Thursday, December 21, 2006
Richard Egües (1924-2006)
Richard Egües passed away this past September 1st. Richard was, in my opinion, Cuba's greatest charanga flutist of all time. His greatest career accomplishment was his long tenure with Orquesta Aragón from the spring of 1955 through the fall of 1984.
Eduardo Richard Egües was born in the town of Cruces, in the central Cuban province of Las Villas. As a child he also lived in the Las Villas town of Sancti Spiritus and then moved with his parents to the Las Villas Province capital city of Santa Clara (now known as Villa Clara). In Santa Clara Richard learned how to read music and soon became skilled in several musical instruments, such as the piano, clarinet and saxophone. He was also somewhat of a percussionist since versatility was a must in the world of music and the other arts at the time. At Santa Clara he joined his dad as a cymbal player in that city's Municipal Band and later also joined him in Orquesta "Monterrey." These musical experiences and his skills led him to choose the semi-glossy 5 key wooden flute. The flute became his favorite instrument and flute players were in demand at the time, due to the popularity of successful charanga groups such as Arcaño, Melodias del 40 and others.
Around the late 40's Richard Egües was recommended to Orquesta Aragón of Cienfuegos' founder, director and bass player Orestes Aragón Cantero. Aragón needed someone to fill in for the orchestra's co-founder and flute player Efrain Loyola, who was taking some time off for personal reasons. Richard filled in for Professor Loyola with success. In 1949 Orestes Aragón became ill, decided to retire and leave Orquesta Aragón under the direction of its first violinist, Rafael Lay, Sr. About a year later, in 1950, Professor Loyola decided to leave the orchestra to form his own group under the name of Orquesta "Loyola." Rafael Lay sought Richard Egües and offered him the vacant position left by Loyola, but for reasons best known to him, Richard refused. Rafael Lay then offered the vacancy to his longtime friend and childhood buddy Rolando Lozano who was also a greatly skilled flute player. However, five years later Rolando Lozano accepted an offer from Orquesta America's director and chorus singer, Ninon Mondejar, to join America in Mexico City. Lozano left for Mexico accompanied by his brother Clemente who was also a skilled flute player. Rafael Lay then sought Richard Egües to replace Lozano and, this time, Richard accepted and joined Aragón.
The acquisition of Richard Egües proved to be the key to an even greater success by Orquesta Aragón and soon it occupied the number #1 spot in popularity in Cuba. It was a perfect union. Around July of 1955, Lay, by popular demand of audiences in Havana, decided to move Orquesta Aragón from their native Cienfuegos in Las Villas to Havana. And there shortly afterwards Cuba's outstanding radio station Radio Progreso contracted Orquesta Aragón. The orchestra continues to play there to this day. Since both Richard Egües and Rafael Lay were proficient, to say the least, in playing their instruments and both had a natural love for classical music, together they made musical history, creating a unique style in playing Enrique Jorrin's Cha Cha Cha rhythm, earning Aragón the surname, "Estilistas de Cha Cha Cha" or "The Stylists of the Cha Cha Cha." Their unique style included injecting classical music passages into their special arrangements giving Orquesta Aragón a unique seal of identification which greatly pleased not only connoisseurs but the demanding and unforgiving Cuban public in general, elevating Orquesta Aragón to international fame status in a short period of time.
However, Richard Egües still had other sources of income as he fine-tuned pianos as a part time activity and often a then increasingly popular radio announcement could be heard on Radio Progreso as star program host and radio announcer Pimentel Molina said, "Richard Egües fine tunes pianos, please contact Richard at such and such phone number or go directly to his home at Desague St. in Havana and make sure to tell Richard, Pimentel Molina sent you." It was business creating not just more business but also new friendships and connections. Soon Richard was fine tuning virtually every piano in Havana. How he managed to squeeze so much in one day never ceased to amaze. Richard never stopped free-lancing and participated in various All-Star recordings such as Gema's Lp "Los Mejores Musicos de Cuba" which included fellow luminaries like Bebo Valdés, El Negro Vivar, Tojo Jimenez, Tata Guines and many others as well as the famous and successful all star Panart Cuban Jam Sessions.
To fathom the deep influence classical music had on both Egües and Lay, just one example of many I'd like to mention is the clever, matching and timely injection of "Rondo Capriccioso," a classical music piece composed specially for violin solos, authored by French classical music maestro "Saint-Saens" in the musical intermission of Osvaldo Alburquerque's successful bolero-cha cha cha, "No Puedo Vivir." Other similar additions in their extensive recorded and non-recorded repertoire preceded and followed keeping Orquesta Aragón at the top. The late Mongo Santamaria was once quoted as saying that the difference between the two most prominent of Orquesta Aragón's flute players, Rolando Lozano and Richard Egües, was that Lozano was the "street flute player," much like Arcaño and Fajardo to name just a couple and Egües was the "classical flute player." It was a most accurate assessment.
During the fall of 1957, when Orquesta Aragón reigned supreme in Cuba and in most of the world of Latin music, an incident almost cut short or at least greatly hindered Richard Egües' career. A jealous woman nearly succeeded in blinding him by pouring a liquid acid cleanser on his eyes as he was waking up one morning. Every newspaper, tabloid and magazine in Cuba carried the scandalous story. Richard was fortunate that he was immediately taken to the nearby "Hospital de Emergencia," the "Emergency Hospital" in Carlos III Ave. (near my house) and there, thanks to the timely and quick intervention of eye specialists, they were able to save his eyesight. There was still some minimal damage for which his eyeglass prescription had to be changed to a stronger one. In about 2 months he recovered and Richard was back with Orquesta Aragón. This scary experience compelled Richard to compose and record for RCA with Aragón the bolero-cha "Asi Es Mejor" featuring a beautiful solo vocal by Aragón's then lead singer Jose "Chino" Olmo. Unfortunately only its flip side, "Cha Cha Cha El Satelite" has been found and re-issued in recent years, but "Asi Es Mejor" is still shelved in the RCA vaults or has vanished. During his two months absence due to the acid incident, Richard was replaced with Efrain Loyola's son Jose "Loyolita" Loyola, also a highly skilled flute player, who had experience with Aragón as he had previously replaced Richard during the winter of 1956-57, during a brief absence by Richard in which he had oral surgery and then made a trip to visit his family in his native Santa Clara. At the time another RCA recording was scheduled and "Loyolita" can be heard on that recording playing with Aragón in Felix Molina's cha cha cha, "Eso No Lo Aguanto Yo" and on its flip side was the beautiful "Cha Cha Cha Navideño," or "Christmas Cha Cha Cha" also, unfortunately, never released on either LP or CD.
Some of the Richard Egües' compositions he recorded with Orquesta Aragón, were "Desconsiderada," "Picando de Vicio," "El Trago," "La Muela"(inspired by his oral surgery), "Por Que Me Tienes Asi," "Cero Penas," "Sabrosona or Tan Sabrosona" jointly with Rafael Lay, the great danzon-cha "Gladys" and of course his milestone hit and composition "El Bodeguero" recorded by virtually every artist and group in the world, definitely his biggest money making super hit song. It is virtually impossible to keep track of all the awards both national and international won by Richard with "El Bodeguero" (the Grocer) not to mention the royalties, which kept pouring in decades after he composed it and first recorded it with Aragón during the winter of 1955-56. It was astonishing to see at the time in Havana, original 45 rpm RCA Camden, New Jersey, editions of "El Bodeguero" and its flip side "Señor Juez" delivered to record stores everywhere in the morning disappear from the shelves that same day by noon time or at least early afternoon. Record shops clerks would hide a few remaining copies for friends and customers and do exactly the same thing again and again with subsequent editions. Camden just couldn't keep up with the demands, until it finally subsided somewhat about 9-10 months later! I've never seen anything like it in my entire life. "El Bodeguero" was and perhaps still is unprecedented in both national and international popularity.
Richard Egües and the Orquesta Aragón became inseparable like bread and butter, etc. But in life all good things must come to an end. On August of 1982, Rafael Lay, Sr. was killed in an automobile accident on his way to his native Cienfuegos, Las Villas. Richard Egües was named interim director of Orquesta Aragón, until November 1984 when he decided to leave "for health reasons" and was replaced as director by violinist Rafael Lay Bravo, Rafael Lay's son. It must be said that in 1976 Richard stopped playing the five key wooden flute and substituted it for the least stressful "Bohemme" metal flute due to a kidney ailment. The five key wooden flute requires more pressure and stress to play than the metal ones. After he left Orquesta Aragón, Richard founded the "Orquesta Richard Egües" and recorded an LP album for Egrem, however the new group was not very successful and disbanded, an unusual happening for his brilliant career. Richard returned to free-lancing and played and recorded with other groups, some of which were the new and reorganized Orquesta America, also Felix Reyna's then new and re-organized Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas and around 2000 a successful all-star CD for the Lideres label entitled Richard Egües & Friends- Cuban Sessions. It should be also mentioned that the Richard Egües lineage continued in the world of Cuban music as his son Rembert Egües, a superbly talented musician, has directed various musical groups and orchestras in Cuba, starting his musical career with Orquesta Sensacion in which he substituted for its director and founder Rolando Valdés.
Last month I read in Descarga about the death of Richard Egües and I am honored to write this article as a hearfelt memorial to one of Cuba's most brilliant musicians and composers of all time. Cuba and Latin music lovers everywhere will never forget our dearly departed longtime friend Richard Egües.
May God embrace him as he enters his kingdom and may he give him eternal rest and peace.
Luis de Quesada, NYC
December 15, 2006
HAVANA — In a country like Cuba, where the state has its hand in just about everything, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a governmental body that concerns itself with rap music.
Alarmed by the number of young people in baggy clothing and ill-aligned baseball caps rapping around the island, the government created the Cuban Rap Agency four years ago to bring rebellious rhymers into the fold.
The person chosen to lead the agency was Susana García Amaros, 46, who studied Latin American literature at the University of Havana, specializing in the writings of Afro-Cubans. She said that when officials from the Ministry of Culture approached her for the job she told them that she was not a rap expert. But she said she appreciated the music and its underlying messages.
