Thursday, August 30, 2007

Change in Cuba. Or not.

The seemingly never-ending but always entertaining debate in the US media on whether anything has (or will) change in Cuba now Fidel Castro is near death continues.

This time, it’s an article in The Christian Science Monitor, under the headline, "Prisoner releases under Raul Castro raise hope for Cuba".

And sure enough, a raft of American-based analysts and Cubanologists are quoted at length about the recent release of a couple of political prisoners by the Castro regime - and what it means.

Their views range across the spectrum, as you would expect.

At one end, we have Prof. Jaime Suchlicki, head of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, who says there is no evidence of any real let-up in the repressive nature of the Castro regime.

Anyone opposed to the Communist Party continues to be harassed and terrorised.

At the other end is our old friend Wayne Smith, from the Centre for International Policy in Washington and a one-time head of the US Interest Section in Havana.

Mr Smith is of the view that the recent release of some political prisoners is a welcomed trend of things to come under the slightly younger Castro, although whatever happens, he says, will be happening “very, very slowly”.

You will not be surprised to hear that he blames the slowness of these changes on the US.

"The Bush administration's nasty noises are part of the reason for things moving slowly," Mr Smith told the paper, adding that more political prisoners would be released if only something “positive” came out of the US.

Read the article here.

Boxing news

Much as expected, the Castro regime has just announced that Cuban boxers will be barred from competing at the World Boxing Championships, to be held in Chicago in October.

Why? Because the regime fears many of the boxers will defect.

The decision was supposedly made by the Cuban Boxing Federation, which unlike sporting bodies elsewhere in the world is not an independent entity but an arm of the regime.

According to this BBC report, the federation says it would not expose its boxers to capitalist “traffickers", who would attempt to lure them away with offers of professional contracts.

Pathetic, isn’t it?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tummy tuck, M'am?

As many of you may be aware, one of the ways the Castro regime makes money is through so-called health tourism.

This growing area of the Cuban economy involves well-off foreigners travelling to the island for medical treatment, such as hip replacements, cornea operations, etc.

Patients get treated in top-notch hospitals set up especially for foreigners - the type of “typical” Cuban hospital visited by Michael Moore recently.

Once treated, the patients recover in luxury hotels dotted around the island, where the only Cubans allowed in are the waiters, gardeners and cleaning maids.

The medical treatment is considerably cheaper than similar treatment in the United States, as you can see from this media release issued by a Canadian company called Choice Medical Services.

According to the Winnipeg-based company, they have just signed a new contract with the State-owned Cuban health tourism agency, Cubanacan.

As a result, lucky North Americans will now be able to get a hip replacement in Cuba for just USD8,000 - a bargain compared to the USD60,000 such an operation would cost in the US.

The cost of an appendectomy in Cuba? Just USD4,800, compared to USD19,000 on the other side of the Straits of Florida.

As for a “tummy tuck” … a mere USD2,644.

The head of Choice Medical Services, Bill Doran, said the new contract with Cubanacan was a win-win for all involved.

“We are very pleased with this contract as it helps patients with their medical needs, it supports the Cuban economy and aids the Cuban people, and it reduces pressure on the healthcare system here at home,” Mr Doran said.

The contract will certainly help the patients save money and it will certainly funnel more hard currency into the Cuban economy, which is almost entirely controlled by the regime, but I am not too sure about aiding the Cuban people.

In any case, there are two other, rather important issues that sadly are not addressed in the press release.

First, the fact that Cubanacan is owned, operated and supervised by the military, as you can read here.

And second, the fact that the average wage for a Cuban doctor is between USD20.00 to USD30.00 a month.

The rest of the money paid by those tummy-tucked visiting patients is pocketed by the Castro brothers.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Moliendo cafe

Ready for your morning cup of strong, sweet, aromatic Cuban coffee?

If you are reading this somewhere on the island, then we have some bad news: you may be drinking what you think is un café cubano but is in fact, not all that Cuban. And not all that good, either.

According to a report by Reuters’s hard-working correspondent in Havana, Marc Frank, the Castro regime has just released details of the forthcoming coffee harvest.

