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Cuban Baseball: Open the gate

October 28, 2012 Leave a comment

As a result of the next baseball season, the State press and fans have unleashed a debate, looking to raise the level of ball played on the island. There were more than 170 proposals to design a new competitive structure.

In a meeting with the national press, the Cuban Federation let it be known how the next tournament will be structured. The league will open on 25 November in José Ramón Cepero Stadium with a matchup between the present champions, Ciego de Ávila and the runner-up Industriales. Sixteen sides will participate, one for each province plus the special municipality Isla de la Juventud. The Metropolitanos team is eliminated, with their 38 years of history in the local classic.

The schedule will consist of two stages. In the first, 45 games will be played in a round-robin to find the best 8 teams. The sides that go on to the next round will be able to draft up to five players from the teams that didn’t qualify. This phase will be of 42 games. In two playoffs of the best of seven, the four winners will play for the national championship.

It might be that the old structure of 4 divisions and two zones, East and West, was already inadequate. In the last twelve years, the level of baseball has declined a lot. The problem isn’t about a team. Many remain. The keys to elevating the quality of play happens to have a new structure. But the worst evil isn’t that of structure.

The design of the Cuban baseball system used to work. It was a pyramid of skills that included little league, Pony leagues, Youths, and provincial series, culminating in the national classic.

Sports schools perfected and trained the best talent nominated by coaches. Afterwards the harvest was brought in. Until 2006, Cuba won most of the International Baseball Federation’s organized tournaments in every one of its categories.

Now we barely win championships. And that worries fans and specialists. In world tournaments of Pony or Youth Leagues, it’s understandable. The best talents of Asia and the United States take part. But at the highest level, except for the Classics, those authentic discards with skills of little caliber enroll for their respective countries.

In my opinion, there’s a glaring error on the Federation’s part. And it is to implement changes thinking only about the national team. The series on the island cannot be a satellite that circulates outside that orbit. It must be independent. When the season has more quality, the higher the level that will be achieved by the Cuban team.

What we’re talking about is how to really raise the level of ball played. The options are many. But all will happen by opening the gate and allowing the best ball players to compete in foreign leagues. The ideal would be to arrive at an agreement with the Major Leagues such that Cuban players can sign contracts without having to abandon their country.

But current laws complicate the proceedings. As such, other destinations would have to be chosen. Japan and South Korea, due to the high level of their leagues, would be the best.

Another step that can’t be overlooked is pay and material conditions for the players. It’s a failed subject. Local idols who were sometimes Olympic champions got 300 convertible pesos — about 340 dollars — a ridiculous amount for a first-rank sportsman; although in the difficult economic conditions this country lives in, it’s a ’fortune’.

An effort should be made so that players in the national series can earn salaries greater than 3000 pesos ($130). The solution might be to raise the price of tickets to stadiums from one peso to five, with part of the proceeds distributed between players. Not equally. The regulars would earn more. The extra class, much more. Local and foreign companies based in Cuba, with its productions, could be sponsors.

It should not be possible that a national champion, as in the case of the Industriales in 2010, should motivate its players through gifts of cement shingles to repair the roofs of their houses, or microwave ovens, defective on top of it.

The majority of Cuban ball players live in precarious conditions. Only a handful of stars live in good houses or have cars. When they look at their colleagues who’ve left the country, they know that playing in a mediocre league they will earn enough to help their own and live decently.

Then they decide to leave. It’s true that few reach the Big Leagues. But they try to integrate themselves in whatever Caribbean, European, or Asian league. Another big problem is the little attention paid by the Federation to the farm systems that feed the national series.

Provincial tournaments of the big leagues are very short. Many games are suspended for lack of balls, bats, and transportation. Ball players are playing out of uniform and don’t even have a snack. You have to love baseball a lot to play in 92 (Fahrenheit) degree heat under these conditions. To this, add that the official press barely covers them — they’re almost clandestine.

In the lower categories, the evil is worse. The fields are true potato fields. The quality of the balls and equipment is terrible. In the stands we’ll find parents, loaded down with lunches and snacks for their kids. When a boy decides to play baseball, his parents have to buy his equipment in hard currency. Cash must also be paid for the making of uniforms.

