Friday, March 30, 2007

Looney tunes

Much excitement in the world media about an “article” supposedly written by Fidel Castro and published in today’s edition of Granma, the official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime.

In the article in question, the ailing 80 year old dictator takes aim at the United States. Again.

Surprisingly, this time it’s not the evil American “blockade” but a decision by the US and much of the Western world to look at ethanol as an alternative fuel.

Castro claims such a move will result in the death of three billion people (yes, he is very precise about that), since poor countries will be encouraged to grow maize and sugar for fuel rather than for food.

I know, chochera de viejo, as our friends at
Penultimos Dias point out.

Still, these typically apocalyptic and totally unsubstantiated claims have upset the Brazilians, who are world leaders in the production and seemingly responsible use of ethanol.

The Brazilian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Celso Amorim, told reporters that while he respected Castro’s views (why?), they were way out of kilter with the rest of the world.

Referring to Castro, Mr Amorim added: “He has some ideas that are outdated."

He is right about that.

Diplomatic niceties

The Spanish press is all in a tizz over news that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos, has confirmed he will travel to Cuba next week for a two-day official visit.

It will be the first such visit by a senior Spanish minister in nearly 10 years, so it’s likely to attract plenty of media attention back in Madrid. And in Havana.

But the big question being asked is whether Moratinos will do the right thing and ensure he meets not just representatives of the Cuban government but also selected dissidents, such as Osvaldo Paya.

As the Spanish daily El Pais points out, any meeting with dissidents will hugely upset the Castro regime.

And as we know, the current Spanish administration would rather walk over broken glass than upset the Castro brothers.

So, we will watch with interest.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Agricultural grand plan no. 3,420

Having failed over the past 50 years or so to turn Cuba into the world’s number one grower of strawberries, the number one grower of gigantic pineapples and the number one grower of magical, grow-anywhere coffee, the Castro regime has announced a grand new agricultural plan: to grow tropical peaches.

That's right - tropical peaches.

According to the official news agency, Prensa Latina, small parcels of "experimental" tropical peaches have been planted across the island, from Pinar del Rio in the West to Granma province in the East.

The agency quotes the head of the National Institute of Fundamental Research on Tropical Agriculture, Adolfo Rodriguez Nodal, describing the experiment as successful so far, with plenty of seeds being collected for further planting.

Rodriguez Nodal said peaches were an ideal source of fibre, which helped reduce cholesterol levels and lessen constipation.

Stay tuned.

Festival time

It seems the people who run a travel agent calling itself Captivating Cuba know something we don’t.

The British company is offering tourists a 13-day, all expenses paid opportunity to experience what it describes as “the most popular traditional festival” on the island.

They are referring, of course, to the celebrations organised by the Castro regime every year to mark the 26 July, the holiest of all holy days in the revolutionary calendar.

According to a jaunty press release issued by the travel agent, Cubans party long and hard during this time, with “people dancing in the streets to Cuban music” (don't we all?), and drinking plenty of mojitos and daiquiris well into the “hot, steamy Cuban nights.”

But there is more.

“For a real treat on your Cuba holidays,” the press release says, “July 26 is probably the best and one of the last few occasions to experience Castro himself giving one of his famous speeches.”

We shall see.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Havana

I know that sometimes news photographs don't really tell the whole story.

Still, I thought this Reuters picture from Havana said it all, especially that look of absolute resignacion on the face of the old woman. The waiting ...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

They don't like Australians. Still.

Long used to getting its way internationally, it seems the Castro regime is till smarting over a decision late last year by the Australian Government to call a spade a bloody shovel.

You may recall that last November, the government of Prime Minister John Howard (above, with Australian troops in Afghanistan) attempted to amend a UN resolution condemning the US commercial and trade embargo on the island.

The Australians wanted to include a reference to the Castro regime’s appalling and well documented record on human rights, as you can read here.

This being the UN, the motion was lost on the numbers but not before it was supported by over 50 countries, including the whole of the European Union, Japan, Canada, South Korea and New Zealand.