“Rap is a form of battle,” she said. “It’s a way of protesting for a section of the population. It has force. It’s not just the beat — the boom, boom, boom — it’s the lyrics.”
The rap agency became a co-sponsor of an annual hip-hop festival that began in 1994, and it started promoting rappers and helping them to produce occasional albums. But only artists whose rap does not veer too much from the party line qualify for the government aid.
“We don’t have songs on a record that speak badly of the revolution,” Ms. García Amaros said on a recent day. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Not surprisingly, most rappers, who are by definition a rebellious lot, are averse to joining forces with the government, even as they struggle to spread their rhymes on their own. Only nine groups are working with the agency. Of the remaining 500 or more across the island, some voice discontent with Cuban society in language that is as blunt as the accompanying beat is loud.
“We are not in agreement with any political system, the one here or the one you have,” said Aldo Rodríguez Baquero, 23, who teams up with his friend Bian Rodríguez Gala in a popular group called Los Aldeanos, or The Villagers. “We want liberty and freedom.”
While rap appeals to just a subset of Cuba’s youngsters, many of the five million Cubans under the age of 30 similarly question the system.
The government’s own surveys have found that the bulk of the unemployed in Cuba are young and that many youths are uncertain about their future. The blame, the government argues, lies with the United States trade embargo.
Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque raised the disenchantment of many of Cuba’s young people in a speech last year, which was reported by The Miami Herald. “We have a challenge,” said Mr. Pérez Roque, who is in his early 40s and is considered one of the next generation of Cuban leaders. “These young people have more information and more consumer expectations than those at the start of the revolution.”
He added that young people were more likely to hear their elders telling stories about social progress under the current government and respond, “Oh, please, don’t come to me with that same old speech.”
The situation among Afro-Cubans, about 60 percent of the population, is especially acute. They are considerably poorer than whites, according to studies. Among the reasons are that white Cubans are more likely to have relatives sending remittances from the United States, and whites hold the bulk of the jobs in the profitable tourism industry.
Afro-Cubans complain that they have inferior housing and are more likely than whites to be hassled on the streets by the police.
The rappers speak of these and other problems, often bluntly.
“What we sing, people can’t say,” said Mr. Rodríguez Baquero, who wore a blue bandanna to pull back his braided hair as he rapped on the sidewalk outside an overflowing club. “They think we are crazy. We say what they only whisper.”
He acknowledged that his mother and his rap partner’s mother worried about their outspoken ways. “They don’t want to lose us,” he said.
But they keep rapping, even though some of Havana’s club owners have banned them for a time over some of their toughest songs, including one dealing with police harassment.
As for the rap agency, Mr. Rodríguez Baquero dismisses that with a wave of his hand. “We don’t want to be in any agency,” he said. “It’s the same as slavery for us.”
But not all that many people hear what he and other independent rappers have to say. They produce albums in their homes in bare-bones studios and distribute them by hand.
“It’s very difficult to do rap in Cuba,” he acknowledged.
One of those working behind the scenes to aid Cuba’s rappers is Cheri Dalton, an American who goes by the name Nehanda Abiodun. She is a black militant who is wanted by the F.B.I. in connection with a string of robberies, including a 1981 holdup of an armored car near Nyack, N.Y. Now living in exile in Cuba, she has formed a Havana chapter of Black August, a grass-roots group that promotes hip-hop culture.
“There’s always been a love for music from the States in Cuba,” said Ms. Abiodun, who declined to discuss her own case. “You can go back to Nat King Cole, Earth Wind & Fire and Aretha Franklin.”
Rap, first heard in the ’80s by those in eastern Cuba who picked up Florida radio stations, is no exception. “They spit out rhymes on everything from race to gender to police harassment,” she said of Cuba’s hip-hop generation. “They point out contradictions in society that were taboo to talk about.”
But despite the disenchantment of many young people with Cuba’s system, rap appears to be losing some ground here. The hip-hop festival, held every August, was a flop last year and was canceled this year. Nobody seems sure why. Some rappers say the culprit was not so much the government involvement as it was another musical genre that is pushing rap aside. Reggaetón, a blend of reggae, rap and Latin music that was born in Puerto Rico, is now the rage.
The governmental rap agency has begun promoting reggaetón artists, whose messages are often intended more to get people on the dance floor than to protest. It is harder than ever for rappers to find a stage.
“Reggaetón is about sex and girls and that’s it,” grumbled Mario Gutiérrez, 19, who criticizes his fellow rappers who have speeded up their beat and gone reggaetón. “We are singing for change. We want freedom. We want a better Cuba than this one.”
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Raul Castro calls for more Policy Debate in Cuba
By Anthony Boadle2 hours, 1 minute ago
Cuba's interim leader Raul Castro, signaling a different style of government from his ailing brother Fidel Castro, on Wednesday called for greater debate on public policies in the communist-run country.
"Sometimes people fear the word disagree, but I say the more debate and the more disagreement you have, the better the decisions will be," he told students in Havana.
Raul Castro said he was delegating more responsibilities and making fewer speeches than his famously verbose brother, and running the country of 11 million in a more collegial way.
He did not mention the health of his 80-year-old brother who has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery forced him to relinquish power on July 31 for the first time since Cuba's 1959 revolution.
The bearded leader's absence has fueled uncertainty about the future of the Western hemisphere's only communist state, amid speculation that he may be close to death.
His designated successor Raul Castro, 75, said Cuba's one-party political system, or the "Revolution" as its backers call it, will continue with or without his brother.
"Fidel is irreplaceable, unless we all replace him together," he said, repeating a statement he made in June that Fidel Castro's only possible heir is Cuba's Communist Party.
"Fidel is irreplaceable and I don't intend to imitate him. Those who imitate fail," Raul said in the short speech to a conference of Cuba's Federation of University Students.
The younger Castro had the 800 delegates in stitches with humorous stories about his childhood, including one about getting thrown off a horse the day he tried to copy a peasant and ride bareback.
Looking relaxed even though he was dressed in his army uniform, Raul said Cuba was at an "historic" moment.
"I say historic because, like it or not, we are finishing the fulfillment of our duty and we have to give way to new generations," he said.
Cuba watchers believe Raul Castro does not have the ambition to run Cuba indefinitely and would govern for only a few years before handing over to a younger successor.
Since Raul took over from his brother in July, Cuban newspapers have published rare stories exposing theft and corruption in Cuba's socialist society. He is said to favor relaxing state controls over the economy.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque gave the final address to the student meeting, filling a role traditionally played by Fidel Castro.
Perez Roque announced increases in grants and reductions in bus fares for the students.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
|Posted on Tue, Dec. 19, 2006|
Fake money prompts issuance of new bills in Cuba
In a mission to combat fake currency, Cuba has introduced a new line of peso bills with tougher security measures.
By MIAMI HERALD STAFF
In line at a Havana currency exchange house recently, 62-year-old Carlos suddenly saw the customer in front of him dash out at top speed as he heard the teller shout, ``Stop, chico! This is a fake!''
''The guy took off running,'' said Carlos, a newspaper vendor whose last name was withheld by The Miami Herald for fear of reprisals. ``The guards went after him and probably wherever he got the counterfeits from.
`SHARP AS A KNIFE'
``No one passes fake bills off on me. I'm as sharp as a knife with that.''
Responding to increasing reports of false convertible peso bills in Cuba, the Central Bank on Monday announced a new series of bills with enhanced security features. The bills are worthless anywhere else in the world, but are the main tender used for most shopping on the island.
The new bills will include the denomination in the watermark, adding the value next to the hidden image of patriot José Martí.
The back of each bill will also have a new picture, depending on its value. For example, the one-peso bill will show a picture of Martí's combat death; the three-peso bill, a picture of the 1958 battle of Santa Clara, in which rebels scored a victory over Batista's regime; the five-peso bill, a picture of the protest at Baragua in the struggle for independence from Spain.
`FATHERLAND OR DEATH!'
The bills maintain the security thread that reads ``Fatherland or death! We shall overcome!''
The Cuban government first introduced the convertible peso in 1994, shortly after legalizing the U.S. dollar. The greenback was pulled off the market in 2004, making the so-called ''cuc'' the most widely used legal tender on the island and the only way to buy most consumer goods.
It is worth $1.08 but cannot be exchanged anywhere but in Cuba.
The Cuban government has denounced the use of fake bills as an exile-driven plot to destroy the Cuban economy. During a 1999 terrorism trial in Cuba, a self-proclaimed spy for the Cuban government testified that a Cuban American National Foundation board member gave him thousands of fake pesos to dump on the Cuban economy.
Some stores in Cuba keep a log of shoppers' names and ID numbers in case a 50-peso or 100-peso bill turns up fake.
''I saw a fake five cuc once given to a vendor last year,'' said Lorenzo, who works in a bookstore. ``But that is really, really rare. You're more likely to see a fake $100 American bill. Our bills are hard to copy.''
But several waiters, taxi drivers and currency exchange tellers in Havana said although counterfeits are uncommon, they pop up sporadically.
''We have gotten fakes, mostly from tourists who don't know any better,'' said Damián, a waiter. ``Cubans know what to look for.''
The new bills will circulate alongside the old ones until the older bills are gradually withdrawn, Cuba's daily paper Granma reported.
The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who filed this report because the author lacked the Cuban journalist visa required to work on the island.
Friday, December 15, 2006
U.S. legislators in Cuba to jump start dialogue
By Anthony BoadleFri Dec 15, 3:36 PM ET
The largest delegation from the U.S. Congress to visit Cuba since 1959 arrived in Havana on Friday seeking to open a dialogue with the communist government of acting President Raul Castro despite White House opposition to such contacts.
The stepping aside of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has not appeared in public for four months, has set the stage for ending political hostility dating from the start of the Cold War, they said.
"We sense this is an important time and we hope to meet with officials and hopefully launch a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations," said Rep. Jeff Flake (news, bio, voting record), an Arizona Republican.
