Monday, August 20, 2007

Modesto Bee: U.S. embargo of Cuba isn't working, so end it

The Modesto Bee
Posted on Fri, Aug. 17, 2007

Almost every year, the U.S. trade and travel embargo against Cuba comes before Congress. Every time it does, efforts to reverse the failed policy, now nearly a half-century old, are defeated.

Why? Because a small group of Cuban Americans in south Florida has inordinate sway over U.S. policy.

Still, there was hope the new majority in Congress would change the dynamic — especially since Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is aging and ill. By engaging in people-to-people exchanges and trade, the United States could have a positive impact on Cuba's transition to a new regime.

It's long past time to try something different. The U.S. embargo has done nothing to weaken the Castro regime or to improve conditions for the Cuban people. All it has done is harden the hearts of many Cubans — some of our closest neighbors — toward America.

It happened again this year. On July 27, 66 Democrats voted with179 Republicans to defeat an amendment that would have made it easier for U.S. farmers to sell agricultural goods to Cuba. Goods such as almonds, wine and cheese.

The vote was 182-245 against the amendment.

This small island poses no threat to the United States. The Cold War, in which Cuba was a battleground, has been over for about 20 years.

We allow Americans to travel to Iran, a member of the so-called Axis of Evil, but not to Cuba. We trade with China and countless other countries with terrible human rights records in the justified hope that this exchange will bring change. The embargo has only made Castro more popular and has given his repressive regime a convenient scapegoat to blame for all of Cuba's many problems.

We've all heard the tongue-in-cheek definition of psychosis: Doing the same repeatedly and expecting a different result. So why not try something new after 46 years? Embrace trade, don't embargo it.

A Florida International University poll found that 74 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami believe the U.S. embargo against Cuba has not worked. Yet the Democratic-controlled Congress, claiming a "New Direction," remains fixed on the old course. The wrong course.

Houston Chronicle Editorial

Aug. 17, 2007, 10:44PM
Peacemaking for profit: U.S. shouldn't wait to ratchet down Cuba embargo

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

This time last summer, Cuban President Fidel Castro was very sick — and many backers of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba were very happy. Since it began in 1962, the embargo has done nothing to achieve its goal of a Cuban democracy. But, it briefly seemed, nature itself might do the trick, dethroning Castro and prompting political turmoil and transformation, followed by an influx of triumphant exiles from Miami.

Instead, Fidel lived and the regime he founded remains solidly in power.

The embargo, on the other hand, has become an outstanding example of squandered U.S. diplomatic opportunities — opportunities all the more precious the longer we are at war. Starting now, gradually dismantling the embargo would open our doors to an eager trading partner. It would also send a crucial message about the United States' ability to coexist with peaceful governments all over the world.

Easing the embargo would not mean condoning Cuba's dictatorship. Even under the stewardship of Castro's brother Raul, Cuba is unmistakably a police state. The sole political party is the Communist Party; spies and informants dog citizens' every activity. Amnesty International reports that Cuba detains 81 political prisoners.

Worse for most Cubans, though, is communism's restriction of the economy. A government worker makes an average of $16 a month, and most university graduates can't find work that makes use of their skills. U.S. economic sanctions mainly affect ordinary Cubans, depriving them of affordable imports and work opportunities.

The United States has suffered little from the embargo. True, we once were Cuba's main trading partner; today, Texas in particular could benefit from Cuban oil, agriculture and shipping ventures. But most presidential candidates see these as glancing losses next to the political payoff from Florida's Cuban-American voting bloc.

What the United States does need, and urgently, is diplomatic capital. Free of charge, our Cuba embargo has given Castro and his protege, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an enemy straight from Central Casting with which to justify their regimes. The embargo also alienates people throughout Latin America, including many who risked their lives fighting for democracy in their own countries. For many, the embargo is the disproportionate wrath of the Americas' Goliath toward a country that dared to defy it.

Ratcheting down the embargo, and the assumptions about it, would echo positively around the world. Venezuela, though, might be the most immediate logjam to unstick. President Chavez wants nothing more than an old-time Cold War enmity with the United States. The drama therein provides him with material for countless speeches, and endless distractions as he mines at democratic institutions. Imagine how his rhetoric and policies might be retooled if Cuba and the United States suddenly began cooperating on counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and technical exchange projects.

Even before Castro's illness, Cuban officials signaled openness to such associations. Castro even warned Chavez not to make a permanent enemy of the United States. Ice breakers such as counterterrorism or other information exchanges could be first steps to ending the trade and travel embargoes. But the administration and, most recently, Congress reject this approach. President Bush actually tightened the travel embargo, forbidding Cuban-Americans to visit family members there more than once every three years.

This is the opposite of how we should be approaching Cuba. Our Cold War freeze demonstrably did nothing to strengthen democracy there. It has, however, bolstered a widespread and dangerous view that the United States can only see the world in terms of "us" and "them." Made available to Cuba, American ideas, travelers and trade could neutralize that view globally, at a time when we badly need the change.

Alarcon: Cuba 'ready to talk to US' - August 16

The president of the Cuban parliament has reiterated his country's desire to talk to the United States and "solve our differences".

Ricardo Alarcon, who has been named by some analysts as a potential successor to sick Cuban president Fidel Castro, said the Latin American nation wanted to meet with its American neighbours on a level-playing field.

He was speaking as reports emerged suggesting that the 81-year-old Cuban leader would not rule the country again after his intestinal surgery last year.

Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul has been handed presidential duties in his sibling's absence through illness and Mr Alarcon said he is more than capable of running the country.

Speaking on the Today programme, Mr Alarcon said he hoped Fidel Castro would "continue recovering", adding: "I look forward to him continue playing the leading role that he has been playing in our country."

But he added that Raul was leading the country at the moment "because he deserved that, because he earned that with his whole life and dedication to the country".

As to whether Raul had been "offering an olive branch" to Washington, Mr Alarcon said Cuba had always been willing to talk to the US.

"Raul was reiterating a position of principle," he said.

"We have always been in favour of negotiations and discussions to solve our differences, on one condition: that those negotiations have to take place on the basis of mutual respect for our respective independence and sovereignty."

Speaking on the same programme Victor Bulmer-Thomas, associate fellow and former director at the Chatham House thinktank, said he believes there is likely to be little political change if Raul does take over the leadership of Cuba.

"Things would change and yet one shouldn't expect an enormous amount initially," he said.

"I think this collective leadership represents different constituencies, but certainly on the issue of political reform I don't think any of them are going to be pushing for it.

"That's going to be something that will come from below or elsewhere."

Professor Bulmer-Thomas also felt that relations with the US would not begin to thaw until there was a new president in the White House.

"I think the problem with President Bush is two-fold," he said.

"First of all his administration has boxed itself in rather publicly by saying it makes no difference whether Raul or Fidel Castro leads the country.

"And secondly of course Florida is such a key state in any US presidential election, and the Cuban Americans have such a vital role in that election, that he would not want to do anything that could prejudice the chances of the Republican candidate."

If Worked Properly, the Land Can Produce Anything

Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Aug 8 (IPS) - "If you work it properly, the land here can produce anything, and with a guaranteed market. Cuba is an agricultural country. We should not have to import food," says Rubén Torres, who has made a success of farming outside of the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba.
But Cuba’s food imports grew 35 percent over the past two years, according to government reports from last December. These figures, along with the rise in prices on the international market, prompted acting President Raúl Castro to warn that it is essential to boost agricultural production. Torres works his 17-hectare farm mainly with natural methods, using organic fertilisers and pesticides, and oxen to plow. "This season I used around 26 tons of earthworm humus on my fields and I sold the rest to other farmers in the area," he told IPS in a telephone interview. His crops include vegetables, rice, coconuts and guava fruit. He belongs to the local Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCS), sells most of his products to the state, and defends ecological farming practices because "they improve and enrich the soil." Torres said it is important to fertilise land with organic matter, especially since most private farmers in Cuba today have small farms of less than two hectares, which are overworked. "Besides, the lack of inputs (like chemical fertilisers) has helped convince more people about the advantages of agroecology," he commented. The degradation of soil is one of the environmental challenges faced by Cuba in terms of making agriculture sustainable. Experts blame the situation on Cuba’s sugarcane monoculture model, which has marked the economy of this Caribbean island nation since the 18th century. "The wealth of our soils and a large part of our biodiversity have left Cuba along with each grain of sugar that we export to, among other things, buy food," complained agricultural engineer María Caridad Cruz in an article published in the Cuban magazine Temas. "It has gradually disappeared with all of the vegetation we have cut down and with the agricultural techniques we have used," she added. According to the agronomist, around 75 percent of Cuba’s farmland is degraded to some degree, and there are three million hectares with low fertility and 4.6 million with extremely low content of organic matter, while salinity affects one million hectares and medium to severe erosion affects 2.5 million hectares. At the same time, given its high level of dependence on imports of agricultural inputs, the farming industry is among the sectors hit hardest by the financial restrictions adopted by the socialist government during the economic crisis that broke out in the early 1990s, euphemistically referred to as the "special period" which, as Raúl Castro clarified on Jul. 26, has not yet come to an end. Between 1989 and 1993, Cuba’s gross domestic product shrank 35 percent, while value-added agriculture declined by 52 percent, basically due to the abrupt cut-off of supplies from what had been the country’s main sources, the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc, said Cruz. To deal with the crisis, which was caused mainly by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc, the agriculture industry underwent far-reaching changes. These involved new forms of land ownership and administration, including the 1993 creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC), whose members have free usufruct of the land they work, for an indefinite period. At the same time, a programme of land grants to families was launched, also involving free use of land, with the aim of bolstering production for the domestic market and increasing output of export products like tobacco and coffee. These new forms of land tenure and production were added to the Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCSs) and Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPAs) which have existed in Cuba since the first agrarian reform, that distributed approximately 20 percent of the country’s farmland to 200,000 people in 1959, after the revolution led by Fidel Castro. The CCSs were created on the basis of associations of small farmers, who continued to own their land but grouped together with others to obtain better access to new technologies and to financing and markets. The CPAs also emerged from associations of small agricultural producers. Their initial contribution was based on the sale of their land and other means of production to the cooperatives, which then owned and worked the land collectively. The CPAs also brought their members technological, financial and market benefits. According to official data from 2006, more than 60 percent of land in Cuba is arable. But of the 6.6 million hectares of farmland, only 3.1 million are currently under cultivation, of which approximately 1.2 million are planted in sugar cane, 180,000 in rice and 806,300 in a variety of vegetables, fruits and grains. From the point of view of property ownership, 449,400 hectares on which food for domestic consumption is produced are owned by individual farmers or members of CCSs, 182,800 hectares are worked by the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), 77,000 belong to the CPAs and 276,700 are owned by state-run companies. Last year was a good year in terms of rainfall and lack of heavy storms in Cuba. Nevertheless, crop yields (excluding sugar cane) dropped 7.3 percent from 2005, when the island was suffering from severe drought. The livestock sector and dairy production fared no better. "Necessary structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced" to increase production, said Raúl Castro, who also mentioned the need to provide incentives for successful farmers. To that end, the government began in July to pay higher prices to producers of beef and dairy products, and during the first half of the year paid off bulky debts to farmers and adopted measures to keep from falling into arrears again. A Cuban researcher who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS that it would be good for the agricultural industry, as well as other sectors of the Cuban economy, to open up to foreign capital, in order to gain capital, technology and markets. "There is potential for that," he commented. He also suggested the creation of a market of inputs, equipment and tools for farmers to directly purchase what they needed, something that does not currently exist. In addition, he recommended fomenting greater participation and a stronger sense of belonging for the members of cooperatives. He further called for "a process of decentralisation…because it is easier to seek solutions at the local level. Besides, what is good for one province might not be good for another," he said. Cuban officials have not concealed their concern over the rise in import costs caused by the high international prices of basic products like powdered milk (5,200 dollars a ton), milled rice (435 dollars a ton) or frozen chicken, the cost of which has soared to 1,186 dollars a ton from 500 dollars a ton just a few years ago. (END/2007

