Monday, August 31, 2009

Cuba, U.S. to talk about mail service

Reuters: Cuba has accepted the U.S. proposal to talk about resuming direct postal service, and the talks will take place in Havana in mid-September. It is possible now to send mail between the two countries, but it goes through third countries such as Panama and Mexico, and takes three weeks or more to arrive.

Juventud Rebelde, still stirring the pot

It’s anyone’s guess whether or when the ideas, suggestions, and proddings in Cuba’s communist youth newspaper will make their way into the government’s policy machinery.

But in the meantime, Juventud Rebelde continues to make for interesting reading.

Yesterday’s paper ran a column by one Jose Alejandro Rodríguez calling for open criticism of socialism’s failings. He cited a “sick obsession” with protecting the image of the country or a ministry or an enterprise, at the expense of honest diagnoses that could make things better. He noted that “corruption” used to be a “bad word,” but now the Cuban government has established a special agency to stamp it out. He ridiculed the idea that honest internal criticism gives “weapons to the enemy.” Silence and conformity, he said, are “the most dangerous missile” that could be given to those who want to “dismantle the work of 50 years.” EFE story here.

Then there was this August 15 article on rice production in Vertientes, Camaguey province. Production has increased, but the article focuses on bottlenecks: lack of fuel deliveries to producers at the right time, lack of transportation capacity to move the harvested rice, and lack of capacity to dry the rice – the facilities to dry rice are capable of handling only 70 percent of the daily harvest. One UBPC cooperative, the article reports, has consequently lost 25,000 quintales of rice (a quintal being 100 pounds). That translates to a loss “equivalent to 15,000 pesos in expenses and 8,000 liters of fuel buried in the ground.”

Then there was this long August 22 piece that reads like a call to end excessive centralization. It opens with an anecdote about a local initiative where officials in Jatibonico, Sancti Spiritus, rescued a locomotive headed for the boneyard and used it to established passenger service for seven communities. But this type of effort is exceptional, the article says, because most localities wait for “decisions, solutions, and even initiatives” to come from above “in the same way in which manna was send to the Israelites in Biblical times.”

The article goes on to cite academics, officials, and farmers who have ideas about local initiatives. “Why do cooperatives have to be only in agriculture,” one asks, giving as an example an illegal car body painting enterprise whose four workers should be able to form a cooperative and pay taxes. Another notes that enterprises, stovepiped into different ministries, can’t offer services to each other even though there would be benefits for society and for the economy’s efficicency. And a farm cooperative president says that the agriculture bureaucracy is excessive; there’s “a lot of personnel that doesn’t produce any development and doesn’t decide much either.”

Friday, August 28, 2009

Richardson in Havana, Day Five (updated)

Sort of a triangular approach: Governor Richardson concludes his visit by saying he will report to President Obama and by offering to set up a dialogue between the Cuban government and Cuban Americans.

He urges Cuba to act, “especially in the humanitarian area,” and wants both Washington and Havana to ease travel restrictions. “Normalizing relations is going to take time, it is a complicated thing and there are a lot of issues to address…It will take time, but we have to do it,” he said.

He said that the United States has suggested that the two governments drop restrictions on their diplomats’ movements, and he urged Cuban officials to agree to the idea.

Update: Mexico’s La Jornada reported in more detail on Richardson’s presentation at the press conference, saying that the governor had presented a specific “plan of reciprocal actions to normalize relations with Cuban authorities.”

The plan would defer larger and more contentious issues and start with the two sides taking humanitarian steps. The United States would put into effect the announced Obama policy ending restrictions on family travel and remittances; allow greater sports, cultural, scientific, academic, and business exchanges; and allow Americans in general to travel to the island. Cuba would end “bureaucratic restrictions and high fees” that make family visits more costly, accept a U.S. proposal to end the restrictions that limit both sides’ diplomats to the Havana and Washington capital areas, and start an “informal dialogue” with Cuban Americans.

Richardson also said that he sees no need for a U.S. special envoy and doesn’t think he will have a role in U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.

At Cubaencuentro, there’s some CBS video of the governor’s press conference.

Coverage here from AP, Reuters, AFP.

[AP photo]

Odds and ends

  • AP reports that with one month to go in fiscal year 2009, significantly fewer Cubans are arriving in the United States by sea or by crossing the Mexican border, or are being intercepted at sea. When the numbers go up, everyone says it’s a sign of desperation in Cuba – so does this mean everybody’s happy?

  • Cuban rocker Gorki Aguila, now in Mexico, comments on the Juanes concert in this video posted at Cubaencuentro.

