Friday, February 29, 2008

Yes, but will it make any difference?

In a move that has been interpreted by some observers as significant, the Castro regime has today signed a couple of United Nations treaties on human rights.

Why significant? Because for years, Fidel Castro had refused to sign the documents, claiming such a decision would be used by the “imperialists” to create trouble on his island paradise.

According to news reports, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Felipe Perez Roque, has signed in New York the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Together, these two treaties require signatories to ensure their citizens have the right to work, fair wages, freedom to form and join trade unions, social security, education, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, as well as basic political freedoms - the right to self-determination, peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, freedom to leave a country, etc.

Like you, I can think of at least four or five areas where the Castro regime is already breaching both of these treaties.

So, does the signing of the covenants mean anything?

Probably not.

Perez Roque told reporters that while all these rights were guaranteed already by the Cuban constitution, the regime still had some “reservations” about the way the treaties are “interpreted” and would spell these out at a later date.

Quotes of the Day

"It’s a country where the vast majority live in poverty, while a tiny, corrupt elite live in luxury. It’s a place where, 14 years after South Africa abolished apartheid, a form of it still operates. And it’s a country where you can be threatened with prison not just for criticising the country’s leadership, but also for querying a medical bill.

"Welcome to Cuba, the ‘socialist’ paradise built by that great egalitarian Fidel Castro …

"We went there last April desperately wanting to like the place — after all, if George W. Bush and other right-wing nasties hated Cuba so much, then the country must be on the right tracks. But we returned home terribly disillusioned. Neither of us had been to a country which was so utterly decrepit."

Neil Clark, a self-confessed “unreconstructed Leftie”, writing in this week's edition of The Spectator about a recent visit to Cuba.

Los viejos

The appointment last Sunday of Jose Ramon Machado Venture, a 77-year-old loyalist and supposed hard-liner, as the effective number two of the “new” Castro regime surprised almost everyone inside and outside the island.

Many of us didn’t even know Machado Ventura was still around.

Well, here is some interesting background on the new first vice-president of the Council of State, courtesy of exiled Cuban journalist and author Carlos Alberto Montaner.

According to the normally very well informed Montaner, we should consider Machado the Cuban equivalent of Carrero Blanco, the totally loyal deputy to Francisco Franco who was meant to ensure the continuation of Francoism after the dictator’s death.

Unfortunately for Carrero Blanco, he died at the hands of ETA in December 1973, a couple of years before Franco finally kicked the bucket.

Read the article here, in Spanish.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Quote of the Day

“The end of the embargo would make it touristy. There's a charm now as it's not crowded with Americans. These are the golden years.”

Travel agent Vesella Baleva drumming up some business for her company, Cox & Kings, a luxury travel outfit that provides “exquisite cultural and wildlife adventures”. Needless to say, Vesella doesn’t live in Cuba.

Holy smoke

Some good news for the Castro regime: cigar exports are up.

According to officials at Habanos SA, the joint venture company that runs the Cuban cigar industry, sales increased by about seven per cent last year to USD402 million.

Although Habanos did not reveal exactly how many cigars were sold, it’s estimated that production amounts to about 160 million puros.

As for the top importers of Cuban cigars, they remain Spain, France, Germany and Switzerland.

Of course, the increase is not only good news for the Castro brothers but also for Altadis, the British company that owns half of Habanos SA.

Headline of the Day

"Fidel Surpasses Darwin in Humanism"

Headline in Escambray, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party in the province of Sancti Spiritus.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Diplomacy in action

Further to our earlier post, it now seems as if Cardinal Bertone did in fact raise the issue of political prisoners with Raul Castro during their meeting in Havana today.

But according to this AP report, Cardinal Bertone “stopped short of asking the communist government to free inmates”.

In fact, as the report makes clear, the man who is supposed to be the Vatican’s second most powerful official remained the ultimate diplomat to the very end.

He told reporters before departing: “With utmost respect for the sovereignty of the country and its citizens, I expressed to President Raul Castro the Church's worries for prisoners and their families."

Great moments in diplomacy

The priest generally described as the number two man in the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has just become the first foreign dignitary to meet the newly-enthroned Raul Castro.

And a jolly meeting they had, too, as you can see from the photograph above.

