Tuesday, October 31, 2006


New figures just published in Havana confirm what many non-government observers have been saying for some time: Cubans are having far fewer children than ever before.

And the population is getting older.

Compiled from data collected by the United Nations, the figures show that Cuba now has the lowest birth rate in Latin America, with about 120,000 births last year.

By comparison, an average of 250,000 new babies a year were born during the “boom” decades of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The result? Over 1.8 million Cubans are now described as being “in the third age”, out of a population of about 11.2 million.

At this rate, experts say, the population is unlikely to reach 12 million any time soon.

As you would expect, representatives of the Castro regime have explained the drop in births by referring to better education, more young women in the workforce, easy access to contraception and readily-available, legal abortions.

These are indeed contributing factors, but there are other reasons why so few Cuban women are having babies, according to the Spanish newsagency EFE - from poor housing and low wages for State employees to a lack of child care places.

In fact, as EFE reports, many young Cuban women don’t dream of starting a family. They dream of leaving Cuba.

Photograph: AP Photo/Javier Galeano

Letters to the Editor

I wrote a couple of days ago about an article that appeared in my old newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, under the kind of headline that makes you shake your head in utter dibelief: "Impoverished Cuba sends doctors around the globe to help the poor".

Well, my brief letter in response was published this morning. You can read it here, under the headline "Explotation is in the eye of the beholder".

You may also want to read the other two letters published by the paper on the same subject. They will give you some idea of how the majority of Herald readers thinks. Or at least the letter writers.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Free. Open. Not.

I am hoping most readers of this humble blog would be familiar with the term “free and open source software”.

No? Well, I am no expert but I gather it’s the idea that software should be accessed freely by just about anyone anywhere in the world – and made better. At virtually no cost. Or something like that …

The reason I am talking free and open source software with such abandon is because I came across a
snippet in Salon today pointing to an interesting academic paper by three researchers: two in the US and the third at the University of Havana.

The paper, which appears in The Information Technologies and International Development Journal, looks at the potential use of free and open source software in Cuba.

The academics concluded that free and open source software would be “a perfect fit” for a “developing nation” such as Cuba, which has an educated populace and a serious shortage of cash.

Except that free and open source software requires users to be, well ... free. You know, free to own a computer. And free to access the Internet.

Sadly, the researchers quickly discovered that you can do neither on Fidel Castro’s island.

Ordinary Cubans are barred from owning a personal computer, even if they can afford to buy one. In fact, they need a special permission from the regime, which is rarely granted.

As for Internet usage, it is effectively reserved for rich tourists since the State-owned telecommunications company charges $US4.50 for a three-hour pre-paid card. The average wage in Cuba - where 99 per cent of workers are employed by the State - is about $US20.00 a month.

And even if you are one of the lucky few and manage to get permission to buy a computer and have enough cash to get on the Internet, access to sites deemed by the regime to be “counter-revolutionary” is strictly illegal – and closely monitored, as a recent
report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) found out.

Anyway ...

As part of their work, the academics also attempted to undertake some face-to-face research in Havana about computer usage but found it was nowhere as easy as they had expected.

They realised that a comprehensive questionnaire (you know, one that allowed respondents to speak freely) was out of the question.

“Potential respondents would not have been happy to collaborate on suspicion of the government being behind the research,” the researchers said.

In any case, they were told that “no research can be performed without previous approval of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, and studies must be under governmental control”.

The academics
concluded that any research that was in any way critical of the Castro regime or research that highlighted weakenesses in existing policies, was strictly out of bounds in Cuba.

Back to the drawing board.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Back from the dead

Just when you thought it was safe to let the kids out of the house ...

Cuban television has broadcast new footage of Fidel Castro - the first such pictures in more than a month.

In an all-too obvious effort to quash rumours inside and outside the island that the ailing 80 year old dictator was near death (or probably dead already), Castro was shown walking unassisted, reading a copy of Granma and pretending to give orders on a wall phone.

But he warned - again - that his recovery would be long and "not without risk".

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Castro, the Humanitarian

My old newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, today publishes a story from a correspondent in Havana by the name of Tom Fawthrop.

And yes, it's yet another case of a supposedly fearless and independent Western journalist basically regurgitating the Castro regime's propaganda. Consciously or otherwise.

I won't bore you with the details of the article, which you can read

The headline, which appears to have been lifted from Granma, says it all: "Impoverished Cuba sends doctors around the globe to help the poor".

Of course, I will be writing a letter to the editor, explaining that the 20,000 doctors sent to "help the poor" by Castro are in fact used by the regime as a cheap way of exchanging medical services for subsidised oil, etc, etc, etc.

But frankly, sometimes I ask myself, Why bother?

Why waste time I could otherwise spend with the family (it's Saturday in Sydney), or out in the backyard (it's Spring Down Under), or out for a walk ... Why bother?

Then you read headlines like this
one in The Miami Herald today: "Cuba accused of slavelike labor deal".

According to the article, former shipyard workers have gone to court in the US alleging that the Castro regime conspired with a Curacao ship repair company to provide what can only be described as slave labour.

The workers, who managed to escape and make it to Florida, say they were paid the equivalent of $US16 a month to work 16 hour shifts, in harsh conditions and always under surveillance from Communist Party commissars.

Helping the poor, I assume ...

Now, I wonder if that story will make it into my old paper.

Coming clean. Sort of.

The Castro regime has finally come clean and admitted, in a roundabout sort of way, that Cuba is experiencing a serious dengue epidemic.

For months now, ageing Soviet-era airplanes have been buzzing Havana and other major cities spraying against the mosquito that causes the epidemic. Health workers have been doing the same, house to house in some areas.

But until now, the regime has refused to confirm the obvious.

