Tuesday, December 26, 2006

On a break

Thanks for dropping by.

Below is home for the next few days ...

... and this is Control Central - no Internet access and barely a mobile phone connection.

But I will see you early in the New Year.

It's goodbye from him ...

The Castro regime continues to treat its own citizens much as it has for the past 47 years – as mushrooms. You know, kept in the dark and fed bullshit.

This means that while the Cuban media continues to talk about how Fidel Castro is recovering, officials in Madrid have now all but confirmed that the 80-year-old dictator, far from being on the mend, is almost certainly near death. Or pretty close to it.

Officials from the Madrid regional administration have confirmed earlier media reports that a renowned Spanish specialist, Jose Garcia Sabrido, flew to Havana on Thursday on a specially-sent Cuban Government plane.

His task: to examine Castro, whose state of health appears to have deteriorated markedly in recent days, according to several (and obviously well informed) Spanish newspapers.

Dr Garcia Sabrido will apparently decide whether the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist since early 1959 can withstand further delicate intestinal surgery.

In a delicious twist, it has also been confirmed that medicine and special equipment have been flown to Cuba from Spain over the past six months or so. For the personal use of the dictator, who obviously does not have much faith in the “world-class” Cuban health system.

So far, we are yet to hear Dr Garcia Sabrido's diagnosis.

But it’s unlikely to be positive. For Castro, at least.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Nochebuena c. 1966

I am not sure when exactly the photo above was taken.

I know it was taken in the backyard of my abuela’s house in Banes, the town where I was born in July 1959 – just six months after Fidel Castro rose to power and changed the island forever.

And I am guessing it must have been 1965 or 1966. Just a guess.

At any rate, the photo was taken before 1969 because that was the year when Castro decided out of the blue, as usual, that Christmas was a nasty capitalist invention and cancelled the whole thing.

When you are an all-powerful dictator, you can get away with just about anything. Even abolishing Christmas.

As a 10-year-old boy who was desperate to be a “good revolutionary”, which is what they taught us at school day in and day out, I was disappointed by the announcement, as were most of my friends in the neighbourhood. How could Christmas be cancelled? Surely there must have been some mistake ...

But we didn’t say anything, of course. If Fidel said Nochebuena was a bourgeois distraction, then we were not going to argue with him. Fidel was always right.

And so, it was goodbye to Christmas.

No more big family feasts at abuela's house. No more lechon asado or congri or yucca with the garlicky mojito that was my mother’s speciality. No more Spanish turrones. Or clandestine sips of my aunt's famous crema de vie that inevitably had a little too much alcohol and made your head spin a bit.

That’s why I am sure the photograph was taken before 1969.

It's the only photograph of Nochebuena we managed to keep and bring out of Cuba when my parents, my brother and I were finally allowed to leave the island in 1971, some three years after my father had applied for permission.
That’s my uncle Tony, on your left, in the straw hat, who lived in Havana but always travelled to Banes for Christmas. And on your right is my uncle Rodolfo, proudly displaying the Cuban flag. In the middle is my father, when he still had plenty of wavy hair and his Errol Flynn-style moustache, showing off a bottle of what I assume is revolutionary rum.

The kid in the middle – that’s me, keeping an eye on the lechon.

Seems like a long, long time ago.
Feliz Navidad.

Tired of excuses

After more than 47 years, the Castro regime appears to have admitted what generations of Cubans have known all along: the place just doesn’t work.

In a speech to the rubber-stamp Parliament on Friday, the acting head of state, Raul Castro, told “lawmakers” that “there is no excuse for the transportation and food production problems” that have been part and parcel of Cuban life since … well, since soon after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

"In this Revolution we are tired of excuses," Raul Castro said, according to reports in the official media. “Tell the truth, without justifications, because we are tired of justifications.”

Tired of justifications and excuses? You bet.

But if the younger Castro was serious about a fresh start of sorts, he would have accepted responsibility on behalf of his dying 80-year-old brother, Fidel, and himself for the mess that is Cuba today.

The never-ending shortages, the food queues, the lack of anything resembling public transport, the pot-holed roads, the empty medicine cabinets, the dirty hospitals, the crumbling buildings, the acute housing shortages, the blackouts …

They might not say so out loud to foreign journalists in Havana for fear of repercussion, but most Cubans know exactly whom to blame.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Crossed off my Christmas list

Well, it’s that time of the year.

So, let me share with you the names of just some of the people I have crossed off my Christmas card list for 2006. I am sure there are many, many more. Feel free to share yours.

Top of the list is Gore Vidal.

