Sunday, April 22, 2007

Press Time

more anecdotes:

Miami New Times
Press Time
With Fidel on his death bed, journalist Carlos Otero is more critical than ever
By Our Woman in Havana
Published: January 11, 2007

Carlos Rios Otero is trying to write a note, but his black pen has run out of ink. He shakes it furiously, tries to scribble on a piece of thin white paper, and then tosses it on the table.

He shoots the pen a nasty glare, grabs it again, and flings it high into the air.

Carlos is frustrated. The pen is just one more thing that doesn't work in Cuba.

He is trying to change that, one word at a time. He is the rarest of rare on the island — an independent journalist.

But this writer doesn't work for a state-run communist-mouthpiece rag like Granma or Juventud Rebelde. His articles are penned sometimes by candlelight, always in longhand, on the unused side of printed sheets of paper. When he's finished, Carlos whispers his words across crackling phone lines to Miami, where Cuban exiles make sense of them and put them into magazines read by other exiles around the world. Sometimes he appears on Spanish-language radio stations like Radio Mambí (710-AM).

He hopes he doesn't get caught. "It's a brutal way to live," Carlos says matter-of-factly.

We're sitting around a table in the back yard of Carlos's house, a 100-year-old Mediterranean-revival with an iron gate, peeling paint, and pink roses growing in the courtyard. The dry pen is lodged in an overgrown bush. The table is covered with a threadbare red cloth that is pockmarked with holes.

Carlos's wife, Irene — shy and tired-looking — brings us coffee in delicate floral-patterned demitasse cups. She offers a glance that apologizes for not offering more.

It's a critical time for Carlos and all independent journalists in Cuba. As Fidel Castro's illness becomes more mysterious by the week — it's cancer, it's not cancer, he's got a colostomy bag, he's dead and cryonically frozen — Cuban exiles crave news from the island more than ever before.

Years ago Carlos and Irene were young professionals with a baby girl. They could graciously entertain guests — she was a teacher, he was a specialist in agriculture economics who once worked for the government. Carlos's father was a revolutionary, and Carlos himself fought in Angola.

He was rewarded with a post in the Ministry of Sugar — an important government office because sugar was, and remains, one of Cuba's few commodities. But in 1983, he criticized the regime, saying the communist model didn't work. At first, Castro overlooked Carlos's comments because of his family's revolutionary ties. But then the young man made similar remarks in 1986 and again in 1990. He had waded into the dangerous waters of activism in Cuba — he started and joined several groups calling for change.

The government began to pay attention. He was removed from his job and ostracized by the Cuban bureaucracy. The fallout extended to his wife's job and their daughter, now age 21, who has not been able to enroll in college because of her parents' activism — even though she's a top student.

If Hollywood were to film a movie about Carlos's life, he would be played by Lou Reed. When he dons his sunglasses, Carlos is a dead ringer for the singer (circa 1985 Honda scooter ads); he's cool and calm, and more than a bit paranoid about the world around him.

Carlos began his underground reporting sometime in the 1990s; all media in Cuba is state-run and has been for 48 years, so his dispatches are all on the down-low. He is published regularly on, an exile-run Website in Miami. When his phone line isn't too fuzzy with interference, he calls dispatches into Miami radio stations and, on occasion, Radio Martí. This past year he was quoted in a report about the sorry state of Cuban journalism published by the international group Reporters Without Borders.

He achieved rock-star notoriety in Cuba and around the world this past December 10, when he and a dozen other dissidents marched in a Havana park to commemorate International Human Rights Day. A mob attacked the demonstrators, and a Spanish news agency photographed Carlos being restrained by a half-dozen government-supported thugs.

During our visit, Carlos shows me a photocopy of the picture and then pulls out a few dog-eared magazines. They contain his writing, but many of his articles are mere briefs about how conditions are deteriorating on the island. Longer stories just aren't easy to report or write. It's a bit sad and surprising to see that a man is risking his life for this.

"It's hard to have sources in Cuba," admits Nancy Perez Crespo, manager of Nueva Prensa Cubana in Miami. "And sometimes they don't even have paper to write on."

Like many of Cuba's journalists, Carlos doesn't usually see his own work, especially if it runs on a Website. He can't afford to use the Internet (it costs about six dollars per hour, about half of the average Cuban's monthly salary). Besides, the Internet is so tightly controlled on the island it's unlikely that Carlos would be able to get near a computer without harassment.

"He's risking his life every time he gives us information," says Perez Crespo.

Yet he writes. He writes about political prisoners who are slowly dying inside Cuba's jails; he writes about the failed distribution of rice cookers to citizens; he writes about the country's dengue fever crisis. He shows me a piece he is working on; this one is about Castro's health.

