Friday, June 29, 2007

From a Cuban jail

When it comes to reporting on the plight of political prisoners in Fidel Castro's island paradise, the Western media have by and large preferred to look the other way.

So, credit where credit is due.

Jeremy Gerard, an editor at Bloomberg News, has just written a must-read plea for the release of Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, a 37-year-old independent journalist who was one of the 75 dissidents sent to prison by the Castro regime during the Black Spring of 2003.

Hernandez is serving a 25-year sentence (read that again - 25 years!) for "crimes against the State".

His crimes? Writing a series of articles exposing some of the shortcomings in the regime's much-vaunted health and education systems - you know, the kind of articles that would probably win prizes for investigative journalism in the West.

According to Bloomberg, Hernandez he is suffering from tuberculosis and a chronic parasitic infection, both contracted in prison. His family fear he will die in prison. Soon.

Read the full story here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bye, Tony

After a decade in office, Tony Blair has left 10 Downing Street.

He will be missed.

After all, not many Socialist prime ministers have the guts to tell Fidel Castro - and his apologists - that when all is said and done, “I’d prefer to see Cuba a proper functioning democracy”.

Photo: Adrian Dennis (AFP)


There is at least one senior Spanish politician who doesn't mince words when it comes to the Castro regime.

The president of the Madrid regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, told a breakfast function today in Madrid that all in all, Spain has not done as much as it should have to encourage democratic change in Cuba.

Ms Aguirre, who has just been re-elected in a landslide, used the opportunity to describe the Castro regime as "dictatorial, murderous and anachronistic".

No wonder Havana hates her.

From our tourist desk

The Castro regime, which now depends significantly on that most capitalist of evils, tourism, to stay afloat economically, has finally admitted that things are not going as well as expected.

In fact, tourist numbers have dropped substantially over the past couple of years but until now, the regime has blamed the drop in visitors on the US commercial and trade embargo. As usual.

However, according to this Reuters report, the Minister for Tourism, Manuel Marrero, has now admitted that there are indeed other reasons.

Like prohibitive landing fees for foreign aircraft (now reduced by 20 per cent), lack of investment in infrastructure (really?), and growing competition from neighbouring tourist destinations.

As one unnamed foreign operator remarked, package and hotel rates are up to 20 per cent cheaper in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

And while Cuban rates are similar to those in Cancun, the service and facilities there are “far superior”.

One other issue the regime is only now addressing – and only on the quiet: airport theft.

With little public fanfare, the national carrier, Cubana, has started plastic wrapping all luggage.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

No change

One of Cuba’s best known dissidents, Oswaldo Paya, has launched a new campaign to reform the Constitution.

Paya, who leads the Christian Liberation Movement, is best known internationally for proposing the Varela Project some years ago, which aimed to use the existing legal framework on the island to usher in democratic reforms.

To that end, Paya and his supporters spent years gathering the signatures needed under the Constitution to ask the National Assembly for a referendum.

It was all above board and legal.

But much as expected, the Castro regime merely ignored the request – and the signatories.

This time around, Paya won’t bother collecting signatures. Instead, he has called on Cubans of all political stripes to demand free elections for a Constituent Assembly.

"It is time for Cubans to open the doors of the future, using legal and peaceful means," he said in a statement distributed to foreign media correspondents in Havana on Monday.

Well, wish the man luck.

As Reuters reports, few Cubans will even know of Paya’s efforts because opposition groups do not have any access to the official, State-run media.

Besides, in true Stalinist fashion, the Castro brothers have made it clear that there will be no changes of a political nature to the Constitution – regardless of what their own Constitution says.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Absolute genius

Those of you who have read Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro's Cuba will know that I devote a little bit of space in my book to some of the many wacky schemes dreamt up back in the 1960s by Fidel Castro to feed his subjects.

Like Castro's plan to genetically engineer a socialist "super cow" that would provide so much milk it would solve Cuba's milk rationing problems overnight.

Or his plan to grow giant pineapples, bigger, juicier and sweeter than plain old capitalist pineapples.

