Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

Odds and ends

  • If you ever doubted what $90 oil does for Venezuela’s foreign policy, or for Venezuelan and Cuban public diplomacy initiatives in the Caribbean, read this Reuters article on the reopening of the Cienfuegos refinery and the Petrocaribe summit taking place in Cuba now.

  • An interesting Herald report on the recent custody case involving the daughter of Rafael Izquierdo of Cabaiguan and the Coral Gables foster family. The State of Florida’s actions were directed by the staffs of the former and current governors. Nothing wrong with that, considering that the Department of Children and Families works for the governor, but it may explain why the state’s actions were so unusual: it asked the court to strip custody from the father even as he was declared a fit parent, and it waited three months before contacting the father to tell him that his parental status was going to be at issue.

  • From the Latin America Working Group, a useful scorecard and fact sheet on presidential candidates’ positions on Cuba. If you like the embargo and the family sanctions and all that, you’ll have to look at the scoring system upside-down, but the info is solid.

  • On the road at Christmas, Charlie Bravo writes about Italy, where Cuban Americans can go to be with their Moms.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Restoration solution

A better photographer would have taken before and after pictures of the entire building, and I’ll see what I can do in the future. But here are two pictures taken at the site of the old Ministry of Education building in Old Havana, just behind the Palacio del los Capitanes Generales.

The old building occupied a full block, and it was an eyesore of 1950’s architecture surrounded by colonial-era buildings. It posed a big challenge for the restoration effort of the area, led by the city’s historian, Eusebio Leal. He and his team spent a long time considering whether to tear it down or rehabilitate it.

They opted for a solution where they gutted the building, preserved its skeleton, and rebuilt. And considering that the site is where the University of Havana was founded in 1728, the new building now houses the “Colegio Universitario San Geronimo de la Habana.” Here’s the entrance and the commemorative plaque. Someday I’ll dredge up some full before-and-after pictures.

Carlos Otero en la yuma

Is Cuban Miami becoming more moderate politically?

If you want to argue the affirmative, you can cite data from this poll or anecdotes from stories such as this one from the Sarasota Herald Tribune (sub. req’d), citing pro-engagement sentiments among Cuban Americans of different generations.

If you want to argue the negative, you can cite the fact that Miami sends only hard-line legislators to the U.S. Congress. The community may be changing, but it’s indisputable that the new moderation has yet to make an electoral difference at the federal level.

And what does the interesting case of Carlos Otero tell us?

Otero, a famous television personality in Cuba, traveled to Canada with his family and last week entered the United States. No sooner had he crossed the border, it seems, than the entertainer signed a contract with Miami’s Channel 41.

If you roam the Spanish-language blogs, you’ll see that his defection sparked all kinds of questions. Why was he allowed to travel to Canada with his entire family? Es confiable? Can he be taken seriously when he says that his doubts about the communist system were triggered by watching Channel 41, and not by a life’s worth of experience living inside that system itself?

I don’t know Mr. Otero, I don’t know his work, and I don’t know the answer to those questions.

But what is clear is that these questions, and a comical recent call for a boycott of Channel 41 and a competing station that show too many ex-officials of the Cuban government, were cast aside completely by Channel 41.

That station’s management made a quick business judgment regarding their audience.

Clearly, they calculated that what matters to their audience is that Otero is a good entertainer. And that the audience will not hold his life and work in Cuba against him. And perhaps that a part of the audience will tune in because they enjoyed him on Cuban television. And that if Channel 41 didn’t sign him, someone else would.

That is a market response to the Cuban American audience that would not have occurred, I think, even a generation ago. It focuses on an audience of more recent immigrants that don’t reject everything about Cuba today, and probably don’t consider themselves exiles.

It’s not a predictor of political change, but I think it does mark a difference.

And Mr. Otero, welcome to America.


Paya petitions National Assembly

Oswaldo Paya delivered petitions to the National Assembly calling for adoption of laws to give amnesty to political prisoners and to allow Cubans to travel abroad freely and to return home. Reportedly, he delivered the petitions with 25,000 signatures, more than the 10,000 required to put a bill initiated by citizens on the legislative agenda. (More detailed report in Spanish here.) But it’s pointed out that he may not have followed the somewhat onerous requirement of certifying that the signers are registered voters, which would allow the petitions to be dismissed on procedural grounds (see Los Miquis, here).

