Thursday, November 19, 2009

Obama answers questions from Yoani Sanchez

Yahoo Tech

Obama answers questions from top Cuban blogger
* By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer - Thu Nov 19, 2009 11:35PM EST


President Barack Obama has answered questions submitted by a celebrated Cuban blogger, saying he isn't interested in "talking for the sake of talking" with Raul Castro and indicating he won't visit the island until the communist government changes its ways.

In an unusual written response to Yoani Sanchez, who has gained international acclaim for daring to criticize her government online, Obama also said it is up to Cuba to act if it wants normal relations with Washington, saying that a true thaw in nearly 50 years of deep-freeze "will require action by the Cuban government."

His comments were posted Thursday on Sanchez's blog, "Generacion Y," which like most sites critical of the Cuban government is blocked on the island.

Sanchez uses caustic, often witty posts to provide an inside look at a communist state, writing about such daily hardships as food shortages and tensions caused by a lack of freedom of expression and assembly.

Obama assured Sanchez that the United States "has no intention of invading Cuba," a Cold War concept that top Cuban officials insist is still a possibility.

Raul Castro, who took over the presidency from his ailing brother Fidel in February 2008, has said he would be willing to meet with Obama and has even suggested they should sit down at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Obama told Sanchez he doesn't want empty dialogue.

"I am not interested ... in talking for the sake of talking," he wrote. "In the case of Cuba, such diplomacy should create opportunities to advance the interests of the United States and the cause of freedom for the Cuban people."

Obama answered seven questions from Sanchez, with his responses running more than 1,000 words. Sanchez said he wrote in English but that his office provided a Spanish translation, which she posted. The White House confirmed the responses came from the president.

Reached at home, Sanchez declined to comment, referring all queries to her blog. But her husband and fellow blogger Reinaldo Escobar said that she had sent printed copies of her questions and electronic versions to the White House more than three months ago.

"We had very little hope (Obama) was going to answer," Escobar said. "He's the president. He is very busy with other things."

Escobar said Obama's response arrived Wednesday night but declined to give details, saying only that they came "through official channels," a possible reference to the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Cuba OKs licenses for new private taxis

Cuba OKs licenses for new private taxis
Move offers rare glimpse of free market in communist nation
The Associated Press
updated 1:41 p.m. PT, Fri., Sept . 11, 2009

HAVANA - Jose Obdilio Duran's '57 Chevy has holes in its mottled floor, a passenger window that can't be rolled up and no inside panels on its doors. But the 71-year-old retiree wants to put the old car to work — applying for one of the first taxi licenses this communist country has granted in a decade.

About 60 would-be taxi drivers lined up early Friday at a Transport Ministry office in central Havana to fill out forms for permission to use their own cars as taxis — a rare dose of the free market on an island whose economy is dominated almost entirely by the state.

The new, private taxis are meant to help alleviate chronic transportation problems. In the capital, many people have to hitchhike to work in the morning. Things are so grave in the countryside that entire families wait by the highway for hours for transportation from one town to another.

Those willing to brave long lines at bus stops and endure sardine-like conditions can squeeze aboard former Soviet-bloc coaches that still list destinations such as East Berlin. Cuba has used credit to buy thousands of new buses from China, but they are mostly used to carry tourists and have not been enough to meet Cuban demand.

"This is one of the best decisions the state has ever made," said Luis Pozo, 67, another retiree seeking a license for his Russian-built 1988 Moscovich. Pozo said he didn't think the small free-market opening was out of step with the ideals of Cuba's revolution.

"It's not like anybody is going to get rich from this," he said.

‘Still going strong’
The license gives drivers the right to ferry fellow Cubans — but not foreigners — for a monthly fee of $21.50 a month. They must pay that quota whether they make the money back or not.

The government says it will set price ceilings, but has yet to provide details. Most of those applying for licenses said they hoped to charge 10 pesos — about 50 cents — for standard trips. A separate fleet of modern cabs caters to tourists and they can charge up to $30 for a single trip through Havana.

Cuba stopped granting new licenses for private taxis in October 1999, but lifted the restrictions in January. Authorities started handing out taxi permissions in May, but were so inundated with requests that they quickly suspended the program in Havana, and only resumed in earnest on Friday.

The government has not said how many licenses it will grant. Thousands of Cubans already use private cars, either classic or modern, to give black-market rides. But they risk steep fines and even having their cars seized by the state if caught.

To an outsider's detached eye, Duran's brown Bel Air looks as if it could come apart at any minute, but he sees it differently.

"It's a beautiful car," he said proudly, before slowly puttering away. "The motor is old, almost as old as me, but it works well. It is still going strong, just like me."

Duran says once he gets the license — wait time is supposed to be about a month — he hopes to drive part-time to supplement his monthly pension of $13. He and others waiting to get the licenses said they figure they will be able to pull in about $10 a month after taxes and maintenance costs, often driving their cars along set routes where many Cubans wait for a lift.

Increased competition
While getting new taxis on the road will be some comfort to commuters, not everyone is thrilled.

"This is going to mean more competition," said 35-year-old Manolo Rodriguez, one of about 50 already-licensed taxi drivers waiting under the shade of a tree-lined street next to Cuba's majestic capitol dome, a slightly taller replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Rodriguez says he spends most of his 12-hour day waiting his turn in line behind other taxis, since cruising for fares uses up lots of fuel. He said he usually only carries four passengers each shift on a set route to the remote suburb of El Cotorro.

Still, that's enough to make more on a good day than Rodriguez used to earn in a month working at a cracker factory — about $15.

"If they keep giving out licenses I may only be able to get three trips a day, and that will really affect my income," said Rodriguez, standing next to a hulking '53 Oldsmobile whose faded coat of powder blue paint had seen better days.

Supply and demand
The loosening of taxi rules is one of a small number of limited reforms taken by President Raul Castro's government. But it seems to expressly defy the policies of his brother Fidel, who singled out private taxis as seeking "juicy profits" and fomenting a black market for state-subsidized gasoline.

Raul took over Cuba's presidency in February 2008 and has spoken publicly about the need to address dire daily life problems like transportation, housing and food shortages. But he has largely failed to solve them, and the global financial crisis has taken a toll on the island's ever-weak economy.

Another hopeful new taxi driver, Rigoberto Lamyser, said he plans to use his Czech-made Skoda sedan on weekends to earn extra cash while keeping his full-time job as a hydraulic engineer.

Vehicle ownership is strictly controlled, and most Cubans can only have cars built before Fidel Castro's revolution on New Year's Day 1959. But the 60-year-old Lamyser said he was able to buy a modern car because his job took him overseas, making him eligible for a special license.

He said he would charge 50 cents a trip unless a passenger is desperate enough to pay more.

"The market decides," said Lamyser. "It's supply and demand and even Cuba can't resist it."

Friday, July 31, 2009

Cuba shuts factories, cuts energy to save economy

Cuba shuts factories, cuts energy to save economy
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer 1 hr 1 min ago

HAVANA – It's hard to find a spare tire in Cuba these days, or a cup of yoghurt.

Air conditioners are shut off in the dead heat. Factories close at peak hours, and workers go without their government-subsidized lunches.

Cuba has ordered austere energy savings this summer to cope with rising budget deficits and plummeting export profits, and the Communist Party Central Committee on Friday lowered 2009 economic growth projections by nearly a full percentage point. The committee also announced that it was suspending plans for the first Communist Party congress in 12 years in order to deal with the financial crisis.

A report in official Cuban newspapers cited President Raul Castro as saying the island is struggling through a "very serious" crisis and hinted that further belt-tightening was on the way.

