Thursday, June 30, 2011

Travel to Cuba eased through cultural tours

Old times are coming back...

It's now possible for the average traveler to travel legally to Cuba.

After months of waiting, specialty tour providers this week began getting their U.S. government licenses to offer "people-to-people" trips to the island nation that most Americans have never visited. The people-to-people trips are cultural tours that aim to help people understand one another.

Insight Cuba of New Rochelle, N.Y., is wasting no time launching the tours; it announced Tuesday it will start tours in August that last between three and eight nights, including Havana and Colonial Trinidad; Weekend in Havana; and Havana Jazz Experience (

Between 2000 and 2004, a brief window opened for people-to-people travel, but it slammed shut again before most tourists could take advantage of it. Many American tourists have traveled illegally to Cuba through Canada or Mexico, but penalties were stiffened. Then last year, the Obama administration indicated it would restore the "people to people" exemption so more Americans could do cultural exchanges.

The new rules still do not allow Cuban beach resort vacations; it emphasizes cultural trips.


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  • Tuesday, June 28, 2011

    Cuba: Microcredit Knocks on Door...Softly

    'Until about a year and a half ago, you practically couldn't talk about this issue, but now the situation is different,' a European diplomat told IPS. He preferred not to be identified, to avoid undermining progress on the issue, which has its own particular complexities in the case of Cuba. 'The idea of microcredit went from being almost sacrilege to something interesting,' he noted.

    Juan Diego Ruiz, general coordinator of Spanish cooperation in Cuba, said the word microcredit is not part of the Cuban vocabulary, and actually might not be the most correct term in this case.

    'Today what's being talked about more is credit policy, credit for the productive sector, and it's an issue that is being discussed both on the street and in offices,' he told IPS.

    One of the entities feeling out the situation on the ground is the Italian National Committee for Microcredit. It has organised a couple of visits to Cuba, evidence that the subject of microfinance is drawing attention little by little in the context of development projects and an opening to the private sector, where international cooperation could play an important role.

    This type of loan was created in the 1970s as a financing alternative for low-income people in need of capital to set up small businesses. Unlike traditional credit, no collateral is required, the amount is usually relatively small, and payments are weekly or biweekly.

    These differences lead to micro-financing institutions being described as entities with high administrative costs covered by the high interest rates generated by their portfolio of clients, composed of a large number of small, short-term loans, without guarantees, concentrated in a specific geographic area.

    Credit exists in Cuba in the form of Cuban pesos and focused on consumption, such as the individual purchase of domestic goods, and agricultural cooperatives.But the strategy launched by the sixth congress of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) to modernise the economic system anticipates expanding and diversifying possibilities in terms of bank loans.

    The 313-point programme charting the country's economic and social guidelines for the coming years specifies that credit policy will be essentially oriented towards providing necessary support for activities that stimulate national production and generate hard currency income or replace imports, as well as activities that promote development.

    Meanwhile, since March, banking and credit policies have been in place for individuals, such as loans for farmers to buy equipment and supplies in retail stores with the goal of boosting national food production.

    Also, loans may be granted to people authorised to engage in self- employment, to finance their working capital and investments via the purchase of assets, supplies and equipment, and to allow these self- employed workers to sell products and services to state entities through contracts.

    It is precisely in these emerging sectors, which have developed from the distribution of idle state land to thousands of farmers and the expansion of trades and activities in which self-employment is allowed, where microcredit could have the greatest impact, at least initially.

    However, the legal framework that will regulate the new policies on credit in general has yet to be defined.

    In these new forms of non-state activities, small-scale loans could facilitate access to machinery, tools, supplies and equipment, and increase the individual's ability to contract services or labour, which would stimulate the economy.

    It is in the area of self-employment 'where microcredit fits best, with a focus on individuals,' Tomas Marco, head of agricultural development in Cuba for the Spanish Technical Office for Cooperation, commented to IPS. 'What's opening up is a possibility; it's not even a certainty. Nobody knows if loans in hard currency for self-employed people will be permitted.'

    Cuba's dual currency system, in which the Cuban peso is the national currency and the convertible peso (CUC) replaced the U.S. dollar as hard currency in all transactions in 2004, is another challenge to overcome in making credit more widely available. However, no short-term changes to the system are on the horizon.

    'Another major obstacle is purchasing power,' Marco said. 'You might give a hard currency loan to a UBPC (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production in agriculture), but the cooperatives cannot directly buy in hard currency. We have to wait until regulations are created for the (new economic and political) guidelines, and see how these aspects are regulated.'

    Rodolfo Hernandez, an official with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), said microcredit could benefit Cuba 'fundamentally' in the low and medium-income sectors, with a certain amount of priority given to women and young people.

    'It would be important for loans to be granted in both currencies, for shops and other locales to be created that sell at the municipal and sub-municipal levels, and for the credits to carry a payable interest rate that would make the process sustainable and that would make loans accessible to people in low and medium-income segments of the population,' the expert said.

    In his opinion, funds should be channelled through the Bank of Credit and Development or local banks created for that purpose, and by associations of cooperatives - whose partners are other cooperatives - that have enough income to take on the commitment. For his part, Ruiz did not rule out that in the context of international cooperation, non-commercial but reimbursable credit instruments could operate. 'The opportunity and the will are there. In recent months, our headquarters (Spanish Agency for International Cooperation) has made several visits, and has reported on credit experiences that could have work here,' he commented.

    By Grogg, Patricia 

    Source: IPS

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  • Sunday, June 26, 2011

    Doubts over Chavez's health spur talk of successor

    Speculation that Hugo Chavez could be suffering from a serious illness is putting attention on a predicament for the president's allies: It's unclear who could step forward if he had to step down.

    Few Venezuelans are talking publicly about the possibility of President Hugo Chavez leaving office, partly because top government officials and close relatives have repeatedly said the president is recuperating in Cuba following surgery there two weeks ago.

    Still, Chavez's silence and seclusion since the operation have spurred growing talk about his health, stirring fears among some supporters that their leader could be seriously ill.

    The speculation has prompted some to ponder what would happen if failing health were to force Chavez to relinquish power. Until recently, even contemplating that possibility would have been considered absurd.

    Under Venezuela's constitution, Vice President Elias Jaua would take the president's place during "temporary" absences of up to 90 days. And Jaua would serve the rest of Chavez's six-year term if the socialism-preaching president were to die or resign.

    With a presidential election looming next year, such a scenario might put Jaua and other ruling party leaders in a tough position.

    None of Chavez's close confidants share his charisma and knack for connecting with Venezuela's poor majority. That constituency has ultimately decided elections in this politically divided South American country.

    Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East, believes the future of Chavez's political movement would largely depend on whether ill health prevented Chavez from designating a successor.

    "There is no second-in-command in the Chavez movement," Ellner said. "If Chavez is unable to endorse anyone, there will inevitably be dissension." Ellner said the situation would be much different if Chavez threw his support behind a would-be successor.

    "There is a great sense of loyalty within the Chavez movement," he said. "If Chavez himself is unable to run for physical reasons, but endorses a given candidate, the movement will not fall apart." While there are no obvious candidates, some observers believe the president might tap Jaua or Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's energy minister.

    Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who joined a 1992 coup attempt led by Chavez, was once perceived as Chavez's closest confidant. But Cabello's standing seems to have faded since he lost a 2008 re-election bid as the governor of Miranda state to a prominent opposition leader.

    Venezuelan officials have limited their comments on Chavez's health to saying he's recuperating but have provided few details.