Cardinal Bertone, who is the Vatican’s secretary of State – or foreign minister – has been in Cuba for several days, marking the 10th anniversary of the historic visit to the island by the late Pope John Paul II.

Although he has visited Havana, Guantanamo, Santa Clara and Baracoa, the cardinal has managed so far to avoid making any direct mention of such potentially thorny issues as human rights, the harassment of Catholic dissidents or the jailing of political prisoners.

But you will be pleased to hear that he did find time to criticise the US trade embargo as “unethical”.

In return, it seems, the Castro regime has made some vague promises to the Vatican to allow Church authorities in Cuba greater (but still limited) access to the official media.

According to this Reuters report, Cuban authorities have promised the good cardinal that in future, there may just be "more openings" for the local Catholic hierarchy in print outlets, radio "and in certain exceptional cases, even television”.
Photograph: AP

Quote of the Day

"Raúl has to make the country more efficient and give incentives for work because really no one works in Cuba now. How do you put a country to work that isn't used to working? That is the trick."

Juan, a Havana citizen identified only as “a man in his forties who acts as a consultant to importers”, explains the challenge faced by Castro II to a reporter fom the International Herald Tribune.

Health and education

There is a very readable article in the latest issue of Reason magazine by Michael C Moynihan tackling the way sections of media in the US and Britain reported the decision by Fidel Castro to step down as president of the Council of State.

And as you’d imagine, the report card is patchy at best.

As Mr Moynihan points out, most reporters and commentators have had a hard time describing Castro as a dictator and invariably, they have qualified the negatives of the 50-year-old regime by pointing to the “great achievements” of the regime.

You know, the way otherwise intelligent Westerners invariably apologise for the lack of even the most basic of political freedoms on the island by pointing out that well, at least Castro gave Cubans a world class health system and free education.

Mr Moynihan describes these, quite correctly, as canards.

“What all of these … pundits lazily presume is that if the state of Cuban health care and education have markedly improved on Castro's watch, surely the situation was dire during the final years of the Batista dictatorship,” he writes.

“Well, not exactly. In 1959 Cuba had 128.6 doctors and dentists per 100,000 inhabitants, placing it 22nd globally—that is, ahead of France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Finland. In infant mortality tables, Cuba ranked one of the best in the world, with 5.8 deaths per 100,000 babies, compared to 9.5 per 100,000 in the United States.

“In 1958,Cuba's adult literacy rate was 80 percent, higher than that of its colonial grandfather in Spain, and the country possessed one of the most highly-regarded university systems in the Western hemisphere.”

Now, this is not to say that there were no inequalities in Cuba prior to the arrival of Fidel Castro – far from it. And there is no doubt that by late 1958, a majority of Cubans were fed up with Batista and his corrupt and occasionally brutal regime.

But as Mr Moynihan concludes: “Punctual trains and spiffy highway networks hardly mitigate the horror of dictatorship.”

Except when you are Fidel Castro.

H/T Penultimos Dias

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Quote of the Day

"No one expects Raul, himself once known as a communist hard-liner, to be Mikhail Gorbachev."

Writer Tim Padgett in Time magazine. And here we all were thinking Castro II was a pragamatic reformer ...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Alternative universes ... or captions we'd like to see

An elderly Cuban man proudly shows off his visa to enter the United States after having won the visa "lottery" run by the American Interest Section in Havana.

What it all means. Or not.

Much like the Kremlinologists of old, those of us who keep an eye on what’s going on in Cuba tend to spend a lot of time interpreting every speech and every comment and every photograph coming out of Havana.

We are always looking for hidden messages ... which may be a totally pointless exercise, I know, but lots of fun, nonetheless.

So, for what it’s worth, here are some observations on Raul Castro’s first speech as the newly-enthroned president of the Council of State and Commander in Chief.

1. The speech was a lot shorter than even the shortest speech by his older brother. A positive sign, surely.

2. Castro II referred to the US by name only a couple of times – and his confected outrage at “the imperialists” and “the enemy” seemed, well, tired and contrived. Going through the motions?

3. Castro II has promised “reforms” – but only at the edges, hinting that some of the existing “restrictions” placed on Cubans may be reviewed. We assume he is referring to economic rather than political restrictions.

