Friday, September 29, 2006

News from an embargoed island

The 19th congress of the rubberstamp Cuban Labour Federation (CTC) has just closed in Havana with a lenghty declaration attacking the "Empire" and in support of the absent ghost, Fidel Castro.

Naturally enough, the document was supported unanimously by the delegates.

The highlight of the closing session was a speech by Raul Castro, standing in for his ailing brother, where the man supposedly in charge at present rejected recent overtures by the Americans for a possible political opening in Havana.

Instead, the younger Castro spent a fair bit of time talking about "the enemy".

And no, he wasn't referring to rampant corruption or low wages or faltering productivity ... or even that stupid mosquito that is making so many Cubans ill.

He was referring to the United States, of course, and "the blockade", which is how the Castro regime - and its apologists elsewhere - always refer to the American commercial embargo that has been in place for about 45 years.

So, I thought the photograph above - taken by Javier Galeano of Associated Press - might be of interest.

The caption reads: A Cuban worker cleans the wind shield of a Mercedes Benz SE350 at the International Transport Fair in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006. The International Transport Fair opened to the public today until Sept. 30, 2006.

See? The "blockade" at work.

Hello, old friends

It was almost like the good old days: an important Russian visitor flies into Havana and the Castro regime, always eager to please, rolls out the red carpet, the military escort, the little paper flags ...

Well, not quite.

The man supposedly in charge at the moment, Raul Castro, has donned civilian clothes (again) to welcome to Havana Mikhail Fradkov, the Russian Prime Minister.

It’s a visit described by some observers as highly important. For the Castro brothers, that is.

So far, the two sides have signed an unspecified military co-operation agreement (what could that possibly entail?), as well as several trade agreements, according to this Associated Press report.

As a result, Russia has agreed to offer the supposedly embargoed island of Cuba credits worth $US350 million, to be used to buy Russian goods.

Which is rather kind of the Russians considering that Fidel Castro still owes them an estimated $US20 billion in debts incurred back in the days of the old Soviet Union.

Still, what's a billion or two among old friends?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Seremos como el Che!

Over the past few months, I have done countless media interviews to promote my new book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba. Available at all good book stores, etc, etc …

In most cases, interviewers eventually zero in on those chapters of the book that deal with the seemingly never-ending battle between my parents on the one hand and the Communist regime on the other, to capture the mind of an 11 year old child.

Was it really like that, they ask, sounding somewhat incredulous. Did the regime really teach children from such an early age to be “good” revolutionaries? To hate the Americans? To love Fidel?

Well, yes.

And 35 years after my family left Cuba, that insidious indoctrination, as my mother used to call it, it is still going on, judging by a report that appears in today's web edition of Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth.

It’s a heart-breaking interview with Sahily Martinez Paz, an 11 year old girl who is a sixth grade pupil at the Josue Pais Primary School in the city of Camaguey.

Sahily has been elected to represent her school at a forthcoming meeting of the Pioneer Movement, the decades-old Soviet-style organisation to which most Cuban primary school-children belong. Its motto is, Seremos como el Che! We will grow up to be like Che!

She is asked what has she learned from being a pionera. Her response: “To love our country and to be good anti-imperialists”.

Asked what she thinks about the “new”, hands-on teaching methods being introduced into schools, she says the use of computers and libraries has helped children become better students “in line with Fidel’s idea of turning Cuba into the most educated country in the world.”

And what does Sahily wants to do when she grows up? She wants to become a militante in the Union of Communist Youth – and study journalism.

As I said, heartbreaking. Read the interview here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

At the devil's table

Many years ago, when I was a young and impressionable journalist, my editor at The Sydney Morning Herald sent me to Argentina to write a series of articles on the changes that were then taking place in that beautiful but often-tragic country.

The military had just withdrawn from office following the Falklands debacle and Raul Alfonsin had been elected president of the new, democratic Argentina.

One of the stories I was keen to cover for the series involved a group of absolutely courageous women known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for I had heard and read much about their cause.

And so, as soon as I landed in Buenos Aires, I sought an interview with their leader, Hebe de Bonafini. By then, de Bonafini had become something of a minor media celebrity and I was told she was too busy to meet me this time. No worries, I said. Instead, I met some of the other mothers in their pokey office, and listened to their amazing and tearful stories, trying hard not to shed a few tears myself.

Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) some year later when I came across a photograph of de Bonafini, still wearing the distinctive white scarf on her head, hugging Fidel Castro – the first of many.

Imagine my disgust (and dismay) when I heard de Bonafini describe the dictator as a great and visionary human being - and attack those who oppose the repressive regime from within as nothing but gusanos, using that most deliberate and malicious of Castroist terms.

How could a woman who fought so hard against the military dictators in Argentina now praise another, equally-despotic dictator, I wondered? How can this woman side with Castro, the very man that openly and shamelessly supported the military junta in Buenos Aires for years. The same junta responsible for so much of de Bonafini's personal pain?

How could she?

Then the other day I read a piece in El Nuevo Herald by the always-readable Gina Montaner in which she described de Bonafini in passing as “malvada”, which translated as something close to evil.

Ms Montaner is right - the description fits.

Nostalgia corner

Ah, yes, those were the days.

The Soviet Union was invincible, matching the Americans and their often-shaky Western allies at every turn. The KGB had infiltrated many institutions across the democratic world, with spies secreted even at the highest levels. The Eurocommunists were on the move. And in the developing world, Communism was unstoppable - from Algeria to Somalia to Guyana.

Or so it all seemed ...

So, here is something of interest for those of you who still recall that extraordinary period between the mid 1960s - when Moscow began to expand beyond eastern Europe - and 1989, the year when the Soviet system collapsed almost overnight.

The Russian news agency Novosti has posted a terrific interview with Vitaly Vorotnikov, who was a former big cheese in the Soviet Communist Party during that period - as well as Ambassador to Cuba in the early 1980s.

Describing himself as someone who got to know Fidel Castro up close, the former ambassador is full of illuminating anecdotes, including details of a visit by the tropical dictator to Russia in 1972 to inspect Soviet high technology industries first hand.

And Vorotnikov confirms what we all know: for years, the Soviets effectively ruled (or misruled) Cuba.

“Our advisers flooded Cuba,” the former ambassador recalls. “They were not very considerate, interfering in Cuba's domestic affairs and imposing their decisions on Cuban experts, decisions which had nothing to do with the established way of life or local traditions. This lasted for quite a long time.

“They advised, for instance, that Cuba should be fully self-sufficient in food. But this was simply impossible. Cuba cannot grow grain because it's too hot there. What could it do with Russian seeds in a tropical climate?”

Vorotnikov also recalls how during his tenure in Havana he was forced to send back home to the USSR a Soviet chief adviser who had been sent by Moscow to tell the Cubans how to build houses.

