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

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bush Takes Time Out for Cuba

By Circles Robinson

President Bush took time out on May 20 to extend greetings to the people of Cuba. On this date in 1902, the United States officially granted the island limited autonomy after taking control from Spain four years earlier.

“The United States remains committed to extending the full blessings of liberty around the world,” said Bush in a barely veiled reference to his administration’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The President chooses to ignore the fact that most Cubans on the island consider 1959 the date of their true independence. Instead, Bush prefers the relationship that preceded the Cuban revolution and provided for US military occupations and treaties favorable to US interests.

During this period, Washington took possession of Guantanamo Bay and 117 sq. kilometers of prize coastline, building its oldest standing overseas naval base that now doubles as a prison camp.

While the subservient pre-revolution governments didn’t seem to mind the US occupation, ever since 1959 Cuba has demanded that Washington leave its territory.


“We stand united with freedom-loving people of all nations in the conviction that Cuba’s future must be one of dignity, liberty and opportunity,” said President Bush in his annual message Sunday to Cuban American organizations based in Miami that have been big donors to him and his party.

To further that aim, the State Department has published a nearly 500-page “Plan for Assistance to a Free Cuba”, to topple the government of Fidel Castro and bring the island back into the US fold.

Washington also maintains a travel ban on US citizens wanting to visit the island as part of a nearly half-century blockade that stifles trade and people-to-people exchange.

The latest victim of the travel ban was filmmaker Michael Moore, under threat of a six-figure fine and a stiff jail sentence for having come to Havana to get some footage for his film “Sicko”, about health care in the United States.

“Laura and I send our best wishes. May God bless the people of Cuba,” concluded Bush.

Monday, May 21, 2007

US-Iraq Pullout Bad for Business

By Circles Robinson

A US pullout from Iraq would jeopardize the windfall profits for a host of well-placed corporations specializing in oil, weapons, construction, security, and other war services.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is at a record high, so it’s no surprise that Exxon, Chevron, Halliburton, Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Parsons, BP, Shell, etc., are firmly behind President Bush in his efforts to maintain and extend the Iraq occupation as long as possible.

With the corporations’ security expenses and investment risks being picked up by the US taxpayers, what incentive is there to hurry up any eventual withdrawal?

To keep the profits flowing, Bush has just named Lt. General Douglas E. Lute as the new “war czar” for Iraq and Afghanistan. In appointing Lute —who must be confirmed by the Senate— Bush said he is “a tremendously accomplished military leader who understands war and government and knows how to get things done.”

Gen David H. Petraeus, commander of the multinational force in Iraq said Lute would be “a great addition to the team that is striving for success in Iraq.”

What “success” means at this point in the war has never been fully explained to the people of the United States.


Washington’s current top agenda item in Iraq is getting the puppet Iraqi government and legislature to approve a bill that would assure that private foreign corporations control the Iraqi oil industry and hundreds of billions in profits for decades to come.

Author and oil analyst Antonia Juhasz says the law being pushed by the Bush administration for Iraq, “opens up at a minimum, two thirds of Iraq’s oil to private, foreign corporate investment on terms that are literally the most generous available, just about anywhere in the world. Generous to the oil companies that is.”

The law is so slanted to favor the transnational corporations that it has little support even among the Iraqis that have collaborated with the occupation forces. The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU),—not the resistance— are threatening to strike if it proceeds.


The charade over why Iraq had to be attacked ended shortly after the 2003 occupation began. The pretexts of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein being on a first name basis with Osama Bin Laden collapsed like a house of cards.

Congress overwhelmingly supported the first hundreds of billions of dollars for the war. Now, the President is betting that when push comes to shove many critics on Capitol Hill will buckle to the fear of being accused of deserting the troops.

The 67-29 Senate vote last week against stopping funding for major combat operations within a year has bolstered the President’s hand, at least temporarily.

There is still grumbling in the House of Representatives and among Democratic Party presidential candidates in the Senate but a prolonging of the war and related profits is almost guaranteed.