    Jaua told an auditorium packed with government supporters Saturday that Chavez "is recuperating to continue the battle." He condemned Chavez's opponents for speculating about the president's health, accusing them of using the president's surgery to score political points before the next presidential election.

    "They know they cannot beat our commander, Hugo Chavez, in an election," he said, adding: "Chavez is going to be around for a long time." Meanwhile, Chavez's Twitter stream has been active while not providing any information about his health. One message on Friday saluted Venezuela's military on a holiday marking a decisive independence battle.

    Three messages appeared within 30 minutes Saturday afternoon, including one mentioning visits by Chavez's daughter Rosines and grandchildren. "Ah, what happiness it is to receive this shower of love!" the Twitter message read. "God bless them!" Nobody has heard Chavez publicly speak since he told Venezuelan state television by telephone on June 12 that he was quickly recovering from surgery two days earlier for a pelvic abscess. He said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness.
    It remains unclear when he will return to Venezuela.

    Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro urged Venezuelans on Friday to wish for Chavez's complete recovery and express their "most authentic love so that his health is re-established." "The battle that President Chavez is waging for his health must be everyone's battle: the battle for life, for the immediate future of our fatherland," Maduro added.

    Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, said he thinks some people "are jumping the gun" by expressing doubts on Chavez's health and raising questions about a potential successor.

    "I imagine that Chavez is enjoying this because people seem so concerned about his health," Tinker Salas said.

    "I can imagine him joking about all this speculation in front of a crowd of supporters" sometime in the near future.

    Source: Ahram Online

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  • Friday, June 24, 2011

    Cuba: Another Historiography Is Possible

    The Presidential Palace, built between 1913-1920. From 1965, the Museum of the Revolution. 

    Last Friday, I was talking with a young Honduran historian who was referring to Cuba’s Republican stage (1902-1959). She simplified that period by comparing it to how she sees Panama today: a paradise for gambling and sex but with a government that is failing to provide its citizens a dignified life.

    No matter how much revolutionary historiography has attempted to satanize Republican Cuba (attaching it with prefixes like “neo” or “pseudo to the noun “Republic”), it takes an effort to think this way by anyone who values logic and knows something about the history of Cuba.

    At least it takes some effort on my part, because for me the Cuban republic was not merely an American backyard for gambling and prostitution. There were also institutions here that for their seriousness and quality earned an esteemed place in the memory of our senior citizens.

    These were such that I’ve yet to meet an elderly elementary school teacher who doesn’t speak of their career without concluding with the sentence: “Us, yes, we are true teachers!” in an obvious critique of educators created by the revolutionary government.

    That republic of “players and prostitutes” also gave humanity numbers of people of international stature, such as the world champion of chess (Jose Raul Capablanca) and of boxing (“Kid Chocolate”). And I have to say that if Cuba still cannot point to a Nobel Prize winner from that time, it was simply because the sponsors and organizers of that award considered it undue to grant such a distinguished medal to a Latin American.

    It’s worth clarifying that despite the fact that the Swedish academy never granted Dr. Carlos J. Finlay the award, it did indeed nominate him for it on at least six occasions. This was an award that he clearly deserved because of his discovery of the Aedes aegypti mosquito as being the transmitting agent of yellow fever, thus saving hundreds of thousands of lives, which in an ironic twist of destiny also facilitated the completion of the Panama Canal.

    Another republic quite removed from the casinos and brothels was the one that grouped itself around Cuban intellectuality. Here at least three true erudite circles existed: the liberal, the Catholic and the socialist one, each led by a caliber of intellectuals at the continental level – people such as Jorge Mañach, Jose Lezama Lima and Juan Marinello, each also with their own identity and way of thinking about Cuba.

    From their respective political positions, and throughout the entire period of the republic, these cultivated circles that knew how to maintain intense, respectful and enriching dialogues on the issues that affected the nation, a matter that has been excessively downplayed in today’s Cuban academic and cultural panorama.

    That republic, which my Honduran friend automatically compared to the worst part of Panama, she also defined as “of little importance” also had one of the most important architecture schools on the continent. This was where architects like Nicolas Quintana (who died recently in Miami), Havana resident Mario Coyula and many others designed and built in barely a half a decade (1953-1958) two of the most emblematic neighborhoods in Havana and in Cuba: Vedado and Miramar.

    It goes without saying that this Cuba, so “ill-favored” and full of thugs (according to national historiography), had the first Latin American Olympic champion: fencer Ramon Fonts (1904).

    It’s also worth remembering the important role that Cuba would play in the technological development of the region. The first Latin American airborne journey was carried out by a Cuban, Agustin Parla. The 1913 flight lasted almost three hours as that pilot traveled between Cayo Hueso (U.S.A.) and the town of the Mariel, west of Havana.

    Even rights such as divorce — so trying and difficult to understand for sexist Ibero-Americans at the beginning of the 20th century — was accepted in our country as early as 1918.

    In terms of other women’s rights, the first feminist movement in Ibero-America appeared at the end of the 1930’s in Cuba, thirty-six years ahead of the movement in Spain, for example.

    Other important facts that my friend should know is that in 1937 Cuba decreed, for the first time in Ibero-America, laws for the eight-hour work day, the minimum wage and university autonomy.

    In 1940 a constitution was adopted which was the first one in Ibero-America that approved the right of women to vote, equal rights for different sexes and races, and women’s right to work.

    In 1951 the Riviera Hotel became the first in the world to have central air conditioning.

    In terms of our agrarian culture, my friend should also know that in 1954 Cuba succeeded in producing one head of cattle for each resident, with the Cuban population back then numbering around six million people.

    It would also be worthwhile to recognize that in 1956 the UN recognized Cuba as the number two country in Latin America in terms of its literacy index, with its illiterate population consisting of only 23.6 percent – well above Spain’s illiterate population of 60 percent.

    In 1957 Cuba was recognized by the UN as the leading Ibero-America country in terms of its number of doctors per capita (1 for every 957 residents).

    In 1958 Cuba ranked as the second country of the world in the percentage of households with color television and it was the third in the world to establish a color TV station.

    In 1958 Cuba was the Ibero-American country with the most automobiles (160,000, or one for each 38 residents).

    I also feel it my duty to tell my friend that in 1959, Havana led the world by being the city with the most movie theaters (358), even surpassing cities like New York and Paris.

    In conclusion, I would like to let my friend know that I don’t have anything personal against our fine Panamanian sisters and brothers, nor do I believe that she does. Still, I would like to know if she still thinks the same after this brief review of the data on the Cuban Republic.

    Alfredo Fernandez Rodriguez

    Source: Havana Times 

    Related: Clouds in my Cuban coffee 

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  • Wednesday, June 22, 2011

    Hitler in Havana (1966)

    I was looking through old Miami Herald articles of the 60's and stumbled upon this ad from December 10, 1966. I laughed when I saw it because it highlighted how little anti-communist propaganda against the Cuban government has changed. At least locally.

    Thanks to YouTube, this television program titled "Hitler in Havana" can be viewed in its entirety. The title and first few minutes summarizes the video nicely: "in the midst of Havana today another Hitler rages!" This and many other points in the video I've heard repeated in Miami often. According to the ad, the video was produced by the Information Council of the Americas, founded by Edward S. Butler. The video is also available on DVD.