The adviser, a deputy chairman of the State Committee for Construction, arrived in Cuba with Soviet building standards and rules, including plans to build homes with thick walls and central heating.

“When I asked him why, he said that he was planning to build in the usual way, as he did at home,” Vorotnikov tells Novosti. “Naturally, this was expensive, ineffective, and unnecessary for Cuba. But our advisors were not embarrassed in the least.”

And on and on … Read the whole thing here, tovarich.

Situation? Normal

The United Nations expert delegated to keep an eye on human rights in Cuba has reported that the Castro regime has “failed to improve its human rights record”. Which I am sure will surprise most of you. Then again, probably not.

Christine Chanet told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday that the Castro regime continued to imprison political dissidents at will, imposing strict censorship across the island and restricting the activities of human rights activists.

In other words, no change.

As expected, the Cuban ambassador to the UN in Geneva, an idiot by the name of Juan Fernandez Palacios, responded by describing the report as “libellous”. And for good measure, he accused Ms Chanet of political manipulation – and serving the interests of a “fascist clique”.

As I said: No change.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Out they go ...

Reuters reports that the recently installed Minister for Information Technology and Communications, General Ramiro Valdes, has fired the heads of two of the richest and most visible State-owned corporations in Cuba.

Gone are the chief executive of Etecsa, the monopoly telephone company, and the head of Copextel, which imports, assembles and distributes computers and other high-tech equipment.

According to the report, which you can read here in full, both organisations have been mired in controversy in recent months, with allegations of corruption and poor management. So what’s news, I hear you ask …

It seems the very busy General Valdes – who was in charge of the Secret police in the past - was “unhappy with the independence shown by some company directors” and with “their inability to rein in subordinates”, sources told Reuters.

For the record, Cuba occupies last place in Latin America for mobile phone and Internet penetration, and is fifth from last when it comes to the number of fixed telephone lines.

A recommendation

Sometimes, I think I am taking all this Cuban business way too seriously …

Then you come across an article such as the one published over the weekend in the Palm Beach Post.

It’s written by Carlos Frias, whom I gather is a sports writer on the paper. Born in the US, Carlos is the son of Cubans who escaped the Castro regime - and he writes about his visit to the island recently to meet up with family and generally play the tourist.

His description of visiting La Cabana, where his father was imprisoned in the mid 1960s for trying to leave Cuba but which is now a tourist site, is very moving. In fact, the whole article is highly recommended, including the accompanying slide show. It’s all here.

Hat tip to the indefatigable crew at Babalu.

Vamos bien, Comandante

The Cuban Labour Federation, which is controlled directly by the Communist Party, is holding its 19th congress in Havana at present.

And much as expected, there have been plenty of speeches by union leaders about the great achievements of the Revolution, the evil US “blockade”, the impending invasion from the North, the glowing future of Communism - and how each and every single worker on the island is right behind Fidel Castro.

But even in a perfectly choreographed world ...

It seems that during pre-congress discussions, some delegates appear to have expressed concerns about a range of labour and production issues, according to a brief report in Granma, the official propaganda sheet of the regime.

Under the somewhat encouraging heading of "Facing reality", the paper reports the comments by Bartolome Sayu, an official in the province of Guantanamo, who complained that “volunteer” workers helping pick up the coffee crop in the region were unhappy about the lack of proper clothing, proper working shoes and general conditions in the work camps.

A delegate from the Ciego de Avila area, Gonzalo Reytor, complained that entire banana plantations were going to waste because of a shortage of trucks and other transport.

And a delegate from Granma, Magda Milanés, was quoted as saying that while she was prepared to “unconditionally support” the regime, blah, blah, blah, perhaps more could be done to combat delinquency and corruption?

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Monday, September 25, 2006

All the news that is fit to print

Almost from the very beginning, the Castro regime has been quite open and transparent about the role it has assigned to Cuban journalists.

And it’s got nothing to do with reporting, let alone breaking news.

For nearly 50 years, all “professional” journalists in Cuba have been employed by the government on government-owned outlets and their riding instructions have been quite explicit: to promote, support and protect the regime.

Still, it’s confronting to see these instructions in black and white, as they are in this report published in the provincial newspaper Ahora.

The paper reports that a new journalism course has been introduced at the University of Holguin, in eastern Cuba, taking in its first batch of students this academic year.

There are 30 students in the course, including two from the Armed Forces and intriguingly, one from the Ministry of the Interior (MINIT), which comprises the regular police force as well as the regime’s secret police apparatus.

The official opening of the course was attended by the Communist Party’s head of ideology, Rolando Alfonso Borges, as well as the president of what must be surely the world’s most useless journalists' union, the Union de Periodistas de Cuba.

During the ceremony, the head of the new Faculty of Journalism, identified as Beatriz Rodriguez, produly explained to the assembled dignitaries that the teaching staff were there not just to impart to students a high level of technical and professional expertise in the craft of journalism.

Ms Rodriguez added the staff were there to ensure also that the newly-educated journalists left the course with “un profundo compromiso” – or total loyalty - to the Revolution, the Communist Party and Fidel Castro.

No conflict of interest there.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

In the dark again

There can be no doubt that Cuba is experiencing a serious dengue fever epidemic.

Even Raul Castro admits as much, in a typically roundabout kind of way.

The younger Castro, who is supposed to be in charge while his older brother recovers, told a group of provincial political leaders over the weekend that the eradication of the mosquito responsible for the epidemic - Aedes aegypti - had become the nation's number one priority.

And yet, the secrecy-obsessed Communist regime refuses to reveal the extent of the epidemic. No news of whether anyone has died from the disease. Or how many Cubans may have been infected so far. Nothing.

You see, such information remains a "State secret". Just like news of Fidel Castro's health.

It's that kind of the place.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Workers of the world, join in

The 19th Congress of the Cuban Labour Federation - known as the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba or CTC - opens in Havana on Sunday.

But this is no ordinary trade union body.

Unlike union organisations elsewhere in the world, the CTC is not an independent entity that negotiates better wages and working conditions on behalf of its members, flexing its industrial muscle as and when necessary.

Instead, the CTC is part and parcel of the Castro regime apparatus, controlled directly from the top by the ruling Communist Party.

Which may explain why the CTC has never organised a strike - not even a "go-slow" - during the past 47 years. Not one.

Despite this, it seems the CTC has no problems enticing Cuban workers to join, if you believe the rubbish that passes for news in the tightly controlled media.

As you can read in this report from Prensa Latina, the regime's news agency, 96 per cent of all Cuban workers belong to the CTC.

Who knows what the other four per cent are up to ...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Business News

Fidel Castro may not be around for much longer but this doesn’t seem to bother the gigantic Spanish hotel chain, Sol Melia, which already part owns and manages 22 tourist and luxury hotels in Cuba.