Hispanics shunning party labels

Posted on Sun, Aug. 12, 2007

Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County, regarded for years as a solidly Republican catch for statewide and national candidates stumping in Florida, are increasingly becoming free agents.
Less than half of the county's Hispanic voters are registered Republicans, down from 59 percent less than a decade ago, The Miami Herald found. Like newer voters elsewhere in the state and the nation, more Hispanic voters are rebuffing political parties: One out of four in Miami-Dade are registered as nonpartisan. In Broward County, one in three Hispanic registered voters are unaffiliated with either party.

''It's a trend that I've seen happening, and obviously it concerns me,'' said Jose ''Pepe'' Riesco, vice chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. ``It's a problem we can't run away from.''

Those independent voters tend to be younger Cuban Americans or naturalized citizens from Central America and South America, many of whom worry more about securing healthcare than toppling Fidel Castro, according to more than two dozen interviews with voters and Hispanic leaders.

But the shift is occurring even in the Cuban-American community at large, a bedrock for Republicans from George W. Bush to Jeb Bush, who cultivated their loyalty with fiery anti-Castro rhetoric and friendly Spanish-language ads.

The political current has far-reaching implications for the most wide-open presidential race in more than half a century. Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the electorate, and in Florida -- the nation's largest battleground state -- they are expected to represent as much as 15 percent of the 2008 vote.

''It remains to be seen which party is going to attract them in the long haul, and neither should feel comfortable,'' said Jorge Mursuli, executive director of Democracia USA, a nonpartisan group that registers Hispanics to vote.


Statewide, about 37 percent of the Hispanics in Florida are registered as Republicans, compared with about 33 percent registered as Democrats. The remaining 30 percent are independent or belong to minor parties, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Those percentages don't include ''inactive'' voters who have not participated in the last two general elections. An analysis by the Florida Democratic Party over the past 18 months that includes inactive voters shows that at the current pace, Hispanic Democrats would outnumber Hispanic Republicans statewide before the 2008 election.

''That's huge, because this is the state Republicans point to as a model of their Hispanic outreach,'' said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski. ``Clearly, the Bush era is dead.''

Florida Republicans initially confirmed the Democrats' numbers in interviews and e-mails, but later disputed them because they include inactive voters. And even if Hispanic Democrats do eventually outnumber Hispanic Republicans, they said, the GOP will make up for it with a robust turnout.

''While this short-term trend is something we're working on, we remain very confident in our strength in the Hispanic community,'' said Florida GOP spokesman Jeff Sadosky.

Signs of the trend are apparent at the Democracia USA voter registration drives at Calle Ocho in Little Havana, Milander Park in Hialeah, and various Latin American festivals throughout the year at Tamiami Park in Miami. Of the 56,000 Hispanic voters it registered last year, 45 percent registered as independent.

According to the latest Florida International University poll of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade, 65 percent support a dialogue with the Cuban government, up from 40 percent in 1991. In another recent survey conducted for Democrats of two heavily Cuban-American congressional districts in Miami-Dade -- represented by Republicans Lincoln Díaz-Balart and his brother Mario -- voters rated getting rid of Castro sixth among their concerns. Their top priority for Congress: getting out of Iraq. President Bush's approval rating was 39 percent, only a handful of points higher than in national polls.

''There has been a seismic shift in the political views in these districts,'' said Democratic political consultant Jeff Garcia, who conceived the poll. ``All the discontent you are seeing in the country -- it's here now, too.''

Orlando Valdes registered as nonpartisan on the Fourth of July, one month after he became an American citizen. The 40-year-old air-conditioning repairman, who arrived from Cuba seven years ago, lives in Hialeah with his wife and his two daughters, who attend public schools.

He opposes the Bush administration's restrictions on travel to Cuba and said the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba isn't ''the point.'' The war in Iraq, healthcare and education matter most, he said.

''I don't care whether it's a Democrat or Republican, I want to see the best person for the position,'' Valdes said. Asked about his community's traditional ties to the GOP, he said: ``You can feel it in the air. People are thinking different.''


The nationwide firestorm over immigration could also have repercussions for the GOP. Conservative Republicans helped quash legislation that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship.

Maria Patarollo, who was born in Colombia and lived in Venezuela for 30 years, followed the debate. The 53-year-old resident of northern Miami-Dade said Democrats seemed more interested in addressing immigration, although she recently registered as nonpartisan.

''I have never, ever liked politics,'' she said.

Even in Hialeah, where Cuban-American politicians boast that they live in the most Republican city in Florida, residents are increasingly checking nonpartisan when they register to vote. The city is 53 percent Republican, down from 61 percent in 1998.

City officials seem unaware of the change. Mayor Julio Robaina estimated that 72 percent of his constituents were Republicans.

''I think we're like at 90 percent Republican or something ridiculous like that,'' said City Council member Vivian Casáls-Muñoz, speaking over the din at Tropical Restaurant before a visit from GOP presidential contender Rudy Giuliani.

The Miami Herald found higher Republican registration in 25 precincts with dense Cuban-American populations than in the overall Hispanic community, but it's on the decline. An average of 22 percent of the voters in those precincts in Hialeah, West Miami and Sweetwater are independent, up from 17 percent five years ago.

''As the community assimilates more and more, it's not surprising that it looks more like the rest of the country,'' said Cuban-American political consultant Carlos Curbelo, who worked on Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's campaign last year.

Amid the nationwide backlash against the GOP in 2006, Hispanics in Florida favored the Democratic candidates at the top of the ballot for the first time in 30 years, exit polls show. Hoping to build on that success, the state Democratic Party has tapped Luis Garcia, the only Cuban-American Democrat representing Miami-Dade in the Legislature, to serve as vice chairman.

When thousands of Hispanic leaders convened at conferences in Orlando and Miami this summer, the Democratic presidential candidates were there to court them. At the Orlando event, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton seized on remarks by potential GOP rival Fred Thompson that seemed to suggest that Cuban immigrants posed a terrorist threat. (He was actually referring to spies.)

''Democrats have resolved that we are not going to make the mistakes of 2000 and 2004, when for all practical purposes, the Hispanic vote was written off,'' said Miami pollster and paid Clinton advisor Sergio Bendixen.

Said Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairman Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation: ``If Hispanics can help bring Florida into the Democratic camp, there's no math in the world that will give Republicans the White House in 2008.''