    Hitler in Havana

    [Portion from the ad]

    You've read bold headlines! Now see secret scenes smuggled direct from Castro's Cuba. See explosions rivalling [sic] the Riechstag fire! Castro's G-2 Gestapo in action! Concentration camps in the center of Cuba! Red stormtroops rioting throughout the Americas. Brutal executions at the firing squad wall. See pathos, poverty, sabotage, riots, all filmed from life, as it was actually happening, hidden in the heart of Castro's Cuba.

    Produced by INCA
    (c) 1966, Information Council of the Americas

    Entire program will be repeated with Spanish translation by Alberto Gandero
    Sunday, Dec. 11
    10:30 - 11:30 A.M.

    By: Mambi Watch

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  • Monday, June 20, 2011

    Winds of Change in Cuba

    Winds of change are opening doors that have been closed in oppressed countries for half a century, not only in the near East but also in the Caribbean.  In central Cuba, one recent day seemed like any other until those winds blew through the main entrance at government-run Radio Placetas. The station is owned and operated by the Castro regime, as are all radio stations in Cuba. Consequently, the station transmits only programming approved by Cuba’s ruling Communist Party, broadcasting a predictable and monotonous replication of life under a totalitarian regime.

    The fresh winds this time took the human form of three young black Cuban women, who opened the doors and demanded to be heard: Yaimara Reyes Mesa, Yris Tamara Perez Aguilera and Donaida Perez Paseiro.  Miriam, the station director, rushed to confront them. It is rare for citizens to demand air time in Castroite Cuba. In a calm and respectful voice, the three women insisted that the station air an opinion different from the government’s official line about the recent death of dissident Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, who perished at the hands of police in the nearby city of Santa Clara a few days before.

    “We are Cuban citizens, we live in this city. Don’t we have a right to be heard?” said Yris.  “This station only transmits the policies of the Party and the government,” replied Miriam, the director, shocked that anyone would dare try to access the microphones of a “public” radio station for any unapproved message. “Then we will remain here until we are heard,” countered the dissident Donaida.

    Whipped into a fury by the station’s ever-present Communist Party delegate, employees surrounded the three protesters with hostile shouts of “Whatever you tell us to do, Fidel, we will do…” (Pa’ lo que sea, Fidel, pa’ lo que sea). The unlikely heroines were unmoved;  “We will not leave until the public knows that Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia was beaten to death by police.” And remain they did, until police arrested them.

    Yaimara, 29, Yris, 35, and Donaida, 39, are members of the Rosa Parks Feminist Movement, a nonviolent protest organization that advocates for the re-establishment of civil rights for all Cubans. They were protesting the death of Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, a 46-year old activist and former political prisoner who died after being beaten by police in a park in the provincial capital of Santa Clara on May 8 of this year. The beating took place after dictator Raul Castro sternly warned the illegal but increasingly active opposition groups during the April closing of the Cuban Communist Party Congress: “ is necessary for us to clarify that we will never deny the people the right to defend their Revolution, since the defense of independence, of the conquests of socialism and of our plazas and streets will continue to be the first duty of all Cuban citizens.”

    This was Castro’s order, in Orwellian doublespeak, to police and paramilitary forces to attack freedom activists anywhere and anytime they saw fit.

    After long imprisonments of peaceful dissidents led to international condemnation of the bankrupt, half-century-old Castro dictatorship, and failed to stem the rising tide ofpublic defiance, brutal street violence seems to be the regime’s principal recourse to stem a rising tide of popular resistance. The regime has reason to fear: Yris, Donaida and Yaimara are said to be the tip of an iceberg of grassroots opposition to the dictatorship. Young, black and from impoverished provinces, they are representative of the 93.1 percent of young Cubans who, according to a recent public opinion poll commissioned by the International Republican Institute,would vote in favor of changing Cuba from “the current political system to a democratic system with multi-party elections, freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”

    Shortly after being released from her arrest for the Radio Placetas sit-in, Yris joined other civic activists in a public march in her city. Violently intercepted by Regime police, Yris was thrown to the ground and beaten unconscious. After her release, before the pain of her injuries had begun to fade, she cried: “I will not renounce the struggle for Cuban freedom.”  The march concluded a twelve-day cycle of protests organized across Cuba by the National Civic Resistance Front (FNRC).

    Street protests like those by the FNRC were unheard of in a country where fear has ruled for decades. Their newfound frequency indicates that discontent against the Castro regime is overtaking fear, and motivating veteran activists to find freedom through nonviolent resistance. As distracted journalists and academics focus on Raul Castro and his purported plans of pseudo-reform, they would do well not to ignore Cuba’s growing Resistance and its will to bring about democratic change.  At this time of year the winds in the tropics can be unpredictable and strong.  And after 52 years of abuse, old and weak doors may not stand for long.

    By Otto Reich and Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat

    Source: NewsMax

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  • Friday, June 17, 2011

    Activists, Bloggers on the Cuba Money Project Vimeo Channel

    For anyone interested in United States (US) policy, human rights activism, or the problem of free expression in Cuba, there is a new must-see channel on Vimeo. It belongs to the Cuba Money Project.

    Last December, journalist, blogger, and Flagler College professor Tracey Eaton began the Cuba Money Project (CMP), a non-profit research and reporting initiative that aims to investigate and bring greater transparency and accountability to US federal spending on “pro-democracy” programs in Cuba. With the help of a grant from the Washington-based Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Eaton has employed a blend of traditional and new media techniques in his work.

    In addition to an active newsfeed and blog, the CMP website includes data visualizations of spending details, a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) tracker, and spaces where readers can contribute their own knowledge.

    US funding in Cuba: ‘Pro-democracy’ or anti-government?

    Despite sanctions against spending US dollars in Cuba, the US government has spent millions of dollars over the last five decades on an interventionist policy towards Cuba. Since 2007, Congress has allocated between 13 and 45 million USD per year to be spent on “pro-democracy” programs in the country.

    These programs have grown out of a US-Cuba policy framework that once sought to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. US ire for Cuban leadership began decades ago with Fidel Castro’s declaration of the socialist character of the revolution, and his refusal of economic aid from the US, and Cuba’s subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union.

    Today, the rhetoric has shifted: the stated goal of US policy in Cuba is no longer to bring the downfall of the government, but rather to support Cuban citizens’ efforts to improve their lives through the restoration of human, civic, and economic rights. Yet regardless of how the US chooses to represent its efforts, the “pro-democracy” programs that it supports are, by nature, anti-government, or at least fall in opposition to some part of the Cuban system as it currently stands.

    Diverse opposition

    The 24 interviews on CMP’s Vimeo channel feature Cuban human rights activists, traditional dissidents, bloggers, and government workers and supporters, along with policymakers from Cuba, England, and the US. I recently had the chance to interview Eaton about this impressive archive.

    Eaton’s goal is to get representative views from across the spectrum of opinion and influence on these issues:
    People have passionate views. I want to help them tell their story without taking sides. Letting them talk into the camera is a great way to do that. […] Video [allows] people to speak directly to the [viewers] without any intervention from me. I ask questions, but I don’t filter what people say. I try to let them tell their story. I edit the videos very lightly, if at all.
    He says that the archive is far from complete, and that he is determined to get more Cuban government supporters and workers to participate.

    The videos do not form a cohesive narrative about activism and US involvement in Cuba; rather, they show the truly diverse range of ideas and goals espoused by Cuban political activists and by those in the US who influence US-Cuba policy. As dissident leader Martha Beatríz Roque says:
    [l]a ideología dentro de la opposición es diversa. […] No somos partido único—partido único es el partido comunista.
    Ideology within the opposition is diverse. […] We are not one sole party—the communist party is a sole party.
    One important difference between activist groups that is all but indecipherable in mainstream coverage of Cuba is that which separates “old guard” dissidents, whose primary aim is to bring about the downfall of the Castro regime and the Cuban socialist project at large, and those who advocate for human rights in Cuba.