The government already has imposed conservation measures even as it continues to get free oil for services from Venezuela, fueling rumors that Cuba is selling President Hugo Chavez's crude on the side to raise cash.

More likely, the shortages result from a global recession that hit an already struggling economy still reeling from last year's hurricanes. President Raul Castro scolded Cubans in a national address Sunday to work harder because they have no one to blame but themselves.

"The only thing I know is that this is lousy," said one 27-year-old who only gave the name Raul because he sells cement and housing materials on the black market. "I don't work. I find a way to survive."

The latest cuts are small compared with strict measures imposed during the so-called special period, when Cubans nearly starved after subsidies dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor are they as severe as the blackouts of 2004, when technical problems at power plants left much of the island in the dark for hours at a time. Fans and water pumps were idled. Milk and food spoiled, while electrical surges damaged refrigerators, televisions and other costly appliances.

Still, every bit of belt-tightening stings in a country where almost everyone works for the state and average wages are less than $20 per month.

The price of nickel, Cuba's chief export, is down more than 50 percent from last year, according to Toronto-based Sherritt International Cooperation, Cuba's largest energy partner.

The company's oil production on the island was down 19 percent last quarter compared to the second quarter of 2008, mainly because Sherritt suspended drilling earlier this year when Cuba fell behind on its payments.

The government and Sherritt have worked out a plan to pay down the debt, and the company says Cuba has been sticking to it. But the situation could have spurred the mandatory energy savings. Neither Sherritt nor the Cuban government would provide more details.

Or Cuba may be trying to save unused oil to bolster strategic reserves while prices are still relatively low, said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

But he also said the strict measures lend credence to whispers that Cuba is selling Venezuelan oil overseas — something the communist government did with some of the discounted oil it got from the Soviet Union.

"It's been alleged they've been selling Venezuelan oil on the side. They've denied that, but if they are open to doing it, now would be the time," Erikson said. "Cuba's in a real cash crunch."

Beginning June 1, the government ordered energy conservation measures as part of a broader plan to cut the national budget by 6 percent. Central planners also announced Friday they were revising their economic growth projections downward, from 2.5 percent to 1.7 percent. As recently as December, they had projected 6 percent economic growth in Cuba.

These days, most countries would cheer any economic growth. But Cuba counts what it spends on free health care and education, monthly food rations and other social programs as production — making economic growth figures dubious.

The island's economic woes began in earnest with three hurricanes last summer that caused more than $10 billion in damage and wiped out some of the food and grains the government had stockpiled to insulate itself from rising commodities prices.

How much Cuba has spent on hurricane recovery is unclear. But Castro said the government has rebuilt or repaired 43 percent of the 260,000 homes damaged or lost in the storms.

Cuba consumed about 150,000 barrels of crude oil a day in 2008, of which 52,000 were produced domestically and 93,000 imported from Venezuela, said Jorge Pinon, an energy fellow at the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy. Half is used to generate electricity, according to Cuba's Ministry of Basic Resources.

Though the numbers leave the country 5,000 barrels a day short, Pinon said natural gas production last year covered the energy equivalent of 20,000 barrels of oil daily and kept the power plants running smoothly.

"Cuba, from a petroleum point of view, is balanced," he said. "It's not running out of oil."

So far the power-saving measures have been confined to state-run businesses and factories, though many Cubans fear they will soon hit residential users as well.

Workers at a tire factory in San Jose de las Lajas, a rugged farming town 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Havana, said production is down and the factory goes dark when demand for electricity is high — leaving gas stations and mechanics short on spare tires.

In the central province of Cienfuegos, a large dairy that supplies ice cream and other products to much of the country and exports cheese has been ordered to cut production, according to the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde. Yogurt is scarce in Havana — sold only in upscale grocery stores that cater to tourists and are too expensive for most Cubans.

Some government office workers say their hours have been cut to between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and others are being told to come in only twice a week.

State companies also have stopped offering employees low-cost lunches in worker cafeterias to save power.

Other government offices, businesses, banks and stores have ordered air conditioners turned off for much of the day, rather than close early.

Customer service, never stellar in state-run institutions, has suffered even more. In the sweltering banks, barbershops and boutiques, listless employees are more interested in fanning themselves than serving sweating customers.

Cuba Cancels Plans for Communist Party Congress

Cuba nixes plans for party congress
Economic woes foil plans for congress to chart island’s post-Castro course
The Associated Press
updated 7:47 a.m. PT, Fri., July 31, 2009

HAVANA - Cuba on Friday suspended plans for a Communist Party congress and lowered its 2009 economic growth projection to 1.7 percent — nearly a full percentage point — as the island's economy struggles through a "very serious" crisis.

In a closed-door meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee, officials agreed to postpone indefinitely the first congress since 1997, which had been announced for the second half of this year.

The gathering was to chart Cuba's political future long after President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel are gone. Instead, top communists will try and pull their country back from the economic brink.

Second downward revision of 2009
Cuba lowered its 2009 growth estimate from 2.5 percent to 1.7 percent, but even that figure is dubious given that it includes state spending on free health care and education, the food Cubans receive with monthly ration booklets and a broad range of other social services.

The revision downward was the second of its kind this year. As recently as December, central planners said they thought the Cuban economy would grow by 6 percent in 2009.

The country's economic problems began last summer, with three hurricanes that caused more than $10 billion in damage. The situation has worsened with the onset of the global financial crisis and subsequent recession.

Break with tradition
The 78-year-old Raul Castro succeeded his brother as president more than 18 months ago, but it's the soon-to-be 83-year-old Fidel who remains head of the Communist Party.

Party congresses historically have been held every five years or so to renew leadership and set major policies, but the government has broken with that tradition over the past decade.

Information about the Central Committee meeting occupied the entire front page of the Communist Party daily Granma and a full page inside cited Raul Castro as reporting that "things are very serious and we are now analyzing them."

"The principal matter is the economy: what we have done and what we have to perfect and even eliminate as we are up against an imperative to make full accounts of what the country really has available, of what we have to live and for development," the newspaper said, citing the president.

It said authorities would postpone the sixth Party congress "until this crucial phase ... has been overcome," but did not say when that might be.

Waiting for his copy of Granma when it hit newsstands at 7 a.m., Raul Salgado, a 72-year-old retiree, said, "I want to know what's happening, or better yet, what's going to happen."

"I don't think it matters much to the people if there is a congress or not. What the people want here in Cuba is to know what the government is going to do to get out of such a terrible situation like the one in which we're living," Salgado said.

More cutbacks likely
Cuba has begun a major push to conserve energy in an attempt to save some of the imported oil it uses to run power plants. State-run factories have been idled during peak hours, air conditioners have been stilled at government offices and some work hours shortened.

Granma made it clear more cutbacks were coming, but did not give details. Cuba's rubber-stamp parliament convenes Saturday for one of its two full sessions a year and could unveil new energy-saving plans then.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Castro calls for tight finances in Cuba


Castro calls for tight finances in Cuba
From Shasta Darlington

HOLGUIN, Cuba (CNN) -- Sunday was a day of commemoration in Cuba -- the 56th anniversary of the start of the Cuban Revolution -- but the message from President Raul Castro was not all celebratory.

The island nation will face a second round of belt-tightening as a result of the global financial crunch, Castro said in a speech marking Revolution Day.

He said that on Tuesday he would hold a meeting of the Council of Ministries "dedicated to the analysis of the second cost adjustment in this year's plan, due to the effects of the global economic crisis, especially on the reduction of revenues from exports and the additional restrictions on accessing external financing."