In characteristic fashion, Havana went nuts at the time, describing the Australians as American “lackeys”. And racists. And lacking moral courage. And what would you expect from descendants of convicts, etc ...

The Australians, well, we just ignored it.
But four months later, the Castro crowd is still sulking, as you can read in this article published in Periodico 26, the official newspaper of the Communist party in Las Tunas province.

Under the heading, “Washington’s Man in the Pacific”, the paper has attacked Mr Howard for sending troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq and assorted other misdemeanours.

The paper also accuses Australia of “invading” the Solomon Islands, which not doubt will come as a surprise not just to Australians but to the Solomon Islands.

Enduring the Revolution

Back when I was growing up in Cuba in the 1960s, good revolutionaries were expected to give up their Sundays to engage in “volunteer work” – trabajo voluntario.

Except there was nothing truly voluntary about it.

And it wasn't just the grown ups.

Secondary school children were also expected to turn up on their one and only day off school and offer to help the Revolution, regardless of age, family, religious or other commitments.

You'd be picked up by a truck early in the morning and go off to pick lemons or work in the sugar fields or in some other form of agricultural work.

Of course, you could politely decline or get your parents to invent some excuse but you knew there was a good chance you'd then be singled out by your school or by the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) as a potential counter-revolutionary troublemaker.

Well, it seems the concept of “voluntary” Sunday work for young people in Cuba is alive and well on the island, as you can read in this
dispatch from Escambray, the official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Sancti Spiritus province.

According to the paper, more than 150,000 young people got up bright and early last Sunday, 25 March, to join “volunteer labour activities” across Cuba, including “work in construction, clean-up and beautification", and in "sugar cane harvesting”.

The day of volunteer work was supposed to mark the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), whose president, Julio Martinez, proudly told the paper that volunteer work had been part and parcel of growing up in Cuba since 1959.

Martinez added that the young volunteers had all happily given up their Sunday to go off to work because they wanted to demonstrate to the ailing Fidel Castro “what can be done to ensure the Revolution endures”.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Rice and beans

Ah, yes, the US embargo.

For decades, the good old commercial and trade embargo has been blamed by the Castro regime for just about everything that has gone wrong in Cuba. Which is plenty.

So, enjoy the first few sentences of this Associated Press report from Havana, describing how American farmers have managed to become the top suppliers of food and agricultural products to Cuba.

In fact, the report says, "many Cubans depend on rations grown in Arkansas and North Dakota for their rice and beans".

Crystal balls

It seems every man and his dog have a view about what may or may not happen in Cuba when Fidel Castro finally shuffles off the stage, as he inevitably will.

Including Richard Lourie, the author of the highly-acclaimed novel, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin.

Writing in The Moscow Times, Mr Lourie, who knows a thing or two about tyrants, believes that Castro will want to go out with a bang. A big bang.

In fact, he predicts that the ailing dictator will want to cause a major confrontation between the United States, Russia and China.

And the spark? Castro will order the invasion of the US base in Guantanamo, forcing the Americans to retaliate, which in turn will put pressure on the Russians and the Chinese, which in turn, well, you get the general drift.

Fanciful perhaps but then again ...

Friday, March 23, 2007

From the finance desk

Let's assume for a moment that the economic statistics produced routinely by the Castro regime are legitimate. Big assumption, I know.

If we believe the regime, Cuba's economy grew by a staggering 12.5 per cent last year - the fastest growing economy in all of Latin America. In fact, faster even than China, which is well, highly unlikely. Still, let's continue ...

Now we are told that things may well be slowing down.

Reuters reports today comments made by a senior Cuban economic official, Osvaldo Martinez, who claims that economic growth during the current calendar year will slow down to "around 10 per cent".

The reasons for the slowdown? Tourist numbers have declined substantially, a drop the regime has blamed on the US commercial embargo. Again.

The truth, as Reuters confirms, is that European and Canadian travel agents no longer see the island as "good value for money".

