Friday, May 28, 2010

Odds and ends

  • “Our opinion is of skepticism,” says human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez who believes that expectations for prisoner releases rose too soon. He spoke in an interview with Radio Nederland; excerpts are translated at Cuban Colada.

  • St. Petersburg Times: Tampa’s city council wants a “unified, concerted effort” to build ties to Cuba.

  • AP: Cuba’s top judge affirms that steps have not yet been taken to move the Alan Gross case to trial.

  • Economics and much more from Nick Miroff at Global Post, including why Cuban condom sales spike when red snapper are running. With photos.

  • Daily Mail: In Argentina, Bolivia, and Cuba, plans to build tourism around the life and travels of Che Guevara.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Historic Photos of Cuban Miami

Jose Marti in Key West, Batista at the Miami Beach Rotary Club, Fidel holding forth at the Flagler Theater, JFK at the Orange Bowl greeting the troops he abandoned at the Bay of Pigs – all this, plus cityscapes and a photographic chronicle of el exilio from the first Calle Ocho bodegas to sights and personalities we recognize today.

In Historic Photos of Cuban Miami, author Jennifer Ortiz scoured photo archives to create a well selected, well captioned sweep of a city with longer links to Cuba than many would imagine.

Two favorites: a poignant shot of a meeting of the Bayamo city government in exile (slogan: “Nada tengo mientras no tengo patria”) and a circa-1965 backyard scene where an Anglo cop is talking to a Cuban family, apparently about that pig hanging by its nose from that tree near the picnic table over there…

Find it here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tire repair

This Sancti Spiritus tire repairman does good work, aided by supplies he picked up while visiting family in Florida and a compressor cannibalized from a 60-year-old Westinghouse commercial refrigerator. Like every other ponchero I have seen, he has rigged up an old clothes iron to seal patches on tubes.

He pays 60 pesos a month in taxes and charged me two convertible pesos to fix my car tire.

He’s friendly, but don’t ask for favors. His signs read, “No credit. Your problem is not mine.” And: “I don’t give or lend. Don’t waste your time.”

Odds and ends

  • Europa Press: Cuba’s foreign minister says a “proposed agenda” for talks with the United States was presented to the U.S. government last July, and has received no response. The idea was to start with areas of cooperation (drueg enforcement, migration, environment, disaster relief) before moving to more difficult issues such as the embargo and funding of “internal subversion in Cuba.”

  • Herald: 13 Cuban migrants show up on the Rickenbacker Causeway.

  • Diario de Cuba looks at Spanish immigration statistics and finds that about 25,000 Cubans have taken up residence in Spain in the past four years.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


A reader asks if it’s true that the Cuban government has “in the past has gone over the heads of the local church officials and negotiated directly with the Vatican on issues such as permissions to open new seminaries,” a view attributed to me in this Miami Herald article.

Yes, the Cuban government has at times sidelined the Cuban Catholic Church in its direct contacts with the Vatican.

But I don’t think that is true regarding seminaries. My understanding is that while Pope John Paul II raised the issue of a new seminary in a very public way during his visit to Cuba, the project got under way and was completed as a result of many contacts between the Havana Archdiocese and the government.

The inaccuracy in the article, I’m quite sure, is my fault and not that of reporter Juan Tamayo.

An interesting and positive aspect of the recent talks between the Church and the government is that they did not center on internal Church issues but rather on prisoners and human rights, and that the Cuban government is recognizing the Church as a valid interlocutor in such talks.

Our "shared history" with communist China

To “better ensure that the United States and China make the most of this exciting time in our shared history,” Secretary of State Clinton launched a “U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange” in Beijing.

It’s part of a commitment to “expanding citizens' engagement between our countries,” it will be coordinated by an Under Secretary of State, and will help us “tap in to the challenge of our people, their creative and innovation, and their ability to forge lasting relationships that build trust and understanding.”

