Friday, November 28, 2008

Old friends

The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has arrived in Havana on the last leg of what seems to have been an action-packed tour of Latin America.
And as you would expect, the visit has raised plenty of expectations in and outside Cuba about a new “golden age” of co-operation between Havana and Moscow.
True, the Russians will probably want to invest some cash in Cuba, obviously with an eye to a future without either of the Castro brothers.
And they will use the opportunity to engage in a bit of anti-American rhetoric, too, in order to annoy Washington.
But it’s a long way from the days when Moscow was happy to sink billions of roubles into Cuba - effectively keeping the island afloat – in exchange for an unshakable commitment from Fidel Castro to do well, pretty much whatever the Soviets asked him to do.
Despite the close relations between the two countries during the Cold War, this is only the fourth visit to Cuba by a Soviet or Russian leader.
The first, in 1974, was by an ageing Leonid Brezhnev, who arrived wearing one of those peculiarly ill-fitting Soviet suits of the time but was soon sporting short-sleeve “tropical” shirts and straw hats.
The next visitor, in 1989, was Mikhail Gorbachev. It was not a pleasant stay. By then, the Soviet empire was near collapse and the roles had been reversed: Fidel Castro was the old, inflexible Stalinist, while the young and energetic Gorbachev was seen as the true revolutionary. Castro hated it.
By the time Vladimir Putin arrived in 2000, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro was already declining visibly. There was much talk then, too, about a new golden age of co-operation, etc, etc, but it didn’t last long. Within months of the visit, Putin ordered the very expensive Russian spy base at Lourdes closed, to the annoyance of the Cubans.
As for Medvedev, he has already held talks with Raul Castro, done the old trip to the Plaza de la Revolucion to place a wreath, and then visited the recently consecrated Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Havana.
Whether the Russian will get to meet the now semi-retired and rapidly diminishing Fidel Castro remains to be seen.

Balance sheets

For the past half century, the Castro brothers have lived on debt ... and now we have the figures to prove it.

The Paris Club, which represents public and private financial institutions in the West that provide credit to nations around the world, has just released a list of its debtors, which you can read here.

It’s a first for the Club, which was founded in the mid 1950s as an “informal” grouping of creditors.

According to the figures, members of the Club are owed a total of USD330 billion, with the biggest debtor being Indonesia, which owes a grand total of USD36.2 billion. Seems like a lot but then again, Indonesia has a population of about 235 million.

Guess who is second on the list? That’s right: Cuba.

As at 1 September this year, the Castro regime owed members of the Club a whooping USD29.7 billion. Which is a nice round figure for a nation of just over 11 million.

Keep in mind that these are debts owed to capitalist creditors (yes, those nasty imperialists), and do not take into account the billions owed by Cuba to the old Soviet Union, which effectively bankrolled Havana for three decades at a rate estimated back then to be about USD1 million a day.

And while we are pretty confident that countries such as Indonesia are working hard to clear what they owe, the Castro regime has demonstrated time and again that it has absolutely no intention of repaying any of its debts.

In other words, they have maxed their credit card. They are broke.

Or to put it another way, if Cuba was a household, the repo man would have been sent in a long time ago.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Diplomatic corner

Sean Penn, the American actor who has never met a Left-wing megalomaniac he doesn’t like, appears to have obtained something of a journalistic scoop during a recent visit to his old friends in Havana.

As you can read in this dispatch, Penn interviewed Raul Castro during his stay in Cuba for an article to be published in the December edition of the US magazine, The Nation.

In the article, the actor quotes Castro II as saying that he is ready and willing to meet with president-elect Barack Obama at any time and in just about any place, “to begin to solve our problems”.

"Personally, I think it would not be fair that I be the first to visit, because it is always the Latin American presidents who go to the United States first,” the mini-dictator said. “But it would also be unfair to expect the president of the United States to come to Cuba. We should meet in a neutral place ... Perhaps we could meet at Guantanamo."

Of course, there is nothing remotely accidental about the Penn scoop - just as there is nothing remotely accidental about the Cubans suggesting Guantanamo as a possible meeting place.

In fact, this is nothing but an old (and still effective) Havana ploy designed to corner a new and untested incoming president as early as possible, even before he is sworn in.

And it’s worked, judging by the breathless coverage of the interview in much of the US media thus far, which has already forced the Obama transition team on to the defensive, as you can read here.

Quote of the Day

"This is just the first brick, the first point - let's organise a number of other initiatives together, including speaking freely and frankly about human rights, about freedom here and elsewhere in the world."

