Thursday, August 31, 2006

From the vault

His name was Fantomas. By day, he was a wealthy, suave and sophisticated French playboy, always surrounded by elegant (and seemingly available) women. By night, he became a cunning, almost supernatural jewel thief. Always one step ahead of the police.

If you grew up in Cuba in the 1960s, as I did, then you’d know what I am talking about.

Fantomas was a series of French films starring Jean Marais as Fantomas (aka Fandor) and Louis de Funes as his nemesis, the bumbling but likeable Commissioner Juve.

For some strange reason, the films found their way to communist Cuba during that crazy decade when the entire place was turned on its head by a man called Fidel Castro.

In all, there were three films in the series: the original Fantomas (1964), Fantomas se desencadena (1965) and Fantomas contra Scotland Yard (1966). Each and every one was a huge hit in Cuba.

As I recall in my new book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba (what do you mean you don’t have a copy yet?), my brother and I would wait anxiously for the next Fantomas instalment to make its way to the Teatro Hernandez in sleepy Banes. It was the same in every town on the island.

I think there were probably three principal reasons for this:

1. The films were devoid of any political message whatsoever. They were pure escapism, in bright, capitalist Technicolour ... unlike most films shown at the time, the majority of which were in black and white and boring and very, very long. And made in communist Russia.

2. The special effects were quite impressive. For the mid 1960s, anyway.

3. Fantomas opened a little window into a world most Cubans of my age could only dream about at the time. A world of abundance, of fast cars, fashionable restaurants. A world of no queues, no shortages, no “voluntary” work on weekends … and no four or five hour speeches from El Comandante en Jefe.
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News from Cuba

There is an interesting article in Catholic Online today written by Manny Hildalgo, who is executive director of the Latino Economic Development Corporation in Washington, D.C.

Mr Hidalgo has just returned from Cuba - where his parents were born – and he is not terribly optimistic about rapid change on the island.

Describing the situation as “disheartening”, he reports that with some outstanding exceptions, most of the Cubans he talked to appear to have no faith in the future. And their only ambition is to leave. As soon as possible.

“Every single person I spoke to has all but given up on the country and does not think that Fidel Castro's departure would have much of an impact on the repressive machinery and bureaucratic nightmare that has become the norm in Cuba,” Mr Hidalgo concludes.

I hope he is wrong.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Reading between the lines. Again.

According to Granma, the principal propaganda sheet for the Cuban regime, a ministerial delegation from Syria has been in Cuba for the past few days – and they have been officially received by Raul Castro, supposedly in his capacity as the “temporary” ruler of his 11 million subjects.

It is not unusual for the slightly younger Castro to meet foreign delegations.

It’s just that with his older brother, Fidel, supposedly recovering somewhere in Havana after a delicate operation, the prominence of the Granma article has excited a few of us, Cuban observers.

What does it mean?, we ask ourselves.

We are a sad, pathetic bunch, I know … A bit like those old Kremlinologists of the recent past. Remember them? They would minutely inspect every statement and photograph emanating from the once impenetrable Soviet propaganda machine hunting for clues about what was really going on behind the Kremlin walls.

Most were so busy reading between the lines they almost missed the spectacular collapse of the entire edifice.

In tropical Helsinki

Cuban music has always been popular in Finland, going back to the early 1960s.

I know this because I read it in an article that appears in today’s English language edition of Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest circulation newspaper in that country.

Under the heading, "Finnish enthusiasm for all things Cuban still going strong", the article questions why there are still Finns who continue to defend and apologise for the Castro regime, despite its many and well documented failures.

Among the defenders is, of course, the local Cuba "friendship society", set up as early as 1963.

The paper says the head of the Finland-Cuba Society, Pekka Savinainen, insists that his group is an independent, mainly social gathering ... before admitting that well, yes, the Cuban Consulate in Helsinki gets very upset whenever the Society is critical of aspects of Cuban life, like prostitution.

Then there is Risto Vuorimies, a lover of Cuban modern music who calls himself DJ Papá Montero. He says that during his many visits to Cuba he has never witnessed any “political unpleasantness”. It's just good old tropical fun. Besides, he says, human rights are trampled everywhere. Even in democracies.

Anyway, you get the drift.

Still, the last word should go to Pirkko Kotirinta, the journalist who wrote the piece, which you can read here - yes, in English.

“The most recent manifestation of this pro-Cuban sentiment was the campaign launched on the Finnish music scene during a summer open air concert in Kaivopuisto, to donate instruments and other equipment for young Cuban musicians,” Pirkko Kotirinta wrote.

“The project is a fine idea. However, when reading the material produced for the campaign one wonders if Finland's ties with Cuba might not involve the same kind of attitude familiar from the days of the Soviet Union, which is now making Finns shut their eyes from some of the less pleasant sides of Cuban reality.”

You've got a point Pirkko.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Wish you were here

The Cuban regime has reacted angrily to comments made yesterday by a Spanish academic who says as many as 200,000 Spaniards travel to Cuba every year to engage in what he politely termed turismo sexual.

Professor Guillermo Morales Matos, of the Carlos III University in Madrid, emphasised that 1. Cuba is not the only place in the world targeted by sexual tourists and 2. Most of these are heterosexual Spaniards, as opposed to paedophiles.

Within hours, the Cuban Tourism Office in Madrid launched a scathing attack on the good professor, who is a specialist in geography.

That’s not unusual, of course: you’d expect tourism authorities anywhere in the world to protect their patch. And for all I know, the figures quoted by the professor may well be exaggerated. Or plain wrong.

But when it comes to the Cuban regime, there are imperialist conspiracies everywhere. Even in distant Spain.

So, in its response (which you can read here, in Spanish), the regime described the claims as “libellous” and as part of a “disgraceful and continuing campaign” by unknown forces to “sully the name of Cuba” – all to further the vile, imperialist interests of the United States and its allies.

Luckily for the professor, he lives in Spain.

If he lived in Cuba, he would have been labelled a mercenary by the State media, been the victim of a couple of those increasingly frequent fascist mob attacks known as actos de repudio and on his way to Boniato prison.

This is the BBC, London ...

I introduce you to an article by Tom Fawthrop that appears on the BBC’s well-visited website under the heading, “Cuba doctors popular in quake-stricken Java”.

Innocent enough article, you think as you start reading how a team of 135 Cuban doctors sent to Indonesia following the Java earthquake in May has proved “so popular that locals have asked it to stay on for another six months”.

But then, as you read on, it all becomes clear. Crystal clear.

Mr Fawthorp quotes the area’s Regional Health Co-ordinator, Dr Ronny Rockito, praising the Cuban medical team.

"I appreciate the Cuban medical team. Their style is very friendly. Their medical standard is very high. The Cuban hospitals are fully complete and it's free, with no financial support from our government,” Dr Rockito says. “We give our special thanks to Fidel Castro.”

And in case you didn’t get it, Mr Fawthorp ends his report thus:

“From the early days of the 1959 revolution, President Fidel Castro prioritised education and health as pillars of the new society, and the Caribbean island now has the highest ratio of doctors per person in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

“Many things could change in a post-Castro era, but most Cubans would fiercely resist any attempt to undermine the extraordinary success of their health system.”

You can read the report here. It’s definitely the BBC, not Granma.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My friend, Raul

Nothing ever appears in the Cuban media by accident ... or because an editor believes it is newsworthy.

So, what are we to make of a lengthy interview with General Ulises Rosales del Toro published in today’s edition of Granma, the principal daily on the island?