On a radio sports show called Sports Tribune, on the capital’s COCO station, every night official honest journalists such as Yasser Porto, Daniel Demala or Ivan Alonso go at it bare-knuckled, attacking the evils that afflict Cuban baseball. And they offer solutions.

It’s obvious that their claims have fallen on deaf ears. The COCO journalists weren’t invited to the last meeting where the announcement was made about the structure of the next season.

The Federation is walking a tightrope. It doesn’t wish, want or cannot, address the theme with all of its artists. The solution offered is pure makeup. Cuban baseball’s difficulties won’t be resolved in this manner, nor will the ceiling of competence be raised, because it’s not only a problem of structure. There are many others.

Photo: Taken from The Cuban History. René Arocha, first ball player to desert, 18 July 1991. Since then, more than 150 baseball players have left Cuba and with major or minor success have managed to compete (or still compete) in professional leagues in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Caribbean countries, Europe and Asia, such as Rey Ordóñez, Liván Hernández, José Ariel Contreras, Rolando Arrojo, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, Kendry Morales, Aroldis Chapman, Osvaldo Fernández, Ariel Prieto, Alex Sánchez, Vladimir Núñez, Danny Báez, Michael Tejera, Yuniesky Betancourt and Yoenis Céspedes, among others.

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Translated by: JT

October 7 2012

Private Retail Proliferates in Havana

October 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Sometime after eleven at night, Alfredo, 66 years old, plants his folding chair and small plastic table at October 10 and Acosta streets. On this centrally located Havana corner he sells freshly brewed coffee. He has a large clientele. Nighttime entertainers, drivers from a nearby taxi stand, nightwatchmen, tranvestite prostitutes from the area and policemen in patrol cars visit Alfredo’s stand to buy strong coffee at two pesos for a small cup or three for one a bit larger.

“It’s not bad. I make between 120 to 160 a day. Sometimes more. Of course, I am up until dawn. Around 7:30 in the morning is when I go to bed,” says the elderly gentleman. If Alfredo had to live on his pension alone, he would not be able to have two meals a day or to go from time to time with his wife and grandchildren to a cafe in the Carlos III Commercial Center to have a beer and some hamburgers.

Danilo, 69 years old, is up by then. At dawn he roasts three pounds of peanuts and wraps them in a hundred paper cones. Later, he goes to various bus stops to hawk his product. He sells each cone for a peso (0.05 cents to the dollar). “I don’t always sell all the peanuts. There is a lot of competition. I don’t make much money, maybe 50 to 60 pesos a day. At least it helps me buy groceries,” Danilo says smiling.

It has been awhile since Natacha, age 49, put aside her degree in literature. It was more profitable for her to use the doorway of her house to sell small cups of ice cream for five pesos and carbonated drinks for two. High school students are her major clients.

“I buy the ice cream from a private producer. The carbonated beverage I make myself with a machine that I got for 80 convertible pesos. When I tally my receipts at the end of the day, they often amount to more than 200 pesos. As a professional I earned a salary of 480 pesos a month. You tell me if it’s worth it to keep the diploma in a drawer. Besides, I am my own boss. Everything depends on my efforts,” Natacha says.

Small retail businesses are sprouting like flowers all over Havana. Many private-sector workers feel they cannot make a profit running a cafe or a restaurant.” To open a restaurant or a good little cafe, you need more than two thousand convertible pesos. Since money is scarce nowadays, people in general tend to eat bread with croquettes or mayonnaise, fried food, stuffed potatoes — things that cost less than five pesos. I had a cafe that offered a wide array sandwiches and beverages. But the high prices — 45 and 15 pesos for a sandwich — forced me to close,” an elderly cafe owner explains.

Certainly some cafes and privately-owned restaurants are going full steam, but most of the self-employed do not have enough capital for a large-scale business. They prefer to work as small-scale retailers.

Or driving a taxi which, according to Orlando, is the most profitable. “I work for a guy who has five cars and rents them out. We have to pay him 550 pesos a day if we drive a five-seat car. If it is a yipi with with ten seats, then we pay a thousand pesos a day. We don’t have to invest in anything. He takes care of gas and repairs. In one day I take home more than 600 pesos in profits,” he says.

