Saturday, December 26, 2009

Raul Castro on the USAID detainee

The Cuban government made its first statement on the detained USAID contractor (see discussion here), and it came from President Raul Castro in his December 21 speech to Cuba’s National Assembly. Excerpts (my translation):

Despite the enormous propaganda campaign undertaken to confuse the world about an apparent willingness to take a new direction in the bilateral dispute, putting forth [as evidence] the repeal of the restrictions on the trips of Cuban émigrés and remittances to their relatives, the truth is that the instruments for the policy of aggression against Cuba remain intact, and the U.S. government does not give up on destroying the Revolution and generating a change in our economic and social regime.


The enemy is as active as ever. A case in point is the detention in recent days of a U.S. citizen, euphemistically labeled as a government “contractor” in statements by State Department spokesmen, who was devoting himself to the illegal distribution of sophisticated satellite communications equipment to “civil society” groups that they hope to set up against our people.

This is not good news for the American detainee, who we’ll again call Mr. Smith.

It would seem to increase the odds that Cuba will apply the law that USAID warned about in 2003 with regard to Cuban citizens and “U.S. individuals and organizations” participating in the USAID program. The law, called Law 88, was passed in response to the Helms-Burton law and repeatedly characterizes that law and its programs as having the goal of “breaking the internal order, destabilizing the country, and liquidating the Socialist State and the independence of Cuba.” It provides a prison term of three to eight years for someone who “distributes or participates in the distribution of financial, material, or other resources that come from the United States government, its agencies, subordinates, representatives, functionaries, or private entities…”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post examines the USAID Cuba program and reports, based on U.S. government sources, that Mr. Smith is a “computer specialist traveling on a tourist visa,” and “was not working with political dissidents but was hooking up members of a community group to the Internet.” One official said his activity would be “extremely innocuous” anywhere else.

Under these circumstances, it may be good that no charges have been filed yet. Hopefully, our diplomats have more time to try to achieve Smith’s release. But it seems clear that on the Cuban side, Smith is viewed not as an ordinary social worker, but as a political operative in a U.S. program to bring down the Cuban government.

Which gets to the real flaw in the program. It is designed around American intentions and ignores the nature of Cuba’s government. It expects a foreign government to collaborate in its own undoing. It’s an overt regime change program that depends on Cuba giving visas to people who come to carry it out. Cuba’s government is the least likely in the world to allow such a project to work.

Maybe it was nice while it did work, but now that an American is in jail it seems to me that the Obama Administration has to decide a few things. Among them: whether this program and this method of operating is the best way to promote its goals in Cuba.

Odds and ends

  • NPR’s Nick Miroff on Havana’s movie houses, and the crush of business during the annual December film festival.

  • Is the paladar La Guarida closing? Penultimos Dias has a report that says that’s the case.

  • “He lies all the time, deceives with demagogic words, with profound cynicism.” That’s Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez going way over the top in describing President Obama. In response, General Barry McCaffrey pulled out of a delegation to Cuba.

  • Reuters: Los Van Van will perform in Key West next month, and will return in April for a 70-concert tour. And in February, Omara Portuondo will perform in Washington.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Ready for the first million"

Last Wednesday there was a meeting by videoconference between U.S. travel industry representatives and tourism ministry and company representatives in Cuba. AP coverage here; Reuters here.

I attended, and it was an interesting exchange. When asked if Cuba is ready for a surge in travelers from the United States, a Cuban official responded, “We’re ready for the first million.” He outlined plans to build more hotels if demand surges, adding 10,000 rooms to the current capacity. Cuba’s preference is to build these hotels as joint ventures with foreign investors, as was done in the early 1990’s. He noted that of Cuba’s 48,000 hotel rooms, about 6,000 are in joint venture hotels (where the foreign companies are part owners) and about 25,000 are in hotels under management contracts with foreign companies (where the foreign company has its brand on the hotel and handles management and marketing).

Another official said that in a four-month period (June-September) this year, 59,000 Cubans bought hotel packages to stay in hotels in Varadero, Cayo Largo, Cayo Santa Maria, and elsewhere. More on this here.

