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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

Friday, February 29, 2008

Cuba: If you liked Fidel you’ll like Raul

By Circles Robinson

There is no greater example of Washington’s failed Cuba policy than the well-executed changing of the guard that took place in Havana last Sunday.

Political analysts at home and Cuba watchers abroad are still digesting the fact that Fidel Castro —who decided not to run for reelection— and the Communist Party of Cuba have pulled off a smooth transfer of power. The event has left Washington dumbfounded and the hard-core Miami lobby dejected.

Nobody dreams of filling Fidel Castro’s shoes as a statesman, but newly chosen President Raul Castro will certainly continue on the course that Cuba’s historic leader and his close associates have carefully set out. This includes a promise of policy reforms and administrative streamlining.

In the days leading up to the National Assembly’s vote to elect a new president, the mainstream US and European media rushed to paint a picture of Cuba as a fragile house of cards ready to fall apart with the first light breeze. Most now grudgingly admit that their dire predictions were wrong.

Already adjusted to Raul’s style of government after 19 months as interim president, most Cubans are now waiting —patiently or skeptically— for the promised changes to make the country’s socialist system work better. The streets are calm and life goes on normally.


In his acceptance speech on Sunday, February 24, as in his address to the final session of the outgoing parliament on December 28, 2007, Raul referred to progressive changes in several areas of the Cuban economic and social life. Issues on the table include reforming the nightmarish bureaucracy, eliminating stifling rules and regulations, improving an economy marked by low productivity and poor administration and raising peoples’ low purchasing power.

One of the greatest achievements of the Cuban revolution was surviving the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent crisis that peaked in the summer of 1994. Difficult decisions were made during this period. Once again the doomsday forecasters were proven wrong, but as Raul Castro said “many changes were undertaken with the rush imposed to quickly adapt to a radically different, very hostile and extremely dangerous scenario.”

He went on to note that in the last 14 years the panorama has changed dramatically. “Today a more compact and operational structure is required, with a lower number of institutions under the central administration of the State and a better distribution of their functions. This will enable us to reduce the enormous quantity of meetings, coordination, permissions, conciliations, provisions, rules and regulations etc.”

President Raul Castro made it clear that some issues would be addressed more quickly, like lifting certain long-standing prohibitions and authorizing greater autonomy in local decision-making. He said other more complicated economic issues, including the dual currency system, would be addressed after careful study.


One of the most important questions for the future of the 50-year revolution is whether the promised reforms can inspire new energy among Cuba’s youth. At present, a considerable segment of the younger generation have fallen into apathy and disaffection, claiming to see no future for themselves in their underdeveloped country and longing to immigrate to where the grass appears to be greener.

When push comes to shove, many of those youth will admit that what they really want is the best of two worlds: the advantages of their country’s admired social system combined with a modestly better material living standard. Due to the US blockade, the difficulties faced by the entire region and Cuba’s own deficiencies, the latter has proven unobtainable on the island for nearly two decades.

The Cuban media and educational system puts great emphasis on the heroic deeds of Cuban students in the 1950s who fought the Batista dictatorship. While the history is an important part of the cultural and national identity, it is clearly not enough to motivate young people. Unlike survivors of the heroic revolutionary generation and the first generation after them, many of today’s youth see the glass as half empty, while the older generation sees it as half full.

Cuban analysts have meticulously studied the fall of the Soviet Union, East Germany and the rest of the Socialist Bloc. Much of the government’s seemingly slow maneuvering comes from the desire to avoid abrupt changes. Such changes, they fear, could give their enemies in Washington a wedge to break the country’s overwhelming unity on national sovereignty and self-determination.


The new first vice president, Raul’s previous post, is Jose Ramon Machado Ventura. A doctor and former minister of public health, Machado has served for several years in the key post as organizational chief of the Communist Party Central Committee.

“I met Machado more than 50 years ago in the Sierra Maestra Mountains; the two of us were in the same column as the Commander in Chief [Fidel],” said Raul. “In case of any accident, attack or whatever,” Machado as first vice president is a guarantee that the revolution will continue “without interruption.”

The new defense minister is Julio Casas Regueiro, who was vice-minister under Raul Castro at the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Casas is widely known for his business expertise and for being thrifty and even a bit of a “tightwad” as Raul stated in an intervention at the National Assembly before he was reelected.