The six Democrats and four Republicans hope to meet with Raul Castro, who took over July 31 after his brother underwent emergency surgery for an undisclosed illness.
Raul Castro two weeks ago said he was open to negotiations with Washington to settle the longstanding dispute that emerged after the Castros seized power in a 1959 revolution and turned Cuba into a Soviet ally.
The Bush administration, which opposes a "dynastic succession" from one Castro brother to the other, has rejected talks in the absence of democratic reform to Cuba's one-party state.
The State Department opposed the trip, delegation members said. "The bottom line is, we think it is the right thing to do," said Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern. "I've long thought our policy toward Cuba has been arrogant and dumb."
The visiting legislators said momentum was gathering in Washington for a new chapter in ties with Cuba and changes in U.S. policy are likely next year under a Democrat-controlled Congress.
"The U.S. Congress come January is under a different leadership and I think that on a bipartisan basis there is a desire to engage in dialogue and determine areas where we can agree, despite the fact that we will, I am sure, continue to have profound differences with the Cuban government," said Rep. William Delahunt (news, bio, voting record), a Massachusetts Democrat.
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, on Wednesday criticized a greater crackdown on dissent since the younger Castro took over.
Delahunt declined to comment on whether the delegation will meet with Cuban dissidents who are seeking democratic changes.
Flake and Delahunt are co-chairmen of the Cuba Working Group in the House of Representatives that plans to work to relax a ban on travel and a cap on family remittances to Cuba next year.
They favor engagement and trade with Cuba rather than sanctions as the best U.S. policy to foster change on the island.
Delegation members said their requested meeting with Raul
Castro has not been confirmed. (Additional reporting by Marc Frank)
Sunday, December 10, 2006
|Posted on Thu, Dec. 07, 2006|
Cuba's aging society straining resources
The Cuban government has been confronting a demographic reality that promises to wreak havoc on an already overburdened social service system.
By MIAMI HERALD STAFF
HAVANA - Regla, a 38-year-old security guard, is precisely the type of married woman the Cuban government is worried about: She had a baby 17 years ago and called it quits.
Money is tight and so is housing, so she had an abortion each of the four more times she got pregnant. Her teen daughter terminated a pregnancy last year, too.
''With this economic situation, who can have more children?'' Regla said. ``We're in the special period that never ends. Abortions are free and have no stigma attached. Everybody does it. Everybody.''
Regla's attitude is not unusual. In a nation faced with chronic shortages of everything from housing to food, more and more women are choosing to have just one child -- or none at all. A country with one of the hemisphere's highest life expectancy rates and lowest birthrates finds itself with a dwindling population -- one that in just 13 years will see the number of retired people outnumber the labor force.
The Cuban government-run media has tackled the issue in recent months, running remarkably candid coverage of a demographic phenomenon that promises to wreak havoc on an already strained social service system. As Fidel Castro -- himself 80 -- languishes in his sick bed, the effort to sustain the socialist society he built is being constantly challenged by emigration, aging adults and childless women.
''I'm 41, my son is 23, and I decided: That's it. No more,'' said Idania, an office worker in the city of Santa Clara, whose last name, like others in this report, was withheld for fear of reprisals. ``You want to give your children absolutely everything in life. If you are in a situation where you can't give your child absolutely everything, then why have more kids?''
• Since 1978, Cuba's fertility rate has decreased to levels that can no longer sustain current population levels. Now at 11.2 million, the Cuban media says it is unlikely to ever reach 12 million.
• During the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba's annual birthrate was about 250,000. In 2005, there were slightly more than 120,000 births, despite there being 1 million women of reproductive age.
• Seniors age 60 and older now make up about 16 percent of Cuba's population. The Cuban government estimates that by 2025, 26 percent of Cubans will be elderly.
• If current trends don't change, Cuba will join the 11 countries with the world's oldest populations, Granma, the island's main daily newspaper, reported.
''In a few years, it is almost certain that the demand for senior citizen centers, dining halls, homes and other senior citizen facilities will exceed the new factories and schools,'' Granma said.
Another newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, put it like this: ``If in 10 years we haven't reached a coherent reproduction policy, we'll see each other more frequently at wakes than at children's birthday parties.''
Among the causes, Granma cited ''material'' problems such as housing shortages, high cost of living, lack of day-care centers and goods like children's clothing. The paper also acknowledged the outward migration of adults of child-bearing age, but said positive changes such as advances for women in the workforce and availability of birth control also contributed.
But experts say Cuba's declining birthrate and aging populace is nothing new. Cuba's population rate started to slip in the 1950s, just as it did in Europe and other nations. The birthrate is 1.62 children per woman, compared to the United States' 2.04 birthrate.
But about 1.4 million new immigrants enter the United States every year, while Cuba sees tens of thousands leave.
With Castro sick and his revolution perhaps on the brink of radical change, the situation is particularly critical, said sociologist Mauricio Font. If communism collapses after Castro's death, Cuba is likely to witness a massive outward migration of its much-needed youth, as occurred in Eastern Europe.
''What we know of Cuba is that the young people are not particularly happy and are searching for more opportunities,'' said Font, director of the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies at the Graduate Center in New York. ``People are leaving, and it's going to get worse. That's something to think about. It's going to be a huge challenge with or without a transition.''
A decline in population isn't necessarily bad, said Arie Hoekman, Cuba director for the United Nations Population Fund. Cuba, which suffered a sharp economic decline after the fall of the Soviet Union -- the ''special period'' that Regla referred to -- probably could not sustain massive population spurts.
''A dwindling younger population and high elderly population places challenges on social systems such as health, education, social security,'' Hoekman said. ``On the other hand, continued growth would not be sustainable. They are already facing challenges.''
The biggest difficulty for Cuba will be to address the swelling numbers of elderly. Cuba already has about 300,000 people over the age of 80, but the government has focused its attention on other issues, such as tackling infant mortality and educating children. ''We've been seeing this coming for a very long time,'' said Lisandro Pérez, a sociology professor at Florida International University. ``I think it is a problem. I don't think the Cuban health system is geared toward the catastrophic illnesses older people get.''
The strains are already showing. Elderly people earn less than $10 a month on their pensions, so many of the street vendors who peddle snacks and newspapers on the street are older adults who say they were forced to return to the workforce because they could not survive on their incomes.
''A lack of children is something the state has to worry about, not me. I say the thing elderly folks worry about is food,'' said Víctor, a 70-year-old newspaper seller. ``Our health system is good, our education system is good, but our food situation is very bad.''
He was accompanied at an Old Havana plaza one recent afternoon by Cecilia, a 73-year-old grandmother who hops a bus to tourist areas to supplement her pension by begging for contributions from foreigners. She is worried because her 25-year-old grandson has not had any children.
''I'm concerned about the lack of children, sure,'' she said. ``You have to have future generations. What society will we have if there are no children?''
The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who filed this report because the author lacked the Cuban journalist visa required to work on the island.
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Posted on Wed, Dec. 06, 2006
The 'transition' has begun -- in Cuba and U.S.
By Ana Menendez
Fidel Castro might have been resting, in a coma, or simply busy monogramming his track suits. But his no-show at his own birthday party Saturday proves that El Lider is now worse than dead -- he's irrelevant.
Little bro did just fine by himself. The Yankees didn't invade. And in Miami, all eyes were on the Miami Heat.
''F. Castro'' indeed.
The most encouraging sign of the old man's passing is the way it has deflated the hard-liners here.
For sure, it was always a symbiotic relationship. But the intransigents have become so bereft without their foil that they've been driven to mad capers like the Dumpster-burial of his effigy last month.
It was a tacky spectacle. When it ended, you got the sense that what the crowd really wished was to raise Fidel from the dead so they could hate him for another 47 years.
Thankfully, the rest of El Exilio seems to be moving on to more productive pursuits. Monday, about a dozen exile organizations including the Cuban American National Foundation and the Cuba Study Group, presented a petition calling for an end to the ill-conceived ban on family travel to Cuba.
The petition, delivered by the umbrella group Consenso Cubano, made its appeal on humanitarian grounds (``Emigrants from any country feel the ethical obligation to help those families and loved ones they left behind.''). And its authors made pains to point out that the recommendations were months in the planning.
But it's almost inconceivable that such a wide-reaching proposal could have been floated in Miami just a few years ago. The press conference at La Ermita de la Caridad shrine Monday was notable mostly for its sedate air. From far away, the whole thing could have been mistaken for an industry gathering of bathtub salesmen instead of the revolutionary event it was.
When it was over, there was silence. Outside, it was an ordinary Monday: no protesters, no placards.
Consenso Cubano's proposal represents more than a generational shift. In some cases, it also marks a deeply personal reevaluation of long-held beliefs.
''I come from the very hard-line tradition,'' Carlos Saladrigas, head of the Cuba Study Group, told me afterward. ''But it's important to reflect. I've come to understand that the isolation of a country only benefits the totalitarian state.'' Long a supporter of the embargo, Saladrigas was not ready yet to go so far as to call for its end. ''But 47 years of failure tells you something,'' he said.
There was the usual condemnation of Consenso's proposal, from the usual corners. But those voices are growing feebler by the day. As Castro's grip weakens, so does that of the demagogues who built their careers around him. The succession is on in Cuba -- this is what the long-awaited ''transition'' looks like. What some have failed to see is that the transition is on here as well.
Times are changing. The request from Consenso Cubano follows a similar call last week from dissidents on the island. Earlier this year, another group of moderate exiles formed a group called ENCASA, urging an end to the embargo and calling U.S. policies a ''political and moral failure.'' Last month, a few days after the Dumpster spectacle, Florida International University screened a powerful new documentary about the hardships the travel restrictions cause for ordinary families.
It's now clear to all but the most fanatical that the failures of the revolution are matched by the failures of U.S. policies meant to thwart it.
History may absolve or dissolve the embittered leaders on both sides. May the old ideas pass with them. The rest of us are left with the present, and for the first time, we have a real chance to make it relevant.
