Wednesday, November 26, 2008

“The State Department tends to be less reasonable than the Pentagon”

That’s a perceptive Raul Castro, in an October interview he gave to, of all people, Sean Penn, where he spoke more expansively about relations with the United States than he has anywhere else.
Wilfredo Cancio of El Nuevo Herald discovered the interview, Penn’s account of which was published this week in The Nation magazine, and wrote about it here.
Penn’s article is here. He reports that the interview lasted seven hours.
Raul jokes about Cuba’s unprepared army during the Bay of Pigs invasion. He refers to the famous picture of Fidel Castro in front of a Russian tank, and says, “We did not yet know even how to put those tanks in reverse. So retreat was no option!”
Raul also speaks in more detail than I have seen anywhere else about the monthly talks between Cuban and American military officers at the Guantanamo naval base. The two militaries conduct joint emergency response exercises, he says, citing firefighting as an example.
Raul also said he would be willing to meet President Obama, and said a first meeting should be “in a neutral place.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Feds charge Felipe Sixto

The Justice Department has charged ex-White House aide Felipe Sixto with theft of federal funds, according to an “Information” (document here, pdf) filed by prosecutors in U.S. District Court. The “Information” contains little information except that his spree lasted about three years, during which Sixto “embezzled, stole, obtained by fraud, and intentionally misapplied property” while working at the Center for a Free Cuba.

Yesterday’s GAO report (see below) noted that Sixto made money by ordering radios at inflated prices from “companies that he controlled,” then “pocketing the difference.”

I looked up the statute he violated, and it appears he could face a fine, jail time up to ten years, or both.

AP coverage here. My post from last March here.

Presumably, this sad chapter will end with announcement of a plea agreement.

Monday, November 24, 2008

New GAO report on USAID program

The Government Accountability Office has issued another report on USAID’s Cuba democracy programs, finding that while financial controls have improved, the agency’s “ability to ensure the appropriate use of grant funds remains in question.”

The report sheds light on the case of Felipe Sixto, the White House employee who had worked at a USAID grantee, the Center for a Free Cuba. Last March, amid reports that Sixto had defrauded the program of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the White House commented that Sixto “allegedly had a conflict of interest with the use of USAID funds.”

Today’s report (here, pdf) explains: “According to a USAID memorandum, from late 2004 through January 2008, [Sixto] used companies that he controlled to sell shortwave radios to CFC at inflated prices, pocketing the difference.” The report says that USAID has recovered “$578,810 in project funds and interest of $67,992, which will be returned to the Department of the Treasury.” The report does not specify if all of Sixto’s apparent kickbacks derived from radio purchases, or if other kinds of transactions were involved.

AP coverage here.

Brookings report: end travel ban, terrorist designation

A “Partnership for the Americas Commission” convened by the Brookings Institution has issued a report on U.S. relations with Latin America, with a separate chapter on Cuba. Recommendations include ending travel restrictions and ending Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo were the co-chairs; half the members are from the United States, half from the region.

The report’s summary contains the full list of recommendations and a link to the whole document, with full discussion in the Cuba chapter. New York Times coverage is here.

Speaking of commissions and recommendations as a new U.S. Administration prepares to take office, a new essay by Carlos Alberto Montaner calls for establishment of an advisory council on Cuba for the Obama Administration. Specfically, the council would advise the Obama Administration appointee (if indeed there is one, which come to think of it will be interesting to watch) as Cuba Transition Coordinator, following the departure of President Bush’s appointee to that post, Caleb McCarry. Montaner calls for bipartisan membership that would consist of the six Cuban Americans who serve in the United States Congress. They are the ideal members, he says, because they are well informed, know the Cuban American community, and would make excellent advisors. Plus, he might have added, they can be trusted.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Condi Rice, off the reservation?

Castro biographer Georgie Anne Geyer – no fan of Castro, and if you read her column, no fan of Bush either – argues that a “change in Cuban policy by the new administration would signal a huge change in American attitudes toward the entire world.”

Geyer might have got her wish, under the Bush Administration, according to Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland. He reports that Secretary of State Rice considered upgrading relations with Havana. Hoagland’s wording is imprecise about timing and conditions, but it sounds as if the idea was to normalize relations, turn the Interests Section into an Embassy, and send a U.S. ambassador – but her idea was shot down in the White House.

