Saturday, August 30, 2008

Che wallpaper

A Havana street corner.

The Fidel stare: Here's looking at you, kid

Ever get the funny feeling someone is looking right at you? That's what I thought after seeing this picture on my computer screen.
I figured the Cuban leader was thinking, "Hey, I thought we got rid of you."
I had left Cuba in 2005 when the Dallas Morning News closed the bureau there. I returned a year later while on assignment for the Houston Chronicle, whose foreign editor Chris Shively considered the Cuba story to be important. I took this picture in July 2006 during one of Fidel Castro's last public appearances.

Absolutamente Cuba

The 2008 print edition of Cuba Absolutely is out. It's a striking magazine with beautiful photography and intriguing stories written by such veteran journalists as Christopher Baker, author of the Moon travel guide on Cuba and other books. I've known Chris for quite a few years and have always been impressed with his straight-forward style. He once traveled some 7,000 miles by motorcycle and wrote a book about it, Mi Moto Fidel. For the magazine, he had a fitting assignment: A story on the ultimate road trip in Cuba. 
As it happens, Chris will be speaking next week at Urban Think!, a bookstore in Orlando.
Other topics in Cuba Absolutely range from Havana's most artistic barber to rock climbing.
This magazine goes beyond the predictable. It's not just another fluffy travel magazine.
It's fat, too, running 248 pages and selling for $12.95 in the U.S. 
Editor Charlie Thompson writes on the magazine's web site:
Some thought we might struggle for content in our second edition. How many new pieces were there to write about a tropical island of 11 million people? A lot, it appears. Not only did our original draft stretch to over 300 pages, but new stories keep coming.

Hurricane Gustav blasts Cuba with 200-plus mph winds

More than 240,000 people have fled Hurricane Gustav at this hour. The Category 4 storm is about to hit the mainland, the Associated Press said. AP photos are above.
Update: The hurricane hit with 150-mile-per-hour winds, Reuters said.
Update 1: There was widespread damage, many injuries and gusts above 200 mph, reports say.

From the Sun-Sentinel:
Cuba awoke Sunday to widespread damage and flooding in the wake of one
of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the island in more than 60 years
-- Telephone lines and communication towers knocked to the ground. Roads
washed out. Cisterns and tin roofs ripped from buildings. Massive trees
Storm surge pushed seawater inland more than two miles, according to
official Cuban media reports, and Hurricane Gustav's 150 mph sustained
winds caused untold damage to the tobacco-growing regions agriculture.

Photo (s) of the Week

It's Saturday again. Time for fiestas and Along the Malecon's not-at-all-famous Photo of the Week. Last week, I went with the dancer in the red bikini and the giant condom. This week I picked synchronized swimmers practicing just before sunset at the Hotel Kohly in Havana.

Billboard mania in Cuba

There are very few commercial ads in Cuba, but there is plenty of propaganda, much of it on billboards. I noticed Yoani Sanchez posted some billboard pictures, so I thought I'd display a few of my own from my July trip.

Pardon some are a little crooked. No, I wasn't under the influence of the Bucanero beer gods. I was in a moving car and too lazy to get out. That's my excuse.

One thing I've noticed about billboards in Cuba is that authorities move them from place to place. That "We Have and We Will Have Socialism" (Tenemos y Tendremos Socialismo) billboard has been kicking around for years. It gets get old, but the government doesn't dump it. It's just taken down and trucked off to a new spot.

Red, white and blue in socialist Cuba

American officials are not allowed to fly the stars and stripes outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. But the American flag can be found in socialist Cuba. Here it hangs from the residence of the U.S. chief of mission.

Gen Y blogger given access to punk rocker's trial

Cuba's most famous resident blogger, Yoani Sanchez, was allowed to attend Gorki Aguilar's trial on Aug. 29. To me, that's quite remarkable - a sign that Cuban authorities 1) recognize the power of Sanchez's blog, called Generacion Y; and 2) showed greater transparency than usual in a sensitive political case.
So is this an isolated incident? Or a sign of things to come?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Cuban punk rocker is out of the slammer

Gorki Aguilar, the Cuban rocker with a penchant for profanity, got off with a fine of about 600 Cuban pesos, according to the blog Penultimos Dias. The original charge against him - "social dangerousness," which is punishable by up to four years in jail - was reduced to "disobedience," the blog reported.

