Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Our Commander in Chief is in favor of eliminating, when we have the right conditions, the death penalty for any kind of crime and is opposed to extra-judiciary methods that some known countries shamelessly practice."

Raul Castro, referring to the views of his semi-retired older brother, during a speech to senior Communist Party officials. Take note: "when we have the right conditions ..." I know, I know ... they are shameless.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


More than a decade after its last meeting, the Cuban Communist Party is to hold a new national congress to map out the "political future" of the island ... but not until late next year.

Raul Castro announced overnight that the Party congress - the first since 1997 - would take place in the second half of 2009, most probably in Havana.

As you can read in this Associated Press dispatch, Castro II was quoted by the official media as saying the congress would consider a range of issues, including how the Party would cope "when the historic generations are no longer around."

In other words, the congress is likely to "elect" a new party head to replace Fidel Castro, the semi-retired dictator who has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency surgery back in July 2006 ... assuming he hasn't kicked the bucket by then, of course.

Monday, April 28, 2008

From the US media

The recent “reforms” introduced by Raul Castro since more or less taking over from his older brother do not appear to have impressed the editorial writers at that great US journal of liberal opinion, The Washington Post.

In a surprisingly strong (and clear headed) editorial, the paper points out that the changes unveiled by Castro II are minor and largely immaterial … and in no way a substitute for real political change.

“Yes, any Cuban who can spare a year's worth of the average salary may now buy and activate a cellphone,” says the paper. “But there's little indication that [Raul] Castro intends even the sort of change that has transformed formerly communist countries such as China and Vietnam into more prosperous dictatorships, much less a political opening.“

The paper also has a go at the thugs in Havana over the shameful episode last week involving a peaceful protest by the Damas de Blanco, who have since been targeted by the regime's official media as US "mercenaries".

Read the editorial here.

The Qatari are coming

One of the largest real estate investment groups in the Arab world, Qatari Diar, announced overnight that it had agreed to invest USD70 million to develop an exclusive five-star tourist resort in Cuba.

The group, which is backed by the Qatari government and which has invested heavily in properties across the Middle East, will work with the Castro regime to build the 200-bedroom resort at Cayo Largo.

According to this report, the hotel will also boast 60 "deluxe villas" aimed at very wealthy tourists and top-end business travellers, who will most likely not meet too many Cubans during their break ... except those working at the resort.

No pay rises

Despite widespread expectations that Raul Castro would mark May Day next week by unveiling wage rises for workers in the health and education sectors, a statement published by the official media overnight said there would be no increases.

Instead, the regime has announced that some pensions will be increased by up to 20 per cent to a maximum of 400 ordinary Cuban pesos a month - or the equivalent of less than USD20.00.

By way of explanation, the statement said wage increases would not be possible across the board because "the country does not have the resources necessary".

"Increases will be granted by sector and priority, always after a rigorous evaluation of the economic and financial conditions," it added, as you can read in this Reuters report.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Quote of the Day

"I must point out that in the course of 10 years, he has traveled abroad more than 70 times. In the past three, he did it at the rate of one trip per month, always using the pretext of [promoting] Cuba's international cooperation."

Semi-retired dictator Fidel Castro explaining in his latest "editorial" published in the official Cuban media why the Communist Party has just dismissed the Education Minister, Luis Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez. As all of Castro's lackeys know (or should know), no one is safe ...

On the line

Just like its old allies in the former German Democratic Republic, the Castro regime has perfected over the years the art of eavesdropping on supposedly private telephone conversations.

Anyone who is deemed to be even vaguely “suspect” by the regime has his or her phone routinely bugged.

No one is immune, either, as Vicente Fox discovered some years back when a supposedly private conversation with Fidel Castro was recorded and then used by the Cubans to publicly embarrass the then Mexican president.

Which brings us to the case of the Damas de Blanco, the small group of (very brave) women that has staged a series of peaceful protests around Havana in the past calling for their dissidents husbands and relatives to be freed.

