Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sex, money, desperation

Why do so many ugly, beer-bellied sixtysomething European men love visiting Cuba?

As Reuters reporter Catherine Bremer has found out, it's not the sunshine. Or the historic sites. Or the sandy beaches. Or even the cigars ...

Ms Bremer's report is not pretty. In fact, it's a terrible story.

And unfortunately, it carries the totally misleading, totally stupid heading, "Dollars can still buy love in Cuba". No, they don't. Dollars buy sex in Cuba. Cheap sex.

One other point: the article makes the astonishing claim that "Cuban leader Fidel Castro hates sex tourism", referring to how Castro closed down brothels in Havana during the first few months of the Revolution.

Well, that may have been the case in 1959.

But the fact is that 48 years later, Castro is quite comfortable with "sex tourism" - and the dollars (and Euros) that flow directly or otherwise into his regime's coffers.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Charity workers

The recent visit to Havana by the governor of the American state of Idaho, the wonderfully-named Butch Otter, continues to make news locally.

According to The Idaho Press, among the 30 or so farmers and food exporters eager to do deals with the dictatorship, the Governor’s entourage also included a charity worker.

Her name is Liz Murtland, who runs Hands of Hope Northwest, Inc, described as “a faith-based organisation” that donates needed medical supplies to poor nations across the world.

It seems Ms Murtland had medical supplies worth USD1,800 ready to take with her to donate to a clinic in Havana but soon discovered that she was only allowed to take supplies worth USD200.

The US embargo got in the way, you see.

As the paper so succinctly put it, the question of Americans trading with Cuba is difficult “even when it’s for charity”. Nasty Americans.

Still, I can’t imagine those charitable guys in Havana will be too upset by the article in The Idaho Press, which states boldly that “Cubans are proud of their universal health care system” and that “Cuban doctors work in developing countries across the world”.

As for the obviously well-meaning Ms Murtland, she said she appreciated the time Cuban medical officials spent with the Idaho delegation but “she still has some questions about the level of care provided in Cuba”.

Media notes

You may recall that about two months ago, the Castro regime refused to re-accredit a number of Havana-based foreign correspondents on the grounds that their copy was “too negative”.

One of the reporters declared persona non grata and told to leave the island as soon as his visa expired was Gary Marx from The Chicago Tribune.

Now there is an interesting background report and interview with Marx published in the US magazine The Nation.

The piece confirms what many of us have always suspected: that the Castro regime systematically manipulates the foreign media - while keeping a very close eye on what individual correspondents write or broadcast.

As the magazine says, reporters are kept “on a tight leash”.

Marie Sanz, who was the AFP correspondent in Havana for four years, told The Nation that the Communist regime much prefers foreign reporters she described as “starry-eyed reporters”. That is, those who won’t rock the boat.

"The Cubans should never be underestimated in this propaganda war," Ms Sanz said. "They know what the foreign press wants and how it works. They play hardball."

Spot on, I think.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Here is one possible explanation for the recent, unexpected decision by the Castro regime to release a handful of political prisoners.

According to today's edition of the British daily The Independent, the move is likely to be part of a carefully-orchestrated plan by the regime to “blunt international criticism of repression on the island”.


Well, it seems the releases come just days before a high-level meeting between Cuban and Spanish officials “at which Havana will seek the permanent end of European Union sanctions”.

But as the paper points out, most of those released were about to complete their sentences, anyway.

And the releases coincided with the sentencing of two other men at closed trials.

One of them, Rolando Jimenez, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for writing anti-Castro graffiti on public buildings.

Let's see what the EU says about that ...

Here we go again ...

Much speculation in the international media on whether Fidel Castro will make a public appearance on May Day.

On that day, thousands of supposedly ordinary Cubans will be bussed in by the Communist regime to attend a “workers’ rally” in Havana, where they will listen to interminable speeches and yell out the same, predictable anti-US slogans..

Much like they have done for the past 48 years, as it happens.

Castro has not appeared in public since late July, despite continuing claims by senior Cuban officials that the 80-year-old dictator is recovering well from his mysterious medical condition.

Well, I wouldn’t bet on a public appearance.

It is true that recent photographs released by the regime of Castro meeting senior Chinese visitors show him looking healthier than he did in the recent past.

