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

Monday, December 31, 2007

Cuba’s Focus Shifts for 2008

By Circles Robinson

If you are already convinced that the only thing Cuba needs is for Fidel Castro to pass on and then to embrace the United States, there’s not much reason to go on reading this commentary.

However, if you believe an island nation of 11.2 million inhabitants has the right to try and improve a political system that, with all its imperfections, has prioritized human needs and development over consumerism and profits, please continue.

The year 2008 starts on a different note in Cuba. It’s not that the challenge to resist another year of US blockade and hostility has disappeared. To the contrary, the Bush administration and US Congress approved an ever increasing amount of funds and personnel to further tighten the screws.

What’s special is that the focus has turned inward to what the Cuban government and people can do to make their socialist system work better from within. The speech by acting President Raul Castro on December 28, 2007, closing the current legislature, and a written statement to that body by President Fidel Castro the night before, appears to have set the tone for what’s on the horizon.

In writing the parliament, Fidel Castro recognized the difficult tasks before the legislature “in the face of many accumulated and growing needs of our society.” He further noted: “In this difficult and at the same time promising year (…) the Communist Party, government and mass organizations are facing new problems in their relationship with an intelligent, attentive and educated population that detests bureaucratic obstacles and routine explanations.”

Fidel said he had read acting President Raul Castro’s speech in advance. “I raise my hand along with yours in supporting him,” he concluded in his message to the 609 lawmakers. Raul has been Cuba’s acting president since July 31, 2006, while Fidel recovers from surgery.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 20, 2008 and a new 31-member Council of State, to be elected from within the new legislature, is expected to elect or reelect the president and vice-president by March.


Raul spoke to the National Assembly and an attentive nationwide TV audience reporting back on the feedback received over the last several months when thousands of meetings were held at workplaces, communities and neighborhoods throughout the island to discuss the problems facing the nation.
He said the country’s leadership had been aware of most of the problems “at least those that we consider fundamental for the well being of the population and the satisfactory performance of the country’s economy and social programs.”

Raul said that the country’s excellent macro economic figures and promising economic growth rates (7.5 percent in 2007 and averaging over 10 percent over the last three years) “must be reflected as much as possible in Cuban homes where shortages exist on a daily basis.”

He said some measures would be immediate and others on issues like the controversial two-currency system require more study before acting. While he didn’t give any specifics of how and when certain changes would occur, his words led people on the street to expect some action to come in the beginning of 2008.

The acting president also spoke out against the “triumphalist and self-indulgent tendency” that often prevails in declarations from officials and in the media. We are “working to eliminate that damaging tendency,” he insisted.

Raul’s announcement of the pending end of a series of “excessive prohibitions and legal measures that cause more harm than good,” was well received. He noted that “each incorrect prohibition leads to a number of illegalities.”

With salaries being low across the board and not satisfying many basic needs —as recognized by Raul in several speeches—, many professionals, service workers and laborers alike have found themselves forced into small scale illegal business activities to supplement their income.

This contradiction has produced an ethical problem, further complicated when trying to pass on sound values to children and young adults.

Now that this troubling reality has been recognized by the top authorities, expectations run high in many sectors of the nation; some require greater resources to be met, and others policy changes.

One of the first measures on the horizon involves land grants to cooperative and individual farmers —proven to be more efficient than state farms— and a more determined effort to produce more of what the country consumes to reduce food imports, which have soared in cost along with oil.

“The studies are well along and continuing rapidly to create a situation where the land and resources are in the hands of those capable of producing efficiently, and so that these people feel supported, socially recognized and receive the material compensation they deserve,” said Raul, raising hopes for a new more productive era in rural communities, once the pillar of the Cuban revolution.

Excessive bureaucracy is another throwback from the past that still haunts Cuban society and hampers its potential.

The cumbersome paperwork and restrictions involving home repairs or moving, car repairs and sales, traveling, and dealing with inheritances, are frequent subjects of criticism among the population.

A classic Cuban comedy from 1966, “Death of a Bureaucrat” pokes fun at a system that can make apparently simple matters into drawn out nightmares. Forty years later, many of the same obstacles still exist and are often the butt of jokes from comedians and the population alike. Generations of Cubans have grown used to needing an overdose of patience to not become overly frustrated.

After successfully keeping Washington, Miami and the CIA at bay and surviving the worst years following the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Cuba constantly receives international recognition for the country’s free education and health care systems, its development in science, sports and culture, and its altruistic foreign policy.

While trying to maintain those accomplishments, the island’s leaders now look inward to deal with pending deficiencies they believe are better to fight now than later.