According to a report in the Spanish financial newspaper, El Economista, the chief executive officer at Sol Melia, Gabriel Escarrer, confirmed that the company is plannign to further grow their business with the Castro regime.

Despite the uncertainties raised by the 80 year old dictator’s illness, Mr Escarrer concluded that in Cuba, “the risks are relatively minor while the benefits are great.”

Spoken like a true capitalist.


And a big welcome to our Cuban readers, whomever you are. It's terrific out here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Spraying time

Just how serious is the dengue fever epidemic in Cuba?

Foreign wire services have filed numerous stories over the past month or so - and photographs like the one you see above from Associated Press - about a national fumigation campaign against Aedes Aegypti, the mosquito that carries the disease.

But it seems the problem may be much more widespread, judging by the number and tone of the reports appearing in the official Cuban media, which rarely if ever publish negative news about the island.

For instance, in today’s issue of Granma, the official propaganda sheet of the regime, there are no fewer than three articles on the campaign, highlighting fumigation activity in Havana as well as in other provinces.

And in one of the articles there is an unusual admission by one of the officials in charge of the campaign in the Cerro neighbourhood in Havana: the task is so huge, there are not enough supervisors to go around.

In the meantime, check out some photographs posted by Val Prieto at Babalu about one likely source of the epidemic.
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More on Raul

A BBC correspondent in Havana has an interesting take on events in Cuba over the past week or so, particularly in its description of Raul Castro, the man who is supposedly in charge of the Communist regime on the island.

According to correspondent Matt Frei, the younger Castro is “a man who has the charisma of a middle manager at a regional post office”.

Still, during the Non Aligned Movement meeting, the “temporary” president “looked comfortable” and in control, shaking hands with visiting dignitaries, etc.

So Frei asks for an assessment from one of Raul Castro’s closest friends, Jorge Risquet, a well-known (in Cuba) senior Communist Party official.

"Well," Risqet is reported as replying after a long pause, "Raul is a man of few but honest words. He's a nice guy and, above all, he is very, very systematic."

A romantic, according to his daughter …. And very systematic.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

All aboard II

Coincidentally, there is an interesting feature in today's Los Angeles Times that refers to Cuba's transport system. Or lack thereof.

Under the headline, "From the Ground Up, Cuba is Crumbling", reporter Carol J Williams explains how ordinary Cubans (as opposed to foreigners) can often wait up to two hours for crowded, ageing and dirty buses to take them home from work. If they are lucky ...

Read the whole thing here - then read the previous post, below.

Hat Tip: the always readable Marc Masferrer at Uncommon Sense.

All aboard

If you wanted to hold an international transport conference and fair, where in the world would you go? Cuba? Hardly.

After all, this is a country with one of the worst transport systems on the planet, as anyone who has visited the island can confirm. A land where decades of economic mismanagement and stagnation means the 1958 Chevrolet still reigns supreme. It could be worse, of course. It could be the 1978 Lada, but let's not go there ...

In any case, an international transport conference and fair is about to open in Cuba, under the auspices of the Castro regime.

According to the official Cuban newsagency, Prensa Latina, the conference opens on 26 September in Havana and will be attended by representatives from over 40 nations.

In what may be a moment of uncharacteristic candour on the part of Prensa Latina (or a Freudian slip?), the report says the conference will provide an opportunity for the Communist regime to “show the modest advances in the process of modernisation and recovery of this activity” in Cuba. My emphasis, of course.

The Minister for Transport, Carlos Manuel Pasos, also told reporters that a contract will be signed during the conference with the equally dictatorial regime of Byelorussia for the purchase by Cuba of 100 new articulated buses .

Mr Pasos assured reporters that this time, the buses will be “adopted to the Cuban climate”.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A billion photographs

Let’s hear it for those inquisitive Indian journalists who travelled to Havana for the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement.

First, they revealed the location of Fidel Castro’s secret recovery room – he is not in hospital or at the family compound near Siboney but in a suite of rooms at the heavily-fortified Palace of the Revolution, smack in the middle of the capital.

Now, they have revealed that during his entire 45 minute meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, the 80 year old dictator remained sitting in a wheelchair. In fact, Castro only stood up at the end and only to have his picture taken with Dr Singh so that “a billion people can see us together”.

Sadly, it seems the Indian PM was somewhat overawed by the experience.

“I felt I was in the presence of one of the greatest men of our times,” Dr Singh told reporters abroad his plane bound for home.

Which is a shame coming from the democratically elected head of the world’s largest democracy.

My father, the romantic

Those of you who thought Raul Castro was a dull, uncharismatic military man who enjoys doing the dirty work for his older brother are seriously mistaken, according to his daughter Mariela.

Ms Castro, who is in her early 40s, is relatively well known outside Cuba not just as Fidel Castro's niece but in her capacity as head of the Centro Nacional de Educacion Sexual – the regime’s official study centre for sexuality.

In that job, she has taken a very public role in support of homosexuals and transsexuals on the island while at the same time, becoming a very effective apologist for the Castro regime’s appalling (and well documented) treatment of homosexuals over its 47 history.

Now, she has given an extensive interview to the BBC about her work – and about her father.

In that interview, Ms Castro described her Papa Raul as being pretty close to the perfect father: funny, loves a good joke, is hard working, very supportive of his children, dutiful, a strong revolutionary who enjoys reading history books, lovable …

And a romantic at heart, too.

Referring to her father and her mother, Vilma Espin, Ms Castro reveals: “As a couple, our parents taught us to love, to be romantic, to believe even in people who lie and deceive you.”

Read the whole thing here. In Spanish.

Here we go again

I have commented previously on otherwise hard-nosed Western journalists who visit Cuba for the first time and return home to write glowing accounts of life on Fidel Castro’s island paradise.

So, here is another one.

This one is called Michael Lipton and he writes for the Charleston Daily Mail.

Mr Lipton has just returned from a fact-finding mission to Cuba and has written a lengthy and most positive account of his action-packed trip to Havana and parts of Pinar del Rio province.

As expected, there are plenty of references to Cubans being happy, proud of the Revolution, well-educated, and enjoying excellent health care, affordable housing, etc, etc, etc. The sort of stuff you read in the Cuban media every second day.

And even the all-too obvious inconsistencies of the regime don’t seem to bother our intrepid traveller too much.

Mr Lipton writes approvingly of the "efficient" system introduced by the regime whereby Cuban workers are paid in almost-worthless ordinary pesos while the more valuable convertible pesos (the ones you can exchange for real currency) are reserved just for foreigners.

“It's a brilliant system that makes a stay in Cuba incredibly easy and much less of an ‘adventure’ than expected,” he opines.