The publicity-seeking US writer topped off the year with a bells-and-whistles five day visit to Havana where he attacked George W Bush – and heaped praise on the Castro regime, describing the island as “full of life and hope”.

Poor old Gore. Blind, deaf …

Speaking of blind and deaf, let’s hear it for Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

How can such an accomplished writer be so blind to the obvious? Our old pal Gabo turned up on cue in Cuba (again) to mark the belated 80th birthday celebrations for Fidel Castro.

The eternal optimist, the Noble Prize winner
told the Cuban media: "What makes me happier is that while I have come to Fidel’s 80th birthday, I will come to his 100th party later.”

Yes, the man has no shame.

Then there is Hebe de Bonafini.

The former head of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who seems to spend much of her time nowadays travelling between Buenos Aires, Havana and Caracas, was a "guest of honour" at Fidel Castro’s birthday celebrations.

You see, for Hebe, some dictators are OK. Better than OK, in fact.

During her visit, she took the opportunity to attack the US while describing the near-death dictator
thus: “He is the greatest, wisest, most integral and sincere man whom I have ever met.”

Which goes to show that just because you are old and wear a white hankie on your head doesn’t make you wise.

Gerard Depardieu is off my Christmas list, too.

A Castro apologist from way back, the French actor made the trek to Havana to say Feliz Cumpleanos to the dictator.

"How could I miss this opportunity?” he
told the tightly controlled Cuban media. “Fidel, much more than a man, is a great idea. I've been to the island 15 times and always discover new things."

And they are all good, I am sure.

Last but not least, Ken Livingstone.

The Mayor of London visited Cuba this year as a “show of solidarity” with the seriously ill Fidel Castro.

As expected, Red Ken used the visit to attack the US (must be something in the Havana air, I tell you), while
describing the Communist revolution as “an inspiration to the world” and "one of the high points of the 20th century".

His trip to Havana cost London ratepayers about 36,000 British pounds.

They should demand their money back. With interest.


Didn’t I tell you that 2006 was turning out to be a really, really bad year for dictators?

Well, there is news overnight that Saparmurat Niyazov, the “president for life” of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, has died overnight.

A former Soviet Communist Party official, Niyazov had ruled the energy-rich nation for 21 years, quashing all opposition along the way, muzzling whatever was left of a free media and forcing dissidents into exile. The lucky ones, that is.

And like so many other dictators, he basked in what has been described as a “unique” and “bizarre” personality cult.

He gave himself the title of Great Head of the Turkmen, declared himself President for Life in 1999 and had thousands of flattering portraits of him displayed in offices and homes throughout the country.

Sounds familiar?

Having renamed the month of January after himself (naturally), Niyazov also had a statue in gold leaf built in his honour in the capital city, Ashgabat. As you would expect, the statue rotates so that it always faces the sun.

Meanwhile, in Havana …

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Let the debate begin?

More mixed signals emanating from Havana.

While Communist Party officials continue to deny reports that Fidel Castro is near death, the man supposedly in charge, Raul Castro, appears to be getting mighty comfortable in his new role.

According to this report, Raul Castro has told a meeting of university students in Havana that there is a need in Cuba for “greater debate” on issues of public policy.

Within limits, of course.

The 75-year-old acting president made it clear that there is no plan to shift from “the Revolution”, which is the term used by the regime to refer to the rigid and oppressive one-party template established 47 years ago by Fidel Castro.

But then Raul Castro added: "Sometimes people fear the word disagree, but I say the more debate and the more disagreement you have, the better the decisions will be.”

A positive sign of change? Hmmm ...

Or is this a repeat of Mao’s infamous “let a thousand flowers bloom” period in 1957? Back then, Mao enouraged Chinese intellectuals to openly criticise the failings of the Communist regime. They did. Only to find that the new period of debate lasted all of six weeks. After that, Mao rounded up all those who had dared to criticise him - and executed them.

Almost Nochebuena

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Alo, alo ...

It’s now confirmed: when it comes to mobile phones, Cuba lags way, way behind the rest of the world.

A new United Nations study has found that less than two per cent of Cubans have access to mobile or cell phones – a ranking that places Fidel Castro's island on par with countries such as Nepal. And Eritrea.

This is because the Government-owned telephone company will only provide mobile phone accounts to foreigners, or to high-ranking Communist Party officials deemed to be "ideologically safe".

Ordinary Cubans, on the other hand, are strictly forbidden from accessing mobile phones, even if they are lucky enough to have the hard currency needed for such an account.

