Tuesday, March 29, 2011

For Cuba Open Source Is Not A Matter Of Choice

Lack of access to commercial software makes open source the only choice for Cuba

In case you want to attend, Cuba is hosting the Latin American Festival of Open Source Software on April 9th. It seems Cuba is a big supporter of open source and is trying to have a majority of its computers run Linux. In fact Cuba has its own Linux distribution called Nova. But if you think about it, Cuba does not really have a choice but to support open source. However, that in and of itself could be a double edged sword to regime there.

For over 50 years now, Cuba has been under a trade embargo with any US goods. That means that US companies cannot trade directly with Cuba and even third party countries cannot trade US goods with Cuba either. As a result with so much of the IT industry being US based or US derived, Cuba has a very hard time getting both hardware and software in the country. For most of that time for the average Cuban it was not that big a deal. They weren't allowed to own a computer, even if they could afford one.

For the government and educational sectors computer technology was more and more necessary. For a long time Cuba relied on the Soviet Union to provide computer technology. In fact based upon that technology, Cuba was selling technology back to the Soviets. But of course that all dried up with the end of the Soviet Union. Cuba had to find another source.

Luckily for Cuba by now most of the hardware was being built in China and other areas that would sell to the Cubans. However, the software was still US based, so getting Windows, Office or even security software was a real problem. Consequently, most of the computers run pirated copies of Windows that have been smuggled in.

That represents a real problem on several fronts. It puts Cuba in the position of violating the license, subjecting them to penalties (though what penalties could there be here), it creates a black market for the pirated software (not good in a communist economy) and keeps them at the mercy of the US trade embargo. Also Cubans believe that the US CIA and other agencies have back doors into Windows and other programs which would allow them to spy on Cuba. A healthy dose of paranoia there.

As they say necessity is the mother of invention. The unique Cuban situation created a new perfect environment to rally behind open source software in general and Linux in particular. This gave Cuba legal, ready access to quality software, at prices they could afford and free of any US strings or perceived back doors. This opened up Cuba to the PC era.

But that is the rub for the Cuban government. Opening up the country to the PC era also meant the Internet. How do you stop people from seeing what their peers around the world are doing. Ask the leaders of Eygpt, Tunisia and Libya how that worked for them.

When Raul Castro took over for his brother Fidel, he made it legal for individuals to own computers. Of course going out on the Internet outside of Cuban based web sites was still illegal. But once the genie is out of the bottle, it is near impossible to put back.

Based upon the experiences of the rest of the world, I think it only a matter of time until open source and the Internet force change in Cuba the same way it is helping force change the world over.

!Viva La (Open Source) Revolucion!

By Alan Shimel

From: NetWorkWorld

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  • Monday, March 28, 2011

    Amid tension, Carter heads to Cuba

    Carter threw some balls in his first visit to Cuba, in 2002.

    Former President Jimmy Carter arrives in Cuba on Monday for a three-day trip aimed at thawing U.S.-Cuban relations, and may push for the release of an American just sentenced to 15 years in jail there.

    Carter accepted an invitation from the Cuban government to meet with President Raul Castro and other officials to learn about changes there since his last visit in 2002. Called a “private, nongovernmental mission” by the Carter Center, the visit nonetheless signals an effort to improve the relationship between the United States and its neighbor 90 miles to the south.

    Carter is also expected to meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Havana, and members of the Jewish community. Wife Rosalynn Carter will accompany him.

    Carter is the only current or former president to visit the island nation since Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban government in 1959.

    The Carter Center’s announcement made no mention of Alan Gross, a State Department contractor sentenced this month to 15 years in Cuban prison for providing illegal Internet access to political dissidents. He was found guilty of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity” of Cuba.

    But Carter – who traveled to North Korea last year to negotiate for the release of an American imprisoned there – is expected to bring up Gross’s case.

    “We’re hoping that he will talk with the Cuban government to ask for a humanitarian release and if the Cuban government could please consider it, hopefully immediately,” Molly Koscina, a spokeswoman for the U.S. mission in Havana, told AFP.

    Cuban officials have told Carter not to expect to be able to bring Gross home with him, Reuters reported, though Carter’s visit could put Gross’s case on a path toward his ultimate release.

    The State Department confirmed last week that Carter is planning to visit North Korea again this year, perhaps as soon as April, with a group of former world leaders, including ex-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

    Jennifer Epstein 

    From: Politico 

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  • Friday, March 25, 2011

    Death Penalty for Internet in Cuba?

    A ghost runs around Cuba: the Internet ghost. A month after the arrival of fiber optics from Venezuela to create a much faster information and telecommunications highway — some media outlets are predicting speeds three thousand percent faster — the government seems to be looking for excuses to justify why, once again, it will continue violating our most basic rights, preventing us from freely accessing information from our homes through Internet.

    Until recently the government alleged it couldn’t open up Internet to the “entire population” because, as a result of the US Embargo, Cuba was accessing Internet via satellite (Wi-Fi), slowing down connection speeds. This argument has been heavily debated in diverse sectors who, in spite of not being experts, question why the country didn’t expand its contract with satellite providers and installed additional servers to diversify the possibilities and provide and widen the service offering to a larger number of users. Also, if connections are truly that slow, why not give us the possibility, just like foreigners living in the country, to pay for access in spite of its slowness? Why marginalize fellow compatriots?

    It seems that the rationale of this elite — mostly “angry” (irritated and tense) — which prevents us from browsing the Web is to continue discriminating and dividing our society with its repeated practice of extortion and influence; and they use the access to the net as one of the perks they usually give grant to their hardcore followers who are employed in key positions or positions of interest for the power elite.

    I share the idea of ending the U.S. “blockade” or embargo against Cuba, but I also want to end the mental blockade of those in power, who pretend to be more interested in “breaking the blockade” of independents — who dare to use our freedom of expression with “fists and pens” — and in violating the right to information of the Cuban people. Working so everyone enjoy the technological advances they enjoy and defending the access to these sources of information that is also part of our rights, as it is part of our culture and general knowledge, and enriches, complements, and consolidates the cognitive universe.

    Since the announcement that we would be able to access broadband Internet, people on different television shows were optimistic about the possibility of providing the masses with that tool that frees them. They begun to expound on the importance of Internet in culture, as a research tool to find all sorts of information, as a tool for the development and diversification of economic projects, etc.

    At the XIV Convention and International Fair of Informatics 2011 hosted this past February in Havana there was evidence of the natural social appetite, but apparently protests in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries have sparked fear in the authoritarian Cuban oligarchy, and again, freedom was sentenced to death by shooting.

    This is why it is becoming harder for them to support the argument of the benefits and justice of the Cuban political model, the respect of Cubans’ rights, and find themselves forced to put together television programs with the same old and abused arguments.

    If the Internet is a poison, the best antidote against it is democracy, and the best antivirus to detect and discern any malicious code is culture, education, and freedom. Hence, the reiterated public assertion of government leaders stating that Cuba is the most educated and cultivated country in the world is a clear contradiction that no one understands.

    If we are so smart, why can’t we access alternative information sources separate from the central state? Education and culture, to be true and not just propaganda, must be divorced from censure. Many of us wonder how can some have so much power and so much fear at the same time.

    We know the government erected its flags over the pillars of health and education — both things currently in crisis — in the militarization of society and excessive and efficient (for them) control. It has been an easy feat without political parties, real unions — ones that answer to the needs of workers rather than administrators or the only political party — or an organized civil society looking for real solutions to their problems and capable of organizing and facing its challenges.

    It has been a model disloyal to all ethical standards of governability. How easy it was ruling without alternatives to elect, more attractive political agendas to support, or even other points of view to listen to! How angry they must be for not being able to control the Internet they way they controlled the printed press, the radio, and the TV in the 60s! But modernity and technological advances are winning the battle, and every time they repeal any of the civil rights they, they become violators in the eyes of their own fellow countrymen.

    There is no need for anyone to point at the facts: they are their own defense lawyers, but also their own prosecutors. The fact of the matter is that, as usual, they need to create the illusion of a plaza under siege to justify to their followers the reasons behind a new act of injustice. It is likely that the purpose is to condemn the Internet to life in prison without right to appeal. I hope I am wrong! but if the Cuban government is attempting to switch that light off, they might get away with it for some time, but I doubt they will be able to keep censorship forever.

    Rosa María Rodríguez Torrado - Translating Cuba

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  • Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    Mind control keeps Cubans in line

    Cyber cafe in Havana, Cuba.

