Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Not enough time in the day

A scene from the carnival in Santiago de Cuba

It's crunch time at work, so I'm going on a blogging break. But as Arnold said, "I'll be back."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

All's quiet at the Bay of Havana

A cruise ship in the Bay of Havana before sunrise

The hunger striker, guitarist and photographer (Updated)

Antúnez complains about housing conditions in Cuba in this YouTube

A member of Cuba's political opposition, Jorge Luis García Pérez, nicknamed "Antúnez," has been on a hunger strike since sometime in February, his supporters say. His condition has gradually grown worse and on March 13, he was hospitalized in Placetas in the province of Villa Clara, according to Penultimos Dias. Antúnez is demanding better conditions for political prisoners.
Early Monday, Claudio Fuentes Madam, a Cuban photographer, and Ciro Diaz, a guitarist for the controversial Cuban band, Porno Para Ricardo, went to visit Antúnez to show solidarity.
But they never got to the hospital. They were detained at a police station in Villa Clara, according to Claudia Cadelo of the blog Octavo Cerco. That has triggered a flurry of protest among their supporters, who are asking why a photographer and a guitarist pose a threat to the Cuban revolution.
A police unit responsible for monitoring "enemy subversive activity" detained the pair.

Update: Both the guitarist and the photographer have been freed, Octavo Cerco and others report.

The photographer
The guitarist
Photo credit: Both pictures unceremoniously lifted from Octavo Cerco

Sightseeing in Havana

El Capitolio
Prado
El Morro
The Malecon

Monday, March 23, 2009

$100,000 replica of fabled seafaring Chevy is unveiled

Photo credit: El Nuevo Herald

Luis Grass, the intrepid auto mechanic who turned an antique 1951 Chevy truck into a boat to try to flee Cuba, has been in South Florida for four years now and has built a replica of his original two-ton craft.
I saw the story in Sunday's Miami Herald.
''My dream was to build a replica of the truck that was used in the first attempt, to keep it as a museum piece. And here it is, six years after the voyage, it's incredible,'' Grass told the Herald.
The replica cost more than $100,000, said Grass, now working in Miami as an auto mechanic - and I'll bet he's one of the best.
In 2004, I interviewed members of the Grass family along with another Cuban "truck-o-naut" for an article I wrote for the Dallas Morning News. They are an amazing bunch of characters.

Links: 2006 Car & Driver feature on Luis Grass and his green Chevrolet truck.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

All because of those #!%#& Chinese radios

Rising Cuban-American star Felipe Sixto dreamed of becoming a lawyer and a politician. His grandfather was the mayor of Holguin before the 1959 revolution, and his great-uncle was a senator and a vice-presidential candidate.
And Sixto might have done it, too. But then prosecutors accused him of stealing more than a half million dollars from the nonprofit Center for a Free Cuba.
At 29, Sixto had just started his dream job at the White House, but he quickly lost that and his world crumbled.
On March 18, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton sentenced Sixto to 30 months in prison. It was a devastating blow to his family and lawyer, who had asked for probation.
Others asking for leniency included Carlos Alberto Montaner, a prolific Cuban author and noted critic of the Castro regime, and Carmelo Mesa-Lago, author of more than 60 books and former director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
In his Jan. 21 letter, Montaner says Sixto is not "an evil person or a habitual offender" and is "deserving a second chance in life."
Mesa-Lago, in his Jan. 15 letter, said Sixto was one of the top 10 students he's had in 35 years and was "an incredibly hard worker." He asked the judge to be "merciful."
Sixto could have gotten up to 10 years in jail and a fine of more than $1 million, court records show. But he apologized. He sold his belongings and borrowed from his father to repay the money he stole. He admitted he had made a terrible mistake.