The interview starts on the front page and then runs for four more pages inside. A lot of words. The type of treatment the paper normally reserves only for El Comandante en Jefe or his brother, Raul.

So, who is this man who is worthy of such treatment?

Rosales del Toro is well known to Cubans as he has been around the Castro brothers for many decades, going back to the Sierra Maestra days. He has been a trusted servant.

Currently, he is the Minister for the Sugar Industry, which is still regarded as one of the key ministerial posts in Cuba. He retains his military responsibilities as well and he is also a member of the Communist Party’s highest decision-making body, the Politburo.

But the interview is not about sugar.

In fact, it’s a 10 year old interview. That's right: 10 years old, giving a whole new meaning to the term news recycling. It was first published when Rosales del Toro was head of the Cuban armed forces’ general staff.

You have to wade through plenty of very dull copy before you get to the nub of the interview: Rosales del Toro waxing lyrical about his close friend and boss, Raul, describing the younger Castro as “an exemplary man”, a “sensitive human being” who is at ease with his troops, a man of "great military ability". A strong family man. Why, just the type of man to lead Cuba. “He is an ethical man, whom I am proud to consider my military and political mentor and teacher,” the general concludes.

That was a decade ago. We assume he still holds those views today.

Che lives!

OK, so we are all familiar with advertisers and marketers who should know better using the image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara to sell everything from t-shirts to tea-towels to lollypops.

But this is the first time I know that the image of the Argentine-born "revolutionary" has been used to sell that most capitalist of ideals: making money.

The advertisement above appeared in Australian newspapers over the weekend, advertising a large financial services group known as MFS.

You'd have to assume the brains behind the advertisement have no idea that Che not only hated capitalists and money-makers and money-lenders, but that at one stage during his most ideological phase he wanted to abolish the very idea of money ...

So, from Che Lives! to Che Saves! Bloody marvellous, as we say in Australia

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Her friend, Fidel

Alicia Alonso is on her way to Europe and beyond.

The woman who has been synonymous with Cuban ballet for close to 50 years is touring Spain, Great Britain and Egypt next month with her company, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC).

To mark the occasion, the formidable Ms Alonso has given an interview to the Havana newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, which is tightly controlled by the regime - like all media in Cuba. You can read it here, in Spanish.

As well as discussing her work, the forthcoming tour and preparations for a ballet festival to be held in Havana later in the year, the prima ballerina has some kind words to say about her close friend, Fidel Castro.

This is par for the course in revolutionary Cuba, you understand. Whenever Cuban artists or sportspeople are allowed by the regime to travel overseas to “represent the nation”, they are inevitably interviewed by the official media. And amazingly, they inevitably have very kind and inspirational things to say about the old dictator.

The very privileged and well-travelled Ms Alonso, who is in her 80s and nearly blind, recalls in the interview that she has had numerous meetings and encounters over the years with El Comandante en Jefe, as she respectfully refers to Castro. And guess what, all of these meetings have been very pleasurable.

“Fidel is always concerned about my health, about how the BNC is going, about ballet generally,” she gushes, before comparing her friend to David throwing stones and knocking over the American imperialist Goliath.

Spoken like a true artiste.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Beyond cigars, rumba and endless sunshine

I have blogged previously about a most strange journalistic phenomenon: hard-bitten, normally cynical, highly intelligent Western reporters who visit Cuba for a few days and return home to write what can only be described as surprisingly positive stories about Fidel Castro and his regime.

It’s as if they automatically leave behind the very abilities and skills that made them successful journalists in the first place, like that inbuilt scepticism about governments and rulers of all stripes and colours. Very strange.

Well, some journalists know better.

One of them is Caroline Overington, an Australian journalist who has worked in the past for The Age in Melbourne, as a foreign correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and at present, as a senior columnist with The Australian. She is also a past winner of the Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism, the most prestigious journalistic award in the country.

In her column in The Australian this morning, Ms Overington tells of a visit to Cuba two years ago that changed her views about Castro forever. It’s an eye-opener.

As you will see, she uses her recollections of that visit as a reference point to my new book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba. So, yes, I have a personal interest in her column, but that's irrelevant in this case.

Make up your own mind. Read her column here.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Cuba: Detras de la fachada

There is an interesting article on Cuba in latest issue of New Statesman, the British left-of-centre weekly.

It’s written by Alice O’Keefe, the magazine’s arts editor and one of the very few Western journalists allowed into the island during the recent handover of power by Fidel Castro, whom, as we speak, is supposed to be "recovering well" at some secret location in Havana.

As you would expect from such a magazine, there are the usual canards about how the imperialists Americans are ready to invade and the evil intentions of those money-hungry members of the Miami Cuban Mafia - standard Castro propaganda.

But Ms O’Keefe is astute enough to look beyond these claims – and beyond the false “calm” of Havana streets.

“As so often in Cuba, the appearance of calm belies a turbulent reality,” she writes. “People are tense; you can see it in their faces. They are more reluctant than ever to talk politics with a curious foreigner. Inquiries are met with a fixed smile and a breezy air of false optimism.”

Even more illuminating are her discussions with young Cubans, in particular the comments of Alejo, a young man whose parents are privileged members of the nomenklatura and by definition, staunch Castro supporters. At least publicly.

Ms O’Keefe writes:

“Sporting long hair and a Metallica T-shirt, he plays along with his parents' revolutionary chatter, but as soon as their backs are turned is unable to rein himself in. He tells me he is planning to leave the country for Canada, where some friends have promised to write him letters of invitation - the only means by which ordinary Cubans are permitted to leave the country. ‘They tell us that Cuban society is the best there is, but if that's true why don't they let us leave so we can see for ourselves?’ he asks. ‘I'll tell you why - because they know that it's a lie. They know that if we leave the country we will never come back.’.”

You can read the whole thing here.

News from an embargoed island

It’s just been announced that a Navajo agribusiness has signed what is described as a “historic” trade deal with the Cuban regime.

Under the deal, signed during a visit this week to Havana by New Mexico state officials and company representatives, the Navajos will sell beans, corn, wheat and other products to Cuba.

Hang on a minute, I hear you say. What about the crippling US economic embargo that has kept Cuba poor and isolated for at least 45 years?

Well, food is not covered by the embargo. In fact, The Washington Post reports in their coverage of the Navajo deal that Cuba has purchased more than US$1 billion worth of food from the US since 2002.

Go figure.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The real problem with the Cuban economy

The reason the Cuban economy has been such a basketcase for so many years is the US embargo. Right?

Well, that has been the excuse used by Fidel Castro for the past 45 years to explain the endless shortages, the lack of investment in infrastructure, the rationing system in place since 1962, the long queues, the medicines that go missing, the empty shelves, the crumbling buildings ... You name it.

I have even seen the old embargo chestnut used by Communist Party officials to explain to visiting journalists who should know better why Cuban musicians can't find guitar strings in Havana music shops.

Let's face it, it has been a PR master stroke for the old dictator. But the reality is very different, of course.

According to Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh and probably the foremost expert on the Cuban economy outside the island, the US embargo has had an impact over time on the Cuban economy but this impact has been limited.

In an interview published yesterday in the French newspaper, Le Monde, Professor Mesa-Lago explains the obvious: despite the embargo, Cuba can trade freely with the rest of the world.
Something else: Food is not covered by the embargo, which is why the US is now the largest exporter of food to Cuba. Read that again: the American imperialists are now the largest exporter of food to Cuba.

