units were damaged, of which 91,254 were destroyed completely.

  • Agriculture ministry officials said last week that 700,000 tons of food was lost (including an amount of pork equal to eight percent of last year’s production), with heavy damage to plantains (80 percent of Holguin’s production lost), tubers, poultry, livestock, and more (El Nuevo Herald, La Jornada). More here from Reuters here, on coffee and tobacco, and on citrus here.

Monday, September 15, 2008


In the Monday press briefing, the State Department spokesman explains the U.S. offer of $5 million in aid that Cuba rejected.

He also talks about the recent granting of licenses for sales of agricultural products, saying that licenses for sales of about $250 million have been granted since Hurricane Gustav. The licenses include lumber, which fits in the definition of agricultural products permitted for export. He lumps these exports together with the aid offer, just as Administration spokesmen have done on previous occasions with regard to humanitarian donations.

Regarding the aid, as discussed below, I think it was a good offer that Cuba should have accepted.

Regarding the licenses, it’s good that they are proceeding, but I find it hard to grant the Administration credit for simply allowing normal private activities to proceed. The agricultural sales have been routine since 2001. And while the Administration says it is expediting licensing of humanitarian donations, it would make far more sense if Americans were not required to get licenses from two federal agencies (Treasury and Commerce) if they want to make a charitable donation, say, to a church in Cuba.

Above all, this discussion diverts attention from the fact that the Administration has given the back of its hand to dissidents in Cuba and many voices in Miami and elsewhere in America, who have called for suspension of restrictions on direct aid to family members in Cuba in this time of emergency.

Bush offers aid, Cuba refuses

If the well-being of hurricane victims were not at issue, the back-and-forth over the U.S. offer of aid would make for an interesting spectator sport.

But that’s not the case.

The latest development is that the U.S. government apparently dropped its insistence on sending an assessment team prior to delivering aid, and on Saturday offered $5 million in aid, to be airlifted as soon as Cuba would give the green light.

Cuba said no.

A CNN account of the U.S. offer and Cuba’s refusal, as described by the State Department today, is here. The Cuban foreign ministry’s September 10 statement is here, and a statement issued yesterday by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington is here.

I don’t think the assessment team was an unreasonable idea in the first place – the point is simply for experts to figure out how U.S. aid could contribute to the overall recovery effort. Duplication of effort, or delivery of items that don’t have an immediate impact, would be steps backward.

On the other hand, other countries have sent aid without requiring that they first send a team to inspect damages. The Bush Administration apparently reached a point where, even without its own assessment, it had a good idea what was needed and was prepared to open the spigot.

Given the state of relations between the two governments, it was perhaps predictable that Cuba would resist the idea of a U.S. assessment team, and insist instead that the United States ease its economic sanctions. “If you want to help, stop punishing our economy,” is a message that makes common sense, and scores political points. But with the assessment team issue apparently gone, Cuba seems to be refusing a straight-up offer from the closest potential source of immediate, significant aid.

Other countries are helping. Fidel Castro writes that Venezuela’s aid offer is unprecedented. An international relief effort is gaining steam. But the damage is so severe that it makes no sense to leave any offer on the table. George W. Bush is not Havana’s favorite, but his Administration ends in a few months. Why can’t Cuba score its points elsewhere, and agree to the U.S. aid?

[Photos via Juventud Rebelde; Camaguey province (top) and Mayari (right).]

Friday, September 12, 2008

More damage reports

  • La Jornada: 370,000 houses were damaged by Ike and Gustav, of which 48,000 are totally destroyed, and 153 buildings collapsed in Havana.

  • Granma on the hurricane damage, with photos. Also, an article on the deployment of Cuba’s strategic reserves, with an important caveat at the top – they’re not enough to meet the needs of the current emergency.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ike's damages

The damage from Ike is coming into clearer focus. Reuters reports on economic sectors that were slammed or spared, and cites an early UN estimate of $3-4 billion total damage. El Nuevo Herald reports on the horrendous damage to small towns in eastern Cuba. A Herald article cites an estimate of 320,000 homes damaged or wrecked by Gustav and Ike, and this widely circulated video makes credible the many reports about small towns where most houses are wiped out. The video is one of many Cuban media reports that detail the extent of local damage, but the central government has yet to present an assessment of the nationwide damage (e.g. to food supplies) and has not indicated when electricity and running water might be restored in the communities that lack those utilities. As for the leadership, state television has shown Raul Castro at work with other officials and on the phone with foreign leaders, but he has not addressed the public nor gone to affected areas; AP report here.

