Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cuba says few citizens have phones and computers

Cuba says few citizens have phones and computers
Thu 26 Jun 2008, 15:49 GMT

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, June 26 (Reuters) - Forget iPods, BlackBerries and other electronic gadgets, most Cubans are still waiting for telephones and less than five percent have a computer, the government reported on Thursday.

The National Statistics Office ( released 2007 telecommunications data showing there were 1.241 million telephone lines in the country of 11.2 million inhabitants, of which 910,000 were residential and the remainder in state hands.

Mobile phones numbered just 330,000.

There were 4.5 personal computers per 100 residents, but most of those were in government offices, health facilities and schools.

The report was issued two months after Cuban President Raul Castro legalized the sale of computers and cellphones, though their high cost puts them out of reach of many.

Until the sales were permitted, Cubans mostly obtained computers on the black market and cellphones through foreigners, who have used them in Cuba since the 1990s.

The report said more than 10 percent of the population had access to Internet, but access in most cases is to a Cuban government Intranet and no data was available for access to the full Internet.

The number of telephone lines and computers has doubled since 2002, according to the report, which did not show any cell phones in use then.

By comparison, Latin American neighbor Mexico, with a population of 108 million, has 20 million telephone lines and 50 million cellphone users, according to industry statistics.

World Bank figures showed that in 2006, Mexico had 13.6 computers and 17.5 Internet users for every 100 people.

Cuban officials blame the longstanding U.S. embargo for the country's last place status in the region in communications and point out they are in first place in health and education.

The move to allow computer and cellphone sales was part of reforms by Castro, who replaced his brother Fidel Castro as president in February, aimed at easing economic hardship faced by Cubans.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Frances Kerry)

Cuban security agents detain gay activists, cancel parade

Miami Herald
Posted on Thu, Jun. 26, 2008
Cuban security agents detain gay activists, cancel parade
Gay dissidents in Cuba report that a planned gay-rights rally Wednesday was canceled after government security officers detained nine organizers.

"The march was not able to take place because the government stopped our leaders," said Ron Brenesky, a Miami Cuban who heads the Unity Coalition, South Florida's largest Latin gay rights group.

"Our brothers and sisters in Cuba, they are not alone," said Brenesky, who spoke with gay activists in Cuba by cellphone Wednesday evening. Unity Coalition members gathered for the phone call at Club Azucar on Southwest 32nd Avenue in Little Havana.

Dissident Ignacio Estrada Cepero told Brenesky and the others that he was detained early Wednesday before the planned rally in Havana. Security guards told him he didn't have permission to leave his home province of Santa Clara, Brenesky said.

Cuban Aliomar Janjaque was put on house arrest after being warned not to gather in a park with other gay dissidents, he told Unity Coalition members.

The park was taken over by security forces, Janjaque said.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Generational gap found on Cuba travel

Miami Herald

Posted on Wed, Jun. 18, 2008
Generational gap found on Cuba travel
There's a split between older and younger Cuban Americans on whether exiles should be allowed to travel more often to visit relatives on the communist island, according to new polls commissioned by a group seeking better U.S.-Cuba relations.

The polls released Wednesday by the Foundation for Normalization of US/Cuba Relations, a group formed in 2006, show that a majority of registered voters in the hotly contested 21st and 25th congressional districts support unfettered exile Cuba travel and money remittances to the island. Voters in both districts are less likely to support a candidate who favors travel and money restrictions, the polls indicate, though the gap is not sufficient to overcome the polls' margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. Another 11 percent of those polled were undecided.

Republican incumbents in both districts, Lincoln Diaz-Balart in the 21st and brother Mario Diaz-Balart in the 25th, favor restrictions President Bush imposed in 2004 limiting exile travel to once every three years instead of annually. The 2004 rules also limit money remittances to close family members like spouses, parents or children instead of any relative.


The issue has become central to the Diaz-Balarts' reelection because their chief Democratic challengers, former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and former Cuban American National Foundation executive director Joe Garcia, favor lifting restrictions.

Martinez is running against Lincoln and Garcia against Mario.

''This is now the latest in a series of polls done by third parties that show that Cuban Americans overwhelmingly disagree with the Diaz-Balart-Bush policy on Cuba,'' said Jeffrey Garcia of the Martinez campaign.

Ana Carbonell, Lincoln Diaz-Balart's campaign manager, said: ``It's amazing that with all the issues that need to be addressed, from healthcare to rising gas prices, the one issue this poll chooses to prioritize is how to offer economic relief to a state sponsor of terror.''

Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart's spokesman, said: ``It is regrettable that while Mario is fighting in D.C. for lower taxes, affordable healthcare and a solution to the housing crisis, the opposition is promoting push-polls to divide our community.''