4. Castro II seems to understand that ordinary Cubans hate the dual currency system invented by Castro I and has hinted this may be rectified, probably by revaluing the peso. It’s all about symbolism, folks.

5. Throughout, Castro II keeps referring to the writing and “reflexions” of Castro I. This could mean that Castro I is still running the show behind the scenes, interfering all the time and trying to micro-manage everything, as he has done for close to 50 years.

6. Or it could mean that Castro II will continue to pay lip service to the old man in the jogging suit but Castro I will be merely a reference point, when convenient, without any real power. Much like the Chinese Communists continue to pay lip service to Maoist thought.

7. Castro II made it clear that while there may be some room for “debate” behind closed doors, there is bugger all room for discussion or dissent outside the very strict confines of “the revolution”. At least for now.

8. The appointment of a 76-year-old hardliner, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, as the effective number two rather than younger apparatchiks like Carlos Lage or the ambitious Felipe Perez Roque has surprised everyone. It’s supposed to mean something but we don’t really know what.

9. Castro II wore a suit and collar and tie rather than his old uniform as head of the military.

10. And he ended his speech not with the customary Patria o Muerte! Venceremos! but with an almost Elvinesque “Thank you very much”.

Make of all that what you will.

Quote of the Day

"Fidel is Fidel, as we all know well."

Raul Castro, the newly enthroned Cuban president, describing his older, interfering, know-all brother.

The more things change ...

In case you missed it, there is a new president in Cuba.

And the following headline, which appears in today's edition of the London daily The Times, probably sums up the situation best: “After 50 years of Castro, Cuba hails its new President – Castro”.

You can read the Times article here and then check out who is who in the newly “elected” Council of State here - the official version, that is.

As for the new leader, Reuters has come up with this endearing description: "From firing squad commander to pragmatic reformer”. Not sure where they got the reformer bit from ...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Quote of the Day

“With our own presidential elections just around the corner and a transitional government in Cuba, almost anything is possible.”

A very optimistic Earl Maucker, editor of the Sun Sentinel, in an article promoting the fact that his is the only Florida newspaper given permission by the Castro regime to open a permanent bureau in Havana. They have been there since 2001.

Aologists III

Want to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of Fidel Castro’s happy-go-lucky band of apologists? Here are two options:

A column by Andrew Bolt in this morning’s edition of The Herald-Sun newspaper in Melbourne, where he has a terrific time ridiculing the dreadful Joan Coxsedge, the one-time Labor Party MP in the Victorian Parliament who now heads the Australian-Cuban Friendship Society (yes, we have one of those).

From the other idological end of the Labor Party spectrum, former federal minister Barry Cohen recalls in today’s The Australian his visit to Castro’s island paradise in the early 1980s to attend a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union being held in Havana.

Cohen also tackles those who for some strange reason keep praising Castro for outlasting no fewer than 10 US presidents: “That's not difficult if you can stay alive and avoid elections.”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Apologists II

Our old friend Ignacio Ramonet is at it again.

Writing in today's edition of the Left-leaning London daily The Guardian, Ramonet tries hard to find something (anything!) negative to say about Fidel Castro ... without success.

The man can't help it.

So, for the record, here is take on the 81-year-old dictator: "The most surprising thing that I found out about the man, in the hours we spent together compiling his memoirs, was how modest, human, discreet and respectful he was. He has a tremendous moral and ethical sense. He is a man of rigorous principles and sober existence."

As for the island's future, Ramonet is confident that socialism will prevail regardless - apparently Cubans from all walks of life have told him so.

"Most Cubans themselves - even those who criticise aspects of the regime - do not envisage or desire change: they don't want to lose the advantages it has brought them, the free education right through university, the free universal healthcare, or the very fact of a safe, peaceful existence in a country where life is calm."

Havana, the day after

Photograph: Associated Press, Havana

Quote of the day

"I wish it were so, but I don't believe it."

A 74-year-old retiree, identified only as Pedro, replying to a question by a Reuters reporter on whether Fidel Castro’s announcement would mean economic changes for Cubans. Pedro was interviewed while “lining up outside a bank at dawn on Wednesday to collect a monthly pension of 164 pesos" – the equivalent of about USD7.00.