But here’s the key: why is he still wearing a tracksuit rather than the customary uniform or even a suit more than eight months after first being taken ill?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris Yeltsin

Much of the media coverage so far on the death of Boris Yeltsin has focussed on the role played by the former Russian president in the demise of Communism.

But don’t expect anything positive to come out of the official media in Havana.

Here is why:

Cast your mind back to August 1991 when a group of Communist hard-liners in Moscow attempted to topple Mikhail Gorbachev and reverse the momentous changes that were then taking place across the old Soviet bloc.

While the plotters held Gorbachev under arrest in the Crimea, it was left up to Yeltsin to scramble atop an Army tank stationed outside the Russian parliament building and rally ordinary Muscovites to protest.

It worked – within hours, the coup started to crumble.

So, guess who was the first (and one of the very few) leaders to officially recognise the coup plotters as the new legitimate government of the Soviet Union?

Why, that great democrat, Fidel Castro.

In fact, there has been speculation in the past that Castro and the Cuban secret services were directly involved in the anti-Gorbachev plotting as part of a futile, last bid attempt to ensure the survival of Soviet-style Communism.

And Yeltsin was the man who spoiled all the fun.

Recommended viewing

If you have the time, I recommend a new German film currently showing in cinemas across Australia: The Lives of Others.

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film created huge interest in Germany when it premiered last year and has since gone on to win a stack of prizes, including the Oscar for best foreign language picture.

Set in the old German Democratic Republic in 1984, it tells the story of a loyal senior Stasi officer, Captain Gerd Wiesler, who agrees to a request by his superior to spy on a leading playwright, Georg Dreyman.

Nothing terribly unusual there: the super-efficient Stasi kept meticulous files on millions of East Germans, ranging from ordinary citizens to intellectuals suspected of “anti Socialist tendencies”.
They were so good at what they did, the Stasi was sent to train secret police forces all over the old Soviet empire, including Cuba.

In the film, Dreyman is a supposedly loyal foot soldier of the Communist Party: popular with and trusted by the higher echelons of the regime, allowed to travel overseas every now and then, given a luxury apartment and other little "extras" ... You know, the East German equivalent of a Pablo Milanes?

Still, there are some doubts about our playwright and his live-in girlfriend, a leading actress, Christa-Maria.
So, in goes the Stasi ...

I won’t tell you much more about the film except that the director has managed to capture the greyness, the lack of hope and the repressive (and depressive) nature of what was a putrid regime.

Of course, the whole system came tumbling down just five years later with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Still, you will be thrilled to hear that the spirit of the Stasi lives on. In Cuba. As you can read here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Take me to San Juan

That old, persistent story on how successful the Castro regime has been in raising life expectancy levels on the island is doing the rounds. Again.

This time, it’s in the form of a feature article filed from Havana by the Associated Press.

You will find a version of it in the left-leaning British daily The Guardian, under the headline “Despite hardships, Cubans live longer”.

According to the article, Cuban life expectancy averages 74.85 years for men and 79.43 years for women - compared with 75.15 and 80.97 respectively for folk in the US.

And the reasons for this? The article refers to a combination of mild climate, a “low stress” Caribbean lifestyle (yes, they are serious), and “free medical care”.

And sure enough, several supposedly ordinary Cubans are quoted at length about the free health care, the free doctors, the free medications, etc.

But here is another figure also mentioned in passing in the article you don’t read often.

It seems that Cuba’s life expectancy is not the highest in Latin America after all.

In fact, it’s second in the region to Puerto Rico.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Been to Cuba

Recommended reading for Sunday.

Here's the tale of two young, carefree but very perceptive travellers, Alex and Ombi, who are trying to circumnavigate the globe in 365 days. As you do when you are young.

They arrive in Cuba. And this is what they found.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Out of the woodwork

The recent visit to Havana by the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos, appears to have started something of a debate in Europe about how best to deal with the Castro regime.

And much as expected, the Castro apologists are out in force.

The latest commentary comes from Stephen Wilkinson, who is described as “an academic and journalist specialising in Cuban culture, politics and economics”.

A regular visitor to the island since the mid 1980s, Mr Wilkinson has written an opinion feature for the left-leaning British daily The Guardian in which he calls on the government of Tony Blair to follow Madrid's example.