For years now, the US news media has published one Pentagon report after another boasting of scores of “insurgents” killed in Iraq and rejoicing at the death of supposed “top ranking” Al Qaeda leaders. The hanging of Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi officials was also supposed to mark a turning point.

If killing Iraqis was the solution, the war would have been over a long time ago. Instead, for every “militant” or “leader” killed, many more Iraqis are willing to take their place. Kill five today and fight fifty tomorrow.

To counter the would-be quitters, the State Department and its supporters on Capitol Hill warn of a civil war and possible large-scale bloodbath if the US forces leave Iraq. I wonder what they call the 50 to a 100 dead and hundreds more wounded every day; month after month, year after year?

As was the case in the early years of the Vietnam War, the vast majority of major US newspapers rushed to support the war on Iraq. Three hundred fifty billion dollars later with $90 billion more on the horizon, and public opinion turning against the war, several major newspapers are now calling for some sort of pullout.

The L.A. Times made its about face in a recent editorial stating: “The longer we delay planning the inevitable, the worse the outcome is likely to be. The time has come to leave.”

But the California daily misses the point: Worse for whom?

If the real reason for being in Iraq is to help US corporations make a buck than every day the troops remain in place is another day that the dollars flow. Isn’t the motto: What’s good for business is good for the nation?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

My Grandson and Cuba’s Che Guevara

By Circles Robinson

Cuba has many popular recreational facilities but not long ago my five-year-old grandson Karim surprised me by asking if we could go to the city of Santa Clara to see where the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara are kept.

Karim wasn’t born in Cuba but he came here at a year old and has gone through the island’s day care and pre-school. It is there that he grew fond of “Che”, who he calls his brother. He knows that Che died fighting in Bolivia and he is still working to understand why. “He was the good guy, so why did he die,” he asks.

I don’t really have a good answer. Instead, I have my own questions about good guys and bad guys:

How could a man like Luis Posada Carriles, who organized a plane bombing that killed 73 persons and other horrendous crimes, be free on the streets of Miami at 79, when Che didn’t live to see 40?

For my grandson, the details about Che and what he meant to Cuba, Latin American, Africa and many far off corners of the world will come later when he starts reading.

So, what makes the Argentine-born medical doctor, commander of the Cuban revolution, government minister and above all internationalist guerrilla fighter, so dear to children on the island?

It is the simple fact that he cared about the fate of oppressed people and fought to free them from their oppressors. He rises above any TV cartoon warriors as a model.


The 24-hour trip began late Saturday afternoon at the monumental Central Station train terminal in Havana.

I had booked a ticket on Cuba’s fastest train which travels the 850 kilometer route to Santiago Cuba in around 12 hours. It claims to be faster than the bus. Tickets cost $20 US dollars to Santa Clara for visitors. For Cubans and foreign residents the trip costs far less if purchased two weeks in advance.

This was Karim’s first train trip and he was very excited. As soon as I confirmed our tickets, he headed to the play area where a bunch of kids were on mechanical toys. Keeping him in eyeshot, I slipped out the open front doorway of the station where a nice breeze was a pleasant contrast to the sweltering heat inside.

I always have a hard time understanding what’s being said over loud speakers in bus terminals, train stations and airports, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that outside the station the messages were crystal clear. The second one I heard said our train had just arrived and would be soon boarding.

Twenty minutes later some 800 people would be on their way to Santa Clara, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, the only three stops on the express train.

Since the tickets have reserved seating, we were not hurried and were among the last to board. Our tickets said Coach No. 9 seats 7 and 8. We entered our carriage but to our surprise a woman and teenager eating a snack, were in what I thought were our seats.

The occupants informed us that the formal-looking numbers stamped above the seating weren’t the ones to follow. Instead, we had to look at the hand-written ones scrawled below them. “Go to the other side of car where the lower numbers begin,” they said. But when we reached the lower numbers, one of “our” seats was also occupied.

