Category Archives: Cuba news

And now?

I’ve been following the reactions of Cuban bloggers to last week’s Congress, and I’ve been surprised to find more commentary about the dynamics of the Congress itself than anything else. Many have criticized Party leaders for keeping the Congress closed to the public–this seems like a fair point. Certain documents, mainly the transcripts of Raul’s speeches, have been printed in the major dailes; Granma has records of certain Congress proceedings, but accessing these files online is all but impossible for most Cubans. It’s not clear to me what else is available for Cubans who don’t have Internet access.

One blog that I hadn’t seen until recently, Kimbombo que resbala, had some coverage of Cubans’ reactions to the Congress. Kimbombo has a favorable view of the government, but unlike many blogs of this kind, the author, Deisy Francis Mexidor, actually interviews people and asks for their opinions. I like it. Here is one of her posts on the Congress [es].

Then there are others, like Laritza Diversent, who suggest that the public has little interest in this information, since it may not matter much in the long run. Diversent was quoted commenting on this on the English translation site of Pedazos de la Isla:

“From my point of view, the Congress was totally insignificant, because they say one thing there but what they do in reality is something else. [...] Taking these processes into account, they celebrate their Congress, they take their measures, and they reach agreements upon themselves. There is no restructuring of the Party and there is no democratic restructuring either. But none of this has any importance for the citizens of Cuba. It has no importance in comparison to the importance it has outside of Cuba. And this is precisely because very few Cubans are interested in politics, or simply they do not understand it. And they feel this way because of the “back and forth” of the government, while one day it says one thing, tomorrow it’ll say another, and so on. Because of this insecurity, we do not pay any attention to this Congress.”

Ouch. Diversent is associated with the “critical” or “dissident” bloggers who most often make the news–Yoani Sanchez, Claudia Cadelo, et cetera, but I think she’s often more cynical (perhaps more realistic) than some of her contemporaries, particularly when it comes to the Cuban public’s appetite for change. I appreciate her honesty.

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A future with ham and cheese?

When Fidel remarked last summer on how the country’s economic system “doesn’t even work for us anymore,” he set the tone for the sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), which concluded this past Tuesday. The roughly 890,000 members of the party convened in Havana to discuss and vote on changes in the nation’s economic system. Remarks made at the Congress reminded me of my struggle to understand Cuba’s quasi-Marxist economic system, which began when I was a student at the University of Havana in 2004.

During that semester, most of my interest in the economy revolved around the challenge of feeding myself each day. On one corner near the University’s main campus, there were two small business operations run out of store windows: one sold fresh juices and peanut butter bars, and the other sold ham sandwiches. The sandwiches consisted of two slices of ham on a potato bread bun. No toppings, no condiment. These bocaditos made you feel like you were eating a bad joke about the so-called “Cuban sandwich” that appears on so many restaurant menus in the US. But they were better than peanut butter bars alone.

One afternoon, a friend and I found ourselves in Old Havana on the prowl for a quick lunch. We located a vendor similar to the one near school, and each bought a sandwich. But in these sandwiches, we found two slices of classic (indescribably bland) Cuban cheese.

“You know, ” my friend said to the vendor, “we usually buy our sandwiches from a guy in Vedado. But his sandwiches have ham,” she told him. “What if you had ham and cheese on your sandwiches–then you might sell a lot more. You two could collaborate! That way you wouldn’t have to buy more food.”

“But it’s a different zone,” he said again. “In this zone, we have cheese for sandwiches. There where your friend is in Vedado, they have ham. This is how it works in this city. If I had ham and cheese, it would upset the equilibrium. It would unfair for the other vendors.”

Before, we had supposed that the only problem at hand was scarcity of resources. But it was more than that–it was an economic logic that we had never seen in practice, and a social code (“it would be unfair to the other vendors”) that we’d read about as a theory, but evidently had never imagined in real terms.

I thought of this exchange when I read in Escambray, a newspaper in the Sancti Spiritus province, that a proposal had been raised at the PCC conference to change how construction is compensated. The newspaper’s website reported that “[t]he delegates…agreed that to achieve greater efficiency in the construction sector, it would be appropriate to pay according to the results and quality of the work…” I’m sure nothing could sound more natural to most readers, but as the sandwich story illustrates, the idea of linking the quality to price, or compensation, is novel in many labor contexts in Cuba.