Odds and ends

  • Wilfredo Cancio, formerly of the Herald, reports via Twitter that prisoner Antonio Villareal was transferred to a clinic in Villa Clara as a “first step toward releasing him.” (H/t Penultimos Dias)
  • Madrid’s ABC reports that Cuban state security has visited families of political prisoners jailed in 2003 with the offer of better treatment or release if the Damas de Blanco cease to receive support from the “so-called Damas de Apoyo,” women who join them in their marches. Laura Pollan of the Damas de Blanco says that all have rejected the offer.
  • NPR’s Scott Simon interviews Juan Igacio Hernandez Nodar, who spent 13 years in Cuban jail for charges related to his efforts to help Cuban baseball players to defect. The Herald wrote about his release last November.
  • Al-Jazeera has a three-minute video report in English on the barbers and beauty shops in Cuba.
  • In El Mundo, Rui Ferreira looks at last weekend’s Cuba Nostalgia event in Miami. With photo essay.
  • Las Tunas, last Saturday, just before 7:00 a.m., at the home of Virginia Garcia: visiting brother-in-law wakes up, discovers huge snake curled up in the bathroom. Husband gets mop, delivers two blows. The late snake was a majá, a boa variety endemic to Cuba, 2.4 meters long. Juventud Rebelde has a photo and a story where the reporter asks if it was really necessary to kill it. Easy for him to say!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Playing it safe in Miami

This is the passage from the May 20 address by Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela to the Cuban American National Foundation that dealt with Cuba:

“This brings me once again to Cuba, where we seek to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. When President Obama addressed this gathering in May 2008, he emphasized the desire to move Cuba further down the road toward freedom and made clear his commitment to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future. The President also laid out his openness to direct engagement when, and I quote, ‘we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.’

“During the first 16 months of the Obama administration, we have begun to make progress on the vision that the President has outlined. First, we have taken measures to increase contact between separated families and to promote the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba. We believe that the reunification of the divided Cuban family is a positive step toward building a better future for Cuba. In addition, we have engaged Cuban authorities on key bilateral matters like migration and direct mail service and will continue to do so to advance U.S. national interests. In the wake of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, the United States worked with Cuba to expedite the arrival of critical supplies to victims and survivors of the worst natural disaster in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere.

“We have also increased artistic and cultural exchanges between our countries, consistent with our long-standing support for freedom of expression. The ‘Peace Without Borders’ concert in Havana and performances in the United States by noted Cuban artists such as Carlos Varela demonstrate in concrete terms our desire to promote greater communication between the people of the United States and Cuba. In 2009, there was an 80 percent increase in travel licenses issued to U.S. persons under the public performances, athletic, and other competitions and exhibitions category; a 25 percent increase in religious licenses; and a 16 percent increase in licenses issued for academic travel to Cuba. Additionally, non-immigrant visa issuances for Cuban citizens have more than doubled in the last year, including visas for more Cubans to travel to the United States for cultural academic and professional exchange. This engagement has not generated overnight change, but it has advanced U.S. interests and in conjunction with our efforts to reach out to the Cuban people helped lay the foundation for a more robust civil society and increased the chances that Cuba will make a successful transition to democracy.

“We remain deeply concerned by the poor human rights situation in Cuba, which contributed to the recent death of prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata as a result of a hunger strike. We are also focused on securing the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who was jailed in Cuba in December—a matter of great importance to the United States. And the unhelpful rhetoric of the Cuban government will remain a constant feature of the relationship almost irrespective of what policies we pursue.

“Again, we are committed to continuously evaluating and refining our policies in ways that will empower the Cuban people and advance our national interests. This does not, however, mean that we will shy away from condemning the Cuban government’s repressive ways—far from it. Just last March, President Obama stated, ‘Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist.’ That response is discouraging, but will not deter us from pursing the policy approach the President has laid out and which we have been working hard to advance since January 20, 2009.”

Prisoner transfers and releases coming?

Reuters reported Saturday and AP yesterday that the Cuban government has told Church officials that political prisoners will be transferred this week to jails closer to their homes (to families’ frustration, they are often jailed very far from their homes) and some will be moved to hospitals for medical care.

It’s not clear when or how this will take place, or if the transfer to hospitals will amount to a de facto suspension of the sentences for those prisoners, as has happened to others released for medical reasons.

Also: Cuban Colada translates excerpts of Cardinal Ortega’s press conference last week and links to the transcript (pdf) of it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Not your usual article in Granma

“Cardinal Ortega describes dialogue between Raul and ecclesiastical authorities as positive” – headline of a May 21 Granma article that gives a brief account of a press conference by Cardinal Ortega, then runs the text of a Church press release on the upcoming visit of the Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

The release concludes by saying that Mamberti’s visit “is not related to the efforts that the Church in Cuba has undertaken in recent weeks before the authorities of the country in favor of the prisoners and the Damas de Blanco.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Church as "mediator"

Cardinal Ortega spoke with reporters in Havana yesterday about the four-hour meeting with President Raul Castro where the issue of political prisoners was discussed at length. Some new details from the press accounts, with quotes from the Cardinal:

  • “It was a dialogue about Cuba, about our realities. What is new and important about it? That we didn’t go to treat problems of the Church or needs of the Church.”

