Thursday, October 30, 2008

Here we go again ...

Much as expected, an overwhelming majority of United Nations member countries voted on Wednesday, New York time, for the lifting of the 46-year-old US trade and commercial embargo on the Castro regime.

This is the 17th year in a row that such a vote has been taken and once again, support for the Americans was, well, minimal.

Apart from the US, the other two nations to vote against the motion were Israel and the tiny island of Palau, with two other Pacific island nations – the Marshall Islands and Micronesia - abstaining.

Although the vote is not binding and therefore does not mean much in practice, it represents yet another propaganda win for the Castro brothers.

Friday, October 24, 2008

All's forgiven now, chaps

After five years of what could be best described as lukewarm relations, the European Union has today formally kissed and made up with those fun-loving Castro brothers.

You may recall that the 27-member EU imposed selective diplomatic sanctions against Havana in 2003 after 75 Cuban dissidents were rounded up by the regime, accused of a host of trumped-up, “anti-revolutionary” charges and then sentenced to jail terms of up to 25 years a piece.

While the sanctions were largely meaningless, the symbolism was unmistakable – and the decision certainly pissed off Fidel Castro, who launched a virulent attack on the Europeans, describing them as “imperialist lackeys”. And worse.

Obviously the Europeans are a forgiving lot.

They are now back in Havana, as you can see from this Reuters report, shaking hands with that awful Felipe Perez Roque and signing all sorts of “co-operation” agreements with the Castro regime. Most important of all, they are bringing with them some much-needed cash in the form of aid and credits.

For their part, the Cubans say they are happy to restart an open and constructive dialogue with the EU – on the Cubans' terms, of course, which essentially means the Europeans have been told to stay clear of Cuban domestic issues, such as human and political rights.

As for the imprisoned dissidents that supposedly caused so much angst in the Old Continent five years ago, well, at least 55 of them remain behind bars.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Forty six years ago on this day, this is how the venerable London newspaper, The Times, reported events in the far-off Caribbean:

“President Kennedy tonight said that he has ordered a partial blockade of all ships of any kind, from whatever nation or port. They would be turned back if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons. This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base constituted an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas and contradicted the repeated assurances of the Soviets.”

Of course, John F Kennedy, who thought (correctly) that he had no choice but to stand up to the Soviets, is long gone to another world.

So, too, the Soviet protagonists of the time, including then Communist Party boss Nikita Khrushchev, who blinked at the last minute, averting (correctly) a potentially devastating nuclear war between the super-powers.

But Fidel Castro - who continually urged the Russians to stop pussyfooting around and launch those damn nuclear missiles against the Americans - is still alive if not all that well, from what we hear.

That’s history for you ...

Quote of the Day

“His Eminence is not an enemy of socialism and he does not condemn to eternal fire those who of us who struggle for a better world on the basis of Marxism-Leninism.”

Fidel Castro, who not so long ago used to think religion was the opium of the masses, praising Metropolitan Kirill, the head of foreign relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, who has just been in Cuba consecrating a newly-built cathedral.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The other Fidel

Headline of the Day

“Castro writes while Cuba sinks”.

Headline in today’s edition of the Toronto Sun. The story, written by Joe Warmington, depicts Fidel Castro as a cranky and increasingly delusional old man “squirrelled away in a military hospital with a pen and pad by his bed”.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Business news II

Believe it or not, that old story about Cuba becoming a gigantic petrol producer is doing the rounds. Again.

This time, the story appears in The Guardian, the Left-leaning daily in London, which reports with much excitement the release of "new" figures by the Castro regime suggesting "there may be more than 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil" in the Gulf of Mexico waters surrounding Cuba.

If confirmed, the newspaper says, the new figures would put Cuba's reserves "on par with those of the US and into the world's top 20".

Business news

Contrary to what you may have read in some Castro-friendly newspapers, it is becoming increasingly clear that Cuba will not be immune to what has become known as the global financial crisis.

Sure, the Communist Party regime in Havana still pretends to run a “socialist" economic model, far removed from the evils of rampant capitalism and sharemarket speculation, but the reality is very different.

In fact, the great financial meltdown of 2008 will have a serious impact on the two biggest money-earners for the Castro brothers.

The second biggest money-earner is tourism, which was worth an estimated USD2.2 billion last year. But a recession in Western Europe will mean fewer Spaniards, Germans and Italians travelling to Cuba on holidays, which will result in deserted beaches, empty hotel rooms and a sudden drop in the consumption of over-priced mojitos.

And there are equally serious problems with the regime’s number one money earner: the nickel industry.

After years of high prices and continuing growth, driven largely by China’s insatiable need for raw materials, the demand for nickel is on the way down – and so, too, are the prices paid for the metal.

As you can see from this Reuters article of only 10 months ago, Cuba has the third-largest nickel reserves in the world, with nickel exports earning the country about USD2.7 billion in 2007.

