Sunday, August 31, 2008

The faint smell of decay

Now, for some good news from Havana ... and probably, even better news to come?

As I am sure you would have read elsewhere over the past few hours, Gorki Aguila, the punk rocker who has become a scathing (and regular) critic of the Castro regime, was freed by a Havana tribunal on Friday, local time.

The front man of a band called Porno Para Ricardo, Gorki was arrested about a week ago and charged with the peculiarly Cuban crime of "social dangerousness" and "perverting Communist morality" - a catch-all, trumped-up charge that has been used by the Castro brothers for decades to silence any form of social or political dissent on the island. The penalty? Four years in prison.

But when the musician arrived at the court house on Friday, in handcuffs, as you can see in the Associated Press photograph above, something unprecedented in Cuba happened - the regime buckled.

You see, the Communist Party prosecutors unexpectedly and without explanation dropped the charge of "dangerousness", obviously under instructions from above, and instead, asked that a 600 pesos fine be imposed on the musician for playing music too loudly. The magistrate dutifully agreed and then set Gorki free.

What happened?

Certainly, there was plenty of criticism from outside, with a host of well-known Spanish-speaking musicians criticising the arrest, encouraged in large part by the efforts of bloggers such as our old friends at Penultimos Dias and Babalu.

And there was plenty of media coverage outside Cuba of the arrest, too, resulting in a large number of foreign correspondents turning up at the court house on Friday, along with a small but vocal group of Gorki fans, some relatives and supporters.

But let's face it, criticism from outside and international media attention have never stopped Castro I or his brother in the past from doing whatever they wanted - normally, they have merely thumbed their collectives noses at critics.

This time, however, it was different: for the first time in recent memory, the regime displayed its weakness and its uncertainty, as you can read in this article published by the Daily Telegraph in London.

"While huge, fading red stars still cling to the shabby colonial palaces along Havana's elegant, palm-lined boulevards, Communist rule has started to crumble," the paper says, adding that the Gorki incident had exposed "the fragility of the ... dictatorship".

I think they may be right.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

(More) Nostalgia

A former senior KGB agent whose job involved helping set up Fidel Castro’s ruthlessly efficient secret service has spilled the beans about the good old days to The Moscow Times.

His name is Oleg Nechiporenko, a former Soviet spy who worked in the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City – disguised as a “staffer” - between 1961 and 1965 and then again between 1967 and 1971.

According to the article, Mr Nechiporenko’s principal task in the 60s was to help Castro establish his own Soviet-style secret service organisation and later, to replicate the model in Nicaragua during the rule of the Sandinistas.

"The Cubans were good students,” he told the paper. “I shared my experience with them to help them fight against what at the time was our common enemy - the U.S. secret services. They would listen with attention, and they learned what we had to teach. Furthermore, they tailored what they had learned to the needs of their country, and they achieved excellent results in the fight against the enemy.”

Intriguingly, Mr Nechiporenko also reveals that there were quite a few Cuban double agents working in the United States at the height of the Cold War, although he doesn’t mention any by name.

“There were Cuban double agents who pretended to work for the Americans," he said. "They did an excellent job. One of them showed us a watch that he got from Henry Kissinger for his good fight against Castro."

Quote of the Day

"The sport has been mixed up in politics and that has put even more pressure on the athletes, especially our baseball players … They are athletes, not soldiers."

Miguel Espinosa, a 63-year-old former baseball player, tells IPS why Cuban athletes performed relatively poorly at the Beijing Olympics. In other words ... Fidel Castro.

In Havana

As you may have read elsewhere, Cuban police have arrested Gorki Aguila, the lead singer of Porno Para Ricardo, a Havana punk rock band that has been a critic of the Castro regime for the past couple of years or so.

Aguila has been charged with "dangerousness", which carries a sentence of up to four years in prison, and is expected to go to trial either today or tomorrow.

The charge of “dangerousness” is one of the great Orwellian achievements of "the Revolution" - a catch-all, trumped up charge designed to silence any form of social or political dissent on the island.

