Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Words of wisdom

Bebo Valdes, the Cuban-born jazz musician, is currently touring Spain with his son, Chucho, who is in his mid-60s and also a celebrated pianist.

From all accounts, it’s been an emotional musical (and personal) reunion.

You see, Bebo, who was born in 1918, left Cuba in 1960, soon after Fidel Castro came to power. He has not been back,
living for much of his very long exile in Sweden - until his recent move to Spain.

On the other hand, Chucho still lives in Cuba. He is a favoured musician there, which means he is allowed to come and go as he likes by the Castro brothers, provided he keeps bringing in much-needed hard cash from his performances overseas.

To publicise the Spanish tour, Bebo has given a brief but very good interview to the Madrid daily El Mundo.

The interview is in Spanish (read it here), but here are a couple of observations I thought you’d appreciate.

I think they are the type of observations that come from wisdom accumulated over 90 years, don't you?

Asked his views of Fidel Castro, Bebo replies: “He is very well read and when he was at university, studying law, he’d get terrific grades. But the problem with Fidel Castro is that he was born into wealth and rich people are only after one thing: power.”

Then he is asked about Castro's illness and seemingly impending demise.

“As far as I am concerned, the problem in Cuba is not just an individual …
but the [Communist] system. I cannot stand that system. I can’t stand any system, whether of the Right or the Left, whose principal aim is to oppress an entire people. Eventually, such systems end up paying dearly for their crimes.”
And what about Chucho's views? Well, read what he thinks in this recent interview with the official Cuban media, under the headline, "I could never live anywhere else but in Cuba". Subtle, no?

H/T: Penultimos Dias

Photo: Pablo Sanchez, Reuters

Monday, July 30, 2007

Come trade with me

As you may have read elsewhere, Florida cattlemen are the latest group of US primary producers calling for an end to the 45-year-old American embargo on trade with the Castro regime.

The cattlemen have told The Palm Beach Post that the commercial and travel restrictions should be lifted immediately to make it easier for American farmers to sell their produce across the Florida Straits.

Currently, US primary producers can sell as much food as they want to the Castro brothers – provided they get paid in cash rather than via credits.

One of the cattlemen interviewed by the paper, 52-year-old Jim Strickland, said he had visited the island no fewer than eight times.

And as far as he is concerned, the Cubans he has dealt with are just a bunch of down-home, no-nonsense, hard-working vaqueros, eager to share experiences with their American counterparts.

"When we go to Cuba, we don't talk politics,” said Mr Strickland, who will probably be surprised to discover that those same nice vaqueros he has been chewing the fat with are in fact paid representatives of the Cuban communist authorities.

No matter.

The reason why the likes of Mr Strickland should be careful about dealing with the regime, embargo or otherwise, is highlighted in this article by Reuters.

According to official statistics published by Havana, Cuba’s “active” foreign debt rose by nearly USD2 billion last year to a grand total of USD7.794 billion.

It seems foreign suppliers more than doubled their credits to the country during 2006, with much of these new lines of credit coming from Venezuela and China.

But here is the crunch: Reuters confirms that apart from this new debt, Cuba also owns another USD8 billion to Western banks and businesses but has refused to pay a single cent back since 1986. In short, it's defaulted on the debt.

And this does not include the country’s debt to the now-disappeared Soviet Union, estimated to be worth at least USD20 billion, which, of course, will never be repaid.

Not surprisingly, the international ratings agency Moody’s rates the regime’s creditworthiness as “poor”.

H/T to our friends at Babalu.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Grateful sods

Just as the Soviets and their Eastern European allies used to do, the Castro regime has always spent a lot of time, money and effort manufacturing elite athletes.

Even after the spectacular collapse of Communism elsewhere, the regime in Havana has continued to use increasingly scarce resources on its ambitious sports program.

It’s a way of showing the superiority of socialism – a crass but highly effective propaganda tool.

That is why the regime hits the roof whenever one of its supposedly pampered, ever-loyal athletes defects.

Which is exactly what happened earlier this week during the Pan-American Games in Rio, when a handful of athletes decided that all things considered, they’d rather not return home.