Or his ill-fated 10 million tonne sugar harvest of 1969-70 that was to make Cubans extremely wealthy but ultimately only served to destroy what little was left of the island's once-thriving economy.

Now, another of Castro's loopy schemes from that era has come to light - in one of his own newspapers.

A column in Juventud Rebelde reveals that Castro was seriously worried about the nutritional intake of the North Vietnamese in the 1960s, at the height of the war against the US-backed South Vietnamese.

Ever the practical dictator, he came up with an ingenious solution.

He ordered his diplomats to carry an unknown number of live toads from Havana to Hanoi, where the animals would be supposedly farmed and then distributed to the populace. A case of 'Food problem? What food problem?'

Of course, these were not ordinary toads but ranas toro, a type of native North American toad that is very high in protein.

Back in those days, the trip from Havana to Hanoi would involve at least 24 hours of flying, with Cuban planes having to make as many as four stops along the way.

The paper confirms that one of the diplomats was so concerned (or scared) about the fate of these valuable toads, he was forced to keep them in the bath of his Moscow hotel overnight and then fish them out one by one, before flying on to Hanoi.

Unfortunately, the paper does not reveal what happened to the toads in the end, or whether they arrived safely. Nor does it reveal how the North Vietnamese reacted to Castro's lunatic scheme.

H/T to our friends at Penultimos Dias.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

In the twilight zone

How is this for indulgence?

The ever-loyal Cuban media, which have been tightly controlled by the Castro regime for the best part of 50 years, have just published the latest "editorial" penned by the ailing 80-year-old dictator.

Surprisingly, this latest dispatch is not yet another barely coherent attack on George W Bush and those evil Americans across the Florida Straits. Or on ethanol.

Instead, it's a "reflection" by Castro on his own recent writings.

According to the Comandante en Jefe, he is torn between writing brief pieces and longer, more detailed opinions.

"This dilemma is, for me, a headache," he writes. "I am also concerned about the space they take up on the front pages of our newspapers, dearly needed to report on our nation's day-to-day events."

Luckily for everyone, Castro has the solution - as usual.

From now on, he will write some shorter items on some days and longer items on other days, depending on ... well, depending on how he feels.

As for where his writings will be published, Castro tells editors that they are free from now on to publish his longer editorials inside their papers if they so wish, rather than on the front page.

You think I am making this up, right? If only. Read the whole bizarre thing here and wonder at how anyone could take such absolute drivel seriously.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Diplomatic responses

Poor old Miguel Angel Moratinos.

For months now, the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs has been working hard to get the other members of the European Union (EU), to join Spain in opening a "new dialogue" with the Castro regime.

You know, the type of dialogue that includes any topic imaginable ... except those vetoed by Havana. Like human rights, political prisoners, a free press, multi-party democracy.

Anyway, the EU eventually agreed to invite a Cuban delegation to Brussels for further discussions, arguing that the apparent transfer of power on the island from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro amounted to a "new situation". Whatever that means.

The response from Havana? Get stuffed, as you can read here.

According to the official Cuban media, the Castro regime has no intention of discussing anything with the EU because the Europeans are nothing but US stooges, blah, blah, blah.

Instead, the regime is doing what it always does: making demands. In this case, Havanma is demanding that the hapless Europeans lift the symbolic sanctions the EU imposed three years ago following the arrest and imprisonment of 75 dissidents.

So, the ball is in the Spaniards' court. Again.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Win some, lose some

As you may have read elsewhere, the Castro regime won a major diplomatic victory in Geneva this week.

In a move that makes an absolute mockery of its charter, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council voted to discontinue monitoring human rights abuses in Cuba and in that other great Stalinist democracy, Belarus.

Not surprisingly, the Castro regime’s propaganda machine kicked in immediately, describing the UN decision as a “historic victory of the Cuban people over the US”, as you can read here.

Then again, as the Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer points out in this excellent commentary, what would you expect from a human rights council whose members include some of the world’s worst human right offenders?

Still, not everything has gone Castro’s way.

While the UN was congratulating itself on a job well done, the European Parliament was passing a new resolution calling on Havana to allow greater political freedom.