Of course, the Castro regime blames the policy on the “evil” US commercial embargo, a claim that is so demonstrably stupid it has been described in the past by respected independent commentators as absolute rubbish.

In fact, the real reason why the regime is afraid of mobile phones is highlighted in comments made by dissident Oswaldo Paya who says the problem is in Havana not in Washington.

"A cell phone represents independence, the ability to communicate privately even on the move," Mr Paya told the media. "And this totalitarian regime is designed to take away people's independence and freedom."

In Bucharest

It’s taken more than a decade but the Romanians appear to have finally come to terms with their horrific Communist past. At least officially.

The current president, Traian Basescu, has now formally condemned the Communist dictatorship that ruled the Eastern European nation for over 40 years, especially the regime led by the odious Nicolae Ceausescu and his equally dreadful wife, Elena.

It’s the first time a Romanian head of state has officially denounced the Soviet-era system, according to this report in The International Herald-Tribune.

And it’s been quite a controversial step to take since many former high ranking Communist Party officials and apologists are now prominent members of the new, democratic class.

Speaking in Parliament, Mr Basescu said an independent report had confirmed that the previous regime had acted in a criminal, illegitimate and undemocratic manner, ordering the “extermination” of thousands of citizens and forcing the deportation of many, many more.

As you can read in this BBC report of the speech, the victims of the former Communist regime are believed to number between 500,000 and two million.
At least 10,000 women are said to have died between the mid 1960s and 1989 as a direct result of secret abortions, which were strictly forbidden by Ceausescu, who wanted to increase the Romanian population at all costs despite widespread hunger and lack of basic services.
The independent report also fingers a raft of Communist apologists, including musicians, writers and poets who happily sold their souls (and dignity) to the mad dictator during that terrible time.
Perhaps, one day ... In Havana.
H/T to Val and the crew at Babalu.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Money talks

As you probably know, Cuba is almost certainly the only country in the world where there are two types of national currency: one for the rich and well connected, and one for the poor.

You see, ordinary Cubans must do with ordinary Cuban pesos, which are largely worthless - you get 25 ordinary pesos for every US dollar on the black market.

On the other hand, if you are a tourist or a senior member of the Communist Party or just lucky enough to work in the tourist industry, you will have access to a parallel currency called the peso convertible.

And these pesos, which were introduced back in 1994, are worth plenty. In fact, each peso convertible is worth about one US dollar, give or take a cent.

Now we learn that the peso convertible is about to get a major design revamp. The new notes will be made from better, more secure material, according to Granma, the propaganda sheet of the Castro regime.

But in typical style, they have failed to reveal the reasons for the new notes.

You have to read about it not in Granma but in this Reuters report (in Spanish), which confirms that there appears to be a huge counterfeit racket on the island involving the peso convertible.

According to an unnamed banking official, “there are lots of counterfeit notes out there”.

Needless to say, Cubans don't bother falsifying the ordinary, revolutionary pesos.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Thanks for dropping by

Oh, dear ...

Spare a thought for the delegation of US legislators who spent the weekend on a fact-finding mission to Cuba – the largest such delegation in nearly 50 years.

The visit had been described as "rare" and "historic", especially given its timing.

And sure enough, the 10 members of Congress (from both sides of the political spectrum) were careful to say all the right things during their much-publicised stay in Havana, repeatedly calling for the lifting of the US trade embargo.

To no avail.

An official request for a meeting with Raul Castro, who has been in charge now for four and a half months, was turned down by officials, as you can read here.

In polite circles, this is called a major diplomatic snub on the part of the Castro regime.

Literary corner

Forty four years after the world came close to nuclear oblivion, a new book on the former Soviet strongman Nikita Khrushchev has shed new light on what was to become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Titled Khrushchev’s Cold War, the book is written by Aleksandr Fursenko, a Russian academic, and Timothy Naftali, the newly appointed director of the Nixon presidential library in California.

According to this review in The New York Times yesterday, the authors argue that the decision to place nuclear missiles on Cuban soil at the height of the Cold War may not have had much to do with Khrushchev wanting to protect Fidel Castro.

Instead, the Soviet leader may have wanted to get the attention of President John F Kennedy – and effectively bluff the US on to the negotiating table.

By positioning missiles so close to key American cities, Khrushchev apparently hoped to intimidate Kennedy into negotiating with Moscow as an equal.

“It seemed a quick, cheap way to gain American respect, which Khrushchev desperately craved,” the authors argue.

Even after backing down and agreeing to remove the missiles from Cuba, Khrushchev is said to have "found solace in the fact that Washington had taken him seriously, vowing not to invade Cuba in exchange for a Soviet promise to withdraw the missiles".

