Thursday, August 12, 2010

Light blogging ahead

I had planned to take a break at 1,500 posts, but the timing didn’t work out. We’re now at 1,566, and it is probably still a bad time to shut down for a while, but I’m going to cut back anyway until after Labor Day, so things will be light to sporadic until then.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

National Review, off the reservation (Updated)

There’s a stir going on because of a comment in the group blog of the conservative magazine National Review, where Mark Krikorian said that “continuity in Cuba’s government, along the lines of Vietnam or China, is probably the least-bad outcome for the United States.” Ouch. A provocative (and debatable) view based on a specific (and debatable) concern about use of Cuban territory for drug trafficking.

Penultimos Dias ran a strong letter to the magazine’s editor, Rich Lowry. Lord knows what Lowry thinks about “continuity,” but his view on Cuba policy, expressed four years ago, is as follows: “I think the Cuba policy is an anachronism, and I don’t support the embargo. I think, if it would have been lifted a long time ago, Cuba would be, you know, an American resort town, more or less, probably.” Ouch again.

Update: It gets worse: Mark Falcoff weighs in there today playing footsie with the idea of normalized relations with Cuba, citing Reagan envoy Gen. Vernon Walters: “If we had full diplomatic relations with Castro, he would be no more important politically than the president of the Dominican Republic.”

Odds and ends

  • AFP: The image of Cuba’s patron saint has started a pilgrimage across Cuba, the first since 1952, that will end in Havana in December 2011. It began with a Sunday mass that was broadcast Monday night on state television. The prayer that accompanies the image, the article says, reads: “We pray to you for all your sons and daughters who, in and outside of the country, wish the best for Cuba.”

  • A great story from AP on El Duque Hernandez, age “44,” playing in the Gulf Coast League and looking for another shot in the majors. Yesterday he was promoted to the Nats’ AA minor league team in Harrisburg, and the Nats Insider blog speculates he could be called up next month.

  • Reuters: Cuba’s food production is down, in spite of large-scale distribution of land and other changes.

  • The Havana Note takes note of a remark U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk made to a Senate committee, that Cuba is “an extraordinary opportunity for our farmers and ranchers.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

And whatever they decide, hey, I’m ok with that

“My role is to tell of things and events so that each one may decide, you should understand that the companeros are not people whom I should lead by the finger, by the hand, to do things, and what I want is for them to think.”

– Fidel Castro, quoted by AFP, in a Telesur interview broadcast yesterday

Will Obama ease travel regulations?

For some time there has been talk of a review of Cuba travel regulations by the Obama Administration.

The talk is now spilling out, not exactly in the most organized way, indicating that action is forthcoming to allow more travel by liberalizing regulations, to allow flights to Cuba from the top three dozen U.S. airports that handle international flights, and to change regulations again to increase communication.

We’ll see if and when it happens. All the reports are loosely sourced, putting us (my guess) somewhere above the level of rumor. We haven’t seen the usual trial balloon technique of an Administration official describing with some precision the actions under consideration and the reasons for them. Bloomberg broke the story, the most detailed report so far appeared in the Herald, and a reason to take it all seriously is this single line, an aside, from the Washington Post’s venerable Al Kamen: “And look for Obama administration action, after Congress leaves town, to loosen travel restrictions.”

Given the possibility that restrictions on educational travel may be eased, Victor Johnson of the Association of International Educators reviews the recent history of these regulations. Cuba is the only country with which the United States restricts educational travel, he points out, and if President Obama changes this, he argues, it will not be a favor to Cuba, but to ourselves.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Odds and ends

  • Granma runs an Interior Ministry statement about four Cubans, two of whom work as guards at a “nautical base” east of Havana, who took possession of a boat and headed for the United States. Cuba communicated with the U.S. Coast Guard, which intercepted the vessel and returned it with all aboard.

  • In the Washington Post, Yoani Sanchez on the recent appearances of Fidel Castro.

  • Herald: Ana Margarita Martinez’ lawsuit to have her legal judgment against Cuba paid from funds owed Cuba by air charter companies is not over, and her lawyers are fighting to move it to Florida state courts.

  • Sort of like watching a car crash in slow motion: the saga of Florida Democratic Senate candidate Jeff Greene and his yacht trip to Cuba.

Cardinal Ortega at the White House (Updated)

President Obama’s National Security Advisor, James Jones, received Cardinal Ortega at the White House yesterday, EFE reports.

Gen. Jones praised the Cardinal’s recent efforts, called for the release of all political prisoners, and – good for him – defended their right “to remain in Cuba.” NSC statement here.

Afterwards, Cardinal Ortega received Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela at the Vatican’s embassy in Washington to discuss “the situation in Cuba.”

An interview with Cardinal Ortega by Catholic News Service is here, and his remarks to the Knights of Columbus are here.

Update: CNN Spanish interviewed Cardinal Ortega as he left the White House; here is the interview and a discussion with reporter Ione Molinares.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Headline in search of a story

An AFP story in today’s El Nuevo Herald looks back at how Cuba’s small entrepreneurs have been regulated and taxed over the years, now that the government has announced that the sector will be expanded.

The story contains not one word about Cuban attitudes toward the new announcement – not a word.

El Nuevo’s headline: “Skepticism among Cubans in face of new economic measures.”