However, new figures produced by a body known as the International Nickel Study Group show that global demand for nickel fell again in August – the fifth month of decline in a row. And the price of nickel has also tumbled: at USD10,800.00 a tonne, it is now less than a third of the price a year ago.

In short, more bad news for Havana.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Here we go again ...

Bless those persistent Western Europeans.

For decades now, they have been “engaging” with the Castro regime, working on the assumption that if you are civil to the boys in Havana you will be able to somehow convince them to hold free and fair multi-party elections, stop jailing dissidents and become true democrats.

The problem with this scenario is that the Castro brothers are not and have never been interested in reforming the political system they’ve created. Why? For the simple reason that any such reforms will inevitably involve the disappearance of the regime itself – and the personal power and perks that come with it.

But it seems nothing will deter the European Union (EU) from continuing to be polite and co-operative with Havana, although to be fair, some member countries, in particular those that used to be Soviet satellites, have expressed serious reservations and managed to extract some minor concessions.

Still, the latest instalment in this embarrassing charade has involved talks in Paris between senior EU representatives and the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, the truly odious Felipe Perez Roque (above).

The talks have resulted in the Europeans agreeing to provide Havana with possible new lines of credit (again!), further co-operation on a range of issues such as the environment, and additional immediate assistance to help repair some of the damage caused recently by hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

There are strings attached, of course: the EU says it will closely monitor human right reforms on the island, which is more or less what they have been saying for ... well, for nearly five decades.

As for the Cubans, they know they are on a winner, once again running circles around the well-meaning but seemingly oblivious Europeans, occasionally even publicly mocking their hosts for their all-too-obvious lack of cojones.

In fact, Perez Roque was so cocky that when asked about human and political rights on the island, he replied that this would not be a problem for Cuba at all since the “revolution” had never jailed anyone for “thinking differently”.

Quote of the day

"These women show a courage and determination that is deeply moving, and their stories are an important reminder that dictatorship cannot crush the spirit of freedom."

Laura Bush, wife of US president George W Bush, referring today to the Damas de Blanco group in Cuba.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quote of the day

"The human rights situation has not improved there; on the contrary, it has worsened.”

Cyril Svoboda, former foreign minister of the Czech Republic, criticising the European Union for continuing to cozy up to the Castro brothers.

Opinion polls

You will be happy to hear that the Havana Bureau of the giant American television network NBC has conducted an “informal survey” of 100 ordinary Cubans on that burning question: do you think Cubans deserve to have free and fair, multi-party elections, like citizens in most other countries?

Just kidding, folk.

The actual question asked by the network was much more predictable and a lot less confronting: they asked the lucky 100 Cubans whether they'd vote for Barack Obama or John McCain?

According to NBC’s Havana bureau chief, Mary Murray, the vast majority of those surveyed – 63 per cent - plumped for the Democrat candidate, compared to just two votes for the Republican contender. The rest either had no preference (13 per cent), or perhaps wisely, declined to answer (22 per cent).

“Hands-down, the average Cuban prefers Obama to McCain,” Ms Murray concluded, adding that most Cubans believe Obama “is the more likely candidate to loosen trade and travel restrictions while engaging the Cuban government”.

Which is all very well except for the fact that the travel restrictions most Cubans want lifted have nothing to do with the man who ends up sitting in the Oval Office after November, but everything to do with the Castro brothers sitting back in the Palace of the Revolution in Havana.

Still, some of the supposedly ordinary Cubans surveyed by NBC had plenty to say about the US presidential candidates – and much of what they said sounds suspiciously like the officially approved Communist Party line. You know, American elections are a capitalist charade but when push comes to shove, we’d rather Senator Obama.

Take Rev. Juan Ramon de la Paz, dean of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Havana, who told the network: “Who here supports George Bush? Not many. Bush tightened the embargo. He cut us off from our families.”

What NBC failed to say was that Rev de la Paz is no ordinary Cuban and certainty not an independent observer.

In fact, he is a well known supporter of the Castro brothers - the same man who organised a meeting a couple of years ago to pray for Fidel Castro’s speedy recovery, comparing the semi-retired dictator to a “prophet”, a “friend” and “like a father worried about his large family”.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


With just weeks to go before Americans vote for a new president, Associated Press has published a handy summary of where the two key contenders – Barrack Obama and John McCain – stand on a number of issues.

According to the news agency, this is where the two men stand when it comes to US policy towards the Castro brothers:

McCain: Ease restrictions on Cuba once US is "confident that the transition to a free and open democracy is being made."

Obama: Ease restrictions on family-related travel and on money Cuban-Americans want to send to their families in Cuba. Open to meeting new Cuban leader Raul Castro without preconditions. Ease trade embargo if Havana "begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change."

Games abroad

One of the two Cuban footballers who defected late last week in the US, Reinier Alcantara, has spoken for the first time about his (very lucky) escape.

Alcantara told The Washington Post that he made his run for freedom on Thursday evening, as he and the rest of the Cuban national team were getting ready to be picked up for dinner.