  • A Miami radio personality, Javier Ceriani, says he will hold a freedom concert in Miami on the same day as the Juanes concert in Cuba.

Stuck on stupid

In 2002, President Bush offered scholarships for “Cuban students and professionals who try to build independent civil institutions in Cuba, and scholarships for family members of political prisoners.” The Cuban government apparently saw it as an effort to train the next generation of its political opposition, and it didn’t go very far.

In the final months of the Bush Administration, the State Department made the smart move of removing the political criteria and offering scholarships just as we would in any other country. (In January, I wrote about this here.)

It hasn’t worked.

Wilfredo Cancio reports in El Nuevo Herald that 28 students were selected, but the Cuban government denied them permission to travel to the United States. The Cuban government said that while these students won’t be allowed to go, it may allow others to participate in the future, according to a State Department source cited in the article.

State Department spokeswoman Sara Mangiaracina says the scholarships will continue to be offered to Cubans. Whether Cubans will continue to apply on the hope that their government will change its mind, is another matter.

One can’t help but recall Cuban protests about the Bush Administration’s interference in academic freedom when it denied Cuban scholars visas to attend conferences of the Latin American Studies Association in 2004 and 2006.

It took six years for the Bush Administration to move off its dumb position with regard to this scholarship program. Let’s hope it takes the Cuban government much less time to move off its own.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Governor Richardson made clear yesterday that he is in Cuba on his own, not as an Obama Administration envoy, but he will report his impressions to the Administration when he returns. He also wants to see an end to travel restrictions: “There’s a link between Hemingway and the United States and Cuba, and now there’s a New Mexico link…I think enhancing cultural and artistic and educational ties is a prelude to diplomatic and commercial ties. It always happens that way…I’m for enhanced tourism travel for Americans.” AP coverage here.

  • The Obama Administration fines an Australian bank 7 million Australian dollars for trade financing operations connected to transactions with Cuba and other countries subject to U.S. sanctions.

  • El Nuevo Herald has a video in Spanish on yesterday’s poll (pdf) on the Juanes concert. It features remarks by the pollster, Sergio Bendixen, and the poll’s sponsor, Carlos Saladrigas of the Cuba Study Group.

  • Livan Hernandez returns to the Washington Nationals and has a good outing against the Cubs.

  • A short, silent video of 1932 Havana at Penultimos Dias.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Go, Juanes, go (continued)

  • The concert is “not about politics,” Juanes explains in a Herald article that also covers other voices in the debate.

  • Julio Iglesias says Juanes is a “great artist” who wants to bring “a message of affection and music” to Cubans.

  • Gloria Estefan somewhat condescendingly says she knows Juanes’ “heart is in the right place,” explains her concerns about Cuba and the concert, and says she hopes Cubans will be able to enjoy the event and have uncontrolled access to it.

  • The Cuba Study Group releases a poll (pdf) showing that only 27 percent of Cuban Americans support the concert, while 74 percent believe that last week’s Miami street demonstrations featuring the smashing of CD’s with sledgehammers were not good “for the image of Cuban exiles in the United States.”

Odds and ends

  • The Catholic church’s relationship with the state in Cuba is “not what it should be, but it’s better than it has been,” says Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski after a trip to Cuba, which he discusses on the Herald’s op-ed page.

  • “Confusion reigns in the heart of American society,” Fidel Castro writes in a long commentary on the news from the United States. Fidel, who supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, says it is “an error” for President Obama to shift U.S. ground forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. “The Soviet Union sank there,” he says. English summary here.

Richardson in Havana, Day Three

At Along the Malecon, some speculation about Governor Richardson’s trip to Cuba, now in its third day, promoting farm sales and cultural exchange.

His five-day schedule leaves plenty of time left over for other matters after he has negotiated Cuban concerts in Santa Fe and sales of his state’s cattle and chili peppers to Cuba.

My hunch is that it doesn’t matter whether Richardson talked to the Obama Administration in advance or received an assignment from it. He knows the issue well enough that he will have useful things to say to Cuban officials there, and useful impressions to relate to the Administration when he returns.

Richardson did speak to Cuban American leaders in Miami on his way, Rui Ferreira reports.

[AP photo]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


“For honorable Cubans the concert of Juanes will be a grotesque spectacle…I don’t intend to politicize art; if the key is not to politicize music and art, then I call upon the Castro regime also to invite famous Cuban musicians in exile to the concert, such as Willy Chirino and Donato Poveda, who can surely sing for the peace, justice, and liberty that our people need so much.”

