Monday, November 30, 2009

Citizen diplomacy

Lots of catching up to do on news items about U.S.-Cuba relations, but none of these items have to do with government officials sitting across the table from each other.

There’s weather diplomacy with the U.S. visit of Cuba’s top meteorologist Jose Rubiera…softball diplomacy with Massachusetts seniors in Havana…chess diplomacy with the University of Texas at Dallas chess team in Havana…and lots of music diplomacy: Cuba’s Septeto Nacional just played Miami, Omara Portuondo will play Miami next spring, Kool and the Gang has Havana dates booked in December (h/t Penultimos Dias), and Los Van Van is planning 70 U.S. concerts.

Odds and ends

  • A new blog, about Catholic faith in Cuba: Creer en Cuba. A story from Catholic News Agency here.

  • Cuba’s 2009 tourism arrivals are on pace to beat last year’s record, according to Cuba’s National Statistics office. Data through October are here (pdf) and more data charts are linked here.

  • reports that Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban southpaw now shopping for a major league contract, has switched agents. This analysis reaches this bottom line about him: “Chapman is going to be a risk for whatever team signs him. His upside is tremendous, but he’s raw in every sense of the word.” In other baseball news, Nelson Diaz, a top Cuban umpire, has arrived in Miami with his family, and tells El Nuevo Herald his views on the decline in the quality of Cuban baseball.

  • From the Bradenton Herald (Florida): Marine scientists and conservationists are making work plans that include their Cuban counterparts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bedside reading

There’s something that should be cleared up about the case of Walter Myers and Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, the Washington couple who admitted to serving as spies for Cuba when they pleaded guilty to espionage and other charges last week. (Washington Post coverage here.)

The “factual proffers” presented in court give details of their 30-year spy careers (his here and hers here, pdf), and includes the fact that they had in their apartment “a sailing guide for Cuban waters, a travel guide for Cuba, and books entitled The Spy’s Bedside Book and On Becoming Cuban.

That could give the impression that On Becoming Cuban is some kind of how-to identity conversion manual.

In fact it is a great, richly illustrated work by University of North Carolina historian Louis Perez about the formation of Cuban national identity and how it was affected by Cuba’s “encounter with the North” from the mid-19th century until the 1950’s – American tourists, missionaries, technology, movies, consumer culture, baseball, political meddlers, everything.

Say what you will about this pair, they knew how to pick a good history book.

Odds and ends

  • Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House calls for an end to Cuba travel restrictions in the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill.

  • The International Republican Institute published a survey (pdf) of public opinion in Cuba last week based on in-person interviews conducted in Cuba with a statistical sample that matches the demographics of Cuba’s population. The interviews were done in July and August. One finding: since the last survey less than a year ago, the use of cell phones, e-mail, and the Internet has increased by 10 percent, 23 percent, and four percent, respectively.

  • Another reason to read the new blog El Yuma – it features translations of items that appeared only in Spanish, see here and here.

  • Shreveport Times: General Russel Honore of Hurricane Katrina and “Don’t be stuck on stupid” fame says that the United States has something to learn from Cuba’s hurricane preparedness – even though Cuba is “poor,” “challenged economically,” “socialist,” and “Communist-controlled.”

  • In Military Review, a short article (pdf) on the economic role of the Cuban Armed Forces by Terry Maris of Ohio Northern University.

  • Cuba’s foreign ministry announces a $15 million donation from Kuwait to repair water infrastructure in Holguin.

Reinaldo and the streets

When his wife Yoani Sanchez was roughed up a week earlier, Reinaldo Escobar decided that he would reciprocate not with violence but by challenging her assailants to a “verbal duel.”

He gave notice that he would appear Friday at a well known streetcorner in Vedado – La Rampa and G, Avenida de los Presidentes, a place where huge numbers of Cuban youth congregate at night, especially on weekends.

Days before, the government announced that a street festival would occur at that place and time. Escobar showed up and, needless to say, the “verbal duel” didn’t take place. He was met by a mob, roughed up, packed into a car, driven well past his neighborhood, and dropped off.

Penultimos Dias has a collection of videos, and AP’s coverage is here. Nothing about the event seems spontaneous, right down to the plainclothes agents stepping in to shield Escobar from “the people.”

To people watching from abroad, this was the opposite of a display of strength. But it’s part of a set of strategies that the Cuban government uses to suppress opposition: pure police power, infiltration of agents in opposition groups to gain information and sow dissension, and occasional unveiling of agents so the public knows that opposition groups are partially populated by state security poseurs. Plus, in this case, a message to Escobar, his friends, and the Cuban public that control of the streets is not in doubt.

