Thursday, November 30, 2006

Fetch the Geirger counter

Now we know why the Castro regime insists that ordinary Cubans need a rarely-issued government permit before they are allowed to buy a personal computer.

And why Cubans are restricted from using the Internet.

It has nothing to do with the paranoid Communist regime wanting to keep a tight rein on what Cubans can and cannot read – or write.

Not at all.

It’s because Fidel Castro is worried about radiation from computers and mobile phones, according to message read out on Cuban television last night supposedly written by the seriously ill dictator.

That’s right. Radiation from computers and mobile phones.

You can read it here, in Spanish.

A volcano of wisdom

When Fidel Castro turned 79 last year, the official propaganda sheet of the regime, Granma, compared the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for the past 47 years to the sun – warm, radiant and the source of life.

Now, how do you top such utter rubbish?

Well, the dictator is too ill to make a public appearance during the postponed celebrations of his 80th birthday, which kicked off in Havana yesterday.

But this has not stopped the tightly controlled newspapers of the regime (the only papers in Cuba), from trying to outdo each other in praising Castro, as you can read in this BBC report.

The official paper of the Union of Communist Youth, Juventud Rebelde, describes Castro as “a volcano of wisdom and love".

Not to be outdone, Trabajadores, the paper of the Communist-run Cuban Confederation of Labour, also refers to Castro as a volcano.

The paper then quotes one of the organisers of the “celebrations” at length, describing Castro as "the man who has given the greatest impulse to international solidarity in contemporary history".

Does this sound eerily familiar? It should.

This is the type of sycophantic crap that was common in Romania in the mid to late 1980s when the equally deranged Nicolae Ceausescu insisted on being described in the official Communist media as “The Genius of the Carpathians”. And “The Danube of Thought”. And “The guarantor of the nation's progress and independence".

And we all know what happened to Nicolae.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Castro too ill to appear in public

It's official. Well, sort of.

According to this report from Reuters, Fidel Castro has confirmed that he may be too ill to attend the postponed celebrations of his 80th birthday, which kicked off in Havana today.

The announcement was made at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana, where especially-selected supporters of the regime, including a host of apologists from overseas, had gathered for a "gala" night.

In a message read to the audience (where is the video?), the dictator said he would have wished to have attended the performance so that he could "give each one of you a warm hug" but his doctors had said he was "in no condition" to do so.

The more things change

Back in the 1960s, when I was growing up in the small town of Banes, Fidel Castro seemed to spend much of his time travelling up and down the island in a fleet of Soviet-made four-wheel drives.

Then, as Castro became ensconced in power, he traded in the olive green “jeeps” for a fleet of brand new, German-made cars.

No, not the Trabants produced in what used to be the German Democratic Republic but Mercedes Benz limousines specially imported into supposedly embargoed Cuba from the capitalist West. Colour of choice: black. Windows tinted. All leather interior. And air-conditioning. Of course.

The seriously ill dictator still travels only in Mercs. Or used to.

Now we learn that his chosen successor, Raul Castro, the 75-year-old Minister for Defence, has shunned his brother’s Mercs.

Raul travels around Havana in his own fleet of brand new, German-made BMW limousines, as you can read here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Economic management, Castro style

Just in time for Fidel Castro’s postponed birthday “celebrations”...

The Cuban Minister for Economic Affairs, Jose Luis Rodriguez, has announced that the island's economy has grown by a staggering 12.5 per cent so far this year.

That’s right: 12.5 per cent. Amazing, no?

If the figures were accurate, it would mean Cuba was growing at a faster rate than even China, which is expecting growth for 2006 of 10.48 per cent, as you can read here.

But of course, the figures produced by Rodriguez are meaningless because the Castro regime uses a different methodology to measure economic growth to that used everywhere else in the world. It’s all made up.

You know, like comparing mangoes with guayabas.

Of much more interest is the fact that the minister made his announcement during a ceremony to mark the day back in 1959 when Castro appointed Ernesto "Che" Guevara president of the Central Bank of Cuba.

Now, even his most ardent followers would admit that the terms "Guevara" and "good economic management" are mutually exclusive. After all, this is the man who said he wanted to abolish the very concept of money.

In fact, during his brief tenure as chief monetary overlord and later as Minister for Industry, the Argentinean-born doctor set Cuba on a disastrous economics course from which the island is yet to recover 47 years later. A catastrophe, in other words.

But his appointment is still celebrated with much fanfare by the regime.

Perhaps it’s all a big joke?

Birthday presents

He may be recovering. Or he may be near death. Either way, Fidel Castro is still playing games with the international media, much as he has done for the past half century.

When the dictator supposedly relinquished power back in late July due to serious illness, he asked that the "modest" celebrations planned for his 80th birthday be “postponed” until early December.

The new date would coincide with ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the three-years-long guerrilla campaign against Fulgencio Batista.

No doubt the thinking at the time was that by 2 December, Castro would have recovered fully - or close enough - to be able to put on his uniform again and make a triumphant return to the Plaza de la Revolucion, waving to the faithful and thanking his "friends around the world" for their continuing support.

