Wednesday, January 31, 2007

News from Havana

Cuban national television has just shown new video footage of Fidel Castro alive - and meeting Hugo Chavez.

Reportedly shot on Monday during a secret, two-hour meeting between the two leaders, the footage is the first time Castro has been seen on television since October.

According to reports from Havana, the seriously ill dictator still looks frail on the video but appears to have put on some weight.

Beyond that, the vision merely proves that the man who has ruled Cuba for nearly 50 years is still alive and apparently well enough to be able to drink a glass of orange juice without help from a nurse.

So, why air the footage now?

Well, today marks six months since Castro officially stepped aside due to serious intestinal bleeding, handing over power "temporarily" to his slightly younger brother, Raul.

In Cuba, there is always a reason for everything …

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Esperanto corner

Who said Esperanto and politics don’t mix?

The official Cuban news agency reports today on a resolution passed by the national committee of the Cuban Esperanto Language Association in Havana.

According to the report, the national committee has condemned the evil US “blockade” of the island, which, as you can imagine, has had a huge impact on the spread of the Esperanto language among ordinary Cubans.

For good measure, the committee also wished Fidel Castro a “speedy recovery” from his mystery illness, as you can read here.

I bet you are wondering what’s the Esperanto term for comemierda, right?

Foreign trade

Much has been written over the past couple of years about the growing economic ties between Cuba and China.

But not all is going according to plan.

There is a report from Reuters today revealing that those clever capitalists in Beijing have quietly pulled out of a much-anticipated $500 million nickel project on the island - for reasons that remain a mystery.

The joint venture was announced with much fanfare back in 2004 during a visit to Cuba by Chinese president Hu Jintao, who said the project would eventually produce 68,000 tonnes a year of ferro-nickel.

But Reuters quotes the Cuban minister responsible for foreign investment, Marta Lomas, as revealing that the Chinese have decided not to go ahead with the joint venture after all.

“The Chinese are not continuing,” the minister confirmed. “We are re-doing the project with Venezuela.”

Obviously the business savvy Chinese know something the Venezuelans don't.

Monday, January 29, 2007

About Cuban health

There is a must-read article in The Miami Herald today looking at Cuba’s impressively low infant mortality rate – and how the Castro regime ensures the rates are kept low.

According to evidence from Cuban doctors who have defected in the recent past, pregnant women are tested regularly during their pregnancy, and those found to be carrying a foetus with serious health problems - such as a heart murmur - are then "required" to terminate the pregnancy.

And so, the regime and its international apologists can confidently use the infant mortality statistics to counter concerns about Castro's otherwise nasty and oppressive record.

The newspaper also quotes research conducted by US and British academics confirming that contrary to the propaganda promoted by the regime for decades, the infant mortality rate in Cuba was already among the lowest in Latin America before Fidel Castro took over.

In fact, the infant mortality rate in Cuba in the late 1950s was lower than it was in Spain or Italy.

In the intervening years, the researchers concluded, Cuba's infant mortality rate improved significantly, but other countries in Latin America improved at an even faster rate - and Italy and Spain easily bypassed Cuba.

Now, all this stuff has been known for some time to those who follow Cuban affairs closely. So, it's
hardly news.

But it’s still refreshing to see the facts published in a mainstream US newspaper.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Great moments in research

Pay attention, class, and let me introduce you to Elizabeth Dore, a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Southampton, in Great Britain.

Professor Dore recently visited the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to discuss an oral history project she and a handful of other academics in the UK and Havana have undertaken in Cuba.

The researchers have spent the past two years interviewing over 100 Cubans “of diverse background”, mainly in Havana, about their memories of the Cuban Revolution for a project they have called Voces Cubanas.

The aim of the project: "to let Cubans speak for themselves".

And sure enough, the hard-working researchers have concluded that “popular American notions” of Cuba as a nasty, decaying dictatorship are “misguided”, to say the least, according to this report published by UCLA.