Instead, Professor Mesa-Lago says the key problems with the Cuban economy are the erratic policies of the Castro regime and poor management.

In particular, he explains, Cuba has a serious trade imbalance. While the island imports about $US6 billion a year worth of goods, it manages to export just $US1.7 billion worth - mainly commodities such as nickel, tobacco, seafood, citrus fruit, drugs and sugar.

Even tourism, which was portrayed by the regime back in the late 1990s as the great economic saviour, has failed to generate the expected multiplier effect on the wider economy because it is necessary to import much of the goods (and services) offered to visitors.

On top of this, the regime has a shocking credit history. Apart from the estimated $US26 billion Cuba still owes the now-disappeared Soviet bloc (money that will never be repaid), Castro has defaulted on $US13 billion worth of credit from capitalist countries over the past four decades.

Not surprisingly, few countries want to sell Cuba anything on credit. Because they know Castro won't pay in the long run.

That's why the Cuban economy is in serious strife.

Los Van Van

One of Cuba’s best known and most durable music groups, Los Van Van, is currently touring Australia. They have played in Adelaide and Melbourne and on Friday night, they play here in Sydney at the Enmore Theatre.

Led by their founder, Juan Formell, the group has been around since 1969. But unlike others, Los Van Van has been able to reinvent themselves every so often and in the process, win plenty of new fans over the world with their combination of traditional Cuban salsa and pop.

I suspect, however, that few of those fans who will fork out $85 to see Los Van Van play in Sydney will know much about their history - or what they represent.

Like most Cubans who grew up in the 1960s, every time I think Mr Formell and his group I think of Fidel Castro and his wacky, ill-fated grand schemes to “fix” once and for all the Cuban economy, going back to the early days of the Revolution. I have written about this before in this blog and in my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba.

You see, the name Los Van Van refers directly to a slogan used by the regime in 1969-1970 when Castro came up with this crazy (and inevitably doomed) plan to extract 10 million tonnes of sugar from that year’s sugarcane harvest, as opposed to the usual seven or eight million. This, he argued, would allow Cuba to cover the entire world in sugar and make the country very, very rich.

So, for months, the country went nuts.

Everyone in Cuba regardless of age or responsibility, was told to leave their jobs and go out to the countryside to cut sugarcane for the Revolution. Nothing else mattered. Schools closed. Hospitals and shops and factories, too. Christmas was cancelled.

This was a battle we must win, Castro told his 11 million subjects. Otherwise, we’d be the laughing stock of those terrible American imperialists …

And every day, on radio and in the paper and on television there would be these endless propaganda broadcasts and articles about the importance of the 10 million tonne sugar harvest that was to going to solve all our problems.

The slogan always was: Los diez millones van y de que van, van. Which means something like, “The 10 million tonnes are a done deal. It’s going to happen no matter what …”

It was all crap. Despite all the hard work and the obvious fiddling of the figures, the target proved elusive, to say the least. The campaign was a failure. In the process it destroyed what was left of the Cuban industrial base and sent the island into the bear-like economic embrace of the Soviet Union for decades to come.

Los Van Van were a product of that period, formed in 1969 specifically and deliberately to coincide with the 10 million tonnes campaign. Their music, which was played day in and day out on all the State-controlled radio stations (the only ones in Cuba), was supposed to make Cubans happy about spending their days under the hot tropical sun cutting sugarcane for the Revolution.

For better or worse, Los Van Van and their music were part and parcel of an experiment not all that long ago when an entire country was turned upside down and inside out by the mad obsessions of one man.

So, I wish them luck on Friday night. Hope it all goes well. I won’t be there.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The coolest man in the world c. 1969

If like me, you were growing up in Cuba back in the 1960s, you would be well familiar with Charles Aznavour, the French singer. Said to have been "discovered" in his youth by the legendary Edith Piaf, he has been described as the French Frank Sinatra, which isn’t accurate at all ... but let’s not argue.

Over his very, very long career, Aznavour has sold more records than I have had hot dinners. He has sang in French, in English, Italian, Spanish … even Russian. Jazz, syrupy love songs, ballads about loss and despair, you name it. An amazing entertainer. For an unsophisticated boy in far-away Banes, he was the coolest man in the world. Period.

As a child, I remember listening with my parents to Aznavour songs on the Nocturno music program, which aired every night on Radio Progreso and was by far, the most popular radio program in all of Cuba back in those days. Until about 1969-1970, that is, when Fidel Castro decided everyone in Cuba had to go out and cut sugarcane to help with another one of his endless bizarre, inevitably ill-fated grand schemes, the Ten Million Tonne sugar harvest.

Even radio presenters had to go into the countryside and be good revolutionaries and cut sugarcane, so for a while there we had to stop listening to classic Aznavour tunes such as Feliz Aniversario, Venecia sin Ti and La Bohemia.

I am telling you all this because I have just read that in an interview with the Parisian daily Le Figaro (here in French), Aznavour revealed he is due to visit Cuba soon to record an album with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdéz.

Apparently, Charles has a thing about Cuban rhythms at the moment. However, this is not the first time he has had some Cuban involvement in his music: about four years ago, he recorded a duet with the late Compay Segundo, from Buena Vista Social Club fame. It was called Morir de Amor.

By the way, Aznavour is 82.
And he is still a cool dude.

Publicity tarts

Fidel Castro has finally come in useful.

The recent news from Havana that the 80-year-old dictator is seriously ill sparked a worldwide media frenzy about Castro and all things Cuban. Again. Which has been terrific news – in the most cynical sense – for my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba.

As I am sure you know by now, the book was published in Australia and New Zealand in early June by Allen & Unwin to quite a fair bit of media interest, which was terrific as all such publicity helps with sales. There were interviews, feature stories and reviews. You can read all about it here and here.

Then the publicity treadmill stopped, as I thought it would. That is, until the unexpected announcement on 31 July on Cuban national television that Castro was to undergo delicate surgery, forcing him to hand over power “temporarily” to his younger brother, Raul.

Since then, a new burst of publicity has ensued. And I have been taking advantage of it, as you would expect. Anything to sell those bloody books!

Apart from articles in The Australian newspaper (which you can read here and here), there have been interviews on radio and television about Cuba, its future after Castro and the general reaction of those of us who have lived outside the island for so long.

One of the better produced features aired on the Australian SBS radio network last week, as part of its WorldView program. Produced by Peggy Giakoumelos, the program was described as a look back at revolutionary Cuba in the 1960s, a time of Soviet era television, summer work camps and big family parties. If you are interested, you can listen to the broadcast here.

Shameless, I know.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

From the horse's mouth

First in a (hopefully) regular series.

Here is Fidel Castro, speaking in 1965 about why the Cuban media would never publish or broadcast "positive" news from capitalist countries:

"True, everything that we say about the United States here [in Cuba] refers essentially to the worst aspects of the United States, and it is very rare that things in any way favorable to the United States will be published here … We always try to create the worst opinion of everything in the United States, as a response to what they have always done with us. We emphasize the worst things. We omit things that could be viewed as positive."

Source: Fidel Castro, Interviews with Lee Lockwood during 1965-1966, in Lee Lockwood, Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), p. 113
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That Adidas tracksuit

Spare a thought for Adidas, the German-based multinational company that makes and sells sporting apparel.

You may recall that some days ago, Fidel Castro was photographed somewhere in Havana supposedly recovering from delicate surgery - and wearing an Adidas track or jogging suit. They were the first photographs of the 80-year-old Cuban dictator since the surprise announcement on 31 July that he had stepped aside "temporarily" due to illness, handing over power to his slightly younger brother, Raul. Not surprisingly, the photographs received enormous coverage by the media across the world.