What's wrong with the Cuban economy

The BBC, which was recently described by the Castro regime as one of several media outlets at the pay of those nasty American imperialists (laughable, no?), has posted on its website an excellent explanation of what is wrong with the Cuban economy.

Written by business reporter Robert Plummer, the article explains that both politically and economically, the island is a mess essentially as a result of Fidel Castro's intransigence.

Mr Plummer argues in his analysis that Cuba is “a long way from the revolutionary confidence it enjoyed during the height of the Cold War in the early and mid-1970s”.

“Now many observers, without any real hard evidence to go on, are pinning their hopes on the prospect of wide-ranging economic reforms, under Mr Castro's brother Raul or whoever emerges as a longer-term successor,” he writes.

“But during Raul's time in office as acting leader, he has shown little desire to embrace radical change. Cuba may have to wait for a new generation of leaders before liberalisation arrives.”

Those nasty Americans

At the other end of the scale, there is this commentary piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald, also this morning, under the heading, "Cuba too big a prize for meddling US to resist".

Written by two Australian academics with a long-standing soft spot for "the revolution", the article starts (and ends) with the premise that the only thing wrong with Cuba is, well, the United States.

Castro ... and his apologists

There is a terrific editorial in this morning's edition of The Australian newspaper on Fidel Castro's announcement that he is giving up some of his official positions ... and on those Western intellectuals who continue to support (and apoligise for) the dictator.

Here is just a snippet:

Deprived of the ballot box, Cubans have voted with their feet, or rather their flippers. About two million Cubans have fled across the water to Florida since 1959 in search of political freedom and economic opportunity. More than 70,000 drowned in shark-infested waters in the attempt. To the best of our knowledge, only one person has so far swum in the opposite direction, Australia's own Susie Maroney - and she stayed long enough only to collect a medal and catch a plane home.

You can read the entire editorial here.

And while you are there, you may want to stop by and read a commentary I wrote for the paper, which is also published this morning.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I hope I am wrong but ...

The calls and emails have started.

It’s been only a couple of hours since the news broke that after 18 months supposedly "recovering" from a serious illness, Fidel Castro is definitely standing down as president of the Council of State and as Commander in Chief.
But the calls are already coming in. And the emails. From friends and colleagues who have all heard the news, too – after all, it’s only mid-evening Down Under and news travels fast.

Finally, they say. How does it feel? Next year in Havana! Yes?

They obviously all think that this is the end of the Castro era and the beginning of a new, hopefully democratic chapter in Cuban history. They are happy for me. They are excited. And I am moved by their generosity.
I wish I could share their excitement at the news, but like all Cuban - inside and outside the island - I know that when it comes to Castro, nothing ever is what it seems. That just because the man who has ruled over his 11 million subjects for close to half a century says he is stepping down from some of his (many) official positions, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Castro era. No matter what the papers say.

Even the timing seems perverse – an announcement published in Granma, in the middle of the night, while most Cubans are asleep. Way to wake up, Havana!

And anyway, does this mean that Castro will step dwon from all his posts? Does it mean he will remain head of the all-powerful Communist Party? Will he really retire and stop meddling from the sidelines, as he has been doing for the past 18 months? And what does he mean when he says that this is not a “farewell”? Why hasn’t he endorsed his own designated successor, Raul, no spring chicken at 75, as the next Comandante? Or is the dictator so sick after all that death is imminent?

See? So many questions.

I hope my friends are right, though. I hope it’s the beginning of a new chapter. I hope I am wrong and they are right.

As they say on television, only time will tell.

Quote of the past 50 years

"I'm not thinking to cut my beard, because I'm accustomed to my beard and my beard means many things to my country. When we have fulfilled our promise of good government I will cut my beard."

Fidel Castro, interviewed by American journalist Edward Murrow, in January 1959 - just days after deposing Fulgencio Batista.

Going, going, gone?

More than 18 months after being forced to stand aside "temporarily" due to serious ill health, Fidel Castro has just announced that he is not coming back. Or so it seems.

In a lenghty, front-page "editorial" published by the regime's official propaganda sheet, Granma, the ailing 81-year-old dictator has confirmed that he will not stand again for the positions of president of the Council of State and Commander in Chief.

No word, however, on whether he will remain as head of the Communist Party.