– Jorge Luis García Pérez, a.k.a. “Antúnez,”former political prisoner, quoted in Miscelaneas de Cuba

“Let [Juanes] sing in Cuba and then let him sing for peace in Miami, and may both concerts be so successful that they are repeated in both places. And in those concerts, let Juanes bring Gloria, Willie, and Albita to Havana and let him bring Silvio, Pablo, and Amaury to Miami. That would be a real bridge that the great majority of Cubans on both sides desire.”

– Silvia Wilhelm, Puentes Cubanos, from letter in El Nuevo Herald

Monday, August 24, 2009

Richardson to Cuba

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is en route to Cuba, AP reports. He is known as a diplomatic troubleshooter and negotiator, but this five-day trip is about “potential agricultural and cultural partnerships” between Cuba and New Mexico. His position on Cuba policy, expressed last year when he was a Democratic presidential candidate, is summed up here by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Odds and ends

  • Allegiant Air of Nevada, a newcomer to the Cuba charter business, has decided to stop providing service to Cuba, its CEO announced, saying the flights were “exposing the airline and its people to operational complexity inconsistent with our operating philosophy.” Hmmm.

  • New images of Fidel Castro: video on Cuban television (here, via BBC) and a photo here in a recent meeting with the president of Ecuador.

Treasury all but deregulates Cuban American travel

Last April, President Obama announced that he would issue rules removing all restrictions on family travel. Lots of media reports say that policy is now in effect, but that’s not the case because the Treasury Department has not issued regulations to carry it out.

While we wait for those regulations to be issued, the policy that is in effect is one that was created by Congress last March. It repealed the Bush rules for family visits (once every three years, no exceptions for additional trips) and replaced it with a new rule allowing visits once every year no questions asked, and permitting additional trips if travelers obtain a license from the government.

Now the nice folks at Treasury have issued a directive (pdf) that defines the criteria for those additional trips, including a form where a traveler has to check two boxes. The criteria are not very daunting; they could have made it simpler with one box and a statement, “I’m Cuban American, I went once this year, and I feel like going again.”

The effect is that, except for having to fill out the form and wait for a license to arrive in the mail, travel has effectively been deregulated for Cuban Americans.

That’s nice, President Obama, but what about the rest of the country?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Odds and ends

  • Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, released this report (pdf, in English and Spanish) last week including 208 persons on its “partial list of persons sentenced or tried for political reasons.” Of these, 65 are prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International. The report (see paragraphs 11 and 12) chides the government for surveillance of citizens and notes that if high officials such as Carlos Lage are surreptitiously filmed, no citizen can feel immune from surveillance.

  • The New York Times on the ongoing contact and exchange of information between meteorologists in the United States and Cuba regarding hurricanes.

46 years, a missing father, no answers

Sherry Sullivan, a Maine woman who last saw her father in 1963 at age seven, won a lawsuit against the Cuban government for her father’s wrongful death. A Maine Superior Court judge awarded $21 million in damages, plus interest, ostensibly to be collected from the Cuban government. The Bangor Daily News report is here.

There’s a lot to this case that’s hard to figure out, not the least of which is the issue of evidence about the exact fate of the father, Geoffrey Sullivan, a pilot. (The judge’s decision doesn’t seem to be available on-line.) If you search for information about Geoffrey Sullivan, there’s no definitive account of his fate – something that his daughter, who has searched assiduously for years, is the first to admit.

This story quotes Ms. Sullivan’s lawsuit saying that her father and an associate, Alexander Rorke, “participated in various anti-Castro covert operations in Central America and Cuba” before they disappeared in October 1963 after taking off from Cozumel, Mexico. The story adds: “The suit says those activities may have included sabotage and subversion. It cites evidence that Sullivan was imprisoned after being shot down during a covert mission in Cuba.”

This 1993 court decision, which upheld the CIA’s rejection of an information request from Ms. Sullivan, said that she had “surmised that Rorke and her father were engaged in a CIA-sponsored mission to drop propaganda (or perhaps something more sinister) over Cuba. Despite appellant’s suspicions, the CIA steadfastly refused to acknowledge that it employed either man at any time.”

This report’s section on Americans “killed or missing in operations to monitor or counter the Castro regime” says that in April 1963, Rorke and Sullivan “had bombed an oil refinery in Havana, Cuba with homemade bombs, but the bombs had failed to explode.”

More information on the case is here and here.

Cuba’s position in this and similar lawsuits seems to be to decline to respond in any way. One wonders what would have happened if Cuba had responded to the judge in Maine that Sullivan was captured and tried, if that was the case, on charges related to his flights and whatever he may have been dropping over Cuba.