Those defecting included Guillermo Rigondeaux, the Olympic gold-medal winner who was the undisputed star of the boxing team.

As you can read here, the ailing 80-year-old dictator was livid.

From his secret recovery room, a furious Castro launched a virulent attack on Rigondeaux and the others, describing them variously as ungrateful, weak, greedy, mercenaries and traitors.

Not to be outdone, the rest of the Cuban athletes in Rio have now been forced by their political overseers to send a special “loyalty pledge” to Castro, which they have dutifully done.

In the message, the athletes thank El Comandante en Jefe and his younger brother Raul for giving them the opportunity to represent Cuba at the Games.

They also attack those who defected as “traitors” and mal nacidos, a particularly nasty Spanish term that translates as someone who should have never been born.

And just so there is no misunderstanding, the message to Castro ends with a pledge from the athletes that they “would rather die than stop being loyal to the Commander in Chief.”

I kid you not.

You can read the whole sickening document here. In Spanish.

More of the same?

So, folks, how do we read Raul Castro’s keynote address in Camaguey?

Reformist? More of the same? Full of contradictions?

Some media outlets and not a few Cuban "experts" seem to think there is a hint of reform in some of the comments made by the man supposedly in charge.

Certainly, his call for more foreign investment is newsworthy, if only because it sounds suspiciously like the type of comment made by the Chinese communist leadership 15 years ago – before the Chinese unleashed their own version of capitalism.

Then there is the “olive branch” the (slightly) younger Castro has offered the Americans.

Of course, it’s neither an olive branch in the true sense of the term nor new.

In fact, the Castro brothers have been offering such olive branches to Washington for the past 30 years, knowing full well that they will be rejected by the US because of the pre-conditions placed by Havana, namely that the regime is untouchable.

No matter – the Castro brothers know the public relations value of such a charade: extensive and unquestioning media coverage outside Cuba, as you can read here and here and here and ...

It all helps to further cement the near-universal image outside Cuba of the small, hard-working, peace-loving island nation victimised by its bigger, arrogant and nasty neighbour to the North.

As I said, nothing new there.

Raul Castro also used his relatively brief speech (only one hour!) to confirm what Cubans have known for decades: there are huge productivity and distribution problems across all industries and sectors of the economy and across all provinces.

He even went as far as admitting that the “numerous problems” faced by ordinary Cubans - such as low wages, high prices, crumbling houses, non-existent public transport – may require "structural changes".

Sadly, he did not elaborate, except to say that regardless, there was no way the regime would change its Socialist spots.

Still, like his ailing brother, Raul Castro knows exactly who is to blame for all these problems.

No, it’s not the outdated and unworkable Communist economic model that has been ditched by almost everyone else in the world, including the Chinese. And it’s certainly not the regime’s fault, let alone the fault of its top leadership, which has only been in power for what, half a century?

No, Raul Castro believes the ones to blame once again, are those lazy, greedy, ungrateful, undisciplined Cubans who like spending money and who just refuse to work harder.
Which makes me think that well, nothing much is likely to change in a hurry.
To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, it would seem the boys are not for turning. I hope I am wrong.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Heil to the other Chief

It’s official: Fidel Castro will not make an appearance at this year’s 26th July celebrations.

Instead, the official media has announced that the keynote speech on Thursday morning, local time, will be given by the man who is supposed to be in charge while the older Castro continues his “recovery”.

That’s right: Raul Castro will deliver the most important speech on the most important day in the regime’s calendar.

As for what he will actually speak about … your guess is as good as mine, but I assume it's going to be a case of more of the same.

Then again ... Reuters reports on a spate of rumours doing the rounds in Havana that the slightly younger Castro (just 75, folk!) may use the opportunity to unveil several initiatives meant to make life a little easier for the brothers' long-suffering subjects.

According to the rumours, these may or may not include: State land being handed back to individual farmers; Cubans being given permission to operate more small businesses legally; Cubans being allowed to freely buy and sell their cars and homes, and to own mobile phones.

Oh, yes, and Cubans being given permission to stay in those luxury hotels currently reserved for foreign tourists with hard cash, Government officials and the likes of Michael Moore.