Odds and ends

  • AP: Two new vice presidents of the Council of State were named: Minister of Communications Ramiro Valdes and Comptroller General Gladys Bejerano, who took office last August after a 589-0 confirmation vote in the National Assembly.
  • Sun-Sentinel: Florida Senator George LeMieux announced last week that he will no longer block the nomination of Tom Shannon as Ambassador to Brazil, and he released a letter (pdf) from the State Department that comments on Cuba policy. He told AFP (Spanish story here) that with regard to the detained USAID contractor, “I hope he returns as soon as possible but we can’t negotiate with terrorists.”
  • Herald: Allegations of torture in Cuban prisons, met by a Cuban spokesman’s contention that treatment of prisoners in the United States is “similar or worse.”
  • Cigar Aficionado: In the Cohiba trademark fight between General Cigar and the Cuban company Cubatabaco, Cubatabaco wins the latest round in federal court.
  • “Let’s bring down the wall” – dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe argues that the United States should end all Cuba travel restrictions. “No one expects the that arrival of foreigners can change a totalitarian government,” he writes. Only the Cuban people can do that. However, tourism opens a window to ideas…”

“Tell them all to just keep coming”

That’s a Cuban fan speaking to an AFP reporter at the Kool and the Gang concert yesterday on the Malecon. It was held at the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, the stage and plaza built in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission during the Elian Gonzalez saga.

Maybe our diplomats figure that if they have to stare at the thing all day, why not bring a good act to perform there? Let’s hope there are more.

AFP coverage here, AP here.

[AP photo]

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I corrected a post below on a Congressional action affecting U.S. farm sales to Cuba. It changes the rule defining “cash in advance” but contrary to what I wrote, it does not permit Cuba to make its payments by direct wire transfer to U.S. banks. My error.

Obama and Cuba

The Obama Administration’s moves on Cuba policy – mainly, ending travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban Americans, and opening up more diplomatic communication – have in my view been incremental and positive.

Some have criticized the Administration for not moving faster on Cuba policy, and for not having a more developed policy toward the hemisphere as a whole. In fairness, one has to note that the top State Department official for Latin America, Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela, only took office last month.

In a session with reporters last week, Valenzuela talked about Cuba policy and indicated that we might see more actions to expand people-to-people contacts and diplomatic engagement:

QUESTION: Yesterday, you said that you are not – you are thinking – you are going to go slowly on Cuba. And I wanted to ask you, it is because you’re seeing the Cuban Government is on a more open track and you want to give them time, or because you think they are not ready at all? [...]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, on the first question, I think we’re moving ahead with the kind of speed that you would want in a situation like this where we’re examining both the situation in Cuba; at the same time, looking as we have done at measures that we can take to do two things – on the one hand, to expand the people-to-people contacts through the various different measures that we’ve taken. And we’re going to look to see whether there’s some other elements of that that we can look at, and then secondly, the engagement that we’ve had on issues that are of mutual interest to both countries. We’ve had these talks on postal matters, on migration questions, and we expect others to come up.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

More on the USAID detainee

  • More reporting on the detained American USAID contractor from the Herald and Politico, based on Administration briefings to Congress. Both mention a “high-security prison” – is there such a thing as a low-security prison in Cuba?

  • Tracey Eaton has gathered information on the USAID program and efforts to expand the reach of information technology in Cuba; see here, here, here, and here.

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: Venezuela-Cuba “cooperation agreements” worth $3 billion signed in Havana for a variety of economic and other projects, including formation of seven joint state companies.

  • ESPN: Aroldis Chapman’s fastball was 96 miles per hour in a bullpen session he held in Houston before scouts from “about half the major league teams.”

  • [Corrected] The Senate approved a spending bill that includes a provision affecting U.S. farm sales to Cuba; it returns to the pre-Bush Administration definition of the “cash in advance” requirement, so payment will now be required before goods are delivered in Cuba as opposed to before they are shipped from the United States. This change will be in effect only until the end of the current fiscal year – September 30, 2010. Senator Menendez spoke in opposition but voted for the bill, as Anya Landau French explains at The Havana Note. [An earlier version of this post reported in error that the bill also allows Cuba to make its payments by direct wire transfer to U.S. banks. My error.]


