Thursday, July 31, 2008

Business news

The Canadian conglomerate that part-owns and operates nickel mines and electricity generators in Cuba has just announced an unexpected 39 per cent drop in profits for the latest quarter.

It seems Sherritt International Corp – a long term business partner of the Castro regime - has been hurt by weaker nickel prices, rising costs and maintenance problems.

The company also said that it has abandoned its four offshore oil concessions in Cuba, a move that may surprise those of you who can recall the great media excitement surrounding the original announcement in Havana about the concessions not all that long ago.

Sherritt's chief executive, Jowdat Waheed, told the media that the group had given up its offshore oil exploration blocks in the Cuban section of the Gulf of Mexico due to “the inability to attract a partner”.

And in any case, he said, the company's seismic testing to date “did not make a case for drilling”.

“Given the seismic that we shot, we don't feel that spending $150 million at this time is merited," Mr Waheed said.

In other words, no oil.

In Cuban schools

Here is something we don’t see all that often: an article in The New York Times detailing “shortcomings” in Fidel Castro’s schools.

In fact, the great North American journal of record merely confirms what many of us have known for a long time - that while the Cuban education system is (and has always been) better and more equitable than those in some other Latin American countries, it’s quite patchy. And getting worse.

How patchy? According to the article, parents often complain about children being “crammed” into classes that number as many as 40 pupils, where they are taught by unqualified undergraduate students or “makeshift teachers”.

In many cases, parents are forced to hire private tutors to ensure their children learn to read and write.

The article quotes a 20 year “teaching veteran” who left the classroom to work in a beauty salon because he said salaries were too low in teaching as saying: “Our schools have fallen into a hole.”

Just don’t tell the old dictator.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Animal farm

Forty years ago or so, Fidel Castro promised that Cuban “revolutionary” scientists would one day produce a super-cow that would provide more milk and more beef than any other cow in the world.

Of course, it was all crap – an idiotic plan that would keep Cuban laboratories busy for years with nothing to show for it in the end ... just like Castro’s other promises.

But now we have news that a humble chicken in Campo Florido, a town just outside Havana, has produced a super-egg.

According to the official Cuban media, the unnamed hen has laid a 180-gram egg, which is believed to be the largest egg ever laid in the world. Or at least the largest egg likely to make it into the Guinness Book of Records.

The hen’s owner, a 77-year-old campesino identified as Teofilo Martinez, told the media that while he had raised chickens all his life he had never ever seen an egg quite this large.

“She seemed normal," Mr Martinez said, referring to the wonder hen. "But she couldn’t properly sit on the nest, so I went to see what was wrong and then I saw it.”

The super-egg remains in the family's fridge.

Industrial news

A survey of Cuban workers undertaken by the one and only legal trade union on the island has found that most workers have little knowledge of laws that are supposed to protect their industrial rights.

According to the survey, over 70 per cent of the workers interviewed by the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), had no idea that there were laws in the Constitution to protect their rights in the workplace.

In fact,
most of those polled were of the view that if a conflict ever arose between workers and “management”, the union would do what it always does and take the side of the bosses.

Which is hardly surprising since unlike unions elsewhere, the CTC is an arm of the ruling Communist Party – and all workplaces are owned, managed and closely monitored by the State.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Quote of the Day

"People who are against the (Castro regime) bring their dreams and their suffering and their pain. And those who support the government come here, too. The virgin brings them together. She's the mother of reconciliation."

Father Jorge Alejandro, a priest at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity del Cobre, near Santiago, as quoted by the International Herald-Tribune.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The more things change ...

Raul Castro's much-anticipated speech in Santiago de Cuba to mark the 55th anniversary of what the regime deems to be "the start of the Cuban Revolution" has been thoughtfully summarised by The Sydney Morning Herald thus: "Raul Castro warns Cubans of tough times".
Another variant: "Raul Castro fails to announce reforms in Cuba", from AFP.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Quote of the day

"The mood of the notoriously outspoken Venezuelan macaws on being packed off to an island where freedom of speech is a luxury can only be guessed at."

British weekly The Economist reporting on an unusual deal whereby Havana Zoo will provide "surplus" lions, giraffes and zebras to a zoo in Caracas, in exchange for a puma and eight macaws.

