Sunday, December 30, 2007

Cuban divorce is easy, housing is harder

Cuban divorce is easy, housing is harder

By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press WriterSun Dec 30, 2:02 PM ET

After 21 years of marriage, Pedro Llera and his wife Maura decided to call it quits.

Their divorce took 20 minutes, but Llera compares what came next to "more than a year of open war in the house."

Sleeping in the same bed and sharing a single room with their 14-year-old daughter, they battled in Cuba's courts over who should stay in their second-floor, two-bedroom apartment in Havana's spiffy Vedado district.

Estranged Cuban couples sometimes remain under the same roof for years or even lifetimes, learning that while divorce on the island is easy, housing is not. The phenomenon is a testament not only to the communist-run island's severe housing shortage, but also to Cubans' ability to stay friendly — or at least civil — under the most awkward of circumstances.

"In a developed country, you get divorced and someone goes to a hotel and then to a new house," said Llera, a 60-year-old mechanic. "Here we had to keep living like a couple."

By law, Cubans cannot sell their homes and because the state controls almost all property, moves must be approved. Housing is so scarce, however, that often there is nowhere to go.

The government has long estimated an island-wide shortage of half a million homes. In 2006, officials reported construction of 110,000 houses, one of the largest single-year totals since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. But similar home-building initiatives this year were slowed by the rising costs of materials and Tropical Storm Noel's severe flooding of eastern Cuba.

Another Havana resident, 45-year-old Mirta, decided to divorce her husband of 18 years in 1997. The couple hired a lawyer and signed papers amicably.

But neither one could move out. A decade later, they still share the same two-bedroom apartment off the famed Malecon seaside promenade with their sons, now 18 and 20.

"We use the same kitchen, same bathroom. We have separate bedrooms, but the electricity, the telephone, the refrigerator — there's only one," Mirta said. "If you're going to get dressed, you have to hide in the bathroom or in the bedroom. There's no privacy."

She said she and her ex-husband clash over utility bills and race home from work for first use of the stove at dinner time.

"He's had other women but he always comes home to the same house," said Mirta, who asked that her full name and profession not be published because she did not want to be identified publicly as complaining about Cuba's housing crunch. "You want to be independent and open the door to your room, but with other women there, it is very uncomfortable."

The shortage is exacerbated by failed marriages. In 2006, the latest figures available, Cuba reported 56,377 marriages and 35,837 divorces. That's a yearly divorce rate of nearly 64 percent, though it does not account for those married and divorced multiple times.

Breakups are so common that Cubans joke that anyone whose parents stay together needs a lifetime of therapy.

"On some days there aren't weddings without at least one person who has been divorced," said civil registrar Patria Olano, who officiates up to 15 weddings a day at a "Marriage Palace," or government-run wedding hall, in Old Havana. "It's happy anyway because it's always a new beginning."

Couples pay $1.05 for the 5-minute legal transaction, sealed with a kiss. Olano reads a dense paragraph of regulations, then asks: "Are you sure you still want to get married?" Couples sometimes simply nod. A sign nearby reads "To get married, dress correctly. No shorts, tank tops or flip flops, please."

On a recent Friday, Pedro Angel Leon wore a sport coat to tie the knot with his girlfriend of nearly two years, Barbara Mendez. It was his third marriage, her second.

"The first marriage is for photos and parties," said Leon, a 52-year-old volleyball referee. "This time everything is more calm."

Leon moved in with his new bride and her parents before the wedding. "Finding a house is the hardest thing," he said.

Divorces are handled by notary publics and cost about the same as getting married. By law, there is no alimony unless either husband or wife is unemployed, and the communist system usually lends itself to austere lifestyles devoid of expensive possessions to fight over.

Cuba was for decades officially atheist and divorce does not carry the stigma it does in other countries. Many divorcees head back to their parents' homes, but problems arise if their former rooms have since been occupied by siblings' spouses and offspring.

Some divorced couples keep living together but throw up extra walls of plywood: One side is his, the other hers and only the children move back and forth freely.

Given ownership restrictions, a thriving black market exists for home-swapping. Every day, men and women gather along a Havana boulevard, offering trades. Some bring cardboard signs reading 1 x 2, meaning they want to swap one large apartment for two smaller ones — often because of divorce.

"Marriages end like everything else," said a man named Luis, who was hoping to trade his small apartment for a larger one. "But the house where you live, that stays with you."

Llera, the mechanic, claimed his home belonged to his 83-year-old father, who occupied the second bedroom. But his former wife said she had lived there long enough to stay put.

A court ruled in Llera's favor but the decision was overturned on appeal. As the legal battle dragged on, Llera demanded that his ex-wife sleep on the living room couch, and even called the police to make her comply.

A higher court eventually sided with him and his ex-wife moved in with relatives, leaving most of her clothes behind in protest. The failed marriage was Llera's second, and though he now lives with another woman, he doesn't plan to propose matrimony.

"It was such an ugly split," he said. "I don't want it to happen again."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Conserving Cuba, After the Embargo

New York Times
December 25, 2007
Conserving Cuba, After the Embargo

Through accidents of geography and history, Cuba is a priceless ecological resource. That is why many scientists are so worried about what will become of it after Fidel Castro and his associates leave power and, as is widely anticipated, the American government relaxes or ends its trade embargo.

Cuba, by far the region’s largest island, sits at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Its mountains, forests, swamps, coasts and marine areas are rich in plants and animals, some seen nowhere else.

And since the imposition of the embargo in 1962, and especially with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, its major economic patron, Cuba’s economy has stagnated.

Cuba has not been free of development, including Soviet-style top-down agricultural and mining operations and, in recent years, an expansion of tourism. But it also has an abundance of landscapes that elsewhere in the region have been ripped up, paved over, poisoned or otherwise destroyed in the decades since the Cuban revolution, when development has been most intense. Once the embargo ends, the island could face a flood of investors from the United States and elsewhere, eager to exploit those landscapes.

Conservationists, environmental lawyers and other experts, from Cuba and elsewhere, met last month in Cancún, Mexico, to discuss the island’s resources and how to continue to protect them.

Cuba has done “what we should have done — identify your hot spots of biodiversity and set them aside,” said Oliver Houck, a professor of environmental law at Tulane University Law School who attended the conference.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Houck was involved in an effort, financed in part by the MacArthur Foundation, to advise Cuban officials writing new environmental laws.

But, he said in an interview, “an invasion of U.S. consumerism, a U.S.-dominated future, could roll over it like a bulldozer” when the embargo ends.

By some estimates, tourism in Cuba is increasing 10 percent annually. At a minimum, Orlando Rey Santos, the Cuban lawyer who led the law-writing effort, said in an interview at the conference, “we can guess that tourism is going to increase in a very fast way” when the embargo ends.

“It is estimated we could double tourism in one year,” said Mr. Rey, who heads environmental efforts at the Cuban ministry of science, technology and environment.

About 700 miles long and about 100 miles wide at its widest, Cuba runs from Haiti west almost to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. It offers crucial habitat for birds, like Bicknell’s thrush, whose summer home is in the mountains of New England and Canada, and the North American warblers that stop in Cuba on their way south for the winter.

Zapata Swamp, on the island’s southern coast, may be notorious for its mosquitoes, but it is also known for its fish, amphibians, birds and other creatures. Among them is the Cuban crocodile, which has retreated to Cuba from a range that once ran from the Cayman Islands to the Bahamas.

Cuba has the most biologically diverse populations of freshwater fish in the region. Its relatively large underwater coastal shelves are crucial for numerous marine species, including some whose larvae can be carried by currents into waters of the United States, said Ken Lindeman, a marine biologist at Florida Institute of Technology.

Dr. Lindeman, who did not attend the conference but who has spent many years studying Cuba’s marine ecology, said in an interview that some of these creatures were important commercial and recreational species like the spiny lobster, grouper or snapper.

Like corals elsewhere, those in Cuba are suffering as global warming raises ocean temperatures and acidity levels. And like other corals in the region, they reeled when a mysterious die-off of sea urchins left them with algae overgrowth. But they have largely escaped damage from pollution, boat traffic and destructive fishing practices.

Diving in them “is like going back in time 50 years,” said David Guggenheim, a conference organizer and an ecologist and member of the advisory board of the Harte Research Institute, which helped organize the meeting along with the Center for International Policy, a private group in Washington.

In a report last year, the World Wildlife Fund said that “in dramatic contrast” to its island neighbors, Cuba’s beaches, mangroves, reefs, seagrass beds and other habitats were relatively well preserved. Their biggest threat, the report said, was “the prospect of sudden and massive growth in mass tourism when the U.S. embargo lifts.”

To prepare for that day, researchers from a number of American institutions and organizations are working on ecological conservation in Cuba, including Harte, the Wildlife Conservation Society, universities like Tulane and Georgetown, institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Botanical Garden, and others. What they are studying includes coral health, fish stocks, shark abundance, turtle migration and land use patterns.

Cuban scientists at the conference noted that this work continued a tradition of collaboration that dates from the mid-19th century, when Cuban researchers began working with naturalists from the Smithsonian Institution. In the 20th century, naturalists from Harvard and the University of Havana worked together for decades.

But now, they said, collaborative relationships are full of problems. The Cancún meeting itself illustrated one.

“We would have liked to be able to do this in Havana or in the United States,” Jorge Luis Fernández Chamero, the director of the Cuban science and environment agency and leader of the Cuban delegation, said through a translator in opening the meeting. “This we cannot do.” While the American government grants licenses to some (but not all) American scientists seeking to travel to Cuba, it routinely rejects Cuban researchers seeking permission to come to the United States, researchers from both countries said.

So meeting organizers turned to Alberto Mariano Vázquez De la Cerda, a retired admiral in the Mexican navy, an oceanographer with a doctorate from Texas A & M and a member of the Harte advisory board, who supervised arrangements for the Cuban conferees.