"His life is in limbo," Carlos says. Then he laughs, as it hits him. "Castro is in limbo, just like the Cuban people."

Carlos's house, located in Santo Suarez, a quiet and once gorgeous Havana suburb, is alternately grand and decrepit. It's filled with books, empty plastic jugs, and some withered root vegetables. At least one room is devoid of any furniture.

Carlos never knows when things will worsen in Cuba, and his stockpiles just might allow him to survive the next rough patch. Indeed this winter he couldn't afford meat for a traditional New Year's Eve meal, and he fretted about his phone bill. (Those dispatches abroad are costly; calls to the United States, for example, are about $2.80 per minute).

He's trying to amass a reference library for budding journalists and anyone interested in human rights. So far it fills three meager shelves.

After talking for a few hours, we decide to visit another independent journalist, Jaime Leygonier, who lives down the street. Carlos's neighborhood is something of a hotbed of dissident activity, with activist and doctor Darsi Ferrer also living nearby. Before we walk out the door, Carlos looks around outside. He wants to know if anyone is watching.

He continues to peer from side to side as we walk down the street together. When we arrive at Jaime's house — another once-great abode with tired furniture — the new host sums it up in a few words: "We're half-crazy with paranoia here."

Jaime used to be a teacher. That career disappeared when he was arrested for writing about Cuba for foreign publications. His relationship with his daughter was also affected by his anti-government stance; when he and his wife split up, they waged a nasty custody battle that was later published in international human rights journals.

"Due to Leygonier's dissident views, his daughter's elementary school has taken a position in the mother's favor and has refused to acknowledge his parental authority, denying him access to the school premises and the opportunity to speak with his daughter," wrote the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) in 2004.

These days Jaime also writes for publications around the world and receives a few dollars in return.

Jaime and Carlos are among the lucky independent reporters in Havana. They have phones, which means they can call their dispatches to people "outside."

Around the time I met with Carlos just before Christmas, acting Cuban President Raul Castro appeared on state-run television at an event at the University of Havana. He told students they should debate "fearlessly." Raul didn't say anything about freeing the journalists who "fearlessly" tried to report; indeed there are no indications he will encourage a free press.

Just days before my trip, the Cuban government issued new rules for foreign journalists — including an edict that said a reporting visa could be revoked "when [the reporter] carries out improper actions or actions not within his profile and work content; also when he is considered to have violated journalistic ethics and/or he is not guided by objectivity in his reports.''

The situation, of course, is worse for independent reporters in Cuba. The island jails more journalists than any other nation except China. There are 27 journalists currently imprisoned on the island, according to the IAPA. This past December, Raymundo Perdigón Brito was sentenced to four years in prison, convicted of "conduct that is in manifest contravention of the standards of socialist morality." Also that month, 21-year-old Ahmed Rodríguez Albacia was arrested at home in Havana, and according to the IAPA, police confiscated a mini tape recorder, a computer, a fax machine, two radios, a flashlight, cassette tapes, pencils, sheets of paper, CDs, books, and magazines during a raid on the man's house.

Maybe the fact that Carlos doesn't have notebooks, a computer, or a working pen is a good thing.

New Times is not disclosing the name of Our Woman in Havana because she traveled to Cuba without the proper visa required to report there.

Waiting for Him to Go

These kind of hit-and-run stories are good for tidbits, but not depth:

Miami New Times
Waiting for Him to Go
Castro’s Cuba brims with hushed anticipation, and paranoia
By Our Woman in Havana
Published: January 4, 2007

It's not often that I get to stand on a street corner in Old Havana and talk to an 81-year-old man (who is selling Granma, the state-run newspaper, no less) about Fidel Castro's asshole.

"What do you think happened to him?" I ask.

"Well, it's not his rectum," my new friend, Rene, says. He pauses. He nods. I nod. The word rectum hangs in the air.

"Maybe it's his intestine. But if he got only a bit of his intestine taken out" — Rene holds up his thumb and forefinger two inches apart — "then he wouldn't be laid up this long. No, I think he got a lot of his intestine taken out." Rene holds his hands about a foot apart.

A beret-clad policeman stands on the corner, a few feet away. I wonder if Rene will get in trouble for talking about Fidel's bowels in public. Rene moves closer to me. "Things have to change here," he whispers.

Forget about baseball. The new national sport in Cuba is speculation — about Fidel's health, about Raul's capabilities as president, about Cuba's future.

Ralph Amat, a pissed-off American who has finally gotten his Cuban wife out of the country after seven years of paperwork, sums it up nicely: "Everybody is just waiting for that bastard to die."