Now there is an interesting take on the photographs (and what they mean for Adidas) in The International Herald Tribune, which you can read here.

The story - on how companies no longer control which "celebrities" wear their brands or how - quotes a spokesman for Adidas, Travis Gonzolez, talking about this unsolicited endorsement from El Comandante en Jefe: "It's not a positive, not a negative. We are a sports brand. We are making products for athletes, we are not making them for leaders."

Just in case, Mr Gonzolez is quick to point out that the company has previously presented a pair of athletic shoes to US President George W Bush.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Of Cuban cinema

No news of Fidel Castro this morning. No news of Raul, either. Let's assume they are both alive somewhere in Havana, still in charge, ever ready to protect their 11 million subjects from that much-predicted American invasion.

So, for something completely different. Let's talk films. Cuban films.

The first Cuban-made film I recall seeing was called La Muerte de un Burocatra - Death of a Bureaucrat. That was close to 40 years ago.

I watched it at the Teatro Hernandez, which was one of only two cinemas in Banes, the town where I was born, some 15 hours by road East of Havana. Like so many other things in Cuba that changed after the arrival of Fidel Castro, there was a typically half-hearted attempt at one stage to change the name of the Teatro Hernandez to the much more revolutionary Teatro Hanoi. In truth, most people in Banes continued to call it the Hernandez during that time.

Anyway ... Death of a Bureaucrat would become a classic of post-revolutionary Cuban cinema, although I didn't know this at the time. To an eight or nine year old, it was just a very funny, very fast-paced black and white film - unlike those interminably slow, boring Soviet movies that all popped up with deadly predictability at the Hernandez.

Death of a Bureaucrat was the story of a hard-working, well-meaning communist who invents a machine that is able to mass-produce plaster busts of Jose Marti, the pre-eminent hero of the Cuban wars for independence from Spain. Unfortunately, the inventor dies in the process and to honour his excellent revolutionary credentials, his family decides to bury him holding on to his union card. Which is all fine ... until his widow realises she needs the card to collect his pension. Thus ensues a very funny 85 minute satire about a country undergoing huge social and economic changes.

The film was directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who would become the best known Cuban film director of his generation. He would go on to make other critically-acclaimed films such as Memorias del Subdesarollo and Fresa y Cholocate. The latter received rave reviews internationally when it was released in 1993 for dealing with a topic that had been taboo in communist Cuba for decades, namely homosexuality.

Gutiérrez Alea’s last film before he died was Guantanamera, shot in 1995. Here, he returned to the topic of his 1966 satire – the mind-numbing bureaucracy that is so much a part of the Cuban experience. At least since 1959.

When I saw Guantanamera – not at the Hernandez but at an art house cinema in Sydney, many lifetimes later - it struck me that in many ways, it was the sequel to Death of a Bureaucrat, made some 30 years earlier. And you know what? That mind-numbing bureaucracy was still there. The petty dictates of a State out of control. The need to keep everyone in line and singing exactly the same tune. Or else. Nothing much had changed.

I wonder how much has changed in Cuba since Guantanamera was filmed 10 years ago?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Cuban journalism

In Cuba, all media are owned and controlled by the regime. This has been the case for close to 47 years. Newspapers, television stations, magazines, radio stations ... they are all part and parcel of the propaganda aparatus.

And their job is not disseminate news but to disseminate the right type of news. That is, whatever the regime decides is news.

And so, when an employee of one of these outlets gets to "interview" the "temporary" president, Raul Castro, you except ... well, you expect him to ask the right type of questions. Never mind that this is a world exclusive - the first interview by the younger Castro since taking over on 31 July.

The man asking the tough, probing questions is identified as Lazaro Barredo Medina. Read the whole thing here, as published by Granma, the main newspaper in Cuba.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Cuban humour?

I never cease to be amazed (and amused) by the news reports filed by foreign correspondents based in Cuba.

As a former journalist, I know how difficult it is to please your news desk, to keep producing those yarns even when nothing is happening. After all, that’s your job. And so, you try to come up with unusual angles and quirky snippets and a lot of speculative material to fill the news void.

When you are dealing with a regime as tightly controlled and obsessively secretive as the communist regime in Cuba, your job becomes even more daunting - a logistical nightmare.

This may explain a recent article by Marc Frank, who reports from Havana for Reuters. The article speculates on what would happen in Cuba if both Castro brothers kicked the bucket - not all that far-fetched, I guess, since Raul Castro is 75.

And then, half way through the article, there is one of those anonymous quotes from "ordinary" Cubans in the street who seem to speak so openly and freely to foreign correspondents. Invetiably, their quotes tend to match the regime's line almost word for word.

The quote used this time is from someone identified as a “municipal level” member of the Communist Party who, after asking not to be identified, said: “We worry a lot that a crook could somehow get back in power after Fidel and destroy everything ...”

I don’t know about you but I think the interviewee was probably having a bit of fun with the reporter. Cuban humour?

UPDATE: I have now found out a bit more about Mr Frank, thanks to the guys at Babalu. Read all about him here.

Free Press

As you may have read elsewhere, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has called on newspapers in the Western hemisphere to urge the “temporary” president of Cuba, Raul Castro, to immediately release the estimated 20 or so independent journalists currently behind bars on the island.

These journalists are not recognised by the regime as such. Instead, they are branded “mercenaries” or plain old “traitors” – and sent to prison for periods of up to 27 years.

Most of the imprisoned journalists have been sent to jail for violating one or both of two particularly obnoxious laws: Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code and Law No. 88, both in force since 1999.

According to Pen International, Article 91 provides for sentences of ten to 20 years or death (read that again: or death), against anyone convicted of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the State". A little vague? You bet. Deliberately so, since it is up to the judge (appointed directly by the regime) to decide what constitutes “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the State”.

Law No. 88 is just as putrid.

Called the Ley de Protección de la Independencia Nacional y la Economía de Cuba, this law calls for seven to 15 years' imprisonment for passing information to the United States that could be used to bolster “anti-Cuban measures”.

Further, the legislation also bans the ownership, distribution or reproduction of “subversive materials” - and five years in prison for “collaborating” with any media outlet outside Cuba in a way that somehow upsets Fidel Castro.

George Orwell, eat your heart out.

The independent journalists behind bars in Cuba at present – serving terms ranging from one to 27 years – have been identified by IAPA as follows:

Ricardo González Alfonso;
Víctor Rolando Arroyo;
Normando Hernández González,
Julio César Gálvez;
Adolfo Fernández Sainz;
Omar Rodríguez Saludes;
Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez;
Mijaíl Barzaga Lugo;
Pedro Arguelles Morán;
Pablo Pacheco Avila;
Alejandro González Raga;
Alfredo Pulido López;
Fabio Prieto Llorente;
Iván Hernández Carrillo;
José Luis García Paneque;
Juan Carlos Herrera;
Miguel Galván Gutiérrez;
José Ubaldo Izquierdo;
Omar Ruiz Hernández;
José Gabriel Ramón Castillo;
Léster Luis González Pentó;
Alfredo Felipe Fuentes;
José Manuel Caraballo Bravo; and
Oscar Mario González.
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Thursday, August 17, 2006

My friend in Cuba

Over the past two years or so, I have been corresponding regularly by email with my friend in Cuba. My friend is one of the lucky ones – my friend has free access to the Internet at work. Unlike ordinary Cubans who are not allowed to have access to the Internet at all.