Regardless, he made his point.

Your tax dollars at work: GAO on embargo enforcement

Responding to a Congressional request, the Government Accountability Office has done another report on Cuba embargo enforcement, focusing on U.S. agencies’ allocation of resources.

The full report (pdf) is here; the New York Times coverage is here.

The report finds an emphasis on Cuba enforcement that, in an environment of finite resources, has a cost:

“DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP)…has increased intensive, “secondary” inspections of passengers arriving from Cuba at the Miami airport; in 2007, CBP conducted these inspections for 20 percent of arrivals from Cuba versus an average of 3 percent of other international arrivals. CBP data and interviews with agency officials suggest that the secondary inspections of Cuba arrivals at the airport may strain CBP’s ability to carry out its mission of keeping terrorists, criminals, and other inadmissible aliens from entering the country. Moreover, recent GAO reports have found weaknesses in CBP’s inspections capacity at key U.S. ports of entry nationwide.”

When it comes to Treasury enforcement of embargo violations, GAO found the following:

“Although the Cuba embargo is one of more than 20 sanctions programs that OFAC administers, OFAC penalties for Cuba embargo violations represented more than 70 percent of its total penalties in 2000-2005, falling to 29 percent in 2006.”


“Our analysis of OFAC data shows that from 2000 through 2006, the agency collected fines totaling about $8.1 million for 8,170 violations of the Cuba embargo—an average of $992 per violation. Most of these violations were relatively minor, such as purchasing Cuban cigars on the Internet. Over the same period, OFAC imposed fines totaling about $12.4 million for 3,054 violations of other sanctions programs, such as those on Iran, North Korean, and Syria—an average of about $4,071 per violation.”

U.S. officials interviewed by GAO also complained that embargo enforcement is difficult. One reason is that foreign governments, if you can believe it, sometimes decline the opportunity to act as chivatos for U.S. law enforcement by refusing to snitch on U.S. travelers to Cuba who pass through their territory:

“The unilateral nature of the embargo and a lack of multilateral cooperation hamper U.S. agencies’ diplomatic and enforcement efforts, according to agency officials. For example, some governments have actively opposed the U.S. embargo by refusing to identify U.S. travelers making unauthorized visits to Cuba via third countries, complicating agencies’ enforcement activities, or have declined to limit their trade, financial, and travel relations with Cuba, further undermining the embargo’s stated purpose.”

The feds also complain about other challenges that seem to be explained by Cuban Americans’ love for their own relatives in Cuba:

“Agency officials said that divided public opinion about the embargo has contributed to widespread, small-scale violations of restrictions on family travel and remittances and to an environment in which some individuals can profit from illegal activities… Also, financial services technologies, such as stored-value cards and online money transfer services, and widespread money laundering in southern Florida create opportunities for transferring funds to Cuba illegally.”

In the end, GAO could not determine how the Administration’s 2004 family sanctions and other tightened sanctions have affected Cuba’s economy:

“The impact of tighter restrictions implemented in 2004 and 2005 on travel, cash remittances, and gifts to Cuba cannot be determined because of an absence of reliable data.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hotel Florida

Odds and ends

  • It is announced that the Cienfuegos refinery, revamped with Venezuelan aid, is good to go.

  • Tired of politics? In Connie’s blog, and with illustrations by her own hand, “Letras en Guines 1965,” an essay of photos and illustrations about the “trabajo productivo” on the farm in 1965 by students of the Escuela de Letras y Arte.

The UN human rights agreements

Cuba announced last week that it will sign two UN agreements by May of next year – the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Fidel Castro differed from the government’s “political decision” to sign these pacts because of provisions on labor unions and education. Here are a few excerpts from them:

  • “Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release.”

  • “The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized.”

  • “The States Parties to the present [economic, social, and cultural] Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.”

  • “The States to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure, in particular:

Remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with:

Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind…”

Monday, December 17, 2007

The retiring type?

Fidel Castro sent another message to the Mesa Redonda television program (text here), in which he gave his views on how the United States “maneuvered” in the Bali summit on climate change, and also addressed his future:

“My fundamental duty is not to hold on to positions, much less to block the way of younger people, but rather to bring experiences and ideas whose modest value come from the exceptional era in which I lived.”