Then again …

Photo: Enrique de la Osa, Reuters

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Twelve months later

As you would expect, we are about to be inundated with all sorts of articles and commentaries to mark a year without Fidel Castro at the helm.

The general tone of the stories that have been published or broadcast so far can be summarised as follows:

1. The soon-to-be 81 year old dictator is alive but still not well enough to make a public appearance. My take: Assuming Castro is indeed recovering, it’s the longest recovery one could possibly imagine, even for an elderly, semi-senile old codger.

2. No one knows whether the anointed successor, Raul Castro, is merely keeping the throne warm for his older brother – or gradually taking over control. The only plus: no more three and four hour long speeches about those evil Americans, the Empire, blah, blah, blah ...

3. The Cuban economy continues to be the same unmitigated mess it’s been for more than 45 years. What happened to all that propaganda about 12 per cent economic growth, petroleum exploration, Venezuelan aid, etc?

4. Living conditions on the island for ordinary Cubans (as opposed to the elite and foreign tourists), have barely improved since the end of the so-called Special Period. In some ways, living conditions have worsened for the poor and marginalised, given the shameful economic apartheid system introduced by the Castro brothers.

5. There is growing discontent about low wages, high prices, shocking public transport and huge inequalities among the general populace. But not, it seems, among those supposedly ordinary Cubans who get interviewed for publication by foreign correspondents.

6. An increasing number of Cubans – especially the young – want out. Sad but true.

7. But there no sign of popular unrest. Near impossible, given the tight control exercised by the regime, from the Stasi-like secret police to the fascist-inspired Rapid Response Brigades ..

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Ungrateful sods

Our old pal Fidel Castro aint happy.

You may have read elsewhere that a handful of Cuban athletes competing at the Pan-American Games in Rio have decided not to return home – and defect in Brazil.

They include the best known of the Cuban boxers, Guillermo Rigondeaux, who won Olympic gold medals in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens four years later.

Well, Castro is livid.

The ailing 80-year-old dictator, who nowadays communicates with his subjects via lengthy articles that are dutifully published in the official media, thinks these latest defections are beyond the pale.

He blames an “international mafia” for the defections, claiming US promoters are using “refined psychological methods and many millions of dollars'' to entice Cuban boxers over to capitalism.

Not because the boxers are any good, you understand, but because this is all part of a nasty plot by those evil Americans to "damage the Revolution".

For good measure, Castro has branded the athletes “traitors” and greedy “mercenaries”, who should in reality be grateful to his regime for letting them compete internationally.

Fancy that.

Doctor in the house

Another day, another story about the great Cuban health care system.

This time it’s an “analysis” by UPI correspondent Rosalie Westenskow under the heading, “Healthcare lessons from Cuba?”

At least they added a question mark at the end, so let’s be thankful for small mercies.

The article has extensive quotes from several US academics, most of whom have nothing but praise for the excellent work undertaken by the Castro brothers.

An example?

How is this for positive endorsement: "The most important contribution that Cuba has given to global healthcare is … the idea that you can introduce the notion of broad healthcare and wipe out the diseases of poverty.”

A quote from Granma? Not at all. It’s a quote from Professor Paul Farmer, a professor of medical anthropologies at Harvard Medical School.

And to prove their point, Professor Farmer and his colleagues quote at length official statistics provided to the UN by … the Castro regime.

You can read the article here.

But you’d probably be better off having a look at an excellent paper on the Cuban health care system written by Professor Katherine Hirschfeld of the University of Oklahoma.

The paper, which is published in the latest edition of the online journal Cuban Affairs , paints a much more realistic picture of Cuban health care.

After spending nine months living with a Cuban family and interviewing family doctors, specialists, nurses and patients, Professor Hirschfeld also questions the integrity of the figures used by the regime to back up its claims.

Needless to say, these are the same figures used by academics and journalists to reach their unequivocally positive conclusions about health outcomes in Cuba. Nifty, eh?

Of course, as Professor Hirschfeld points out, there is a long history of otherwise inquisitive Western academics unquestioning accepting “official” statistics provided by totalitarian regimes – provided they are regimes of the Left, of course.

The Soviets were masters at the game.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Big smiles, everyone

How is this for a coincidence?