This woman was equally convinced that the number scheme was just the opposite, and directed us back to the other end of the car where we had come from. A little frustrated, but not discouraged, we decided to wait for the attendant to sort things out.

When she shut the door and finally came aboard, the three of us then repeated the routine. I began to think I had stumbled into a Marx Brothers movie. In the end, she asked one single passenger to move alongside another and we happily had our two seats.

Small curious kids ask a lot of questions. The first one was what the two buttons under the window were for. I had no idea, so we decided to ask the attendant when she came around to punch the tickets. “I think they were for reading lights, but they haven’t worked since I’ve been on this train,” she said.

Once we sat down and the train started to move, Karim asked why it was going backwards. I helped him figure out that it was our seats and not the train that were turned around.

For a short while, Karim was all eyes, face pressed up against the window. It wasn’t long, though, until the growing darkness and the rhythmic movement of the train had put him to sleep.

I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged man seated in front of us. He was heading home to Santiago de Cuba after visiting family in the capital. We never exchanged names but as the train chugged along, we discussed some of the burning issues facing the island. A union man, he was concerned about the need for improved salaries. We also talked about problems of workplace discipline and productivity, and the prospects for improved public transportation. He felt hopeful that the nation’s rebounding economy was headed in the right direction.

We arrived in the city of Santa Clara, 270 kilometers east of Havana, just before midnight. My plan was to catch a taxi to the Santa Clara Libre hotel located just off the central park, a ten-story building with a good view of the city.

However, there was no taxi or any other vehicle in sight. With Karim now wide awake, we hoofed to the center of town, some 15 blocks away. One of the nice things about Cuba is that you can be out on the streets late at night and feel perfectly safe – a far cry from many Latin American or US cities.

Vidal Park in the heart of Santa Clara was teeming with people at 12:30 a.m. However, the clerk at the hotel informed us that they were temporarily closed due to a water problem. Early that morning, buses of tour groups from Holland and Germany had been sent to stay at the hotels on the outskirts of the city.

Instead, she offered to call people who rented rooms in their homes to tourists. Fifteen minutes later a retired mechanical engineer named Aroldo Garcia had arrived at the hotel to walk us to his place, five blocks away. Cubans stay up pretty late, especially on the weekends watching movies, so we hadn’t woke him up.

The house was modest and clean. A corridor filled with plants led to our room which had air conditioning and a fan, a private bathroom with hot water, a refrigerator and a cassette player/radio as well. Karim was still not interested in sleeping so we had a late night coloring book session before finally falling asleep around 2:30 a.m. I think I dozed off first.

We woke up at 8:30 and Aroldo fixed us an ample breakfast that included an omelet, Cuban style bean soup, rice, toast, and lots of fresh fruit as well as juice and coffee.


It was finally time to see the sights. The towering bronze statue of Che came into view several blocks before reaching it. The monument looks out onto a large plaza where large public gatherings are held. The walls around the pedestal are carved in bas-relief and include scenes of Che’s rebel troops taking of the city of Santa Clara.

Having forgotten to bring a camera —shame on me— I managed to recruit a Dutch visitor to take a picture of Karim in front of the towering Che. Through the marvels of e-mail, he said we should have the picture in a week.

We entered the air-conditioned museum and saw all the photos and personal belongings of Che and some of his comrades. Che’s doctor’s coat and olive green uniform, plus berets, pistols and rifles, knives, diaries, letters, radio, camera, fountain pen, medical and dentistry instruments are all carefully displayed. Karim was all eyes and ears.

Photos, some blown up huge, took us through Che’s life story, from his childhood in Argentina to the taking of Santa Clara, Cuba, and beyond to his last days in Bolivia where he was killed on October 9, 1967.

Shy at first, Karim informed one of the museum guides that “Che” is his brother. She reacted with acknowledgement, knowing exactly what he meant.

The museum exit door leads to the entrance of the mausoleum where Che’s remains rest with those of several internationalist comrades and Bolivians that had fought alongside him.