The global economic downturn has hit Cuba hard. Revenues from key exports like nickel are down. The price of imports, like food, is up.

Castro said he would also meet with the central committee of the Communist Party this week to discuss the situation.

Any proposed cuts will affect a Cuban population already feeling the squeeze.

Public transport has been reduced as part of austerity measures. The government has ordered factories and businesses to cut energy consumption or face sanctions.

Castro took a few swipes at the U.S. trade embargo that has been in place since 1962, but made it clear Cubans have only themselves to blame for agriculture shortages.

"The land is there. We Cubans are here. We'll see if we get to work or not, if we produce or not, if we keep our words or not," he said, pounding his fist on the podium.

"It's not just a question of shouting 'fatherland or death, down with imperialism, the blockade knocks us out' when the land is there, waiting for our sweat."

Cuba has seen hard times before and has always worked to pull through, Castro said in front of the 200,000 people packed into the parade grounds of Holguin, about 500 miles southeast of Havana.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Jesús Alfonso Miró, Director of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Dies at 60

From Ned Sublette:

At 6:45 a.m. today, June 3 2009, at 60 years of age, Jesús Alfonso Miró,
musical director of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, exceptional composer and
percussionist, died in his home town of Matanzas, Cuba. The only son of the
Alfonso Miró family, he was the father of 8 children, all dedicated to the
rumba as musicians or dancers. Two of them have been members of the
Muñequitos and at present, Freddy Jesús Alfonso Borges, a practitioner of
his father’s art, plays the quinto of the group and has begun to follow as
well in his path as the composer of heartfelt rumbas.

As a musician of Los Muñequitos Jesús traveled to almost all the continents.
Wherever he went he left friends and disciples. He shone on every stage he
played on, but he never forgot his roots and lived a full life, proud of his
lineage as a rumbero, enjoying the flavor of every corner of his barrio, la
Marina. Beginning at the age of seven, he participated as a musician and
dancer in the Comparsa La Imaliana, founded by his father and by Félix
Vinagera. For a time he was a member of the Orquesta de Música Moderna of
his city and of the Papa Goza group. From 1967 he was musical director and
quinto of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, a group which he profoundly loved and
to which he dedicated the greatest part of his life.

As a composer he was indispensable to the repertoire of the group, with his
works known worldwide. He was the author of “Congo Yambumba,” “La Llave,”
“Chino Guaguao,” “Lengua de Obbara,” “Saludo a Nueva York,” and many others
that are now classics of Cuban rumba. Prestigious interpreters including
Eddie Palmieri took note of his sabrosura and the popularity of his works,
including them on their records and mentioning him as indispensable to the
music of our continent.

When Jesús Alfonso was still very young, together with another of the great
figures of Los Muñequitos, Ricardo Cané, he went to the mountains of Cuba to
teach literacy to the people of the countryside, graduating later as a young
revolutionary teacher. For his great contributions to music and to his
community, he received the title of Hijo Ilustre (Illustrious Son) of

Jesús Alfonso, member of the Matanzas society Efí Irondó Itá Ibekó and
respectful observer of the regla de Osha, will be remembered by all his
community and especially by rumberos around the world. His name will never
be forgotten. His strong voice and the sound of his hands on the skins will
remain in the memory of those who knew him and recognize him as one of the
most celebrated musicians of all time, because Jesús was to the rumba as was
Cuní or Chapottín to the son. Jesús gave his entire life to the rumba. His
name is next to Chano, Tata, Papín, and all the greats of Cuban music.

Viewing will be in the place where Los Muñequitos de Matanzas rehearse every
day, at 7906 Matanzas Street, between Contrera and Milanés. After respects
are paid, he will be buried in the early hours tomorrow.

To his wife Dulce María Galup, to his children and other family members, to
Diosdado Ramos and all his compañeros in the rumba who have so much admired
him and are today feeling his loss, we send our heartfelt condolences.


As per Ned's List (Sublette)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Wow! Cuban gays dance conga against homophobia


Cuban gays dance conga against homophobia
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press Writer Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press Writer 2 hrs 12 mins ago

HAVANA – President Raul Castro's daughter led hundreds of Cuban gays in a street dance Saturday to draw attention to gay rights on the island.

Participants formed a carnival-style conga line around two city blocks to beat the of drums, accompanied by costumed stilt-walkers. Events also included educational panels and presentations for books, magazines and CDs about gay rights and sexual diversity.

"We're calling on the Cuban people to participate ... so that the revolution can be deeper and include all the needs of the human being," said Mariela Castro, an outspoken gay rights advocate who directs Cuba's officially sanctioned Sex Education Center.

Attending the program's opening, Parliament speaker President Ricardo Alarcon said that Cuba has advanced in recent years in the area of gay rights.

The communist government discriminated against homosexuals — even sending some to work camps — in the early years of the 1959 revolution led by Mariela Castro's uncle Fidel. But tolerance of homosexuality on the island has grown in recent years.

Duan Mena, 29, said was great to celebrate his homosexuality in public without fear of censure.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Selling trips to Cuba once was deadly, but no more


Posted on Sun, May. 03, 2009
Selling trips to Cuba once was deadly

There was a time when advertising Viajes a Cuba on a storefront was an invitation to a pipe bombing.

In the politically charged Miami of the late 1970s and '80s, the FBI investigated more than a dozen blasts at Cuba travel agencies -- considered nests of Communist agents by staunch anti-Castro exiles.

Selling tickets to Havana could even get you killed. That's what happened to Carlos Muñiz Varela, a 26-year-old exile living in Puerto Rico who opened the first Cuba-approved travel agency. Thirty years ago this week, he was gunned down in San Juan.

But times have changed, and the travel agencies today worry little about political retribution.

''They want to call me a communist -- thank you very much,'' said a strident Francisco Aruca, the owner of Marazul Charters. Aruca, also a Miami radio host, is one of the more outspoken of the seven agency owners who book charters to Cuba. They all have permission from Cuba and the U.S. Treasury Department.

The long-standing and sometimes violent clashes between exiles who oppose anyone doing business with the island have disappeared -- welcome news to the agencies, where business has been booming since last month, when President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans wanting to travel or send money to relatives on the island.

Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, points no further than the windows of his Westchester storefront as indication that the climate for trips to Cuba has changed.

More than a decade ago, he had to install bullet-proof glass following a 1996 bombing that nearly gutted the store, which is across the street from The Falls on South Dixie Highway.

It was one of several bombing attempts against the company's three South Florida stores. ''People were scared for their lives,'' Garcia said. ``None of the employees wanted to tell relatives where they worked for fear of retribution. ''


Now customers sit in a row of chairs edged up against the window. Perception of those who travel to Cuba has also changed; it's no longer a dirty little secret.

''A lot of people were scared of telling their neighbors and friends -- they would lie about where they were going on vacation,'' Garcia said.

Miguel Saavedra, head of Vigilia Mambisa, a group that continues to picket those who do business with Cuba, said the travel agencies feed off Miami's poor exile community. ''Cuban exiles are victims of these agencies who prey off people traveling to see relatives by charging them exorbitant amounts of money that goes to the Cuba government,'' Saavedra said. ``These agencies make a pact with the devil.''

Bad blood between exiles and the Cuba travel agencies erupted in earnest in 1978 after a group of Miami Cubans, who became known as the Comité de 75, visited the island and negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners.


More significantly, they also negotiated for travel to the island on what were called viajes de la comunidad -- for the first time, trips by exiles to visit Cuba.

