Circles Robinson Online

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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cuba’s Books Not Bombs Celebration

By Circles Robinson

The US National Youth and Student Peace Coalition is asking people to wear Books Not Bombs buttons, t-shirts and armbands on March 19, the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the US war on Iraq. In Cuba, the current International Book Fair is another expression of the same message.

Famed Argentine classical pianist Miguel Angel Estrella told La Jiribilla online that he was making his first visit to a Cuba Book Fair accompanied by his adult children. “I was really impressed. I have been to many book fairs in the world and I have never seen one as popular as this, a party you could say. I’m impressed to see kids buying books. I’m very happy to have come.” Estrella performed both at one of the book presentations and in full concert.

While the mainstream foreign media harps continually on the economic limitations in blockaded Cuba, it fails to understand its economic and social system and leads people astray as to what the island’s revolution is really about.

“On very few occasions have I had the opportunity to see such a wonderful landscape: so many people attracted by reading fever,” said Mexican novelist and journalist Elena Poniatoswka who presented a Cuban edition of her book Tinisima at the fair.

Argentine cartoonist Miguel Repiso (REP) expressed the general sentiment of visual and performing artists, authors and playwrights attending the fair: “All creators can use their subjectivity to help make a more humane and better world… Culture is liberating, it opens doors.”

A non-commercial battle of ideas

Cuba’s International Book Fair is part of what the government calls the Battle of Ideas, a concept that pits the model of US military democracy, guided by the marketplace, consumerism and the survival of the fittest, against the Cuban system that prioritizes culture, education and a concern for humanity and the environment at home and abroad over corporate interests.

One of the surprises at this year’s fair was hearing the voice of US political prisoner and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal who in a taped message introduced a Spanish language edition of his book We Want Freedom: A life in the Black Panther Party.

“It is with true joy that I find I can share this history with Cuban brothers and sisters,” Mumia told his audience. “Cuba, which has inspired so many people, all around the world, is, in many ways, the parent nation for many of us in the West.

“Why would I, an African–American, say something like this? Wouldn’t it make more sense to speak of the American ‘revolution’ as the parent revolution for the West? Those of us who have done the research know that it was a deeply bourgeois ‘revolution’, what Jerry Frescia calls ‘a baron’s revolt.’ It did not extend freedom, despite its proclamations.

“For millions of Africans who were enslaved before the ‘revolution’, there was no difference in their civil status after the ‘revolt.’ These four millions, one quarter of the U.S. population, remained in chains.

“In a sense, the opening chapters of We Want Freedom are devoted to that story, and the necessity for a true revolution, that has yet to come to America. The Black Panther Party is one expression of that social force.

“I thank you my brothers and sisters, for your inspiration, and hope you find something useful in this work. We will be victorious. With revolutionary love, Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

It Doesn’t Happen by Chance

There are objective factors that involve resources and commitment that explain why Cubans of all ages like to read and want to increase their personal libraries, something greatly in decline in most of the Third World and many developed countries.

Firstly, state-owned publishing houses, which exist in Havana and the different provinces, have a budget allowing them to print large quantities of books by Cuban and foreign authors and offer them to the public at between 5 and 15 percent of what they would cost in other countries. The country’s non-commercial use of literature motivates some foreign authors to donate the rights to Cuban editions of their works.

Secondly, the book fair —which began in Havana Feb. 8-18 and concludes in Santiago de Cuba on March 11— takes place not only in the capital but in 40 cities across the country.

Cuban television, which is non-commercial, includes short daily programs promoting the fair and the morning, afternoon and evening news are peppered with scenes from the book and cultural presentations, thus wetting the appetite of readers.

A novelty at the 2007 fair in Havana was the government’s use of over a hundred young social workers to improve information and service to the public at book stands and the six halls where book presentations and conferences were held throughout each day. Their contribution was notable as were the efficient book check out counters with code reading machines at the largest stands.

Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo told La Jiribilla online that he was also visiting the book fair for the first time. “I have seen a lot. What most impresses me is the multitude of people that turn out. It’s true that recently we have also had popular book fairs in Italy but I was impressed here by the number of families, the young people, of people looking at books, not just wandering around the fairgrounds.

“I believe it is a good sign of what I already knew about Cuba,” says Vattimo. “Cuba has been revolutionized by the quantity of cultural initiatives [...] The art schools existing throughout the island are places where people practice sculpture, painting, theater, dance […] This gives me a lot of hope, because from what I know of Europe, including Italy, what takes place is a consumerist type of [cultural] development […] I am amazed by what I see here and like all admirers that come from abroad, someone could say to me, ‘you are naïve, can’t you see there are problems.’ But this is something that exists; the Cuban people’s interest in culture is real.”

Friday, February 16, 2007

Fidel Castro and the Grammies, Hits Since 1959

By Circles Robinson

On February 16, 1959, Fidel Castro became the prime minister of Cuba; that same year the Grammy Awards were born in Los Angeles, and both later turned into lasting American institutions.

Castro, now 80, would go on to become Cuba’s president in 1976, the year the current parliamentary system was inaugurated.

Hated by the wealthy exile community in Miami and revered by most people on the island, Fidel has repeatedly been reelected. He is currently sidelined from public life while he continues to recover from intestinal surgery.

The Grammy Awards were presented for the first time in 1959. Domenico Modugno won best record of the year for “Nel Blue Dipinto de Blu (Volare)”; Henri Mancini had the best album with The Music from Peter Gunn, and the best country and western performance went to the Kingston Trio for “Tom Dooley.”

The best female individual jazz performance went to Ella Fitzgerald and the top male jazz performance to Count Basie. The Champs had the top Rhythm and Blues hit with “Tequila” and Ross Bagdasarian Sr. had the best children’s song with "The Chipmunk Song."

Forty-nine years later, both the Cuban Revolution and the Grammies have not only survived but flourished and at times have even teamed up with many Cuban artists like pianist Chucho Valdez, and the late singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo winning important awards.

Cultural, sports, academic and people-to-people exchange between the two neighboring countries would undoubtedly blossom if it wasn’t for the nearly half century US blockade against the island.

Speaking at the 16th International Cuba Book Fair in Havana this Valentine’s Day, Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, a 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, praised Fidel Castro’s ability to back up his commitment to justice not only in Cuba but around the globe.

Soyinka, who acknowledged Cuba’s major contribution to African independence from colonial European powers, said if Fidel was a little younger, “We’d like to borrow him for a few years in my country.”
He added that the ongoing Cuban scholarship program for young Nigerian and other African medical students to study on the island — a program begun by Fidel Castro — is an important contribution to the future of the African continent.

More than just any year

The year 1959 began in Cuba with dictator Fulgenicio Batista fleeing the country on January 1, as Fidel Castro marched into the eastern city of Santiago to proclaim the rebel army victory. Two days later, Alaska became the 49th State of the United States.

On January 7, 1959, the late Charles De Gaulle was inaugurated as the first president of the French Fifth Republic; he would remain in office until 1969. Fidel Castro arrived triumphantly in Havana on January 8, 1959. He has since survived hundreds of CIA assassination attempts.

On January 9, 1959, Argentine born Ernesto “Che” Guevara was proclaimed a Cuban citizen for his contribution to Cuba’s liberation. Later that year Guevara would travel to Europe, Africa and Asia and sign a number of commercial, technical and cultural agreements. Later in the year Guevara would be named president of the Central Bank of Cuba.

While Cuba was still celebrating its revolution, on February 3, 1959, musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash.

During that same year, women in Nepal voted for the first time while a referendum in Switzerland denied females the right to vote.

The Barbie doll made its debut in 1959, the Marx Brothers made their last TV appearance and an attempt to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic failed.