From yesterday’s State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: P.J., could you give us a little bit more information, if you have it, on the American being held in Cuba? And also, I’d be interested in the Cuban democracy program, and the use of giving out cell phones, laptops, communications equipment. What exactly do they give out and what’s the purpose?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me keep those two issues separate. It – regarding the U.S. citizen, he remains in custody. We have on multiple times – occasions, both on December 8th, December 11, December 12, we have asked for consular access. We have been assured that it will be granted. It has not been granted at this point. And since we haven’t met with him, we don’t have a privacy waiver, so it’s difficult for us to get into any more specifics on that case.

Regarding our work on civil society in Cuba, it obviously is important. The United States policy is to encourage improved human rights conditions. That includes respect for fundamental freedoms, democratic reforms in Cuba, the ability of Cuban citizens to participate freely in civic life and to promote the free flow of information both into and out of that country.

Again, going back to what the Secretary said yesterday in her speech, it is about promoting the ability of people to organize, to communicate around the world. And when you do have countries like Cuba or countries like China that are afraid of that flow of information, in fact, it is inconsistent with the global trends that are going to propel the 21st century.

QUESTION: Do they define specifically what kind of communications equipment can be given to people?

MR. CROWLEY: Does Cuba?

QUESTION: No. Do we? I should say the United States.

MR. CROWLEY: I think our – part of our programs are centered on providing and helping groups provide a capability to network and to communicate.

QUESTION: In other words, I guess what I’m asking is we’re talking about cell phones, computers, et cetera. Would it include things like GPS or would it include things like satellite phones?

MR. CROWLEY: I think it is the ability to communicate globally.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Grandma in green window, Santiago de Cuba in Santiago de Cuba

A street scene in Santiago from, an incredible website with panoramic pictures from all over the world. The site has lots of pictures from elsewhere in Cuba too – Havana, Trinidad, even the Farola, the highway that goes through the mountainous tropical forest between Guantanamo and Baracoa. The search mechanism takes you wherever you want, such as the Tel Aviv seafront, the Louvre’s courtyard in Paris, or a snowfall in Chicago.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Our man in Havana

An American citizen working on a USAID contract was arrested in Cuba December 5, according to press reports citing U.S. officials and a statement from the USAID contractor (see post below). Here are reports from the New York Times, Miami Herald, Washington Post, and Fox News.

So far, no comment from the Cuban government.

According to the Times, he had entered Cuba on a tourist visa and was distributing “cell phones, laptops, and other communications equipment.”

The Post cited a source who says he was “working with local organizations that were trying to connect with each other and get connected to the Internet and connect with their affinity groups in the U.S. The same source said it’s “a bit of a mystery” why this person was arrested.


I would say this poor fellow walked into an accident waiting to happen.

There are three issues here.

First is the objective of the program: “Hastening Transition to Democracy in Cuba,” as described in this 2008 USAID document. Opinions of that objective divide roughly along these lines: great idea, bad idea, none of our business. Plus this variant: impossible for us to achieve regardless of the merits. As ever, the comments section is open if you want to have at it.

Second is the issue of the Cuban government’s perception of the program and its stated objective. Havana tends to see it as part of an off-and-on, 50-year U.S. effort to effect regime change, and their security/intelligence apparatus is on the case. Given Cuban officials’ long memories and their greater-than-average sensitivity about anything involving sovereignty, they tend to lump the current program in with the embargo, the Bay of Pigs, and a long list of covert and overt efforts to overthrow their socialist government. The fact that President Bush has gone and President Obama is now in charge doesn’t matter one whit. You may think these perceptions are wrong, or exaggerated, or illegitimate because you think the government itself is illegitimate, but I don’t think there’s any dispute that this is how Havana sees the program.