The deal created a need for agencies to open for business in Miami, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Cuba jumped in, creating Havanatur, a government agency charged with overseeing the venture with the U.S. travel agencies. But Aruca said Cuba originally had bigger plans. Cuban officials thought large American companies would jump in to book passage to the island -- much like they did before the 1958 Cuban revolution.

''They were ignoring the public relations aspect that many of these bigger companies would not want to get in the middle of U.S. and Cuban affairs,'' Aruca said. ``Once Cuba realized that no big travel outfits were signing on to coordinate trips, they realized they should work with the smaller Cuban-American businesses.''

The down side: The small agencies became a magnet for anti-Castro anger.

George Kiszynski, a special agent for the FBI in Miami during the late 1970s and '80s, was caught in the middle, assigned with stopping the rash of bombings. The bombings soon spread from the travel and packages-to-Cuba agencies to consulates of countries that did business with Cuba, and to persons believed to support the Cuban government and even the FBI and state attorney's offices in Miami.

''The interesting thing is that there were many bombers, not just one. That made it more difficult,'' said Kiszynski, now director of investigations for the Ackerman Group. It became so hectic, he created an ad hoc task force with other local law enforcement agents. ``We were pretty successful in arresting many of the bombers.''

Most of the bombs were set to go off in the early morning. ''If one had gone off during the day, it could have killed someone,'' he said. In Miami, no one was killed.


In Puerto Rico, Muñiz was not as fortunate. With the blessing of Cuba, he had wasted no time scheduling the first flight through Viajes Varadero in December 1978.

Although he was only in his 20s, Muñiz was a dedicated political activist who supported Puerto Rican independence. He was a member of the leftist Antonio Maceo Brigade, said his best friend, Raúl Alzaga Manresa, current owner of the company.

Viajes Varadero made its inaugural flight with about 90 people aboard; Muñiz was among the passengers.

Four months later, he was shot in the head as he drove to his mother's house in San Juan. No arrests have ever been made. ''There had been threats, and our office had been bombed, but I guess we were too young to take the danger seriously; it was a mistake,'' Alzaga said.

The anniversary of Muñiz's death is being marked this week by Cuban government news sites.

''I don't like to use the word martyr, but I guess you can call Muñiz our martyr in the Cuba travel industry. He was the first and the only one directly killed over it,'' Aruca said.

For those agencies in business with Cuba, there are rules to follow. Initially, the travel companies had to follow conditions set by Havanatur -- among them, all flights had to be purchased with a seven-day stay in one of the state-run hotels.

Eventually agency owners were able to bargain to only require one night's stay in a hotel, and by the 1990s the hotel requirement was lifted.

Aruca said Marazul charged customers the cost of the flight and hotel stay, but barely broke even.

In the 1990s, travel agencies diversified by seeking out organizations, sports teams and schools that wanted to travel to Cuba for humanitarian and educational reasons, Aruca said.

Despite the domestic political controversy, winning permission from Washington for the flights is considered the easy part of the equation, said John Kavulich II, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. ''From the U.S. side, if you meet the criteria, you cannot be denied. There isn't a quota,'' Kavulich said.

On the Cuba side, it's another story.

''The Cuban government is going to favor those operators who have stated publicly that they oppose certain U.S. policies'' -- like Washington's trade embargo against the island, Kavulich said.

''They'll Google you,'' he added. ``Have you written letters, have you given testimony, have you been in the media opposing what the Cuban government feels are policies doing [Cuba] a disservice?''

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Blogger Yoani Sanchez comments on Obama's policy change

The interesting thing about her comment is that she is picked up and posted on the popular Huff ington Post blog:

Yoani Sanchez, award-winning Cuban blogger
Posted April 15, 2009 | 12:19 AM (EST)

Obama Threw the Ball, Now It's In Raul's Court

The ball is in Cuba's court after Obama threw it yesterday, as he announced new flexibility in his policies toward Cuba. The players on this side seem a bit confused, hesitating between grabbing the ball, criticizing it, or simply ignoring it. The context couldn't be better: loyalty to the government has never seemed more perverse and ideological fervor has never been as feeble as it is now. On top of that, few still believe the story that the powerful neighbor will attack us and the majority feel that this confrontation has gone on too long.

The next move is up to Raul Castro's government but we sense we will be left waiting. He should "decriminalize political dissent" which would immediately annul the long prison sentences of those who have been punished for differences of opinion. The ball we would like him to throw is the one that would open up spaces for citizens' initiatives, permit free association and, in a gesture of the utmost political honesty, put himself to the test of truly free elections. In a bold leap on the field "the permanent second" would have to dare to offer something more than an olive branch. We are hoping they eliminate the travel restrictions, which would put an end to that extortionary business of permission to come and go from the Island.

The game would become more dynamic if they let the Cuban people take hold of the erratic ball of change. Many would kick it to end censorship, State control over information, ideological selection in certain professions, indoctrination in education and the punishment of those who think differently. We would kick it to be able to surf the Internet without blocked web sites, to be able to say the word "freedom" into an open microphone without being accused of "a counter-revolutionary provocation."

Many of us have climbed down from the bleachers from where we were watching the game. If the Cuban government doesn't grab the ball, there are thousands of hands ready to take our turn to launch it.

Yoani's blog, Generation Y, can be read here in English translation.

U.S. Telecoms Eager to Get Cuba on the Line


U.S. Telecoms Eager to Get Cuba on the Line
Firms Wait to See Plans for Infrastructure, Government's Approach to Access

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; A12

U.S. telecommunication firms could open up investment in Cuba now that the Obama administration will allow companies to operate there, a final global frontier for the Internet age.

But before cellphone and Internet providers rush in, they will closely study potential pitfalls in setting up shop in the Communist nation with one of the poorest populations in the region, analysts said.

The Cuban government has not been helpful in allowing its citizens access to communications technology, said David Gross, who was U.S. ambassador and coordinator for International Information and Communications Policy during the Bush administration. Now that the United States has opened the door, he said, "the question is whether the Cuban government will allow people to come inside."

Cuba has the lowest percentage of telephone, Internet and cellphone subscribers in Latin America, according to Manuel Cereijo, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Miami. About 11 percent of residents subscribe to land-line telephone service, and 2 percent have cellphone service.

Under President Obama's plan, U.S. telecom companies would be able to build undersea cable networks that connect the two nations. Cellphone carriers would be able to contract with Cuba's government-run wireless operator to provide service to its residents and offer roaming services to Americans visiting the island.

U.S. satellite operators such as Sirius XM Radio and Dish Network could beam Martha Stewart and MTV programs to the nation. Cubans could also receive cellphones and computers donated from overseas.

But with average monthly salaries of about $15, many citizens might not be able to afford service fees, according to experts on Cuban policy and telecommunications infrastructure. Others question whether residents would spend money on BlackBerrys and services such as video on demand, especially if the government restricts Web content.

"The infrastructure that exists there today is lousy, and the Cuban people are paid in pesos, which is worth nothing," Cereijo said. "They are thinking about buying food first."

Most telecom companies declined to comment yesterday about the administration's announcement because they are waiting for more details on how such business relationships would be implemented.

The Cuban government also has not yet responded to Obama's pledge to relax trade and travel barriers between the nations. But analysts and trade experts say President Raúl Castro, brother of longtime dictator Fidel Castro, has loosened the government's grip its people. Last year, he allowed Cubans to buy cellphones, computers and microwaves, in what appeared at the time to be a major step in allowing them to freely access information.

Currently, a government-run company provides all telecom services to Cuban citizens.