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Havana Treatment

Nothing quite upsets the Castro regime as much as criticism from those outside the island whom the regime considers its potential friends.

Anyone who dares to question Castro’s version of the world has had to bear the brunt of a normally vicious counter-attack from the dictator and his huge propaganda machine.

This has been the case for the best part of 48 very, very long years.

And no one is immune from the Havana Treatment - from famous writers and heads of State to mere functionaries.

The Czech, for instance, were pilloried in the recent past by Castro for having the temerity to call for democratic change in Cuba.

Same with the Slovaks, the Hungarians and the Poles.

Even mild-mannered Australians in Geneva have been given the Treatment for wanting to amend a UN resolution on the US commercial embargo to include the issue of human rights.

Now, it’s the turn of the Swedes, according to media reports.

It seems Cuban officials have launched a scathing attack on its one-time Scandinavian friends following a speech to the UN by the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, in which he criticised the Castro regime’s human rights record.

In response, the Cuban delegate, Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez, accused Sweden of “persecuting migrants”, carrying out “ethnic cleansing” and even of raping and pillaging back in the days when
Viking ruled the waves.

A very pissed off Mr Bildt has told local media that he will call in the Cuban ambassador for an explanation for the “unacceptable” language, which seems to have developed into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

"We'll see if the Cubans explain themselves,” the Minister added. “We have demanded an explanation and an apology but I am not sure I have such high expectations of this Cuban regime.”

He is right about that.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Today, in Havana

This is what happens in Cuba today when you have the temerity to peacefully call for the release of dissidents imprisoned on trumped-up charges that would make even Joseph Stalin blush.

You get harassed and intimidated and insulted and threatened and sometimes you get beaten, too, by a mob of Government-organised thugs.

It's called democracy, Castro style.
Photograph: Claudia Daut, Reuters

Surprise, surprise ...

Much as expected, there was nothing remotely diplomatic or friendly about the recent European grand tour by the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque.

It’s now been revealed that the real reason for Perez Roque’s trip was to gather support for the effective emasculation of the Geneva-based United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

The council is not much of a watchdog, to be sure, but at least it has the power to appoint special investigators – or rapporteurs – to look into specific human rights violations.

In the past, rapporteurs have been appointed to investigate human rights in Belarus, North Korea, Sudan, Chile (during the Pinochet era), the former Yugoslavia … and Cuba.

According to media reports, the Castro regime is leading a bid by a number of countries to strip the council of its power to appoint the rapporteurs, apparently because their appointment is “politically motivated” and “selective”.

The move by the regime in Havana has been attacked by human rights groups internationally, with activists warning that it will further erode the credibility of the UN, if successful.

Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear that the Castro regime has never allowed the special rapporteur on Cuba, the highly-respected French jurist Christine Chanet, to visit the island.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Their Spanish friends

You may have read elsewhere that the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque, has just returned to Havana after a “successful” tour of several European nations, including Spain.

In Madrid, Perez Roque met with his Spanish counterpart, Angel Moratinos, who later told the media that relations between the two countries remained muy buenas - very good.

Makes you wonder whether the two men discussed the issue of Cuba’s foreign debt to Spain.

According to a confidential report obtained by the Spanish daily El Mundo, the Castro regime currently owes Spanish companies a grand total of 1,708 million Euros.

And Havana is in no hurry to pay up – the report says payments are late or simply not made.

The Spanish companies providing the goods and services don’t mind too much because it seems the debt is eventually carried by the Spanish administration through export insurance arrangements.

In other words, the debt ends up being carried by the poor Spanish taxpayers.

As the article states, this generosity on the part of Madrid has not stopped Fidel Castro and his thugs from freely and regularly attacking Spanish ministers whenever they are deemed to have stepped out of line.

When the Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, had the temerity early in his term to call for "democratic change" on the island, the Castro regime went berserk, attacking the Socialist leader as an American lackey, etc, etc.

It worked, says the paper: Zapatero has refrained from making such statements since. And Havana still refuses to pay its debt.