According to Reuters, the Pan-American Health Organization has quoted Cuban government sources as saying the epidemic has affected four of the 14 provinces. However, the same sources have apparently refused to reveal the number of deaths.

Perhaps that is a State secret, too? Like Castro's health?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Calling a spade a spade

As you may have guessed, this blog is a big fan of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based organisation that routinely infuriates dictators and their apologists the world over.

The latest missive came yesterday in Madrid when the organisation received the prestigious Antonio Asensio Prize for Journalism from King Juan Carlos.

The general secretary of RSF, Robert Menard, used the opportunity to launch a thinly-veiled attack on the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - for getting into bed with the Cuban dictator and his repressive regime.

Mr Menard said the Spanish authorities correctly criticised the murder of journalists in places like Colombia or Mexico. But they
effectively turned a blind eye to what was going on in Cuba, where the Castro regime has imprisoned at least 24 journalists “just for doing their job”.

Media stunts, Castro style

Regular readers of this blog (I am sure there is one or two of you out there, right?), may recall an earlier post regarding a story published by the official Cuban media earlier this month about a boy called Raysel Sosa Gonzalez.

Raysel was one of a number of children from around the world who won a drawing competition organised by the United Nations.

But when he turned up to collect his certificate in Algeria, he discovered that one of the prizes was missing from the kitty handed out by the sponsors to all the winners: a digital camera from Nikon.

Nikon apparently said they could not provide Raysel with a camera because of the US embargo.

Initially, the well-oiled Cuban propaganda machine used the story to demonstrate how those evil Americans were using the commercial embargo to hurt and humiliate poor Cuban children, blah, blah, blah …

But lately there has been a subtle change in Havana.

As well as using the missing camera to attack the Americans over their “criminal blockade”, Cuban newspapers are now also attacking the Japanese firm for being heartless and spineless and nothing but a tool of imperialism. Usual stuff.

We do not know whether Nikon will respond or how.

But the propaganda offensive continues, with a report this morning in Juventud Rebelde that Raysel has now been given a Nikon camera after all, not by the company but by … Fidel Castro. Naturally.

Apparently, the 80 year old dictator is not only alive but well enough to have heard about Raysel’s dilemma and ordered a Nikon for the boy, although we suspect the money did not come from Castro’s own pockets.

You think this is a pretty pathetic PR stunt? You think it couldn’t get more tacky? Think again.

The paper quotes Raysel’s art teacher, one Jorge Gonzalez, as telling reporters, in reference to Castro: “Today, justice has been done and it’s been done by most just man in the entire world.”

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Money matters

It seems those crafty Canadian money-makers know something we don’t.

In an article published today in The Toronto Star, a man described as a “visionary investment guru” predicts that Fidel Castro is on his last legs ... and that Cuba will soon “rejoin the capitalist community”.

The “guru” is Thomas J Herzfeld, who runs his own money management outfit specialising in investing in Cuba-related business, such as airlines that fly to Havana and cruise liners that ply the Caribbean.

And Mr Herzfeld thinks there is plenty of money to be made.

“As soon as commerce is resumed with that nation, there will be a boom in Cuba,” he told the paper. “I certainly don’t think the US embargo will outlive Castro by many years.”

In fact, his fund has even bought shares in the old Cuban Electric Company, which was taken over by the Castro regime nearly 50 years ago. He is confident some compensation will come his way in due course.

And yes, Mr Herzfeld thinks you should invest in his fund.

Of course.

A museum for Compay

For my money, Compay Segundo was by far the most likeable of the viejitos who became part of the Buena Vista Social Club international phenomenon.

The hat. The cigar. The guitar .... His enthusiasm for younger women. How much more Cuban can you be?

Now we can report that his son, Salvador Repilado, has announced the opening of a Compay Segundo Museum in Havana - to coincide with the 100th birthday of the musician, who died in July 2003. Aged 95.

Repilado Junior said the museum, due to open later this month, would include a number of personal objects such as old instruments used by Compay and a collection of unpublished photographs.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The good news about those Havana blackouts

The World Wildlife Fund has just unveiled its 2006 Living Planet Report, which looks at the impact human activity is having on wildlife.

Very commendable. Except that the report has concluded that Cuba is probably the only country in the world with “sustainable development”.

The rationale? One of the report’s authors, Jonathan Loh, cited the country's high literacy rate, long life expectancy … and the fact that Cuba has a “surprisingly” low consumption of energy.

Nothing surprising there - at least in relation to energy use.

The fact is that under the Castro regime the electricity system doesn’t work, public transport is virtually non existent, private cars are restricted to officials and tourists, air conditioning is a rarity, and what little heavy industry was in place during the 1970s and 1980s disappeared completely following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So, no energy equals no pollution equals sustainable development.

“Of course,” Mr Loh added, “this doesn’t mean Cuba is a perfect country …”

Great moments in journalism

There is an almighty witch hunt going on in Havana at the moment, with the Castro regime searching high and low throughout the city for one Paloma Cervilla.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, Ms Cervilla has written a number of hard-hitting reports from inside Cuba in recent weeks for the highly-respected Spanish daily, ABC.

In a recent dispatch, she revealed how the privileged sons and daughters of senior Communist Party leaders are involved in a range of illegal and/or corrupt activities - and getting away with it.

Among those identified in the article was “El Potro”, the son of none other than General Juan Almeida, a vice-president of the Council of State and one of the original comandantes of the Revolution.

Well, the powers that be in Havana aren’t happy.

Like totalitarian regimes the world over, they don’t like nosey foreign journalists who insist on straying from the official line.

So they have used one of the regime’s official websites, Cuba Debate, to launch a scathing attack on ABC. You know, it's supposed to be a “right wing newspaper” of “declining circulation” that is “desperately trying to attract new readers” by “pandering to extremists”.