And surprisingly, at first read at least, no clear endorsement of Raul Castro, the 75-year-old younger brother and designated successor who has been acting president since July last year.

As for Castro's future, well, he is threatening to stick around a little bit longer, if only on the pages of Granma.

"This is not my farewell to you," he writes. "My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to write under the heading of ‘Reflections by companero Fidel.’ It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I shall be careful."

We shall see.

Promises, promises

What is it about otherwise hard-nosed Western central bankers and the Castro regime?

It's no exaggeration to say that when it comes to banking, Fidel Castro is the customer from hell: always asking for more and more credit and never, ever repaying a cent.

In fact, Castro decided some 20 years ago or so that he would simply stop paying his government’s quite considerable international debt, which is estimated to stand at more than USD11 billion. The man simply defaulted … and please, keep in mind that the debt we are talking about does not include the billions of dollars Castro owed his old pals in the now-disappeared Soviet Union.

Now, you would think central banks would be careful of doing any further business with a customer with such an atrocious credit history, right?

Well, Bloomberg reports today that the Mexican central bank has just reached agreement with the Cubans to “refinance” the regime’s debt with Mexico, which is worth about USD400 million.

Which essentially means that Havana has been given a new, multi-million dollar line of credit to purchase Mexican goods.

As for repayments …

Quote of the Day

“The release of the four Cuban prisoners of conscience is a very positive step but we must not forget about the at least 58 people who remain held in prisons across Cuba for the sole reason of expressing their political views.”

Amnesty International's Kerrie Howard referring to the unexpected release this week of four dissidents jailed by the Castro regime on trumped-up charges during the "Black Spring" of 2003.

Monday, February 18, 2008

(Another) quote of the Day

"It wasn’t until the Revolution of 1959 that Cuba made a definitive break from foreign domination."

Art critic Anna Graham, writing in The McGill Daily about a new exhibition of Cuban art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, ignores the 30-year period known as "Soviet Cuba".

An embargoed island

For the record, the Castro regime spent a record USD437.5 million last year buying foodstuffs from US primary producers, according to new figures published by the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

The council reports that the main items purchased from the US were corn, chicken, wheat, soybean products and rice.

But the purchases also included newsprint, which this Reuters report says was almost certainly used to publish the regime’s number one propaganda sheet, Granma.

Quote of the Day

"What we need is a Cuban Gorbachev."

A Camaguey "businessman" identified only as Luis, speaking to writer Tom Miller of The Washington Post about life and politics in Cuba today. You can read Mr Miller’s very interesting dispatch here.

When friends come calling

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, one of Africa’s nastiest and most corrupt dictators (and that's saying something ...), has just concluded a brief visit to Cuba, where he has been given a red carpet welcome by Raul Castro.

Mr Obiang has been the president of the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea since 1979 when he deposed his equally corrupt and equally blood-thirsty uncle.

Known to his subjects as El Jefe, he is said to be “in permanent contact with the Almighty”, which is very handy since it apparently allows Mr Obiang to “kill anyone without going to Hell”.

His visit to Havana – to “strengthen the ties of friendship and cooperation with Cuba” – is part of a Latin American tour that also takes in Brazil and Argentina.

Friday, February 15, 2008

All together now, chaps

Remember all that business last week with students at the elite Computer Sciences University (UCI) in Havana?

You know, the students who used a meeting with Ricardo Alarcon to make the president of the rubberstamp Cuban parliament look like an incompetent, arrogant and out-of-touch fool?

Well, in case you thought the students were being in any way disloyal to the Castro regime, the UCI hierarchy has just issued a public statement (in Spanish) correcting such heinous misinterpretations.

The statement, which is supposed to have been approved by students and their tutors, criticises the world media (“imperialist lackeys”) for assuming that the tough questioning of Alarcon was a sign of discontent or unrest on campus.

Not at all.

In fact, the statement says that students and staff are 100 per cent behind the Castro brothers and the “revolutionary program”.


Quote of the Day

"I was amazed at how happy the people are, even though they are poor."

Sixteen year old Chelsea Haag, a student from Rochester in the US, after a fact-finding trip to Cuba organised by the Council on Youth Ministries of the United Methodist Church. The trip was meant to help in “dispelling myths and stereotypes”, according to this article in The Democrat and Chronicle.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


What happens when you have too much time and nothing much to do? How do you fill those long, long hours?