Senior European Commission bureaucrat Stefano Manservisi departs from the script (slightly) while announcing in Havana that EU member countries will provide up to 30 million Euros in aid to the Castro regime next year for “hurricane relief” and “improvements in food production”.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Quote of the Day

“For the long-suffering Cuban people there will be little to celebrate.”

Michael Reid, Americas editor for The Economist, predicting that 2009 will be a newsworthy year for Cubans, marking the 50th anniversary of the “revolution”.

In Kiev

Ukrainians around the world are marking the 75th anniversary of Holodomor, or Death by Hunger, the term used to describe the horrific famine engineered by Josef Stalin in the early 1930s to force peasants to give up their land and join “collectivised” farms.

In true Communist style, Stalin set off the famine in late 1932 by ordering his henchmen to confiscate all grain, livestock and other food across the region after peasants there had failed to meet grain quotas dictated by Moscow.

The death toll from this lunatic enterprise – which was accompanied by forced exile, arrests, show trials, torture and murder - is estimated to have been as high as seven million people, as you can read in this brief summary compiled by the US Library of Congress.

During the Soviet era, the famine and its devastating impact remained a strictly forbidden topic not just in the Soviet Union and its satellite states (hello, Fidel!), but among the happy band of Moscow apologists and fellow travellers in the West.

Photograph: Candles surround a monument to victims of the Great Famine in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008. AP

Monday, November 24, 2008

More drilling

First it was the Spaniards. Then the Canadians. Then the Venezuelans. And even the Chinese ...

They have all talked up Cuba’s potential as an oil producer, promising at various times to join forces with the Castro brothers and spend millions of dollars drilling for oil in the waters around the island.

So far, there has been lots of media interest but no oil.

Still, the breathless reports continue, as you can see from this story by Associated Press in Havana, revealing plans by the Russians to help the Castro regime drill for oil around the Gulf of Mexico, etc, etc ...

Quote of the day

“Critics of the Castro government want to continue to isolate Cuba until political prisoners are freed and multiparty elections scheduled.”

An unsourced article in The Sun Sentinel, which hints at moves to lift the US commercial embargo, makes it sound as if freeing political prisoners and multi-party elections are, well, little luxuries. In Cuba, anyway.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


You’ve got to hand it to the Castro brothers – they sure know how to put on a show for visiting dignitaries, especially if the visitors arrive carrying bags of money and promises of further cash to come.
Take the just-concluded visit to Havana by President Hu Jintao of China, who spent two action-packed days in Havana as part of a whirlwind tour of Latin America.
During the visit, Mr Hu signed a number of agreements with his hosts, promising at least USD78 million in donations, credit and hurricane relief, as well as agreeing to “postpone” repayment of Cuba’s sizable debt to China for at least another 10 years.
As the Associated Press reported, “it is unclear if Beijing ever expects to be paid back”.
In return for such generosity, lucky Mr Hu got to have a brief meeting with Fidel Castro, the 82-year-old semi-retired dictator who has not been seen in public since being taken seriously ill more than two years ago.
As you can see from the photograph above, issued after the meeting by the Cuban government, Castro I is still around but looking very frail and clearly not a happy chappy.
But it seems the highlight of the visit came when the Chinese president was serenaded in Chinese by Raul Castro, who sang parts of "The East is Red", a 1950s “revolutionary” song praising the late Chairman Mao.
According to The Daily Telegraph in London, Mr Hu “looked on rather uncomfortably”.

Quote of the day

“Today, even as the legendary Fidel lies dying, his flawed and destructive revolution remains a perverse model of modern radical change to many parts of the world.”

Columnist and long-time commentator on Cuban affairs Georgie Anne Geyer writing in The Dallas News about hopes for improved US-Cuban relations.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Film nights

That old furphy about how Cuba "survived peak oil" following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s-early 1990s is still doing the rounds in parts of Australia.

As you can see from this brief item in the "socialist" weekly Green Left, a film titled "The Power of Community" is being shown to small but obviously enthusiastic groups of environmentalists, Castro supporters and other assorted fellow travellers.

According to the paper, "After the film, the crowd discussed how to bring Cuba’s lessons of sustainable development to Australia, noting the need for a society that puts the planet and humanity before the corporate bottom line."

Can hardly wait ...

Quote of the Day

"Fidel Castro has devoted the last 50 years to two causes: first, his own enshrinement as an immortal icon, and second, the unbending allegiance of Cuba to the Moscow line."

The always very readable Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate about some of Fidel Castro's life-long obsessions. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quote of the day - or why Castroism sucks

“Cuba looks like it's stuck in 1959 - with old cars and crumbling buildings. China often looks like it's decided to skip ahead to 2059 - with a set of dazzling skyscrapers, stadiums and airports.”

