Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Odds and ends

  • Palabra Nueva reports that five of Cuba’s Catholic bishops visited prisons on Christmas and said Mass to prisoners.

  • Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul, says that if there’s a respectful dialogue between President Obama and her father, “all this is going to change.” CubaEncuentro has excerpts of her December 18 interview in Spanish with the Miami radio program La Noche se Mueve.

  • The Cuban phone monopoly ETECSA says that cell phone subscriptions are growing at an “unstoppable” pace, according to reports from ANSA and CubaEncuentro. There are 130,000 new subscribers (since when the reports don’t specify), and 110,000 of the accounts in the name of foreigners have been switched to Cuban nationals’ names. Since April, Cubans have been permitted to have cell phone accounts in their own names, and earlier this month activation fees were cut in half.

  • Cuban singer Pablo Milanes, interviewed in Spain, says he doesn’t “trust in any Cuban leader who is older than 75.” Cuban Colada translated excerpts here and links to the interview in Spanish.

  • A fire damaged the Havana shopping center La Puntilla yesterday; Granma’s story is here and El Nuevo Herald says it’s the third fire in a Cimex corporation property this year.

  • Cuba’s tourism ministry says 2008 was a record year for tourist visits. The Granma article (English) says hotel capacity is nearly four times that of 1990, progress is insufficient in substituting domestic products for imports, and there is “instability in relation to supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Malecon construction [Updated]

CubaEncuentro has a gallery of photos of the construction of the Malecon when it was extended to the west under Batista. Does anyone know what the building is in the background below, and where it stood? As best I can tell it’s an old convention center near where Paseo meets the Malecon.

[Update: As Ernesto of Penultimos Dias points out in the comments, these photos were placed on Flickr some time ago by another blogger. You can view them here without the watermarks that CubaEncuentro added.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: Cuba says 2009 economic growth will be four percent, and the economy minister sees higher growth in 2010 due to agriculture reforms and other measures. At Encuentro, there’s a skeptical look at Cuba’s recent gdp figures by economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago.

  • Juventud Rebelde interviews a machetero in Las Tunas – a “Cuban multimillionaire” – who estimates that he cut more than four million arrobas of sugar cane in a career that spanned 45 sugar harvests. (One arroba is 25 pounds.)

  • Radios, flashlights, fake invoices, a shell corporation: The U.S. Attorney’s office issued a press release describing how Felipe Sixto stole government money from a USAID grantee, even while he worked at the White House.

Monday, December 22, 2008

New website of Havana archdiocese

All you need to know about the Havana archdiocese – documents, parish bulletins, links, news – is on this new website. (H/t: Cuban Colada)

"Gesture for gesture"

After the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, visited Cuba in February, he told reporters about a conversation he had with Raul Castro. Castro, at one point, brought up the issue of five Cubans – the “Cuban Five,” or los cinco heroes, as they are called in Cuba – who were arrested in 1998, convicted on espionage and other charges, and are in federal jails today. According to Cardinal Bertone, they discussed the issue “with the eventual possibility of an exchange.” I don’t know of any clarification of this conversation that came from the Cuban side to explain who might be exchanged for the five.

A clarification came last week in Brazil in a press conference Raul Castro held with the Brazilian president. There, Castro was asked about the U.S. embargo, relations with the United States, and Cuban prisoners. The transcript (in Spanish) is in Granma; an English-language news story in Granma contains some quotes from the press conference; AP coverage here.

In the press conference, Raul says that a former president (of the United States, I assume) urged him in a letter to make gestures to improve relations with the future Obama Administration. “I told him that the time of gestures is over in Cuba, that they have to be bilateral gestures, no more unilateral gestures.”

He went on to say that under “absolute equality of conditions,” Cuba is willing to talk with the Obama Administration.

And in response to a question about dissidents in prison: “We’re going to do gesture for gesture; those prisoners you speak about, they want them released; let them tell us tomorrow, we’ll send them there with their families and everything; let them return our five heroes to us, that is a gesture by both sides, and of the supposed political prisoners in Cuba.” (My translations.)

The Bush Administration rejected the idea, as AP notes.

It’s hard to tell precisely what signal Raul was trying to send here, or even if he planned to send a signal had reporters not asked about human rights issues. The point about unilateral gestures and concessions is clear enough, and if you want to be optimistic you can take it as a positive signal that he is willing to engage in reciprocal concessions. On the other hand, if “we’ll send them there” means that dissidents would be released on condition that they and their families leave their country, then in this case he is proposing an idea with which no U.S. Administration would be likely to agree.