Signs of change in Cuba

With Raul Castro in charge, talk of economic reform sweeps the island as state farming fails.
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published August 6, 2007
HAVANA - Halfway through a recent speech marking Cuba's Revolution Day, acting President Raul Castro broke from his prepared text to note how green the countryside looked after recent rains ended a long drought.
Then with a heavy note of sarcasm he added, "What most struck me was how pretty the marabu looks," referring to the thorny shrub that has spread in recent years like a plague across idle farmland.
His message was clear: Cuba's inefficient socialist model of state farming is failing to produce the crops the country needs to feed its population of 11-million.
Exactly how he plans to fix things is less certain. But, a year after an ailing Fidel Castro passed the torch, Raul Castro is demonstrating his own style of government.
Unlike his unyielding and highly ideological brother, Raul Castro is confirming a reputation for pragmatism, even if that means loosening the economic controls of the country's socialist system.
For the moment the signs of change are still small. Even so, all over the country talk of reform is in the air.
"Raul won't change the line, but he's not blind," said Valentin Bernal, a 53-year-old construction worker sipping a plastic cup of rum and Coke near Havana's seafront. "The world is changing and we have to think to the future."
No major reforms have been announced, but Cuba's communist government is openly discussing the need for wide-ranging economic measures that some analysts say could mark a major break from decades of rigid communist doctrine.
Earlier this year Raul Castro convened the nation's top economists to offer proposals. They were urged to be as "audacious" as they wanted, according to participants.
"The economists are questioning almost everything in the current economic system," said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst now living in Miami. "They are saying that the concept of socialist property needs to be redefined."
While U.S. officials are watching Raul Castro's economic moves closely, they insist only major political reform, and the dismantling of the country's one-party rule, will end Washington's economic embargo of the island.
Among the reforms being discussed are handing out idle state land to independent farmers, giving greater autonomy to managers of state-run businesses, and allowing greater freedom for Cubans to open their own small businesses.
Consumer controls
In an effort to revive the country's sagging tourist industry, the government is also seeking new foreign investment, including proposals for golf resorts and boating marinas.
Other ideas include allowing Cubans to stay at tourist-only hotels and making cell phones available to Cubans in the local peso currency. At present they can only purchase cell phones in Cuba's tourist currency, known as CUC, to which most Cubans have little or no access.
"We are 11-million people living on ration books," said Victor Garcia, a 68-year-old security guard outside a bleak-looking state store in Central Havana. "For years we've watched tourists coming here with their cameras and nice clothes, enjoying the best food and hotels. We'd like to have some of that."
So far this year the government has only tweaked the state-run system. Customs controls for DVDs, electronic goods and car parts were recently amended to allow Cubans to bring up to $1,000 of previously banned goods into the country.
While a seemingly trivial move, it was taken as a sign that Raul Castro is more open to satisfying consumer interests than his austere brother. He has a record of backing limited market reforms in the past, including a successful program in the 1980s that promoted privately run farmer cooperatives. Under his leadership at the Defense Ministry, he also oversaw an innovative program in the 1990s to raise efficiency at businesses run by the military.
Collapse of harvest
Despite a modest economic recovery in recent years, thanks in large part to major trade deals with Cuba's oil-rich ally, Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez, key sectors of the Cuban economy, including public transport and the sugar industry, are in a "semicollapsed" state, according to a detailed report by Interpress, a left-leaning news agency. This year's sugar harvest was the worst in 100 years.
In his speech Raul Castro highlighted the need to boost salaries and raise domestic food production to substitute for massive increases in the world price for basic food products Cuba imports. Besides the rising price of oil, he cited huge leaps in the cost of imported powdered milk and rice. "We face the imperative of making our land produce more," he said.
How far Cuba is prepared to go in achieving those goals remains the subject of enormous speculation. That would require abandoning, or at least rethinking, some of the rigid socialist egalitarian policies long advocated by Fidel Castro.
New direction?
Some Cuban economists argue that Cuba has no option but to accept limited market reforms. About 60 percent of farms are run by the state, but 25 percent of that land is uncultivated and overrun by the thorny marabu. And though cooperative and small private farms account for only 30 percent of the agricultural land, they produce 60 percent of the food grown.
Most analysts question whether Raul Castro is willing to push private farming while his brother is still alive. So, ears pricked up during his speech when he dropped the biggest hint so far of which direction he is leaning. "To reach these goals, the needed structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced," he said.
Curiously, Fidel Castro has remained largely silent while the debate has gone on. Still out of the public eye while he convalesces from undisclosed intestinal surgery, Castro has taken to writing frequent newspaper columns, titled "Reflections of the Commander in Chief," about what he considers to be the issues of the day. Last week, it was the desertion of two top Cuban boxers.
The "Commentator-in-Chief," as some are now calling him, occasionally delivers reminders of his ideological rigidity. On Saturday he attacked capitalism, writing that "commercial advertising and consumerism are incompatible with the survival of the species."
Most Cubans seem to recognize that he may never return to public life. At the same time, they have little doubt that he still wields enormous influence behind the scenes.
Enjoying an afternoon stroll with his wife and daughter along the Havana seafront, Jorge Larrazabac expressed a common sentiment heard all over the island. "Raul is driving, but it's Fidel's car," he said.
David Adams can be contacted at
Cuba Recent events
July 31: Fidel Castro announces he is seriously ill and his brother Raul will take over as acting president.
Aug. 18: Raul offers to negotiate with Washington "in a spirit of equality."
Oct. 28: Amid speculation he is near death, state television airs video showing a thin, pale Fidel reading a newspaper.
Dec. 2: Fidel fails to appear at military parade also billed as belated 80th birthday celebration. Raul repeats his olive branch of dialogue with the United States.
Dec. 15: U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte speculates Fidel's death is a matter of "months, not years."
Dec. 21: Raul blasts widespread corruption and inefficiency; calls for youth to "fearlessly" debate reform measures.
Dec. 22: Addressing legislature, Raul demands rigor, discipline, transparency to confront serious problems affecting food, housing and transportation.
Jan. 15: Spanish newspaper reports Fidel had three failed surgeries, prognosis "very grave."
Jan. 23: Media report on project to improve business practices, based on efficiency standards of armed forces, which Raul has led for nearly 50 years.
Jan. 30: Fidel appears in video with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, claiming recovery is "far from a lost battle."
Feb. 27: Fidel calls Chavez during radio talk show, saying "I'm gaining ground."
Late March: First of Fidel's continuing series of "Reflections" is published.
April 1: Regulations to curb workplace indiscipline and improve efficiency go into effect.
April 20: Fidel and Raul welcome high-ranking Chinese delegation.
May 1: Fidel fails to show up at May Day parade.
May 24: Fidel writes that first of several surgeries went badly, but he's now maintaining "stable weight."
June 3: Raul turns 76.
June 18: Raul's wife, Vilma Espin, 77, dies. Fidel fails to attend funeral.
June 29: Addressing legislature, Raul refers again to battle against crime and social indiscipline.
July 26: Raul, not Fidel, leads national celebration commemorating Cuba's revolution.
Aug. 13: Fidel will turn 81.
Sources: Miami Herald, Cox News Service
[Last modified August 6, 2007, 07:13:47]

Cuba's biggest export -- sports,1,3223916.story?track=rss

From the Los Angeles Times
Coaches and trainers have been working all over the world since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but not everyone's happy about it.
By Kevin Baxter and Chris Kraul
Times Staff Writers

July 28, 2007

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Watching Cuba's national baseball team play can be a little like watching a supermodel walk down a runway: They're both elegant, full of confidence, and though they never look like they're in a rush, they eventually get where they're going.

So when Cuba began to stir in the final inning of its Pan American Games opener with Panama there was no doubt a game-winning rally was coming.

But as the dangerous Ariel Pestano strode to the plate with a runner on first, Panama Manager Alfonso Urquiola didn't turn away. Instead he turned toward his infield and made sure shortstop Avelino Asprilla was positioned exactly where Pestano hit the ball a few pitches later, starting a game-ending double play.

Good scouting? More like a good memory, because Urquiola, a former standout infielder and one of Cuba's most successful managers, once coached Pestano on the Cuban national team.

Now he, along with three coaches on Panama's staff, are among the several hundred Cuban coaches and trainers working with developing sports programs in more than 50 nations across the globe.

"For us, it's a matter of pride," said Pedro Cabrera, press director for Cuba's national institute of sports, who managed a smile over Urquiola's moxie. "We don't like to lose. But we do like it when the managers we have abroad have [success]."

In that case, there has been a lot to like since Cuba first began sending coaches -- and for a while, athletes -- abroad in exchange for much-needed goods and currency under a program organized 15 years ago. Twenty of the countries participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for example, had Cuban coaches or trainers in their delegations. And after the Athens Games in 2004, Algeria and Argentina sought Cuba's help.

Malaysia recently asked for assistance teaching physical education, Laos hired Cuban coaches to prepare for the Southeast Asian Games and the Dominican Republic invited 46 Cubans to coach sports such as swimming and volleyball.

"The Cuban coaches have been a great help for Dominican sports, a great asset," said Luis Mejia, president of the Dominican Olympic Committee.

Angola has signed a protocol of cooperation and Brazil has turned its baseball training program over to three Cuban coaches. Last March, Nigerian sports minister Bala Bawa Kaoje became one of the latest to fly to Havana, looking for coaches to prepare his nation for this year's African Games.

Even staunch U.S. ally Britain has gotten into the act. When the Glenn McCrory International School of Boxing opened in Newcastle last fall, a Cuban flag hung not far from the Union Jack to welcome Cuban coaches Alberto Perez and Alberto Gonzalez, who were given permission to work at the club as part of an agreement with Cubadeportes, the government agency tasked with promoting -- and selling -- Cuban coaches and athletes around the world.

Although Cuba had been offering coaches -- as well as doctors and teachers -- to countries in the developing world for years, it wasn't until the economy plunged after the breakup of the Soviet Union that Cuba decided to make money from its sports program. So in November 1992 it created Cubadeportes to market the sale of athletes, coaches, sporting goods -- even baseball cards -- internationally.

Over time, Cabrera said, Cubans have gone to work in more than 110 countries with a record 6,300 coaches and trainers deployed to 51 nations last year. In addition to baseball, Cuban expertise is most often sought in track and field, boxing and the martial arts, with Cuban coaches sharing the techniques they learned through decades of cooperation with Eastern Bloc sports programs.

"When you first look at [Cuba's] impact on sport, [it] was bringing in all these trainers, predominately from the Soviet and Eastern European countries," said Paula J. Pettavino, author of "Sport in Cuba," a detailed examination of Cuba's sports program. "Then it started to switch and there's a point at which [Cuba] is now sending them out. And the Cubans are now training everybody else."

The coaches are generally provided room, board and a small salary by the host nation, which also pays Cubadeportes for their services. But Cabrera said the prices and salaries can vary widely, with wealthy nations such as Japan and Italy expected to pay more than Ecuador or Ghana. And still others, such as Venezuela, have traditionally paid for their Cuban assistance with low-cost oil.

"In some cases, yes," Cabrera answered when asked if Cuba profits from its sporting exchanges. "But that's not the fundamental reason why we do it. The satisfaction is to have the possibility to cooperate, in a humble way, with the development of sports in developing countries."

The program hasn't been without controversy, however. In Panama, where five of the 10 teams in the country's regional amateur league are coached by Cubans, local baseball people have charged the imports with both spreading political ideology and making Panama's coaches and players less desirable to professional teams, igniting a furor that has even drawn in the U.S. Embassy.