  • The issue of political prisoners “is being discussed seriously…the Church is interested in a general easing of the situation of the prisoners ... including not only the sick, but the sick in first place…with respect to the sick, we expect it.”

  • “The meeting proved that the Church can play the role of mediator and resolve old conflicts.”

  • The upcoming visit of the Vatican secretary of state responds to an invitation extended long ago and is not related to “the efforts that the Church has made in recent weeks before the authorities in favor of the Ladies in White and the prisoners.”

  • The relationship with the state cannot be a “strategic alliance” because that term “has a military or political sense” to it. “The Church can act in society carrying out this role and the role of attending to the spiritual needs of the people, charitable social service departing from the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution, never by an alliance of any kind.”

Press accounts from MSNBC, the Herald, and Notimex. Others rounded up at Penultimos Dias.

Video above from Cuban television, h/t Diario de Cuba.

The Washington Post on Alan Gross

The Washington Post has a long story on USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been detained in Cuba since last December. Reporter Mary Beth Sheridan scored an interview with Judy Gross, the contractor’s wife, and adds some detail to the story: he had a half-million dollar contract, had traveled to Cuba five times in nine months, and more.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Odds and ends

  • Granma led the paper today with a terse story about a meeting between President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega. AP got a little detail from Archbishop Dionisio Garcia, who participated in the meeting. Cuban Colada translates part of an AFP story where Archbishop Garcia anticipates action regarding political prisoners, and says the meeting lasted four hours.

  • In a Herald op-ed, Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group argues that we should listen to Cuba’s dissidents not only when they criticize Havana’s policies, but when they criticize ours too. He links to a video, an excerpt of a documentary about Cuban youth, showing blogger Claudia Cadelo and others explaining how an end to American sanctions would have a beneficial effect inside Cuba.

  • USA Today: The United States and Mexico have a “Joint Contingency Plan for Maritime Pollution,” under which President Calderon has offered to help us deal with the spill. Imagine that.

  • Financial Times: Cuba is negotiating with potential foreign partners to administer eight sugar mills.

Out of the way, please

Against a backdrop of farm output that is lower than last year’s, and with newly distributed farmlands not yet being used to their potential, Cuba’s small farmers association (ANAP) held their conference last weekend and called for some policy changes.

ANAP’s members are individual farmers and members of two kinds of cooperatives; according to the economy minister, they have 41 percent of Cuba’s farmland and produce nearly 70 percent of the value of farm production.

The recommendations are in an ANAP document summarizing the conference’s treatment of issues affecting farm production. In addition to calling for “resolving the problem of credits” for new landholders, it calls for several changes in the distribution system that have the common thread of asking the government to get out of the way.

About 30 percent of these producers’ output goes to farmers markets, where prices move according to supply and demand. The rest is contracted by the state, and ANAP is calling for several changes: expanding direct sales to consumer outlets, as is already occurring in the case of milk; allowing cooperatives to contract directly with state enterprises; and allowing cooperatives to sell directly to hotels and restaurants in the tourism sector.

All these measures would reduce if not end the role of the acopio, the agriculture ministry’s enterprises that collect, transport, and distribute food. Which may be why things are moving slowly.

Sales to the tourism sector is a non-issue as far as the Cuban public is concerned, but it’s a good indicator of the dead weight of bureaucracy and regulation on Cuban agriculture. Amazingly, Cuba imports some fruit and vegetables every year, almost certainly because the state enterprises that are charged with supplying the tourism sector fail to perform. Surely, if Cuban farmers and cooperatives were able to contract directly with hotels and restaurants, all would benefit: higher farm income (including hard currency income), lower import bills for the government, better food in restaurants (not to mention stable supplies of fruits and vegetables that can often be found in farmers markets but not in nearby hard-currency restaurants), and a better product for tourists. The loser would be one state enterprise that would be rendered unnecessary.

The fact that ideas such as these appear in an ANAP document are no guarantee that they will be adopted. But I would bet that things will continue moving in the direction of decentralized sales and distribution. ANAP is a “mass organization,” part of the Revolution; these ideas are coming from inside the tent.

Sources cited above: Cuban Colada summarizing the official statistics showing drops in selected areas of production, and the economy minister’s speech indicating that of the 920,000 hectares of farmland recently distributed, half remain unused or under-used.