One also wonders, for his daughter’s sake, why the U.S. government, after all these years, can’t answer her questions by saying whether her father was working for the CIA or another agency, and what it knows about his mission in October 1963, and his fate.

Pio pio

...for sale at the Cuatro Caminos market.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Odds and ends

  • NPR reports on the tourism industry in Cuba and whether it’s ready for Americans. And this travel reporter from NY1 television points out Cuba’s casas particulares, the private homes that rent rooms to foreigners, as an alternative to Cuban hotels such as the “iconic but shabby” Hotel Nacional.

  • In a Cubanet article datelined from Miami, writer Adrian Leiva supports the Juanes concert and asks: “Why recriminate against a musician who in good faith wishes to bring a concert for peace and national concord to the Cuban people, for something that isn’t his responsibility as a foreigner? It is an exclusive responsibility of the Cuban people to demand spaces of liberty and respect for our human rights. To transfer this responsibility to a foreign country or a musician is wrong and unworthy.”

  • Snide Fidel: At the end of a commentary published yesterday, where he looks at the Empire’s defense posture and health care debate, Fidel Castro says this: “Better yet, scientists could design robots capable of governing; thus they would spare the government and Congress of the United States this horrible, contradictory, and confusing work. No doubt they would do it better and cheaper.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lincoln to Crist: No, thanks

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has taken himself out of the running for appointment to the Senate seat being vacated by Senator Mel Martinez, the Herald reports.

Only yesterday, he was still thinking about it.

All kinds of speculation now comes to an end – about whether this was a clever move by Governor Crist to get his primary opponent Marco Rubio to drop out and run for the House; or whether it would have given Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart a shot at a safer seat; or whether it gave Joe Garcia another shot at a Congressional run; or even whether there was a circuitous House-to-Senate-to-House pathway for Lincoln himself to follow.

It was fun while it lasted.

Etecsa gets the message

Has someone been scratching out the Laffer Curve on the back of an envelope in Cuba’s communications ministry?

Cuba’s phone monopoly Etecsa has already cut activation fees for cell phone service to attract more subscribers (from 120 convertible pesos to 60 last December to 40 last June).

Now, to get more Cubans to call outside, Etecsa has cut rates charged to residential customers for international phone calls to one dollar per minute. This experimental rate is in effect until December 15. Reuters coverage here (Spanish), AP’s here.

Like the lower hotel rates for Cubans and the lower prices in hard currency stores, these moves by Etecsa will serve to soak up hard currency liquidity among Cubans. That helps state enterprises, and benefits Cuban consumers too. Let’s hope the idea continues to catch on.

Allen Johnson, off the reservation

“The policy of creating hungrier and poorer Cubans in hopes of bringing down their government has been tragically ineffective.” That’s the description of President George W. Bush’s Cuba policy by Bush’s former trade negotiator Allen Johnson, writing in the Des Moines Register. His recommendations on trade and travel are well received at The Washington Note, less so at Capitol Hill Cubans.

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: a delegation of Catholic bishops in Cuba, led by Baltimore’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, aims to send a message to the White House: “Isolation doesn’t help change.”

  • Sun-Sentinel: Gulfstream International, which operates charters to Cuba, saw its second-quarter charter business increase 71 percent over last year. Last March 11, the Bush rules regarding family visits were repealed, allowing Cuban Americans to visit once per year. The measures President Obama announced April 13 – unrestricted family visits and remittances – still have not been implemented.

  • Hurricane season has started, and so have worries about Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors. A potentially big one (Bill) has shifted course so it threatens Bermuda rather than the Caribbean. If you want to follow storms and cut out the middleman, you can go here to get direct access to the U.S. government reports, projections, radar images, etc.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Go, Juanes, go (continued)

  • Cuba Study Group leader Carlos Saladrigas supports the concert and addresses the Cuban American community, saying “we are quick to judge from the comforts of exile and rapidly close the door to limited opportunities for openness…It is also possible that the Cuban government is waiting for what has always been its safe formula: to let exile organizations do its dirty work.” His article was published in El Nuevo Herald; English and Spanish versions are here.

Odds and ends

  • Fidel Castro got more than anyone could wish for on his birthday – seven hours of conversation with Hugo Chavez, who dropped in for the occasion. Cuban Colada translates parts of the Venezuelan president’s account.

  • President Obama’s Latin America team is not in place because of dissatisfaction with the President’s policy toward Honduras. Liz Harper reports at Americas Quarterly Blog that Senator DeMint has held up the confirmation of Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon as ambassador to Brazil, and his replacement as Assistant Secretary, Arturo Valenzuela.