If you are Fidel Castro, you spend your day trawling the Internet (hello, Fidel!), reading news reports from international newsagencies and then writing lengthy, barely coherent “editorials” that are automatically published in the official media under the grandiose headline, “Reflections from the Commander in Chief”.

Thus, the ailing dictator has now written not one, not two but three lengthy “commentaries” on John McCain, the US senator who is likely to win the Republican presidential nomination.

It seems Castro doesn’t like McCain much, describing the senator variously as uneducated, a liar, a warmonger of sorts and (wait for it) a tool of that sinister, all-purpose, ultra-secret cabal, the “Miami Mafia”.

"It is incredible that at this point in history, the Republican candidate, decorated as a hero, would become the pawn of that mafia,” Castro writes in the latest instalment. “No one who believes in himself would commit such a serious ethical mistake.”

Of course, being attacked by Castro is unlikely to have much of a negative impact on McCain’s chances, at least with his Republican base.

As for Castro, who has not been seen in public for more than 18 months and who is unlikely to survive whomever is elected US president in November ... he has promised a fourth “editorial” on McCain.

Bet you can hardly wait.

Quote of the Day

“Everyone knows what will happen: everything will stay the same.”

A 22-year-old Cuban university student, identified only as Zuleyma, speaking to Reuters on speculation (in the international media) on whether Fidel Castro will be “re-elected” president of the Council of State.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Eat your heart out, Josef Stalin

What a relief!

Remember those students who had the temerity (the hide!) to ask embarrassing questions of Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the rubberstamp Cuban parliament, during that now infamous meeting in Havana?

The explosive session was filmed by someone and then leaked to the BBC, which meant the encounter became big news around the world.

Yesterday, we told you about unconfirmed reports that at least one of the outspoken students, Eliecer Ávila Cicilia, had been taken away by the political police from his home in the province of Las Tunas to Havana.

It seems we were partly right.

But you will be happy to hear that young Eliecer was taken to Havana not by those nice, helpful boys from the political police but by equally nice and helpful members of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), who merely wanted to offer him a lift to the capital city.

Not because he was in any trouble, mind you. Instead, he was taken to Havana so he and some of his fellow students could be interviewed by the official media about how they really feel about life in Fidel Castro’s island paradise.

And lo and behold, there is now an officially-distributed video of the students “clarifying” what they said only a few weeks ago – and making it crystal clear that they are true revolutionaries who think Castro and his regime are just great.

In fact, they are furious that their seemingly straight-forward, ideologically correct questions were misinterpreted in such a devious manner by the world media, which as we all know, are in the pay of the “Miami Mafia” and their terrible American puppetmasters.

See? All is well. Back to normal.

Except no one has been able to answer young Eliecer’s original question, namely, Why is it that after 50 years of “revolution” it still takes an ordinary Cuban worker three days of hard work to have enough money to buy a toothbrush?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

(More) spy games

More fun and games in Bolivia where the government of Evo Morales has accused a US embassy official of seeking to recruit “spies” to keep an eye on Cubans working in the South American nation.

The official in question is one Vincent Cooper, who apparently asked an American academic and 30 Peace Corps volunteers to “pass along information” about Cubans and Venezuelans working in Bolivia.

An embassy spokesman has denied the accusation, as you can see from this Associated Press dispatch.

Quote of the Day

"His accusation against the Cuban revolutionaries ... are completely unethical.”

That world-renowned expert in ethics, Fidel Castro, in his latest
“editorial”, published overnight by the Cuban official media. Castro was referring to comments by US presidential candidate John McCain that Cuban officials were involved in overseeing the torture of some American prisoners during the Vietnam War.

The more things change ...

Unconfirmed but strong reports from Cuba that one of the students who tackled Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the rubberstamp Parliament, on the need for (moderate) change on the island has been taken into custody by agents from the political police.

You may recall that several students used a meeting at the Computer Sciences University (UCI) in Havana to ask a range of “difficult” questions of a visibly shaken Alarcon.