In samples of 400 registered Cuban-American and other voters in the two Diaz-Balart districts, older Cuban-Americans oppose travel to Cuba by fellow exiles while younger Cuban Americans favor lifting restrictions.

The polls were conducted by the Hamilton Campaigns, a Washington research and political strategy firm that on its website ( says it helped Democrats ``take back control of Congress.''

Polling also was done in the 17th district, which is represented by Kendrick Meek, a Democrat who has remained neutral in the Diaz-Balart races.

Read more about Cuba and South Florida's exile community at and the blog http://miamiherald.typepadcom/cuban_colada/

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cubans who work more will get higher salaries

From the Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Jun. 11, 2008
Cubans who work more will get higher salaries
In what some experts call Raúl Castro's boldest break yet from socialism, Cuban state companies have until August to overhaul their salary structures to one that pays hard-workers more than slackers, the government newspaper reported Wednesday.

No more will all Cuban workers doing the same job receive the same pay. Now people who do more will get more -- and those who offer quality service will be rewarded, the vice minister of labor, Carlos Mateu, told Granma, the country's Communist Party newspaper.

''I think of all the changes made so far, this one is the most important,'' said Lizette Fernández, a former dissident who campaigned for a change in Cuba's dual currency system until she moved to Hialeah last year.

``If you worked in an office in Cuba, you often got paid the same as the person who cleaned the office. Slow and lazy people got the same or even more, because the bosses got their jobs through political connections and didn't do any work.''

Realistically, she said, the change could mean as little as 50 cents in a nation where many people make as little as $15 a month.

''Fifty cents may not sound like a lot, but at the end of the month, it's the difference between being able to buy one bar of soap and two bars of soap,'' she said. ``This change offers hope that they will increase salaries even more.''

Cuba has long struggled to kick start a lagging economy plagued with unmotivated and underpaid workers. The measure, first announced in April, is designed to offer incentives to laborers to help turn around low production.

It is part of a series of changes made since Castro took office Feb. 24 with the self-imposed mandate to increase production and save his socialist revolution. But most of Castro's moves so far, such as decentralizing agriculture and offering high-price consumer goods to the public, have detoured from socialism.

''Egalitarianism is not convenient,'' Mateu said. ``It is not fair, because while it is harmful to pay the worker less than what he deserves, it is also harmful to give him what he doesn't deserve.''

Among the law's provisions:

• Workers can get bonuses of as much as 5 percent of their base salary just for meeting production quotas.

• Managers will be limited to a 30 percent wage increase for improved performance.

• Companies have until August to readjust their payrolls, but if any company is ready to make the changes, it can do so immediately.

Wages will vary ''according to the nature of the labor performed by the worker,'' Mateu said. Granma described the process as ``the socialist principle of distribution, where everyone [is paid] according to quantity and quality.''

Until now, workers have been paid flat rates according to job descriptions with no incentives.

''I would describe it as a significant departure from the socialist values Cuba has been espousing,'' said Daniel P. Erikson, a Cuba expert at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C.

``Raúl Castro is also trying to solve a basic problem: Cuba is a country that does not produce much. Recalibrating salaries is a straightforward way to solve that problem.''

Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, said the new pay system sounds more like another way for the Cuban government to keep tabs on people.

''I have no idea how they plan to measure this and keep track of it, unless it's a new task for the CDR,'' she said, referring to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood watch groups that spy on their neighbors.

''I don't understand how this gives an incentive to work harder,'' she said. ``If they really want to offer incentives, they should go to a market economy and let people keep the fruits of their labor. This is going to require increased surveillance, spying and tattling.''

Miami Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Some Cuban expats going back home

Miami Herald

Posted on Tue, Jun. 10, 2008
Some Cuban expats going back home
Jorge's friends at work call him the ``Sixth Hero.''

Folks here figure Jorge must be the secret spy who got away. Why else would he have returned to Cuba after living in the United States for six years? The ''sixth hero'' reference relates to the five Cuban intelligence agents the Cuban government nicknamed ''the Five Heroes'' who are serving long U.S. prison sentences.

Despite the freedom Jorge enjoyed and the ability to earn a better living as a school custodian in Miami Beach, Jorge returned to Cuba in 2002 to face a government that mistrusted him, a year of probation and friends that assume he is a member of the intelligence service. He said he is one of a growing number of émigrés who after years of living abroad, yearn for the sounds and familiarity of home.

Either for love or family, or because they never felt quite at home, they pack a few things and come back to a country where they make in a month what they used to earn in an hour.

Jorge says he is now like a TV mute button -- because every time he walks into a room full of Cubans, everyone stops talking.

''The government here thinks you are CIA, and the people think you are state security who went to the United States and came back after completing your mission,'' said Jorge, a 47-year-old guitarist. ``The others just think you are crazy for coming back. But, you know, every now and then someone visiting from Miami passes by my house and asks me, `I want to come back, too. How did you do it?'''