Reuters story here, AP here, AFP Spanish here.

To my knowledge, this is the first time Fidel has addressed his future role. As President of the Council of State, President of the Council of Ministers, and head of the Communist Party, he has options. He seems to be hinting at an advisory, non-executive role, such as returning as a member of the Council of State – a decision he would have to make after the new National Assembly is seated next March – but not as its President.

Bay of Pigs post-mortem

A friend sent me this document, “Record of Paramilitary Action Against the Castro Government in Cuba” (pdf, 4.5 mb), a declassified CIA study of the Bay of Pigs operation. It was written by Jack Hawkins, a Marine Corps Colonel who was detailed to the CIA and participated in the planning of the operation. Simply put, it’s a detailed account of the organization, execution, and failure of the operation. The introduction summarizes Hawkins’ view as follows:

“…experience indicates that political restrictions upon military measures may result in destroying the effectiveness of such efforts. The end result is political embarrassment coupled with military failure and loss of prestige in the world. If political considerations are such as to prohibit the application of those military steps required to achieve the objective, then such military operations should not be undertaken.”

The final 18 pages of the paper are a Sep- tember 1961 article from Fortune magazine about the foreign policy context of the time and how President Kennedy and his people acted in this Cuba operation. The purpose was to aid and expand a counterrevolutionary movement in the mountains around Trinidad, and the plan was to land an amphibious force just west of Trinidad. But one week before the operation, this article details, the landing site was moved 100 miles west, to a beach on a swampy, barely inhabited peninsula, a world away from Trinidad.

The idea was to conceal the American role in supporting the operation – one of many decisions that produced a complete, tragic, and costly fiasco.

[Photos: a billboard near the invasion beach that proclaims victory over “Yanqui” forces, and one of many monuments to fallen soldiers on the road leading to the beach.]

Odds and ends

  • Here’s an unusual and enterprising case of immigration fraud. A Miami woman is charged with nine counts of bigamy – a Cuban American and a legal permanent resident, she married nine extra men so they could stay in the United States and acquire legal status, and she charged them for it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

San Rafael

"History will tell who is right"

Days after Cuba’s government announced that it would sign UN human rights conventions, Fidel Castro decided to remind the world why he declined to sign those accords seven years ago.

Granma published a note from Castro to Randy Alonso, moderator of the Mesa Redonda television program. Castro requests that Randy broadcast a statement he made in 2001 in which Castro explained why Cuba would not sign the convention on economic, social, and cultural rights, because of reservations about two provisions.

The section on labor union rights would provide “a pretext for imperialism to try to divide and fragment workers, create artificial unions, and reduce their political and social power and influence,” Castro said in 2001. A section on education would “open the doors to the privatization of teaching, which in the past allowed painful differences and irritating privileges and injustices, including racial discrimination.” (AFP Spanish story here.)

On Monday, Cuba nonetheless announced that it would sign this and another UN convention on civil and political rights.

Castro asked that the text of his 2001 statement be titled, “History will tell who is right.”

Maybe history will also tell us who is in charge.

Migration news

In Spain, AFP reports that police announced the breakup of a Cuban alien smuggling ring, with 46 arrests – 26 in Spain, 16 in Germany, four in Austria. Police allege that the ring paid for letters of invitation, ad the majority of those brought out of Cuba were eventually sent to the United States via Mexico.

In West Palm Beach, there’s a federal indictment of two Miami men in connection with an alien smuggling incident last November that left one person dead; El Nuevo Herald’s report says the men could face the death penalty.

In the Czech Republic, Cuban asylees are slowly disappearing from the housing provided for them, according to this English-language report from Prague. The Cubans “might have viewed the Czech Republic as a transit country,” the reporter notes.

Odds and ends

● General Rafael del Pino saw accounts of President Bush’s “Dear Mr. Chairman” letter to North Korea’s Dear Leader, and wrote an op-ed where he examines the situation in North Korea and the turnaround in U.S. policy toward that country, and muses about a possible “Dear Chairman Raul” letter. He also gave me an excuse to find another ridiculous photo of Kim Jong Il.

● A call for national dialogue and reconciliation in Cuba, from Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, in a statement he sent to Radio Marti. Did Radio Mambi get a copy too?