Referring to the Moratinos visit as a breakthrough, he says the time has come for Mr Blair’s administration to drop its existing lukewarm approach towards Cuba and proactively “engage” with those fun-loving Castro brothers.

“Instead of adding insult to the injury of its present policy, Britain really ought to be doing all it can to enhance its relations with Cuba, not the opposite,” he concludes.

After all, there is plenty of money to be made in Cuba by British firms ...

Of course, Mr Wilkinson is entitled to his opinion - and those regular trips to Havana.

But you may be surprised to hear that in his commentary he mentions the words “human rights” just once. And only in passing.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Love affairs

Italian media are reporting today the case of a bank worker in Milan - identified only as Gianni L - who has been arrested in relation to a string of bank robberies that have taken place over the past couple of years.

Gianni L, who happens to be 63, apparently fell “madly in love” with a much younger Cuban woman during one of his visits to the island.

The previously upstanding bank worker left his family, sold his house and spent all his money travelling to and from Cuba to be with the girlfriend. As you would, of course.

When the money eventually ran out, he started robbing banks.

By the way, the girlfriend is just 23, which tells you everything you need to know not just about this story but also about Fidel Castro’s island today.

Which reminds me … while on the subject of old foreigners falling in love with younger Cuban women, you should get a copy of a very funny new novel by Cuban-born Teresa Dovalpage, the author of A Girl Like Che Guevara.

It’s called Muerte de un murciano en La Habana and was published in Spain late last year by Anagrama Editorial to well-deserved critical acclaim.

I am not sure if the book is likely to be published in English (I hope so!), but you can find out more about the Spanish original here.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In Madrid

Needless to say, not every one in Spain thinks like prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero when it comes to cosy relations with Fidel Castro.

Mariano Rajoy, head of the largest opposition party, the Popular Party, has had a go at the Socialist administration over its policy towards Havana and in particular, the recent and much-publicised visit to Cuba by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos.

In a speech to a conference in Madrid, Mr Rajoy said the Socialists' policy of sucking up to the Castro regime was "myopic".

Which is absolutely right, except I would add the words "shameful" and "dishonourable" and "pathetic" and ...

More importantly, he accused Zapatero and Co. of forgetting what it was like in Spain for those calling for democratic change during the final years of the Franco dictatorship, in the early and mid 1970s.

Mr Rajoy is right about that, too.

Arrivals and departures

There is an interesting story on the front page of today’s edition of The Australian newspaper, under the heading "Refugee swap to bring Cubans here".

The normally well-connected paper reveals well-advanced plans by the Australian and US governments to exchange a couple of hundreds refugees a year.

Under the plan, Sri Lankan and Burmese citizens trying to get to Australia by boat but currently in detention on the neighbouring island of Nauru will be sent to the US as refugees.

In exchange, Cubans who have been intercepted at sea trying to get to Miami and who are currently held at the US base in Guantanamo Bay will get a chance to apply for refugee status in Australia.

The thinking behind the proposed scheme is that this is a way of deterring illegal migrants and people smugglers attempting to land in both the US and in Australia.

According to the paper, “the move will deliver political benefits to both governments in the highly sensitive issue of refugee policy”.

Read the story

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Let’s hear it for those no-nonsense, play-by-the-rules Swedes.

According to local media reports, the Swedish broadcasting regulator has ruled that an evening of documentaries on Cuba televised by the publicly-funded STV network late last year was far too favourable to Fidel Castro. T
hat's right, folk: too favourable.

For reasons best known to the programmers, STV broadcast a four hour “theme evening” on 2 December to belatedly “celebrate” the ailing dictator’s 80th birthday.

Three documentaries went to air during the evening, including Oliver Stone’s notoriously one-sided Comandante, plus a studio discussion.

Well, the evening didn’t go down too well with some viewers – 19 formal complaints were lodged with the Swedish Broadcasting Commission, which investigated the complaints and released its findings earlier this week.

The regulator concluded that the “theme evening” had breached a requirement that television productions be “politically balanced”.

"While certain critical views of Fidel Castro and his regime were put forward in the studio discussion, the question of human rights for example was never tackled”, the commission said.

"A schedule in which a controversial political leader is allowed to put forward his message in two long programmes in the same evening requires...some kind of balancing element.”