    While leaders like Roque, who is connected with anti-Castrist leaders in Miami, believe that more US government money could make a meaningful change in dissident work on the island, Oswaldo Payá, leader of the famed 1990s Varela Project, is not so sure of this:

    El dinero de los Estados Unidos no va a decidir el cambio en Cuba. […] La esencia del problema es que el gobierno cubano no reconoce los derechos de los ciudadanos cubanos en Cuba. […] El problema está en Cuba, y la solución está en Cuba, y entre cubanos.
    Money from the United States is not going to drive change in Cuba. […] The essence of the problem is that the Cuban government does not recognize the rights of Cuban citizens in Cuba. […] The problem is in Cuba, and the solution is in Cuba, between Cubans.

    Unemployment among opposition activists

    Eaton has interviewed several members of the women’s opposition group, Las Damas de Apoyo, who advocate for the end of politically-motivated incarceration in Cuba. They work in support of the Damas de Blanco, a coalition of women whose husbands and sons have been imprisoned for political reasons. Each of the women interviewed described how she had lost her job, and was unable to find work, because of her political beliefs:
    Unemployment and underemployment among members of Cuba’s political opposition is widespread…[They] are in a difficult spot…They have to do something to get by. I can understand why a dissident might accept help from a non-governmental organization.
    But, he says, “It’s a risky proposition. Accepting support from a US-financed NGO can set them up for possible arrest or jail time.” And doing political work costs money:
    If dissidents from Havana need to travel to another town to meet with other dissidents, it costs money…Internet access and phone calls are extraordinarily expensive…Simple things can be tough to accomplish in Cuba, especially if you are strapped for cash. You can’t just walk to a Kinko’s on the corner to make copies.
    Opposition leaders in various camps described the problems that money can create for their cause, particularly when coming from the US. Aleida Godinez, a state security agent, believes that when US money stops coming in, the dissident movement will end. When asked about US support for pro-democracy initiatives in Cuba, Godinez notes an important problem that many Cubans perceive within this paradigm:
    Los promotores de los valores de la democracia, de la libertad, son norteamericanos. No entiendo por que razón no permiten que un país como Cuba no puede elegir su propio sistema social. […] [Demuestra] una falta de respeto para el pueblo cubano.
    The people who promote the virtues of democracy and freedom are North Americans. I don’t understand why they cannot allow a country like Cuba to elect its own social system. […] It [shows] a lack of respect for the Cuban people.
    “Dissident bloggers” or just bloggers?

    Eaton has interviewed three of Cuba’s most prominent anti-government bloggers, Claudia Cadelo [es], Laritza Diversent [es], and Yoani Sánchez [es]. I asked him what he thought of their involvement with opposition initiatives, and how he saw them fitting into the larger landscape of pro-democracy activism that CMP seeks to better understand.

    Eaton calls Cuba’s bloggers a “diverse bunch.” “[T]hey shouldn't be lumped together with political dissidents,” he told me. “Some Cuban bloggers support the socialist system. Others rebel against it, but don't consider themselves to be dissidents.”

    “Many bloggers want change, but steer clear of politics,” he told me:

    When I talked to blogger Claudia Cadelo last year, she…didn't seem too interested in politics. She wants change. She wants an expansion of basic freedoms. But I wouldn't consider her to be a political dissident.
    Some bloggers purposely avoid the U.S. Interests Section in Havana because they don't want to be linked to American efforts to undermine the Cuban government.

    Indeed, many of the island’s most widely read bloggers advocate for change, but do not engage directly with politics. Even Yoani Sánchez did not begin blogging with a particular political agenda, though unlike many, she has since become a vociferous advocate for particular political changes in Cuba.

    If there were a political platform for bloggers, Eaton says it would be advocacy for free expression and open Internet access for all Cubans:

    My impression is that a key issue for many Cuban bloggers is freedom of expression. They want Internet access for all. They want it to be affordable. They want to network with other people and they want the freedom to use technology without someone looking over their shoulder. […] Outside Cuba, there are many bloggers and democracy activists who are eager to see change on the island. Many are Cuban exiles who have no plans to return to Cuba while the Castro brothers are in power. They are quick to support many of the bloggers, and sometimes pull them into the swirling currents of the U.S.-Cuba grudge match whether the bloggers want that or not.

    Projects like Eaton's might well serve as a counterbalance to the common assumption by many activists groups that all Cubans who criticize their government are alike. No matter what side they're on, anyone interested in the complex political world of Cuba today should check out the Cuba Money Project Vimeo channel.

    Written by Ellery Roberts Biddle 

    Source: Global Voices

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  • Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Can Hugo Chavez govern Venezuela from Cuba?

    Opposition in Venezuela lunches offensive on resident Hugo Chavez, after he approved a law while he is abroad having a surgery in Cuba.

    Opposition lawmakers were angered Wednesday that President Hugo Chavez enacted a law from Cuba, arguing that his absence was unconstitutional and that he could not govern from abroad.

    The 56-year-old Venezuelan leader arrived in Cuba on June 8 on the final leg of a trip authorized by the National Assembly that also included Brazil and Ecuador.

    He was rushed into emergency surgery last Friday after suffering sharp pain that was diagnosed as a pelvic abscess that required immediate surgery.

    Chavez is reportedly recovering well, though the government has given no date for his return to Caracas.

    Opposition legislators, who control 40 percent of Venezuela's single-chamber legislature, argue that his prolonged absence means that Vice President Elias Jaua should replace him.

    They traded insults with pro-Chavez lawmakers, who insisted -- as government loyalist Iris Varela put it -- that Chavez does not stop being president "even if he's on the Moon, or in Beijing."

    Another legislator, constitutional scholar Carlos Escarra, said it was "absurd" to claim that the president could not govern simply because he was abroad.

    According to Venezuela's constitution, the National Assembly must authorize any presidential trip abroad lasting more than five days, and any "temporary absences" of up to 90 days are filled by the vice president.

    Escarra said the government is complying with the constitution because the legislature authorized his trip abroad.

    Opposition lawmakers, however, demanded that a "temporary absence" be declared and that the vice president replace Chavez.

    The president "cannot govern from abroad," said lawmaker Omar Barboza, who was especially angered over the measure that Chavez signed into law from Havana.

    It is "absolutely irregular to enact laws from abroad," said Enrique Sanchez Falcon, a professor of constitutional law at the Central University of Venezuela. "The vice president should temporarily take over," he told AFP.

    "Venezuela has been humiliated because either it is governed by Chavez from Cuba or by (Cuban leader) Fidel (Castro)," charged opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado.

    Communist Cuba is Chavez's staunchest ally in the region. Eventually the National Assembly authorized Chavez to stay in Cuba "until he is in condition to return."

    A pelvic abscess is a pus-filled cavity normally caused by an infection. Treatment usually involves a surgical drainage and dead tissue removal, experts said. Most patients are able to walk within 24 hours after surgery, however, they often experience some discomfort for several days, according to experts.