Anyway, while I was writing my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba (what do you mean you don’t have a copy yet? Order it here!), I relied on my friend in Cuba to help me confirm some details about my old hometown that I had long forgotten or wasn’t too sure about. I owe my friend big time for that.

That’s because my friend was also born in Banes, some years before me. And although my friend no longer lives there, there are regular visits to see relatives.

Every time my friend would report back with details about the town and occasional photographs of places I only recalled deep down the back of my mental CPU. Sometimes, it was sad news: how this building or that building had collapsed due to neglect, the poor state of repairs of some of the houses, the pot-holed streets … You wouldn’t believe what our old pueblo looks like, the emails would say.

My friend and I never talked politics. It was a given. In fact, I always made sure I was extra careful with my emails because I feared they were being monitored by someone somewhere at the other end, and I'd compromise my friend somehow. So, instead, we’d talk sport (we both agreed Australia was robbed in the World Cup), or books or films (what’s with that guy Crocodile Dundee?) … but never politics.

On occasions, I’d spend what seemed like hours trying to read between the lines of some of my friend's emails, wondering whether there was some hidden message there about the political situation on the island. It’s a very Cuban thing to do. Pointless. Frustrating.

Well, you know, I haven’t heard from my friend in Cuba now for some weeks. In fact, not since Cuban television announced that Fidel Castro was ill. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. I hope my friend is alright.

Who's the Boss?

What does this mean?

You may recall that on 31 July, Fidel Castro supposedly signed a Proclama del Comandante en Jefe al Pueblo de Cuba announcing that he was about to undergo (or had undergone) a delicate operation due to some pretty serious internal bleeding.

As a result, the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 47 long years, announced that he had "temporarily" ceded all his powers and positions to his anointed successor, Raul Castro. Including the title of Comandante en Jefe – Commander in Chief - of the Cuban armed forces, known as the FAR.

Yet, there it is on the front page of today’s Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban regime: a small item among all the other rubbish that passes for news in communist Cuba, referring to Fidel Castro as ... Comandante en Jefe. You can read it here (in Spanish).

Does this mean that Cuba now has two comandantes en jefe? Or has there been a second, hitherto secret proclamation from someone taking away the title from little brother Raul? Why? And why weren't we told?

Banana republic, anyone?

Meanwhile, in Brasilia

Back in 1984, journalist John Vinocur wrote this in the New York Times Magazine:

“A continual state of siege over the entire period that literally places the president above the law; people with occasionally uncontrollable urges to fall into rivers or jump from planes with their arms and legs bound; serenades in front of the presidential palace featuring the ever-popular ‘Forward, My General’ and ‘Congratulations, My Great Friend’; foreign thieves, brutes and madmen hidden at a price; an economy administered so corruptly it is officially explained away as the ‘cost of peace’ … a party newspaper that prints six front-page colour pictures of the general every day.”

No, Vinocur wasn’t writing about Cuba under the rule of Fidel Castro. He was writing about Paraguay under the rule of General Alfredo Stroessner.

Uncanny, isn’t it?

The reason I am telling you this is because news is just in that Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay for 35 very long years, has died in exile in Brasilia. He was 93 and had lived in Brazil since the 1989 military coup that deposed him. You can read all about it here.

But before we get back to regular programming, here is an assessment of Stroessner (pictured), by a former US ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau: “He believed, as most dictators do, that he was absolutely irreplaceable … "

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

From The Times

I have blogged previously on the seemingly enduring love affair between Fidel Castro and many in the West who really should know better.

As far as I can see, the most obvious explanation for this rather bizarre phenomenon is a shared hatred of all things American, regardless of which US president is in office at the time. A case of, Castro, Si, Yanqui No.

Anyway, Stephen Pollard, a regular contributor at The Times in London, has had a go at the phenomenon in his latest column, and it's a ripper.

As Pollard explains, Castro is “one of the longest-standing abusers of human rights on the planet” and yet, he predicts, “when he does finally pop his clogs, the mourning of left-liberals will be intense”.

“Rationally," Pollard adds, "those who describe themselves as ‘progressive’ ought to be campaigning for Castro’s departure. Instead, when he does die, his image is likely to outsell even that of Che Guevara on the ubiquitous T-shirts.”

Read the whole thing here.

What to say about Castro

I thought I'd share the item above, which appears in today's editition of Radar, a supplement of The Sydney Morning Herald, the oldest newspaper in Australia. The supplement is aimed at young and supposedly hip readers of the paper - the type that would probably pay little attention to politics or world affairs but would happily spend $100 on a Che Guevarra t-shirt because, well, you know, it's cool.

It's supposed to be in jest, but as with all satire, there is always an element of truth just beneath the surface.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Adidas, adidas

You know those photographs of Fidel Castro wearing an Adidas jogging suit that were published at the weekend?

A friend of mine who now lives in the United States emailed to remind me that in the 1980s - when she was a teenager in Cuba - such capitalist attire was strictly forbidden at school.

Wearing an Adidas t-shirt, let alone a jogging suit, was enough to have you branded “ideologically deviated”. Which was bad news.

Of course, Castro banned a lot of other things beside Adidas during his ideologically pure phase, which lasted the best part of 30 years, until the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union. As I recalled recently in this post, when I was growing up in the small town of Banes in the 1960s, listening to The Beatles was also regarded as decadent, bourgeois and counter-revolutionary.

A whole childhood spent without the joys of The Yellow Submarine ...

Noticias Adversas

As I have said before, nothing ever appears in Cuba’s tightly controlled media without a reason. The media in communist Cuba is not and has never been about news as we in the West know it, but about messages. Sometimes the messages are overt : "The whole world embraces Fidel", says a headline on the front page of the latest Granma. Other times, you have to read between the lines. Just as in the old Soviet Union.

So, on Sunday morning, Cuban time, we got “official” pictures of Fidel Castro supposedly celebrating his 80th birthday. The old dictator was photographed sitting up, holding a photocopy of the front page of Granma, the main daily on the island, and speaking on the phone. Castro looked ill but the message was clear: he is well enough to get up and move around a bit.

Less than 24 hours later, we get seven "new" still photographs and some “official” video of Castro being visited by his brother Raul (supposedly in charge of the place), and his pal Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. To the surprise of most observers, this time around, the pictures show Castro bedridden. In reasonably good spirits, apparently, but in bed.

These are extraordinary pictures for someone as image-conscious as Fidel Castro, who is a past master at media manipulation, as successive US journalists should be able to confirm, starting with our old friend Herbert L. Matthews.

What messages are these latest photographs and video meant to convey to Cubans? That despite the earlier, reasonably optimistic photographs provided on Sunday, the prognosis for El Comandante en Jefe is, well, not good. In fact, not good at all, as highlighted in this article in The Miami Herald.

No wonder Cubans are being told to "remain optimistic" but prepare for “cualquier noticia adversa” – that is, Be ready for "bad news".

Monday, August 14, 2006

Blast from the past

From the “Does this remind you of anyone” archives …

Just over 30 ago, another long-standing, octogenarian dictator had to undergo delicate surgery and in the process, was forced to hand over power temporarily to his chosen successor. It was a huge international news story back in July 1974.

But Francisco Franco, who had ruled Spain for more than 35 years, recovered and returned to power.

And while recovering, he had himself photographed in his dressing gown, looking reasonably well for a man of his age, half-smiling for the cameras and discussing important matters of State with his faithful if hapless prime minister, Carlos Arias Navarro.

