Monday, March 31, 2008

Now, hotels

The prohibition on Cuban citizens staying in Cuban hotels, often called “tourism apartheid” here, ended at midnight last night. AFP story here.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

USAID's bad news Friday

The USAID Cuba program got a new black eye as White House aide Felipe Sixto resigned because of alleged improprieties involving USAID money during his three years working at the Center for a Free Cuba, where he worked as chief of staff until last July.

Sixto resigned March 20. The White House held the story until late Friday afternoon, the time when bad news is released to minimize coverage.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, quoted by AFP, said: “Our understanding is that Mr Sixto allegedly had a conflict of interest with the use of USAID funds by his former employer.” Stanzel says the matter has been referred to the Justice Department.

A more informative statement came from an unidentified White House official who told the Washington Post that Sixto had “misused federal grant money for personal gain.”

USAID, as usual, provided the least information of all.

Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba gave an interview to the left-of-center blog Talking Points Memo, which reported:

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for A Free Cuba, told me that the center “became aware of the allegations weeks ago, and we informed USAID immediately.” He said that the USAID inspector general had been investigating Sixto’s possible misuse of the funds. He said he had “no idea” how much money was missing, but that “we’re anxious to cooperate in any way shape or form to get to the very bottom of it. We expect that all funds in question will be returned to the American taxpayer.”

Miami Congressional candidate Joe Garcia issued a statement saying that the incident highlights “the fundamental flaws of a policy designed to win votes in Miami and patronize partisan supporters – not bring freedom to Cuba…millions of dollars intended to fuel a democratic change in Cuba are ending up in the hands of Bush/Diaz-Balart cronies and never makes it to the island.” Miami’s Congressional representatives addressed the issue too, and were cited in the Herald’s story:

Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart said in a joint statement they were “deeply disturbed by any allegation of misuse of taxpayer funds” and urged the Department of Justice and the Inspector General of the USAID “to move thoroughly and swiftly in investigating all the facts in this matter.”

Last June, Garcia and Calzon tussled on the Miami television program Polos Opuestos, hosted by Maria Elvira Salazar. Calzon departed the set when Garcia used the verb “take” to refer to the receipt of USAID grants by Calzon’s organization.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Now, cell phones

Another “prohibition” bites the dust: Cuban citizens will now be allowed to have cell phones.

Actually, a great many Cubans already have cell phones. The catch has been that cell phone accounts for individuals have been offered to foreigners only. As a result, many Cubans get a foreigner to open a contract for them; the Cuban pays to open the account and then pays the ongoing charges for airtime to keep the account active.

Today’s decision, then, legalizes what was already a widespread reality. But it’s a positive step and we can expect it will lead to more Cubans subscribing to the service.

Here is the Sun-Sentinel’s coverage, and the announcement in Granma.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Cuba should get rid of the tarjeta blanca exit permit for citizens who wish to travel abroad, allow Cubans to stay in Cuban hotels, and “resolve” the dual currency, says Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Raul Castro. AP Spanish story here.

  • “It’s like the microwaves fell from the sky,” said a beneficiary of a pilot program in Las Guasimas, where microwaves were distributed in December. AP’s Will Weissert reports here. Great quote at the end from a local CDR member: “Everyone here is Fidelista. But with Fidel, they never brought us microwaves.”

  • At HDNet, “Trade Winds,” a Dan Rather documentary on the situation in Cuba today. The 52-minute program starts with an interesting look at agriculture, focusing on a teacher who moonlights (and earns his real living) as a farmer. The State Department declined to provide someone to talk on camera, and Miami’s Cuban American Congressional representatives declined too. State Representative Marco Rubio gave the pro-embargo point of view, quite effectively.

Museo de la Revolucion

Odds and ends

  • Check out these videos of recent man-on-the-street (and Carlos Varela on the sofa) interviews in Havana, from the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

  • I missed this from last week’s meeting between Cuban officials and emigrants: Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said that “the definition of Cuban is not the land where we live in, but the decision to defend the nation’s integrity and be willing to defend it at any cost.”

  • The Atlantic takes a fanciful look at Havana’s future, with illustrated map. (H/T Penultmos Dias.)

The value of work (Updated)

A recent essay by Granma editor Lazaro Barredo, a regular on the Mesa Redonda television program, took Cubans to task for expecting something for nothing.

Economic improvement will only come when Cubans work more and Cuba produces more, he admonished. New resources “will not fall from the sky,” he wrote, “they will come from work, and may he who produces more earn a higher salary.” “Unfortunately there is a not inconsiderable segment of our society that…wants to live without working,” he added, “and considers that through the black market (meroliqueando) it will have everything by living off of others.”