    Source: Abraham Online

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  • Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    From a Cuban youth movement, to journalism, to jail

    I joined the political civilist youth movement in 1991. Curiously, what I remember most from that period is how my apprehensions led me to disguise myself with a hat and glasses when traveling from my town of Artemisa to Havana to meet with other activists. These feelings of fear, defenselessness, and even blame, are common to those who live in Cuba, stifled by oppression and numbed by endless totalitarian propaganda.

    Three years later, in 1994, I joined the independent press when I covered for Radio Martí the Artemisa arrest of opposition members, among them the local hero of days past, Domingo René García Collazo, ex-commander of the Rebel Army, whose rank was given to him in 1959 by the then-venerable leader, Fidel Castro.

    This first report was followed by others and, around 1995, a group of us activists founded the freedom desk of the Cuban Independent Press Bureau, under my direction. Afterward, we created other desks that promoted media, human rights, and union activities in the region. The state security presence in our lives swelled to the point that in the early hours of February 24, 1996, state security-equipped paramilitary groups visited my house along with those of other journalists, human rights groups, and unions to intimidate us using terrorist language.

    From this date forward, the majority of the city's activists worked together to coordinate press activities with those of the trade unionism and human rights movements. In this context, I took on the task of creating the country's first school for the teaching of these rights. Educating myself from literature provided by the Spanish Embassy and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, I created a manual on which the curriculum was based and founded the Felix Varela Program for Human Rights Education. I gave classes until I was arrested in 2003 and I published (in 1999 and 2001) various reports on the subject in the magazine, Vitral de la Iglesia Catolica of Pinar del Rio.

    State Security responded to the expansion of my civilist activities, particularly those related to education and the press, with more arbitrary detentions, searches, confiscations, warnings, threats, and, eventually, imprisonments. To suffocate freedom of information and of the press becomes a question of life or death for dictatorships. Accordingly, the regime used Orwelian artifices to falsify the past and distort the present, which is a crucial to the manipulation of information and the creation of propaganda. For this reason, Cuba is the only country in the Western hemisphere where foreign newspapers are not available and also why Fidel Castro has called journalists "a unit of the Revolution." That is how the despot states it. He knows that repression alone is not enough to conquer the people; instead he must rely on apologetic, incessant, crazy-making, and chauvinist propaganda that acts as a spiritual sleeping pill and is worth more than his army of police officers.

    But the creative force of the freedom instinct and the idea of democracy are contagious and won't be contained. This force always overcomes obstacles in its way and, for more than 20 years, Castro has not been alone on the Cuban political stage. A contingent of men and women decided to stand up to him in the realm of the word, the mind, and the spirit, in support of a State of Rights for Cuba. And in spite of the enormous disadvantages and repression, we arrived with much more than before as of March 2003, when, faced with the push of the powerful discourse on human rights, the Varela Project [which advocated for democratic reforms], the force of the trade unionism, and the fearlessness of the independent press, Castro was angry, got worked up, and committed a serious mistake: the Cuban Black Spring and its extrajudicial summary trials, without warrants or defense, that yielded savage sentences of up to 28 years imprisonment.

    And his mistake was so massive that from it, armed with nothing but gladiolas, our magnificent Ladies in White emerged. Castro was then forced to face our wives, who, backed by a formidable international solidarity campaign, dealt the tyrant his most costly and deathly political defeat: he bowed, for the first time, to mounting pressure from the people themselves, from the internal opposition, not from the exterior; and although we had to go into exile, he had to release us. This fact constitutes a unique case in a half a century of communism in Cuba, and becomes the supreme example that can fertilize the social and spiritual womb of our nation.

    Faced with the liberating fertility of this paradigm and the social and economic failure of the regime, Castro, looking to reduce internal pressure, found himself forced to "concede" to the people some of the economic rights that for more than 50 years he violated.

    In the first days of our imprisonment we were held in State Security general barracks. There, in cells intended for four prisoners, it was so narrow and overcrowded that there was a mere half a square meter per person. These intensely claustrophobic and oppressive quarters, in which the lights were permanently turned on, constituted a psychic torment that was applied to the 36 days prior to being interrogated before the judge.

    Under these tortuous conditions and deprived of pencil, paper, and a lawyer, it was impossible for me to prepare my defense before the tribunal, where the very principles of independence and judge impartiality are lacking anyway.

    That is where I more fully understood the terms "defenselessness" and "abuse of power" in that both were employed to sentence me to an unjust and brutal 26 years in jail. And paradoxically, on page eight of my sentence, I'm described as a "person of good and respectful relations with the rest of the citizens in the social order and lacking criminal antecedents," an obligatory and cynical acknowledgement that contradicts the brutal sanction which included the torturous "extra" year spent in a minute, damp, windowless punishment cell filled with rats and other creatures, and given horrible nourishment, imposed on someone who was only fulfilling civic duties and exercising his inalienable rights.

    I don't know what made me deserving of so much hatred. And I'm unable to express here what I felt in those cells, those tombs. I can, however, and want to unmask those who abuse power, lie, and offend my dignity by accusing me of being a conspirator and mercenary.

    After a torturous period in the punishment cells, they integrated me with the general criminal population and together we shared in the risks, the injustice, and the miserable physical conditions of the Cuban prison system.

    Despite all this, I should acknowledge that existing within these repressive forces is a growing number of men and women that silently support us and reject the policies of the regime. They, too, can contribute to democratic transformations and the national reconciliation of our people.

    And today in exile, when I recall my seven and a half years in prison, writing you with the new perspective of a future in freedom feels like a chimera. From this future, my main objective is to stay faithful to Christian values, to my honor and to my own law: to fight always as the only dignified attitude before life. My objectives, also very beloved are:

    • To work for a free press outlet where I can continue on my path as a civilist in support of democratic ideas in Cuba and elsewhere.
    • To complete the book of essays I began in prison.

    Finally, I'd like to pay my respects to the martyr Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who discovered how to die as an act of rebellion against oppression, and to the heroism of Guillermo Fariñas: protagonists, along with the Ladies in White, of the unpublished and forceful victory over Castro.

    By Alfredo Felipe Fuentes

    (Translated by Karen Phillips)

    This entry is part of an ongoing series of first-person stories by Cuban journalists who were imprisoned in a massive roundup of dissidents that has become known as the Black Spring of 2003. All of the reporters and editors were convicted in one-day trials, accused of acting against the "integrity and sovereignty of the state" or of collaborating with foreign media for the purpose of "destabilizing the country."

    Source: CPJ

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  • Sunday, June 12, 2011

    Cuba: Tobacco dollars over public health

    In a section of the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth", Al Gore talks on the topic of smoking and its harmful effects on human life, but this piece of the film seems to be ignored by Fidel Castro and the Cuban communists, although they are apparently anti-global-warming activists.

    Much of the civilized world has begun to pass laws to ban smoking in places that affect other people, as recommended by the World Health Organization; however, as if it were not enough to be one of the only countries still governed by a socialist dictatorship, Cuba also prefers to be one of the few nations to avoid anti-tobacco regulations in order to not harm the earnings of its state tobacco industry.

    According to WHO, about 6 million people will die this year because of smoking, not including passive smoking, but in the socialist paradise of the Castro brothers, the "problem" to choose between health and dollars is defined in the style of Wall Street investment bankers, what makes more profit?, where tobacco capitalism wins easily.

    While Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay and other Latin American countries continue to move to offer its citizens smoke-free spaces, Cuba continues to hold the annual "Habano's Festival", tobacco is still among the top three Cuban export products, and the pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara with cigars in their mouths are part of Latin American communist culture.

