Tuesday, November 29, 2011

El Grito de Newt

Newt Gingrich is working on a plan to end the Castro Government by 2014, and he's thinking of covert operations, more money to support dissent, increased broadcasting, free radios for every Cuban, and more. See his interview with Yahoo News. He would also end the wet foot-dry foot policy so that Cubans picked up at sea would be admitted to the United States. Big new mission for the Coast Guard. The most interesting part of the interview is when he is asked whether he would reverse the increased travel that President Obama has permitted. His answer: "No." Which would indicate that he was not in full pander mode. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney picks up endorsements from Cuban American legislators plus former Rep. Diaz-Balart and minus Rep. Rivera.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Odds and ends

  • Prensa Latina, curious about the implementation of lineamientos 25-29 calling for creation of cooperatives, goes to Pinar del Rio to have a sit-down with the president of the Scientific Society of Cooperativism of the National Association of Economists of Cuba. The scoop: they’re working on it, developing a manual for cooperatives and model accounting systems, rules for governance, etc. The expansion of cooperatives could have an impact, he says, in “food service, transportation, construction of housing materials, artists, artisans, fishing, marketing and sales of agriculture products,” and other areas.

  • Sorry, Home Depot – Brazilian retailer TendTudo will soon establish a presence in Cuba, serving the growing market for tools and construction materials. “The idea is to start small and go accompanying the changes in the Cuban market,” an executive told Reuters.

  • Herald: Cuban pilots who took part in the Bay of Pigs attempted invasion and were further recruited by the CIA to fly combat missions in the Congo will be honored next month for their service.

  • AP on Cuba’s plan to restructure its postal service. More from CubaStandard.

  • Sun-Times: Direct Chicago-Havana flights have begun; once weekly, will be twice weekly come January.

Eliecer Avila on what Cuba needs

Wondering what became of Eliecer Avila, the student at Cuba’s information technology university who was the subject of a viral video in Cuba in 2008?

A famous segment of the video featured Avila asking National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, who was visiting the university, when Cubans would be permitted to travel abroad freely. (See here and here.)

Well, he did his servicio social, which was not challenging at all. He and his girlfriend tried a business that didn’t work out because costs and taxes were too high.

More recently, he was interviewed by Antonio Rodiles at the Estado de Sats project (see this note on the project by Tracey Eaton). It’s an interesting two-hour conversation that is provoking lots of comment in Spanish-language blogs.

The second segment turns to politics, where Avila makes the case that Cuba’s most pressing need is for a big political opening and political competition.

See the interview in two segments, here and here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Church and its voice

This editorial in the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical drew a lot of attention last week, and for good reason.

Our standard image of Cuba does not include independent publications explaining to the government that its actions are falling short. Or stating that the public, having waited with patience and generosity for the government to act, feels that the reforms lack “something big…capable of renewing life and banishing despair.” Or chiding the Communist Party for being “tied to dogmas that failed in other experiences, and stuck in a very vertical relationship with society.” (“Vertical” meaning “we give the orders.”)

The editorial applauds reforms made to date and acknowledges that the process should not be rushed. But some things, it argues, should not wait: authorizing private cooperatives and small and medium-sized enterprises, and allowing professionals to work autonomously, i.e. in the new and developing private sector. (These are among the steps that would do most to address the government’s goal of boosting productivity, boosting private sector employment, and cutting government payrolls.)

The editorials’s strongest point is political: that the Communist Party’s reform project will fail if it is not built on a consensus that reflects “the real country,” which is to suggest that the Party is not yet representing real public sentiment.

This is strong stuff, but it’s not unique in Cuba’s Catholic print media. The magazines Espacio Laical and Palabra Nueva, along with other publications and activities of the Cuban Catholic church, are pushing the Cuban policy debate forward. Some articles are analytical, others opinionated, and all tend to support the editorial line that reform will benefit the Cuban people – so let’s get on with it.

Consider just a few items from recent weeks:

An essay by Palabra Nueva editor Orlando Marquez calls for the government to fulfill its commitment to reform immigration and consular policies affecting Cubans in Cuba and outside, as a “matter of justice” and “a necessity for the future.” He writes: “It is obvious that in current regulations there are excessive and bothersome restrictions on…the freedom for persons to enter and leave the country, which is not just.” He argues that no external factor should be a pretext for delay: “There will always be hostilities, crises, enemies, differences, disputes, and unpleasant calamities, but the nation best prepared to face these and other challenges is the one that knows how to stand tallest, not physically but morally, when it acts as one and seeks growth in internal harmony, respect for differences, its capacity to accommodate them for the benefit of all…”

Then there is this essay (pdf) in Espacio Laical, “About the Press in Cuba,” by professor and former journalist Guillermo Rodriguez (also in English at Progreso Weekly.) He explains how Cuba’s media culture is built on principles developed by Lenin for clandestine media before the Russian revolution, hence its ingrained secrecy, control, and instinct that national unity requires limits on information. He wants more than the press Cubans have now, arguing that “in the press as a whole you cannot have only those criteria considered to be ‘official policy.’ There must also be evaluations that enrich thought and even help modify what today is the “official policy.” That is a value that society cannot do without, because it nourishes and develops it.”