It seems the regime is expecting this harvest to total more than 9,000 tonnes, an increase of about 10 per cent over the previous harvest.

But as is the norm with Castrostatistics, the projections may be, well, a tad optimistic.

The problem is that in classic Communist style, Cuban farmers must sell all of the coffee beans they harvest to the State - at prices well below what they would get through the black market. Of course.

To add insult to injury, the State is often late paying the farmers, an issue that has become so serious it was raised recently by Raul Castro.

Not surprisingly, the poor coffee farmers have bugger all incentive in increasing either production or the quality of their crop.

The result? While Cuba has always exported coffee, it now has to import beans to supplement local demand.

And as Frank reports, the coffee being imported is primarily low-grade coffee ... from Vietnam.

Hmmmm … Vietnamese coffee.

Made in Havana?

You know those rather persistent rumours about Fidel Castro’s impending demise?

Well, here is an intriguing assessment, courtesy of the US State Department.

According to this AFP report, a departmental spokesman, Gonzo Gallegos, told reporters that the latest round of rumours on the health of the 81-year-old dictator may have been started by the Castro regime.

“I would say that the Cuban government has always been very good at stirring the nest whenever they felt the need to,” said Mr Gallegos.

He is right about that.

Photo: Reuters

Monday, August 27, 2007

Up and down. And down.

Next time you feel like complaining about crowded or slow lifts in your building, spare a thought for the poor buggers living in apartment blocks in Havana.

It’s just been revealed that half of all the lifts in residential buildings in the Cuban capital either do not work or are in such a state of disrepair they should (but won't) be replaced immediately.

Of course, we are referring here to ordinary residential buildings.

You know, where ordinary Cubans live, as opposed to the modern, high-rise hotels reserved for foreign tourists - or the VIP apartments reserved for the Communist Party elite.

The official newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), Juventud Rebelde, has confirmed over the weekend that there are just 562 residential lifts in all of Havana.

And the vast majority of these barely work, according the head of the State-owned lift repair company, Juan Jose Hernandez.

In fact, Mr Hernandez told the paper that only nine new lifts have been installed in residential buildings in Havana since 1959.

As a result, residents normally have to climb hundreds of stairs to get to their homes. Every day. No matter whether you are a child, elderly or infirm. Up and down.

Now, that’s quite a legacy, isn’t it?

Since Fidel Castro came to power 48 years or so ago, a grand total of nine new lifts installed in all of residential Havana.

In case you are wondering, that's about one new lift every five years.

Media mates

Nearly half a century after taking power and changing Cuba forever, the love affair between Fidel Castro and large chunks of the international media remains alive and well.

For years, getting the nod from Havana to interview the supposedly coy dictator, complete with his olive green fatigues, was seen as a huge journalistic “scoop” by most reporters.

It still is.

According to the regime’s official propaganda sheet, Granma, an estimated 2,000 journalists “from all over the world” have requested an interview with Castro in the past year.

This intriguing statistic appears in this article announcing the launch by the regime over the weekend of yet another book about the seemingly alive but seriously ailing Comandante en Jefe.

It’s a tome of interviews with Castro over the years by four of the regime’s best known apologists: Frei Betto, Gianni Mina, Tomas Borge and Ignacio Ramonet.

Its characteristically modest title translates roughly as, "Those Lucky Interviewers Who Spoke to Fidel".

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Boxing news

It’s now confirmed: the two Cuban boxers who attempted to defect while taking part in the Pan American Games in Rio earlier this month will never box again outside the island.

You may recall that the boxers apparently changed their mind after a few days of freedom and asked Brazilian authorities to send them back home to their families. At least that’s the official story.

Well, the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, the dreadful Felipe Perez Roque, has told reporters in Brasilia that the boxers returned to Cuba of their own accord. No pressures from Havana. None at all. Honest.

And according to Perez Roque, the boxers will not be punished. Instead, he claims they will be given “appropriate jobs”.

Asked whether this meant the boxers would represent Cuba internationally again, the minister replied: “The decision on who is to fly the Cuban flag in international sporting contests is one for the nation.”