Monday, March 19, 2007

And now the Italians ...

First, the Czech. Now, the Italians.

For years now, many prominent and not-so-prominent Czech have been working hard and with bugger all recognition, to help spread the truth internationally about the Castro regime's appalling human rights record.

Having experienced both fascism and communism first hand, they know what they are talking about.

Now, let's hear it for the Italians, too.

There are reports today that a small group of Italian deputies visiting Cuba have taken the unprecedented step of joining the weekly Ladies in White vigil in Havana.

This week's vigil by wives and female relatives of the 75 imprisoned dissidents marks the fourth anniversary of what has become known outside Cuba, at least, as Fidel Castro's own "Black Spring".

The five MPs, who are members of the Italian Radical Party, displayed a large banner in which they called for freedom for the dissidents, some of whom were sentenced to 20 years' jail on trumped -up charges of being "mercenaries".

One of the MPs, Marco Cappato, told reporters: "We are democracy and human right activists and came here to ask for the prisoners to be released."

Let's see how the boys in Havana react this time.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Those Czech again

Here is the reason why I have so much time for the Czech.

And plenty of Spaniards are pretty good,

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday fun

If you believe Cuban officials, Fidel Castro is getting better all the time.

The ailing 80-year-old dictator has not been seen in public since mid July but this has not stopped the likes of Hugo Chavez, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a conga line of Castro apparatchiks from confirming that El Comandante en Jefe is recovering well.

Well, here is another take.

According to the online predictions site NewsFutures, the likelihood of Castro returning to office is just 22 per cent.

The site runs a predictions market along the same lines as a live stock exchange, with registered “brokers” using virtual money to buy or sell predictions on various topics, pushing the probability index up or down.

Check it out here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tourism, media, etc

Now we know why the Castro regime is so eager to build capitalist-style golf courses and a theme park for foreign visitors.

It’s because tourists are staying away in droves.

According to this Reuters report, unpublished official figures show that the number of visitors to Cuba fell by seven per cent in January of this year - and by a further 13 per cent last month.

It seems the main reason for the drop is the fact that Cuba has become far too expensive a destination, especially when compared to other islands in the Caribbean.

Given the enormous reliance th eregime places on tourism to keep the economy afloat, any substantial drop in visitor numbers is a serious issue.

But you won’t read about it in the tightly-controlled Cuban media.

Instead, the official media have been celebrating National Press Day, as you can see here.

I suspect they won’t be too happy with this must-read report from the BBC, which explains in detail the absolute lack of credibility the Cuban media have with ordinary Cubans.

The BBC quotes the deputy president of the government-controlled Cuban journalists’ union, Juan Marrero, describing the role of journalism on the island as first and foremost, “to defend the Revolution”.

Asked why the official media did not report the day-to-day issues that matter to most Cubans, such as shortages, inadequate housing, poor services and a lack of transportation, Marrero replies, without even a hint of embarrassment: “Not telling the whole truth does not mean you are lying.”

Spoken like a true Stalinist.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Disneylandia cubana

With tourist numbers steadily declining during the past year, the Castro regime is now looking at other, inventive ways to attract cash-carrying visitors to the island – and help keep the Communist economy afloat.

According to media reports, the regime has announced plans to build three new golf courses.

The Minister for Tourism, Manuel Marrero, told reporters the new courses would be situated at Cayo Coco, Holguin (near Banes, perhaps?), and Varadero, which already has the only 18 hole course on the island. Built pre-Castro, of course.

The announcement will come as something of a shock to those remaining die-hard revolutionaries on the island who can still remember the days when golf was considered a capitalist indulgence.

But that’s not all.

The minister also announced proudly that in order to attract more visitors, the regime had plans to build a theme park “about Cuban culture”, although the location is still being debated.

That’s right: a theme park.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Those money-making generals

There is an interesting report in today's edition of Clarin, the Buenos Aires daily, about the Cuban economy.

According to the paper's correspondent in Havana, the Cuban military now control over 30 per cent of all companies on the island, with senior officers directly in charge of no fewer than about 850 State-owned enterprises.