Regarding Ms Cervilla, Cuba Debate admits without even a hint of shame that they have gone through the records of all the foreign journalists currently licensed to operate inside Cuba - and found there was no one registered by that name.

The website then claims that ABC is lying to its readers: “It is not unusual for right wing publications like ABC to pretend they have a journalist inside Cuba when in fact the stories are fabricated in Miami, where they are welcomed, blah, blah, blah, Cuban American Mafia, blah, blah, blah, terrorists, blah, blah, blah …”

All this may explain why Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has just rated the Castro regime as one of the worst offenders in the world today when it comes to press freedom.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Wish you were here. Again.

When it comes to enticing those all-important, cash-carrying tourists, it seems the Castro regime will do whatever it takes.

Separate tourists-only hotels? No worries. Don’t want to queue at restaurants, cafes and cabarets like ordinary Cubans? Just flash your euros and walk right in. Not happy being approached at the beach by Cuban kids asking for a dollar? It’s fine – we will send more police on patrol.

Now there is news that the regime has decided it will allow cruise ships back into Cuban ports, despite earlier criticism from none other than Fidel Castro himself.

According to a report out of Havana, the Minister for Tourism, Manuel Marrero, confirmed that cruise ships will be welcomed back to Cuba - provided they do not damage the environment, leave some money behind and result in “cultural exchange”.

A far cry from remarks made just two years ago by Castro, who described cruise companies as parasites.

“We have these floating hotels, with their floating restaurants and their floating entertainment, visiting poor countries just so they can leave behind their rubbish, their empty cans and used toilet paper, for a few miserable cents,” the 80 year old dictator said then.

Asked by a foreign journalist about the obvious shift, the Minister hurried to explain that while it might look like movement, the new edit was definitely in line with the views of the Comandante en Jefe.

“There is no contradiction,” he added. As you would expect ...

It's the economy, stupid

For the past few weeks, Cuban newspapers have been in a right old tizz over an issue that rarely gets an airing in the tightly controlled media: endemic corruption in workplaces across the island.

From cafes and restaurants to building enterprises and hospitals, otherwise ordinary Cubans have been caught out rorting supplies, over-charging customers and providing pretty shoddy service.

Given that 99 per cent of the Cuban economy is State-owned, this is not what you’d call a terrific result.

But in fact, there is nothing new here.

This type of scamming has been a feature of Cuban life for nearly half a century. Not because Cubans are particularly prone to corrupt practices but because this is the only way to make ends meet in Fidel Castro’s socialist paradise.

You need to resolver to survive.

Anyway, this latest anti-corruption campaign by the regime has been run largely through the pages of Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth.

Over the past three weeks, the paper has highlighted endless examples of poor service, low-level corrupt dealings and general scamming across Cuba, with much lecturing about the need to maintain discipline in workplaces and for workers to follow the revolutionary example of the Comandante en Jefe.

The latest instalment appears in the Sunday edition of the paper and it’s hilarious.

The paper devotes at least a couple of thousand words to the topic of how to improve what it describes as the “socialist economy”. Economists are interviewed at length. And political scientists. And even philosophers. And they all have plenty to say about the need to put a stop to these terrible pilfering and lack of service.

But no one mentions the obvious: it’s not the workers’ fault. It’s the fact that centrally-controlled, Soviet style socialist economies do not work. Whether in Russia or Hungary or China. Or in Cuba.

It’s that simple, folk. No amount of fine tuning will help.

Monday, October 23, 2006

In Canberra

On this, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Hungarian Revolution, it is only fitting that I direct you to comments made a few days ago in the Australian Senate by Sen Gary Humphries.

Sen Humphries (Australian Capital Territory, Lib.) had quite a few things to say about trade union leaders and others in Australia (and elsewhere) who continue to support the Castro regime.

He quoted from recent Amnesty International reports on human right conditions on the island, describing Communism as “an ideology which is linked directly with the deaths of over 100 million people”.

“The collapse of communist regimes, and subsequent acknowledgement of their atrocities and abysmal standards of living, was a wake-up call to most of the mainstream Left who harboured residual sympathy for communism …” the senator said.

“There remain, however, those that look at left wing dictatorships through rose coloured glasses, with Cuba in particular being held up as an example of a so-called ‘workers paradise’.”

You can read the speech here. Or visit the senator’s webpage here.

Budapest, 1956

Today marks the day 50 years ago when thousands of Hungarians from all walks of life marched through streets of the capital city, Budapest, demanding an end to communist rule and calling for free elections.

It was the start of what became known as the Hungarian Revolution.

A week or so later it was all over. Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the revolt, with support from Communist parties in other parts of Eastern Europe – and from Soviet apologists in the West.

To their eternal shame, Western governments didn’t lift a finger to help the Hungarians, scared of “provoking” Moscow.

The uprising resulted in the death of some 25,000 Hungarians. An estimated 200,000 escaped, including some 14,000 who made it to safety in Australia, making a huge contribution to Australian life, especially in the arts and business.

Following the spectacular collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new Russian authorities apologised to the Hungarians.

As far as I know, there has never been any apology from those in the West who supported the Soviet invasion, which was described by the Kremlin in predictable terms, as a “fascist” counter-revolution.

Anyway, I recommend an interesting piece published in The Australian today to commemorate the start of the Hungarian Revolution. It’s written by Neil Brown, QC, a former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. Read it here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Happy and optimistic II

There is an excellent feature article in today’s edition of ABC, the Spanish daily, about life in Cuba two and a half months after Fidel Castro underwent emergency surgery.

The reporter, Paloma Cervilla, spent time in Havana talking primarily to young people - and the quotes speak for themselves:

“Neither Fidel nor Raul. Cuba only wants progress.”

“There is a lot of people here who disagree with the regime, and if the regime allowed people to leave freely, there’d be no one left in Cuba.”