Professor Dore and her fellow academics found that Cuba is not one big gulag after all. Rather, the political system on the island operates with "probably more consent than coercion.”

What’s more, she told her UCLA audience, Cubans do not want US-style multi-party elections – and they “don't want capitalism and private property”.

Surprising results? Not once you read that the project was “sanctioned” and “backed” by the Castro regime.

And guess who picked and vetted the interviewees?

Under question from the UCLA audience about the methodology of the project, Professor Dore said that she was in "ongoing negotiations with the Cuban government on selection criteria for interviewees and other matters".

But she stressed that she had been "encouraged by the wide spectrum of views that researchers have been able to collect".


Mr Spielberg regrets?

There is an interesting exchange published by The Washington Times today over comments supposedly made by director Stephen Spielberg following his now infamous meeting with Fidel Castro back in 2002.

As you'd recall, the director was widely quoted by the Cuban official media and media elsewhere as describing the meeting as "the eight most important hours of my life".

Well, Stephen Rivers, who says he organised the visit to Cuba by Spielberg, says the director never uttered those words - and wants the record set straight.

In reply, R Emmett Tyrrell Jr, the Editor in chief of American Spectator, writes: "What has not been disputed is that Mr. Spielberg dined and talked with the dictator for hours, allowing himself to be used by a cruel regime for its public relations purposes ... perhaps such misunderstandings can be avoided in the future by refusing to be used by ruthless tyrants who rely on propaganda to maintain their grip on power."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Bad business

The number of tourists visiting Cuba is down.

According to official figures, the total number of visitors to the island fell from 2.3 million in 2005 to 2.2 million last year - the first drop in numbers since the September 11 attacks on the United States.

This is bad news for the Castro regime, which controls the tourist industry and which relies on visitors for much-needed hard currency.

And the reason for the drop in numbers?

The scare about dengue fever last year had somewhat of an impact but according to this report by Reuters, the drop in visitors had nothing to do with the US embargo, let alone concerns about political instability surrounding Fidel Castro's illness.

No, it's a matter of value.

Travel agents interviewed said Cuba appeared to be losing business to other Caribbean destinations due to high prices, the lack of adequate service for tourists, theft of luggage at airports and hotels, and a failure by the Cubans "to attend to complaints".

"Cancun and the Dominican Republic offered better deals," a Canadian diplomat said.

In other words, greed and inefficiency.

About being Australian

For those readers overseas who asked about the significance of Australia Day and how it's celebrated Down Under, I give you an excerpt from an editorial in this morning's edition of The Australian newspaper.

"YOU can tell a lot about a people by the way they celebrate their national day.

"In some countries there are military parades and mass rallies sanctioned by the state. Others assert their national uniqueness. Those that are especially unhappy brood on old wrongs and measure love of country by denouncing ancient enemies.

"But we do things differently here. On Australia Day, we went to the beach. We burnt a snag on barbecues with family and friends. We had a hit with the kids on a pitch in the park. Some, who will remember yesterday for the rest of their lives, became Australians in citizenship ceremonies. And across the continent, people waved the flag and wished each other happy Australia Day, effectively embracing all who understand that, for all its faults, ours is truly a lucky, and happy, country."

You can read the entire editorial here.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Happy Australia Day, cobber

It's Australia Day.
A public holiday, so not much by way of blogging today.
Just waiting for invited friends to arrive so we can fire up the barbecue (it's seen better days, I must confess), and get going on those steaks (marinated with smokey sauce), and the chorizos. All washed down with some cold beer at first and then, and a good Aussie red. Of course.
And later, for a hint of Cuba: guayaba con queso. Strong Cuban coffee. And cigars.
How Australian is that?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What I did in Havana

For a bit of fun, I point you today in the direction of an article published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based “think thank”.

It’s written by a senior research fellow there by the name of Dr Holger W Henke, who is apparently an expert on Caribbean affairs.

The good doctor has just returned from Cuba and has delivered a 1,700-words article that reminded me of the “balanced” reports that used to be written by well-meaning but myopic Western academics on their return from sponsored visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s or to Poland and East Germany in the 1970s.