As for all that nonsense talk of oppression and censorship and political dissents being jailed, well, Mr Lipton found that indeed, police officers stood “on nearly every corner”. “Yet, unlike the imposing, machine gun-wielding police I've encountered in Russia and Argentina, they appeared completely benign, at least for foreigners,” he adds.

See? That’s what happens when you drink a mojito too many.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Reading between the lines once more

What a difference a few days can make ... at least when it comes to Cuba, where "reading between the lines" is something of a national pastime.

On Thursday, Raul Castro started welcoming dignitaries arriving in Havana for the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement. He was standing in for Fidel Castro, who is obviously still too sick to make public appearances – regardless of what Kofi Annan described as the dictator’s “firm handshake”.

Throughout, the official propaganda sheet of the regime, Granma, described the younger Castro as “the First Vice President of the Council of State”, making it clear who was in charge. As you can read here.

Today, for the first time as far as we can tell, Granma describes Raul Castro as President of the Council of State and of the Council of Ministers. The big cheese.

Probably a simple sub-editing mistake.

Can’t help themselves …

What is it about old Communists?

First we had Mario Benedetti, the Uruguayan writer and enemy of (some) dictatorships, telling the Spanish newspaper El Pais why he still loves his pal Fidel Castro. Apparently, it’s because Castro put an end to prostitution in Cuba. I think he was serious …

Now, we have another great defender of human rights, Julio Anguita, making excuses for the 80 year old dictator and his rapidly decaying, malodorous regime in Havana.

Interviewed by the Madrid daily, El Mundo, the former head of the Spanish Communist Party is asked whether he is worried about Castro’s health.

Of course he is.

“The Cuban Revolution does not belong just to Cubans but to me as well. I feel responsible,” Anguita replies before adding that Castro “has done some things” that are not to his liking.
But that’s alright because: “The biggest lie I have ever heard in my life is that the United States is a great democracy …”


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Plenty of food in India

The Indian media are reporting today that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had an unexpected 45 minute meeting with Fidel Castro.

Mr Singh, who was visiting Cuba to attend the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement, was just one of a handful of world leaders granted the "privilege" of an audience with the ailing 80 year old dictator. Lucky Prime Minister.

Two interesting details have emerged from the meeting, according to The Hindustan Times:

1. The location of Castro's hitherto unpublicised recovery room. It's somewhere in the Palace of the Revolution, the heavily fortified headquarters of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana.

2. Castro is woefuly uninformed about what's going on in the real world. At a time when the Indian free-market economy is being hailed globally as a powerhouse of the 21st Century, Castro asked Mr Singh whether his country was still importing food to feed its supposedly destitute people. Indian officials remarked later that the dictator "seemed to lack up-to-date information on India".

Meanwhile, at the Summit ...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

When dictators meet III

So many dictators, so little space …

Among the plethora of dictators and tyrants currently visiting Havana for the Non Aligned Summit (you know, the one where the host is too sick to make a public appearance), is Robert Mugabe.

When it comes to incompetence and corruption, the president of Zimbabwe, a self-proclaimed life-long Marxist, is hard to beat.

In the space of barely two decades, Mugabe took one of the richest and most beautiful nations in Africa and turned it into one of the poorest, where the inflation rate is currently running at an incredible 1,200 per cent. Read that again: 1,200 per cent! An all-time record.

This is the sort of place where you need a push barrow to carry enough cash to buy your weekly groceries. Literally.

Not that this worries Mugabe.

According to ZWNews, cash-strapped Air Zimbabwe was forced to fork out US$2 million to charter a foreign aircraft to service its international routes this week. The reason? Mugabe seized the national airline’s single working long-haul plane to ferry him and an entourage of dozens to Cuba.

You can read it here.

The brother rises

Instead, we got Raul.

The man who is supposedly running things in Cuba officially opened the Non Aligned Movement talkfest, in place of his ailing older brother, who is recovering (in theory, at least) somewhere in Havana.

Raul ditched his customary military uniform for a very capitalist-looking dark suit, waved at the cameras and shared the occasional joke with the other leaders attending the Summit.

According to some news reports, he even suggested his guests join him in a version of the Mexican wave for the photographers.

Fun guy, eh? The very picture of a modern day dictator, if you ask me.

"Noticias adversas"

Of course, it could all be an elaborate ruse from that grand master of a death foretold.

But the facts speak for themselves: six weeks or so after undergoing surgery that was described by those around him as delicate but not life-threatening, Fidel Castro remains too ill to appear in public.

Sure, there have been plenty of stage-managed visits by selected “friends”, faithfully recorded on video and still photographs by the regime’s extensive and relentless propaganda machine.

But come crunch time, it was a no show by the 80-year-old dictator.

Despite earlier suggestions of a surprise appearance, Castro failed to turn up at the official opening of the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement in Havana today – the largest gathering of world leaders ever to take place in communist Cuba.

For a man who has spent much of his life basking in the limelight and manipulating the media not to make even a brief personal appearance at the biggest show in town can only mean one thing: whatever ails Castro is serious. Real serious.

Time will tell.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Buy now, pay later

The Castro regime signed a deal in Havana today with a large Malaysian computer manufacturer, Mimos Smart Computing, involving the purchase of 30,000 new computers worth $US 10 million.

But the new computers will not be available to ordinary Cubans, according to a report by the Malaysian news agency, Bernama. Instead, the PCs will be distributed to “government offices”, which supposedly include schools and hospitals.

The purchase is financed with credit from the Exim Bank of Malaysia, which should be a great concern to its shareholders, given the Castro regime’s woeful record of defaulting on its debts.

You can read the report here.

Oil, oil everywhere

When it comes to the Castro regime, the gullibility of many otherwise hard-nosed Western journalists never ceases to amaze. Or amuse.

For the past few days, there has been a flurry of reports coming out of Havana talking up the prospect of large quantities of oil being discovered just off the Cuban coast.

For example, Reuters reports today on the possibility that Cuba could discover enough oil deposits to potentially transform the island’s “cash-strapped, oil import-dependent regime” into “a crude exporter able to fund itself well into the future”.

Apparently, the Indians are interested in helping out with exploration. And the Chinese. And even the Canadians …

Sounds too good to be true? Well, yes.

Similar stories appeared out of Havana about three to four years ago, except back then it was the Spaniards offering to help out with the exploration.

Indeed, the Spanish firm Repsol did carry out some extensive drilling in 2004 and while it did find some oil, the company conceded that the quality was far from being of commercial grade.

This time, we will watch with interest.

A moment of your time, Mr Annan ...

Kofi Annan has arrived in Cuba as a delegate to the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement.

He was welcomed at the airport by Felipe Perez Roque, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, as you can see in the photograph above.