Well, the time has come.

All the preparations are in place. A huge military parade has been organised – the first in almost a decade, apparently. More than 1,000 “special guests” have been invited to attend the postponed birthday party. There will be concerts and talks and exhibitions. And endless, inane articles in the tightly controlled official media about Castro.

It should be quite a show.

But the question that is preoccupying the hundreds of international journalists who have asked permission to report from the island during this week is this: will Castro show up to his own birthday party?

And if he does show up, will he speak to the assembled loyalists? What if he doesn't show up? What message does that send to ordinary Cubans?

See what I mean? Drama. Tension. Intrigue. Just like a stage play. And Castro, the old ham, loves it. Or at least he used to.

For what it’s worth, here is what I think will happen:

The official media will broadcast 10 minutes of film showing Castro sitting in his hospital room blowing out 80 candles on a massive cake. The dictator will be wearing his olive green uniform and will be surrounded by his brother, Raul, who is supposed to be in charge, and by all or some of his Latin American fans: Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega and Evo Morales. And there will be a small group of well-behaved, uniformed Pioneros, who will sing with clear and loud voices "Happy Birthday" to the Comandante, who may even shed a tear or two of appreciation.

But there will be no public outing and no speech. And it will probably be the last time Cubans are shown video of the man who has ruled their lives with an iron fist for the past 47 years alive.

Then again …

Monday, November 27, 2006

What happens when you spend too much time in the water

Let’s hear it for Tom Stark, a Californian surfboard builder who has been trying to do his bit to improve US-Cuban relations.

It seems Tom has spent the past couple of years on a “grand plan” to take donated surfboard-building supplies to Cuba, as well as his expertise in how to build a mean board.


Well, he discovered on a previous trip to the island that “the U.S. embargo has caused a situation in which there are so few boards that people have to take turns riding them”.

That's right: the bloody embargo means Cuban surfers have to share boards!

In fact, Tom told The Santa Cruz Sentinnel that the lack of board-making materials means would-be Cuban “shapers” are forced to take the foam out of refrigerator doors - and shape it with potato peelers.

Sadly for Tom, his grand plan has hit shallow waters in the form of Fidel Castro’s ever-vigilant custom agents.

They have refused point blank to let him bring the donated surfboard-building material into the country on the excuse that the stuff is highly flammable.

The newspaper says the Californian tried for more than two months to get the Cuban officials to see reason, until his visa and his money run out and he had to return home.

In the end, he conceded: "It turned out the only reason (the Cuban officials) were reluctant was because I was American.”

I don’t think so, Tom. Take it from me: Castro loves Americans like you.

Perhaps they are reluctant, as you put it, because they fear all those Cubans with their potato peelers heading off across the Straits of Florida on your surfboards?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Fruits and vegetables

It's official: Fidel Castro is not a vegetable.

So says his friend Hugo Chavez, who told supporters over the weekend that he had recently received a letter from the seriously ill dictator.

And guess what? It seems those rumours about Castro lapsing into some sort of comma are untrue, if we believe the Venezuelan president.

"I received a letter and I want to make it public before the world because some say that Fidel is dying," Chavez said. "They say he is a vegetable. No."

Of course, this is not the first time Chavez has claimed to have important news from Havana. Only a few days ago he assured reporters that Castro was well on the road to recovery, already wearing the customary olive-green uniform and going out for night-time walks around Havana.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Canadian friends

You know all those Canadian tourists visiting Cuba? And all those Canadian dollars that flow into Fidel Castro’s economy?

Well, here is how the Canadians are repaid by the boys in Havana.

According to this CanWest report, Cuba joined forces with Iran and four other countries on Thursday at the United Nations in a move to “shame” Canada over its treatment of its indigenous population and migrants.

The resolution was put forward by Tehran in retaliation for an earlier attempt by Canada to raise human rights issues in Iran.

It was duly defeated by 107 votes to six, with another 49 countries abstaining.

Those who voted against the motion included much of Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Those who voted against Canada: Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Myanmar, and Belarus.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Democracy Index

In case you needed any confirmation …

The highly-respected British magazine The Economist has just released its Democracy Index for 2007, which ranks countries into four categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

The Index takes into measures such as free elections, civil liberties, functioning government, political participation and political culture.

Only 28 countries make the cut as full democracies, including much of Western Europe, the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Two Latin American nations are included: Costa Rica and Uruguay.

At the other end of the scale, there are 55 nations in the list of authoritarian regimes – and the only Latin American nation to feature is Cuba.

After 47 years of despotic, one-party rule, the magazine's editors say the Castro regime belongs with the likes of North Korea, Belarus, Swaziland, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

As my mother is fond of saying, Dimes con quien andas y te dire quien eres …

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

From an island paradise

Another day, another story from a Western journalist in Cuba about what ordinary Cubans are supposed to be thinking about a future without Fidel Castro.

This time it’s a “report” filed from Havana by Ross Anderson, identified as a correspondent for The Times in London, one of the world’s oldest and best known English-language newspapers.