H/T Babalu

About that milk ...

Once again, foreign correspondents in Havana are working themselves up into a mini-frenzy about what Raul Castro may or may not announce when he speaks to his fellow Cubans on 26 July – the holiest of revolutionary holidays.

Most correspondents are of the view that the regime has introduced a “raft” of “reforms” over the past year, pointing to the fact that ordinary Cubans are now allowed to window-shop for DVDs and personal computers, although they will need to wait until 2010 before they can window shop for toasters.

Correspondents also point out that Cubans can now own mobile phones and stay in hotels once reserved by government decree for tourists. Theoretically, that is.

Now, there is speculation that other, equally momentous changes will be unveiled by Castro II on Friday.

I hope they are right - I hope Castro II announces for instance, that free and fair multi-party elections will be held in Cuba within the next 12 months. And that Cubans will now be able to travel in and out of the country freely, without State permission.

But it seems at least some Cubans are well, a little sceptical, as you can see from this Reuters report.

Asked what he expects from the speech, a 33-year-old construction worker identified as Ibrahim Zamora told the reporter: "I don't have any illusions, but it's possible he'll say something new … We still haven't drunk the milk he talked about last year."

Protesting Cubans

As part of its current series on life in Cuba, The Christian Science Monitor today publishes a lengthy and surprisingly supportive article on the plight of dissidents on the island – all of them women.

Among those interviewed is Nereida Rodriguez Rivero, a member of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), which has been fighting a lonely battle to force the Castro regime to do away with the existing two-currency system.

The campaign has involved the women attempting to pay for basic goods in ordinary Cuban pesos, which is the currency used by the State to pay all workers. Unfortunately for Cuban workers, pesos are not accepted in most stores which, you will be surprised to hear, are owned by the State.

It means Cubans who need to buy such "luxuries" as toothpaste, soap or clothing, have to exchange their more or less worthless pesos for the regime's own convertible currency - at a rate of 25 pesos for every one CUC.

It’s an absolute, shameful rort.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Raul's goal is to modernise and to normalise trade relations with the US. If we normalise relations now, it'll be a whole new world. Havana will be the Hong Kong of the Caribbean.

John Parke Wright, described as a sixth generation Florida rancher with close (business) ties to the Castro regime, speaking to The Christian Science Monitor about the future of Cuba.

Friday, July 18, 2008

In Havana

The Havana correspondent for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Doreen Hemlock, reports today on the challenges faced by ordinary Cubans who must make ends meet in Fidel Castro's two-currency economy.

You know, the highly-egalitarian system under which workers get paid by the regime in ordinary and largely worthless pesos but can only buy the bulk of their daily necessities in State-owned stores that surprisingly, accept only a much more expensive convertible currency. Twenty-five times more expensive.

The report highlights a small and largely symbolic protest in Havana on Monday by women belonging to a group called the Federation of Latin American Rural Women, which is apparently campaigning (illegally, as far as the regime is concerned) to do away with the dual currency system.

Two members of the group protested by entering a pharmacy that sells goods in convertible currency and tried to pay for a bottle of medicine in ordinary pesos, which is, after all, the legal currency of Cuba. The cashier refused, and the manager took the bottle away.

Quote of the Day

“Beautiful as Cuba is, this remains a highly controlled society; more than one person whispered a confided desire to leave it by any means possible.”

Ronan McGrath, writing in AutoWeek about the “classic” American cars of Havana … and life in Fidel Castro’s island paradise.

No home trips for you!

Here is further proof that no matter how much his regime needs them, Fidel Castro never has and never will forgive those Cubans who decide to leave the island in search of a better life – or political freedom.

In his latest “editorial” published by the Cuban official media, the semi-retired dictator has once again attacked sportsmen and women who defect, especially baseball players.

Describing them as “traitors” who are only interested in money, consumer goods and other such capitalist “vices", Castro warned defectors that they would not be allowed to return home. At least not while he is around. Which as we all know, may not be all that long, of course …

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


It’s been a hectic few days back here in Blog Central, so we apologise for missing a very important anniversary this week: the 45th year of Fidel Castro’s ration card.