Earlier comments on the issue here.

Change we can believe in?

In the AP story on the 50th anniversary cited below, it is mentioned that the billboards facing the U.S. Interests Section were taken down. They had, to put it mildly, anti-Bush messages on them. Was it a hurricane precaution, or a political decision?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Russian destroyer Admiral Chabanenko entering Havana Bay, December 19, 2008. [AFP photo]

  • Ag Journal: the U.S. farm sector is looking for increased exports to Cuba during an Obama Administration.

  • If you read Spanish, it’s worth absorbing the Brazilian president’s comments at the end of this press conference with Raul Castro. It gives a good indication of Brazil’s view of U.S. Cuba policy, its expectations of the Obama presidency, and of what the Obama Administration can expect to hear from Latin America. Not all the pressure to change Cuba policy will be domestic.

  • More on the 50th anniversary: a long survey from AP correspondent Anita Snow, with lots of street-level perspective.

  • AP: Key dates in the past 50 years of Cuba’s history.

The "A. Lincoln" sugar enterprise

In Havana province.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Here's a look at the "Cuban triangle" as the 50th anniversary of socialism approaches and a new U.S. president prepares to take office, from yours truly, published on Real Clear World.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The new cathedral

If the Russians anchor in Havana bay, they will probably see the cathedral from their ships.

Let's all throw more shoes at Bush...

…and while we’re at it, we'll send a signal to Obama.

You could call it the independence summit. The meeting of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Brazil seems to have been about independence from Washington, and a big way of expressing that independence was opposition to U.S. policy toward Cuba. The Washington Post sums up here.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon suggested creation of a new hemispheric organization to discuss political and economic issues; it would not include the United States and Canada (see AP story). What Canada did to deserve exclusion, I don’t know.

On the Cuba front, there was a joint statement calling on the United States to end the Cuba embargo, and “in particular” to stop applying “the measures adopted over the past five years to deepen the impact” of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. President Calderon and Argentine President Fernandez agreed to visit Cuba next year. And Raul Castro reportedly spent a half hour with the OAS Secretary General.

Spain’s El Pais summed up: “The image of a Cuba that practically has relations only with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, or Nicaragua, has ended.”

Odds and ends

  • Reuters on the impact of the global financial crisis on Cuba: a cash crunch affecting payments to foreign businesses, and rescheduling of debt payments to foreign governments.

  • Senate Republicans considering the nomination of Eric Holder for Attorney General are searching for documents on his role in the Clinton Administration, then as Deputy Attorney General, in the Elian Gonzalez case.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thinking of taking a day off?

"We're working...and you?"

"'Man grows with the work that comes from his hands'
--Jose Marti"

Odds and ends

  • Carlos Valenciaga, a Council of State member and chief of staff to Fidel Castro, and the man who made the television announcement of Fidel’s illness and transfer of power in 2006, is rumored to have been removed from his duties. The rumors are very solid in the sense that they are very widespread and everyone seems to believe them. Granma has yet to run one of those terse little notes saying he left his post and is waiting until “se le asigne otras funciones.” At any rate, Penultimos Dias says Mr. Valenciaga is now working in the manuscript department of the National Library. Which would not be far from his old job, as a crow flies, just across the Plaza de la Revolucion.

  • Oil & Gas Journal on the new agreements with Venezuela; the plan is to build a new refinery and expand others, to quadruple Cuba’s refining capacity.

  • Prensa Latina has a writeup and box score of a 3-3 tie between the University of Alabama and a Cuban team of selected university students.

  • For the record, a December 4 item that I missed: a business community letter (pdf) released by USA Engage calling on President-elect Obama to make dramatic changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Too soon to talk baseball?

The 2009 World Baseball Classic will be played March 5-23. The brackets for the four-round tournament are here.

The Cuban team would seem to have an excellent chance to advance from the first round in Mexico City. In the second round, in San Diego, Cuba would face the winner and runner-up in the Asian group, which will likely include Japan. Japan beat Cuba 10-6 to win first place in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Speaking of baseball, here’s another reason to read Penultimos Dias: a terrific item from Tania Quintero on Dodgers greats Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese training in Havana. With photos and links.