Mr Anderson, who lives in Havana and appears to be married to a Cuban, starts from the old premise that while not everything is perfect in Castro’s island paradise, there is free health care for everyone. And free education. And music everywhere!

And in any case, the alternative is much, much worse – that is, for the country to revert to capitalism and become a US colony.

Now, where have you heard that line before?

In fact, I got the impression that Mr Anderson had managed to summarise a year’s worth of headlines from Granma, the Communist Party’s daily propaganda sheet, into his article, which has the heading: “Cuba the 51st State? Close but no cigar”

The Cuban health system? It’s “among the best in the world”. Better than the British. Education? A little rigid, perhaps, but it’s all free. The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry? One of the best in the world. Cheap medicines for everyone. Arts? It’s not “the icing on the national cake, but a vital ingredient.” The economy in trouble? Blame the Americans who can’t wait to invade Cuba.

As for those Cuban Americans in Miami, well, they are mostly “swivel-eyed, spittle-flecked, bile-spewing octogenarians who believe that Fidel Castro is the anti-Christ and that as soon as he dies they can return to reclaim their Miramar mansions.”

As I said, straight from Granma.

Still, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea.

Buried in the second half of his dissertation, Mr Anderson admits that “despite all of the above, this is not a homage to Cuba”.

“Its successes could just as easily have been achieved under a system of genuine political accountability, with public access to print and broadcast media free to question and criticise the government, with an independent judiciary and a police force that didn’t make up the laws as it went along,” he writes.

On that point at least, he is spot on.

Games they play in Havana

Less than a week before the start of government-organised celebrations to mark the postponed 80th birthday of Fidel Castro, the Cuban people continue to be kept in the dark about the real state of health of the dictator.

Much as we have come to expect.

Except that the messages coming out of Havana are getting more and more cryptic by the day.

Take the comments made by Alfredo Guevara, an old friend of Castro going back to the 1940s.

Referring to Castro’s state of health, Guevara told reporters that the “most important part of a human being, his computer, his brain, is functioning well.”

In other words, the software is OK, folks. It’s the hardware that has issues.

Then there are statements made on national television overnight by Carlos Lage, seen as the third most senior man in the regime.

Lage told Cubans that Castro “continues to get better" which is why “we are optimistic about his recovery”. But then he added that the recovery will happen “when possible and when the doctors say so.”

Hardly a positive assessment, either.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Foreign trade

Just days before Venezuelans are due to go to the polls, two independent oil experts have gone public to describe the oil deal between Hugo Chavez and jis mentor, Fidel Castro, as nothing short of a “swindle”. For the Venezuelan taxpayer, that is.

According to Humberto Calderon Berti and Jose Toro Hardy, more than 100,000 barrels of crude oil are being shipped every day to Cuba from Venezuela.

In exchange, Cuba was to provide thousands of doctors, nurses and healthcare services.

But the experts argue that the healthcare services have failed to meet expectations, while the subsidised oil from Venezuela has helped the Castro regime remain afloat economically.

In fact, it seems that Castro now owes Venezuela the equivalent of over $US2 billion.

And the chances of this money ever being repaid are zilch.

Which raises two pertinent questions: how do Cubans feel about becoming an economic colony of the Venezuelans? And what is in this seemingly lopsided deal for Chavez?

Workers of the world

The Castro regime has reacted with predictable outrage at news that the newly-formed International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) will not accept the official Cuban trade union body as a member.

The new labour confederation, which represents workers in more than 150 countries, believes that Cuban workers lack basic industrial freedoms. You know, like the freedom to form their own unions, the freedom to elect union leaders and the freedom to withdraw their labour.

The ITUC is right, of course.

Cuban trade unions ceased to be independent nearly 50 years ago when they were taken over by Fidel Castro and transformed into yet another arm of the ruling Communist Party.

Which explains why there has never been an officially sanctioned strike in Cuba during all that time. Not one.

Anyway, it’s good to see a body such as the ITUC taking a stand. At least for now.

And the response from Havana to the decision? The official newspaper of the Cuban trade union body, Trabajadores, describes the new international confederation as “exclusive” and the “tool of neoliberalism”.

As you would expect.

Monday, November 20, 2006

November 1989

It seems like only yesterday. In fact, it was 17 years ago.

About this very time in 1989, hundreds of thousands of ordinary, law-abiding citizens in what used to be Czechoslovakia took to the streets of Prague and other major cities around the republic demanding democratic change.

It became known as the Velvet Revolution – the latest in a string of rebellions across much of Eastern Europe that would result in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Among its leaders was a most unlikely hero, Vaclav Havel, a playwright and writer who had spent time in prison and years of official harassment for daring question the supremacy of the Communist Party.

Within days of the first demonstrations, the regime had collapsed and Havel reluctantly became president.

For those of us watching half a world away, it seemed incredible.

The seemingly indestructible Soviet Empire was collapsing before our very eyes. After years of oppression, invasions, threats and lies, Communism was being confined to the dustbin of history.