“The only solution is to leave Cuba.”

Equally intriguing are claims by ABC of endemic corruption among the sons and daughters of senior military men and Communist Party officials – the privileged few – who have access to hard currency and connections to the top.

The articles even identifies some of them, including El Potro, which is the nickname of the son of General Juan Almeida, one of the original comandantes of the Revolution, a member of the Council of State and holder of the title "Hero of the Republic of Cuba".

Read the article here. In Spanish.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Happy and optimistic

Ministers responsible for youth policy in Latin America, Spain and Portugal are meeting in Havana this week, as part of the round of conferences associated with the regular Iberoamerican summits.

Not much to write home about, frankly.

But this is communist Cuba after all, where even the most mundane gathering becomes a major opportunity for the tightly controlled official media to push its all-too-predictable slogans.

It seems the head of the Union of Communist Youth, Julio Martinez, welcomed delegates by talking about the impact the US commercial “blockade” has had on the island, blah, blah, blah. But despite those evil Americans, young people in Cuban remain “happy” and “optimistic”, he said.

Obviously, Mr Martinez needs to get out of his air-conditioned office more often.

Oh, yes, Juventud Rebelde also reports that the delegates to the ministerial conference have sent a get well message to Fidel Castro, wishing the ailing 80 year old dictator a “speedy recovery”.

Which begs the question, where is Castro?

Castro's Internet

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based independent media rights organisation, has today published a terrific report on Internet access in Cuba.

The report includes a survey of the censorship and control methods used by the Castro regime to stop the vast majority of Cubans from accessing the World Wide Web, as well as the first hand experiences of a French journalist who visited the island recently.

Of course, the regime blames the US commercial embargo for the fact that Cuba has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world – the lowest in Latin America and down there with Uganda and Sri Lanka.

Reporters Without Borders concludes that while the embargo may have an impact on the speed of the connection (highly debatable), the problem is not speed but access, which is strictly controlled by the Communist Party.

“In a country where the media are under the government’s thumb, preventing independent reports and information from circulating online has naturally become a priority,” the report says.

Read the whole thing here. Recommended.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In Quito

The official Cuban media have been paying much attention to the election count in Ecuador – and it doesn’t look good. For Havana, at least.

Prior to the polls, the Castro regime all but predicted a sweeping victory for Rafael Correa, a self-styled left-wing populist who has spent much of the campaign attacking "neo-liberalism" and talking about closer relations with Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. You know the type.

Of course, voters in true democracies have a habit of making up their own minds.

And so, the latest count shows that Alvaro Noboa, who happily describes himself as a capitalist, is ahead of Correa - although neither candidate will get enough votes to avoid a second round election.

This has prompted an almighty dummy spit by the Castro media, with newspapers such as Granma claimimg “massive” electoral fraud by Noboa, who is invariably described as a “demagogue”, a heartless mogul, an American stooge, etc, etc.

This over-the-top reaction may have something to do with the fact that Noboa has made it clear he is not a fan of the 80 year-old dictator, promising to break diplomatic relations with Cuba if elected.

“I am not a hypocrite,” he told voters. “I don’t like double standards.”

Music corner

The team at the excellent Penultimos Dias blog get a hat tip for pointing the way to an intriguing interview published today by Reuters.

The interviewee is Carlos Lage Codorniu, the 25-year-old head of the communist-controlled Federation of University Students in Cuba.

What makes the interview newsworthy is the fact that Lage Codorniu also happens to be the son of vice-president Carlos Lage, who is generally regarded as the third most important political figure on the island. After the Castro brothers, of course.

In other words, the younger Lage is one of the privileged few.

As you would expect, he says all the right things to the interviewers: socialism is immortal, young Cubans are right behind Fidel, the “achievements” of the Revolution are many and sacred and must be defended at all costs, capitalism is evil, blah, blah, blah.

“We can not question the basic premise of the Revolution,” he says, parroting the official line perfectly.

Much more interesting, though, are Lage Codorniu’s comments on his taste in music.

He admits that in his younger days he was something of a fan of Queen, the British band. Then he saw the revolutionary light, ditched rock music and went back to listening to Silvio Rodriguez, the Castro regime’s official musical propagandist.

No accounting for taste.

No news in Havana

Surely it must be time for Havana to produce some new photographs of Fidel Castro …

It’s been a month since Cubans were shown carefully staged photographs of the ailing 80 year old dictator supposedly recovering from surgery.

Back then, the official Cuban media, which is tightly controlled by the communist regime, assured Castro’s “friends around the world” that the Comandante en Jefe was getting better all the time, already giving orders on the phone and keeping an eye on matters of State.

So, why is Castro still in hiding?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Showbiz News

In Madrid …

Andy Garcia, the Cuban-American actor, is in Spain at present promoting his new film, The Lost City, which opened in the United States earlier this year and is due for release in Spain on November 3.

And as expected, Mr Garcia has been asked his opinions on what will happen in Cuba after Fidel Castro kicks the bucket.

“I hope the promises of the Revolution are finally realised: a democratic and multi-party Cuba,” he responded.

Good response, I thought.

And in Havana …

Ten or so days after arriving in Cuba to record a new album, Charles Aznavour held a press conference in Havana today, before returning home to France.

Aged 82, Aznavour talked about his amazing and amazingly long career.

He was hugely popular in Cuba when I was growing up in the 1960s, and from all accounts, he remains popular on the island.

At his press conference, he was asked whether he would have liked during his brief visit to have met Fidel Castro, who is now into the second month of his supposed “recovery” from delicate-but-secret surgery.

“I would have liked to have met him,” he replied. “But I gather he is still recovering.”

Not such a good response.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

As you were

The supposedly temporary transfer of power in Cuba has had no impact on the way the Havana regime deals with independent journalists on the island, according to a human rights official from the Organization of American States.