The meeting was filmed and a video of the session was then leaked by someone to the BBC, resulting in substantial international coverage ... which appears to have upset the regime, going by this narky little commentary in yesterday's online edition of Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth.

Well, the student who is supposed to have been arrested or at least taken away by police is Eliécer Ávila, who was one of those shown on the leaked video taking the slimmy Alarcon to task over the ban on overseas travel, the cost of essential goods and low wages.

For updates, you can visit

Monday, February 11, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Lage would make a very good president - he's very pragmatic and solid and he has a good economic head on his shoulders."

Our old friend Wayne Smith, one-time diplomat and currently director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy, puts his money on Carlos Lage.

Ethical dilemmas

Say hello to Ken Gallinger, a columnist with The Star newspaper in Toronto.

In his column, Ken solves ethical dilemmas posed by his readers, answering questions on topics as diverse as “kinky” sexual games (handcuffs or no handcuffs?), the Bible’s take on spanking (children, not adults), and the killing of unwanted cats.

He is also something of an expert on Cuba, it seems.

A reader has asked Ken whether it’s OK to take a holiday in Fidel Castro’s island paradise given that “by spending money there, we are propping up a wicked dictatorship”.

No problems - having travelled to Cuba six times in the past 10 years, our columnist admits that there are some “frustrations” with the regime.

However, says Ken, most Cubans love their island, are very proud “of what has been accomplished in the fields of medicine and education particularly" and don’t want any “help” from interfering foreigners (ie, Americans), telling them “how their country will be run”.

So his ethical advice to his reader is to go to Cuba but try and spend the money not in “plastic” resorts such as Varadero but in casas particulares and paladares to ensure the money stays with real Cubans.

“Spread your money among ordinary folks who can use it,” he concludes. “And talk with them while you do. You'll be less likely to use the word 'wicked' when you come home ... except in reference to Bush and his predecessors.”

Thanks, Ken.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Quote of the Day

"It's like a soup coming to the boil -- a bubble appears here, another there and then it's all bubbling up.”

An unidentified “long-time European resident of Havana” explaining to Reuters what’s going on in Cuba since Fidel Castro stepped aside due to ill health.

Diplomatic blues

You will be happy to hear that there has been a bit of diplomatic biffo at the United Nations between the representatives of Israel and the Castro regime.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the fun started when the Cubans and their “non aligned” mates tried to pass yet another resolution blaming Tel Aviv for the troubles in Gaza.

Standard UN stuff, to be sure, but this time the Israeli Ambassador, Dan Gillerman, got stuck into the Non-Aligned Movement describing it as irrelevant and well, not terribly impartial when it comes of matters regarding the Middle East.

Angered by the comments, the Cuban representative, Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz, has written a letter on behalf of the movement, which Cuba currently chairs, describing the Israeli views as “offensive” and “distorted”.

You can read all about it here.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

In Havana

Are things really changing in Cuba?

Those of us looking in from the outside have been asking that question for 18 months or so, following the unexpected announcement last July that Fidel Castro was “temporarily” handing over power to his (slightly) younger brother Raul due to serious health problems.

From where I am, I can see little if any change. Then again …

According to this BBC report, one of the Castro regime’s most senior apparatchiks has just copped an unprecedented hammering from students during a question-and-answers session held at the Computer Science University – one of the regime’s educational showpieces.

It involved Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the rubberstamp parliament and a favourite of the foreign media, who was peppered during the discussion with plenty of what are euphemistically described by the BBC as “difficult questions”.

Like, why are ordinary Cuban workers paid by the State in pesos when they must purchase many essential goods in State-owned stores that only take convertible pesos?

And why are Cubans barred from freely using the Internet? Why are those few who are lucky enough to get access to the Internet then banned from using Yahoo? Why are Cubans barred from staying in luxury hotels, even if they have the money? Why are these hotels reserved for foreign tourists?

If the questions seem explosive (in the Cuban context, of course), the responses and evasions by Alarcon are nothing short of gob-smacking.

In a clear reminder of what happens to politicians in an totalitarian state who are never challenged and lose touch with their supposed constituents, Alarcon seems totally out of his depth, flailing like a half-dead fish.

He fails to answer most of the questions, saying they are “economic issues” (you bet they are!), or that he is “ignorant” about the Internet. And when he answers, his responses are laughable.