The BBC correspondent in Havana, Fernando Ravsberg, has just spent time travelling around the island, visiting five different towns to interview five ordinary Cubans “about their lives” outside the national capital.

And believe it or not, it seems that every Cuban interviewed had nothing but praise for the Castro regime.

Fancy that.

Sure, they complained a little about services but faced with a BBC tape recorder, they all happily and spontaneously praised the great “achievements” of the regime.

For instance, Ravsberg visited Santa Clara which, he says, is noted for “its cultural life and more tolerant attitudes to gays”.

And sure enough, he gets to speak to Ramon Silverio, who runs a cultural centre popular with the town’s gay and transvestite communities.

Silverio says he earns the equivalent of less than USD30.00 a month – and he couldn’t be happier.

"Thanks to the Cuban revolution I escaped extreme poverty," he told the correspondent.

Then there is Sebastian Urra, a transport worker interviewed in the Zapata Peninsula, near the Bay of Pigs.

We are told that unlike his children, Urra never went to school back in the bad old capitalist days because he had to work with his father “making charcoal”.

Nowadays, he rents rooms in his home to tourists but must pay the regime 540.00 Cuban pesos a month in “taxes” – whether he has guests or not.

You’d think he’d be a little pissed off at such official racketeering, wouldn’t you?


Instead, the BBC quotes Urra as saying that before Castro, “there were no doctors, no schools, no electricity”.

“The revolution changed my life completely," he says.

Perhaps he was being ironic. Or very, very careful?

Play time

It seems Cuban athletes are failing to win the hearts and minds of many spectators at the Pan-American Games being held in Rio.

According to media reports, angry Brazilian spectators have been booing the Cubans, throwing plastic cups and other objects at the athletes and referees and complaining about some of the results.

It could have something to do with the fact that the Cubans are winning more gold medals than the host nation.

Or it may be related to the way the victorious Cuban athletes invariably (and totally voluntarily, of course) dedicate their victories to Fidel Castro.

Photo: Bruno Domingos, Reuters

Friday, July 20, 2007

Canadian values

Let’s hear it for Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

During his current goodwill mission through Latin America, Mr Harper has been talking up what he describes as “Canadian values”: free trade, security, political and economic freedom, and respect for human rights.

And he says these values should apply equally whether you are dealing with Chile, Colombia or Cuba.

“The values that we are promoting through the region … we’re going to promote these values similarly everywhere in the region,” he said, in a clear reference to his relations with the Castro regime.

Mr Harper’s comments place him at odds with most Latin America and the Caribbean leaders, whose well-rehearsed (and short-sighted) view is that the “dignity” of the Cuban people should be “respected”.

Which means that when it comes to the Castro regime, they are not willing to rock the boat.

Surprise, surprise

I know, I know … the following will come as a total surprise to most of you.

It seems the Castro regime has now confirmed what we suspected all along: those American patients taken to Cuba by Michael Moore for his much-publicised “documentary” were given, well, special treatment.

Can you believe it?

According to this Reuters report, the patients were taken to the Hermanos Almejeiras Hospital in Havana for their "free" treatment and "free" medications.

This 750-bed establishment, right along the Malecon drive, is in fact, the regime’s showpiece hospital - reserved largely for top-ranking Cuban officials, foreign tourists with hard cash ... and publicity-hungry filmmakers on an ideological mission.

As the report explains, the Hermanos Almejeiras “is an exception in Cuba”, where ordinary patients staying in ordinary hospitals “complain they have to take their own sheets and food”.

Oh, dear …

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Capitalist games

More than 245 years after the English briefly held Havana, the British are close to becoming a big player in Cuba again.

This time it will be all about tobacco.

But first, some background …

The Castro regime, which confiscated the Cuban tobacco industry in the early 1960s, has been in bed for some time now with a huge Franco-Spanish tobacco conglomerate called Altadis.

This arrangement allows Altadis to market Cuban cigars around the world, except in the US, of course, with half of the money going back to Havana. Naturally.

It’s a hugely profitable deal for the Castro brothers but also for their capitalist friends.

Now, Altadis has received a not-unexpected takeover offer from Imperial Tobacco, a large British firm, which is offering 50 Euros per share.