"We won the battle," his band members proclaimed on their web site, Porno para Ricardo.

I haven't seen any of the police or court documents in the case and so I don't know much about it. But I think reducing the charge is a good public relations move on the part of the Cuban government. Keeping Gorki in jail only raises his profile, drawing attention to his sharp jabs against the government and reminding the world that such peculiar crimes as "dangerousness" exist in socialist Cuba.

I haven't seen any photos of him being released, but El Blog del Dia has some nice images of his arrest. (Correction: photos are of him going to the trial on Friday Aug. 29). Update: here is an AP photo of him giving the thumbs up after his release.

I shamelessly swiped the photo of Gorki, above top, from CubaWatcher.

The other photo is from the rock group's web site. It compares Porno para Ricardo's plight with that of the Cuban spies jailed in the United States, which I'm sure is an insult to government loyalists who see the spies as patriots and have fought for years to have them released.

A note about the fine: One convertible Cuban peso equals about 24 Cuban pesos. That would mean that Gorki's 600-peso fine would be 25 convertible pesos or nearly $28 U.S. That's based on the straight exchange rate, not taking into account the surcharge you pay when you exchange U.S. dollars for convertible pesos.

Math's not my strong suit, but that's how I calculate it.
Another note: The Porno Para Ricardo web site says Gorki's last name is Aguila. Wire stories say it's Aguilar. I'm going with Aguilar on this site - if that's wrong, let me know.
Here's the AP's story on Gorki's release.

Nothing like Cuba

Top -- Day at the beach: Wake me when we get home.
Middle -- Not at all shy: Big momma goes to work.
Bottom -- A scene from the Malecon: No microphone? No problem.

Gimme a ride!

It's amazing how many Cubans rely on the kindness of strangers to get to and from work.
When I lived on the island, some government vehicles were required to stop and pick up hitchhikers when they had room for passengers. But many drivers picked up hitchhikers voluntarily.
This willingness to pitch in and help your fellow man - or woman - has long been part of the glue that holds the Cuban revolution together.
And indeed you can find a lot of Cubans who help out without asking for anything in return. A Cuban friend of mine named Pedro used to help me keep my Jeep and motorcycle running. He'd have grease up to his elbows, on his neck and on his face by the time he was finished making repairs. He worked his tail off. And he never asked for a thing in return.
Pedro, shown above testing my motorcycle, graciously accept a cold Bucanero beer, sure, but it was hard to convince him to take anything else.
I think it's easier for Cubans to be unselfish when everyone feels like they're in the revolution together. Sure, people are poor, but most everyone is poor. You don't see great inequalities. And indeed, Cuban authorities at times have discouraged people from getting rich, particularly if they thought they were making money on the black market.
But President Raul Castro, 77, has signaled that it's OK for some people to have more than others as long as they work for it.
Socialism means...equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income, he said in July. Equality is not egalitarianism.
It will be interesting to see if any Cubans quit their unselfish ways when they see their neighbors getting rich.

Who makes money off the punker Gorki?

Gorki the Cuban punk rocker is scheduled to go on trial today. Cuban authorities picked him up the other day for "dangerousness" - the idea that he might commit a crime in the future.
His case has drawn international attention. What hasn't drawn so much attention is the fact that there is some controversy over fundraising done on Gorki's behalf without the permission his group, Porno para Ricardo, shown above in a photo taken from the group's site.

In a message to Along the Malecon, leftside says:
Turns out that most of everything we are witnessing is being engineered by a notorious (in the Cuban blogosphere) anti-Castro militant who also happens to be making exclusive money off the CDs (and donations). This person (charlie bravo) and his partner (kill castro) hosts PPR's website, does their PR, and were responsible for getting Gorki's video played in Miami and interviewed on CNN last year. This most recent "news" broke off their websites and they organized the protest "concert" on the Malecon tonight.
It's kind of a tangled mess and I haven't sorted it all out. But if you are interested in reading more, you might start here.