Also, coverage from IPS, the Herald, AP, and Juventud Rebelde.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Odds and ends

  • CubaEncuentro posts a video from Maria Elvira Live, an interview with attorney Enrique Zamora who delivers inheritances to Cubans when their relatives die in the United States and leave money to them. Under the Bush Administration, heirs could receive only $100 per month; in this interview we learn that they can now receive the entire inheritance. An earlier note on this here. Good for the Obama Administration for ending one of the most ridiculous applications of Cuba sanctions that one could imagine.

  • EFE: The Madrid Chamber of Commerce visits Havana with 14 companies seeking business opportunities; discussions center on “legal security” and the frozen bank accounts of Spanish firms already operating there.

  • Granma summarizes a report from La Repubblica on suicides in Italian jails: 26 this year.

  • The Reds sign Cuban outfielder Felix Perez from Isla de la Juventud and will place him on a minor league team. El Nuevo Herald’s story recounts how Perez nearly joined the Yankees last year but lied about his age (he was 24, not 20) and was suspended from Major League Baseball.

Cuba at risk in Gulf oil spill (Updated)

Typically, we Americans figured that Cuba might screw up and our beaches might be contaminated by a mistake in their oil drilling program.

“No one really imagined that Cuba would be on the receiving end,” the Environmental Defense Fund’s Dan Whittle told the Herald, now that the Gulf oil spill – an American screw-up – has entered the Loop Current, putting Florida and Cuba at risk.

The network of scientists from the United States, Cuba, and Mexico that has been working on Gulf protection (background here and here) is now exchanging information and preparing for the worst. The organization 1planet1ocean has set up a web page with links and resources and another that gives the latest maps and assessments of the extent of the oil spill.

And according to the Herald, the State Department says that “low, technical level” contacts have taken place between U.S. and Cuban officials. Which sounds like code for, “We’re just exchanging maps and data, not talking about policy.” But it’s progress.

Update: From ABC News, regarding talks with Cuba:

According to Gordon Duguid, a spokesman for the department, the talks are ongoing and said there is no word yet as to their outcome.

“It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbors, not just the islands, but those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters,” Duguid said.

“We have had working level discussions with the Cuban government to keep them informed of developments,” a State Department official said later, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing diplomatic engagements.

“We provided background related to the cause of the spill, stressed that stopping the oil leak is our top priority, and explained the projected movement of the spill as it was known at the time of the communication. We also communicated US desire to maintain a clear line of communication with the Cuban government on developments,” the official added, saying the US had delivered a diplomatic note to Havana on the matter today.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: Cuba’s economy minister announces that the government will set up markets across Cuba where farmers can buy the supplies they need when they need them, “substituting the current system of assigning resources centrally.”

  • The press and cultural section of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana is on Twitter and Facebook.

  • Global Post: How Cubans use cell phones, how access to them is expanding, and how they are used by opponents of the Cuban government.

  • Another far-flung Cuban restaurant: The Daily Tennesean reviews the Havana Grill, just north of Nashville.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Another pilot project under way

Reuters reports a new deal for the drivers of 16-seat Chinese buses operated by the state enterprise Cubataxi.

First, no more salary. Second, the driver gets the bus and fuel, charges the established fares, brings back 824 pesos at the end of the shift, and keeps the rest.

As in the case of other pilot projects, this one has not been announced.

Masonic Lodge #3

Letters to Granma push for change

What to do about employment in Cuba, a issue that is of greater-than-usual interest since Raul Castro noted in a speech last month that the state’s inflated payrolls may include up to one million excess workers?

Some ideas are appearing in the letters to the editor of Granma, and today three letters advance the idea of converting small state enterprises into cooperatives or some similar scheme.

None mention the initial changes already made in this direction in barber shops and beauty shops, a development that to my knowledge has not been noted in Cuban media.

A letter from one J. Martinez Montes, titled “Regarding the workforce restructuring that the country will have to implement,” says this:

“Whether private, cooperative, mixed association, or however we want to label the way of setting up non-strategic economic activities…food service, sweets shops and bakeries, small stores, workshops, repair shops, etc., could very well become new sources of employment and opportunities for the creativity of Cubans…There are very good examples of these practices; take China, Vietnam, and other countries where the state sets taxes and provides raw materials…”

Then a letter signed by J. L. Marichal Castillo, headlined “The issue is not to privatize, but to socialize,” emphasizes the need for rules and enforcement:

“In many opinions the term ‘privatize’ is used, as if there didn’t exist formulas to socialize production and services such as cooperatives, production or service associations, etc. The name can vary, what is important is the content…The food service sector is often discussed, but these changes should include all possible sectors and for those that remain state entities, changes will have to be introduced too… The state should continue to own installations, buildings, etc. It should charge fair prices for everything, require social security and tax payments, and without doubt, have the legal capacity to intervene and even dissolve any type of organization when its auditors or other police organs (and that is not constant harassment) detect infracions incompatible with socialist legality.”