    The 15-year verdict handed down by a Cuban "court" against U.S. citizen Alan Gross is the deeply unjust result of events that bear no relationship to due process in an impartial legal system. Let's call this cynical manoeuvre what it really is -- blackmail.

    The 61-year-old Gross is not a criminal of any sort. He's a chess piece manipulated by the Cuban regime in the relentless war against its own people. The Castro brothers want to stop ordinary Cubans from obtaining the slightest bit of information from the outside world from any independent source. Punishing this envoy from a private U.S. company financed by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development is a convenient way to deter further efforts to circumvent Cuba's extensive system of communications surveillance.

    Satellite phones are increasingly common instruments used to make calls around the world. But not in the Orwellian world run by Fidel and Raul Castro and their paranoid minions. In Cuba, a satellite phone such as the one Gross is accused of carrying for use by the island's tiny and impoverished Jewish community is deemed a dangerous weapon in an alleged "cyber war" being waged by the U.S. government to bolster a web of spies plotting to bring down the government.

    In most countries, a violation of customs regulations might result in a stiff fine and possible expulsion from the country. In Cuba, where the state controls all information outlets, violations that threaten the state's hegemony are seen as crimes that endanger the security of the state.

    The real target of this mock-judicial charade is the "pro-democracy" funding from USAID designed to promote Cuba's budding civil society movement. People who can think for themselves, talk to each other and learn from each other without government intrusion represent a danger to the state's tyrannical masters, which practice various forms of mind control designed to snuff out any kind of independent action.

    At a minimum, the punitive actions against Gross should throw a splash of cold water on what some call the warming in relations between Washington and Havana. He should be released unconditionally and immediately. As long as Alan Gross remains in jail, there can be no improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations.

    President Obama came to office saying his administration would respond positively to an unclenched fist from previously hostile governments. We doubt the mistreatment of Alan Gross by the Cuban government is what he had in mind as an appropriate response.

    From: Winnipeg Free Press

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  • Monday, March 21, 2011

    Women’s History Month and Castro’s Female Victims

    1994: Cuban women fleeing Castro's  “improvement of status” and “good life”.

    When Barbara Walters sat quivering alongside Fidel Castro in 1977 cooing: “Fidel Castro has brought very high literacy and great health-care to his country. His personal magnetism is powerful.” dozens of Cuban suffragettes suffered in torture chambers within walking distance of the hyperventilating Ms. Walters.

    “They started by beating us with twisted coils of electric cable,” recalls former political prisoner Ezperanza Pena from exile today. “I remember Teresita on the ground with all her lower ribs broken. Gladys had both her arms broken. Doris had her face cut up so badly from the beatings that when she tried to drink, water would pour out of her lacerated cheeks.”

    “On Mother’s Day they allowed family visits,” recalls Manuela Calvo from exile today. “But as our mothers and sons and daughters were watching, we were beaten with rubber hoses and high-pressure hoses were turned on us, knocking all of us unto the ground floor and rolling us around as the guards laughed and our loved-ones screamed helplessly.”

    “When female guards couldn’t handle us, male guards were called in for more brutal beatings. I saw teen-aged girls beaten savagely with their bones broken their mouths bleeding,” recalls Polita Grau in Unvanquished: Cuba's Resistance to Fidel Castro

    Ok, I apologize for baiting feminist readers during this Women’s History Month “with the term “suffragette.” In fact, voting was merely one of the rights these heroic Cuban ladies sought. Castro’s Stalinist regime jailed political prisoners at a higher rate than Stalin’s own, murdered more political prisoners in its first three years in power than Hitler’s murdered in its first six, and abolished private property. And yes, Castro also outlawed voting. So you’ll please excuse these Cuban ladies if they regard the “struggles” of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem as a trifle overblown.

    I also apologize for singling out Barbara Walters. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell also had praise for the tryant: “Fidel Castro is old-fashioned, courtly–even paternal, a thoroughly fascinating figure!”

    Back in 1996 Fidel Castro was hosted by Mort Zuckerman at his Fifth Avenue pad. A throng of Beltway glitterati, including Mike Wallace, Peter Jennings, Tina Brown, Bernard Shaw, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer all jostled for a photo-op and stood in line for Castro’s autograph. But Diane Sawyer was so overcome in the mass-murderer’s presence that she lost control, rushing up, breaking into that toothy smile of hers, wrapping her arms around Castro and smooching the Stalinist torturer on his bearded cheek.

    “You people are the cream of the crop!” beamed the Stalinist/terrorist to the smiling throng he’d come within a hair of nuking in 1962.

    “Hear, hear!” chirped the delighted guests, while tinkling their wine glasses in honor of the smirking agent of their near vaporization.

    We’re smack in the middle of “Women’s History Month.” So let’s chew on this: Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s regime jailed 35,150 Cuban women for political crimes, a totalitarian horror utterly unknown–not only in Cuba–but in the Western Hemisphere until the regime so “magnetic” to Barbara Walters, Andrea Mitchell and Diane Sawyer came into power. Some of these Cuban ladies suffered twice as long in Castro’s Gulag as Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered in Stalin’s.

    Their prison conditions were described by former political prisoner Maritza Lugo: “The punishment cells measure 3 feet wide by 6 feet long. The toilet consists of an 8 inch hole in the ground through which cockroaches and rats enter, especially in cool temperatures the rat come inside to seek the warmth of our bodies and we were often bitten. The suicide rate among women prisoners was very high.”

    Many of these heroic ladies (Ana Rodriguez, Miriam Ortega, Georgina Cid, Caridad Roque, Mercedes Pena, Aída Díaz Morejón, Ana Lázara Rodríguez, Ágata Villarquide, Alicia del Busto, Ileana Curra) live in the U.S. today. But no producer for Oprah or Joy Behar or Katie Couric, none from the Lifetime or Oxygen TV–much less the History Channel, has ever called them. No writer for Cosmo or Glamour or Redbook or Vogue has bothered either.

    But you’ve certainly seen their torturer hailed by “Feminist” reporters.

    Upon the death of Raul Castro’s wife Vilma Espin in 2006, the Washington Post gushed that: “She was a champion of women’s rights and greatly improved the status of women in Cuba, a society known for its history of machismo.” Actually, in 1958 Cuba had more female college graduates as a percentage of population than the U.S.

    This Castroite “improvement of status” and “good life” for Cuban women also somehow tripled Cuban women’s pre-revolution suicide rate, making Cuban women the most suicidal on earth. This according to a 1998 study by scholar Maida Donate-Armada that uses some of the Cuban regime’s own figures.

    On Christmas Eve of 1961 a Cuban woman named Juana Diaz spat in the face of the executioners who were binding and gagging her. Castro’s Russian-trained secret police had found her guilty of feeding and hiding “bandits” (Cubans who took up arms to fight the Stalinist theft of their land to build Soviet –style Kolkhozes.) When the blast from Castroite firing squad demolished her face and torso, Juana was six months pregnant. These Taliban-like atrocities against women were perpetrated by a regime gushed over by Barbara Walters, Andrea Mitchell, Diane Sawyer, Medea Benjamin, Maxine Waters and so many other “feminists.”

    Thousands upon thousands of Cuban women have drowned, died of thirst or have been eaten alive by sharks attempting to flee the Washington Post’s dutifully transcribed “improvement of status.” This from a nation formerly richer than half the nations of Europe and deluged by immigrants from same.

    By Humberto Fontova

    From: FrontPage Magazine

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  • Saturday, March 19, 2011

    In spite of release of dissidents, Cuba continues "to stifle freedom of expression"

    The Cuban authorities are continuing to stifle freedom of expression on the island in spite of the much-publicized recent wave of releases of prominent dissidents, Amnesty International warned ahead of the eighth anniversary of a crackdown on activists.

    Hundreds of pro-democracy activists have suffered harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest in recent weeks as the Cuban government employs new tactics to stamp out dissent.

    Of 75 activists arrested in a crackdown around 18 March 2003, (‘Black Spring’) only three remain in jail after 50 releases since last June, with most of the freed activists currently exiled in Spain. Amnesty International has called for the remaining prisoners to be released immediately and unconditionally.

    “The release of those detained in the 2003 crackdown is a hugely positive step but it tells only one side of the story facing Cuban human rights activists,” said Gerardo Ducos, Cuba researcher at Amnesty International.