Which leads to the third set of issues, which are operational. It’s one thing to run civil society programs in countries where the local government is unopposed, it’s quite another to do so in a communist country that perceives the program as a national security threat. The USAID program’s connections to Cuban dissidents – real or invented – were the basis for the Cuban government’s jailing of 75 dissidents in 2003. USAID explained in December 2003:

In March 1999, the Cuban Government passed legislation which would impose 8 to 20 year prison sentences on any Cuban citizen found to be collaborating with activities funded through Section 109 of the LIBERTAD Act [the Helms-Burton law, whose Section 109 is the basis for the USAID program]. In March 2003, the Cuban Government arrested and sentenced to long prison terms Cuban citizens the Cuban Government accused of collaboration with Section 109 activities. Individual Cuban citizens and Cuban NGOs as well as U.S. individuals and organizations participating in the program…must be fully apprised of the implications of the March 2003 Cuban Government crackdown. The Cuban Government utilizes the harshest measures to repress the flow of accurate information on democracy, human rights and free enterprise to, from, and within Cuba.

In other words, it’s a risky program to carry out, both for USAID grantees and the recipients of the aid. That’s why USAID has been very stingy with information about the program, and it’s why the program has looked like an odd hybrid of overt and covert activity.

Which brings us to the poor fellow in a Cuban jail today. I’ll call him Mr. Smith.

In 2006, the State Department offered to make Cuba grants from its Human Rights and Democracy Fund for this purpose:

Break the information blockade by employing high tech communication devices to facilitate communications between activists on the island, foster a nascent civil society, and improve the dissemination of information to and from the island, especially by increasing the communication of democracy and human rights messages. Low-tech projects that serve the same purposes in a creative manner will also be considered.

Sounds like Smith was working on a program under that grant, or something like it. For more on the program, see USAID requests for proposals from 2003 and 2008 and a job announcement from January 2009.

The Washington Post article points out that “a Cuban citizen or a foreign visitor can be arrested for nearly anything under the claim of ‘dangerousness.’” That’s very true; the offense of peligrosidad predelictiva in the Cuban criminal code enables the police to arrest people based on no more than an officer’s judgment that they are up to no good. (Roughly translated: dangerousness with a propensity to commit crime.)

But my guess is that such a charge would not figure into Smith’s case. Experts on Cuban law can weigh in, but my guess is that if he indeed entered on a tourist visa he could have a legal problem there, and if authorities choose to apply laws like the one USAID cited above – sort of like failure to register as a foreign agent in our criminal code – he’s got another problem. In other words, a Cuban prosecutor would probably say Mr. Smith is already way beyond predelictiva.

Maybe he entered Cuba as a tourist with baggage full of communications equipment. Maybe he picked up the equipment at the U.S. Interests Section. (The State Department reported in 2007 that in some months, 75 percent of diplomatic pouch shipments are USAID materials.)

Either way, this story was not destined to end well, as Val Prieto surmises at Babalu. One has to wonder how this mission was supposed to work, and what kind of warnings and instructions Smith got from his employer as he set off on his mission.

Where does it go from here? Cuba will continue to be condemned for being a rare country that arrests people for handing out cell phones and laptops. U.S. diplomats will try to visit Smith in jail, and will probably argue that his activities were benign, even beneficial to Cuba, and don’t merit arrest. Cuban officials will probably respond that they don’t arrest Cuban Americans and others who bring cell phones and laptops to Cubans every day. Further, they will decide what’s beneficial to Cuba, thank you very much, and Smith’s offense is that he was conducting political activity for a foreign government, which is against Cuban law. In all that, American diplomats will hear an echo of their own explanation about why the famous Cuban Five are in U.S. jails.

A friend tells me (unconfirmed) that USAID grantees have curtailed trips to Cuba. The Obama Administration may well review the USAID program and how it is supposed to work.

As for Mr. Smith, it seems that his release will depend on an extraordinary exercise of prosecutorial discretion, or a diplomatic gesture or arrangement, or all three.

USAID contractor's statement on American detained in Cuba

This statement was cited in news reports over the weekend:

Statement from Dr. Jim Boomgard, President and CEO of Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI)

The New York Times and other media outlets have reported the detention of a U.S. citizen in Cuba linked to DAI.