In the central and oldest part of Havana there is a proliferation of tables with people selling costume jewelry, clothing and shoes. Thousands of stalls offer pirated CDs. At Antonio’s stand there is a wide selection of TV programs, films and soap operas. He sells DVDs for 30 pesos. He also has video games. If you cannot find what you are looking for, Antonio — always conscientious — tells you to come back the next day. “If you give me your word you will be back tomorrow, I will knock off five pesos.” Given the proliferation of vendors, it is often the ones who offer discounts or good service who snag the customers.

Sales are going extremely well for some; others are on the verge of bankruptcy. But all feel that it is better to work for themselves than to work for the state, which pays less, demands more and does not reward them for their work.

Photo: One of the many carts which which can be seeing daily on the streets of Havana selling garlic, onions, yucca, bananas, tomatoes and beans, among other farm products. From Primavera Digital.

October 23 2012

Eating, A Big Problem in Cuba

October 14, 2012 1 comment

Thanks to a hundred dollars from some relatives in Miami, the Calderón family knew they could eat well for four days. And Oneida, the seventy-one year old homemaker in charge of feeding the seven members of her family — five adults and two kids — could take a little break from the long lines and having to go to the farmers’ markets at closing time when things go on sale.

Let’s take a look as the Calderon’s menu for those four days. On Thursdays there was white rice, black beans and one hamburger per person. For salad, a slice of avocado. Only the children had dessert — a little scoop of ice cream purchased at a small privately-owned cafe.

Friday’s meal was not bad. There was a tenderloin filet, delicately thin, which she got on the black market for fifty pesos* per pound. White rice and chickpeas, purchased at the mall, with artisanal ham and chorizo from private farmers’ markets. Cucumber salad and, for the children, an ice cream popsicle covered in chocolate, which are sold by street vendors on bicycles for five pesos a popsicle.

The winning streak continued on Saturday. Congrí, braised beef, yucca with garlic sauce and fresh guava juice. For dessert the children had a surprise — pastel oriental, prepared by freelance cooks.

Traditionally in Cuba the biggest meal of the week is usually prepared on Sunday. That afternoon the Calderón’s dined on two chicken drumsticks per person – purchased for 2.40 convertible pesos* a kilogram — rice with black beans and green bean salad. There was dessert for everyone that day — guava jam with homemade cream cheese.

With their bellies full, the men of the house passed the hat and went out to buy a liter of Havana Club white rum for 3.85 CUC*. They drank it while watching a pre-recorded broadcast of English league soccer. The women chatted, waiting for the soccer game to end so they could watch rented videos of the final episodes of Pablo Escobar, Boss of Evil, a mini-series that half the island is hooked on.

Once the three hours of her day-off had ended, Oneida went back to worrying. For those three meals — including cooking oil, seasonings and condiments — she had spent 56 CUC. The next day, with the 136 pesos and 9 CUC remaining, she had to plan the menu for the upcoming week.

The Calderón family lives in a three-bedroom house in a Havana suburb. In Castro’s Cuba they could be considered “middle class.” Except for Oneida and the two children, everyone in the family is a professional. If their monthly salaries, paid in non-convertible pesos, are combined and hard currency remittances are included, they bring in a total of 3,258 pesos a month — much higher than the average Cuban family’s income.

The Calderon’s spend 95% of this on food. And they only have one meal a day. For breakfast they eat bread with homemade mayonnaise and coffee. For lunch there is omelette or croquette and juice or a soft drink. When an overseas relative sends them $100, things get better. They can buy good fish, chicken from the hard currency store, a leg of pork, cured meats and even beef. But not everyone has relatives in the United States or Europe who can regularly send dollars or euros. For them the issue of food becomes real headache.

It’s always good to remember that journalism is reiteration. A year ago a list of food prices, in hard currency and in pesos, was published in En La Habana, which showed you can eat well if you have enough money. The price of powdered milk had risen substantially, from 5.25 to 5.80 CUC for a one kilo box in the malls. On the black market a two-pound bag was going for 60 to 80 pesos. Keep in mind that the average monthly salary in Cuba is 450 pesos, the equivalent of $18.