It was not easy. Just like leaving Cuba legally is filled with bureaucratic red tape, so is returning.

Cubans who leave for longer than 11 months are considered permanent residents of someplace else, so they must report to immigration offices here and reapply for identity papers. They are forced to report monthly to immigration for a year until they are cleared.

It's unclear whether the option to return is available at all for the people who left Cuba illegally without the required exit papers.

''I went to immigration and said, `I'm not going back. Like it or not, I'm staying,''' he said. ``They did not take it so well.''

The Cuban government does not publish statistics on people who return to the island. It's clearly a tiny portion of the tens of thousands of Cubans who leave each year for the United States and Europe. At least 20,000 Cubans migrate legally to the United States every year, and the vast majority return only to visit.

Well-known Havana blogger Yoani Sánchez said when she returned to Cuba from Zurich four years ago with her 8-year-old son in tow, friends advised her to rip up her passport, so the Cuban government could not force her to leave again.

In her Generation Y blog, she describes how she showed up at a provincial immigration office and was simply told to get in line -- behind all the other ``crazies.''

''A man who returned from Spain with his wife and daughter after living there five years told me, `Don't worry, they are going to try to force you to leave, but you have to refuse. The worst thing that happens is that they detain you for two weeks, but the jail is right here, and the mattresses are quite fine,''' she wrote.

Sánchez never did have to test the jail mattresses.

''People think it's weird for you to return, but in any other place in the world, leaving for a few years and coming back is the most normal thing,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``It's Cuban law that makes it absurd.''

She lived in Switzerland for two years with her husband and child, but came back for family reasons. She has encountered several people who did the same thing.

''Some people come back, because they had elderly parents who were alone. Some never adapted where they were or had property issues to deal with here,'' she said. ``Some come back for love, because they never could get their family member out of Cuba.''

Jorge left Cuba in 1996 with his wife when they won the visa lottery, and landed first in Oregon, where they stayed for two years. The couple eventually moved to South Florida, but never felt comfortable, in part because they found the exile community too politicized. Jorge liked the freedom, the right to speak out in public, and still misses the polite manners and cleanliness of the streets. But as a musician, he grew weary of mopping floors and washing dishes.

''It was hard to integrate,'' he said. ``I think I always knew I would come back. For me, it had nothing to do with politics. It has to do with being Cuban, the love I have for my people and my land.''

In 2002, the couple brought $20,000 in savings back to Havana and returned to stay, moving back to the home where Jorge's mother-in-law lives. They used the money to renovate the home, but the marriage was on the rocks and did not last.

Jorge's ex stayed in the renovated house, and he now lives in a tiny studio on the same property, a bit worse off than he did in Miami Beach. He makes a decent enough living off tips playing the guitar at a local tourist restaurant and has no regrets.

Andy Gomez, senior provost at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the cases of returnees are isolated. But 20 years ago, it was virtually unheard of.

''Some people left loved ones behind and just miss them. Others just can't psychologically adjust to a free society,'' Gomez said. ``The longer you live in that system, the more difficult it is to break the psychological barrier.

``You are trapped in two systems, so what do you do? You revert to the old.''

Katrin Hansing, the associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, said in the dozen years she lived in Cuba, she met about nine people who had returned from living abroad. Most did so because they longed for a sense of community and could not fit in to the South Florida rat race, she said.

''There is a tremendous pressure to come here and make it; to go back is seen as failure,'' Hansing said. ``They feel weird. It's a tough decision and an internal struggle. When they go back, they keep a very low profile in Cuba. It breaks the myth that people come here and find bliss. Neither place is paradise.''

If the Cuban government made the process easier, she said, there would probably be more of them.

For Silvia, the daughter of government officials who lived a comfortable life in Cuba, the decision to return to the island after six months in the United States was easy: she ran out of money and had nowhere to go.

''I hate Fidel Castro, but does that mean I should work in a cafeteria?'' she said. ``I am 44 years old, and the first and only time in my life I went hungry was in the United States. Here, I live in a four-bedroom house and have a car. Over there, I had to live in an apartment the size of a table.''

Silvia did not suffer the bureaucratic hassles the others endured, because she was in South Florida and Los Angeles for less than 11 months.

''Coming back was the easiest decision I ever made. I had $20 and what was I going to do with that?'' she said. ``It was a question of simple mathematics.''

Once her paperwork was processed, the Cuban government told Sánchez, the blogger, she can never leave again. That is not an issue for her -- at least not now.

''I want to live many more years here, but I am not closed to anything,'' Sánchez said. ``I don't believe in false patriotism. I am a citizen of the world, and I feel happy anywhere. For now, I'm good here.''

Jorge says he is glad he came home, too.

''I have a lot of nice memories of Oregon,'' he said. ``It's a very beautiful place. But I always knew I was coming back.''