A note to readers: Ana Menendez will be on book leave through January. To read past columns, go to www.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
BY FRANCES ROBLES
Four of Cuba's most prominent dissident groups are calling on the Bush administration to lift at least some restrictions on travel to the island and direct U.S. aid to pro-democracy groups there, saying the restrictions "in no way help" their struggle.
The dissidents' statement was intended to support the Miami organizations that handle some of the U.S. aid but wound up causing a stir, particularly among hard-line exile groups that support the travel restrictions. It also raised a question of whether the administration would still push its plan for an extra $80 million to aid an opposition that disagrees with its principal policies.
The six-paragraph statement released over the weekend comes in the wake of a Government Accountability Office report that questioned oversight and spending in $65 million by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for Cuba democracy programs.
The report showed that some agencies in Miami which send goods such as medicine to dissidents also made questionable expenditures on items such as Godiva chocolates or Gameboys for dissidents' kids.
"We deem it very important to achieve a greater efficiency in the use of said [USAID] funds," the statement said. "We believe that one possible way to achieve this would be the elimination of a series of existing restrictions on the shipment of aid and travel to Cuba, which in no way help the struggle for democracy we wage inside our country.
"We hope that the errors committed will be corrected and that a greater amount of aid will reach the pro-democracy activists, so we may advance with greater speed toward the economic, political and social freedom of our motherland."
The statement was signed by prominent opposition leaders Martha Beatriz Roque, of the Assembly To Promote Civilian Society, Gisela Delgado Sabión, of the Independent Libraries Project, Elizardo Sánchez, who heads the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, and Vladimiro Roca, of the Social Democratic Party of Cuba and spokesman for All United.
Roque's signature was by far the most surprising because of her long-standing support for travel restrictions. Roque is controversial even among Cuban dissidents, particularly for her hard-line stances and close relationship with Cuban-American legislators.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a strong supporter of Bush's Cuba policies, noted that Roque has sent several letters to Congress supporting the 2004 regulations that tightened travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans to the island.
"I have questions to ask about this statement," he said. "It's confusing."
Roque acknowledged that the statement was an about-face for her, but said she signed it because overall it supports continuing the USAID assistance. Other dissident groups oppose the help, saying it gives the Cuban government a way to portray them as hired guns.
Sending U.S. government cash directly to dissidents is currently banned. Seventy- five dissidents were jailed three years ago in a roundup of what the Cuban government considered "mercenaries."
"Sometimes you have to take a position, because the other positions are worse," Roque said by phone from Havana. "This is not my position. I signed it, because the people signing it are the closest to my position."
The signers were unclear as to whether they were calling for lifting all the travel restrictions -- which also ban all U.S. tourist trips -- or just the tighter restrictions introduced in 2004 that cut back Cuban-American family reunification visits from once a year to once every three years.
Delgado, whose husband is a political prisoner, said she wants the entire ban on both U.S. tourism and family reunification visits lifted.
"We live in a closed society and we don't think the doors should be closed even more," she said in a phone interview. ‘‘What we need is an opening."
Roca agreed: "The travel restrictions have not provided results. They have hurt the opposition more than the government."
Sánchez said he believed that the group's intention was to oppose the 2004 limitations, not the ban on U.S. tourism. He said lifting the 2004 restrictions would help dissidents because more Cuban-American travelers could bring suitcases filled with medicine and food, rather than waste U.S. taxpayer money on expensive shipping.
A recent Miami Herald investigation found agencies spent large parts of their funding on expensive shipping fees.
The opposition groups' statement puzzled even Juan Carlos Acosta, their representative in Miami, whose spending was criticized in the GAO report.
"Originally the idea was to speak the truth of our efforts for many years," Acosta said. ‘‘. . . But the way it was put together, any member of the press would read it as they want to lift the embargo and any American should be able to travel to Cuba."
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana said they had no reaction to the statement.
"They don't make the policy," said spokeswoman Demitra Pappas. "That is determined elsewhere, and our policy hasn't changed."
Miami Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.
Friday, November 24, 2006
Man arrested after long standoff at Miami Herald building
By DAVID OVALLE AND MARTIN MERZER
After a 3 ½-hour standoff at The Miami Herald building, Miami police this afternoon arrested a man who claimed to be armed and had barricaded himself in the office of the top editor of El Nuevo Herald.
The standoff ended at about 2:20 p.m. and apparently without violence, police said.
Employees identified the man as El Nuevo Herald cartoonist Jose Varela.
They said the incident began around 11 a.m., with Varela appearing agitated and demanding to see El Nuevo Herald's executive editor, Humberto Castelló. Varela appeared to be armed with a handgun, employees said, but it was not known if the gun was real.
Castelló, who was not in the building as the incident began, told police that Varela apparently took over his office and trashed it, including a cartoon of the executive editor that Varela had drawn.
El Nuevo Herald is a Spanish-language newspaper published by The Miami Herald Media Co. Its newsroom is located on the sixth floor of The Miami Herald's main building along Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami.
Most employees were evacuated from the building, though some staffers remained in the Miami Herald's fifth floor newsroom to cover the story.
Shortly after the incident began, several people who work on the sixth floor heard police knocking on doors, telling everyone to leave.
''I was in the bathroom,'' said Pamela Vinson. ``I ran outside and saw that everyone had left. I left my purse, my phone, my keys. I couldn't even go home if I wanted to.''
Said another employee: ``I thought it was a joke.''
People with company identification badges were allowed to return to work around 3 p.m.
Varela's motive was not clear.
During a brief interview with a Miami Herald reporter, Varela threatened to commit violence. Some of what he said seemed confusing and disjointed.
''You are speaking with the new director of the newspaper and I'm here to unmask the true conflicts in the newspaper,'' Varela told the reporter. ``They laugh at exiles here. There are problems with payment.''
Tensions have flared in recent weeks between the two newsrooms and between some members of the Cuban American community and the Miami Herald, but it was unclear if those issues played a role in Friday's event.
While barricaded in the office, Varela twice telephoned Miami attorney Joe Garcia, who had represented him in a condominium dispute several months ago. Garcia said that Varela declared his intention to take control of the newspaper.
Garcia said Varela told him in Spanish that, ``Now they're going to have to deal with the truth.''
Garcia also said that Varela told him he had a gun, but said that he didn't intend to hurt anyone nor himself.
When Varela called and said that he would demand that editor Castelló be fired and that he was the new editor in charge of the newsroom, Garcia said he thought that the cartoonist was joking.
''He's really a comedian, so I figured he was putting me on,'' Garcia said.
The first call was relatively brief, Garcia said. The second lasted more than 15 minutes in which Varela sounded distraught about recent events at the newspaper and he said he believed that Cuban exiles were not treated sympathetically.
Many members of South Florida's Cuban American community and some staffers of El Nuevo Herald have been angered by recent Miami Herald coverage of Radio and TV Martí, U.S. government broadcasting operations that seek an end the communist regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Some of those stories have focused on payments received by several El Nuevo staffers and freelancers for work they conducted for Radio and TV Martí.
Garcia quoted Varela asking, ''How is it Cubans must suffer all the time?'' But it was not clear to what extent -- if any -- the recent tensions played into the incident.
Another employee said Varela walked in and started talking to employees. Then he began ordering women out ''for their own security,'' the employee said.
About 12 to 15 workers inside the newsroom were present, employees said. El Nuevo Herald employees have been instructed not to talk to other reporters.
Hundreds of Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald employees were milling in the newspaper's parking lot as a steady stream of workers left the building. Many were speaking on cellphones, reassuring loved ones that they were all right.
In July of 2005, The Miami Herald building was the scene of another highly publicized incident involving a distraught man and a gun.
Arthur Teele Jr., a former Miami city commissioner facing a fraud trial and upset over reports about his personal life that appeared in another publication, shot himself to death in the lobby of the building shared by the newspapers.
Herald staff writers Noah Bierman, Elinor J. Brecher, Susannah A. Nesmith and Nicole White contributed to this report.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
A legal dispute failed to determine who owns the song rights from Cuba's golden age of music.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
A U.S. music company lost its bid for rights to more than a dozen songs from the golden age of Cuban music, ending a six-year legal battle against the island's government in a London court.
After a protracted legal dispute that included moving the entire trial to Havana for a few days to take testimony there, a British judge decided last week not to give New Jersey-based Peer Music rights to 14 songs -- but he didn't give the rights to the Cuban government music publishing company either. The litigation was considered a critical test case that could have affected up to 600 of Cuba's most cherished oldies.
Having successfully fought off Peer's claim, the Cuban music publishers declared themselves winners in the case. It is likely to result in more litigation, since it is still unclear who has full rights to each song.
''We didn't get the brass ring,'' said Peter Jaegerman, senior vice president of Peer Music USA.
Peer Music signed up scores of Cuban artists in the 1930s and '40s, but the Cuban government canceled the contracts after Fidel Castro took power. For years, the U.S. embargo prevented the music company from paying royalties, and the money sat in bank accounts.
With the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, interest in the Cuban classics swelled and everyone from the Cuban government to music companies rushed to dust off aging contracts and royalty deals.
In 2000, Peer sued the German company Termidor, which had registered hundreds of Cuban songs in England on behalf of the Cuban state music company, Editora Musical de Cuba, known as EMC.
Peer argued that its contracts dating back to the '30s and '40s should be honored and that Termidor and EMC had illegally registered the 14 disputed songs. It asked the judge to declare Peer the rightful owners.
The first phase of the trial determined that Cuba could not unilaterally cancel Peer's contracts. Once that was decided, EMC sought to void the contracts, arguing that Peer misled the musicians by getting them to sign unfair deals over a few ``pesos and a bottle of rum.''
TESTIMONY IN CUBA
The case wound up moving to Cuba for a few days last year to get the testimony from elderly composers and their heirs. The case exposed the messy complications that result when dollars are at stake, memories are fuzzy and the average monthly wage hovers at about $15.