Gross, now a partner at Wiley Rein, said U.S. cellphone carriers will balk if the Cuban government tries to charge high fees for roaming contracts. He and others say that consortiums that build undersea cable networks in the Caribbean may see business opportunities in connecting to the island, but they will avoid any conditions that prevent them from offering video and other Internet content, for example.

"Everyone in the region has been wondering when Cuba might open up, and I think Cuba is trying to figure out ways to attract investment in a way that works with its political situation," said Michael Prior, chief executive of Atlantic Tele-Network, a wireless and Internet network carrier in the Caribbean.

Prior said the best return on investment would be for wireless services, which do not come with the hefty capital costs of laying cable and fiber-optic lines undersea.

Cereijo estimates it would cost $2.5 billion to upgrade the island's telecom infrastructure for basic high-speed Internet as well as more reliable land-line and cellphone service.

Some U.S. firms already have licenses with the Cuban government that allow calls from America to connect through the island's carrier.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Obama to abolish limits on U.S.-Cuba family ties


Obama to abolish limits on U.S.-Cuba family ties
By Anthony Boadle Anthony Boadle Fri Apr 3, 8:10 pm ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a move that could herald better ties between Cold War foes, the Obama administration is planning to abolish limits on family travel and cash remittances between the United States and Cuba, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

President Barack Obama has decided to fulfill a campaign promise and allow Cuban Americans and Cuban emigres to freely visit and send money to their families in the communist-led nation, the newspaper said, citing a senior administration official.

A White House official confirmed the administration's intentions to lift the restrictions, but said the measure was not a new policy statement and was not imminent.

"The administration has conveyed that our policy toward Cuba is being reviewed and the president has stated that there's a sense that restrictions on family visits and cash remittances should be lifted," the official told Reuters.

"Our focus remains on the need for democratic reforms and human rights" in Cuba, the official said.

The removal of limits on family travel and cash remittances would allow Cubans living in the United States to travel freely to the island, instead of once a year as at present. It would also remove the ceiling of $1,200 per person in cash remittances to needy family members in Cuba.

"This is a good humanitarian move that honors Cuban Americans' right to visit and aid their relatives as they see fit," said Cuba expert Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute.

"But it creates one class of Americans who can travel to Cuba at will, so it will add to the momentum in Congress to lift restrictions on all other Americans, who have a right to travel too," he said.

The Wall Street Journal said the move was probably meant to signal a new attitude toward both Cuba and other Latin American countries that have pressed Washington to end a trade embargo that has sought to isolate Havana for more than four decades.


During last year's presidential campaign, Obama favored easing U.S. restrictions on family travel and remittances, but said he would not eliminate the trade embargo until Cuba shows progress toward democracy and greater human rights.

The U.S. Congress is considering bills that would lift the ban on American citizens traveling to Cuba that was introduced with other sanctions in the early 1960s when Fidel Castro's revolution turned Cuba into a Soviet ally.

Obama is due to meet Latin American leaders at a summit in Trinidad and Tobago later this month.

The Wall Street Journal said Obama is not considering any specific diplomatic outreach toward Cuba, where Fidel Castro has been sidelined by illness and was succeeded as president last year by his brother Raul Castro.

U.S. lawmakers, who believe in increasing numbers that the embargo has proven ineffective in bringing political change to Cuba, have taken the initiative on the outreach front.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives arrived in Havana on Friday to meet with Cuban officials in a sign of accelerating efforts to improve relations.

Representative Barbara Lee said the group of seven Democrats wanted simply to "see what the possibilities are" and carried no messages from Obama or proposals for the Cubans. "We're here to learn and talk," she told reporters.

The congressional delegation is the first from the United States to visit Cuba since Obama took office in January.

"Change is in the air and our president, of course, talks very clearly about bilateral relations with all countries in the world," said Lee.

(Additional reporting Jeff Franks in Havana and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Chris Wilson)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez (1933-2009)

Buena Vista Social Club bassist Lopez dead at 76
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press Writer Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press Writer 2 hrs 1 min ago

HAVANA – Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, considered the "heartbeat" of Cuba's legendary Buena Vista Social Club for his internationally acclaimed bass playing, died Monday of complications from prostate surgery, fellow musicians said. He was 76.

Lopez, a founding member of the band brought together in the 1990s by American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, died in a Havana hospital several days after surgery, said Manuel Galban, a Cuban musician who played with Lopez for decades.

"We have lost a great companion," said Galban.

Born in Havana in 1933, Lopez became an international sensation as part of the Buena Vista Social Club — a group of elderly, sometimes retired, musicians who were living quietly in Cuba before Cooder brought them together and they became worldwide sensations.

"I will remember him as marvelous, both in his music and as a person," Galban, a guitarist, said by telephone. "He was extraordinary, affable, a great bassist."

Lopez died less than a week after turned 76.

"I called him last week because it was his birthday and his voice didn't sound too good," said musician Amadito Valdes, who added that Lopez had undergone prostate surgery several days ago. "He was a person who was always sharing with everyone around him, very noble."

Lopez was held by many to be Buena Vista's heartbeat and had played to international audiences as part of its touring company.

The group, which plays a mix of traditional Cuban rhythms, has lost many of its key members of late. Singer Compay Segundo — who was born Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz — pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Pio Leyva have all died in recent years.

But Lopez was also a star in his own right, independent of Buena Vista. His groundbreaking debut album Cachaito won a BBC Radio 3 Award for Word Music in 2002.

Lopez hailed from a family of at least 30 bass players, including his uncle, legendary bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez. His nickname translates to "Little Cachao." His father Orestes played piano and cello in addition to the bass and was also a composer.

Lopez originally played the violin, but as he said publicly many times, eventually switched to the bass after his grandfather urged him to take up the family craft.

He was a pioneer of Cuban mambo, and by 17 was part of a noted big band group known as Riverside. He later joined Cuba's national symphony. He also played with a band called "Los Zafiros."

Lopez was at home playing classic as well as popular music but also dabbled in late night jazz and jazz fusion.

However, he only gained international notoriety when Cooder brought him together with such standouts as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo to form Buena Vista.

Later, Wim Wenders released a documentary titled Buena Vista Social Club, in which he profiled the musicians whose talents had all but been forgotten.

Family members planned to cremate the body but there was no immediate word on funeral services.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cuba recruits free-market taxis


Calling all cars: Cuba recruits free-market taxis
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer Mon Jan 12, 7:24 pm ET

HAVANA – Cubans with classic American cars — or even rusty Russian sedans — are being encouraged to apply for taxi licenses and set their own prices for the first time in nearly a decade as the communist government turns to the free market to improve its woeful transportation system.

Under regulations published into law this week, Cuba is applying a larger dose of supply-and-demand to an economy that remains 90 percent under state control.

The move by President Raul Castro's government also breaks with the policies of his ailing brother Fidel, who long accused private taxis — legal and otherwise — of seeking "juicy profits" and fomenting a black market for state-subsidized gasoline that Cuba "had sweated and bled" to obtain.

New taxi licenses have not been approved since October 1999, and it is not clear how many new cabs will be allowed. The measure orders officials to determine what combination of "autos, jeeps, panel trucks, microbuses, three-wheelers and motorcycles" will best meet each area's needs.

"Without these taxis, especially in the city of Havana but also in the provinces, the country would practically grind to a halt," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became an anti-communist dissident and has written essays on pirate taxis.

He noted that new government buses have improved public transportation somewhat, "but it's not enough."

In cities, the government will let more private cabs charge based on supply and demand, though a state commission will establish fare limits to discourage price gouging.