U.S. Bishops to Bush: expand aid by lifting restrictions

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote President Bush to urge that he remove regulatory impediments to hurricane relief by U.S. organizations and individuals. Excerpt:

At times of crisis, there are simple and basic acts of charity on which people rely. Churches, as well as governments, urge people to reach out and respond with generosity to those in desperate need. The United States has a tradition of such assistance for which it can be rightly proud. At this time, all should be done to facilitate humanitarian assistance, be it through institutions like Catholic Relief Services, or through the generosity of individuals moved by the misfortune of their brothers and sisters. Removing restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba are a necessary step which I urge you to take without delay.

The full text is here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More on Ike

  • The United States has renewed its offer of aid to Cuba, which apparently hinges on sending an assessment team. Again, I hope both governments find a way to make this work. State Department statement here. Another good move: the government will allow organizations already licensed to provide humanitarian aid, to provide more, and to hand out cash. It’s still beyond me why families aren’t allowed to do the same thing.

  • Sun Sentinel correspondent Ray Sanchez’ roundup of the Ike’s impact is here; another from La Jornada is here.

  • Armando Valladares in Diario las Americas: “Not one nail, not one board for the dictatorship.”

  • Cuba’s AIN news agency has a photo gallery depicting Ike’s damage in several provinces, and at the bottom of the page there’s a link to a page of photos of Gustav’s impact in Pinar del Rio and Isla de la Juventud.

[News agency photo from Baracoa.]

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

In Ike's wake

Photos received from Cuba this morning, from Gibara, the coastal town in Holguin province near where Ike's eye made landfall.

Ike advances, President Bush holds firm

Hurricane Ike ravaged eastern Cuba yesterday as its center took an east-west path approximately from Banes to Santa Cruz del Sur. Weakened, it then went over the Caribbean, continuing to the east, and is now making a second landfall in western Cuba south of Artemisa, where it will add to the damage Gustav caused to Pinar del Rio and Havana provinces. Four deaths were reported. The only good news is that Ike didn’t take the path originally forecast, which at one point looked like it would follow Cuba’s central highway from Las Tunas to Havana, and the city of Havana seems to be spared a direct hit. Still, the rain and wind in Havana (gusting to 75 mph, NOAA reported this morning) pose considerable danger.

AP’s roundup is here. A Miami Herald slideshow of wire service photos (Baracoa, Camaguey, Holguin) is here. You can follow radar images of the hurricane here.

You can also read blogger Yoani Sanchez’ description (with photos, titled “Scorched Earth”) of the damage in Pinar del Rio after a weekend trip there.

What can be done? U.S. government aid is not in the cards, and we could have a long debate on who is to blame. Americans can donate to humanitarian agencies that provide relief in Cuba (see below). And direct, family-to-family aid is possible, but is limited by U.S. economic sanctions.

Readers have commented that disaster relief is usually provided, and is best provided by large agencies with experience and logistical capacity. That’s true. But should direct family aid be precluded just because governments and big agencies may be at work?

U.S. regulations limit visits to once every three years, limit remittances to $100 per household per month, and restrict the content of gift parcels to food, medicine, medical supplies and equipment, receive-only radios, and batteries for radios. (In 2004, these items were dropped from the list of permitted items: clothing, personal hygiene items, seeds, fishing equipment, soap-making equipment, and veterinary medicine and supplies. The Federal Register notice explained that gift parcels “decrease the burden on the Cuban regime to provide for the basic needs of its people.”) On top of all that, visits, remittances, and parcels may be sent to immediate family only.

How does this affect the situation today?