For their part, STV representatives admitted that "it would naturally have been better if freedom of speech on Cuba had been dealt with more comprehensively”.

Refreshing, no?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Doctor in the house

In case you have ever wondered what's wrong in Latin America today, here is just one small example.

It's a quote from Evo Morales speaking during a visit to Caracas today for the opening of a new medical school.

Referring to the Castro regime's program of using badly-paid, over-worked Cuban doctors as an export-earning commodity, the democratically-elected president of Bolivia told reporters that Cuba was now the one country in Latin America that offered the most help to its neighbours.

He said that while Cuba sent troops overseas to "save lives" (that is, the doctors), the United States sent troops "to extinguish lives" (ie, soldiers).

As for the ailing 80-year-old dictator, Morales described Castro as "the world's number one doctor because he is always thinking about Humanity ..."

Percentage of Bolivians who voted for Morales at the 2005 elections: close to 54 per cent.

Friday, April 13, 2007

And now, for the really bad news

For weeks now, senior officials of the Castro regime have been talking down the sugar harvest.

First it was Carlos Lage, regarded as the third most important politician on the island – after the Castro brothers, of course. Then it was the powerful Minister for the Sugar Industry, General Ulises Rosales del Toro, a trusted military man now turned bureaucrat.

They all warned that the sugar harvest for 2007 may be "difficult".

Well, now we know why.

The official propaganda sheet of the regime, Granma, reveals today that this year’s sugar harvest could turn out to be the worst ever. Read that again: the worst in the island’s history.

Not that the paper puts it quite that way ...

If you believe the official figures, Cuba will be lucky to produce about half of the sugar tonnage for the previous year which in itself, was among the lowest on record at just 1.2 million tonnes.

And the reason for the shocking results?

Mismanagement? Non-existent transport infrastructure? Low wages and poor working conditions that inevitably lead to poor productivity? An economic model that quite plainly does not work? The fact that no one is allowed to point out these faults in public for fear of being branded a “mercenary” and sent to jail for 25 years?

None of the above.

According to Granma, the poor results are all due to rain. Too much rain. Truly.

Diplomatic niceties

Contrary to what you may have read in Granma, not all Latin American leaders think Fidel Castro is the greatest thing since ... well, since Fidel Castro.

Take Elias Antonio Saca, the fortysomething president of El Salvador.

It seems there is a debate going on in the national parliament on whether El Salvador should re-establish full diplomatic relations with the Castro regime, which were severed back in 1959.

Parties of both the Right and the Left (of course) are toying with the idea, given growing business ties between the two countries.

Not Mr Saca.

Asked for his views, he told reporters that while he remained president, there was bugger all chance of establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Not until Cubans could freely and democratically elect their own leaders, he said.

I can’t wait for the predictably nasty reaction from Havana.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Adios, potatoes

Whenever he gets nostalgic about growing up en el campo in Cuba back in the 1930s, my father always says something like, “You know, there is no richer or more fertile soil than Cuban soil - you can grow anything in Cuba.”

Which is not strictly true, of course.

Sure, you can grow lots of sugarcane almost anywhere on the island and plantains and yuca and malanga and all kinds of juicy, tropical fruits ranging from guava to mamey.

But as Fidel Castro has found out over the past five decades, you can’t grow coffee in the lowlands, nor giant pineapples, nor tropical strawberries the size of melons.

And it seems you can’t grow too many potatoes, either.

According to the official Cuban newsagency, Prensa Latina, the potato harvest is in big trouble, which may come as surprise to those of us who did not know there was much of a potato harvest in Cuba. At least not since 1959.

The newsagency says the 2007 harvest will be down by a staggering 30 per cent from the 285,000 tonnes of potatoes collected last year.

The reason? It’s too hot.

According to Eduardo Perez, a Cuban potato specialist quoted by Prensa Latina, the potatoes they are trying to grow in Cuba require temperatures below 17C during the night to be able to grow well.

Unfortunately, Mr Perez says, the past few months have “not been favourable” to the growing of potatoes because temperatures have inevitably been above 20C.

So, it’s adios, potatoes, and back to the drawing board.

His one-time friend Fidel

You probably have never heard the name Oliviero Toscani but chances are you’d be familiar with some of his work.

Mr Toscani is an Italian photographer best known for his often controversial commercial shots for the Benetton fashion chain.

