Friday, October 26, 2012

Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, R.I.P.

A Spaniard with an indelible accent, he commanded revolutionary troops in the Escambray mountains, turned against the Revolution and took up arms against it, spent 22 years in jail, was freed and went abroad only to become the rare opponent of the Cuban government to return to Cuban soil in 2003 to oppose it through civic means.  That last political initiative never took off, and he seems to have lived quietly in Havana ever since.  He died there yesterday.  Herald story here.

Elections and the future

Cuba’s election process is under way, with the first round of municipal elections completed.  Elections to provincial bodies and to the National Assembly follow.  The National Assembly then selects from its members a Council of State and its president, the country’s chief executive.

Electoral officials report that 7.3 million votes were cast in the first round, of which 4.8 percent were left blank and 4.4 percent were “declared null.”  See Cuban media reports here in English and Spanish.  AP analysis here.

The process lacks suspense, to say the least.  Looking ahead to the round of elections that will follow Raul Castro’s second and final term in 2018, the Catholic lay magazine Espacio Laical editorializes that Cuba should do better, and the Cuban Communist Party must modernize by creating “a new electoral model that can guarantee a greater exercise of popular sovereignty.”

At that moment, the editorial says, the Party “will no longer count on historic leaders of the Revolution who may have, for some social sectors, a certain original legitimacy.”  It’s time to get started now to create a model where votes are “free, secret, and direct,” where “various proposals” are on the ballot, where aspirants may present their platforms to the public, where some candidates may not be Communist Party militants and may have a “different political-ideological vision.”  This task, the editorial argues, is “indispensable to assure the future stability of the nation.”

These issues were the subject of a public forum convened by the Catholic Church, covered here by La Jornada.

Odds and ends

  • As cleanup efforts begin, Cuban civil defense authorities announce 11 fatalities caused by hurricane Sandy’s pass through Santiago, Guantanamo, and Holguin provinces in eastern Cuba.  Among the dead was a four-month-old who died in a building collapse.  Granma has photos.  Reuters story here.

  • AP: Florida’s Ethics Commission investigated Rep. David Rivera’s conduct while he served in the state legislature and found probable cause to believe he committed 11 violations of the law.  This is separate and apart from the investigation of his apparent financing of a Democratic primary candidate this year to soften up the eventual Democratic nominee, Joe Garcia.  Republicans continue to keep their distance from Rivera.  The Washington Post recently ran interviews of Rivera and Garcia.

  • Steve Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has written a chock-full-of-information paper on academic exchanges with Cuba.  He recognizes the complications and argues that a greater degree of exchange is in the U.S. national interest.  Also, that it’s easier to achieve by private organizations than by the government. 

  • Mambi Watch has the audio of a speech delivered in Spanish by Senator Rubio where he predicts that the Cuban government’s end is near.  The prediction was based on information he couldn’t share, he said.  He spoke to Unidad Cubana, many of whose members surely made the same prediction to each other before Rubio was born.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Paya: Modig is hiding the truth

Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of Oswaldo Paya who died in the car driven by Spanish activist Angel Carromero and in which Swedish activist Aron Modig was a passenger, has alleged from the beginning that the car was rammed and driven off the road by another car.  She and others in Paya’s camp have asserted that there are text messages to that effect sent from the Europeans’ phones shortly after the accident.  In a video statement released by Cuban authorities just after the accident and later at trial, Carromero made no reference to another car and said he lost control.  In Cuba and back home in Sweden, Modig has said he was dozing at the time of the accident.

Rosa Maria Paya is now getting more specific, tweeting that Modig sent a text saying: “Angel says that a car hit us and drove us off the road.”  She complains that he continues to omit this in interviews even as he says he wants, as she paraphrases him, “to bring the truth back.”

Paya refers to this interview that Modig just gave to a Cuban opposition website based in Sweden, where he continues to say he was “sleeping before the crash.”

Modig, meanwhile, will soon be active in our own internal affairs as a volunteer for Governor Romney’s campaign in Virginia.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Death of a rumor

Fidel has done it again, making news just by being alive.