In the adopted text, the European MPs noted “that dozens of independent journalists, dissidents and human rights defenders” were still rotting away in Castro’s extensive and highly-efficient prison system.

Furthermore, the resolution highlighted the need for Cuba to launch immediately "a process of political transition to multi-party democracy, with participation and decision-making open to all Cubans on the basis of an open-ended dialogue that excludes no-one".

The motion, which was passed by 51 votes to 21 with three abstentions, also called on European Union member states (read: Spain), not to go soft on Castro at this stage of the process.

Now, I could be proved wrong but I am pretty sure that’s the type of news Cubans won’t get to read when they open their copy of Granma this morning.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Pirates in trouble

Some time ago, I blogged about a new book by Tariq Ali, a London-based, left-wing author who has made a very successful living from writing about his deep-seated hatred of most things American.

To each his own.

Titled Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, the book is a rather clunky defence of the “winds of change” supposedly sweeping Latin America, led by that great putschist turned socialist, Hugo Chavez.

Naturally, Ali has plenty to say about Fidel Castro and his "heroic" Revolution, as you can see from my review of the book for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Well, the author is currently visiting Australia on a promotional tour.

And much as expected, he has been getting a fairly uncritical response from much of the mainstream media here.

Except for this interview on PM, the flagship radio current affairs program for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Here, presenter Mark Colvin tackles Ali on his continuing support for Chavez at a time when the Venezuelan president is busy closing down “unfriendly” television networks – something Ali would rightly condemn if it happened in say, the US or Britain or Australia.

And Colvin doesn’t let Ali off the hook when it comes to Cuba, either.

Read the transcript here – and enjoy the contortions.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A death in Havana

I am away from my computer screen for barely 24 hours (time to farewell the Miami cousins) and what happens?

News of a death foretold in Havana.

No, not that death.

The death of Vilma Espin, long-time wife of Raul Castro.

As president-for-life of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), Espin was a key player in the regime for many years and was widely regarded as one of the most influential women in Cuba since the Castro brothers came to power in January 1959.

It seems she had been seriously ill for some time but as usual, the Cuban people were kept in the dark about her illness. A State secret, no doubt. In fact, Cubans were only told of the death after her body had been cremated.

Anyway, a couple of points to make.

The first and most obvious is that while Espin’s death would have been expected by those at the very top of the regime, given her illness, it will still be a huge psychological blow for the Castro brothers.

It’s always the way when confronted by your own mortality.

The second point is to clarify the comments made by some foreign correspondents in Havana, who have described the FMC as some sort of independent “feminist organisation” set up to “defend and promote the rights of Cuban women”.


As was made clear from its inception in 1960, the FMC was set up by Espin with one overwhelming aim: to mobilise Cuban women from all walks of life, whether they liked it or not, to “defend and promote” Fidel Castro and his regime.

From Espin down, its leaders are always senior members of the Communist Party, which funds the organisation.

And even today, this supposedly independent feminist mass movement continues to conclude all of its meetings and functions by expressing its undying loyalty (and homage) to El Comandante en Jefe.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Still hovering

Our old pal Fidel Castro has just delivered his latest “editorial”, which is published in today’s online edition of Granma, the regime’s official propaganda sheet.

And yes, you guessed right – it’s yet another long-winded, repetitive attack on US president George W Bush.

But there is a seemingly throw-away line at the very end that would appear to confirm to Cubans at least, what we have always suspected: when first taken ill almost a year ago, the 80-year-old dictator came close to kicking the bucket.

For the first time, Castro himself admits that for a while, “I hovered between life and death”.

The good old days

Ah yes, the joys of Communism …

In Germany over the weekend, about 2,000 “car enthusiasts” met to celebrate the 50th birthday of the infamous Trabant, according to media reports.

As you may recall, the Trabant was not so much a car as a lawn mower on wheels.

Made of plastic, the smoke-belching contraptions had a two-stroke engine, barely any acceleration power, came in just two models and were, to quote that old line, unsafe at any speed.

A classic example, I hear you say, of Communist innovation at its very best.

