Thursday, January 31, 2008

Food & Wine

Nearly 40 years after Fidel Castro “nationalised” all privately-owned restaurants as part of his deranged scheme to turn Cuba into a tropical version of the Soviet Union, a new restaurant has opened in Havana.

And according to this article by Gavin McOwan in The Guardian, it’s quickly become the must-go destination for tourists and “cool habaneros”, serving fresh seafood by the bay at Avenida del Puerto, in Old Havana.

Known as El Templete, the restaurant is run by Alejandro Esnal, a Basque who used to cook at a number of upmarket eateries in San Sebastian before moving to Cuba a couple of years ago, for reasons that are not fully explained.

It seems he has somehow managed to “side step” the Castro regime’s strict bureacratic regulations and buy his fish fresh from local fishermen.

The adventurous Mr Esnal is introducing what are described as “nueva cocina vasca twists” to the menu, such as cod mousse with tomato confit and even fried lettuce, to the delight of his customers.

As for the ambiance, McOwan says El Templete has “the buzz of a stylish Mediterranean restaurant in full summer swing”, adding: “This is perhaps the first restaurant of real quality to open since the Revolution”.

Sadly, there is no mention of how much the various dishes cost but it’d be fair to assume not many ordinary Cubans would be able to afford the place, given the average monthly wage is about USD15.00.

Electoral results

So we all agree that the parliamentary “elections” held in Cuba earlier this month were a charade.

After all, it’s the type of election where there are 614 carefully-chosen candidates for exactly 614 seats in the National Assembly. In other words, you can’t lose.

Still, let’s assume for a minute that there is some sense to this farce. Let’s assume, too, that the official results published overnight by the Cuban Electoral Commission (CEN) are valid. Big assumptions but let’s pretend …

What do the figures tell us?

First: Raul Castro, the “temporary” president, apparently received a bigger vote in his district than Fidel Castro, the ailing 81-year-old dictator. Unprecedented, you say. Exactly. Obviously, there is a message there somewhere.

Second: the issue of the voto unido. As previously discussed, the regime furiously promoted the need for Cubans to “stand united” and vote for all the candidates as a block. A matter of the utmost importance, the older Castro wrote in one of his “editorials”.

Well, the official figures reveal that 9.10 per cent of the voters defied the regime and voted selectively for candidates – that’s almost one in 10.

Even more telling, the proportion of voters who defied the regime and its interminable propaganda in this way ranged from just 5.38 per cent in the province of Granma, in eastern Cuba, to a remarkable 32.34 per cent in the Isle of Youth.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


The name Paul Howes will probably mean little to most readers of this blog, so here is some background.

Mr Howes is a 26-year-old former insurance clerk who has just been elected national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), one of the largest and most powerful blue-collar trade unions in this country.

Which makes him something of a rising star in the Australian political landscape.

What’s interesting about Mr Howes is that he started his political education as a teenage warrior of the extreme Left, a Trotskyist of sorts set on destroying capitalism.

Until he got to Havana, that is.

As this article in today’s edition of The Age reveals, Mr Howes visited Cuba about 10 years ago as a delegate to the so-called World Festival of Youth and Students, a left-over from the old Soviet days.

He was not impressed, he told the newspaper: "I decided that if I wanted to change the world, I didn't want it to be like Cuba."

Quote of the Day

"We know who the dissidents are, where they work, who they meet with - we know everything that happens on this block. Anyone who is not a revolutionary is an enemy of the Revolution."

Over De Leon, who has headed his neighbourhood’s Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) in Havana for the past 40 years, as quoted in this article published today by The Washington Post.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Quote of the Day

"I think art can make everyone better.”

Cuban folk singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez after performing at a Santa Clara prison as part of what Associated Press calls a “government program to bring art to inmates”. Dissidents call it cheap propaganda by the Castro brothers. Propaganda? Silvio? Surely not ...

Rooms with a view

As you may have read elsewhere, The New York Times has published a feature story today on what the great journal of record describes as “the bustling underground market” in homes and apartments in Havana.

According to the paper, although all property in Cuba is supposed to be owned by the socialist State (thanks, Fidel!), habaneros are “as obsessed with real estate as, say, condo-crazy New Yorkers”.

Now, while it’s pleasing to see the Times looking into the housing problems experienced by the vast majority of Cubans after 50 years of the Castro regime, I am not sure that you can quite equate the situation in Havana with New York.