Regimes in East Germany collapsed almost overnight. In Hungary, too. In Poland. In Romania, even … Surely, Cuba would be next.

Turn the clock forward 17 years.

Havel is now 70. He is no longer the democratically-elected president of the Czech Republic, a job he held in various forms, between December 1989 and 2003, when he announced his “retirement” from public life.

In reality, he remains very active.

His mission? Havel has made human rights his cause, especially in Burma, Belarus, Cuba and North Korea.

Asked why he bothers, the former dissident replied that he knows from his own experience how important it is for opposition groups in totalitarian regimes to know they have international support.

Amen to that.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Managing expectations

In the world of spin we call it "managing expectations".

And that's exactly what the Castro regime appears to be doing in relation as to whether the seriously ill dictator will be able to attend his postponed 80th birthday celebrations, scheduled for 2 December.

First, it was the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque, being vague in an interview with Reuters on whether Castro would make the long-awaited public appearance.

Now, it's the clowns on Mesa Redonda, the program on Cuban TV used by the Communist Party to make important announcement.

Read all about it here.

More banking news

You may recall an earlier post about how two of the world’s largest banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, had decided to stop doing business with the Castro regime.

Well, the Banco Central de Cuba (BCC) has just responded.

Of course, the BCC is not like your average central bank in the West, setting economic policy, raising or lowering interest rates, keeping tabs on inflation and foreign investments, etc.

It’s really another arm of the Communist regime which is why its reaction is … predictable?

As you can read in this report from Reuters, the Cubans say the “pitiful” decision by the Swiss banks was the result of pressure from the United States. Of course.

"The actions of these two banks have nothing to do with respect of the law or looking after their banking transactions,” the statement by the Cuban central bank says. “It is simply an act of submission to the US, which they don't dare confess.”

And then there is that little problem with not paying your debts, as you can read here.

Living in Cuba

Just what we need: a new book advising foreigners how to get the most out of living and investing in Fidel Castro’s island paradise.

The electronic book, which is being published by a Panama-based company called Expatebooks, appears to be aimed at prospective retirees in Europe and baby-boomers with more money than sense.

But who are we to judge?

The publishers of Living and Investing in Cuba promise that “whether you are of retirement age, a burned out baby boomer or perpetual traveller, this book should provide you with food for thought and sufficient information to start you on the journey to beginning a new life in Cuba.”

Alluding to changes on the island once Castro kicks the bucket, the publishers say that “now is the moment to come and explore the country that has so much to offer”.

“This guide offers assistance to anyone seeking a safe, affordable place to live abroad,” the publicity blurb says. “It shows you how to stay busy, where to reside, how to learn Spanish, where to find companionship … The country offers something for every imaginable taste and lifestyle.”

So, there you have it.

A new life in Cuba. A safe and affordable place to live. Something for every imaginable taste and lifestyle. And that's just the foreigners! Imagine how the locals must live ...

Enough to make you pack your bags at once. But before you do, you may want to visit our friends at The Real Cuba.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

From the finance desk

Oh, dear … The French are not happy.

Reuters reports today that French exporters are kicking up a stink demanding the Castro regime repays an estimated US$170 million owed to farm producers.

Apparently, the French generously provided Havana some years ago with a stack of long-term credits so the communist government could purchase food, including wheat.

It was all going swimmingly until Castro refused to make any repayments, which means the French are now sending angry letters to the Cuban central bank asking for their money.

Wish them luck - Castro never pays his debts and he is certainly not about to start now.

According to the Reuters report, Cuba owes Western nations an estimated US$8,000 million in so-called inactive debts racked up prior to 1986. Plus another US$ 5,800 million in “active” debt since 1989. Not to mention the billions owed to the old Soviet Union.

That’s why Cuba is considered a huge credit risk. That's why it's forced to pay interest rates of up to 20 per cent for short-term loans.

One final ironic twist: part of the reason the French are not getting their money back is because the island is using its limited reserves to buy food from … US farmers. Who must be paid in cold, hard cash.

Don’t you just love high finance?

No exit permit for dissident

The BBC reports this morning that the Castro regime has barred dissident Guillermo Farinas Hernandez from travelling to Germany to receive a prestigious humanitarian award from the International Society for Human Rights.

Farinas has been on a hunger strike for the past seven months demanding access to the Internet for him and his fellow independent journalists.

According to a spokesman for the Society, Martin Lessenshin, the Cuban government claims Farinas cannot travel because of ill health – and the fact that he is in a wheelchair.

“The official reason for denying him permission to travel to Germany is that the government wants to protect Farinas because he is ill,” Mr Lessenshin said.

"The reality is that the regime does not want photographs splashed around the world of a Cuban dissident receiving an important prize such as this from a wheelchair.”

You can read more about Farinas and the fate of other independent journalists on the island at Uncommon Sense.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wish you were really here

You probably won’t read about it in Granma but there are reports from Havana today that the much-hyped tourist bubble may be about to burst.

According to Reuters, unpublished figures reveal that the number of tourists from key markets in Europe and Canada has declined markedly in the past year.

