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."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

US Med Students Graduate from Cuban school

Students graduate from Cuban school
Castro’s communist government paid for education for 8 minorities
The Associated Press
Updated: 9:36 p.m. PT July 24, 2007

HAVANA - Eight American students graduated from a Cuban medical school on Tuesday and said they planned to put six years of education paid for by Fidel Castro’s communist government to use in hospitals back home.

The four New Yorkers, three Californians and a Minnesota native, all from minority backgrounds, began studying in Havana in April 2001. They are the first class of Americans to graduate from the Latin American School of Medicine since Castro offered free training to U.S. students seven year ago following meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I’ve learned that medicine is not a business,” said Toussaint Reynolds, a graduate from Massapequa, New York. “I will be a better doctor in the United States for it.”

The 80-year-old Castro has not been seen in public since last July 31, when he announced that emergency intestinal surgery was forcing him to step down in favor of a provisional government headed by his younger brother Raul.

On Tuesday, about 2,100 students from 25 countries graduated from the medical school, including some 1,200 medical doctors, as well as dentists, nurses and medical technicians. More than 10,000 students attend the school that opened in 1999 to provide free training to foreign students from disadvantaged families.

Washington’s 45-year-old embargo prohibits most Americans from traveling to Cuba and chokes off nearly all trade between the countries. But the State Department has not opposed the medical school program, saying U.S. policy hopes to encourage contact between ordinary Cubans and Americans.

U.S. authorities have suggested it is unclear whether Americans who receive medical training in Cuba can meet licensing requirements in the United States. The graduates must pass two exams to apply for residency at U.S. hospitals, and then a third test, much like students who received medical degrees in other countries.

'Prepared clinically'
The six U.S. women and two men who graduated Tuesday all received degrees in medicine.

While they are the first graduating class of Americans, a U.S. student who began studying in the United States then transferred to the Cuban school graduated two years ago. He recently began his residency at a hospital in New York City.

Kenya Bingham, who graduated Tuesday and is from Alameda, Calif., said some might think less of a Cuban medical degree.

“Do I think there will be prejudices against us when we go back to the states and are looking for residences? Yes, I think there will be just due to the simple fact that there are political differences between the two countries,” Bingham said. “But I’m definitely confident that the eight of us are very well prepared clinically.”

The Rev. Lucius Walker, of the U.S. nonprofit Pastors for Peace, has worked closely with the graduating U.S. students and said that about 100 other Americans are enrolled at the school, and another 18 are scheduled to start next month

© 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19942866/

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Chachá's Obituary in Cuban Newspaper

Murió uno de los fundadores de Los muñequitos de Matanzas

Matanzas, Cuba, 19 julio.— Los tambores tocaron con sentimiento "Cuando se pierde a un amigo" para despedir a uno de sus más emblemáticos cultores, Esteban "Chachá" Vega, quien murió hoy aquí a los 82 años de edad.

Fue uno de los fundadores de la agrupación Los muñequitos de Matanzas, ganadora de un Grammy Latino, y reverenciada por el público y la crítica especializada internacional.

La salud de Vega se resintió a principios de año cuando severos trastornos circulatorios requirieron la amputación de una de sus piernas.

Con su muerte se cierra el capítulo de los ocho músicos que en octubre de 1952, en la humilde barriada La Marina de esta ciudad -100 kilómetros al este de la Habana- dieron vida a la agrupación de ritmos afrocubanos Los Muñequitos.

"Mi paso por Los muñequitos fue uno de los mayores sucesos en mi vida", confesó Vega en una ocasión cuando destacó también: todo lo que aprendí, lo aprendí en mi barrio.

El etnólogo Juan García comentó a Prensa Latina que Chachá fue una importante representación de la cultura popular afrocubana, y por su destreza y limpieza en los toques revolucionó estos ritmos.

No tuvo hijos pero sí muchos descendientes y dejó sembrado sus conocimientos en esos muchachos. Los mejores percusionistas que tiene Matanzas en la actualidad son prueba viviente de ello, señaló.

No fue egoísta y brindó su sabiduría como a él también se la transmitieron antes. Fue consecuente con la tradición de que "un solo palo no hace monte", destacó.