From all accounts, Imperial is likely to be successful.

There is just one glitch: under the contract with Altadis, the Cubans can break their joint venture agreement if the company changes owners at any stage.

Which is why the head of Imperial, Gareth Davies, has told reporters in London that he intends to travel to Havana soon to “woo” the Castro regime.

The very pragmatic Mr Davies said he hoped to secure the regime’s support for the proposed takeover deal - and persuade it not to exercise the change of control clause in the contract.

“We are hopeful that the change of control clause will not be exercised,” he said. “We hope this joint venture will continue to go from strength to strength – it’s a business we plan to invest in.”

Nice one, no?

SBS and the Ladies in White

Those indefatigable Ladies in White – Las Damas de Blanco - have finally made an appearance on Australian television, courtesy of SBS Television.

The network’s Dateline program last night broadcast a refreshingly even-handed report on Cuba following a visit to the island recently by journalist David O’Shea.

Sure, there are the usual references to universal health care, free education and the US embargo.

There is even a representative from the Ministry for Foreign Relations shamelessly parroting the same old lines about how human rights are protected and safeguarded "by the Revolution”, blah, blah, blah ...

But O’Shea balances the obvious spin from the regime with interviews with ordinary Cubans, as well as with dissidents such as Miriam Leiva, one of the Ladies in White.

But for my money, the most telling scene comes when the reporter visits a classroom somewhere in what I am sure is Havana to witness first hand the great Castro education miracle.

It's quite obvious the place has been hand-picked by the regime's minders, complete with a couple of dozen well scrubbed, brightly faced, uniformed primary school pupils on show, achingly polite and busily working on computers.

It’s a perfect picture … until one of the girls, who seems to be 11 or 12 at most, stands up and under her teacher's watchful eye, recites a cringing poem wishing the Comandante en Jefe a speedy recovery.
Be assured, Comandante, she recites, that the Revolution is "in safe hands".

Not surprisingly, it’s dismissed by O’Shea for what it is: cheap indoctrination of the worst kind.

And the program's conclusions? “The tragedy for Cuba is that years of repression and economic stagnation mean that many of its youth want to be elsewhere,” O’Shea says.

He is spot on about that. And yes, it’s a great tragedy.

You can read the transcript here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

His pal Fidel

It’s good to see that Robert Mugabe has at least one good friend left.

Yes, it’s Fidel Castro.

In recent years, much of the world has condemned Mugabe, who holds the dubious distinction of having transformed what used to be one of Africa’s most prosperous nations into one of the poorest.

The 83-year-old president, who has been in office since the country became independent from Britain in 1980, presides over a nation in absolute chaos, as you can read in this report in the London daily, The Independent.

Inflation is now a staggering 10,000 per cent ... not to mention the jailing and torture of opponents, Government death squads running riot across the countryside, extravagant spending by the president’s family …

Still, as this article in the official Harare newspaper, The Herald, points out, Castro continues to offer his unconditional support.

During a visit to Zimbabwe this week, a delegation of senior officials from the Cuban Communist Party delivered an emphatic message of support from Castro to his pal, Mugabe, urging the lunatic Zimbabwean to hang on.

Honour among thieves?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

It's the embargo

Ah, yes, the American embargo ...

If you believe the Castro regime and its apologists, the US trade embargo is the reason why the Cuban economy is in such a mess.

And why those “free” Cuban hospitals lack even the most basic of medicines.

And why Cuban school children are not allowed to access the Internet.

And why most ordinary Cubans live in crumbling houses …

But I bet you didn’t know that the embargo is also to blame for the fact that Ernest Hemingway’s old property just outside Havana, Finca Vigia, cannot be fully restored to its former, capitalist glory.

According to an article in today's edition of the left-leaning London daily The Guardian, a group of American organisations has been working over the past couple of years to restore the “battered house” and save the manuscripts and books.

But that awful George W Bush has interfered again.

The paper says that sanctions against the Communist island “have hindered the group's attempts to collaborate with the Cuban government”, which wants to turn the restored site into a major tourist attraction.

It seems the US administration thinks that American funding should not be used to help the Castro brothers rake in the profits from all those international tourists likely to visit Finca Vigia once it's in ship-shape condition.