● Two men plead guilty to obstruction of justice in El Paso for refusing to testify in the case of Luis Posada Carriles. Three others entered similar pleas last month and early this month. Say what you will about Posada – the guy inspires loyalty.

Rescued from extinction: the fishing bats of Sancti Spiritus. As the Spanish version of this same article explains, these bats glide near the surface of the water and catch fish, just like eagles I guess. Qué clase de país!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Opposition tactics

Two opposition leaders, Martha Beatriz Roque and Jose Luis Garcia (known as Antunez) issued a call for the Cuban opposition to unite and change tactics. (Pdf of statement here, via Penultimos Dias.)

Opposition unity has long been an elusive goal because of genuine and natural disagreements about policies and tactics, personal and political rivalries, suspicions, and disputes relating to connections with Miami and Washington.

Regarding tactics, the statement almost implies that the opposition has not connected with the public. It calls on each member of the opposition to do so now, one-on-one, to “win the street” and later “come out united.” The idea is to avoid repression and to open “many more contacts with the people.” The plan is for each member of the opposition to talk to three Cubans each day, people not a part of their family or circle of friends, and to explain three things. First, how the government violates each article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the need for political prisoners to be released. Second the need to engage in “non-cooperation” with the government. Third, “to make known the difficult economic, social, and political situation that the country is living and its ‘irreversible’ condition inside the totalitarian system, hence a change is indispensable.”

Odds and ends

  • Cuba’s Catholic Bishops issue their Christmas message (see front page of this site) and expressed hope for “necessary changes that may improve and transform national life,” in the face of “difficulties that are oppressive and have lasted too long.” “It is necessary to give space for personal initiative and creativity,” they added.

  • In a Herald op-ed, the son of Jorge Mas Canosa examines his father’s legacy, and draws some lessons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


New blog from Cuba

A group of independent journalists in Cuba from the Asociación Pro Libertad de Prensa started a new blog last month.

At the top of the page is an editorial that comments on a videoconference that First Lady Laura Bush held last week with several independent librarians who gathered at the U.S. Interests Section. The editorial “deplores” the exclusion of some of the leaders of the independent library movement from that event and implies that the U.S. diplomats were playing favorites. The editorial opposes the “selection of political figures from outside Cuba,” as if the Interests Section’s invitations favored one faction only. The only split of which I’m aware among the independent librarians occurred a few years ago, when Martha Beatriz Roque convened an assembly of opposition groups and the leaders of the independent libraries did not attend so as to guard the apolitical nature of their work.

Odds and ends

  • More on the Mexican complaints about human smuggling: an op-ed by Miguel Cossio in El Nuevo Herald says Mexico is abandoning its tradition of granting asylum and “has yielded to the blackmail of the Castro dictatorship.” And Armengol, unimpressed, reports on a Radio Mambi call for a boycott of Mexican products.

  • Senator McCain and Governor Huckabee, as their supporters in this Herald story tell it, would push for indictments of Fidel and Raul Castro in connection with the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shootdown.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Human Rights Day

The surprising aspect of Human Rights Day in Cuba was that the government saw a need to speak out, apparently in reaction to a demonstration that took place in Havana.

The foreign ministry called a press conference shortly before the demonstration itself to announce that Cuba will sign – sometime before May 2008 – UN human rights conventions, including the one on civil and political rights. Many stories filed from Havana led with the news of this announcement, but coverage of the demonstration was extensive nonetheless.

The demonstration, led by dissident Darsi Ferrer and involving about a dozen people, proceeded quietly – at first – in a square in Vedado. According to multiple press reports, it was broken up by a mob, apparently directed by plainclothes officials, after the demonstrators marched a few blocks away from the square.

Ferrer was told the day before to appear at the local military headquarters on the morning of the demonstration. Reportedly, others who intended to join the demonstration were detained before they could go. A number of the demonstrators themselves were detained by police. (AP’s coverage here.)

Was this overkill because that is what they do automatically, or did the government expect that far more than a few dozen might have shown up for the demonstration?

Odds and ends

  • From the LA Times, more on Governor Huckabee’s new position on Cuba: he apparently committed to allow Title III of the Helms-Burton law to go into effect. That would allow Cuban Americans to file lawsuits in U.S. courts against foreign investors in Cuba if their investments touch their expropriated properties in Cuba. It has been waived by Presidents Clinton and Bush every six months since the law was passed, so it has never gone into effect.