J. Miguel Valdes, a student at the CUJAE engineering and technology university, agrees. He gently urges Randy Alonso of the Mesa Redonda television program to turn his analytical powers toward measures that Cubans themselves can take to fix the economy:

“In my opinion I believe that changes are urgently needed in the economic thinking of our country. I am not an economist but I believe that to permit, for example, the existence of private property in non-strategic means of production, such as food service – and always in a controlled way with taxes, fair licenses, assurance of the delivery of raw materials, etc. – far from overturning advances already achieved or creating a national bourgeoisie, would combat the diversion of resources that causes so much harm to the nation and would improve substantially the quality of services that is now terrible in almost all public establishments… I am of the belief that such important programs as the Mesa Redonda should analyze more frequently and more rigorously the domestic economic problems and inform the public in a concrete way of the measures taken to solve them. Although it is beyond doubt how much the economic blockade and all the aggressive policy associated with it harms us, I think that much more can be done to improve the economic situation of the country.”

The Cuban economy has many advantages, foremost among them the capabilities of its people. There are many formulas that could be employed to lift the economy, generating new jobs and income without changing the socialist character of the Cuban system.

But the system must first permit itself to accept that some new forms of property and organization – such as cooperatives, already employed in the farm sector – are fully compatible with socialism when employed in cities.

The presentation of these ideas in the Organo Oficial del Partido Comunista de Cuba doesn’t indicate that the system has made that leap, but it indicates a clear decision that it’s time to talk about it. Which can’t be a bad thing.

For another look at employment issues, see this article from El Pais.

Masonic Lodge #2

Odds and ends

  • Independent journalist Miriam Leiva, an a Herald op-ed, on recent leadership changes and a “growing malaise in Cuban society.”

  • It may not be the perfect moment to flaunt American prowess in oil drilling technology, but the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors has a license to travel to Cuba and is trying to organize a trip. See report in Cuba Standard.

  • Another Granma article on the upcoming conference of Cuba’s small farmers association (ANAP) says the priority will be to discuss measures that substitute imports, make sales to the tourism sector, and increase exports.

Masonic Lodge #1

Thursday, May 13, 2010


“…the willingness to meet and to engage in dialogue, for understanding and consensus, is the best service we can offer in the interest of the general well-being of the nation. Achieving this well-being, it must be said, today involves: achieving a definitive agreement for the treatment of the Damas de Blanco, resolving the sensitive problem of those imprisoned for political reasons, finding the best way so that each Cuban may express his opinions and always seek consensus among all, reformulating the cultura antropológica of the Cuban person, recasting economic structures, and achieving the best relations with all the world, also with the United States.”

from an editorial (pdf) on the Catholic church’s mediation role in Espacio Laical, the Havana archdiocese’s magazine of Catholic laity

The Vatican foreign minister, en route to Cuba

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, will visit in Cuba in June and will participate in a conference organized by the Cuban Catholic church. (See AP’s story and a press release from the Peace and Justice Commission of the Havana archdiocese.)

The “social week” taking place June 16-20 is the tenth conference of this type. It will begin with a talk on “The State and Laity” by Archbishop Mamberti in the ceremonial lecture hall of the University of Havana. It will feature discussions on topics such as the church’s pastoral work, the need for dialogue and reconciliation, and challenges facing the Cuban economy. The press release notes that some participants will be from “the diaspora,” and for the first time non-Catholics will be invited to make presentations.

Meanwhile, the Damas de Blanco are expressing hope for prisoner releases during the Archbishop’s visit (see AFP story here).

ANAP has some suggestions to make

In advance of the annual conference of Cuba’s small farmers association (ANAP), Granma has published several articles saying the conference will feature proposals for policy changes that will lead to increased farm production. See Tuesday article here and Wednesday’s here (with English version here). There’s another article today about a train carrying delegates from eastern Cuba; quite a bit of hoopla for a meeting of this type.

The conference begins tomorrow.

The ANAP president, Orlando Lugo, says that among the proposals, there will be some “to eliminate obstacles in the comercialización” of farm products, using a word that Cubans use to refer to sales, transportation, and distribution. He also says some changes will take time – naturally – because they “require changes in the structure and size of the enterprise system, creating new entities and dissolving others.”