Outrageous, isn’t it?

There are plenty of quotes in the article from well-meaning, outraged Americans who love their Hemingway and who think the dispute is silly and that it merely highlights the absurdity of the US trade embargo, etc, etc.

Of course, they may be right …

But there is one point that is not mentioned in the lengthy Guardian article: the fact that Finca Vigia is actually owned by the Castro regime.

The property and all its contents was confiscated in the early 1960s – along with all other private property on the island.

For the best part of 50 years, the regime that is now so keen on using US money to restore and preserve the site was quite happy to let the house (and its valuable contents) simply rot away.

Monday, July 16, 2007

From bad to worse

You know how the Cuban economy is supposed to be going from strength to strength now that all that Venezuelan oil is pumping in? And the Chinese investment. And all those European tourists ...

Well, all that growth is obviously not having much of an impact on ordinary families.

At least that’s the impression left by a report filed over the weekend by the normally very careful Mauricio Vicent, the long-standing Havana correspondent for the Spanish daily El Pais.

Under a headline that could best be translated as “Cuba Hits Rock Bottom” (what? again?), Mr Vicent provides an extensive list of everyday complaints by ordinary Cubans.

From low wages to non-existent public transport to crumbling housing, here is a lengthy catalogue of the failures of the Castro regime.

Two statistics jump out.

The first is the fact that the Cuban public transport system, which is the only form of transport for 99.9 per cent of the population, is now carrying as many passengers as it did in 1964. Read that again - 1964!

What about this second set of statistics: at least half of the three million dwellings on the island are described as being in either a “bad state of repair” or a “very bad state of repair”. And they are the official figures, which means the real numbers are a lot higher.

Read the report here, in Spanish.

Photo: Reuters

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Debunking the Che myth

Here's something you don't see everyday: an opinion piece published in a major metropolitan newspaper debunking the Che Guevara myth.

The article, published over the weekend in The Australian, was written by Cassandra Wilkinson, a one-time political adviser and author of "Don't Panic - Nearly Everything is Better Than You Think".

Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Greedy capitalists

Hold the presses, James.

Fidel Castro has written another one of his lengthy editorials, which naturally enough, has been dutifully published in all the official media, under the somewhat intriguing headline, "Cuba’s Self-critique".

And guess what?

The ailing 80-year-old dictator, who is still too sick to be seen in public, admits that despite his best efforts over the past 50 years, well, there are still plenty of inequalities in Cuba.

But it’s not his fault, of course.

In characteristic style, Castro blames … greedy Cubans.

You see, the reason there are inequalities is because some Cubans now have ready access to foreign currency, either because they work in the tourism industry and get tips in hard cash, or because they receive money sent in by relatives overseas.

Never mind that this dual-currency system was introduced by Castro himself in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the old Soviet bloc.

And for reasons that remain obscure, the old man seems especially irritated by those enterprising Cubans who use restored 1950s American cars to drive tourists around Havana, in exchange for hard currency.

They are nothing but cheap capitalists, apparently.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Electoral Fever 2

Just when you thought elections under the Castro regime were a shameless charade, along comes Ricardo Alarcon to set you straight.

Alarcon, the head of the rubber-stamp National Assembly, has told reporters in Havana that the forthcoming municipals elections will be "free", "clean" and "democratic".

That's because Cubans will be able to nominate candidates "without the pressure exerted in other places by money, demagogy or corruption".

In other words, no need for political parties or differing opinions or a range of candidates with competing policies wasting the voters' time.

One candidate, one vote, one outcome. Easy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

You say tomato ...

You know how Fidel Castro has been going on about biofuels lately?

The ailing dictator, who was supposed to be a strong supporter of alternative energy sources, has suddenly convinced himself that turning sugar, corn and other produce into fuel is bad news for the poor.

And naturally enough, the old reactionary blames the US.

Well, here is a timely rebuttal by William Saletan, published in the online magazine Slate.

Worth reading.

H/T to Penultimos Dias
Electoral fever

Cubans go to the polls on October 21.

I know, I know … it’s all a charade.

Just as it used to be in the old Soviet Union and in the rest of Eastern Europe, the results are more or less pre-determined well before election day by the Communist Party.