Their latest protest, a peaceful sit-in on Monday near the Plaza de la Revolucion, was violently broken up by police and Communist Party thugs posing as "ordinary angry patriots".

The women have now accused the Castro regime of spying on them, following the broadcast by the official media of telephone conversations between some of the Damas de Blanco and a US congresswoman.

Of course, this will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps an eye on what goes on in the Castro brothers’ private island.

But I wonder what the Board and shareholders of Telecom Italia think?

After all, the publicly-listed Italian telecommunications giant currently owns about 30 per cent of Etecsa, the Cuban national telephone and telecommunications monopoly.

And Etecsa obviously approved and supported the bugging operation against the Damas de Blanco, as it obviously supports the tapping of probably hundreds of thousands of telephones across the island.

You may want to pose the question directly to the chief executive officer of Telecom Italian, Franco Bernabe

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Media management

The Castro regime has launched what has been described as a “blistering attack” on the Damas de Blanco, the small but vocal group of wives and female relatives of imprisoned dissidents.

As readers will recall, the group has staged a series of peaceful demonstrations around Havana over the past couple of years, calling on the regime to free the dissidents still behind bars.

These demonstrations have been largely ignored by the regime and its all-pervasive official propaganda machine, which means that sadly, few Cubans would have any idea whom the Damas de Blanco are or what they are up to.

But this week, the tactics appear to have changed.

A peaceful sit-in staged by the women on Monday was violently broken up by female goons from State security, ably assisted by a group of about 100 Government-organised thugs posing as ordinary workers and housewives, who shouted insults at the demonstrators and then helped police officers drag them into a waiting bus. As you do.

The whole shameful episode was captured by a handful of foreign media journalists in Havana and broadcast to the rest of the world, although in the scheme of things, the coverage was fairly limited.

Now, two days later, the regime has used its media apparatus to attack the Damas de Blanco directly. Instead of doing what they normally do and ignore the demonstration, the regime has publicly accused the women of being subversive elements and mercenaries doing the bidding of, yes, those nasty Americans.

To prove its case, State television even showed photographs of the women meeting a US diplomat as well as a tape recording of a conversation between some of the Damas de Blanco and the Cuban-American congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

In some ways, this is standard stuff for the Castro brothers. But you’ve got to wonder whether such high-profile coverage of a dissident group most Cubans would have never heard of will in the longer term, be counter-productive.

Let’s hope so.

As for the regime, well, it’s more of the usual crap we have come to expect for the past half century or so - it claims that police officers only “intervened” to “protect" the demonstrators from "a spontaneous outburst by angry patriots”.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The more things change ...

Reuters has the full story here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Business News II

Meanwhile, AP reports that a delegation of New York state officials and farmers are headed to Cuba, where the news agency says, "they plan to meet with potential buyers of New York agricultural products".

The state's Agriculture Commissioner, Patrick Hooker, told reporters the group will be in Cuba next Monday through Wednesday, hoping to "tap into what has become a USD350 million annual export market for the US".

Wish them luck.

Business news

Doing business (of any type) with the Castro brothers is never easy, as the Governor of the US state of Idaho has found out.

As readers may recall, the wonderfully named Gov. Butch Otter travelled to Cuba last year with a large delegation of farmers and other primary producers to convince the Communist regime to spend a bit of money on Idaho produce.

At the time, there was plenty of media interest in the trip both in the US and in Havana, with the governor making all the right noises about the need to lift the US commercial and trade embargo, etc. In return, the Cubans made all the right noises about buying lots of goodies from Idaho companies. As you do.

Well, those promises appear to have come to not much, according to this suitably sceptical article in The Idaho Stateman under the healdine, "Otter's trip to Cuba failed to bring home the bacon".

The paper says that since the trade mission, the only exports the state has sent to Fidel Castro's island paradise are "a handful of signed baseballs, Boise Hawks jerseys, and cowboy books the Governor brought as gifts for his hosts".