DAI is a professional economic development organization that has for 40 years been working to bring development benefits to millions of disadvantaged people in more than 100 countries worldwide ( ).

Our prime concern is for the safety, well-being, and quick return to the United States of the detained individual. We have been working closely with the State Department to ensure that the detainee's safety and well-being is given top priority. Given the delicacy of this situation, we ask for media discretion. All inquires should be directed to the State Department.

In 2008, DAI competed for and was awarded a contract, the Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program, to help the U.S. Government implement activities in support of the rule of law and human rights, political competition, and consensus building, and to strengthen civil society in support of just and democratic governance in Cuba

The new program was also designed to help the U.S. Government address challenges raised about some aspects of its program in the past (November 2006 GAO report on US Democracy Assistance for Cuba -- ). DAI was engaged on the basis of its positive track record in development, and its capacity to provide sound management and administration of key aspects of U.S. Government programs such as this one, which involves support for the peaceful activities of a broad range of nonviolent organizations through competitively awarded grants and subcontracts.

The detained individual was an employee of a program subcontractor, which was implementing a competitively issued subcontract to assist Cuban civil society organizations.

[December 12, 2009]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Environmental protection should be on the agenda

You can chalk it up to an accident of history, the dead weight of socialism, or a triumph of environmental preservation, but the fact is that the marine environment off the southern coasts of Camaguey and Ciego de Avila provinces – the site of the Jardines de la Reina archipelago and preserve – is preserved like none other in the Caribbean because it simply hasn’t been touched by economic activity.

Here’s author Peter Benchley’s description of a dive in a 2002 article from National Geographic:

I had flopped overboard from a dinghy on a glassy Caribbean sea in the summer of the year 2000 and in an instant, apparently, slipped backward nearly half a century into an underwater realm that had not existed, so far as I knew, since the 1950s.

Residents swarmed over me, welcoming me to the neighborhood, animals in numbers and diversity I hadn’t seen in decades, not since Lyndon Johnson was President and man had yet to set foot on the moon. Groupers of all descriptions and sizes lumbered around me: Nassau groupers, black groupers, even the patriarch of the grouper clan, the gigantic jewfish (aka the goliath grouper), creatures widely assumed to have almost disappeared from the Caribbean long ago – speared, hooked, netted, poisoned by men driven by poverty, hunger, and need.

American Scientist David Guggenheim repeated Benchley’s experience, saying it’s like being transported in a “time machine:”

It’s amazing. It’s sort of like “Jurassic Park.” Scientists are seeing these species they never expected to see in their life, because they’re extinct. Well, these fish aren’t extinct, but they might as well be for most of us. So I feel very lucky to see them.

That’s from an NPR report on the efforts of Guggenheim and other American scientists and conservationists to create a series of research and environmental protection projects in conjunction with their Cuban and Mexican counterparts.

It’s good that the Obama Administration gave Cuban officials and scientists visas to meet American counterparts in Washington in September and allowed the Americans to travel to Cuba in October. These are clear signs of support for these Americans’ private sector work.

But President Obama could do more. At the Trinidad summit last April, the President said, “The United States is a friend of every nation and person who seeks a future of security and dignity.” He also said, “I’m prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues – from drugs, migration, and economic issues, to human rights, free speech, and democratic reform.”

Why not add environmental cooperation to that list? Why not send U.S. government experts – EPA, NOAA, Coast Guard – to see if they and Cuban counterparts come up with ideas for research or collaboration that could serve both countries’ interests?

If research and the protection of fisheries and biodiversity in shared waters aren’t enough, I’ll note again that there’s the issue of emergency preparedness.

If you look at a map of the areas where Cuba is hoping to do additional deep-water oil exploration, and if you look at the prevailing currents and their speed, the situation is pretty clear: an oil spill in the waters off Cuba’s northwest coast becomes a Florida problem in a matter of days.

Should such a disaster happen, the moral satisfaction of not talking to communist officials won’t count for much, even in Florida.

[National Geographic photo; more here.]