The travel situation is potentially even worse for researchers at state institutions in Florida. Jennifer Gebelein, a geographer at Florida International University who uses global positioning systems to track land use in Cuba, told the meeting about restrictions imposed by the Florida Legislature, which has barred state colleges from using public or private funds for travel to Cuba.

As a result of this move and federal restrictions, Dr. Gebelein said “we’re not sure what is going to happen” with her research program.

On the other hand, John Thorbjarnarson, a zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that he had difficulty obtaining permission from Cuba to visit some areas in that country, like a habitat area for the Cuban crocodile near the Bay of Pigs.

“I have to walk a delicate line between what the U.S. allows me to do and what the Cubans allow me to do,” said Dr. Thorbjarnarson, who did not attend the conference. “It is not easy to walk that line.”

But he had nothing but praise for his scientific colleagues in Cuba. Like other American researchers, he described them as doing highly competent work with meager resources. “They are a remarkable bunch of people,” Dr. Thorbjarnarson said, “but my counterparts make on average probably less than $20 a month.”

American scientists, foundations and other groups are ready to help with equipment and supplies but are hampered by the embargo. For example, Maria Elena Ibarra Martín, a marine scientist at the University of Havana, said through a translator that American organizations had provided Cuban turtle and shark researchers with tags and other equipment. They shipped it via Canada.

Another thorny issue is ships.

“If you are going to do marine science, at some point you have to go out on a ship,” said Robert E. Hueter, who directs the center for shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and attended the Cancún meeting.

But, he and others said, the United States government will not allow ships into American ports if they have recently been in Cuban waters in the previous six months, and the Cuban government will not allow American research vessels in Cuban waters.

One answer might be vessels already in Cuba, but nowadays they are often tied up in tourism-related efforts, Cubans at the Cancún meeting said.

And even with a ship, several American researchers at the conference said, it is difficult to get Cuban government permission to travel to places like the island’s northwest coast, the stretch closest to the United States. As a result, that region is the least-studied part of the Cuban coast, Dr. Guggenheim and others said.

Another big problem in Cuba is the lack of access to a source of information researchers almost everywhere else take for granted: the Internet.

Critics blame the Castro government, saying it limits access to the Internet as a form of censorship. The Cuban government blames the embargo, which it says has left the country with inadequate bandwidth and other technical problems that require it to limit Internet access to people who need it most.

In any event, “we find we do not have access,” Teresita Borges Hernández, a biologist in the environment section of Cuba’s science and technology ministry, said through a translator. She appealed to the Americans at the meeting to do “anything, anything to improve this situation.”

Dr. Guggenheim echoed the concern and said even telephone calls to Cuba often cost as much as $2 a minute. “These details, though they may seem trite,” he said, “are central to our ability to collaborate.”

Dr. Gebelein and several of the Cubans at the meeting said that some American Web sites barred access to people whose electronic addresses identify them as Cuban. She suggested that the group organize a Web site in a third country, a site where they could all post data, papers and the like, and everyone would have access to it.

For Dr. Guggenheim, the best lessons for Cubans to ponder as they contemplate a more prosperous future can be seen 90 miles north, in the Florida Keys. There, he said, too many people have poured into an ecosystem too fragile to support them.

“As Cuba becomes an increasingly popular tourist resort,” Dr. Guggenheim said, “we don’t want to see and they don’t want to see the same mistakes, where you literally love something to death.”

But there are people skeptical that Cuba will resist this kind of pressure. One of them is Mr. Houck.

The environmental laws he worked on are “a very strong structure,” he said, “But all laws do is give you the opportunity to slow down the wrong thing. Over time, you can wear the law down.”

That is particularly true in Cuba, he said, “where there’s no armed citizenry out there with high-powered science groups pushing in the opposite direction. What they lack is the counter pressure of environmental groups and environmental activists.”

As Mr. Rey and Daniel Whittle, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, put it in the book “Cuban Studies 37” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), “policymaking in Cuba is still centralized and top down.” But, they wrote, “much can be done to enhance public input in policymaking.”

Mr. Rey said in the interview that Cubans must be encouraged to use their environmental laws. By “some kind of cultural habit,” he said, people in Cuba rarely turn to the courts to challenge decisions they dislike.

“There’s no litigation, just a few cases here and there,” Mr. Rey said. “In most community situations if a citizen has a problem he writes a letter. That’s O.K., but it’s not all the possibilities.”

Mr. Rey added, “We have to promote more involvement, not only in access to justice and claims, but in taking part in the decision process.”

“I know the state has a good system from the legislative point of view,” Mr. Rey said. But as he and Mr. Whittle noted in their paper, “the question now is whether government leaders can and will do what it takes to put the plan on the ground.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Carlos "Patato" Valdés, a Conga King of Jazz, Dies at 81

New York Times
December 6, 2007
Carlos Valdés, a Conga King of Jazz, Dies at 81

Carlos Valdés, better known as Patato, whose melodic conga playing made him a giant of Latin jazz in Cuba and then for more than half a century in America, died on Tuesday in Cleveland. He was 81 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was respiratory failure, said his manager, Charles Carlini.

Born in Havana, Patato (a reference from Cuban slang to his diminutive size) played in the 1940s and early ’50s with important groups like Sonora Matancera and Conjunto Casino. He became a star in the early days of Cuban television for his virtuosic playing and for his showmanship; his signature song was “El Baile del Pingüino” (“The Penguin Dance”), which he illustrated with side-to-side, penguinlike movement in perfect time.

He came to the United States in the early 1950s and settled in New York, where he quickly established himself as an indispensable player, performing and recording with some of the top names in jazz and Latin music. In the ’50s and ’60s he worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Machito, Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones; he played with Herbie Mann from 1959 to 1972.

Known for his fluid, improvisatory melodies, Mr. Valdés tuned his drums tightly to produce clear, precise tones, and he popularized the playing of multiple conga drums; when he began his career, conga players, or congueros, typically used only one or two drums, but Mr. Valdés played three, four or more to allow a wider range of tones.

He is also associated with using a key to tune the congas instead of heating the skins with a flame. Latin Percussion, the leading Latin drum company, makes a Patato line of conga drums.

Mr. Valdés had an influential role in expanding the rumba form. His 1968 album “Patato & Totico,” recorded with Eugenio (Totico) Arango, a singer who was a boyhood friend from Havana, was particularly inventive. Instead of sticking to the usual format of drums and vocals, the album added several other instruments played by star musicians like Israel (Cachao) López on bass and Arsenio Rodríguez on tres, a six-string Cuban guitar. It is said to be Mr. Rodríguez’s last recording session, and its innovations had a lasting effect on Latin jazz.

“I had these ideas and wanted to advance them through jazz,” Mr. Valdés said in an interview with Latin Beat magazine in 1997. “I wanted something progressive.”

He was also a flamboyant performer who knew how to work a crowd. One of his performance hallmarks was jumping atop his drums and dancing while keeping the beat. In the 1956 film “And God Created Woman,” he is briefly seen teaching Brigitte Bardot to dance the mambo.

He is survived by his wife, Julia; two daughters, Yvonne and Regla; and two grandchildren, Jose Valdes and Mayra Garcia.

Mr. Valdés never stopped touring, recently working with his group the Conga Kings, which also includes Giovanni Hidalgo and Candido Camero, a fellow octogenarian. While flying back a few weeks ago from concerts in California — including one at the San Francisco Jazz Festival on Nov. 9 — he had trouble breathing, and the plane made an emergency landing for him in Cleveland. He had been hospitalized since then.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cuba puts 'camel' bus out to pasture

Chicago Tribune
Cuba puts 'camel' bus out to pasture
Humped and aging vehicles being phased out for Chinese fleet

By Michael Martinez

Tribune correspondent

November 19, 2007


The worst of Cuba's aging buses is called "the camel." It looks even uglier than that.

It's actually a tractor-trailer that hauls a homemade double-humped cabin made of two bus shells welded together, a peculiarly Cuban contrivance whose patchwork conjures up a post-apocalyptic image of transit.

While the big rig is depicted affectionately in political cartoons on state-run television, it also remains the starkest emblem of the island's transportation woes, especially at rush hour when commuters pack the 18-wheelers right up to their 300-person capacity.

"The only difference is that sardines come with olive oil and tomato sauce," wisecracked Rafael Martinez, 34, a camel commuter who sat on a park bench in central Havana as about 100 other people waited in line for the next bus.

With public transportation emerging as the No. 1 concern among Cubans, interim leader Raul Castro has initiated several recent measures that analysts see as a test of whether he can address the country's toughest issues during the long convalescence of his brother Fidel.

Raul Castro fired the minister overseeing the transportation sector, a move viewed as aggressive because the sacking of the Cabinet-level official came just three months after Fidel Castro handed over provisional control of the government after his surgery.

No official explanation for the firing was given.

In March, new Transport Minister Jorge Luis Sierra described Cuba's transportation infrastructure as having "serious" problems.

"It has been decapitalized and suffers serious organizational flaws," he said, adding that illegal ticket sales and passengers who evade paying fares have exacerbated the deficiencies.

In seeking to turn the problems around, Cuban officials last month unveiled 552 new, cleaner-running Yutong buses from China for intercity travel in Havana, with hundreds more to arrive by December. Last year, Cuba bought 1,000 coach buses from China for long-distance travel among provinces.

In a communist country where having an automobile is a luxury, public transportation is a cornerstone for day-to-day living. It's also central to Raul Castro's efforts to get workers to the office on time and make Cuba's developing economy more efficient.

"One of the things that his regime has to do is satisfy the immediate demands of the Cubans, and the immediate demands of the Cubans are more food, more consumer goods and better transportation," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "His legitimacy is going to be based on whether he can deliver on those things."

