Monday, September 23, 2013

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, R.I.P.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who died in Spain following a long battle with liver cancer, was a quiet and brave man who broke with a government whose policies he consistently found to be in conflict with its own goals and with the laws of economics. 

Oscar was one of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2003 and after his release he often joked that he was jailed for saying things that later became acceptable for people inside the system to say.  His break with the government began when he and his wife Miriam Leiva were serving in diplomatic posts in Yugoslavia; they saw changes in the Eastern bloc and got into hot water for asking why the same changes could not be tried in Cuba.

His style was to dig through government data and to use them to make arguments in his articles.  He was a listener; in conversation he didn’t evince a need to prevail; and he wanted to see reconciliation in his country.

Oscar and Miriam also believed in free contact between peoples, they opposed U.S. sanctions, and they often wrote that the hardliners in Miami are the greatest allies of the hardliners in Havana.  Here’s an example from 2007.   

His obituary in El Pais is here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Housing: making the illegal legal

Cuba’s Supreme Court has ruled that illegal home purchases made before the law changed in 2011 can now be legalized. 

This article in Cubaencuentro, with links to the court decision and order, explains the decision and the case based on an interview with the plaintiff.  (The writer, Mirella Betancourt, happens to be my wife.)

It boils down to the following: Decree-Law 288, which legalized home sales in 2011, made no provision for past home sales even though it is common for new laws to contain transitional measures that apply new norms to past actions. 

One such past action, which resulted in the court case, is the 1998 purchase of a Havana apartment for $5,000 by Bertha Bouly Wilson, a woman from Guantanamo province.  Owner Ricardo Andux Barrueta vacated the home, and Bouly moved in.  In a legal maneuver typical of the time, they married, Bouly explained, with the intention of divorcing so that the property could pass to her in the divorce settlement.  But the divorce did not take place, and in time Andux tried to regain possession of the home and to have Bouly evicted.  Bouly turned to the courts to try to obtain full legal ownership of her home.

She and her attorneys fought a losing battle for six years.  After the new real estate law went into effect in 2011, Bouly argued in Havana’s top provincial court that the law should not penalize her for a transaction that was illegal in 1998 but would be legal  today.  She lost that case too, with the court deciding that since the new law did not address past real estate transactions, it had no basis to rule in her favor.

Only by continuing to litigate, “with hope for a miracle,” she says, did she fend off eviction.  Her last option, an appeal to the Supreme Court, gave her a complete victory.  Its February 28, 2013 decision declared the 1998 transaction to be valid today.  It ordered that she and Andux appear before a notario (a local Ministry of Justice official) to have her name inscribed on the property title and that of Andux removed.  It also ordered that in the event that Andux would not appear, the provincial court would appear in his stead to ensure that the transfer of title proceeds.

In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that Decree-Law 288 included no provision about pre-2011 home sales, and it repealed old statutes that made those sales illegal.  That, the court said, left only one legal norm in place, the new one, making home sales legal – past, present, and future.  Hence the Supreme Court declared that the lower court was “in error” on legal grounds in deciding against Bouly, and had failed to act with a “sense of justice that should be most important in a judicial decision when one puts in relief the defenselessness of the appellant [Bouly] in face of the antisocial conduct of the seller [Andux].”

The court then issued a circular to all courts, law firms, and government housing offices to order that the same standards and procedures applied to Bouly be applied to all.  It thus converts its decision into law.

The independence of Cuba’s judicial system is certainly debatable, and indeed the courts are rooted in the Cuban executive.  But regardless of what one thinks of Cuba’s legal system, this decision has impact.