There is an eternal gas flame set in the floor of the somber yet magical burial chamber.


Next on the agenda was a visit to the “tren blindado” armored train museum. We got there part of the way in a horse drawn cart, — which appeared to be the main type of public transportation on the sunny Santa Clara Sunday.

The first thing you see upon arriving at the outdoor museum is a small yellow bulldozer welded on a metal platform. Behind it are several train cars that could have derailed yesterday.

The museum is closed on Sundays so we couldn’t go inside the freight cars but two women on guard duty were more than happy to fill Karim in on what had happened with the train back in December 1958, just days before the triumph of the Cuban revolution.

The rebel troops commanded by Che had been tipped off that the dictator Batista had sent a train full of troops and weapons eastward to try and stop their advance. The plan was to derail the train and capture the weapons.

And so it went. The little bulldozer dug up the rails and when the train derailed the rebel troops under Che opened fire. However, the armored car walls were impenetrable. The guard told us they had metal on the outside plus sand, wood and more metal.

She said the rebels set off explosions under the wooden floorboards and the smoke filled the cars forcing the soldiers to come out and surrender or die asphyxiated. The rebels then took charge of the weapons and finished off with the liberation of the city of Santa Clara.


After a long walk down the center of the railroad tracks we went back to the house where we had stayed. Aroldo had family over as they were celebrating his daughter’s 37th birthday. There were a couple of children that immediately incorporated Karim into their games. I joined the adults for a couple shots of birthday rum and a varied conversation from baseball to music to economics.

It had been a full day and by 4 p.m. we were off in another horse drawn buggy to the bus station a few kilometers away. To our luck there were seats on a bus that pulled in just after 5 p.m. and by 5:30 we were headed home. Karim fell asleep as I watched the green countryside, the farms, reforestation efforts, and emblematic palm trees in the changing late afternoon light. By 8:30, we were in Havana just over 24 hours after having left from Central Station.

When Karim went to his pre-school the following Monday and proudly told some of his friends where he had been, only one actually believed him. As I write a week later, the photo just came from Holland and next week he can show the non-believers.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cuba Trip Hands Michael Moore Free Promo

By Circles Robinson

Michael Moore made a low-profile trip to Cuba a couple months ago reportedly connected to his new film “Sicko.” Now, the US Treasury Department has ratcheted up the publicity and is threatening him with a $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in jail for traveling to the island.

Dragging the filmmaker into the controversy over the nearly half century US blockade and travel ban on Cuba should get even more people charged to see his documentary about the US health care system.

Moore seemed unperturbed by a threatening letter from the government and his lawyers are deciding how and when to respond.

In the meantime, the Oscar-winning director (Bowling for Columbine – 2002) is busy preparing for the world premiere of Sicko on May 19th at the Cannes Film Festival. It is scheduled to be shown in theaters across the United States starting in late June.

Sicko is being billed as a biting comedy about the 45 million people with no health care in the world’s richest country.

Moore joins a host of ordinary people including bicycle riding retirees, sun worshipers, professors, business people, sister city promoters and students that have been hassled, fined or threatened by the Bush administration for visiting Cuba.

Moore’s last film “Fahrenheit 9/11” was a box office smash worldwide earning a reported $220 million dollars. It was a permanent thorn in the side of President Bush during the 2004 election campaign.


There is growing bipartisan support on Capitol Hill to end the travel ban on Cuba and some support to trash the blockade completely. The current Congress will be voting on several bills related to the issue.

HR 654 was introduced by Reps. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz). The legislation would completely eliminate the travel ban to Cuba on US citizens. By May 3, the bill already had 103 sponsors including 10 Republicans.

While President Bush is currently battling for more no-strings Iraq war funding, he has also threatened to veto any bill that weakens the Cuba blockade.

Powerful right wing Cuban-American groups based in Miami have been reliable campaign contributors to many Republican and some Democratic Party coffers. The strategy has thus far earned them disproportionate political influence.

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