Escobar wrote that he returned to his street and found it “full of friends, among them Father Jose Conrado who embraced me and gave me a piece of advice I’ll never forget: ‘Forgive them.’”

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Cuban Liberty Council, off the reservation

Notimex: In a sign of tolerance for differing opinions, the Cuban Liberty Council is set to honor Yoani Sanchez with its “Heroes of Freedom” award at its annual dinner tomorrow night. This comes just after Yoani endorsed the proposal in the U.S. Congress to permit unrestricted travel by Americans to Cuba, a view the CLC doesn’t share. Previous recipients of the award are Vaclav Havel, former Senator Mel Martinez, and a former Uruguayan president.

Yoani and the dissidents

I read President Obama’s answers to Yoani Sanchez’ seven questions, and there’s not much new to chew over. As one might expect, he reiterates his own policy views, makes some graceful compliments about her winning the Columbia University award, and praises her work and notes its value.

This was interesting, perhaps a hint that he will do more to encourage citizen contacts beyond unlimited travel for Cuban Americans:

“It is also my intent to facilitate greater contact with the Cuban people, especially among divided Cuban families, which I have done by removing U.S. restrictions on family visits and remittances.”

The word “joys” was interesting here, not a word I think his predecessor would have used:

“This is why everything you are doing to project your voice is so important…for people outside of Cuba to gain a better understanding of the life, struggles, joys, and dreams of Cubans on the island.”

Beyond that, President Obama is watching with interest to see if Cuba provides Web access in post offices, and he won’t rule out a trip to Cuba.

All in all, good for him for responding.

But I think I’m with Ernesto at Penultimos Dias on this one: the news was the fact that he responded, not so much the responses themselves.

What is interesting is the idea that Yoani, as blogger and digital activist, may be eclipsing the dissident movement through her actions, as this EFE story contends. Her use of new media – for example, her recent YouTube video of herself sneaking into an official organization to debate Internet policy and another reading the riot act to an immigration service clerk who told her she didn’t have permission to travel – is more interesting, with all respect, than dissidents complaining that the Spanish foreign minister didn’t see them.

Some are making the same point and complaining about it. Take for example this post from Zoe Valdes, a Cuban author who lives in Paris. Valdes insinuates that Yoani may be a Cuban agent. She asks, “Who does she represent, what legitimacy does she have?” She complains about her “thirst for protagonism.” And she says that she “erases the Cuban disidencia” with her seven questions for President Obama.

Oh boy.

It’s not clear to me that someone like Yoani has to represent anyone or get anyone’s stamp of approval to have “legitimacy.” And one blogger is not going to “erase” anybody. She writes, and you’re free to read or ignore her, believe her or disbelieve her, trust her or distrust her.

What Valdes seems to be saying that opposition to the Cuban government must have a single form, a single line of march, sort of like the Communist party as the vanguard of the people.

As one of her commenters wrote, “My God, so much paranoia!”

Austerity, anyone?

Another nugget from Fidel published in Granma, this one from December 1, 1986 (my translation):

“Many don’t understand that the socialist state, no state, no system can give what it doesn’t have, much less will it have things if things aren’t produced, if it is giving itself money not backed up by production. And I am sure that inflated payrolls, the excess money given to people, excessive inventories, waste, have a lot to do with the big number of unprofitable companies that we have in this country…”

And if you don’t have plans for Sunday, it has been declared a national day of voluntary work.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Time to end the travel ban

My testimony in a hearing today before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs is here (pdf).

Chairman Berman’s opening statement is here.

A statement on the subject from Yoani Sanchez is here.

Presidential questionnaire (Updated)

Yoani Sanchez publishes seven questions (English here) for the presidents of Cuba and the United States, says she has answers from President Obama, and will publish them today. So let’s stay tuned. In an earlier post she takes aim at the United States’ “clumsy and anachronistic” sanctions against Cuba.

Update: President Obama’s answers here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Odds and ends

  • AFP: The United States and Cuba are planning a second round of migration talks in December, no date chosen yet. A suggestion: Havana’s Latin American Film Festival runs December 3-13.

  • Advice for travelers in the Ottawa Citizen: “Go beyond the beach resorts to see Cuba’s capital.”