  • In a December 1971 conversation between President Nixon and the President of Brazil, the subject of supporting Cuban exiles to overthrow the Cuban government was discussed. Nixon was interested, but apparently having digested Bay of Pigs history, he reportedly “said yes, ‘as long as we did not push them into doing something that we could not support, and as long as our hand did not appear’” New York Times report here, based on declassified documents posted here by the National Security Archive.

Lincoln for Senate?

Herald: Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart is on the list of potential appointees to fill the remainder of retiring Senator Mel Martinez’ term.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist will make the appointment, and since he himself is already running for the seat next year, he is expected to name someone who will not run for a six-year term.

If that’s the (unenforceable) condition on the appointment, and if Crist would offer it to Diaz-Balart, then Diaz-Balart would seem to have two options. One would be to accept the appointment and end his Congressional career in the Senate. The other would be to accept it, serve in the Senate, and run next year to return to his House seat. Florida law would require a special election to fill Diaz-Balart’s seat in District 21.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cuban tourists in Varadero

From the Global Post website, here’s an interesting report from Nick Miroff about Cubans staying in Varadero hotels.

According to Miroff, for less than $200, Cubans are buying packages that get them a week in an all-inclusive hotel on the peninsula and includes bus transportation to and from Havana. “Many of Varadero’s upper-end facilities are still full of foreigners, but the more affordable resorts have been jammed with Cubans all summer,” he reports.

Raul Castro’s April 2008 action that ended the prohibition on Cubans staying in hotels in their own country was positive from a human rights perspective, and it also makes good economic sense for the government.

Like the action on cell phones, it soaks up some of the hard currency purchasing power that some Cubans enjoy, whether through their jobs, their enterprises, or gifts from relatives. (When the Obama Administration gets around to implementing its April 13 decision to allow unlimited remittances, there will be a lot more.)

$200 per head per week must be very close to the break-even point, but even if these travelers provide little or no profit, there’s a benefit for the tourism industry. July and August are an extremely low season for tourism in Cuba, coinciding with vacation time for lots of Cubans. If Cubans fill some hotels in July and August, they maintain the hotels’ cash flow, keep the staff working, and prevent the closing of hotels that we have seen during some summer seasons.

[Photo from]

Odds and ends

  • Mauricio Claver-Carone of the Capitol Hill Cubans blog and I will be on a PBS Blog Talk Radio discussion of the embargo at 11:00 this morning, hosted by veteran broadcaster Aaron Brown.

And more on Juanes:

  • Author Zoe Valdes writes to Miguel Bose, the Spanish singer who will join the concert, urging him to pull out.

  • Willie Chirino issues a statement in support of the concert, recognizing Juanes’ “good faith” and explaining at length the “bad taste in my mouth.”

  • The group 3 de la Habana is in favor too: “Juanes in Cuba can bring some oxygen to the people…[Other concerts] open up the vision of the younger generation a little and makes them see things from another point of view.”

  • Puerto Rican singer Olga Tanon, who will perform in the concert, issues a statement explaining why, translated here by

  • EFE talks to anonymous “show business sources” in Miami and says Juanes is under “strong pressure” to cancel the concert. EFE also reports that Vigilia Mambisa plans a Calle Ocho protest tomorrow “in rejection of this humiliation and Juanes’ provocation of the Cuban community.” Protesters will smash his CD’s with hammers, the group says.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Go, Juanes, go

The Colombian singer Juanes is moving ahead with his plans for a September 20 concert where he and other international artists will perform in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion.

In the process, he is making the rounds in Miami and colliding with the opinion that since politics pervades everything in Cuba, he is engaging in politics merely by going to Cuba – and if he doesn’t say certain things and conduct himself in a certain way, the entire enterprise will be immoral.

I hope Juanes’ headache wears off by September 19.

His concert won’t change the world, much less Cuba, but it has the makings of a great success, and thousands of Cubans will love it.

It’s a concert for peace, pure and simple, he says – a repeat of a “Peace Without Borders” concert he held on the Venezuela-Colombian border last year. His representative, Fernan Martinez, has said that the concert will be “completely apolitical, there will not be mentions of politics in favor of or against any government.”

Interviewed on Univision last night (story and video excerpt here), he spoke very much as an artist, not a politician. But he also expressed a faith that his idea of a concert in Havana is not only deeply right, but meaningful in a way that approaches the boundary of politics: “To go play in Cuba is sort of impossible…to go to Cuba is a symbol that it is time to change minds…I want to go to Cuba with my friends to tell the world from Cuba that people need to change.” As for the concert location, he sees it as neutral and open – when his interviewer noted that there’s an image of Che Guevara there, he countered that Pope John Paul II celebrated an important mass in that plaza, and that there’s also a monument to Jose Marti.