El sepelio del tamborero más viejo de la mayor de las Antillas tendrá lugar en el cementerio San Carlos de la urbe matancera. Entre las ofrendas florales enviadas figuró una a nombre de Abel Prieto, ministro de Cultura de la isla.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Chachá (Esteban Domingo Vega Bacallao (1925-2007)

Chachá (was a giant of Afro-Cuban music, a man without peer in terms of his experience with Afro-Cuban music. I am honored to have known him.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Report: If ban were eased, U.S. exports to Cuba could double

If ban were eased, U.S. exports to Cuba could double, report says


Lifting U.S. trade and travel restrictions on Cuba could boost agricultural exports to the island by between $175 million and $350 million per year, a U.S. government report released Thursday concludes.

The $350 million figure would be more than double current agricultural exports to the island.

Opponents of U.S. policy seized on the conclusions to argue that the Bush administration needs to ease the restrictions in order to benefit U.S. exporters.

''It's clearly time for Congress to curb the overzealous trade embargo on Cuba, so that American ranchers and farmers can benefit to the tune of over $300 million a year,'' said Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees trade issues.

The committee requested the study by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), an independent agency that reviews trade matters. The report is one of the most complete of its kind, with nine investigators conducting scores of interviews, including some in Cuba.

The report cautions that projections are difficult to make because of ``data limitations and the nonmarket aspects of Cuban purchasing decisions.''

It notes that agricultural goods are imported by the state trading agency Alimport, which considers both commercial and ''noncommercial factors'' when making its purchasing decisions, including diversifying suppliers and ``strengthening strategic geopolitical relations.''

So the study provides a range of $176 million to $350 million for additional Cuban purchases.

The 180-page report also estimates lifting travel restrictions would mean between 550,000 and one million U.S. citizens would travel to Cuba annually, against 170,000 that did so in 2005, most of them Cuban Americans.

U.S. commodity exports to Cuba were permitted in 2000 and the United States quickly became Cuba's biggest supplier of foodstuff, although farm state lawmakers like Baucus, who has proposed legislation to ease sanctions, argue that U.S. sales could be much higher.

The biggest gains would be for fresh fruits and vegetables, milk powder, processed foods and certain meats, ITC investigators concluded.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Film casts harsh light on problems in Havana

Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Jul. 08, 2007
Film casts harsh light on problems in Havana
A new documentary by a young Cuban filmmaker has cast a harsh spotlight on the housing and other serious problems faced by the thousands of Cubans who move illegally from the provinces to Havana in search of better lives.

The migrants, mostly from eastern Cuba and known as ''Palestinians'' because they lack legal residency in Havana, often are forced to live in shanty towns on the edges of the capital and expelled by police back to their hometowns.

''The phenomenon of forcible return continues to exist, although the police proceed silently and with some secrecy,'' said Elizardo Sánchez, president of the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Sánchez estimated that dozens of people are expelled from Havana every week by bus or train after being detained for failure to produce documents confirming their legal residence in Havana. Repeat violators are taken to court, although the sanctions consist only of fines and official ''banishment'' from the capital for several years.

Cubans' jobs and ration cards are linked to their legal residences. But the economic crisis of the 1990s brought a rise in migration to Havana. A government statement at the time said 92,000 people had tried to legalize their residency in Havana in the first half of 1997.

That same year a law made it extremely difficult to shift legal residency to the capital, a city of 2.1 million people.

Havana residents estimate that about 20 shanty towns rose in the city's suburbs in the past decade, with shacks usually built out of metal sheets, scrap lumber and cardboard without government permission.


Most of the migrants come from eastern Cuba, where people tend to be poorer and darker-skinned. Adding to the dislike for the orientales, many of Havana's police were brought in from the east, apparently to avert any sense of regional loyalty in case of disturbances.

''It's as if we were lepers just because we're easterners,'' says María, a woman from Guantánamo province who appears in the documentary Buscándote Habana -- Looking for Havana -- made in 2006 by Cuban filmmaker Alina Rodríguez Abreu, 22.

