Thursday, November 29, 2007

Get to work!

Cuba’s labor minister traveled to Granma to issue a call for increased labor discipline. A study in that province uncovered absenteeism, both authorized and not, among workers and supervisors.

Nowhere in the coverage did I see mention of the labor ministry’s plan to create a new salary policy. The goal was to link pay to output, and to “guarantee” that workers “may live from their work.” The policy was to have been delivered last June.

Also on the labor front, the Juventud Rebelde article on youth unemployment (discussed here a few days ago) is available in English, here.

Fidel’s future: Three views

In light of the upcoming National Assembly elections, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor newsletter asked Francisco Hernandez of the Cuban American National Foundation, Professor Bill LeoGrande of American University, and me to comment on Fidel Castro’s future. The responses, from yesterday’s issue, are here.


Odds and ends

  • AFP reports (in Spanish, here) that Venezuela’s Sunday constitutional referendum includes a provision on regional integration. Article 153 says the government can enter into agreements and treaties to promote “integration, confederation, and union of Latin America and the Caribbean with the object of configuring a grat bloc of regional political, economic, and social power.” AP’s coverage of the referendum and the political mood is here. A statement on the referendum from Relial, a network of liberal groups in Latin America, is here, with a long bill of particulars.

  • Under a deal that still has to be approved by a judge, Rafael Izquierdo of Cabaiguan will get sole custody of his daughter, on condition that he remain in the United States for two and a half years, and the foster family will have visitation rights. The Herald’s report here.

  • “The more, the merrier,” says Mitt Romney when it comes to Cuban immigration. In his interview with the Tampa Tribune, he seems to have dodged a question about the wet foot-dry foot policy. He says he relies on advice from Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both of whom support Senator McCain. Rui Ferreira followed up on that; Mario says it isn’t so, and Ileana says she talks to lots of candidates.

  • The Spanish foreign ministry’s Latin America chief is making the rounds in Miami, and made a good impression on Consenso Cubano.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Opposition developments (Updated)

Oswaldo Paya announced the formation of a new group with more than 300 members, the Citizen Committee for Reconciliation and Dialogue, which seeks a national dialogue to address a long series of grievances concerning the lack of political and economic liberties and poor social and economic conditions. The document that announced the initiative (in English and Spanish here, via Uncommon Sense) is vintage Paya: it contains no rancor, proclaims all Cubans to be brothers, rejects the communist definition of the Cuban nation, confides in the value of dialogue, explicitly includes Cubans living abroad and recognizes their place in the Cuban nation. It also rejects foreign interference with a passage that seems to push back against both U.S. policy and Cuba’s alliance with Venezuela:

“It is up to Cubans and only Cubans to define and decide the future of Cuba freely and democratically, as a sovereign and independent country, without interventions, nor foreign interference, from the north, south, east or west.

“This is why we do not accept foreign laws that pretend to decide on the present or design the future of Cuba, or economic dependence, or also political alliances that deny the independence, interests and vocation of peace and liberty of the Cuban people.”

A women’s group called FLAMUR presented petitions to the Cuban National Assembly calling for the end of Cuba’s dual-currency system. The petitions, according to Reuters, carried 10,738 signatures. Photos of the delivery of the petitions appear on Miscelaneas de Cuba, here. The Reuters report noted that phone calls from the group originated from the Radio/TV Marti offices in Miami.

And a student group held a press conference to claim that it has collected 5,000 signatures on a petition calling for the re-establishment of independent and Catholic universities (AP report in English here, Spanish here). If the goal of 10,000 signatures can be reached, this petition too can be presented to the National Assembly under a itizen initiative provision in the Cuban constitution that allows citizens to propose changes in statutes.

These initiatives have a common characteristic that brought lots of criticism to the Varela Project from hard-liners in Cuba and Miami several years ago: they call for dialogue, or they seek to work through the current government to effect change. So far, I haven’t seen any of that criticism in regard to these initiatives.

(Update: At Babalu, an examination of these initiatives, and readers chime in.)

Another good read

I’m adding a Spanish-language blog to the list at right, El Archivo de Connie. It’s a treasure, full of materials from the “cultural and university life of Havana” from the 1960’s and part of the 1970’s. Photos, audio clips of music, old editions of Bohemia magazine, and more, including the text of Arrufat’s Seven Against Thebes.

Monday, November 26, 2007

East of Havana

The unemployment problem

Cuba’s Juventud Rebelde seems to be setting out to prove that just because a newspaper is state-controlled, it doesn’t have to be predictable or dull.