"They are using baseball to advance their ideology," said former major leaguer Omar Moreno, a Panamanian. "But the bottom line is they don't produce any major league prospects. The best baseball in the world is what I learned, U.S.-style."

So Moreno, 54, has taken matters into his own hands, building a youth baseball system from the ground up with financial help from the embassy and Major League Baseball. With that backing, Moreno's foundation started a league that now offers free instruction for more than 400 youths from poor neighborhoods around Panama City as well as in Moreno's hometown of Puerto Armuelles in western Panama.

The embassy, through spokesman Gavin Sundwall, said its support was not politically inspired.

"This is not counter-Cuba," he said. "It's a way to further understanding and build better relations between countries."

David Salayandia, sports director of TV Channel 9 of Panama and a local sports agent, isn't so sure.

"The U.S. Embassy isn't doing its job if it isn't alert to what the Cubans are up to," he said.

But Salayandia has his own ax to grind with the Cubans and the team owners who brought them to Panama. The 25 Cuban coaches in Panama's top national league, he says, are taking both jobs and experience away from locals, which stunts the development of Panamanian baseball.

"A big reason there are so many is that they come cheap, about $5,000 a year plus expenses," he said.

Cabrera refused to enter the fray, calling the matter "an internal problem for the Panamanians." But, he added, "in my sincere opinion, with the concepts of Urquiola, the Panamanian team is getting better."

Besides, he pointed out, if the Cuban coaches are so troublesome, why do so many countries continue to line up to get them?

"For us," Cabrera said "it's a matter of pride to have so many people helping out abroad. Sometimes what happens is what happened here [and we lose]. That doesn't bother us. It makes us proud."


Baxter reported from Rio de Janeiro and Kraul from Panama City.


U.S.-Cuba Migration Policy

By Jefferson Morley
Staff WriterFriday, July 27, 2007; 3:02 PM
What is the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy?
This is the informal named given to a 1995 agreement under which Cubans migrants to the United States who are intercepted at sea ("wet feet") are sent back to Cuba or to a third country while those who make it to U.S. soil ("dry feet") are allowed to remain in the United States. The policy, formally known as the U.S.-Cuba Immigration Accord, has been written into law as an amendment to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.
How does the Coast Guard enforce this policy?
The Coast Guard uses patrol boats, cutters and aircraft to patrol the seas and skies around southern Florida. Cubans intercepted at sea are interviewed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service which decides whether they have a well founded fear of persecution and are thus eligible for asylum in a third country. If not, they are repatriated to Cuba.
What happens to Cubans who make it to U.S. soil?
After one year they are eligible to apply for a change in legal status that makes them eligible for an immigrant visa, permanent residence, and, eventually U.S. citizenship. The policy applies to undocumented aliens from Cuba only. Undocumented Haitian or Dominican migrants who reach U.S. shores are not automatically eligible for immigrant visas, or permanent residence, only Cubans.
What happens to migrants returned to Cuba?
In 1994, Cuba agreed to take no action against returnees as a consequence of their attempt to immigrate illegally, as long as they did not face other criminal charges. The U.S. Interests Section monitors Cuban compliance with this provision by visiting the returnees throughout Cuba. In 2006, the State Department reported that "in practice some would-be migrants experienced harassment and discrimination," citing one example. Cuba notes that illegal immigration is a crime under Cuban law. Related: 2007 Report on Cuba by Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Do we know how many die trying to get here?
Nobody knows for sure. Neither the Coast Guard nor the State Department nor human rights groups keep statistics on Cuban fatalities at sea. During the balsero crisis of 1994 there were estimates that anywhere from 25 percent to 75 percent of all those who attempt to migrate were dying at sea. As human smugglers have begun using more sophisticated boats in recent years, fatalities at sea may be falling but no one really knows.
How might restrictions change in the future?
The "wet foot, dry foot" policy, while resented by Cuba, has served the interests of both countries for more than a decade. It has prevented recurrence of massive uncontrolled migration that the United States fears and it established the kind of more normal migration arrangements that Cuba seeks. U.S. Congress is debating more modest proposals to loosen the current ban on travel between the United States and Cuba. Changes in migration policy probably depend on changes in the larger relationship between Washington and Havana.

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Families inside Havana airport's Terminal 2 feel full impact of restrictions on travel from U.S. to Cuba,1,1406513.column

Ray Sanchez
Cuba notebook

June 24, 2007

Havana Alejandro Iglesias stood with his family — two sisters, his father, also named Alejandro, and mother Iliana — inside Terminal 2 at Jose Marti International Airport below a dangling yellow sign that said "Security Control." Only passengers bound for the United States are allowed beyond the cordoned-off area.

The Iglesiases had returned for the first time in four years, and a dozen relatives came to see the family off. Photos were snapped and hugs exchanged. Young Alejandro tried to comfort his sobbing aunts. One wept uncontrollably.

"Everything's going to be fine," the 10-year-old told her with a confidence and poise beyond his years. "We'll be back. It's OK."The older Alejandro picked up his 2-year-old daughter, Gabriela, and walked slowly to immigration booth No. 2. After a final round of kisses, Iliana and the older kids squeezed into the booth. An immigration officer reviewed their travel documents and, minutes later, buzzed open a heavy metal door leading to the gates for the Miami-bound charters.

A final wave. Some blown kisses. More tears.

Every day, the human toll of the Bush administration's restrictions on travel to Cuba is displayed in Terminal 2. In 2004, the administration limited family visits to one trip every three years for a period not to exceed 15 days. Terminal 2 quickly became one of the saddest places in Havana.

"People are very emotional and tearful because they're not going to see one another again for at least three years — and maybe forever," said Wayne Smith, the top American diplomat in Havana from 1979 to 1982.

Smith, director of the Cuba Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., said the travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans were the worst component of what he called failed U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government of convalescing President Fidel Castro.

"If you come visit your aging mother in June and you go back to Miami, and then you get a call in September saying, 'Mother is dying. Please come quickly.' Well, you can't," he said. "There is no emergency provision. They tell you, 'Well, you can visit the grave in three years.' It's almost vindictive."

Hard-line exiles and other supporters of the restrictions say family and educational travel are fronts for tourist visits. The restrictions, they argue, deny the government dollars needed to stay in power. In 2003, 125,000 family visits to Cuba netted the government about $96 million, according to the Bush administration's Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba.

Still, all but the most hard-line exiles say the restrictions hurt Cuban families more than Cuba's government.

Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., has submitted a bill to rescind restrictions on Cuban-Americans' visits to family on the island. Also under consideration is legislation to allow any U.S. citizen to travel to Cuba and to remove tight limits on money and goods Cuban-Americans can send to their families. But the barrier most likely to fall first is the limit on visits to family.

"It has a better chance of passing than anything else," said Smith, who is part of a group of academics that last year filed a federal lawsuit in Washington aimed at lifting the ban on educational exchanges.

The five years Alejandra Gomez has spent selling Cuban music inside Terminal 2 have not made her immune to the painful scenes around her. She used to change the musical selections to more upbeat numbers.

"But at that moment," she said, "they don't hear anything."

Elderly women have fainted after sons crossed the security checkpoint, some airport workers said. The piercing wails of young children separated from their grandparents sometimes fill the terminal.

"You're always moved," added Gomez, who said she has aunts and uncles in South Florida. "It makes me very sad. I'm Cuban. I feel for them. Sometimes you get a truckload of people from the same town at the airport and they're all standing there crying like babies."

Lorenzo Buzon, Iliana Iglesias' father, said the couple hardly rested after arriving in Havana two weeks ago. "They're up talking with us every night until 2 or 3 in the morning," said Buzon, a retired electrician. "They try to take advantage of every second, not knowing when we'll get this chance again.

After Buzon's daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren crossed the metal door at the security point, the dozen relatives who came to say goodbye turned and headed out into a scorching sun. Buzon stopped momentarily and pointed to a little girl and an old woman in a weeping embrace.

"Look at their faces," he said. "They tell it all."

Ray Sánchez can be reached at

U.S. House accepts amendment to bill that could increase U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba,1,3040334.story

By Ruth Morris
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

June 29, 2007

Legislators on Thursday voted in favor of an amendment that could boost U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba by weakening demands the communist island pay for food deliveries before they leave port.

The amendment's passage marked the first time opponents of U.S.-Cuba policy have advanced their objectives since President Fidel Castro fell ill, fueling anticipation that U.S.-Cuba relations might warm. Analysts speculated Cuba might slowly open its economy under new leadership, and that the United States might ease its trade and travel restrictions to Cuba.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., offered the amendment to the Financial Services Appropriations bill, arguing that "the United States needs to have a presence in Cuba and our agricultural products are a way to accomplish that goal."

Cuban-American legislators who have long defended the U.S. embargo on Cuba called the Moran amendment "unimportant." They noted it has been introduced before, only to be stripped later under threat of a presidential veto.

Instead, they celebrated the fact that current sanctions did not come under broad attack, as in earlier sessions.

"For the first time since 1999, sanctions opponents have not dared to even present any anti-embargo or travel ban amendments to the Treasury Appropriations bill," said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, "The unimportant Moran amendment will once again be stripped from the bill as it has been…since 2000."

Moran's amendment blocks funding that would help enforce a U.S. Treasury requirement that Cuba pay for its U.S. agricultural commodities in cash before the ships leave U.S. ports, rather than making payment upon delivery. The current policy began in 2005, when the Treasury Department published a rule clarifying the "cash payment in advance" requirement of a 2000 export act.

U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba have declined by 15 percent since 2004, according to the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service. Among the steepest drop-offs, lumber exports have declined by 100 percent, rice by 38 percent, and dairy products by 55 percent.

"It is important that the U.S. have a consistent trade policy to be a reliable supplier," Moran said. "Otherwise, Cuba will purchase agriculture products elsewhere. We only hurt our American farmers by allowing this rule to persist."