Juanes’ initiative is drawing a reaction in Miami. “When talking about Cuba, one can’t ignore politics,” Cuban American star Willie Chirino said on the same Univision program. And he’s got a point – Juanes’ claim that he’s not involved in politics, but he wants to change the world, is a little hard to grasp, even though it’s the kind of thing that artists say all the time.

Critics are right to point out that in Cuba, there are no private concert venues or promoters, so an event like this has to be approved by the government. Since it’s a government venue, there’s the possibility that a government official may appear on stage and make a speech. And there are those who are mystified about a concert for peace in Cuba, when Cuba is not at war. They’ve got a point too.

Some say Juanes shouldn’t go at all, and his concert will be immoral if he doesn’t bring Cuban American artists and use his platform to criticize the Cuban government’s human rights record. The event will be “shameless, thoughtless and heartless,” one Joe Cardona wrote in the Miami Herald, “one more tacit legitimization of the hemisphere’s most oppressive 50-year-old dictatorship.” Agence France-Presse interviewed two activists and proclaimed that Miami is “on a war footing.” Oh boy.

The Obama Administration seems to be supporting the concert. A State Department spokesman told El Nuevo Herald last week, “We are not officially supporting the concert, but the State Department is in favor of these kinds of cultural exchanges to the extent that they increase understanding between peoples…We fully respect Juanes and we wish him much good luck in his project.”

I cast my vote with Juanes.

My guess is that blogger Yoani Sanchez’ opinion – that the concert conditions may not be ideal but “Juanes should come and sing” nonetheless – will be that of the vast majority of Cubans. Her comments are here in English and in Spanish.

The worst-case scenario, I suppose, is that a Cuban official would make a speech, or an announcer would deliver a political message from the stage. If that happens, the thousands of Cuban kids of all ages in the plaza will either listen, or they will do what they often do, which is to zone out while they wait for the music to begin.

Surely, they will be there for the music. And if they find out that some opposed the concert because it didn’t include the right political message, then they will get the idea that the ideological rigidity that smothers all kinds of beneficial creativity, expression, and enterprise – not to mention just plain fun – is alive and well, not only in the buildings surrounding the Plaza de la Revolucion.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Odds and ends

  • From the Havana neighborhood San Miguel del Padron, David Adams of the St. Petersburg Times writes about “palestinos” in Havana – people who have flocked to Havana and build shanties because they have a chance to make a living there. And Juan Tamayo of the Miami Herald provides a good roundup of the current Cuban economic crunch.

  • The Miami Herald has obtained a list of price cuts on 24 products sold in Cuba’s hard currency stores. The figures in the article are confusing, but it looks like the discounts range from five to 27 percent. Many of the prices in those stores are so high that I bet that price cuts will bring in more revenue. (Photo from Palco supermarket.)

  • In Granma, television host Randy Alonso complains that President Obama’s “change…has little to do with the relationship between the United States and Cuba.”

  • El Pais reports that Spain’s Ley de Memoria Historica, which gives grandchildren of Spaniards the ability to obtain Spanish citizenship, could result in 150,000 Cubans acquiring Spanish citizenship. More than 24,000 applications have been accepted since the process began last December 29. Benefits include the ability to travel outside Cuba on the Spanish passport.

  • From the Philippines, here’s a report on a scheme to bring Filipinos to the Bahamas via Cuba, with the promise that they are being recruited for “lucrative employment opportunities.” Authorities in all three countries are trying to shut down the ring, led by “Ned” Pascual and “Peachy” Ramos.

  • Pedro Alvarez, the man in charge of Cuba’s food imports, says that regulatory factors – added transaction costs and red tape – have caused a decline in U.S. exports to Cuba since 2005. Rice and wheat are hard hit, he says; only two percent of rice imports are coming from the United States. Cuban Colada summarizes his remarks here (English) , and Alvarez’ interview in the Cuban magazine Opciones is here (Spanish).

Monday, August 10, 2009


I was saving some articles like this one about recent travelers to Cuba who couldn’t seem to get arrested or even questioned by U.S. authorities at the border on their way home. This in spite of the fact that they had gone to Cuba without a U.S. license, in some cases bringing donations to Cuba without an “export” license, a second violation. The AP photo above shows one group, members of the Venceremos Brigade, crossing into the United States from Canada to Buffalo, New York.

But what is really interesting was this report in the Los Angeles Times, which quoted Treasury and Justice officials; with the latter seeming to indicate that the U.S. government has better things to do with its investigative and prosecutorial resources than to nail people who go to Cuba. An excerpt:

“Treasury spokeswoman Marti Adams said the agency doesn’t comment on individual violations but pointed out enforcement guidelines that allow fines of up to $250,000 for the most egregious infractions.