One witness testified that her signature on a Peer contract must have been copied because it said she was composer Manuel Corona's widow -- even though that would have made her 120 years old. She was actually his niece. Others said they signed papers they did not read, and one witness said he was a composer's only heir when in fact there were 10.
An 87-year-old composer testified that he never got a dime -- until they showed him canceled checks he signed, court records show.
Peer's representative in Cuba wound up accused of collaborating with an American company against the interests of the Cuban government. Former Peer rep Isabel Cordova, a Cuban lawyer who specialized in copyright issues, fled Cuba in 2002 to avoid a prison sentence and now lives in Miami.
''These composers were going hungry. Not one of them had a color TV or a refrigerator less than 50 years old,'' Cordova told the Miami Herald. ``I feel extraordinarily satisfied with the work I did. If I have one regret, it's that I should have dedicated every minute of my life to helping them more.''
She said the charges that Peer cheated the composers were taken out of context, considering the cost of living 60 years ago when the deals were signed.
Ultimately, the judge agreed, saying Peer's deals were standard for the time period and the company in fact paid $2.5 million in royalties to the artists once the U.S. embargo against Cuba was amended to allow it.
NO DECLARED WINNER
But the judge said he was unwilling to declare anyone the rightful owner of the songs because he feared setting a precedent in a case where so many more songs were potentially at stake, Peer's Jaegerman said.
''It was disappointing, but at the same time, it was an enormous vindication of the company,'' he said. 'Now they will never win on this `two drinks and a peso' folklore. We were really fighting a government here. They really wanted that money.''
EMC lawyer Graham Shear declined to comment.
Filed under: Uncategorized
More shake-out from the Marti story, the recently published Hoyt Report , and Oscar Corral’s recent series on USAID’s Cuban missions. Miami Herald Editor Tom Fiedler informed his staff today that today’s El Nuevo Herald, which is published in the same building and owned by the same McClatchy company as the Miami Herald, libeled reporter Oscar Corral, who broke the story in August.
In an e-mail to the entire newsroom with the subject line “Truth to power,” Fiedler wrote that a freelance columnist committed a “blood libel” against Corral in today’s version of the Spanish-language newspaper. He wrote that he’s investigating who the columnist is and how “how such an outrageous character defamation” was allowed to occur.
I have found the column in question on the El Nuevo Herald web site, but am not sure if it has been altered since Fiedler’s e-mail was sent. The writer is Nicolas Perez Diaz-Arguelles.
UPDATED: Here is the pertinent passage from the Diaz-Arguelles column as translated by New Times receptionist Julia Hallon:
It is also suspicious that Oscar Corral appears to be the bad guy in the picture again. And the question is if Max Lesnick and his friends from [Cuban intelligence agency] DGI of the Cuban government are behind Oscar Corral, which could be or not be true? Who is the highest ranking Miami Herald executive that is behind Oscar Corral? A second foolish question. What are the MacClatchy Company owners waiting for to put out the fire that the Miami Herald provoked in the Cuban Exiles?
So the slightly shaded allegation in El Nuevo Herald is that Corral is a Cuban spy (and it might be noted that McClatchy is misspelled — not a very smooth move considering it’s the newspaper’s owner). And there is an inference that a high executive at the Herald is also working for Cuba. With tripe like that published under the company’s own banner, it’s easy to see why Fiedler would be so steamed.
The entire Fiedler e-mail comes after the jump.
From: Fiedler, Tom
Sent: Wednesday, November 22, 2006 12:09 PM
To: .MIA Newsroom
Subject: Truth to power
Oscar Corral’s stories questioning the spending of public dollars in programs here under the guise of restoring freedom to Cuba have struck the nerves — and threatened the wallets — of powerful people in this community who have access to the Spanish-language media, including, sadly, the opinion page of El Nuevo Herald. Today a freelance columnist, in an attempt to justify allowing these businesses to feed at the public trough, committed a blood libel against Oscar directly and this newsroom indirectly.
I don’t know at this point who this columnist is or how such an outrageous character defamation was allowed; I will get back to you if and when I have something to share. But I do know that we will respond in the best traditions of journalism — by supporting Oscar in continuing to report this story wherever it leads and by publishing our findings in the columns of The Miami Herald.
That’s a poor and incomplete translation. I think this is better:
It’s also suspicious that Oscar Corral should reappear in the role of the bad guy. And the point of all this is not to wonder whether Max Lesnick and his friends at the Cuban government’s DGI are behind Oscar Corral, which may or may not be true, but rather, what high-ranking executive at the Miami Herald is behind Oscar Corral? Another stupid question: How long do the owners of the McClatchy Company think El Nuevo Herald can keep putting out the fires caused by The Miami Herald in the Cuban exile community?
By Jeff FranksWed Nov 22, 2:05 PM ET
A silence has settled over Cuban political life that ordinary Cubans find at once disconcerting and a big relief.
After decades of delivering long and frequent speeches, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has virtually disappeared while recovering from surgery and been replaced by his much more reticent brother Raul.
Now Castro's diatribes no longer interrupt regular programming on Cuban television and he does not hold center stage in the national limelight.
Castro, 80, has not been seen except for a few photographs and videos since announcing on July 31 that he had an intestinal operation and put Raul temporarily in control of the communist country he has run since a 1959 revolution.
Cubans say they are not sure what to make of it.
"He was the person who defined everything for us. Now nobody is saying anything, which makes me wonder what is going to happen next," said security guard Ernesto Valdares, 34.
"There are no speeches, nothing. It's very different," said a woman who would only give her first name, Dora.
Many people in Cuba quickly tell a visitor that they are "Fidelistas," or Fidel Castro supporters. But in the same breath they deny any interest in politics. They vow eternal support for Fidel Castro and say Raul does not inspire the same passion because he lacks charisma.
'IT'S A RELIEF'
But even some Fidelistas admit that Castro's silence has its good side.
"To tell you the truth, it's a relief not to have him talking so much. He was on television all the time," said Dora.
In contrast, Raul Castro has kept a low profile, only occasionally showing up at public events and keeping his comments, if any, brief.
Analysts speculate that Raul Castro, 75, is staying in the shadows out of deference to his brother and because he is a behind-the-scenes technocrat by nature. He has been Cuba's defense minister since 1959 and is credited with building the military into one of the country's most efficient institutions.
What follows this period of peace and quiet is the question of the hour in Cuba.
A clerk in a Havana clothing store, who gave only Ernesto as his name, said he expects everything to go on as before, whether Fidel Castro dies or recovers.
"The people on top don't want anything to change. They're doing well," he said.
But Valdares said he thinks a new government will be compelled to do something to improve Cuba's creaking economy, where the average Cuban makes the equivalent of just $15 a month and needs government food rations to get by.
"I'm very proud to be a Cuban and I'm happy with the way things are, but we need more money. If Raul takes over for Fidel, he'll have to make some changes," he said.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
TV Martí executive indicted
A senior TV Martí executive was accused of receiving $100,000 from a company that does business with the federally financed broadcaster.
BY OSCAR CORRAL
A federal grand jury indicted a senior TV Martí executive, accusing him of taking more than $100,000 in kickbacks from a company that was doing business with the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees the Martí operation, prosecutors said Friday.
Jose M. Miranda, nicknamed ''Chema,'' received the money from Perfect Image Film and Video Productions, a vendor that was doing business with TV Martí, according to a federal statement.
''Miranda was accepting these monies during the same time that he approved requisitions and invoices for services rendered by Perfect Image to TV Martí,'' U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said.
Miranda said in Spanish Friday night ``I haven't even talked to my lawyer. I can't say anything.''
Miranda is also charged with ``making false representations to the U.S. government, in that he falsely reported no outside income in financial disclosure reports.''
OCB Director Pedro Roig, who has run the radio and television operation since, could not comment.
Jorge de Cardenas, a marketing consultant for OCB, said Friday night Roig ``discovered [the scheme] and an investigation began. There are other people involved.''
The four-count indictment alleges Miranda falsified financial disclosure forms in 2002, 2003, and 2004. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison per count.
''In each of these financial disclosure reports, the defendant represented that he had no sources of income other than his United States government salary, when in fact he had received income from Perfect Image during those years,'' prosecutors said.
Joe O'Connell, a spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees OCB, said Miranda had been placed on administrative leave and faced suspension without pay until the case is resolved.
Miranda earns $103,000 yearly at OCB, federal records show.
O'Connell described Miranda as a ''high ranking'' official at OCB who had worked there since 1992, and said OCB ''developed information about Miranda's activities'' in 2005 and referred the matter to the board that oversees the Martí operation. The board alerted the Inspector General, who turned the matter over to the Justice Department, O'Connell said.
According to federal records obtained earlier this year by The Miami Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request, the OCB paid at least $239,000 to Perfect Image from 2001 to 2006.
Perfect Image is among dozens of companies that have been contracted by the OCB over the past few years to provide services ranging from production to journalism content, federal records obtained show.
Since 2001, OCB has paid at least $3.3 million to outside vendors.
Corporate records show Perfect Image Video Production is located in the Doral area and names Antonio Perez as its president. Perez could not be reached Friday night.
Herminio San Roman, who ran OCB from 1997 to 2001, said he did not know of the alleged scheme.
''If there's much more corruption inside Radio and TV Martí, they should go after everyone,'' San Roman said. ``The mission [at TV Martí] is a pure mission, providing information to an enslaved country. But within that mission you have people. And once you have people, you have good people, and people who turn out not to be so good.''
Herald staff writers Alfonso Chardy and Dani McClain contributed to this report.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
posted on Thu, Nov. 16, 2006
PROMOTING DEMOCRACY IN CUBA | SECOND OF TWO PARTS
Cuba thwarts U.S. efforts to help dissidents
The United States has spent $7 million to teach Cubans journalism and English and to educate children of dissidents. But the efforts have fallen short.
By OSCAR CORRAL
John Virtue crammed everything a reporter needed to know into a clandestine workshop for independent journalists in Havana four years ago. But he just couldn't squeeze in the ethics lessons.