My favourite line is this observation of Cuban life today:

“Despite all of the criticisms regarding the lack of freedom of expression in Cuba, I was impressed by the ubiquity of the arts in all of its forms and varieties. People reading, writing, playing music, and staging street performances are evident everywhere throughout the island. By no means are the artists performing only for the tourists; much of it is just for private enjoyment.”

Read the entire, hilarious article here. It's an education.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Great moments in appeasement

Since he was unexpectedly elected to office more than two years ago, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has gone out of his way to be nice to Fidel Castro.

The Spanish prime minister is one of those leaders who believes in “constructive engagement”.

In other words, he believes that the way to deal with a dictator such as Castro is to say or do nothing that may in any way upset Havana.

In return, Castro continues to intimidate, harass and jail dissidents and just about any one who steps out of line.

Furthermore, the dictator has continued to thumb his nose at the Spaniards by allowing fugitives and activists from the terrorist group ETA to remain on Cuban soil.

Nice one …

Now, there is speculation in the Spanish media that ETA is concerned the impending demise of Castro may result in the group “losing the lone country that offers it sanctuary”.

According to the reports, ETA is looking at Bolivia as an alternative, hoping that Evo Morales will be as accommodating in future as his dying mentor in Havana has been until now.

These revelations have caused quite a stir in Madrid, prompting questions from the Spanish Government and forcing the Bolivian president to go public to deny any involvement with ETA or its associates.

Morales told reporters that a meeting in June between one of his leading supporters and representatives of ETA's banned political wing was well, purely unintentional.

The ball is now in Zapatero's court.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Wish you were here

No doubt you would have come across these figures in the past: despite the US commercial embargo, more than 2.3 million foreign tourists visited Cuba in 2005, compared to about 742,000 a decade earlier.

Most are from Canada, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and Italy.

Plenty of Australians have visited, too.

And almost everyone returns home totally blown away by the experience - the physical beauty of a delapilated Havana, the music, the cigars, the friendliness of the people ... Entirely understandable. Tourists often see only what they want to see.

So, here is another take.

It's from Chris Welsch, a reporter with the US McClatchy Newspaper Group, writing about the reality behind the dual economy that is fueled by tourism and openly encouraged by the Castro regime:

"Some of the inequities created by dual economies are bitterly sad.

"Sitting at a restaurant in Havana's Chinatown, I watched two middle-aged, snaggle-toothed, potbellied British men - I am being kind - walk in with two teenage Cuban girls who probably would be modeling if they lived in Miami.

"The official government pay rate in Cuba is about $25 a month. Cuba's young women can earn more in an hour in bed with a tourist than anyone else can earn in a month of 40-hour weeks."

As I said, tourists often see only what they want to see.

Photo: Reuters

News from Managua

Fidel Castro remains sick. Very sick.

In fact, his fate in now “in the hands of God and his doctors”, according to the recently elected president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega.

In his first press conference since his swearing in on 10 January, Ortega told reporters that he had seen Castro twice in the past six months or so: in August and again in December, during the delayed birthday celebrations for the dictator.

“Everyone wants Fidel to recover and reappear,” he said.

Of course, Castro and Ortega used to be very close back in the days when the Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua – and Havana was doing the Soviet Union's dirty work in Central America and elsewhere.

Ortega is now back in power. Elected freely and fairly, from all accounts, after apparently re-discovering God. And ditching Communism.

On the other hand, Castro is no longer in power. Unlike Ortega, he has never faced a free and fair poll. He says he remains a Communist. As for re-discovering God …

Monday, January 22, 2007

True friends

One of the great successes of the Castro regime over the past 48 years has been its extraordinary ability to effectively silence international criticism of what is a nasty, oppressive and decaying dictatorial regime.

It’s done so by dressing itself up as an innocent underdog – the little battler under constant attack from its powerful bully-boy neighbour to the North.