Here's how Felipe Sixto says he spent the money he stole, according to court documents. Note the $10,200 piano, the $5,000 for artwork, and $16,000 for travel and lodging.
The $142,000 payment to family members went to his father and uncles, who did not know about his son's illegal activities, Sixto told authorities.
Prosecutors said Sixto would have kept stealing if he hadn't gotten caught. According to a seven-page government sentencing document, filed March 11:
Mr. Sixto not only stole more than half a million dollars from a not for profit organization, but after being selected for a highly sought after position in the office of the President of the United States he continued to engage in his fraudulent conduct. Mr. Sixto’s sentence should take into account the nature and impact of his conduct and also the brazen way in which he continued his scheme, undeterred by the impact it would cause others and the office of the President of the United States.
This case is more than an employee simply stealing from his employer. It is about a man who over the course of years engaged in an intricate scheme to defraud an organization chartered to help people who were of his own heritage.
The defendant did not abandon his scheme until he was discovered. He only agreed to repay the funds he embezzled when he was threatened with criminal prosecution.
Sixto began stealing the money while working for the Center for a Free Cuba, which is funded in part by U.S. taxpayers and dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights in Cuba. After his arrest in November 2008, he admitted buying bulk shipments of Chinese radios through companies he created, then reselling the equipment to the center for a higher price. 

This is one of the Chinese radios that was distributed in Cuba

Sixto said the center had been buying the radios through a middleman because officials thought, incorrectly, that federal regulations banned direct purchases from China. Sixto said he went ahead and bought directly from China, cutting out the middleman and saving thousands of dollars. But rather than giving the proceeds to the center, he pocketed the money.

It's ironic that Sixto, a supposed crusader against communism in Cuba, would buy from communist China. But when greed overcomes political ideology, anything can happen, I guess.

Many Cubans use the radios to listen to their favorite soap operas

As I read the court documents in the case, it's clear that Felipe Sixto hurt everyone around him, especially his young son, Felipe Ignacio, who idolized his father; his wife, Laura, who has health problems and needs medical care; and his father Felipe, who lent his son hundreds of thousands of dollars to help pay back the stolen funds.

Sixto admitted that greed drove him, according to his March 11 pre-sentencing statement:
Many people have asked me why I committed the offense. My answer unfortunately is based on greed and selfishness.
As a family man I should have thought of the consequence of my actions and should never have put my family in danger. I understand this. I understand that I was stupid and selfish.
Only $19,000 of the stolen funds went toward medical care, making it tough for Sixto to rely on the sick-wife defense.

The prosecution and defense agreed that under the sentencing guidelines, Sixto should get between 30 to 37 months in jail. The judge did not have to comply with that recommendation. Sixto asked the judge for the minimum sentence, if not probation.

"...I beg for a minimum period of incarceration..." he wrote.

News of Sixto's resignation. November 2008.

In the end, the judge decided on 30 months. Prosecutors said Sixto stole $541,075.19. Sixto put the figure at $576,900. He paid back $644,884, which includes the amount he stole plus interest.

His case is a tragedy for his hard-working Cuban family, which sacrificed to help him get ahead in America. And by all appearances, Sixto could have done fine without the money.

A 26-page pre-sentencing document shows Sixto was on the road to success and had a solid background. The document says Sixto:
* Is the youngest of three children.
* Graduated from high school in 1998.
* Traveled to Cuba twice in 2001.
* Was a graduate student at Florida International University. He also graduated from law school, but failed the bar exam in Maryland and so he was never licensed.
* Went to work for the Center for a Free Cuba in February 2003, earning $35,000. He left during the summer of 2007 and was earning $65,000 per year.
* Began working at the White House earning $55,000 per year in July 2007. He accepted a $102,000-per-year position as special assistant to the president, but resigned after three weeks because of the criminal charges against him.
Sixto now has a mountain of debts and owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to his father, more than $100,000 to the IRS and hundreds of thousands to creditors outside his family.

He is a convicted felon and won't be able to vote, own a firearm or receive any government contracts when he is released from prison.

