Saturday, December 27, 2008

Best wishes

Very infrequent blogging ahead. As always, thank you for your visit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Havana business

Like the good little capitalists they are, the Castro brothers have gone into the potentially lucrative online retail game.

According to this AP story, Havana is promoting an online shopping service that allows Cubans outside the country (ie, gusanos with hard currency), to buy presents for their relatives and friends on the island (ie, those without access to hard currency).

Nice, no?

The site has been in operation for a couple of years but is being push hard in time for the Christmas gift-giving season ... even though Fidel Castro abolished Christmas as a day of celebration in his little island paradise more than 35 years ago.

The site is half owned by the Communist Party (of course!), with the other half owned by Spanish entrepreneurs (naturally!).

It seems you can order just about any good imaginable – from guayaberas to personal computers, with the purchases delivered by the Cuban postal service within 24 hours to any address in Havana.

Of course, most of the goods on offer are wildly over-priced. In fact, they are a rort, as the article reveals. For example, a Dell computer that would retail in the US for about USD450.00 is offered at the knockout price of USD1,424.00. A nifty mark-up.

And yes, half the profits go straight into the pockets of the boys from Bairan.

Quote of the Day

"Fifty years in this struggle and there's no progress. We see other countries advancing, but not our own. There just aren't any options here."

Gabriel Mata, described as a 46-year-old security guard, tells Reuters what he really thinks about 50 years of Castroism.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Back to the future 3

From a very readable travel feature published this week by The Independent in London:

"Later we meet again at the Salon Rojo, the nightclub of the Hotel Capri that was a mafia-run playground in the 1950s.

"In a throwback to the days when the Chicago mobster Meyer Lansky was the boss of this town, all the tables on one side of the club are occupied by overly made-up girls who are professionally available.

"Given Cuba's extraordinary racial mix, discerning customers have a wide choice – black, white, mulatta and various shades of mestiza. The men are mostly foreigners with wallets full of convertible pesos."

Fellow travellers

Not for the first time, the Canadian newspaper National Post has written a terrific editorial about Cuba.

This time, it’s about the international campaign by the Castro regime to free the so-called Cuban Five, which, as with all other previous “campaigns” manufactured by Havana, has been taken up with glee by the usual suspects in the West.

Highly recommended.

Back to the future 2

And then there is this outrageous puff piece by the BBC – a profile of Liaena Hernandez, who is 18 and the youngest member of the rubberstamp Cuban parliament.

A true child of the Revolution, Liaena admits that things have been difficult in the past for her family.

"As a family we couldn't have all the things we would have liked,” she tells the paper. “For years I had to wear the same pair of shoes to school, we just had to keep mending them. "

But lest you think that this is probably a little like what supposedly happened in Cuba in the bad old days before the Castro brothers took over, our budding politician is quick to point out that, at least she has free health care and free education ...

Back to the future

Those retrospectives on the 50th anniversary of the Castro regime keep on coming.

The latest is by our old friend Anita Snow, the AP bureau chief in Havana, who has produced a surprisingly balanced summary of the past half century, even though all the old canards about free health, free education and the embargo get a fresh airing.

Among those supposedly ordinary Cubans interviewed for the report is Ernesto Plasencia, described as “a bony 76-year-old ex-rebel”, who says he remains eternally grateful to Fidel Castro and who blames the state of the economy on, you guessed it ... the US commercial embargo.

Mr Plasencia says that in the bad old days before the Revolution, his family was so poor his mother had to make ends meet by “washing and ironing rich people’s clothes”.

By way of contrast, he lives on a disability pension worth a grand total of USD6.70 a month which, the report tells us, he augments by “selling candy on the Malecon”, presumably to rich tourists.

And there, unwittingly, is a terrific summary of how far Cuban citizens have come in 50 years.

Economic news

For the past half century, the Cuban economy has been nothing short of a basket case, propped up at various times by Soviet subsidies, Western tourists in search of cheap holidays and more recently, that buffoon Hugo Chavez.

But if you believe the official statistics that are regularly pumped out by the Castro regime, the place is roaring.

Take the latest announcement by the Minister for the Economy and Planning, Jose Luis Rodriguez, who has told reporters that the Cuban economy will grow by at least four per cent next year.

That’s right: at a time when most economies around the world are seriously shrinking, the Cubans reckon their economy will grow by four per cent.

Unbelievable? You bet. You see, the Castro regime uses its own measure of growth, which supposedly takes into account a range of “social services” provided by the State. No one else uses the same formula for the simple reason that it is well, fiction.

According to these make-believe statistics, the Cuban economy grew by seven per cent in 2007 and by four per cent this year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A thousand words

After nearly 50 years of "Revolution", Raul Castro answers questions from reporters in Brazil about Cuba's future

Thursday, December 18, 2008


If you are looking for proof that Evo Morales is turning into a cheaper version of that buffoon Hugo Chavez, then here is something of interest.