It’s crap, of course. But it has worked in the past and continues to work today.

That may explain the rather depressing message in this story in The Mercury News.

Reporter Pablo Bachelet describes how the major democracies in both Europe and Latin America have been “conspicuously silent” on the need to ensure that Cuba takes the democratic and pluralistic road once Fidel Castro kicks the bucket.

In fact, Bachelet argues, a push by the US State Department to engage most of its traditional allies on the issue of Cuba appears to have been a big failure.

It seems most democracies have remained silent because they are “unwilling to be associated with US policies toward Cuba” or “reluctant to anger Havana by criticising its communist government”.

In other words, they fear upsetting the dictator. Amazing.

In Latin America, the only current leader to have spoken up is Oscar Arias, the Nobel Prize winner who is president of Costa Rica. In return, he got the usual treatment from Havana, which described him as an American lackey and a “mercenary”. Water off a duck’s back. I think he deserves a second Nobel.

And within the European Union, the list of those publicly and loudly calling for democracy in Cuba comprises the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

What do these European nations have in common? Easy. They all have experienced Soviet-style Communism. They know what it’s like. And all democratic Cubans will be forever grateful to them.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

News from Havana

While the world media continue to speculate on Fidel Castro's state of health to the point of exhaustion, Cuban journalists are busy reporting other, much more important news.

Like the discovery of a giant boniato.

According to a report in the Castro regime's official propaganda sheet, Granma, workers at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana have unearthed the huge specimen in one of the surrounding gardens.

A type of Cuban sweet potato, this Communist boniato apparently weighs 29.3 pounds - or about 13 kilograms.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Cuban health care

As Fidel Castro has painfully discovered, the Cuban health system he has previously claimed as the best in the world may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Luckily for him, he is among the privileged few, so he has access to the best doctors in the country and to whatever medication or equipment is required, including special valves flown in from Korea. South Korea, that is.

When all else fails, the 80-year-old dictator can even call on a Spanish surgical expert, flying him from Madrid to Havana in a government jet, regardless of cost.

Spare a thought, then, for ordinary Cubans.

A story in The Thunder Bay Source, in Ontario, reports that a group of volunteers have spent the past few days un-packaging medicines “that no longer meet Canadian Medical Standards”. The medicines are then re-packaged and sent to “underprivileged hospitals” in Cuba.

The paper quotes a spokesman for the volunteers, Dr. Jerome Harvey, saying his group have been collecting the medicines from local doctors for the past two and a half years, including blood pressure pills, asthma medication and antibiotics.

Dr Harvey said this was because the Cuban government “can't afford to buy a lot of medications”, which is a nice bit of spin, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

“You go into a pharmacy in Cuba and the shelves often are almost empty,” he added.

However, he said, the Cuban government only allowed each person to bring into the country 20 pounds of pharmaceuticals with each visit. So, the volunteers were "consolidating the overly-packaged medications” into different bags to save space.

And so, there you have the sad reality of health care in Cuba today.

Foreign specialists and state of the art medical equipment and medications for Castro while everyone else has to rely on well-meaning volunteers sending in medicines that have been deemed not suitable for Canadian patients.

As my father would say, Le ronca los cojones ...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Things that matter

Not a word in the official Cuban media on Fidel Castro's state of health. Seriously.

But those inquisitive, hard-hitting journalists at Juventud Rebelde, the official newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), have found time and space for news that really matters to its readers.

The paper reports grand plans by the Castro regime to increase the number of honey-producing beehives on the island from 140,000 at present to 200,000 by the year 2015.

Apparently, Cuban bees produced 6,900 tonnes of honey in the past year. Sounds like a lot, right? In fact, it means that honey production is now back to 1990 levels. How is that for progress? More importantly, what were those bees up to?

I blame the US "blockade", of course.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Quotes of the day

"It's not a good story. Too bad they didn't send him to Miami for surgery."

Prof. Charles Gerson, clinical professor of medicine in the gastroenterology division of New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, who says it seems Cuban doctors may have botched up when treating Fidel Castro.