This is clear as mud; hopefully Granma will cover the actual proposals at equal length.

For now, I’ll speculate a little. I wonder if by the “enterprise system” he is referring to the acopio, the bureaucratic behemoth that collects, transports, and distributes produce to consumers through the monthly ration system and to institutions such as hospitals and schools. The writing has been on the wall for acopio or some time. First, through the idea broached by Raul Castro and others of ending universal monthly food rations. Second, through new direct distribution schemes that bypass acopio altogether. And third, through stories that have shown that the government could not handle distribution of increased farm production, and produce rotted awaiting pick-up.

We’ll see what is actually proposed at a conference that, according to the Granma stories, promises to address all the concerns raised at the local level by individual farmers, and to present success stories and best practices that can be applied across Cuba.

Odds and ends

  • Cuban Colada: The Florida law that required charter companies that fly to Cuba to post bond of up to $250,000 has run its course. It was declared unconstitutional two months ago, and now the state of Florida has paid $364,000 in legal expenses to the charter companies. The law was sponsored by state Representative David Rivera, likely GOP candidate for the seat being vacated by Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart. The judge got a little cheeky in his decision, saying that “Florida is not entitled to adopt a foreign policy under our Constitution.”

  • AP: Dania Virgen Garcia was released from jail pending appeal of her sentence. More on her case at Cuban Colada.

  • Along the Malecon: As of November, a Danish company will be renting Harley Davidsons in Havana.

  • AFP: Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar and others introduce a “Platform for Spaniards for the Democratization of Cuba.”

  • The Herald’s Jordan Levin on the “eloquent but ambiguous” Carlos Varela, who plays Miami on Saturday. And AP reports that Silvio Rodriguez has a visa for a June 4 Carnegie Hall concert.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Doing our part for Cuban socialism

In the New York Review of Books, Nik Steinberg and Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch have written an interesting essay on the human rights situation in Cuba and proposing a new international policy to press for human rights improvements in Cuba, to replace the U.S. embargo.
An excerpt:
“Invoking national sovereignty may be the most common tactic used by governments around the globe—and across the political spectrum—to counter criticism of their abusive practices. It is the international equivalent of the ‘states’ rights’ claim that segregationists in the US South used for years to defend their racist laws and policies. The aim is to shift the focus of public concern from the rights of abuse victims to the rights (real and imagined) of the states that abuse them.
“What sets the Castro government apart from most others that employ this tactic is the fact that Cuba has indeed, for five decades, faced an explicit threat to its national sovereignty—coming from the United States, a superpower ninety miles off its shores. In the 1960s, the threat took the form of covert military action, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and multiple botched assassination attempts. It continues in the form of the economic embargo established by President Eisenhower in 1960, later expanded by President Kennedy, and eventually locked in place by the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Also known as ‘Helms-Burton,’ the law prohibits the president from lifting trade restrictions until Cuba has legalized political activity and made a commitment to free and fair elections. It also prohibits lifting the embargo as long as Fidel and Raúl Castro remain in office. In other words, it requires that Cubans be free to choose their leaders, but bars them from choosing the Castros. It is thus a program to promote not only democracy but also regime change.”
I don’t agree that the embargo in and of itself threatens Cuban sovereignty; it’s an expression of American sovereignty to decide not to trade with another country. In this case it’s Cuba’s commercial options, not its sovereignty, that are abridged.
But the part about Helms-Burton is actually little worse than described. The Helms-Burton law says that even if Cuba were to hold an election under perfect conditions, it would not result in a “democratically elected” government if that government were to “include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.” So it seeks a democracy in Cuba that makes a mockery of our own definition of democracy.
One could write this off as old history – who can remember 1996, after all? – but the Helms-Burton law lives on in many ways.
One is in the political message that it continues to send, as Steinberg and Wilkinson describe.
Another is in the program that sent USAID contractor Alan Gross to Cuba, authorized by Helms-Burton’s Section 109. It’s a democracy promotion program, but if Cubans fully read the law that authorizes it, it isn’t surprising that they would see things otherwise. Nor is it surprising that Cubans such as Yoani Sanchez would express concern for Cuba’s sovereignty (see this discussion by Ted Henken of her views and those of her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, some expressed in connection with the Bush Administration’s transition commission).
What is surprising is that the Obama Administration keeps the USAID program going, using a regime-change framework to attempt to carry out programs that it seems to conceive as mainly humanitarian.

Friday, May 7, 2010

They get letters...