In other words, no, they won’t box again. Not outside the island, anyway.

Old friends, new enemies

Nearly two decades after the spectacular collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Castro regime still hasn’t got over the loss of its once fraternal allies.

Over the past few years, the dinosaurs in Havana have regularly attacked the democratically-elected governments of Poland, the Czech Republic and even the poor old Bulgarians.

Their crime? Having the temerity to question human right violations in Cuba – and demand democratic change.

Now, it’s the turn of the mild-mannered Hungarians.

In a characteristically nasty note published today by the official Cuban media, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has attacked the Hungarians as “lackeys” of the Empire. And hypocrites. And capitalist running dogs. And … you get the drift.

This followed a decision by Hungary to take in a small group of Cuban would-be refugees stranded at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, providing them with political asylum.

As Reuters reports: “Eastern European countries, which were formerly staunch allies of Castro's government before Soviet communism collapsed, have now become Havana's fiercest critics for suppressing human and political rights”.

Too right.

That’s because the Eastern Europeans – unlike those in the West - had first-hand experience of how Communist regimes work.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The rumours that won't go away

Those rumours about Fidel Castro’s death continue to surface, especially on the blogsphere.

In fact, it’s almost impossible to ignore them. But could they be true?

Is it really possible that the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for the past 48 years has died in recent days but the news is being suppressed for now because of political or other reasons?

I mean it’s not as if the Castro regime has ever been what you’d call a paragon of openness and transparency …

And I grant you that we have not seen photographs or video of Castro in his fetching Adidas tracksuit for weeks, not even to mark the celebrations surrounding the 26th of July.

Still, if the 81-year-old dictator had indeed kicked the bucket over the weekend, surely his departure would be known to quite a few people in Havana, wouldn't it? Like his brother Raul, for instance, and the top echelons of the armed forces. And the Communist Party bosses. The medical team. Even Castro's large family.

How long would it take for such news to leak out, even in a place like Cuba?

Not too long, I suspect. So, for what it’s worth, my take is that the rumours of a death are premature.

Of course, this is not to say that Castro is recovering. On the contrary. We would have heard about it otherwise.

More telling is the fact that not even that goose Hugo Chavez talks about recovery any more, and Cuban officials such as the smarmy Ricardo Alarcon have stopped telling foreign correspondent that Castro’s return to office is imminent.

Dead or almost dead, the era of Castro I is over.

Photo: Enrique de la Osa, Reuters

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Biffo time?

Not for the first time, the long-standing American embargo on commercial trade and contact with the Castro regime has hit the front pages of key metropolitan newspapers across the US.

This time, it relates to comments made by Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

According to this report, Mr Obama wants to ease the current regulations that restrict visits to Cuba by Cubans living in the US, while also restricting how much money they can send to relatives on the island.

These restrictions were imposed by the Bush administration in 2004 as a way of making life more difficult for the Castro brothers. In theory, at least.

Anyway, it's not clear at this stage whether Mr Obama wants to go further and lift the embargo entirely if he is elected next year, but I'd be a little surprised if he did make such a statement.

And as always, it'll be interesting to see how the official Cuban media reacts.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Idiot of the week

This is what happens when you spend too much time inhaling illegal substances – you become Diego Maradona.

A fine futbolista he may have been once but Maradona has now become one big joke.

With his old friend Fidel Castro near death, the Argentinean football legend has now hitched his wagon to a new hero, Hugo Chavez.

According to this Reuters report, Maradona told television viewers in Venezuela at the weekend that he approved of “everything Fidel does”. Of course.

He then described himself as a die-hard “chavista”, before launching a virulent attack on the United States.

"I hate everything that comes from the United States - I hate it with all my strength," he said “to thunderous applause and cheering” from supporters of Chavez.

Friday, August 17, 2007

In every barrio, a monument

You would have thought that Cubans had plenty to worry about already, busy as most of them are trying to make ends meet in a country where the average wage is barely USD15.00 a month.

Well, you would be wrong.

Fidel Castro and his regime may be moribund but it seems there is no shortage of dopes (and their dopey ideas) in Havana.