Personalities born in 1959 included singer Sade, tennis champ John McEnroe, basketball star Magic Johnson, actress Nastassja Kinski and Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Singer Billie Holliday, actor Errol Flynn, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and boxer Max Baer were some of the year’s most notable deaths.

In Cuba, the loss of rebel hero Camilo Cienfuegos, who died in a tragic plane crash into the sea after leading an offensive against counter-revolutionaries, was hard felt and Camilo has been remembered by school children every year since.

In April 1959, Fidel Castro traveled to the United States on an unofficial visit to Washington and New York to discuss Cuba’s young revolution.

Several landmark events occurred in Cuba during 1959, including the proclamation of the country’s first agrarian reform law, a drastic reduction in rents and electric rates and an end to institutionalized racism. The Cuban revolution had just begun to spread its wings.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Venezuela Gives “Condi” Rice Nightmares

By Circles Robinson

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is having nightmares over Venezuela. The bad dream has President Hugo Chavez destroying his country by redistributing a portion of its oil wealth to previously excluded sectors and cutting into the share taken abroad by foreign firms.

"I believe there is an assault on democracy in Venezuela,” Rice told lawmakers on Capitol Hill. "I do believe that the president of Venezuela is really, really destroying his own country, economically, politically."

Rice’s comments were provoked by the nationalization underway of the CANTV telecommunications giant and Electricity of Caracas. The two firms have heavy US corporate investment from Verizon Communications and AES Corp. respectively.

President Chavez and his legislative majority believe these industries could better serve the Venezuelan population by not having their profits flow out of the country.

The nationalizations come on the heels of Chavez being granted special powers so he can move the country forward to what he calls “21st century socialism”, under which public sector investment, employment, education, health care and public welfare take priority over corporate gain.

In response to Rice’s “concern”, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told reporters Friday in Ecuador, “No US official has the morality to qualify Venezuelan democracy or the democratic leadership of President Chavez and life in our society.”


Coming from the US corporate world (she served on the boards of Chevron, Rand, Transamerica, Hewlett Packard, Charles Schwab, etc.), Condi, as President Bush calls her, considers any move to favor a Third World population over foreign business interests and their local partners scandalous.

However, the Bush administration’s hostility is unlikely to change Chavez’ mind. He has also already announced plans for Venezuela to assume a controlling stake in oil projects based in the country’s rich Orinoco Belt later this year. While not totally excluding them, such a move would affect the huge oil giants including Exxon, Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Chevron, Statoil and BP.

The White House warns that any US corporations affected by nationalization must be compensated “fairly”, without taking into account the decades of their uncontrolled and virtually untaxed profits and capital flight.

It’s no surprise that the administration’s favorite corporation, Halliburton, with multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts in Iraq, provides services big-time to oil companies in Venezuela.

Halliburton’s Chief Financial Officer, Christopher Gaut, told the press last Thursday at an investor’s conference in Vail, Colorado: “I think that all of us in the energy business follow up closely the Venezuelan market.” He added “There is a limited appetite there.” Guat’s statement appears to be recognition that while Venezuela is the US fourth largest oil supplier, the days of the free lunch may be numbered for foreign corporations.

The US government backed the kidnapping of Chavez and a coup against his government in April 2002, but it failed after 72 hours when most of the military and the general population demanded his return to the presidency. The same local forces supported by Washington tried to bring down the government via an oil industry management strike in 2003, but that too failed.

Since then, Chavez has won two key elections. He defeated a recall referendum with just under 60 percent of the vote in 2004 and in December 2006 won reelection for a six-year term with another landslide 63 percent victory. Both elections were recognized as highly fair and democratic by numerous election observer groups including The Carter Center.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

US Policy on Cuba Needs Review, Poll Indicates

By Circles Robinson

A poll released by Associated Press indicates a huge number of US citizens would like to visit Cuba if Washington ends its prohibition on traveling to the island.