  • La Jornada interviews Francisco Aruca, owner of Marazul Charters, who says there are now about 50 flights from the United States to Cuba each week. Part of Aruca’s story is referenced in the intro to the interview – he once told me in person and I wish I had a recording of it – concerning his escape from La Cabana, where he was jailed for counterrevolutionary activities. He spent a year and a half in the Brazilian Embassy before getting out of Cuba.

  • Also from the Sun, a review of the Burtonsville, Maryland (!) Cuban restaurant Cuba de Ayer.

  • Ted Henken posts his July 2008 interview with Yoani Sanchez – a Spanish transcript, a partial English translation, and video broken into 13 segments.

  • The U.S. Interests Section in Havana had a contest for Cuban photographers; entries are posted here. (H/t Tracey Eaton)

  • AP: The story of 56 Americans from the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball Association, playing in Havana.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Conditionality is not leverage in this case"

A Herald op-ed calling for repeal of U.S. travel restrictions by Senator Richard Lugar and Congressman Howard Berman, respectively the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New data tool from World Bank and Google

The World Bank has just updated its World Development Indicators and Google has made the Bank’s data series available in its search function. Google’s explanation of how it works is here. Thanks to a NYC reader who put this chart on Internet use together. Or you can take this graph that plots world life expectancy 1960-2007 and plug in the countries you want to make comparisons.

Havana photo essay

In advance of the 490th anniversary of the founding of Havana next Monday, the Boston Globe’s website has a terrific photo essay by Havana-based wire service photographers. Above, a shot from Javier Galeano of AP.


“In the history of society I don't remember any situation where economic accumulation has advanced because some charismatic leader says, ‘You have to produce more.’”

– Cuban magazine editor Aurelio Alonso, quoted in Nick Miroff’s report for NPR on the most recent economic policy debates convened by the government at the workplace and neighborhood level.

Odds and ends

  • The Herald reports on the changing activities of Cuban bloggers; as Reynaldo Escobar put it, “Some people have been doing actions that go beyond the click and the keyboard and try to exercise the rights of a free person.” And the State Department issued a statement that “strongly deplores the assault on bloggers Yoani Sanchez, Orlando Luis Pardo, and Claudia Cadelo.”

  • Reuters: The Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Light Industry issue orders to state enterprises to take “extreme measures” to cut energy consumption in order to avoid the need for scheduled power blackouts.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Layoff time?

Today's Granma runs a one-paragraph Fidel quote from 1986 about the error of “underutilizing human resources,” something that “teaches people not to work, teaches them to do among three men what one can do.”

Sounds like a warning of layoffs to come, but the same paper has an article on the reorganization of state enterprises in the agriculture sector.

The reorganization of the agriculture bureaucracy has been the lagging part of recent agriculture reforms – the early steps were the land grants made to more than 80,000 farmers and cooperatives and significant increases in prices paid to producers.

Today’s article says that in pilot programs in Havana, the bureaucracy is slimming down. It estimates that 26 percent of workers in the state sector of agriculture – 89,000 workers – constitute “an excess of unproductive personnel.”

Paper-pushers are being moved to jobs that produce goods and services. An evaluation of 17 agriculture ministry enterprises yielded an estimate that it is possible to cut average executive staff from 57 per enterprise to 26, a matter of “adjusting to realities” the “payrolls and structures that have been static since the 1980’s.” The article mentions an enterprise in Artemisa where staff has been cut from 91 to 15, pay is now strictly tied to output, and base pay has nearly doubled to more than 600 pesos per month.

My guess is that rather than a warning about layoffs, these articles are a signal to farm sector workers in the rest of Cuba that these changes are coming, and they should prepare.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Odds and ends

  • The archbishop in charge of the Vatican’s communications council visited Cuba with the request that the Church have “normal access to the great means of communication that the new technologies offer us today…I am thinking of radio, television and the Internet.”

  • AP: Cuba drops potatoes and peas from the list of products available on the ration book that provides monthly supplies of staples at highly subsidized prices (and in recent years, in quantities that last only part of the month). It looks like a trial run to me.

  • AFP: Medical, educational, and investment projects between Cuba and Venezuela cost 1.5 billion this year.

  • Herald: A Miami sports agent who spent 13 years in jail in Cuba for allegedly assisting in spiriting ballplayers out of Cuba is on his way home.

Yoani Sanchez, still irrepressible

En route to a march at 23d and G in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood on Friday, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez was detained, packed into a car, and roughed up by plainclothes agents.

Here’s coverage from the Herald, Reuters, the Guardian, and AFP.

On her blog (in English here), Yoani took a shot at those who would blame the victim for bringing the attack on herself and at those who choose to look the other way. She says she is “recovering from the physical injuries.”