The site says in Spanish, below, that it has not authorized any fundraising campaigns on Gorki's behalf.
IMPORTANTE: El sitio de NO ha autorizado ninguna campaña de donaciones a nombre de Gorki. Si desean donar dinero lo deben hacer exclusivamente a traves de este sitio a menos que se especifique lo contrario.
Porno para Ricardo does accept donations apparently and its web site this morning said it had raised $467.

In case you've never heard Porno para Ricardo's music, you can watch videos here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fidel memorabilia

Will there be a market for Fidel Castro memorabilia after the Cuban leader dies? I wondered that while walking the streets of Havana this summer and seeing posters of Castro in Old Havana. What do you think? Will there be a market for Fidel trinkets in the post-Castro era? I mean, whether you love or hate the guy, he has been at the center of many historic events: the October Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the Cold War, etc.
Above are a few pieces of Fidel memorabilia that I've collected in recent years. I don't plan on putting any of them on Ebay anytime soon, but am curious what this stuff is worth.

Blan Blan -- Puppy tales from Cuba, Part II

Sorry, I can't help it. Here are a few more pictures and even some video of Blan Blan & Co., featured in Puppy Tales from Cuba, Part I
1) Blan Blan and a batch of pups in Tarara, above.
2) Blan runs on the street in front of my house with her "husband" Negrito.
3) Blan's son, Pirata.
4) Blan feeding her pups, below.

Now get me away from this blog before the canines take over.

Puppy tales from Cuba, Part 1

I started this blog a few weeks ago, hoping to make a contribution toward a better understanding of Cuba. But it has gone downhill fast. And today I'm going to tell you a true tale about a stray dog named Blanquita.
I am an unashamed dog lover and fell in love with Blanquita when I lived in Tarara, east of Havana. She was about the friendliest dog I had ever seen and never seemed to stop wagging her tail. I never saw her angry and rarely heard her bark.
I fed Blanquita - or Blan Blan - and other strays whenever I could. She evidently appreciated that and came to my house along the beach when she felt the need to give birth to a new litter of puppies. And she evidently felt that need quite often.
Blan had 18 puppies at my house - three batches of six puppies each. We kept two puppies and gave the others away.
But Blan wouldn't stay in my yard. She continually hopped the fence, even when she was pregnant and her soft parts were practically dangling along the ground.
The way I figured it, she was a restless soul and missed life on the streets.
Or maybe she was a just a floozy, I used to joke.
Either way, I couldn't tame her, so I let her run free, but not before paying a Cuban vet to spay Blan so she wouldn't have any more pups.
I left Cuba in 2005 and a Canadian woman and her husband managed to adopt Blan Blan and renamed her Dulzura. The way I understand it, they pretty much shut the dog inside the house, so she had no choice but to stay. And before long, Blan got used to this new life, forgot about her vagabond ways and came to appreciate her new owners.
Not knowing Blan had been spayed, they took her to a vet for the same operation. The scar was small and the vet didn't notice until after he put Blan to sleep and cut her open.
That saved the dog, as it turned out, because she had developed some nasty tumors and the vet wouldn't have discovered them without the operation.
I'm telling you all this now because I just got an e-mail from Blan's new owners, Judith Saunders and David Carlin. They tell me Blan - I mean, Dulzura - is fine in Canada. She's quite the snowbird pooch and travels with them to Cuba every year.
Writes Judith:
Of course Dulzura...has her own fenced yard although she really is totally a house dog and our bed is her favourite place. She does enjoy going off leash to the woods and runs freely for the sheer joy of it. However she is careful to keep us within sight, not wanting to lose her meal ticket.
Judith also sent pictures, posted above.

If the U.S. and Cuba had normal relations, I wonder how many Cuban dogs would be adopted and sent to America?

Ex-KGB honcho praises Cuban spies

Henry Kissinger once gave a watch to a Cuban double agent thinking he was spying for the Americans, according to an old KGB hand who helped train the Cubans.
Cuban Colada found that interesting tidbit in the Moscow Times, which published an interview with Oleg Maximovich Nechiporenk today.
Cubans are experts in the art of espionage. While in Cuba a few years ago, I arranged to see James Cason, then head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. I'm pretty sure that only Cason, shown above, and his secretary or one of the press attaches knew about the interview. Then, on the day it was to take place, a Cuban official I knew casually asked, "Hey, when you see Cason later today, why don't you ask him about such-and-such." I don't remember exactly what the Cubans were interested in knowing. But I was impressed they knew about the interview in advance.