At the risk of sounding like a nit-picker, it seems to me that while condo-crazy New Yorkers dream of better views over Central Park or a bigger study, the Cubans are “obsessed” about finding a room of their own. Any room. With or without views.

Which is why the photograph you see above, taken by Jose Goitia and used by the paper to illustrate the article, is spot on.
Its caption reads: “Yasunari, a student, shares this small room in Havana with her mother. It is their bedroom, living room, kitchen and study”.


If you are lucky enough to be in Paris this week and have a few euros to spare, you may be interested to hear that hundreds of items of clothing, furniture and gifts that belonged to the late Francois Mitterrand are to be auctioned.

According to media reports, the wife of France’s longest serving president (1981 to 1995), has decided to sell much of his old stuff to raise money for “humanitarian” projects.

Among the items, there are wool designer suits, hats, a piggy bank and gifts given by world leaders to Mitterrand, including what is described as a “crocodile-skin briefcase” that was a gift from … Fidel Castro.

Friday, January 25, 2008

(Mortality) Quote of the day

"Never in my life have I thought so much."

Fidel Castro, in his latest "editorial", explaining how he has spent the past 18 months or so since disappearing from public view.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Quote of the day

“The fact is, in my five interviews with Castro years ago, when many people were struck dumb by his charisma, his conversation was largely incoherent.”

Georgie Anne Geyer, US columnist and author of "Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro.

Will he or won't he?

Now that Fidel Castro has been “elected” to the National Assembly, there is feverish speculation in the international media as to whether the ailing 81-year-old dictator will hang on the position of head of State.

You see, the first major task of the 614 newly selected deputies when they meet on 24 February will be to pick the members of the Council of State, including its president, who automatically becomes head of State.

Under the Constitution introduced by Castro in the mid 1970s, the 31-member Council of State is supposed to be the paramount policy-making body in the nation, representing the will of the people, etc, etc.

In reality, it is largely meaningless since all the real decisions are (and have always been) made by the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), which is run by the Castro brothers.

It’s exactly the same Marxist-Leninist model that operated in the old Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, with the decisions made in PCC head office then dutifully rubber-stamped by the Council of State.

So, the most interesting question is not whether Castro remains head of the Council of State (he has held the position since 1976), but whether he remains First Secretary of the PCC which, by the way, has not had a congress since 1997.

Still, it’s fun to watch senior figures of the regime continuing to play these farcical games with the international media, which should know better.

In recent days, we have had all the usual suspects – Carlos Lage, Ricardo Alarcon, Felipe Perez Roque – confirming that if Fidel Castro stands for the position of president of the Council of State, then, why, of course, they will vote for him. With both hands!

However, there appears to have been a slight shift in the rhetoric lately, at least from Ricardo Alarcon, who goes by the grand title of president of the National Assembly and who also happens to be a member of the PCC Politburo.

According to this brief item in The New York Times, Alarcon has now “expressed uncertainty” over whether Castro will accept the post of president of the Council of State again.

“It’s obvious that he has been very successful in the recovery process,” he said. “But he has the right to say yes or no.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Headline of the day

Cuba: No Surprises, No Losers

Headline in The New York Times, reporting on the results of Sunday’s parliamentary “elections” in Cuba. As the paper points out, 614 candidates were nominated for 614 seats in the National Assembly – and nobody lost.

An embargoed island

Remember the US trade and commercial embargo on the Castro regime?

Well, whether you are a supporter or not of the embargo here is some interesting news, courtesy of our friends over at the Associated Press.

Despite the supposed restrictions on trade, Cuban officials have confirmed to the foreign media that the US continued to be the island’s main supplier of food and farm products last year.

American farmers and primary producers sold Cuba more than USD600 million in 2007 – about the same amount as in the previous 12 months. For cash, of course.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Quote of the day

"Cubans appear to have adjusted well to Raul, so much so that they rarely talk about Fidel anymore, except to occasionally comment on his published essays."

Anita Snow, AP correspondent in Havana, giving her views on the "transition".

The visual arts

While we await with bated breath for the official results of the Cuban parliamentary “elections”, here is some news of interest.

An exhibition has just opened at Rivington Place, a new gallery in London, featuring the works of about half a dozen Cuban visual artists – the first such exhibition in nearly a decade.

According to the exhibition notes, the aim of the exercise is to show how artists living and working in Fidel Castro's tropical paradise “discuss contradictions, ambiguities and social negotiations in Cuban life”.