In the past year it has exposed the dysfunction in many Cuban state enterprises and serious problems in delivery of dental care. Yesterday’s paper contained an opinion piece that criticized the “overwhelming unanimity” in Cuba’s National Assembly, citing the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to chide the legislature for the scarcity of debates where opposing views are voiced.

It also contained a long article on Cuba’s unemployment figures that showed what a stroll through just about any Cuban neighborhood reveals: that many more youths are unemployed than official figures admit, or as the article put it, “the figures are never a reflection of reality.” The article (in English, here) explained how undercounting occurs; it revealed that in the province of Granma, social workers counted about 18 times more unemployed than official figures show; and it pointed out that programs to bring youths and others into the workforce are not always successful because in many cases the economy is not generating enough new jobs, or the right kind of jobs, to give opportunities to graduates. In light of this article, it will be interesting to see how government ministers treat the employment issue when they give their annual accounting to the National Assembly next month.

It will be even more interesting to see if Cuban economic policy confronts this problem.

If Cuba undertakes economic reform, it could take two main directions. One would be to strengthen the state sector by changing policies governing state enterprises or by increasing foreign investment, possibly by changing the terms offered to joint venture partners or opening new sectors of the economy to foreign participation.

The Economist, for example, reports that Cuba is reaching out to foreign investors, looking for partners in tourism development projects, and may be close to a deal with Dubai Ports World to build a container port at Mariel. In addition to serving Cuba’s needs now, the Economist sees this project as a post-embargo play because it would enable he Mariel port to become a hub for U.S. shipping, given its proximity to Florida and Gulf ports.

Or Cuba’s govern-
ment could opt for an opening that would affect Cubans more directly, by easing the restrictions on their own economic initiative. The agriculture sector is a prime candidate, frequently mentioned in the discussion of the recent economic debate.

Another job-generating possibility involves Cuba’s small entrepreneurs, the subject of this article (in Spanish) from Palabra Nueva, the magazine of Havana’s archdiocese. The author argues that if policies are liberalized, many black-market entrepreneurs would get licenses and join the legal sector, which would bring “benefits for the self-employed and for the authorities. For the former because they would free themselves from the permanent legal anxiety that stays with anyone on the margins of the law, while the latter [the state] could better regulate food safety, the safety of vehicles that carry passengers, the quality of inputs and raw materials, and there would be more tax revenues for the government budget.”

[Photo from Palabra Nueva]

Odds and ends

  • Spain and Cuba still trying to schedule their next human rights talks; meanwhile, Spain describes some of its human rights advocacy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Elections set...[updated]

...for January 20 for Provincial and National Assembly seats. AP report here.

Update: A November 22 order from the Council of State has fixed December 2 as the day for candidates to be nominated for the January elections. This process will tell if Fidel Castro will continue as Cuba's chief of state (President of the Council of State), or move into another role. Members of the Council of State must first be elected to the National Assembly.

Estadio Panamericano

Economic policy: mulling the first moves

La Jornada reports that Cuba’s economic policy apparatus is studying 1,500 ideas that came from inside the party, and hundreds of thousands that came from the public discussions, in preparation for an “imminent report.” According to reporter Gerardo Arreola’s sources, reforms will be gradual, “not spectacular,” and possibly implemented regionally.

On the agenda: more foreign investment; an agriculture opening including creation of a market for farm inputs (now provided by a single state provider) and efforts to liberate productive forces through measures that are “socialist or compatible with socialism,” according to Ramiro Valdes; efforts at import substitution; decentralization, more autonomy, and worker incentive pay in state enterprises (following the perfeccionamiento empresarial process); strengthened administrative and accounting controls applied to workers and managers; and a “special emphasis” on cutting bureaucracy.

If that’s the case, it sounds like the initial steps might include market-based moves in agriculture accompanied by a greater emphasis on improving the state sector. And if this is the entire agenda, at least in a first phase, then this is a sign of a government intent on tackling economic problems but not in crisis mode, and definitely at its own pace.

Odds and ends

  • According to Hugo Chavez, the Cienfuegos oil refinery is about to start production after completion of a joint Cuban-Venezuelan refurbishment project. The refinery, built with Soviet aid and technology, has been idle since the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union collapsed.

  • And in the New York Sun, a review of “Soy Cuba” (1964), a Soviet-Cuban collaboration that the reviewer aptly calls “antique agitprop,” now on DVD.