Granma’s editors give themselves a little pat on the back for their letters section, which is a year old today. It does make for interesting reading. It includes a section featuring responses from government agencies.

For example, this letter complains that an empty agriculture ministry bus headed eastbound from Pinar del Rio not only failed to pick up passengers, but the driver and assistant demanded money from potential passengers. This reponse says that a committee was formed promptly to investigate; the result is that the driver and assistant (in fact, a mechanic who should have been in his shop) are now unemployed.

The section also includes a note giving citizens an e-mail address and phone numbers where they can direct complaints about agriculture, and the note indicates that the minister has ordered his people to respond.

Odds and ends

  • AP: Radio Rebelde issues a call to stop hoarding and reselling rice, and AP’s reporter finds that some are selling rice on the street at three to four times the price charged at farmers markets. It’s not unusual to see vendors walking through neighborhoods quietly selling beef, cheese, shellfish, or other items, but I have never heard of rice being sold that way.

  • AP: Silvio Rodriguez is preparing to play Carnegie Hall. Meanwhile, Los Van Van have canceled their U.S. tour. And during a break at a concert, Ted Henken asks saxophone/clarinet virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera what he thinks of Cuban artists coming to play here.

  • AP: An official from Cuba’s science and environment ministry says the island faces no threat from the Gulf oil spill. To track the spill yourself, check out this New York Times map.

  • Reuters: Petrobras gets a six-month extension in the drilling deadline in its oil exploration contract for a bloc north of Varadero.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The rig will be Chinese

Reuters reports that Repsol is having a rig built in safety-conscious communist China for use when it returns to drilling in Cuba’s Gulf waters.

While the popular rumor of Chinese companies drilling in those waters may not pan out, with Chinese flags atop rigs a stone’s throw from Florida, it looks like the next rig that operates there will be of Chinese manufacture. Why source the job to China, as opposed to the nearby U.S. Gulf coast oil industry? U.S. economic sanctions prevent American companies from selling equipment for use in Cuba.

So if the thing ever goes operational and there’s a problem with the rig, or a spill, the scenario will not only be that American officials will be trying to make contact with Cuban officials for the first time, but the operator may also be trying to FedEx the needed parts from, say, Shanghai.


Odds and ends

  • La Jornada: Jorge Luis Sierra Cruz, Cuba’s 48-year-old transportation minister, was replaced in that job by a 51-year-old. But he was also a vice president of the Council of Ministers, and he was replaced in that job by 80-year-old Antonio Enrique Lussón Batlle, a veteran of the 1959 revolution. The result is that four of six vice presidents of the Council of Ministers are from that generation, ages 80, 78, 68, and 86. Raul Castro has now replaced two thirds of the cabinet.

  • El Pais: A Spanish legislator travels to Cuba, enters on a tourist visa, meets with dissidents, and holds a press conference denouncing her government’s policies toward Cuba – all without incident.

  • AP nails down the health insurance requirement for tourists: the requirement is not yet being applied evenly, and the cost is $3 per day.

  • Carlos Varela arrived in Miami to begin a concert tour and gave an airport press conference where he said, “I have never liked actos de repudio in or outside of Cuba,” and answered questions on political topics. He remarked: “I believe if you go to Cuba and you see what is on people’s minds, in the day to day, in that magic word resolver, what they think about least is politicians and politics.” El Nuevo story here; San Francisco Chronicle interview here.

  • Miami’s Channel 41 uses a blogger’s video without attribution, and Tracey Eaton complains. As well he should.

  • The Herald’s Fabiola Santiago reviews a new book on the city of Matanzas and its cultural contributions.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Oil: very slow going

In January I noted a report that Cuba is renegotiating its oil exploration contract with Repsol, the only company that has explored in deep offshore areas (2004), found oil, and stated an intention to go back and drill again.

Today a reader passed me an article from the energy specialist Argus Media that reports that the negotiations with the Spanish company are still not yet concluded. Excerpt:

The negotiations are intended to “create a state of equilibrium to benefit both parties,” the [Cupet] official said, and were needed because the original agreement “had run its course.”

Cuba was not included in Repsol’s $12.5bn exploration and production plan for the next five years, presented on 29 April by president Antonio Brufau. The Cupet official said the continuing negotiations were the reason Repsol did not mention Cuba.

The article, dated today, is not available on-line.

Goodbye Avila, good luck Selso

No wonder Cuba’s sugar minister asked to be replaced, as Cuban media reported this week (AP story here). Granma gives him a nasty farewell that reports that the current sugar harvest is the worst since 1905, “abysmal,” and lays blame at the ministry’s actions and policies. Cuban Colada translates and summarizes here.