It means that a Cuban American who visited his mother last year in Holguin and wants to locate her now and look after her, can’t do so because his visit was too recent, and he has to wait until 2010. It means that a woman who has heard from her brother in Ciego de Avila that his house is intact but his refrigerator is destroyed, cannot send the money to buy a new one, because it would exceed the limit on remittances. It means that in the case of a family in Pinar del Rio whose house was flattened and garden wrecked, their relatives cannot send seeds and new clothes, because those items are now banned. It means that two men in Hialeah who want to draw on their savings to go to Cuba, buy supplies however they can, and put a new roof on their aunt’s house, cannot do so. The aunt is not immediate family, and the visit is not allowed.

You get the idea.

It may be that direct family aid would address only one percent of Cubans’ needs today. But even if it reaches a small percent of Cuban familes, it would resolve the lion’s share of their needs, and it would reduce the burden on the relief agencies that are the only option for everyone else. Why stand in the way of that?

I have never been a fan of President Bush’s Cuba family sanctions. I have never bought the idea that they, as part of the larger embargo, are an expression of American solidarity with the cause of human rights in Cuba, or are going to put decisive pressure on the Havana government.

Today, the family sanctions are even harder to accept. They stand in the way of simple, effective acts of charity that people in Cuba desperately need, and don’t square with the idea of supporting civil society, the bedrock of which is the family.

Dissident leaders such as Martha Beatriz Roque, Vladimiro Roca, Oswaldo Paya, Miriam Leiva, and Oscar Espinosa Chepe – the whole spectrum – have called for a suspension of these family sanctions, as have religious leaders in Cuba (ever since they were adopted), Yoani Sanchez, and many voices in Miami, including the organizations that make up Consenso Cubano.

President Bush has rejected these appeals. If the President sees the dissidents as potential leaders of Cuba, and if he is willing to spend tens of millions to aid their cause, one would think our government would listen to them at a time like this.

How to help: Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the international aid arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, has long supported the work of Caritas, Cuba’s nationwide Catholic charity, in a variety of humanitarian tasks including disaster relief. Caritas has requested assistance to help Gustav’s victims, and CRS is receiving donations for this purpose. If you want to help CRS respond to Caritas’ appeal, you can make a donation to CRS and designate it for “Cuba hurricane relief,” the code is 2770-1284 – you can do it on-line at the CRS donation page, or by mail (Catholic Relief Services, PO Box 17090, Baltimore MD 21203-7090), or by calling 1-888-277-7575.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

As Ike approaches

  • 600,000 Cubans evacuate their homes as Ike advances, AFP reports.

  • At Penultimos Dias, a terrific idea: both governments should do all they can to allow outside aid to reach hurricane victims in Cuba – including U.S. suspension of its travel, remittance, and gift package limits on Cuban Americans, and Cuba placing a moratorium on taxes and fees on remittances.

  • Blogger Yoani Sanchez, in a post called “Losing it all,” weighs in in favor of U.S. suspension of its family sanctions – but she says a 90-day suspension isn’t enough.

Odds and ends

  • The Cuban government prepares to receive requests from farmers and cooperatives that want more land to work, EFE reports.

  • There’s talk, but no action, when it comes to new foreign investment in Cuba’s sugar industry to produce ethanol and other derivatives, IPS reports.

No and No

As another strong hurricane aims to sweep across Cuba from east to west, we have answers to two questions about relief for the victims of Gustav. The Cuban government rejected the U.S. government’s offer of aid, saying it has assessed Gustav’s damage and doesn’t need U.S. specialists to perform that task, and that if the United States wants to help it should ease economic sanctions against Cuba. And the U.S. government rejected calls from dissidents and others to suspend restrictions on Cuban American family visits, gift packages, and remittances.


The unanimous narrative about Gorki Aguila, leader of the Havana punk band Porno para Ricardo, is that the Cuban government intended to silence him, but flinched and retreated in the face of an Internet-fueled blast of worldwide outrage.

Maybe so.

I missed this late-August event when I was away from the blog, and I wasn’t familiar with Gorki’s work. I checked it out; no doubt he’s quite a critic. He pulls no punches, blasting the government and its leaders in both political and personal terms, sometimes with obscenity. His band has fans overseas and uses the Internet to promote their work.