Penultimos Dias has details and photos of the demonstration itself here and here.

And Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation leverages the incident to argue against lifting travel restrictions. Yoani’s views on travel and the embargo are pretty well known, including this: “Change will come not through government agencies but through the citizens and the spread of information and exchange with the outside world.”

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Grammy for Omara

Omara Portuondo got a visa to come to the United States and present at the Latin Grammy awards last night, and it’s a good thing – she won in the “Best Traditional Tropical Album” for her album Gracias, which is about the only word she mustered in her acceptance speech.

Herald story here, list of awards here.

Odds and ends

  • Mercifully, this has been the hurricane season that wasn’t…this storm, now southwest of Cuba, could graze the island’s western tip but would first have to take a more easterly course.

  • EFE reports that the Spanish business community is pressing Cuban officials to pay their debts: “According to Spanish sources, apart from Cuba’s 2-billion-Euro official debt to Spain, with 700 million in arrears and various payment commitments not honored by Havana, there are 600 million in arrears to [Spanish] commercial enterprises that provide products to the island. These figures do not include the freezing of the accounts of Spanish businesses with investments in Cuba, nor the commitments to joint ventures.”

  • An interview of Juanita Castro by Daniel Viotto on CNN Spanish.

  • Herald: President Obama may get his State Department Latin America chief confirmed after all.

Granma: No price controls in agros, for now

Last week I noted an AP article about a farmers market in Havana where word came down from Communist Party officials that price controls would be imposed November 1, and trouble ensued as consumers and vendors feared that supply might dry up.

According to the AP report, the price controls have been postponed until January.

Granma, the party’s official newspaper, has responded with an article that doesn’t exactly clear up the situation.

Much of the article deals with markets where the state, not private vendors, is in charge, and there is a problem of uneven supply. An official is cited saying that the “first steps” toward a solution have been taken by improving the “logistics chain.”

Regarding the non-state agros, these are the key points:

  • The article notes that at these markets, where farmers and cooperatives sell their surplus at uncontrolled prices, products are sold for the same price throughout each market, as if vendors have all agreed on them. Prices do differ from market to market, seemingly based on neighborhood income. Both these observations square with what I have seen over the years.

  • It quotes consumers saying that “extreme” measures could result in supplies drying up, and states the open-ended question whether the state should intervene in some unspecified way “to regulate supply.”

  • It says that the November 1 measures include documenting the origin of the products that each vendor sells. (The regulations have long required that the vendors either be the farmer or a designated representative of the farmer or cooperative. Compliance with this requirement has been scant; in practice, vendors gather before dawn as trucks come into town, buy from the trucker/wholesalers, then get to work.)

  • The article doesn’t say what else is included in the November 1 measures.

  • The reporters went to the market in Havana’s Playa neighborhood where the disturbance took place and found that only five vendors had proper documentation. They attributed the “traumatic experiences” at the market to inadequate explanation of regulatory changes.

So will price controls be imposed?

The article doesn’t say. It quotes one official saying that “there will always be spaces for free competition” in these markets where producers sell their surplus after meeting the quota they owe to the state, and where they sell particular products “that cannot or should not follow the logic of state distribution.” The administrator of the Playa market says, “‘Intermediary’ is not the synonym of ‘thief’ or ‘speculator.’” Another official says that if the state ensures that regulations are followed, “there is no reason to arrive at extreme situations.”

Add it all up, and it sounds like a signal that the state is acknowledging the risks involved in imposing price controls, but is keeping the option open. And it sounds like transporters and vendors have a little more paperwork in their future.

A report I did in 2000 on the farmers markets is here (pdf).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

House travel hearing announced

Rep. Howard Berman, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, announces a November 18 hearing with the topic: “Is it Time to Lift the Ban on Travel to Cuba?”

In the Vatican

Now that Cuba has named a new ambassador to the Vatican (Eduardo Delgado Bermudez) and President Obama named Cuban American Miguel Diaz to the same post, Rui Ferreira muses:

“I wonder what gambit Benedict XVI would be promoting and whether the two cubanitos will ever walk together in the labyrinthine corridors of the Basilica, where no one sees them. In diplomacy, the Church has two thousand years of experience and a lot of patience. And the Holy See is a discreet place to have a cafecito without much trouble.”

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: A Russian state oil company buys rights to explore in four blocs in Cuba, two offshore two on land.

  • TIME magazine on changes in the Cuban American community and their impact on the debate on travel legislation.