You know, the same imbeciles who dreamt up the production of giant pineapples, the breeding programs for super-cows, “voluntary” work that was never voluntary, and that greatest of all revolutionary failures, the 10 million sugar harvest of 1969-70.

Now, they have come up with a new idea – the Mi Aporte por la Patria campaign, which translates roughly as “doing my bit for the homeland”.

According to today’s official media, the campaign is the brainchild of the executive of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), the neighbourhood spy network set up in the early 1960s by Castro in every city, town and village in Cuba.

The CDRs, which claim to have eight million “members”, is calling on all Cubans to “donate” copper items, jewellery and artifacts.

The copper will be melted and then used to erect what are described as “revolutionary” monuments along the length and breadth of the island, highlighting Cuba’s “great socialist achievements” and its “continual struggles” against “the Empire”.

The head of the CRDs, Ileana Urrusuno, told the media that the monuments would be a kind of legacy for future generations of the country’s “battles” with and victories against those nasty, evil Americans across the Straits of Florida.

In other words, monuments to Castro.

Which begs the question: perhaps he is dead after all?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Old Fidel vs New Fidel

Here is another one of those “worth a thousand words” photographs.

Simple message: in Cuba, you can take Fidel Castro’s picture off the wall any time you want … provided you replace it with another one exactly the same.

And doesn’t this lady look happy, eh?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Purple prose

So, Fidel Castro may or may not be near death …

According to rumours doing the rounds in Havana, the celebrations held across the island this week to mark the dictator’s 81st birthday may turn out to be not so much a party as a wake.

Then again, we’ve all heard the rumours before, haven’t we?

Luckily for us, the rumour-mongering has not stopped the editors of the official Cuban media from trying to outdo each other once again in dreaming up ever-more outlandish titles to bestow on Castro on his birthday.

As in previous years, thousands of words and dozens of photographs have been published in official papers big and small praising the humanity and absolute genius of the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for close to half a century.

The official newspaper of the Communist Party, Granma, which two years ago compared Castro to the sun, has opted to describe him this time around as “A Giant Among Titans”.

Not to be outdone, the editors of Juventud Rebelde, the official organ of the Cuban Union of Communist Youth, have given him the title of “The Comandante of A Thousand Battles and A Million Triumphs”.

But let’s hear it for the hard-working editorial staff at Trabajadores, the newspaper of the official Communist Party-controlled Trade Union Council. Without even a hint of embarrassment, they have anointed Castro “The Untiring Gladiator of Truth”.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Oh, dear …

A newspaper in Buenos Aires has just revealed that one of Ernesto Che Guevara’s daughters, Celia, has recently sought (and been granted) Argentinean citizenship.

Ms Guevara, who was born in Cuba 44 years ago, is a veterinarian at Havana’s Aquarium, has two sons and lives in a VIP zone in the capital that is reserved for foreign diplomats and the most senior Communist Party officials. As you would expect.

Described by the newspaper Clarin as la mas castrista of all the Guevara offsprings, she applied for citizenship in January - funnily enough, just five months after Fidel Castro came close to death.

But please, don’t think for a minute that Ms Guevara, who describes Castro as her surrogate father, is thinking of departing the land of her birth for good.

Not at all.

It seems she has told friends that she has no intention of leaving Cuba but the Argentinean passport will make it much, much easier for her own sons to travel overseas at will.

Unlike ordinary Cubans, of course.

H/T Penultimos Dias

Monday, August 13, 2007

From the archives

Remember the good old days before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down?

Well, it’s just been confirmed in Germany that despite the endless denials, the Stasi secret police had clear orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to cross the Wall to the West. Including children.

For years, the East German communists and their (many) apologists in the West denied that such an order ever existed.

Instead, they claimed, it was up to guard units along the border to decide what action to take when confronted with would-be escapers.

But as you can read here, this was a lie.

Newly-uncovered archive material confirms that in October 1973, the Communist Party’s highest policy-making body, the Politburo, ordered the Stasi thus: “Do not hesitate with the use of a firearm, including when the border breakouts involve women and children, which the traitors have already frequently taken advantage of."

