Thursday, February 12, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: Cuba launches its own version of Linux. “The free software movement is closer to the ideology of the Cuban people, above all for the independence and sovereignty,” says the “dean of the School of Free Software at Cuba's University of Information Sciences.”

  • The University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project has video of a recent panel discussion among three recent chiefs of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Gran Teatro

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Telecom developments

There’s no doubt that Cuban government policy limits access to the Internet, but I think it’s generally agreed that even if policies were different, wider access would be problematic because of bandwidth limitations. Figuratively, Cuba needs more pipes connecting to the net, or a fatter pipe, to allow more users to have access at normal speeds.

If the government were to allow multiple Internet service providers, that would help, but that’s not going to happen.

A fatter pipe is on the way, in the form of a new fiber optic cable connection from Venezuela that is expected to be on line in 2010.

So how will this change Cubans’ access to the net?

A deputy communications minister, Boris Moreno, told AFP the priority will continue to be “to privilege collective access,” which I take to mean workplaces as opposed to individuals and residences. Later, communications minister Ramiro Valdes was interviewed by Reuters and his message was a little different: “conceptually,” there’s no policy against broader access, he said, and the “restrictions are technological and economical.” As opposed to ideological, we can guess.

We’ll see.

Meanwhile, access is definitely increasing in another telecom service: cell phones.

Juventud Rebelde ran an article on cellular phone service in Cuba February 10. From interviews with executives of Etecsa, the state telecom monopoly, the article says:

  • Etecsa recognizes that consumer prices are high, and there’s an intention to lower prices, but no indication when or by how much.

  • “Teléfonos Fijos Alternativos” (“alternative fixed-line phones”) are wireless phones installed in private homes or “centros agentes” and available to the community, serving as “a kind of public phone.” They account for 30 percent of wireless lines and 80 percent of wireless traffic. In effect, this service is subsidized by hard-currency customers: Cubans and foreigners who pay for regular cell phone service, and tourists who pay roaming fees.

  • Cuba does not have “calling party pays,” and maintains the practice of charging customers per minute for calls that they receive. Etecsa says that this practice ensures that consumers limit the length of their calls – otherwise, calls from land lines to cell phones would tie up the wireless network.

  • 133,000 wireless lines were added in 2008, including 40,000 in December in response to a reduction in activation fees.

  • The average customer uses 36-40 minutes per month and is billed 19-20 convertible pesos.

Odds and ends

  • The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops endorses a bill to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba without restriction: “Improving the lives of the Cuban people and encouraging democracy and human rights in Cuba will best be advanced through more, rather than less, contact between the Cuban and American people.” The letter to the bill’s sponsors from Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, chairman of the Conference’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, says the restrictions on Cuban American family visits are “particularly objectionable.” The text is here.

  • Prensa Latina: The Cuban team for this year’s World Baseball Classic is in training now, ready to rip.

  • During the UN Human Rights Council’s proceeding last week, seven countries called for Cuba to release political prisoners. Cuba’s response: No. To do so, the Cuban government says, would help advance “a policy designed by a foreign superpower with the objective of destroying the legitimate constitutional order freely chosen by its people.” I can understand how one would make that argument about the Bush policy. But does it apply to Obama, three weeks in office? (Reuters coverage here.)

  • Fidel Castro’s latest reflection concerns White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. I didn’t know what to make of it so I didn’t write about it. Others didn’t know what to make of it either, but wrote about it anyway, and linked to it. See here and here.

Santa Maria del Rosario

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An open letter to Raul Castro

El Nuevo Herald has published an open letter to President Raul Castro from Jose Conrado, a priest in Santiago. The letter is dated January 5. It’s an interesting document, more a call for new thinking than a detailed policy proposal.

Fr. Conrado describes a changing world – the election of President Obama, the outpouring of hurricane aid from Cuban Americans – and says, “The Cuban government that you lead today should have the audacity to face up to these changes with new ideas and new attitudes.” (My translation.)

He goes on to say that Cuba has “reacted with valor when a foreign government has tried to involve itself in our national problems.” As for human rights, he asserts that “not only governments, but also individuals, average citizens, inside and outside the country, have something to say.” And: “The cause of peace, internally and externally, and the very prosperity of the nation, are rooted in unconditional respect for these rights…”

Parking rates... 19 & A, Vedado, click to enlarge

Speaking of polls

Here’s a Fox News poll conducted by Opinion Dynamics with this result: 59 percent of Americans (registered voters) favor ending the Cuba embargo, 30 percent are opposed, 11 percent are unsure. The question was: “Do you think it’s time for the United States to end its embargo and move toward normal diplomatic and trade relations, or do you think continued embargo is the best way to treat Cuba?”