So far, we don’t know whether the peripatetic Mr Annan will find time in his no-doubt very busy schedule to meet with Oswaldo Paya, who heads one of Cuba’s best known dissident groups.

Mr Paya wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations some days ago requesting a meeting to discuss a range of important issues, including human right conditions in Cuba and the liberation of several dozen political prisoners now rotting in Fidel Castro’s extensive prison system.

I suspect the chances of such a meeting taking place will be ... zilch?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

When dictators meet II

Boys and girls, please say hello to Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, a one-time Spanish colony in west Africa.

That’s him in the photograph above, arriving in Havana earlier today to join the other heads of State, assorted dictators and tinpot autocrats attending the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement. Under the auspices of that most durable of all dictators, Fidel Castro.

In power since 1979, when he overthrew his equally bloodthirsty uncle, Obiang Nguema is in the habit of rounding up anyone who steps out of line and cutting off their ears as an example. As you do.

He thinks he has a divine right to lead his people. Like all dictators do.

In fact, an aide to the president told a local radio station a few years ago that Obiang Nguema was “in permanent contact with God”, as you can read in this BBC report.

"He can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to Hell because it is God himself, with whom he is in permanent contact, who gives him this strength," the presidential aide announced.

According to the BBC, Obiang Nguema won the last two presidential elections – held in 1998 and 2002 - with over 98 per cent of the vote.

Over the years, he has put members of his family in senior positions within the government, reportedly grooming his son, Teodorin, to eventually take over the oil rich country.

And like other dictators we could name, Obiang Nguema believes that he does not have to give explanations to anyone about anything. Ever.

When the BBC asked him before the 2002 election why so much public oil money had apparently disappeared, he replied that this was a “State secret” and in any case, “he did not have to tell anyone where it had gone”.

Needless to say, Obiang Nguema will feel right at home in Castro’s personal fiefdom.

Our Spanish friends

The Spanish daily ABC revealed today on its front page that the Zapatero administration in Madrid has sent its second most senior diplomat, Bernardino León, as an observer to the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement being held in Havana.

And it’s good to see the paper calling a spade a spade, unlike so much of the Western media.

According to ABC, the meeting in Cuba is nothing more than an excuse for some of the world’s nastiest dictators to attack the United States.

“It is lamentable to see senior Spanish representatives attending a meeting whose aim is to glorify a dictator of the ilk of Fidel Castro,” the paper adds in a strongly-worded editorial which then goes on to describe the Castro regime as “tyrannical” and “decomposing”.

You can read the editorial here, in Spanish. It’s a corker.

Media management 101

The official Cuban media has published new photographs of Fidel Castro.

And just in time, too.

The hundreds of foreign journalists who have been allowed into Cuba to cover the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement were getting a little bored with the talkfest itself. Not surprising since, much as expected, the whole thing has turned into one very long and very dull speech attacking “the Empire”. And that’s even before Hugo Chavez arrives ...

So, we now have photographs of the 80 year old dictator having a chat to an Argentinean parliamentarian, still wearing his pyjamas and the silk robe he seems to be so fond of, and looking somewhat healthier than in previous footage.

The photographs don’t prove anything, of course, except the fact that Castro is still alive. This is old news.

But that’s not the point. The latest pictures will give the international media camped in Havana something to write about, rather than spending their time looking for real stories, like the dengue epidemic reportedly engulfing entire neighbourhoods in the capital city, or the crumbling buildings just a couple of blocks away from the convention centre, or the protests by the Damas de Blanco.

It’s called media management and the Castro regime has been a master of the art for 47 very long years.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On writing in Cuba

I have previously blogged about a Cuban writer called Leonardo Padura.

He is the author of a series of detective novels set in Havana featuring Mario Conde, who used to be a police officer but now, some 20 years after the setting for the first novel, makes a living selling rare second hand books to tourists – for American dollars.

Padura still lives in Cuba, appears to be tolerated by the regime and is occasionally interviewed by the local media, which is government-controlled. And yet his books – some of which have been translated into English - are much better known outside the island. Not surprisingly, since they paint a picture of a city far, far removed from those government-sanctioned tourist postcards.

His latest novel, titled La Neblina del Ayer, recently won the Premio Hammett, an award of the International Association of Crime Writers.

Now, the British daily The Guardian has an extensive interview with Padura about his books – and about his experiences as a journalist and writer under the Castro regime’s historically strict censorship rules. How does he get away with it?

You can read the whole thing here, but I wanted to share with you something Padura said during the interview in Havana regarding that ambivalence that is so much part and parcel of the great Cuban diaspora.

“Sometimes, like almost all Cubans, I would like to be far away,” he tells the interviewer. “But sometimes, when I am far away, like almost all Cubans, I would like to go back".

Terrorists in Havana? Never ...

As you may have read in a previous post, the Castro regime has further tightened security in Havana in recent days as the capital hosts the Summit of that peculiar Cold War relic, the Non Aligned Movement.

The small and always-harassed opposition groups have been warned to stay out of the way for the duration, while beggars, drunks, prostitutes and others deemed “undesirables” by the government have been taken off the streets.

And according to reports by Spanish media, residents living near the convention centre where the meetings are being held have to show their identity cards to get in or out of the area.

Meanwhile, visiting journalists have been corralled at the Habana Libre Hotel, the 1950s pile that was once owned by the Hilton chain.

But when asked at a media conference whether these measures were meant to foil a terrorist attack on important delegates such as Kofi Annan, the response from an incredulous Cuban foreign affairs official, Abelardo Moreno, said it all. "A terrorist attempt in Cuba? In the middle of the Summit? Please …”

In other words, it’s all about making sure the hundreds of visiting delegates – and especially, the visiting media - are kept as far away from the daily reality of life under the Castro regime as possible.

Believe it or not

The Cuban economy apparently grew by 12.5 per cent in the first half of the year, according to a breathless report just out on Bloomberg, the international business news wire service.

Bloomberg quotes the Minister for Planning, Jose Luis Rodriguez, as saying that the economy is likely to attain a second straight year of growth exceeding 10 per cent due to “local investment” and income from exports of nickel and sugar cane.

“We are moving forward in our policies of favouring workers' income, keeping unemployment at low levels and investing in our future ability to generate electricity at lower costs,'' Rodriguez said, apparently with a straight face.

Then the minister hinted that at some stage in the future, the regime is hoping to merge the ordinary Cuban peso with the not-so-ordinary Cuban convertible peso.

The ordinary Cuban peso is the only type of currency most ordinary Cubans workers get to see. It is basically worthless. In fact, you need about 25 of these egalitarian ordinary pesos to buy just one convertible peso, the currency that is reserved in communist Cuba for capitalist tourists.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nice and tidy

There is an excellent article in the Spanish daily ABC today regarding the meeting in Havana of the Non-Aligned Movement.

