Thursday, February 09, 2006

Miami & Castro locked in bitter embrace

Posted on Thu, Feb. 09, 2006

Passion over Cuba, Castro endures
Miami may be hip, but for Cuban exiles, there's still the Cold War to fight and mixed messages from the Bush administration to decipher.

Two suspected agents for communist Cuba are taken down in Miami.

A local anti-Castro developer gets nabbed on weapons charges.

A Cuban exile militant sneaks into the United States and shakes the American security system.

Welcome to 21st century Miami, trapped in the anachronistic geopolitics of the Cold War. Osama who? Saddam what? Iraq where?

Here, the daily pathos of Cuba remains center stage to many -- just as it was almost a half century ago.

Passion over Cuba may be aging in Miami -- certainly many of the younger Cubans who arrive here prefer to leave politics behind -- but it is no less urgent to thousands of older exiles. The hot topic on Spanish language radio last week was whether Bush had betrayed the Cuban exile community because he failed to mention Cuba in his State of the Union address.

While younger U.S.-born Cuban Americans -- and more recent Cuban immigrants -- are less virulent and more moderate, the viewpoint of older, more conservative exiles still rules, political analyst and Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen said. ''Until Cuban exiles get their country back and figure out a way to get rid of Castro, nothing else will matter to them,'' Bendixen noted.

''It absolutely is a throwback,'' said Miami historian and Miami Dade College professor Paul George, who leads guided tours through Miami and Little Havana. ``Cuban exiles are still worried about the Castro issue, and they hinge everything around that issue, the existence of Castro. But the rest of the country has long forgotten that this Cold War period ever happened.''

Well, not everyone. The Bush administration still gives Castro his due with harsh Cold War-era rhetoric and toughened travel policies. Hard-line Cuban-American voters who have twice delivered their votes for Bush expect nothing less.

''Miami is as anachronistic and dinosaur-like as Fidel Castro, because we are a response to him,'' said Miami filmmaker Joe Cardona, who has chronicled generations of Cuban exiles in his films. ``And until that issue is resolved, Miami Cubans will continue living in his world.''

Cuba took center stage in major South Florida cases from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office and Florida International University -- just to name a few of the institutions enmeshed in exile dynamics the past year.


''There's a lot of activity,'' said Florida International University professor Dario Moreno, who analyzes Cuban exile politics. ``The truth is that the Cuban community is still very hard line and remains trapped in the Cold War environment because Cuba is still trapped there, too. Cuba is the issue that grabs the public's attention, the media's attention, and the government's attention.''

With Castro still alive, and an American president who has vowed to do all he can to bring democracy to Cuba, the tension sometimes seems to boil over. Among the flash points:

• Cuban exile militant Luis Posada Carriles sneaked into the country and asked for asylum. Considered by Castro to be a terrorist, but by many exiles to be a freedom fighter, Posada remains detained in an immigration facility in El Paso, Texas, awaiting word on if he will be released.

• In November, the FBI arrested Posada's biggest financial supporter, Santiago Alvarez, and Alvarez's employee, Osvaldo Mitat, on weapons charges -- a move that irritated many exile leaders, who claimed that the Bush administration was playing into Castro's hands.

• A month later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the administration would again convene a Cabinet-level commission to revise U.S. policy on Cuba by May.

• The cry against the controversial ''wet-foot, dry-foot'' Cuban immigration policy reached a fever pitch after the Coast Guard repatriated 15 migrants found on a piling on the old Seven Mile Bridge in January. A Cuban exile activist, angry at the Bush administration, launched a high-profile hunger strike and Cuban-American congressional representatives demanded that the Bush administration review the policy.

• The same day the 15 migrants were repatriated, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI announced the arrests of a professor at Florida International University, Carlos M. Alvarez, and his wife, Elsa Alvarez, who also worked at FIU. They are accused of being unregistered covert agents for Cuba. Their arrest was commended by Cuban exile activists, who claim Miami is full of Cuban spies.

• On Jan. 20, the Treasury Department allowed the Cuban national baseball team to play in the World Baseball Classic, a move strongly criticized by Cuban-American congressional representatives.

• Three days later, the Treasury Department announced one of its biggest crackdowns ever on illegal travel to Cuba, a move applauded by Cuban-American leaders.

• And last week, the Treasury Department disrupted a meeting between Cuban government officials and U.S. oil industry representatives in Mexico City when Treasury called the Sheraton Hotel there and informed executives that they could be sanctioned for violating the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Sheraton evicted the Cubans, angering government officials in Mexico and Cuba. ''More than ever you see the political hopscotching . . . and insincerity [by] some of these local politicians in regards to Cuba,'' Cardona said. ``It's getting a little tougher for them to be consistent.''


Some Bush detractors smell political opportunity in Washington's inconsistencies.

''Most people realize that this administration has done almost nothing to perpetuate the views that many of the people held when they voted for them on Cuba politics,'' said Joe Garcia, a consultant for the New Democrat Network. ``I believe Cuba is about to become a focus again. This is all stuff to gear up for the electoral cycle. The spy case was an attempt to put up some points on the Republican side.''

Manuel Vasquez Portal, a former Cuban dissident journalist and poet now living in Miami, has a different view than older exiles. ''I feel that time is being wasted to litigate personal differences, while the principal goal of democracy in Cuba has been lost at certain times,'' he said.

Democratic pollster Bendixen said exiles by now have realized that the federal government's attempts to squeeze the Castro government and help bring democracy to Cuba have been fruitless, but that doesn't mean they're ready to jump ship and register as Democrats.