And the police reportedly picked Gorki up on the peligrosidad social charge – a prosecutorial blank check if there ever was one – the foundation of which is that the state can detect in a person’s behavior a “proclivity” to commit crimes, and judge him to be in a state of “dangerousness.” (See explanation from Amnesty International in its “Fear of unfair trial” alert about Gorki’s case.) Conviction on that charge could result in a four-year jail sentence.

So it appeared that they were coming after Gorki to deny him his right to voice dissent through his music, and in turn they were warning his band’s following not to get any big ideas.

That may indeed be what happened – even though, in the event, Gorki was convicted of “disobedience,” got no jail time, and was fined 600 pesos. One can’t discount the intimidation value of a few nights in jail with a trial and possible jail time looming.

But for the sake of being contrarian, I’ll add a few things.

If it’s the case that the Cuban government was intimidated by the Free Gorki campaign and its press coverage, that would represent a real change. This government, in the past few years, executed three youths for the crime of hijacking, arrested 75 dissidents in one fell swoop, and jailed the dissident jurist Rene Gomez Manzano for 19 months then freed him without bringing charges. It would not have been out of character, if there was a desire to press stiffer charges, for prosecutors to have done so regardless of the reaction.

Then I listened to some of the music, available on the band’s website. That experience raised the possibility that there could have been a grain of truth to the police story about neighbors complaining about the decibel level of the band’s rehearsals. That, according to Yoani Sanchez, was the prosecution’s argument at the trial, which was open, and which she attended. (Go here to read her report on the trial, with the account of the witnesses and the apparently desultory defense; see the final entry, “6:00 p.m., El Juicio.”) Listen to the music, imagine living nearby as rehearsals are going on, and ask yourself if there’s a neighborhood on earth where a few neighbors wouldn’t call the cops. Gorki himself talked to reporters at home after the trial ended; he told AFP, “We can’t rehearse here anymore, we have to look for another place.”

Apart from the decibel level, there’s the issue of content. Much is sexual, and much has to do with issues of unrequited love, to put it mildly. Then there’s a vile song that Gorki, 39, sings about a relationship with a woman, including adventures on a bus and in a cemetery, that ends with him killing her with a single gunshot: “Only dead are you mine…And in my head I have you, every day.” It’s not hard to imagine that Cubans in an average neighborhood would not want to hear this, and would not want their kids to hear this.

Bottom line:

The guy’s freedom of expression should be respected. I could care less about his genre or his taste.

If the neighbors complained, I don’t blame them.

I hope he gets rehearsal space.

Two motivations may in fact have been in play on the government’s part: warn a critic, and respond to neighbors’ complaints.

If Gorki is being set up as the Havel of Havana, then God help Cuba.

And finally, the next time the Bush Administration is attacked for not caring about civil liberties, they can end the argument by holding up the Secretary of Commerce’s statement of support for Gorki Aguila, along with some of his lyrics.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bush offers aid

Good for the Bush Administration for offering hurricane relief aid to Cuba, as reported in today’s New York Times.

Now let’s hope that the two governments find a way to make it work.

The U.S. insistence that the aid go through relief agencies was not a condition of the post-typhoon aid provided to Burma earlier this year (here’s a report of U.S. aid being loaded directly onto Burmese military trucks), but that doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle if the Cuban side is indeed interested in U.S. aid.

Regarding the statement by Senator Menendez and others that I cited yesterday, the English text is here (h/t Mambi Watch).

Odds and ends

  • Martha Beatriz Roque issued a statement last week saying that no one outside Cuba is authorized to speak for her organization. Anyone know who she has in mind?

  • This IPS story on an urban farm in Alamar tells how a German organization provides training, know-how, and equipment for the benefit of that farm and others.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dissident leaders to Bush: Suspend travel, remittances, gift parcel regulations

Dissident leaders Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca have written President Bush to ask that he suspend for two months U.S. restrictions on Cuban American visits, remittances, and gift packages, so families can freely help relatives harmed by Hurricane Gustav. AP story here.

