Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cuban Flutist Richard Egües (1924-2006)

A great obituary from

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

Cuba’s Rap Vanguard Reaches Beyond the Party Line

December 15, 2006
Havana Journal
Cuba’s Rap Vanguard Reaches Beyond the Party Line

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

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

Fake pesos convertibles

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.

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.


``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.


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

Congressional Delegation visits Cuba

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

Cuba's aging society straining resources

Posted on Thu, Dec. 07, 2006
Miami Herald

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.

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

The 'transition' has begun -- in Cuba and U.S.

Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Dec. 06, 2006
The 'transition' has begun -- in Cuba and U.S.

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.