Oneida buys and reads the papers. So, when on September 13 she read in Granma that “approximately 19% of Americans have trouble buying food,” she could not help but smile. “At least there the figures are released and are known. And only two out of ten people are in this situation. I can assure you that here it’s everybody. Except those in charge, of course,” she said sarcastically.

Eating has been and continues to be a big problem for Cuba. Eating well is a subject for another chapter.

Photo: Roast pork, a typical Cuban dish.

Translator’s note: Cuba has two official currencies: the moneda nacional or peso, in which salaries are paid and is not convertible, and the CUC or convertible peso, which is pegged at 1.10 to the dollar.

October 14 2012

The Cuban Regime’s Destructive Acts Against the Dissidence Have Come to Seem Normal to the World

October 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Monday, September 17th marked the first week of a hunger strike carried out by the well-known economist and opposition figure Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, 67 years old, “to demand the freedom of political prisoner Jorge Vázquez Chaviano and an attempt to force the government of Raúl Castro to comply with mediocre current legislation”, she tells me.

The veteran dissident was in a delicate state of health. “She has suffered various blood sugar problems and on Friday the 13th she suffered a respiratory blockage”, said Idania Yanes Contreras, president of the Central Opposition Coalition and spokeswoman of the group of 6 dissidents on hunger strike in Martha Beatriz’s small apartment.

It has been a chain reaction.  There were 30 opposition figures found going without food in various provinces of the nation.  For decades, hunger strikes have formed part of the dissent’s battle strategy against the olive green regimen.  It has had its cost in human lives.

Since 1966, when the political prisoner Roberto López Chávez died in the Modelo Prison on Isla de Pinos, various opposition figures have died as a consequence of hunger strikes.  Among the most talked-about is that of student leader Pedro Luis Boitel, who died the 25th of May of 1972 in the Havana prison Castillo del Príncipe, after 53 days without eating food. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, one of the accused of the Black Spring, lost his life due to a hunger strike. His death, the 24th of February of 2010, was what triggered the government to negotiate the release and exile of almost a hundred political prisoners with the Catholic church and the Spanish government.

On repeated occasions, the government has declared that it will not yield to the petitions of the dissidents.  Many opposition figures, like Martha Beatriz, feel impotent.  “It is one of the few paths that we have to show our indignation. The world already sees as somewhat normal the destructive acts of the Cuban regime against dissent.  It has all become routine”, she emphasizes, and makes a brief recount of the events.  “In these two years, the arbitrary detentions, the acts of repudiation, the harassment and physical aggressions have gone up considerably.  We demand respect”, she says in a very low voice.

She is laid out on a single bed illuminated by various candles.  “Electric light bothers me.  I get nausea and very cold feet.  I drink water every now and then and chew little slivers of ice.  That gives me relief”, she clarifies.  I want to take a picture of her.  She says no: “Iván, I wouldn’t let anyone else but you, but I don’t want pictures taken of me in this state.”  Martha is very vain and has always liked to get herself ready.

At her bedside rests a worn leather Bible.  The hardened dissident has been jailed on two occasions.  In 1997 she served three years along with Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, Félix Bonne Carcassé and René Gómez Manzano for issuing the document The Fatherland Belongs to Everyone.  Six years later, in March of 2003, she was the only woman who served jail time among the group of 75 opposition figures arrested.  She was freed in 2005 on conditional parole due to her deteriorated health.  In this hunger strike, Martha is accompanied by five members of the Cuban Community Communicators’ Network.

They are Yadira Rodríguez, Yasmany Nicles, Rosa María Naranjo, Fermín Zamora and Ibis Rodríguez.  Yadira and Yasmany, a married couple, began the strike seeking a response on the authorities’ part about their house fire on the 21st of April of 2012 in the Vista Hermosa neighborhood of San Miguel del Padrón.  According to Yasmany, the Interior Ministry’s experts arrived at the conclusion that the fire had been set.  The couple accuses the Special Services of the act.