Comments, please

Juventud Rebelde is gathering material for its 50th anniversary coverage, and posts a question for readers who are “Cuban and have lived on this island part of your existence in the Cuban Revolution,” and asks for responses by e-mail.

The question: “Qué dejó sembrado en ti la Revolución Cubana?” or, as best I can translate it, “What has the Cuban Revolution instilled in you?”

Odds and ends

  • Rui Ferreira reports on the efforts of Pedro Roig, President Bush’s Radio/TV Marti director, to find a way to stay in his job, “the greatest source of Republican employment in south Florida,” during the Obama Administration. Three times, Rui reports, the White House told him to forget it. And let’s thank Rui for continuing his exclusive coverage of the constitutional government of Cuba in exile, this time with a communiqué from the information minister and a photo of President Rodolfo Nodal, on the occasion of Nodal’s birthday. Happy birthday, Mr. President!

  • Bolivian President Evo Morales looks ahead to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution next month in Havana, and he wants his cabinet to come along.

  • The “Obama effect:” El Pais reports that the U.S. election result has provoked new discussion of racism in Cuba.

  • CubaEncuentro: A conversation with a guy who put on an ETECSA uniform every day, went to the phone company office in Camaguey, and did nothing but record phone conversations of dissidents, journalists, state enterprise managers, and party and government officials.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

China delivers new aid, credit, debt relief

It was a “fraternal meeting” between Chinese premier Hu Jintao and Fidel Castro, according to Granma. “Your thoughts and experience will surely guide the Cuban people to continue their march on the road of socialist construction,” Hu was quoted as saying to Fidel, according to Reuters.

In addition to cooperation agreements already signed, the visit brought concrete benefits: an $8 million donation of aid, a $70 million credit for hospital repair and reconstruction, an agreement for a five-year deferment of payment for credits extended in 1998, and an agreement to defer until 2018 payment for trade credits extended in 1994-1995.

[Granma photo.]

How to create a black market

Neither would be flattered to be in each other’s company, but the presidents of Cuba and the United States have something in common: an ability to create black markets in activities that are innocuous and beneficial, and should be legal.

In the case of President Bush, his 2004 regulations that tightened limits on the contents of gift parcels sent to Cuba have created a black market in package delivery services, since only food, medicine, medical supplies and equipment, receive-only radios, and batteries for radios – and now cell phones – are allowed to be sent from Cuban Americans to their relatives in Cuba, only once per month, and with a $400 limit on the content’s value. Apart from the black-market package delivery services, there are black-market remittance carriers, and there’s the flow of Cuban Americans who evade U.S. controls by traveling through third countries to visit loved ones.

As the Herald reports, the companies that have U.S. Treasury Department licenses to send packages legally to Cuba are under pressure, and business is suffering; “On every corner there’s a pirate company,” says the operator of one of those businesses.

Competition from the U.S. Postal Service is also hurting the licensed private companies, and one implies that the post office gains a competitive advantage because it doesn’t check contents of packages, with the result that “many people are taking advantage of the situation and are sending clothes.” (Clothes are not on the list of items the U.S. government permits in gift parcels.)

My impression is that for Cuban Americans, restrictions on travel and remittances are more important than the gift parcel regulations. As candidate, Senator Obama promised to end travel and remittance restrictions, and was silent on the gift parcel issue, but an easing of those regulations would fit with the desire he has expressed to allow Cuban Americans to help their relatives on the island and decrease their dependence on their government.


One of the remaining fragments of the colonial-era wall that enclosed the city of Havana; this one is in front of the Museum of the Revolution, formerly the presidential palace.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fidel on Obama: Let's wait and see

A cryptic Fidel Castro addressed the Obama election in one of his newspaper commentaries. In the midst of a discussion of the financial crisis and the just-concluded Washington summit, he makes this digression:

Many seem to dream that after a simple change of leadership in the empire, this would be more tolerant and less hostile. Apparently, contempt for the incumbent ruler makes some entertain illusions about a probable change in the system.

The innermost ideas of the citizen who will take over the issue are yet unknown. It would be extremely naïve to believe that the good will of a smart person could change what is the result of centuries of selfishness and vested interests.

This, I think, is in keeping with Cuban foreign policy in recent years, which has kept an eye on the United States as always, but has concentrated its diplomatic work elsewhere. I also think it means that if the relationship is to change, the first move will be Washington’s, or it will be in private.