Their position coincides with Senator Obama’s and with that of Miami Congressional candidates Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia, and is at odds with that of Cuban Americans in the House and Senate.

“You know as well as we do that any family member abroad would like to have physical contact with those who are going through a difficult situation,” they said. “We ask that you, at least, for a period of two months, lift the embargo restrictions that have to do with relations between Cubans in exile and those that live on the island, regarding remittances, gift parcels, and trips.”

[Update: the Christian Liberation Movement, led by Oswaldo Paya, issued a statement calling on “the governments of the United States of America and of other countries with large groups of Cuban residents, to eliminate all restrictions that hinder the sending of aid to their affected brothers in Cuba.” It also called on the Cuban government to allow aid to be received without restriction.]

Gustav relief: Debating what to do (corrected)

Cuban television is showing the arrival of Russian cargo planes bringing relief and reconstruction materials to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav. The German government is providing 200,000 Euros for hurricane relief in Haiti and Cuba, to be channeled through German organizations already working in those countries. And a Granma article, in addition to making a big deal of the relationship with Russia, lists countries that have offered sympathy and aid, including Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, we’re debating the issue.

Senator Obama and Congressional candidates Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia want President Bush to suspend restrictions on Cuban American travel, remittances, and gift packages, so that Cuban Americans can act now to assist their familes directly.

Senators Menendez and Nelson and Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Albio Sires oppose any changes in regulations and want a more controlled approach. (I could find nothing in English on their proposal; the best summary is here.) They want the United States government to offer to send an assessment team, and to offer aid through the U.S. Interests Section. They urge those who want to help to send money to humanitarian organizations that are already licensed to work in Cuba.

All of the above would be fine with me.

Still I can’t imagine why, with so much devastation in western Cuba, it should not be possible for someone to get on a plane with a few thousand bucks to fix his aunt’s roof, buy her a new refrigerator, and leave some food and money behind.

For those who want to act now, I’ll repeat this paragraph from yesterday.

How to help: U.S. government regulations severely limit what Americans can do directly, but we can work through two fine charities, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Caritas Cubana. CRS, the international aid arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, has long supported the work of Caritas, Cuba’s nationwide Catholic charity, in a variety of humanitarian tasks including disaster relief. Caritas has requested assistance to help Gustav’s victims, and CRS is receiving donations for this purpose. If you want to help CRS respond to Caritas’ appeal, you can make a donation to CRS and designate it for “Cuba hurricane relief,” the code is 2770-1284 – you can do it on-line at the CRS donation page, or by mail (Catholic Relief Services, PO Box 17090, Baltimore MD 21203-7090), or by calling 1-888-277-7575.

Correction: Contrary to what I wrote this morning, Senator Mel Martinez was not part of the initiative of Senators Menendez and Nelson and the House members.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The United States and Cuba meet on the soccer field on Saturday in Havana in the semifinal round that qualifies teams for next year’s FIFA World Cup. They meet again next month when the Cuban team comes to RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.: October 11, with kickoff at 7:00 p.m. Tickets go on sale tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. at ussoccer.com.

  • More on the theft of high-speed boats: from the St. Petersburg Times, a report on a “criminal ring thought to be working its way up Florida's west coast,” and an investigator that found 44 stolen boats in Cancun.

  • I missed this one from last week: a federal judge overturned a new Florida law that barred personnel from state colleges and universities from traveling to Cuba. The decision retains the law’s prohibition on using taxpayer funds for that purpose, but threw out the prohibition on using private funds.

Gustav's aftermath, and how to help

More news coverage: The Herald reports from Pinar del Rio, and has a gallery of wire service photos including the first I have seen from Isla de la Juventud. El Nuevo looks at the impact on agricultural production. Cuban media are reporting 100,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

Cuban human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez and, separately, the Partido Liberal Nacional Cubano (PLNC) appealed for aid to victims of Hurricane Gustav, and they called on the Cuban government to accept all aid that is offered, regardless of political criteria. The PLNC announced that its members are giving of their own resources, and they asked the international community, “especially Europe and the United States” to chip in.