    “Those living on the island are still being targeted for their work, especially through short-term detentions, while repressive laws give the Cuban authorities a free rein to punish anyone who criticizes them.”

    ”Meanwhile, three of the prisoners detained eight years ago still languish in prison and must be freed immediately.“

    In one recent crackdown the authorities detained over one hundred people in one day in a pre-emptive strike designed to stop activists marking the death of activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died following a prolonged hunger strike while in detention.

    On 23 February, the one-year anniversary of Tamayo's death, according to the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the authorities placed over 50 people under house arrest before freeing them hours later.

    Activist Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina, was recently named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International after being detained without trial for over three months.

    The president of the Cuban Youth Movement for Democracy was arrested after organizing an activists' meeting inside his own home.

    ”Cubans are still at the mercy of draconian laws that class activism as a crime and anyone who dares to criticize the authorities is at risk of detention,“ said Gerardo Ducos.

    ”In addition to releasing long-term prisoners of conscience, to properly realize freedom of expression the Cuban government also has to change its laws.”

    Seventy-five people were jailed in a massive crackdown against the dissident movement around 18 March 2003 for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

    Most of them were charged with crimes including “acts against the independence of the state” because they allegedly received funds and/or materials from US-based NGOs financed by the US government.

    They were sentenced to between six and 28 years in prison after speedy and unfair trials for engaging in activities the authorities perceived as subversive and damaging to Cuba. These activities included publishing articles or giving interviews to US-funded media, communicating with international human rights organizations and having contact with entities or individuals viewed to be hostile to Cuba.
    From: MercoPress

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  • Friday, March 18, 2011

    Castro vs Batista

    Castro to Batista: "Are we there yet?"

    Fifty-two years into the Revolution, Fidel Castro will have achieved all the failings, real and perceived, that Cuba had under Batista, and it will have retained few of the virtues.

    Over at the Museo de la Revolucion, Fidel Castro's case against the dictator he overthrew 52 years ago is vividly on display.

    Fulgencio Batista was evil incarnate, the museum earnestly instructs visitors in room after room of the once-magnificent building, formerly a presidential palace built in 1920 and decorated by Tiffany's of New York. Under Batista and his predecessors, we learn through photos and text, Cuba became a playground for crass tourists who came for sex, drink and gambling, and who crowded the country's pristine beaches to the detriment of ordinary folk. To drive home the immorality of pre-socialist times, the museum displays an original National Lottery of Cuba ticket from early in the century, a symbol of the country's fall from grace.

    We learn that Batista was an illegitimate leader, the election he won stolen by manipulating the press. Worse, Batista intimidated, even jailed or killed, political opponents.

    But Batista also failed Cuba by failing to invest government funds wisely. One damning display berates Batista's priorities with a list of budget line items that show government expenditures on frills such as roads, promenades and buildings. Batista's sky-high spending on telecommunications - which the display dubs as military - comes in for criticism. Another display lambastes Batista for failing to diversify the economy. Another still, which provides a year-by-year report of sugar output, accuses Batista of neglecting this all-important industry. The numbers show a downward trend, interrupted with some up-ticks, in the 1950s, and then a giant leap forward, as Castro mobilized the country to produce more sugar in one of his regime's grand economic plans.

    The moral and economic rot under Batista led to humiliation and human tragedy, the museum tells us. "Many women who were denied jobs saw themselves forced to become prostitutes in order to survive," said one display. Said another: "According to a census in 1953, there were 200,000 shacks and misery huts." Said a third, also referring to the 1953 census: "40,939 people died due to lack of medical attendance and unsanitary living conditions."

    The history the museum imparts is part truth, part fiction and all hypocrisy. Batista was indeed an unsavory character. He did oversee a corrupt administration in Cuba. He did undermine the halting democracy that the United States helped create after liberating Cuba from oppressive Spanish occupation at the turn of the century.

    But Cuba and its U.S.-style constitution was also an economic powerhouse with potent social institutions and impressive accomplishments. A 1958 United Nations report ranked Cuba's vibrant free press eighth in the world, and first in Latin America. Despite its much smaller population, Cuba had 160 radio stations compared to the U. K.'s 62 and France's 50. It had 23 television stations compared to Mexico's 12 and Venezuela's 10. The tiny country supported 58 newspapers, fourth in Latin America behind populous Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

    Raul Castro (r), now the President of Cuba, in the hands of Fulgencio Batista (around 1938).
    Cuba once installed telephones at a rapid rate. No more. It once ranked first in Latin America, fifth in the world, in television sets per capita, and also ranked high in radios, automobiles, and many other consumer goods. No more. With the population increased and the housing stock degraded, more people suffer inadequate housing today than ever before, and sanitary conditions have become a scandal through much of the country.
    The information-hungry populace in the Batista era was well-educated, as it remains. Student registration at primary schools in 1955 was 1,032 students per 10,000 inhabitants, higher than the figures for 1990 of 842. The registration rate for higher education was an impressive 38 per 10,000, about the same as it was 10 years later (34 per 10,000) and 15 years later (41 per 10,000). The country, in fact, had a long history of high literacy levels: At the turn of the 20th century, only 28% of those 10 and over couldn't read or write, not that different from the current figure, 100 years later, of 16%.

    But unlike today, Cuba's economy under Batista was powerful, both domestically and in exports, and it was becoming increasingly diversified. Under Castro, its economy is in tatters, nowhere more so than in the sugar industry that Castro once promoted so heavily. A few years ago, Castro announced a shut down of half of the country's sugar mills. "We had to act or face ruin," he explained. As he told NBC News at the time. "It cost us more to produce sugar than what we could sell it for."

    But if Batista bested Castro in virtually every broad socio-economic indicator, he paled in comparison when it came to controlling either the electoral process or the populace. Castro executed thousands of political opponents after he came to power, imprisoned tens of thousands and caused hundreds of thousands to flee to exile. Where Batista won a disputed election, a Castro election leaves no room for dispute: Castro allows no opponents, no opposing viewpoints to appear in the press, and, because that might not be enough, his political machine ensures a good turnout by keeping tabs on who votes and who doesn't: In the 2003 national election, Castro managed a 90%-plus "yes" vote, not quite as impressive as Saddam Hussein's 100% but, among dictators, respectable enough.

    Those who revile Batista often point to a decadent economy that relied on mafia-run casinos, prostitution and other demeaning jobs servicing tourists. Tourism was important under Batista - Havana was an east-coast alternative to Las Vegas, complete with the sex and gaming, and the same mafia owners - but never as important as tourism has become today. Cuba's once diversified economy is gone and Castro is now putting all of his hopes in attracting tourists.

    To do this, Castro's Cuba now permits prostitution, it winks at sex tourism - tourist guide books even include sections on the country's once-taboo gay and bisexual scenes - and, as under Batista, the country unabashedly invests heavily in tourism. In 2003, Castro inaugurated a US$100-million resort on the island's northeastern coast, broadcast nationwide, to underscore the importance the government places on the new five-hotel complex of 944 rooms able to house 1,500 tourists.

    Tourism is now Cuba's No. 1 source of foreign income, with 1.6 million visitors generating about US$2-billion in 2002. More tourists come from Canada than from other important sources of foreign exchange, chiefly Germany, Britain, Italy, France, and Switzerland. Castro, like Batista, is eyeing one other important tourist market.

    "Our friends from the north are not in this list," Castro said once with a grin, referring to Americans that can't travel to Cuba due to U.S. government regulations.

    Some day soon, perhaps, Castro's dream may be realized, and Cuba's economy may once again benefit from U.S. tourism. If it does, Cuba under Castro will have recovered one of the benefits that the country once enjoyed. Fifty-two years into the Revolution, Castro will have achieved all the failings, real and perceived, that Cuba had under Batista, and it will have retained few of the virtues.

    Updated from an article by Larry Solomon in the Capitalism Magazine

    Some images from Cuba before 1959  

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  • Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    "Better to live in a slum" than in Cuba

    Either you’re a part of the Castro clan and their hangers on or you don’t have a chance, says Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez.

    Yoani Sanchez in her apartment in Havana, Cuba.
    Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has made helping dissidents in repressive regimes a foreign policy priority with Cuba and Belarus front and center; the first Cuban political prisoner granted political asylum in this country, Rolando Jiménez Posada, arrived with his family and relatives in October 2010.