My Cuba Wish List for 2008

By Circles Robinson

The German author Herman Hesse once said that one should aspire for the impossible to obtain the possible. With his guiding light here is my wish list for Cuba in 2008:

— A low key hurricane season giving the eastern part of the country time to fully recover from the flood damage in 2007 and the western part a continued breather.

— For the huge order of new Chinese buses and trucks to roll off the boats and on to the streets on schedule.

— Increased industrial production including that for much needed building materials and other basic consumer items.

— A news media opening that allows for real debate on national and international issues and welcomes a diversity of opinion on all subjects.

— A rebirth of the countryside that greatly increases the food supply and strengthens rural communities and people’s desire to live in them.

— For the National Assembly to pass a bill allowing for same sex marriages and adoptions.

— For Cuba to confront its internal deficiencies publicly and head on.

— Progress in dealing with the difficult salary, prices and two-currency issues and in fighting theft and corruption at any level.

— For a successful war on bureaucracy and low productivity.

— For Cuba to finish in the top ten at the Beijing Olympics.

— For Cuba to continue making progress on saving energy, avoiding blackouts and helping other struggling countries do the same.

— For the least aggressive and warmongering of the candidates to win the US presidential elections next November.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Films on Cuba Stir Past and Present

By Circles Robinson

Two films by foreign based directors with special ties to Cuba won significant awards at the 29th Havana Film Festival, which closed its curtains over the weekend after two weeks of well attended screenings.

“The Man of Two Havanas” by Vivian Lesnik Weisman (Cuban-American) and “The Sugar Curtain” by Camila Guzman (Chile) examine events in Cuba over the last 50 years with a strong personal and critical touch. They both strike an emotional cord for locals and reach out to foreigners who want to understand more about the Cuban revolution and its complexities.

Both films were heavily applauded by audiences that, in the case of The Man of Two Havanas, included Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban parliament, popular TV commentator and program host Reynaldo Taladrid and other personalities.


The Man of Two Havanas is a biographical sketch of Vivian’s father journalist Max Lesnik ( It shared the award for best film about Latin America by a non-Latin American director.

The 96-minute documentary allows you to retrace the steps of Lesnik from his university anti-Batista activism to his exile in the United States in 1961, followed by his decades long battle as a journalist bucking the violent extremism of the old guard of the Miami Cuban-American community and opposing the US blockade on the island.

Max Lesnik returns to visit Cuba in the 1990s in a rapprochement promoted by the Cuban government with exiles not connected to the violent Miami Mafia. When he is welcomed by Fidel Castro, his old friend from the years of the student protests against Batista, the Cuban leader asks him: “Max, Why did you leave?” Lesnik responds with what Castro already knew, about his differences over Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union. Castro then tells the journalist that if he would have been in his place he would have done the same thing in order to save the revolution.


After a screening of “The Sugar Curtain,” a Cuban doctor approached 36-year-old Camila Guzman to thank her for the accurate portrayal of his student years and also for putting forth what he considers important issues and problems facing today’s Cuba.

In her soft spoken narration that won the award for best documentary, Guzman, who lived in Cuba from 1973-1991, presents the dilemma of a generation of happy, carefree children and teenagers of the 1970s and 80s, supposedly predestined to create their own future and build a more fair and just society.

Instead, they saw the rug suddenly pulled out from under them after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of what is known as The Special Period, which put survival ahead of dreams and saw inequalities and contradictions grow.

Guzman recalls Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Cuba and seeing the Soviet “perestroika” as a possibility for less bureaucracy and more tolerance in Cuba, a revolution within the revolution she called it. Like her friends, she had no idea what was unfolding.

The director states that the degree of Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union hadn’t really concerned her generation because nobody thought the 70 year revolution was going to disappear.

“The Sugar Curtain” notes the slow reaction of the Cuban media to the whirlwind of events that swept Europe at the end of the Cold War. For example, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, The Island’s leading newspaper reported it as a minor news item saying simply that East Germany had decided to open up its borders.

Several of Guzman’s school friends reflect on what’s left of their collective dream and how they feel about the current situation in their country. Other contemporaries look at Cuba as she, after having living for years abroad.


Living on a blockaded island gives added desire to see what other filmmakers are doing from other latitudes. The Havana Film Festival, which is totally non-commercial, offers the chance. Many movie lovers try to take part of their one month yearly vacation time to catch as many flicks as possible.

Before the festival began a “passport” was sold allowing the holder to go to 15 films at all the 20 participating cinemas for 20 pesos, the equivalent of US $0.80 or just over 5 cents a movie.

A daily tabloid is published with programs and film reviews which costs 1 peso. Cuban TV runs nightly festival news real, with information on collateral events, visiting movie industry personalities and highlights some of the films.