Castro noted that Casas brings with him a lot of experience and that one of his greatest virtues is his reputation among all the generals as a careful spender; “to such an extreme that he was the only person I gave the authority to veto my economic decisions [at the defense ministry],” said the president.

On the new Council of State, now headed by Raul and Machado, the other five vice presidents are: Juan Almeida Bosque, Juan Estaban Lazo Hernandez, Abelardo Colome Ibarra, Carlos Lage Davila and Julio Casas Regueiro (the only new VP). Julio Miguel Miyar Barruecos remains the secretary.

Of the other 23 Council of State members, 12 are new including 7 of the 8 women elected (up from 6 in 2003). The new council now includes 11 black and mestizo members including two of which are vice-presidents, Lazo and Almeida.


The transfer of power dealt yet another blow to the 50-year-old US government obsession with overturning the Cuban revolution. Neither punishing US citizens and Cuban-Americans by strict travel restrictions, nor limiting normal business transactions, nor blocking academic, scientific, sports and culture exchanges has produced the clearly-stated goal of the Bush administration to return the island to its former status as a pseudo-colony.

Any possibility of a thawing in the icy relations between the US and Cuba now depends on Washington. Cuba’s offer still stands for unconditional talks to improve relations and work together on matters of mutual interest like drug trafficking, human smuggling and the fight against all types of terrorism.

In this final year of the Bush presidency, any cooperation appears out of the question. However, a new US leader in January 2009 will have the chance to make history and break the hostile policy of ten successive administrations towards Cuba.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Suspense Mounts in Cuba after Fidel Retires

By Circles Robinson

Fidel Castro made public on Tuesday his decision not to seek reelection as Cuba’s president, opening the door to a new leadership when the parliament convenes on Sunday.

The man who has led his country since the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 said he would continue to write his reflections on historic and current events —as he has done during his prolonged convalescence after intestinal surgery— offering his experience to the younger generations.

Castro’s decision paves the way for the newly elected 614-member legislature to choose a new president for a five-year term. It will also elect the 31-member Council of State, which has among its functions the authority to exercise most legislative power between sessions of the parliament.

While a major chapter in Cuban and world history comes to a close with Fidel’s announcement, it takes place on his and Cuba’s terms, to the chagrin of the Miami exile lobby and the Bush administration, who above all want to see upheaval and an end to the island’s socialist system.

Acting President Raul Castro and Vice President Carlos Lage are considered the leading candidates to replace Fidel who turns 82 in August.

In his letter published Tuesday morning, Fidel notes that the new government and legislature will have to adopt “many agreements of utmost importance to the destiny of our revolution.”


When leaving Mexico for Cuba on the Granma yacht commanding 82 expeditionary comrades back in 1956, Fidel Castro said, “If we set out, we’ll arrive; If we arrive, we’ll enter; and If we enter we’ll triumph.”

What seemed like a fantasy back then came true and Fidel has weathered umpteen crises over the last half century to maintain his small country afloat against great adversity.

Repeated CIA assassination plots, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the October Missile Crisis, the disappearance of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main ally through the 1980s), and the ongoing US blockade have all proved unable to turn back the clock to the pre-revolution years.

Now, one could add a fourth conditional conjunction to Fidel’s Granma prophecy back in 1956, illustrating the revolution’s success in building stable institutions allowing for a smooth passing of the baton: If we triumph we will persevere.

"Fortunately, our Revolution can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the process," wrote Fidel Castro Tuesday in his statement. "They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement," he notes.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Buzzing February in Cuba

By Circles Robinson

Politics, culture and sports take center stage in Cuba this February, beginning with a Chinese New Year celebration, a coast to coast cycling competition, international jazz festival, mammoth book fair and, yes, the election of the next Cuban president.

Almost every capital in Latin America has a Chinese immigrant community and Havana is no exception. Residents of the local Chinatown are presently holding a week of activities to celebrate the Chinese New Year (The year of the rat) including a fireworks display held Thursday night.

Attractions include a traditional clothing exhibition and lion dance. Tomorrow, the Sports City Indoor Coliseum will host the Havana-to-Beijing gala, including the participation of 800 people who practice martial arts, the youngest age three and the oldest 90.

The 33rd Vuelta a Cuba bicycle race kicked off this week starting at the eastern tip of the island. The 13-leg, 1791-kilometer road cycling competition and runs through February 17. The athletes hail from Germany, Slovenia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Cuba. US teams used to take part in the challenging event, but in recent years the Bush administration’s tightened travel restrictions have made that all but impossible.