The 21-minute film, which will be shown at 6 p.m. today on AmericaTeVe-Channel 41, explores the deplorable living conditions and discrimination faced by the illegal migrants who live in the shantytowns.

The documentary was Rodríguez' graduation thesis at the School of Audiovisual Media in Havana's Higher Institute of Art. El Nuevo Herald was unable to contact her in Havana.

Filmmaker Jean Michel Jomolka, who was in her graduating class and moved to Miami this January, said some authorities seized several of her cassettes containing interviews with people expelled from Havana, and others barred her from filming in several poor parts of the capital. She was detained and her camera was confiscated in Guantánamo.

Most of the scenes shown in the film were taped in the Havana shantytowns of Casablanca, Planta Asfalto and Santa Fe. The documentary also shows María, a native of Camagüey who lives with her husband in a shack in the swimming pool of the former Bristol Hotel in central Havana, now an apartment building.


Miami Dade College film critic Alejandro Ríos, host of La Mirada Indiscreta -- The Indiscreet Glance -- the TV program that will broadcast the documentary, said Rodríguez' film shows one of the island's politically sensitive problems.

''This is positive proof of the rebirth of the documentary in Cuba and the commitment of its new creators to depict reality without restrictions, with honesty, blowing away the smoke curtains of official history,'' Ríos said.

Havana residents' prejudices against those from eastern Cuba are current issues on the island. The recent national baseball championship series between teams from Havana and the eastern city of Santiago saw billboards posted around Havana streets that criticized the provincial team. One handmade sign hung across one street branded easterners as criminals and urged them to ``Go Home.''

''These people are like the roya,'' Oneida, a Havana resident, is seen saying on the documentary. Roya is a fungus that attacks vegetables.

A significant housing shortage is one of the key social problems affecting the country, particularly Havana. In 2005, the government announced a plan to build 100,000 new homes every year, but the goals were never met.

In the documentary, sociologist Pablo Rodríguez says that unless urgent steps are taken to control the proliferation of shantytowns, ``the future will resemble Las Yaguas.''

After the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, the Las Yaguas slum on the Havana outskirts was held up as a symbol of poverty and social neglect under previous regimes.

It was razed and replaced by a housing complex in the early 1960s.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

House eases rules on U.S. agriculture sales to Cuba

Miami Herald
Posted on Thu, Jun. 28, 2007
House eases rules on U.S. ag sales to Cuba
The House passed on Thursday an amendment that rolls back Bush administration restrictions on U.S. agricultural exporters to Cuba.

The amendment, offered by Kansas Republican Rep. Jerry Moran, was approved by a voice vote. It reverses a Bush administration view that Cuba has to pay in advance before agricultural goods are shipped to the island.

The approval came after Reps. Moran, New York Democrat Jose Serrano and Miami Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart debated Cuba's ability to pay its creditors and whether more U.S. trade with Cuba would usher democratic reforms to the island.

The passage marks a rare victory for opponents of U.S. policy on Cuba, who have suffered a string of defeats since 2005, when some members of Congress have unsuccessfully attempted to overturn President Bush's gradual tightening of sanctions against the island on everything from travel to food exports.

But the victory was tempered by the fact that for the first time in nearly a decade, opponents of the travel restrictions to Cuba were unable to present any amendments to the financial services spending bill on technical grounds.

In 2005, the Bush administration interpreted a 2000 law that allows U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba as requiring payment from Havana before the goods are shipped to the island and not upon reception. This apparently minor change made it more expensive for Havana to purchase U.S. goods like rice and chicken.

Moran called his amendment a ''rather modest modification'' in U.S. Cuba policy and said agricultural exports had fallen since 2005 because of the new rule.

Diaz-Balart said the new rule protected U.S. exporters from Cuba's ''abysmal'' record of defaulting on its payments.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Living on Cuban food ration isn't easy

Living on Cuban food ration isn't easy

By ANITA SNOW, Associated Press Writer
Mon Jul 2, 3:48 PM ET

No one on this communist-run island dies from starvation, but every month Cubans on the "universal ration" must use ingenuity and organization to ensure everyone gets enough to eat.