Near Guira de Melena

Odds and ends

  • Raul Castro is in Brazil for a Latin American/Caribbean summit, where Cuba will formally enter the Rio Group. Reporters asked him on arrival if he is willing to discuss the U.S. embargo with a new U.S. administration. He replied, “If Mr. Obama wants to discuss it, we’ll discuss it. If he doesn't want to discuss it, we won't discuss it.”

  • The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago needs surgery, and heads to Cuba for the operation.

  • Cuba expects that 2008 will bring a record 2.34 million visitors, AP reports in a story that explains why Cuba is doing better than Caribbean neighbors this year, in spite of quality factors that discourage return visits. And Vice President Carlos Lage (see AFP Spanish) says Cuba is ready for the Americans to come, Cuban Americans or otherwise; “Our tourism sector and our people are prepared,” he said.

Is the big guy back?

In yester- day’s Herald, Wilfredo Cancio looks at indic- ations over the past few months that Fidel Castro has resumed a more active role in governing, and he cites sources in government, both here and there. The article is in El Nuevo Herald too.

Politically, it would not be surprising if this were so. And legally, Fidel’s role is clear as can be. He retains his post as Communist Party chief, and the party is the “highest leading force of society and of the state” in Cuba’s constitution. Which may be why, in Caracas, Raul Castro referred to his brother as the “the leader [jefe] of the revolution,” even though he, Raul, is president.

Guira de Melena

Monday, December 15, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Miami Herald begins a very in-depth series on the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution with an informative, even-handed examination of gains and losses by Frances Robles. The series is previewed here; further installments will be on the Herald’s Cuba page.

  • One hundred opposition members were detained in Cuba last week around the celebration of Human Rights Day, rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez reports. Speaking of the opposition, Tracey Eaton asks all the right questions – ten of them – on his blog. I’m too lazy to give them full essay-test treatment, but it does seem to me that there has been a shift in tactics from arrests/trials/long-term sentences to short-term detentions. As to whether a “peaceful, bloodless resolution to the U.S.-Cuba conflict” is possible, I say “peaceful” is highly likely into the distant future, while “resolution” probably is not.

  • Cuban cell phone activation charges were cut nearly in half to about $65, AP reports. Now can we remember what our economics professors said about “elasticity of demand?”

  • A horrible story in the Herald: a Hialeah company allegedly engaged in pure fraud by taking money to forward as family remittances to Cuba, and then simply keeping it.

Nuevo Vedado

Raul in Caracas

Cuba and Venezuela signed three memorandums of understanding during President Raul Castro’s visit last weekend, according to Granma, to “strengthen bilateral integration in economic, social, and technological matters.”

Energy, education, information technology, and agriculture are among the areas covered. The New York Times account focuses on energy, including oil refining and construction of a plant in Cuba to allow importation of liquid natural gas.

Obama and Cuba

Cuba Europe Dialogues, a monthly published in Prague, asked me to look at Cuba policy prospects under the Obama Administration, so here it is, in English (pdf) and in Spanish (pdf).

Speaking of TV Marti...

…I have two questions:

1. Has there ever been another television station where, 18 years after its creation, there is a debate about whether it has an audience or not?

2. If TV Marti went off the air, where would the most people notice – in Washington, Miami-Dade, or Cuba?

Confidence builder

"The people of Pinar del Rio always recover, they never fail."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Food rebound

Cuba’s food situation is by no means back to normal after the devastation of three hurricanes this year. See, for example, this dire report from Holguin.

But I heard a few weeks ago that produce was starting to appear in Havana’s farmers markets, and last week the following items were on sale in two Havana markets I visited: pork, garlic, onions, chives, tomatoes, lettuce, several varieties of cabbage, bean sprouts, watercress, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, carrots, squash, okra, eggplant, radishes, beets, ginger, parsley, basil, cilantro, black beans, red beans, malanga, yuca, corn, peanuts, corn flour, corn meal, oranges, limes, pineapples, coconuts, grapefruit, guayaba, anon, and starfruit.

Plus lots of flowers.

There’s a list of items, posted in the markets, whose prices are capped at pre-hurricane levels. I only saw a sharp price increase in one item I note regularly; pork chops were going for 35 pesos per pound, about 40 percent higher than usual. On the other hand, maybe the vendor thought I would be willing to pay 35.

Obama watch

The Obama Cuba policy is going to take time to define.

Obviously, the foundation will be the President-elect’s campaign statements (see here). Then there will be personnel decisions, the decisions on how to implement campaign promises, and the first-year decisions on all the moving parts of the policy, e.g. will the Obama Administration fund TV Marti?