Still, the forthcoming elections for municipal assemblies will provide some guidance, for want of a better word, on the future role of Fidel Castro within the regime.

You see, elections to the provincial legislatures and the rubber-stamp National Assembly will follow (no dates yet), and these in turn will result in the election of a new president of the Council of State.

That’s a position Castro has held since the current system was introduced in the mid 1970s, along with his other titles as Prime Minister, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and most importantly, head of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).

According to this Reuters report, there is already speculation that the ailing 80-year-old dictator may agreed to give up his position as head of State, handing it over to his younger brother, Raul, while remaining head of the PCC.

If so, it will be a clear signal to Cubans that the old man is most definitely not coming back.

We shall see.

Monday, July 09, 2007

In the good old days, when he was younger and healthier, Fidel Castro used to bore Cubans rigid with his marathon, six-hour-long speeches.

Like the absolute ruler that he was (is?), Castro would speak on any topic he chose at any time, anywhere …

And sure enough, a grateful nation would have to stop whatever it was doing, no matter how important, to let him speak. And speak. And speak.

There was no choice.

Now, of course, Castro is too frail and probably too senile to be allowed out in public.

But he remains determined to force Cubans to listen to him.

He does this through the semi-regular “editorials” he has been writing from his sickbed for the past few weeks on just about anything that comes into his mind, from George W Bush (an old favourite) to ethanol to the Missile Crisis.

His reflexiones - as they are now officially known on the island - are then dutifully printed in all their glory in the official media, and not just in his native Spanish but translated into several foreign languages, including English.

The latest effort, which was published on Sunday under the catchy headline of “World Tyranny”, runs to close to 6,000 words.

I kid you not.

And here is the really bad news: Castro concludes his latest marathon exposition with the line, “I will say no more. It is enough for today.”

In other words, he’ll be back …

Friday, July 06, 2007

Open all hours

The always-readable The Economist has an interesting article in its latest issue on recent moves by the Castro regime to halt the serious decline in the number of international tourists visiting Cuba.

According to the London-based magazine, the regime has publicly blamed the US commercial embargo for the drop in visitors. As usual.
But in private, senior officials in Havana admit the real reasons have nothing to do with George W Bush.

It seems the problem is that Cuba has one of the lowest rates of return visits in the travel business.

Why? Tour operators say they get many complaints about poor food and indifferent service. Plus the fact that visitors are forced to exchange their foreign cash for Cuba's so-called convertible pesos, which are worthless outside the island.

Worried hoteliers (ie, the Cuban armed forces), are now looking at other ways to bring in business.

One novel idea apparently floated by senior officials close to Raul Castro is to allow those ordinary Cubans lucky enough to have access to hard currency to stay in the fancy hotels that are currently reserved for foreigners. Amazing, I know.

As The Economist puts it, this would not just fill empty beds but "assuage resentment" among many Cubans at the regime's "tourist apartheid”.

How very egalitarian.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Here comes the UN. Again.

What is it about United Nations senior officials and the Castro regime?

No sooner do these supposedly battle-hardened bureaucrats land at Havana’s international airport that they seem to lose all sense of proportion – and the ability to think for themselves.

Within hours, we have them happily parroting entire paragraphs from Granma.

Perhaps it’s the balmy climate?

Only the other day, the head of the UN Habitat program, Anna Tibaijuka, spent much of her visit to the island praising the great “achievements” of the regime in health and education.

An example to the rest of the world, Ms Tibaijuka concluded, to the visible delight of her Communist hosts, of course.

Now, we have the head of the UN Environment program, Achim Steiner, visiting Cuba to have a look at how the Castro brothers handle environmental issues.

His assessment?

According to this AP report, Mr Steiner is most impressed.

He is of the view that Cuba has managed to solve the crippling energy shortages that plagued the island for years (in fact, for decades), without in any way “sacrificing a long-term commitment to promoting environmentally friendly fuels”.

"In terms of a short term response, it is quite remarkable how Cuba, under its economic conditions, managed to solve that crisis," he said.

To be fair to Mr Steiner, he did point out one or two areas of concern.