    A few years ago, the government of Cuba sought to promote anti-tobacco regulations, but they were nullified with the excuse of being intolerable for the people, which sounds highly implausible because we are talking about one of the most repressive dictatorships on the planet.

    And in this we have another of the contradictions of Cuban socialism. Fidel prefers to write about the growth of deserts in Africa and toxic emissions in the northern hemisphere, but where he can do something real for life, in Cuba, where the Castro family has dominated for the past 52 years, he chooses to discuss the problems in foreign countries.

    Luis Alberto López Rafaschieri and José Alberto López Rafaschieri

    Source: From the Beginning

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  • Friday, June 10, 2011

    Oakland airport authorized for flights to Havana

    In the latest sign of thawing relations between the United States and Cuba, Oakland International Airport has been authorized to offer nonstop flights to Havana.

    The airport announced Wednesday that as soon as December it will provide weekly charter flights to and from José Martí International Airport in partnership with Cuba Travel Services of Long Beach.
    Oakland joins eight other airports nationwide, including Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Baltimore, that were authorized in March to fly to the communist country. Previously, only Los Angeles, Miami and New York airports offered such service.

    The United States' historically strained relationship with Cuba began loosening in January, when the Obama administration announced that it would relax restrictions on academic and religious travel to the island nation. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who pushed for the city's airport to be authorized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to provide the flights, has long lobbied for more open interactions between the two countries.

    "It's one step in the right direction. I think we need to fully lift the travel ban as a major first step," she said. "Allowing airports to get a license to get a charter flight directly into Cuba is huge for Oakland."

    Tickets in October


    Round-trip tickets are expected to go on sale in early October for about $860, said Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, which will schedule the flights. The journey to Havana takes about 5 hours and 40 minutes; the return flight takes about 6 hours and 45 minutes.

    Cuba Travel Services has yet to finalize which carriers it will use, Zuccato said. It is in talks with a number of airlines, including Spirit Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, and will use aircraft that can hold up to 160 passengers, such as a Boeing 737.

    Zuccato said Cuba Travel Services partnered with the Oakland airport because most of its would-be customers in the area reside in the East Bay. A spokesman for San Francisco International Airport said it is not planning to offer flights to Cuba.

    The travel changes announced in January do not affect the ban on U.S. tourism, meaning that those most interested in soaking up the sun at Cuban beach resorts will have to wait a while longer. Most trade remains barred.

    Academic opportunities


    But the new policies open possibilities for academic and religious groups. Accredited educational institutions can now apply to operate in Cuba under a license that authorizes students, faculty and staff to take credit courses toward a degree, conduct graduate research and teach a 10-week course at a Cuban academic institution. Members of incorporated religious organizations can also apply for a general license to participate in religious activities.

    Bay Area scholars who study the Caribbean and Latin America praised the news. UC Davis operates a study-abroad program in Cuba, but UC Berkeley and other universities canceled theirs because of the previous restrictions.

    "It's not that much further than the East Coast, but because of connections and all kinds of restrictions, it's just really a nightmare to get there," said Laura Enriquez, a UC Berkeley sociology professor who researches agriculture in Cuba and chairs the campus' Working Group on Cuba. "This will make it massively easier."

    The increased access to Cuba, though gradual, marks a significant step away from the icy relationship that has existed since the Cold War, said María Elena Díaz, an associate professor of history at UC Santa Cruz. The Havana native has taught a class on 20th century Cuba for the past decade.

    "I think that, slowly, Cubans and North Americans are coming to the realization that all of these restrictions are antagonistic and have not worked," she said. "Cuba has been moving on and the United States is staying behind. This is the moment, I think, to catch up."

    Stephanie Lee
    Source:  SFGate

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  • Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    A conversation with a Cuban telecommunication engineer

    I asked for input and test runs from people in Cuba in a recent post, and I've had an interesting email conversation with a telecommunication engineer who says he has never worked in that field. He asked me not to share his name or email address.

    We talked about Internet access. He says only foreign people with permanent resident visas, foreign students, and business with foreign capital can get Internet accounts, and that those dial up accounts have all ports open.

    Enterprises throughout the country can get DSL connections, but they are limited to Web (HTTP) applications. He has also heard rumors that pro-government bloggers get DSL connections.

    He told me that Cubans are not allowed to connect to the Internet from their homes so they pay an illegal fee of 1.50 to 2.00 CUC per hour to buy time from foreign students and others who have dial-up accounts. (One CUC = US$1.08 and the average wage is 20 CUC per month).

    It is legal to buy a WiFi card (if you can find one in stock) and connect at one of a few hotels in Havana or Varadero with WiFi connectivity. They charge 8 CUC per hour for access to a 128 kb/s link that is shared by all of the hotel users at the time. The second legal option is to go to a Cyber-Café or hotel which charges 2 CUC for 15 minutes of access to PC with "veeery slow" connectivity.

    Education centers like universities and medical schools are connected by fiber. Within the organizations they have 100 mb/s LANs behind NATs. He recalls a time when the university he attended (I won't say which one) had only 512 kb/s connectivity for approximately 1,000 PCs. That was eventually stepped up to 2 mb/s.

    He is on point-to-point Ethernet connection to, and is able to trace the route from his dial-up connection to Google via a Newcom International satellite link. Average ping time to Google was 683 ms. Ping times to other machines at averaged 110 ms.

    He did not want to run many tests, because he feared surveillance by CuCERT. Like their counterparts in other nations, CuCERT is charged with responding to network security incidents, but he characterizes them as being like "cyber-cops, who can enter your house, pick up your HDs and walk away without previous notification."

    (I tried to reach, but could not from the US -- not sure if it is blocked or down or both).

    He gave me the IP address of a university server that was running network monitoring software. I could see graphs of traffic on the links to the university, the internal Ethernet LAN, temperature, and disk utilization on several servers. I could also reach the help desk, but resisted the urge to submit a help desk ticket request :-). You see a sample traffic graph above (click on it to enlarge it). The green line is incoming traffic and the blue outgoing. As you see, the 2 mb/s link is pretty well saturated -- surfing must be slow.

    It feels cool to see the graphs, and I bet they would be upset to know that they were visible, but they are not of much practical value except to the network administrators at that university. If one could get similar statistics from all Cuban universities, one could begin to stitch together a picture of the backbone networks.

    He also confirmed that bootleg satellite TV from the US is common and found in almost all parts of the country. People buy a satellite receiver from a local supplier who gets an account from the US. Some of those people sell service to their neighbors using coaxial cable, although he thinks that activity is decreasing after several antenna seizures. The service costs around 10 CUC per month, and the viewers cannot change channels themselves.

    There are "muyyyy" few people with HughesNet Internet links, and they are heavily prosecuted and can go to jail if caught. He said WiFi is everywhere, and is mainly used to share music and videos and play games. He said the government is concerned about that, but I don't understand why since WiFi is local, and I doubt that they are concerned with copyright violation on the music and video :-).

    We talked a bit about the Alan Gross case. He thinks the trial and sentence were for political reasons, and the government hopes to do a prisoner exchange. Gross got a long sentence, but a Cuban could get 3-5 years for having a satellite link to the Internet. He said there are some people with satellite connection who provide service to others using WiFi access points and repeaters and homemade antennae, but, as mentioned above, that is risky business.

    If you are in Cuba, how does your experience compare to what I've just described?

    Larry Press

    From: The Internet in Cuba

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  • Monday, June 6, 2011

    Recalling Tiananmen in Cuba

    Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989.