Ingeniously, you don't have to actually commit a crime to be charged with "dangerousness", but merely be suspected by the regime of being likely to commit a crime at some stage in the future. Nifty, no?

You can read more about the arrest here, and then pop by our friends at Penultimos Dias for the latest (in Spanish).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Really sore losers

Well, I told you Fidel Castro wouldn't be happy with the relatively mediocre results obtained by "his" athletes in Beijing ...

And sure enough, like a malevolent dinosaur emanating from some deep, murky swamp, the semi-retired dictator has used the official Cuban media to launch a scathing attack on ... referees.

In this silly "editorial" published in the regime's official propaganda sheet, Castro blamed "corrupt" referees for the failure of the Cuban team to win anywhere as many gold medals as they did in previous Games.

He defended the indefensible - the Cuban taekwondo fighter who was banned for life from the sport after kicking a Swedish referee in the face in a most unsportsmanlike fit of anger - before claiming that Cuban boxers were "robbed" of gold.

Hmmm, funny how Castro had no problems with "corrupt" referees just four years ago in Athens ...

But that's not all. Ever the master in the dark art of managing expectations, he warned that Cuban athletes may do even worse at the London Games in 2012 due to what Castro described as "European chauvinism, corruption among judges, the buying of muscles and brains, high costs and a strong dosage of racism.''

Nope, he is not happy.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Controversy corner

Fidel Castro won’t be happy.

Despite repeatedly calling on Cuban athletes to “fight to the last drop” on behalf of “the Revolution” at the Beijing Olympics, the semi-retired dictator will be seriously disappointed by the end result.

This time around, the Cuban team is taking home 24 Olympic medals, which is pretty good for a poor, smallish nation, but not good enough for Castro, who has spent decades using sporting victories primarily as a propaganda tool.

Of the 24 medals won in Beijing, only two are gold, compared to nine gold medals in Athens four years ago.

Even more disturbing for the regime, Cuban boxers failed to win a single gold medal – the first time this has happened since 1968. And both the high profile women’s volleyball team and the baseball team were also roundly defeated.

This all means that Cuba fell from the 11th spot on the official medal tally to number 28, behind countries such as Jamaica and Brazil.

Still, all those hard-working Cuban athletes dutifully dedicated their medals to Castro, as Cuban athletes have been "encouraged" to do at every Olympic Games since the 1960s.

As for the official Cuban media, well, they have recently described Castro as “the director of the team", an "unbeatable gladiator" and an "exceptional strategist, promoter and prophet” of Cuban sports. So, who knows what they will come up with next ...

So far, no commentary from the old man himself, but no, he won’t be happy.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Even now we go to the beach and there are people who say to us: 'You're leaving? Take me with you’ (but) it's impossible to cross 90 miles in a surfboard."

Eduardo Valdes, head of the small Cuban Surfers Association, explaining to Reuters the kind of response he often gets from fellow Cubans when he turns up at a beach with his board.

In Cuban schools

Cuban parents appear to have won a small (and rare) victory, with the Castro regime quietly announcing overnight new moves to “fine tune” the education system.

You see, while outsiders visiting Cuba continue to unquestionably accept and loudly applaud the claims made by the regime about education on the island, local parents aren’t nearly as impressed.

In recent years, parents have been complaining about the fact that while schools are indeed free, most classes are taught by so-called “generalist” teachers – student teachers who are unqualified and inexperienced. In fact, most are barely out of school themselves.

In many other cases, the shortage of qualified teachers has forced schools to use televised lessons, a move that has further angered parents, especially when they keep reading how great the education system is supposed to be.

Well, according to the official Cuban propaganda sheet, Granma, education authorities have now decided to give these generalist teachers extra time each week to prepare classes, and to increase supervision of their work in the classroom.

What Granma does not report is that the extensive use of unqualified and inexperienced student teachers in Cuban schools was an idea thought up and promoted by none other than Fidel Castro.

When he first launched the program seven years ago, the now semi-retired dictator dressed up the move as an “education revolution”. As you do.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Quote of the Day

"We can now tell people in Cuba that they can trust again in our team because even with defections and betrayal, Cuban boxing will never disappoint.”