Ruth Morris can be reached at or 305-810-5012.

U.S. House votes to increase funding for program to promote democracy in Cuba to $45.7 million

By William E. Gibson
Washington Bureau Chief
Posted June 23 2007

WASHINGTON -- House approval this week of a huge increase in funding for a controversial program to promote democracy in Cuba delivered a legislative victory for anti-Castro advocates from South Florida. But critics warn the money could be squandered on attempts to influence public opinion rather than used to help dissidents.

The House action, on a vote of 254 to 170, was the first test of strength on Cuba policy under the Democratic-run Congress, and the first round went to embargo hardliners.

After an intense debate, the House voted to increase the democracy program's funding five-fold to $45.7 million next fiscal year, which starts in October. The vote on an amendment to a spending bill strengthened the hand of President Bush and South Florida members of Congress who hope to build public and international pressure against the Cuban government while encouraging dissent within Cuba.

"We've shown our votes here will go up, not down," boasted Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a sponsor of the amendment and congressional leader for the democracy program and for the U.S. embargo of Cuba. "We got 66 Democrats in addition to all but six Republicans. It shows that the efforts of others [to ease the embargo] will be no cakewalk."

Undaunted, some leaders in the House and Senate plan to push legislation that would ease restrictions on trade and travel to the island while scrutinizing spending on the pro-democracy program, much of which is filtered through South Florida groups.

House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D- NY, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus unveiled legislation that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba and also eliminate requirements that farmers get paid in cash before shipping food to the island.

"This is an important first step toward modernizing our Cuba policy," said Baucus, D-Mont., regarding his legislation.

The Cuba democracy program and the embargo issues are separate, though related. Most of those who favor the embargo staunchly back the democracy program. Many of those who oppose the travel ban and embargo also question the effectiveness of the democracy program and how its money is spent.

After reviewing grants distributed by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1996 to 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office last year cited lax controls and poor oversight of some of the $73 million provided to U.S. organizations to support Cuban dissidents. Some funding went for coloring books and literature, Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters and Nintendo Game Boys.

Defenders of the program said the vast bulk of the money has been properly spent.

"The program now is being improved," Diaz-Balart said. "And now it is ready to take on the added responsibility of the additional funding."

Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for USAID, said on Friday the agency could not comment on pending legislation or specify how additional funds would be spent.

Critics say the program reaches few dissidents on the island and spends too much to try to influence opinion outside of Cuba.

"It's important to note that a lot of the money is not destined for Cuba. A lot has to do with projects outside Cuba," said Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a research group based in northern Virginia, who has organized congressional visits to the island. "It funds research programs at U.S. universities. It funds organizations that try to change public opinion in Europe.

"If this appropriation sticks, it's going to be a five-fold increase in spending. Lord knows what they will do with that much money."

The Senate must still consider its own appropriations bill. The House vote, backed by the White House, will strengthen the program's chances of getting increased funding.

"No one wants to go on record opposing democracy in Cuba, which is how your opponent in the next election could portray your vote on this issue," said William LeoGrande, an expert on Cuba at American University in Washington. "But I wouldn't be surprised to see Congress come back in a year to see whether appropriate safeguards have been put in place."

William E. Gibson can be reached at or 202-824-8256.

Iraq War fallout will impact U.S. policy in Cuba

Posted on Sun, May. 20, 2007


Here's an interesting theory: U.S. policy toward Cuba will be significantly impacted by fallout from the Iraq War.

This is how it goes: Much like the Vietnam syndrome after the unpopular U.S. war in Southeast Asia moved Washington to take a less aggressive stand in foreign affairs in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Iraq War -- and the anti-Americanism that it brought about -- will have a similar impact on U.S. foreign policy.

The United States will become a humbler, more ready-to-talk, multilateralist superpower.

The changes will start almost immediately. In coming months, we will see the beginning of a gradual U.S. pullout from Iraq. (Granted, they will call it something else, but it's going to be a withdrawal anyway.) Simultaneously, the 2008 election campaign will be increasingly dominated by mutual accusations over who was responsible for the Iraq War fiasco, and what should be learned from it.

Then, a newly elected U.S. president will most likely go out of his -- or her -- way to launch a ''new realism'' in U.S. foreign policy. Its main feature will be avoiding the mistakes that led to the Iraq War, and beginning to restore America's reputation abroad.

The I-word is already contaminating almost any foreign policy discussion, in and out of government.

Last week, at a Council on Foreign Relations discussion in Miami on the U.S. war in Iraq, several participants said the biggest U.S. blunder in Iraq after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein was dismantling the Iraqi army and destroying Hussein's powerful Baath Party -- the key institutions that kept the country together.

''We ripped out the institutional backbone of that country,'' said Mark Rosenberg, a political scientist who is currently chancellor of Florida's State University System. ``We will not make that mistake in Cuba.''

While there is no serious possibility of a U.S. military intervention in Cuba, the lessons of the Iraq War will drive U.S. foreign policy makers to avoid a meltdown of the Cuban army and the Communist Party, the only existing institutions in Cuba, other speakers said.

In recent years, the prevailing view within the U.S. government has been that the main U.S. priority in Cuba is preventing a chaotic situation that would result in a new mass emigration of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Florida's coasts after Fidel Castro's death. The lessons learned from the breakup of Iraq's key institutions may reinforce this line of thinking.

In practical terms, the ''Iraq Syndrome'' may cause Washington to move gradually away from its decades-old policy of trade sanctions to force a ''regime change'' in Cuba to a less ambitious policy of seeking ``regime reform.''

Some longtime Cuba watchers don't rule out an even bigger change, toward ``regime acceptance.''

''Iraq is driving U.S. politics toward the center,'' says Manuel Rocha, a former career U.S. ambassador who, among other Latin American countries, served at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. ``The American electorate is moving toward the center, and the next president is going to be a moderate centrist, whether he is a Republican or a Democrat.''

Unlike President Bush, a moderate centrist U.S. president will not threaten to veto congressional bills calling for relaxation of U.S. travel or trade sanctions on Cuba, Rocha told me in an interview.

''The United States will go to a more moderate multilateralist foreign policy,'' says Rocha. ``And to avoid the instability that would bring about a massive exodus of Cubans, Washington may be forced eventually to go from a policy of regime change to one of regime acceptance.''

My conclusion: U.S. policy toward Cuba has always been a mostly U.S. domestic policy issue, and -- with Florida once again being a swing state in next year's presidential election -- I don't see that changing in the short term.

And if it does, Washington is not likely to reward repression with an overnight normalization of ties.

Rather, the next U.S. president will probably seek to gradually replace unilateral sanctions with effective multilateral pressures on the Cuban dictatorship to allow basic freedoms.

But I agree with the general premise that Iraq will set the tone of future U.S. foreign policy, and that Cuba won't be an exception.

To forecast future U.S. Cuba policy, we will have to look at Iraq.

Exiles' 'pain' must include room for dissent

Posted on Sun, May. 27, 2007


We Cubans are infamous for our public displays of suffering, our flamboyant airing of grievances that other cultures have learned to keep private.

It's a trait that has always bothered me, partly because it is has become a symbol for much that others find distasteful in us and partly because it has allowed too many otherwise brave and intelligent people to wallow in corrosive victimhood.

So, in the two years I have been here, I have resisted writing about myself in any way that could be remotely construed as serious. But the week and a half since my column on exiles ran has been a painful one, and I hope the reader will allow me this first and only foray into the deeply personal.


Both my parents were born in Cuba. On my mother's side, they were immigrant merchants, little concerned with politics. My father's relatives, not quite so lucky, were full of the tragic impulse to change Cuban history.

In the early 1960s my father's elder brother was arrested, declared an enemy of the revolution and thrown in jail. There is still a lot about that time that I don't know, but a few stories stand out.

The first is one that my father told me many years ago about how after my uncle's arrest, my grandfather stood outside the detention center for hours screaming his name -- wildly, almost incoherently. Finally, one of the prisoners in the top floor yelled down, ''He's here,'' and they made room so my uncle could stand at the window and wave to his father.

The other one my mother reminded me of a few days ago. In 1980, my father traveled to Mariel to try to get his brother out of Cuba. The Cuban government refused to let him go, and when my uncle returned home, he was greeted by a screaming mob. It was a classic act of repudiation, un acto de repudio.

On my mother's side, they, too, were forced to leave. The soldiers who came to inventory their house maliciously told them that all of this now belonged to the state. My grandfather was far from a ''latifundista,'' or land baron. He was a poor boy from Spain who had worked hard and put together a small business. At the age of 63, when most people would be thinking of retirement, he was forced to flee his adopted country and start over in Los Angeles, where my parents eventually met and married.

Bitterness ate away at many in my family. But my mother's father and my father's brother somehow seemed immune. My uncle is now living and working in Miami; my grandfather is many years dead. When things get rough, I remember them both and how they met life's sorrows with humor, openness and dignity.

I wasn't lucky enough to inherit their nobler qualities. But their experiences at the hands of mob and state machinery left me with a lifelong impulse to side with the individual.

My family's suffering shaped me, even in ways they might now find unrecognizable. But I have always considered their story a private matter, refusing to write about it out of a sense of what I grandly considered decency. But I realize now that that reluctance has allowed many in my own community to view me as an abstraction.

Among the most troubling attacks -- in a week of vicious and personal calumnies -- have been those condescending suggestions that I don't ''understand'' Cuban pain.

I understand it too well. But unlike many, I also understand its origins: It is us. The actos de repudio have continued in exile, mob attacks led by a radicalized minority that not only ruin personal lives but seek to destroy reputations and interfere with people's right, not just to dissent, but to pursue their livelihood.


Almost two weeks ago, I wrote about a French company with ties to Cuba that is in line to build a tunnel at the Port of Miami. Of the reams of attacks published in the pages of this newspaper and aired on radio since that column ran, few have addressed the central issue of the tunnel.