In a report released this week, Ignacio Alvarez said independent journalists in Cuba continued to be "arbitrarily and repeatedly imprisoned” and “physically attacked and threatened” by agents of the Castro government.

Alvarez, who is the OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression in the Americas, said he had not perceived any change “in the situation of total lack of respect for freedom of thought and expression in Cuba" since Fidel Castro handed over power to his slightly younger brother Raul over two months ago.

No change.

Economic management, Castro style

Since colonial days, the economic future of Cuba has been historically linked to sugar. For better or worse.

The sweet stuff was the island’s number one export earner for decades, right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in the early 1990s.

Then about five or six years ago, Fidel Castro decided that there was no future in sugar anymore.

The dictator dictated that the new money-spinner for the communist regime would be tourism.

And so, sugar mills were closed all over Cuba, sugar workers “retrained” and sent to work elsewhere (if they were lucky), and all that fertile land that used to grow sugarcane was left bare.

Now the regime has decided to restart the sugar industry, according to a report by Reuters.

But it’s not going to be easy.

The responsible minister, General Ulises Rosales del Toro, announced this week that he expects to have about 50 sugar mills operating during next year’s harvest - compared to 156 mills just three years ago.

General Rosales del Toro also predicted a 25 per cent increase in output, an outcome that will no doubt be met (aty least officially) but be hailed by the official media as a great achievement for the Revolution, etc, etc.

What the general did not point out is that the sugar crop output in 2006 is expected to be no more than about 1.24 million tonnes, which is the lowest level in over a century. That's right - the lowest level in over a century.

Something else the general didn’t point out: despite the ridiculously low wages paid to sugar workers, the Cuban sugar industry remains a basket case because little if any money has been spent in the past 40 years or so updating equipment and facilities.

In fact, the industry is so inefficient, its is now cheaper for Cuba to import sugar rather than grow and process its own.

Economic management, Castro style.

Monday, October 16, 2006

October 1962

Today marks the 44th anniversary of the start of what was to become known to historians as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On 16 October 1962, US president John F Kennedy was told by his security officials that the Soviet Union was in the process of installing nuclear missile on Cuban soil, barely 90 miles from American territory.

The evidence had been gathered by U-2 spy planes flying over the island and taking amazingly accurate and detailed photographs like the one you see above.

Those photographs set off a chain of events that brought the US and the Soviet Union close to nuclear war.

It was quite a momentous period - and not just in Washington and Moscow and Havana, but even in Banes, the small sugar town in eastern Cuba where I was born.

In fact, for one fleeting moment during the Missile Crisis, the town became the centre of world attention.

On 27 October 1962, a U-2 piloted by US Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson was sent on a reconnaissance mission to photograph military installations in and around the Bahia de Nipe.

While flying over Banes, the plane was hit by shrapnel from Soviet-made surface to air missiles that had been fired from just outside the town by the Cuban air defence and their Russian advisers.

The shrapnel punctured Anderson’s pressure suit, he lost consciousness and was killed on impact when the plane crashed.

The world held its breath: would Kennedy retaliate? Would the US take action against the Soviets? Would the American invade Cuba and set off World War Three?

As they say, the rest is history.

I was only three at the time but my parents certainly remember those days clearly, including the uncertainty (and fear) that followed the downing of the U-2 over Banes. Right over their heads.

It's a long time ago but to them,
it seems like only yesterday.

Making ends meet in Cuba

There is an interesting story in the Sunday edition of The Miami Herald about how ordinary Cubans make ends meet.

It usually involves what Cubans call resolver, which is a polite term for scamming: taking home merchandise from work that can then be sold for cash or exchanged for other, much-needed goods.

It’s illegal, of course, but it’s the only way to help supplement the Castro regime’s ridiculously low wages for State employees, who account for about 99.9 per cent of the workforce. The average wage? The equivalent of $US15.00 a month.

Scamming is nothing new, either.

Back when I was growing up in the town of Banes in the 1960s, everyone had to resolver, as I recount in my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba.

For years, my mother would sell or exchange some of her dresses and blouses with some friendly campesinos outside the town for fresh milk, which was strictly rationed.

And during the time my father was put in charge by the Government of a biscuit and noodle factory, he used to illegally bring home flour and butter and even eggs - goods you rarely, if ever, saw at the shops. He wasn't alone, either. Everyone else at the factory did it. Otherwise, you went hungry.

The most heart-breaking aspect of the Herald article is the fact that 40 years later, nothing much has changed.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dancing with dictators

Ever since his surprise election in March 2004, Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has gone out of his way to ensure his Socialist Government maintains "open lines of communications" with the Castro regime.

In other words, let's not upset the old dictator.

One of the first decisions made by the newly-elected administration in Madrid was to reverse the long-standing practice of inviting some Cuban dissidents - along with a host of senior representatives of the regime - to the Spanish embassy in Havana to help celebrate Spanish National Day, on 12 October.

This used to enrage Fidel Castro, who retaliated by barring his ministers and senior officials from attending the celebrations.

Well, no dissident was invited to last year's celebrations, as Castro demanded. The result? A host of senior Cuban ministers, military bigwigs and well-placed Communist Party officials turned up at the embassy to enjoy the jamon serrano, Manchego cheese and vintage Rioja reds on offer.

Alas, it has been a very short-lived engagement.

The Spanish media is all in a tizz today, as you can read here, because this week's party in Havana was snubbed by the regime. No minister turned up and no senior Communist Party representative.

It seems Castro is upset with Zapatero because his deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs had the temerity of organising a quiet meeting with a small group of dissidents during a recent visit to Havana.