The landmark Hotel Nacional, pre-revolution hang out of the US Mafia, is the festival headquarters where press conferences are held and film buffs and students mingle with the visiting and local film industry personalities.

The current edition just concluded and most agree it was a good harvest. The best fiction film and three other awards went to “Silent Light” by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. Julio Chavez (Argentina) won the best actor award for his role in "El otro" (The other) and Roxana Blanco (Uruguay) best actress in “Matar a todos” (Kill them all). The audience popularity award went to “The Black Pimpernel”, a Swedish-Danish-Mexican co-production.

“Who Am I”, the story of hundreds of Argentineans discovering who their real parents were and what the US backed dictatorship did to them in the 1970s and 80s, by acclaimed US director Estela Bravo, shared the award for best film on Latin America by a non-Latin America based filmmaker with “The Sugar Curtain.”

From Cuba, “Madrigal” by Fernando Perez won a Special Jury Award and another for best Art Direction, “Personal Belongings” by Alejandro Brugues finished third in the fiction category. A Colombian-Cuban short “Pucha Vida” finished second in the documentary category, and "Siberia," by Renata Duque Lasio, received a special mention in the short film category.

Festival President Alfredo Guevara gave the closing speech at the awards ceremony. He officially opened invitations to submit films for the 30th Havana Film Festival, to take place next December, only weeks before a major celebration expected for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chavez Loses One, What’s Next for Venezuela

By Circles Robinson

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ constitutional reform proposal —billed as a fast track to socialism— lost in a close vote on Sunday. It was a battle the charismatic president may have lost over how the reforms were presented to the voters and several side conflicts.

The existing 1999 Constitution has been Chavez’ guiding light, used by the leader time and time again to strengthen Venezuelan democracy and citizen participation. He often holds up a compact copy on his weekly TV program to emphasize the legality of his actions as president to favor the poor majority.

While Chavez saw the dozens of new reforms as a well thought out integral package, the articles themselves could also be seen as a hodgepodge of controversial and non-controversial issues. Grouping them together gave Chavez’ detractors the opportunity to fixate their rejection on some of the reforms, and in doing so, throw a bucket of cold water over all of them.

For example, one would think that granting social security pensions to the self employed, free public university education, a 36-hour work week, dropping the voting age from 18 to 16, and protecting people from losing their homes to confiscation over bankruptcy or other legal proceedings were popular measures.

Meanwhile, removing term limits for a president, greater presidential control over the Central Bank and its foreign reserves, empowering the “Popular Power” councils as the driving force of Venezuelan democracy and allowing a president to declare a state of emergency without a time limit, were highly controversial political reforms.

Despite losing, Chavez said it was encouraging that 49 percent of the voters favored his “audacious” fast track path to socialism. He said he would continue on that road guided by the rules of the existing constitution.


To spread fear and envelope him in never-ending controversy, the media labeled Chavez as dangerous and unstable. Instead of putting out the flames, a combative Hugo may have fed the fire.

Coming up to the vote, Chavez was riding high on a 60 percent plus popularity and a surging national income from near US $100 barrel oil. However, in a very short period of time he allowed relations with Spain and Colombia, two leading trade partners, to be severely strained and upped the ante in the battle of words with the White House.

By lumping everyone opposing the reform package into the same basket, and calling them either traitors, oligarchs, lackeys of the US and/or enemies of his country’s peaceful revolution, Chavez may have turned off a percentage of the electorate who support him as Venezuela’s president.

Now the question is what’s next for Chavez and his core supporters. One way out would be to only blame the local and foreign media and the United States for the setback and not take a critical look at the campaign failures.

The more self-critical approach would be to recognize that much political work must be done to consolidate his newly formed United Socialist Party and clearly define the so-called 21st century socialism project.

Things have been moving fast in Venezuela, especially since the failed right wing US-backed coup in April 2002. Numerous big-time economic investment projects and wide-reaching social programs aimed at benefiting the country’s vast majority are underway and will continue with or without the new reforms. Chavez landslide 63 percent reelection vote in 2006, with 7.3 million votes of the 11.8 million total, indicated the general agreement with those programs.

In Sunday’s vote the National Electoral Council announced that the YES on the constitutional reforms received just over 4.3 million of the nearly 8.9 million valid votes. The turnout was reported as 55.9 percent compared to 74.7 percent in the 2006 presidential race.

One of the vote’s main lessons is that the greater ideological battle that Chavez wants to wage to transform Venezuela from being a capitalist, consumer society to a socialist nation that prioritizes the common good, is not going to be won overnight.

But no one should sell Chavez short. In his concession speech early Monday, he made it clear that he’s “in it for the long haul.”

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