How to help: U.S. government regulations severely limit what Americans can do directly, but we can work through two fine charities, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Caritas Cubana. CRS, the international aid arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, has long supported the work of Caritas, Cuba’s nationwide Catholic charity, in a variety of humanitarian tasks including disaster relief. Caritas has requested assistance to help Gustav’s victims, and CRS is receiving donations for this purpose. If you want to help CRS respond to Caritas’ appeal, you can make a donation to CRS and designate it for “Cuba hurricane relief,” the code is 2770-1284 – you can do it on-line at the CRS donation page, or by mail (Catholic Relief Services, PO Box 17090, Baltimore MD 21203-7090), or by calling 1-888-277-7575.

[AP photo from Batabano.]

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"It was pure terror"

Those are the words of Evangelina Torres, quoted in a BBC report, describing the experience of hunkering down in her kitchen as category 4 Hurricane Gustav passed through her town, Paso Quemado in Pinar del Rio province.

Her roof held, but thousands of others were not so lucky.

A short note on the homepages of the Catholic diocese of Pinar del Rio and the lay Catholic magazine Vitral calls the province a “disaster area.” It reports no loss of life from Hurricane Gustav, but cites government reports that 80 percent of the province’s housing was damaged or destroyed. That’s 90,000 houses, described in this Reuters report.

An AP video showing the damage is here. An appeal for aid from independent journalist Miriam Leiva is here.

The European Union, Spain, Russia, and Venezuela have all offered or are planning to send aid. Americans are rightly concerned about our own victims of this hurricane. Still, I see no sign that the United States will help Cuba’s victims, but I would love to be wrong about that.


Odds and ends

Lots of catching up to do:

  • In Florida’s Pinellas County, there’s a rash of thefts of high-speed boats, and police suspect alien smugglers are behind it. There’s lots of interesting detail in this Tampa Tribune report.

  • An independent journalist reports that Cuban authorities have moved some political prisoners arrested in 2003 to prisons closer to their homes. Many of the 75 jailed that year were sent to faraway prisons (Oscar Espinosa Chepe of Havana, for example, was orijinally incarcerated in Guantanamo), compounding the punishment and extending it to family members whose visits were made very difficult.

  • Cuba’s tourism ministry says the island now has 46,000 hotel rooms, nearly quadruple the amount available in 1990. One third are in Varadero and one fourth in Havana.

  • Challenger Raul Martinez leads Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart by two points in a new Roll Call poll, and the same poll has Senators McCain and Obama tied in that district.

  • Dissident leader Martha Beatriz Roque has filed a complaint in Cuban courts, charging that the government acted against Cuba’s constitution by disseminating in Cuban media information that Cuban intelligence agencies had collected about her. (AP story here.) Randy Alonso, of Mesa Redonda fame, is criminally liable, she says. It’s interesting that she is advancing her agenda by working through the government’s own institutions, in this case the judicial system. The Varela Project petition drive, another opposition initiative, was criticized (unwisely, I think) for that very reason.

  • The Los Angeles Times reports on relations between Russia and Cuba, and consequent worries inside the U.S. government. Judging from the blind quotes in the article, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus view on the exact course the relationship will take.

  • Reuters: Cuba, apparently squeezed for hard currency, notified two foreign governments last month that it would skip scheduled debt payments. A Japanese newspaper, cited by Reuters, says Cuba is in arrears on payments to Japan, and Japanese businesses as a result will no longer have accessed to government-backed insurance for their Cuba deals.

  • Luis Posada Carriles is back in the news. Honduras’ President says the U.S. ambassador asked him to “give him [Posada] a visa” in January 2006. And an appeals court ruled last month that Posada will have to stand trial after all for immigration fraud; LA Times coverage here, court decision here (pdf) (h/t Mambi Watch).

  • The Denver Business Journal reports on the Colorado company, Platt River Associates, accused of an embargo violation. The alleged crime is that after the company sold software to the Spanish oil company Repsol, it provided training to a Repsol employee, and the training session was in violation of the law because the employee brought seismic data from Cuba, and that data was used in the training session. That’s the company’s lawyer’s version.