It was all propaganda, of course. Designed to send a clear message to his followers (and his enemies) that El Caudillo was still in charge. Still in control. Nobody move ...

Within months, Franco had to be rushed back to hospital. Once again, he had to relinquish power. This time for good. He died in November 1975 after a long death, as the whole world watched.
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A bad year for dictators

Is this an omen? News has just come in that the one-time dictator of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, is seriously ill and possibly near death.

One of the most unsavoury dictators to grace the South American stage (and that’s saying something …), Stroessner ruled Paraguay for 35 years until he was toppled by a military coup in 1989. Since then, he has lived in comfortable exile in Brazil.

Aged 93, he is supposed to be in the intensive care unit of a hospital in the capital, Brasilia, recovering from a hernia operation, as you can read in this Reuters dispatch.

The only Latin American dictator that has had a longer tenure in office is … you guessed right … Fidel Castro, who has ruled Cuba since January 1959.

News from Havana II

Nothing ever happens by accident in the Cuban media, which is tightly controlled by the regime. There are no coincidences. Everything is scripted, as exiled poet Raul Rivero has pointed out.

So, we can be sure that the “news” coming out of Havana over the past few hours is part of some carefully-scripted, officially-sanctioned play.

Here is what’s happened so far:

On Sunday morning, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth, Juventud Rebelde, publishes four photographs of Fidel Castro in an Adidas jogging suit. The man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 47 long years looks ill, to be sure, but certainly not dead.

The paper also publishes a message supposedly from Castro, saying he is feeling very happy to have turned 80 – and that his health is now stable. But at the same time, he warns his followers to be ready for bad news (noticias adversas) at any time.

Then, within hours, Cuban national television shows film of Raul Castro, who is supposed to be in charge while his older brother recovers, welcoming the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, to Havana. This is the younger Castro’s first public appearance since taking over the top job.

Coincidental? Hardly.
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Sunday, August 13, 2006

News from Havana

The online edition of Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth, has just published four photographs of Fidel Castro. Alive. And wearing an Adidas jogging suit.

The paper suggests the photographs were taken on Sunday - the day Castro turned 80. And to prove it, the ailing dictator is shown in one of the photographs holding a copy of the front page of the previous day's edition of Granma, the main newspaper in Cuba. Except it's not the actual front page but a photocopy of the front page. And a pretty generic front page at that ...

Very peculiar.

Even more intriguing is the carefully-scripted "message" from Castro that is also published by Juventud Rebelde - the first such message in more than a week. You can read it here in Spanish.

In this carefully-scripted message, Castro is quoted as saying that he is "feeling very happy" to turn 80, mentioning the date not once but twice. He then goes on to say that "it would not be a lie" to say his health has improved and that he is now stable but that "it'd be totally incorrect to say the recovery period will be short or that I am out of danger".

And then the most curious words: Castro asks supporters to "remain optimistic" but at the same time to "also be ready to cope with any bad news".

If I was into conspiracy theories and the reading of tea leaves and crystal ball gazing and all that sort of stuff, I'd say the outlook for the man who has ruled Cuba since January 1959 is not what you'd call very optimistic.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A matter of prayer

The President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, wants you (and me) to pray for Fidel Castro’s quick recovery and return to office. According to Chavez, his pal and mentor is fighting for his life. And you know, he needs a little help from God.

An interesting situation, to say the least, given that relations between God and Castro have been pretty bumpy for quite some time.

First, some history.

Castro and the Catholic Church go back a long, long way: In his youth, Castro was a boarder at one of Cuba’s most famous Catholic colleges, Colegio Belen in Havana, back in the days when Cuba had Catholic colleges. In 1948, when he married his first and only publicly recognised wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, he did so in the one Catholic Church in Banes, the bride’s home town.

Then, when the man who would rule Cuba for 47 long years launched an ill-fated attack on the Moncada barracks in July 1953 and was taken prisoner, priests close to the Castro family were instrumental in ensuring Castro got a fair trial rather than a just a bullet to the back of the head.

And when Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra mountains in January 1959, entering Havana as the conquering hero he was, he and his fellow barbudos proudly talked about their religious beliefs, some even sporting visible crucifixes. The rebels counted among them several priests.

Well, the honeymoon didn’t last long.

Within months, all foreign priests (most of them from Spain), were labelled “fascists” and expelled back to Madrid, and all Catholic properties – from schools to newspapers to radio stations – were confiscated and closed down. They remain closed to this day.

In due course, Easter would be abolished (it was renamed Playa Giron Week to celebrate the Bay of Pigs victory). Then Christmas was abolished so Cubans could spend more time cutting sugarcane for the Revolution. And going to Church became a counter-revolutionary or subversive activity, with all Catholics barred from joining the Communist Party – the only legal party on the island.

Religion was The Opium of the People, Castro declared, quoting Marx. Karl, I think.

And although communist Cuba didn’t go as far as communist Albania – which declared itself an atheist State – anyone brave or silly enough to practise their religion (no matter what type), became immediately suspect. A gusano.

When I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my brother and I attended the same Catholic Church where Castro had got married decades earlier in Banes. That’s the Church you see in the picture at the top - just opposite the Parque Dominguez, with its statue of the Cuban independence hero, Jose Marti.

We were there against our will. Because our mother insisted, even though neither of my parents were or have ever been particularly religious. She thought it’d be good for us boys to get a different perspective on things. We thought she was crazy.

Eventually, attending Mass on Sundays became less of a chore for me. The dark, cool and utterly peaceful space inside this small town Church became something of a refuge from the harsh sun and the heat and all the talk of Revolution and invasion and imperialism outside.

I am sure some of the appeal was due to Father Emerio Sanchez. To my amazement, I was to discover that the nuggety, welcoming, no-nonsense parish priest at Banes had been a barbudo up in the mountains with Fidel - and was said to be still close to the Castro family. But you will need to buy my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, to read more about it (man does not live by blog alone ...).

It was tough at first, this going to Church business, and not just because of the inevitable ridicule you’d cop at school from kids who weren't made to go to Church. On Sundays, just as Mass was about to start, the cinema on the other side of the park – Teatro Heredia, one of just two cinemas in Banes – would kick off its matinee program, the highlight of the week. Right on cue, the screen would light up with everything from pirated American cartoons to old black and white serials with names like The Shadow.

Inside the Church, where it was quiet, I could often hear clearly the music and the other sounds coming from the screen and sometimes, if I listened carefully, even the sound of laughter from those of my school friends whose parents were good revolutionaries and never, ever, sent them to Church. Unlike mine.

It would take decades for Castro to gradually improve relations with the Church, culminating in the once-unthinkable visit to Cuba in 1998 by the late Pope John Paul II. Today, the Church is kind of tolerated by the regime - but no more - and only on the condition that its bishops and priests keep right out of politics.

So, Hugo, I hear what you are saying. Let me sleep on it …

And now, here is the news

The more things change …

International groups representing journalists have protested the Cuban regime’s decision to block Western journalists entering the country to report on Fidel Castro’s mystery surgery over a week ago.

This is all part of the information lock-down ordered by the Government on 1 August. It means there has been no real information at all coming from Havana on Castro’s health which amazingly, has now been declared a “State secret”.

According to the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) Cuban officials have denied entry into the island of at least four journalists for failing to get the necessary entry visa, which takes several weeks to obtain. In addition, other journalists from Europe, who had complied with Cuba's visa requirements, reportedly had their permission to enter the country revoked.