    Praises of Chinese socialism have appeared with greater frequency in the Cuban press over the last few years.

    The city buses that cruise the capital, the merchandise sold in hard-currency stores and the modern cars driven by military officers and state leaders are virtually all produced in China.

    The media reports to us ordinary Cubans about the relations that are being established between the government of our country and that of the Asian giant.

    These small details were enough to allow predictions on how the Cuban media would cover the actions that were commemorated around the world on June 4.

    Twenty-two years have passed since the events of Tiananmen Square yet we can still note an embarrassing silence here on the island.

    The Communist Party of Cuba (though I would prefer to be mistaken) seconded the position of the Chinese Communist Party (PCCh) in treating what happened in that plaza as an “inappropriate” issue.

    Because of this, millions of Cubans went along with that assessment without knowing the true position of the government and party in China, which has become an economic partner with Cuba.

    On June 4, 1989, that now world-famous square was the witness of a massacre where even today it’s impossible to conclude the true toll of the dead and wounded.

    The Chinese government gave the order to dissolve a demonstration of an estimated hundred thousand protesters, the majority students and workers.

    The method used for putting an end to the protest: armed soldiers and tanks.

    At Tiananmen Square the demonstrators requested the removal of corrupt rulers, freedom of the press, freedom of expression and free association, the end of the layoffs in factories and inflation, among other demands.

    The method used for protesting was the hunger strike.

    The only response given was a hail of bullets.

    China just signed a letter of intent to redo a Cuban oil refinery. Business is business even for"communists"

    The demonstrators were branded as counter-revolutionaries, criminals or agent provocateurs of the Western capitalist governments.

    On several occasions those who were protesting sang the words of The International, recognized as the hymn of communism.
    From this fact one could conclude that they were not aiming to renounce socialism.

    But that wasn’t enough, as orders were given to squeeze the triggers.

    Remembering the events in Tiananmen is a duty of all those on the left who are fighting against bureaucratic and totalitarian regimes around the world – those structures of individuals who attempt to smother people’s participation and leadership by perpetuating themselves in power at whatever the cost.

    Daisy Valera  

    Source: Havana Times

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  • Saturday, June 4, 2011

    Raul Castro completes the octogenarian club to rejuvenate Cuban leadership

    Cuban President Raul Castro turned 80 on Friday, vowing to rejuvenate the country's aging leadership and its sagging economy.
    No official events took place as he joins Cuba's club of octogenarians, which already boasts his brother Fidel Castro, 84, and his second in charge, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is 80.

    At a recent summit of the Communist Party, Castro said one of his last duties as head of government would be to pave the way for successors.

    “Today we face the consequences of not having a reserve of adequately prepared substitutes, with the experience and maturity to assume the new and complex work of leading the party, the state and the government,” he said.

    But on Thursday when seeing off former Brazilian president Lula da Silva, Raúl insisted it was a shame he could not retire because he was less than half way through the first of two possible five-year terms, thus hinting he would stand again for the presidency in 2013.

    If he were to retire his presumed successors are of the same generation -- vice-president Jose Ramon Machado is also 80, and close confidant Ramiro Valdes is 79.

    However in a radical break from the past, Castro has paved the way for more private enterprise, encouraging Cubans to open small businesses and pay taxes on their endeavors.

    Cubans have bought more than 200,000 licenses allowing them to go into business for themselves since last October. At the same time, Castro announced massive layoffs in the state sector that will eventually mean the elimination of more than 1 million jobs.

    Reform has reached agriculture where families are allowed to farm their plots and sell directly to consumers at market prices. Cuba with ample farmland to feed its population is desperate to cut its imported food bill, mostly from the US and Brazil and which is two billion US dollars per annum.

    In that line of action the scheme of free lunches for almost everybody has been gradually abolished and will be limited to the really needy.

    Even when there were no plans to mark Raul 80th birthday on Friday, officials anticipated that a grand celebrations is programmed for his elder brother Fidel's 85th in August. Former president Lula da Silva was in Cuba where he met with both Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel, to visit the construction of the Mariel port, 43 kilometres west of Havana. The port restructuring was subsided with a US$ 300 million credit line awarded during Lula da Silva’s term. Lula reported to be “happy” with his trip and his meeting with the Castros.

    Source: MercoPress

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  • Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Clouds in my Cuban coffee

    The writer returns to the country of her birth, only to have her illusions met by hard reality.

    Our family was lucky. Or at least that’s what my parents told me, over and over again. “We got out of Cuba just in time.” First my mother, with my two siblings and me in 1960. Then my father, shortly before the revolutionaries appropriated the family business. My grandmother waited the longest, emigrating the following summer. She left her husband behind, forever as it turned out. He stayed in Havana to take care of a younger brother who had been imprisoned by Castro’s regime for “collaborating with the CIA.”

    After I married and had children of my own, I began dreaming of returning to Cuba. My situation was complicated, though. First, because I am now a U.S. citizen. Second, because both sides of my family had been part of the hated bourgeoisie before the Cuban revolution and had openly opposed Fidel Castro.

    I called my uncle in Washington, D.C., for advice. He’d been the mayor of Havana and ambassador to the United States under former president Ramón Grau. He discouraged me from going, warning that it would not be safe for any member of our family to return. My father agreed. He knew Fidel well — he had crossed paths with him every day in the hallways of their private Jesuit high school. “He was a bully then,” he said, his face darkening, “and he is a paranoid bully now. You might get in, but you might not get out.” Still, one afternoon, he drew a map of Havana with an engineer’s precision and carefully marked a half-dozen places of interest in red pencil: the family business, our home in Havana, my grandparents’ houses.

    My maternal grandmother lived with us in New Jersey after she emigrated. One summer morning, she patted a spot beside her and told me a secret. Just before she fled Cuba, she whispered conspiratorially, she had hired a master carpenter to hide a few precious belongings under the staircase of her home. A box of photographs. A bundle of letters. Family heirlooms, nestled in velvet and gold-brocade drawstring pouches. “Si regresas a La Habana,” my grandmother concluded, squeezing my hands too tightly, “If you make it back to Havana . . . promise me, Ali, that you will go to my house and get my things.”

    Twice, in my 30s and again in my 40s, I wrote letters and submitted applications for entry as a visiting journalist. I didn’t get very far, and I set aside my dream — until my eldest brother died unexpectedly, at age 51. He was cremated, and we scattered his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean hoping the sea would carry him to Cuba, his homeland. As the dark clot of cremains dissipated in the lapping waves, the familiar longing rose in me. Suddenly, nothing seemed more important than returning to Cuba.

    I quit my publishing job of 27 years. I found a new job in education that qualified me to conduct research in Cuba.

    I spent long hours online and on the phone investigating potential itineraries. Finally, on the off chance that I’d satisfy both countries’ requirements for legal travel, I paid a well-connected Cuban travel agent to process a thick stack of forms and documents.

    It was madness, but it worked. At the 11th hour, I received a phone call from the agent, who told me she was holding in her hands the Cuban government’s entry permit. She was as surprised as I was. “The Cuban officials must not have looked closely at your application. You’re very lucky.”

    Three weeks later, on Aug. 1, 2009, I stood in line at Miami International Airport with a lively group of Cuban families waiting to board a chartered flight to Havana. The minute our plane lifted off the runway, the passengers broke out in applause. Flushed with excitement, my seatmate said, “Life is very, very hard in Cuba, but we miss it terribly all the same. There is no more beautiful place on Earth.”