It seems a much-promoted contract for the Cubans to purchase 100,000 pounds of pork legs from a local company, Falls Brand Independent Meats, has failed to materialise due largely to what the paper describes as "red tape put up by Cuba's government".

According to the chief executive of Falls Brand, Pat Florence, the Castro regime never followed through on its plan to buy the pork legs, which would have netted the company US$100,000.

"We've moved on," Mr Florence said.

As for Gov. Otter, the paper says the trip - the fourth by the governor to Cuba - cost Idaho taxpayers about USD14,000.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Quote of the Day

"The Catholic Church has taken a hardline position against right-wing dictatorships. But in Cuba, the Church has been silent – or worse – ever since 1960, when Fidel Castro expelled hundreds of Catholic priests because they alerted their parishioners of the communist danger surfacing in government circles."

Former political prisoner Armando Valladares, writing in The Wall Street Journal about the current visit to the US by Pope Benedict XVI.

A little big change?

Much has been written in the international media about the "raft of reforms” introduced by Raul Castro since taking over from his ailing and seemingly half-demented older brother.

It is true that most of these changes seem to have been welcomed by Cubans on the island but when all is said and done, the reforms have been, well, pretty limited. Cosmetic.

After all, why shouldn’t ordinary Cubans have the right to buy DVDs or to purchase computers without needing written permission from the regime? Or to have mobile phone connections. Or to be allowed to stay in luxury hotels in their own country?

But there is plenty of speculation today that Castro II is about to introduce a potentially much more far-reaching reform: lifting some of the restrictions placed on Cubans who can afford to travel overseas.

According to this report in the normally well-informed Spanish daily El Pais, the regime is about to announce the abolition of the so-called tarjeta blanca, the exit permit Cubans need before they can even start the process of buying a valid ticket.

This exit permit costs the equivalent of about USD120.00 – or about eight times the average monthly wage - so it's a nice little revenue-earner for those money-hungry Castro brothers.

But apart from making money, the permit also allows the regime to restrict who is allowed out of the country, when and for how long.

And of course, this being Cuba, there is never, ever any guarantee that your application for the tarjeta blanca will be accepted, let alone be accepted within a reasonable amount of time. In some cases, it can take several months to get a response from the Communist bureaucracy – and often it is in the negative.

So, here’s hoping the media reports are right and the hated exit permit will be history sooner rather than later.

The bad news is that there will still be restrictions, according to El Pais. For instance, doctors won’t be allowed out. Nor recent university graduates or anyone vaguely connected to the military or the political police.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The man in the Jeep

In a place like Cuba, where those in charge for the past 50 years have always made their decisions behind closed doors, you never know what is really going on.

That’s why Cubans had no idea that Fidel Castro had nearly died on the operating table … until a cryptic announcement was made on television a couple of days later.

Always in the dark, treated like mushrooms.

Still, we can make reasonable assumptions … For instance, we can assume that the semi-retired dictator, still supposedly “recovering” at some secret Havana location, is not entirely happy with the potential side-effects of some of the minor economic changes unveiled in recent days by the regime.

We know this (or rather, we assume this) from reading the sometimes incoherent ramblings written by Castro and published in the official Cuban media.

In his latest “editorial”, published overnight, he expresses dismay (or annoyance?) at the way these small “reforms” have been interpreted by the international media – and by some overtly optimistic souls inside the island.

In particular, he seems to have been pissed off by a column or commentary published by the Cuban media in recent days but in typically Stalinist fashion, Castro does not identify the text or the author - that way, everyone who has written anything vaguely brave is under suspicion.

He warns the writer (and others) to be careful in what they write and what they say ... and to ensure that in their haste they do not make "concessions to the enemy".

As you can read in this analysis by The Miami Herald, it seems that the column that has so upset El Comandante was published on Friday in Juventud Rebelde, the official mouthpiece of the Union of Young Communists.

It was written by Luis Sexto, who argued that some of these economic changes – like being able to windowshop for DVDs and computers, or stay in luxury hotels previously reserved for tourists – should be welcomed. What's more, Sexto even applauded the decision to give farmers a greater say in what crops to plant and when.