In the countryside, owners of cars, trucks and even motorcycle sidecars will be encouraged to ferry passengers at state-determined prices in areas where bus service is spotty, especially along desolate highways connecting remote villages. Those doing so will receive subsidized gasoline.

Havana retiree Barbara Costa said she would encourage her son-in-law to give up his job as a state engineer and use a 1950s Chevy that had belong to his father as a taxi.

"It could be a great help, an economic help to the family but also to the entire population since public transportation is still very difficult," the 71-year-old said.

Sales of new cars are tightly controlled, and many of the vehicles on Cuban roads predate Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, though drivers often replace their original engines with diesel motors that are foul-smelling but cheaper to operate.

Thousands of hulking 1950s Oldsmobiles, Dodges and Fords, as well as long-gone models like Packards and DeSotos, already operate as licensed, private taxis. Known as "maquinas" — literally "machines" — or "almendrones," which translates as "almond shells," the vehicles adhere to set routes and charge set fares.

Special fleets of modern taxis catering to foreigners also charge set fares, but only the wealthiest Cubans can afford them.

Because buses and licensed taxi services are overwhelmed, hitchhiking is common, and many of those thumbing it hold up peso notes, offering to pay anyone who picks them up.

Other people use their cars almost exclusively as black-market taxis, offering informal rides for a price. And a few existing private taxis already have state licenses that allow them to charge whatever passengers are willing to pay. The new law appears to be aimed partly at controlling rampant competition from unlicensed people using their cars as taxis.

"There's going to be more cars and fewer passengers, but at least everyone will have a license," said Jordan Marrero, a 35-year-old who steers a red-and-white 1952 Pontiac that belonged to his late grandfather through Havana's potholed streets, usually charging 20 pesos, or about 95 American cents, per fare.

Marrero gave up his job in a state factory in 1996 because he found he could make more money driving a taxi. At first, Marrero claimed to be fully legal, but he displayed a taxi license that had not been renewed since May, explaining that he can no longer afford the 600 pesos ($28.50) a month for government permission.

He still operates the taxi, but spends most of his time parked a block from the stately capitol dome — a slightly taller replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington — waiting to take a few passengers a day rather than risk cruising the city and being stopped by the police.

"I pay and others don't? That can't be," he said. "When everyone is normalized, I will pay my license. But now, there is just chaos and it's not worth it to be legal."

Nearby, a retired construction worker named Juan had all the necessary papers for the Russian-made Lada he operates as a taxi. But he too spends most of his days parked and waiting for walk-up passengers because he can't afford the gasoline required to drive around looking for business.

"We charge what the market is willing to give us, but that's still barely enough," said Juan, who said he felt uncomfortable having his full name appear in the foreign media.

Because his Lada only seats four passengers, Juan pays 400 pesos, about $21, per month for his license, but he complained that droves of pirate taxis have eaten into his meager profit margins.

"The problem is there's no control. I hope this law changes that," he said. "For now, it seems like it's easier to be illegal than to be legal."

Friday, January 02, 2009

Approval, discontent greet Castro revolution's 50th year in Cuba


Posted on Fri, Jan. 02, 2009
Approval, discontent greet Castro revolution's 50th year in Cuba
At Parque Dolores, tourist buses filled with Canadians and Europeans lugging cameras that cost two years' wages here listen to musical trios while elderly men pick through the trash.

The handicapped beg for coins under the mindful eye of a police officer. Aging newspaper hawkers trying to supplement their $9 monthly pensions sell copies of the government newspaper with the proud headline -- ``Keeps going down! Infant Mortality at 4.7!''

''Nothing in the world is better than this,'' said Raúl Ferrer, 86, a retired ship worker who spent Friday afternoon dozing on a bench.

''There is no other place that takes care of its elderly and children the way Cuba does. I quite honestly would be dead in my grave if it were not for this,'' Ferrer said, pointing to newspaper coverage of Thursday's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the revolution.

Some in Santiago and Havana who watched Raúl Castro's national address praised Fidel Castro for igniting the revolution that toppled a dictator, while others said the speech ignored the economic pain Cubans are feeling.

''He is saying nothing new,'' said Brenda, a Havana economist in her late 40s who kept making exasperated expressions as Castro spoke. ``He is saying nothing that all those people sitting there have not heard and know already.''

Others simply tuned out.

''I was not even interested in watching,'' said Regina, a housewife in her 40s. ``My husband kept calling me from the other room to go and watch it and I didn't.''

Conversations with Cubans in the eastern city of Santiago, the birthplace of the revolution, seem to mirror wider discussions -- some hushed -- about the revolution's future and legacy.

Ferrer's sister and brother-in-law were among insurgents who helped oust dictator Fulgencio Batista five decades ago. The years that followed saw a redistribution of wealth that caused the rich to flee and everyone else to become more or less poor.

''I used to be a big fan of the United States,'' Ferrer said. ''I loved it. But reading and reading, reading this,'' he said, pointing to the paper again, ``my eyes slowly started opening.''

He recounted spending 15 days in a Cuban hospital long ago and never paying a bill. Now, he is waiting for a slot in a home for the aged. In the meantime, Ferrer sleeps on a mat at a building he keeps an eye on at night.

''I am quite happy here,'' he said.

Not so for cab driver Andres. As he hoped to pick up some of the tourists near the square, he rolled his eyes hearing people talk of the 50th anniversary commemoration.

''I did not watch it,'' Andres said. 'I and most other Cuban people are tired of the lies. It's lies, lies and more lies. They get up there and talk to the Cuban people telling us, `You have to do this, you have to do that. You have to struggle.' I believe things I can see. You have to touch and feel reality. Nothing they said can be touched or felt. None of it was real.''

Francisco, 64, who sells peanuts to tourists in the plaza, praises the revolution.

''If the revolution had not won, who knows what shape this country would be in. My dad was a laborer for 20 cents a day, not a penny more,'' he said. ``Now look around. Every kid you see has a big belly and a scoop of ice cream in his hand.''

But he acknowledges a difficult life. He has to sell at least two dozen paper cones filled with nuts before he can afford a bar of soap and detergent to wash his guayabera.

''I watched the celebration of the anniversary last night on TV. It was very nicely decorated,'' he said, without a hint of irony in his voice.

A drummer singing Guantanamera to the tourists who refused to purchase peanuts proudly recounts how he was a fighter during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion backed by the CIA and squelched by the Cuban government. He shakes his head at a belligerent elderly man who puts an old plastic ice cream cup in front of tourists' tables and won't leave until they drop in a coin.

''You have shameless people who don't want to struggle. Look at that old man, asking for money when he gets the same pension as me,'' said drummer Miguel Portuondo, 64, who goes by the stage name Bocú Yeyé. ``There are women at all the nightclubs in town batting their eyelashes sweetly, acting all innocent, when really they are pretending not to be prostitutes. Why? Because they do not want to work. They do not want to study.''

Portuondo did both. He joined the rebels at age 14, distributing underground propaganda in the city. 'I was only 14, but I was not the youngest! There were children as young as 12. Of course, I did not even know what I was struggling for, but my parents' hatred for Batista was so great that they had me distributing propaganda for the rebels.''

He later fought at the Bay of Pigs, although he did not know then what he was fighting against. On Thursday, he was one of the special invited guests at the historic celebration in Parque Cespedes. He was there as a former rebel fighter and renowned local musician. He keeps all his press clippings in his briefcase to prove it.