And for sociologist Haroldo Dilla, the recent poll by Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy – and the way its questions were phrased – brought back memories of polling in Cuba under the Communist Party’s supervision. His essay at CubaEncuentro is here.

Odds and ends

  • Raul Castro has returned from his travel to Russia, Angola, and Algeria, and tonight President Michelle Bachelet arrives, the fourth visit by a Latin American leader this year. Here is coverage from AFP Spanish, Chiles Noticias 123, and Granma.

  • Princeton considers establishing an academic program in Cuba, and the student newspaper editorialized in favor: academic contact should “not be limited to countries and political systems with which America maintains close ties,” the Daily Princetonian argues.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Reuters covers the Cuba discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

  • Editor and Publisher writes about the Herald’s plan for the day of Fidel Castro’s death. An editor discusses a “three-ring binder with every possible scenario for when Fidel dies. Calling-tree diagrams. Bank accounts. Satellite phones. Fixers. Fast boats.” Fast boats?

  • Why do Medicare fraudsters flee from Miami to Cuba? The Herald’s Myriam Marquez takes a stab at an answer.


...late for his January 28 birthday, but here goes.

Not quotable

Jorge Moragas, foreign affairs chief of Spain’s opposition party, promised on Wednesday that the “fight for freedoms” in Cuba and the differences on Cuba policy between his Partido Popular and Prime Minister Zapatero’s socialists will be a campaign issue in the June European parliament elections.

Moragas reiterated that the PP favors the end of the U.S. embargo, a position that former Prime Minister Aznar delivered to former President Bush. Radio Marti covered the story at length but left that point out; link to Radio Marti’s audio is here.


“Change will come not through government agencies but through the citizens and the spread of information and exchange with the outside world.”

– Cuban blogger (Generacion Y) Yoani Sanchez, quoted in The American Spectator.

Obama watch: Rahm Emanuel on Cuba

The Obama Administration’s first statement on Cuba comes from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel: “I think the less said about Cuba, the better.”

He also said the Administration is “sensitive” to “a big change under way” in the Cuban American community.

That is my translation of Emanuel’s statements to a group of Spanish-language reporters, covered in this wire story. His interview is not on the White House website, where a search of the word “Cuba” turns up only the biographies of Presidents, McKinley, Pierce, and Kennedy.

Fidel Castro would like to hear a more expansive statement on Cuba policy, as he notes in a comment published last night in Spanish and English.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Push-polling in Miami

A new poll has been released by the pro-embargo organization Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy, purporting to show that Cuban Americans strongly support the embargo and travel ban. It was conducted my McLaughlin and Associates; the Herald covers it here and includes a link (pdf) to the poll itself.

I respect public opinion as much as the next guy, but I think we’re in trouble the day we start making foreign policy by polls.

As for Miami opinion on Cuba policy, I think you can learn a great deal about shifting opinion by standing in line for a flight to Havana at Miami International Airport (or the Cancun or Nassau airports, for that matter). You can affirm that parts of the younger generation supports hard-line policy by reading Babalu, and you can look at the recent Miami-Dade Congressional election results to affirm that for all the moderation shown in polls, support for the hard line is still pretty strong among Cuban American voters.

As for this poll, it’s a joke.

A professional pollster asks neutral questions, such as: “Are you for or against the stimulus plan that Congress is now considering?”

If subjective statements are added, then you get something like: “Congress is considering an economic stimulus plan. Some say it will lift our economy quickly and prevent job loss; others say it will take too long to take effect and will greatly increase the national debt. What is your opinion?”

A professional would never ask: “Do you support or oppose the stimulus bill that may not work, and will saddle your children and grandchildren with debt?”

Or at least a professional pollster would not ask such a question and expect a reliable result.

The embargo question in this poll is: “Do you support or oppose the current U.S. policy of maintaining the trade and tourism embargo on the Cuban regime until the Castro regime releases all political prisoners, respects basic human rights and schedules free elections?”

The travel question is: “Do you believe that Cubans who leave Cuba in order to seek freedom in the U.S. should be allowed to travel to Cuba while the regime they fled from is still in power?”

While they were at it, they could have said, “travel to Cuba like a bunch of hypocrites.”

At any rate, on the day President Obama fulfills his campaign promise, pollsters will be able to test opinion on something else: “Current policy allows Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba without restriction. Do you think all Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba, or should current restrictions stay in place?”

Maybe that’s what prompted this poll in the first place.