"It is not right that we have to learn about his health through a foreign newspaper, but it has always been that way. The press here says nothing."

Dalia, a student hitching a ride in Havana, on being told by a foreign journalist of speculation outside Cuba about Castro’s health.

And then there was Chavez

There is a certain and slightly depressing predictability about the latest news regarding the state of health (or otherwise) of Fidel Castro.

First comes the report in a normally reliable media outlet - in this case, an extensive article in the Spanish daily, El Pais, quoting medical soruces in Madrid as saying the 80-year-old dictator is "grave".

Then comes the denial by ... Hugo Chavez.

The Venezuelan president, who claims to keep in touch regularly with Castro, says his mentor is not near death at all but on his way to a full recovery. Of sorts. And Chavez blames the latest reports about Castro's deteriorating health on "the Empire". Naturally.

"I'm not a doctor," Chavez assured reporters in Quito. "And I'm not at Fidel's bedside but he's not in a serious condition as some say, nor does he have cancer. It's a slow recovery process not without risk. He's 80 years old."

Of course, only a few weeks ago Chavez was telling reporters that Castro had made such a terrific revocery, the old man was back in his customary uniform, giving orders on the phone, joking with advisers and visiting Havana neighbourhoods at night to check everything was fine.

So, take your pick ...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Breaking news: Time's up?

There could be something in this ...

The normally very reliable Spanish newspaper El Pais has a story in its Tuesday print edition revealing that Fidel Castro is indeed near death.

The paper says the 80-year-old dictator, who has not been seen in public for nearly six months, has undergone at least three major operations to deal with what is described as a "very serious" intestinal infection.

The operations were unsuccessful and resulted in further complications, the paper added, quoting senior "medical sources" at the Gregorio Maranon hospital in Madrid, the same hospital that has been providing Castro with medical equipment and expert staff.
The full story is here, in Spanish.

In black and white

You know those endless blackouts that have been part and parcel of life in Cuba for the past 20 years or so? Well, they are over.

At least that’s the claim made by Prensa Latina, the official Cuban news agency, in an article with the cut-out-and-keep headline, “Cuba: No More Blackouts”.

The news agency quotes “official” figures showing that the Cuban power industry has managed to eliminate “90 per cent of damaging and annoying electricity shortages” – a task described as “the economy’s most outstanding achievement in 2006”.

It seems that all those Chinese-made electric rice cookers Fidel Castro has been selling to Cuban housewives on credit are finally having an impact on energy consumption. If you believe Prensa Latina, that is.

Anyway, the article reveals another interesting (if unintended) figure: nearly 50 years after Castro came to power promising to improve the lot of Cubans, some 20 per cent of families still have no access to electricity for basic necessities. Such as cooking.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Lies, damned lies and Communist statistics

I recommended in an earlier post The Berlin Wall, a new book by British writer Frederick Taylor that details the shameful 28 year history of that most perverse of Communist monuments.

In the book, Taylor spends time analysing how the Communist regime in what used to be called the German Democratic Republic (GDR), regularly invented “official” statistics for propaganda purposes.

For nearly 50 years, the GDR produced shonky figures to support its claim of a highly industrialised, cohesive and modern society whose happy and committed citizens enjoyed world-beating levels of health and educational outcomes and a high standard of living.

And because they couldn’t be verified, much of the rest of the world simply accepted the data at face value – the United Nations, the Western media, even the World Bank.

It was all lies.

Which brings me to a curious report by ACN, the Cuban news agency.

In a narky little article headlined, "Extraordinary news from Cuba without international repercussion", the agency complains that media outlets in the US and Europe have failed to give proper coverage to "new" health figures recently issued by the Castro regime some days ago.

The figures are supposed to show that the island’s infant mortality rate is now among the lowest in the world, with some municipalities claiming to have recorded a zero infant mortality rate for 2006.