And to get their hands on a brand new Trabant, East Germans had to wait for up to 10 years, assuming of course, they could prove they were more or less exemplary citizens.

A bad mark on your Stasi file and goodbye Trabant.

Still, nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would appear that there are some East Germans still nostalgic for the good old days when the Trabants (and the secret police) reigned supreme.

Like Joachim Futter, a car enthusiast who told The International Herald Tribune that while things were not perfect in the old German Democratic Republic, society “was a lot closer then”.

“You actually talked to people when you went shopping for groceries," Herr Futter said.

Nostalgia. They don’t make it like they used to.

Photo: Channel 4, UK.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

In Havana

Photo: Claudia Daut (Reuters)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Film criticism 101

I have refrained until now from commenting on Michael Moore's new film, Sicko.

There are several reasons for this, not least the fact that I have not seen the film.

More importantly, it's patently obvious to me that the controversy generated over his visit to a Cuban hospital was totally manufactured by Moore to get media coverage for the supposed documentary.

The ploy worked, too - with a little help from the US Treasury, the film has received more coverage worldwide than an Angelina Jolie blockbuster.

Still, here are some pertinent comments on Sicko from none other than the Cuban Minister for Health, Jose Ramon Balaguer.

According to media reports, Balaguer told reporters that the Moore film demonstrates "the human values of Communism".

"There can be no doubt this documentary by a personality like Mr. Michael Moore helps promote the profoundly human principles of Cuban society," he added.

Thanks, Michael.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Democracy in action

There has been a fair bit of celebrating in Madrid overnight to mark the 30th anniversary of the first democratic elections held in Spain following the death of Francisco Franco.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate.

On 15 June 1977, Spaniards went to the polls for the first time in more than four decades to freely elect their own government.

And talk about free and fair elections: voters had more than 100 different political parties to chose from, including the then just-legalised Communists.

But at the same time as the celebrations are taking place in Madrid, representatives of the current, democratically-elected Spanish government are in Brussels busily lobbying other European Union members to “normalise” relations with the Castro regime, as you can read here.

Which begs the question: why would anyone who celebrates and supposedly defends democracy want to cosy up to a decaying and inherently corrupt dictatorship that has denied Cubans the same rights to free and fair elections for close to 50 years?

It seems that as far as some in Madrid are concerned, what is good for Spaniards is far, far too good for Cubans.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

When the landlord knocks on the door

Just how important is Hugo Chavez and his petrodollars to the survival of the Castro regime?

Very, as you can see from the photograph above.

In the good old days when Cuba was a far-flung colonial outpost of the Soviet Empire, Fidel Castro and his cronies would pull out all stops to welcome to Havana even mid-ranking Russian officials.

And why not? Moscow then literally bankrolled the regime.

But at least those dour Soviets stuck to protocol and planned and announced their visits
well ahead of time.

Not so with Hugo Chavez.

The Venezuelan president arrives in Havana more or less whenever he feels like it – and gets treated by the top representatives of the regime with all the pomp and colour (and media coverage) befitting a visiting potentate. Or an absent landlord. Or a very rich if slightly dotty uncle.

That is why the photograph above shows Chavez, currently on an unscheduled visit to Havana, being shown around the Malecon by the three men deemed by many to be the key to Cuba's immediate future: Raul Castro, Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque.

And yes, at least two of the Cubans are laughing at the Venezuelan's joke.

Photo: Ernesto Matrascusa (Reuters)

Capitalist vices

A conga-line of Fidel Castro apologists and other assorted fellow travellers is currently meeting in Havana for the grandly named Fifth Congress on Culture and Development.

And true to form, most speakers appear to have heaped praise on the 80-year-old dictator (shameless, I know), while attacking the US and the evils of capitalism.

In fact, they have gone one further, according to reports in the official Cuban media - they have actually listed “the vices of capitalism” as racism, mercantilism, colonisation, lack of solidarity and banality.

Now, I don’t know about you but I can think of a few other capitalist vices much more serious than banality.

Anyway, one of the highlights of the talkfest was a speech delivered by someone by the name of Miguel Barnet, who is described as a Cuban “writer and ethnologist”.