For instance, Canadian tourists were down by 1.9 per cent, while there were declines in visitors from Spain (down 5.7 per cent), Italy (down 15 per cent), Germany (down 9.8 per cent), and France (down 5.2 per cent).

In fact, only Britain showed an increase - 5.7 per cent. But that was before Red Ken visited, making the place immediately unfashionable.

Reuters says Cuba has become increasingly costly and less profitable for operators partly because of recent changes to exchange rates.

But there are other reasons, it seems.

The Canadian Association of Tour Operators complained earlier this year to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism about “the lack of adequate service for tourists, theft at airports and hotels, and jet fuel costing 33 percent more than elsewhere”.

What do you reckon? They will blame it all on the US embargo?

The "fever syndrome"

You know that dengue epidemic that has been sweeping parts of Cuba over the past few months, resulting in the death of an unknown number of patients?

Well, the Castro regime is still pretending otherwise, according to a report in today's edition of The Los Angeles Times.

The paper quotes an unnamed senior doctor in Cuba said to be familiar with the scope of the epidemic.

The doctor says the official response to the epidemic was slow because of “government secrecy” and the “veil initially imposed by Communist Party officials”.

It seems the regime was concerned that any public announcement about the real extent of the problem would have had an impact on preparations for the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, which took place in Havana in September.

The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity "because of the possibility of dismissal from his job or arrest for discussing the matter with a reporter", said health officials were instructed to effectively ignore the epidemic.

"We were forbidden even to refer to it as dengue fever, because the official position is that dengue was eradicated in the 1980s," he told the paper. "We were compelled to call it 'fever syndrome.' "

That's what you'd call a wold-class health system.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Now they hate Australia

The official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime, Granma, today launched a vitriolic attack on Australia and the Australian prime minister, John Howard.

The newspaper that describes itself as the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, says Australia is an “immoral” nation that practices a type of apartheid against its indigenous population similar to that practised in South Africa in the past.

And we are supposed to be an abuser of human rights, too, locking up would-be migrants in “concentration camps”. And a US lackey, of course. Which is as you’d expect since according to the paper, we are all supposed to be descendants from convicts.

Hilarious, I know.

The reason for this hysteric little piece in Granma? You may recall that last week at the United Nations, Australia attempted to raise the issue of human rights under the Castro regime, calling on Havana to free all political prisoners.

Sadly, the proposed motion was lost 126 votes to 51 – but it infuriated the Cubans no end, especially as the motion was backed by the whole of the European Union, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Israel and most of the old Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe.

So, it’s pay back time.

Word of advice to the propagandists at Granma: do some basic research first.

The American bases in central Australia have been here since the 1960s. And while there are still pockets of poverty in Australia (much to our shame), low income families and the unemployed are entitled to welfare support. The
detention centre for illegal entrants is in Baxter, not Baxta.

And the Maoris are not the original inhabitants of Australia. The Maoris are the very proud original inhabitants of New Zealand.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Persona non grata

The Chilean-born author Jorge Edwards has given an interesting interview to El Nuevo Herald to mark the re-publication of what may well be his best known work, Persona Non Grata, first published in the mid 1970s.

A classic Latin American left-winger from way back, Edwards was sent to Cuba in 1970 by the newly-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, as the first Chilean ambassador in about a decade.

This was a time when Fidel Castro was still riding high as a romantic revolutionary hero in much of Latin America - and being hailed as nothing short of a genius by many writers and artists in the West.

And yet, it took the Chilean novelist barely three months to see right through the dictator.

Within weeks, Castro had declared him persona non grata and shipped him back to Chile, where he set about writing his book.

In the interview published on Sunday, which you can read here in Spanish, Edwards is asked about Castro’s illness, about his impression of Cubans in exile and about the likely changes ahead on the island.

And he is asked about Castro’s legacy - you know, the great achievements of the Revolution.

His opinion? He believes Castro’s greatest and most enduring achievement, for want of a better term, has been to convince millions of Latin Americans over the years that the US is a “total monster”.

As for the great debate on health and education, Edwards says he doubts the regime's claims about a world-class health system.

Education? “It’s the type of society where they teach you to read but then they stop you from reading the books you want to read," he replied.

Banking news

Two of the world's largest and best known banking groups, Credit Suisse and UBS, have confirmed they have stopped all business dealings with the Castro regime.

The banks said they now considered Cuba a "sensitive" country - along with Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

A spokesman for Credit Suisse told Reuters that the bank had decided not to enter into new business with these "sensitive" countries since the start of the year.

Referring to Cuba, the spokesman added: "We do not do payments in U.S. dollars but payments in other currencies are possible if we can find a correspondent bank. But this is very difficult."

And yes, you can expect the Castro regime and its apologists to blame the US commercial embargo for the decision by the Swiss-based banks to institute their own boycott.

However, AFP quotes a spokesman for UBS, Christoph Meier, as saying the reason for the boycott is because "it costs too much to ensure that Cuba respects and conforms to legal and financial regulations".