Last year, fewer people used Havana buses, falling to a daily rate of 460,000 passengers in a city of 2.2 million people. That figure has since risen to 580,000, thanks to the new buses, and officials hope they will bring daily ridership to more than 1 million people next year, according to the government daily Granma.

The new Yutongs have been well-received, especially by those who travel hundreds of miles from the provinces to the island's capital.

In many of those provinces, local transportation often amounts to hopping onto the back of a truck for the equivalent of four cents or riding in a horse-drawn cart, said Eddie Trujillo, 47, of Sancti Spiritus, who was hoping to be picked up in a new Yutong for his four-hour ride home. He was waiting in a Havana terminal with about 200 other people.

At another terminal in Havana, Dereyda Ramirez, 38, of Moa, and Dulce Estable, 80, of Cruces, said they like that the new buses have air conditioning, two television monitors for movies -- and a bathroom. On the old coach buses, passengers had to wait until the next stop to use a restroom, they said.

On the streets of Havana, Cubans wryly liken their experiences on the camels to advisories for mature-audience films. There's sex, violence and adult language. There are bodies pressed suggestively together, confrontations with pickpockets and audible angst about commuting in a non-air-conditioned semi with a steel floor.

The "camel" was born during Cuba's "special period" in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and ended its subsidies to Cuba, forcing the island into wartime-like austerity.

"Next to the food shortages, those buses are the most everyday and visible symbol of the special period," said analyst Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Even with new buses, many Cubans still hitchhike because some say they are not convinced overall service is better. After waiting 10 minutes at a bus stop with about 20 other commuters, 23-year-old Hector Ramonet stepped off the curb and tried to hitch a ride.

"I'm in a hurry," he said. He had no takers. Five minutes later, a Yutong arrived.

On one camel bus, driver Joel Perez, 44, made sure the cabin was empty at the end of a run. He was looking forward to a Yutong replacement.

"No," he said about the camels, "I'm not going to miss them."

Monday, October 29, 2007

Cuba's Waning System of Block-Watchers

Washington Post

Cuba's Waning System of Block-Watchers
Raul Castro May Push to Revitalize a Legacy, and Enforcement Tool, of the Revolution

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 30, 2007; A10

CAMAGUEY, Cuba -- Children swarmed the table outside Blanca Peleaz's concrete home in this central Cuban city. There were cakes and cookies, gooey frosting and candy speckles, rare abundance in a place where food shortages are the norm.

The sweets came with a history lesson on a recent muggy evening during a celebration of the Cuban Revolution. Peleaz and other neighborhood adults told the youngsters about the Moncada Barracks raid that started it all. They told the little ones that the Communist Party would lead the nation to glory.

Then they sang.

"Marching, we move toward an ideal," the grown-ups blared, urging the youngsters to join in. "Onward, Cubans. Cuba will reward our heroism."

For decades, Peleaz and her mother before her have been keepers of Fidel Castro's communist message, using their position as the head of the neighborhood's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR, as an ideological wedge into the minds of their neighbors. Now, in the twilight of Castro's reign, the fate of the CDRs could provide a clue about Cuba's future.

Once, in a bygone era when revolutionary fervor was at its apex, they were muscular entities, dominating street life and cementing Castro's hold on power. But over the years they have atrophied, becoming more creaking relic than shining showpiece, victim of the waning enthusiasms of a population weary of economic deprivation.

As Castro's brother, interim President Raul Castro, prepares to take full control after his brother's death, party officials take visiting dignitaries on tours of the committees, and there are signs that the younger Castro is trying to inject new life into a system that could be crucial to solidifying his hold on power.

Police call block leaders more often, pressing aggressively for information, according to interviews with current and former CDR leaders. Earlier this year, Cuba's state-run television network broadcast an exposé shaming several committees for failing to post obligatory round-the-clock sentries.

"We're working to lift up the committees," said Over DeLeon, a veteran of the Cuban Revolution who has been a block committee president in Havana for most of the past four decades. "People have not been demonstrating the same spirit, faith and enthusiasm. The population is tired. It has been battling for many years. But we must be vigilant."

Restoring the CDRs to their former glory might be a monumental task. For every unabashed enthusiast such as DeLeon, it seems, there are other CDR leaders whose passion for the system has tapered off.
Putting Peer Pressure to Work

Cuba's block committees were born in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces toppled the corrupt, U.S.-friendly government of Fulgencio Batista. Concerned about a U.S. invasion, Castro's government adopted a motto, still present on Cuban billboards: "In a fortress under siege, all dissent is treason."

The concept behind the CDRs was to create a citizen force that would reinforce the dictates of Cuba's government, establishing a kind of omnipresent peer pressure network among next-door neighbors. Leaders of CDRs could put Castro's every public thought directly and rapidly into the hands of every Cuban, so the government would not have to rely solely on mass media.

In 1961, after the U.S.-planned Bay of Pigs invasion, the CDRs delivered an awesome display of power. Within hours of the failed attack, thousands of suspected dissenters were arrested, many of them identified from CDR lists.

"The CDRs paralyzed the counterrevolution, and they did it quickly," Norberto Fuentes, an exiled Cuban author and onetime friend of the Castros, said in an interview from his Miami home.

In those days, the leadership ranks of the block committees were stacked with Castro loyalists. Over the years, many of Castro's former comrades died or fell out of favor, leaving more and more CDRs in the hands of the less zealous.

Even in their current state of decay, the CDRs remain one of the most enduring inventions of the Castro revolution, a one-of-a-kind system that serves as his eyes and ears on every block in Cuba. In a 1990 speech at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the CDRs, Fidel Castro called them a key to Cuba's future.

"We want to always have a proud and independent homeland instead of a Yankee colony," Castro said. "We must save the Revolution. We must save socialism. This is the task we urge the 7.5 million CDR members to undertake."

Every Cuban is expected to join the local CDR and participate in committee activities whether or not they are Communist Party members. Each CDR has a popularly elected president and separate secretaries of security, volunteerism and education.

Some Cubans don't join or don't participate, but at great risk of being labeled an "enemy of the Revolution." CDR presidents can organize "acts of repudiation," in which neighbors stand outside the homes of those suspected of illegal activity and scream insults -- sometimes for days.

When a Cuban wants a job in the lucrative tourism industry -- where a worker can earn three or four times the usual state salary -- the CDR president's imprimatur is essential. Applicants labeled "anti-social," code for transgressions such as dissident activity or lack of interest in volunteer projects, are almost assured of being turned down.

If a child is born, active CDR presidents pay a visit to the parents.

"We start to attend to the political development of a child, in a gradual way, from the time they are born," said DeLeon, a veteran of the Revolution who has a photograph of Fidel Castro in his living room.

As the child grows, DeLeon is watching. He stops by to make sure children are attending classes, especially the courses on Cuban history that recount Castro's triumph.

"We're creating something," DeLeon said, "Something called a 'political conscience.' "
Keeping Tabs on Dissidents

Fifteen minutes outside central Havana, in the Vibora neighborhood, Rafael Garc¿a lives in a home with a bucket for a shower.

When he became CDR president 12 years ago, his monthly meetings were jammed with as many as 75 people. Now he sometimes convenes meetings before an empty room. He has to walk his block, pounding on doors, to get anyone to attend.

"They're trying to rescue this system," said Garc¿a, a 50-year-old mechanic. "But I don't think there's a chance of it flourishing. Every year people hear the same thing -- they'll get more money, their lives will improve -- and nothing changes."

Garc¿a's CDR is just down the street from DeLeon's. DeLeon is strict; Garc¿a, lax. But they agree about the decline of CDRs. Still hopeful for a CDR renaissance, DeLeon is a hawk who misses nothing on his block.

"We know who the dissidents are, where they work, who they meet with -- we know everything that happens on this block," DeLeon said. "Anyone who is not a revolutionary is an enemy of the Revolution."

For years, he watched a dissident whom he identified only as Miguel. When Miguel moved in across the street, DeLeon said he told him he would not tolerate demonstrations or speeches.

"He wasn't a stupid person," DeLeon said. "He listened to me and didn't give me any trouble."

Because Miguel followed the rules, he was allowed to continue living there. Others -- including dissidents who had written anti-Castro materials or run illegal libraries or schools -- have been imprisoned for treason.

DeLeon wrote down who Miguel met with, who picked him up, virtually everything about him, expanding the government's database of party opponents. Eventually, though, there was no more information to collect. Miguel had disappeared into exile in Florida.

While DeLeon relishes the role of neighborhood enforcer as "fundamental to the Revolution," Garc¿a chafes at police pressure to gather tidbits about his neighbors.

"They tell me, 'You have to be doing this,' " he said as he slowly wiped oil from his calloused hands with a red rag. "They say, 'You have to be watching.' "

More often than not, though, Garc¿a has nothing for the police dossiers.

"If someone is making duros fr¿os and selling them," he said, describing homemade fruit popsicles, "what am I going to do, turn them in? They can't buy those at the state store because the state store doesn't sell them. It's hot. Why not have a popsicle?"
Under the Radar, for a While

Several months ago, a thickset man with a wide smile thought he had found urban nirvana.

The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he runs an illegal business, had moved to Havana because of a medical condition that required frequent visits to the capital's big hospitals. The government must approve address changes and some people find it impossible to navigate the bureaucracy. (Cubans can own homes, but cannot legally sell them commercially or rent out rooms.)

For a long time, the man recalled, he and his wife bounced from one illegally rented apartment to another. Once, they returned from a trip and found a new renter sleeping on their sheets and using their things.

Then they got lucky, finding a reasonably priced apartment in a nice neighborhood. They thought they were set. Yet each night when he came home, the man noticed the local CDR president stealing glances at him.

The man was unnerved, but conflicted. He had benefited greatly from the CDR system. The CDRs kept his neighborhood safe and made sure he got vaccinations as a child.

