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."