Cuba’s government has already been urging homeowners to update and register their titles.  Now a large number of homeowners previously shut out will have the opportunity to do so.  To the extent that they do, Cuba’s property registry will become more accurate and up to date.  For persons in Bouly’s position, a clear and registered property title means security and protection – from a seller who took your $5,000 and then tries to take his house back, or from some other party, perhaps outside of Cuba, who might press a claim.  For the government, it broadens and consolidates what is one of its most popular reforms.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Postal talks continue, Ileana is against it

The United States and Cuba talked again on Monday in Havana about the resumption of normal postal service, a topic that’s hard to get excited about, but it’s something that counts for a lot in the barren landscape of U.S.-Cuba relations.  Even in the age of e-mail, many people on both sides would like to be able to send letters and documents and to count on normal delivery times (as opposed to three weeks to never), and the postal services might possibly undercut the prices of the parcel delivery services available today.  Reuters story here.

An obstacle, noted in previous coverage here, is reciprocity.  Specifically, whether each side will let the other’s planes carry mail back and forth, which would mean the United States allowing Cuba to initiate flights to the United States.  Heaven forfend.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is opposed to the talks and to any agreement, “for the well-being of the Cuban people.”

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: Robertico Carcasses, son of jazz musician Bobby Carcasses, drew flak from the Cuban government when during a concert he called for free access to information and direct popular election of the Cuban President.  Singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez came to his defense and it appears that Robertico may be getting out of hot water.  Carcasses is also in favor of ending the U.S. embargo and releasing the four remaining members of the “Cuban Five.”

  • In CubaEncuentro, General Rafael del Pino, the highest-ranking Cuban military defector, calls on Cuban Americans in Congress to do the right thing and pull the plug on TV Marti.

  • IPS reports on cost-consciousness coming to the Cuban health care system, which has cut its workforce by one sixth (nearly 100,000 personnel) and nearly doubled the number of family doctor offices in the past four years.

  • Conservative columnist George F. Will chides the CIA for resisting releasing the final volume of its own history of the Bay of Pigs debacle, arguing that it would be good for the country and for the U.S. government to ponder its lessons.  Good for the National Security Archive for fighting in court to get it released.

  • Herald: Florida Governor Rick Scott, who shamelessly played to both sides regarding the Florida law that bans state government and Florida local governments from doing business with companies that do business with Cuba, has given up the fight.  Setting aside Miami’s foreign policy prerogatives, federal courts have deemed the law unconstitutional.

  • EFE: Cuban tour operators will begin selling the services of private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts, Tourism Ministry official Jose Manuel Bisbe announced.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The "better future for all" and the one-party state

Cuba’s Catholic bishops today issued a pastoral letter (text available here) calling for Cuba’s reform process to go faster and farther, and for it to include reforms in the political sphere.

Pastoral letters don’t read like political texts, and this one is no exception.  It is based on the idea of hope, an “invitation to the hope that is part of our Christian faith, of good will, and of the necessity and the duty to seek among Cubans a better future for all.”

The bishops recall three events that sparked hope and revived faith: the nationwide pilgrimage of the statue of the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint, during last year’s 400th anniversary celebration, and two papal visits.  The virgen mambisa’s processions from town to town, the letter says, brought out “priest and engineer, military and civilian, police and prisoner…[and] the government official and he who considers himself an opponent.”  As a result of John Paul II’s visit, “many dusted off the religious memory that had been dormant or hidden for some time and not a few discovered, and others rediscovered, the Truth that does not change.”  The visit of Pope Benedict, the bishops say, came “as if God wished to insist on his love for this people.”

They also recall that the papal visits went beyond religion and treated “the human and social dimension of the church’s evangelizing mission.”  They quote Benedict calling on Cubans, “with the weapons of peace, forgiveness, and understanding, to fight to build an open and renewed society, more worthy of man, more reflective of God’s goodness.”

Then the bishops get to the issue of liberty: When it comes to options for promoting the common good, the church “defends and promotes freedom of man with responsibility.”  “All humanity, and within it we Cubans,” they continue, “are called to enjoy that freedom wished by God that permits man to obtain for himself and his family the fruits of decent labor and to participate in the decisions that affect them in their personal, familial, and social future.”