Manuel David Orrio, a student with a limp, eagerly volunteered to teach the ethics class for Virtue, director of Florida International University's International Media Center.
On March 14, 2003, Orrio taught the course at the Havana home of then-U.S. Interests Section chief James Cason. Four days later, the Cuban government launched its biggest crackdown on dissidents and independent journalists in years. Seventy-five were imprisoned -- including 26 independent journalists.
Among the communist regime's star witnesses: Orrio, who was really a Cuban agent.
''He'd been under cover, an independent journalist for 12 years,'' Virtue said.
FIU is among a handful of American universities that have received more than $7 million in the past decade from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to train Cuban journalists, teach Cubans English, study property-rights issues and educate the children of dissidents at U.S. colleges.
But USAID's academic effort has fallen short of its mark, according to federal records, university reports and interviews with dozens of academic and U.S. experts. For example:
• FIU has received $1.6 million from USAID since 1999 to train journalists. As many as 214 students have taken a 2 ½-hour workshop or correspondence course or video conferencing. As of August, only four Cubans have completed all the required courses.
• Georgetown University has received $400,000 in scholarship grants to teach at least 20 Cuban students. USAID promised $400,000 more for other scholarships. In three years, Cuba has allowed only one student to leave for Georgetown.
• Loyola University in Chicago received a $425,000 grant from USAID in 2004 to teach English to Cubans on the island. It has yet to teach anyone under that program. Loyola suspended the program after its Cuban partners objected to the USAID connection.
• Creighton University in Nebraska received a $750,000 grant from USAID last year to study Cuba's confiscation of properties and create a model tribunal for property claims after Fidel Castro dies. Some Cuba experts say it's a waste of money -- because Creighton had no experience in Cuba-related property-rights research.
''I just want an opportunity for Cubans to come here, back and forth,'' said Adolfo Franco, the director of USAID's program for Latin America and the Caribbean. ``But you know what? The standard should be applied across the board in a fair way and not dictated by the Cuban government.''
Although its academic successes are few so far, USAID stands to garner up to $10 million more, thanks to the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba II, a group convened by President Bush and headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
The commission has recommended spending $80 million more in the next two years for humanitarian aid, education, exchanges and scholarships for Cubans studying in the states.
Peter Orr, the first director of USAID's Cuba program, said USAID funding to universities is a waste: ``If you really don't want to achieve anything with the money, you throw money at a university who says we're going to have an exchange program, and they go ahead and give the grant, even though anybody who knows anything about Cuba knows it won't work.''
Throughout the seven years that FIU has tried to train journalists, the Cuban government has routinely blocked educators from visiting the island. Virtue, who held classes in Havana just once, tried to train Cuban students in third countries -- only to have the Cuban government withhold exit visas.
FIU resorted to training by mail, and now also video-conferencing from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, where independent journalists attend a live session.
''I think we have shown good results for it,'' Virtue said.
Among the successful graduates is Claudia Márquez, who left Cuba two years ago for Puerto Rico and runs her own website and publishes stories on other Internet sites.
Said Márquez -- one of the four independent journalists who completed the program after studying journalism, ethics and investigative reporting: ``It was a huge opportunity, and I appreciate it very much.''
But some of the would-be Cuban journalists say the program can be frustrating.
''I know many colleagues from the independent press in Cuba who registered [for the FIU course], sent in their work and nothing ever happened,'' said Juan Gonzalez Feble, an independent journalist in Havana, in a recent telephone interview. ``We never heard from them again.''
Virtue said many of the students may have sent in assignments and paperwork to be evaluated, but Cuban agents probably confiscated their work.
Because FIU's International Media Center is funded by USAID, it is not allowed to pay journalists in Cuba with government funding for their work, a policy that frustrates the program's directors. The center also edits work produced by independent reporters on the island and looks for publications outside Cuba to publish those reports.
''Many of the people dealing with Cuba, including many in the government, find it very frustrating not to be able to pay the journalists,'' Virtue said.
''It's great that the U.S. is helping the people of Cuba to achieve democracy,'' Feble said. ``They have to remember that the theater of operations is the island of Cuba. It's not Miami.''
The University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies has received more money than any other academic institution to promote democracy in Cuba, about $2.5 million.
The program has produced several forums and about 35 research papers on what a post-Castro Cuba might encounter.
Roger Noriega, former undersecretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, said the USAID program should focus on groups that are helping people inside instead of academic studies.
''Frankly, I'm less interested in studies,'' Noriega said. ``My experience has been that these stacks of materials end up on people's bookshelves.''
The Cuba Transition Project, as the UM grant is named, is headed by UM professor Jaime Suchlicki. He has been a key player in the USAID strategy to try to democratize Cuba, managing more U.S. pro-democracy money than any other person as of 2005 -- more than $7 million since 1999.
About $5 million of those funds went to Cuba OnLine, a venture that published a newsletter, Sin Censura -- Without Censorship -- and specialized in mailing anti-Castro material to the island.
Part of Suchlicki's salary at UM is reimbursed with federal funds from the Cuba Transition Project; he also received a $2,000 monthly salary from USAID-funded Cuba OnLine, a program he said expired in September. And he hosts a show called Opiniones on Radio Martí, for which he is paid $100 a show, earning about $18,000 the past three years, federal records show. Suchlicki said he began the program after he was paid between $1,000 and $2,000 as a subcontractor for a consultant, Herbert Levin, hired by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting to analyze proposed programming changes.
''Nobody is going to buy me for $100 or $1,000. I'm an independent thinker,'' Suchlicki said.
In Washington, Georgetown University had picked 20 Cuban students out of almost 400 applicants for scholarships, but only one has attended -- because the Cuban government won't let anyone else leave the island to study.
Georgetown spokesman Erik M. Smulson said in an e-mail that the 20 students were chosen ``on the basis of their leadership potential and academic aptitude.''
Georgetown has spent about $112,000 of the $400,000 for the one student's expenses, plus administrative costs of the program. A typical Georgetown student spends $48,000 a year to attend. The rest of the grant is still active, Smulson said.
USAID and Georgetown refused to provide copies of the grant application or to name the student.
Franco, the director of USAID's program for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the agency should not cease trying to give scholarships to Cuban students because the government doesn't let students out.
''The [proof] of the pudding in here is that the government of Cuba is scared to death to give an opportunity to the Cuban people to come to the United States and return to Cuba,'' Franco said.
At Loyola University in Chicago, government and university officials in 2004 hailed the signing of a two-year, $425,000 USAID grant, for an exchange program for Cuban students called the ``Henry Hyde Program of People-to-People Development.''
Attending the ceremony: U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., a Loyola alumnus and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Franco.
The goal: teach English as a second language to people in Havana.
Loyola's Cuban partners refused to participate because Loyola was getting U.S. government money -- even though the Chicago school pledged that its program was apolitical. By April 2005, Loyola dropped the program but kept the grant in hopes of reviving the program.
When there was no U.S. government money involved, students at the Jesuit university taught English for two-week intervals at Centro LaSalle, a Catholic center in Havana.
Loyola and USAID refused to provide copies of the grant application. Hyde didn't return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
At Creighton, USAID gave the law school in Nebraska a $750,000 grant last year to study the issue of property restitution for Cubans who lost land to Castro's revolution. USAID's Franco graduated from Creighton Law School.
USAID spokeswoman Jessica Garcia said Franco did not influence the award. She also said the agency seeks grant applications, and a government interagency committee reviews, ranks and recommends applicants.
''Creighton won the award through the competitive [bidding] process,'' Garcia said in an e-mail. USAID would not specify what other institutions bid for the grant.
A Government Accountability Office audit released Wednesday said, ''the USAID Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean authorized the negotiation of awards for both unsolicited and solicited proposals.'' The audit also said USAID's Cuba program office, which is overseen by Franco, ``recommends USAID democracy assistance awards.''
Creighton Law School Dean Pat Borchers acknowledged the university had no experience in Cuba property research but said the school is qualified to produce the report. Two of Creighton's seven grant researchers speak fluent Spanish, Borchers said. He said he wrote a law school case book that included ''materials'' on the 1996 Helms Burton law, which governs U.S. policy toward Cuba. And some in the research team also have experience in conflict resolution law, Borchers added.
Creighton researchers have traveled to Miami to consult experts, Borchers said. One of them is Nick Gutierrez, a local lawyer who has established a niche practice representing people who want their property back or compensation for their loss.
''I think they need some guidance,'' said Gutierrez, who said he met with Creighton representatives at a Cuban American Bar Association conference in June. ``I am surprised that they [Creighton] got it [the grant]. I'm not so surprised when I see that Adolfo Franco from USAID is an alumnus.''
Franco said through a spokeswoman that he ''played no role whatsoever'' in the award.
Gutierrez said Creighton's distance from the exile community can help it come up with a credible report. If such a report came from a South Florida institution, Gutierrez said, ``maybe people would feel it's not completely independent because it might be a mouthpiece for the Cuban exile community.''
Another U.S.-funded organization that helps promote democracy in Cuba -- The National Endowment for Democracy -- won't fund universities because administrative and overhead costs run as high as 65 percent at universities, said NED Vice President Barbara Haig.
''Is there a shortage of research on Cuba? I don't think there really is. It's just very painful to pay that kind of indirect cost rate,'' said Haig, adding that other programs keep administrative expenses at one-third those rates.
Georgetown declined to specify those costs, and Loyola did not respond to an e-mail request. Creighton officials said their program's indirect costs were 42 percent, and FIU's international media program's indirect costs were 24 percent.
Julio Aliaga Pesant, an independent journalist and former University of Havana professor expelled two years ago for his political beliefs, said the U.S. should spend the money inside Cuba.
''I think that with one-tenth of what the U.S. government gives to exterior projects, they'd subvert the government in Cuba if they got it to the right groups and people here,'' Aliaga Pesant said.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
End Cuban embargo, U.N. urges U.S.