“During the Bush administration, the Treasury Department deployed dozens of agents to stake out airports frequented by illegal travelers and fined them or confiscated goods purchased in Cuba. The Obama administration has focused its attention on more important security issues, said Tony West, assistant attorney general for civil affairs.

“‘As a general matter, should laws be obeyed? Yes. Should laws be enforced? Yes. But we’re a government of limited resources and we have to make priorities,’ West said.”

Poor Cubans are good Cubans

It’s hard to know where to begin with this article by Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Taube thinks that President Obama’s announcement that he will (someday) end all travel and remittances limits on Cuban Americans has unleashed “optimism that the President’s gestures will motivate Cuba to ultimately embrace capitalism and the free market.” Really?

He says: “For more than a half century, the U.S. was in control of its destiny with respect to Cuba.” (Yep, we’re right where we wanna be.) But with “one stunning maneuver” – Obama’s April 13 announcement – “the U.S. lost its advantage.”

It is remotely conceivable, as Mr. Taube argues, that Raul Castro will experience a “surge in popularity” once restrictions on family visits are ended. But Cubans will surely know who will cause that change, and it’s pretty predictable that Cuban officials, far from claiming credit for it, will scoff at it as a minor gesture that leaves the vast bulk of the embargo intact.

But this is what really got me: “And if the average Cuban sees an increase in the standard of living, the push toward democracy will collapse in short order.” Should we therefore all hope that Raul Castro’s government, and Canada’s, and the United States’, and everyone else’s, adopt policies that reduce the Cuban standard of living?

SEC vs. Globalization

The Securities and Exchange Commission is jumping all over Intel Corporation because a press report said that computers in Cuba have Celeron processors in them. Coverage from The Wall Street Journal here and from CNET here. Intel’s response and the SEC’s complaint are here; the gist of Intel’s response is in this paragraph:

"A May 2, 2008 Associated Press article about the availability of PCs in Cuba said: 'The Cuban PCs have Intel Celeron processors with 80 gigabytes of memory and 512 RAM and are equipped with Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system. Both could be violations of a U.S. trade embargo, but not something Washington can do anything about in the absence of diplomatic relations with Havana. Clerks said the PCs were assembled by Cuban companies using parts imported from China.' As noted above, Intel policy in accord with the Export Regulations prohibits the sale of Intel products to Cuba. We have not received any information concerning the parts referred to in the news article beyond the reference in the news article. We do not know if an Intel customer in China, or a party who purchased processors from an Intel customer in China, shipped the parts to Cuba, nor if the article is accurate with regard to the reference to China. Each year we sell millions of microprocessors to approximately 13,000 customers in China. The article also noted that the U.S. government could not take action on the matter since there are no diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Similarly, due to the travel and other constraints imposed by the embargo, it was not feasible for Intel to investigate this matter in Cuba."

“God let me do what I asked him to do…”

…which was to be able to return to Cuba, the homeland Luis Tiant left in 1961, ostensibly for a three-month stint playing ball in Mexico.

The Red Sox star pitcher with the corkscrew delivery returned to Cuba in 2007, and his story is the subject of a documentary that airs tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. It’s called “The Lost Son of Havana.” Here are reviews from Newsday and The Wall Street Journal.

[Boston Globe photo.]

Friday, August 7, 2009

George Shultz, off the reservation (again)

President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, was interviewed by the Peruvian magazine Caretas; here are excerpts (my translation):

It doesn’t seem to me to be an intelligent decision to maintain it [the embargo]. I would not negotiate with Castro over that. I would simply lift it…I would let people travel there to contribute to the opening of the economy and also on the political side. The Cuban American community should have access to the island. The more contact Cubans have with open societies, the better.

(H/t: Rui Ferreira)

Exit Mel Martinez

From Politico: Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez told his staff he will resign from the Senate this month rather than finish his term.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Odds and ends

  • The Colombian artist and social activist Juanes will perform a “megaconcert” for peace in Havana on September 20, Granma reported yesterday. AP reports that he wants to perform in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and is waiting for Cuban approval for the venue. Also, the concert will include artists from other countries, and he has invited Americans, who are seeking permission from the U.S. government.

  • China (Red China) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) are in the oil business together, getting ready to drill the second of five wells in the Taiwan Strait, and collaborating in exploration in Kenya. Dow Jones coverage here.

  • Pocket Fidel: from Granma, the Dictionary of the Thoughts of Fidel Castro will “provide readers with an extremely valuable tool for ideological debate in the contemporary world and in the task of constructing socialism in Cuba.”