For 30 days, I lived on a similar program. I spent less than $17 for a month's sustenance, dropped nine pounds and learned — like Cubans — to budget carefully, plan meals ahead, buy only what was necessary and never throw food away.

Most importantly, I realized that like most Americans, I take food for granted, assuming I'll always get what I want when I want it.

Cuba's ration system began in 1962, to guarantee a low-priced basket of basic foods just as the U.S. cut off trade with the island, sparking food shortages. Initially characterized as temporary, the program remained as Cuba struggled to feed its people, turning to the Eastern bloc for most of its food.

Today, Cuba spends $1 billion a year to give the island's 11.2 million citizens a subsidized ration including rice, legumes, potatoes, bread, eggs and a small amount of meat. The government estimates the ration provides a third of the 3,300 calories the average Cuban consumes daily.

The rationed products, which cost consumers about $1.20, would cost more than $58 if purchased at the overpriced Cuban supermarkets for foreigners known as the "shopping," or about $50 at the average U.S. grocery store.

For my project, I allotted myself the same items on the ration, plus an average salary of $16.60 to buy the rest of my food. During June, I ate little animal protein, no dairy products, very little fat, but probably consumed more rice and beans than I had in a year. When I could, I ate fruit and vegetables daily.

Limited in what they can eat, Cubans spend much time thinking about their next meal. I found myself obsessing about food as well. Would I have enough money at the end of the month to buy vegetables? Would all those potatoes make me fat?

Cubans told me the farmers markets were expensive, but I didn't realize just how costly until I lived on their limited plan. A big papaya costs more than a day's wages.

More than half of Cubans have access to some foreign currency, whether from tips from tourists or remittances from abroad. With $50 a month, a family can buy additional cooking oil, pork or even a rare piece of beef at the "shopping."

But the rest of Cubans have to be creative. Neighbors trade and buy and sell rationed products to get what they need. They purchase milk, butter and yogurt sold surreptitiously outside the government bakery. Some engage in petty theft, such as restaurant workers who skim cheese off sandwiches.

I traded someone a pound of squid for six eggs. When I ran out of coffee, I bought rationed coffee from people who preferred extra food.

I learned firsthand how Cuba's tightly woven society ensures that relatives, neighbors, friends, and co-workers always eat. Several Cubans gave me part of their rations, refusing money or food in exchange. A Cuban colleague offered to share her homemade spaghetti lunch. A friend said his family invited the same elderly neighbor to lunch every day for years.

Despite their generosity, Cubans remain anxious about food, especially those who remember the "Special Period" — wartime-like austerity measures imposed in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and the island's gross domestic product plunged by 35 percent.

Cubans experienced true hunger during those years, missing many meals, eating very small and unappetizing ones, going months without meat or fresh produce. But the ration ensured no one starved to death.

The crisis eased after 1993 when the government broke up state farms into smaller cooperatives and individual farms, and opened farmers markets where producers could sell crops at unrestricted prices after meeting government production quotas. Cheap meals at workplaces and schools and affordable street food also help.

Still, stereotypes about Cuba's food situation persist. Visitors are often surprised to find a somewhat plump population, and recent government studies show 30 percent of Cuban adults are overweight.

With all the starch on the ration, and high produce costs, it would be easy to gain weight.

With my American phobia of carbohydrates, I gave away most of my four pounds of potatoes early into the month. Without those carbs, and without access to the cheap meals many government workers get, I dropped nine pounds in 30 days.

I marked the end of the month modestly on Sunday with a small dinner for Cuban and foreigner friends, cooking a mixed bean soup with sausages and a tomato base that my late mother loved. I also made corn bread, a watercress salad with tomatoes and avocados and a pumpkin flan.

Today, I return to a modified version of my diet for another month in hopes of losing more weight.

Legumes remain my primary protein source as I add some fish and chicken. I'll stay away from most beef, pork and dairy products, but will now add nonfat yogurt to my diet, along with more fruit and vegetables.

Most importantly, I'll eschew the chocolate bars, microwave popcorn, and potato chips I love.

And I'll try to stop taking food for granted.