  • Penultimos Dias links to an archeology article with photos of what remains of Soviet missile sites in Cuba.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Spain tries engagement with results

It’s wrong to say that the United States has not tried engagement with Cuba, even under hard-line policies.

President Bush offered scholarships to Cuban students and credits to Cuban entrepreneurs – but the scholarships were part of his policy to bring a “transition” to Cuba and were offered only to children of dissidents and political prisoners, and the credits to entrepreneurs were conditioned on Cuba first making a series of deep political reforms. One can like or dislike President Bush’s regime change objective or his use of conditionality, but the result was that the proposals delivered lots of moral satisfaction and no results. In some cases the results were negative, such as when the Archdiocese of Havana backed out of a program where American students taught English in one of its civic centers because the program began taking funding from USAID.

Spain is trying something different, and seems to be on the verge of delivering real help to Cuba’s private farmers.

The news is contained in this IPS report on the latest iteration of longstanding UN programs that have addressed food security, mainly in eastern Cuba.

Spain is the main donor behind a $7 million initiative that will provide credits and material aid under UN auspices to private farmers in five provinces. The initiative is framed as supporting the Cuban government policy of “decentralizing” farm production, most notably through more than 80,000 land grants to individuals and small cooperatives.

There is a crying need for credits for Cuban farmers, acknowledged in Cuban media last March. Spain and other donors to this UN program are thus addressing a critical weakness in this sector, and if the program succeeds it will result in higher incomes for private farmers, higher food production, and perhaps lower prices at farmers markets.

Let’s hope the program does succeed, and let’s hope governments on both sides of the pond study the example.

U.S. farm exports to Cuba down

Cuba’s purchases of U.S.agricultural products are down about 32 percent this year, a time when Cuba’s overall trade volume was down 36 percent (AP, Reuters). These figures were discussed at a Havana trade fair where, La Jornada reports, a Cuban minister made the first tacit admission that it had frozen the Cuban bank accounts of foreign businesses; the minister also said Cuba took the measure temporarily and will meet its obligations. The head of Cuba’s food purchasing company told AP that changes in U.S. policy are likely to generate increased volume of purchases from the United States, a topic I discussed in this article.

Odds and ends

  • Ted Henken on the Internet, public debate in Cuba, and the spat between Rafael Hernandez and Yoani Sanchez.

  • Hollywood’s The Wrap reports that Sean Penn’s trip to Cuba was less than billed.

  • The Cuban magazine La Jiribilla panned Juanita Castro’s book, big time – “in bad taste and of low morality” – but the review seems to have disappeared from the magazine’s site. But Penultimos Dias links to a copy still in the Google cache. EFE story in English here.

McJobs... McTanamo, hiring now.

Monday, November 2, 2009

New blog on the block

Good news: Ted Henken, a professor at the City University of New York’s Baruch College and author of this reference work on Cuba, has started a blog, El Yuma. We’ll see what he writes about – his interests include music, culture, and Cuban migration to the United States, and no one is better at giving a street-level view of the workings of the Cuban economy. Plus, he’s a friend. Go read him.

Irrepressible Yoani

Belonging to no organization and receiving no U.S. government funds, blogger Yoani Sanchez has created a platform of her own that she uses to question government authority, quite directly.

Two weeks ago, Yoani posted a video of her argument with an immigration officer when her request for permission to travel abroad was denied.

Now at Huffington Post, she explains how she disguised herself with a blond wig to gain entry to a conference on the Internet in Cuba organized by the magazine Temas. Attendees were screened, and some were blocked at the door. A short video with excerpts of the conference is included, including her intervention, which was not interrupted and was received with applause.

The magazine’s editor, Rafael Hernandez, criticized Internet commentary on Cuba in a recent visit to the United States. Her response to Hernandez was that if he views independent Cuban blogs as trashy, then let’s have more of them.

Odds and ends

  • “I don’t think, of course, that it was the intention of the United States,” Fidel Castro wrote Saturday, but he says more visitors from the United States has meant more swine flu in Cuba. AP story here.

  • Mambi Watch on Juanita Castro’s history in exile. And this blog says she and Miguel Saavedra of Vigilia Mambisa ran into each other at a Miami supermarket and exchanged a few choice words.

  • At Cuban Colada, the Herald’s Jordan Levin reports that Omara Portuondo, the Cuban singer made famous here when she performed with Buena Vista Social Club, will be a presenter at Thursday’s Latin Grammy awards program, broadcast on Univision.