He went on to note the complexity of ending Cuba’s dual-currency system, and the need to reduce imports of food and other goods.

Is the problem really that Cubans don’t want to work? Or is it that, responding to incentives and disincentives like people in any economy, they put their effort where it brings them a good return? I think it’s the latter. At any rate, a much more informative article in Barredo’s paper, one week later, put a spotlight on this very issue.

This second article makes Barredo’s point that Cubans have to join the workforce so that production can increase: “On the field, and not from the stands, we will solve the basic economic and financial problems that plague us.”

But the main thrust of the article is a description of an official study that found that one fifth of the labor force in Havana does not work, in spite of the fact that there are more unfilled jobs than there are idle workers.

Why is that? Those who administered the study got these typical responses: “I don’t work because they don’t pay me well,” “My Mom and Dad take care of me,” or the “business pays me more,” the latter an apparent reference to the black market.

“It hurts to think,” the article states, that the state provides education “without limit,” yet society does not receive the full benefit of the trained workforce. In the past year, 3,015 of Havana’s 17,610 technical and professional-level graduates did not show up for their initial job assignment and about 200 more quit soon after beginning.

Even jobs with modest incentive packages are hard to fill. The article gives the example of bus drivers who are paid 315 pesos per month, plus bonuses based on performance, plus 13 convertible pesos. Still, some of these jobs go unfilled.

In looking at the Raul Castro period, one has to note that there has been a change in the media. It’s still state-controlled, the droning Randy Alonso still reads Fidel’s commentaries word for word on the Mesa Redonda, and there are articles such as Lazaro Barredo’s. But there are also articles such as the one cited above, that explain the real problem confronting Cuban policymakers, and admitting truthfully that there is vast underemployment in the Cuban labor force.

How the government will deal with this problem is not yet clear. I’m sure Cubans will appreciate removal of each and every “prohibition” and regulation that Raul decides to remove, but those under discussion so far are not going to generate new jobs, nor are they going to change the incentive structure that keeps Cubans out of the formal labor force.

[Update: AFP reports on a Juventud Rebelde story (which I can’t locate) on a 2007 survey that found that 282,000 Cuban youth are neither studying nor working. One of the reasons was that job offers don’t meet their “hopes and needs” or don’t correspond to their educational background.]

[Photo: Old Havana, Calle Cuarteles]


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Poco a poco

Raul Castro has promised to make changes, to take “big decisions,” and to eliminate “excessive prohibitions” that afflict Cuban citizens in their daily lives.

But how far will he go, and how fast? That question leads to all kinds of speculation, similar to the speculation before last month’s leadership decisions. But as in that situation – did anyone on earth predict that Machado Ventura would be the new number two? – those who say, don’t know, and those who know, don’t say.

The most tangible change so far involves public investment in transportation. The camellos that dominated public transit for the past 15 years – two Hungarian buses with their noses sawed off, the bodies welded together, the whole contraption pulled by a belching tractor-trailer cab – are nearly gone. On a recent trip I saw only one in Havana, on Avenida Rancho Boyeros. Hundreds of new Chinese buses are providing regular service, lines at bus stops are noticeably shorter, and people talk about the difference. There is also less policing of private taxis, cab drivers say, adding to the supply of transportation services. Road conditions are also improved; apparently, the Chinese vendors would not honor bus warranties unless potholes were repaired on bus routes.

And what about the famous “prohibitions?”

There are rumors aplenty – that Cubans will be able to have cell phones in their own names instead of having a foreigner sign the contract for them, that they will be able to stay in hotels, and the tarjeta blanca exit permit and similar restrictions will be dropped.

So far, there have been some moves in the agriculture sector (more on that later), a decision to allow Cubans to get medicines at any pharmacy, not only their own, and a decision to sell computers in the state’s hard currency stores beginning next week, along with other appliances that will be rolled out over the next few years.

The decision on computers and appliances first came to light through this memo that appears to have circulated among retail outlets, and then through this ministerial resolution.

In the coming months, we’ll find out just how many of Cuba’s regulatory prohibitions are deemed to be “excessive” by Raul. And we’ll see if this agenda is accompanied by one that generates growth and job creation.

Cathedral market

The "informal market"

Cuba’s Oficina Nacional de Estadisticas (ONE) published a report this month on current prices in the “informal market.” It’s available for download on the front page of the ONE website.

The report’s definition of the informal market encompasses the sale of goods and services from non-state sources, which includes quite a mix of sources: legal sales at the farmers markets, legal sales of goods and services by licensed entrepreneurs, plus black-market sales by unlicensed entrepreneurs, and sales of goods that are pilfered from state sources or legally obtained from state sources and then resold.

