Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Odds and ends

  • The Duke University library has posted an archive of photos by Deena Stryker, taken across Cuba in 1963-1964. This one of La Rampa in Havana is dated February 1964. (H/t Cuaderno de Cuba).

  • Azerbaijan’s culture and tourism minister says his country is interested in participating in oil development in Cuba.

  • There’s no Cuban government approval, but once again there’s an announcement that the Carbonera golf/real estate project will go forward. Since foreigners can’t own real estate in Cuba, the idea is to sell 75-year leases of properties. This time, the company says it expects approval soon, with marketing to begin next month.

A hat tip to the evil MSM

For me, it has always been enough to stick to the subject of this blog without getting into discussions about the deeper meaning of blogs and the Internet as “new media” of communication.

Except today.

As I read other blogs on all kinds of subjects, it’s common to see a strong air of “new media” superiority vis-√†-vis the “mainstream media,” or MSM. And it strikes me as ridiculous.

Why? Because whether a blog acts as a platform for opinion and analysis or as an aggregator of news, it is almost always feeding off the work of newspapers, wire services, and other established media outlets. Like parasites.

In this corner of the blogosphere, we all depend on media organizations that have reporters resident in Cuba, or that visit Cuba, or that sneak into Cuba to do reporting that the rest of us chew up for free. We probably benefit from the fact that those organizations have something blogs don’t have – editors – that stop stories, rewrite them, or add perspective based on long memory.

I could go on, but my real point was to point out a huge and terrific piece of work that the Miami Herald just cranked out about Operation Peter Pan, which moved more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States in the early years of the Cuban revolution. It’s an extraordinary story, an extraordinary part of Cuba’s history and Miami’s history. My hunch is that those grown children today have an influence beyond their numbers.

The Herald’s feature covers the stories of individual Peter Pan children and key figures in the operation, it has a database of the 14,000 children, and more. The paper’s editor wrote a note explaining the genesis of the project.

Right now there’s a race going on in the media world, where the old revenue model is in decline and a new, viable one is not yet in place. We don’t know how that race will turn out, but this much seems clear: The day the MSM disappears, the “new media” – not to mention citizens who care about multiple sources of quality news content – are in big trouble.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Odds and ends

  • While we’re on the subject, can anyone explain how the Obama Administration calculates that Cuba skims 30 percent from remittances from the United States? The exchange rate and dollar surcharge amount to 20 percent – could it be that Western Union and other companies charge ten percent?

Houston is not interested

If anyone thought the U.S. oil industry was chomping at the bit to get into Cuba, check this story from the Washington Post.

A Chevron spokesman says his company “would have to see a change in U.S. policy before we evaluate whether there's interest.”

And according to reporter Nick Miroff, the American Petroleum Institute “is not lobbying for access to Cuba, and Texas congressional representatives with ties to the oil industry said they are focused on opening U.S. territorial waters to drilling.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A warning

Havana’s roads and traffic com-
mission put a state-
ment in Granma indicating that as of tomorrow, enforcement of regulations governing transportation of people will increase. People who drive state vehicles and use them to pick up passengers for fares, unlicensed taxi drivers, and others will face stricter enforcement, and repeated infractions can result in confiscation of vehicles.

The statement says this action is being taken in light of improvements made in public transit in Havana.

The Cuban government had eased enforcement of taxi regulations, and earlier this year announced that more licenses for private taxis would be issued. I have seen no recent figures on the change in the number of licensed private taxis.

Cuba Colada summarizes the commission’s statement here, and my previous discussion of these issues is here and here.

Odds and ends

  • The Deputy Secretary of State outlines the Administration’s thinking on Cuba at the Council of the Americas conference: the Administration is open to dialogue with Cuba, it wants other countries in the hemisphere to press for human rights improvements, and Cuba should re-enter the Inter-American system “in a manner that is consistent with the principles of the Inter-American democratic charter.” At the same conference, Senator Menendez suggested that Congress might cut OAS funding if that body repeals the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba’s membership.

  • Sun-Sentinel: Cuba’s family doctor network is being deployed to check on foreign visitors, in case any might be carriers of the H1N1 flu.

  • President Obama has nominated Georgetown University professor Arturo Valenzuela to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

All-news Radio Marti

The Obama Administration’s budget request for Radio and TV Marti cuts the stations’ combined budget by seven percent and announces that Radio Marti will “conver to an all-news format.” (See the budget request beginning at page 37 of this pdf document.)

