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, November 04, 2009

Havana Times: The First Anniversary

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 15 — One year ago I was on vacation in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, sitting in a friend’s apartment during the second week of October editing the diary posts and features that would be the first materials to appear in Havana Times. In Spain, our Cuban webmaster was also putting the finishing touches on the initial design.

The idea to start the site actually began years back at my former Havana translating job, where several of us felt the need to take some initiative to get out some better writing from Cuba in English. We believed this would give a broader look at the different realities and complexities of the country, hitting on both its accomplishments and challenges.

We wanted to get away from the hell presented by the foreign mainstream press and the heaven described by the Cuban media.

We first considered a small-format print publication to be made available at hotels on the island, but starting a new publication without institutional support—plus the economic difficulties and bureaucratic controls—made that proposition appear next to impossible. A few years later, frustration finally pushed us to give it a try, but online.

Taking part in several critical discussions between Cuban journalists about the press in their country convinced me that it was time for action. I hoped I would have some supporters and was well aware there would be detractors.

Running a site from inside Cuba is a no easy matter due to the slow dial-up phone Internet connection, if you have one. I had that privilege through my job and as a member of the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC). For those fond of the figures, the connection in Cuba is between 16 and 50 kbs, depending on where you are and the state of the phone lines.

Other countries had a similar situation one to two decades ago, but most now have much-improved technology. Cuba has lagged behind, officially due to the US blockade, but some believe a lack of desire to offer widespread Internet use is another key factor.

The vast majority of the people writing on the site are Cubans who do not have Internet access, and many could only see the site and their published materials when they dropped by my apartment. Some have e-mail, which facilitates sending in their writing, but not Internet.

No Permission, Work Place Blues

Contrary to what some might think, I didn’t ask anyone for permission to put out HT, and have never had anyone from the Communist Party or the government directly telling me what I should or shouldn’t publish.

Nonetheless, when one of our writers was summarily fired from his job as a professor, one of the reasons given was his writing in Havana Times. A student was close to being expelled for the same reason.

I also had problems at my work place, which I was dependent on for my residency in Cuba.

My boss had been an early advocate of taking initiative with an alternative publication and even collaborated briefly at the beginning of HT. However, once things got off the ground, he threatened me several times, implying that by having started Havana Times without permission from the center’s director —which I never would have received— I should turn a blind eye to his unprofessional behavior at work.

Ultimately, the ugly office scene went from bad to worse, involving my refusal to go along with the nepotism, corruption and poor management practices of my boss, which led to my yearly contract not being renewed, although I was never told why. Having been a “vanguard worker” of the center didn’t even entitle me to a meeting to hear my accusers, much less defend myself.

The ex-boss is one of those “cadres” we’ve talked about previously in HT who are causing so much damage to the Cuban Revolution. Their abuses of power discourage others — especially young people— to take an active part.

They stifle initiative from the rank-and-file while parroting “revolutionary discourse” to impress their higher ups, but gear their efforts to defending personal privileges and perks…kind of like the overly severe preacher who has a dark personal life that needs hiding.

Increased Readership, Now Spanish Too

As Havana Times celebrates its first anniversary, we continue an unabated rise in readership as and I am editing the materials from Nicaragua, where I have lived since my Cuban residency ran out in June.

The Cubans who make up this publication have remained quite committed, some increasing their writing frequency considerably. E-mail, be it their own or a friend or colleagues, continues to make it possible for the writers to get their materials to me for publishing.

For the last couple months we have been receiving between two and three thousand hits a day. Now that we just began putting out a Spanish version, readership has immediately increased another ten to fifteen percent. Reader comments are also up considerably.

I sincerely hope that Havana Times has filled a space for you and has contributed to a better understanding of a highly unique country with the potential to show humanity that “a better world is possible.”

Cleaning House in Cuba

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES, August 10 — The Cuban government’s answer to the rampant theft and corruption problem plaguing the socialist economy is a new comptroller’s office, something that exists in many countries.

The lax administrative and accounting controls present in much of the country’s state-run economy are no secret to anyone, much less to the nation’s leaders.

With a major drive taking place to improve work efficiency and productivity and to cut imports at a time of international economic crisis, confronting a problem that has permeated all strata of Cuban society is an urgent but equally difficult task.

President Raul Castro sounded the alarm when he took office in February 2008, when he made it known that tolerance of misuse of state resources was on the out. Since then, little guys scraping to get by, on up to several of the country’s top ministers and political figures in much larger illicit operations, have fallen from grace after being accused of theft or corruption.