More documents in the case are below:

Five-page document outlining original accusations against Sixto - from Federal District Court in Washington, D.C.
Nov. 7 plea agreement, filed Dec. 19
Statement from Sixto's wife Laura, who writes, "Emotionally, I do not know how I or our son will survive without Felipe."
Statement from Sixto's father Felipe, who arrived in the United States as a teen-ager and took any job he could find, including that of a dishwasher.
Statement from Sixto's mother Ofelia, who arrived in the United States in 1960 and became a citizen a decade later.
Statement from Sixto's brother-in-law, who praises Felipe's work as a Cub Scout leader and soccer coach.
Statement from Larry Wright, a former boss, who says Felipe is "not a conniving, deceiving person."
Statement from Jon Rank, a friend who says Felipe is someone "I would trust with my life."
Statement from Patrick McConnel, a friend who describes how Sixto refused to shoot an angry black bear that circled his hunting stand because killing the animal would have been illegal

Links:
November post describing early developments in the case and noting Cubans' fondness for the Chinese radios

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Photo (s) of the Week - the Beach & the Bodeguita



Past Photo (s) of the Week

March 14 - Party Girls
March 7 - Fashion models
Feb. 28 - Fashion models
Feb. 21 - Fashion models
Feb. 14 - Fashion models
Feb. 7 - Fashion models
Jan. 31 - Female performer/contortionist
Jan. 24 - Fashion models
Jan. 17 - Wardrobe malfunction.
Jan. 10 - Busty party girl
Jan. 3 - Fashion models
Dec. 13 - Swimsuits
Dec. 6 - Carnival dancers
Nov. 29 - Synchronized swimmers
Nov. 22 - Women at night in Santiago de Cuba
Nov. 15 - Carnival dancers
Nov. 8 - Swimmer on the Malecon
Nov. 1 - Ukrainian medical student
Oct. 24 - Butts at the beach
Oct. 19 - Sexy in red swimsuit
Oct. 11 - Woman gets tossed into water
Oct. 4 - At the beach
Sept. 27 - Tropicana and other dancers
Sept. 20 - Carnival dancers
Sept. 13 - Ukrainian teen-agers at beach
Sept. 6 - Horseplay at beach
Aug. 30 - Synchronized swimmers
Aug. 23 - Carnival dancers

Others photos:

Top Five Photo (s) of the Week
Christmas at the Beach - Swimsuit photos
Along the Malecon hits 100-country mark - Carnival dancer and women at beach
Green Revolution - Teen-agers on a park bench

Friday, March 20, 2009

People in motion



Ladies in White protest jailing of loved ones

Las Damas de Blanco take to the streets

Cuban security officials disrupted a protest of Las Damas de Blanco earlier this week in Havana, according to Amnesty International.
“The Cuban authorities must stop this continuing harassment of activists who are peacefully attempting to exercise their freedom of expression and association,” said a Cuba expert at Amnesty International.
March 17 was the 6th anniversary of the government's jailing of 75 dissidents, journalists and pro-democracy activists. Las Damas de Blanco - or Ladies in White - are relatives of those who remain in prison. Government supporters contend that the U.S. government helps finance Cuba's opposition movement.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

And now, USSOUTHCOM

Yesterday's post on the CIA's perusal of Along the Malecón prompted a visit from the U.S. Southern Command in Key West.
Pretty weird...
And now, I've got to mow my yard before my neighbors turn me over to Code Enforcement.

A creature from my back yard

Improved U.S.-Cuba relations: The ball's rolling

The Havana Journal has posted a useful list of links indicating a possible thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. Signs point toward the Obama administration announcing a loosening of economic sanctions sometime before the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, set for April 17 to 19, 2009, the Havana Journal said.
Barack Obama has signaled he'll make changes, saying, “It’s time for more than tough talk that never yields results."
Interestingly, Costa Rica and El Salvador recently said they will reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba, writes Phil Peters in The Cuban Triangle.
Yet to be seen is whether the United States will follow.
A journalist friend who attended a dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week told me she plans to deal with drug violence in Mexico first. He wrote of his dinner:
Hilary was great. She really wanted to hear and learn. Seemed pretty engaged. Overall, great experience. I asked her about Cuba and she said, 'Let's take one at a time,' meaning Mexico.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Carlos Lage and Fidel Castro

Carlos Lage, at right wearing jeans, looks relaxed as he presses the flesh on July 26, 2006, the anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro made two public appearances that day. They were his last appearances before a crowd.