  • New oil fields have been discovered in Cuba, Prensa Latina reports (English) – but doesn’t say where. They are still to be evaluated to determine their impact on reserves.

Mexico complains about human smuggling

Mexico’s attorney general complains about smuggling of Cubans through Mexican territory, blaming Cuban Americans who finance it, Mexicans who collaborate, and the U.S. policy that makes it feasible by admitting virtually all Cubans who present themselves at the border. This AP story cites a U.S. statistic: nearly nine of ten Cubans who enter the United States without visas cross a land border rather than coming by sea.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Huckabee on Cuba, then and now

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee used to oppose the Cuba embargo, but now supports it. He says Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, whose endorsement he received today, helped him shift his position. Huckabee’s former position was publicized yesterday by rival candidate Fred Thompson; see this Herald story.

Two economic moves

No announcement was made, but two important economic policy moves came to light last week, one in agriculture and one involving foreign companies.

The agriculture move was not hard to foresee. Farm production is clearly one of Raul Castro’s priorities; in his 26th of July speech, he lamented that too much good land is idle, and he called for expansion of the practices that work well within Cuban agriculture. That could only mean greater reliance on Cuba’s private farmers and their small cooperatives – the producers who deliver about two thirds of the produce to Cuba’s 300 farmers markets.

So when Reuters correspondent Marc Frank visited farmers in Camaguey, he found that Cuban officials are meeting with farmers, urging those who have less than the legal maximum of land to apply for more land if they can put it into production.

Cuba’s farmers were already free to apply to increase their land holdings, but my understanding is that in the past, the response was a nearly automatic “no.” With weeds taking over idle lands, it appears that the government is looking for ways to say “yes.”

We’ll see how widespread this practice becomes. Potentially, it would have three positive effects: increased food supply, downward pressure on food prices, and higher income for the private farmers and cooperatives.

Another Reuters report told of a meeting last Wednesday where the Finance Ministry told foreign companies that as of January 1, they must keep records of hard currency payments they make to their Cuban workers, and the workers will have to pay income tax on them. I understand that a formal regulation is to follow.

For more than a decade, it has been an open secret in Cuba that foreign companies make these cash payments. They are an established feature of the labor market – and they are also illegal. A foreign company in Havana that wants to hire a secretary or driver can expect to pay $100 to $150 per month (now 100 to 150 convertible pesos); a professional can earn $300 per month or more. Smaller payments are typically made to workers at joint ventures, but this new policy does not apply to them.

These payments are the obvious reason why Cubans overwhelmingly prefer to work in tourism and the foreign business sector.

Faced with this widespread and illegal practice, Cuba authorities could have done nothing, as they have done for years, or they could have cracked down on it. Instead, they decided to regulate it and to tax the income. Cuba’s foreign investment minister told Reuters that this step will “normalize relations” with foreign investors, and Cuba is “adjusting the taxes to the circumstances.”

As a result, a worker who earns $200 per month from a foreign company will have to pay the same tax as a Cuban entrepreneur who earns the same amount as an artisan, taxi driver, or home-based bed-and-breakfast operator.

The workers now subject to income taxation probably don’t see this as progress, and one can hardly blame them. Unless their employers increase their pay, these first-time taxpayers will see their income decrease.

From an economic policy perspective, the government has legitimized hard currency payments that put one sector of the workforce at an income level far higher than the average Cuban worker. The message is that it’s ok for some workers to be paid more than others, and the way to address equity concerns is not to stamp out the higher incomes, but to tax and redistribute some of it.

This particular move, if it plays out as described in the initial reports, will not stimulate the economy – but if foreign investment expands in the coming years, the result will be a larger share of the workforce earning hard currency incomes.

What is more interesting is the philosophy behind it, and it will be interesting to see if it appears in other moves in the months ahead.


Odds and ends

  • The rural women’s group that has petitioned for an end to Cuba’s dual-currency system issued an appeal for support, naming 34 prominent women in Miami media and civic affairs, asking why they have not raised their voices.

  • After mass in Havana yesterday, the Damas de Blanco dispensed with their usual march along a few blocks of Quinta Avenida and instead marched to the National Assembly. They received support from some visiting Europeans. (Update: Ten Spanish women were detained and will be deported for joining the demonstration; Reuters report here.)