In Roque Cabello’s small apartment, in the Santos Suárez district, there is a constant bustle.  Some neighbors ask about the strikers’ state of health.  Two opposition members sleep on a sheet laid out on the floor.  A young striker stays stretched out on the sofa.  Idania Yanez takes the continuous telephone calls.

Nobody in the room seems to pay attention to the television, which plays a Discovery Channel documentary.  One week after beginning the hunger strike, the dissidents are not there to watch television.  Their bodies already begin to weaken.  Fitful sleep or the reading of a book turn out to be the best pastimes.  In the hallway of the building, right before the front door of Martha Beatriz’s apartment, a large painting of Fidel Castro appears to observe it all.

“It is one of the ironies of State Security.  They hung the portrait years ago, saying that the hallway is a common area of the property”, states Idania.  The dissidents maintain that in the adjoining apartment an intelligence command post is running.  “At all hours they try to bother us.  Music too loud. Castro speeches, in short, anything at all to irritate us”, Yasmany says.

This collective hunger strike, undertaken by 30 peaceful opposition members, does not guarantee that the regime will hear their claims.  And the worst is that it could have fatal consequences for their lives.  They know it.  And they face up to it.

Text and photo: Iván García

Note: A few hours after this work was written, State Security freed the political prisoner Jorge Vázquez Chaviano and the opposition members agreed to put an end to their hunger strike.  Meanwhile, at Zoé Valdés’s blog and other websites, the open letter that Tania Quintero directed from exile in Switzerland to her friend, the renowned dissident Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, was making its rounds.

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Translated by: russell conner

September 26 2012

What the Revolution Might Leave Us

October 10, 2012 Leave a comment

If one were asked what should be saved of the Castro brother’s communist revolution, the number of responses would be enormous. Followers of Fidel Castro — those who hang his portrait on the walls of their homes and swear he is the greatest statesman of the twentieth century — would come up with an endless list of accomplishments that should be carried on into the future.

Those who are convinced that Castro is the worst political scourge ever to afflict any country would smile quizzically and answer in a single word: nothing.

There would also be nuanced responses. Serious academics and a less passionate segment of the Cuban population, both on and outside the island, would emphasize that any future plans for the nation should include retaining universal and free health care and eduction, but little else.

Intellectuals and political scientists from the modern left argue that, before evaluating any social achievements of the Castro regime, it is essential that national sovereignty be maintained and that, in a future looming just ahead of us, we should not fall under the sphere of influence of any of the world’s power centers.

They argue for a politically independent Cuba, one with good relations with the United States but without being an unconditional ally. And for being able to accuse Washington in an international forum of any given outrage or to condemn it for some arbitrary action in one of its many wars to promote democracy.

If they could be transported in a time machine, armchair democrats would place Cuba at the level of Barbados or Trinidad and Tobago, minus the headlines in the international press on human rights violations and with a better economy and social services.

In debates Cubans committed to their country envision in their minds a spectacular future. Being optimistic is a positive thing. It is interesting that, in occasional discussions in which the admirers of the revolution participate, authoritarianism, multi-party government, the creation of independent trade unions and respect for free speech are openly acknowledged.

Public health and education are not the only unquestionable successes. Certainly teaching carries with it a strong ideological message, but all citizens living in Cuba have the possibility of learning to read and going on to higher education.

Other points in its favor are the access to culture and sports. There will always be asterisks, however. It is not possible for a nation to have a hard-currency economy and expect to be in the top spots at the Olympics.

Schools devoted to sports and arts education for children and adolescents with talent should be retained. Gymnastics and sports centers should also be brought back as a source of entertainment and a healthy option for the mind and body.

The civil defense system should not be touched either. It has worked. Since the devastations of tropical storm Flora in 1963, which cost the lives of two thousand people and caused enormous property damage, the loss of human life from hurricanes and other natural disasters has been minimal.

Broadly speaking, these are, in my opinion, the principle victories that could emerge from the Cuban revolution. Of course, there are many more things that need to change.

Addressing pressing social issues, unresolved political rights and structural changes are an enormous challenge for any future democratic administration in Cuba. But that is another story.