Pedro Roque, the Cuban boxing coach, carefully following the Havana party line in an interview with The Washington Post on how well the team has performed in Beijing after all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

(More) financial news

More information is coming to light about the extent of the losses faced by Japanese businesses in their dealings with the Castro regime.

As previously reported, the Japanese Government has decided to stop insuring businesses that export to Cuba following a decision by the boys in Havana to stop paying their debts … again.

According to this article in The Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the companies affected is Meiwa Corp, a midsize trading house that exported medical equipment and supplies to Cuba worth 872 million yen (one US dollar equals about 109 Japanese yens).

A spokesman for Meiwa told the paper that it was highly unlikely the company would ever be able to collect the debt.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Financial news

When it comes to paying its (many) creditors, the Castro regime has what can only be described as a terrible record.

As readers may recall from previous posts, the regime still owes an estimated $US26 billion to the countries of the now-disappeared Soviet bloc, which, of course, will never be repaid.

But that’s not all - the Castro brothers have also defaulted on some $US13 billion worth of credit from capitalist countries over the past four decades.

And they are still at it, with Japan becoming the latest nation to get caught up in the trap.

According to media reports in Tokyo, the Japanese government-backed provider of trade insurance, Nippon Export and Investment Insurance, has stopped accepting new applications for trade insurance on business with Cuba.

Which means that almost all exports from Japan to Cuba will come to a halt, at least for now.

And the reason behind the decision by the insurer? Same old story: the Cubans have failed to pay for Japanese imports by the agreed dates.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Here we go again ... yet another Latin American left-wing presidential candidate trying to curry favour with the Castro regime.

This time it's Mauricio Funes, a former CNN correspondent who is currently the front-runner in the race to be El Salvador's next president.

Although elections are not due until March next year, Funes has told media that he will re-establish diplomatic relations with Havana if he is elected.

Friday, August 15, 2008

News from an embargoed island

Regardless of whether you support or not support the US trade embargo on the Castro regime, newly-released figures confirm what many of us have known for some time - it's not much of an embargo.

According to statistics published today by the regime in Havana, those evil, capitalist Americans have now become Cuba's fifth largest trading partner, behind Venezuela, China, Canada and Spain.

During 2007, the Cuban government bought goods worth USD582 million from US businesses, mainly agricultural and other primary producers - an increase of about USD100 million over the previous 12 months.

So much for the US trade embargo imposed in 1962 by then president John F Kennedy ...

By the way, the figures also confirm that the Castro brothers continue to depend on foreigners for the supply of even the most basic of goods - Cuba imported goods worth USD10 billion during 2007 but managed to export only USD3.7 billion of Cuban made goods.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Quote of the Day

"I was pleasantly surprised when I could not find a single statue or billboard representation of Raul or Fidel Castro, not only in Havana but anywhere in Cuba."
David Moulton, who "works with the homeless" in his home town of Duluth, Minnesota, reporting to his local newspaper on his recent trip to Cuba. A member of the US Pastors for Peace "caravan", it would seem Mr Moulton did not look hard enough.

That time of the year ..

Every August 13 without fail, the official Cuban media celebrates Fidel Castro’s birthday by trying to come up with ever more ridiculous ways to describe the man who ruled his 11 million subjects with an iron fist for close to half a century.

A few years ago, when Castro was still in good health and very much in charge, the official propaganda sheet of the regime, Granma, went as far as comparing the dictator to the sun – warm, radiant and unconquerable.

This year, with Castro too ill to be allowed out in public and reduced to writing silly “editorials” from his sick bed on whatever comes into his mind, the official coverage has been a little more subdued.

Still, there are some gems in the offing.

Among a raft of congratulatory telegrams and comments published by Granma, there is an “open letter” from “Cuban workers” that describes Castro variously as "wise", "sound" and "serene".

Then there is a message from “friends of Cuba” in Chile, who describe Castro as " the first soldier in the vanguard of the Battle of Ideals” and a tireless fighter “for a fairer and more free world."

But perhaps the saddest message of all was the one supposedly composed by the Cuban Olympic team in Beijing.