    Independent Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez, 35, didn’t want to become a dissident. She was more the technical type, with an interest in computers, and after earning a degree in philology left for Switzerland to study computer science. The strict Cuban authorities gave her permission to travel and return home afterward — which shows that the regime didn’t consider her to be a threat or likely dissident.

    After returning home to Havana, however, Yoani set up the magazine Consenso and has since become probably the best-known writer of electronic samizdat in the island nation. She also writes the blog Generation Y, which has earned her several international awards; she wasn’t able to accept them in person as the Cuban authorities have confiscated her passport.

    Last year, Yoani was kidnapped by Cuban agents and mentally and physically abused for several hours. But that didn’t stop her from writing, and at the end of February the official Cuban media began to get publicly engaged in her struggle, making the general public aware of her. She has been twice quoted and accused on television and she was once in the state daily Granma.

    Sánchez points out that her entire island nation has been virtually cut off from the Internet since the start of the unrest in Libya — most likely because the Castro family is worried that Cubans will start an uprising similar to those in the Arab world — and the following interview was interrupted several times due to disruptions the connectivity.

    Q: What is lacking for a revolution similar to the one in Egypt taking place in Cuba?


    A: In Cuba the situation is most like that in Libya rather than the other Arab countries that are undergoing unrest. Our system and country is also dependent on one charismatic and popular leader.

    Q: But Raúl Castro is the complete opposite of his brother. Fidel got all of the charisma genes, leaving nothing for Raúl …


    A: Of course that is why all Cubans that disagree with the regime secretly wish that “our beloved” El Commandante was not among us because Raúl would find it difficult to keep in charge. The older generation, despite not being satisfied with the regime, still respect Fidel for what he did when he took over. That is why they don’t want to topple him, so as not to disappoint him. I’ll give an example: Grandpa paid for our education; although he is now unintelligible and conservative, he is still our grandpa.

    Q: But considering Raúl’s age, it is not impossible that he may die before Fidel. Are they secretly grooming a different heir?


    A: Ever since the mid-1990s, everyone has had the feeling that Castro is preparing Felipe Ramón Pérez Roque, who started off as Fidel’s personal assistant and worked his way up to minister of foreign affairs. But in 2009, Castro publicly criticised him for loving power too much. This led to Roque’s fall from grace and the public eye.

    Q: So who will come after Raúl?


    A: There are two options being talked about. The first is that a military junta will take power, or, more likely, that Raúl’s daughter Mariela Castro, is getting ready. First, she has held a public position for several years; second, she is endeavoring to be known abroad as a defender of gay rights. This gives her the appearance of a modern person interested in human rights, which makes her more acceptable. I must add that homosexuals in Cuba are still persecuted, despite her efforts to change this.

    It is interesting that Castro himself has apologized for his conduct toward homosexuals in the past. As is typical of totalitarian systems, his speech must be part of a strategy, otherwise he wouldn’t say it. In addition, Mariela has one indisputable advantage. Since she is a likeable, “young” (48) woman, it will be much more difficult to attack her directly because she just doesn’t look like a dictator. Despite this, she will inherit all of her uncle’s and father’s power, thus keeping it in the family. This is not communism, it’s nepotism.

    Q: Doesn’t that more or less ruin your hopes for a democratic Cuba?


    A: It’s a good plan as far as the regime’s image abroad is concerned, but it won’t cure our chronic problems. Free education and health care mean little when you have no more than two liters of milk a week for an entire family, or that it takes half a year to find a light bulb and candles are not for sale. Or you have to use the state daily as toilet paper.

    In the first decade or two of the path to a communist ‘Eden,’ you can overlook such matters, but after half a century all we have, in comparison to the rest of Latin America, is free education and health care and then half a million state employees lose their jobs, well that is sufficient reason for unrest and a fight for liberty. I’d like to add that if the official figures mention half a million unemployed, the reality is more like 700,000 to 800,000.

    Q: A lot of people abroad feel that Cuba has probably the best possible system within Latin America and that its fall would lower the standard of living to that of Honduras or Ecuador.


    A: I am sure that almost every Cuban would prefer to be at liberty to decide how to earn money, even if it was less, than to carry on living as a thrall to Castro’s nobility.

    Q: Isn’t it better to be poor in Cuba than live in the favelas [slums] that are so ubiquitous in Latin America?


    A: No, because there is always a chance of getting out of a slum. We don’t have that. The former Brazilian president, Lula, came from the slums. So did several other South American leaders. Here it is more like a monarchy: Either you’re part of Castro’s family and their loyal lackeys or you don’t have a chance.

    Moreover, Lula managed in just two terms to get 30 million people out of poverty. In 50 years, Castro’s family hasn’t managed to get the 11 million Cubans out of poverty at all. All he’s managed to do is get rich while the rest of us flounder in destitution.

    Fabiano Golgo

    From: Czech Position

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  • Monday, March 14, 2011

    A Transformational Year For Cuba Policy

    Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina, currently in prison, is one of the faces of the pro-democracy movement in Cuba.

    Since Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006 and transferred power to his brother Raul, members of Congress have been weighing possible options in U.S. policy toward Cuba, partially by raising the fundamental question: “is there a viable pro-democracy movement in Cuba?”

    The uncertainty is not surprising. For years much of the foreign policy establishment in New York and Washington, and advocates of “normalizing” relations with Cuba, have argued there are no viable alternatives to Cuba’s totalitarian dictatorship. The only answer is to “throw in the towel,” unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions and engage the Castros. Somehow this engagement is supposed to alter their ruthless behavior.

    That position had been music to the Castros’ ears. But on February 23, 2010, it was permanently debunked. That tragic morning, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a forty-two year old afro-Cuban plumber and pro-democracy activist, died after an eighty-five day hunger strike. He was protesting the abuses of the Castro regime, his unjust imprisonment and denial of medical care.

    Literally overnight, the international community's focus dramatically shifted. All of a sudden, there was undoubtedly a concrete pro-democracy movement in Cuba, noted for its courage and resilience. Since then, there is hardly a news story about Cuba that does not mention the opposition movement. While qualifiers such as “small,” “fractional,” and “divided” are frequently used by foreign news bureaus in Havana as they describe the pro-democracy movement—likely to avoid being booted from the island by the Castro regime—foreign reports no longer ignore the fact that a movement exists.

    These accounts highlight a highly diverse group, challenging the Cuban state in a multitude of ways. There are the quixotic efforts of the wives, sisters, and daughters of Cuba's political prisoners, known as the Ladies in White, who dress in white and parade through public plazas. New regional bases of popular support are being carved out by leaders such as Jorge Luis Perez Garcia “Antunez” in the central province of Matanzas, by Orlando Zapata Tamayo's mother and siblings in the eastern province of Holguin, and by the Rodriguez Lobaina brothers in the Castros’ home province of Santiago de Cuba. These follow the historic trend of Cuba’s most prevalent revolutionary movements—against Spanish colonialism in the nineteenth century and against the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s—both of which originated in the eastern provinces and expanded westward to Havana. And then there is the stinging critique of the island's ever-growing blogger movement, led by Generation Y's Yoani Sanchez.

    Cuba’s pro-democracy movement is becoming an increasingly difficult force to ignore. And for better or worse, everyone knows it.

    The Castro regime knows it.

    It is no coincidence that Fidel and Raul have spent the better part of 2010 doing back-flips to divert attention from the opposition. They have brought Fidel "back from the dead"—as he himself now boasts—for an ongoing series of speeches and interviews in which he has neurotically predicted nuclear holocaust and admitted the failings of Cuba’s socialist model (though he later recanted). The Castros have extended land-leases for foreigners to build sailing marinas and golf courses—for the use of foreigners only, of course. And most importantly, they began a crisis management campaign to clean up their image by announcing the release of dozens of political prisoners to Spain, although they will never be allowed to return to Cuba. Throughout the world, the Castro regime is now seen as making concessions in order to draw attention away from the pro-democracy movement.

    The Catholic Church knows it.

    At the peak of a summer standoff led by the Ladies in White and a hunger strike by a former political prisoner, Guillermo Farinas, the Catholic Church quickly saw an opportunity to become relevant, after decades of religious oppression and institutional silence. Catholic leaders volunteered themselves to intercede with the Castro regime to negotiate the release of political prisoners. What remains to be seen is whether the Church's intervention strengthened or weakened the pro-democracy movement by downplaying their role in the negotiations. Regardless, it represented an acknowledgment of the movement’s existence—and the potential power to be derived from it—by the Church.

    The Spanish government knows it.