Nearly half a century later, both Kennedy and Khrushchev are long dead. The third man in the drama is on his deathbed in Havana. And well over a million Cubans are living in exile. Still.

KHRUSHCHEV’S COLD WAR: The Inside Story of an American Adversary.
By Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. Publisher: W. Norton & Company.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Free speech

The Castro regime has refused to issue visas to a German parliamentary delegation on the grounds that it is “unacceptable" for the parliamentarians to meet with Cuban opposition groups, according to reports in the German media.

According to this report, the delegation had planned a three-day visit beginning today but were told at the last minute that the visas would not be forthcoming.

If only the Germans had had a chat to Gore Vidal first ...

Anyway, it seems this is just the latest in a series of incidents that have made the Germans a tad unhappy about what's going in Cuba.

About a month ago, you may recall the regime refused to allow independent journalist Guillermo Farinas Hernandez to travel to Germany to receive the Human Rights Prize awarded by the town of Weimar.

Also recently, the regime apparently withdrew permission for the screening of the German documentary film, Havana - the New Art of Building Ruins, during this month’s Havana film festival.

So, as you can see, free speech is alive and well in Havana.

Reading between the lines

The official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime, Granma, has published a front page editorial today attacking the small dissident movement on the island as “mercenaries”, "US puppies" and “counter-revolutionaries”.

Nothing new in such attacks - these are the terms the regime has used for the past 47 years to refer to anyone who dares to challenge the Castro orthodoxy.

What is intriguing is the timing of the editorial, coming at a time when Fidel Castro appears to be near death.

Also intriguing is the prominence of the unsigned editorial.

Could it be a not-too-subtle sign that some within the regime are concerned about the impact dissidents may be having internationally? Is it a prelude to further arrests and even more harassment and intimidation? If the dissident groups are as insignificant as the newspaper claims, then
why give them any publicity internally?

Or is this just a message to ordinary Cubans that when the time comes, Raul Castro will not tolerate any opposition, no matter how small or disorganised?

As with most things to do with Cuba, nothing ever is as it seems.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fellow travellers

The founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, is supposed to have referred to them as “useful idiots”. Other folk refer to them as “fellow travellers”. I am sure you could come up with even more imaginative terms.

Whatever you call them, here is news to make you jump for joy.

The official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime, Granma, reports today that there has been an increase in the number of “solidarity groups” established around the world to “support the Cuban Revolution”.

So many groups are being formed all over the place the newspaper says “solidarity with Cuba is now unstoppable”.

Isn’t that terrific?

The paper quotes figures issued by the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People (ICAP) that show 66 such groups were formed during the year, taking the total number around the world to 1,932.

These supposedly independent groups operate much in the same way as the old Soviet or East German “friendship societies” that sprung up during the Cold War.

In fact, these solidarity groups are closely watched by the ICAP, which was set up in the mid 1960s by Fidel Castro to help spread his message internationally – with considerable success.

In the early days, many of the groups were said to have been funded directly from Havana.

Their role has always been to essentially parrot the Castro line, writing letters to newspapers, organising “educational” tours of Cuba, distributing copies of speeches and other official propaganda, and hosting occasional visits by Communist Party officials.

In other words, useful idiots.

Musical Cubans

Everyone who visits Havana comes back with one overwhelming impression: Cubans love music.

Yes, Siree, everywhere they went in the capital city or in Santiago or Trinidad, they came across musical Cubans. Cubans signing. Or dancing in the middle of the street. Or playing instruments, even if it was the humble guiro. Those Cubans - they love their music.

Now, there is an element of truth here: Cubans and music go back a long way.

And despite the best efforts of the Castro regime to strangle traditional Cuban music back in the 1960s and replace it with ideologically-correct “protest” songs, the cha cha cha, the rumba, the son and the mambo all survived.

Sadly, there is another reason why so many talented Cubans today spend so much of their time singing and dancing and playing instruments, especially in the vicinity of say, tourist haunts in Havana.

In the latest issue of The Economist magazine, a columnist writes of his experience visiting Havana, including spending an evening on the roof-top of a crumbling apartment building in the city listening to a band of pretty good musicians.

When he asked why Cubans were, you know, so musical, the manager of the band told him it had a lot to do with money. Or rather, making a living.

A successful show at a tourist hotel in Varadero, he was told, meant band members could earn as much as US$50 each — around three times the average Cuban's official salary.

“This is one big reason why Havana remains, more than most, a city full of music,” the correspondent writes. “In the United States or western Europe music is a winner-take-all industry where a successful few make a lot of money and the rest work for love.