The infamous libreta was introduced formally in 1963 as a way of ensuring every Cuban got their fair share of food every month at a time when the shelves at the local bodega were invariably empty.

At least that was the theory.

In any case, the libreta was supposed to be a temporary measure, with Castro promising that it would disappear in 12 months. Or maybe in 24 months but no more than that …

Now that Cuba had discarded capitalism and was moving at lighting speed towards Socialism, the Maximo Lider told us, there would be plenty of food for all.

Even the name given by the regime to the ration card – Libreta de Abastecimiento - was reassuring, implying not rationing but abundance.

When I was growing up, the libreta ruled my family’s life as it ruled the lives of the vast majority of Cubans, who had to queue for hours on end to receive their monthly rations. And not just food. There was also a separate ration card for clothing, which covered every imaginable item, from shoes and shirts to underwear.

Well, 45 years later, the ration card is still there, providing ordinary Cubans with a basket of “basic” foodstuffs that is meant to last a whole 30 days but in reality, last barely a week.

For the other three weeks of the month, Cubans have to find alternative ways to feed themselves, which is tough, especially if like the vast majority of workers, you are paid in Cuban pesos by the State and have no access to hard cash.

Which may explain why there were no grand celebrations in Havana to mark the 45th birthday of the ration card.

Monday, July 14, 2008

In Varadero

“What visitors get is a cheap holiday on a clean, beautiful Caribbean beach—and the almost complete absence of Cubans. The locals have always been there, cleaning rooms and waiting tables and performing onstage, but until Raul Castro lifted restrictions on March 31, they were not allowed to stay at tourist hotels, even if they could afford it.

“So far, little has changed. On several occasions, we have to smuggle [our Cuban driver] into off-limits establishments for a drink, and although he takes it all with a philosophical shrug, it reminds me a little of smuggling blacks into ‘whites only’ places during the days of apartheid in South Africa.”

Travel writer John Graham writing in the July issue of Conde Nast Traveller about Varadero – and how things have changed (or otherwise) for ordinary Cubans since Fidel Castro’s semi-retirement.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Quote of the Day

“Cubans embrace life, behaving as if they're going to live forever. Even a funeral or a workers' strike is a carnival. Our rum is a distillation of this Cuban culture and I defy anyone not to smile after just a sip."

Jose Navarro, the head distiller at Havana Club, the government-owned rum maker, explaining to The Daily Telegraph in London the relationship between Cubans and rum.

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Navarro’s views on rum but I am not too sure what he means by Cubans going on a “workers’ strikes”. As I am sure Fidel Castro can confirm, there has not been a single workers’ strike in Cuba since about 1960s – they are illegal.

Housing targets

You may recall that some time ago the Castro regime announced with great fanfare that 50,000 new houses or apartments would be built on the island during 2008.

Another great achievement for the “revolution” … except for the fact that the number of promised new houses compared rather unfavourably with the 52,600 new dwellings the regime claimed to have built in the previous year.

In other words, even though the number of ordinary Cuban families in urgent need of housing continues to increase rapidly, the Castro brothers are building fewer new houses.

Well, it now seems that even that much more modest target for 2008 may be in doubt.

According to figures provided by the head of the National Housing Institute, Victor Ramirez, a total of 22,558 new dwellings have been built in the first six months of the current year – or about 45 per cent of the target.

Mr Ramirez ominously hinted that the promise by the regime to build 50,000 new houses may have been, well, a tad ambitious due to a range of unspecified “transport problems”, assorted shortages, poor productivity, etc, etc ...

So, it’s back to square one. Again.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Quote of the Day

"The impact of the substantial elevation of prices of food and fuel on the international market … will require inevitable adjustments and restrictions on the national economy.”

A senior Cuban minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez, quoted in Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, in reference to food prices. In other words, more of the same.

Family habits

As you may have read in Penultimos Dias, it seems that nice Mariela Castro has written a rather testy letter to a Canadian doctor by the name of Pierre Assalian, who happens to be the president of the 17th World Congress of Sexology.

Dr Assalian made the dreadful mistake of daring to (politely) criticise a decision by the Castro regime some days ago to break up a planned gay rights demonstration in Havana.