Why? Why is this community -- so quick to protest at the slightest perceived ''disrespect'' -- now so silent when it comes to Bouygues Travaux Publics and the $1 billion project they are in line to receive?

This is the company whose affiliate built Cuban luxury hotels for European tourists so they might delight in a country that most Cuban Americans are barred from visiting -- even to see a dying relative.

Even more troubling: Bouygues is represented by attorney Ignacio E. Sánchez, a board member of the Cuban Liberty Council, one of the most outspoken anti-Castro organizations in this country.

During the past week, Sánchez's fellow board member Ninoska Pérez Castellón has blasted me on Spanish-language radio using the most inflammatory language imaginable. She has demanded that I ''retract'' my column, perhaps forgetting that the only systems that demand and extract retractions on opinions are totalitarian ones.

Friday night, I reached Ninoska by phone to ask her about the tunnel project and her association with Sánchez, extending to her the courtesy that she has denied me. She hung up on me.

I connected with a far more cordial Sánchez Saturday, but he was unable to comment, citing his relationship with his client. In an April 3 letter to Miami attorney Nicolás Gutiérrez, he said Bouygues ``had never participated in any project in Cuba.''

That work was done by an affiliate. Many companies use affiliates in Cuba to get around Helms-Burton, the U.S. law that seeks to punish foreign companies that ''traffic'' in exporpriated Cuban properties. Sánchez helped write the law. He knows the loopholes.

So does Gutiérrez, and he's not buying it. Gutiérrez, who represents families who had property expropriated after the revolution, has steadfastly opposed the tunnel deal.

I met with Gutiérrez Friday afternoon. In Miami Cuban circles, everyone knows everyone, and it happens that Gutiérrez and Sánchez are good friends. Together they helped write Helms-Burton and the two of them, Gutiérrez remembered, demonstrated before the Benetton store in Dadeland Mall in 1993 to protest the opening of a store in Havana.

Through the tunnel issue, the two have maintained a friendly, if firm, correspondence. ''Have a Happy Easter,'' Sánchez signed off on one e-mail, using his nickname ``Iggy.''

Gutiérrez, who clearly has great respect for Ninoska and Iggy, didn't think their partnership on the Cuban Liberty Council had anything to do with the pervasive silence surrounding the tunnel project.

Instead, Gutiérrez attributed it to something much more mundane: the complexity of the deal and of the Helms-Burton law itself. (Sánchez would probably say it's because the law doesn't apply.)

I disagree on both points. The law is complex. But the moral stakes are clear. And I suspect that if anyone else but Sánchez represented Bouygues, Ninoska might publicly question the deal with far more rigor.

For GOP state Rep. Julio Robaina, there's no ambiguity: ``It's the moral of the issue for two reasons. First, we have the property tax issue, the crisis really, and we're going to dump $600 million on the tunnel? To add to the fuel, we're willing to give the money to a company with ties to Cuba? You've got to be kidding me. This is a no-brainer.''

Wherever you stand on the tunnel issue, isn't it a good idea to talk about it? Aren't there legitimate questions to be asked? Two Wednesdays ago, after my column ran, one of the first e-mails I got was from a reader who wrote, ''May a bolt of lightning cut you in half.'' Might not be a bad idea, but what does that have to do with the issue?


Later that day, I was supposed to have dinner with my parents when I got called back into the office. Before I made it back, my father made an offhand comment about the column that, without his realizing it, wounded me. At the office, I briefly considered canceling dinner. Instead, I drove back to my parents' house.

My parents and I sometimes clash on important issues. We have lived vastly different histories. Now and then, we hurt one another. But if I can't sit down and have a meal with those I disagree with, I have no right to ask anyone else to do the same.

House OK's increasing Cuba democracy aid

Posted on Thu, Jun. 21, 2007


WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives on Thursday overturned a proposal that would have slashed President Bush's request for a big increase in Cuba democracy programs.

Bush requested almost $46 million for Cuba democracy programs for the 2008 fiscal year, a five-fold jump from the 2007 level, in keeping with a recommendation by an interagency commission that said the money would help bring democracy to the island.

But Democrats on an appropriations panel that oversees the $34 billion State Department foreign operations spending bill -- chaired by Rep. Nita Lowey of New York -- had cut the aid level back to $9 million, arguing there was not enough oversight to ensure the money would be well spent.

An amendment proposed by Cuban-American Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, and Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, to return the dollar amount to the original Bush proposal passed easily, by a 254-170 vote, with 66 Democrats joining 188 Republicans in support.

The funding of the Cuba democracy program must still be approved by the Senate.

The vote was preceded by a sometimes passionate debate about the effectiveness of the Cuba programs, which critics say have been a questionable use of taxpayer money. But supporters of the program argued the programs should be bolstered, given Fidel Castro's illness and the impending transition in Cuba.

''The reduction would have the United States step back from supporting independent Cuban civil society at a time when the regime has increased its repression while attempting to engineer an undemocratic succession,'' the White House said in a statement in support of its request.

Each side cited passages from a November General Accountability Report on the Cuban programs to defend their case.

That report said there were management and oversight problems with the program, cited some instances of abuses like the purchase of Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters. But it also noted that dissidents were receiving radios, literature, medicine and other needed aid.

Diaz-Balart said the GAO report noted the aid was helping democracy groups and that the U.S. Agency for International Development had incorporated all the GAO recommendations to improve program oversight. He told members he had a letter from prominent Cuban dissidents in support of the programs.

He said similar programs helped the Eastern European opposition against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

''Let us not turn out backs on the Cuban internal opposition,'' he said. ``They will play a key role in the inevitable democratic transition that is approaching.''

Lowey added: ``Given how ill-conceived, how ill-managed the program is, there is no justification for an aid increase.''

''What do Godiva chocolates have to do with supporting democracy in Cuba?'' asked Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat. His fellow Massachusetts Democrat, Rep. Bill Delahunt, said the programs needed ``what it has never had before, vigorous congressional oversight.''

U.S. House gives boost to Cuban democracy
The House approved a big jump in Cuba aid money as well as more funds for U.S. broadcasts to Venezuela. But lawmakers proposed cuts in military aid to Colombia.

WASHINGTON -- In the first vote on Cuba legislation under a Democrat controlled Congress, the House on Thursday easily approved a big increase in money for U.S. programs that support dissidents on the island.

The House also approved a proposal that would provide Voice of America with $10 million to bolster its broadcasts to Venezuela, where news media freedoms have been seen as under attack by left-wing President Hugo Chávez.

And the House was expected to pass late Thursday a proposal to make big cuts in military aid to Colombia -- in the most significant change to the $5 billion U.S. anti-drug-trafficking program Plan Colombia since its inception in 2000. However, Republicans critical of the proposal agreed to let the bill pass while planning to challenge it later during House-Senate negotiations.

The $34 billion State Department foreign aid bill for 2008 provided several avenues for Democrats to challenge some of President Bush's policies on Colombia and Cuba, with the administration and its backers scoring a victory on Cuba.

Bush requested almost $46 million for Cuba democracy programs for the 2008 fiscal year, a fivefold jump from the 2007 level, in keeping with a recommendation by an interagency commission that said the money would help bring democracy to the island.

Democrats on an appropriations panel -- chaired by Rep. Nita Lowey of New York -- that oversees State Department foreign aid bills had cut the aid level to $9 million, arguing there was not enough oversight to ensure the money would be well spent.

An amendment proposed by Cuban-American Reps. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, and Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, to adopt the original Bush funding request passed by a 254-170 vote, with 66 Democrats joining 188 Republicans in support.

The Cuba bill still requires Senate approval. But the vote ''significantly strengthened'' Bush's efforts to get more money for the Cuba programs, Díaz-Balart's office said in a statement.


Thursday's floor debate turned passionate at times. While some lawmakers questioned the Cuba democracy programs' effectiveness, supporters argued that leader Fidel Castro's illness and the possible impending transition in Cuba meant the opposition on the island needed more support.

Each side cited passages from a November General Accountability Office report on the Cuba programs. The report said there were management and oversight problems and some instances of abuses, such as the purchase of Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters. But it also noted that dissidents were receiving radios, literature, medicine and other needed aid.

Díaz-Balart said the GAO report never recommended any cuts, and the U.S. Agency for International Development had incorporated all the GAO recommendations to improve program oversight.

He told members he had a letter from prominent Cuban dissidents in support of the programs and said similar programs helped the Eastern European opposition against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

''Let us not turn our backs on the Cuban internal opposition,'' Díaz-Balart said. ``They will play a key role in the inevitable democratic transition that is approaching.''


On Venezuela, the House backed a proposal by Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack that would provide $10 million for the Voice of America to boost its broadcasts to Venezuela.

''Freedom of the press died in Venezuela on May 27, 2007, when Chávez shut down Radio Caracas Television,'' Mack said on the House floor -- referring to RCTV, an opposition TV station that was denied its broadcast license, triggering international condemnation.

The initiative must still clear the Senate, but Democrats have given indications they are in no mood to go easy on the Venezuelan leader.

At a hearing Tuesday, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the influential chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, condemned the Venezuelan leader for visiting ''the most reprehensible despots in the world'' in North Korea, Iran and Cuba and moving toward ``his own brand of authoritarianism.''

On Colombia, the House was set to approve late Thursday an overall $60 million reduction in Plan Colombia, including a sharp $160 million cut in military aid, but adding $101 million in economic and social assistance. Democrats argued a new approach was needed as cocaine production appeared to hold steady despite an expensive U.S.-led effort to fumigate and eradicate coca crops.

Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

Lawmakers propose bill to ease trade, travel restrictions on Cuba

Posted on Thu, Jun. 21, 2007

Associated Press Writer
Related Content

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers from both parties proposed opening up agriculture exports to Cuba and ending travel restrictions, putting them at odds with a White House adamantly opposed to easing a half-century-old embargo.

"Our policy is just so wrongheaded," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who with other farm state lawmakers has long pushed for ending the restrictions on trade with Cuba. His proposed legislation, he said Thursday, is "a step toward restoring sanity to this economic relationship."