Bold ideas have come to the fore at this Congress. On Monday, PCC members voted unanimously to impose term limits (two, of five years each) on high-ranking elected government officials–a proposal introduced by Raul himself. They also voted to make it legal again for Cubans to own, buy, and sell homes. It’s hard to know what this will mean in real terms, but if it is what it sounds like, it will mean real change. More on this very soon.

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Are ICTs the new Bay of Pigs?

The Alan Gross trial raises important questions about the relationship between Cuba and the U.S., and the political meaning of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Cuba.

First, who decides what constitutes a crime? While Cuban courts say that Gross committed “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” Hillary Clinton,  Phillip Crowley and other State Department officials say that Gross’s delivery and installation of ICT equipment for a small group of Cubans “was not in any way criminal, in our view (my emphasis).” U.S. officials have conceded that Gross did not have legal permission to enter Cuba on these terms. But they have barely acknowledged that USAID and Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) have been working in Cuba for decades without the permission of the Cuban government.

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Notes on USAID

I finished my graduate work this week, so I’ve been a little behind on Cuba news (and a little exhausted.) As per my most recent post, here are two really interesting items on the subject of USAID work in Cuba:

The Cuban Triangle‘s Phil Peters posted  statements from USAID, regarding their work in Cuba, and lines from the Cuban criminal code that address USAID assistance to Cuban citizens. The comments that follow are worth read too.

Tracey Eaton, a journalist and blogger at Along the Malecon, posted his latest findings on the site of his new project, Cuba Money Project. I am fascinated by what Eaton is doing with this, and hope to dedicate a post to the project in the near future. Although it looks like some of these numbers are still rough, they indicate that federal spending allocations on programs devoted to Cuba (through USAID, State, etc.) from 2007 to 2010 cumulatively reached nearly $100 million. That’s a lot of money! Visit Cuba Money Project for updates.

Lastly: Alan Gross has been sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but US authorities are optimistic that he may be released as soon as this year.

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Of cables, computer fairs, and cyber thugs

As I noted briefly last week, Generación Y has been unblocked in Cuba. Voces Cubanas and DesdeCuba, both platform sites where feeds for Gen Y, Octavo Cerco, and many other Cuba-based blogs appear, are also back. Yoani’s description of the moment when she connected to her blog, for the first time in three years, was poignant.

“With just a click I manage to enter the site that, since March of 2008, has not been visible from a public place. I’m so surprised I shout and the camera watching from the ceiling records the fillings in my teeth as I laugh uncontrollably.”

You can almost see the state security official watching her from the other side. Sites may be unblocked, and cable may be laid, but the presence of the people and machines of the state hold steady in the lives of citizens like Yoani. She is probably right to assume that this may not last for long, and not to mistake this for an innocent act of benevolence by the Cuban government. But still we should ask: why were these sites unblocked?

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Julia Stiles should stick to her day job

Hollywood actors can do almost anything—unless they are short on cash. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal featured an essay by the actress Julia Stiles, on her 2009 trip to Cuba. She traveled to the island with a humanitarian aid group, then spent some time doing touristy things in Havana, and suddenly found herself broke and (gasp) unable to use her credit card.

Here’s the lede: “With three days left to go in my trip, I was walking around Havana flat broke.” This could be the beginning of a good story. But what follows is a generic, unremarkable account of a visit to Cuba by a person who clearly didn’t know much about the place before she arrived. The experience of being (briefly) broke in Havana caused her to think hard about poverty, communism, Cuba’s shabby telecommunications infrastructure, and the goodness of humanity. In the end, she borrowed some money from her sister and got herself back to the US without any trouble. Oh, and while she was there, she got nominated for a Golden Globe.

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On Global Voices: Obama eases restrictions on travel, remittances, airplanes

President Obama signed an executive order on January 14 that will ease embargo restrictions on travel to Cuba for academic, religious, journalistic, and cultural purposes. Policies on charter flights from the US to Cuba will also be loosened, as will regulations on remittances. The new policy will allow all US residents (not just those with family on in Cuba) to send remittances to Cubans on the island, provided that they are not senior government officials, or senior members of Cuba’s communist party.

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