Well, it appears Ms Castro wasn’t happy, penning her own rebuttal in her capacity as head of the National Centre for Sexual Education (Cenesex), which may sound like an independent body but is in fact, run and funded by the Communist Party, like all other such organisations in Cuba.

In her letter, the daughter of Raul Castro attempts to whitewash the regime’s appalling past record against homosexuals - again!

But even more disappointing for someone who is supposed to be clever and tolerant, she also uses the same old (and highly offensive) arguments against opponents that have been used by her uncle and his apologists for the past five decades, namely:

+ Anyone who disagrees with the regime is by definition “anti-Cuban”.

+ Journalists and others who write negative stories about the regime, especially in relation to political and human rights, are “mercenaries” in the pay of the United States.

+ For the past 50 years, capitalist media owners have routinely directed their journalists to engage in a campaign of misinformation and slander against the regime.

It’s all rubbish, of course. And predictable. But it shows once more that when it comes to the Castros, todo tiene su limite.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Journalism in Cuba: The Challenge of Telling the Truth".

Surprisingly accurate headline used by the official radio station Radio Agramonte, on a report about the weekend conference of the Communist Party-controlled Union of Cuban Journalists.

Rewriting history. Again.

When it comes to rewriting history to suit the occasion, few world leaders can challenge Fidel Castro. And few seem to get away with it as often and as easily as he does.

For nearly five decades, Castro has been busily correcting, editing or simply ignoring his own words when it suits him to do so, starting with his now infamous promise to hold free and fair, multi-party elections in Cuba within 18 months of the “triumph of the revolution”.

Now, from his sick bed, the semi-retired dictator is at it again.

He issued an extraordinary statement over the weekend criticising the Colombian “rebel” group FARC (true!) for the "cruel methods of kidnapping and holding prisoners in the jungle", such as the recently-rescued Ingrid Betancourt.

Never mind the fact that Castro and his brother used similar tactics during their battle against Fulgencio Batista in the late 1950s, as others have pointed out.

The real question is why has Castro waited until now to make his comments about these “cruel methods”? After all, his regime has provided sanctuary to FARC members, as well as weapons, funding and strategic assistance, since the 1960s. Some 40 years!

Oh, yes, and he has met countless times with FARC leaders and various foot soldiers, and publicly supported their cause - and their methods - without ever mentioning the word "cruel".

Until now …

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Quote of the Day

"There won't be any flirting with the enemy ideology."

Cuban vice-president Esteban Lazo warning the official Cuban media about the (very strict) limits of Raul Castro's "reformist" government.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Fellow travellers

The arrest and continuing harassment of dissidents in Cuba by the Castro regime is unlikely to get much coverage in the mainstream media, either in the United States or elsewhere.

But I bet you a cold beer or two that there will be plenty of interest globally in this media release issued by Pastors for Peace, a group of publicity-savvy US Christians and other fellow travellers who collect and then deliver donations to Cuba every year or so.

The group, which has a long and shameful history of supporting the Castro brothers through thick and thin, is complaining that agents from the Homeland Security Department seized more than 30 old computers bound for Cuba.

The computers were confiscated at the US-Mexican border, prompting a spokesman for the Pastors to complain of having been “intentionally provoked and harassed” by American authorities.

Now, let's be charitable here and give the Pastors and their supporters the benefit of the doubt - after all, they are well-meaning Christian folk, aren't they?

But if they are serious and want to learn more about provocation and harassment from other, well-meaning Christians, this is what they should do when they get to Cuba, with or without the old computers: they should have a chat to the likes of Osvaldo Paya or the Damas de Blanco and their relatives. Don't hold your breath.

Fourth of July in Havana

Just a couple of days after the Castro regime issued one of its regular statements accusing the United States of encouraging “counter revolutionary” activities on the island, there are reports today that as many as 40 dissidents were rounded up by police in raids across Cuba over the past 24 hours.

It seems most (but not all) of the dissidents have since been let go, after having been roughed up and accused by authorities of being American “mercenaries”.

Some of those arrested had been planning to hold a meeting of sorts to respond to the regime’s claim that anyone who criticises the “revolution” is by definition, in the pay of the those nasty American imperialists. Naturally.