When the coaches and officials with him walked into one of the gift shops, he dashed down the escalators to the street and then “ran like crazy”, jumping into a taxi and telling the driver to “Go, go go” for the next half hour or so.

Interestingly, Alcantara confirms what most of us have suspected for years – all Cuban national teams include among the “officials” at least one senior political enforcer, whose task is to ensure no embarrassing defections that might upset the Castro brothers back in Havana.

He also reveals that when the team travels internationally, Cuban officials remove all telephones from the players’ hotel rooms, a standard practice designed to “discourage players from communicating with outsiders on foreign trips”.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Economic news

You can always trust The Guardian in London to find something nice to say about those lovable Castro brothers.

The otherwise readable Left-leaning newspaper has just published a summary of how the global financial crisis is impacting the economies of different countries, including the United States, Britain, Spain, India, China and ... Cuba.

“Cuba's isolation from global financial markets has largely protected it from capitalist contagion, allowing it to watch the turmoil with relative equanimity,” the paper concludes, quoting Fidel Castro as saying the financial crisis was “expected”.

Now, that's a word you don't often hear in reference to the 50-year-old economic basketcase that is Cuba: equanimity.
By the way, the photograph above, taken by Javier Galeano of Associated Press over the weekend, shows stalls at a public market in Havana. As you can see, the stalls are overflowing with equanimity.

Quote of the Day

"It is always a problem for the Cuba team. We have security, but you can't handcuff them to their rooms."

Reinhold Franz, the coach of Cuba's national football team, speaking to The Washington Post following news that two of his players had defected just before the much-publicised game between Cuba and the US. For the record, the US team won the match by six goals to one.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Quote of the Day

"All of us travelling there are revolutionaries and believe in the Cuban revolution. There may be people who want to get close to us, trying to bribe us, to blackmail us, to put extra pressure on us. But we are only going to play football."

Leonel Duarte, a striker with the Cuban national football team that plays the US in Washington on Saturday, carefully following the party line. Seven young Cuban footballers defected in May this year during a pre-Olympic tournament in Florida.

Crazy old men

It’s been obvious for some time – at least to this blogger - that Fidel Castro is losing the plot.

Even before ill health and a series of botched operations forced him to semi-retire from public life, it was obvious that the man who ruled Cuba for nearly five decades was becoming increasingly senile.

In the two or three years before he stepped down, Castro’s speeches became largely incoherent, he would lose concentration during public events, and often make quite outrageous comments and statements that would make his close advisers cringe ... if only they’d dare cringe in public.

Of course, we don’t get to see or hear the old dictator in public any more (be thankful for small mercies, I say), except through his written “reflections” or editorials, which are dutifully published by the official Cuban media, although no longer always on the front page.

And it’s quite clear that whether Castro writes them himself or whether they are produced by those around him on his instructions, these editorials are becoming increasingly more bizarre.

This is a view shared by Dr. Brian Latell, a Cuba analyst and author of the book, "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader".

In this report, Dr Latell lists some of the more outlandish and obscure claims made by Castro in recent days, including allegations that the United States provided the old apartheid regime in South Africa with nuclear bombs during the 1970s to be used against Cuban troops in Angola.

Castro has also compared the recent hurricanes that devastated parts of the island with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, while also giving the impression that he had personally witnessed the bombing in 1945 in Japan.

Read the report here.

H/T Penultimos Dias.

Loony tunes

And now, for something completely different: an American academic calling on the US administration to lift its trade embargo on the Castro regime.

This time it’s Jennifer Gerz-Escandon, who is described by The Christian Science Monitor as an “independent scholar” and a former professor of political science based in Atlanta.

Ms Gerz-Escandon sets the tone for her commentary by stating that lifting the embargo is no longer “just a noble but hopeless idea” but smart politics.

She argues that the US should do away with the existing trade and commercial restrictions at once and start “constructive engagement” with the “reform-ready regime of Mr Castro”.

According to Ms Gerz-Escandon, lifting the embargo would help raise standards of living on the island, stop Cubans fleeing to the US, bring stability to the region and turn the US into a hemispheric leader.

Oh, yes, and lifting the embargo would also turn the island into a “42,803-square-mile green energy and technology lab”, working hand in hand with Washington “in the search for energy independence”.

Nice one.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

In the dark still

As Cubans know all too well, you can never really believe the statistics published in the Castro regime's propaganda sheet, Granma. Most of the time, they are just made up, in true Stalinist tradition.

But let's make an exception for now.

According to this article, the regime has been working overtime to repair services in those areas worst hit by hurricane Ike, in particular the province of Holguin, where the hurricane devastated entire towns ... like Banes.

But more than two weeks after Ike swept through my old home town, Granma admits that electricity services have been restored to only about 54 per cent of the population, despite the "best efforts" of the State-owned electricity company.

Intriguingly, the regime was able to have the electricity grid re-connected almost immediately after Ike to facilities in the nearby resort of Guardalavaca, which are largely reserved for cash-carrying foreign tourists.