The difference between Cuba five years ago — when I last visited — and Cuba now couldn't have been more stark.

Everywhere everyone spewed about how this was the worst holiday season ever (no pork cutlets for Nochebuena, don't even think about an entire pig), worse than the Special Period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, worse than anything anyone had ever seen. People openly panhandled in the streets — something unseen five years ago. Buildings everywhere are peeling, crumbling, disintegrating into the streets. Internet, cell phones — hell, even phones — are nonexistent for regular Cubans. Even acting president Raul Castro went on national TV while I was there to carp about how bad the transportation and food situations were. "In this revolution, we are tired of excuses," he grumbled.

On the street, all it took was a "How's Havana?" or a simple "How are you?" to launch a bitter rant.

"Transportation? Horrible," Rene said. "Food? Terrible."

A taxi driver told me he doesn't make enough money in one month to buy a new pair of pants. "Look at these," he said, disgusted, rubbing his finger on his thigh. His khaki pants were nubby and frayed.

Paranoia, never in short supply in Cuba, has ratcheted up to uncharted levels. No one, of course, wanted to give me — a white woman from Miami — his or her last name for this article; some didn't want to give their names at all. Especially in public.

"We can't talk here," said Daniel, a 39-year-old parking attendant I met in the shadow of the capitol building. "You can get five years in prison for talking bad about Fidel."

The busy, bright street suddenly filled with creepiness. We retreated to a dark bar. Like many people I spoke with, Daniel is worried about the future. On one hand, he said, there is hope: Raul recently said he would like to begin a dialogue with the United States. The recent visit from U.S. congressmen — six Democrats, four Republicans, headed by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) — was seen as another positive step.

On the other hand, Raul, who heads the military, is perceived by many as more of a hard-ass than Fidel, people said.

"All Raul wants is war," Daniel said. "And Cubans don't want war."

Whatever happens, Daniel hopes to someday have a girlfriend. It's nearly impossible now because most Cuban women want to date and marry foreigners. And even if he meets a woman, he can't take her back home to spend the night.

"I sleep in the same room as my mom," he said, embarrassed.

The general consensus is that Fidel is history. Everyone acknowledges he is sick, ill beyond the point of returning to power.

So people wait. They wait, as they have done for years, for buses and for bread, for medicine and for visas. This time, they hope, the wait will be worth it.

"I want to see what's next for Cuba," said Pedro, a genial taxi driver who chatted about how he watched America TeVe (Channel 41) out of Miami the night the government announced Fidel was sick.

Pedro's view of Cuba was the most optimistic. He has a vision for a more socialist democracy, along the lines of Spain's. He's trying to position himself to take advantage of the changes: He plans to rent out a room in his house, he's experienced at hooking up pirated DirectTV, and he's working on his Italian, just in case. (He speaks four languages already.)

The gloomiest vision of Cuba came from Nelida, a weary fortuneteller in the moribund town of Regla, just outside Havana.

"What's in Cuba's future?" I asked as she shuffled the cards. Behind her a black Santería doll in a wildly colored dress stood on a faded table. It was stifling-hot inside Nelida's tiny apartment, and she looked at me seriously as she tapped a card.

"Suffering," she said. "Sadness and suffering and change."

I left her with ten dollars and a promise to someday return, hoping that when I do, her predictions won't have come true.

Yet the tourists — mostly German, French, and Spanish — still go. There are fewer Americans these days, but they are there, hiding behind their dog-eared Lonely Planet guides and mojitos. Some have a passing curiosity about Fidel, but many are happy to see Cuba in all its communist Disneyland glory.

"I want to see it before it changes," was the common refrain.

The tourists all gaze at the few restored buildings and well-kept plazas, sighing romantically. Men gawk at the prostitutes — who are still there, just a little more low-key after several crackdowns — and the women still blush when Cuban men with seductive eyes ask them to dance.

They shake their hips stiffly to the salsa band belting out a cover of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," not knowing the band has been placed in that bar by the government, paid by the government, controlled by the government.

Some tourists seem to be baffled as to why certain things aren't available upon request like in other Caribbean getaways — pineapples, newspapers, three-quarters of a menu at some restaurants — but they shrug and move on.

They do buy cigars and rum by the bagful, and when unleashed on the Havana airport for their departure, they swoon at the last few things for sale on Cuban soil.

"Hey," called one excited American tourist to her friends before an early-morning flight to Cancun. "They have a Che Swatch watch over there!"

It took everything I had not to walk over and slap her. I thought of Rene, the newspaper vendor, who had worked for Che Guevara in the government during the early Sixties. He turned down a good job in New York in those heady days after the revolution, telling the employer he wanted to stay on the island because "there are good things in Cuba's future."