In the park, Sunday afternoon

GAO: Radio Marti audience under two percent

Radio Marti and TV Marti have been on the air for 25 years and 18 years, respectively. They are the subject of a new report by the General Accountability Office, released today by Representative Bill Delahunt and available here. A statement from Representative Delahunt is here.

Past GAO reports have focused on financial and management issues. This one is interesting for the comprehensive background it provides on the broadcast stations, and because it focuses on the essential issues of audience size and programming strategy.

The bottom line: after a quarter century on the air, and with a $34 million annual budget, “the best available audience research,” GAO says, indicates that “Radio and TV Martí’s audience size is small, with less than 2 percent of respondents to telephone surveys since 2003 reporting that they had tuned in to Radio or TV Martí during the past week.”

By contrast, GAO reported, “over 90 percent of telephone survey respondents said they watched Cuba’s national television broadcasts during the past week,” and 60 to 70 percent report that they listen to three Cuban radio stations. Also: “OCB [Office fo Cuba Broadcasting] officials said that the quality of Cuban television programming has recently improved and includes popular U.S. programming (such as The Sopranos and Grey’s Anatomy). Telephone surveys indicate that TV Martí has a smaller audience than other international television broadcasts. For example, about 30 percent of respondents in 2005 and 2006 said they watched CNN during the past week.”

The GAO report says that the Radio/TV Marti management recognizes that “the competitive media environment in Cuba is a key challenge for OCB in attracting and maintaining an audience,” and that “OCB senior officials said that Cuban radio attracts listeners because of its high-quality music programming.”

GAO also reports that Radio/TV Marti management, in contrast to other U.S. government international broadcasters, doesn’t seem to have a complete handle on the competition: “While OCB and IBB have gathered information relating to OCB’s competitors, OCB has not compiled comprehensive information regarding the number, nature, and quality of other radio and television programming available to Cuban listeners and viewers.”

Recently, dissidents have complained about Radio Marti and said that Cubans don’t listen because it is boring; the programming “is so bad and so uninteresting to the Cuban people that no one listens,” Vladimiro Roca said last month.

It is good that GAO highlighted the issue of Radio Marti’s competition in Cuba. I think there’s a general assumption that Cuba’s radio and television stations are dull, propagandistic, and political, 24/7 – and from that, it follows that all the United States has to do is to get a signal through, and a huge Cuban audience will materialize. That’s not the case – while one can watch or listen to the Mesa Redonda for a full dose of politics, Cuban media are more varied and interesting than I once assumed, with lots of music, sports, movies, and entertainment programming. It’s quite a challenge for Radio Marti, which aims to deliver a political message to an audience that probably doesn’t tune in for politics, even less so when it comes from abroad.

The recent statements by dissidents about Radio Marti are here and here. GAO’s report from last July is covered here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The land grants are proceeding

Buried at the end of this article in Granma is a report that idle state lands have been granted to 45,518 farmers; that’s about half the number that has applied. Reuters explains and provides context here.

These land grants are one aspect of a policy to revive Cuban agriculture and reduce food imports. Giving more land to private producers, long the most productive in Cuba, is a no-brainer. Prices paid to producers have been increased sharply, especially for beef and dairy. Decentralization of decisionmaking and other changes are promised. If the entire program is carried through, there’s no doubt it will make a difference, and it will beg the question of when other sectors will have similar policies applied to them.

More discussion of the agriculture policies is here.

Odds and ends

  • Russia is giving $37 million in food aid to Cuba, plus $317 million in credits for purchases of Russian goods, Reuters reports. Granma says the two countries are moving toward “strategic alliance,” but doesn’t provide much detail.

  • The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports fewer political prisoners and more detentions, AP reports.

  • In the February 5 session of the UN Human Rights Council, questions will be posed to Cuba by the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, CubaEncuentro reports.

  • The University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project has video of a recent panel discussion among three recent chiefs of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Want to do a good deed?

The Catholic church in the center of Guira de Melena was severely damaged by a hurricane in 2004. On a recent visit, I met the local priest and leared that repair work is proceeding, but not always steadily, due to difficulties with funds, materials, and labor. While the church is being repaired, mass is being held in the courtyard of the rectory under a makeshift roof.

A parish in Inglewood, California, led by Fr. Marcos Gonzalez, a Cuban American pastor born in Guira, has been raising funds to support repair and restoration of the church. It has established a charity, and if you want to make a donation and get a receipt for a tax deduction, you should send a check to St. John Chrysostom Church, 546 E. Florence Avenue, Inglewood CA 90301. The check should be designated for “Cuban Mission.”