The trade and travel embargo imposed on Fidel Castro's government comes up almost every year in Congress, but the bipartisan drive to ease restrictions has never been strong enough to overcome anti-Castro lawmakers and White House veto threats.

"The administration opposes any weakening of sanctions on Cuba and believes that these measures are essential until Cuba can realize its rightful democratic future," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.

Baucus was joined in his effort by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and two farm-state Republicans, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.

"The backwards American policy on Cuba hurts our U.S. producers a whole lot more than it hurts Fidel Castro," Emerson said.

In 2000, during the Clinton administration, Congress passed a law allowing cash sales of food and agriculture products to Cuba, and since then the United States has sold some $1.5 billion in farm products to the island nation. But trade has been hampered the last two years by a Treasury Department ruling that Cuba must make advance payments before agriculture and medical products can be shipped. It later allowed shipments after third-country banks received payments.

The Baucus bill would remove prepayment requirements, allow direct payments to U.S. banks, provide expedited visas to Cubans involved in buying farm products from the United States, and lift a rule that requires exporters to make onsite verification of the receipt of medicines and medical equipment sold to Cuba.

It would lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba, which is now open to a limited group including Cuban-Americans, religious groups, academics and journalists.

Asked about the chances for success this year, the lawmakers pointed to growing popular support in the United States for easing the embargo and President Bush's foreign policy problems. "The president's credentials on foreign policy are not at an all-time high," Rangel said

Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a coalition of Cuban-American business leaders, said he's glad to see any bill that will reduce Cuba's isolation but does not want U.S. taxpayers to subsidize credits for the Cuban government so it can buy U.S. products.

"Why are Cuba and North Korea the only countries left with communist totalitarian governments? I believe it's because they are the two most isolated countries," Saladrigas said.

Joe Garcia, executive vice president of the nonprofit NDN Network, formerly known as the New Democratic Network, said the bill was a political move that wouldn't get the votes to override a presidential veto.

"This is nothing more than the same politicking without purpose that one group engages in economic advantage and the other for political purposes. Neither is looking out for the best long-term American interests or freedom and democracy in Cuba," Garcia said.


Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.

Cuba struggles to rebuild infrastructure

Posted on Mon, Jun. 04, 2007

Cuba's infrastructure has gone down the tubes since the nation suffered the loss of $6 billion in annual subsidies after the collapse of the USSR.
Cox News Service
Every day the hotel lobby fills with foreign businessmen and tourists who come with their laptop computers to take advantage of the wireless Internet service the hotel provides for a small fee.
Most of them are not staying overnight in the posh Hotel Melia Cohiba. They are here because obtaining an Internet connection in Cuba -- where the government strictly controls access -- can take months of bureaucratic red tape. And even in the hotels, the service is often spotty and painfully slow.
But balky Internet service isn't the only problem facing Communist Cuba.
Decades of neglect and chronic budget shortages have left the infrastructure crumbling. Aging power plants and an inefficient electricity grid need updating, sewer and water systems suffer frequent breakdowns, houses and office buildings are deteriorated and many roads are filled with potholes.
Worst of all for average Cubans is a woeful public transportation system. Workers often wait hours to catch a ride, with some routinely arriving late for work while others complain of nasty conditions on packed, sweltering public buses.
Cuban officials acknowledge the problems and are scrambling to solve them, but say it will take time.
''We suffered a serious crisis in the 1990s,'' said Leonel González, a member of Cuba's National Assembly, referring to the loss of some $6 billion in annual subsidies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. ``The crisis caused a lot of problems with energy, transportation, food production and the economy. Our priorities are to reduce the negative impacts on the people.''
Although progress is slow, there are signs of improvement. Cuba reportedly has invested $1 billion in refurbishing its electricity grid. It has spent hundreds of millions on the water and sewer systems and public transportation.
By the end of this summer, transportation officials hope to phase out the dreaded ''camels,'' hump-backed, truck-drawn trailers that have long been the bane of Cuban commuters, as 400 new buses arrive from Belarus and China.
A key part of Cuba's strategy for rebuilding its public works and services hinges on new trade and assistance agreements with China and Venezuela.
China has signed deals to provide Cuba with credit it can use to purchase buses and other badly needed items.
Venezuela -- headed by Cuba's top international ally, anti-U.S. and outspoken socialist President Hugo Chávez -- recently signed more than a dozen deals with Cuba valued at more than $1 billion. Cuba will continue supplying doctors, social workers and other professionals to Venezuela while Venezuela will assist Cuba in the tourism, energy and telecommunications fields.
Venezuela is also helping Cuba rebuild an oil refinery and develop oil reserves that, based on preliminary data, might prove large enough to help Cuba reduce its energy costs. Meanwhile, Venezuela is supplying Cuba with 90,000 barrels of discounted oil per day.
Another of Cuba's deals with Venezuela is to install a new fiber-optic undersea cable between the countries in the next two years. The new line should dramatically improve Cuba's antiquated telephone and Internet connections.
But at the same time it is increasing trade ties with Venezuela and China, Cuba has been scaling back the foreign investments it allows in tourism, which since the Soviet Union's collapse has been an economic mainstay.
The Cuban state is now running many of the businesses it once relied on foreign firms to help start, meaning Cuba will retain more of the earnings from those ventures that can then be used for infrastructure improvements.
''Private partnerships are not a priority now,'' said González. ``Instead of joint ventures, we are getting administrative and professional services from foreign firms. But in things like construction of new hotels, we are doing that now ourselves.''
Cuba's budget has also been helped by high nickel prices. The island has large nickel deposits, and has partnered with foreign firms to expand production.
Largely left out of the picture are American companies, most of which are blocked from Cuba by the fourdecade-old U.S. embargo. American firms are allowed to ship only food and medicine to Cuba, and must be paid cash in advance.
While delegations from American farm states continue to visit in hopes of making new deals, the prospect of a dramatic widening of U.S.-Cuba trade seems slim at best.
Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have advocated easing the embargo, but the Bush administration remains opposed.
Cuba, meanwhile, seems determined to continue building its economy.
But with Fidel Castro out of the public eye for most of the past year due to a serious stomach ailment and his future role in the government uncertain, Cuba's exact economic path is unclear.

When a cigar isn't just a cigar (Schwarzeneggerf)

South Bend Tribune, IN - June 11


In case anyone still in unclear why the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo and travel prohibition against Cuba doesn't make sense, a recent news report might clarify the issue.

Cuban cigars are legally imported into Canada, which has open trade with Cuba. Consumers in Canada are free to purchase Cuban cigars in Canadian stores.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently was in Canada on a trade mission. He reportedly bought a legal Cuban cigar in a country that legally imports and sells them.

Even so, if the cigar was Cuban, Schwarzenegger broke the law. U.S. law, that is. Not Canadian law.

Under U.S. trade restrictions against Cuba, U.S. citizens are prohibited from buying Cuban cigars anywhere in the world, not just in the United States.

It is hard to imagine U.S. Customs officials prosecuting citizens for such an arcane offense. But, should a visiting U.S. citizen be convicted of buying a legal cigar in Canada, the penalty is a fine and even prison. Luckily for the Governator, he smoked the evidence.

The United States has managed to develop productive, peaceful relationships with a host of former Cold War and shooting-war enemies, including Russia, Vietnam and China. Yet Cuba remains a Cold War relic.

The policy begun by President Nixon of spreading American values through contacts and commerce never has been applied to Cuba. And Fidel Castro continues to maintain the last bastion of Soviet-style communism in the western hemisphere. If Americans were free to trade with, visit and invest in Cuba, the once-and-future tropical paradise 90 miles off the Florida coast would be inundated by the free market. Castro quickly would become irrelevant. As it is, the old dictator has a handy scapegoat for Cuba's many problems.

Are there any reasons to cling to the embargo?

There are no trade-related reasons, to be sure. Schwarzenegger's cigar illustrates the ridiculousness of the United States trying to apply a trade embargo to the global realities of the 21st century.

There is no humanitarian reason. Millions of Cuban-Americans are separated from loved ones still living in the Caribbean nation, where deprivation of daily essentials is the norm.

Ah, but there is a political reason. No president, Democrat or Republican, has been willing to risk alienating the vehemently anti-Castro Cuban-American voting block in Florida.

That could change. There is a growing voice of moderation among Cuban-Americans as more come to understand that there are more sensible approaches than simply outliving Castro. It would be refreshing to hear presidential candidates in both parties address the Cuba question frankly.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes a cigar is a symbol of an outmoded foreign policy and a self-serving political view. This time it's a symbol.

Canadian investor bullish on Raul Castro's Cuba

Reuters Canada, Canada - June 11

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's largest foreign investor, Sherritt International Corp., sees business running smoothly under acting President Raul Castro and will push ahead with a $1.2 billion expansion in nickel mining, and oil and electricity production.

Sherritt Executive Chairman Ian Delaney said there has been no adverse impact on the business climate since Cuban leader Fidel Castro took ill last year and handed over provisional power to his brother.

"Raul is a very good and crisp decision-maker, so there certainly has been no adverse change," Delaney said on Monday in a telephone interview from Toronto.

"For us things have continued to be good. He is a very good administrator," said Delaney, who met with the younger Castro last week for the opening of a power plant run by gas from coastal oil fields operated by Sherritt.

With soaring world nickel prices, the Canadian mining and energy company expects to complete the first phase of expansion at its Moa mine by the end of the year, raising output to 37,000 tonnes of nickel and cobalt in 2008. Another 9,000 tonnes is to be added by 2009, with further expansion planned for 2012. Nickel is one of Cuba's main exports.

"The operating environment in Cuba is really good. Our business is being run well," Delaney said.

Uncertainty over Cuba's political future without Fidel Castro at the helm has not shortened Sherritt's sights in Cuba, which could aim even higher if oil is discovered in deep-sea Cuban waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Delaney said Sherritt was doing additional seismic studies and would take a decision by the end of the year on whether to drill in the four blocks it signed up for five years ago.