In a loose CDR, the couple might have been able to deal with the problem. A small bribe -- a bottle of rum or a bag of rice -- would have done it. But not here. The president was a stickler.

After several weeks, a policeman knocked. He told them they had to go.

Monday, October 08, 2007

How a Western changed the way Cubans speak.

the good word
3:10 to Yuma in Cuba
How a Western changed the way Cubans speak.
By Brett Sokol
Posted Monday, Oct. 8, 2007, at 12:21 PM ET

For most American fans of classic Western cinema, Delmer Davies' 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is simply a cult favorite, one recently rescued from obscurity by the $55 million remake that is packing multiplexes from coast to coast. In Cuba, however, the original 3:10 to Yuma has had a major impact on everyday conversation. Take a walk down any of Havana's main thoroughfares and you'll hear American visitors hailed as yumas, while the United States itself is affectionately dubbed La Yuma. You won't find those phrases in any state-issued dictionary, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro stubbornly opts for the more derisive yanqui in his own public speeches, but outside of bureaucratic circles it's yuma that holds sway.

How on earth did this happen?

During the late 1950s, American-owned "United" firms such as the United Fruit Company maintained high-profile holdings in Cuba. Since the word united doesn't exactly roll off the tongue in Spanish, Cubans adopted the moniker La Yunay. Likewise, when referring to their neighbor across the Florida Straits, Cubans sometimes opted for a Spanglish version of United States—Yunay Estey—rather than the formal Estados Unidos. When the original 3:10 to Yuma hit Cuban cinemas, it inspired a spin on the already extant yunay, and the new slang term quickly took off.

Yuma held a prominent place in the popular lexicon until shortly after the 1959 revolution, but then it hit a rough patch. As tensions with the U.S. government built to a boil, American pop culture came to be seen by Castro as just another weapon in Uncle Sam's arsenal. Westerns received a particularly harsh drubbing from el presidente: With their often less-than-enlightened portrayal of Native Americans, and genre standard-bearer John Wayne's staunch public support of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, these films were dismissed as imperialism writ large—10-gallon cowboy hats and all. The Cuban government, which controlled (and indeed still controls) all film distribution on the island, eventually pulled most American movies from theaters. And with Communist officials frowning at its social implications, the word yuma fell out of use.

Yet while once-beloved films like 3:10 to Yuma may have been banned, they were anything but forgotten. By the late '70s, with audiences weary of a steady diet of didactic Soviet-bloc and Western European art flicks, a powerful nostalgia had developed for classic U.S. cinema. Even new generations of Cuban hipsters, raised without ever seeing an old-school celluloid cowboy, were pining for a glimpse of the censored Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. "We were so fed up with those bad Soviet films," recalled Alejandro Ríos, then a twenty-something Havana movie critic, now a scholar in Miami. "And they weren't the worst of it! You haven't experienced boredom until you've tried to sit through a North Korean film."

Fortunately, by 1978 an ideological thaw inside Cuba's national film institute, ICAIC, permitted the exhibition of once politically incorrect movies. And Westerns, that most forbidden of aesthetic fruits, became the hottest ticket of all.

ICAIC officials dug into their archives and began dusting off copies of films that had arrived before 1959 and, after the revolution, had never been returned to American distributors. 3:10 to Yuma enjoyed the biggest buzz, perhaps because its story line struck a chord with Cuban audiences. Based on a 1953 short story by crime novelist Elmore Leonard, the film is less a conventional shoot 'em-up than a tense psychological drama, focused on a beleaguered cattle rancher (Van Heflin's Dan Evans) and his effort to save his failing farm. Desperate for cash, Evans swears he'll deliver a notorious stagecoach robber (Glenn Ford's Ben Wade) to the 3:10 train bound for the federal prison in Yuma, Ariz., in exchange for a generous bounty.

With Wade's vicious gang at his heels, Evans quickly loses the support of his neighbors—who scurry for cover at the first sign of trouble—as well as his wife, who pleads with him to be sensible and let Wade escape. But Evans turns resolute, and his trek to Yuma becomes a fight for personal honor. "The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together," Evans tells his wife. "Do you think I can do less?" It's not hard to see how Cuban viewers, faced with their own dilemmas of whether to stay or to go—to make their peace with the compromises of life under communism, or to risk everything in leaving for the United States—would read fresh meaning into Evans' principled stand.

With 3:10's return to Cuban theaters, yuma suddenly sprung back into daily usage, and it came loaded with all the implications that a journey north entailed. Legend has it that in 1980, when a desperate Havana bus driver crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy seeking asylum—subsequently sparking the Mariel boatlift that saw over 125,000 Cubans migrate to Miami—his anguished cry was, "I want to go to La Yuma!"

These days Havana's movie theaters are still filled with crowds for the latest Hollywood blockbusters, all projected off imported DVDs with little regard for the U.S. trade embargo. Accordingly, when the remade James Mangold-helmed 3:10 to Yuma arrives there (if precedent is any guide, it'll be the week after the DVD appears in Miami shops), expect younger Cubans—most of whom have continued using yuma even if they're unclear where the word originated—to ponder the term's implications anew.

For his part, Leonard says he's amazed at the legs his 1953 short story has taken on. During a phone interview, he told me he'd just recently become aware of his historic role in shaping Cuba's slang. He'd settled upon the title Three-Ten to Yuma simply because Yuma was the most notorious prison back in the days of the Old West. Then a struggling writer, he received a whopping $90 for the story from Dime Western magazine (their two-cents-a-word rate was on the high end for pulp fiction), $4,000 for the 1957 screen rights, and the promise of another $2,000 if the picture was ever remade. As for the new 3:10 to Yuma's success, he quipped, "My agent is working on getting me that two grand."

Still, Leonard does intend to return Cuba's linguistic tip of the hat. In his next book, he'll bring back from an earlier novel a Cuban character who left the island in the Mariel boatlift. Speaking over the phone from his Detroit home, Leonard assumed the voice of this Marielito and read me a line from his new manuscript: "When Fidel opened the prisons and sent all the bad dudes to La Yuma for their vacation … "

Thanks to Erik Camayd-Freixas and John Jensen of Florida International University, Tony Kapcia of the University of Nottingham and the University of Havana, Elmore Leonard, Tom Miller of the University of Arizona, Lionel Ruiz Miyares of Cuba's Center of Applied Linguistics, Alejandro Ríos of Miami-Dade College's Cuban Cinema Series, Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University, and Beatriz Varela of the University of New Orleans.
Brett Sokol is a journalist in Miami Beach, where he writes for the Miami Herald and Ocean Drive magazine. He is currently working on a book about hip-hop in Cuba. You can reach him at

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Cuban band battles censorship

Cuban band battles censorship
Posted: Friday, October 05, 2007 12:59 PM
Categories: Havana, Cuba
By Mary Murray, NBC News Producer

A top Cuban rock band – "Moneda Dura" – is in trouble with government censors. Someone decided their newest song is too controversial. Presumably it’s been perceived as too unfavorable to the Cuban government – so it’s been banned on all state-run airwaves.

But, the songwriter feels his work is misunderstood. "We did something important, that mattered to the people who listen," said Nassiry Lugo, the band leader.

VIDEO: Cuba censors hit song

The song is entitled "Mala Leche" – Cuban slang for "evil intentions." It’s the title track on their latest CD, released this summer on the island’s Egrem label.

Despite the official ban – or maybe helped by it – Mala Leche is gaining fame.

Local fans are downloading the contraband from YouTube – and then, sending it straight to the Cuban underground.

Proof that in today’s high-tech world, censorship is no match for a good song.

VIDEO: "Mala Leche" music video

And here is a translation of the "Mala Leche" lyrics:

Evil Intentions

It’s 4 o’clock, the bus is still not here

People around me won’t stop talking

and they drive you nuts

Sweat rolls down my ears

I’m talking about just another typical day

It’s 6.45, I get on the crowded bus

Nauseated by the bad smell of the guy beside me

People pushing all the time

People with evil intentions

Others who hammer my ears

We’re a mixture of grease and iron

We’re like cows hurrying to the slaughter-house

We’re like ants going into a hole

We’re a ball of fire

I find people who live to make things worse for me

People who don’t talk, only bark

People who spit words

If I don’t hurt you, don’t pick on me

If I don’t hurt you, why your evil intentions?

Ah! Tell me what I did to you to make you target me

Relax and cooperate,

Can't operate on the fat in your brain

Don’t take it so hard, your shouting unnerves me

Ah! But tell me, tell me

Why your evil intentions?

7 o’clock in the morning, I slowly eat breakfast

As if I lived in a palace

(Instead of) this tenement and its noise

The lights are still not on

Without a doubt, today will be fun

I spend 15 minutes spying on my neighbour

I get turned on and she doesn’t even look at me

The electricity bill is killing me

But what can I do, if living is also killing me

Now my brain is in a coma

Now my life is a car without tires

Now I was so happy with my vices

All is well when I'm immoveable

I don’t bring solutions, I don’t give surprises

Why am I to be blamed because of your headaches

If we're doing the same, don’t obsess on me

Give your brain a chance to relax

We come from a unique lineage

If we're the heat that burns deeply,

Why don’t we treat each other as brothers

My heart beats when they call me Cuban


Las 4 de la tarde, la guagua que no llega

La gente que no para de hablar y que se desespera

Gotas de sudor que caen por mis ojeras

Te cuento de otro día normal

Las 6:45 me subo apretado

Revuelto por el mal olor que trae el tipo de al lado

La gente que te empuja todo el tiempo

Gente sin pena, otros que taladran fuerte en las orejas.

Somos una masa de grasa y acero

Somos como vacas que se apuran hasta el matadero

Somos las hormigas que van al agujero

Somos una braza de fuego

Y todavía me encuentro con gente que vive

Para ponérmela más mala

Gente que no habla, solo que te ladra

Gente que escupe las palabras

Si yo no te hago daño, no es pa’ que te despeches

Si yo no te hago daño

¿Cuál es tu mala leche?