    At José Martí airport in Havana, I breezed through the H1N1 screening line, customs line and luggage tax line. As I approached the fourth and final line, I eyed the exit. “Wait!” the official I’d handed my declaration card to commanded. “What is this?” A hairy index finger stabbed the line where I’d written “U.S. citizen.”

    “I have my passport right here,” I stammered, confused by his tone. “I can show it to —”

    “No!” he barked. Then he theatrically shredded the declaration card and called over another official to cover his post. When he led me away to a private area of the airport, I panicked. But he simply whipped out a fresh form and helped me fill it out “correctly.”

    “Look, your U.S. citizenship does not mean anything here,” he explained. Eres cubana, entiendes? “You are Cuban, got it? You might have a house and some official papers in America, but you will always be Cuban. That is what you must write here.”

    I expected smooth sailing from then on. I was wrong. As I stepped outside the airport into suffocating heat, I found myself, like Alice in Wonderland, mystified by the strange, new world I’d tumbled into. Only this was no wonderland.

    The experiences of the next seven days were deeply disorienting. When I told the cab driver my destination was the Hotel Habana Libre, he said bitterly, “I am not welcome in your hotel, because I am dark-skinned. The government thinks tourists are more comfortable around light-skinned people. Even when my relatives from America come for a visit and stay here, I am not allowed to go up to their room.”

    I was genuinely surprised. Given that Cuba’s population is over 50 percent black and the government prides itself on equality and the common good, I thought race relations would be better. I asked the driver if this hotel was an exception. He snorted and bounced the cab over a curb and into the hotel’s circular driveway.

    Still, nothing could dampen my spirits. I was here! And I was about to enter the famed “Havana Hilton,” as the hotel was originally christened. My father’s first cousin launched his career as an architect here, designing one of the grand ballrooms. My young parents had strolled through the magnificent lobby, undoubtedly admiring the three-storey atrium. I was born in April 1958, just one month after the grand opening. Perhaps I had walked through these very doors myself as a toddler.

    But as I approached the main entrance, I tensed. Uniformed guards flanked the doorway. Plainclothes police with poorly hidden earpieces moved silently through the lobby. Glancing around as I waited in line to register, I spotted the cold eye of a surveillance camera tucked among plastic foliage.

    Never far from watchful eyes, I followed the pre-approved itinerary exactly. I attended canned lectures, toured designated schools and interviewed teachers and university professors for my “research project.” I learned little of any consequence in these government-sponsored venues. A few hours online would have been more fruitful.

    It was not easy to access the Internet, though, even in the hotel. Guests had to turn over their passports to the computer-room clerk before using the shared computers, and the Internet connection was extremely slow. Phone calls were monitored, too, in the glass-enclosed booths of the hotel telephone centre, where a helpful operator dialed all calls and, I’m told, listened in.

    Some days, though, the itinerary allowed for a few unscheduled and unsupervised hours to rest or shop. On these days, I quickly changed into a simple housedress and sandals and struck out alone. It was these solitary excursions — and the spontaneous encounters they occasioned — that made my visit worthwhile. I walked slowly, taking in the rich colours and scents of royal purple bougainvillea, blood-red hibiscus and the fiery blossoms of framboyan trees, and greeting the Cubans squatting in doorways and loitering in storefronts, striking up random conversations. A surprising number were friendly and willing to talk, to tell their stories.

    It’s true, these Cubans told me, that the government provides free health care and education. Every Cuban has a roof over his head and food on her table. But since the 1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union, the shortages in medicine, housing and food have eroded confidence in the regime. “It got so bad,” one woman told me in a hushed voice, “little children got horrible diseases. Some people became blind, and some people” — she formed a noose with a hand cupped around her neck — “you know. They just gave up.”

    A Cuban lawyer complained about the lack of access to world news. “How many channels can you watch in your hotel?” he asked me with boyish curiosity. He peppered me with questions about U.S. President Barack Obama, the American economy and our education system. The popularity of a half-dozen Cuban bloggers and Raúl Castro’s promise to make the Internet and mobile phones more accessible had led me to believe that information from the outside world was seeping into Cuba. But my casual acquaintances howled with laughter when I asked if they had mobile phones. “I can’t afford eggs for my children or a tin can of paint for my house,” one said. “Those things are only for the military and high officials.”

    One rainy day, an elderly woman invited me inside her kitchen for a cup of café cubano. Spotting a crucifix above the table, I asked her about religious practice in the country. “It is easier now,” she told me, “but if you are young it can prevent you from getting a good job.” She hesitated, then blurted: “My pastor was killed two weeks ago.”

    “Oh, no. What happened?” I asked. She shifted uncomfortably in her chair and twisted a corner of the floral tablecloth. “It was an attempted robbery,” she said finally, avoiding eye contact. I stopped asking questions.

    One experience was lighter, if no less sobering. I joined a busload of tourists on a day trip to the countryside. Our destination was a post-revolutionary Cuban community with an impressive array of social services, a well-equipped community centre and sparkling white-washed bungalows dotting the forested hillside. At the model home near the end of our tour, I hung back to thank the family who’d so kindly greeted us. “It must be difficult for you with all us tourists traipsing through your house every day,” I said in Spanish. The grandmother exchanged a furtive glance with her daughter and nodded. “How long have you lived here?” I asked. She answered vaguely, “A while.” When she learned I was born in Cuba, she invited me to join her and her daughter for coffee in a back room. “We don’t really live here,” her daughter offered as I sipped the sweet espresso. “It’s a great job, but our real house is five minutes away. We come here every day for the tourists. Anyway, we’re lucky to be able to live in this community. The government keeps it nice for the tourists. There’s a waiting list to get in.”

    Halfway through my visit, I abandoned the idea of retrieving my grandmother’s possessions. Not only because it would be impossible to gain admittance to her former home, which sat squarely in the capital’s Embassy Row, but also because my romantic daydreams had been impaled by the real and present desperation of the Cuban people. I had not travelled to Cuba expecting to see the paradise of my parents’ memories, of course, but I had hoped that things would be better for the average Cuban. Life still seemed impossibly hard here.

    As I sat at the gate in José Martí airport waiting for the charter plane that would carry me back to the United States, I couldn’t help wondering: How much has really changed in Cuba? The military and high-ranking government officials are Cuba’s new bourgeoisie, indifferent to the suffering of their fellow citizens. We tourists and researchers are kept in the dark, steered toward upscale resorts, hotels, restaurants and shops that few Cubans can enter, much less patronize. We visit Potemkin villages erected for our benefit, and our dollars line the pockets of the privileged.

    On the last day of my visit, an American university professor and socialist sympathizer said, “Every year I visit Cuba hoping that things will be better. This is my sixth visit.” He and I discussed how U.S. policy helped cripple Cuba’s economy and isolate its citizens. In the previous week, I had asked several officials and as many ordinary Cubans some variation of the question, “What should I tell Americans about Cuba and the Cuban people?” Some responded that I should tell Americans about the Cuban people’s ingenuity, resiliency and national pride despite the country’s troubles; others spoke of the Cuban people’s keen sense of humour and achievements in the arts and sciences. But everyone, absolutely everyone, repeated one particular message: Tell the American people to lift the blockade, not just for economic reasons, but for the sake of intercambio — the human exchange that inevitably leads to mutual transformation.

    By Alicia von Stamwitz 

    Alicia von Stamwitz was born Alicia Ramirez de Arellano. She lives in St. Louis.

    Source: UC Observer

    Cuba Before Castro

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