Here we go again

Just days after Havana released footage of Fidel Castro alive but not all that well, the rumours of his impending death are back.

Media outlets in the US are reporting this morning that the health of the 80 year old dictator is "deteriorating" and that he is "unlikely to live through 2007".

This time, the reports are coming from unnamed US administration officials, who have apparently examined recent video and photographs and concluded that Castro has terminal cancer of the stomach. Or the colon. Or perhaps the pancreas.

Read all about it here but as usual, treat with caution.

Friday, November 10, 2006

For the record

For the record, below is a list of the 51 nations that supported an amendment moved by Australia during yesterday’s vote at the United Nations on the US commercial embargo against the Castro regime.

The amendment, which would have included references to the regime’s appalling human rights record and a call for all political prisoners on the island to be freed, was defeated 126 votes to 51.

Still, it infuriated the Castro representatives in New York – and their masters back in Havana, who accused the Australian Government of being a “puppet” of the Americans, blah, blah, blah … The usual crap.

So, those who supported the amendment, in no particular order:


Marshall Island

South Korea
New Zealand,
San Marino
Czech Republic
and Serbia.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My (big) island home

Much as expected, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly today to call on the United States to lift the commercial embargo on the Castro regime.

For the 15th consecutive year, the vast majority of UN members voted in favour of the motion, with only four nations voting against it: the US, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau.

What was not expected was a last minute move by the Australian Government to amend the resolution to include a paragraph about human rights in Cuba.

The amendment called on Havana “to release unconditionally all political prisoners, cooperate fully with international human rights bodies and mechanisms, respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and comply fully with its obligations under all human rights treaties to which it is a state party."

Which makes absolute sense to me.

However, the Australian proposal infuriated the Castro representatives in New York, especially as the amendment was backed by the European Union. Amazing, I know ...

Apparently, the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, the ever-loyal Felipe Perez Roque, went troppo, idiotically describing Australia variously as a US puppet (of course), an “accomplice of American imperialism” (naturally), lacking moral courage (really?) … and on and on.

Sadly, the Australian amendment was lost 126 votes to 51, as you can read in this dispatch.

But I tell you what, it makes me proud to be an Aussie.

PS: If you want to contact the Australian Prime Minister, Hon John Howard, MP, to let him know what you think of the amendment, drop him a line here.

Fearless journalists corner

I see that the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) is hosting the fifth international forum of war correspondents in Havana this week.

And as expected, the forum has spent a fair bit of time attacking the US and offering seemingly unqualified support to Fidel Castro’s rapidly decaying regime, at least according to this article in Granma.

Now, this should not surprise us since UPEC long ago ceased to be a trade union representing the rights of journalists to become well, just another arm of the regime.

And most of those attending, such as Roberto Montoya of Spain, have been long-standing supporters of the regime - the very same regime that has made an art form out of harassing, intimidating and imprisoning any journalist who dares to step out of line.

Shameless is the word for it, I think ...

For more details on the fate of Cuban independent journalists, don’t miss the excellent regular round-up at Uncommon Sense.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Travel news

More good news from Havana.

The best known hotel on the island, the Hotel Nacional, has just been given a big tick from the international agency that rates hotel standards, according to this report by Prensa Latina.

The grand old hotel, which opened in 1930, has hosted such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, Maria Felix, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and even Toshiro Mifune.

Now, it is home to hundreds of rich European tourists, US business types calling for the lifting of the American "blockade", and the occasional homesick socialist.

They will all be happy to hear that the Nacional meets the strictest of international standards when it comes to service and facilities.

Pity ordinary Cubans are barred from staying in the hotel, regardless of whether they can afford the US$1,000 a night for the presidential suite.

In egalitarian communist Cuba, the hotel is reserved for lucky foreigners.

Party time

Phew! And here you were thinking the postponed celebrations to mark Fidel Castro’s 80th birthday would not go ahead after all.

With Castro seriouslly ill and out of public view since late July, there has been plenty of speculation the dictator will not be around to take part in the celebrations being organised in his honour by the regime “and friends from around the world”.

Fear not.

The official Cuban newsagency, Prensa Latina, reports this morning that the celebrations will most certainly go ahead, stretching from 28 November to 1 December.

There will be a huge concert, photographic exhibitions, a meeting of “great thinkers” from around the globe to discuss Castro's "legacy to humanity" … You name it.

There is just one little problem - the guest of honour.

Asked whether Castro himself would attend any of the festivities, a spokesman for the organisers, Alfredo Vera, said no one knew for sure.

"We do not know if Fidel will attend since this will depend on his health condition at the time,” Vera replied.

Voting in New York

It’s that time of the year again.

Every year for the past 14 years, the United Nations has had a debate at about this time on the US commercial embargo against the Castro regime.

And every year, a huge majority of UN members votes in favour of lifting the embargo, which has been in place since the early 1960s.

Last year, for instance, the resolution to lift the embargo was approved by a 182 votes to four. Only the US, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau, a small Pacific island-nation, voted against the resolution.