  • A call to protests – from Miami and in Miami – in a Day of Cuban Resistance, at 8:00 p.m. in Little Havana, Westchester, and Hialeah; El Nuevo Herald has details. The protests are to mark the anniversary of the 1994 riot on the Malecon – an event that started, according to accounts I have heard in Cuba and according to this article, when rumors spread that Cubans would be permitted to leave en masse by ship.

Time to debate

A reader put me in touch with John Tredway of USA Youth Debates, an organization that takes American high school and college students abroad to debate foreign counterparts. The organization sponsored debates in Cuba on two occasions in 2000, and has received a license from the Treasury Department to bring American students to Cuba early next year.

The license “kind of came out of the blue,” Tredway told me, but he is now eagerly starting to organize a trip where students from the New College of Florida will debate Cuban students.

In the 2000 programs, students debated in the congress format, where a proposition is put before the house, debaters make three-minute speeches, and then vote. The Cubans weren’t thrilled with the three-minute rule, Tredway says, but the format worked. They debated whether the United States should end the embargo (the Cuban students were surprised that the Americans were divided on that question), whether both countries should adhere to UN human rights standards, whether multinational companies should make Internet access available to students in Cuba and the United States, whether the United States should return the Guantanamo naval base, and more.

Tredway tried but failed to get licenses to conduct more debates during the Bush Administration. In 2005, he said, a State Department official told him that the activity was “within the scope of the regulations, but as a policy matter we are not going to support it.”

Congratulations to Mr. Tredway for his persistence, good luck to the students on both sides, and one cheer to the Obama Administration for granting the license. I would offer three cheers, but in America it shouldn’t be necessary to beseech our government to allow speech and debate, should it?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Odds and ends

  • The New York Times: Miami is “awash with Cuban doctors,” only some of whom have been able to pass exams and gain a U.S. medical license. They are praised by the spokeswoman for Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart: “They work alongside U.S.-trained doctors, and they enhance any practice or wherever they work.”

  • Armengol notes the three minor mentions of Fidel Castro in Raul’s speech last Saturday: a reference to his electricity conservation and generation measures, a mention of Americans’ hope for Fidel and his generation to die off, and a general reference to Fidel’s teachings.

  • AP: Cubalse’s dollar stores, soon to be taken over by TRD Caribe, are closed for a longer-than-expected inventory, giving rise to rumors of shortages.

Name that hood

Monday, August 3, 2009

Raul's Saturday speech

Raul Castro gave a speech on Saturday that made some news and confirmed some news that had been circulating in the past week: new government spending cuts have been approved by the Council of Ministers; a national auditor has been named; tourist visits are up this year (2.9 percent) but tourism revenues are down; 7,800 retired teachers have returned to the classroom and 7,000 teachers have delayed retirement; and the escuelas en el campo, boarding schools where high school students live and work, are being phased out as a cost-cutting measure.

The speech was more interesting than the one he gave on July 26, in my view, because of the political content in two passages, one directed at the United States, the other at the Cuban public.

Raul gave sort of an assessment of the new U.S. Administration’s approach to Cuba. It could have been titled, “Not Overly Excited About Obama.” He noted some positive elements: resumption of the migration talks, and the announcement of new policies, not yet implemented, regarding Cuban American travel and remittances. He also noted that the embargo hasn’t changed at all, and Cuba remains on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. He began by noting that with Costa Rica and El Salvador resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, all countries in the hemisphere except one have taken that step. “One could ask which country is isolated in this region, it doesn’t seem to be Cuba,” he said. Raul’s real purpose, it seemed, was to reiterate once again that Cuba is willing to talk with the United States “about everything, I repeat, everything,” but not “to negotiate our political or social system.”

To the Cuban public, Raul explained, more clearly than did last week’s Cuban media coverage, the postponement of the Communist Party Congress that was supposed to take place in late 2009. The reason: policies that need to be discussed are not sufficiently formulated. “The task [of the Party and the people] has to do with defining…the economic model that will guide the life of the nation to the benefit of our compatriots and assure the irreversibility of the country’s socio-political regime,” he said. One example of issues under study, he pointed out, is “the complex process of monetary unification to end the double currency.” A Congress “would not make sense and would not have content” if it were not to treat issues such as this in depth and “set guidelines for the future.”

In other words, his economic policy process may be gradual, but it’s not done yet.

In the meantime, Raul has convoked a “national conference” of the Communist Party, “fundamentally” for the task of making changes in the membership of the Party’s central committee, political bureau, and secretariat.