But in the meantime, let’s take note of any straws in the wind. And if I miss some, send them in.

  • From the Times magazine piece discussed below, advisor Anthony Lake: “With the new Democratic majority in Congress, and some clear Cuban gestures on human rights, you could get changes to Helms-Burton.”

  • Here’s former congressional candidate and Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Garcia speaking about the timing of travel and diplomatic initiatives, in El Nuevo Herald: “Obama has a good group of advisors and he is going to listen to them. The right to travel and remittances will be restored, but only remotely will there be an immediate opportunity to converse with Havana.”

  • And the Brazilian defense minister, recently in Washington, called for the end of the U.S. embargo as he made the rounds. According to this report in CubaEncuentro, Secretary Gates “did not say yes or no,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Cuba should “take the first step,” and there’s no report on the response from Obama’s soon-to-be national security advisor. The minister said to Gates, “After all these years of the embargo on Cuba, what have you got? Just two things: a poor country and a very proud people.”


In Parque Central.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Odds and ends

  • At its summit last Monday, Caricom called for the United States to end its “economic, commercial and financial embargo against the Republic of Cuba.” Reuters report here.

  • Via Bloomberg, an Italian newspaper reports that Telefonica de Espana is in talks to buy the share of the Cuban phone monopoly Etecsa that is now owed by Telecom Italia.

  • The committee seeking a presidential pardon for Eduardo Arocena says it is not surprised that Arocena was not included in the pardons and commutations issued by President Bush last month. “We know,” it says in a statement on its website, that “this gift to the Cuban community, and especially to his family, we will receive it this Christmas.” Arocena was convicted in 1984 for murder of a Cuban diplomat and other charges; the judge who denied his appeal describes Arocena’s actions in this decision.

Human Rights Day in Havana

According to press reports from Havana, the Damas de Blanco walked through a Havana neighborhood and distributed copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before climbing the steps of the Capitolio building and calling aloud for freedom.

More than 50 dissidents were detained Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Elizardo Sanchez, who said that many were detained in the provinces as they prepared to come to Havana.

Sanchez denounced the “pure, hard repression” that is the government’s “sui generis way” of celebrating Human Rights Day. Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque said Cuba celebrates the day with its “head held high.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported on an activist, Belinda Salas, who said she and three others were beaten by police on Tuesday after leaving the U.S. diplomatic mission, and the three others were arrested.

Coverage in English from EFE and The Miami Herald, and in Spanish from Reuters and Spain’s ABC.

[Reuters photo.]

The Times' man in Havana

“Lealtad beckoned me,” Roger Cohen of The New York Times wrote in a long, first-person magazine piece last Sunday on the approaching 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

“What I saw,” he said, “struck me with the force of a vision.” On Lealtad, the street in Centro Habana, the Times’ veteran, Paris-based reporter found a bar. Inside, people were drinking. And there were “harsh fluorescent lights” and a “white man with a bulbous red nose pickled by drink.” There was a black man and a black woman – stay with me, please – who also seemed to be drinking, and they were all “at a distance from one another.” Then before you know it, Cohen is pondering existential despair, and finds himself in an Edward Hopper painting.

I guess you had to be there. Regardless, Cohen then sums up: “The feeling of being transported is very Cuban.”

Roger, if you don’t mind my asking, what were you drinking that day?

Ok, more seriously, if you don’t mind the writer’s flair for the dramatic (the Malecon is “haunting”), and the snooty (during an interview in Miami, “inevitably, we ate at the kitschy Versailles Restaurant”), it’s an interesting article. I liked Cohen’s account of his exchange with an economy ministry official, and his account of the owner of a little private restaurant who takes out a camera, turns it to video mode, and gets Cohen to say that the food is good and he works for The New York Times.

On the Malecon, Cohen observed “over subsequent days that Cubans perched on the seafront wall rarely looked outward.” I always thought that was because people prefer watching the passing parade on the sidewalk and street, but there’s an existential meaning to it, and you have to read the article to find out.

But what really prompted me to write was to ask readers’ help with this inscrutable closing paragraph:

“Yes, Fidel’s communist revolution, at 50, has carried a terrible price for his people, dividing the Cuban nation, imprisoning part of it and bringing economic catastrophe. But as I gazed from Cuban hills at Guantánamo, and considered Obama’s incoming administration, I thought the wages of guilt might just have found a fine enough balance for good sense at last to prevail.”