    Just as the Catholic Church moved to intercede, the Spanish government weighed in as well. But unlike the Church, it was not motivated by its waning influence. Instead, it intervened as part of its ongoing effort to protect billions in investments on the island. Nothing is worse for business than instability and unpredictability. Again, this is a nod to the power of the opposition to disrupt business as usual.

    Now finally, the U.S. Congress also appears to recognize it.

    Instead of asking: is there a viable pro-democracy movement, members of Congress are asking: how can the United States support it?

    In a July 14 letter to the U.S. Congress, some 500 pro-democracy leaders in Cuba explained how the United States might help, or at least avoid setting the movement back:

    “At a moment such as this, to be benevolent with the dictatorship would mean solidarity with the oppressors of the Cuban nation. [We] believe that the freedom of Cuba will not arrive by means of the pocket-book or the lips of libidinous tourists, who are aseptic to the pain of the Cuban family. Rather, it will come through the efforts of those who, from within and abroad, fight for democratic change in Cuba.”

    Plainly stated, the message of these pro-democracy leaders is simple: we are here, we are strong, and there is no reason to bail out the Castro regime.

    by: Mauricio Claver-Carone

    From: Yale Journal of International Affairs

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  • Friday, March 11, 2011

    Cuba: enemy of the Internet

    The Cuban regime, more wary of bloggers than traditional dissidents, decided to expand its online presence to combat them. Now that Venezuelan fibre optic cable is available on the island, the authorities have what they need to improve connection speeds and lower costs. There are fewer and fewer excuses for maintaining censorship or keeping the population away from the Web. Are we witnessing signs of a Web Springtime, now that the journalists persecuted during the Black Springtime of March 2003 have all been released from prison?

    Fibre optic cable in Cuba: Unprecedented potential for growth?

    According to the authorities, nearly 10% of Cuba’s population is connected to the Internet. That does not necessarily mean that they have access to the World Wide Web. Two parallel networks co-exist on the island: the international network and a closely monitored Cuban intranet consisting only of an encyclopaedia, email addresses ending in “.cu” used by universities and government officials – a sort of “Cuban Wikipedia” – and a few government news websites such as Granma.

    Outside of hotels, only a few privileged individuals have a special permit to access the international network. Yet even the latter does not escape censorship, which is mainly directed against dissident publications on foreign websites, but has been relaxed to some extent since early February 2011.

    The regime does not have the means to set up a systematic filtering system, but it counts on several factors to restrict Internet access: the exorbitant cost of connections – about 1.50 U.S. dollars per hour from the points of access to the state-controlled intranet, 7 U.S. dollars per hour from a hotel to access the international network (even though the average monthly salary is 20 U.S. dollars), and lastly infrastructural problems, particularly slow connections.

    These obstacles explain why the number of Internet users and the time spent online remain limited. Most cybernauts try to just read their emails and answer them. They do not have the time to navigate the Internet or surf websites. For years, the regime has been blaming the American embargo for the lack of a good Web connection on the island, claiming that it prevents the country from accessing international networks. That problem is about to be solved, thanks to the ALBA-1 fibre optic undersea cable which has been linking Cuba to Venezuela since February 2011, thereby increasing 3000-fold Cuba’s capacity to connect to the rest of the world. It is scheduled to be put into service in July 2011.

    Until then, international network connections will continue to be made via satellite, at immoderate costs.

    Theoretically, fiber optic cable should lead to lower Internet access prices and improve connection speeds.

    It is unlikely, however, that Internet access will be democratised and made available to the general population.

    The authorities are cautious when commenting on this new development. In February 2011, Cuba’s Vice-Minister of Information and Communications, José Luis Perdomo, pointed out that cable “is not a ‘magic wand,’” and that granting Cubans access to the Internet will require a substantial investment in its infrastructures. He also said that there is “no political obstacle” to offering such access. For the time being, this access to the Web will remain reserved for “social use” by institutions, universities and certain categories such as doctors and journalists. He stated: “Our priority is to continue the creation of collective access centers in addition to strengthening the connections in scientific, university and medical research centers.”


    A genuine black market has been prospering in Cuba in which offers are made to buy or “rent” passwords and codes used by the few individuals and companies whom the incumbent party has cleared for Internet access.

    Navigating the Net costs 50 U.S. dollars per month and receiving/sending one email message costs 1 U.S. dollar in some “hacker centres.” Illegal users find it safer to connect only at night.

    Some international network connections can be accessed from foreign or private residences.

    Certain dissidents tweet by sending SMS via foreign-based accounts, while others insert foreign SIM cards into their cell phones to access the Net. While netizens will stop at nothing to pass on information, it can come at a high cost. Freelance bloggers do not have direct access to their websites, which are not hosted on the island. They are have to rely on friends abroad to publish their articles and posts. They do that by following a well-tested procedure: they prepare their content in advance, copy it onto a USB flash drive, and send it by email from a hotel or other location, because dissidents are more and more frequently denied entry into tourist hotels. USB flash drives, which are also being passed from hand-to-hand, are the new vectors for freedom of speech in Cuba – the local “samzidats.”

    Demonising bloggers and social networks: A digital cold war?

    In 2009, the regime became wary of the growing popularity of certain bloggers, notably Yoani Sanchez. The latter has been repeatedly assaulted, interrogated and targeted by genuine slander campaigns, while other bloggers, such as Luis Felipe Rojas, have been arrested several times.

    Cuban dissident and cyberjournalist Guillermo Fariñas Hernández (“El Coco”),  winner of the 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament, was arrested three times in less than 48 hours in January 2011. His only wrongdoing is that he has been militating in favour of the right to inform and to circulate news freely.

    The legal arsenal used against online opposition to the regime remains particularly harsh and dissuasive. Cuban netizens risk punishment of up to twenty years in prison for posting an article deemed “counter-revolutionary” on an Internet website hosted abroad, and five years for illegally connecting to the international network.
    The problem is becoming increasingly urgent as the authorities fear the social networks’ mobilisation power even more after witnessing Tunisian and Egyptian examples of it. Some U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in December 2010 revealed that the Cuban regime is more afraid of bloggers than of “traditional” dissidents.

    In a 15 April 2009 telegramme, dissidents were described as forming “a movement as old and out of touch from the lives of ordinary Cubans as the regime itself.” A cable dated 20 December 2009 stressed, to the contrary, that bloggers are “a much more serious threat” to the Cuban government. The United States views the reporting by Cuban netizens of their arrests and mistreatment as an invaluable political tool, because the latter represent “a group which frustrates and scares the Cuban government like no other.” “The bloggers’ mushrooming international popularity and their ability to stay one tech-step ahead of the authorities are causing serious headaches for the regime.” The U.S. diplomat concluded: “We believe that it is the younger generation of ‘non-traditional dissidents’ that is likely to have a greater long-term impact on post-Castro Cuba.”

    Another telegram noted that “Younger individuals, including bloggers (…) are much better than traditional dissidents at taking ‘rebellious’ stands with greater popular appeal” – an assessment that Cuban leaders seem to share. Since February 2011, a one-hour or so video has been circulating on the Internet (vimeo.com/19402730) in which an unidentified Cuban expert explains in detail how the American enemy is funding Cuban cyberdissidence.

    Using as an example blogger Yoani Sanchez, he asserts that “she is organising a virtual network of mercenaries who are not traditional counter-revolutionaries.” The expert urges that these new forces be neutralised, stressing that “being a blogger is not bad. They have their bloggers and we have ours. We’re going to fight to see which of the two turns out to be stronger.”

    Government reprisal: Occupy the field

    The authorities are now striving to expand their presence on the Web: an official Cuban bloggers association was formed in 2009. The number of “pro-government” bloggers is said to be constantly rising, and may be as high as several hundred. In February 2011, the Reuters press agency reported that Cuba had some 1,000 “official bloggers.”

    Any possible links between the Havana government and hackers who target Cuban websites and blogs hosted abroad, among others, are under heavy scrutiny.

    Since the regime’s strategy is to “drown” dissident bloggers in a flood of pro-government bloggers, the government no longer needs to keep such a tight rein on the former, and can afford to make some concessions. Since 9 February, forty-some opposition blogs and Internet pages, among them Yoani Sanchez’s Generación Y, are accessible again from the island for those who can connect to the international network. According to this blogger’s statements to the foreign press, Cuba may owe this breath of fresh air to the 14th Informática - International Convention and Fair, held in Havana from 7 to 11 February. What remains to be seen is whether this deblocking will last.