"In Cuba, a lot of verve and ambition is always going to help, but music is basically a job with better than average prospects of earning a living and making some hard currency.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

News from Africa

Yes, it’s a bad year for dictators. Really bad.

There are reports this morning that the former Marxist ruler of Ethiopia, the particularly odious Mengistu Haile Mariam, has been found guilty of genocide.

Along with 11 co-defendants, Mengistu was convicted in absentia by the Ethiopian Federal Court of more than 200 counts of genocide, homicide, illegal imprisonment and illegal confiscation of property.

According to this report in The Times, the charges relate to atrocities committed during what became known as the Red Terror, unleashed across the country in 1977 and 1978.

During that time, it is estimated that Mengistu and his cronies ordered the death or disappearance of tens of thousands of opponents, forcing the families of executed prisoners to pay a tax known as “the wasted bullet” to obtain the bodies of their loved ones.

At the height of his power, Mengistu is said to have himself frequently garrotted or shot dead opponents, saying that he was leading by example.

Known as the Pol Pot of Africa for his absolute cruelty, Mengistu was ousted in 1991 and currently lives in exile in Zimbabwe. Which means he is unlikely to be deported back to Ethiopia to face sentencing.

And his number one backer at the time of the Red Terror? Fidel Castro, of course.

Believe it or not

There is a surprising editorial in The Washington Post today that will hopefully become required reading for other editorialists in the West. But don't hold your breath.

It's an editorial on the death of former dictator Augusto Pinochet and lists his all too obvious crimes: the jailings, the extra-judicial assassinations, the foreign cash accounts ...

But the editorial also talks about Pinochet's legacy.

"It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America," The Post says.

"In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. He also accepted a transition to democracy, stepping down peacefully in 1990 after losing a referendum."

Then the paper refers to The Other Dictator, the one that is close to death in Havana, and his legacy: "By way of contrast, Fidel Castro - Mr. Pinochet's nemesis and a hero to many in Latin America and beyond - will leave behind an economically ruined and freedomless country with his approaching death. Mr. Castro also killed and exiled thousands ..."

Read how Editor & Publisher interpret the editorial here.

From one dictator to another

When it comes to nasty dictators, there is no shortage of the bastards around the world.

But it's fair to assume that none is quite as dangerously delusional as Kim Jong-Il, the self-styled “Dear Leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or North Korea to you and me.

Now comes news that Kim Jong-Il has decided to award Fidel Castro the Order of Hero of Labour to mark the Cuban dictator’s belated 80th birthday celebrations.

According to the official Cuban media, the decoration was received by Esteban Lazaro, one of several vice-presidents, on behalf of Castro, who is seriously ill.

In the citation, the North Koreans said the "great honour" would “highlight Fidel Castro’s special contribution to the construction of socialism”.

Yes, they are all the same - and yes, they all deserve to rot in hell.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Friends in Warsaw

Sometimes, it seems as if no one out there gives a toss about human rights in Cuba.

Except for the Eastern Europeans.

On Saturday, a photographic exhibition opened in Warsaw designed to highlight the plight of political prisoners in Cuba.

Organised by the Human Rights Foundation and the Italian Committee for Human Rights, the exhibition comprised portraits of over 70 political prisoners.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, the deputy president of the Foundation, Danuta Przybora, recalled how the West had morally supported Polish dissidents in 1981 when the then Communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law in an effort to quash the Solidarity movement.

“That help we received back then obliges us to support our Cuban brothers and sisters in exactly the same way today,” Ms Przybora said, adding that Cubans are living under a repressive regime “that is even worse than the regime we experienced in Poland.”

Then on Monday, a seminar was held also in Warsaw to discuss human rights in Cuba.

Among those present was Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity trade unionist who is often credited as the man who helped start the historic process that eventually resulted in the demise of the Soviet Empire.

Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, said that no one could impose a democratic solution to the Cuban situation but insisted that dissidents on the island should be supported by those outside.

“I hope that one day I will be able to visit Cuba without the fear of ending up behind bars,” he said.

The seminar also heard a video message from Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, who called on tourists to boycott Cuba while political prisoners remained in prison or under constant harassment.

Now, how good is that?

Double standards

Much as expected, the international media have carried extensive coverage of the death of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who died over the weekend aged 93.

Quite rightly, most outlets have concentrated on Pinochet’s human rights record.

But for a bit of perspective, I encourage you to read this piece by Nevil Gibson, editor in chief of the National Business Review, a business weekly in New Zealand.