This significant change in format was stated without explanation at the end of a long narrative about the past year’s accomplishments.

Does it mean that Radio Marti becomes a pure 24-hour newscast? Or will the programs that offer analysis and comment on the news be preserved? And does the move mean that audience research is saying that only the news programs are of value to listeners in Cuba?

Here’s Radio Marti’s current program schedule and the Herald’s coverage.

Odds and ends

  • As Cuba discovers its first H1N1 flu case, and after Mexico’s president put off a visit to Cuba, Fidel Castro accuses the Mexican government of failing to disclose the outbreak as it awaited the visit of President Obama (Reuters report here, Castro commentary here). Mexico’s foreign minister responds with a protest.

  • This dubious Cuba travel brochure (pdf) is being circulated by a company claiming to be “the only tour operator licensed by the United States Treasury Department to operate humanitarian trips to Cuba for Americans.” It says Che Guevara “died in Bolivia in 1967 while leading that country’s revolution.”

  • Cuba is re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council.

Malecon

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The OAS and Cuba

The OAS General Assembly will meet June 2 in Honduras, and Cuba will be on the agenda.

Secretary General Insulza has made many statements in the past two years calling for some kind of engagement with Cuba, and he got specific last month during the Trinidad summit, saying that the OAS should simply repeal the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba’s membership.

The operative phrase of that resolution states that “adherence by any member of the Organization of American States to Marxism-Leninism is incompatible with the inter-American system and the alignment of such a government with the communist bloc breaks the unity and solidarity of the hemisphere.”

Insulza’s idea is interesting. Repeal of the 1962 resolution would be a clear statement that the organization views Cuba’s membership differently than it did then, at the height of the Cold War, and it would surely be interpreted as a warming toward Cuba. But it would merely open the door to Cuba – it would not in itself result in Cuba’s re-integration, and it would not force the member states, or Cuba for that matter, to deal with the issue of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted in 2001.

Insulza discussed the issue in this interview with Spain’s El Pais, saying that Cuba could begin by attending meetings on social issues and similar matters. He notes that Cuba is not the only member state that has problems meeting all the requirements of the Democratic Charter.

For its part, Cuba has made it clear that if the OAS opens the door, it has little interest in walking through. Raul Castro said last month that the OAS “should disappear,” and Fidel Castro has issued two commentaries in recent days; in this one he calls the OAS one of the “instruments with which they made us into colonies,” and this one is titled, “Again, the Rotten OAS,” which sort of says it all.

It’s not as if Cuba needs to return to the OAS to find a venue for multilateral diplomacy – one could argue that in the Rio Group, the Non-Aligned Movement, the UN General Assembly, and the UN Human Rights Council, and elsewhere, Cuba knows how to choose its terrain and it is doing just fine.

In the coming weeks, there are interesting issues to watch. Who will present the resolution, how will it be presented, and what will it say? How will the Obama Administration decide to vote – yes, no, abstain – and since the OAS operates almost always by consensus, how will the member states proceed if there is not unanimity?

Monday, May 11, 2009

More on Internet restrictions

Has Cuba barred Cubans from purchasing Internet access at Cuban hotels?

El Pais reports that as of May 8, the answer was “yes” at the Melia Cohiba, while Cubans were permitted service at other hotels. The reason, hotel sources told the newspaper, is that the Cohiba has a new contract with Etecsa, the phone company that is also the Internet service provider – and that contract contains the no-Cubans-on-the-Internet clause. (Unless, El Pais reports, they are Cubans residing outside of Cuba; in that case they can pay up and surf away.)

Yoani Sanchez posts a May 9 video of her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, in the Internet room of the Cohiba, where he converses with the hotel employee who denies him service and refers to a government resolution to that effect. The video is here and a transcript/translation is here.

Alarcon on U.S. relations

Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon told CNN that President Obama’s actions regarding Cuban American travel and remittances are gestures to that community, not to Cuba. “We have absolutely nothing to do except to take note and recognize corrective steps when they are taken,” he said. Reuters story here. The interview aired in Spanish last night, but the only video I could find was this, in English:

Travel news

  • The St. Petersburg Times asks whether Cuba can “ever regain its place as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean.” Answer: not likely. The world has changed, and the opportunity not longer exists to be the only gambling destination outside Las Vegas.

  • The on-line travel vendor Orbitz starts a website to push for an end to U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba, and releases a poll that found Americans in favor of ending travel restrictions, 67-23.

  • Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez, prompted by a letter to a Dominican Republic newspaper, reiterates his view that Cuban travel controls are “absurd” and pledges to “continue to propose everywhere that Cuban citizens should have the right to enter and leave their country when they wish.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

At Calzada & M

The State Department’s inspector general did a routine report on the operation of the U.S. Interests Section (USINT) in Havana in 2007 (pdf, 64 pages). It made news recently because of a sentence (p. 9) about Cuban actions against U.S. diplomats: “Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets.”

But it contains a lot more, and it’s interesting to read as an inside-the-bureaucracy snapshot of many aspects of the Cuba policy in the seventh year of the Bush Administration.

Highlights:

  • The mission is staffed by 51 Americans including both diplomats and the U.S. Marine Corps guards, 22 local hires (family members of U.S. diplomats or members of other countries’ diplomatic missions), and 257 Cuban nationals (p. 33).

  • The introduction (pp. 3-4) says that Cuba’s economy “produces little of value for the international marketplace,” the country is a “tropical Soviet Union,” and a “fixture on the pariah nation short list.” With that out of the way, the report counters the longstanding Bush assumption that the Cuban government’s days were numbered, asserting that repression and economic hardship “will not necessarily translate into political unrest.” The absence of Fidel Castro led the authors to say that “change is again in the air,” and “USINT should move quickly out of its hostile, defensive position as we come to terms with what the post-Fidel transition means and how we manage it…”

  • Cuba is a place where the United States is “actively seeking positive change through transformational diplomacy” (a phrase of Secretary Rice) and urges, among other things, “prepositioning nearby of logistical materials” – what would that be? – to support a surge in U.S. presence or programs (pp.13-14).

  • USINT has a two-track approach of inviting dissidents to some functions and cultural elites to others, and the report notes that the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau “has stymied most requests for U.S. visa issuance to artists and other cultural elites” (p.16).

  • USINT has 23 Internet terminals available for public use, and 25 “close embassy contacts” have permanent passes to use them (p. 16).

  • U.S. government democracy programs fund private organizations to send publications and other materials to Cuba, and apparently much of this material is sent to USINT by diplomatic pouch for our diplomats to distribute. These materials accounted for up to 75 percent of the bulk of diplomatic pouch shipments in some months. USINT doesn’t know in advance what is being shipped and could not distribute about 10 percent of these materials because, the report says, they were “outdated or of questionable utility,” such as brochures promoting travel to Spain (p. 17, p. 47).

  • USINT has people at 15 sites throughout Cuba to monitor Radio and TV Marti. Their reports’ assessment of TV Marti is “bleak” – it “can rarely if ever be received” (p.18).

  • “On two occasions within the past two years, the Cuban government and the U.S. Department of Justice have compared notes on a case of mutual interest” (p. 23).

  • The report recommends that the State Department negotiate its way out of the restrictions, initiated by Washington in 2003, that limit U.S. diplomats to Havana and Cuban diplomats to inside the Washington Beltway (pp. 24-25).

  • The authors say that USINT’s electronic billboard “lowered post morale” and resulted in “background hum and increased heat” in USINT’s two executive offices. On two evenings, they “witnessed only a handful of passersby in the small areas where the billboard remains visible.” They refrain from saying it should be removed, but say that initiatives of that type “should undergo a careful cost versus benefit analysis” in advance (pp. 25-26).

Odds and ends

  • The Economist on President Obama’s recent actions and their reverberations among Cuban Americans.

  • Mexico’s President Calderon was planning to travel to Cuba in the coming weeks but he is thinking twice, after Cuba suspended flights from Mexico in reaction to the flu outbreak.

  • The European Parliament passed a human rights resolution that calls on Cuba to allow Sakharov Prize winners to travel to Europe and “calls on the Cuban government to release immediately all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and to recognize the right of all Cubans freely to enter and leave the country.” Press release here; follow the links to the text.

  • El Nuevo Herald: The U.S. government fined an American company $110,000 because a foreign subsidiary made an export to Cuba. The company, Varel Holdings of Dallas, makes drills for oil wells.

  • Ramon Colas, a founder of Cuba’s independent library movement who left Cuba in 2001, writes in the Nuevo Herald about the lessons U.S. relations with China hold for the “windows of opportunity” that President Obama faces now. He likes the idea of opening travel to Cuba now as America did to China in the 1970’s, and he believes an American opening to Cuba would limit the influence of Hugo Chavez, just as Nixon’s opening to China was a setback for the Soviet Union.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Whew!