But I reckon the paragraph in the column that really irked the ailing old man in his labyrinth was a thinly-veiled criticism of the way Castro used to micro manage just about every significant decision made in Cuba until recently. Especially his continuing interference in agricultural policies, with predictably disastrous results.

"Of course,” Sexto wrote, “the man who is accustomed to issue dictates from his office or from his Jeep - what to sow, how to harvest - may be distressed to see producers gaining autonomy, gaining the ability to make their own decisions."

Dictating from his office? From his Jeep? That’s Castro, alright.

Quote of the Day

"The Cuban revolution is not a house of cards, but rather an impregnable fortress."

Editorial in Granma, the "official organ" of the Cuban Communist Party, making sure Cubans understand that just because they are now being allowed to windowshop for DVDs and computers, they should not assume there will be Western style democratic changes on the island.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quote of the Day

“Unlike some lefties, I've never regarded Fidel Castro as infallible, mainly because of his uneven record on human rights - exemplary in meeting basic economic needs but execrable in terms of respecting civil liberties.”

Irish-born journalist and commentator David Cronin, writing in The Guardian newspaper. Not sure about "uneven" but "execrable" is right ...

Journalism prizes

This business with Fidel Castro writing regular “editorials” for the official Cuban media appears to have been taken seriously, at least by some members of a body called the Union of Cuban Journalists.

Now, we all know that this group - which is supposed to represent Cuban media workers and their interests - in nothing but a mouthpiece for the Castro regime.

But even then … do these guys have no shame?

According to this report in the Cuban official paper Ahora, journalists from the province of Ciego de Avila have nominated the semi-retired dictator for the Jose Marti National Award for Journalism, the top journalistic honour in the country.

The nomination is supposed to recognise Castro’s life-long commitment to journalism (stop laughing …), going back to a number of "revolutionary" articles he is supposed to have written while still at university in the 1940s.

You know, back in those dark, bad pre-Revolution days when people such as Castro could write dissenting articles attacking the government of the day – and get them published in the media!

Anyway, according to the odious toadies who have nominated El Comandante en Jefe for the prize, Castro deserves to win because of his current series of “editorials”, which were described as “examples of exhaustive investigative reporting".

No, no shame.

Start a revolution. Yeah.

The always very funny columnist Mark Steyn has penned a terrific opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on what he rightfully describes as the "pop revolutionaries".

You know, rock stars and other such "celebrities" who insist on apologising for the likes of Fidel Castro.

Read it here - recommended.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Roman revenge

I hope they break the news gently to the ailing Fidel Castro; after all, the old man is not well. And you can just imagine how the semi-retired dictator is going to react when he hears that Italian voters have returned Silvio Berlusconi to power after five years in the political wilderness ...

According to the latest available results, the centre-right coalition led by the flamboyant Mr Berlusconi will end up with a 63 seats majority in the Chamber of Deputies, and a majority in the Senate, too.

To add insult to injury, the voters have been harsh with the Communists: the co-called Rainbow Left will end up with no seats in the Chamber. Annihilated.

All of which is bad news for Castro, who developed a surreal hatred of the Italian prime minister, in much the same way he became totally obsessed (in a nasty kind of way) with Jose Maria Aznar.

At one stage, a livid Castro even led a demonstration through the streets of Havana to the Italian Embassy, describing Mr Berlusconi as a "fascist", an American lackey and calling him "Benito".

And now, look, he is back in power. See? That's what happens when you let people vote for anyone they chose ...

Photo: AFP

Operator, operator ...

So, how much will it cost for Cubans to join the mobile phone revolution?

According to this article in the Spanish daily El Pais, Cubans wanting their own mobile phones will need to pay all the costs in hard currency, rather than the nearly worthless ordinary pesos used by the Castro regime to pay all wages.