Luckily, the Stasi and East Germany have long been confined to the old dustbin of history.

But sadly, its trainees remain at work. In Cuba. And so do the apologists.

Loony tunes

Here is something to get you started on a Monday morning.

It's a commentary published in the left-leaning London daily, The Guardian, on the recent spat between Havana and Washington over the number of visas handed out by the United States to Cubans wanting to leave the island.

Be warned: it was written by a British-born author by the name of Ian Williams, who claims to have once engaged in a drinking competition with Chou En Lai.

You'll love it. Or may be not.


As you may recall, we have previously written about those well-meaning, God-fearing citizens in places like Canada, Spain and even Australia who are forever collecting medicines and medical equipment to send to Cuba.

Why do they do it?

Well, because they have been told by the Castro regime that while Cuba has one of the best and most equitable health systems in the world, the country lacks basic medicines. Those evil Americans, you see, and their nasty “blockade”.

Sadly, the bit about lacking basic medicines is indeed true, as anyone who has visited an ordinary hospital in Cuba can attest.

Well, here is some news that may be of interest.

According to the Cuban official media, the regime has somehow managed to find enough medicines in Cuba to be able to “donate” a shipload of medication to victims of a recent “cold spell” in Peru.

Not a small shipload, either. Five tonnes.

A very excited Cuban ambassador in Lima, Luis Delfin Perez, told reporters that these “high quality Cuban-made medicines” would be useful for treating respiratory problems.

Of course, only a cynic would think that the regime is taking much-needed medicines from ordinary, sick Cubans so it can ship them off to another country for cheap propaganda purposes.

And as you know, this blog is cynicism-free.

Socialismo, not sociolismo

To mark Fidel Castro’s 81st birthday, today’s edition of The Australian publishes an interesting article by British academic and journalist Neil Clark.

According to Mr Clark, what Cuba needs a good dose of socialism. With a capital S.

By which he means more egalitarianism.

“Apartheid may have come to an end in South Africa but in Cuba it lives on, only people are not divided by the colour of their skin but whether or not they have access to Cuban convertible pesos, the currency all tourists are forced to spend,” he writes.

“While its people make the sacrifices, the Cuban elite continue to enjoy the good life,” he says, pointing out that the regime has just ordered a new fleet of BMWs for all its ambassadors - and a Series 5 model for Raul Castro.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Those clever Chinese

Ah, yes, those Che Guevara t-shirts we love to hate …

This month’s edition of Esquire magazine carries a very funny (and eye-opening) piece by writer Colby Buzzell on what happens when a country pretends it's both, communist and capitalist at the same time.

Buzzell visited Shenzhen, which used to be a small fishing village in southern China until 1979 when the then Paramount Leader, Deng Xiaoping, ditched communist economic policies and encouraged his fellow Chinese to get rich. Quickly.

The result is that Shenzhen now has 11 million inhabitants, skyscrapers, some pollution, lots of prostitutes, millionaires, shopping malls in every corner - and more McDonalds than you can poke a spring roll at.

And plenty of factories making cheap t-shirts.

“Those Che T-shirts are made here, too,” reports Buzzell, “to be shipped to every college town in America. Shirts made in a communist country by workers who make $1.50 a day, shipped to slackers in a rich country who'll pay twenty bucks they got from Dad for a T-shirt. I'll bet that's just the way Che wanted to be remembered.”

See? Capitalism is the best revenge.

One out, all in

Fidel Castro may be ill (or is he dead?) but he is still keeping a close eye on the things that really matter … like boxing.

We know because he has just written a new reflexion, which is published in all its barely-coherent glory on the front page of today’s Granma, the regime’s official propaganda sheet.

In this latest missive, the 81-year-old dictator reveals that he has spent hours reading interviews, newspaper clips and television transcripts involving the two Cuban champion boxers who attempted to defect while attending the recent Pan-American Games in Rio.

And it seems that despite his earlier promises that the two would-be defectors would be treated well on their return to Havana, Castro isn’t happy with their behaviour - or their responses to questioning by official journalists.