The Pentagon loses its “transformational satellite,” the Education Department is deep-sixing “character education,” America’s “education policy attach√©” at UNESCO in Paris will pack his bags and never be replaced, and – here’s where things got a little hairy – the Voice of America will close its Hindi, Croatian, and Greek language broadcast services.

But TV Marti survived the Obama Administration’s first line-by-line sift through the federal budget. God bless America.

Someone really should build a monument, or give an award to whoever keeps this thing in business.

TV Marti is the only television station in history that has been on the air for 19 years and has no discernible audience. If it closes, the outcry will be in Congress and in Florida, not in Cuba.

Maybe the Administration, in this case, is leaving the dirty work to Congress.

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: Even before the Obama Administration’s new rules go into effect, Cuban American travel to Cuba is up 20 percent this year, according to the Cuban state enterprise Havanatur. And in the art world, signs of a thaw.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Quotable

“Now, we’re facing an almost united front against the United States regarding Cuba. Every country, even those with whom we are closest, is just saying you’ve got to change, you can’t keep doing what you’re doing. We would like to see some reciprocity from the Castros on political prisoners, human rights, and other matters.”

– Secretary of State Clinton, in a State Department town hall meeting, May 1, 2009. (This is part of her answer to the final question.)

Odds and ends

  • Here’s an interesting look at China’s relationship with Cuba, including a discussion of the significance of the Chinese community in Cuba, from Yinghong Cheng, a professor at Delaware State University.

  • In Diario las Americas, Jorge Sanguinetty comments on the implications and challenges of the new policy allowing Cuban Americans to visit and send remittances without restriction.

  • “It is not acceptable for a government to abolish individual choice in matters of trade and travel,” says Alvaro Vargas Llosa as he changes his mind on the embargo, purely on the grounds of individual freedom.

  • From USA Today, a look at the future of Cuba’s tourism sector. “Communism and good service don’t go together,” comments travel guide author Christopher Baker, noting that foreign hotel operators “don’t have free rein to manage as they wish.” And Florida’s tourism industry is looking ahead to the day when Americans can travel to Cuba freely, McClatchy reports.

  • Fidel Castro responds to the State Department’s terrorism list designation by quoting at length Cuba’s foreign minister’s press conference remarks.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cuban leadership

Thanks to a reader’s tip, here’s an item from the Federation of American Scientists’ blog that links to two reports from the Open Source Center, a U.S. government unit that compiles and analyzes unclassified information for the Director of National Intelligence. (It used to be called the Foreign Broadcast Information Service.) The reports are an overview of the current Cuban leadership and a chart of the leadership of the government and the party. Both are dated April 2009.

Cuba on Obama's terrorism list

The Obama Administration designated Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism” yesterday, and Cuba responded by calling the United States an “international criminal.”

So we’re even. (AFP stories here and here.)

The description of Cuba and the three other “sponsors” in the State Department’s annual terrorism report continues the longstanding practice of using action verbs about current terrorist operations to describe all but Cuba.

The three others – Syria, Iran, and Sudan – are described as engaging in “planning and financial support of terrorist attacks,” having “Al-Qa’ida (AQ)-inspired terrorist elements, and elements of both Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and HAMAS” operating in their territory, providing “political and material support to Hizballah,” and the like. The accusation against Cuba is that people who committed terrorism and other crimes some years ago enjoy safe haven in Cuba.

The 12,000-word “Western Hemisphere Overview” contains one mention of Cuba, this perfunctory sentence: “Cuba remained a state sponsor of terrorism.” The overview’s entry on Venezuela presents more troubling information than is provided about Cuba. But Cuba is on the “sponsor” list, Venezuela is not.

But these are old issues; there are some new elements in the Obama Administration’s Cuba entry. There’s the statement that “Cuba no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world.” There’s the acknowledgement that “some” Spanish ETA members and Colombian guerrillas in Cuba “arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia.” There’s a citation that “former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions… [and] also condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.” There’s a statement that the U.S. government “has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba.” There’s acknowledgement that “In keeping with its public declaration, the [Cuban] government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006.”

One wonders if the door is opening to Cuba’s removal from the “sponsor” list, with this issue being the sticking point: “The Cuban government continued to permit some U.S. fugitives – including members of U.S. militant groups such as the Boricua Popular, or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army to live legally in Cuba.”