Jazz Plaza in Havana opens on Valentine’s Day. The twenty-fourth edition of the festival features both Cubans and international performers from countries including Austria, South Africa, Spain, Costa Rica, Rumania, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico and Italy.

The hosts include some of Cuba’s most seasoned musicians: Jorge Reyes, Orlando Sanchez, Chucho Valdes, Bobby Carcasses, Giraldo Piloto. The younger generation of Cuban musicians will also participate, including Harold Lopez Nussa, Rolando Luna, Alfredo Rodriguez, Tamara Castaneda, Alexis Bosh, Roberto Carcasses, Roberto Fonseca and Elmer Ferrer.

Organized by pianist Chucho Valdes, nine Havana sites will host Jazz Plaza along with a sub-venue at the Varadero Beach Resort, a few hours north of the capital. The festival’s closing will feature Brazilian recording artist Tania Maria at the 5,000 seat Karl Marx Theater.

What used to be the annual Havana International Book Fair is now known as the Cuba International Book Fair. Presentations and expositions take place throughout the country over nearly a month. This year the fair spotlights Spain’s autonomous community of Galicia, from where countless people immigrated to Cuba and Latin America over several centuries. Some 200 Galician authors, artists, musicians and officials, and books from over 30 of its publishers, will be on hand when the gates at the Morro-Cabana fortress turned cultural center open on February 13.

The family event draws astoundingly large crowds throughout the country. Cuba’s publishers have printed huge runs of hundreds of titles to offer at very low prices ranging from pennies to the equivalent of a little over a $US dollar.

Book presentations, live music, children’s pavilions plus theater and other cultural activities are part of this highly popular event. Last year Mexican novelist and journalist Elena Poniatowska had these words to say about Cuba’s book fair: “On very few occasions have I had the opportunity of seeing such a wonderful landscape: so many people attracted by reading fever.”


With the bike race and the jazz festival over and the book fair about to move on from the capital, on Sunday February 24 a new 614-member National Assembly (Cuba’s one chamber Congress) will be sworn in. The legislators, who were themselves elected on January 20, will then elect a new 31-member Council of State and the nation’s president. This new president may or may not be Fidel Castro.

Fidel, 81, loves to keep the White House and his detractors in Miami guessing, and he’s done it rather successfully since the 1950s. Now, in the twilight of his long career as a revolutionary and statesman, he can sit back and enjoy all the speculation in the foreign press about his health and next move.

Despite his gradual but slow recovery from intestinal surgery in July 2006 that has physically kept him out of the public eye —except for footage of occasional meetings with visiting heads of State—, the decision to be a candidate for reelection is clearly Fidel’s.

While the question whether the next president will be Fidel or Raul Castro, or a figure such as Carlos Lage or someone else entirely, looms large in peoples’ minds, it isn’t the only question at hand. The National Assembly also has to elect six vice-presidents who take on important tasks, including a first vice president (Raul’s current position).

Women have made considerable inroads in Cuban society at the grassroots and mid-level leadership positions. The National Assembly is now 43 percent female, up from 36% in 2003. Top leadership positions, however, have remained heavily male.

Of the 31-member Council of State elected in 2003, only six (19%) were women, and there were no female vice-presidents. In the recent general elections, 40.8 percent of those elected to the fourteen provincial legislatures were women. Nonetheless, when it came to electing the presidents of those bodies last weekend, only Holguin province selected a woman. Likewise, only Las Tunas and Guantanamo have women VPs as part of their new governments.


The nation’s leaders have also hinted at a package of legislation to come soon after the National Assembly is seated that might affect the way Cuban society operates. These follow months of consultation with the general population and of analysis at different levels regarding how to make the island’s socialist system operate more efficiently and be more citizen-friendly.

Speculation runs high on what the changes could be. Further land reform to stimulate agricultural production is one of the most consistent predictions. Other projections range from streamlined procedures for travel abroad, to measures that make it possible to supplement ones salaried income, or changes in the cumbersome regulations for exchanging properties and vehicles. Still others are hoping for the right to purchase cell phones and use Internet cafes and hotels that are currently reserved for tourists. Yet another much commented problem is the two-currency economy, where a large segment of the population only has access to one and many products are sold in the other.

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