Without naming any government in particular, the letter notes that some governments, “in the past and today, may generate groups in power that do not always represent everyone and do not interest themselves in those outside the circle to which they belong.”  Government, it continues, “has the obligation to seek the wellbeing of all citizens and the best way to achieve that is taking into account the just interests of each group…This is how paternalism of the state is avoided…The participatory state should definitively replace the paternalistic state…One should not fear the development of a strong and responsible social autonomy…”

The letter continues specifically about Cuba: “In the incipient reforms that are starting we see a clear reflection, albeit incomplete, of demands long felt by the Cuban people.  We see some changes, for example the return of secondary schools to the cities [i.e. the near-complete elimination of boarding schools for students as young as 12]…the freeing of persons imprisoned for their political ideas and other causes, the distribution of farmland for cultivation, the elimination of certain restrictions that assaulted the dignity of citizens in that they limited the very freedom of Cubans, such as prohibitions on staying in hotels, creating a small private or family business, selling or buying properties, or traveling abroad, etc.”

“We want to see in all this,” the bishops continue, “the start of a process of ever-wider reforms for the good of the people and new generations of Cubans.”  They say the need is great, because the public, having seen some reform, urgently wants more;  many young people “still don’t see the conditions to carry out their life plan” and think of emigrating; and “as Cubans and as pastors” it is painful to see “such extensive poverty still in our country…even while there exists a social concern to care for those confronted by this situation.”  “In Cuba, moreover, to this type of poverty we should add that of some social groups that normally should not suffer it,” such as engineers, farm workers, doctors, teachers, and others.  And they shift from human dignity to basic economic sense: “Any reform plan should count on these human riches that have also cost and today cost the nation in terms of resounces.”

The bishops call for a “new political order.”  “As has been occurring in the economic sphere, we believe that in our Cuban reality it is indispensible to bring national legislation in the political sphere up to date.”  “Cuba is called to be a plural society,” they continue.  “There should be a right to diversity with respect to thought, creativity, and the search for the truth.  From diversity emerges the need for dialogue.  Dialogue between Cubans opens a way toward hope.”

Finally, they address relations with the United States, a subject they have addressed many times, always opposing U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba.  Today’s letter quotes John Paul II on the subject, saying that “imposed isolation affects the people indiscriminately, worsening the difficulties of the weakest in basic areas such as nutrition, health, and education.”  He called for an end to “unjust and ethically unacceptable measures imposed from outside.”  The bishops call for “an inclusive policy, with respect for differences, that permits the alleviation of tension and suffering that afflicts numerous persons and families, and also commercial trade that is fair and oriented toward the benefit of all.”

So there’s quite a few messages in there.  For the Cuban government: the dignity of the person and the development of the economy require not only more and deeper economic reform, but a political reform too that permits real pluralism in the society and in the political system.  And for President Obama: if you care about openings in Cuba, you can help with a fundamental reorientation of United States policy.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Odds and ends

  • The Washington Post reports on two federal programs that cannot die: the unseen TV Marti and within it, the airplane that carries the transmitter that has not succeeded in overcoming Cuban jamming.  The government continues to carry the cost of the plane and the transmitter but it does not fly because “that’s what the customer wants,” the contractor says.

  • Historian Michael Beschloss tweets a map of western Cuba with President Kennedy’s notes indicating missile sites, 1962.

  • Granma marks the 16th anniversary of the death of Italian national Fabio diCelmo, killed in a terrorist hotel bombing in Havana.

  • Café Fuerte: A group of batistianos, and they don’t mind being called that, have their annual celebration in Miami Saturday night.  Here, a video from novelist Zoe Valdes, part of an interview she did with Fulgencio Rubén Batista y Godínez, the ex-president’s son, about Batista family life.

  • Trabajadores has a story about a new blog on the block, from British Ambassador Timothy Cole.

  • Jamaica Observer: After a seven-year course of study, 68 Jamaican graduates of Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine are returning to Jamaica to begin practicing medicine.

  • Havana Times rounds up Parque Central opinions on Cuban players in the big leagues.  My musings on the same subject here.