Referring to the way Western media have covered Pinochet's death, Gibson writes: “Contrast these obituaries … with the reverent treatment of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who is also lingering in the twilight of his much longer dictatorship."

Read it here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Out they go

I told you it wasn’t a good year for dictators.

Back in August, news arrived that former Paraguayan strongman Alfredo Stroessner had died in exile in Brasilia at age 93. He ruled Paraguay for 35 years until being deposed in a military coup in 1989.

Now comes news that Augusto Pinochet has died at age 91.

Pinochet, who ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990, was a diabetic who had been in frail health for years.He underwent bypass surgery after suffering a heart attack on 3 December.

Meanwhile, in Havana …

The ugly face of the Castro regime

It’s back to normal in Havana.

News agencies report that a peaceful vigil by a small group of dissidents marking International Human Rights Day on Sunday was broken up by about 200 “government supporters”.

They are no such thing, of course.

They are thugs trained and organised by the Castro regime for this very purpose. They are the reincarnation of the Brown Shirts - the ugly face of Cuban Communism, as you can see from the photograph above and other you will find here.

According to news reports, the small demonstration was interrupted as soon as it began by “burly men” who had been waiting for the dissidents to arrive at the Vedado neighbourhood park. The thugs pushed and surrounded participants, shoving some of them. One protester's shirt was ripped off and he was threatened with a beating, Reuters reports.

The so-called “loyalists” shouted: “Down with gusanos. Long live Fidel and Raul.”

All this in front of foreign journalists, which would seem to suggest that while we may have exchanged one near-death Castro for another, some things are unlikely to change on the island.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Education, Cuban style

Back in the mid 1990s, Fidel Castro had this great idea of opening up a Medical School just outside Havana to teach medicine, Cuban style, to hundreds of Latin American students. At no cost to the students.

For altruistic reasons, you understand. A great humanitarian deed by a great global humanitarian.

Well, there is an interesting article in today’s edition of the International Herald Tribune about the Latin American School of Medical Sciences - and what its students get taught.

Among the more traditional courses, such as anatomy and biochemistry, they also get taught what the newspaper rather coyly describes as “a bit of socialist theory”. You know, like why Castro is such a great humanitarian.

The article zooms in on the experiences of a couple of American black students attending the school, including 27-year-old Jamar Williams, who rejects any criticism the school and its students are “propaganda tools” for the Castro regime.

"They ask no one to be political," Williams told the paper. "It's your choice.”

Funnily, most of the other students interviewed seemed to had chosen to be political, as in Castro political.

Like Fatima Flores, a 20 year old Mexican “activist” who told the paper, in reference to the dictator: “When we become doctors, we can spread his influence. Medicine is not just something scientific. It's a way of serving the public. Look at Che."

But my favourite quote comes from the dean of the School, Dr. Juan Carrizo Estevez, who described his students thus: "They are completing the dreams of our Comandante. As he said, they are true missionaries, true apostles of health."

A great humanitarian, indeed.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Mixed signals

One of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents, Hector Palacios, has been released from prison on medical grounds, according to this report in The International Herald Tribune.

The release is supposed to be significant because Palacios is the first high-profile opponent of the Communist regime to be freed on parole since Fidel Castro handed over power “temporarily” to his younger brother, Raul, due to illness.

Palacios, a 65-year-old sociologist, was one of 75 dissidents arrested in March 2003 as part of a much-criticised crackdown by Castro on anyone that posed even a remote threat to his rule.

Like most of the others arrested, Palacios was sentenced to 25 years on trumped up charges of “assisting the enemy”.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) confirms that independent journalist Raymundo Perdigon Brito has been sentenced to four years' jail for being what the regime describes as a "pre-criminal danger to society."

As RSF reports, the Cuban criminal code allows the authorities to arrest anyone as a "pre-criminal danger to society" - even if they have committed no offence, simply on the grounds that they pose a potential threat to the Communist regime.

Putrid? You bet. Sadly, most civil libertarians outside Cuba seem to be far too busy on other, supposedly more important crusades to lodge a protest with Havana. Big surprise.

For more information on Cuba’s constantly harassed and intimidated independent journalists, I urge you to visit Marc Masferrer’s blog at Uncommon Sense. Worth the trip.

Reading between the lines

You know those comments by Raul Castro over the weekend offering to sit down with the United States and talk turkey?

As most analysts pointed out at the time, the supposed "new" offer from the “temporary” Cuban president is in fact, not new at all. And it’s heavily conditional.

Which may explain why the US administration rejected the supposed overtures out of hand.

But just how serious is the younger Castro?