A new minister has been named, notwithstanding the rumor that the ministry would be dissolved and replaced by a state enterprise that would, among other things, bring foreign investors in as partners to modernize plant and boose production.

New real estate policy?

Manuel Marrero, Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, says that the government has approved and will soon release a new “real estate development policy associated with tourism, fundamentally golf courses, marinas and other complementary tourist investments linked to tourism.” Here’s coverage from BBC, AP, and AFP Spanish.

For years there has been talk of golf course developments with real estate mixed in, and I have noted the rumors here many times, mainly as they appear in the British press. This is the first time I have seen a Cuban official address the subject.

If it pans out, it will be a concrete move to attract more foreign investment and to allow Cuba to compete in a new market segment. Reportedly, when it comes to golf/condominium development, the sticking point has been Cuba’s prohibition on allowing foreigners to own real property. And reportedly, discussions have focused on a solution that would instead allow long-term leasing – 50 years, with 25-year renewals – that allows developers to recoup investment almost in the same way as a straight sale.

We’ll watch the Gaceta Oficial to see what the minister has in mind.


The entrance to the "Museo Etnografico Regional Campesino."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Drill, mami, drill

Where would we be if the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico had started at a deep-water well in one of the offshore blocs where Cuba intends to drill?

The issue would be an urgent one for the United States because prevailing currents would carry a spill in that area straight to the Florida Keys. U.S. officials would surely want to talk to Cuban counterparts about measures to contain the spill at the surface or to cap the wellhead itself.

Since the U.S. government has declined to talk with Cuban officials to make contingency plans, we would be scrambling to make initial contact with Cuban officials at the height of the crisis – which is about the worst position to be in. At that point, it would be of little comfort to Floridians that their elected officials have made terrific anti-Castro speeches or made proposals to try to stop Cuban drilling, without results.

As it turns out, the ecological and economic disaster that has started south of Louisiana may hit the Keys after all. AP is reporting that the spreading slick will soon hit the Gulf’s “loop current,” which would carry it east, then south along Florida’s Gulf coast where the Gulf Stream would take it east again across Florida’s southern tip. More detailed story at the Sun Sentinel, here.

[Graphics from St. Petersburg Times]

Monday, May 3, 2010

New report on Radio-TV Marti

Senator John Kerry’s staff at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has issued a report on Radio/TV Marti, saying “immediate action” is needed to “ensure the survivability” of the stations. I’m not holding my breath on either front – the “immediate action” or the implied threat to cut off funding if changes are not made. The recommendations at the end include nothing that would stop the abject waste of money on TV Marti. Zzzzzzzzzz. This “Metrorail Marti” idea is starting to grow on me.

Odds and ends

  • The Damas de Blanco attended mass yesterday and walked along Quinta Avenida as they have done for years, but it was peaceful and there were no pro-government crowds present. Cardinal Ortega, who gave the mass at the church in western Havana, says the lowered tensions follow his appeal to the government. AFP reports in English here; a story from Spain’s El Pais is here. AFP also reports (Spanish, here) that the church has continued to try to persuade Guillermo Farinas to abandon his hunger strike, but he isn’t interested.

  • The Herald’s Juan Tamayo on the case of Dania Virgen Garcia, a dissident who was jailed for using force in a family dispute and whose family, according to human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez, doesn’t seem to be defending her.

  • Professor Jaime Suchlicki’s arguments for maintaining U.S. travel restrictions are rebutted by Anya Landau French at the Havana Note.

  • Guardian: Cuba’s policy on travel insurance for visitors – I thought it was health insurance – is not very clear, and a UK tour operator chalks it up to the island’s “old-fashioned air, its exotic chaos.”

  • Alejandro Armengol’s column in El Nuevo Herald focuses on prisoner of conscience Ariel Sigler Amaya, and argues that keeping him and others in jail signals weakness on the part of the government.

  • NPR on the “free-market makeover” in beauty shops and barber shops, where not everyone is happy.

  • An idea from Kirk Nielsen at Poder360 for securing federal mass transit money for Miami: name the project Metrorail Marti.

  • I just ran across the website Hemos Oido, which is a “Worldwide Translation Experiment” that translates Cuban blogs. A list of blogs translated into English, with links to recently translated posts, is here.

  • I plugged it once, I’m doing it again: Check out this magnificent blog for all you need to know about Hialeah.

  • The Washington Post on Livan Hernandez and his hot start with the Washington Nationals – and his future golf career.