For about 10 days, skittish editors around the world sent reporters to chase rumors of Castro’s death.  From Caracas, one Nelson Bocaranda claimed that Fidel’s sister Juanita had been summoned to Havana, which she denied in an interview with Wilfredo Cancio at Café Fuerte.  She said it is “irresponsible to circulate unfounded rumors” and added that she is “very busy with the campaign for the re-election of Obama, who is the candidate I like and seems to be the best for the country where I have lived for 48 years.”

The rumors became more intense and the editors more skittish last Thursday when the Miami Herald ran a bizarre story with details of Castro’s purportedly abysmal medical condition presented by a Venezuelan doctor who resides in Naples, Florida.

The front page of today’s Granma (pdf) has a photo of Fidel holding last Friday’s newspaper and a story with Fidel’s byline (“Fidel Castro is in agony”) denouncing news media “stupidities” incited by “the henhouse of imperialist propaganda.”  More than the photo, that phrase proves he’s still kicking.

“I don’t even remember what a headache is,” Fidel wrote.  He recalled the Cuban missile crisis, Cuba’s “ethically unimpeachable” conduct in it, and he noted that after half a century “we’re still here with our head held high.”  He’s finished publishing his reflexiones, he says, because “surely it is not my role to occupy the pages of our press, which are dedicated to other tasks that our country requires.”

On Saturday, Wilfredo Cancio examined how this story, which has sprung up several times in recent years, took off last week in a new context where anyone can publish anything immediately and worldwide on social media.  In fact, on the day that the story is true there will be no scoop, Cancio writes, because “it will be known when Cuba announces it officially.”  I agree.  I also agree that, as he writes, it will mark a turning point in Cuban history but “whenever it comes, it will be less and less transcendent for the course of the country.”

Fidel is still alive and his tongue is still sharp, but the post-Fidel era has been with us for some years now.

[Granma photo, credited to Alex Castro]

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Long-awaited migration reform

Cuban media announced yesterday a government decision to end the requirement that citizens who wish to travel abroad obtain a government exit permit called the tarjeta blanca.  Also eliminated was the requirement to obtain a letter of invitation from a person or institution overseas, and the considerable expense associated with both.  There are exceptions for health care professionals, security personnel, and others.  Both changes take effect January 14.

This is a very significant move that delivers on a commitment made in 2011.  It is a clear improvement in Cuba's human rights practices. 

It is also popular, judging from conversations in Cienfuegos yesterday.  One man exulted that it removed a barrier that stops him from visiting his brother and other family abroad.  Another would not part with his newspaper because the news had him “so emotional.”  Newspapers were hard to come by.  The text of the law, available in post offices, was gone by mid-morning.  A clergyman said it was “the most awaited change” among all the lifted prohibitions – computers, DVDs, hotel stays, cell phones, car sales, residential real estate sales.  A man running errands with his daughter described the change simply: “This is a freedom that has been suppressed for many years, but no longer.  Things are changing, more and more.”

The impact will not be massive and immediate because no receiving country is about to grant massive numbers of visas to Cubans

Finally, the move is a calculated risk on the part of the government, which opted to grant this freedom even as it copes with emigration of 30,000-40,000 per year that includes many educated professionals.  The alternative would have been to wait years for an improvement in salaries and general economic conditions that would in turn reduce the incentive to emigrate.  Today’s bet seems to be that Cuba will be stronger with a more normal and modern immigration policy – and that many Cubans, given the freedom to come and go, want to visit family and see the world and then return home.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

State sponsor of peace talks (II)

The peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas will start in Oslo this week after 31 FARC members, with capture orders against them lifted by the government, flew from Colombia to Havana last weekend, then on to Norway (La Republica).  The FARC was founded 48 years ago and Colombia’s is the longest-running guerrilla war in the Americas.

A press conference is scheduled Wednesday.  The Oslo meetings are to finalize the agenda and ground rules, and negotiations will begin formally next month in Havana (El Colombiano).  There have been contacts between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrillas geared toward getting that group to join peace negotiations too.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has declared that he will not enter a cease fire, will not grant a territorial safe haven to the guerrillas, expects the talks to take “months, not years,” and will end the talks if they appear to be going nowhere.  Last month, Santos thanked the Cuban and Norwegian governments for their support in this process, saying: “Without their presence it would not have been possible to come to this point.”  Cuba and Norway will serve as “hosts and guarantors” in the talks, he said, while Venezuela and Chile will be “companions.”