BY EDITH M. LEDERER
NEW YORK - The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to urge the United States to end its 45-year-old trade embargo against Cuba after defeating an Australian amendment calling on Fidel Castro's government to free political prisoners and respect human rights.
It was the 15th straight year that the 192-member world body approved a resolution calling for the U.S. economic and commercial embargo against Cuba to be repealed ``as soon as possible.''
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque told the assembly ``the economic war unleashed by the U.S. against Cuba, the longest and most ruthless ever known, qualifies as an act of genocide and constitutes a flagrant violation of international law and the charter of the United Nations.''
Delegates in the General Assembly chamber burst into applause when the vote in favor of the the resolution flashed on the screen -- 183-4 with one abstention. That was a one-vote improvement over last year's vote of 182-4 with one abstention. Joining the United States in voting ''no'' were Israel, Marshall Islands and Palau, while Micronesia abstained.
The assembly voted on the resolution soon after adopting a resolution to take ''no action'' on the Australian amendment, which meant it could not be added to the Cuban draft. That vote was 126-51 with five abstentions.
The proposed amendment stated that the U.S. laws and measures ``were motivated by valid concerns about the continued lack of democracy and political freedom in Cuba.''
It would have had the assembly call upon ``the Cuban government to release unconditionally all political prisoners, cooperate fully with international human rights bodies and mechanisms, respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and comply fully with its obligations under all human rights treaties to which it is a state party.''
U.S.: Castro's health is deteriorating
WASHINGTON - The government believes Fidel Castro's health is deteriorating and that the Cuban dictator is unlikely to live through 2007.
That dire view was reinforced last week when Cuba's foreign minister backed away from his prediction the ailing Castro would return to power by early December. "It's a subject on which I don't want to speculate," Felipe Perez Roque told The Associated Press in Havana.
U.S. government officials say there is still some mystery about Castro's diagnosis, his treatment and how he is responding. But these officials believe the 80-year-old leader has cancer of the stomach, colon or pancreas.
He was seen weakened and thinner in official state photos released late last month, and it is considered unlikely that he will return to power or survive through the end of next year, said the U.S. government and defense officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the politically sensitive topic.
With chemotherapy, Castro may live up to 18 months, said the defense official. Without it, expected survival would drop to three months to eight months.
American officials will not talk publicly about how they glean clues to Castro's health. But U.S. spy agencies include physicians who study pictures, video, public statements and other information coming out of Cuba.
A planned celebration of Castro's 80th birthday next month is expected to draw international attention. The Cuban leader had planned to attend the public event, which already had been postponed once from his Aug. 13 birthday.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
The U.S. government has until Feb. 1 to prosecute Luis Posada Carriles, wanted abroad in a jet bombing case.
By Carol J. Williams
Times Staff Writer
November 7, 2006
MIAMI — He has admitted to bombing Havana hotels, served time for plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro and for more than 20 years was a fugitive from charges of blowing up a Cuban airliner.
But 17 months after Luis Posada Carriles was arrested and sent to a Texas immigration lockup, U.S. officials have declined to label him a terrorist or charge him with a crime. On Friday, a federal judge in El Paso gave the U.S. government until Feb. 1 to bring a case against Posada or the reputed bomber will be freed.
He has become a political liability for the Bush administration in its declared global war on terrorism.
As a veteran of nearly five decades of covert operations in Latin America, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, clandestine Cold War actions and the Iran-Contra affair, Posada knows where Washington's bodies are buried.
If Posada, 79, were to be prosecuted, he probably would seek to defend himself against any criminal charges by arguing that his violent actions were on behalf of his CIA masters.
His Miami lawyer, Eduardo Soto, alluded to his client's past collaboration with U.S. intelligence services as he pressed the Cuban militant's unsuccessful quest for political asylum.
"A public trial of Luis Posada would certainly reveal embarrassing details on the degree to which U.S. covert operatives used terrorism as a tool in the 1960s," said Peter Kornbluh of the independent National Security Archive at George Washington University.
Kornbluh has compiled declassified CIA and FBI evidence of Posada's role in the 1976 plane bombing, near Barbados, of a Cuban airliner in which all 73 on board died. Among the documents in the archive's online dossier is one recently obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation that shows Posada informed his CIA minders of the plot to blow up the airliner three months ahead of the attack.
The administration has avoided bringing a criminal case against Posada, who enjoys strong support among Miami's politically powerful Cuban exiles, by handling him like any other immigration offender and simply seeking his deportation.
Posada returned to Florida in March 2005, reportedly on a fellow exile's shrimp boat sent to fetch him from an island off the Yucatan Peninsula. He'd made his way there six months after being pardoned by outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso in August 2004 after serving four years for attempting to kill Castro at a Panama summit in 2000.
Moscoso's clemency decree for Posada and three U.S. militants was seen as a favor to the Bush administration in a presidential election year when the Cuban exile vote in Florida was vital.
Posada moved about Miami with impunity, despite indignant demands for his extradition by Cuba and Venezuela, where he is a naturalized citizen. Authorities arrested him two months after his arrival when he invited journalists to his Miami residence for a news conference.
A federal immigration judge in El Paso, where Posada has been held since May 2005, ruled last year that he should be deported to a country other than Venezuela or Cuba, which want to try him for the jetliner bombing. The federal government has spurned those countries' extradition requests, contending Posada would be at risk of torture or execution.
The State Department approached at least six friendly foreign governments to take Posada, but Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador all refused. The Mexican government later said it would hand Posada over to Cuba if he reentered Mexico.
Soto argued in August that U.S. authorities couldn't hold Posada indefinitely after abandoning efforts to send him abroad. U.S. Magistrate Norbert Garney agreed, and recommended in September that Posada be released.
In October, the Justice Department urged the court to keep Posada in jail.
"Luis Posada Carriles is an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks. The Department of Justice believes that Posada is a flight risk and that his release would be a danger to the community," said spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement then notified Posada that the government had decided to prolong his detention because of concerns that his release "would have serious foreign policy consequences," according to an agency statement.
Under anti-terrorism powers claimed by the administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has only to ask Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzalez to brand Posada a terrorist to keep him locked up while the government pursues criminal action, said David Sebastian, Soto's paralegal on the case.
Much as the administration can indefinitely detain terrorism suspects at Guantanamo without legal recourse or formal charges, it can hold Posada on grounds that he poses a national security threat. The Justice Department missive makes clear that the administration considers him a terrorist but has yet to pursue that formal designation.
Soto has filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the government's continued jailing of Posada on the immigration violation. That move presents a dilemma for the administration: It could be forced to let a man they call a terrorist walk free or prosecute him and risk public airing of some of Washington's darkest secrets.
U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez on Friday gave the administration the Feb. 1 deadline to prosecute or release Posada.
Neither the State Department nor the Justice Department would say what, if any, actions were being taken to ensure Posada remains in detention.
Posada's fellow militants launched a petition drive demanding that the administration release him before today's election or risk losing support for GOP candidates from among the anti-Castro constituency.
"Some of us vote for President Bush. Others, like me, vote against him because he doesn't do anything for Cuba," said Juan Torres Mena, a vice director of the Brigade 2506 Bay of Pigs veterans association.
"Those fighting against communism are in jail now," he said. "Before we were freedom fighters. Now we're terrorists."
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Fidel Castro shown on Cuban TV, walking, reading
By Anthony Boadle2 hours, 35 minutes ago
Cuban leader Fidel Castro defiantly dismissed rumors that he was dead on Saturday in television images showing him walking, talking on the telephone and reading the day's newspapers.
In the first images of him issued in six weeks, Castro said he was taking part in government decisions, following the news, and making regular phone calls as he recovers from emergency intestinal surgery in late July.
"Now that our enemies have prematurely declared me dying or dead, I am happy to send my compatriots and friends around the world this short film material," Castro said.
"Now let's see what they say. They will have to resurrect me," the gray-bearded leftist firebrand said.
The images showed a gaunt-looking Castro browsing through Saturday's ruling Communist Party daily Granma, walking slowly out of a lift in a track-suit and talking on a telephone in a loud, clear voice.
A television presenter said the images, aimed to quell rumors of Castro's death started by Cuban exiles in the United States, were recorded on Saturday afternoon.
Castro's prolonged absence from public view set off rumors in recent weeks that the 80-year-old leader was dead and change imminent in Cuba, one of the world's last communist-run nations.
The rumor mill was fueled last week by Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva when he inadvertently implied Castro was dead and by a Caracas newspaper report that said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuba's main ally, had visited Havana secretly to say good-bye to Castro.
Castro was forced to relinquish power temporarily for the first time since his 1959 revolution to his younger brother Raul on July 31 after undergoing surgery to stop intestinal bleeding.
Earlier this month, Time magazine quoted an unnamed U.S. official saying that Castro had terminal cancer.
Cuban officials have denied Castro has stomach cancer and insist he is recovery gradually and will return to lead the country. But they have given no details of his illness, which are a closely guarded state secret.
Raul Castro, 75, has not been seen in public for three weeks. Camera-shy and less charismatic then his brother, Raul hosted a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations in September when the president failed to appear.
Cuba has remained calm in Castro's absence. Most Cubans expect their leader to appear in uniform on December 2 for a military parade marking the 50th anniversary of his landing with a handful of guerrillas to start an armed uprising in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba.
Castro called the rumors of his death "foolish" and said they stimulated him to continue "working and fighting."
He ended his video message with his usual slogan "Patria o muerte, venceremos!" (Fatherland or death, to victory).
Sunday, October 15, 2006
October 13, 2006
Listening With: Bebo Valdés
Far From Cuba, but Not From His Roots
By BEN RATLIFF
THE Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, who will receive a proper welcome from Jazz at Lincoln Center this weekend, lives here, just outside Stockholm, with his wife, Rose Marie, in a small ground-floor apartment. Its shelves and walls serve as a kind of index to his remarkable life.