The report includes month-by-month national data from February 2007 to February 2008, and data from the provinces that compare January 2008 and February 2008 prices. Prices were relatively stable with the exception of powdered milk, which jumped about 30 percent in price between January and February 2008.

The most interesting thing about the report may be that it was published at all. If ONE continues to publish these data series, it will give us a benchmark to measure changes in the agriculture sector, where efforts are under way to boost output.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Generacion Y, Yoani Sanchez’ blog written from Havana, was reported yesterday by Yoani to have been blocked to readers trying to gain access from inside Cuba. This morning, the Spanish newspaper ABC reported that the site was blocked, then “a slow access” was permitted. A friend in Havana said the same to me late yesterday.

  • There were rumors that changes in Cuban migration regulations – such as the end of a requirement for the tarjeta blanca exit permit for Cubans wishing to travel abroad – would be announced at a meeting last week in Havana between Cuban government officials and a group of Cubans living abroad. Didn’t happen. The meeting turned out to be a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Antonio Maceo brigades and a discussion of common strategies on political issues such as the U.S. embargo and the cause of Los Cinco. Granma published a concluding statement from the group, expressing its “commitment” to the “work of the Revolution,” its support for the results of the recent “free and transparent elections” in Cuba, and its view that U.S. policy is the “greatest obstacle” to “the normalization of ties between the nation and its emigration.” As for Cuban restrictions on citizen travel, the group seemed to allude to this issue by expressing “our confidence that measures will continue to be applied as circumstances permit, without affecting the security of the country.” Freedom to travel, it would seem, is an unalienable right when it comes to U.S. law, and a privilege to be accorded as “circumstances permit” when it comes to Cuban law. “You will always be our Comandante,” they said in a separate message to Fidel, also published in Granma.

  • Stop the presses: The Washington Times cites former U.S. and Cuban intelligence officials saying that Cuba will continue to gather intelligence in the United States, probably has “at least one intelligence officer” under diplomatic cover at its UN and Washington missions, and will continue to keep an eye on Miami. “They always wanted to know about those that dictated U.S. policy on Cuba,” the former Cuban official said.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Happy Easter to all

Palm Sunday, the ceremony of the blessing of the palms in the courtyard of the seminary next to the Havana cathedral.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The Washington Post interviews a Cuban “psychologist-turned-restaurateur” who interviewed American POW John McCain in Hanoi in 1970.

  • Speaking of photos, Rui dug up a good one of his demonstrative self, making a point to his colleagues at El Nuevo on a historic day.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Statue of the late Pope in the courtyard next to the cathedral in Holguin.

EU sanctions to be erased? (Updated)

EU aid chief Louis Michel wants to end Europe’s “diplomatic sanctions” on Cuba, Reuters reports.

One could say that Michel wants the EU to give up something for nothing, but these sanctions were a nothingburger anyway – they were in effect for two years and were suspended since 2005. When in effect, they involved a ban on high-level visits by EU officials, a requirement that dissidents be invited to EU embassies’ national day receptions, and similar measures.

Michel discussed human rights on the visit, but you have to dig deep down in the joint communiqué to learn that fact.

Michel’s reasoning, from the Reuters report:

Michel found that economic and political changes, including advances in human rights, are in the pipeline, though they may take time and are not being publicly broadcast by the new leadership, Manservisi [his aide] said.

”Michel is more than ever convinced that a situation of political immobility by the European Union in this context of underground movement would be a big mistake," Manservisi said.

Michel may be in a special hurry to convince EU member states to take this step, considering that the Czech Republic assumes the EU presidency in January 2009.

[Update: Dissidents told EFE they were disappointed in the visit. If Michel’s ideas represent the future EU policy, Oswaldo Paya says, then “it would be abandoning an ethical path and ignoring the rights of Cubans.” In yesterday’s election in Spain, the Zapatero government was re-elected. This means no change in Spain’s policy toward Cuba, and no change in the internal EU debate over Cuba.]

Exiles, immigrants, and visits home

Are Cuban Americans hypocrites for wanting to return to Cuba to visit their family?

That suggestion is part of the current argument against liberalizing rules for Cuban American family visits, an issue that is likely to be debated a great deal this year.

The idea is that there’s a real inconsistency if you claim to be a refugee fleeing communism, and then turn around and visit the country you fled. I have heard Reps. Diaz Balart and others make variations of this argument.

The problem is that in proportion to all Cubans who immigrate, relatively few come here as refugees in a legal sense – that is, relatively few are admitted by establishing a credible claim that they would be persecuted if they return.

