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.