Finally, on the critical policy debate concerning the authorization of private cooperatives – their creation from scratch, and their creation through conversion of small dysfunctional government enterprises into private units – Palabra Nueva published a long essay by University of Havana researcher Camila Piniero. She explains the origins of cooperatives in 18th century Europe, their place in Latin America today, and their value for Cuba. Two types of cooperatives in the farm sector give Cuba a jump in creating a new law that would authorize cooperatives throughout the economy, she argues, claiming that the need for such a law is more urgent as layoffs proceed. All in all, it’s a thorough and forceful argument for cooperatives as effective engines of employment and development, and as a form of business that compatible with social equity objectives.

The Catholic media’s elevation of voices such as these in public debate is a natural counterpart to the private dialogue that Cardinal Jaime Ortega carries on with government authorities. (That dialogue is unprecedented in that it covers domestic policy, not merely Church business.) Both are part of the Church’s social mission of looking after the well-being of its flock and, by extension, the Cuban nation. So too are the Cardinal’s role in facilitating the release of political prisoners, and the Church’s nationwide charity work.

The Church’s effort to push the economic debate seems political, and it is. The Church is not an opposition party, but it is performing a function that a political opposition often plays: It is holding the government and Communist Party to public account for their promises, and presenting ideas that it believes to fit public sentiment and the national interest. Unlike the dissidents who are little known and sometimes harmed by outside assistance, the Church is a national institution, its reach is nationwide, and its connection with the Cuban people is close.

It is little wonder that the Pope seems poised to announce a visit to Cuba next spring. The visit will surely be billed as a pastoral visit to tend to his local Church. Which it surely will be.

And it will be very different from the last papal visit.

In 1998, people outside Cuba expected that John Paul II would be a catalyst for change in Cuba. The mere embrace of this beloved anti-communist cleric, the thinking went, would move the Cuban people to do things they had not done in decades.

In 2012 I doubt that the expectation will be the same. Benedict is not the same public figure as his predecessor. It’s perhaps a less interesting Pope, but it’s a much more interesting Cuba – one where the government has indicted its own policies and declared the need for change, the government and public are wrestling with that challenge, and the Church is involved in a big way.

Having taken Cardinal Ortega’s resignation letter and stuck it in a drawer, the Pope is preparing to give him a bigger, more public gesture of support.

If no one looks to Benedict to change Cuba, and if his visit puts more spotlight on the debates and struggles of Cubans, all of them, then that’s a good thing. It’s their country, after all.


Looking ahead to next year, National Catholic Reporter has an interesting reflection on the Pope, the poor, and his view of the Church’s role.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Odds and ends

  • The New York Times: U.S.-Cuban relations – relations between the nations, as opposed to the governments – are being reshaped by family ties and support. The dynamic described in the article puts President Obama’s travel and remittances policies in an interesting light: As options increase in Cuba, those policies are having greater impact, depending on the use Cuban Americans decide to make of their freedom to visit and to send material and money support. Also, I didn’t know that you could go to Ño Que Barato and have your purchase shipped to Cuba. A generation ago, that service would have earned the store a boycott. The slow-motion normalization continues.

  • Café Fuerte looks at initial prices advertised in Cuba’s housing market.

  • Granma highlights comments President Kennedy made a month before his death, saying that in no country in the world had “economic colonization, humiliation, and exploitation” been worse than in Cuba, “in part due to the policy of my country during the Batista regime.”

Monday, November 21, 2011

A better deal

One of the absurdities of Cuba’s economy is the small item in trade accounts identifying the importation of fruits and vegetables, largely for the tourist industry.

I suppose it’s possible that the fresh produce demands of hotels and restaurants can’t be fully satisfied year-round by Cuban agriculture, due to climate and seasonal cycles. But the real reason for the imports, and the uneven supply in hotels and restaurants, has to do with Cuban policy.

I made a mid-winter trip to Cuba recently and found wonderful tomatoes in abundance in homes and private restaurants. I then ate in some state restaurants where the salad offerings included cabbage and carrots, i.e. things that can be refrigerated for weeks.

Why? Because the government regulates the sale and distribution of food, and its scheme has not allowed farmers to sell directly to tourism installations. Cuban chefs in these establishments have to take what a clunky state enterprise offers. Unlike chefs anywhere else in the world, they can’t start their day by going to a farmers market or, better yet, by receiving the produce that they have contracted for a farm to deliver every day.

Until December 1.

An article in today’s Granma and new regulations published in the Gaceta Oficial announce that as of that date, direct contracting will be permitted. The state enterprise that now performs this task (the Empresa de Frutas Selectas, I believe) will not disappear, but it will have competition.

The idea, Granma explains, is to reduce spoilage, “to simplify the links between the primary producer and final consumer,” and to allow tourism installations to “take better advantage of the potential of all the forms of production at the local level.”

This decision may not be the most important in the economic reform battles, but it represents a loss for bureaucratic control freaks, a win for reformers, a win for farmers and people in the tourism industry who can now do their jobs better, a victory for decentralization, and one more sign that Cuba’s reformist government is willing to give up control and allow markets to function where planning has failed.