Sherritt last year exported some of the heavy crude it extracts from coastal fields and is looking to market more by building a processing facility to desalt the oil and lower its flash point, which is too high for international shipping.


Sherritt has expanded business in Communist Cuba despite opposition from the United States, which for decades has sought to undermine Castro with trade and financial sanctions.

Delaney and his wife Catherine have been banned from entering the United States for eleven years under tightened rules adopted by Washington in 1996 to dissuade foreign companies from investing in Cuba.

"I feel highly insulted, but otherwise there has been no effect," he said.

Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution. In 1962, the United States imposed an embargo on business transactions with Cuba, although food exports were allowed in 2000. The embargo is being scrutinized by the U.S. Congress, where critics say it is a relic of the Cold War that has not changed Cuba.

The embargo has not been factored into Sherritt's plans in Cuba. "We made all of our investments on the basis of the current political environment, and we are quite happy with it," Delaney said.

He called the embargo cruel and said it imposed great strain on Cuba's economy and the Cuban people while "satisfying narrow political interests in the United States."

A task force set up by the Bush administration to stop Cuban nickel imports into the United States has had no effect on that business, Delaney said.

Prices for nickel, used to make steel harder and more durable, could remain high for many years due to demand by its largest consumers, the United States and China, which have no significant production of the metal.

Sherritt is the world's lowest-cost nickel producer and is having a "terrific" time with prices now ten times higher than in 1999, Delaney said.

"It's too easy to say that business is good in this high commodity environment," he said. "For us business was good when nickel was $2 (a pound). Recently, it traded as high as $22."

Havana: U.S. fugitives are no longer welcome

Posted on Wed, May. 30, 2007

Cuba has said it will stop providing safe haven to U.S. fugitives who arrive on the island.
A little-noticed passage in two State Department reports says Havana has stated that it will no longer provide safe haven to U.S. fugitives who enter Cuba -- a promise the Castro government has met twice since September.
The promise and deportations amount to a rare sign of cooperation by Havana. Some 70 U.S. fugitives are believed to be living in Cuba, including Joanne Chesimard, convicted in the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper.
Cuba has refused to return them, generally arguing that the U.S. charges against them are ''political.'' The refusals were among the reasons the State Department used for including Cuba in its list of nations that support international terrorism.
But a brief passage in the State Department's voluminous 2005 and 2006 Country Reports on Terrorism -- the 2006 report was released April 30 -- that went largely unnoticed until now said Cuba ``has stated that it will no longer provide safe haven to new U.S. fugitives who may enter Cuba.''
State Department spokesmen declined comment on who made the promise, when or whether it involved any U.S. counter-promise. Havana has long demanded the return of five convicted Cuban spies jailed in Florida.
Such Cuban acts of cooperation have come under more scrutiny since Raúl Castro took the reins of power after his brother Fidel Castro fell ill last summer. However, the 2005 report on terrorism, the first to include the wording on ending the safe haven, was issued before the ailment was announced on July 31.
State Department officials noted Cuba's history of on-and-off collaboration with the United States makes it hard to know if Havana's promise is signaling a new stance.
''We have no way of knowing for sure what the Cuban government is trying to accomplish, if anything,'' said Eric Watnik, a department spokesman.
Cuba has demanded the United States extradite anti-Castro militant Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela, where he faces charges of masterminding the bombing of a Cuban jetliner in 1976 that killed 73. U.S. immigration fraud charges against Posada were dropped recently by a U.S. judge.
Cuba has returned at least two U.S. fugitives since the promise first appeared in the State Deparment report.
In September, a South Florida man kidnapped his son, stole a plane at a airport in the Florida Keys and flew to Cuba. The son was later returned to his mother in Mexico and the father was put on a plane to Miami, where he faces prosecution. That was the first time Cuba had returned a fugitive from U.S. justice, according to the 2006 U.S. report.
In April, Havana returned to Florida Joseph Adjmi, a fugitive sentenced to 10 years in U.S. prison for mail fraud in 1963.
Earlier this year Cuba also expelled to Bogotá Luis Hernando Gómez-Bustamante, wanted in Colombia as a leader of the Norte del Valle cartel. Colombia then extradited him to the United States.
Washington and Havana have long had tenuous communications on issues such as drug trafficking and migration. In early 2006, the Cubans briefed the Coast Guard officer based at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana on their counter-drug trafficking operations. But the Cubans refused to allow Drug Enforcement Administration agents to question Gómez-Bustamante while he was detained there on immigration fraud charges.
An annual report on drug trafficking issued in March by the State Department said Cuban officials ''profess interest'' in more bilateral contacts with Washington on drug trafficking matters.
The Bush administration suspended biannual talks with Cuba on migration issues in 2004, and has refused any formal contacts with top Havana government officials.
Raúl Castro has on two occasions -- in August and December -- declared he would be willing to sit down and talk with Washington. The Bush administration replied that it was not interested in talks until Cuba takes the path of democracy.

Private sector operates in Cuba's shadows

Posted on Wed, May. 30, 2007

A small number of Cuban entrepreneurs are able to make ends meet under the pressure of Cuba's strict government-controlled economy.
Cox News Service
It's nothing but a simple shed with a counter stuck in the front yard under a shade tree. The menu -- a tiny chalkboard hung from a rusty nail on the wall -- offers only two items: pizza and ice cream.
But for Esperanza Perez, the tiny food stand she has owned and operated in Communist Cuba for the past 13 years has been life changing.
''Before this my life was very difficult,'' she said. ``My husband died and I had to face life. I had my disabled mother and my daughter to support. This business is not making us rich, but we are surviving.''
Perez was part of a new wave of Cubans allowed to open private businesses in the 1990s, when Cuba's economy was devastated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of about $6 billion a year in subsidies.
The decision to allow privately owned enterprises was a dramatic departure from Cuba's long commitment to socialism, a doctrine adopted by Fidel Castro after his 1959 revolution.
But as Cuba's post-Soviet crisis eased in the late 1990s, Castro became uncomfortable with the threat posed by private profit in a state where riches are considered a sin.
Cuban officials in recent years have clamped down on the tiny private sector, raising fees, cutting back the number of licenses issued and increasing inspections.
According to press reports, the number of private entrepreneurs -- called cuenta propistas, or ''people working on their own account'' -- dropped from around 200,000 in 1996 to about 150,000 today.
The question on many minds now is whether Cuba will continue to rein in private opportunity, or instead open its economy further.
While Castro remains firmly committed to socialism, the 80-year-old leader has been sidelined the past 10 months by serious illness. He officially turned over power to his 75-year-old brother, Raul, last July.
Raul Castro, head of Cuba's military, is said to be a pragmatist open to the idea of limited private enterprise. Cuban officials are also candid about the need to improve the living conditions of the Cuban people.
In a recent press briefing, Economics Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez insisted the cuenta propistas will be a part of Cuba's future. ''There is not a policy to destroy private businesses,'' he said. ``Legally people are allowed to do this. The state never thought of private business as a menace.''
That is good news to the business owners, many of whom say they enjoy the challenge of running their own enterprise.
''It's a good business that enables me to maintain my house, to sometimes drink a beer and to maintain my cars,'' said Miguel Gonzales-Carbajal, a Cuban physician who for the past seven years has run a casa particular, renting rooms to tourists. ``With just my salary, it was hard to make ends meet.''
He charges $25 for a small room and $35 for a larger room, both clean, neat, air-conditioned and with private bathrooms. For this privilege, he pays the Cuban state the equivalent of about $325 per month.
''There is risk because if I have no customers, I still have to pay the license fee,'' he said. ``But if we have a month we believe will be slow, we don't have to pay the fee but then we cannot rent the rooms.''
The concept of risk is new to many Cubans, but some of the business owners seem to thrive on it.
''I really enjoy it,'' said Lazaro Ordonez, 44, who with his mother Elisa, 62, has run Los Amigos, a tiny paladar or private restaurant, out of their home for 12 years. ``You have to work more, but in the end, you have a compensation, a better life.''
Cuban law allows the businesses to hire only family members. The cost of the licenses vary. Perez, who charges the equivalent of about 30 cents for a small pizza and 13 cents for an ice cream cone, pays about $116 each month for her license and two family workers.
Entrepreneurs also pay 10 percent of their profit in yearly income tax.
Cubans are loathe to speak of how much they earn, but a Cuban professional who researched the private sector estimated that a stand like Perez's might earn $200 per month in profit.
There are also thriving private markets in Cuba, where farm cooperatives and individuals pay fees to sell goods and produce. The private markets often have higher-quality produce than state-run markets, although prices are also higher.
''The vendors pay 5 percent of sales in taxes and 5 percent to rent their stalls,'' said Orlando Valdez, manager of a market in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. ``The prices are set by supply and demand, but if a vendor is charging very high prices, we try to convince them to lower them.''
Prices seem cheap by American standards, with a pound of tomatoes costing the equivalent of about 20 cents, while chicken and pork are sold for about $1 per pound in Cuban pesos.
Other vendors sell at a street fair held once a month in Vedado.
''I buy this stuff from the state and pay 10 percent of each sale in taxes,'' said Roberto Garcia, 28, who sold mops, brooms and detergent at the fair. ``I do OK because my prices are cheaper than in the state stores. I sell soap for 5 pesos [about 20 cents], while in the state stores it's 15. I'm not getting rich, but I'm surviving.''
Most of the Cuban entrepreneurs say the same thing. But most also say they would never go back to state jobs.
At the Ordonez family's small paladar, there is almost always a long line outside waiting for a chance to eat a typical Cuban meal of pork or chicken, rice and beans. With a beer or two, the meal costs the equivalent of about $7, or roughly half the average Cuban's monthly wage.
But the place is wildly popular, and filled mostly with Cubans, not tourists.
''This is good for us and good for the country,'' said Lazaro Ordonez. ``We support our economic system, but we hope they will allow more of these private businesses.''
Mike Williams' e-mail address is mwilliams@