    The authorities’ negative track record with regard to censorship accounts for dissidents’ doubts that the Internet will ever be accessible throughout the island. According to Yoani Sanchez, “the cable optic fibres are already engraved with the name of their owner and its ideology. This undersea connection seems destined more to control us than to link us to the world.” However, with this cable, “it will be more difficult to convince us that we cannot have YouTube, Facebook or Gmail,” she pointed out, specifying that “no one will prevent us from using this cable to do something very different from the plans of those who bought it.”

    For the middle or long-term, some people are banking on Chinese-type progress: Web growth for economic reasons, with more access for the population, while maintaining political control. A glimmer of hope remains: Cuba has announced that it wishes to switch from a Windows to a Linux operating system. This initiative may enhance the technical expertise of Cuban IT specialists, who will then be in a better position to circumvent censorship.

    From: RSF

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  • Thursday, March 10, 2011

    Gambling and the Law: Cuba will have casinos, again

    Casino Plaza in Cuba, destroyed in 1959.
    President Obama has just announced that he is easing restrictions on visits to Cuba; the second time he will be relaxing travel rules imposed on Americans by Pres. George W. Bush.

    Casual tourism is still difficult, but it will be much easier for students and teacher, religious groups and journalists to request permission to visit Cuba. He had already made it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel to see relatives on the island.

    Although the State Department takes the position that tourists cannot legally travel to Cuba, my reading of the statutes is a little different. To obey federal laws, all U.S. citizens have to do is not spend any money whatsoever once they set foot on the island.

    But that law will have to be changed. Because Cuba will have casinos within the next 10 years.

    Or, more accurately, Cuba will again have casinos. Because during the 1950s the island nation, less than 100 miles from Florida, was one of the leading gaming and tourist destinations of the world.

    It started in the 1920s, when Havana assumed a role later taken by Las Vegas: a vacation spot where Americans could party in ways not allowed at home. But it was not the gambling as much as it was the booze. America was in the midst of the disastrous experiment known as Prohibition, which also created modern organized crime. Cuba flourished with nightclubs, bordellos and casinos.

    World War II was a minor interruption. Then the partying was reborn. Havana became so notorious, that in 1950 a Broadway musical, "Guys and Dolls," could be built around its reputation. The audience knew why Nathan Detroit (the Frank Sinatra character in the 1955 film) bet Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that Sky could not convince the Salvation Army "doll" (Jean Simmons) to go with him for "dinner in Havana."

    But it looked for a while like the good times might be coming to an end. Cuban casinos had become so crooked that Americans were beginning to stay away. They were saved when Fulgencio Batista became dictator in 1952.

    In an ironic twist, Batista called upon the mob, particularly Meyer Lansky, to clean things up. And they did. It is hard to believe organized crime syndicates would run completely honest games. But Lansky realized they could make more money with magnificent hotel-casinos then if they cheated everyone.

    Throughout the 1950s, the American and Cuban mob families opened luxurious casino resorts, each one bigger and more successful than the last. The money poured in. Batista got a cut of everything.

    Three recent books, Offshore Vegas: How the Mob Brought Revolution to Cuba; Havana Before Castro: When Cuba was a Tropical Playground (great photos); and Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution (being made into a movie), may overstate the importance of organized crime in the Communists coming to power.

    The economy under Batista was not that bad. Cuba had a large middle class. Lansky was, in fact, originally reluctant to open casinos, because labor unions were so strong.

    Still, most Cubans never shared the wealth they saw all around them, and corruption was rampant. The result was revolution.

    When news hit the streets on New Year's Day, 1959, that Batista had fled the country, angry crowds poured into the casinos, destroying everything inside.

    As one of his first decrees, Fidel Castro outlawed gambling. He then tried to reopen some, with untrained dealers, after he discovered how important the casinos were to the local economy. But it was too late the American patrons were gone.

    The Soviet bloc never could supply enough tourists to make up for being isolated from the U.S. I remember seeing faded posters for Havana vacations in a tourist bureau in Prague, shortly after the Velvet Revolution. But the other store windows were practically empty, since there was little to buy and few people had any money, or the right to fly over the barbed wire and minefields that had surrounded Communist Czechoslovakia.

    The fall of the Iron Curtain shows what we can expect for Cuba: A combination of two of the greatest expansions of legal gaming in the last 40 years.

    The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the replacement of communism with capitalism lead to an explosion of casinos throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.

    And the death of the dictator Francisco Franco led to an explosion of slot machines and other legal gaming throughout Spain.

    Although Franco was strongly anti-communist, the comparison with Castro is apt. The Iberian peninsula and Latin America have a long tradition of strongmen, "caudilhos" in Portuguese, in Spanish "caudillos." Franco ruled from 1936 to 1975, and even called himself "Caudillo de España, por la gracia de Dios;" which Wikipedia translates as "Leader of Spain, by the grace of God."

    Castro has been the caudillo since 1959, first as Prime Minister, then President and now as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. Due to illness, he turned over much of his power to his younger brother Ra?l, on July 31, 2006.

    Raúl has shown some independence. He doesn't really have what it takes to be a caudillo. So he might start true liberalization as soon as the sickly Fidel, 84 years old, dies. Raúl is 79, so both Castro brothers will probably be gone within the next 10 years.

    The caudillo tradition seems to be coming to an end. The U.S. will drop its economic embargo when democracy and capitalism come to Cuba, in whatever form they take. In fact, as we know from Macau, democracy is not the essential part of the equation. China is still Marxist, but it is hard to call it communist.

    The initial breakthrough will probably take place on cruise ships, with casinos, returning to the Port of Havana. Initially, gaming will only be permitted on the high seas. But it is a short step from there to allowing the casinos to be open while the ships are docked.

    Bingo machines are sweeping Latin America. These are often called Class II. Of course, there is no Class I or Class III, since the categories were created by, and apply only to, the U.S. Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. But, it is an easy way to distinguish these gaming devices from true slot machines, at least for political cover.

    True casinos, with true slots and table games, are also common in much of Central and South America. But even more so in the Caribbean. A free Cuba will quickly allow casinos to reopen, in high-quality hotels designed for, and possibly even limited to, tourists.

    So, I'm inviting you to G2E-IGE Havana, 2011. Given the consolidation of every part of the gaming industry, I have taken the liberty of predicting the merger of the two largest trade shows, the Global Gaming Expo, now held in Las Vegas, and the International Gaming Expo, in London.

    And the conference venue should be magnificent. Castro's Communist regime may have accidentally contributed something else to the speedy rebirth of casinos. There has been so little economic progress on the island, that apparently the ornate buildings constructed in the 1950s to house the mob's casinos are still standing, waiting to be refurbished and reopened, under new management.

    By I. Nelson Rose

    From: Casino City Times

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  • Monday, March 7, 2011

    Czech MEP meets dissidents in Cuba

    Last week, twenty members of the Ladies in White were heckled for several hours by government supporters, who kept them encircled in the area. Surrounding streets were blocked off, and two ambulances and several police cars were stationed nearby.
    The atmosphere in Cuba is like a pressure cooker that can explode at any time, Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas told Czech MEP Edvard Kozusnik, who met him briefly after his release from prison last week, Kozusnik said in a report he sent to CTK last Sunday.

    Last year, Kozusnik successfully nominated Farinas for the Sakharov Human Rights Prize.

    The public opinion in Cuba is changing as the public increasingly connects economic problems with the existing regime, Farinas said.

    Nowadays people speak about it publicly, which was absolutely unthinkable three years ago, he added.

    Kozusnik came to Cuba to support the local opposition in its effort to change the Communist regime.

    Earlier this week, Farinas was imprisoned for 36 hours, Cuban dissidents have said.

    Another Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya has warned that repressive forces are ready to take any steps in order to keep current Cuban Communist leaders in power.

    Paya said Cuban opposition was preparing projects for the transformation of society in the direction of democratic free elections.

    Kozusnik said Paya and others had collected the signatures of 40,000 Cubans for the support of the planned changes.

    Kozusnik said the campaign was similar to the Czechoslovak Several Sentences petition, launched a few months before the Communist regime's fall in 1989.

    Kozusnik gave the dissidents a symbolical chain of keys as a recollection of those that calmly rang the end of the Communist rule.

    "I believe that Cubans will soon ring the end of the rule of arrogant despots, dysfunctional economy, demagoguery and hateful propaganda," Kozusnik said.