Photo: Dr. José Rubiera, the most recognizable face from the Institute of Meteorology and the man whose forecasts facilitate preparations by Civil Defense and the public for the arrival of thunderstorms, cyclones and cold fronts.

October 7 2012

The Cuban Regime Crosses Its Fingers Before Venezuelan Elections

October 6, 2012 Leave a comment

The presidential elections on October 7 may not be the triumphant military parade announced by Hugo Chavez. The Chavez vote has been trending downward. Capriles has gained the advantage. He has come from behind. Now it is a house-to-house campaign for the undecided vote.

This is a concern for more than one person in Cuba. In political roundtables, those discussion programs on Cuban television in which all points of view are aligned, the rhetoric is less optimistic.

Cuban media reported in August that Chávez had a 30% lead over Capriles. Cuban news programs were broadcasting the smiling “Comrade Chávez” in his red beret, shouting that he would trounce his adversary.

The campaign strategy of the strongman of Caracas has left much to be desired. In the background, according to several analysts, is Cuba’s political machinery.

On the subject of democratic elections, Cuba has little to teach its allies in the Americas. The Castros have always governed as they pleased, without a legal opposition and by repressing dissidents.

The use of defamation and scorn in a nation like Venezuela – in spite of past political corruption and criminal violence, the country enjoys a relatively democratic climate – has been a fundamental error by the Chávez team.

Hugo Chávez has not even been willing to have a televised debate with his opponent. Everything has been an insult. This tactic has exposed his intolerance and arrogance.

He should have taken notes of how to run an electoral campaign – by uniting instead of dividing the country – from his Brazilian colleague, Lula da Silva. After fourteen years in power, logic has given way to appalling violence in Venezuela, where 150,000 have been assassinated during this time period.

Deaths in Venezuela are twice the number of murders in Mexico by drug cartels and paramilitary groups. More than a country, it is a slaughterhouse. The poor from Caracas’ hills do not trust Hugo Chávez. Corruption and political cronyism are growing, the prices of staple foods are rising and poverty figures are going through the roof.

The average Venezuelan might have a medical clinic in one corner of his house, but he considers it unacceptable to have to pay an inflated price for it. The poor relation from the Caribbean costs Venezuela billions of dollars annually. Chávez provides 100,000 barrels of oil daily, selling it to the Castro regime at discount prices, in exchange for health care personnel and technical assistance.

In the last trimester, the government in Caracas had to make financial payouts to settle its accounts on the island. In 2000, Chávez and Fidel Castro signed the Accord on Comprehensive Cooperation in which  Cuba pledged to send 30,000 doctors and athletic coaches. In exchange PDVSA – the state-owned oil company – was to ship 53,000 barrels of oil a day. According to experts this figure has doubled. Petroleum is essential to the government of Raúl Castro.

Its commitment to a timid series of reforms, including a $900 million investment in infrastructure for the port of Mariel, construction of international tourism facilities and an expansion in the number of self-employed workers, has caused energy consumption to skyrocket.

In a desperate search for energy independence, Castro II has been actively engaged in gas exploration in Cuba’s territorial waters, but so far no petroleum has been found. As a result the October 7 elections are the number one priority for the Castro regime. The fall of Chávez would hit the fragile domestic economy like a tsunami.

Cuba has never been able to get by on its own. When Soviet sponsorship dried up in 1991, the island entered a period of darkness and misery. Power outages lasted sixteen hours a day. Thousands of people suffered from chronic illnesses related to malnutrition. Motorized transport disappeared, replaced by tractors pulled by oxen, horses and donkeys. The comandante único kept in his drawer a plan called Operation Zero in which the army would take charge of distributing food rations in individual neighborhoods.

This phase, which never completely ended, is referred to officially as “the special period.” It has been like a war without bombs. If chaos never erupted, it was because of the rise to power in Venezuela of Hugo Chávez Frías, a true saint on the Castros’ altar. Fourteen years later, Fidel Castro would become delirious, making incendiary rants and suffering from weak health.

His brother Raúl, the hand-picked successor, has not been able to straighten the rickety direction of the Cuban economy. Now more than ever, he needs the financial resources of his twin. Cuba will do all within its power to see that Hugo Chávez remains in office. If not until 2030, as the bolivariano would like, then at least for another six-year term.