After decrying globalisation as an imperialist tool, etc, etc, he called for the “uncensored use of the Internet” as a way to “achieve diversity rather than anarchy”.

Given the Castro regime’s well documented restrictions on Internet access for ordinary Cubans (as opposed to cash-carrying foreigners), Mr Barnet obviously has just discovered that other great capitalist vice, irony.

Wish him well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Freudian slips

A couple of days ago, The Sun Sentinel published a feature story about Fidel Castro’s early years in Biran, in eastern Cuba.

Reporter Ray Sanchez visited the large estate that used to be owned by Castro’s Spanish-born father, and where Castro, his younger brother, Raul, and their assorted siblings were born.

As the article points out, the estate was “nationalised” in 1958-59 but has since been turned by the regime into a national museum or sitio historico, paying tribute to the many virtues, bravery and socialist credentials of the young Castro. Naturally.

It’s an interesting read.
But perhaps the most telling anecdote comes at the end, when the reporter is interviewing the director of the museum, Florencio Martin.

According to the report, the very talkative Mr Martin says all the right things about the 80-year-old dictator (great man, heroic figure, very brave, etc, etc), before confirming that the ultimate burial place for Castro is a closely-guarded State secret.

"We know that Raul will be buried in a pantheon in the … Sierra Maestra," he said. "But nothing has ever been said about the Comandante. That's a State secret. We wish it were here. That would make us very happy."

A Cuban security official who followed the reporter and Mr Martin closely during a tour of the site quickly added: "Hopefully that day will never come."

"Yes, hopefully that day will never come," the director repeated.

Priceless ...

Human rights

Much as expected, the United Nations’ special envoy to Cuba has expressed “deep concern” about human rights violations by the Castro regime.

And much as expected, Havana will continue to ignore the findings.

In her latest report to the UN, the French magistrate Christine Chanet said the human rights situation in Cuba had shown “no significant improvement” since her last report in 2006.

Referring to dissidents jailed by the regime, she concluded: "I am deeply concerned with the physical and mental conditions of detainees who are currently suffering from various forms of illness, including cases of tuberculosis.”

Ms Chanet, who was appointed special rapporteur for Cuba in 2002, has been barred from entering the island by the regime.

And how did the official media outlets in Cuba reported the news?

With typically Orwellian headlines such as this one: "Cuba Gets Overwhelming Support at Council on Human Rights".

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More negative stories

As some of you may recall, the Castro regime is not all that happy with some of the coverage being filed by some foreign correspondents in Havana.

Too negative, the regime says. Too much time spent covering the views of "mercenaries".

We will have to wait for a response to this surprisingly even-handed feature article from the BBC, which appears today on its website.

Written by Duncan Kennedy, the article includes the regulatory quotes from supposedly ordinary Cubans happily praising Castro - supposedly without prompting.

But at least Kennedy also interviews Miriam Leyva and her husband, Oscar, former high-ranking Communist loyalists turned dissidents.

And he acknowledges the obvious: given the tight control exercised by the regime, the number of Cubans who oppose Castro is hard to gauge because "only a few do speak out".

Havana minders

While I was away from my computer screen last week showing the Miami relatives my home town, I missed out on much of the discussion regarding the live broadcasts from Havana by the US morning television show Today.

So, here is a kind of postscript.

One of the program’s researchers, Gina Garcia, has kindly shared her impressions of the visit with readers of the official Today blog.

It seems Ms Garcia (no relation) had a terrific time in Fidel Castro’s island paradise, enjoying the food, the music, the old cars cruising along the Malecon, the crumbling colonial architecture …

She even bumped into a group of American medical students studying in Cuba, all of whom refuted any suggestion they were being used as propaganda tools by the Castro regime. No, siree.

But here is the comment that gives the game away.

Referring to her task of “sourcing” stories for the program, Ms Garcia writes: “Everywhere we went … a government official came along.”


Monday, June 04, 2007

Light blogging ahead

See that picture at the top? It's a photograph of my parents, my brother, me and my cousin Karina.