More on Raul's speech

Raul Castro continues to be nonplussed about the Obama Administration, saying that “in essence nothing has changed” in his National Assembly speech: “Although less rhetoric exists and occasional bilateral conversations are held on specific and limited topics, in reality the blockade continues to be applied and we shall continue to act with the serenity and patience we have learned in more than half a century.”

That passage was translated by the tireless Renato Perez at Cuban Colada, where more excerpts of that speech are translated: on the economy (where Raul says that the payments backlog to commercial suppliers has been cut by two thirds); on employment and trabajo por cuenta propia; and on prisoner releases and the dissidents.

Real patriots leave their country (Updated)

Diario las Americas writes about a protest outside the venue of the Orquesta Aragon concert in Miami last week (italics mine):

“The protest was based on the fact that the members of Orquesta Aragon, which for generations has had great prestige and enormous international success, never went into exile and remained with the Fidel Castro regime on the island, contrary to many other Cuban artists.”

Update: At Babalu, Val Prieto objects, fair enough, but I still think that the sentiment that the reporter so starkly attributed to the protesters – that the musicians are to be criticized merely for not leaving Cuba – is ugly. Everyone would agree to the expressions of patriotism Val describes. In Cuba itself, there are those and many more, including many that have nothing to do with politics. While we’re at it, someone should send Val an Orquesta Aragon CD so he can see that they don’t do “soliloquies.”

Odds and ends

  • Herald: Cardinal Ortega is back in Washington.

  • At Along the Malecon, Tracey Eaton summarizes Cuban attitudes and sums up impressions of a recent visit.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Entrepreneurs needed

For the second year in a row, Raul Castro gave a more substantial speech a few days after the 26th of July celebration than he did at the celebration itself – which wasn’t hard this year since he didn’t speak at all on July 26.

Speaking yesterday at the National Assembly, he joked a little about his non-speech, saying it’s the content that counts, not the speaker, and in the event el compaƱero Machado had done a bang-up job. He snickered at news agencies and “self-appointed ‘analysts’ of the Cuba issue” who raised expectations that he was going to announce capitalist solutions to Cuba’s economic problems that day.

Well, here’s what he announced yesterday.

First, a “group of measures” has been decided upon to achieve, “in steps, the reduction of considerably bloated payrolls in the state sector.” The state will continue to care for those in need and lend a hand to those who need to find new work, but he indicated that changes are in store in early 2011 that will save the state money and eliminate disincentives to work. “We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working,” he said.

He also announced that more space for private entrepreneurship will be opened up by changing the rules governing self-employment, or trabajo por cuenta propia.

He didn’t announce details – that usually comes in a new law, regulations, or ministerial resolution – but he said that the Council of Ministers agreed to expand the “exercise” of self-employment and its “use as one more alternative for employment for excess workers.” The changes will be discussed in detail “soon” with labor leaders, he said, and presumably they would be announced thereafter.

He said the changes would include: a) eliminating some “current prohibitions” for granting of new licenses for self-employment; b) eliminating prohibitions against the “sale of some productions;” and c) easing restrictions (“flexibilizando”) on contracting of labor.

The real story will be in the details. Points A and B above could mean marginal or expansive change; it’s just a question of how far the new regulations go.

As for point C, if more flexibility in labor contracting means that cuentapropistas will be able to hire workers beyond the few areas where this is now legal, then this will indeed be a big change. He called the measures a “structural change and a change of concept” – a description that would fit a policy that allows Cubans to hire each other.

Raul also said that changes in the taxation system for cuentapropistas are forthcoming. He gave no details but he described the goals: to assure that they pay for social security, pay taxes for income and sales, and for “use of the labor force,” which sounds like a tax that one would pay per employee.

As in any tax system, what matters is not what the tax is for, but how much the entrepreneur has to pay, and what is left of his or her incentives once the tax is paid.

A 2006 report of mine on Cuba’s entrepreneurs is here (pdf).

Here’s coverage of yesterday’s speech from the Guardian, La Jornada, and AP.

Very confusing

The State Department continues to appeal for the release of Alan Gross, who was arrested last December while working in Cuba on a USAID sub-contract valued at $595,000, according to the June issue of CubaNews (subscription required). Part of the State Department’s appeal is that Mr. Gross “was not violating any laws,” as Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela put it in this account by Reuters.

Let’s hope he’s right, and let’s hope Mr. Gross is released.

Meanwhile, the State Department’s page of Cuba travel advice – assembled by the consular affairs bureau, which is responsible for helping Americans who get in trouble overseas – points out the following, right after warning about Cuba’s tough criminal penalties for drug and alien smuggling offenses:

Cuba’s Law of Protection of National Independence and the Cuban Economy contains a series of measures intended to discourage some types of contact between foreign nationals and Cuban citizens to prevent and discourage opposition to the Cuban Government. The law provides for jail terms of up to 30 years in aggravated cases. U.S. citizens, including press and media representatives, traveling in Cuba are subject to this law.

That would be a reference to Cuba’s Law 88, which contains penalties for anyone who “distributes or participates in the distribution of financial, material, or other resources that come from the United States government, its agencies, subordinates, representatives, functionaries, or private entities” pursuant to the U.S. Helms-Burton law.