Fidel’s commentary is here in English and here in Spanish. The excerpt above is from Granma’s translation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Odds and ends

  • Fidel Castro could return to office if he wished, says the Spanish doctor who treated him in 2006. The EFE report doesn’t say whether the doctor has seen Castro recently.

  • On the way home from the economic summit in Washington, China’s president makes a two-day visit to Havana; Reuters report here. [Update: AP reports on the agreements being signed in this visit.]


More on Cuban Americans and the election

The Weekly Standard reports on the Republican party’s problem with Latino voters. In Florida, it seems that the GOP advantage among Cuban Americans is of diminishing value, as Cuban Americans account for a steadily diminishing share of the state’s Latino vote. The full article (“Hispanic Panic”) is here; an excerpt:

According to the exit polls, Bush won Florida Hispanics by 12 percentage points (56-44) in 2004, while John McCain lost Florida Hispanics by 15 percentage points (57-42) in 2008. In other words, between 2004 and 2008, the Hispanic presidential vote in Florida swung by 27 percentage points.

What explains that? Among other things, a decline in the relative strength of the Cuban vote, which remains heavily Republican. An increasingly large share of Florida's Hispanic population is made up of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, -Venezuelans, Argentines, and other non-Cubans. Indeed, according to Bendixen & Associates, non-Cubans now account for a majority of Latino voters in the Sunshine State. (Just 20 years ago, says Amandi, Cubans represented around 90 percent of Florida's Hispanic voters.) It appears that Obama also did noticeably better among Florida Cubans than John Kerry did four years ago, thanks to the younger generation of Cuban Americans, though McCain still received a huge majority of the Cuban vote.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Odds and ends

  • The President of Brazil, visiting Rome and meeting the Pope, called again on the United States to end its Cuba embargo. He spoke to President-elect Obama last Tuesday, according to EFE, but it’s not clear whether he discussed Cuba with him directly on the phone.

  • CubaNews has an article (here, pdf) in its November issue on Cuba’s announcement that doubled its previous estimate of offshore oil reserves, and it includes an oil industry perspective that is skeptical of the new estimate. My thanks to CubaNews for permission to reproduce the article.

  • Cuba named Rodrigo Malmierca, former vice minister for foreign investment, as the new foreign investment minister. He is Cuba’s UN ambassador and son of the late Isidoro Malmierca, Cuba’s foreign minister from 1976 to 1992. The Council of State’s brief notice is here; information on the new minister is here.

  • Did you know that there is a Cuban government in exile, established under the 1940 constitution? With a full cabinet, viceministers, secret service, and a representative in the Dominican Republic? I didn’t either, but Rui Ferreira gets the press releases and he posted this government’s latest statement. The message: an Obama Administration is within its rights to negotiate with Cuba’s current government, but this group reserves the right not to recognize any agreement that may result.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"A new stage in the ideological combat"

Cuban official reaction to the American election has been sparse, from what I have seen.

Before the election, Fidel Castro wrote one of his reflections in which he said he was being careful not to make an endorsement, although he did allow that Senator Obama, in his view, is “without doubt more intelligent, cultured, and level-headed than his Republican adversary.”

Vice President Machado Ventura answered reporters’ questions about the American election last Sunday as he toured areas damaged by Paloma. The Obama election, he said, would be “interesting if it really demonstrates that there is change.” Regarding possible diplomatic contacts, he reiterated that Cuba “is willing to talk without conditions, on the basis of equality, we cannot accept negotiating anything with conditions…Raul has already said this three times, we’ll see if he says it a fourth time…”

Cuban media coverage has been sparse, too. The day after the election, according to El Pais, the U.S. election result was the third item on television and Radio Rebelde newscasts (in the latter case, the Obama story followed items on the 50th anniversary of a revolutionary event and unrest in Spain).

So far, without a doubt, the prize for the most interesting reaction goes to former government minister Armando Hart.

His essay in Granma, written just before the election, uses Lenin’s “What is to be done?” essay as a touchstone, and it gets real academic real fast. But before Hart takes that plunge, he discusses one aspect of the promised Obama Cuba policy – more Cuban American travel – and declares it a problem.