I point you to an unusual article published overnight by the regime’s official newsagency, Prensa Latina, under the heading, "Cuba's Olive Branch-Defense Strategy".

It’s written by the improbably-named Circles Robinson, who is described as an American journalist living in Cuba, which essentially means that his writing reflect the views of the regime. Otherwise, they would not be published by Prensa Latina.

The article is unusual because it is critical by inference of the “antagonistic” policies pursued in the past by the now seriously ill Fidel Castro.

According to Mr Robinson, “Raul moved away from antagonistic politics by extending an olive branch to Washington” during his speech at the Plaza de la Revolucion.

“Everyone, be them pro-Revolution or not, would like to see an improvement in the country's material living standards,” he writes.

“While some people joke that the blockade has served as a catch-all excuse for any internal deficiencies and that the government wouldn't know what to do without it, the country's leaders have made it clear that they accept any challenges posed by improved US-Cuba relations. Raul Castro's offer to negotiate the two countries’ differences is serious.”

Perhaps I am reading way too much into this?

Anyway, make up your own mind. Read the article here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

From the dictator's desk

I was interviewed by BBC Radio Five yesterday afternoon (Sydney time) for a program called Pods and Blogs, which looks at the news of the day from the point of view of bloggers.

The inevitable question: just how sick is Fidel Castro?

It’s a difficult question to handle because the truth is, we have no idea.

The health of the 80-year-old dictator is officially a “secret of State” in Cuba, which probably means that even those who are close to Castro really have no idea of just how serious his illness is. Or whether he is truly recovering.

As for ordinary Cubans, well, they continue to be treated just as they have been treated by the Communist regime for the past 47 years – like mushrooms.

What we do know is that Castro, who loves to surprise the world media and to bask in its inevitable limelight, missed his birthday celebrations at the weekend. The whole world was watching and waiting – and he didn’t turn up. Not a good sign. For Castro, that is.

We also know that the regime has not released any new photographs or video footage of the man who has ruled Cuba since 1959 for more than a month now. Not even to mark his postponed birthday celebrations. Bad sign, too.

All we get nowadays are occasional, written messages, supposedly from Castro, that are read on radio or television and published in the official media.

But even these bizarre form of communications is quickly disappearing as the messages become shorter and shorter.

The latest such message was published today in Granma, the propaganda sheet of the regime. It’s a congratulatory note from Castro to his pal Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. It’s just five brief lines.

Religious affairs corner

The Episcopalians are preparing to visit Havana. Again.

The president bishop of the Episcopalians in the United States, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and her Canadian counterpart, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, will visit Cuba in January to speak to the faithful.

Not that there are many on the island: about 10,000 members spread over 46 parishes.

According to a spokesman for the bishops, the visit is still a “work in progress”, as you can read in this report.

But I suspect the Castro regime will welcome the visitors with open arms, given the track record of the Episcopalian hierarchy in all matters dealing with Cuba.

Earlier this year, the then presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, visited Cuba, where he had a “private audience” with Fidel Castro ... and was obviously charmed by the dictator.

So much so that the good bishop used his sermon at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Havana to attack what he described as the evil American commercial “blockade”, which he blamed for helping fuel poverty on the island – and cause families to be separated.

Hopefully, his successor will be honest and courageous enough to make some comment during her visit about the need for democratic change in Cuba. You know, the little things Episcopalians (and others) take for granted in the US and elsewhere, like multi-party elections, a free press, access by religious groups to the media …

We shall see.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Counting votes

As you would expect, the official Cuban media has heralded the re-election of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, as a huge victory for socialism. And a slap in the face for “the Empire”.

On national television, the presenters even wore red ties and red jackets to celebrate the electoral outcome, as you can read in this Reuters dispatch.

Of course, keeping Chavez in the Miraflores presidential palace is of paramount importance to the Castro regime since Venezuela now effectively bankrolls what is left of the Cuban economy.

But there is a point no one in the tightly-controlled media dared to make.

Although far from a perfect democracy, at least Venezuelans had a choice when it came to electing their president. And they could read and hear all about it in a free, lively and sometimes highly critical media.

On the other hand, Castro has never, ever faced a real election in the 47 very long years he has been (was?) in power. Not once. And neither has his brother.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The ghost who walks

Fidel Castro may have been far too ill to make the expected appearance at the Plaza de la Revolucion over the weekend, but this hasn’t stopped the official Cuban media from pretending otherwise.

You see, the 80 year old dictator may not have been at the military parade in person but he was there. In spirit.

A ghost.

The most ridiculously sycophantic piece is a column by Jose Alejandro Rodriguez, a columnist with Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC).