And these enterprises range from four-star tourist hotels to car rental firms and even local restaurants.

The paper points out that much to the delight of the generals, just seven per cent of the companies managed by the military recorded financial losses last year, compared to 38 per cent for non-military companies.

But please, don't assume for a minute that all this managerial expertise and free access of foreign currency is making Cuban generals personally wealthy. Of course not.

An unnamed senior military officer told the paper that contrary to the dreadful rumours spread by the "imperialists", the entrepreneurial generals get pay "just 30 dollars a month". And to get home, they still need to hitch-hike. Honest.

In Harare

More bad news from Zimbabwe, where human rights groups report that the leading Opposition figure, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been severely beaten while in police custody, suffering serious head injuries.
His arrest and that of other Opposition leaders was ordered on Sunday by Robert Mugabe, the 83-year-old self-styled socialist who has ruled what used to be one of Africa's most prosperous and beautiful nations since 1980.

According to news reports, the arrest and torture of Mr Tsvangirai has prompted "international condemnation" of Mugabe and his thugs.

Except in Havana, of course, where Mugabe is still considered a friend.

Monday, March 12, 2007

At the 18th hole.

Back in the 1960s, there was no golf course in Banes, the town where I grew up in Cuba.

In fact, I am pretty sure there was no golf course anywhere in Cuba during those turbulent, crazy years following Fidel Castro's revolution. At least no golf course ordinary Cubans could visit.

You see, true revolutionaries didn't have time for such an indulgent, capitalist pursuit, we were told then. Real socialists had better things to do with whatever little spare time they had, like volunteer to cut sugar cane or to pick lemons or to stand guard somewhere keeping an watchful eye on the Americans.

No more.

In its never-ending efforts to entice cash-carrying Western tourists to the island, the Castro regime is now happily promoting golf as an added incentive for visitors, along with the "stunning beaches" and the "magical music".

As you can read in this chirpy, little press release, tourists staying at Sol Melia hotels in the resort town of Varadero will receive free rounds of golf at the nearby Varadero Golf Course, which is billed as the only 18 hole, par 72 course in Cuba.

And according to the press release, one of the attractions of playing at the Varadero Golf Course is the fact that this is the very same course that "once hosted a legendary round played by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara".

Of course, that was in the very early days of the Revolution when Castro and indeed Guevara, were still pretending to be friends of the capitalists. It wasn't long before golf was denounced as a bourgeois affectation to be wiped out from the new communist paradise.

Back then, golf was a dirty word.

Come to think of it, so was tourism.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Wish you were here. Update.

It all sounds a tad premature but it seems the Castro regime is pretty confident the US will lift the current ban on US tourists visiting the Communist-ruled island. Or rather, visiting and spending money.

The Cuban deputy Minister of Tourism, Oscar Gonzalez , has told Reuters that the regime is expecting as many as one million thrill-seeking Americans to visit in the first year after the lifting of the travel ban, which has been in place for over 40 years.

And while Cuba does not have the infrastructure required to handle such an influx, Gonzalez remains optimistic, telling reporters: "We have time to build the hotel capacity for the day that happens."

According to the report, the visitors are likely “to flood to Cuba to enjoy its pristine beaches, sip daiquiris at Ernest Hemingway's favourite bars and take a step back in time riding in vintage cars in a city that was once a Mafia playground”.

Doesn’t get better than that, does it?

And here is the clincher: Reuters says US tourists would provide “a needed shot in the arm” for Fidel Castro’s tourism industry, which experienced a 3.6 per cent drop in visitors in 2006.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sticks and stones

For decades, the Castro regime has been getting a pretty easy run in much of Western Europe.

You know, the same old story: sure, Fidel Castro isn’t perfect but heck, look at his achievements in health and education and anyway, he has stood up to those evil Americans …

So you can imagine how the regime reacts when someone – anyone – stands in its way.

With vitriol.