Oh, well, that's what happens when you appease dictators.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Great moments in journalism

Remember that huge demonstration in Caracas last week organised by the Opposition parties to support their candidate, Manuel Rosales?

Thousands turned out to call for democratic change when Venezuelans go to the polls on 3rd December.

In fact, the march received widespread media coverage across the world - except in Cuba, where the tightly controlled media more or less ignored the demonstration.

Until now.

The propaganda sheet of the Castro regime, Granma, today published a supposedly serious commentary piece (there is no other word for it) ridiculing Rosales and his supporters as “fascists” and US “stooges”. Which is as you would expect.

The article, written by someone called Felix Lopez, is also highly critical of how the “capitalist” media covered the event, claiming the numbers were inflated, people were bussed in, etc, etc.

But Lopez reserves his most venomous observations for the female demonstrators, reporting how he was overcome by “the aroma of Chanel and Givenchi” perfume while witnessing the demonstration. And how difficult it was for him to avoid the women’s “huge and provocative” silicone breast implants - “monumentales y provocativos pechos de silicona”.

I kid you not. Read it here, in Spanish.

It seems sexism is alive and well in a newspaper that calls itself “the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party”.

Aznavour arrives in Cuba

I have blogged previously about Charles Aznavour.

The Armenian-born French crooner was by far the coolest man in the world, at least as far as I was concerned back in the days when I was growing up in the town of Banes, in eastern Cuba, in the 1960s.

Now Aznavour has arrived in Cuba, according to this report in Granma, the official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime.

He is there to record an 11-track CD with Cuban musician Jesus “Chucho" Valdes.

Fleeing Cuba

Our hard-working fellow bloggers at Penultimos Dias have a link to a story that appears today in The Sun Sentinnel, in Florida.

According to the paper, suspected immigrant smugglers beached a speedboat with some "unusual passengers" on Fisher Island, which is described as a "millionaires' enclave".

On board, 28 Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's paradise. Yes, I know, they are ungrateful bastards who obviously don't appreciate all that free health care and excellent education system.

The unusual passengers? The Cubans also brought along with them six Cuban finches, which seems to have excited the authorities no end.

The humans were handed over to the US immigration authorities for processing, while the finches were taken away to a quarantine centre where they will be "observed and tested for diseases such as avian influenza".

Thursday, October 12, 2006


The Castro regime has published new figures regarding Internet usage on the island.

They are included in a lengthy article in Juventud Rebelde that somehow attempts to blame the United States (of course) for the abysmally low rate of Internet penetration in Cuba.

According to the newspaper, which is the official publication of the Union of Communist Youth, Cubans cannot access the Internet because those evil Americans won’t provide enough bandwidth.

In any case, the paper says, the US only wants to use the technology to encourage “internal dissent” on the island. Naturally.

Anyway, to the official figures, which I suggest you approach with care.

The paper claims there are 790,000 email users in the country plus another 150,000 Cubans with access to the Internet. It also claims that there are about 1,500 Internet sites – all of which are either published or sanctioned by the Communist Party and its front organisations.

What the paper does not say is that:

1. Internet access is restricted to those considered by the regime as “ideologically secure”, and

2. Ordinary Cubans need a special (and rarely obtainable) permit to buy a computer, as you can read in this BBC report.

In black and white

Racism does not exist in Cuba. Not officially.

If you believe the official "history" of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro abolished institutional and social discrimination against non-whites on 1 January 1959. Since then, everyone in Cuba has been equal, regardless of skin colour. It is one of the great "achievements" of the Revolution, right?

Maybe not, according to a report today by the BBC.

The British broadcaster quotes figures confirming that despite the official pronouncements, black Cubans remain heavily disadvantaged, even when it comes to education - just three per cent of university students are black.

But it seems the biggest discrepancy is economic.

For instance, although blacks account for about 12 per cent of the population, only five per cent of workers in the tourism industry are black. Does this matter? Oh, yes.

The tourism industry is the fastest growing sector of what is left of the Cuban economy. This is where most Cubans want to work, too. Why? Because this is where you get tips from tourists - in hard currency, rather than useless Cuban pesos. It means waiters at a tourist hotel can earn more in tips in a day than a doctor or a teacher can earn in a whole month.

Now, when it comes to racism, Cuba is not alone. Sadly, discrimination based on race is still an odious social problem in many, many countries, to different degrees. Even in Australia. The difference is that here we don't pretend it doesn't happen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

People Castro hates

There has never been any love lost between Fidel Castro and his henchmen on the one hand and Jose Maria Aznar on the other.

The reason? The former Spanish prime minister was never afraid of tackling the Cuban dictator head on when and as required, especially over human rights issues and the need for democratic change on the island.

Mr Aznar is no longer in office but he has continued to comment on the inevitability of change in Cuba, most recently during a visit to Chile.

And in Havana, they hate him for it. Just like they hate Vaclav Havel. And the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias.

So, in today’s edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, the regime goes for Mr Aznar's jugular. Again.

An article signed by Patricio Montesinos but obviously commissioned and approved at the highest levels, the former Spanish leader is variously described as “a political corpse”, a “colonialist”, an “interventionist” and even a “moribund parrot” who has been relegated to the “dustbin of history”. And an American puppet, of course.

Can’t wait to hear Mr Aznar’s response. It should be fun.

From a boy in Cuba

The leadership of the South Australian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) thinks we could learn a thing or two from the way Fidel Castro runs his schools, as you can see from this previous post.

You know, like how children as young as five are “encouraged” by their teachers to send get well messages to the Comandante en Jefe, who is now into his second month of recovery from a mysterious illness that has been deemed a “State secret” by the regime.

Here is one such message published today by Juventud Rebelde, the official newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth.

It’s a get well message from Lazaro Camilo Moret, a fifth grade pionero from Esmeralda, in Camaguey province.