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Where no homes sell, ever (Cuban house swapping)

St. Petersburg Times
Where no homes sell, ever

By David Adams, Times Latin America Correspondent

Published Wednesday, June 4, 2008 8:01 AM

HAVANA — Walk down almost any street in the Cuban capital and it's easy to spot the cheap hand-painted cardboard signs saying Se Permuta, meaning "Home for Swap."

When Cubans want to move, these are the words they use. The "For Sale" sign familiar to Americans is banned; after all, you can't sell what you aren't allowed to own. So a family looking for an apartment with an extra bedroom for a new baby might swap with an older couple whose children have moved out. Run largely on word of mouth, the permuta is typical of the elaborate schemes Cubans have developed to work within the country's socialist strictures.

"It may sound odd, but it works," said Gladys Jane, 60, hunting for a house swap the other day on the Prado Avenue, a shady street on the edge of the historic colonial district that serves as Havana's unofficial permuta market.

But this peculiarly Cuban tradition — inefficient and often corrupt — could disappear if officials enact a reform that until now has only been hinted at by Raul Castro's administration: giving people the right to sell their homes. It would provide a source of taxable income for the government, and its effect on the cash-starved populace would be just as profound.

Since about 90 percent of Cubans hold title to their homes, said Antonio Zamora, a Miami attorney and expert on Cuban property issues, "Overnight, the government could hand them an asset with capital value."

Search for equality

Gladys Jane said she has been looking for a year with mounting desperation to swap her small, one-bedroom apartment and her 81-year-old mother's apartment for a larger place where they could live together along with her son. Her mother recently had undergone cancer surgery and could no longer climb the stairs to her second-floor apartment.

On the Prado, Jane stopped by to talk to Jesus Valdes, a corredor — the closest thing Cuba has to real estate agents. The corredors charge five pesos (20 cents) for each lead on a potential swap. Valdes has dog-eared notebooks full of addresses and phone numbers for each of the city's neighborhoods.

For a home swap to be approved by the federal Housing Institute, the homes must be of "equal value" — a near impossibility. But the system is flexible, taking account of such factors as an existing telephone line, and permitting one party to make repairs and improvements to meet the other person's needs.

No money is supposed to change hands, but frequently does. "Sometimes to get what you want, you make a payment that the government can't see," said Valdes, 78, grinning.

Jose Guerra, another corredor, said the system forces people to break the law. "That's why there are so many lies and frauds. If they let you pay legally, it wouldn't be necessary."

A hot tip

Without resorting to the corredors, Jane found a potential swap. Someone else looking to move gave her the address of Nestor Redondo, 66, a retired stevedore. Later that afternoon Jane visited Redondo's home, which he shares with his daughter and her family in the Central Havana district. She liked the spacious, albeit typically rundown house with three bedrooms, large patio and kitchen with chickens out back.

"I'm very interested," she told Redondo, giving him the addresses of her home and her mother's. "I have a telephone. Come by and take a look," she added, before taking off to tell her mother the news that a permuta might be in the works.

Her mother did not fully share her excitement. "I don't want to move. I like it here," said Barbara Morales, resting her legs on a stool in her tiny, rickety apartment on a major avenue in the centrally located Cerro neighborhood. "But I have to do it because of the stairs."

Farcical, frustrating

The frustrations of the permuta are so ingrained in Cuban culture that it serves as a reliable plot device. A Cuban comedy in the 1980s titled Se Permuta featured a farcically complex permuta chain of six separate links that falls apart at the last moment.

And one of the most popular sites on the Web — a relative novelty in a country with few computers — is, where people can search for swaps online. The site has an inventory of 21,000 properties, with photographs and comments from happy customers. The operator of the site says he created it to help others after going through his own permuta. Not state sanctioned, he says he hopes one day he might be able to sell ads, now against the law.

A fully commercial real estate market remains far off, says Zamora, the Miami attorney who visits Cuba often and has studied its property laws. "If you start down that path, people will start accumulating property," he said. "It's human nature, and they won't allow that."

Zamora still expects to see greater flexibility in the housing market, including loosening restrictions on home improvements and renting rooms. Many Cubans already take matters into their own hands, he said.

"Cubans are very ingenious," Zamora said, describing cases of Cuban exiles who make payments to relatives in Cuba for extensions and extra floors that get built in secret.

"Real estate reform could help relieve some of the economic problems," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist who has spent time in jail for criticizing the government.

"It would create an almost interminable list of new possibilities," he said, such as the creation of private construction firms, as well as collateral for bank loans.

'Permuta' lives on

Despite her faith in the system, Gladys Jane's house swap never materialized. "They never called or came by," she said.

Then her mother died almost two weeks ago. "Her heart gave out," said Jane. "The medicine was too much for her."

But Jane says she still wants to move.

"I am going back to the Prado on Monday."