It was taken at my brother's fifth birthday in 1965 in Banes, the town where I was born. A lifetime ago, it seems.

Well, my cousin and her entire family arrived in Sydney early this morning from Miami on their first visit to Australia.

It's been nearly a decade since I saw them last - during a visit to the US - and although we keep in touch online and on the phone, we have a lot of catching up to do. And they want to see kangaroos. And koalas. And the Opera House.

And of course, I want to show off my home, Sydney, so ... light blogging ahead.

Buy my book - tales from the Writers Festival

You know, this book writing business is not all beer and skittles, my friends.

As I might have I mentioned in a previous post, I was thrilled to be invited to appear at the Sydney Writers Festival this past weekend, to speak about Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro's Cuba.

Not just me, of course. There were a few dozen other authors there from across the world ... and I mean real authors with several best-selling books to their names, full-time publicists and farmhouses in Tuscany.

Now in its 10th year, the Sydney Writers Festival has quickly become the premier literary event in Australia (sorry, Melbourne), attracting thousands of attendees, who patiently queue for tickets and then cram into the fantastically renovated old piers on Sydney Harbour that serve as the festival's home.

As an author, you soon discover that appearing at writers' festivals is part and parcel of getting your book published.
You are expected to turn up, talk about your latest tome and then hang around for an hour or so afterwards talking to complete but amazingly generous strangers about writing.

And hopefully, selling a few copies of the book along the way.

It sounds like a lot of work but in reality, it can also be great fun.

Apart from meeting readers, the most fascinating part is talking to other authors and sharing your own how-did-we-get-here stories.

For instance, one of the sessions I took part in was an "in conversation" panel under the title, Childhood Memoirs.

My fellow author was someone I had not met before, although I had heard about her work: Alice Pung, an Australian-born lawyer whose parents escaped Cambodia soon after the arrival of the murderous Pol Pot in the late 1970s.

Alice's book, titled Unpolished Gem, retells her family's story as newly-arrived refugees in Melbourne and the pains and delights of growing up torn between two radically different cultures.
It's a terrific read, as you can see from this review in The Age newspaper.

And the author was warm, clever and very funny, too.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Just like a Cuban

In my previous life as a journalist for one of Australia’s oldest and best known newspapers, I once spent a day working in a busy restaurant pretending to be a kitchen hand.

Another time, I spent a whole week (five days!) working as a teacher’s assistant in a large public school.

It's an old journalistic stunt that is supposed to allow you to learn first hand how other people live and work, so that you could then go away and write about it.

It’s a lot of fun but in the end, pretty meaningless, of course.

I mean, how much can you really learn about the hard work of a kitchen hand after a day? Bugger all. And let's face it; at the end of the day, the reality is you always go back to your comfortable cocoon.

And so we come to Anita Snow, now in her eighth year as AP bureau chief in Havana.

In her latest dispatch, Ms Snow has announced that she will spend all of June trying to eat like an ordinary Cuban – as opposed to a foreigner with ready access to hard cash and well-stocked supermarkets.

This means our intrepid reporter will rely on the food rations doled out every month by the Castro regime as part of a rationing system that has been in place for 45 very, very long years.

So far, she has explained what’s included in the monthly kitty and it’s not much, as you can see here.

Ms Snow has also told us that the basket of goods provided by the regime costs Cubans the equivalent of just USD1.30 a month, which sounds like a bargain, until you discover the average monthly wage is just USD16.00.

We have also been told that the basket is “a safety net for basic food needs” that will last for 10 to 15 days.

Safety net? Not if you are an ordinary Cuban with no access to hard currency.

You see, once the rationed food runs out after a week or two, your options are to either find food on the black market, which is illegal and costly, or to visit a government-owned “shopping” where you can buy whatever is on offer freely but only if you have hard currency.

And at prices that are well above what we would normally pay in the West.

We will see how Ms Snow copes but so far, there is one important point she has failed to mention.

When the rationing system was introduced by Castro in 1962, the dictator-in-the-making promised Cubans that the ration book - la libreta - was a temporary measure that would last at most 12 months.

It's been a long 12 months, alright.