In Paris, Reporters Without Borders, a recurrent critic of press censorship in Cuba, called on the authorities to let foreign journalists into the country so that they "can do their job freely and without restriction or aggression." The group says that since the announcement of Castro's illness, Cuban embassies have refused to issue visas or have not responded to journalists' requests.

And the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has urged Cuban authorities to allow foreign journalists to cover "this story of worldwide importance”.

Good luck. And good night.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Love Me Do

The Cuban Government is now targeting those “subversive” satellite dishes that broadcast "imperialistic" news and views from the North, polluting the minds of Cubans, who are among the best-educated people in the world - but obviously untrustworthy.

Forty years ago it was The Beatles, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

Back in the late 1960s, when I was growing up in the town of Banes, the Castro regime decided that young Cubans were being corrupted by imperialist pop groups such as The Beatles. Their decadent music was turning Cuban teenagers into lazy, long-haired capitalists, when they should be turning into true followers of Che Guevarra.

So, while the rest of the world went crazy over the Fab Four, in Cuba we said goodbye to such ideologically suspect tunes as All My Loving and All You Need is Love. No more Beatles for you!

It would be years before their music was heard again on radio – a whole generation protected from … well, from something no one ever quite understood. But then, like now, no one argued with Fidel.

Still, you’ve got to admire the man’s ability to rewrite history – and to get away with things that no other public figure anywhere in the world would.

Six years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the shooting of John Lennon, Castro himself attended the official unveiling of a life-size statue of the most famous of all the Beatles in a central Havana park that has since become a popular spot with Western tourists.

When a foreign journalist in the crowd asked El Comandante en Jefe at the unveiling about the apparent irony of the situation, the reply was classic Castro. The Beatles banned in Cuba? he asked, sounding incredulous. Really? I didn’t know about that! Are you sure you've got your facts right? Must have been someone else who gave that order, you know.

In fact, Castro said, he had always wanted to meet Lennon, adding: “I share his dreams completely.”

A real Nowhere Man ...

Keeping an eye on you

Back in the days of Nicolae Ceausescu, it was a crime to own an “unauthorised” typewriter in communist Romania. They were subversive instruments.

In Cuba today, the regime has just announced a crackdown on the modern day equivalent of Ceausescu’s evil, imperialist typewriters: "unauthorised" satellite dishes that pick up news broadcasts from the capitalist North.

The crackdown comes just a week or so after it was announced that Fidel Castro was stepping down “temporarily” because of a serious but still undisclosed health crisis - and handing over power to his slightly younger brother, Raul.

Since then, the island has gone into information lock-down mode: no official health reports (they are "State secrets"); no appearances by either Castro; military reservists called up; hundreds of foreign journalists blocked from entering.

And now, satellite dishes.

According to Granma, the official propaganda sheet of the regime, Cubans with “unathorised” satellite dishes will face lengthy prison sentences, and fines of up to 30,000 Cuban pesos - a fortune in a country where doctors earn an average of 300 pesos a month. You can read the article here (in Spanish).

The paper says the spread of such “illegal” dishes in recent years is of great concern. Of course. It says the broadcasts – mainly from the United States – are subversive. "They are fertile ground for those who want to carry out the Bush administration's plan to destroy the Cuban revolution," said the newspaper.

Further proof that the more things change ...

As I recount in Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, this is the same regime that banned The Beatles back in the 1960s because their music was deemed to be subversive, too. The same regime that banned George Orwell. And miniskirts. And long hair.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Gustavo Arcos Bergnes

The name Gustavo Arcos Bergnes may not mean much to most people inside Cuba – or outside.

So, here is a little history:

Mr Arcos was a young law student when he joined Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, in the ill-fated attack on the Moncada barracks in the city of Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba. That was back in July 1953.

The attack was a total military failure: most of the rebels were easily captured and sent to prison. But it would eventually lead to the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and his corrupt administration by Castro and his crucifix-wearing barbudos. That was back in January 1959.

Mr Arcos, who had spent much of the late 1950s raising funds and guns through Latin America to support the rebels back home, was then made Cuba’s ambassador to Belgium.

His time there didn’t last long. Unhappy at the way things were going in Havana, he became increasingly critical of the regime and eventually resigned in disgust in 1964.

He returned to Cuba and was imprisoned from 1966 to 1969 for “counter-revolutionary” activities. He was imprisoned again from 1982 to 1988. On his release, he founded the Cuban Pro-Human Rights Committee, which is illegal in Cuba. In the process, he became become the best known and the oldest anti-Castro dissident on the island.

Well, it’s just been confirmed by his family that Mr Arcos, who hasn’t been well for some time, has died in Havana.

He was 79. The same age as Castro. Make of that what you will …
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Castro's legacy - by Raul Rivero

It is now over a week since Cuban television announced that Fidel Castro, who has ruled the island for 47 long years, was to undergo (or had undergone?) delicate surgery and therefore would delegate all his powers to his brother, Raul, and a small, select inner group.

Beyond that, we don’t really know much more.

The Cuban media, controlled by the regime, has provided no further information on Castro’s health, which is now considered, believe it or not, a “State secret”. As for Raul, who is supposed to be running the place, well, he is yet to make a public appearance of any sort.

Bizarre … but this is Cuba.

If we believe the Cuban media, Castro the Elder is recovering. And being Castro, this is not just your ordinary, run of the mill recovery from serious surgery. Never mind he is about to turn 80; the Cuban media say Castro’s recovery is nothing short of a miracle.

Meanwhile, you may want to read a most illuminating piece by Raul Rivero, published by the BCC as part of its coverage of Castro’s 80th birthday.

Rivero was among 75 dissidents handed down long jail sentences in 2003 after being accused by the regime of being a “mercenary”, the term used by Castro and his apologists for anyone who dares question what’s going on in Cuba.

Following international pressure, Rivero, who was originally a supporter of the revolutionary process, was released last year and forced into exile in Spain with his family. Most of his fellow prisoners are still behind bars.

“I now believe that the worst legacy of Castro’s government is the spiritual ruin of the Cuban nation,” Rivero told the BBC. “We now have a theatrical society whose script is written every day by the official press.”

Read the rest here. Highly recommended.
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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

In front of a live audience

By sheer coincidence, the latest issue of New Yorker has an interesting piece by author Jon Lee Anderson on his most recent trip to Cuba in March and April.

During that trip, Anderson managed to have lunch with Ricardo Alarcon, head of the rubber-stamp Parliament, as well as other bigwigs in the regime, including Mariela Castro, who is Raul Castro’s daughter, and Abel Prieto, the Minister for Culture.
And he managed to witness Fidel Castro at one of those interminable revolutionary ceremonies where El Comandante en Jefe gets to lecture his subjects for hours on … well, on whatever he feels like.

This has been the case for 47 years, of course. As I retell in Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro's Cuba, it was not uncommon during the 1960s and early 1970s for Castro to give speeches that went on and on and on. Sometimes for six hours! It was Revolution by exhaustion.

Anyway, here is Anderson describing what happened during another marathon speech by Castro just a few months ago, when the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist and a heavy-duty microphone since January 1959 was supposedly in good health:
"Castro then began shuffling some clippings he had brought with him; he grumbled that they were out of order. A couple of minutes rolled by before he found what he was looking for, an article praising Cuba’s performance in the Classic from one of the international wire agencies, and he proceeded to read it out loud.

Castro’s voice was tremulous. He finished reading the dispatch, and then he read another, and another, and another, for more than a half hour. The students in the bleachers around me were, by now, clearly bored. Many fidgeted or talked. Some slept.