James Reynolds, BBC correspondent in Beijing, writing about the differences (and some similarities) between Communist-run China and Communist-run Cuba, following a visit to the island.


Fresh from visiting Washington for the G20 economic summit, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, is arriving in Cuba today on what will be his second visit to Fidel Castro’s island paradise since 2004.

The visit is seen by analysts as part of the China’s relentless push to strengthen business relations with Latin American countries, especially those that welcome Chinese investment (and exports) with open arms, such as Cuba.

In fact, those crafty Chinese have now become Cuba’s second largest trading partner – after Venezuela – selling Havana everything from buses and locomotives to light bulbs.

Last time the Chinese leader visited Havana he was met by Castro I, who was very much in control back then – and who was deeply suspicious of China’s seemingly insatiable apetite for all things capitalist.

Whether Hu gets to meet the 82-year-old semi-retired dictator during this week’s visit remains to be seen.

Exports and Imports

In case you needed further proof that Cuban agriculture is in seriously big trouble, it’s been confirmed that the Castro regime is about to start importing red beans ... from Malawi.

Nothing wrong with Malawi, of course, except for the fact that this landlocked country in south-east Africa has one of the least advanced economies in the world, with a majority of its 13 million inhabitants living well below the poverty line.

And yet, Malawi is able to export 15,000 metric tons of red beans to Cuba, in a deal reportedly worth some USD12 million.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Diplomatic news

We have blogged previously about the Castro regime’s relentless push in recent years to win diplomatic kudos in the South Pacific by offering “free” scholarships to students from small island states in the region to study medicine in Cuba.

Of course, these scholarships are not really free – the Cubans provide the tuition but the students have to pay their way to the Caribbean and cover most of their living expenses while studying.

One of the Pacific nations to take up the offer is the Solomon Islands, a former British protectorate of about 500,000 inhabitants that has already sent 25 of its best and brightest to study medicine in Cuba.

Now comes news that another 25 students from the Solomon Island are headed to Havana.

And guess who is paying their air fares? Iran. All very curious.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The highest ranking woman in the Castro regime, Marta Lomas, has been unexpectedly fired by the Communist Party from her high-profile post as Minister for Foreign Investment.

The announcement was made on national television on Wednesday night, Havana time, and as usual with such demotions in Cuba, the regime did not explain the reasons for the decision.

Instead, the television announcement merely said that the party’s all-powerful Politburo had decided to “liberate” the minister from her “duties”.

The move comes just a week after Lomas was quoted extensively by the foreign media as having “welcomed” the election of Barack Obama, while at the same time urging the Americans to lift the trade and commercial embargo.

Still, it’s unlikely that Lomas would have been given the flick over her comments.

Most likely it has something to do with the nature (and temptations) of her job, which involved negotiating multi-million dollar contracts with foreign governments and private businesses.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Legal moves

The Cuban tobacco monopoly, Habanos SA, is suing a US company that makes cigar cutters over the use of the word “Havana”.

It seems that when it comes to cigars, the word “Havana” and its Spanish equivalent, “Habana”, are now the legal property of Habanos, the huge conglomerate that is majority owned by the Castro regime.

In a move that could only be described as ironic, Habanos is using the American legal system to stop Xikar, the Kansas-based cigar accessories company, from using “Havana” as the name for a range of its products.

Not surprisingly, Xikar isn’t happy.

A spokesman for the company told local media they were surprised that the Castro regime would “attempt to extend its totalitarian influence to control an American company using our courts."

You can read the original court document here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Quote of the Day

“Cuba's communist leadership has long cast itself as David standing up to the US Goliath and the crippling force of America's punitive trade and travel embargo. Now they have a problem: If Barack Obama follows through on campaign promises to ease restrictions on the island, he could chip away at the Castro brothers' best case for staying in power.”

An optimistic assessment on possible changes in US-Cuban relations from Anita Snow, who has been Havana bureau chief for Associated Press since 1999.

They are back

The Russians are coming ... again.

The Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin, is currently in Havana on a much-publicised official visit, prompting further speculation that Moscow is keen to re-establish closer ties with its one time socialist ally.

According to news reports, Mr Sechin had a “long meeting” with Raul Castro on Sunday, local time, to discuss a range of topics, including further Russian investment in mining and transport.

It seems Castro also thanked the Russians for providing assistance following the devastation caused by hurricanes Ike and Gustav earlier in the year, with Moscow claiming to have been the first nation to offer “humanitarian aid” to the Cubans.

All very cosy.

Of course, it’s still a long way from the good old times when Cuba became a Soviet outpost in the Caribbean, complete with Russian language studies in schools, busts of Lenin and Marx in all public places and the sight of sweaty Soviet “advisers” telling Cubans how to run the economy.