The cost of getting connected in US dollars is a nifty $120, plus the cost of the actual phone. And unlike phone users in other countries, who can join plans and save money on calls, Cubans will only be able to use pre-paid phone cards, which work out at around 50 cents a minute.

Given that the average monthly wage is the equivalent of about US$17.00, the newspaper estimates that a Cuban worker would be able to spend his or her entire pay packet in just 38 minutes of mobile phone talk.

Thanks, Raul.

Mr Popular

As you would have read elsewhere, Cubans with access to hard cash have been busily snapping up mobile phone connections across the island over the past 24 hours or so.

This follows a decision by Raul Castro earlier this month to lift what have been described as “annoying restrictions” that had previously been imposed on long-suffering Cubans by, well, by Raul Castro and his semi-retired brother, Fidel Castro.

Those restrictions barred ordinary Cubans (as opposed to Communist Party heavyweights) from buying certain electronic goods, having access to mobile phones and computers, or staying in luxury hotels.

Given the reaction on the streets of Havana, as reported by international media, there is no doubt that these small economic “reforms” have been embraced by those few Cubans who can afford such little luxuries. But what about the bulk of the population? You know, those who get paid by the State in worthless Cuban pesos and have no access to hard cash?

Well, if you believe this report by Will Weissert of the Associated Press, the lifting of these restrictions is nothing short of a political master stroke by the regime designed to make the “uncharismatic” Raul Castro popular.

And as far as Mr Weissert is concerned, it’s working.

Referring to Castro II, our Havana correspondent writes: “His popularity has surged as a result, defusing questions about whether his relative lack of charisma would make governing Cuba more difficult after his older ailing older brother Fidel formally stepped down in February”.

Maybe he is right.

Who knows? Given this surge in popularity, perhaps Raul Castro will now put it to the test by holding free and fair multi-party elections?

Spreading the word. Still.

While those Cubans with access to hard cash are queuing up in Havana to buy mobiles phones (for the first time!), the Castro regime continues to sell its old message around the world that capitalism is bad and socialism is good. Very good.

The latest example is an interview published by The Daily Times of Malawi with the Cuban ambassador to Zambia, Francisco Viamontes Correa.

A true apparatchik of the old Soviet school, Mr Viamontes Correa told the paper that capitalist policies simply do not work in countries such as Cuba. Or Malawi, for that matter.

Why? Because while capitalists only wanted to make money (so they can buy mobile phones and stay in luxury hotels ... just like the Ambassador), socialists were more interested in providing free education, free health services, full employment and housing.

“The West is wrong,” he told the paper. “Their democracy is not our democracy. Their system is not our system.”

As for all that negative media coverage about the Castro regime, Mr Viamontes Correa said it was part of a “misguided and aggressive” misinformation campaign “propagated by the American government and some Western countries which follow American policies”.

Spoken like a true Cold Warrior …

Monday, April 14, 2008

Quote of the Day

"It will take some time before Cuba can put in place the same infrastructure that Miami has. Besides, we have the Latin flavor here."

William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, getting ready for some competition for tourists from Cuba post-Fidel Castro, according to The Houston Chronicle.

Purchasing power

While an increasingly senile Fidel Castro continues to thunder in his loopy “editorials” about the evils of consumerism, it seems ordinary Cubans have no such qualms.

Those lucky Cubans who have access to hard cash - as opposed to the largely worthless pesos they receive from the State - can’t wait to get their hands on the little consumer luxuries we so take for granted out here in the real world.

According to this report by the Spanish daily El Pais, most of the State-owned electrical and electronic stores in Havana have done a roaring trade in DVDs and rice cookers in the first 10 days following a decision by Raul Castro to lift restrictions on such purchases.

Despite outrageously inflated prices (thanks, Raul!), more than 630 DVDs, 320 rice cookers and 30 electric motorcycles were sold by just one of the larger stores in Havana during that time.

But as the newspaper notes, it’s a similar story elsewhere on the island.