While around three quarters of adult US citizens do not have a passport and a majority have never traveled abroad, a whopping “40 percent of those polled said they would be interested in vacationing there [in Cuba] if the long-standing travel ban were lifted.”

The AP poll also asked the 1,000 participants their opinion on whether the US should establish normal diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“A large majority of people — 62 percent — said the United States should re-establish diplomatic ties,” broken off unilaterally by the Kennedy administration in 1961.

While his biggest current battleground is over Iraq, President Bush is also under fire in Congress for his hard-line Cuba policy.

A bipartisan group of ten Congress members led by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Maryland Democrat William Delahunt, visited Cuba last December, returning to Washington ready to begin another battle for improved diplomatic and economic ties.

Several bills have been introduced in the current legislature that would end or chip away at the nearly half century blockade on the island, which besides the travel ban also stymies trade.

Leading the charge to maintain the status quo are the powerful rightwing Cuban-American groups in Miami, who have long been heavy donors to Republican and also Democratic campaign coffers.

The poll, which AP says “has a plus or minus 3 percentage point margin of error” indicates that 72 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans think it is time to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Both Cuban President Fidel Castro and his first Vice-President Raul Castro have repeatedly said they seek normal relations with the United States based on mutual respect for each country’s sovereignty.

Speaking at a rally in Havana last December, Raul Castro reiterated Cuba’s stance: “We take this opportunity to once again state that we are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the longstanding dispute between the United States and Cuba, based on the principles of equality, reciprocity, non-interference and mutual respect.”

Cuba has also asked Washington to cooperate in the fight against international drug-trafficking, terrorism and people smuggling, but the White House has turned a cold shoulder to the offers.

The AP poll, taken Jan. 30 – Feb. 1, further states that a majority of people in the US do not think their opinion in favor or against Cuban President Fidel Castro should be an obstacle in doing business or conducting people-to-people exchange with the island and its government.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Cuba Hip to Guantanamo Prison

By Circles Robinson

GUANTANAMO, Cuba.—Virtually everybody in Cuba is aware of what is happening at the US Naval Base on illegally occupied Cuban territory; but the fact that they are unable to do anything about it is a frustrating reality.

While the media reports constantly on the abuses committed by US soldiers on the hapless GTMO prisoners, most young Cubans in the neighboring provincial capital of Guantanamo go about their daily lives studying, working, listening to music, playing sports and just trying to get ahead.

“Life in Guantanamo is pretty calm. If it wasn’t for the ample coverage on our TV, radio and the newspapers you’d never know that such horrors were taking place only a couple dozen kilometers away,” said a 32-year-old nurse at a local hospital.

US “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan, former US Army Colonel and diplomat Ann Wright, released GTMO prisoner Asif Iqbal and relatives of another detainee came to the island with other human rights activists early last month.

When they marched up to the fence of the Guantanamo Naval Base on January 11th to demand its closure, the Cuban media kept the population fully abreast of their protest and conducted several interviews.

“The first prisoners arrived in January, 2002, after US-led forces overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan,” recalls Reuters in an article published on Sunday.

The news service notes: “The legal status of the prisoners and the concern about their conditions has drawn criticism on the United States from around the world.”

A 60-year old local mechanic said he had never seen the US base since it has been off bounds for the Cuban population.

“The 45 square mile base is home to the only McDonald’s restaurant on the island of Cuba,” regrets the Reuters reporter, implying that Cubans, who boast some of the best health statistics in the Americas, don’t know what they are missing.

To avoid conflict, an 18-mile security perimeter around the base prevents the US soldiers from making any land incursions on the rest of the island or shooting innocent civilians.

“The United States seized the entrance to Guantanamo Bay in the Spanish-American War, which brought Cuban independence from Spain in 1898. The US Navy built a base there in 1903 to supply coal to its ships protecting the approaches to the Panama Canal,” said Reuters.