Lazaro writes: “On behalf of pioneros in Camaguey, I want to thank you for this wonderful Revolution you have created for us, the children of Cuba. Fidel, you can count on all pioneros to give our very own lives for you …”

See? That’s what governments everywhere should aspire to.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Children of the Revolution

When I was growing up in Cuba back in the 1960s, my one great ambition was to become a pionero – a Communist "pioneer".

Back then, primary school children as young as five were encouraged at school to join the pioneros, which could be best described as a cross between the ultra-radical wing of the Boy Scouts and the Hitler Youth.

Like many of my school friends, I was desperate to become a pionero and proudly wear my pionero scarf and attend revolutionary meetings and sings protest songs and write love poems to Fidel Castro and learn how to fire an old Soviet machine gun and ... y
ou know what I mean.

My parents had other ideas.

Despite strong pressure form some of my teachers and the occasional tantrum from me, they simply refused to let me join. No son of mine will become a Communist pioneer, my counter-revolutionary father would say, as I recount in my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba.

Well, I no longer want to be a pionero.

But plenty of otherwise normal kids in Cuba have bugger all choice – the Jose Marti Pioneer Movement, as it is called in the official media, currently has over 1.4 million members across the island, aged between five and about 12 or 13.

And the leaders of these boys and girls - the ones deemed to be the most ideologically promising - have been meeting in Havana at the fourth congress of the pioneros.

The closing ceremony was attended by Raul Castro and a host of other Communist Party bigwigs, all of whom kept reassuring the anxious children that while Fidel Castro could not make it in person, he was there in spirit. In their hearts, no less.

You can read a stomach-turning report of proceedings here, in a lengthy article from the English language edition of Granma, the official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime.

But two things jumped out at me:

First, according to Granma, Raul Castro was the hero of the day, showered with “loads of hugs and kisses” from the pioneers.

And second, each "delegate" gets to take home a copy of the book Cien Horas Con Fidel, which has just been re-published in Havana.

As the title suggests, the book is essentially the transcript of 100 hours of interviews with Fidel Castro, in which the Comandante en Jefe generously provides his views and thoughts on everything from light bulbs to Jesus Christ.

Blackboard jungle

I had a call yesterday afternoon from a reporter at The Australian newspaper.

The reporter wanted to know what I thought about an article that appears in the latest issue of a journal published by the South Australian branch of the Australian Education Union, the country's largest teaching union.

Essentially, the article praises the Cuban education system, implying that Australian school officials could learn a thing or two from the Castro regime. I kid you not.

According to the article, Cuban classes are small, teachers well-trained and all schooling is free. Oh yes, teachers are supposed to "reinforce Communist values", but let's not worry too much about that, OK?

And the source for the article? Well, information provided by Gilda Chacon, a senior Communist Party official who visited Adelaide recently and who also happens to be a high ranking propagandist for the communist-controlled Cuban Labour Federation - the one and only legal trade union on the island.

Even more depressing is the fact that the State president of the AEU, Andrew Gohl, backed the claims made in the article.

Mr Gohl told The Australian: "The fact that education in Cuba is free, compulsory and funded significantly by the Government is something all governments should aspire to".

You can read the article here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Our capitalist friends

The large Canadian company that helps mine much of Cuba's nickel, Sherritt International Corp, has confirmed that it expects to expand its already extensive business relations with the Castro regime.

Which seems like a very courageous business move, if you ask me.

The company's Chief Financial officer, Guy Bentinck, has told investors in Toronto that nickel production at its Moa facility in eastern Cuba will rise almost 50 per cent to 50,000 tons a year by about 2010.

You see, Mr Bentinck is supremely confident that the company's investment in the island is "safe", regardless of what happens in Cuba once Fidel Castro dies.

"Our relationships in Cuba are exceptional, and no matter who's in power, that will continue,'' he said, according to this story by Bloomberg. "We operate all the assets and control the technology, that's one of the reasons that our position is so strong in Cuba.''

Birthday wishes

Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident, intellectual and one-time president, turned 70 yesterday.

It was big news in the Czech Republic but not elsewhere, which is a pity since Havel is without doubt one of the great historical figures of the late 20th Century.

Anyway, to mark the occasion, Prague Radio interviewed Paul Wilson, a Canadian who has translated Havel’s work into English and who considers himself a friend of the man who was instrumental in the fall of Communism in what used to be Czechoslovakia.

During the interview, Wilson talks about Havel’s continuing and admirable campaign on behalf of Cuban dissidents and Cuban democracy.

Why Cuba? Why such commitment to an island so far away?

“I think that in the case of Cuba specifically, he and many other Czechs are trying to somehow articulate the experience that they have had,” Wilson explained.

“Not only living under communism - which gives them an automatic sympathy with the Cuban people - but also to try to figure out what it is in their experience of transitioning, if you like, from communism to democracy, that might be useful for the Cubans because it will inevitably be a choice that they'll have to face. Castro will die at some point.”

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A boy in Cuba

As previously blogged, the Castro regime is currently in full PR mode over the American commercial embargo.

This happens every year at about this time. Why? Because this is the lead up to the annual debate by the United Nations on what the Havana boys describe as the “imperialist blockade”.

And every year, the tightly-controlled Cuban media publish dozens of increasingly bizarre stories about how the Americans are hurting ordinary, hard-working Cubans by imposing this evil “blockade” on the tiny but proud island nation, etc, etc.

This year the media appear to have exceeded expectations.

Best of the crop so far is a yarn in today’s online edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, about a 13 year old Cuban school boy identified as Raysel Rojas, from Havana.

According to the article, Raysel, who happens to be a haemophiliac, won a United Nations environmental prize for one of his paintings. The paper does not identify when the prize was awarded, but let’s not quibble ...