As you can read in this piece from the
Associated Press, U.S. officials defend the embargo - which allows the sale of some U.S. food and medicine to Cuba - saying unfettered trade and travel to the island would prop up Castro's communist government.

They say Cuba's imprisonment of dissidents and restrictions on economic and political freedoms justify the policy.

On the other hand, critics say the embargo is outdated and has not worked, given that Castro's government remains in power and the nation is still communist. They also point out that the United States trades with other communist countries such as China and Vietnam.

This time around, the UN vote is likely to be overwhelmingly in favour of lifting the embargo. Again.

And once that happens, you can expect the regime’s propaganda machine in Havana to go into over-drive, hailing the vote as a huge political and moral victory for Cuba and a defeat for those evil Americans, etc, etc.

Then it’s back to normal, as you can read here.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reporting from the bedside

As with most totalitarian regimes, finding out what is really going on at the highest political levels inside Cuba is near impossible even at the best of times.

Of course, this doesn't stop us from speculating ...

So, what are we to make of the latest report from Havana regarding Fidel Castro's supposed recovery?

The ever-loyal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque, now says he cannot guarantee that Castro will make a public appearance come 2 December, the date designated by the regime to mark the dictator's postponed birthday celebrations.

Perez Roque told AP that Castro was getting better all the time (naturally), but when asked about a return to office, the minister replied: "It's a subject on which I don't want to speculate."

Monday, November 06, 2006

Visitors from abroad

He is known among the ferociously irreverent British tabloid media as Red Ken.

And so it is no surprise to see Ken Livingstone, the left-wing Mayor of London, visiting Cuba and using the opportunity to praise Fidel Castro (of course) while having a go at one of his favourite enemies, the United States.

During his brief visit, Livingstone praised the Castro regime for giving Cubans what he described as “the best standard of health care” in the world and “brilliant education” in the face of that evil American “blockade”.

Sadly for Red Ken, his much-expected photo opportunity with the 80 year-old-dictator didn’t eventuate. It seems Castro is way too sick to meet anyone.

And the reaction back home in London was much as expected.

Angie Bray, who heads the Conservative Party in the London Assembly, said: “Its all the loony Left stuff that people thought he’d packed away.”

But the best response came in an editorial published by the best-selling The Sun newspaper.

“Ken Livingstone embarrasses our capital,” the editorial said. “London’s Mayor hails Communist Cuba, his spiritual home, for providing top-quality health care and education. Then he hurls abuse at America. Just one question, Ken . . . Why do boatloads of fleeing Cubans stop at nothing to reach Florida?”

Livingstone is on his way to see Hugo Chavez.

Photograph: Claudia Daut (Reuters)

In the countryside

This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of Fidel Castro’s many loopy ideas to turn Cuban children into his own version of what used to be called The New Man: the Escuela al Campo program.

Under the program, entire secondary schools across Cuba would be shipped off to the countryside for a month or so every year in order to teach children as young as 11 how to become true revolutionaries.

In theory, students would spend the time in a combination of study and work which, on paper at least, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Provided it was truly voluntary.

In fact, the month away involved very little study, lots of hard work out in the open (yes, cheap labour), and lots and lots of Communist indoctrination, which was always the real purpose of the exercise.

My school in Banes was one of those chosen to go to the countryside in 1970-1971.

And yes, you can read all about it in my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, which I am sure you know by now is available at all good bookshops in Australia and New Zealand – and due for distribution in the US in April.

My school was sent to a work camp in Punta de Mulas, which wasn’t all that far from home but almost impossible to reach because there was just a dirt track leading to the camp and bugger all transport for parents to visit. Not even trucks.

Despite the hard work - we were picking lemons for at least five hours a day -
and the shocking food and the endless political meetings, I had a pretty good time, as you would expect from a boy of about 12, who is away from home for the first time and who likes joining in.

But it was a different story for many of my school friends: they hated every minute of this enforced “holiday camp”. They hated the food. And the work. And being away from their parents. They were homesick most of the time, and they cried themselves to sleep night after miserable night.

Like most Cuban mothers, my mother also opposed the idea,
horrified at the thought that a regime she so distrusted had taken her boy away for a month of crude political indoctrination.

In reality, she had no choice.

Although it was not supposed to be compulsory, families who refused to let their children go to the Escuela al Campo back then knew they were headed for trouble with the school and the dreaded neighbourhood Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR).

Anyway, the reason I am telling you all this is because today I came across an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the program, in Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth.

According to the article, the Castro regime is desperately trying to revive interest in the program as part of its never-ending attempts to ensure younger generations remain alert and committed and true to the revolutionary spirit, blah, blah, blah …

But things are looking grim, it seems, with the paper saying many families are point blank refusing to let their children participate, using suspect medical certificates to get exemptions from school.

Officials blame “over protective” parents.

The truth? Parents are refusing to let their children go to the Escuela al Campo for the very same reasons my mother objected to the idea: the work is hard, living conditions are primitive to say the least, the food is rubbish, transport to get to the mostly-isolated camps is non-existent ... and they fill your head with crap.