The president has made battling such un-revolutionary behavior a priority, while also recognizing that low salaries and a lack of incentives for greater initiative have affected job motivation and efficiency.

Trusting more in the businesses run by the military, Castro has put several former Army administrators in key positions in the civilian state economy.

Nonetheless, neither the military nor the civilian economy is held accountable to the public as neither the workers nor the general population are privy to the economic performance information that would make possible an educated evaluation of efficiency.

Instead, Cubans are accustomed to being told to blindly trust the judgment of their leaders and the administrators they in turn appoint to manage public resources.

The other catch-all factor has been the ever present “enemy to the north” with its blockade and other attempts to strangle the island’s economy, which serve corrupt officials as a shield.

The New Watch Dog

This weekend Two months ago the government announced that the Comptroller’s Office — conceived as a watch dog over the use of state funds and resources — would be a place where citizens can file complaints on such abuses and expect to get action. The office is headed by legislator Gladys Maria Brejerano Portela, just appointed a week earlier ago.

Created by the legislature, the office will receive and follow up on complaints filed by citizens on the misuse of public resources and other illegalities and acts of corruption, said Jose Luis Toledo Santander, president of the parliament’s Constitutional and Juridical Affairs Committee.

Virtually every Cuban, foreign resident or visitor is in one way or another regularly taken in by the different income-supplement scams that have grown to become as normal as rice and beans for most people, whether they like it or not.

In everyday life, very few people even bother to complain about being overcharged or getting taken on the weight or quality of a product. Instead, they often show understanding or even sympathy toward whoever is doing the taking to make a sorely needed buck.

At the same time, many people speculate privately that for so much theft to take place so rampantly on the ground level, there have to be accomplices higher up — from supervisors to managers, to executives, on up to ministers.

Will people now take advantage of the opportunity to file a complaint that supposedly could bring some action? Or will they continue to avoid picking a fight with a boss or higher up that in the past has often had the cards stacked in their favor.

Some Airline Bomb Plotters Go to Jail

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 14 — Three men accused of plotting to blow up several planes in the UK were sentenced to long prison terms on Monday. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Miami, two men who bragged about bombing a passenger plane that killed 72 persons are free to continue conspiring to commit more terrorist acts.

Assad Sarwar, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Tanvir Hussain were sentenced to 36, 40 and 32 years in prison for the plot they were unable to carry out to blow up seven transatlantic flights from London, reported The Guardian.

The plot was defused on August 10, 2006 and led to restrictions on the carrying of liquids on many flights around the globe.

Meanwhile, Cuban-exiles Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles continue free in Miami despite ample documentation of their having orchestrated the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane that killed all 72 persons on board off the coast of Barbados.

Declassified files and other evidence point to the reason Bosch and Posada are free is that they worked clandestinely for the US government when “their” bombing took place.

Despite being classified as dangerous terrorists by the FBI, numerous US administrations have protected them under a “good terrorist” policy.

Cuba’s Dual Purpose Newspapers

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES, August 14 — Every few months toilet paper becomes scarce in the Cuban capital, where people are accustomed to cutting up old newspapers to fill the gap. This deficit can last for weeks, until the centralized importation mechanism manages to make another purchase and the inflexible distribution chain supplies it to the stores.

Several news publications, starting with USA Today, have run stories on the current shortage. (

When toilet paper finally appears again, lines will form at shopping centers and other stores for consumers to stock up. Everybody knows the routine.

Why does this problem recur at least a few times a year?

While such information is not made known to the public, I believe it symbolizes the gaps between producers or importers, distributors, retailers and the bureaucrats signing the checks —virtually all State-owned companies and institutions.

The rigid specialization of each aspect of getting the product on store shelves means that if any rung in the ladder fails or somebody miscalculates, the public suffers the consequences, since the other rungs are not empowered to act on their own.

Likewise, when making purchases on such a large scale it’s easy to make a mistake on the quantities or the distribution. Since purchase plans often appear to be overly strict, any error is paid for by 11.2 million Cubans. If anyone takes the time to complain they can expect the US blockade to inevitably be the catch-all excuse for the situation.

And while Cuba’s newspapers do the job when the TP is out, they too are scarce and don’t come close to meeting the demand.

USA Today noted Friday that Cuba imports TP and produces its own, but doesn’t have the raw materials to make it at this moment. The government is short on cash, notes the newspaper, adding that during the current global economic crisis Cuba is spending more for imports and receiving less for its exports.

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