''I still remember listening to Cuban radio here in the first years of exile, and I can't tell a big difference between what La Cubanisima was saying back then, and what Radio Mambi is saying today,'' Bendixen said.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Gov't Drive Vs. 'Rich' Hits Average Cubans

Gov't Drive Vs. 'Rich' Hits Average Cubans

By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press WriterSat Feb 4, 12:30 PM ET

President Fidel Castro is pursuing a campaign against Cuba's "new rich," accusing them of corruption and moral decay in his quest to erase class differences threatening the utopian ideals of his communist regime.

Violators face possible jail time and loss of state jobs as the government tries to eliminate a thriving black market that supplies Cubans and tourists with everything from gasoline and cooking oil to illicit meals of lobster served in small, private restaurants.

Yet "rich" is a mushy term on an island where state pay averages just $12 a month — a wage virtually impossible to live on even with heavily subsidized government services and mostly free housing. Many of Castro's targets are simply poor Cubans who steal from the state to make ends meet.

The 79-year-old leader has railed in recent speeches against these thefts, portraying widespread corruption as one of the greatest threats yet to Cuba's socialist system.

"This country will have much more, but it will never be a society of consumption," Castro told students at the University of Havana in a speech that was televised across the island. "It will be a society of knowledge, of culture, of the most extraordinary human development one can imagine."

Forty-seven years after Castro's revolution, many Cubans still share an ethic of solidarity that stresses spiritual over material wealth. They may not have fancy stereos, but they crowd theaters for plays and concerts. Many express pride that their doctors are helping earthquake victims in Pakistan, even if it means their own medical service is affected.

Still, Cubans also are known for their ingenuity — and many manage to stretch their salaries in underhanded ways.

"If there were abundance, who would rob?" said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became an anti-communist dissident. "Hardly anybody can survive by working honestly in Cuba."

Bakers sell customers a less than two ounce chunk of bread for the three-ounce price and pocket the change from selling the leftovers. Workers at state-run pizza stands sell "extra" cheese, tomatoes and cooking oil on the side. Bus drivers don't give tickets to all paying riders.

Off-shift state truck drivers help neighbors move construction materials — for a price. And employees at state stores take part of the inventory home to sell.

Other people offer services or handmade goods without the required self-employment licenses that the state tightly controls.

In communist Cuba, the black market has no physical location, but is everywhere. From clothes and toys to household supplies and even gasoline, the sale of stolen goods is part of daily life.

"People have always diverted state resources — it happens when there is necessity," said Jesus Blanco, a 51-year-old who works in a bar. "One of the problems is the scarcity of new products coming in."

Blanco said he manages to live honestly on his monthly salary, which is 235 Cuban pesos, about $10. But, he added, both the television and refrigerator in his house are broken, and he doesn't have enough money to fix holes in his roof caused during last year's hurricane season.

Castro has been remarkably frank about the pervasiveness of corruption. He has lashed out at state workers and the self-employed, and accuses private restaurant owners of encouraging illegal activity by buying lobster — which only the state can legally catch — from private fishermen.

Cuba's leader seems particularly angry about service station workers who pilfer gasoline, selling it on the side. "We have to vanquish these deviations, or we die," Castro said.

Cuban socialism offers a broad safety net, with free health care and education, heavily subsidized transportation and electricity, and a ration covering about a third of the average person's monthly diet.

But the quality of some services is low, and monthly pay is swallowed up by additional food costs. Little or no cash remains for necessities like cooking oil or soap. TV sets and new clothing are usually bought with money sent from overseas relatives, so many go without.

The state dramatically boosted electricity rates for those using large amounts in December. Making a phone call to neighboring countries costs from $2.45 to $4.45 a minute, and the cost of unrationed food is high.

Castro says eliminating stealing could help raise living standards for the island's 11.2 million people. He increased government salaries in November, and doubled the minimum wage last May to 225 Cuban pesos, less than $10 a month.

But at the heart of Castro's crusade is a belief in the collective good. Hunger for possessions or prestige based on wealth is seen as a capitalist ill. Altruism, cultural endeavors and universal health care are valued above personal luxuries.

With material resources limited, Cuba must set priorities "significantly different than those given primacy in capitalist countries," Central Bank President Francisco Soberon told economists last year.

"For example, the expense related to saving the life of a child is given priority over the purchase of the latest model of a car for an elite, or lavish architecture for headquarters of global corporations," he said.

But there also is a real "new rich" on the island, although it is tiny.

Cubans with money join diplomats shopping at an upscale grocery store offering luxuries such as microwave popcorn and peanut butter. A golf club counts about 20 Cubans among its 100 members, a privilege costing $70 up front plus $45 every month.

The few relatively wealthy Cubans include people who are married to foreigners or work for foreign companies as well as musicians and athletes with special privileges. Some may even be people who steal from the state on a grand scale.

But most Cubans must scramble for essentials.

Castro's solution to this moral dilemma depends in part on youthful innocence. His government has dispatched thousands of young social workers to replace employees suspected of stealing from state operations. Since the campaign began in October, Castro claims gasoline sales nationwide have increased by $100,000 daily.

Communist officials are holding island-wide meetings urging party members to fight corruption, and Castro prods Cubans to do their part.

But people say that until their economic situation improves, it will be hard to make Castro's ideal a reality.

"The economy is getting a bit better, but I don't think we can live without the black market yet," said Blanco. "Until prices go down, the salary increases won't be felt, and there'll be no room for luxuries."