Come to think of it, that's a good summary of Cuba over the past 47 years ...

Friday, November 03, 2006

Castro's Internet III

It’s been a lot of fun watching the Castro regime and its apologists trying to explain over the past few days why the vast majority of Cubans are effectively barred from accessing the Internet.

As you'd expect, it’s the fault of those evil Americans - the “criminal” commercial embargo stops Cuba from linking to fast fibre optic cables, etc, etc.

Of course, it’s all utter crap.

But just for fun, I recommend you read this article from ZDNet News. It includes part of a transcript of comments made by a senior Cuban official during a United Nations meeting on Internet usage held in Geneva this week – and the response from an internationally-recognised IT expert.

Not just any expert, though.

Bill Woodcock is a network engineer from California who describes himself as an opponent of current US policy towards Cuba, no less.

Mr Woodcock had this to say about Internet access by Cubans: "Zero percent of Cubans are connected to the Internet. The Cuban government operates an incumbent phone company, which maintains a Web cache. Cubans who wish to use the Internet browse the government Web cache. They do not have unrestricted access to the Internet."

And the embargo?

"Ask yourself whether a Cuban Internet service provider would face any challenges in connecting to a network in the United States or in Europe," Mr Woodcock added. "And the answer is that, no, these are unregulated markets. They would face exactly the same costs as anyone anywhere else in the world."

Better still, visit El Guinero and read his hilarious account in Spanish.

A medical report

You know that spooky video of Fidel Castro standing up and pretending to speak on the telephone that was aired on Cuban television last week?

The footage was interpreted by many outside the island as a desperate attempt by the regime to assure Cubans that while the 80 year old dictator was still sick, he was very much alive and on his way back.

Well, that may have been the intention. If so, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

There is an interesting take on the footage in The Miami Herald and associated papers today that is probably closer to the truth.

The article quotes Dr. Charles Gerson, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai in New York, explaining the obvious: the extended recovery time suggests a very serious illness, such as cancer.

"Usually for a benign condition, if you have surgery, after a month or six weeks you are back to normal," Dr Gerson said. "Three months after surgery, he should be better."

The article also quotes an unnamed former US government official saying that Castro is indeed seriously ill and “may not make it through the new year”.

Maybe. As they say on the box, only time will tell.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


After an absence of a couple of weeks, Raul Castro has reappeared in public.

The man who is supposed to be "temporarily" in charge in Cuba attended the opening of an international sport conference being held in Havana.

The photograph above, taken by AP photographer Javier Galeano, shows the younger Castro talking to the head of the International Olympic Committee, the unflappable Jacques Roggue, and Cuban vice-president Carlos Lage.

But the intriguing detail is the tall, younger man in the background.

Who is this guy? He appears right behind Raul Castro in almost every photograph published of the acting president in recent weeks. In fact, almost every photograph since the day Fidel Castro handed over the day to day running of the regime to his brother.

In earlier captions, he has been identified by wire agencies variously as a bodyguard, an adviser and even as a grandson of Raul Castro.

Castro's Internet II

You may recall a recent report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) detailing how the Castro regime controls access to the Internet by ordinary Cubans - as opposed to tourists and senior government officials.

It’s done by a combination of outrageously high access fees and through the use of sophisticated software that monitors any attempt by users to access international sites deemed by the regime to be “counter revolutionary” or subversive.

Anyway, it seems the RSF report has not pleased Havana.

The daily propaganda sheet of the regime, Granma, has trotted out a poor bloke by the name of Jose R Vidal, who is identified as a computer expert at the University of Havana, to defend the current restrictions.

As expected, Vidal avoids the key issues of affordability and senseless surveillance.

Instead, he attacks the “criminal” US commercial embargo (again), while detailing the “great achievements of the Revolution” when it comes to information technology in Cuba, blah, blah, blah …

My favourite line comes towards the end of the lengthy piece, which you can read here in English.

“Taking all the aforementioned into account,” Vidal writes, “can anybody who looks at Cuba in a cool and unbiased way call the security and control measures that the Cuban government has taken over the use of the internet totalitarian, unjustified, or set to isolate Cubans from the rest of the world?”

Yes, we can.

Still, a marvellous piece of Orwellian speak, don’t you think?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

News from an embargoed island

For more than 45 years, the Castro regime and its apologists around the world have blamed the US commercial embargo for just about everything that has gone wrong with the Cuban economy.

And plenty has gone wrong … but let's not get sidetracked.

So, what are we to make of the following figures, released by the Cuban Minister for External Trade, Raul de la Nuez, at the opening of the Havana International Trade Fair yesterday?

The minister announced that 800 companies from 48 countries have exhibits at the Fair which, he said, was proof that the embargo “has failed to achieve its objective of isolating us from other nations”.

He crowed that at least 100 of the companies represented at the Fair were American.

As for trade with the US, de la Nuez proudly told reporters that Cuba expected to import more than US$500 million worth of American goods this year, including chicken, rice, beans, wheat, apples, eggs, powdered milk and lumber.