One of the exhibits involves a video titled “Self-censorship”, in which artist Jeanette Chavez is filmed tying her tongue inside her closed lips.

Then there is the installation above – toilet rolls made out of pages from Granma, the official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime.

The artist, Wilfredo Prieto, titled his work “Speech”.

According to the curator of the exhibition, Gerardo Mosquera, Prieto had some difficulty getting official approval for his work from the regime’s cultural commissars, who decide what can and cannot be exhibited.

Mr Mosquera told the media that after much discussion, Prieto was told that he could only use pages from Granma that did not feature an image of Fidel Castro – a feat Mr Mosquera correctly describes as “near impossible”.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Counting continues in Havana ...

I know, I know … you just won’t be able to get any sleep tonight worrying about the results of the Cuban parliamentary “elections”, will you?

Will the seriously ill but brave Fidel Castro get re-elected by a grateful electorate? What about his brother Raul? Will the voters in Santiago give the hard-working 75-year-old “provisional” president the big tick? And what about that lovable ideologue Felipe Perez Roque? Will he keep his job as Cuba’s number one diplomat?

Talk about suspense … and we will have to wait until Monday afternoon (Cuban time) to find out the results!

In the meantime, here are some selected paragraphs from an Associated Press story that may shed some light into the likely election results:

"Only one choice appeared for each post in districts across the country and there was no campaigning."

“Candidates lose if they do not get more than 50 percent of the vote, although National Assembly officials don't remember that happening since Cubans began voting for parliament in 1993.”

“Voters ... were strongly encouraged to check a single box supporting the full slate of candidates, although if they object to some candidates, they can mark individual boxes by names they support and leave others blank.”

“Many Cubans feel compelled to vote because failing to do so can draw unwanted attention from pro-government neighbourhood watch committees, whose support can be needed to get jobs, housing or other official approvals.”

Still,don’t be fooled by all those unhelpful, negative remarks.

According to the Cuban vice-president, the ever-loyal Carlos Lage, elections on the island are the pinnacle of democracy, despite all the "enemy propaganda".

"Looking at the United States, it seems more like a popularity contest then elections," Lage told reporters. "Our elections are elections without politics, without fraud, without money or propaganda campaigns - elections that are based on merit."

Stay tuned.

Embargo news

That bastion of capitalism, The Financial Times, has published an editorial today calling for the lifting of the US trade and commercial embargo on the Castro regime.

The paper says that while the "elections" currently underway in Cuba are a charade (really?), the very fact that they are being held suggest that “an increasingly stable Cuba is successfully preparing for life without its charismatic but frail leader”.

Therefore, it argues, the time is right to “engage” with the regime.

Read the editorial here.

Quote of the day

"Here, if you see someone wearing an American flag, they're probably Cuban. If they wear Che Guevara, they're probably a tourist."

Havana-based blogger Yoani Sánchez, quoted in this feature story published on Sunday by The Observer, in London.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Democracy in action

Just days before Cubans go to the polls to “elect” a new parliament, diplomatic representatives of the Castro regime have been busy talking up the election on Sunday as fair and democratic.

Funnily enough, they are even able to predict the outcome with absolute certainty! May have something to do with the fact that there are 614 candidates on the ballot paper vying for exactly 614 seats in the National Assembly of People's Power.

As they say, very fair and very democratic.

So, let’s hear first from Jorge Alberto Bolaños, a senior regime official who was recently appointed head of the quasi-embassy Havana keeps in Washington, known as the Cuban Interest Session.

The very perceptive Mr Bolaños has told Reuters that he is pretty sure Fidel Castro will get re-elected as a deputy.

“I am confident Fidel will get re-elected deputy, with the highest voting of any one,” he said, although he stopped short of predicting whether the ailing 81-year-old dictator would be elected head of State.

Meanwhile, the press attaché at the Cuban embassy in Buenos Aires, a gentleman by the name of Orestes Hernandez, has told local media that contrary to “enemy propaganda … we have elections in Cuba just like elections everywhere else in the world”.

And in Malaysia, the Cuban ambassador, Carlos Amores, has explained that the Cuban Communist Party plays no role whatsoever in the nomination of candidates for the parliament, let alone their election.

No, sir, it’s all up to the people, Mr Amores insisted, adding that this “unique” electoral system has allowed Cubans to “enjoy peace, stability and social justice”.


Rain, rain everywhere

The official propaganda sheet of the Castro regime, Granma, has published official figures confirming that 2007 was a really, really wet year on the island.