Ay! Pero dime qué te hice para que me toques las narices

Relájate y coopera la grasa en el cerebro no se opera

Oye no es para tanto, tus gritos ya me vienen estresando

Ay! Pero dime, dime, dime

¿Cuál es tu mala leche?

7 de la mañana desayuno despacio

Como si estuviera en un palacio

El barrio con su bulla

La luz que no ha venido

Hoy va a ser, sin duda, un día entretenido

Paso 15 minutos espiando a mi vecina

Yo que me enveneno y la muy zorra no me mira

La cuenta de la electricidad me está acabando

Pero qué voy a hacer si es que vivir me está matando

Ahora que tengo mi cerebro en coma

Ahora que el carro de mi vida está sin gomas

Ahora que estaba tan tranquilo con mis vicios

Ahora que todo sale cuando me encapricho

No traigo soluciones, no regalo sorpresas

Qué culpa tengo yo de tus dolores de cabeza

Si estamos en lo mismo, no te ofendas no te reprendas

Dale un chance a tu cerebro pa’ que se distienda

Venimos de una estirpe única en el mundo

Si somos el calor que quema desde lo más profundo

Dime por qué no nos tratamos como hermanos

Me late el corazón cuando me dicen cubano.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Russian women stranded in Cuba since USSR fall

Russian women stranded in Cuba since USSR fall
By Anthony BoadleWed Sep 5, 8:50 AM ET

They came from Russia with love to a tropical socialist utopia when the going was good.

They were young women romantically drawn to Fidel Castro's revolution, a breath of fresh air on a distant Caribbean island for those who were disillusioned with Soviet communism.

But when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, hundreds of Russian women who married Cubans and moved to Cuba were cut off from home and stranded in poverty as the Cuban economy plunged into deep crisis.

For those who had lived through the hardships of World War II in Russia as children, the long blackouts and the lack of food, medicine and fuel for transport were a cruel flashback.

"We were young and Cuba was beautiful when we got here," said film historian Zoia Barash, who arrived in 1963. Cuban leaders were so young compared to the Soviet gerontocracy and abstract art was not seen as incompatible with communism.

Her hopes of finding "true socialism" were dashed, though, as Cuba copied the Soviet model, with sweltering heat added.

"Today our situation is difficult, as it is for the whole country," said Barash, 72, who cannot make ends meet on her 260 peso ($10) monthly pension after 30 years working for the Cuban film industry.

About 1,300 women from Russia and former Soviet republics Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan still live in Cuba, scraping a living as best they can.

In an old mansion belonging to the Russian Embassy, two women run a store selling anything from vodka and pickled gherkins to imported toothpaste, Pringles and Viagra pills.

The harshest aspect is not being able to travel home. Cuba used to grant them subsidized tickets every five years, paid for in pesos. But Cuba's airline stopped flying to Moscow and tickets must now be paid for in hard cash few can afford.

"My father died in 1994 and I could not go to his funeral," said Zita Kelderari, a Ukrainian gypsy, in tears.

The Flamenco singer fell for a Cuban helicopter pilot in Kiev in 1985 and sailed to Cuba on a Soviet freighter loaded with Yugoslavian butter. When he defected to the United States a few years ago, she was left penniless in Cuba.

Only the women lucky enough to receive money from their relatives get to travel these days. On a Cuban pension alone, it would take 10 years to gather the cost of a flight home.

For most it is too late to go back and start a new life. Many are grandmothers with families to look after.

The blackouts are gone and food supplies have improved since the dark days of Cuba's post-Soviet crisis. But housing remains dilapidated and overcrowded, few have cars and access to the Internet is expensive.


Havana's Russian bookstore closed when "perestroika" reforms took hold in Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions were stopped, cutting off information from Russia.

Despite the problems, some women have pressed ahead.

"I don't know what nostalgia is. There is no point sitting around crying," said Natalia Balashova, who set about uniting the women in a cultural club for Russian speakers.

Balashova's father was a Bolshevik and she was drawn to Cuba in 1969 as much by love of the Cuban military officer she met in Moscow as by Castro's "bold" transformation of Cuba.

"I knew what to expect. Cuba was building socialism and had its difficulties. We came willingly, out of love," she said. Still, she felt "shipwrecked" when her country disappeared.

Balashova said she tapped her inner reserves and wartime improvisations she learned from her mother to cope with the crisis, such as using crushed egg-shells for cleaning powder.

After a 14-year hiatus, she returned to Moscow last year, invited to attend a world conference of Russians living abroad, and got to meet President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.


Elena Verselova, who was struggling to get ahead after two Cuban divorces, took her activism in a different direction. She became a dissident on Cuba's depressed Isle of Youth.

Verselova was deported by the Cuban government on July 26, according to her daughter Diana Aguilar, who arrived from Russia when she was a nine-month baby in her mother's arms.

Verselova was harassed and threatened by Cuban police, and eventually arrested, her daughter said. The family had to sell hard-won electrical appliances to pay for her ticket to Moscow, where she arrived with $170 in her pocket to start a new life.

"They didn't let us say good-bye to her," said Aguilar, 22, a University of Havana student. She said the Russian consulate in Cuba refused to help her mother even locate family members in Vladimir, 115 miles east of Moscow.

"I hope to leave Cuba to join my mother. I want to return to my roots in Europe," said the blond student.

A Cuban documentary "Todas iban a ser reinas" (They were all going to be queens) made last year captured the isolation of women from seven former Soviet republics living in Cuba.

"It was a migration of love, a part of our shattered utopia," said director Gustavo Cruz. "They worked in our country for many years. It would be ungrateful to forget them."

Women from other former Soviet bloc countries were also stranded in Cuba and forgotten by post-communist governments.

Stasia Strach, 65, is one of 49 native Poles living in Cuba -- only three of whom are men. The view from her small apartment overlooking Havana's Malecon, or sea-wall, is spectacular. But the elevator packed up years ago and the 130 steps are a daily effort. Going home is out of the question.

"What would I do in Poland, beg at the door of a church?" she said. "I have no pension and nowhere to go."

Palo in Caracas

From the Los Angeles Times
Not even the dead are safe in Caracas
A ghoulish crime wave in the Venezuelan capital supplies a black magic cult whose popularity is fueled by faith and politics.
By Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 5, 2007

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Skulking in the dead of night in the remote and overgrown Las Pavas section of the Southern Municipal Cemetery, robbers armed with crowbars and sledgehammers first shattered the tomb's concrete vault and the granite marker that read, "To our dear wife and mother in heaven, Maria de la Cruz Aguero."

Then they lifted the coffin lid and stole leg bones and the skull of the woman, who had died Sept. 9, 1993. They sold the bones for $20 each, the skull for as much as $300, said Father Atilio Gonzalez, the cemetery's resident Roman Catholic priest.

Sometimes entire skeletons, particularly those of children, are stolen from crypts in this final resting place of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, including three former presidents.

"These unscrupulous people are insulting God and committing a mortal sin," said Gonzalez. He said that graves in the city's largest cemetery are robbed every night, and it's getting worse. "They have perfect liberty to desecrate the tombs because the government does nothing to stop it."

The desecration of the woman's tomb was part of a ghoulish crime wave, including assaults, rapes and dope deals, that has made the cemetery so dangerous that funeral home workers say they carry weapons whenever they have to go there. Parts of the vast cemetery, particularly the remote hillside sections reserved for the poor, are in ruins and choked with weeds, providing perfect cover for thugs and the homeless.

In the past when graves were robbed, the primary objective was to steal personal effects such as jewelry or gold dental fillings, said Odalys Caldera, an investigator in the city's judicial police. Today, thieves are pillaging the graves for darker reasons.

The buyers of the bones are paleros, the practitioners of a black magic cult related to Santeria whose rise in popularity here is fueled by a strange brew of faith and politics.

"Santeria, witchcraft and black magic are much more out in the open now. That's the reason," Caldera said. "Of course the state is aware of the robberies, but hasn't taken the necessary steps to impede them."

Santeria, which combines Catholicism and African and indigenous spiritualism, was brought to the New World by slaves from Africa centuries ago and still thrives, particularly in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and, increasingly, Venezuela. It is also popular in regions of the United States with strong Caribbean immigrant communities, such as south Florida, Washington and Los Angeles,areas where hundreds of thousands are thought to practice it.

Although most Santeria followers steer clear of the use of human remains and Satanism, the paleros embrace them. They use bones in black magic rituals in which the objective is to cast evil spells on enemies: to induce bad luck for an unfaithful spouse, a car accident for unwanted in-laws, a serious illness for a business competitor, Gonzalez said.

Police, church officials and historians offer a variety of theories for the rise in Santeria generally and of black magic in particular in Venezuela. Some, including anthropologist Rafael Strauss, point to the vacuum left by the Roman Catholic Church, which, as in many other Latin American countries, has lost believers in Venezuela to evangelical and other Protestant religions. Church rolls also are suffering from a lack of interest among younger people.

"We are seeing a new syncretism that is uniting parts of different religions," said Strauss, a retired University of Central Venezuela professor. "It's how people make it easier to meet their spiritual needs."

Gonzalez acknowledged that the country is suffering a crisis in belief.

"People are losing faith," he said. "Instead of assuming responsibility to accomplish something good, they resort to witchcraft, which they see as the easy way."

But others see politics at work. Father Manuel Diaz is a parish priest in the El Hatillo suburb of Caracas where three Santeria babalaos, or shamans, have recently opened centers. He says the government of leftist President Hugo Chavez is encouraging the rise of Santeria to counter the authority of the Catholic Church, which Chavez has viewed as his enemy.

In a pastoral letter to his parishioners last month, Diaz said the government has a "concrete objective, to undermine the authority of the church and align its faithful with certain ideologies." In the letter, he wrote that leaders of the movement to discredit the church were coming from an unnamed "Caribbean country," presumably Cuba.