Apparently, when he turned up at Algeria to pick up a Nikon camera as his prize – along with children from Thailand, Yugoslavia, Ecuador, etc – he was told he was not entitled to the camera as it had US components and therefore, was subject to the “blockade”.

Raysel is undaunted, however.

Under less than subtle questioning from the reporter, he says the “blockade” is horrible and should be lifted at once because it affects children like him.

What’s more, he wishes the United States would stop “assassinating families around the world”. He says American soldiers “destroy houses where children live” and kill and maim entire families, “even pregnant women”.

Nikon or no Nikon, Raysel is adamant he would not live anywhere else in the world because only in Cuba does he get free health care (“In other countries, it costs a pile of money”), and free education (“You don’t have to pay a cent.”).

When he grows up, he wants to be a painter.

I hope Raysel gets his wish and I hope he is hugely successful.

I also hope he can do so in a country free from the type of cheap and nasty and pathetic political indoctrination to which this obviously talented child has been subjected.

To live to 100

A study of 54 centenarians in Villa Clara province in Cuba has come up with the perfect recipe for those of you who want to live to 100: lots of coffee, cigars and sex.

According to a report by the BBC, the study was conducted by Dr Nancy Nepomuceno, who said the lives of the centenarians were “disciplined but not austere”.

Although none of those studies drank alcohol (rats!), Dr Nepomuceno said they all loved coffee and cigars ("in large quantities") - and all had “a healthy interest in a number of areas, including sex”.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Quote of the day

"There is a view that the pro-communist left in Australia in decades past was no more than a bunch of naïve idealists, rather than what they were – ideological barrackers for regimes of oppression opposed to Australia and its interests. "

John Howard, Prime Minister
Address at the 50th Anniversary Dinner of Quadrant Magazine
3 October 2006

More news from an embargoed island

Every year at about this time, the Castro regime trots out one of its functionaries to speak to the foreign media in Havana about the “imperialist blockade” – what you and I know as the commercial embargo the United States imposed on the island over 40 years ago.

This year, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, released figures showing that the embargo is supposed to have cost Cuba about $US4 billion in lost trade during 2005 - twice the previous year's amount.

They are made up figures, of course, and largely meaningless. But they serve their purpose as a clever Public Relations tool - media outlets around the world publish them without question.

You see, the reason the figures are unveiled with much fanfare in Havana is because at about this time every year, the UN debates the embargo – and without fail, the vast majority of its members vote for the embargo to be lifted.

The vote is always protrayed by the Castro regime as a huge political victory, which it is.

Now, this is not the place to get into an argument about the effectiveness or otherwise of the embargo. Others have done so much better than I could, including the guys over at Babalu and Cuban American Pundit.

But what the Western media inevitably fail to report is that:

1. The embargo does not cover food or medicines exported from the US. Thus, the US is now the largest exporter of food to Cuba. That trade alone is worth an estimated $US500 million a year.

2. The Castro regime is and has always been able to trade with any and every other nation in the world, including Australia.

Coincidentally, there is a report today by the official Cuban newsagency, Prensa Latina, discussing economic and technology ties between Cuba and Canada.

That report confirms that Canada is now Cuba’s third-largest trading partner. And the fourth-largest foreign investor, with more than $US750 million tied up in the island nation.

In other words, the embargo has more holes than a chunk of processed Swiss cheese.

In Tehran

Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres ...

That’s an old Cuban saying my mother uses often enough which translates as, "Tell me whom your friends are and I will tell you what you are … " Or something like that.

It’s eminently appropriate in the case of relations between the Castro regime and the Iranians.

The official Iranian newsagency, FARS, reports on a meeting held on Tuesday between the Cuban Ambassador to Tehran, identified as Fernando Garcia, and a group of Iranian youth who support hardline, anti-Jewish, pro-nuclear president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The topic at hand? Imperialism, of course.

According to the report, the meeting dealt with “the expansion of joint anti-colonialist moves by Iran and Cuba as two poles of the international resistance against the United States”.

Dime con quien andas …

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Great moments in journalism

What do you get when you send a group of newspaper reporters out to interview a couple of dozen “ordinary” workers supposedly chosen at random?

If you are in communist Cuba, you get … the same opinion.

Following last week’s meeting of the Cuban Labour Federation, the official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime, Granma, sent its reporters out to interview workers from all sectors of the Cuban economy.

Teachers, railway workers, university lecturers, wharfies, mechanics, cigar-makers … Even a baseball player.

All were asked for their views on the speech to the trade union organisation by Raul Castro calling on workers to work even harder and to help stamp our corruption, laziness and other ideological impurities in the workplace.

Believe it or not, every one of the workers interviewed by the paper agreed wholeheartedly with Raul Castro. All had the very same opinions. Spooky, eh?

Even the baseball player, Pedro Luis Lazo, the pitcher for the national team.

According to Lazo, the speech by the younger Castro was an inspiration not just to workers in factories and schools and offices across the island but to baseball players, too.

“As [Raul] said, we need to lift our game and achieve a higher degree of discipline,” the pitcher told Granma. “In fact, we have already started to train for next season and we are expecting to perform even better then.”

Read the article here. In Spanish.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Extra! Extra!

An investigation by Juventud Rebelde, the official newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth, has found that over half of the State-run businesses surveyed in Havana had short-changed their customers.

The offences included beer mugs being only partially filled, taxi drivers charging almost five times the authorised meter rates, official price lists being hidden, and shoe repairers charging vastly inflated rates, according to the BBC.

A terrible state of affairs, to be sure, but hardly news to most Cubans, I would have thought.

What is news is the fact that the results of the investigation have been published at all - in a Government-controlled publication.

In a land where the tightly-controlled media rarely if ever, reports the all too obvious failings of the Castro regime, this is newsworthy in itself.