Odds and ends

  • EFE: Cuba’s Center for Studies of Defense Information is holding a conference next April on security and defense and announces that participants from 30 countries will attend. An official of the center says that President Obama’s “continuity” with his predecessor’s policies “obliges states to sit down and think and coordinate actions.”

  • AFP: About 50 of the Damas de Blanco marched in Havana to commemorate Human Rights Day, and were met by about 100 “followers of the Cuban government.”

  • Cuban Colada: Thanks to Florida’s new Senator, Radio/TV Marti comes out with a $30 million budget for 2010, a $4 million cut.

  • This court decision denying the appeal of a convicted alien smuggler is a little long and dry, but has some details of how smuggling operations work.

  • I commented last week on this report that an on-line travel service had to stop booking Cuba travel, including booking room rentals in private homes, when it came under American ownership. A reader points out this site from Britain, which offers many rentals in casas particulares around Cuba, and a note about travel to “banned” countries. Or you can Google “Cuba casa particular” and make your way through zillions of results.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Show time

Who’s interested in Aroldis Chapman?

Well, who isn’t?

The Angels, the Red Sox, the Orioles (my preference), and many more will be drawing up offers if the lefty does in fact throw 100 miles per hour.

They’ll find out, reports, when he throws a session for team representatives in Houston next week. A quick discussion by Mitch Williams and Al Leiter is in this video, and a very detailed examination of his technique is here.

Kerry on Cuba

The American debate over Cuba policy doesn’t exactly lend itself to division along liberal and conservative lines.

But when reading a long, analytical statement that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry has in Tuesday’s Congressional Record, I came away thinking that there’s a conservative quality to his approach to Cuba.

His statement was an explanation of his decision to add his name to the bill that repeals Cuba travel restrictions. In it, he applauds President Obama’s first moves on Cuba policy but views them as minimal – and he calls for a bigger overhaul.

What’s conservative, then?

Senator Kerry credits the embargo with curbing Cuban/Soviet adventurism during the Cold War.

He is clear that Cuba’s human rights record is “dismal.”

He has no misty hopes about “transition.” “I don’t personally hold high hopes,” he says, “that the transfer of power from Fidel to Raul Castro and to the next generation of hand-picked loyalists portends rapid change.”

He announces that he is taking a hard look at old, fat government programs to see if they actually work, or could work better. Imagine that!

Exhibit A: Radio/TV Marti, to determine “whether the TV service should be closed entirely and radio should be integrated into the high-quality VOA [Voice of America] services. We ought to be especially concerned that human rights activists in Cuba, a key bellwether audience, are unanimous in their view that the Martı brand must be repaired.”

Exhibit B: The USAID civil society programs: “It is also fair to ask whether these programs even work. Bush’s refocus on regime change made it difficult for Cubans outside declared antiregime groups to accept the informational materials or assistance offered – even if they had a burning desire for it.”

Senator Kerry points out that for the Bush Administration, these programs were effectively substitutes for a policy of unrestricted citizen travel. The argument was that we send stuff to the right people through AID, we broadcast the right things on Radio/TV Marti, and we give licenses to Americans with “legitimate” purposes in Cuba – so that’s enough, we don’t need Americans in general mucking around down there.

By contrast, Senator Kerry is asking whether free actions by free Americans might accomplish more than the old, fat government programs.

He’s on to something.

Finally, he gently points out an absurdity of the Obama policy that extols the special “ambassadors for freedom” qualities of Cuban Americans, who now enjoy the right of unrestricted travel to Cuba. “But I think it’s also fair to say that there are excellent ambassadors for freedom among the 299 million other Americans,” Senator Kerry says.

Call it conservative, call it mainstream, call it what you like – it shows much greater confidence in the power of public diplomacy, and in American citizens as agents of public diplomacy, than anything we have seen from Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

[Newsweek photo.]

Gnomes on guard... a Vedado yard, and definitely not for sale. Thanks to reader Russell Bither-Terry for the shot.


“I don’t understand how a name that has brought so much glory to Cuba can be omitted.”