''For me, it was a very proud occasion,'' Portuondo said. ``These 50 years have been beautiful. Sure, we have to struggle, but this country gives you what you need to struggle -- an education. I studied, became a professional musician and retired. Now I am out here working and struggling to make a few extra dollars. There is nothing wrong with that.''

''The people who criticize this system or just want to leave have been co-opted by the desire for capitalism. But capitalism does not offer any love, affection or respect for the people,'' Portuondo said.

He said he proudly watched Castro's speech, calling it ``decisive.''

''He is a man who says things as they are: Two plus two equals four, not five,'' he said. ``That's how it is, and that's how he says it. He has a lot of virtues, just like his brother.''

The names of the correspondents who filed this report and the surnames of some of those interviewed were not published because the reporters lacked the journalist visa required by the Cuban government.

Sports still No. 1 in Cuba despite declines


Posted on Fri, Jan. 02, 2009
Sports still No. 1 in Cuba despite declines
During Opening Ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, former Cuban sports heroes Teofilo Stevenson, Javier Sotomayor and Ana Fidelia Quirot sat together inside Bird's Nest Stadium.

When the Cuban team marched onto the track, the three stars sprung to their feet and joined in the roar from the crowd, one of the loudest for any team in the parade of nations.

''I felt the excitement when the U.S. and Chinese teams marched in, but it was also electrifying to see this little island nation receive such respect and enthusiasm,'' said Jose Rodriguez, who sat with Stevenson, Sotomayor and Quirot. Rodriguez is executive director of USA Judo, a Miamian and a native of Cuba.

But the respect accorded Cuba wasn't matched by its performance in Beijing. Cuba had its worst Olympic showing in 40 years, winning only two gold medals and finishing 28th in the medal standings. Cuba is accustomed to being in the Top 10.

Cuba did not win a single gold in boxing. The baseball team lost the gold medal game to South Korea, and the women's volleyball team was upset by the United States.

The decline of Cuba as a sports power is a reflection of the dilapidated state of the island and the infirm Fidel Castro 50 years after his revolution. Sports continues to limp along despite the fading health of its No. 1 fan and shrinking budgets dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Riddled by defections, Cuba has nonetheless remained competitive on the world stage. But its success rate, which was so disproportionate to its size during Castro's heyday, is no longer the strong morale-boosting propaganda tool that it was.

''The Beijing Olympics were an embarrassment for Cuba,'' said Roberto Quesada, a former trainer for the Cuban boxing team now coaching in Miami. ``That could mark the beginning of the end. I don't know if they can recover in these difficult economic times.''

The Games concluded with a humiliating incident for Cuba when tae kwon do athlete Angel Matos was disqualified during his match, kicked the referee in the face, spat on the mat and was banned from the sport.

Castro defended Matos, saying the match was fixed. He said boxers were ''condemned beforehand'' and cheated by judges.

In the same essay, Castro wrote that defections have hurt and blamed ''the repugnant mercenary actions'' of pro boxing promoters.

He promised a reassessment of ``every discipline, every human and material resource that we dedicate to sport.''

''Cuba has never bought an athlete or judge,'' Castro wrote, adding that Cubans need to brace themselves for the 2012 London Games. ``There will be European chauvinism, judge corruption, buying of brawn and brains and a strong dose of racism.''

Castro handed the presidency to brother Raúl in February but retains influence in deciding priorities. The few photos of Castro that are published give a clue to where the heart of the old sports nut still lies: He's wearing a red, white and blue Adidas track suit.

Castro was such a baseball aficionado he used to show up at practices and dictate the starting lineup. Successor Raúl may not be as obsessed, but Vice President Jose Ramon ''El Gallego'' Fernandez, a staunch friend of Fidel who defeated invaders at the Bay of Pigs, is head of Cuba's Olympic Committee, ensuring a pro-sports voice.

Alberto ''El Caballo'' Juantorena, track star of the 1976 Games, is senior vice president of INDER, the Cuban sports ministry. He is a charismatic figure, hugely popular.

Baseball still draws large crowds. The season started in early December and is on hiatus during celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the revolution. The season will also take a break during the World Baseball Classic in March, when Cuba's national team will go for the title three years after finishing second.

As for Cuba's newly formatted two-division league, there is lots of talk about pitcher Yulieski Gonzalez, 15-0 last year, sluggers Alexei Bell and Donald Duarte and rookie Yasel Puig. German Mesa is the new manager of Industriales, and Victor Mesa is out as manager of Villa Clara. Can Pedro Lazo extend his career victories total toward 250?

There are also wistful whispers about the ones who got away, such as Alexei ''the Cuban Missile'' Ramirez, who defected and signed with the Chicago White Sox. He was runner-up for Rookie of the Year. Up and coming Dayan Viciedo defected to Miami and was signed by the White Sox last month.

Since pitcher Rene Arocha defected in Miami in 1991, about 100 baseball players have fled Cuba. Their exodus shows that, in some ways, Castro's Big Red Machine has been a victim of its own success.

Before Castro took over, Cuban baseball players joined U.S. teams. In the 1950s, the Havana Sugar Kings were a Triple A International League franchise. Cuba was also home to boxing stars.

But Castro outlawed ''corrupt and exploitative'' professional sports in 1961 and created the national sports program, which was modeled on the Soviet system. Voluntary sports councils (CDVs) were set up in towns along with a pyramid of sports schools (EIDEs, ESPAs and CEARs) to identify and develop talent. Castro's goal was to win international legitimacy and domestic pride.

He promoted masividad -- mass participation -- to enhance the health of workers. He eliminated country clubs and admission charges. Sport became ''a right of the people'' delineated in the constitution.

A breakthrough came in 1966, when Cuban athletes -- forbidden by the U.S. to travel by plane -- came to San Juan, Puerto Rico, by boat and won 78 medals at the Central American and Caribbean Games. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Cuba finished fifth in the medal count.

It's been downhill since. In 1991, Cuba lost its Soviet subsidies and began the Special Period of scarcity.

Cuba has found new sources of income by renting out coaches and trainers, allowing athletes to sign endorsement contracts overseas and selling equipment. Athletes remain amateur; experts get paid. For example, Cuban computer technicians ran some operations during the Central American and Caribbean Games in Cartagena, Colombia.

''Can Cuban sports be saved by capitalism?'' author Paula Pettavino asked. ``That remains to be seen.''

Rising sports salaries, the influence of the Internet, the success of a few Cuban athletes and deteriorating conditions at home have spurred defections. Fewer athletes espouse the patriotism of track star Quirot, who dedicated medals to her commandante en jefe or boxer Felix Savon, who proclaimed he preferred the hearts of 10 million countrymen to the riches of 10 million dollars.

All Cubans know the remarkable story of Orlando ''El Duque'' Hernandez, the pitcher who left by boat, got stranded on Anguilla Cay, signed for millions with none other than the New York Yanquis, then played in the World Series nine months later. His agent was Miami's Joe Cubas, once known for his Cuban pipeline.

Seven members of the Under-23 soccer team fled from a Tampa hotel in March. Two players left the national team when it played the United States in Washington, D.C., two months ago.

When the Cuban judo team competed in Miami in May, two-time world champion Yurisel Laborde defected.

In 2006, three 2004 Olympic boxing champions sold their medals, then left a training camp in Venezuela. Another champ was kicked off the team after trying to defect in 2007. And a world champion left Cuba by speedboat in May. They signed pro contracts with a German promoter.

Yet Cuba still produces athletes other nations envy.

''We've never seen in the U.S. the talent level Cuba has had since 1962,'' said Milton Jamail, international player relations consultant for the Tampa Bay Rays and a former University of Texas professor who wrote Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball. ``They produce too many players to have a 30-man team and contain them. Some need to leave or they would never replenish.