In fact, he makes it clear that both boxers are highly unlikely to ever box again, let alone be allowed outside Cuba.

"They have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team," Castro wrote. "An athlete who abandons his team is like a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat.”

Loopy stuff, I know.

But there’s more.

In a classic Stalinist response to the controversy, Castro is now threatening not to send any more Cuban boxers to any competition outside the island, including next year’s Beijing Olympics, lest they, too, attempt to defect.

That, my friends, is the state of Cuban sports for you.

PS: By the way, when you read Castro's lastest reflexion, check out how he describes Cuban boxers. Not as elite athletes. Or even as human beings. They are “fresh meat”. That's right: fresh meat.

I know it’s meant as a metaphor and I know I am probably getting all hot under the collar over a couple of little words but can you imagine any other head of State anywhere referring to his own people as “fresh meat”?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Helpful Hints Dept.

Who says the official Cuban media are nothing but useless propaganda mouthpieces for a tired and corrupt regime on its (hopefully) last legs?

Certainly not Juventud Rebelde, the official newspaper of the grandly-named Cuban Union of Communist Youth (UJC).

Starting this past Tuesday, the paper is publishing weekly lessons to help its readers in the correct, revolutionary use of "highly advanced" electric appliances such as rice cookers and pressure cookers.

As you will recall, the cookers have been imported from China over the past couple of years as part of Fidel Castro’s grand plan to solve the country’s energy shortages – his so-called Revolucion Energetica.

In characteristic style, the all-powerful dictator ordered that from then on, all Cuban households had to buy the new cookers from the State at supposedly “subsidised” prices, as a way of saving energy.

Why, he even gave a hilarious televised demonstration showing Cubans how to correctly use the new machines.

But you know Cubans ... too busy talking to pay attention! It appears many families have been using the cookers wrongly, despite the clear (and strict) instructions from El Cocinero en Jefe, as we have previously reported.

So, with Castro out of action, the helpful folk at Juventud Rebelde have come to the rescue.

You can read their first instalment here – a complete lesson on how to look after those new and mysterious Chinese pressure cookers. Sadly, it's only in Spanish.

Fidel, the exiled

Norberto Fuentes has written an intriguing article for the Spanish daily ABC on the first anniversary of Raul Castro’s “temporary” elevation to the top job.

As you may know, Fuentes is a sometimes-controversial writer who used to be close (very close) to the Castro brothers but then saw the light, defected and is now living in the US.

His take is that Raul Castro is well and truly in charge now – and that he is shifting his own people into key positions of power while gradually freezing out loyal fidelistas, including the so-called talibanes, such as Carlos Valenciaga and that awful Felipe Perez Roque.

In fact, Fuentes argues, the older Castro has been relegated to a minor role as “commentator in chief”, effectively exiled to his luxury recovery compound with strict instructions not to be allowed out in public.

Who knows?

Interestingly, Fuentes has also picked up on the public relations role being played oh so cleverly by Raul Castro’s highly-visible and user-friendly daughter, Mariela.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pa Miami

Reuters file picture, dated 29 August 1994.

Take me to your leader

More news on the no-longer-defecting Cuban boxers.

A relative of one of the would-be defectors, Olympic champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, has told foreign media that the boxer never had any plans to defect while attending the Pan-American Games in Rio.

According to Marilyn Clavero, all the boxer ever wanted was “to speak to Fidel” so he could “explain his problems” but "they wouldn't let him".

Ms Clavero did not elaborate on what the problems might have been.

However, she did confirm that Communist Party officials had “confiscated” the Government car that had previously been given to Rigondeaux in his capacity as favoured athlete of the regime.

She also confirmed that there has been no indication as to when or even whether the boxer would be allowed to return home.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Grateful ungrateful sods?

So the defecting boxers are back in Cuba, according to the official media.

After enjoying capitalist life for a week or so, they were rounded-up by Brazilian authorities and sent back to Havana, where they await their fates in what has been described as a “special guest house”.

Not that they should worry, of course.