    From the Czech experience:

    Seeking Freedom Is a Learning Process

    He has a degree in history, which he got only after the revolution of course.

    In communist times he was only allowed to undertake a mechanical apprenticeship.

    In literature he found a way to pass on principles of humanity and criticize injustice.

    He belonged to the crowd of the youngest generation of Czech dissidents.

    We are talking about Czech writer Petr Placák, alias Petr Zmrzlík.

    [Jáchym Topol, Writer and Journalist]:

    "Before 1989 Petr belonged to the active ones, to the activists, to those who fought. I think, that what he was doing or what we were doing, was built on Charter 77."

    Placák issued two samizdat books.

    As one of the closely watched dissidents, he was forced to write books under the pseudonym Petr Zmrzlík.

    He became an inconvenience for the regime not only as a writer, but as an instigator of many activities against the totalitarian regime as well.

    In 1988 he founded an organization "České děti" which issued leaflets and articles directed against the totalitarian regime.

    [Jáchym Topol, Writer and Journalist]:

    “I was one of the first members of the organization 'České děti.' And I can say that the thoughts and ideas coming from Petr’s head fell on fertile ground.”

    As an editor-in-chief of the magazine “Babylon," Petr Placák is now guiding today’s young authors to learn the real values in society.

    [Stanislav Skoda, Editor, Babylon Magazine]:

    "We try to publish texts we write ourselves, they are about violations of freedom in the world, in Cuba, for example. I specialize mainly in Latin America as well as in China, in Burma and we’re just trying to find and point to the iniquities that are happening in a small town in the north of Czech Republic as well as in Beijing."

    Placák first experienced the limiting of freedom in his childhood.

    He was four years old when his native city Prague was occupied by the Red Army troops.

    [Petr Placak, Writer]:

    "Through the adults I understood that what was happening was horrible. And then it was increasing continuously. I mean the distance against the regime was more and more clear. And it still is actually getting clearer because when you read about it, you get more information. So it is a process that is still developing."

    Petr Placák believes that people develop their opinions all their lives.

    [Petr Placák, Writer]:

    "When one is growing up, he is growing up in a way that he defines himself from his environment. Then of course, he is processing it further on but I think this is the fundamental of it when he is growing up."

    Sources:  NTD News and Prague Dialy Monitor

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  • Saturday, March 5, 2011

    A new dawn for Cuba as capitalism eclipses communism

    Communism has nothing to offer to Cubans.
    The party begins to pop at about midnight when the half-naked male models point the last stragglers to the open roof top.

    On a second level above us under the stars the DJ turns it down briefly to allow a solo trumpeter to play a sensuous salsa serenade while behind the bar – as long as a swimming pool and sagging with mojito cocktails – lesbian porn from the nineteen thirties is projected on an bare wall.

    The guests, in from Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Paris and Madrid, take it in their sophisticated stride, navigating past mattresses for the boozed up and the louche and feigning insouciance as Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro brushes past. There had been a clue in the invitation about what was to come. Dress code: "tropical glam".

    Yet there is wonder if not actual shock in their smiles even as they dance their last dance and surrender to the approaching Caribbean dawn. We are not in Miami, Palm Beach or even Los Angeles. This is Havana, home to one of the last Soviet-style regimes in the world. Now in the lift going back down an impossible rumour goes around. Two of Raul Castro's sons attended the party. You never saw them?

    Cuba is changing. The roof-garden fete, with its decadent pulse, was not something you see in Havana on your average Saturday night. Some may have thought of it as an aberrant flashback to the pre-revolution days when frolicsome behaviour was the norm. But to others it seemed like a back-to-the-future experience. Was this a glimpse of this grand but crumbling city 10 or 20 years from now, raring once again for fun? A reporter meanwhile tries to straighten out those Castro sightings. The surprise: no sons but two grand-daughters had indeed shown up.

    Grandfather Raul, who turns 80 this year four years after taking over as President from his ailing brother and founder of the revolution, Fidel, will not have given the party a second's thought. That Cuba is tiptoeing back into the sunlight is of his own personal doing, after all. It was last September that a stunned nation as told that the centrally planned economy was dying and needed radical surgery. By the end of this April, the government decreed, 500,000 Cubans would have been fired from state jobs. In the longer term, the Raul-sanctioned plan would eliminate about 1 million jobs, or roughly 20 per cent of the workforce.

    It is an audacious blueprint that will kill the socialist model erected by Fidel and his co-revolutionary Che Guevara 53 years ago or save it from collapse. Its success or failure will depend largely on whether Cuba, with its epic inefficiencies and laid-back rhythms, can rediscover long-suppressed capitalist instincts. Today, the state employs almost 90 per cent of all workers. As many of those are now laid off they will be encouraged to apply for licenses to try their hand at private enterprise. Fidel did something similar 15 years ago, but on a far tinier scale – Havana saw the opening of a handful of family-run restaurants and hostelries for tourists – and he later backed away. This promises to be much bigger.

    What it means is that Cuba is in a state of high agitation. Interviews over several days with Cubans of all backgrounds suggested a people uncertain whether to be deeply afraid of what is coming or grateful that after decades of stagnation, their leaders finally are ready for reform. And there have been other signs of movement from the top. In February, the regime with little fanfare lifted the internet firewall that for years had blocked much of what Cubans could see on the web (though only a fraction of the population has access to it). And the months since last July have seen 60 political prisoners released, all originally rounded up in the so-called 'Black Spring' of 2003. Only seven of those arrested in that crackdown now remain behind bars.

    Miguel Barnet, the President of the Writers' and Artist's Union, an amiable man about Havana who has a direct line of communication with the Castros (and is therefore not free to speak entirely candidly), accepted that Cuba is in a tricky place but was certain that Raul knows what he's doing. "I am very optimistic for Cuba," he tells me. "What would be tricky is if there was no transition going on. We need to do this."

    Raul has support from other members of the top communist leadership. Next month, a Communist Party Congress will be convened, something not seen in a decade and a half. It will approve the full Raul reforms that not only will significantly broaden the areas in which free enterprise will be tolerated and even encouraged but – perhaps most surprising and risky – will simultaneously introduce a system of income tax.

    We also know, however, that resistance has been powerful at the next level of communist leaders – the ones who have to choose who is to lose their jobs and then tell them. Sources spoke of uproar one recent night at the luxury, state-operated Melia Cobiba Hotel when top socialist officials gathered the staff of 580 people and told them only 480 would be returning the following day.

    In an attempt at consultation and fairness, committees were established to discuss how the lay-offs might work. Their work was concluded last weekend and on Monday Raul acknowledged that progress on sacking the first 500,000 workers had been slow. The end-April deadline, he said, would therefore be extended. He gave no new clear schedule for reaching his final goals.

    Speculation abounds that he may also be slowing the pace because of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries in the Middle East where citizens have risen up against authoritarian regimes. However, Cuba is different. It does not have a youth-heavy population, access to sites like Twitter and Facebook is extremely limited and there is no issue of corruption or great displays of wealth among the ruling elite. "We write to our capitals every day and say it is not going to happen in Cuba," says one junior diplomat at the Canadian embassy here. "Change is going to come not at once, but bit by bit."

    Then there is this: while the prisoner release programme has cheered human rights groups and even some dissident leaders in the country, no one supposes that old habits of repression have died. Thus two weeks ago, on the first anniversary of the death from hunger strike while behind bars of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the regime moved temporarily to round up 45 dissidents and confine 60 more in their homes to diminish the chances of street protests. All were released when the anniversary was over.

    "Some positive steps have been taken," a diplomatic source in Havana said, noting the release of the 60 political prisoners. "But we remain extremely worried about the human rights situation." He described a security apparatus that remained alert and ubiquitous. Any kinds of street gatherings are instantly quashed, in part by thugs hired by the state. The front page of the Communist Party paper, Granma, last week reported that the spokesperson for the Ladies in White, a protest group of wives and relatives of those first incarcerated in 2003, had been unveiled as a government informer. What motivated the paper to run this is unclear.

    The United States, which maintains its 49-year-old economic embargo although restrictions on sending money and travelling to Cuba have been eased by President Barack Obama, has its own human rights crisis with Cuba, involving US citizen Alan Gross, 61, who was to go on trial in Havana yesterday. Caught distributing satellite reception equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba to improve their access to the internet, he was arrested on charges of espionage and could face 20 years in jail if convicted. The US has protested and demanded his release.