Responding to a question on why Cubans are not allowed to travel freely, he tells students that “if everyone in the world – all six billion people – were allowed to travel wherever they wanted, imagine the traffic jams in the sky!”. In any case, he adds as a form of justification, that “not many Bolivians get to travel overseas”.

Significantly, someone in the audience appears to have made and then leaked a recording of the event. You can watch bits of it here (in Spanish).

H/T Penultimos Dias

Monday, February 04, 2008

Spy games

When it comes to the world of spying you just never know what's real and what isn't.

However, we do know that the Castro regime has built up over one of the largest and most successful spying networks in Latin America over the past 50 years or so, initially with Soviet and East German training and funding.

Why, even the Cubans have boasted about their spying capabilities.

Now, there are fresh allegations about what the Castro brothers may or may not be up to, according to the American Fox television network.

The network quotes Chris Simmons, a former US counterintelligence specialist, as saying that Cuba is expanding its intelligence operations in the Middle East and South Asia - areas well away from the Western Hemisphere.

The reason? Simmons says its to keep a closer eye on American military operations there. And trading secrets.

Read the article here.

Quote of the Day

"Almost anyone who is being honest will acknowledge that America's approach toward Cuba is brain dead. No one even remembers why we've imposed a total embargo on the country …What exactly are we afraid this moth-eaten island will do to America today?"

Fareed Zakaria, columnist and editor, stirring the pot in the latest edition of

Friday, February 01, 2008

Situation normal

Some 18 months after Fidel Castro stepped aside “temporarily” due to ill health, Human Rights Watch reports that when it comes to political freedoms, nothing much has changed in Cuba.

According to the respected organisation’s annual report for 2007, Cuba “remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent”.

The report says that there have been “no significant policy changes” since Castro relinquished direct control of the regime to his slightly younger brother Raul.

The regime continues to “enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long-term and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment”.

You can read the relevant section of the report here.


You may recall a post last week about an exhibition that has just opened in London of works by six visual artists who live and work in Cuba.

The exhibition, whose underlying theme appears to be the lack of free speech under the Castro regime, is favourably reviewed by Michael Glover in the latest issue of the Left-leaning weekly, New Statesman.

Glover was keen to find out from the artists themselves whether censorship in Cuba today is better or worse than it was, say, in the 1960s and 1970s.

The reply from one of the artists, Lazaro Saavedra, seems to sum up the situation well.

"No, things are not as they were in the 1960s and 1970s,” Mr Saavedra replied. “Artists are no longer blacklisted. You no longer get a phone call out of the blue. These days the censorship is more sophisticated: they will talk about space, or health and safety matters. There are very important human rights issues - it could be a destabilising act, for example, to distribute the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the street."

You can read the article here.

Diplomatic friends

If you are in Auckland, New Zealand, next Wednesday and have nothing better to do, pop along to Unite House in Queen Street at about 11am, and have a cup of coffee with the newly-accredited Cuban ambassador to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

That’s right, folk, the Castro regime has just appointed its first ambassador to New Zealand. And he is very keen to get to know the locals, of course.

New Zealand, you ask? Beautiful country. Friendly people. Great Rugby players. Terrific lamb. But Cuba interested in New Zealand?

Well, here is one possible explanation. I
n recent years, Havana has worked hard at wooing South Pacific nations, offering them the Fidel Castro version of “humanitarian aid”, such as lowly-paid doctors, agricultural advisers, sporting links and scholarships for South Pacific students to study medicine in Cuba.

The countries targeted in what has been a fairly aggressive diplomatic strategy have ranged from Fiji and East Timor to the Solomon Islands and even tiny Nauru.

As we have previously discussed, all that activity has started to worry Australian foreign policy officials, who have long seen the region as their own “sphere of influence” – and who are rightly suspicious of this unusual push by the cash-strapped Cubans.

As for the new ambassador, his name is Jose Luis Robaina Garcia, a long-standing Communist apparatchik whose last diplomatic posting was as Minister Counsellor in the Cuban Embassy in Beijing.

More significant, before his appointment to Wellington, Mr Robaina headed the Centre of Asia and Oceania Studies, which is a department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.

And like the good revolutionary that he is, the ambassador has already started selling his message, as you can read here.