Although Santeria and other spiritualist religions have been present in Venezuela since Spanish colonial days, the rise of black magic, including that practiced by paleros, is relatively new, said Maria Garcia de Fleury, a comparative religions professor at New Sparta University in Caracas.

"We've always had a little witchcraft, but nothing like what has been unleashed recently," De Fleury said. "This is not Venezuelan."

Without offering hard evidence, De Fleury and some church officials blame the growing presence of Santeria on Cuba, which she says is exporting babalaosalong with doctors, teachers and sports trainers to Venezuela as part of closer economic relations with Chavez.

"It's because the government is behind Santeria, promoting it, letting in Cuban babalaos who are proselytizing very actively," De Fleury said.

While not addressing Santeria, Chavez in a February 2003 broadcast of his "Alo Presidente" TV talk show denied that he was a believer in black magic. He is known to be a mystic of sorts, and some say that he believes he is the reincarnation of a 19th century Venezuelan leader, Ezequiel Zamora.

"President Chavez, who knows the mentality of Venezuelans, takes advantage of their magical religious imagery to further his popularity and his revolution," university professor Angelina Pollak-Eltz said in an essay shortly after Chavez took power in 1999.

Yarlin Mejia, a hotel worker who is also a babalao in the Catia slum of Caracas, said the majority of Santeria believers stay away from witchcraft. "The paleros work for evil," Mejia said. "I do it differently. I work for positive things."

Half a dozen people come every Sunday to Mejia's house, where his ceremonies involve "white magic" -- rituals that aim to help believers attain specific goals, be it a new house, a better job or success at school. A chicken is usually sacrificed. Mejia says interest is growing and attributes it to the presence of Cubans.

"They're everywhere," Mejia said.

Father Gonzalez, whose parish could be said to include the hundreds of thousands of dead that populate the Southern Municipal Cemetery, made a baleful round of the grounds recently to assess the losses.

Half a dozen more graves had been "profaned" over the weekend in the Black Road section of the cemetery, a place of paupers' graves where 70% of the tombs have been robbed, he said.

He said lax municipal vigilance has turned the cemetery to which he has given heart and soul for 18 years into a frequent crime scene. Three or four armed assaults a week and several rapes a month happen here.

Maria Machado, who had come to visit the grave of her husband, Jose, who died in 2000, said she feared for her life each time she paid her respects.

"It wasn't this way before, when there was another president," said Machado, whose husband's grave was bordered by several looted tombs, one of which contained the carcass of a chicken sacrificed in a Santeria rite.

"I'm worried I'll come here some day and my husband will be gone," Machado said. She and her two grandchildren were the only visitors in the Las Pavas section of the cemetery, which when founded in 1867 was far beyond the southwestern borders of the city.

On a recent day, the cemetery was the scene of a macabre ritual that has become a regular occurrence whenever a young gang member is buried, Gonzalez said. It provided another example of the lawlessness here.

During the funeral procession for a 25-year-old gunshot victim, friends suddenly halted the cortege and removed the corpse from the coffin to give it one last joy ride around the cemetery on the back of a buddy's motorcycle.

As a final homage before burial, the dead man was given a 30-gun salute -- from pistols fired by his pals. One of the bullets punctured the umbrella of Father Gonzalez, who officiated at the burial.

"Now I suffer not just from the pain felt by the loved ones of the dead," he said, "but for the lack of respect for this holy place."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Castro rumors circulating -- again -- Friday

Posted on Fri, Aug. 24, 2007
Castro rumors circulating -- again -- Friday
On Friday, the rumors heated up again for the third week in a row: Fidel Castro's death would be announced, first at 2 p.m., then at 4, then at 5.

For the past year, since the Cuban government announced that Fidel had ceded power to brother Raúl following intestinal surgery, rumors that he's on the brink of meeting his maker keep boiling over and dying down, creating a roller coaster of emotion for exiles and islanders.

This Friday, teary callers told Ninoska Pérez of Radio Mambí they were sure this was it, and Pérez, as usual, reminded ``The moment will come, but this is not the moment.''

At Aaction Home Health in Hialeah, office workers were abuzz because somebody from Cuba called a colleague to say folks in Havana were starting to take to the streets in anticipation of the news. At the University of Miami, media relations officers worked the phones in search of confirmation.

But once again, none of the rumors seemed to be panning out.

For many, waiting for proof has become like the low-grade anxiety that comes when you're bracing for a hurricane that may or may not hit. Even though it seems clear there won't be any real change on the island immediately after Castro's death, the exile community is holding its breath and preparing for something big nonetheless. Everyone knows whatever happens will be disruptive in some way. Or, at least, emotionally unhinging.

Last weekend, the rumors also reached fever pitch. The media perked up and started another round of the confirmation game. Calls flooded Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's office. The University of Miami and its Cuba experts wound up on high alert. And the community started rumbling anew, parents reaching out to children, friends calling friends.

''Last Friday, when the rumors started again, my phone rang off the hook,'' says Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies. ``It was everybody. Friends, family, the State Department. People went nuts. ''

Another false alarm. Which, in an ironic way, was a relief to many who yearn for the end of Castro but know they'll have to put their lives on hold to deal with its aftermath.

'Every time I buy a plane ticket to go somewhere with my family, I always say, `If Fidel doesn't die,' '' says Maria Elvira Salazar, host of WSBS-SBS 22's) talk show Polos Opuestos (Opposite Poles). ``In a way, this is going to be like Hurricane Andrew times 10. We don't know what's going to happen, besides the idea that there will be a pharaonic funeral. But we know when he dies, everything will revolve around his death. [Mega TV will] be on 24-7 for God knows how many days.''

Many South Florida Cubans jokingly say they hope Castro will make it through another weekend. But underlying such nonchalance is the anxiety of knowing that eventually they'll have to grapple with something huge.

'I did say last week, `If he's going to die, let him do it on a Monday,' '' says Bárbara Gutiérrez, a media relations officer at the University of Miami and former editor at El Nuevo Herald. 'When the new rumors started, I felt like, `Oh no. Here we go.' Because when this happens, it won't be just dealing with work,'' Gutiérrez says. ``It'll be dealing with my mother, who will want to go out and celebrate. It will be dealing with my own feelings. It will be dealing with the fact that in my family there are a lot of older people who we will have to be careful with, because the emotion of it all could make them sick.''

For now, though, the older generation in particular is keeping a stiff upper lip, says Radio Mambí's Armando Perez Roura, a longtime Cuban radio personality who has been poised to break the news of Castro's demise for decades.

''This is definitely the calm before the storm,'' Perez Roura says. Afer all, he says, it was a younger, more recentlyarrived Cuban crowd that jumped the gun and swarmed Calle Ocho to celebrate Castro's death when news of his ceding power broke at the end of July last year.

''The rest of us have spent a lot of years in this process,'' Perez Roura says. ``Waiting for something to happen, hearing rumors that never turn out to be true. We're not going to react until we know for sure.''

''Both in Cuba and in exile, you can breathe a very tense calm,'' says Ramon Colas, who helped start Bibliotecas Independientes (Independent Libraries) in Cuba and left the island in 2001. He now runs a Cuba race-relations project in Mississippi but still has regular exchanges with folks on the island.

'Everybody is waiting to be able to say with certainty, `El viejo se fue' [the old man is gone], but we know how much the Cuban government manipulates the truth. We know they can be the ones to launch rumors that he is dead in the first place, just to gauge our reaction. So we stay guarded.''

That emotional limbo can be damaging, says Dr. Julio Licinio, chairman of UM's psychiatry department.

''Emotionally, people need a concrete event to be able to deal with something and move on. Sort of like when people need to see the body of somebody who has been missing in action to be able to get to the next stage,'' Licinio says. ``With Castro, there is nothing concrete. He keeps lingering. When something is unresolved, it makes you emotionally unsettled. It's a chronic stress that can precipitate other things. Even if you are not clinically depressed or have another psychiatric situation, you still can't quite function normally.''

Which is why Sonia del Corral was glad that her father, Victor del Corral, founder of the famed Victor's Café in New York, died when he did.

'It might seem weird to say, but my father was fine when he heard that Fidel was sick and had ceded power to Raúl. The next day he had a heart attack and slipped into a coma. So he died thinking Cuba was about to be free. He didn't have to stick around for another year of the waiting game and then maybe not outlive Castro. I'm happy that he was able to say to me, `Ya, hija, ya.' '' (It's over, daughter, it's over.)

Oscar Haza, host of WJAN-America TeVe Channel 41's popular A Mano Limpia (The Gloves Are Off) hears the anxiety in the voices of viewers who call in to check on the rumors.

'The latest is that he died last Saturday at 4. And they have mobilized troops in Oriente. I talk to people around town. And even though they may not have hope that there will be immediate change in Cuba, they still need to know Castro is no longer with us. That in itself is a milestone they need to witness. So many say the same thing, `I regret that my father, or my mother, or my spouse, didn't live to see his end.' That is the reaction at all of the recent funerals I've been to.''

And so Haza, knowing how desperate the Cuban community is for confirmation of Castro's death, has tried to find the way to calm folks whenever new rumors get them riled.

'I say, `Don't pay attention to all the rumors. When you tune in and you hear me say `Ya,' you will know that means 'Ya.' ''

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Travelocity fined $183,000 for booking trips to Cuba

Posted on Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
Travelocity fined $183,000 for booking trips to Cuba
Travelocity was fined nearly $183,000 for booking roughly 1,400 Cuba trips between 1998 and 2004, apparently the first time Washington has cracked down on a major online travel provider for violating the 1963 embargo on the communist nation.