As Castro read commentaries from Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, ESPN, and the BBC, it struck me that he was sharing information from sources that were out of bounds to most Cubans. But if he was aware of the paradox he didn’t show it.

When he was done with the articles, he talked for another hour about Cuba’s achievements in medicine and education. The restless din in the stadium grew, but Castro seemed oblivious. I tried to read the faces of the members of the Politburo who were seated near Castro, but all I saw was their disciplined and neutral expressions."

Read the whole thing
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With friends like these

There are some standard questions you get all the time when people find out you were born in Cuba. Are Cuban cigars really that good? (Yes, they are). Are Cubans happy people, like you see on TV? (Mostly). Do Cubans spend all their time dancing under the hot, tropical sun? (A stereotype but yes, many Cubans do enjoy dancing).

Then there is this question: if Fidel Castro is a dictator and if he has been such a disaster for Cubans over the past 47 years, then how come so many otherwise intelligent writers, painters, actors, film directors, etc, etc, still support him, especially in Latin America?

It’s a good question.

Perhaps these otherwise intelligent people are the modern equivalent of those intellectuals and artists who used to visit the Soviet Union during the 1930s and return home praising Josef Stalin as a great and wise man - at about the same time Stalin was knee-deep in the blood of his countrymen as a result of what became known as The Great Terror.

Or perhaps these are people who still cling to a supposedly romantic vision of what could have been?

Most likely, I think this inexplicable support for someone like Castro from people who really should know better stems from the fact that the old dictator has been successful at thumbing his nose at the United States for nearly half a century. In some places, this is seen as a great achievement, something to be celebrated. It’s a case of, Provided you are anti-American, we will be on your side regardless ... Silly? Well, yes.

The latest example of this seemingly enduring love affair with Castro among “intellectuals” of the Left is an “open letter” published today by the Cuban official newspaper Granma under the heading La soberanía de Cuba debe ser respetada – The sovereignty of Cuba must be respected.

It’s been signed by the likes of Desmond Tutu of South Africa, assorted Latin American writers and American actors such as Harry Belanfonte. In fact, most of the signatories would be familiar to anyone who keeps an eye on Cuban affairs for they have all signed similar pro-Castro, anti-American letters in the past.

Except this particular letter is curious for what it doesn’t say …

The open letter - which you can read
here - claims the United States is making “threats” against Cuba which, the signatories argue, is bad news for peace in Latin America and elsewhere. They then call on President George W Bush to respect “the sovereignty of Cuba”. I suspect Mr Bush would have no problem with that. I don’t.

However, nowhere in the document is there any explicit or even implicit support for Castro or for the continuation of the Castro regime - a first, I think. In fact, the signatories don’t even wish the old man a speedy recovery. Perhaps whomever drafted the letter knows something we don't?

As I said, curious.
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Monday, August 07, 2006

Situation normal

From the Evita files

The Cuban media - it never ceases to amaze.

Over the past couple of days, as well as stories that show Cubans going about their daily lives normally, the officially-controlled media on the island has been publishing comments from "ordinary" Cubans about Fidel Castro.

The comments are strangely reminiscent of the comments made by “ordinary” Argentineans in July 1952 following the death of Evita Peron from uterine cancer - aged just 33. Back then, there were many in Argentina so distraught and overawed by the passing away of the woman described as “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”, they called on the Vatican to canonise Saint Evita there and then.

No need to wait in Cuba, if you believe Juventud Rebelde.

The weekly newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth published an article on Sunday under the headline, "For me, Fidel is everything", which quotes Cubans from all walks of life (or so the paper says), talking in quasi-religious terms about the man who has ruled the place for the past 47 years.

A woman identified as Josefa Veranes Peñalver, from Santiago, says Castro is “the greatest thing Nature has given us”. But Josefa is not alone. Ovidio Hernández Prince, an 80 year old from Matanzas, is quoted as saying that Castro is “unlike anyone else in the entire world – the Father of all humanity, showing us the way”. Not to be outdone, a 69 year old man, Marcos López Pérez, describes El Comandante en Jefe as “the most noble and charitable soul that has ever existed on this Earth.”

I wonder what Evita would think?
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A note from Elian and friends

Still no sighting of either Fidel Castro or the man supposedly in charge for now, his brother Raul.

But we are told that Castro the Elder is doing well, nearly a week after Cubans were told he had undergone delicate surgery.

How do we know Castro is doing well? Why, that’s what his pal Hugo Chavez says. The president of Venezuela, who is bankrolling the Cuban economy much the same way the Soviets used to in the good old days, says he has “reliable” information that his mentor (and client) is undergoing a “quick and notable recuperation." As you would expect.

Meanwhile, the Cuban official media (there is no other type) has gone into over-drive with messages of support and get well missives from around the world.

Famous Cuban entertainers such as Pablo Milanes have featured on the front page of Granma, the official paper, wishing Castro well. Milanes, who should know better, says he is ready to represent and defend Castro against any “provocation”. He made his comments while on his way overseas, where he spends much of his time nowadays. Lucky Pablo.

Same with Silvio Rodriguez, another famous Castroite composer, who told Granma he’d happily give his life for El Comandante en Jefe. I think he is serious - keep it in mind next time you spend some of your hard-earned dollars to buy one of his CDs. You can read the messages in Spanish here.

But the propaganda coup of the week must surely be the supposedly unprompted message from Elian Gonzalez. The boy who set off a major diplomatic incident between Castro and the US some years back has apparently penned his own Get Well card, addressed to “my dear grandfather Fidel”. The letter, published on the front page of the Union of Communist Youth's weekly newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, is signed by Elian and all of his half-brothers and half-sisters. You can read it here.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


You know that Monty Python film, The Holy Grail? Nothing to do with Dan Brown or The Da Vinci Code. No, The Holy Grail, released back in 1975, is a very funny, very British take on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Highly recommended.

In the film there is this terrific scene where The Dead Collector, played by John Cleese, is visiting ye olde English village, collecting people who have died overnight, presumably from the plague or some such pandemic. And there is this big guy trying to get an elderly relative taken away. Here, take him away - he is dead, he tells the Dead Collector. Except the relative insists that while he may look dead, he is not. I am not dead, he says. I am fine - and I am getting better!

Okay, so you had to be there. But it reminds me about what is happening in Cuba at the moment - the whole Pythonesque manner in which the regime on the island insists that everything is normal when quite clearly, it is not.

We have been told that Fidel Castro is recovering somewhere in Havana from a very delicate operation. Delicate enough for Castro to do something he had never done before in his 47 years at the top: transfer power - temporarily, we have been told - to his brother Raul and a junta of six others. That was Monday night, Cuban time. Since then, no sightings of either of the Castro brothers, leading to never-ending speculation that Castro the Elder may be dead.

No, he is not. He is fine, according to the Cuban media, quoting senior ministers and other officials.

Here is the very eloquent Ricardo Alarcon, head of the rubber-stamp Parliament and a favourite with the foreign media because he can be so, well, so reasonable. He told CNN that Castro was recovering but refused to say what the problem. Why? ''We are discreet."

Then there is Carlos Lage, who is part of the junta set up to handle affairs while Fidel Castro is ... wherever he is. But instead of staying home, he is in Bolivia on an official visit. How is Castro, he is asked. Doing well. He doesn’t have stomach cancer ... Same with Abel Prieto, the Minister for Culture. How is Castro? He is fine. He is not dead.