According to the statistics, 1,623 millimetres of rain were recorded during the year – the third highest level since 1901. The other two wettest years were 1969 (1,967 mm), and 1958 (1,624 mm).

Thursday, January 17, 2008

For your collection

First there was the t-shirt. Then the movie. Then the bikini. Then the posters. Then the endless books. Then the underpants …

Now, we bring you the official Che Guevara calendar for 2008.

And it’s already discounted!

Not quite OK

Nothing like mixed messages.

Just hours after Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva described Fidel Castro as being in “impeccable health”, the 81-year-old dictator has confirmed that he is still too weak to speak in public.

The admission comes in Castro’s latest editorial, a lengthy, semi-coherent attack on the US and capitalism that has just published in all its glory by the official media in Cuba.

In the editorial, Castro acknowledges that much as he would like to, he is “not physically able to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections next Sunday”.

Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

That jogging suit. Again.

Well, folks, Fidel Castro is still alive. And still wearing his jogging suit.

The Associated Press photograph you see above shows the ailing dictator meeting the visiting Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in Havana overnight.

It's not clear at this stage how long the meeting lasted nor where it was held but the photograph would confirm that Castro is still with us, even though the caption refers to him as looking “frail but alert”. In other words, still far too sick to make any public appearances.

Asked to comment on the meeting, Mr da Silva said all the right things, describing his one-time political mentor as “lucid” and in “impeccable health” before adding: “I think Fidel will soon assume his political role in Cuba, his historic role in Cuba and the globalised world.”

Gender issues

Here is some good news for Cuban transsexuals who want to undergo what is now described as sex-realignment surgery.

According to this Reuters dispatch, Mariela Castro has confirmed that the Communist Party is considering giving the “green light” to as many as 27 such operations on the island – and you will be happy to hear that they won’t cost the transsexuals a penny.

As readers may recall, Ms Castro is the media-savvy peripatetic head of the Cuban National Centre for Sexual Education.

More importantly, however, she happens to be Raul Castro’s daughter – and Fidel Castor’s niece.

So, what’s the reaction so far from her uncle, the seriously ill 81-year-old dictator who has in the past described homosexuals (as opposed to transsexuals) as lumpen, deviates, dangerous, counter-revolutionary and escoria?

“Like the rest of the population, he will begin to understand,” Ms Castro cryptically told the media.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Homes & Gardens

As reported by our friends at Penultimos Dias, the Castro regime has confirmed that it’s failed to meet its modest home building target for the past year. Again.

According to a news report on State television, only 52,600 new houses were completed during 2007 – about 75 per cent of the number promised in the first place.

But don’t think for a moment that this embarrassing shortfall is a reflection on the ineptitude of the regime.

A senior official told Reuters the problem is due to the fact that some 1,600 building and construction workers were sacked or reprimanded during the year for “economic crimes” and “corruption”.

When friends visit

Will he or won’t he?

Brazilian president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva arrives in Havana today for a brief visit – his first since 2003.

According to media
reports, Mr da Silva will meet the “provisional” president, Raul Castro, and other senior officials, sign the customary “trade agreements” and offer the Castro regime credits worth an estimated USD 1 billion.

But the big question is whether the Brazilian head of state will get to meet the ailing Fidel Castro, who has not been since in public for more than 18 months.

We shall see.

Monday, January 14, 2008

All together, now

Meanwhile, long-suffering newspaper readers and television watchers in Cuba are being bombarded by endless “news” in the official media about the forthcoming “elections” to the National Assembly.

The poll takes place on 20 January when Cubans turn up to tick a list of candidates who have all been nominated and approved by either the Communist Party or one of its front organisations.

It’s an old and tired charade, to be sure, no different to the “elections” that used to be held regularly in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites back in the good old days.
And you can always tell who the winner will be - even before you vote! How good is that?

Still, there seems to be concern in the upper echelons of the Castro regime that some voters may do the unthinkable in these uncertain times and give a tick to some of the candidates on the list but not all.

Which is why the regime has been busy reminding Cubans that it’s their “revolutionary duty” to approve the entire list – the so-called voto unido.

It seems everyone is out there “encouraging” voters to vote, well, to vote just as they have been told – from the seriously ill Fidel Castro (where is he?) to colourless officials such as Carlos Lage and Ricardo Alarcon.

The latest contribution to the call for “unity” has come from Antonio Pacheco Mas, the head of the Santiago baseball team, the national champions.