Travelocity blamed the 1,458 violations on technical issues that were corrected years ago. ''In no way did the company intend to sell trips to Cuba,'' the spokeswoman, Ashley Johnson, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. ``The trips to Cuba . . . were unintentionally booked online because of a technical issue several years ago and it's just now being settled.''

Johnson said the trips were booked in the United States. But Travelocity's penalty comes amid conflicts over foreign arms of U.S. firms selling trips into the popular Caribbean vacation spot. And it touches on the complications of isolating a country commercially amid an increasingly global and digital economy.

Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control also fined American Express Travel for allowing its Mexican subsidiary to book two groups on Cuba trips in December 2002 and October 2003. But while American Express paid $16,625 for its two incidents, Travelocity was fined $182,750 for 1,458 violations, OFAC disclosed Saturday.

The Travelocity fine is the second-highest imposed by the OFAC during this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. The highest fine -- $220,000 -- was levied on LogicaCMG of Lexington, Mass. Its predecessor, CMG Telecommunications, exported computers, electronic components and technical support knowing the goods were destined for Cuba in 2001.


The penalties do not seem to open up a new front in the Bush administration's energetic enforcement of laws designed to hurt Cuba's economy. Experts on the embargo said federal law is fairly clear that foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms can't do business in Cuba, and that OFAC clarified the matter with travel companies five years ago.

At the time, an unknown Internet travel company had requested permission for its foreign website to book Cuba trips for people not subject to U.S. jurisdiction -- namely the 2 million people who vacation in Cuba each year.

The company, whose name OFAC did not disclose, noted travel providers had always been free to include information on Cuba flights, hotel rates and air fares on digital booking systems used by travel agents. Why should the online version be any different?

But in a 2002 letter, OFAC's director at the time, Richard Newcomb, said the Internet had transformed those booking systems into commercial ventures where financial transactions take place. As a result, the subsidiary was banned from selling Cuba trips. Clif Burns, an export lawyer specializing in Cuba, said the matter seemed settled with the letter. An OFAC official who did not want to be identified said Travelocity was the first large online travel provider to face an OFAC fine.


Still, the issue has gotten complicated amid the globalization trend.

Burns said European Union regulations bar companies operating in member countries from denying commerce to Cuba -- a rule that would apply to U.S. subsidiaries. He said EU regulators have not enforced the 1996 rule, so most U.S. companies adhere to Washington's protocol toward Havana.

And, a popular travel website operated out of Norwalk, Conn., does advertise Cuba vacations. Though Expedia, Travelocity and other large travel sites set their own prices, Kayak merely receives ''referral fees'' from travel providers who get business through the site, spokeswoman Kellie Pelletier said. Because of that, she said, it is free to post the Cuba offerings.

Founded in 1996, Travelocity is the sixth-largest U.S. travel agency; it ranks second in Internet sales. In 2006, the company booked $10.1 billion in travel worldwide.

Jorge Piñon, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the issue of online Cuban commerce can get complicated when dealing with U.S. websites.

''There's a lot of other things you can do with Cuba vis-à-vis the Internet,'' he said. ``I could be buying Cuban cigars in Spain [but] using an Internet service provider which is owned by a U.S. corporation.''

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this report.

Santeros have neighbor problems

Posted on Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
Santeros have neighbor problems
The clash between Santeria practitioners and their suburban neighbors in Coral Gables is not an isolated incident.


• Last year, a veteran Miami-Dade firefighter was arrested on felony trespassing and animal cruelty charges after a confrontation with a Redland neighbor who caught him dumping a goat on his property.

The firefighter, Adolfo Perez, said he removed the animal carcass -- as well as other animal remains -- from the man's property after he realized it was private property, and provided him a business card identifying himself as a priest.

The neighbor, Art Valencia, a retired schoolteacher, turned the business card over to police. ''I don't care what they do, but I shouldn't have to smell dead animals at my home,'' he said.

The animal cruelty charges eventually were dropped, and Perez pleaded guilty to the felony trespass charge -- a conviction that also got him a formal reprimand from the fire department last month, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Calzadilla-Fiallo.

''I thought I was going to lose my job,'' said Perez, who is two years from retirement.

• In December, Juan Cabrisas hosted a gathering for fellow practitioners at his home at 6025 SW 35th St. He hired two off-duty Miami-Dade police officers to help handle traffic and ensure they were in compliance with local codes.

Another county officer, however, arrived at the home to investigate noise complaints and vehicles parked along the sidewalk. The homeowner was not cited; the incident report notes only that Cabrisas was asked to turn down the music.

But the ceremony was disrupted, the priests' ritual space invaded and worshipers were put on the defensive, said Santeria priest Ernesto Pichardo. ''It was overkill,'' he said.

• In an August 2006 ordination, three practitioners, including the newly ordained priest, were arrested during a Santeria celebration in the block of 17000 SW 182nd Ave and charged with animal cruelty. Those charges were later dropped, according to the state attorney's office.

• Residents living off Bird Road and Southwest 129th Avenue, where home prices have recently soared above $1.5 million, have complained of a neighboring home purchased by a Santeria church -- claiming the sounds of livestock, crowds of worshipers and parked cars blocking the street are a nuisance. The county's Team Metro, which handles such complaints, has visited the home several times since 2001. The cases were closed after the owner provided permits for the gatherings.

• Complaints about an area off of Miller Drive and Southwest 82nd Avenue Road -- a favorite dumping ground for sacrificed animals thanks to its proximity to a rail line that has religious significance to santero practitioners -- prompted the county to install cameras to catch illegal dumping and strike a special deal with railway executives to help clean up the piles of dead animals.

For santeros, religious freedom is anything but

Practitioners of Santeria, most notably Ernesto Pichardo, the South Florida priest who won a landmark Supreme Court decision sanctioning animal sacrifices, say the complaints -- and official reaction to those complaints -- come from a misunderstanding of his religion at best, outright bigotry at worst.

Posted on Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
For santeros, religious freedom is anything but
Noriel Batista has had little peace since a swarm of Coral Gables police officers burst onto his property, disrupting a Santeria ritual intended to initiate him into a special order of his religion's priesthood.

''It has ruined my life,'' said Batista, a Cuban-born pharmacy owner who bought the home on Casilla Street nine years ago.

Business at his Coral Way pharmacy has suffered, he says. Neighbors expressed outrage that animal sacrifices -- in this case, 11 goats and 44 fowl -- were taking place in the City Beautiful.

Shortly after the June incident made the news, Batista received a handwritten note, scrawled in the margins of a Miami Herald article: America has become a dumping ground for trash like you. Go back to Cuba and take your animal sacrifices with you.

The incident, which brought television cameras and patrol cars to the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in early June, highlights the tension between adherents of a religion most notorious for its practice of animal sacrifice and neighbors in the increasingly affluent suburban areas where the religion is spreading and taking root.

Practitioners of Santeria, most notably Ernesto Pichardo, the South Florida priest who won a landmark Supreme Court decision sanctioning animal sacrifices, say the complaints -- and official reaction to those complaints -- come from a misunderstanding of his religion at best, outright bigotry at worst.

''When we hear about Santeria in Coral Gables, it's as if Santeria doesn't have a right to be in Coral Gables,'' said Pichardo, the head of the Church of Lukumí Babalú Ayé. His members were performing the disrupted June ritual to initiate Batista into the order of Balogún, entitling him to conduct animal offerings, a sacred precept of the religion that traces its roots to West Africa.


''But it's OK if it's in Little Havana, or it's all right if we do it in Hialeah,'' said Pichardo. ``As long as it is marginalized, and only appears in the lower strata of society, then it's OK.''

Pichardo has asked Coral Gables mayor Don Slesnick for an official apology and religious sensitivity training for the department's police force. Slesnick, who drew kudos from scores of residents for speaking out against the sacrifices, said he is respectful of santeros. ''I have requested that the city attorney do an exhaustive investigation of the current status of the law,'' he said.

''We not only have to observe the constitutional right for religious freedom, but we have to also concern ourselves with the quality of life in our neighborhoods,'' he said. ``There is the safety and health issue, sanitation issue dealing with dead animal carcasses.''

Santero priest Jesús Suárez, who helped officiate the ceremony at Batista's home, said he tried to explain to officers that they were interrupting a religious event. It was only after several hours and a consultation with the Miami-Dade state attorney's office that police allowed Suárez and another priest to continue.

''They ordered us out of the house, desecrated a holy space, treated us like criminals,'' he said.

Neighbors said that while they respect Batista's right to practice his faith, they wish he would not be so public about it.

''I just think they should do those things away from neighborhoods, where there are no kids and nobody can see those things,'' said Ricardo Celiz, a sports anchor for Univisión's Spanish-language broadcast network, TeleFutura. His family, including two small children, lives four houses away.


''And definitely I don't want them to see any dead animals at that house,'' he said.

The tensions are understandable as second- and third-generation adherents, most of them from Cuba and other Latin countries, move up the economic ladder and out of the old neighborhoods, said Miguel De La Torre, author of Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.

The popularity of Santeria, also called Lukumi, among non-Latins is another factor -- notably black Americans embracing their African roots, he said.

''There is a fear that is rooted in racism,'' said De La Torre, an associate professor of ethics and director of the Justice and Peace Institute at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. 'This religion is practiced by Latinos, or people of African descent. It's an element of `Oh, look at these primitive people sacrificing animals.' ''

Those fears echo the early days of the religion, which arose as African slaves in Cuba masked their religion from colonial masters by masking their orishas, or gods, with the faces of Catholic saints.

''For some people, moving up the economic or social ladder means assimilation, putting away the old religion,'' he said. 'But then you have a generation that says, `I will live in an upscale neighborhood, but I will also have my santos, thank you very much.' ''

De La Torre has experienced that ambivalence firsthand.

A Cuban-born child of santeros, he broke away from the religion to become an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He has since made peace with his parents' faith.

''It's part of my cultural DNA,'' De La Torre said.