``I think it's amazing for all the travel they do that they don't have more defections. There will always be that tension, and they know they cannot avoid some losses.''

When Viciedo held a tryout in the Dominican Republic, 100 Major League scouts showed up to watch him.

''Baseball is still great -- it's recovered from a slump in the mid 1990s -- and the Cuban people still adore it,'' Jamail said.

Rodriguez took the U.S. judo team to tournaments in Havana in May. It was his 14th trip to Cuba since 1985. The Americans weren't treated as lavishly as in the past, when they were feted at the Tropicana.

''The government used to spend a lot of money, but now they have to focus every penny on their athletes, who also don't live as well as they used to,'' Rodriguez said. ``They are really struggling, but still compete at a higher level than most countries.''

Rodriguez said his athletes came home impressed by Cuban athletes' workouts on the beach, in which they used the water and sand to invent grueling drills.

''Cubans may not have the material things, but they have the desire,'' he said. ``I don't see the gloom and doom or agree with the theory that Beijing marked the end for Cuban sports. The infrastructure is still there, the expertise is still there and, most importantly, the talent is still there.''

Rodriguez coaxed the Cuban judo team to Miami after decades of ill will. The team got an enthusiastic reception. Two U.S. coaches who used to be stars for Cuba even went out on the town with their former comrades.

What does the future hold? There is hope that with two new presidents -- Barack Obama and Raúl Castro -- relations could warm. Maybe they'll even use some form of ''ping-pong diplomacy'' -- a series of games or training camps in the U.S. and on the island.

''I foresee coaching exchanges, the Pan Am Games in Miami and U.S. vs. Cuba in baseball,'' Rodriguez said.

Eventually, might Cuba allow select athletes to sign pro contracts here?

Quesada says no. ''Raúl will never cross that line,'' he said. ``There will be no pros fighting for money as long as any Castro is in power.''

Jamail foresees Major League teams opening academies on the island, as 29 teams have in the Dominican Republic and 10 in Venezuela.

He would also like to see all of Cuba's stars -- inside and outside Cuba -- representing the country in the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics, if baseball is reinstated to the Olympics.

''I always feel silly talking about what's going to happen in Cuba because, who knows?'' Jamail said. ``Who could predict Fidel would still be around 50 years later?''

Thursday, January 01, 2009

In Cuba, a whiff of rugged individualism (Revolution at 50)


In Cuba, a whiff of rugged individualism
Country sees changes, generation gap 50 years after Castro swept to power
The Associated Press
updated 2:43 p.m. PT, Thurs., Jan. 1, 2009

Juan Gonzalez loves Fidel Castro. But he is also a realist.

"The people do what they can. They don't just sit around and wait for the government to give them everything," the 59-year-old said, standing on his dusty front porch. "If they waited for the government to keep all its promises, they would have to wait a long time. Fifty more years, maybe."

It sounds like the kind of rugged individualism that would resonate with Americans, but this is the mountainous Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba, the cradle of the revolution that brought Castro to power 50 years ago New Year's Day, ushering in a communist era of promised egalitarianism under big, all-controlling government.

Here, more than 500 miles from Havana, people tend to speak their minds more freely, even grumble openly about their privations.

They also see a growing generation gap — between elder Cubans who wholeheartedly support the communist system, and youngsters yearning for change, at a time when the ailing, 82-year-old Castro has been replaced by his younger brother, Raul, and Barack Obama is about to move into the White House.

The Sierra Maestra is where Castro and his guerrillas prevailed over 10,000 soldiers sent in by dictator Fulgencio Batista in May 1958 and eventually forced Batista to flee Cuba on Jan. 1 of the following year.

'La revolucion'
Gonzalez, from the village of Santo Domingo, was 9 when the rebellion Cubans universally call "la revolucion" triumphed.

Now, as the revolution turns 50, how does he feel about it? "The people here feel good, but not everyone has the same amount of pride," he said.

That's because the promises of a shining future have not come as fast as they may have hoped. Electricity, running water and phone service are relatively new here. Some families still live in dirt-floored shacks and wash their clothes in rivers. Carts pulled by oxen, donkeys or horses outnumber cars and trucks.

Gonzalez is charged with the upkeep of his grandfather's homestead, now a historical site. The biggest problem, he says, is a lack of public transport. The area had a single ambulance but a few years ago "it broke and some people died because of that."

Soviet engineers only brought electricity to the area in 1986.

South of Santo Domingo lies Comandancia de la Plata, the hideout where Fidel Castro directed the final rebel push. He lived in a wooden hut with a roof of palm leaves. Outside, still encrusted with bullet fragments, is the tree on which he practiced his marksmanship.

'Should be more autonomy'
Luis Angel Segura, 55, is a guide who leads tourists up a muddy mule trail to the hut. Spend a few hours with him, and long-held complaints begin to bubble to the surface. What makes him angry is not too little government but too much — farmers can only grow what the state tells them to, and only sell their produce back to the government.

"There should be more autonomy," he said. "But, as they tell us, 'we're all Cuba."'

Still, no one here misses Batista. Like many Cubans in these parts, Segura calls the pre-Castro era "the tyranny."

About 600 people live in the isolated mountains around Comandancia de la Plata. Solar panels power tiny schoolhouses and health clinics. In the farthest regions, teachers live with pupils' families and doctors make house calls. Like nearly all Cubans, people here live rent-free and get monthly rations of basic food.

The government expanded a two-lane mountain highway through the area, but there's so little traffic that farmers dry their coffee beans on the asphalt. Goats, pigs, donkeys and dogs sleep on it undisturbed.

Many families have TVs bought with government credit, but few channels reach deep into the mountains. To fill the void there are "video clubs," shacks that show pirated movies. Internet access is tightly controlled.

As in the cities, rural areas have "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" which meet to discuss community problems. Public attendance is mandatory.

"Everything here is well organized," said Julia Castillo, a housewife in the Sierra Cristal, another eastern mountain range that was a rebel stronghold. "But people complain and nothing happens."

'Education is a gigantic weapon'
Ask Cubans to rate their education and medical care systems, and many will talk instead about Batista's day — though few are old enough to have experienced it. An exception is Ruben La O.

"Before the revolution, I couldn't read," said the 73-year-old, who fought in Castro's rebel army. "Education is a gigantic weapon. Most people don't understand that, but Fidel does."

La O was 23 and from a reasonably well-to-do family of coffee farmers when the rebels recruited him as lead singer for a quintet that performed on Radio Rebelde, a propaganda station that Ernesto "Che" Guevara founded in the Sierra Maestra in 1958.

The musicians still don olive-green rebel uniforms and play songs denouncing Batista for tourists. They live in a row of concrete houses Castro ordered built for them in 1981, and, to honor the 50th anniversary of the revolution, each has been given a new mo-ped.

"In capitalism there are no schools. Socialism has solidarity, education, health and societal development that capitalism can't fathom," said Alejandro Molina, the quintet's 69-year-old founder and guitarist.

But La O's brother Alcides, a fellow quintet member, said the lesson is lost on many younger Cubans.

"There are lots of schools and lots of people who don't want to study," he said. "They don't take advantage of all they have."

Alejandro, a farm worker who lives nearby, says the problem is not apathy but a lack of freedom.

"Solidarity? Fine. But it is no substitute for political change," said the 26-year-old, who lives with his parents and didn't want to cause them problems by giving his surname. "People are ready for new things. There's a lot of frustration."