In an article that would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, Pacheco Mas has supposedly told the media that he will be voting for the entire ticket because unity is a “decisive factor for victory” not just in baseball but in politics, too.

Using a phrase that kind of gives the whole game away, he has called on Cubans to vote with “monolithic unity”.

Canadian tourists

The Canadian publication This Magazine, which describes itself as “subversive, edgy and smart” (all at once!), has devoted the cover story of its January-February issue to tourism in Cuba.

Written by Maria Amuchastegui, the article contains some interesting assertions, including that old chestnut about how Havana in the 1950s was nothing but “a casino and brothel for American tourists”.

Ms Amuchastegui also asserts that Cuba has “an admirable social welfare system”, but perhaps the most startling of her comments relates to the well-documented and profitable connection between the Cuban tourist industry and the Castro regime's military establishment.

“One of the oddities of Cuban tourism is that the military plays a major role, owning many hotels and providing workers and management expertise," she writes, with just a hint of disapproval before quickly adding: "This is not as sinister as it sounds: the Cuban military, unlike the those of many Latin American countries, does not have a history of attacking its own people.”

Got it? You may want to read that comment again.

Anyway, at least the writer took the time to speak to people who are critical of the Castro regime, such as Ismael Sambra, a journalist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the early 1990s for “mercenary” activities – that is, for asking too many questions that would most certainly fall in the “subversive, edgy and smart” category.

Sambra, who now lives in Canada and is president of the Cuban Canadian Foundation, told the magazine that tourists who turned a blind eye to the “excesses” of the regime while enjoying the cheap packaged holidays on the island “are complicit with a dictatorial regime”.

“Most Canadians who go to Cuba don’t want to talk to the people,” he said. “They shut themselves up in the hotels; what they want is to enjoy themselves. Most of them are indifferent to the pain of the Cuban people. They are directly and indirectly complicit with Castro.”

You can read the article here.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Summer Time

It's Summer time Down Under. Time for a break. Time for the beach. So, see you in a week or so - and thank you for stopping by.

In East Timor

Today’s edition of The Sun-Sentinel has an interesting (and depressingly familiar) story on the plight of three Cuban doctors who have defected in East Timor hoping to make it to the United States.

The doctors are part of a group of about 200 doctors and medical staff sent by the Castro regime in December 2005 to provide “humanitarian aid” to the people of the small former Dutch colony, just north of Australia.

Similar groups of Cuban doctors have also been sent to a number of other Pacific nations in the past couple of years as part of a controversial push by Havana to make friends in the region.

Although some of the doctors are indeed sent on humanitarian grounds, the majority are used by the Castro regime as income earners.

In most cases, the governments of the Pacific nations pay Havana between USD300 and USD400 a month per doctor, which is a lot cheaper than importing doctors from say, Australia or New Zealand. But unlike their counterparts from Australia or New Zealand, the Cuban doctors get only a portion of this payment, with the bulk of the money going straight into the Castro brothers' coffers. Very humanitarian.

According to the Sun-Sentinel report, the three defecting doctors have been given visas by the US but they still need permission from the East Timorese government to leave the country.

Why? Because they don’t have any legal papers. You see, as soon as they arrived, the doctors had their passports confiscated by Cuban officials to avoid defections.

Read the story here.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Ghost stories

What better way to start off the new (blogging) year than with a barely-believable tale about a ghost in Havana.

No, no, not Fidel Castro.

Apparently, that particular ghost is doing just fine, according to his brother, Raul, who has told Cubans that while the ailing 81-year-old dictator may not have made a public appearance in 18 months, he is getting better all the time.

The older Castro is spending his recovery days exercising (two hours a day?), readings books by the truckload, surfing the Internet at all hours of the day (hello, Fidel!), and all the time, thinking, thinking, thinking …

Now, about the other ghost story ...

According to this report, the British actor Jude Law, who spent Christmas in Havana, claims to have seen the ghost of Frank Sinatra while staying in one of the luxury suites at the Hotel Nacional.

It seems Mr Law spotted Old Blue Eyes, who has been dead for quite some time, helping himself to the mini-bar in the suite. As you do.

A source at the hotel has told the furiously competitive British tabloids that the actor had “sampled lots of the hotel’s rum cocktails to celebrate his birthday so he thought it was just a drunken vision”.

When he was told that the suite had once hosted Sinatra, Mr Law “came clean about seeing the ghost”.