Now, he has a new exhibition of his work, which is currently touring various European cities.

But this is no Benetton campaign.

Instead, they are huge photographs in black and white of most of the 75 dissidents, writers and independent journalists imprisoned back in 2003 by the Castro regime for periods of up to 25 years each on trumped-up charges of being US “mercenaries”.

The name of the exhibition, which opened in Brussels this week, is "No thinking: the Face of Repression in Cuba".

What makes all this interesting is the fact that the Milanese-born photographer used to be a big fan of Fidel Castro – during one of his early visits to the island, he met the older Castro and gave him a mountain bike as a personal gift. Stupid? You bet.

In many ways, Mr Toscani remains something of a fan, describing the ailing 80-year-old dictator in this interview in the French magazine Cafe Babel as a “charismatic” leader who has outstayed his welcome. "It's over," he says.

And yes, the photographer who has made so much money out of an European multinational that already has a shop in Havana warns disapprovingly that the demise of Castroism will result in American multinationals turning Havana into a mini-Florida. Hypocritical in the extreme ...

Still, I am willing to forgive Mr Toscani for now. At least he’s seen the light. Or some of it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What they may or may not think in Havana

The photograph above, which was taken by Claudia Daut for Reuters, carries the following caption:

A barber works in a makeshift barbershop in Havana April 10, 2007. While the outside world watches Fidel Castro's slow recovery from stomach surgery and speculates about Cuba's future, talk in Cuba is still more about the daily battle to stretch one's income than the politics behind it. Older Cubans get tearful at the idea of a post-Castro Cuba. Younger Cubans say they are tired of living in a time warp. But in a country with no public opinion polls and a state-run media it's hard to measure what Cubans really think, and there is a long-held reluctance to criticize the one-party communist system to foreigners.

Not sure where they got that bit about older Cubans getting all tearful at the prospect of a future without the 80-year-old dictator. Who knows?

But I think they are right about younger Cubans being sick and tired of “living in a time warp”.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Must read

If you can read Spanish, you must read this excellent opinion piece by Rosa Montero in today's edition of the Madrid daily El Pais.

H/T to our friends at Penultimos Dias.

Making ends meet

It’s rare to see Western journalists based in or visiting Havana report on one of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in Fidel Castro’s island paradise – the elderly.

So, credit where credit is due.

In today’s edition of The St Petersburg Times, reporter Saundra Amrhein has written an interesting (if at times uneven) article on how older Cubans make ends meet once they are forced to retire from their State jobs: they continue working.

In truth, they have little choice.

According to the report, the official pension is worth barely USD7.00 a month, the monthly food rations last for just a week and while health care is supposed to be "free", medications can only be purchased with hard currency.

It means that old people must rely on money sent in by relatives in the US to survive.

That’s the lucky ones.

Those who don’t have relatives overseas need to find odd jobs and engage in black market dealings to supplement their official income.

That is why retired scientists, teachers and ordinary labourers dot the streets of Havana doing unlikely jobs, like driving taxis, hawking newspapers, making and selling popcorn or roasted peanuts along the Malecon, or guarding parked cars for cash-rich tourists.

Most of these jobs are illegal as such private enterprise is strictly forbidden by the Castro regime.

Of course, this is not a problem unique to Cuba – there are poor pensioners in most other countries, too, including supposedly rich countries.

The difference is that the Castro regime will never admit that it’s a serious social issue that needs to be debated and addressed openly, rather than just blamed on the evil American "blockade".

And you will never, ever read this type of story in the tightly-controlled Cuban media.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A long time ago

It seems like a long time ago.

Easter 1980.

In Havana, Fidel Castro seems invincible. His reputation as a supposed champion of the poor and dispossessed in the Third World grows by the day. His masters in Moscow – the old men in the Kremlin who really call the shots – are happy to continue to bankroll "the Revolution". In return, Cuban troops are now in Africa, spreading Communism. The regime is unassailable.

And then something totally unexpected happens.

On April 1, a 31-year-old bus driver by the name of Hector Sanyustiz borrows a bus and with three others on board, does the unthinkable: he crashes through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy compound in Havana.

Cuban security agents stationed at the embassy gates open fire, wound the driver and one of the other passengers, who nevertheless make it inside the grounds and seek political asylum.