– Pianist Chucho Valdes, interviewed in El Pais, on Cuban media’s omission of any mention of his father from coverage of the Grammy award they just won together. Bebo Valdes has lived outside Cuba since the 1960’s.

Odds and ends

  • AP: Two of the Cuban Five had their sentences reduced by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard.

  • CARICOM celebrates its relations with Cuba and expresses appreciation for Cuban health programs in the Caribbean.

  • In Tokyo, Cuba’s foreign minister says that U.S. policy hasn’t changed under President Obama, and that Cuba is awaiting a response to a “proposed agenda for an eventual bilateral dialogue” that it presented last July.

  • In Cardenas, Elian Gonzalez turned 16 and attended a “cultural gala for the 10th anniversary of the Battle of Ideas.” (H/t Cuban Colada)

  • A hacker made $43,000 worth of calls, mostly to Cuba, on an Illinois company’s phone line in the space of four days. Sounds like a phone card operation that found a way to cut its cost to zero.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

“We have played to Fidel Castro’s strengths, not ours.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry says President Obama has taken “small steps” in Cuba policy – “only a start” – and calls for an end to travel restrictions and a review of Radio/TV Marti and other “programs that the Bush administration funded generously to substitute for people-to-people diplomacy.” See his op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cutting losses

In addition to making more than 80,000 land grants and raising prices paid to producers (detailed here, pdf), the Raul Castro government is doing some reorganizing in agriculture.

Since the beginning of 2008, it has dissolved 215 state farm cooperatives (known as Unidades Basicas de Produccion Cooperativa, or UBPC). Of these, 76 were merged into others and the remaining 139 closed entirely. This leaves 1,463 UBPC’s, one fourth of which (402) are not profitable.

These figures come in a Granma article that examines the struggles of these cooperatives, which were created in 1993 when large state farms were broken up after Soviet aid ended. UBPC’s have been problematic since their beginning – unlike other cooperatives made of small farmers or the state farms that didn’t change their organizational structure, the UBPC’s were made up of parts of state farms with parts of their workforces, left to fend for themselves.

The Granma article cites some of their chronic problems and says the way for them to succeed now is through diversification of output. The message would seem to be that more could be dissolved if they don’t start operating in the black.

Odds and ends

  • A response from eight Cuban artists and intellectuals to last week’s call for respect for the rights of Afro-Cubans. AP coverage here.

  • Yahoo Sports: Cuban prospect Noel Arguelles, 19, signs with the Kansas City Royals

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pez gordo

A twelve-hour overnight wait, a huge hit on their line at dawn, a half-hour fight, and a 1.6 meter, 50-pound sailfish to bring home.

Juventud Rebelde tells the story of two Cienfuegos fishermen, Elio Alberto Fuentes y Carlos Ivan Molina, last Saturday night.

[Juventud Rebelde photo.]

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: The next round of U.S.-Cuba migration talks, set for this month, now put off until February.

  • A Havana-based look at issues of engagement with Cuba from the British Ambassador there, Diana Melrose.

  • NPR: more from reporter Nick Miroff on the prospect of American tourists in Cuba.

  • The news/opinion website CubaEncuentro has separated from the organization that hosted it for the past nine years and is now getting re-started as Diario de Cuba. Editorial note here, Ted Henken’s translation of it here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What is Treasury telling Google? (Updated)

A Juventud Rebelde article by Amaury del Valle complains today that in Google’s 2009 Zeitgeist survey, statistics for Cuba aren’t broken out.

But Cuba is not the only country for which separate data aren’t provided, and plenty of the countries not listed in the survey are not subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

So while del Valle’s point about Zeitgeist looks inaccurate, I wonder if he’s right about his broader charge that Google is “joining the U.S. blockade against Cuba” contrary to President Obama’s expressed desire to “facilitate Cubans’ access to new technologies.”

Del Valle says that Google’s Blogger function has been blocked to Cuban users “on various occasions.” (Blogger is the free, idiot-proof tool and hosting platform that I used to create this blog, and where many of the blogs you read reside.) The same has occurred, he says, with Google Earth, Google Toolbar, and the new web browser Google Chrome.