None other than Fidel Castro himself has announced from his recovery divan that there will be no prison for the would-be defectors as he has "forgiven" them. And Castro would know because you see, in Cuba, he is not just the investigator and the prosecutor but also judge and jury. And occasionally, the executioner, too.

The boxers will be just fine, says the ailing dictator. Don't you worry about that ...

Which means it won’t be long before the poor bastards make the inevitable appearance on television, reading from their carefully-scripted notes.

They will no doubt accuse those evil imperialists of clouding their judgement, repent for their sins against "the Revolution" and "the Party" and then praise the nobility, intelligence and inherent goodness of El Comandante en Jefe.

Who said Stalinism was dead?

Media relations 101

Now that Fidel Castro is spending his twilight days writing silly “editorials” about whatever comes into his mind, his role as the international face of the regime appears to have been taken up by another Castro.

No, no, it’s not his (slightly) younger brother Raul, the man supposedly in charge.

As far as the foreign media are concerned, the shiny new media face of what is in reality a nasty and decaying regime is the dictator’s niece, Mariela Castro.

Ms Castro’s public platform is her position as head of the government-controlled Cuban National Centre for Sexual Education (Cenesex), but of course, she is more than just a mere functionary.

After all, she is Raul’s most visible offspring … and she is happy to give carefully selected interviews to foreign media as often as necessary.

In fact, hardly a week goes by that we don’t read yet another interview with Ms Castro, to the point where she has been dubbed la princesa regente by our (very perceptive) friends at Penultimos Dias.

Ms Castro is obviously clever, eloquent and seems to be able to charm the pants off most reporters she talks to.

And unlike her father or that awful Felipe Perez Roque, she can sound inclusive, modern and open-minded, using words like “transformation”, “change” and even “toleration”.

In other words, she can sound half way credible – unlike most of the other representatives of the Communist hierarchy.

Equally important, she sticks to message.

In her latest interview, Ms Castro has told the Spanish news agency Efe that Cubans are mature and well-educated people who are ready to keep the revolutionary flag flying when her uncle finally kicks the bucket.

All will be well on the island, she insists. Some changes may be necessary but no chaos.

And once again, the clever Ms Castro used the interview to present a very positive image of her father. As you would expect.

Hardline and intolerant? No way, says Ms Castro. Raul is flexible, very sensible and always eager to solve problems on behalf of his people. Oh, yes, and her Dad is very inclusive and tolerant ...

See? Stick to message.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Meetings, conventions, birthdays ...

Here is a news brief that may have passed you by: Cuba has become a leading destination for conventions, exhibitions and corporate meetings.

At least that’s the claim made by the Ministry of Tourism, according to this item published by Prensa Latina, the official newsagency of the Castro regime.

The Ministry says some 300 international meetings and conventions were held on the island last year, attracting thousands of overseas visitors and placing Cuba as the sixth most popular destination for such events in Latin America.

The attractions?

Well, the Ministry claims that Cuba boasts plenty of convention centres and exhibition facilities that can offer visitors “the latest information technologies” and excellent “means of transportation”.

No doubt this will come as a surprise to most ordinary Cubans, who are barred from freely accessing “the latest information technologies”.

As for means of transportation …

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Back from Cuba

The vast majority of the two million or so tourists who visit Cuba every year return home empty handed, except for a box of cigars, a CD of old boleros and the obligatory Che Guevara t-shirt.

Some tourists, however, return home with a new understanding of what ordinary Cubans have to go through daily to keep afloat - and why.

Take Kate, for instance.

She is a London-based blogger who describes herself as a 29-year-old writer ("sometimes I get paid"), who spent four weeks in Cuba recently.

“Before I visited, I held the usual Western leftie yes-it's-not-perfect-but-the-blame-lies-with-the USA point of view," Kate writes. “After spending a month there, however, my opinions have radically changed.

“I still think that America's handling of Cuba has been completely counter-productive, and its embargo has condemned many to suffer needlessly. But the Cuban leadership can't escape responsibility for the horrendous conditions in which many people live.

“When the Cuban people discover - as, at some point, they unavoidably will - how the world has changed in the decades their country has been sequestered, their anger will be immense.”