At Bejucal, a town of about 15,000 inhabitants half an hour or so from Havana, the local store reported selling no fewer than 110 DVD players since the lifting of restrictions.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

From the humidor

For those of you who enjoy the occasional habano (and let's face it, who doesn't?), here is an interesting read on cigars and cigar smoking in Cuba today - from a foreigner's perspective, of course, where big-brand smokes are always relatively cheap and plentiful.

Still, how can you fault a journalist who writes lines such as, "Nothing is more Cuban than cigars ..."?

And yes, the illustration above is from before 1959.

Quote of the Day

"I like the people here - they are very kind and everybody smiles. It is a safe country where you can walk through the streets even at night."

Marc Fryma, described as "a Canadian businessman", explaining to Prensa Latina, the official news agency of the Castro regime, why he has visited the island 114 times since 1992.

All the way to Beijing

As you may be aware, the Olympic torch relay through major European cities has been successfully disrupted over the past week by demonstrators calling on Communist China to respect human rights and to get out of Tibet.

It’s hard to argue with the demonstrators’ sentiment … except if you are Jose Ramon Fernandez.

Mr Fernandez is coyly described in Havana as the head of the Cuban Olympic Committee. In fact, he is much more than that: he is also a senior member of the Cuban Communist Party, a member of the Council of Ministers and a long standing apparatchik of the regime.

So his views on the torch relay disruptions may not come as a total surprise.

He has told reporters in Beijing that the Cuban Olympic Committee condemns the demonstrations which he said, were part of a well-orchestrated campaign aimed at undermining international confidence in China's capacity to organise the Games.

He said the campaign was being organised by “certain non-government organisations”, unnamed “personalities” and, naturally enough, the capitalist media.

As for an Olympic boycott, Mr Fernandez made it clear that Cuban athletes will most definitively compete in Beijing.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Place your bets

First he gave Cubans the right to window shops for outrageously-overpriced DVDs. Then, he gave them the right to own mobiles phones. And to stay in luxury hotels that previously had been reserved only for tourists.

Now, that great reformer, Raul Castro, may be toying with the idea of turning Cuba into an online gambling centre.

At least that’s the word from Online Casino Sphere, an online magazine that specialises on all matters gaming.

According to the magazine, the Caribbean is known as the online casino capital of the world, with many of the best-known online casinos and popular international sports-books operating in places such as Antigua, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

“Many of these countries base a large percentage of their economic output in the online gaming sector,” the magazine concludes.

“With all of the trouble Cuba is having economically, it would make sense for them to take advantage of the US$15 billion dollar a year industry. Really, what do they have to lose?”

Quote of the Day

"What the government is doing is a very small first step. They are doing the easy things and giving people more freedoms. We are still waiting for the big changes that will make a difference economically. And that will be much harder to do."

An unidentified Western diplomat speaking to The Guardian about the “reforms” introduced in recent weeks by Raul Castro. The article, written by roving Latin American correspondent Rory Carroll, isn’t bad. And reasonably balanced.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Quote of the Day

"They are probably doing it because Cuban television is so bad that people have illegal satellites or rent pirated DVDs. They will do anything to avoid watching State-run television. They are giving us the circus, without giving us bread,"

Dissident writer Miriam Leiva speaking to The Independent, London, about the announcement of a new television channel with supposedly more foreign programming.

Coming up next ...

As Fidel Castro has been saying for the past 50 years, Cubans just don’t know how lucky they are to be ruled by the boys from Biran.

Not only are Cubans now allowed to window shop for flat screen televisions, DVDs and computers but they are about to get a brand new television channel.

The move was announced overnight by a senior official from the State television network, Luis Acosta, who said the new channel would broadcast mainly foreign programs around the clock.

While Mr Acosta did not say what type of foreign programs would be shown, Reuters says he did hint that the new channel would be a little more entertaining and offer more variety than the existing offering.

Which shouldn’t be too difficult given the deadly dull, Soviet-style propaganda that is aired at present almost non-stop.

Unfortunately, the new channel will be owned and run by the regime, which has a monopoly on all forms of communications on the island and quite clearly, is not in hurry to let go.