There are books of sheet music by Rachmaninoff and Chopin; a photo of him in a tuxedo, tall and commanding, on the cover of “Cha Cha Cha & Mambo for Small Dance Bands,” a book he wrote and published in Havana in the 1950’s, aiming at the English-language market; paintings by Haitian artists; Joseph Schillinger’s “System of Musical Composition,” the dense theoretical books beloved by intellectual musicians of the 1940’s and 50’s that break down melody, harmony and rhythm into mathematic logic. There is, incongruously, a shelf of pop-music lead-sheet books like “100 of the Greatest Easy Listening Hits,” all well thumbed. Then there are some recent awards, including several Grammys, and a ceremonial key to the city of Miami.
To explain all this requires going back a bit. Slavery officially ended in Cuba in 1886. Ramon Valdés, universally known as Bebo, was born in 1918. His mother came from a Spanish family, and his paternal grandfather was a slave. Afro-Cuban jazz is the ultimate mixture of African, European and New World culture. It is not at all uncommon for a Latin jazz group now to put the batá, the two-headed drum of Yoruban religious music, alongside elements of European harmony and American swing. But hand drums were effectively prohibited in Cuba in the early 20th century, and Mr. Valdés remembers a time when the batá was never, ever used in dance music. He reckons he was the first to do so, in 1952.
He graduated from the Conservatorio Municipal in Havana. “It was the poor man’s conservatory, and the best,” he insists. A gifted arranger, he worked with his hero, Ernesto Lecuona — probably the greatest Cuban composer of the 20th century — after graduating in the mid-40’s.
Mr. Valdés was in the inner circle of musicians who developed the mambo, along with the multi-instrumentalist Orestes Lopez and his brother, the bassist Israel (Cachao) Lopez. For much of the 1950’s, during the height of the mambo’s popularity, Mr. Valdés was the pianist of the house orchestra at the Tropicana, the biggest nightclub in Havana, and the club’s musical adviser. He played with, or arranged for, most of Cuba’s star singers and musicians, including Beny More (who sang with the orchestra at Tropicana), Miguelito Valdés, Pío Leyva and Chano Pozo. When Nat King Cole, a habitué of the Tropicana, came to Havana to record his Spanish-language record “Cole Español,” Mr. Valdés played piano and arranged the album. He was the epicenter of a thriving world.
He had five children in Cuba, including Chucho Valdés, who has since become one of the greatest pianists in the world. In 1960, after the revolution, the senior Mr. Valdés fled Cuba — first to Mexico, where he worked in television and in the recording studios, and then to Spain. In Stockholm, on a European tour with a group called Lecuona’s Cuban Boys, he met and fell in love with Rose Marie Pehrson. He was 44, and she was 18.
It was 1963. He wanted to relocate to New York, but, as a black man with a white wife, he was warned by friends against moving to the United States. For a while he bided his time: he remembers being of the opinion that Castro’s regime would not last much longer.
He has never returned to Cuba. He stayed in Stockholm, starting a new family and playing piano in hotel lounges for more than 30 years. (Hence the easy-listening songbooks.) He has a working musician’s pride, and no regrets.
His reputation flourished again at a point in his life when most musicians are busy resisting decline. In 1994, at the behest of the Cuban jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, he recorded “Bebo Rides Again,” his first album in three decades. It was to be a loose, jam-session record, but Mr. Valdés insisted on structure. He arranged nine of his own songs for a nonet in two days.
In 2000 he took part in “Calle 54,” Fernando Trueba’s documentary film about Latin jazz. Subsequently Mr. Trueba formed a record label with the film and music historian Nat Chediak and made a series of recordings involving Mr. Valdés. One of them, “Lágrimas Negras,” an album of boleros by Mr. Valdés and the flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, sold nearly a million copies, mostly in Europe. In Madrid and Barcelona particularly, crowds have started to applaud him on the street and in restaurants. He has done better financially in his 80’s than at any other time in his life.
He has released three more albums since “Lágrimas Negras,” including “Bebo de Cuba,” a double disc that won a Grammy and a Latin Grammy last year. It includes his “Suite Cubana,” which will be performed tonight and tomorrow at Rose Theater with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.
Mr. Valdés turned 88 on Monday. He and Rose Marie live not far from their two Swedish-born sons, Rickard and Raymond.
He is cheerful, and extremely punctual. He takes small steps and moves quickly, especially toward his piano. He claims he is never tired. (“And I’m not bragging,” he said.) He practices scales and arpeggios for 30 minutes daily and prefers to eat one meal, around lunchtime. He talks about rhythm analytically and does not dance well; he seems to take a kind of pride in this. He does not drink alcohol but takes in prodigious amounts of American coffee.
Mr. Valdés spoke in Spanish, with a translator, with little sprays of English. His memory for names and dates is sharp, and for a journalist’s visit, he prepared a precise list of music to listen to, each piece keyed to particular fascinations.
The first piece was by his hero, Ernesto Lecuona. We heard Lecuona himself play his short piece “La Paloma,” which incorporates late-Romantic rhapsodies and elegant dance rhythms in flexible tempo.
“I first heard of Lecuona when I was in conservatory, in 1934,” Mr. Valdés said. Was his music taught in conservatories then? “Oh, no, no,” he said, surprised by the idea. “Only classical. Everything we learned in conservatory was before Cervantes.”
He was speaking of Ignacio Cervantes, the Cuban composer who died in 1905. A conversation with Mr. Valdés goes this way. You are immersed in about 150 years of Cuban music, stretching from African- derived abakuá chants to contradanzas to boleros to mambo and modern Latin jazz. At the mention of Cervantes’s name, Mr. Valdés sits at the piano and performs all of Cervantes’s short, stately “Danza No. 1.”
“He was Lecuona’s favorite,” he remembered. “You couldn’t criticize Cervantes around him. He did wonderful things, but rhythmically, he copied Saumell.” (The reference was to Manuel Saumell Robredo, considered the father of Cuban contradanza.) He played part of “Danza No. 1” again, emphasizing the syncopated five-note pattern called the cinquillo, which he says is what makes the contradanza particularly Cuban.
He got back to the Lecuona. “He’s doing three things at the same time. The left hand plays the rhythm, the accompaniment, and the right hand the melody. On top of that there’s a lot of improvising.”
Mr. Valdés revered Lecuona for the prodigious keyboard talents lying underneath his gifts as a composer: he was performing at the age of 5.
“He was a great person, Ernesto, and a great musician. When he won a piano competition in Paris, in 1928, they asked him to play something of his own, and he played ‘La Comparsa.’ The ovation was enormous. With the money he made from winning the competition, he bought himself a farm, which he called La Comparsa. I think maybe it’s spiritual. When we were filming ‘Calle 54,’ I didn’t know what to play. So I played ‘La Comparsa,’ and for a lot of people, it’s their favorite part of the movie.”
We moved on to Art Tatum. “My favorite pianist,” he boomed. “He and Bill Evans.” Unstoppable, he played Evans’s “Waltz for Debby,” complete with a full chorus of rigorous improvisation. “I love to improvise,” he said.
We listened to Tatum playing “Without a Song,” solo, from the 1955 recordings made at a private party in Beverly Hills. It is fully animated, never staying in one rhythm, with tremendous, crashing, full-keyboard runs — always through appropriate chord changes — functioning as steppingstones. “It’s virtuosic in technique — totally classical, with modern harmony,” he said. “He was the first pianist I ever heard playing modern harmonies and playing them with heart.”
Tatum, he added, “was always improvising. He would change time signatures, put one harmony on top of another. I try to imitate him at times, but who am I?”
When Mr. Valdés was solidifying his reputation in Havana, several of his compatriots were making waves in New York. (Mr. Valdés never spent time there: offered a visa for only 29 days in the 40’s, he decided against such a short stay.) In 1947 Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was joined by the conga player Chano Pozo, who drilled the band in how to play the tumbao, the conjunction of rhythm-section lines in Cuban music. The band’s great document of the period is the song “Manteca,” which became a hit in the United States.
Mr. Valdés maintains that Gillespie’s American band played the Cuban rhythms perfectly. He put the track on. “What I hear most is the conga, and the changes in the bass. And the boom-bah, boom-bah,” he sang, imitating the baritone saxophone.
“That’s all the tumbao of mambo,” he said. “It’s completely the mambo style of Cachao.” Halfway through, the song lifts out of Cuban rhythm into jazz swing, with more arranged harmony, and he savored the shift.
Right after this, he put on a Frank Sinatra track from 1960, “Nice ’n’ Easy,” arranged by Nelson Riddle. It has the midtempo bounce of Sinatra records at the time, a rhythmic feeling that thrills Mr. Valdés. “Nobody can play music like that except in America, that kind of swing, that time,” he said. “It’s impeccable. The most difficult thing in the world is to play slowly and keep time. When I listen to this, I see American black people dancing.”
“Even though I’m Cuban, I’m really an American arranger,” he reflected. “Because the way I write has as much to do with American music as it does with Cuban music. And at the same time it has to do with the fugue.” (An example of his fugue writing comes in the middle of “Devoción,” a beguiling part of his “Suite Cubana.”)
It was pointed out to him that fugues have little to do with Cuban or American music. “Yes, but I do it anyway,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I, if I know how?”
He brought out the sheet music to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, to use as a reference as we listened to it. “I was studying composition and harmony when I heard this performed by the Havana Symphony, in the 40’s,” he said.
What he wanted to show, in the third movement of the piece, was how the composer builds a beautiful, fragile melody, then protects it as the orchestra swells around it. “When I hear the music build to a crescendo, I feel like crying,” he said.
I asked if he was able to use this device in his own arranging. “Whenever I can get away with it,” he thundered. He put on “Copla No. 4,” the guajira section of his “Suite Cubana,” to demonstrate. It has the same effect: big, brass-heavy crescendos, building in intensifying shades and colors around the melody.
“When you know classical music, you can do what you want to do,” Mr. Valdés said, and then he recited an old maxim to indicate that he had succeeded on his own terms: “Es mejor ser la cabeza de un perro que la cola de un tiburón.” It’s better to be the head of a dog than the tail of a shark.