Friday, December 7, 2007

"Dear Mr. Chairman"

A letter from President Bush to North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, a charter member of the axis of evil, is reported in today’s New York Times. I agree with the policy of offering incentives to North Korea to reduce that country’s threat to regional and global security, but for those of us who watch Cuba policy, the letter and the policy are pretty striking. In exchange for North Korea’s disclosure of its nuclear programs and dismantling of its reactor, the United States offers a path to normalized relations. Apparently, there is no requirement to change any aspect of North Korea’s political system. The letter was delivered by an assistant secretary of State who visited North Korea this week; his travels are highlighted on the State Department’s web page.

(Photo via Google images.)

Odds and ends

  • More on the arrests at the Santiago church: those arrested were all released, the government apologized to the local bishop, and human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez sees the action as premeditated and designed to discourage participation in activities that will mark Human Rights Day next week. La Jornada’s coverage here, AP’s here. And Granma, in case anyone was wondering, makes clear that it doesn’t like the foreign media’s coverage of recent opposition activities; this essay is a good example of the way Cuban officials and media use U.S. policy to attempt to discredit political opponents in the eyes of their domestic audience.

  • An op-ed on U.S. policy co-authored by Bill Ratliff of the Independent Institute and dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe.

  • Speaking of blogs, I looked at two on the Juventud Rebelde site, by Cuban journalists Luis Sexto and Juan Morales; more interesting than I expected. They allow comments, which are also interesting to read, and come from abroad.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Returning tug

Odds and ends

  • At Cubanet, an independent journalist’s review of the once-censored Seven Against Thebes (discussed here), which played in Havana from October 20 to November 11. Excerpt: “It’s not about mysteries, but rather about communion – and communication – between the dialogues on stage and some keys to our reality, ‘recreated’ by the author in the actors’ voices, always tense and expectant in that besieged city that reminds us of our own, and of this island that has deported so many Polynices and still guards against an enemy army that doesn’t arrive.”

  • A new blog in Spanish, Cambio de Epoca, written by Jose Antonio Blanco and hosted at CubaEncuentro.

Arrests on church grounds

State security agents entered the grounds of a Santiago church and arrested protesters, according to press reports. The protesters had walked through the streets of Santiago and intended to pray for a recently arrested dissident. Tear gas was reportedly used, a priest who was on the premises called it a “wild terrorist party,” and Santiago’s bishop called it the “worst attack against the church in 45 years.” Press reports differ on details such as the number of those arrested and those who remain in detention. Here’s coverage from the Herald, Reuters, AP.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Bad communists, nice communists

There was press coverage of remarks on Cuba last Saturday by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, and I had hoped to read his speech and maybe write about it. Apparently he addressed the issue of change in Cuba and Raul Castro, saying that he doesn’t think Raul has “the skills, the talent, the brains” required to “keep it together” in Cuba.

Asked about the difference in policies toward Cuba, China, and Vietnam, he was quoted as saying, “The governments in China and Vietnam have shown a real willingness to establish better relations with the U.S., relations of mutual respect, of partnership, where we can have a win-win situation. I wouldn’t consider China or Vietnam an enemy.”

Gutierrez’ full remarks on Cuba are not on the Commerce Department website, and I’m informed that they won’t be posted.

While searching, I did run across his recent talk to students from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, where his message on human rights amounted to a single sentence: “We have a good human rights dialogue with Vietnam.” Here’s the full context:

“Some governments suppress the entrepreneurial spirit and flow of information to their citizens, even by suppression. We’ve seen it around the world and nearby in Burma. In those countries their people, their economies and their futures have suffered greatly.

“With them and others, we believe we – and all nations – have an obligation to raise the issues of human rights. We have a good human rights dialogue with Vietnam. We will continue to push for open markets and international engagement.”

Odds and ends

  • Cuba is convening an academic conference to study the role and history of Freemasonry in Latin America, and wants to open a study center on the subject. Will Cuban Masons participate?

  • The custody settlement reached last week by Rafael Izquierdo of Cabaiguan and his daughter’s foster family was approved by the judge and is now final.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Cuba's economic growth

Cuba is expecting ten percent economic growth this year, which is a surprising figure, but less so if you consider that Cuba changed its method of calculating gdp a few years ago. Now, Cuba includes in its annual accounts the value of health care and other social services as if they were transacted in a market economy, a practice that inflates annual gdp. According to the Reuters report cited above, Cuban officials explain that industrial and farm production increased, while tourism declined and sugar output was flat.