The Bolivian president told reporters during the just-completed Summit of Latin American and Caribbean Nations in Brazil that the United States should lift its commercial and trade "blockade" of the Castro regime immediately.

It's a sentiment echoed by other Latin American leaders - and by all those American businessmen and their lobbyists who believe they will make a quid or two if the embargo is reversed.

But as usual, Morales went one step further, to the embarrassment of most of the other leaders at the Summit.

"If the United States does not raise the blockade," he told the media, "we will remove our ambassadors until the United States government lifts its economic blockade on the Cuban people."

The more things change ...

Believe it or not, the Castro regime is refusing to pay its debts. Again.

As we have reported previously, the boys in Havana are so strapped for cash they have informed the Chinese they will need to “renegotiate” terms and conditions, which Beijing has reluctantly done.

Now, the Cubans have sent the same message to the Japanese. And the Germans. And the French ...

According to this Reuters report, Cuba is blaming the recent hurricanes and the global financial crisis for the fact it’s unable to meet its repayment.

Which is crap, of course.

Yes, the hurricanes did cause enormous damage and the financial turmoil that has engulfed much of the world in the past few months has resulted in lower prices for Cuban nickel and fewer tourists visiting the island.

But the fact is that the Castro brothers have been refusing to pay their huge (and mounting) debt to Western nations for decades – just as they unilaterally wiped off the books the billions of dollars they owed to the now disappeared Soviet Union.

Western business sources in Havana told Reuters that payments had slowed from Cuban banks, with cash transfers that usually took 48 hours now sometimes put off for weeks.

"It appears they do not have the cash on hand so they delay and then pay you and delay payment to someone else," one unidentified businessman said.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quote of the Day

"For many Cubans, travel is not in their universe of possibilities.”

A surprisingly candid Ivan Giroud, director of the Government-funded Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, speaking to The Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Your move

Those analysts and commentators who think relations between the United States and the Castro regime will inevitably improve once Barrack Obama is in the White House will be deeply disappointed by the latest comments by Raul Castro.

During his visit to Brazil, the Cuban mini-dictator told the Al Jazeera network that the Americans will need to “make concessions first” if the two countries are ever to restore diplomatic ties.

"We have never hurt the United States, we have only defended ourselves,” Castro II said. “We are the ones who have been hurt so we are not the ones who have to make a gesture. Let them do it.

"I'm 77-years-old but I feel good and young. In other words if this doesn't get resolved now, we'll wait another 50 years."

In other words, Havana is already placing its own pre-conditions on any meeting with Mr Obama, insisting the US make some form of gesture first ... like lifting the commercial embargo.

Stay tuned.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Anniversaries 2

"Before the revolution, so many Cubans had no hope of studying and becoming professionals. They lived horrible lives. After the revolution, many were able to study and become professionals but still have miserable lives filled with necessity."

Lise, described as a 25-year-old “college graduate who declined to give her full name for fear of losing her state job”, speaking to The Sun Sentinel following the screening in Havana of the new biopic on Che Guevara.

Anniversaries 1

Although the actual anniversary is still a couple of weeks away, media outlets from Paris to Madrid have already kicked off their “special coverage” to mark the Castro regime’s 50th birthday.

And yes, the coverage so far of the longest running “revolution” in modern history - half a century! - has been ... mixed.

As our friends over at Penultimos Dias pointed out some days ago, the BBC was first off the blocks, with an extensive section on its Spanish-language site under the headline, "Fifty years of struggle".

Incorporating photographs, videos and the inevitable video interviews, the site is quite an effort , as you would expect from the venerable British broadcaster.

But it seems that in their aim to be seen as fair and balanced, the BBC editors have in fact, compromised big time.

And so, while they are happy to use the Spanish term “triunfos” in headlines describing the “achievements” of the regime, they pointedly refrain from using the equally valid Spanish term “fracasos” to describe the all-too-obvious “failures”. Instead, they opt for the term “deudas”.

On the other hand, there are no compromises in this excellent article by Leonard Doyle in The Independent, detailing how those lovable Castro brothers deal with anyone who has the temerity to question the official “triunfos”.

But up to now, the most accurate summary of the past 50 years has come from Andres Oppenheimer, the high profile Miami Herald columnist (H/T to our pals at Babalu).

Mr Oppenheimer concludes that 50 years after Castro took power, the big question is not so much whether the upheaval of 1959 was justified, but whether it was worth it.

“A dispassionate look into Cuba today shows that, while the country has reduced the pockets of extreme misery that existed during the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, a majority of Cubans are poorer and have fewer opportunities to improve their lives than they did five decades ago,” the columnist concludes.

Sadly, he is right.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Business news

After years of cozying up to the Castro regime, there is mounting speculation that relations between a couple of large Canadian multi-nationals and the boys in Havana may not be as smooth as they once were.

According to the specialist magazine Embassy, the financial crisis that has engulfed much of the world in recent months is forcing Canadian companies such as Sherritt International and Pebercan to scale down their operations on the island - and cut back on projected capital spending.