The indiscriminate shooting by the Cubans, who have been trained by the East German secret police, results in one of the guards being killed.

Castro is enraged.

He goes on national television, blames the gate-crashers - "scum" - for the death of the Cuban guard and demands that the Peruvian authorities return the “criminals” at once – or face the consequences.

No one stands in the way of Fidel Castro.

Except for one man: the improbably named Ernesto Pinto-Bazurco Rittler, a German-born Peruvian diplomat who is running things at the Havana embassy at the time.

Mr Pinto-Bazurco Rittler refuses to hand over the embassy-crashers. Instead, the diplomat agrees to give them political asylum.

As the world media continues to broadcast news of the diplomatic crisis, a despondent Castro throws the mother of all tantrums (again!) and removes the Cuban guards from the embassy gates, effectively inviting Cubans to take over the place.

They do. But not in the way Castro imagined.

Over the next two days or so, close to 11,000 Cubans rush into the place. Not as a protest. But seeking political asylum and a ticket out of the Communist island paradise.

The rest, as they say, is history …

I have no idea what happened to Mr Pinto-Bazurco Rittler. I have no idea if he is a good guy or not. A quick Google search would appear to suggest he is still a diplomat. It seems he is highly regarded. A professional. I do not know.

But back then, in 1980, Mr Pinto-Bazurco Rittler had the courage to do the right thing. He stood up to Castro. He was not intimidated.

It seems like a long time ago …

Today, of course, we have Miguel Angel Moratinos.

PS: For more on what happened later, I commend Finding Manana, an excellent account of the Mariel boatlift by Mirta Ojito, which you can buy from Amazon.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Thank you corner

A big, Australian thank you to the team at Babalu, in particular Henry and Val, for their help in plugging Child of the Revolution: Growing Up in Castros' Cuba, available this week in the US and Canada.

Much appreciated.

For more information, go here here. Or order the book from Amazon.

His buddy Fidel

As the Socialist administration in Madrid is about to find out, being friendly to the Castro brothers does not mean they will be friendly back to you.

Ask Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president.

A former trade union official, the democratically-elected Lula has been a public supporter of the Castro regime for years, regularly visiting Havana to have friendly chats with good old Uncle Fidel.

Well, good old Uncle Fidel has just struck back.

The ailing 80-year-old dictator has written another one of those rambling "editorials" in the official Cuban newspaper, Granma, in which he once again attacks Brazil's ambitious and well-advanced ethanol industry.

As this article in The Washington Post points out, the latest diatribe "has created a genteel tension" between the Cubans and the Brazilians, who can't understand why Lula's old buddy has turned nasty all of a sudden.

After all, Castro has been a supporter of ethanol as an alternative fuel for years.

In fact, only a few weeks ago, the regime announced with great fanfare a grand plan with Hugo Chavez to build 11 new ethanol-producing plants in Venezuela, using Cuban expertise in the field.

Here is one possible explanation, courtesy of The Miami Herald.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Hook, line and sinker 2

As predicted …

The Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos, is leaving Havana today after his much-publicised two-day visit … with egg all over his face.

And doesn't it taste yummy.

During a final press conference attended by his Cuban counterpart, Felipe Perez Roque, Spanish media asked the men whether the new co-operation agreements just signed by the two governments dealt with the issue of political prisoners and dissidents currently rotting in Fidel Castro’s jails.

Perez Roque’s response was emphatic. And deliberate: There is nothing to discuss, he said, because there are no political prisoners in Cuba. Only mercenaries in the pay of the imperialists. End of story.

All this right in front of an obviously embarrassed Moratinos. Even before he had left the island! Doesn't get more cynical than that, surely.

As the Spanish daily El Mundo commented, se le aguo la fiesta a Moratinos.

Hook, line and sinker

Photo: Associated Press

Peace in our time, etc

I know, I know … It’s all getting a bit boring.

But allow me to share with you some further observations on the visit this week to Havana by the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos.

It’s become increasingly clear that the "historic" visit is almost certainly part of a plan by the Spanish government (and Havana?) to water down the existing European Union stance on Cuba.

As you may recall, the EU announced a range of mostly symbolic but important diplomatic sanctions against the Castro regime in 2003 following the arrest and incarceration of 75 dissidents.