If [Obama] keeps his promise [regarding travel], a new stage in the ideological combat between the Cuban Revolution and imperialism will be born…to achieve the ideological vulnerability to which we aspire, it will be necessary to design a new theoretical and propagandistic conception regarding our ideas and their origin.

Among those who travel, there would be:

…“Cubans” who are against the Revolution or who simply left Cuba for other reasons and whom we cannot characterize that way. Add to this…Americans who seek to develop relations of some kind with our country. That is, we have before us the immense challenge of confronting a new time in the cultural struggle against the enemy.

Maybe he should have thanked President Bush for limiting travel, and keeping the need for “ideological combat” to a minimum.

Nuevo Vedado

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cuban Americans and the election

The most salient fact about last week’s election and the Cuba issue may be that Senator Obama won Florida without engaging in a bidding war about who would have the most hard-line policy toward Cuba. Indeed, ever since the primary election he made a conscious play to the part of the Cuban American community that dislikes U.S. regulations that limit family visits to Cuba.

Data from exit polls show that Senator McCain won a clear majority of Cuban Americans. At Babalu, they are doing a zip code-by-zip code demonstration of McCain’s majority in Cuban American areas of Miami-Dade. The exit polls themselves, cited in this Herald article, show that Obama won 35 percent of Cuban Americans:

According to Bendixen’s exit polls, Obama won 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade County, nearly 10 points higher than Kerry’s showing in 2004. Within that community, the generational difference was stark. For example, 84 percent of Miami-Dade Cuban-American voters 65 or older backed McCain, while 55 percent of those 29 or younger backed Obama.

Then there’s this from a LA Times story on the Obama victory and the Latino vote:

There were signs that a strong finish Tuesday by Obama did not necessarily help other Democrats down the ballot -- suggesting that this new ethnic coalition could have more to do with Obama himself than an overall shift toward Democrats.

Obama, for example, scored a dramatic win in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, beating McCain by 140,000 votes after an aggressive campaign to register minorities and get them to the polls.

But the GOP’s three Cuban American members of Congress in Miami-Dade all won reelection, beating well-financed Democrats who had hoped to ride Obama’s coattails. Two of those Democratic campaigns had even coordinated with Obama’s team on the ground.

Odds and ends

  • A new Fidel Castro photo from October, via the Russian Orthodox Church, in El Nuevo Herald.

  • Raul Castro toured areas affected by Paloma and spoke to evacuees, Granma reports. And there’s more from the Sun-Sentinel’s Ray Sanchez in Santa Cruz del Sur.

Monday, November 10, 2008

After Paloma

Category 4 Hurricane Paloma hit hard the southern coast of Las Tunas province, but soon fell apart and departed Cuba’s north coast as a tropical depression.

Sun Sentinel correspondent Ray Sanchez reported on the devastation in Santa Cruz del Sur, and his article includes AP video. (And Along the Malecon posted MSNBC videos.) AP reports that infrastructure damage was not as severe as that caused by Ike or Gustav.

Fidel Castro weighed in with one of his reflections as Paloma approached, declaring that if Washington were to make a new offer of aid, it “will be rejected.” Washington, “now more than ever,” should end its embargo, he argued.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama on Cuba

As everyone wonders what an Obama Administration will do in Cuba policy, I thought it would be useful to assemble some statements that he and the Democratic Party made before the election. Full versions of these documents are here.

From the 2008 Democratic Party Platform:

“And we must build ties to the people of Cuba and help advance their liberty by allowing unlimited family visits and remittances to the island, while presenting the Cuban regime with a clear choice: if it takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the unconditional release of all political prisoners, we will be prepared to take steps to begin normalizing relations.”

From a May 2008 Obama speech in Miami:

Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy. […]

My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Libertad. And the road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead to elections that are free and fair.

Now let me be clear. John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people. […]

It’s time for more than tough talk that never yields results. It’s time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. That’s why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It’s time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It’s time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.

I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.

From an Obama op-ed, Miami Herald, 8/21/07:

The United States has a critical interest in seeing Cuba join the roster of stable and economically vibrant democracies in the Western Hemisphere. Such a development would bring us important security and economic benefits, and it would allow for new cooperation on migration, counter-narcotics and other issues. […]

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made grand gestures to that end while strategically blundering when it comes to actually advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba. This is particularly true of the administration's decision to restrict the ability of Cuban Americans to visit and send money to their relatives in Cuba. This is both a humanitarian and a strategic issue. That decision has not only had a profoundly negative impact on the welfare of the Cuban people. It has also made them more dependent on the Castro regime and isolated them from the transformative message carried there by Cuban Americans.