And so it is with a conference on Cuban affairs being organised for next month in Berlin by the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba , in association with the highly-respected Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The response from Havana has been much as expected.

According to this moronic article in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, the conference has been financed, organised and manipulated by Washington. Naturally.

The aim of the conference? Well, to sway “European public opinion in favor of the annexationist interests of the US”. Of course.

And the participants? They are categorised as “terrorists”, members of the "Cuban mafia" in Miami, mercenaries and assorted American lackeys, such as former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar.

But the paper’s most ridiculous attack is reserved for the former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who has been a long-standing public supporter of democratic change in Cuba.

Mr Havel is described as a “failed playwright” who is “always willing to spend a couple of days in a five-star hotel, all expenses paid”.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Foreign affairs

If you believe the Castro regime, Cuba is the only nation in the world that provides aid to other countries without ever asking for anything in return.

Earthquake in Pakistan? Cuba will send a team of doctors to help out. Tsunami disaster in Indonesia? No worries. The Cubans will be there helping the ever-grateful locals. Mudslide in Peru? Ditto.

These acts of “solidarity” have underpinned Castro’s diplomatic strategy for the best part of 50 years, especially since the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s.

And it’s been a highly successful strategy, too.

It means that even today, the Castro regime continues to enjoy the unqualified support of most Third World countries. Through thick and thin.

Here is just one example of how it works.

Over the past few days, the Cuban official media have reported extensively on a brief visit to Havana by Patterson Oti, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Solomon Islands, a former British protectorate in the middle of the Pacific.

A relatively poor and strife-torn nation of some 450,000 inhabitants, the Solomons is kept afloat financially by aid from Australia and New Zealand.

It's as far from Havana geographically as you can imagine.

Still, according to this report from the official Cuban newsagency, the visit by Mr Oti has been a huge success.

So much so that Cuba has agreed to send a “medical brigade” to the Solomons while also offering scholarships to 50 young Islanders to study medicine in Cuba.

Coincidentally, the government of the Solomons has given an assurance that it will continue to support the Castro regime “at international forums”, including voting against the US “blockade”.

See? No strings attached.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Cuban health system

You know, the Cuban health system is one of the great “achievements” of Fidel Castro’s revolution. Or so we are told. All the time.

Occasionally, however, we hear conflicting views about the state of Cuban medical facilities from people who appear to have no axe to grind.

Take the group of visiting Spanish students who were involved in a serious road accident last weekend near Varadero.

Ten of the students had to be admitted to hospitals in Matanzas province as a result of the accident, with five later transferred to hospitals in Havana because of the seriousness of their injuries.

On their return to Madrid yesterday, some of the students who had been discharged were interviewed by the Spanish newsagency Efe.

The students were full of praise for the medical staff but not so convinced by the facilities – at least in Matanzas.

One of the students interviewed, identified only as Alberto, said the local hospitals they had been sent to were “in very bad shape” and that the students had to take their own linen, towels and medications.

A second student, Raquel, described the conditions as “a disaster” and likened the local hospitals to “hospitals in Rwanda”, lacking even basic sterilisation equipment.

Don’t forget: these are ordinary local hospitals that are used daily by ordinary Cubans, rather than tourists.

You can read about it here, in Spanish.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Diplomatic incidents

For a bit of fun at the start of the working week ...

First, I recommend you have a look at this column by Miranda Devine, a widely-read columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald, in which she had the temerity to describe Cuba in passing, as a "Communist dictatorship".

Then, read this very serious reply from the Cuban consul-general in Sydney, published in this week's edition of Green Left, a pro-Castro Australian publication that describes itself as "a proudly independent voice committed to human and civil rights, global peace and environmental sustainability, democracy and equality."


Dining with(out) dictators

Close but no cigar, folks …the ninth Habano Festival closed in Havana over the weekend without sign of either of the Castro brothers.

According to media reports, about 800 wealthy cigar-smokers from 40 countries attended the gala dinner that marks the end of the five-day cigar festival.