According to correspondent Mercedes Gallego, the lucky international delegates enjoying the late Cuban summer will be protected from witnessing some of the less savoury aspects of life under the Castro regime.

Ms Gallego reports on a massive cleaning up of the capital, including painting over the facades of buildings along Fifth Avenue, the street that leads to the convention centre where most of the meetings are being held. The centre has also been renovated for the occasion.

She says this lavado de cara also includes removing from Havana streets supposedly hundreds of beggars, drunks, prostitutes and those assorted hustlers that sell everything from fake Cohiba cigars to counterfeit antiques.

As well, she says, about 100 political prisoners have been shipped from the Combinado del Este prison to another maximum security facility on the road to the province of Camaguey – far from the festivities in the capital.

Nice and tidy ... just like the regime.

Back in Havana

It’s back to the 70s alright.

Much as expected, this week’s meeting in Havana of the Non-Aligned Movement is quickly turning into an anti-American show, with plenty of talk about the evils of imperialism, US hegemony and the dangers of globalisation … You get my drift.

According to Reuters, the draft communique to be discussed by delegates attacks the US on several fronts, including a denunciation of the American trade embargo against the Castro regime. Of course.

Then there are calls for the US not to interfere in Venezuelan affairs and the usual criticisms of Israel. Plenty of those, in fact.

It’s that kind of meeting. Predictable and irrelevant.

When dictators meet

Let’s hear it for Reporters sans Frontiers.

As the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement kicks off in Havana, the Paris-based press freedom organisation has once again highlighted the atrocious record of the Castro regime when it comes to freedom of expression and censorship.

In a statement issued today, RSF said it wanted to point out that some of the heads of State attending the talkfest in Cuva held press freedom and pluralism in utter contempt, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Nguyen Minh Triet of Vietnam.

“They will be greeted in the Cuban capital by another predator of free expression in the person of Fidel Castro,” the group said, adding that the authorities in Havana had already shown “signs of bad faith” by trying to limit coverage of the Summit.

“Cuba is the second biggest prison in the world for journalists, after China, with 23 journalists behind bars.”

You can read the rest

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Two of Us

For those of us who are interested in (or obsessed by?) everything to do with Cuba, the photograph above is of most significant. Or not.

It is a photograph of the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque, getting ready for a media conference in Havana on the eve of the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, which starts today.

Perez Roque (he is the one in the suit), has often been described, only half in jest, as His Master’s Voice because he is close to Fidel Castro and would never do or say anything to upset the old dictator.

He is seen by some outside Cuba as a key player in any post-Castro transition, which is a bit of a worry since from all accounts, the man supposedly in charge of the regime’s diplomacy is not quite what you’d call an independent or innovative thinker. Then again ...

But of even greater import (or not) is the man standing behind Perez Roque in this photograph.

He is General Ramiro Valdes. Name sounds familiar? It should. Only a few days ago, it was announced that Valdes, who fought with Castro against the Batista government in the late 1950s, had been appointed the new Minister for Information Sciences and Communications. You can read all about it in this previous post.

A one-time Minister for the Interior, Valdes is close to the ailing dictator, having been in charge of the regime’s secret police and its entire repression apparatus for many years.

And now, here is Ramiro, wearing a fine linen guayabera (rather than his regular Army uniform), and standing right behind the younger Perez Roque. A most peculiar double act. Or perhaps just a coincidence.

Amazing scenes

I thought I’d share with you this Associated Press photograph taken on Friday, September 8, in Havana.

The caption reads: “Cubans watch a religious procession in honour of the nation's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Sept. 8, 2006. A statue portraying Cuba's saint is fastened on top and flowers decorate the sides of a circa 1950s American truck that cruised slowly through the streets as people sang and prayed.”

What the caption didn’t explain: the torturous relationship between the Castro regime and the Catholic Church. Read more about it here.
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Guessing games

Will he show up or won’t he?

The big news from Havana is whether Fidel Castro will show up at any of the many non-events scheduled for the Summit of the Non Aligned Movement, which kicks off today in Havana.

At least that’s the news that seems to interest Western correspondents on the island, accustomed as they are to being treated like mushrooms by the Castro regime’s propaganda machine – in the dark and fed bullshit.

With 50 or so heads of State and government expected in Havana for the Summit, there is some speculation among correspondents that the ailing, 80 year old dictator may just make a public appearance at some stage during the talkfest – if only to prove to those nasty imperialists that he is alive.

It will be quite a propaganda coup if Castro does appear in public given he has been in virtual hiding since the end of July 31 when it was announced unexpectedly that the man who has ruled Cuba for 47 years was to undergo delicate surgery and therefore, was handing over power “temporarily” to his younger brother, Raul.

Typically, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque, has refused to confirm which of the Castros will be on show during the Summit. State secrets, you understand.

Asked whether Castro the Elder would host the traditional dinner for visiting dignitaries, Perez Roque replied: "I cannot yet confirm his presence at the dinner. I can confirm that the head of the Cuban delegation at that moment will be offering those dignitaries that dinner.”

Clear as mud?

Still, Castro has built his whole career on the basis of keeping the West guessing. On that front at least, nothing has changed.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Mea culpa

It hasn’t been a good year for dictators.

Fidel Castro had to undergo a delicate operation that forced him to “temporarily” hand over power to his brother, Raul. In Brasilia, Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay for more than 35 years with an iron fist, died. And Augusto Pinochet, who is said to be suffering from dementia, has seen members of his immediate family caught up in all sorts of nasty legal manoeuvres.

Now, Pinochet’s wife has offered a kind of mea culpa on behalf of her husband.

According to this report, Lucia Hiriart de Pinochet told the media in Santiago today that her ailing husband, who is 90, wants victims of his regime to forgive him.

"He has said many times that if he was wrong, he asks the people who fell to forgive him, especially from our side, but also for the adversaries," Mrs Hiriart de Pinochet said, after attending a religious service marking the 20th anniversary of a failed attempt on the then president’s life.

Yes, yes ... I know what you are thinking. Will we ever get such an apology from Castro? Hardly likely.

PS: By the way, that assassination attempt – which resulted in the death of his bodyguards but left Pinochet unscathed - was conducted by a Communist guerrilla group called the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front. It was funded, trained and overseen by the Castro regime, with support from those helpful chaps at East German intelligence.

Together we stand

Freedom House, the US-based organisation, has released its annual list of “The Worst of the Worst” – the worst regimes globally when it comes to human right violations.

And what a lovely conga line it is. In alphabetical order: Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

You can read the report on Cuba here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Then Evo arrived ...

You would have thought Evo Morales had enough problems to deal with back home, with his popularity among Bolivians rapidly falling, continuing strikes by teachers and bus drivers and political trouble in at least four provinces …

Well, he still has time to visit his old friend and mentor Fidel Castro and wish him a speedy recovery, etc, etc.