Those sanctions, which enraged Fidel Castro, had been strongly promoted by the then Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

Two years later, the sanctions were watered down somewhat – at the insistence of the newly elected Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero.

Now, it seems the Spaniards are leading the charge to further water down the diplomatic sanctions and return EU-Cuba relations back to “normal”.

This has led to a split within the EU, as you can read in this excellent summary written by Andrew Rettman in EU Observer.

According to the publication, there is a “let’s be friends to those nice Castro brothers” group led by Spain, and a “let’s demand democracy in Cuba now” group led by the Czech.

And the Czech are not alone. They have support from countries such as Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, the Baltic states, Hungary, Ireland and Portugal.

As EU Observer points out, Spanish and Czech diplomats in Brussels are unwilling to speak openly about the continuing s
toush, but Czech non-government organisations “are happy to say out loud what Prague is thinking in private”.

"The visit of the Spanish minister of foreign affairs to Cuba is driven by bilateral economic interests," the publication quotes Kristina Prunerova, an analyst with the group People in Need.

"The situation is getting worse in Cuba every day - more and more people are being detained, harassed and threatened," Ms Prunerova said. "But with this visit, Spain is giving the sign that the Cuban regime is acceptable as a partner and can be dealt with on a regular basis."

In a nutshell.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Fun and games in Havana

It’s always amusing in a pathetic kind of way to watch Western politicians being taken for a ride by the Castro regime.

You know, senior minister from democratic nation arrives in Havana with a huge delegation of officials and travelling media. He is given the red carpet treatment. Meets senior officials of the regime. Has his photograph taken at the Plaza de la Revolucion. Has an audience with one of the Castro brothers (it was always big brother Fidel in the good old days, of course). To appease constituents back home, the politician makes some reference to human rights. We don’t want this to be seen as a sunshine-and-daiquiri tour, after all. The Cubans respond positively. Minister goes home, satisfied at having raised the issue. Cuban dissidents continue to be harassed and intimidated. They are the lucky ones. The not-so-lucky ones get to rot in jail.

This well-rehearsed routine has been playing for nearly 50 years.

And Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, is only the latest to fall for it. Hook, line and sinker.

So, as his brief visit to Havana comes to an end, a clearly satisfied Moratinos holds an impromptu press conference with his Cuban counterpart, Felipe Perez Roque, on the lush grounds of the Spanish Embassy in Havana.

He tells reporters that relations between the Spanish and Cuban governments are now “back on track”.

Has he raised the issue of human rights, he is asked. Why, yes, Moratinos replies. I have raised the issue with Felipe.

The reporters then ask Perez Roque whether he is happy to discuss human rights with Moratinos. He replies: “We have broached the theme, and we are making progress in establishing a permanent and formal mechanism for political dialogue, which doesn't exclude the subject of international cooperation to promote human rights.”

Read that again.

Regardless of what Moratinos thinks or says, the seriously deceptive Perez Roque is not talking about discussing human right issues in Cuba. He is talking about “international cooperation to promote human rights”. You know, promoting human rights in the US. Or in Spain. Or in Hungary. In fact, promoting human rights everywhere - except in Cuba.

Yes, it’s a con.
Photo: Claudia Daut, Reuters

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Spaniards are coming

As you may be aware, the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Moratinos, is due to arrive in Havana today, Monday, for a two-day visit.

It’s the first official visit by a senior Spanish minister to the island in about 10 years.

In other words, it's a big deal for both Spain and Cuba.

So, to put the trip in perspective, here are some pertinent economic figures, courtesy of the Spanish daily El Mundo:

1. Spain is now Cuba’s third largest foreign investor, behind Venezuela and China.

2. Trade between Spanish firms and the Castro brothers is worth currently about USD1.2 billion a year.

3. Trade between the two countries increased by a staggering 23 per cent in 2005-2006.

4. About a third of all joint ventures in Cuba involve Spanish firms, predominantly in the supposedly highly-profitable tourism and tobacco sectors.

5. The Castros owe Spanish firms about USD1.4 billion in outstanding debts, which the Cuban government has no intention of repaying in a hurry. If at all.

All this may or may not explain why while Moratinos will meet Raul Castro and most other senior representatives of the Castro regime, it is still not clear whether he will have the time to meet dissidents during his visit.

But don’t hold your breath.