In a message read out by Cuba’s judo star Driulis Gonzalez, the athletes (or rather, their Communist Party minders), have described Castro as “the director of the team", "the greatest home run hitter", an "unbeatable gladiator", and an "exceptional strategist, promoter and prophet”.

Pass the bucket, I say.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Nostalgia II

Back in the good old days, whenever the old men in the Kremlin sent in Russian tanks into neighbouring nations to set things right, Fidel Castro could always be counted on to loudly cheer on the Soviets from the sidelines.

Tanks into Prague? No worries. Into Warsaw? Damn right. Kabul? Well done …

Of course, the Soviet Union is now long gone and Castro is slowly disappearing off the stage but it seems that old habits die hard.

True to form, the semi-retired dictator has penned one of his “editorials”, applauding the Russians for sending their tanks into neighbouring Georgia, and describing the democratically-elected Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, as an “adventurer”, “greedy” and “opportunistic”.

The reason for such vitriol?
As far as Castro is concerned, the Georgians have committed a cardinal sin: aligning themselves with the United States and other Western democracies.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In the South Pacific

Vanuatu has become the latest South Pacific nation to welcome with open arms an offer from Havana to send in Cuban doctors.

According to media reports, a surgeon, a pathologist and four general practitioners will arrive in Vanuatu over the next few weeks to provide much-needed services in public hospitals. They will have a two-year contract to serve and will work mainly in provincial areas.

The doctors are at the forefront of an aggressive diplomatic campaign being waged in recent years in the region by the Castro regime, which normally involves offering South Pacific nations supposedly “surplus” doctors, as well as medical scholarships in Havana for local students.

It’s been a huge propaganda win for the regime, as you can see from articles in Left-wing publications such as this one … especially since the impression normally given by Havana is that the doctors are on “humanitarian missions”.

Of course, this is not always the case.

For example, in the case of the Solomon Islands, the host nation pays USD300 a month per doctor directly to the Cuban government, which then pays the doctors a fraction of this to cover “living expenses” – and yes, the Castro brothers keep the difference.

In this latest case, the Vanuatu government will pay for the doctors’ return flights and their accommodation, as well as providing them with what has been described by local officials as “a small a mount of money every month” in the form of an allowance.

Despite the costs, governments in the region are more than happy to take up the offer.

As Vanuatu’s director of public health, Len Tarivonda, told the media, the Cuban doctors will still cost a lot less to hire than similar doctors from either Australia or New Zealand.

Quote of the Day

"I'd leave Cuba if I could. I don't think things are going to get better for 1,000 years. I'm educated. I have a history degree. But look what I have to do for a living."

Betty, a Havana resident described as a 25-year-old part-time prostitute, speaking to The Houston Chronicle about live in Cuba.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


All this media talk about the Russians wanting to "rekindle" their special relationship with the Castro regime (nuclear missiles, anyone?), is probably making you all a tad nostalgic for the good old days when Havana was, well, a loyal outpost of Soviet imperialism.

So, enjoy the AFP archive photograph above of Fidel Castro visiting his paymasters in Moscow in the mid 1970s.

Quote of the Day

"It was odd to see a BMW dealership in a Communist country; it was definitely for the tourists."

Twenty-one year old University of North Carolina student Caitlin Ross tells her local paper about her experiences "living, studying and traveling in what is to many people a forbidden country".

Sporting Corner

It seems as if Cuba's dominance in Olympic boxing may be coming to an end.

According to this Reuters report, a string of defections by champion boxers could mean that Cuba will be unable to win as many gold medals in Beijing this month as it won at the last Olympic Games in Athens four years ago.

Back then, Cuban boxers won five of the 11 gold medals up for grabs - not bad for a country of barely 11 million.

The report says that since Athens, three champion boxers have defected, others have retired and another, Guillermo Rigondeaux, was dropped from the Olympic squad after attempting to defect.

What the report does not make clear is that Rigondeaux was dropped on direct orders from Fidel Castro, who described the boxer as a "traitor" and ordered that he never be allowed to represent his homeland again.