The vast majority enter as normal immigrants, or by winning the visa lottery, or they arrive without a visa and are admitted once they reach a Florida shore or present themselves at the Mexican border.

The average annual number of refugees admitted from Cuba has been 2,735 over the past ten years, according to government data (see Table 14 here). Throw in asylees, who are also admitted based on a persecution claim, and the number climbs to 2,854. That’s a small proportion of the approximately 20,000 Cubans who enter the United States each year.

But there’s more to the argument, beyond the false notion that Cuban Americans who want to visit the island are contradicting claims they made in order to get into the country. Where this gets interesting, and what brought me to the subject, is where it touches the issue of Cuban American identity.

If you look at the first comment to this post, I have placed an exchange that followed a February 29th post. A reader argued that Cuban Americans are exiles and, essentially, that all should behave as such.

Nothing could be more obvious than that some Cuban Americans see themselves as exiles, unwilling ever to return until socialism is gone. But others, often younger or more recent arrivals, wish to visit Cuba now and then.

Why one group’s views should be imposed on the behavior of another is beyond me.


Odds and ends

  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited Cuba after attending a summit in Santo Domingo where last week’s Andean border crisis came to an anticlimactic end. He spent time with Raul and Fidel but most interesting of all, he arrived with the mother of FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt and a Colombian senator who are both working for Betancourt’s release. Raul greeted all three at the airport. AP Spanish here.

  • Cuba’s population declines for the second year in a row, an ominous demographic trend caused in part by emigration. El Nuevo Herald’s detailed report is here. Last year’s summary of official population data is here.

  • If you’re in Washington, Rep. Jeff Flake speaks on Cuba policy Wednesday night.

  • In the New York Times, Cuban immigrants in New York confronting myths about their own country.

Friday, March 7, 2008

"What needs to change is Cuba"

President Bush spoke about Cuba at the White House today after receiving former political prisoner Miguel Sigler Amaya and his wife Josefa. In addition to his defense of human rights and his reiteration of his policy intentions, he chided nations that fail to stand up for human rights in Cuba.

He praised Eastern European countries but said nothing about recent human rights statements by Great Britain, France, the Vatican, and the EU. He again spoke in the name of the Cuban people: “When a new day finally dawns for Cubans, they will remember the few brave nations that stood with them, and the many that did not.”

His full remarks are here.

Sancti Spiritus

He went anyway

The Bush Administration apparently lobbied in European capitals to block the visit to Havana of top European Union aid official Louis Michel. Reuters report here.

Michel arrived yesterday.

The EU’s representative in Havana says he hopes the visit will be “a step toward normalizing relations,” but it’s not clear to me from press reports what steps on Cuba’s part would cause the EU to normalize.

My bet is that EU member states themselves aren’t in agreement on that, although they would all want “to advance a peaceful process of transition toward a pluralistic democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental liberties,” as Michel’s spokesman said last week.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bush to speak on Cuba

From White House Press Secretary Dana Perino’s briefing today:

Q Yes, Cuba, tomorrow, on the President -- he's meeting with these families, and speaking afterward. A couple of weeks ago he called for the beginning of a democratic transition in Cuba. Has he seen any sign of anything like that?

MS. PERINO: No, in fact, the President continues to be disappointed that the people of Cuba aren't being given the chance for a free and prosperous life. And he will continue to meet with the families of political prisoners in Cuba. It affects him deeply. I think you saw, when he was here at the press conference last week, he feels very passionately about these people and it weighs on him that there's so much sadness, when that island, just 90 miles to the south of the United States, could be such a thriving place if just given a chance to have democracy.

Q And those who say that the beginning of a democratic transition might be encouraged by lifting the American embargo?

MS. PERINO: The President spoke to that last week, and he said that one of the things that he will not do is lift an embargo so that people who are the elites in Cuba, who are repressing everybody else, would benefit from that, and that the people who are the workers in the country would continue to be repressed. And the President just cannot accept that. Remember, this embargo, it's not the President's policy, it's longstanding United States policy that the President has continued.

Odds and ends

  • The power of the flash drive: The New York Times reports on a new news network in Cuba, a “growing underground network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras and clandestine Internet hookups.”

  • In Vermont, a lawsuit is brought against the Bush Administration’ 2004 rule limiting Cuban American family visits to immediate family only, and once every three years.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Democracy program changes

The U.S. government’s Cuba democracy grants will be shifted away from Miami-based groups and toward Washington organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute, according to a story in the current issue of CubaNews.

With CubaNews’ kind permission, here’s a pdf of the article by reporter Ana Radelat.

The point of the shift, a State Department spokeswoman says, is to “give the money to organizations that can best address the needs on the ground.” A prominent Miami grantee, the Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, is debating whether to re-apply for additional funds.