For the record, this latest campaign of harassment and intimidation by Havana comes just days after the European Union agreed to lift its (largely symbolic) sanctions against the regime … as a way of encouraging democratic change and respect for human rights.

Well, the Europeans now know exactly how those lovable Castro brothers feel about the decision – a case of, up your kilt, mate!

By the way, one of the accusations made by the regime against the US Interest Section in Havana – the de facto American embassy in the city – was that officials there had tried to undermine the “revolution” by providing “mercenaries” with “access to the Internet”.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Disappointed old men

He may be semi-retired, senile and near death but Fidel Castro remains deeply disappointed by the lack of “revolutionary spirit” among his long-suffering 11 million subjects.

It’s always been the case – Cubans have never been good enough for the Messianic dictator. As far he is concerned, we are too lazy, too hungry for material benefits, prone to waste time dancing and drinking, not serious enough … and too darn ungrateful.

Si, senor, a huge disappointment.

Castro is at it again today, using his latest “editorial” to launch a blistering attack on Cubans who leave the island “illegally”, describing those who regularly risk their lives to flee his putrid legacy as nothing more than despicable, money-hungry infidels lacking “ethics”.

He is particularly upset by doctors and other medical staff who somehow end up living and working in the United States, the great enemy.

Castro believes that since those professionals have had the great privilege of being “given an education” by the “revolution”, they should be grateful and stay put in Cuba, even if they are underpaid and overworked.

Interestingly, his latest diatribe has been published so far only on selected Cuban Internet sites – as opposed to being published in the official Cuban print media, as has been the case in the past.

It seems to be a recent change in tactic by the regime, meaning that the old man’s running commentary on whatever comes into his head is now available only to outsiders and those few Cubans with access to the Internet.

As you can read in this article by the Spanish newsagency EFE, some Cubanologists believe this may signal serious disagreements within the ruling Communist Party about some of Castro’s views.

Or perhaps after 50 years of listening to the same old crap, they have had enough?

Quote of the Day

"Central Havana is, quite literally, crumbling. Its once majestic edifices are a faded shade of grey; its pot-holed streets are massively over-populated; it's gritty and grubby, and yet there's something delicious about its dilapidation."

Travel writer Simon Tester, writing about his bicycle tour of Cuba for The Manchester Evening News. Some Cubans may disagree about the delicious depilation.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Baronets and peers

Here is something of a twist on the usual story about rich Europeans visiting Cuba to experience the “revolution” first hand.

A British travel agent has just announced a new tour of the island to be guided by a peer of the Realm.

OK, so it’s not a hereditary Lord with a coronet and mink cape like the ones you see at the movies but close enough.

Our guide will be none other than Lord Hattersley, a life peer who used to be known as plain old Roy Hattersley back in the 1980s when he was Deputy Leader of the British Labour Party – and a regular target of satirical magazines such as Punch and Private Eye.

Now retired, author of several books and a regular columnist for papers such as The Guardian, the very well-read Lord Hattersley is leading what is described as “A Journey Through Cuba”, combining a visit to “the grand cities of Havana and Trinidad” with a stay in the countryside.

Among the “historic” places to be visited are the Bay of Pigs (“areas of 20th century Cuba that have shaped history”), cigar plantations and predictably, the Ernesto Che Guevara monument in Santa Clara.

But the highlight of the tour, it seems, is a promise by the travel agent that the lucky tourists and their Lord will be joined in Santa Clara for a chat and a cup of coffee by one of Guevara’s sons, Camilo.

Rural news

Just in case you are still debating the merits or otherwise of a State-planned economy, here are some sobering statistics on farmland production and utilisation in Fidel Castro’s island parasite.

According to official figures issued by the regime, about 55 per cent of all agricultural land in Cuba is either idle or under-utilised – up from 46 per cent just five years ago.

It seems that while farmers everywhere else are always trying to maximise production so they can make more money, Cuban farmers would rather not waste their time and effort growing crops.

Why? Because most don’t own the land they farm and until recently, they could only sell the bulk of their crops to the State, which paid a pittance for the produce. In many cases, some bureaucrat in Havana also decided on behalf of farmers what they could or could not plant in any particular season.

In other words, it's easier to simply leave agricultural land go to waste.