  • An affectionate profile of Versailles, where the Fidel death watch continues, and the death itself will, apparently, be bad for business.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Odds and ends

  • Osvaldo Mitat and Santiago Alvarez plead guilty to obstruction of justice after refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Luis Posada Carriles. AP report here.

  • In Diario las Americas, Jorge Sanguinetty makes a proposal: the United States should “create a real crisis” for Castro by offering to negotiate the lifting of the U.S. embargo in exchange for a lifting of the “internal embargo,” the economic restrictions the Cuban government imposes on its own citizens.

Will he run?

The next step in Cuba’s electoral process is to elect a new National Assembly, and if Fidel Castro is to remain President, his name must be on the ballot. Mexico’s La Jornada looks at the calendar of the last two election cycles; following that precedent, announcement of dates for National Assembly elections should come any day now, the election should take place in January or February, and the new legislature should be seated by March.

UN human rights stalemate

The UN Human Rights Council, successor to the UN Human Rights Commission where the United States and Cuba fought their annual springtime battle, adopted new rules last week whereby it will now look at all countries’ human rights records, and it eliminated the special rapporteur for Cuba.

Cuba claimed victory.

This result has political importance to the governments that engaged in the debate. But it remains the case that if you want independent, thorough reporting on human rights in Cuba or other countries, you can go to Amnesty International and other human rights monitors, whose work is stronger than anything that could be produced by a consensus-bound UN body.

Meanwhile, Spain and Cuba prepare for a second round of bilateral talks on human rights questions.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Seven Against Thebes

Can readers help me out with this one?

There has been lots of coverage – none in English, that I can find – about an event that took place in Havana last month, the performance of a work by Cuban playwright Anton Arrufat, Los Siete Contra Tebas (Seven Against Thebes).

He published the play in 1968 and won an award for it from the Cuban writers’ union (UNEAC), but as soon as the play opened, it was censored because it was interpreted as being too critical. As this summary of Arrufat’s career notes (it precedes a recent interview of him on the Miami radio program La Noche Se Mueve), he spent 14 years packing books in the basement of a library in Marianao.

It is based on a play be the same name by Aeschylus, involving a conflict between two brothers, both nephews of Creon, the king of Thebes, Polynices and Eteocles, wherein Polynices leads an attack on Thebes, and the two brothers die fighting each other. Creon orders that Polynices be denied a religious burial, and his sister Antigone defies that order. (See plot summary here, where it seems everyone, and I mean everyone, dies in the end.)

Drawing on my very slim knowledge of literature, I can say that this story line – especially the play Antigone and adaptations of it – has been a vehicle for exploring the conflict between the individual and the state, and in Antigone’s case, the decision of a strong and defiant woman to obey a higher imperative than the one set forth by her uncle the king.

There’s plenty of commentary out there about the revival of Arrufat’s play and what it means for the Cuban cultural sector, for censorship, etc. Juventud Rebelde’s review says that the play is about a conflict between “individual ambitions and collective interests,” and that the performance “settles an old debt.”

What I want to know is, what is it about his version of Seven Against Thebes that was so incendiary back then, and viewed as so critical of the system?

[Photo from Juventud Rebelde]

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Odds and ends

  • You learn something new every day: the UN has a Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. He just spent ten days in Cuba, studied the food situation, and saw an “immediate, dramatic, total” need to increase farm productivity. According to Reuters’ paraphrase of his comments, he says changes may be coming within months to “increase the scope of private cooperatives at the expense of state farms.” He also visited two prisons, but to look into the food situation, not human rights.

  • A Miami Herald editorial calls for changes in U.S. policy to allow greater contact with Cuba in the interest of promoting change in Cuba. The editorial cites Eastern Europeans such as Havel and Walesa, whom President Bush praises for their assessment of the human rights situation in Cuba, but who favor different policies.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Declining U.S. farm exports?

Cuban purchases of U.S. farm products may be dropping. Reporting from the trade fair now under way in Havana, AP notes a Cuban pledge to sign $450 million in contracts with exporters from around the world. Reuters says U.S. food sales are “dwindling,” citing a decline in purchases of U.S. rice (175,000 tons in 2005; 80,000 last year; a similar amount this year) while Cuba planned to sign a contract for 200,000 tons of Vietnamese rice at the event. A purchase of 150,000 tons of Canadian wheat is also expected to displace U.S. sales.