In the ''Cuban spring'' of the late 1990s and early years of this decade, dissidents and human-rights activists had more political space than at any time since the beginning of Castro's rule, and Cuban society experienced a small opening in advancing the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.

U.S. policies -- especially the fact that Cuban Americans were allowed to maintain and deepen ties with family on the island -- were a key cause of that ''Cuban spring.'' […]

Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grass-roots democracy on the island. Accordingly, I will grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island.

Centro Habana

Odds and ends

  • Brazil’s Petrobras acquired rights to explore for oil in waters off Cuba’s north coast between Havana and Varadero (see bloc N37 in the map here). “I don't understand why it took so long to sign this agreement,” Brazil’s President said in this AP report. Cuba recently announced a doubling of estimated reserves – but whether or not prospective investors find those estimates credible, surely they see that Cuba is behind on payments to two Canadian companies already producing oil. Last summer, Pebercan announced that Cuba was $37 million in arrears, and Sherritt just announced that Cuba is $392 million behind in payments.

  • A Granma article ridicules an election-night event hosted by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana – reportedly, there was balloting, the Cuban guests voted 64% for McCain, and the satellite television cut out after McCain’s concession, and before the Obama speech. Rui Ferreira has a report from the scene (desserts were “frugal,” it says), click here and scroll down to November 5.

  • The Sun-Sentinel on Cuba’s high cell phone rates – including per-minute charges for incoming calls. I understand that a monopoly charges what it pleases, but does the Cuban phone company really believe that they maximize profit at these prices?


Another hurricane, Paloma, is headed toward Cuba.

Here’s hoping it never gets there. But if it does, and if it causes damage, here’s what I hope: that the United States renews its offer of aid and picks up where the conversations left off after Ike, where the “assessment team” is no longer on the table; that Cuba plays no political games with any aspect of a U.S. offer; that Secretary Gutierrez says nothing; and that American aid finally gets through. Especially building supplies for housing reconstruction. And that American companies that have sold food to Cuba since 2001, make a donation of free food.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A more perfect Union

There’s plenty of time to discuss the election’s impact on the subject of this blog. For now, here’s something off topic.

I had the opportunity to attend Senator Obama’s last campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia. We followed my son’s sense of when to hit the road, an as a result we arrived early and found a spot about 100 yards from the podium.

Manassas is in Prince William County, an area that divides the northern Virginia region from the rest of the state, or what a McCain spokeswoman called “the real Virginia” in one of the campaign’s most unfortunate, and self-damaging turns of phrase.

The event was held at an agricultural fairgrounds, in a field that stretched way up a hillside. The place eventually filled in with about 90,000 nice people, incredibly packing the entire hillside. The crowd was diverse and skewed toward younger Americans, probably because of the challenges of parking, walking to the site, and standing in an open field with no seating late into the night.

Long before the program began, I turned to a black man standing next to me and made an attempt at light humor, telling him that in about three and a half hours, the program would be starting right up.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life,” he responded.

I got the point.

We were in the Old Dominion, a former slave state that housed the seat of the 19th century Confederacy and that met 20th century integration with “massive resistance.” Two fine candidates were ending campaigns that were fundamentally about their own qualities and ideas, and about the country’s challenges. We witnessed the end of one candidacy that was not about race, but that in itself marked a milestone in our nation’s history, and would have done so regardless of which candidate won.

“A more perfect union” were the words that came to mind.

My friend in that field had been waiting his whole life, he said. So too, I suppose, had been Virginia, and the whole country.

[Washington Post photo]

Monday, November 3, 2008


Juventud Rebelde published a long article, first of a series, about “ostentatious” Cubans. It describes people with gold jewelry, fancy clothes and cell phones, loud demands for service in restaurants, and a “this city is ours” attitude.

It’s treated as a sociological problem – the headline is “Those mistaken people” – and includes interviews with a psychologist and other professors who talk about confusing material well-being with accomplishment and self-worth. The “challenges for Cuban socialism in the decades to come will not be simply economic, but also, and above all, political, i.e. cultural,” the article concludes.

[Illustration from Juventud Rebelde.]