Link:
Along the Malecon's Fidel Castro page

CIA stumbles upon Along the Malecon

I sometimes wonder how much interest U.S. government agencies have in blogs. Over the past six months, this blog has gotten visits from universities, corporations, libraries, nonprofit organizations, city and state agencies, and even fire stations.
The Central Intelligence Agency has also stopped by Along the Malecon, lingering one day for 14 minutes and 27 seconds. Some bored employee, I imagine. Most people surf the Internet while at work, which is why Internet use drops on weekends, according to Nielsen Media Research surveys.
The CIA IP address was 198.81.129.193, which is associated with the CIA and ANS Communications, Inc.
The Agency for International Development, the State Department and other agencies have also visited this blog. State's IP address was 169.252.4.21, which comes back to clayton.state.gov. I Googled that and found I'm not the only one who gets visits from clayon.state.gov. I can't imagine there's a single employee named Clayton who is looking at all these blogs. There must be some kind of robot that roams the blogosphere looking for interesting information. Anyone know how that works?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sixth Anniversary of Black Spring

Wednesday March 18 is the sixth anniversary of the Cuban government's crackdown on dissidents, pro-democracy activists and journalists. Authorities arrested and jailed 75 people, drawing international condemnation.

Since then, at least 20 of the dissidents have been released, but the others remain in jail.

The wives and other relatives of the prisoners formed a group called Las Damas de Blanco. They dress in white every Sunday, go to their church for mass and then march along Quinta Avenida.

I interviewed the group's leader, Laura Pollan, above left, during my last trip to Cuba. She and other members of the group say their lives changed when their loved ones were arrested and jailed in 2003. The women lost their fear. They began to march every Sunday despite the risk of arrest. Many say they have nothing to lose. And they vow not to give up until their relatives are freed.

For most Cubans, fighting the socialist government remains too painful, too risky. Many dissidents are shunned. They're routinely detained for questioning. Some are jailed. Others lose their jobs. They're put under surveillance. Their sons and daughters are harassed.

All this allows the government to contain the opposition.

Cuban officials contend that the vast majority of people support the socialist regime. They accuse the United States of financing what they describe as a "manufactured" opposition.


Links:

Mothers and wives of dissidents call for their loved ones' release - Reuters
International Press Institute calls on Cuba to release jailed journalists - Statement
Dissident who was arrested six years ago recalls his ordeal - Committee to Protect Journalists
Las Damas de Blanco denounced stepped-up repression - Catholic News Agency
Member of Las Damas de Blanco detained, questioned and released - Amnesty International
Three members of Las Damas de Blanco detained - EFE news service report.
A list of links on human rights and democracy in Cuba - U.S. Interests Section in Havana
Las Damas de Blanco Web site

Monday, March 16, 2009

What is Jorge Castañeda smoking? (Updated)

This is not Jorge Castañeda. But the man is puffing...  
Jorge Castañeda's March 14 column in Newsweek claims that Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque were fired because they were tied to a plot to force Raul Castro from power. It's an intriguing idea, but Castañeda's column is not convincing.

Castañeda does not provide any evidence for his theory. He writes:
...there are solid reasons to believe that something along the following lines took place: for at least a month or so, Lage, Pérez Roque and others were apparently involved in a conspiracy, betrayal, coup or whatever term one prefers, to overthrow or displace Raúl from his position. In this endeavor, they recruited—or were recruited by—Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who in turn tried to enlist the support of other Latin American leaders, starting with Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, who refused to get involved.

Their reasons for wishing to unseat Rául were mainly turf and power...
Now maybe Castañeda's claims have some truth to them, but the former Mexican foreign minister does a lousy job backing up his argument. He doesn't explain his "solid reasons."

Conspiring to remove Raul Castro would be a capital offense, but Cuban authorities don't seem to be treating this as that kind of case, at least not so far.