What may be more surprising is that the U.S. government also has high estimates for Cuba’s growth: 11.1 percent last year. There is no explanation behind the U.S. figures, but one can assume that Venezuelan oil and continued high minerals prices (nickel is still trading at more than twice the price of two years ago) play a part.

There are two recent reports about Cuba getting breaks on bilateral debt. Mexico’s new ambassador, appointed by President Calderon, hopes that renegotiation of Cuba’s $500 million debt can be completed this year as part of an improvement in relations. And Russia’s parliament is approving a September agreement that restructured Cuba’s post-Soviet debt, valued at $166 million, according to Novosti. (The same report says the Soviet-era debt is $26 billion. If memory serves, when that debt was first mentioned to Fidel Castro, he said that if there is debt to be paid, then Russia should pay Cuba for the economic damage done to the island when the Soviet Union collapsed abruptly.)

And then there’s a somewhat breathless report from the University of Miami that, “quietly and behind the scenes,” European banks are “resuscitating a near-bankrupt Castro regime.” (Yes, “near-bankrupt.”) They are doing so through “lucrative high-interest loans to the Cuban government” that are lucrative for the banks but not, one supposes, very “resuscitating” to Cuba given their high interest rates. Regardless, the amount cited in the report is $2.3 billion in loans in 2007, which amounts to about five percent of Cuban gdp (CIA’s estimate) – pretty small potatoes.

Cuba’s economy is certainly growing, but whether the growth is resulting in a difference in living standards is another matter. See the post, “Las nuevas matemáticas,” at Generacion Y, for a Havana perspective.

Odds and ends

  • When Trinidad Jimenez, Spain’s top diplomat for Latin America, went to Miami to meet a range of Cuban American groups, it’s reported that she got an earful about the Cuban opposition, and which of its members are and are not genuine. Coverage at Mambi Watch.

  • Castro’s nomination for a National Assembly seat means that reforms will be blocked, dissidents say. Martha Beatriz Roque: “We have seen that on one hand his brother Raul says one thing, Fidel says another, they contradict each other, one doesn’t know who is governing here.”

Gran Teatro

Monday, December 3, 2007

Odds and ends

So he is running after all, for the National Assembly, in next January’s elections. Fidel’s appearance on the ballot – for a legislative seat in Santiago – enables him to continue as Cuba’s chief of state, but doesn’t guarantee that he will be a part of the Council of State or be elected as its President once the new National Assembly is seated. (Photo from Manicaragua.)

We’re all familiar with stories about refugees from Cuba, but some go to Cuba too, because Cuba works with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle refugees in need. This story from UNHCR tells about the hundreds of “lost boys” of Sudan who resettled in Cuba – and two who are on their way home.

Jesús Gracia Aldaz, Spain’s Ambassador in Cuba during the Aznar government (2001-2004), writes an essay (pdf) on the current situation in Cuba and what other countries can do about it. He calls for a firmer posture on the part of the Spanish government, and calls on all governments to demand a transition rather than a succession, and respect for human rights. He is sympathetic to some elements of President Bush’s recent Cuba speech, but he calls for lifting of U.S. travel restrictions. Once again I’m struck by the narrow range of differences at issue in the European debate on Cuba policy; there’s lots of discussion of diplomatic postures and the level of official contact with government officials and dissidents, but no discussion of the limits on trade, investment, and travel the the U.S. government imposes. And in this case, a conservative analysis finds one part of the U.S. sanctions to be counterproductive.

Venezuela's "No" and Cuba's future

Yesterday’s Venezuelan election taught me a few things: that the opposition is not to be counted out; that Chavez is capable of overreaching to the extent that some of his own people would oppose him; that Venezuela’s institutions, or at least the electoral authorities, retain some independence; that Chavez himself is capable of conceding defeat. Where he goes from here, with several years left in his presidential term, is not clear. Even less so what this setback means for Venezuela’s relations with Cuba. My guess is, not much in the short term, but I’m keeping an eye out.

Reuters has a package of coverage here. And Yoani Sanchez, with a keen eye on the Cuban media’s coverage of the referendum, was able to guess the result before it was announced.