In an attempt to keep him in the president’s seat, the regime in Havana offers advice on military matters and sleazy propaganda techniques. If there is one way in which the Creole autocracy differs from its “Venezuelan brother,” it is in his stubborn confidence in the mechanisms of western representative democracy.

At the beginning of the 1990s Fidel Castro whispered some good advice to his Nicaraguan ally, Daniel Ortega: Do not hold elections just to lose. The Castros assume Hugo Chávez has taken note. If not, then they are keeping their fingers crossed, just in case.

Photo: AP, from ABC News.

October 3 2012

Cuba, an Aging Island

October 5, 2012 1 comment

The figures are disturbing. For over 30 years the Cuban women, on average, have less than one daughter by the end of their reproductive years. An aging population without any replacements. And it is only decreasing. Because Cuba has begun to subtract inhabitants in absolute terms.

This conclusion came as a report from the National Bureau of Statistics in 2011. Add the ages of the three strongmen of the country, both Castros and Machado Ventura, and it totals 249 years. To add more drama to the aging population, annually more than 20,000 people aged between 10 and 45 years emigrate from Cuba.

One solution the Cuban government has come up with to fight the high ages and shrinking size of the population is to raise the retirement age for men and women  to 60 and 65 years respectively.

A retired person earns a salary in Cuba, between 100 and 300 pesos (5 and 16 dollars) and that does not even cover 30% of their needs. For a citizen to have a breakfast and two meals a day requires no less than 2,500 pesos a month (113 dollars).

We also have the grave problem of the living quarters. Some 62% of the houses on the island are in either regular or bad state of repair. Three or four different generations have to live under the same roof.

When space is needed in the living quarters, the displaced are usually the elderly. The best option is for the grandparents to have to sleep with the grandchildren. The worst is that the family decides to put them in some run down State asylum.

There’s no worse lead up to death for an old person than to live in a State hospice. Badly treated, lack of hygiene and poor food. Already last year, more people died in Cuba than were born.

Obviously the haphazard and weak economy is not prepared to guarantee a decent life for the two million people over 60.

If currently the average age in Cuba is 38, in 2025 it will be 44. Almost 26% of the population will be over 60. By 2030, 3.3 million people will be over 60.

Today the group of Cubans older than 60 is 17.8%. It is more than the number of children ages 0 to 14 which is 17.3%. The ideal would be to promote policies to motivate women to have two or more children.

In Europe, the benefactor state usually pays a stipend to mothers with children. But the public coffers in Cuba are just about empty.

Since General Castro inherited power from his brother, the construction and social and leisure facilities for the population has dropped to almost zero. They only invest in projects that return hard currency, like tourism, or strategic projects such as petrochemicals or the transfer of water to the eastern region.

Therefore, one should not expect that at a meeting of the monotone National Parliament they will announce a cash incentive to encourage women to have more than one child. The accelerated aging in Cuba is a phenomenon that will have to be dealt with by a future government. By 2025 the Castro brothers will rest in a mausoleum or be two infirm elderly nearing the century mark.

The next president, in addition to aspiring to spectacular economic growth, will have to try to  renegotiate the foreign debt and try to design a coherent society, inclusive and democratic.

All this work should be undertaken with an aging human capital. And the growing segment of women, professional or otherwise, who due to material scarcities put off forming a family.

To convince them that Cuba needs rejuvenation and more daughters would be a commendable task. We’ll see whether in ten years leaving for Florida continues to be the personal quest of many Cubans. Hopefully not.

Photo: Ivan Garcia

September 22 2012

Castro vs. Castro

October 1, 2012 4 comments

If we compare the style of governance of the Castros during their respective terms in office from a bird’s eye view, we would make a serious mistake in believing the two autocrats are much the same.

You don’t need a magnifying glass to see the differences. What are the similarities? Well, the duo have authoritarianism in their genes. And they see democracy as their major enemy.

While Fidel Castro acted like a true visionary, father of the country and shopkeeper of the neighborhood, his brother prefers to exercise power from behind the scenes. Castro I was an impetuous hurricane. He never kept still. On any given morning he was capable of mobilizing all the means of production in the country for a banana harvest.