H/T: Penultimos Dias

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The old man and his DVD

While his brother Raul is moving to allow ordinary Cubans to at least window shop for computers, DVDs and rice cookers (but no toasters until 2010!), Fidel Castro continues to decry the spread of consumerism.

From his comfortable hiding place in Havana, Castro I has sent a rambling, barely coherent missive to a conference of State-approved Cuban artists and writers in which he attacks the spread of what he describes as “imperialist inventions”.
You know, like the compact disc, mobile phones, DVDs and even the online social network Facebook.

“Is there any sense to this consumerist lifestyle promoted by the imperialists?” asks the semi-retired dictator, adding for good measure: “Can we even guarantee the mental and physical health of users of these devices from the so-far unknown side effects of so many electronic waves?”

There is more, of course, about the need to get those greedy, lazy Cubans (presumably such as the ones pictured above by Associated Press in Havana), back on the right revolutionary path.
If not, Castro I thunders, they will become even more rapacious, less productive and gadget-hungry. Yep, it's 1968 all over again. At least in his head.
Of course, it’s always dangerous to read too much (or too little) in what gets published by the official Cuban media, especially in that laugh-a-minute propaganda sheet Granma.

But I think this latest message from Castro I is further proof that the old man really has lost touch with his own people – and that he may not be entirely happy with some of the rather modest “reforms” introduced in recent weeks by his supposed successors.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

In Harare

I am not sure if you have been following developments in Zimbabwe over the past few days.

Once regarded as one of the most prosperous nations on the African continent, Zimbabwe is now a basket case, with widespread poverty, a worthless currency, a half-dead economy and inflation running at more than 100,000 per cent per annum. No, that’s no misprint.

The man responsible for all this misery is Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the place for the past 28 years with an iron fist.

Mugabe is a thug who harasses opposition politicians, rigs elections, uses the army and para-military forces to suppress dissent and leads an extravagant lifestyle while the vast majority of his 12 million subjects go hungry due to his idiotic economic policies.

Needless to say, one of his closet allies for decades has been Fidel Castro.

Mind you, compared to the Castro brothers, the sad truth is that Mugabe could be described as an enlightened democrat. Almost.

Unlike his friends in Havana, the Zimbabwean dictator tolerates opposition groups (between arrests, that is), and holds regular elections where opposition candidates are allowed to run and sometimes, even win seats in the legislature.

But you know how it is … sometimes, even rigged elections can turn out to be, well, real elections.

Which is what has happened in Zimbabwe over the weekend.

Despite widespread fraud, and intimidation and harassment of opposition supporters, it is now clear that most Zimbabweans voted to get rid of Mugabe and his crew, according to the international media.

It seems that the vote was so obviously against Mugabe the regime has had second thoughts about announcing rigged results and declaring the old man re-elected, as they have done in the past.

Instead, there are reports that Mugabe is under pressure from his own side to face the inevitable, give up his throne and take his loot and seek refuge elsewhere as a matter of urgency.

I hope that’s the case.

Meanwhile, in Havana …

Quote(s) of the Day

"Socialism has nothing to do with living comfortably."

A Havana resident, identified by Associated Press as Mercedes Orta, speaking at a Havana electronics store where she was “one of those who gawked at the new products” on sale.

"It's sad that after 50 years of suffering and 50 years living in fear with shortages and 50 years living with repression, Cubans now have the right to buy a rice cooker."

US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez speaking to Reuters in Washington. Mr Gutierrez, a Cuban-American, described the lifting of some consumer restrictions in Cuba by the Castro regime as “cynical”.

Of reforms and flat panel TVs

As you would expect, the consumer “reforms” introduced by Raul Castro over the past few days – access to mobile phones, computers and the lifting of the ban on Cubans staying in luxury hotels - have received considerable coverage in the international media.