"I saw Fidel," Rodriguez writes, referring to the parade. "I saw his subtle but essential presence. I felt it, just like the spirit of those beings who never leave us, whose presence goes beyond the contingencies of nature, destiny or God."

Get the picture? Castro is immortal - and he is always watching.

Sounds more like an obituary to me.

Photo: Claudia Daut (Reuters)

When death comes calling

Perhaps I am reading too much into this …

But I can’t help thinking there is a certain parallel between events in Havana and Santiago de Chile.

In Havana, a seriously ill Fidel Castro fails to show up at the postponed celebrations for his 80th birthday.

Meanwhile, in Santiago, there is news that Augusto Pinochet has suffered a serious heart attack and is near death, as you can read here.

As they used to say, God works in mysterious ways.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

No show in Havana

It's now confirmed: the Fidel Castro era is over.

I know, I know. We have speculated about this many, many times over the past four decades or so - and always ended up with egg on our collective faces. It'd foolish to do so again.

But ...

Castro failed to show up at his own, postponed, hyped-up 80th birthday party on Saturday, as sure a sign as any that the dictator is seriously ill, a long way from even a partial recovery and highly unlikely to return to power.

The guests had arrived, including the usual suspects such as Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Garcia Marquez (has that man no shame?). The cake had been baked and the candles lit. There was even a parade and fireworks.

But the birthday boy was nowhere to be seen.

Unusual under any circumstances at any time but in the case of a man who so loves the limelight such as Castro, his non-apperance ... his failure to surprise the world yet again ... is truly extraordinary.

And what about the message it sends to ordinary Cubans?

As for the stand-in, Raul Castro gave a mercifully brief speech in which he failed to mention his older brother's health even once. In fact, he only mentioned Fidel two or three times.

Again, what message does that send to Cubans?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Managing expectations again

As you may recall, I have blogged previously on how the Cuban regime continues to manage expectations about the health of Fidel Castro and his likely return to the top job.

Like most things to do with politics on the Communist island, it’s all part of a carefully orchestrated plan designed to keep Cubans in the dark, uncertain about the future and suspicious of change.

The latest and most intriguing instalment comes in an interview given to Reuters by Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of Raul Castro and a favourite of Western correspondents in Havana.

Castro Espin, who heads Cuba’s centre for sexual research, said that her uncle Fidel “was still fragile” after emergency surgery four months ago for serious intestinal bleeding.

She said that while “she had no inside knowledge” her view was that “illness and age would prevent Castro from coming back as the full-blown leader of Cuba”.

"My impression as an ordinary Cuban is that we are going to have him in another role, as the wise 80-year-old leader that now is going to take care of himself," she said.

Of course, there is nothing “spontaneous” about the interview, just as there is nothing “ordinary” about Castro Espin.

Read the interview here.

It's goodbye from him ...

In Havana, the celebrations continue ...

It was supposed to be a happy birthday party for Fidel Castro, complete with flag-waving school-children, a giant cake and cheerful snaps of the dictator being fawned over by international writers and movie stars who have no shame.

Instead, it has turned into a long and macabre farewell.

A premature wake.

At least that’s the way the festivities in Havana (how much are they costing?) are being described by Western journalists visiting the island – and you know how perceptive they can be.

So, here are the facts as I see them:

1. Contrary to the rubbish published by the official Communist-controlled media, Castro is seriously ill. He has not been seen in public since late July, when it was disclosed he had undergone emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding.

2. The orchestrated PR campaign to convince Cubans that Castro is getting better – the videos, the photographs, the endless messages – has backfired badly. Instead of reassuring Cubans that all was well, the last video broadcast of Castro in his Adidas track-suit confirmed that the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for nearly half a century was far from recovering.

3. This all means that Castro is unlikely to attend the big military parade on 2 December – which will be a clear sign to Cubans that the Fidel era is over.

4. Raul Castro is in charge, but far from secure in the post and happy to share the public workload for now, at least, with a small group of ministers and Communist Party officials.

5. The Cuban people are being gradually prepared for the inevitable news ...

All of which may explain why Ramiro Valdes, the hardline Minister for Communications, told a public rally in Santiago de Cuba yesterday that Raul was the “guardian” of the Revolution, according to this Reuters report.

Valdes, better known to Cubans as a one-time secret police security chief, told the crowd that four months after the older Castro “temporarily” relinquished power, "all our people, the Party, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the Interior Ministry, the revolutionary cadre, have grown stronger, should-to-shoulder with Raul”.

The end is near.
Photo: Roberto Candia (AP)