Overriding the national budget, he ordered the construction of a biotechnology center. Believing himself to be a world-class statesman, he devised a plan to abolish Latin America’s external debt.

His vocation was that of a warrior. He handled the various conflicts in Africa as though he were the supreme commander. He personally directed the military campaign in Angola from a mansion in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado district.

He controlled everything down to the last detail. He knew the amount of asphalt needed to build an airport runway and the exact number of chocolates and sardines his troops consumed.

In domestic affairs he governed with the mentality of a shopkeeper. He ran some numbers on his calculator and decided to purchase refrigerators that he thought would be most effective in launching the energy revolution.

He could recite from memory the exact number of energy-saving lightbulbs the country had to import. And the benefits of Cerelac. And the amount of concrete required to build one-hundred daycare facilities.

Fidel Castro was an autocrat. A narcissist his entire life. Even in retirement he cannot be constrained. Now at times he predicts atomic disasters and swears he has discovered a formula — the moringa plant — that will satisfy all of humanity’s food needs.

His supporters consider him to be the most important statesman of the twentieth century; his detractors think he is certifiably insane. His 47 years governing Cuba were marked by predictions of war against “Yankee imperialism” and mass demonstrations condemning those who chose to leave the country.

When the mood struck him, he would storm TV studios and give long lectures on a variety of topics. But the figures do not lie; Fidel Castro was a bad administrator of the nation.

By the time he was forced to give up power due to illness, Cuba’s economic statistics had contracted in the extreme. Sugar production, the mainstay of the economy for centuries, was at the level it was in 1910. Cities were run-down and needed painting. Streets were filled with potholes. Drug dispensaries were empty. Free health care and education remained in place, but they were of poor quality and headed downhill.

The transfer of power to General Raúl Castro on July 31, 2006 occurred without popular consent. He was hand-picked by his brother.

Since the end of the 1990s many sectors of the economy have been run by Raúl Castro’s men, the military’s businessmen. It is a closed circuit of olivegreen-khaki-clad executives who have devised methods for entrepreneurial advancement, which they apply to their industries and businesses.

Raúl Castro has quietly buried the notion of volunteerism and the anarchy of his brother under thirty feet of earth. He has also shut down ludicrous government agencies like the Ministry for the Battle of Ideas — a monument to ineffectiveness — and restructured the administrative apparatus.

He has cleaned house as much as possible. Fidel Castro’s trusted men were either retired or went down in disgrace. Schools in the countryside — cradles of unwanted pregnancies and a burden on the national budget — were shut down.

The general has not taken these measures as a prelude to serious and profound reform. No. They are simply temporary cures intended to stimulate the functioning of a moribund economy.

The expansion of self-employment and the sale of houses and old Russian cars are not starting points for the implementation of liberal methodologies. The objective is to throw out ridiculous laws. Castro II is focused on the maintaining the continuity of the system.

To achieve this, he needs two things: dollars and the removal of the heavy weight of excessive state control. In the pursuit of efficiency and a rise in productivity he has come up with a plan in which a million and a half workers will lose their jobs.

If Fidel Castro seemed like an idealist, his brother has his feet planted firmly on the ground. The future, as foreseen by Castro II, is a capitalism practiced among friends which would allow them to control the country’s main economic levers.

Raúl is not betting on anachronistic Marxist treatises. He prefers Putin’s Russia. And he admires the economic growth achieved through capitalist means of the Chinese giant.

The general knows that, to perpetuate the work of Fidel, it is essential that there be an efficient economy which can satisfy the aspirations of the average Cuban, who wants to live in a decent house and have enough to eat.

To achieve this without losing power while keeping the opposition at bay is the goal. The differences between Raúl and Fidel are procedural. Castro I was more about revolution, the third world, mass rallies, applause and anti-Yankee rhetoric. Castro II is about doing things out of sight, without too much noise.

The general hopes that the work started by his brother and continued by him might last a hundred years. Or a little longer.

Photo from a blog by Tania Quintero.

September 30 2012

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