Read more of Kate here.

Church-State relations

The always-thorny issue about the level of “engagement” between the Catholic Church hierarchy in Cuba and the Castro regime has risen again.

This time, it’s a commentary published by Commonweal, the New York based Catholic magazine.

According to one of the magazine’s high-profile contributors, Eduardo Peñalver, an associate professor at Cornell Law School, both the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy on the island have been far too accommodating when it comes to the Castro brothers.

“The Church has been so eager to avoid persecution in Cuba that it has bent over backwards in recent years to avoid confrontation with the Castro government and has distanced itself from dissident groups on the island,” Professor Peñalver writes.

“Here we have a fairly doctrinaire communist regime - a regime whose policies clearly contradict the Church's teachings on the inhumanity of communism - and the Church's stance is one of accommodation.”

Strong words, which you can read here.

He says potato ...

Under the characteristically modest headline of “The Eternal Flame”, Fidel Castro has written another one of his reflexiones to mark 12 months since he “temporarily” stepped down from office.

Actually, he calls this latest missive a "proclamation", which is as it should when you are a modern day Sun King and have absolute power over the life (and death) of your subjects.

Mind you, it's the same old, silly rant about how well things are going in Cuba, about Castro’s own, tireless struggle to save humanity, blah, blah, blah.

But there is also an interesting comment about relations with those evil, nasty Americans.

“No one should entertain the slightest illusion that the Empire, which carries the genes of its own destruction, will negotiate with Cuba,” Castro writes.

Which seems a complete contradiction to the “olive branch” supposedly offered to the US by his slightly younger brother, Raul, only five or so days ago.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Birthday greetings

And a happy birthday to our friends over at Penultimos Dias.

It is indeed an excellent blog – must read.

With a little less fanfare, we are celebrating, too. It’s now a little over 12 months since this blog got off the ground, initially as a promotional tool for my book, Child of the Revolution.

While on the subject of the book, did I tell you it’s about to be published in ... Serbian?

Go figure.

Here is the news

Well, folks, it’s now 12 months since that nerdy looking guy you see in the photograph above went on national television in Cuba with the announcement some of us had been waiting for for a long time: Fidel Castro was stepping down.
The soon-to-be 80-year-old dictator had undergone emergency surgery for some mystery condition (cancer?), and as a result, had transferred all his powers “temporary” to his slightly younger brother, Raul.

The man who had ruled Cuba with an iron fist for nearly half a century handing over power? Voluntarily? Because he was sick?

Many thought it was the beginning of the end for the rancid, deeply corrupt hierarchy that has kept a tight rein on the island since those heady days back in January 1959.

There was dancing in the streets of Miami, but back here in the Antipodes, the handful of Australians who pay regular attention to Cuban affairs (hi, everybody), took a more cautious, wait-and-see approach, which is the naturally Australian thing to do.

That and the fact we have grown weary of predictions about Castro’s demise.

Anyway, it all seems like a long time ago and the obvious question today is this: has anything really changed in Cuba in the past year?

Here are two separate assessments.

The first is a report by David Usborne of the British daily The Independent, who is of the view that Cuba is still “languishing” in Fidel Castro’s shadow.

“Cuba marked the first anniversary of Fidel Castro provisionally handing power to his younger brother, Raul, with little sign of the political or economic change some had expected,” Usborne comments. “Human rights reform, freedom, and reliable supplies of food staples remain as elusive as ever."

Then there is this somewhat more up-beat assessment from Anthony Boadle, the Reuters correspondent in Havana.

“One year after taking over from his ailing brother as Cuba's leader, Raul Castro is raising hopes of reforms to relieve economic inefficiencies and food shortages but he is not offering political change,” Boadle writes in his dispatch.

He then quotes a “Havana maid who asked not to be named” as saying: "People feel encouraged. The speech [on 26th July] shows that Raul is in charge now. Changes are coming.”

But Boadle reports, her husband was way less optimistic.

"We've heard the same story for years - I can only afford vegetables on my pay, never meat," the unnamed husband said before “his wife shut him up, saying he could be arrested”.

Make up your own mind.