According to news just delivered by Cuban television, Morales has made a surprise lightening visit to Havana where he is said to have spent two hours talking to the 80 year old dictator. He also met Raul Castro, the man who is supposed to be running Cuba at the moment.

No photographs or footage of the visit have been made public so far, so we don’t know yet whether the ailing Castro wore that coquettish burgundy red dressing gown he apparently reserves for visits from Hugo Chavez.

Keeping an eye on him

What are we to make of this front page of Granma?

For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the principal propaganda sheet of the Cuban regime published a brief and unsigned article on its front page today commending the excellent work and dedication of Fidel Castro’s personal bodyguards.

Under the headline, “They are not just my workmates, they are my family”, the paper assures its loyal readers that the men and women of Castro’s elite Seguridad Personal are hard at work looking after the 80-year-old dictator during his “accelerated” recovery.


Culture makes you free!

As you may have read earlier, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) is currently performing in Europe, led once again by Alicia Alonso, the 85 year old prima ballerina who counts Fidel Castro among her closest and dearest friends.

The reviews in the United Kingdom have been mixed.

Reviewer Ruth Leon at Bloomberg described the performance by the company as being much like Cuba: “looking frayed around the edges”.

“It is sunny and good-natured, while suffering from the domination of a leader who should have gone years ago,” the perceptive Ms Leon concludes.

A totally different take at The Guardian, the left-leaning newspaper in London that rarely has a harsh word to say about Castro.

One of its columnists, Marcel Berlins, who is described as "a lawyer turned journalist", declared the performance “stunningly good” before diving straight into politics with the following gem.

“Not for the first time,” Mr Berlins tells us, “I marvelled at the inspiring fact that from a small, poor island of 11 million people, starved of money and opportunity by the indefensibly cruel behaviour of successive American governments, emerges one of today's great ballet companies …”

Mr Berlins says the success of the BNC was “the result of the vision of two dictators”: Alonso and Castro.

“And when Castro ceases to dictate, the inspiration behind ballet's pre-eminence will be gone,” he laments, as only a lawyer turned journalist could. “How can any successor emulate a man who was thinking of the future of dance in his homeland at the same time as he was polishing his guerrilla's rifle in the Sierra?”

So you see, it’s OK to be a nasty, tin pot dictator who rules with absolute and deadly power for 47 long years … provided you have a thing about ballet.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

That 70s Show

Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s will remember the Non Aligned Movement. Much like we remember Disco Duck, Afro hairstyles, flared trousers, body shirts and handlebar moustaches. With a mixture of horror and embarrassment. You know … what were we thinking?

The NAM was a group of countries claiming to be non-aligned to either the West or the Soviet bloc that somehow managed to include among its members such die-hard Moscow client states as Ethiopia, North Korea, Afghanistan … and Cuba.

In other words, despite its initial good intentions, the whole thing turned into one big joke, culminating in 1979 when the NAM Summit was hosted by Fidel Castro in Havana.

There, the member countries dutifully vowed to fight all forms of Imperialism, colonialism, racism, Zionism … In fact, every ism except the most obvious one: Communism.

Anyway, the Cold War may be over (we won, chaps!) but it seems the NAM is still alive, if not all that well.

It’s got 115 members or thereabouts, it meets regularly and produces communiqués and plenty of photographs of leaders of some of the poorest nations in the world alighting from their personal jets and calling on the US to give more money to the poor.

It remains a bit of a joke.

Which may explain why its next heads of government Summit is in Havana. It takes place next week and it was to be hosted by Castro himself. Of course, that was before the non-aligned man who has ruled the non-aligned Cuba for the past non-aligned 47 years was rushed into the operating theatre.

This time, I suspect the NAM Summit will attract plenty of media attention internationally - but not for the reasons the ailing 80-year-old dictator would have preferred.

Visiting day

Just a few days after releasing video footage of Fidel Castro looking not all that well, the Cuban media today published supposedly new photographs of the 80-year-old dictator seemingly on the mend.

Gone is the red dressing gown, the unkempt beard, Hugo Chavez and the Tiffany lamp.

This time, the photographs show Castro playing the part of the perfect patient, sitting down in a rocking chair in a corridor somewhere and wearing sensible slippers and a pair of new pyjamas. Actually, make that two pairs of new pyjamas – one is navy; the other in what some interior decorators would describe as "baby blue". Peculiar, isn’t it?

His beard has been trimmed and his hair combed, much as you would do for an elderly relative in a nursing home when expecting visitors on Sundays. The perfect patient.

To accompany the photographs, the newspaper Granma has also published another one of those Messages to the Cuban People, in which Castro confirms that yes, he has lost a lot of weight but says the worst appears to be over.

Curiously, however, the tone of the message remains very tentative, adding weight, it would seem, to the theory that while Castro may be getting better, he remains ill and unlikely to return to power soon - if at all.

In his missive, he even apologises to Cubans for keeping them in the dark about his health (it’s “a State secret”, of course), and warns that everyone “needs to be realistic” because full recovery “may take quite some time”.

“I am in no hurry,” adds the man who has ruled his 11 million subjects for 47 long years.

As if we didn’t know.
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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Garzon speaks

Baltazar Garzon, the Spanish investigating magistrate who become something of an international celebrity some years back when he pushed for the extradition of Augusto Pinochet, has had something to say about Cuba.

Garzon is visiting Chile, where he has been hailed as a hero by relatives of former victims of the Pinochet dictatorship.

In an interview with the daily La Nacion, he calls for “change from within” in Cuba towards “freedom and democracy”, arguing that the Castro regime is “insupportable” because it restricts freedom of speech, freedom of association, etc, etc.

And just so you don’t think he is biased, the magistrate also suggests, unprompted, it would seem, that the US commercial embargo on the island should be lifted at once.

So, here is my point: Yes, we could spend the next week or so arguing about the US embargo and how effective or otherwise it has been. It’s a legitimate debate. But why the connection? Is Garzon implying that the lack of basic political rights in Cuba under Fidel Castro is the result of the US embargo?

Anyway, I bet Garzon won't get an invitation to visit Havana in a hurry.

Production targets met, comrades

Good news for egg lovers in the Eastern province of Holguin, in Cuba.

The local Communist Party paper, Ahora, has just reported that the agricultural sector in the province has experienced the best production figures in a decade, despite the drought.

Now, you know as well as I do that production figures in today's Cuba are at best rubbery and at worst, well, useless. It's an old trick Castro learnt from the Soviet Union, where vast armies of State "statisticians" used to be deployed daily by the Kremlin to collate ever more ridiculous production figures from across the Empire to prove the historic superiority of Communism.