Which is bad news for the Canadians, who have been invested heavily in areas such as nickle production and infrastructure.

But the news is even worse for the regime, which relies heavily on Canadian money and expertise to mine and then sell raw materials.

In any case, negotiations between the Canadian businesses and those always jolly and ever accommodating Castro brothers have been described as "tense", which is a nice, all-round euphemism, don't you think?

“Talks between Canadian business executives and the Cuban government are said to be ‘getting tougher’ and sources did not rule out the possibility that business in the country could be halted altogether should long-term negotiations derail,” the magazine says.

The article reveals that the two Canadian companies are owed a bucketload of money by the Cubans – well over USD500 million.

It also reveals the findings of a recent trade report compiled by the Canadian export authority that describes the current economic situation on the island as a "nightmare scenario".

The report said that a series of “recent external shocks could set economic growth in Cuba back years”, referring to damage wrought by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, a sharp decline in nickel export revenues and the toll the global economic crisis will have on tourism.

Quote of the Day 2

"Here in Havana you will not find a single child at a traffic light washing windshields.”

Felipe Perez Roque, confirming once again just how out of touch the Communist nomenklatura is with Cuban reality.

Quote of the Day 1

"Cuba can celebrate this day with head held high."

Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Felipe Perez Roque speaking to reporters in Havana as he attended a celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Shameless.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Quote of the day 2, or Change is in the air?

"And now along comes Obama and says he will lift a few restrictions, but that in order to advance further Cuba must show it is making democratic changes. Well, we do not accept that Cuba has to change in order to deserve normal relations with the United States.”

Josefina Vidal, head of the North American department at the Cuban Ministry for Foreign Affairs, telling The New York Times why Mr Obama isn't going to get any concessions of any type from the Castro regime.

Quote of the day

“In Havana, I'd spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing - not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign - distracted me from the city's sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro's pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.”

Newspaper editor and columnist Roger Cohen writing in The International Herald Tribune about how Havana has been spared the “assault of marketing” found in capitalist cities such as New York. Nothing like a good equilibrium between stillness and decay to make privileged Westerners happy.

Change is in the air. Or is it?

As you would expect, there has been a frenzy of media speculation lately about what will happen to relations between the US and the Castro regime when president-elect Barrack Obama is sworn in next month.

The general consensus in much of the commentary is that after nearly 50 years of mutual mistrust, etc, etc, Mr Obama wants a “fresh start”.

In other words, it is widely expected that his administration will unilaterally lift travel restrictions to Cuba, organise some sort of sit down meeting with one or both of the Castro brothers and then maybe even lift the US commercial embargo that has been in place for more than 40 years.

Well, I beg to differ.

It seems to me that those who think change is in the air – mainly American entrepreneurs who believe there is money to be made in Cuba and the usual academic suspects in Washington – have obviously not being paying attention.

While it is true that Mr Obama has hinted at an opening with Havana, his advisers have also made it clear that for relations to improve significantly, the Castro regime will have to make at least a token gesture towards the US, such as agreeing to release political prisoners.

Not a big ask, to be sure. Just a minor gesture of goodwill fromt he regime. But you can bet your bottom dollar the Cubans won’t play ball.

This much was made clear on Friday by none other than Fidel Castro, the semi-retired dictator who wrote in one of his “reflections” that Mr Obama must be “reminded that the carrot-and-stick theory cannot be applied in our country."

And yesterday, the Cuban foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, warned against any great expectations about change, telling reporters that Cuba was ready to “normalise relations” with the US but only “on the basis of respect for our rights as a people” ... including the right by the regime to imprison dissidents and anyone else who fails to do as they are told.

In other words, the standard the standard Communist Party line used by the regime since, well, since 1961.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Quote of the day, or Here we go again ...

"The hard-liners are fading in the face of a changing exile community, however, and analysts say younger Cuban-Americans, in particular, are more concerned with domestic issues like the US economy than they are with the political situation in Cuba."

A Reuters dispatch on a new poll that suggests 55 per cent of Cuban-Americans in Florida think the US commercial embargo on the Castro regime should be lifted.

Business News

The Italian telecommunications giant, Telecom Italia, has confirmed that it’s considering selling its 27 per cent stake in the Cuban telephone monopoly, Etecsa.

According to this Bloomberg story, Telecom Italia has been hit hard by the global economic downturn, announcing a drop in profit for the next year and the likelihood of sacking as many as 4,000 staff in Italy alone.

Telecom Italia said it plans to raise as much as 3 billion euros by selling some of its assets around the world, including its stake in Etecsa, which is majority owned and tightly controlled by the Castro regime.

Telecom Italia’s holding in Etecsa has been controversial almost from the start, of course.

Human right activists such as Reporters sans Frontieres ahve persistently questioned the Italians’ investment in a Government-controlled monopoly whose activities involve widespread eavesdropping on telephone conversations and routine censoring of Internet access.