    The embargo is a big part of what ails Cuba, which was kept afloat for years by Moscow until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. The other problem is the lack of liquidity in Cuba, where no system of credit exists. Meet Jose, for example, who for years worked as a carpenter before – in the Cuban equivalent of winning the lottery – landed a job last year driving a tourist horse-drawn buggy in Old Havana on a monthly salary of $11 that is multiplied many times over by tips. With two of his four sons along with him, he acknowledges that he risks being fired under Raul's reforms. "We will deal with that if it comes," he says, before revealing an ambition to open a paladar – the name of the private restaurants permitted to serve tourists: "I will be the waiter and my wife will cook." But he echoes the worries many others have.

    "The pillars of our country are all gone – coffee, sugar, rum – they aren't good any more," laments Fran, 66, once a farm labourer who now earns $4 a month as cabaret singer for the state aviation institute. He too is lucky as the holder of one of Fidel's original licenses to entertain tourist groups. He sings old Beatles' numbers at a creaking paladar on a river outside Havana. Fran tells me something that would be hard to credit were we not in Cuba where nothing seems too bizarre. He claims his son Ojani was married in the early 1990s to Jennifer Lopez. "I told him not to worry about the money and just leave," he says with a smile of obvious chagrin. He is pessimistic about the Raul reforms. "So, the people will be allowed to work for themselves and have their own business. Yes, fine. But how do you that without any money? We have no savings."

    "It will all come from Miami," says a US businessman who has permitted business dealings in Cuba. In spite of the embargo, the US is Cuba's fifth trading partner. This is why the relaxation of the rules on money remittances to Cuba by Obama are seen by some as crucial, because those dollars may fuel the nascent free enterprise sector.

    Few in Cuba, however, expect the embargo to end soon and most react sceptically to the idea that when Fidel dies, Uncle Sam will come with dollars and cruise ships and take the island for itself. "I don't think that the Americans want another mortgage," says Mr Barnet, the union leader. "We have to do this for ourselves."

    More important now, with the Communist Congress around the corner, is if ordinary Cubans think it can be done. That they want to have faith is clear and they don't need rooftop parties to feel the breeze of possible change. But the gap between Raul's promises and free enterprise taking root is wide and fear still reigns over hope. "This," says a diplomat "is their last chance, because the country is in dire shape."

    By David Usborne

    From: Belfast Telegraph

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  • Thursday, March 3, 2011

    Iconoclastic Young Filmmakers Look at Real Issues in Cuba

    Lighting up dark areas of Cuban society with youthful vigour, Muestra Joven (the Young Cinema Exhibition), a local independent film event, reached its 10th anniversary characterised by experimentation and subjects that are both complex and invisible in the national media.

    "The exhibition has earned a place for itself, against all the odds," Danae Diéguez, a member of the organising committee since 2006, told IPS about the festival that took place Feb. 22-27.

    The sharp criticism expressed in the films has clashed more than once with the authorities, as seen for instance in the attempt to censor the documentary "Revolution", by Mayckell Pedrero, about the underground Cuban hip hop duo Los Aldeanos. The film was awarded several prizes in 2010.

    Filmmaker Carlos Y. Rodríguez said one of the virtues of the festival is that it creates "a space for works that deal with controversial real-life problems."

    Rodríguez, who is from Santiago de Cuba, 861 kilometres east of Havana, told IPS that this goal has been achieved "prudently, by educating filmmakers and also, to a lesser extent, society."

    The festival, launched in 2000, was called the New Directors' Exhibition until this year, when it was renamed Muestra Joven (Young Cinema Exhibition).

    Cuba's film institute, ICAIC, coordinates the event, but according to Diéguez it upholds the "open mentality" that is a hallmark of the new generation of Cuban filmmakers.

    Thanks to the growing availability of video cameras, democratisation of technology in the country had already progressed by the start of the new century.

    Works by those who picked up a camera and recorded films purely for pleasure were collected in the late 1980s and early 1990s and exhibited by the Asociación Hermanos Saíz, a non-governmental cultural organisation for young artists, paving the way for ICAIC's initiative.

    The aim of the ICAIC exhibitions was to "bring together, attract and identify the group of people who make alternative movies, outside the bounds of the film industry, with different approaches to production, media, and to some extent style," Diéguez said.

    Films presented at the festival attained new qualitative heights with the advent of digital technology, which expanded the potential for filming and editing. The costs of a production of this type are paid by the filmmakers and any personal supporters they may have who can contribute funding.

    "Independence is both material and mental," said Diéguez.

    Prostitution, violence against women, drug addiction, small farmers forced to abandon their land because of lack of resources, shortcomings in the public education system, the superficiality of Cuban institutions, and poverty are some of the topics addressed by the films each year.

    Film expert Enrique Colina says the young people who gather at the exhibition have a passion for the burning issues of Cuba's day-to-day reality, which arises from the absence of critical and social journalism in this Caribbean island nation where the mass media have been in state hands since the mid-1960s.

    Social criticism plays a leading role in the festival films. "It has allowed people to express all those things that have damaged them deep down, including intense and hard-hitting social issues," Ariagna Fajardo, who works for Televisión Serrana, a community video and TV project in the east of the country, told IPS.

    This 27-year-old creative artist has been singled out for distinctions at the festival, in 2010 for "¿A dónde vamos?" (Where Are We Going?) about rural migration, and this year for "Papalotes" (Kites), which deals with the inertia that has overtaken people in Cuba.

    This year there were 69 competition entries, and the main categories were fiction, documentary, animation and original score.

    "Memorias del desarrollo" (Memories of Development) by Miguel Coyula won the fiction and original score prizes. It is the first movie to be filmed and exhibited in both the United States and Cuba since the U.S. embargo was imposed in 1962. The film was made possible by its independent, not-for-profit status.

    The film takes up the story of Sergio, the leading character in "Memorias del subdesarrollo" (Memories of Underdevelopment), an iconic film by the late Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

    Fajardo said the exhibition helps get local stories onto the screens in cinemas in the capital, some of which later resonate with audiences in other countries. But in spite of the attractiveness, strength and topicality of many films, "perhaps they will not generate dialogue beyond Havana's movie houses," she lamented.

    However, experts say the main distribution circuit for these films is as alternative as the exhibition itself.

    USB flash drives that plug into computers are used for person-to-person circulation, often on the black market, of films like "De leones, buzos y tanqueros" (2008), about people who scavenge recyclable materials on the streets and in garbage dumps, to survive.

    On the so-called "USB market", pirated local or international films, television serials or shows recorded on compact disks, DVDs or external storage devices are informally rented or sold.

    It is also a Cuban custom to swap or give away all kinds of digital-format audiovisual products, for entertainment or information purposes.

    Amateur films compete on equal terms with those by professional directors at the exhibition, which in its first 10 years has launched now-recognised filmmakers like Lester Hamlet and Pavel Giroud, and has helped drive the current boom in independent films in Cuba.

    Since 2009, a selection of the films presented at the Havana exhibition has subsequently toured all the country's provinces. "But they cannot get to regions that are remote from the provincial capitals. That population is left out, and does not find out what's going on," Fajardo stressed.

    On several occasions, Magali Cavus, a researcher at the University of Lyon in France, has taken Cuban Young Cinema works and alternative films to France. "The films help people to see Cuba not just in black-and-white, but in many more shades," she told IPS.

    By Ivet González

    From: IPS

    Trailer for the documentary "Revolution", screened in 2010 at Muestra Joven

    Mayckell Pedrero Mariol / Norway / 2010 / 50 min.
    This film, by Cuban director Mayckell Pedrero Mariol, is currently one of the most controversial works on the "island of freedom". It had only one public screening in Havana. Just to be on the safe side, journalists and bloggers were not allowed to attend. The protagonists of this documentary are members of the hip-hop group Los Aldeanos, whose lyrics faithfully describe the true reality of Cuban life. For Aldo and El B rap is a war, the Cuban leader is Pinocchio, and free speech is one of the most basic human rights. With their incisive and politically incorrect hip-hop, they have gained considerable popularity among young Cubans. Even though their records are self-released, they are constantly winning music awards. Besides interviews with the group's members and footage of their concerts, this formally inventive film - riotously edited in the style of a music video with a large dose of hip-hop - also presents black-and-white glimpses of everyday life on the streets of Havana, where Los Aldeanos are trying to light the way towards better times.

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