Even though his country is in shambles, Rene remembers Che with fondness. "I'm not a Fidel-ista," he said. "I'm a Che-ista."

Tourists shuffled by, taking no interest in Rene's newspapers. The police officer in the beret moved on. An exhausted-looking Cuban man hauled some two-by-fours past us in a wheelbarrow. I grew sad as we talked; Rene seemed to embody all the surreal contradictions and nonsensical paradoxes of his homeland.

Now, at age 81, Rene survives on a meager pension, tourist tips gleaned from working four hours a day, and some family cash from Miami.

Viva la revolución.

Next week: Dissident journalists in Cuba do their jobs without notebooks, pens, or food.

New Times is not disclosing the name of Our Woman in Havana because she traveled to Cuba without the proper visa required to report there.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Cuba's tourist economy in trouble

Miami Herald online
Posted on Tue, Apr. 03, 2007
Cuba's tourist economy in trouble
Cuba's tourism industry, the island's main economic engine for the past 15 years, is in a steep fall amid a mix of factors that range from rising air ticket prices to changes in tour ownerships and crumbling tourist facilities.

The first alarm rang late last year, when Ministry of Tourism (MinTur) figures showed 2.2 million people had visited the island in 2006, down from 2.3 million in 2005.

The decline has accelerated so far this year. January and February indicators show a combined drop of 7 percent compared to the same months in 2006, according to the most recent MinTur figures, with February visitation falling 13 percent.

Spanish tourists, historically the island's third-largest group, dropped by 45 percent over both months.

Cuba's tourism industry has been generating more than $2 billion per year in recent years, and provides direct and indirect employment to about 300,000 people.

Cuban authorities explaining the drop have cited a rise in air fares, due to the cost of fuel, currency exchange rate shifts and the scares of the notoriously violent 2005 hurricane season. Also mentioned are the Bush administration tightening of restrictions on Cuban-American trips to the island, which according to Cuban news media reports dropped from 100,000 in 2004 to about 30,000 a year since.

On the plunge in Spanish tourism, MinTur officials focused blame on the suspension of three weekly flights by the Iberojet charter airline and the sale of the cruise line Pullmantur to Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises. A Pullmantur ship used to sail every week from Havana after picking up tourists who had flown in from Madrid, but the company was forced to end its Cuba stops under the new owners because of the U.S. trade embargo.


But internal MinTur documents obtained by El Nuevo Herald, independent experts and tourism-sector workers on the island show there are other serious problems not mentioned by MinTur.

Most of Cuba's tourism facilities were built in the 1990s and have received little maintenance since then, said a MinTur official who asked for anonymity out of fear of government punishment.

''The structure created for years in the tourism industry is crumbling piecemeal,'' the employee said. ``Tourism in Cuba is headed for chaos and it will take years to revert the present situation.''

The MinTur documents also point to the inability of the Tourism Construction Enterprise (Emprestur) to repair hotels because of the lack of materials.

The employee said there's also widespread dissatisfaction with the way Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz and leading managers are running things. Marrero, former president of the Gaviota Group, run by the Cuban armed forces, and a trusted aide to Cuban interim leader and Defense Minister Raúl Castro, was appointed to the post in early 2004 after the removal of Ibrahim Ferradaz amid reports of a corruption scandal.

''What's happening in tourism is a reflection of a behavior that has spread nationwide,'' said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe on the phone from Havana. ``People are disgusted with the economic situation at home, workers don't take pride in their work and inertia corrupts the entire organization.''


Also affecting tourism was the Cuban government's decision in late 2004 to effectively increase the value of its currency by 20 percent, making foreigners' hotel stays and meals in Cuba that more expensive.

``It was logical that a devalued dollar would cause a drop in tourism from Latin America and Canada, because the visitors from those countries buy very cheap packages, said Carmelo Mesa Lago, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and a long-time Cuban economy watcher.

With 44,000 hotel rooms, Cuba had an occupancy rate of 63.5 percent in 2004 and only 55.7 percent in 2005, according to the United Nation's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The average daily expenditure per visitor dropped from $175 in 2003 to $97 in 2005.

MinTur has not released occupancy statistics for 2006, but the MinTur official estimated it at 50 percent.

Trying to reverse the trend, MinTur announced a strategic plan for 2007 that involves support for investments, construction of new facilities and repairs of existing hotels. The plan also envisions improved highways and road signs, and guarantees of electricity and water for the tourism industry.

Marrero has announced a ''total change in the philosophy of promotion and advertising for the island,'' and in January unveiled a campaign named ''Viva Cuba,'' designed to present a new image of the country, at the International Tourism Fair in Madrid.