For 47 years, Cuba has demanded the US return the piece of its territory but Washington has refused, turning a deaf ear to repeated international condemnation of the occupation. Instead, it continues to operate its offshore prison camp where its captives are held without charges and denied any basic rights.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cuba Book Feast Starts Thursday Feb. 8th

By Circles Robinson

Cuba is a country of avid readers and since 1982 its annual International Book Fair attracts people from all walks of life and ages. It’s a chance to expand home libraries and have a good time as well, in a nation where literacy is a given.

This year’s event, spotlighting Argentine authors, publishers and culture, runs in Havana from February 8 to18 before extending island-wide to 40 cities and concluding in eastern Santiago de Cuba on March 11.

A visitor from the United States, who had to violate his country’s travel ban on Cuba to attend the fair in 2006, said “Seeing so many people interested in literature restores one’s faith that books can hold their own in the electronic age, at least in Cuba.”

The fair begins at the 18th century San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress that the Revolution turned into a permanent museum-cultural center. The facility has a breathtaking view of the Havana harbor and skyline and has large, well-kept grassy areas where people picnic and children get a first glimpse of their new books.

First time foreign visitors are stunned by the huge daily turnouts —more like crowds that one would expect for a soccer game or a salsa concert— to attend book launchings, lectures, poetry readings and make purchases. The large number of activities for children including dance, clowns, theater and readings make the outing a family affair.

Entrance tickets, still costing the equivalent of 8 cents US, are on sale at numerous Havana bookstores that will also be selling titles from the fair at the same discount prices.

The selection from dozens of Cuban publishing houses will run from a few cents for children’s books to 25 cents to a dollar for thicker volumes of poetry, fiction or non-fiction. Cuban’s reading tastes are varied but children’s literature is always of greatest demand at the fair.

Express buses take people for free or close to it from several of Havana’s municipalities making it possible to attend despite the city’s transportation difficulties. The Capital Building on Prado Promenade in Old Havana, a replica of the building on Washington’s Capitol Hill, is a central place where many catch the bus that crosses the east bay tunnel to the fortress fairgrounds.

Long lines are the norm at the food stands and at book stalls, but most people make a leisurely outing of going to the fair and are patient about waiting their turn to buy.

The first ten fairs between 1982 and 2001 were held in the capital but by 2002, popular demand and a greater publishing capacity has allowed the event to become a national affair, extending first to 18 cities, to 34 in 2006 and now 40 in all Cuban provinces.

At last year’s book fair, dedicated to Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez expressed the sentiments of the organizers by saying: “The US Empire sows death with its weapons. In contrast, these are our guns: books, ideas, culture.”

This year the large Argentine delegation of authors, artists, publishers and officials will be headed by Secretary of Culture Jose Nun.

The fair also involves several concurrent cultural events, usually featuring aspects of the culture of the guest country.

A sampling of recent Argentine films will be shown at the capital’s Riviera movie theater and a special tribute for famed singer and director Leonardo Favio is scheduled.

Forty years of Argentine rock music will be celebrated on Saturday, February 10. Musicians such as Juan Carlos Baglietto, David Lebon, Pedro Aznar and Lito Vitale will join Cuban bands in an open air concert at the plaza across from the US Interests Section.

The fair is attended by so many people that the Ministry of Culture, local and visiting publishers have their hands full printing enough books to meet demand. The organizers estimate an offering this year of 8.5 million copies. The low price of books on the island especially surprises visitors from other Latin American countries where literature has become a luxury item.

Nigerian Nobel Prize for Literature Wole Soyinka, Mexican author and journalist Elena Poniatowska, Italian philosopher and politician Gianni Vattimo and Argentine novelist and playwright David Vinas will be attending the 16th Cuba Book Fair.

The largest foreign book stalls will be from Argentina, Spain, Mexico and Germany with booths also from publishers in Algeria, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Pakistan, Syria, Australia, Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Great Britain, Venezuela and Palestine.

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