Despite this, the article complains that the “news” has been ignored by the capitalist media “which are always looking for useless news from the island to damage Cuba's image”.

The article accuses the international media of “censoring” positive news from Cuba as part of an evil plan by media moguls (again!) to “discredit socialism” and to “serve the Empire and its lackeys”.

Methinks they protest too much. You can read the whole hilarious dummy-spit here.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Recommended Summer reading

Apart from long afternoons, cold beers, the beach and eating to excess, one of the great joys of the Summer break is catching up on some reading.

I did some of that in the past two or three weeks.

Among my reading list was a Christmas present from my wife: The Berlin Wall - 13 August 1961 to 9 November 1989, by British writer Frederick Taylor.

Published in the UK late in 2006, the book is probably the most complete (and human) history of the Berlin Wall I have come across, at least in the English language.

Using archival material as well as personal interviews, Taylor examines the lethal partition that for 28 disgraceful years would divide Berlin and its citizens - lovers, brothers and sisters, friends. Entire families.

He tells the story of those who somehow managed to escape across and survived to tell the tale.

Many didn't - and many of their stories are in the book, too.

Erected over a quiet Summer weekend, the heavily-fortified Communist Wall was designed to stop East Berliners from fleeing the Soviet-controlled part of the city for the “decadent” West.

Of course, this is not how the East German regime described its well-planned monstrosity.
Using the sort of language we still hear all the time from Havana, the Communists said the Wall was an “anti fascist protection barrier”.

In truth, as we all know, it was the most vivid physical representation of all that was bad (and remains bad) about Communism.

Get your hands on the book. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Revolutionary journalism c. 2007

Greetings - and thank you for your visit ...

After an all-too-brief Summer break, it's been fun catching up on all the news that matters about Cuba over the past day. My fellow (Northern Hemisphere) bloggers have done a sterling job, as usual.

And it's good to see that some things never change.

Like that dopey Cindy Whatshername visiting Guantanamo and ignoring the obvious. And Hugo Chavez promising to reshape Venezuela. Then there is Daniel Ortega back in office in Nicaragua. I mean, talk about a time warp ...

Something else that hasn't change: Fidel Castro remains in hiding, obviously too sick to make a public apperance, even on video.

Despite this, the union that is supposed to represent Cuba's journalists (the ones employed and directly controlled by the regime, that is), has just held a "festival" in Havana, attended by about 400 ideologically safe delegates.

Among the discussions, how to better help the Castro machine communicate with an increasingly jaded audience.

And to show what an independent, quick-thinking, determined bunch they are, the delegates were unanimous in refusing to ask the one question the vast majority of Cubans are asking: is the old man Castro dying?

Instead, the delegates sent a "special message" to the seriously-ill dictator, wishing him a speedy recovery.

Describing Castro as a "giant", a "colleague" and "an inspiration", the union delegates swore on behalf of all journalists, "total loyalty" to the Comandante en Jefe, as you can read here.

So, you see, nothing changes.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Still on a break, book news, Tariq Ali, etc

It's Summer in Australia, which means we get to combine Christmas and the New Year celebrations with our annual vacations. Not bad.

That's why there has been bugger all posting on my part for the past 10 days or so.

Still, there is always time to share some news.

First, it's now confirmed that Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro's Cuba will be available in the US on 1 April - April Fool's Day, which may or may not be an omen. Of course, you can pre-order copies from most American online book-sellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Please do.

Secondly, here is a link to a review I wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald of a new book by British left-wing writer and serial anti-Bush campaigner Tariq Ali. The title of the book is Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope and features on its cover photographs of three of Mr Ali's political heroes: Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. Castro wears a halo, which gives you some idea up front of the basic premise on which the book is based. The review appeared in the Herald on 29 December.

And now, it's back to my Summer break, but many, many thanks for dropping by.

See you in about a week.
PS: If you are in the US, please tell your friends about Child of the Revolution. No pictures of Fidel Castro on the cover. Guaranteed.

PPS: I gather Castro is still around? Or maybe not.