He is worried about a gas reactor that throws a plume of dark smoke over much of Havana around the clock (oh, that reactor), and about the fact that most vehicles still use leaded gasoline and diesel.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

From her kitchen

As you may have read elsewhere, Anita Snow has now completed her month-long experiment of trying to live (or rather, eat) like a Cuban.

Ms Snow, who has been the AP correspondent in Havana for the past eight years, wanted to spend a whole 30 days eating not like the privileged foreigner she is (or like Fidel Castro), but as an ordinary Cuban.

To do so, she had to rely on the dreaded libreta (the rationing system that has been in place since 1962), the expensive farmers’ markets dotted around the capital and the even more expensive State-owned “shopping”, where you need real money to buy mostly-imported goods at exorbitant prices.

And the conclusions after a month of supposed deprivation?

Well, folks, Ms Snow has discovered that it aint easy.

She has also discovered that Cubans obsess about food, which she says is understandable given you rarely know where your next meal is coming from, especially when your monthly rations run out after the first week.

Oh, yes, and she also discovered that a single papaya bought at a farmers’ market can cost “more than a day’s wages”.

And let’s not even compare the cost of a tube of toothpaste at the “shopping” where, by the way, every single cent goes back into the regime's pocket.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course.

Food shortages have taught Cubans to be more inventive with their meals and more generous, too, sharing what little they have with relatives and close friends.

You think it’s all a bit condescending?

There is even better news: if you are extra careful about the ingredients you use, you can lose weight on an ordinary Cuban’s diet – as much as four kilos in just 30 days, in Ms Snow’s case.

The Castro Diet. Now, there’s a winner.

PS: For a terrific critique of Ms Snow’s diet experiment, head here for a very funny piece by Cuban independent journalist Luis Cino. It’s called En la cocina de Anita Snow. In Spanish. H/T to Penultimos Dias.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Expert notes

Bad news for all you conspiracy theorists out there: John F Kennedy was killed by the one, single bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.

At least that's the view of Fidel Castro.

And let’s face it, when it comes to bullets, the ailing 80-year-old dictator himself claims to be well, something of an expert.

In his latest “editorial” rant, published in all its disjointed, senile glory by the official Cuban media on Sunday, Castro spends a fair bit of space essentially rewriting Cold War history.

He raves on and on and on about the Missile Crisis, relations with the old Soviet Union, the CIA, Henry Kissinger, Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, those nasty Americans ...

But the most intriguing commentary is his dismissal of the theory that there were as many as three separate shooters out to assassinate Kennedy, a view supposedly still held by quite a few Americans. And Oliver Stone.

“Excuse me for saying this but fate turned me into a shooting instructor with a telescopic sight,” Castro writes with his usual modesty, adding that he spent months in the Sierra Maestra mountains in the late 1950s “practicing and teaching, every day”.

And his conclusion as an expert is that it’s near impossible to fire off two shots, let alone three, from separate guns at a target and make it seem like only one shot.

“Even though the target is a stationary one, it disappears from view with each shot and so you need to look for it all over again in fractions of a second,” he concludes.

We agree.

Next: Castro debunks the legend of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Still missing

What's that old saying about a photograph being worth a thousand words?
Photo: Enrique de la Osa (Reuters)

Speaking of food production

The Castro regime’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly, is currently holding its bi-annual session in Havana.

And as usual, there has not been much by way of real debate.

It’s all as predictable and dull and stage-managed as .... well, as the sessions of the old Supreme Soviet, on which the Assembly was modelled.

But some of the “official” figures provided to Assembly deputies by the various ministers supposedly called to account give a rare glimpse into what passes for public policy on the island.

For instance, the Minister for Finance and Prices, Georgina Barreiro, has revealed that the State has only recently paid off debts owed to small farmers worth 550 million pesos – or about USD23 million.

Not surprisingly, small farmers were less than impressed by the late payments – after all, they now provide about two-thirds of the country’s fruit and vegetable production, even though they have access to just a third of workable land.

The deputies have also been told that food production dropped by about seven per cent last year (I blame George W Bush, of course), which means the regime will have to import foodstuffs worth about USD1.6 billion in 2007.

And about a third of the imported food will come from … the United States.