Battles over Santeria have sprung up in places far from the big-city botanicas of Miami and New York.

In the town of Euless, Texas -- a city of about 50,000 outside of Fort Worth -- a Puerto Rican santero priest is fighting City Hall for the right to kill animals in his home, located in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac.

The priest, Jose Merced, filed a federal discrimination suit.


Euless officials offered a compromise: He could kill chickens but not goats.

Merced rejected the offer; the case is still pending.

In South Florida, the cases rarely reach beyond that of nuisance complaints -- although several of Pichardo's acquaintances have been arrested on charges related to their Santeria practices. They include a Miami-Dade firefighter -- and fellow priest -- who was charged with felony trespass and animal cruelty after dumping an animal carcass in a Redland neighborhood. The animal cruelty charges were eventually dropped.

For Batista, the incident at his Gables home has been deeply unsettling.

''I thought this was a free country,'' said Batista, becoming visibly upset. ``But I don't feel like a free man.''

Friday, August 03, 2007

Cubans in Spain: In Cultural Haven, Cubans Need Not Choose Sides

August 3, 2007
Madrid Journal
In Cultural Haven, Cubans Need Not Choose Sides

MADRID — This is surely not the only city in the world where a handful of Cubans can spend a day together and avoid talking politics. But it is certainly the preferred one for Cuban artists and intellectuals of all political stripes, who find the freedom here that they could never have in Havana and the opportunities that may elude them in Miami, both polarizing cities in the endless debate about Fidel Castro and the nature of exile.

To wit: In a nondescript musical studio here recently, two Cubans who for years were separated by politics got together to record an album and announce their first joint concert tour of Spain. They were the legendary pianist Bebo Valdés, 88, who left Cuba in 1960 and has vowed not to return until there is a democratic government in place, and his son, the jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, 65, who keeps a home in Havana and still informs the Cuban Ministry of Culture of his artistic whereabouts.

With two Cuban exiles from Miami, the producer Nat Chediak and his wife, Conchita Espinosa, and a Cuban-American filmmaker, Carlos Carcas, who was raised in Miami and lives in Madrid, they talked mostly about music, not an unusual scene in a city that has become a welcoming neutral ground for the great many Cuban artists and intellectuals who live here.

“Madrid has been one of the few places in the world where they have been able to find a breather,” Mr. Chediak said.

Cultural expressions — from literature to music — that cannot possibly take place in Havana because of government censorship and may be difficult to negotiate in Miami because of the fervent politics of some Cuban exiles, are finding an outlet and an audience in the country many Cubans still call, and not always in jest, la madre patria, the mother country.

The reasons vary, and range from Cuba’s shared heritage and language with Spain to the fact that for many Cubans, Havana and Miami continue to be the two extremes of a political spectrum that forces Cubans to define themselves by making only one, but crucial, decision: the rejection or acceptance of the Castro brothers’ government by opting for exile or staying on the island. Miami begs the question; Madrid accepts ambiguity.

“In Cuba and Miami, there is no middle ground,” said Boris Larramendi, 37, one of the lead musicians of Habana Abierta, a group that has already released three albums in Madrid and has played both in Cuba and Miami. “Here you can feel somewhat distant from both extremes and take certain positions that would be difficult to maintain in Havana or Miami, particularly in Cuba, where I know that if I said the things I say here, I’d be jailed.”

Cuban performers and intellectuals who live in Madrid say they do not necessarily reject the option of living in South Florida. Spain has simply become an increasingly easier country to get to because the Cuban government is more lenient with exit permits to Europe than to the United States. Those who decide to stay here find a welcoming attitude because of the familiar ties that for generations have bound the two countries together.

Washington’s policies, too, have contributed to the mushrooming presence of Cuban intellectuals here. While a decade ago, under President Clinton, Cuban academics and artists freely traveled to cities like New York, Chicago and Miami, and returned to the island, or not, the Bush administration has severely curtailed such cultural exchanges. They are happening, instead, in Spain’s universities, cafes and concert halls.

It is difficult to determine who among the Cubans here intends to stay or is just passing through. Kelvis Ochoa, one of the lead musicians of Habana Abierta, for example, is now in Cuba. Mr. Larramendi said he did not know if Mr. Ochoa planned to return or stay. He has not asked.

Some writers and musicians say they will never live in Cuba again under the Castro government; others are reluctant to commit publicly to any political position for fear they will not be allowed to return to their families on the island. The result is a revolving door of Cuban intellectuals and artists.

“Here, what’s important is your work, not your biography,” said Antonio José Ponte, a 42-year-old Cuban writer who has lived in Madrid for one year. “In a city like Miami people want to know who you are, what you think, when you left. They want to know who they are talking to. Here, the outlines are fuzzier.”

Yet, Mr. Ponte said he understood that eagerness to know: “It’s the nature of the altered and confusing state of being an exile.” The increasing importance of Spain in Cuba’s cultural life is the newest twist in the relations between the countries. In the 19th century, when Cubans were waging war against Spain to obtain their independence, rebels were sent here as punishment. Later, many Spaniards escaping the civil war here found refuge in Cuba. And, in the 1960s, Cuban refugees fleeing Castro found haven here, but the majority eventually moved to Miami or Puerto Rico. Now, for those eager to have close contact with Cuban artists and thinkers, Madrid has become a necessary stop.

“It’s been an accidental and slow process,” said Raúl Rivero, who left Cuba for Madrid in the spring of 2005, after two years of imprisonment for his work as an independent journalist and dissident.

Even if they could travel to Miami, many artists and intellectuals choose to stay here for “practical reasons.” They have the backing of publishing houses, art galleries and even the film and television industry, in a country where the Spanish-language market is not a niche business, but the only one.

Yet, Mr. Rivero said going to Miami was a problem for Cuban intellectuals and artists who were simply passing through because the Cuban government scrutinized those visits.

Some artists, like Chucho Valdés, have reached such heights of popularity and professional achievement that they have much more freedom than younger, emerging artists. Mr. Valdés informs the Cuban Cultural Ministry of where he performs, but he does not seek permission, he said.

He would be eager to play in Havana with his father, he said. Then he paused. “But I don’t know if Bebo will be willing to go. That’s a different story.”

His father said there was no reason for him to return to Cuba.

“If the regime changes and there is a constitution and I don’t have to ask permission from anyone to return to my own country, then I’ll go back and play,” he said. “And that would be a joyful day.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Raul Castro lifts economic hopes in Cuba

Raul Castro lifts economic hopes in Cuba

By Anthony BoadleTue Jul 31, 7:10 PM ET

One year after taking over from his ailing brother as Cuba's leader, Raul Castro is raising hopes of reforms to relieve economic inefficiencies and food shortages but he is not offering political change.

He became acting president last July 31 after his elder brother Fidel Castro had emergency stomach surgery, giving up power for the first time since Cuba's 1959 revolution.

For much of the last year, Raul Castro's main concern has been to preserve political stability under communist rule, and the U.S. government complained on Tuesday that there has been no move toward fair elections in Cuba.

"It's a year to the day since the senior dictator decided to hand off control of the country to the junior dictator. Unfortunately, I think that's made little difference in the lives of the Cuban people," State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington.

Raul Castro has, however, recently turned his attention to bread-and-butter issues. In a frank account of Cuba's most pressing problems, he acknowledged last week in his first Revolution Day speech that state salaries were clearly inadequate and agriculture absurdly inefficient.

He said more foreign investment was welcome in Cuba, and that structural changes were needed to produce more food and cut the country's reliance on costly imports.

"People feel encouraged. The speech shows that Raul is in charge now. Changes are coming," said a Havana maid who asked not to be named.

Her husband was less optimistic. "We've heard the same story for years. I can only afford vegetables on my pay, never meat," he said before his wife shut him up, saying he could be arrested.

Seven out of ten Cubans were born after the revolution and most people are looking to improve their economic lot more than change the one-party state.

With wages averaging just $14 a month, Raul Castro's focus on tough economic issues is a refreshing change for many Cubans after years of long-winded speeches by Fidel Castro.

"I hope Raul can fix this, because Cuba is a good country," said Armando Laferte, 42, leaning against a beat up 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline, rap music blaring from its two doors.

"We can't afford the things we most need, from toothpaste to tomato paste," he complained. "It's not only the economy that has to open up. Everything must."


Fidel Castro, who turns 81 next month, has not appeared in public since he stepped aside. He has written a series of editorial columns in recent months but has shown no sign of returning to power and Raul Castro's authority appears to be growing by the day.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma had a photograph of Raul Castro on its front page on Tuesday while a new editorial by Fidel Castro on Cuba's performance at the Panamerican Games in Brazil was tucked deep inside on the sports pages.

Even dissidents welcomed Raul Castro's speech last week as a sign of realism brought to government by the 76-year-old defense minister.

"Raul's speech creates expectations and hope, but we should be cautious. There are hard-liners who are putting obstacles in the way of reform," said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, adding that the country is bankrupt.

In his apparent semi-retirement, Fidel Castro remains the formal head of state and some Cubans expect him to try to slow reforms that reduce the state's control over 90 percent of the economy.

While Raul Castro backed limited private initiative in the 1990s and is viewed as a pragmatic reformer, there is nothing to suggest he intends to follow China's path of opening up to a market economy under continued Communist Party rule.

Fidel Castro often railed against inefficiencies but his reform attempts were modest and he reined some in when he felt they might move Cuba too far away from the socialist path.

An economist working for the government said major reforms in agriculture are being drawn up and changes in property laws are also under study.

Some Cubans are optimistic they will soon be able to buy cellular phones, and freely buy and sell their cars and even their homes one day. Others say any change will come slowly.

"Raul has good intentions, but these problems have existed for so long," said one housewife on the dilapidated doorstep of her central Havana home.

"It has always been politics first, second and third, and only then the economy. I'd have to see change to believe it."