In the Cuban market, U.S. exporters have the advantages of lower shipping costs, price (at times), and convenience, in that Cuba can buy on shorter notice and in smaller lots than it does with more distant trading partners. Other countries’ advantages include an ability to extend credit and to carry out transactions without the cost and complications that U.S. sanctions impose on U.S. sales.

Cuba’s U.S. purchases began at the end of 2001, peaked at $392 million in 2004, and dropped to $351 million in 2005 and $337 million in 2006, according to figures in the U.S. International Trade Commission’s report from last July. (Here’s the press release announcing that report, and the entire report (pdf, 180 pages) is here.)

It may be, as is speculated in the Reuters story, that U.S. actions against international banks that do business with Cuba, and other U.S. sanctions, are taking their toll. For no good reason, Cuba is not permitted to pay U.S. vendors by wiring money directly to their accounts in U.S. banks. Instead the payment must be sent to Europe in Euros, converted into dollars, and paid from a European bank to the U.S. vendor’s account. And only when the payment arrives may the U.S. shipment leave for Cuba. (The USITC report details all this.)

I’ll speculate that there may be another factor at work. Cuban officials had high hopes that, following the opening of agricultural sales, Congress would chip away at other parts of the embargo, with the U.S. agricultural sector leading the charge. It is accepted wisdom among many who follow this issue that the U.S. farm lobby fights fiercely to end the embargo and travel restrictions – but nothing could be further from the truth. American agriculture opposes the embargo but does not work against it, for reasons that have to do with simple self-interest. This has been the case more than ever this year, with the farm bill under consideration in Congress, and with billions in crop subsidies, disaster payments, and other government benefits in play. Bigger fish to fry.

My guess is that Cuba bought American products for sound commercial reasons, and bought a little something extra in the hope that it would energize a key American constituency for change. Cuban officials are realists. With that hope gone, my guess is that the little something extra is gone too.

(Photo of Escambray mountains.)

Monday, November 5, 2007

The non-crisis in Cuban migration

The University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project issued a paper on Cuba migration trends that contains interesting data and concludes that we are facing a “deluge” and a “new migration crisis” that is “seemingly unnoticed by the media and policymakers alike.”

There is no doubt that large numbers of Cubans would like to come to the United States. The clearest indicator was when the when the U.S. consulate in Havana held a visa lottery shortly after the U.S.-Cuba migration accords were reached during the Clinton Administration, and half a million applications came in. That’s about five percent of the Cuban population, or more if you consider that each winning application would entitle the applicant to emigrate with immediate family.

Substantial numbers of Cubans have been coming ever since, about 20,000 per year with normal immigrant visas, as provided in those accords. The point of those accords was to open the door to legal migration and discourage illegal migration.

However, many still come without visas. In 2006, according to government data cited in media reports, 11,487 crossed the Mexican border, 2,861 were intercepted at sea, and 4,825 reached U.S. territory by boat.

It could be, as the paper claims, that Cuba’s government is using “mass migration” to relieve pressure at home and as an “aggressive foreign policy tactic” to create a bargaining chip for future negotiations with Washington. Or it could be that Cubans themselves are responding to the incentives in U.S. policy. Some apply for visas, some leave on boats, while others work with their relatives to arrange for smugglers to bring them, either directly or via Mexico.

The reason this is not being treated as a crisis – by the Administration, by Cuban American leaders, by Florida officials – is probably because the officials who are responsible for U.S. policy, or who are affected by Cuban immigration, see current levels of immigration as a normal, acceptable flow. We’ll know that has changed if we see suggestions that Cubans who reach U.S. shores be returned to Cuba, or that those who present themselves at the Mexican border not be admitted. I’m not holding my breath.

Odds and ends

  • Speaking of the speech, here’s how the U.S. Interests Section’s electronic signboard described it: “In his speech addressing the Cuban people, President Bush said: If Cuba is to enter a new era, it must find a way to reconcile and pardon those who have been part of the system but do not have blood on their hands. The President reiterated tht Cubans have the future of their country in their hands.”

  • An IPS report describes the religious and community charitable work of an evangelical church in Havana’s La Lisa neighborhood.

Capitolio from San Rafael

Friday, November 2, 2007

Odds and ends

  • Detentions in Centro Habana, apparently over the wearing of rubber bracelets with the word “cambio” on them. Human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez is unsure of the number of detentions, according to AP, while some estimates say 70 were detained. The bracelets, the Herald reports, are part of a “Miami-based initiative.” Uncommon Sense has a roundup, here.