Much of the coverage has been reasonably favourable, praising Castro II for lifting such “absurd restrictions” and in the process, making life a little easier for long-suffering Cubans, etc, etc … Never mind that these absurd restrictions were introduced by the Castro brothers themselves.

Most outlets also have correctly reported that the changes will make no difference to the vast majority of Cubans, who cannot afford such consumer goods on current wages.

But few have properly explained the reasons why, so, let’s give it a go.

Reason 1 is the fact that with few exceptions, most Cubans are paid depressingly low wages by the State, regardless of whether you are a doctor or a labourer. The average wage is about US$17.00 a month.

Reason 2 is the fact that wages in Cuba are paid by the State in ordinary pesos while the State sells imported goods in convertible pesos, which are worth about 25 times the value of an ordinary peso.

But there is a third reason: price gouging by the regime.

You see, the price of imported goods sold in State stores are outrageously high, as confirmed by this dispatch from Mary Murray, who heads the NBC’s Havana bureau.

As an example, Ms Murray reports that a 26" Panasonic flat screen television - which went on sale for the first time in Havana this week - sells to Cubans for 1,961 convertible pesos.

That’s about US$2,120, which NBC says is more than double the retail price in other countries.

So, what do you do if you are unhappy with the price? Pop down to the store down the street? Well, no. The regime owns all the stores and they all have exactly the same inflated prices.

In other words, not only does the State pay its workers a pitiful wage in a make-believe currency that is not accepted in its own shops, but then the State engages in what can only be described as profiteering on a grand scale. No, make that, on a criminal scale. Pure and simple.

In most other countries, such outrageous monopolistic behaviour would see the retailer before the courts and possibly facing a jail sentence, or at least a hefty fine.

In Cuba, under the Castro brothers, it’s called a “reform”.

Go figure.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Authorisation to stay in hotels is fine because it was unfair discrimination of Cubans with respect to foreigners. But, I have to ask, What Cubans can pay a night in a hotel with a normal salary?"

A doctor identified only as Tatiana tells Associated Press what she thinks of the Castro regime’s decision to lift its ban on Cubans staying in tourist hotels. In their own country.

Old man's stuff

In case you are wondering what Fidel Castro gets up to in his enforced semi-retirement, I point you in the direction of the superannuated dictator's latest "editorial", which was published overnight in all the official Cuban media.

In this case, we have a 1,700-word treatise on ... Chinese history. Yes, folk, Chinese history, stretching back to Marco Polo, with promises of more exciting instalments to come in the days ahead!

Sadly, the article is available so far only in Spanish.

Hospitality Corner

It seems the "new" Castro regime is about to announce another long-awaited economic "reform": ordinary Cubans will in future be allowed to stay in luxury hotels. In their own country.

According to media reports from Havana, hotel operators have been informed overnight that the regime plans to lift the ban, which bars Cuban citizens from staying in the best hotels and resorts on the island since they have been reserved exclusively for cash-carrying tourists.

The move is being interpreted by media observers as a positive sign that Raul Castro is serious about doing away with some of the "prohibitions" that Cubans have criticised for so long, although not too loudly, of course.

Not that anyone expects huge lines outside the Sol Melia.

Cubans, who are paid by the State in ordinary pesos, will need to pay for rooms and services in convertible pesos, which are worth about 25 times the value of the ordinary peso.

Although the right to stay in any hotel is guaranteed by the Communist Constitution, the Castro brothers imposed the ban in the early 1990s, when the regime decided to welcome capitalist tourists to the island as a way of surviving financially the spectacular collapse of the old Soviet bloc.

As this Reuters article confirms, the hotel ban has been a major source of “frustration” for Cubans, giving rise to accusations that the regime had in a place an "economic apartheid system”.

UPDATE: So, how much will it cost Cubans to stay in the luxury hotels previously reserved for tourists? According to this Associated Press article, a one-night stay at the mid-ranking Ambos Mundos Hotel, a restored hotel in central Havana that used to be a favourite of Ernest Hemingway, costs US$173.00 in high season. That's about eight times the average salary on the island.