Update: A CNN story quotes Cuba experts who question whether Castañeda's story could be true. Castañeda says he has no proof for his hypothesis. So why did he put the story out there? What are Castañeda's motives?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Photo (s) of the Week - Party Girls

Back by popular demand
More photos of the woman in orange are here



Past Photo (s) of the Week

March 7 - Fashion models
Feb. 28 - Fashion models
Feb. 21 - Fashion models
Feb. 14 - Fashion models
Feb. 7 - Fashion models
Jan. 31 - Female performer/contortionist
Jan. 24 - Fashion models
Jan. 17 - Wardrobe malfunction.
Jan. 10 - Busty party girl
Jan. 3 - Fashion models
Dec. 13 - Swimsuits
Dec. 6 - Carnival dancers
Nov. 29 - Synchronized swimmers
Nov. 22 - Women at night in Santiago de Cuba
Nov. 15 - Carnival dancers
Nov. 8 - Swimmer on the Malecon
Nov. 1 - Ukrainian medical student
Oct. 24 - Butts at the beach
Oct. 19 - Sexy in red swimsuit
Oct. 11 - Woman gets tossed into water
Oct. 4 - At the beach
Sept. 27 - Tropicana and other dancers
Sept. 20 - Carnival dancers
Sept. 13 - Ukrainian teen-agers at beach
Sept. 6 - Horseplay at beach
Aug. 30 - Synchronized swimmers
Aug. 23 - Carnival dancers

Top Five Photo (s) of the Week
Christmas at the Beach - Swimsuit photos
Along the Malecon hits 100-country mark - Carnival dancer and women at beach
Green Revolution - Teen-agers on a park bench

Monday, March 9, 2009

Fidel Castro was down, but not out

Rafael Correa. Photo credit: EFE

Health trouble evidently forced Fidel Castro to drop even further from sight around the time of the 50th anniversary of the revolution, reports Cuban Colada, the Miami Herald's daily journal about Cuba.
Castro "was in very delicate health," Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told EFE, the Spanish news agency. He "had had a relapse..."
And that, Correa said, is why Castro couldn't meet him or Panamanian President Martín Torrijos.
"...the state of his health was delicate," Correa said. "Later he improved."
Correa visited Cuba from Jan. 7 to 11, and Torrijos from Jan. 3 to 6. Cuban Colada said:
The fact that neither man met with Castro heightened observers' curiosity, because Castro had not written his regular "reflections" for a long time. Also, his message to the nation on Dec. 31, the eve of the Revolution's 50th birthday, had been uncharacteristically short (one sentence) suggesting he was indisposed.
All this confirms my earlier suspicions that Castro's health had deteriorated, as I suggested on Jan. 2. But Castro looked strong in recent photos of him appearing with visiting heads of state.

Links:
Along the Malecon's Fidel Castro page

Sunday, March 8, 2009

(Warning, Graphic Content: Image of Political Violencee in Haiti) Those unflappable Cuban doctors

Talk of the "Haitianization" of Cuba got me thinking about the sharp contrasts between Haiti and Cuba. I remember the murder and mayhem in Port-au-Prince when Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country in February 2004.
Gunmen rushed through the streets, murdering people and invading homes, businesses and hotels. Hospitals shut down and Haitian doctors ducked for cover. Gunshot victims bled in the streets. But there was one place where the wounded could go: The Cuban medical clinic in Port-au-Prince.
Cuban doctors and nurses were the only ones who kept tending to patients at the height of the violence.

Guns everywhere
Anti-Aristide forces
Growing up fast
Gunshot victim at a hotel
Gunshot victim sprawled at a building entrance
Gunshot victim made it to the Cuban clinic under her own power
Cuban doctor examines the Haitian patient
Cuban doctors tend to gunshot victim shot in the torso

Cuban doctors bandage wounded foot
Cuban flag hangs outside the Cuban doctors' living quarters
It's hard to escape Cuban politics even in Haiti. This display was near the doctors' clinic.
The Haitianization of Cuba would be tragic. For now, Cuba is nothing like Haiti.