The FARC has adopted a defiant public tone (see this BBC interview with a timeline of the conflict), although FARC negotiator Marco León Calarcá spoke more seriously in a two-part interview with La Jornada (here and here).  Calar said the FARC position is “realistic,” seeking “possibilities to live and in that context to engage in politics, to be in opposition without this implying necessarily being a military target.” 

In other words, the key for the FARC is to be able to stop fighting and to engage safely in opposition politics.  That implies negotiating a ceasefire, integration of FARC fighters into civilian life, and whatever political and security guarantees are needed to give both parties confidence that the negotiated arrangements will work. 

Success or failure will belong to the Colombians, but Cuba has a key role and has taken on a serious and interesting challenge.  The fact that Havana enjoys the confidence of a very old, faltering Marxist insurgency and a center-right, free-market democracy that is close to Washington is a big vote of confidence in Cuban diplomacy and a sign of its prominence in the hemisphere, even in the post-Fidel era.  One can imagine that Cuba’s key contribution could come when the FARC reaches crunch time and has to decide whether to take the leap into civilian life and politics – which it will surely call a transition to another form of struggle. 

U.S. interests are in play – humanitarian, security, anti-drugs, and anti-terrorism interests in a country where our taxpayers have spent $3.5 billion in aid since 2008.

The U.S. government designates the FARC as a “foreign terrorist organization” whose “tactics include bombings, murder, mortar attacks, kidnapping, extortion, and hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action against Colombian political, military, and economic targets,” with ties to drug traffickers, and whose operations occur both in Colombia and in “neighboring countries.”

An end to the conflict and the dismantlement of the FARC military capacity would result in the removal of that terrorist designation from the FARC or its successor political organization.  Such an achievement would add one more absurdity to Washington’s continued designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

More: Financial Times puts these issues in a regional context, the Cuban government’s only public statement on the talks last September, and the White House’s September statement welcoming news of the talks.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Four years for Carromero

The sentence came down Monday: Spanish Partido Popular activist Angel Carromero, who drove the car that crashed and killed dissidents Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero, got four years for vehicular homicide (Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald). 

El Pais reports that Spain’s foreign ministry “received the news with moderate satisfaction” and hopes to negotiate Carromero’s prompt return to Spain, possibly to serve all or part of his sentence there.  A 1998 accord between Spain and Cuba allows for convicts to serve their sentences in their home country when both governments agree.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Odds and ends

  • In Global Post, Nick Miroff on Cuba’s sigh of relief after last Sunday’s Chavez victory in Venezuela.
  • AFP: New data from the National Statistics Office (see public health section in right-hand column here) shows that consolidation and cost-cutting in the health sector are continuing.  There are 12,738 locations for health care delivery – including everything from the biggest hospital to the smallest one-doctor consultorio – 465 fewer than before.  There are 161 hospitals operating, 25 percent fewer than before.
  • Reuters on the foreign executives arrested apparently as part of an anti-corruption crackdown, awaiting charges for more than a year.
  • Scientific American: Looks like an opossum to me, but it’s called an almiquí, nocturnal and venomous, endemic to Cuba and thought to be extinct until a team of Cuban and Japanese researchers found a bunch out east in the Humboldt National Park between Moa and Baracoa. 
  • Granma: An investigation into last month’s massive blackout finds that the cause was human error at a time when operators were scrambling to handle peak demand.
  • Spain’s consul general in Havana attended the Carromero trial last week in Bayamo,  pronounced it “clean, open, and procedurally impeccable,” and said the accused was defended “very well.”  The BBC’s Fernando Ravsberg agrees, wrote down the defense lawyer’s name in case he ever needs a lawyer, and described the day-long session here.
  • One more from the BBC: as Cuba’s reform czar Marino Murillo visits Hanoi, the editor of BBC’s Vietnamese-language service on “What Cuba can learn from Vietnam.”