Recall that U.S. Treasury regulations have blocked Microsoft instant messaging software from Cuban users and that Treasury, in a letter to the Center for Democracy in the Americas, admitted as much and said it might fix the problem (Bloomberg story here).

In that Bloomberg story, a Google spokesman says that Treasury regulations affect Google products in the same way, which amounts to another dubious Victory for American Foreign Policy, and another indicator of how much of the Obama Cuba policy remains that of President Bush.

[Update: The Treasury letter referenced above is here.]

Odds and ends

  • CBS-4 Miami has done a report on the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue (BTR) shootdown and the events that led up to it, including BTR leaflet-dropping flights over Havana in 1995. The report is based in part on U.S. government documents that CBS-4 reporters obtained. A few (too few) of the documents are linked in the article, showing how U.S. officials reacted to Cuba’s repeated complaints and worried about the possibility of a shootdown. At one point, they threatened to revoke BTR leader Jose Basulto’s pilot license.

  • Herald: A statement from a group of prominent African Americans calls on the Cuban government to respect civil rights and to end “the unwarranted and brutal harassment of black citizens in Cuba.” Statement here (pdf).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Martha Beatriz Roque, off the reservation

From an article by Nick Miroff in GlobalPost:

Martha Beatriz Roque, one of the Castro government’s most outspoken critics on the island, said she isn’t so optimistic. But she said she opposes the travel ban on principle. “I don’t think it’s going to change the Cuban government at all,” said Beatriz Roque in her tiny Havana apartment, where a sticker on the front door read “CAMBIO” (Change). “But I believe in democracy and freedom,” she added. “I think everyone should have the freedom to travel, which is something that the Cuban people lack. So if we’re fighting here for democracy, how can we try to restrict the freedom of the American people?”

Odds and ends

  • Nick Miroff writes in GlobalPost about the Cubans who benefit economically from foreign travelers, and uncovers yet another Victory for American Foreign Policy: when the travel website came under American ownership, it had to remove listings of casas particulares in Cuba – room rentals by family entrepreneurs. Maybe it’s time for federal agents to fan out to seize Lonely Planet and other Cuba travel guides that do the same thing, in print.

  • From Cubanet, a rumor that Cuba is about to introduce a new currency, the Mambi.

  • Two old video gems from Penultimos Dias: Nixon and Kennedy debating Cuba – with Nixon arguing that supporting Cuban exiles in a military operation would violate international law and fail to achieve its objectives – and a 1929 Swedish cruise to Havana.

  • Tracey Eaton on a documentary about Victor Alvarez, a Cuban musician who returned after 43 years.

  • A tech columnist speculates that Cuba could become a call center outsourcing location. Reasons: ability to reach the U.S. Latino market, low indices of corruption, and the “growing proportion” of the Cuban workforce that works in international tourism, which “has led many individuals to take on significant training by foreign hotel operators and tour companies in order to bring their service skills to Western standards.”

Voices from the island

The current issue of the magazine In These Times has a collection of articles about Cuba compiled by author and journalist Achy Obejas. The contents are here, although not all the articles are on-line yet. From her introduction:

The most crucial lesson I’ve learned going back and forth – I still do it, at least once or twice a year – is that we have to listen to each other, really listen. For me that has meant acknowledging that my parents were, in fact, right about many things. It has also meant an understanding that what Cubans in Cuba think is paramount. So when In These Times approached me to put together a special issue marking the revolution’s 50th anniversary, the very first thing I asked was that it be an issue by Cubans on the island…I have a disposition for seeing things through a cultural prism. But I also think culture, frankly, is a better indicator of the future than almost anything else. Anyone familiar with the Cuban culture of sacrifice and inventiveness would have known that, the rational logic of economics aside, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 would bring deep changes but that Cuba, and its revolution, would survive.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Postcard from Las Piedras, Cuba

From David Adams, now with PODER magazine, a video postcard from Havana on the housing situation, the communities of squatters on the city’s outskirts, and what motivates people to come to Havana.