Now, those were the days ...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Editorial of the Day

"There are still bigots in the US, as in Australia, but institutionalised bigotry ended long ago. Those outside the US who seek moral superiority by perpetuating the myth of a race-divided America should take stock. Hasten the day when Germany elects a Turkish chancellor, France an Algerian head of state or Cuba a black president. In the meantime, we rejoice with America."

From The Australian newspaper.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Reality check

"Latin America in general and Cuba in particular are not likely to figure high on the agenda of a new president who is inheriting two wars and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. American presidents tend to promise greater attention to southern neighbors but usually do not follow through."

Bernd Debusmann, a Reuters columnist, explaining why it may take a bit of time for Barack Obama to turn his attention to Cuba.

Change. In Washington.

Call it wishful thinking, if you like. Or perhaps a lack of understanding when it comes to those lovable Castro brothers.

There is a view among supposedly intelligent media commentators and self-styled Cubanologists that Barrack Obama’s historic victory on Tuesday will inevitably result in economic and political changes in Cuba.

It’s a view that seems to be widely held in Cuba, too, if you believe the foreign media.

As you can see from this article by Mary Murray, bureau head in Havana for NBC, most ordinary Cubans have welcomed the Obama victory because they are “hopeful” it will mean good news for Cubans. You know, like more food and more money.

Typical of the comments reported by Ms Murray is that of Boris Ruiz, described as a car mechanic in Havana, who told the reporter that the election result meant that there was "a chance to normalise relations with the United States and that will make my life better."
If only it were so easy ...

Well, US policy towards the Castro regime may change under an Obama administration, given the president-elect has promised to lift the travel restrictions currently in place that restrict travel to the island by Cuba-Americans. That will certainly mean more money flowing into Cuba.

Mr Obama has also suggested that he may be prepared to sit down with the Castro brothers and discuss US-Cuban relations, although one of his senior advisers on Latin America has apparently already put conditions on any such meeting, as you can read here.

Of course, the underlying assumption here is that US foreign policy is largely to blame for the fact that he Cuban economy is a basket case, that standards of living on the island continue to decline after 50 years of “revolution”, and that Cubans lack basic political rights.

So, if there is a change in US foreign policy, the argument goes, there will be change in Cuba.

Sadly for everyone, but especially for Cubans on the island, I can see a fundamental flaw in this hypothesis: the Castro brothers do not think there is anything in Cuba that needs to be changed.

Or to put it another way, change you can believe in means nothing absolutely to them.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How the other half lives

Just in case you were under the impression that egalitarianism was alive and well in Fidel Castro’s island paradise ...

A former British diplomat who spent time in Cuba in the late 1990s, Sue Kay, has just written about her family’s accidental (and very pleasant) encounter back in May 2000 with Raul Castro at Cayo Las Brujas, an isolated luxury resort off the coast of Santa Clara.

Situated about 500 kilometres from Havana, the exclusive resort would have been out of bounds for ordinary Cubans at the time ... even those few Cubans able to afford the rates.

But obviously, Las Brujas was not out of bounds for the revolutionary elite.

On the contrary.

As Ms Kay tells the story, Raul Castro had a huge entourage with him, including family, bodyguards, assorted generals and handful of high-ranking Communist Party officials, including vice-president Carlos Lage and “Commander of the Revolution” Juan Almeida.

And in true revolutionary style, they simply commandeered the entire resort so they could relax in private, exercising on the beach and then frolicking in the Caribbean waters.

In her article, which appears in the Left-leaning London newspaper, The Guardian, Ms Kay explains how Raul Castro barbecued his own seafood and what happened when he and his pals wanted a drink.

“Behind me a waiter is preparing drinks at the bar,” she writes. “Balancing his tray at shoulder level, he descends the wooden steps of the restaurant and solemnly sets off across the sand. Fully dressed, he wades in up to his waist, towards the generals. He waits patiently until the glasses are emptied, then returns to shore.”

Nice, no?

Read the article here.

In Miami

With American voters due to go to the polls within the next 24 hours, Reuters has published yet another “analysis” predicting a shift in the voting patterns of the Cuban-American community in Florida.

It seems local polls show the Republicans could lose their “grip on the heartland of exile opposition to Fidel Castro”, with Democratic candidate Barack Obama expected to win Florida by a slim margin.

If that happens, the news agency says, it could signal “possible change in U.S. policy toward Cuba”.

We shall see.

Quote of the Day

"We have to be careful what we wish for."

John Rapley, president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute at the University of the West Indies, warning that the lifting of the US trade embargo would inevitably hurt Jamaica’s economy.