But, we are a genereous lot, so, let's take the figures in Ahora at face value.

The paper says 182 million eggs are expected to be produced this year in the province, compared to 136 million eggs in 2005. And in 2007, some 205 million eggs will be produced – which will bring egg production in Holguin to what it was in 1989.

“Thanks to this result,” says the paper, “the delivery of 10 eggs per person was completed.”

That’s right: 10 eggs per person. Read it here.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Travel tips

Ask Tom. That’s the name of an advisory column that appears every Sunday in the travel section of The Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom.

The latest column has some important advice from a reader called Kevin Dangerfield (that’s what it says), for Poms travelling to Cuba who may be considering hiring a car and driving around the island.

“In response to the recent question about driving in Cuba, I have done so and my advice would be to forget it,” writes Mr Dangerfield. “I have driven through much of Africa and the Middle East but would not contemplate driving in Cuba again.”

He then proceeds to provide some timely advice should you insist on getting behind the wheel:

Get a good road map – but buy it at home, not in Cuba. Cuban road maps are “pretty useless”, as “outside Havana, the towns and villages do not have any identifying signs and there are no distance markers”.

Avoid driving after dark. Even the main roads are of “variable standard”, adding: “Tarmac is a luxury and can disappear quickly without warning. Traffic includes donkey carts and slow moving tractors with no lights. Pedestrians trying to hitch a lift are common and have a disturbing tendency to wander into the path of any car to get it to slow down.”

As for the standard of vehicle maintenance, Mr Dangerfield describes it as “poor”, even for hire cars that are normally reserved for tourists.

Still, he concludes that Cuba is “a wonderful” place. But not for drivers. Or dissidents, I suspect.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Castro: a critique from the Left

Sadly, the Castro regime has never been short of Western apologists during the past 47 years. From Jean-Paul Sartre to Harry Belafonte.

But the number of "supporters" seems to be dwindling rapidly as the Fidel Castro era comes to its inevitable, pathetic end - regardless of those cheesy home videos shown on Cuban television over the past day or so of the 80-year-old dictator recovering from surgery.

I was reminded of this while reading an opinion piece penned by Fred Halliday, a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.

Regarded as a left winger of the old school, Professor Halliday has been to Cuba three times (in 1968, 1981 and 2000) to lecture at Cuban higher education institutions. In other words, he could be considered to have been generally supportive of the regime. Or at least not overtly critical.

In his column, he tries hard to be “fair” to Castro, raising all the old chestnuts: the impact of the American “blockade”, the “excellent” health and education systems; the “venomous” exiles; US foreign policy, etc, etc.

But in the end, the good professor concedes that “much of what is wrong with Cuba is the result not of imperialist mischief, but of post-revolutionary dogmatism, stupidity and arrogance.”

And the person to blame for this debacle? Fidel Castro.

“This introversion and protracted entropy of the Cuban revolution in the 1990s is not, however, some sudden break with an earlier, utopian, phase,” Professor Halliday concludes.

“It points, rather, to problems in the whole history of the revolution itself – problems which astute even if sympathetic observers noted in the early 1960s but which supporters of the Cuban state (quick to suspend judgment or see the reality of life on the island as it is and has long been) seek to avoid.

“The most evident is the personality of the leader himself: a man of vision, courage, honesty and charisma, but also of demagogy, inconsistency, episodic vindictiveness and cruelty, grotesque verbal self-indulgence, intolerance, contempt for intellectuals and homosexuals, and plain administrative ineptness.”

I don't quite agree with the bit about courage and honesty and vision, but the rest sounds pretty much spot on. Read the full feature here.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Shedding some light

For only the second time in the past month, the Cuban media have broadcast new video footage of Fidel Castro being visited by his old mate, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

The two are shown for about 10 minutes or so exchanging what could only be described as inanities, with Chavez at one stage describing Castro as "Gentleman of the Heroic Resistance".

The message behind the latest footage would appear to be clear: the 80-year-old dictator is still weak and far from being in control, but there has been some improvement - at least physically.

I will leave the interpreting to others better skilled in such tasks.

Of greater interest is the fact that the video confirms yet again that despite the rhetoric, Castro remains a little capitalist at heart whose taste for the finer things in life betray his supposedly socialist ideals. The Rolex watches, the black Mercedes lumousines, the Adidas jogging suits ...
And now, we discover the self-styled Great Revolutionary of our times has a Tiffany lamp by his bedside.

What the ...?

Friday, September 01, 2006

News from Havana

Raul Castro, who is supposed to be in charge while his brother, Fidel, recovers from some mysterious illeness, appears to have made his first official appointment as "temporary" President of the Council of State.

According to Granma, the regime’s propaganda sheet, the Council of State has agreed to effectively sack the Minister for Information Technologies and Communications, Ignacio Gonzalez Plana, and replace him with an old-timer, General Ramiro Valdes.

The note in Granma (which you can read here, in Spanish), doesn’t reveal the reasons for moving Gonzalez Plana, saying merely that he will be “assigned other tasks”. As for Valdes, the paper says he has “ample experience” and has produced “positive results from his labour”. Without giving any further explanation or context.

What does this all mean, I hear you ask?

Analysts and Cuban watchers will have a field day over the next few hours with these latest news from Havana. Does it mean Raul is really in charge? Why bring back one of the original commanders? Hasn't Valdes been seen in the past as a likely threat to Raul? Is this some sort of leadership pact between Raul and a probable rival?

The thruth is no one outside the immediate clique really knows.

But this much we can say: Ramiro Valdes has been around for ever. He fought with the Castro brothers against the Batista government and despite some stumbles, has managed to survive and prosper under the regime - becoming one of its best-known faces internally.

One more thing: As a former head of the Ministry of the Interior, he was in charge of the Secret Police and the entire repression apparatus on the island.

Hunger for change

This week’s edition of New Statesman, the British left-of-centre weekly, publishes a relatively short, must-read article written by Norge Espinosa Mendoza, who is described as a Havana-based playwright.

In his column, Espinosa Mendoza talks about the changes witnessed by Cubans since the fall of what used to be the Soviet bloc – and the end of hope for those on the island that even then, managed to cling on to that now-discredited ideology, Communism.

More importantly, he refers to how Cubans from all walks of life are hungering for change – without referring in any way, shape or form to Fidel Castro or his brother, Raul.

“Tourists often visit Cuba without seeing any of this,” Espinosa Mendoza writes. “They lose themselves in the fantasy of an enchanting tropical country, and never discover its secret.

“An interested visitor can see evidence of the real Cuba in the falling-down houses, the sun-beaten parks, the atrocious transport, and the beauty of the sea which surrounds us. In our books, our paintings, our songs and our dance you also see the real Cuba - the one we are all hoping for.”

You can read the column here.