A shift to the NED and IRI would not necessarily cut Miami organizations out of the picture, because NED and IRI are grantmakers themselves, and have worked with groups in Miami such as the Directorio. It seems that the decision will ensure that the grantmaking is done from the perspective of people who work all around the world, not just in Cuba.

The article also includes debate about the form of aid given to dissidents. Direct cash aid to dissidents is not barred by law, but it has not been allowed because of a decision by USAID that was taken during the Clinton Administration. That decision has stood all through the Bush Administration, in spite of complaints that cash is the most effective aid.

My thanks to CubaNews for permission to link to this article. For more about this fine monthly, check out the website where back issues are posted, along with subscription information.

Odds and ends

● The EU Council, led by Slovenia, welcomed Cuba’s signing of the UN human rights conventions, “encourages Cuba to continue these positive evolutions,” and “awaits the application of these obligations legally by Cuba in the area of human rights.” Meanwhile in Geneva, Foreign Minister Perez Roque again claimed victory, saying that the “Human Rights Council put an end to the unfair and selective exercise conceived of and imposed by the United States.

● The long arm of OFAC: an English travel agent’s websites are shut down, according to this blog, because they discuss Cuba and the domains were hosted by a U.S. company.

● From a new report on telecoms in Cuba: “Despite strong economic growth in 2006, Cuba still occupies last place in Latin America for both mobile phone and Internet penetration, and is fifth from the last in fixed-line teledensity. The government has blamed the embargo for the country’s poor telecom development, which has prevented the implementation of submarine fibre-optic cables; thus, Cuba has had to rely almost exclusively on satellites for international connectivity. However Etecsa, controlled 73% by the government and 27% by Telecom Italia, holds a monopoly in both fixed and mobile services. It offers GSM, TDMA, and AMPS services through its subsidiary Cubacel, though mobile rates are prohibitive for the vast majority of Cubans.”

● This instructive essay by Raj Desai of the Brookings Institution looks at options for Cuban economic reform and argues that the chances for reform would be enhanced if American sanctions were dropped. It assumes a Cuban government interested in far-reaching economic policy decisions, which is not quite the case today. And I’ll quibble with one thing: it is not the case that Cubans jeopardize their housing or access to health care if they move to the private sector, such as a person who leaves a government or state enterprise job and moves into self-employment. But that’s a very small point; the essay’s great strength is the way it uses many examples from China’s and Eastern Europe’s economic reform experiences to put Cuba’s choices in context.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Official silence on Andean crisis

In the spat between Colombia and its neighbors following Colombia’s raid last Saturday on a FARC camp just across the Ecuadoran border, Fidel takes the same line as Chavez by blaming the “Yankee empire.” But he notes in his “Reflection” that Cuba is not Colombia’s enemy.

The Cuban government, meanwhile, has made no statement.

The big news in all this was Chavez’ order to his defense minister to move tank units to the Colombian border. But have any Venezuelan forces actually moved? This Reuters report says that as of yesterday, units were getting ready and awaiting a deployment order, but none had moved.

What is this?

What I really should do is a little research about this building, then write an informative caption. Instead, I’ll put the picture here and see if readers will fill us in. It’s a big imposing thing, as incongruous as can be in its setting on top of the mountain just northwest of Trinidad in the Escambray. Anyone want to fill us in?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Tonight at 9:15 on the Sundance Channel (late notice, sorry), “638 Ways to Kill Castro,” a 2006 British documentary about attempts over the years to do away with Fidel. New York Times review here. The subject brings to mind this item in a Newsweek obituary of William F. Buckley: “After a coup plot against Indonesian strongman Sukarno failed in 1957, Buckley wrote in the National Review, ‘The attempted assassination of Sukarno last week had all the earmarks of a CIA operation. Everyone in the room was killed except Sukarno.’”

  • In the Wall Street Journal, Brian Latell speculates about the relationship between Fidel and Raul, leadership politics, and challenges ahead.

  • The Herald covered Cardinal Bertone’s interview and interpreted it as meaning an exchange of dissidents – as opposed to fugitives or anyone else – for Los Cinco. The inference is not so clear to me, and it’s “cryptic” to an Italian friend who did me the favor of reading it, but fortunately you can look for yourself. The Vatican’s English version is here; the omitted question to the Cardinal was, “Public opinion was expecting some step in favor of the political prisoners. Did you talk about it?” Ernesto, at Penultimos Dias, sees things differently; the Cardinal was “scandalously clear,” he said. If the Cuban government ever raises the issue of an “exchange” in public, we’ll find out.