In the past, humidors personally autographed by Fidel Castro had been auctioned during the dinner for as much as USD500,000 a humidor, with. the money raised supposedly going to the Cuban hospital system.

This time around, however, Castro failed to sign any of the humidors on auction, apparently due to ill health.

But fear not, those happy capitalists attending the dinner had a great time nonetheless, enjoying fine wines and equally fine cigars in between courses of lobster, prawns, salmon, caviar and salted beef fillet with mushrooms in guava sauce, which sounds very cocina nueva.

And they happily toasted the health of the ailing 80-year-old dictator, wishing Castro a speedy recovery. Lovely, no?

UPDATE: The older Castro brothers may not have attended the dinner but it seems that at least two of Fidel Castro's sons were there on the night: Alejandro and Antonio, who is pictured above. According to reports in the Spanish media, the brothers and their respective entourages enjoyed all that caviar. And the fine wines. And the cigars. Quite a night. Not that you'd ever read about it in the Cuban media, of course.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The final touch

If you love Cuban cigars (who doesn't?), you will appreciate the picture above from Claudia Daut of Reuters in Havana.

The caption: A worker puts a ribbon around cigars at the H. Upmann cigar factory in Havana February 28, 2007. Cigar lovers and retailers, who are attending the International Cigar Festival, will puff away at the world's finest cigars, tour factories to see them being rolled by hand and visit tobacco plantations outside Havana.

Let's meet in Cuba

Some of those who want the US commercial and trade embargo on Cuba lifted often argue that the result would be an influx of democratically-minded Americans, their pockets bulging with greenbacks.

And all that capitalist goodwill would then encourage Cubans to speak out against the Castro regime, eroding the Communist Party’s grip on power and eventually bringing democracy and mutli-party elections to the island.

Who knows?

Anyway, you may be interested in the results of an online survey undertaken by MIMegasite, a newsletter serving the multi-million dollar US meetings and conventions industry.

The newsletter asked 100 planners whether they'd consider Cuba as a possible meeting destination if the US administration lifted the current travel ban.

The result? Twenty-four per cent said they would consider Cuba in the first year the travel ban was lifted while another 34 per cent said they would wait at least a year before considering Cuba.

But the rest said they would not consider Cuba at all, primarily because they have a “large question mark” about the quality of the local hotels.

The newsletter described the results as "surprising".

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Remember the rice cookers?

Those of you with long memories will recall that about two years ago Fidel Castro launched his latest grand plan, the so-called Energy Revolution.

It came about following the total meltdown (no pun intended) of Cuba’s aging electricity grid which had last been upgraded in … well, in 1958.

But in typical fashion, Castro didn’t blame the problem on years of neglect.

Instead, he blamed Cuban housewives.

During a television speech that lasted over five hours, the dictator claimed that housewives were wasting electricity at home by using old and outdated equipment in their kitchens.

And to solve the problem, Castro announced that the regime would buy thousands of supposedly energy-efficient rice cookers, pressure cookers and mini-stoves from his new friends, the Chinese.

These would then be on-sold to Cuban families at “subsidised” prices – whether they liked it or not.

For good measure, he even gave a cringingly condescending demonstration on national television showing Cubans how to handle the new, miracle appliances - you know, because Castro thinks Cubans are too dumb to be able to use the appliances without his help.

Well, there are indications now that the business with the energy-efficient rice cookers and pressure cookers is not going all that well.

According to an article in Juventud Rebelde, the official newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth, many of the appliances are ending up in repair shops, which are owned by the State.

And of course, it’s the fault of Cuban housewives. Again.

Under the headline, “We should look after our Energy Revolution equipment”, the paper takes them to task for failing to read the instructions, for misusing the appliances and even for not cleaning the inside properly.

The paper then lists numerous examples where it claims the rice cookers and pressure cookers have been used incorrectly by their owners, warning about the escalating costs of repairing the appliances.

Of course, there is no indication in the article that perhaps the appliances themselves are to blame - perhaps they don't work as intended?

You can read the report here, in Spanish.