  • Also from AP: the Cuban election process is now moving from the municipal level toward nomination of candidates for the national legislature. No word on whether Fidel Castro will be on the ballot; we’ll know by next spring. If he foregoes a seat in the National Assembly, he would effectively be resigning from executive office, because the Council of State is drawn from National Assembly members.

  • Why it pays to read El Nuevo Herald very closely: a literary soiree with poetry readings and more, sponsored by Alpha 66 and at the offices of Alpha 66, right on Calle Ocho. It starts in about two hours, sorry for the late notice. (H/T: Los Miquis de Miami)

  • Rudy’s problem in Little Havana: the memory of who he put behind bars when he was a federal prosecutor in the southern district of Manhattan, such as Eduardo Arocena of Omega 7. Armengol explains how this redounds to Romney’s benefit.

Cuban agents in the White House?

Did you know that the White House has been infiltrated by Cuban intelligence?

That’s the assessment of Christopher Simmons, a Defense Intelligence Agency counterintelligence officer who appeared at the Heritage Foundation last week.

Simmons said that confessed spy Ana Montes, the former top DIA Cuba analyst, was not an anomaly. “Ana Montes was not the only senior U.S. official working for the Cubans,” he told the Heritage audience. “Based on my estimate there are at least six others like her. There may be, the number may actually be in the teens, of long-term penetrations at the highest level of the U.S. government. And we’re not talking a slipshod operation. We’re talking the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, Congress, and the White House.”

If you don’t believe me, I don’t blame you. You can watch it here, it begins around 1:17. (And no, he did not include the State Department in that list.)

The entire program, which examines the Cuban threat to U.S. national security, is about an hour and forty minutes long. I found one news account only, from the Washington Times.

Simmons is joined in the Heritage program by State Department official Robert Blau, who describes the “reconfigured” threat that Cuba poses today, after the post-Soviet drop in its conventional force strength. He cites a number of items in the State Department’s report on state sponsors of terrorism, and makes the allegation – a new one, not contained in the terrorism report – that “whatever they collect” in terms of intelligence information, “they will share with our enemies, with Iran, with terrorist groups.” He says that another element of the Cuban threat to U.S. national security is Cuba’s press and propaganda activity around the world, “constantly interpreting the news, putting their spin on it so that the anti-American view is what’s out there all the time.” Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart is also on the program; he discusses the Cuban threat through the decades, and in response to a question, he gives a remarkable description of U.S. policy toward Cuban American travel, and of his own constituents who choose to travel to Cuba.

But Simmons is the most interesting, an extreme exception among counterintelligence officers, who tend to avoid public discussions. In addition to the Heritage appearance and another on Miami Spanish-language television, Simmons has been writing in the Miami Herald, and when he was introduced at Heritage, his host said he is writing a regular column for that paper, every three weeks.

Simmons says that Cuba sells intelligence to other countries for profit, and he generally paints a picture of a skilled, effective, and highly active intelligence service that focuses on the United States, its opponents at home, and its opponents in Miami. He discloses that the Cuban Interests Section in Washington has a signals intelligence facility that carries out electronic eavesdropping in the Washington area.

His latest column appeared in yesterday’s Herald, and focused on Iran.

In that column, he mentioned a controversy from the summer of 2003, where it was alleged that private Los Angeles-based satellite broadcasts to Iran were being jammed, and that the jammer was located in Cuba. Simmons states that “Cuban intelligence” performed the jamming, “acting on behalf of Tehran.”

This is a new interpretation. When the allegations arose in 2003, the State Department called in Cuban diplomats, asked for an explanation, and eventually received one.

Cuba informed us on August 3 that they had located the source of the interference and had taken action to stop it,” according to a State Department spokeswoman in an August 26, 2003 story by Agence France-Presse. “The government of Cuba informed us that the interference was coming from an Iranian diplomatic facility,” she added.

Two months later, the Deputy Secretary of State testified about the jamming, to the same effect:

SEN. BILL NELSON: You were talking to Senator Brownback about the jamming. There was a report that the Cuban government was jamming broadcasts into Iran at a time that -- when students were protesting the oppression by the ruling clerics. What do you know about that?

MR. ARMITAGE: We approached the government of Cuba about some jamming that was emanating from Cuba. It was not the government of Cuba, it was another entity, and it has ceased.

There’s a lot to comment upon here; I hope readers do, and I certainly will in the future.