Radical new Cuban gas-saving technique stuns world

Check out Cuba's newest eco-friendly vehicle, made from an old Chevrolet.
Long live foot power.

Unprecedented lawsuit by Martha Beatriz Roque - an uphill fight

Martha Beatriz Roque, shown in a photo I took while at lunch with her, is taking on the Cuban government once again with her lawsuit against authorities for making public evidence that security agents gathered against her.
State-run television and newspapers in May presented e-mails, videos, audio, letters and photos that it said prove that former U.S. Interests Section chief Michael Parmly personally delivered funds to Roque. She is accused of keeping some of the money and passing the rest along to other dissidents. Granma sums up the case in English here.
Roque has declined to comment on whether she took money from Parmly and has claimed that at least some of the evidence was taken out of context or fabricated, according to the Associated Press. In any case, Roque told reporters in Havana, Cuban law does not allow the government to go public with information it gathers during its investigations.
I'm not expert on Cuban law, but I would be surprised if the dissident leader's lawsuit brings any results. People loyal to the socialist government control the courts. How could they possibly rule in her favor?
What also hurts Roque is that she allegedly has ties with people who want to topple the Cuban government.
If Cuban authorities are right, some of the money for Roque was funneled through a nonprofit called Fundación Rescate Jurídico. Guidestar records show its head is Santiago Alvarez Fernández Magriñat and lists this address:

4225 W 16TH ST 2ND FLR
MIAMI , FL 33134

Alvarez has been accused and convicted in a number of plots against the Cuban government. In one case, he was caught on tape telling an underling what cans of explosives would do to the famed Tropicana nightclub in Havana.
Two little cans and the thing is gone.
You can be sure that Cuban security agents are going to investigate any new plots by Alvarez. His criminal past makes it a matter of national security for Cuba. And I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't some provision in Cuban law for making some aspects of investigations public. I'm not passing judgment. But Cuba is a country of laws in many respects. The laws aren't always enforced, but there are plenty of regulations on the books. And many of the regulations are vague enough to be used and adapted to new and changing circumstances.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Republicans on Cuba: More of the same

The Republican Party's position on Cuba is out - see Page 9 of this PDF. I'm having a little trouble seeing how Republican support for the ban on trade with Cuba and travel to the island is an expression of "solidarity" with political prisoners and "all the oppressed Cuban people." I haven't seen any polls or data showing that most Cubans support U.S.  economic sanctions. But I must say that the Republican position does show quite a flair for phrases describing Cuba and its allies. To wit: "malignant, "anachronistic regime" and "buffoonish."

For more on the subject, see the Cuban Triangle, Mambi Watch and Cuaderno de Cuba.

A valuable archive for Cuba stories

Kudos to Walter Lippmann for maintaining CubaNews, a Yahoo! group that has 1,248 members. CubaNews is a good place to find newspaper stories that have fallen off other web sites. I was reminded of that when looking for a piece that I wrote last month for the Houston Chronicle. I can't find it on the Chronicle site anymore, but CubaNews has it here.

Walter makes it clear he is sympathetic to the socialist regime, but accepts articles of all points of view. Introducing the story I wrote for the Chronicle, he wrote:
Tracey Eaton lived in Cuba for several years when the Dallas MORNING NEWS had a bureau there. He lived in a lovely house out in the Tarara suburb and often got around the city by motorcycle. This is an accurate snapshot of Cuba at the moment. -- Walter
Indeed, I had a motorcycle while in Cuba. Sitting on the 1600cc Yamaha Road Star motorcycle, pictured above, is someone who is much better looking than I am - she's my former Cuban office assistant, a very capable young lady named Anita "Anitica" Macias.

Punk rockers alter socialist logo

Corrected translation: 
Cuban punk rockers Porno para Ricardo created a logo proclaiming Party, Drugs, Sex, Meat (Fiesta, Drogas, Sexo, Carne).

It's a spoof of the Young Communist Union's logo, which says the revolutionary's life should be centered around three things: Study, Work, Rifle (Estudio, Trabajo, Fusil).

The Young Communist Union logo show revolutionary leaders Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara and Julio Antonio Mella. The punk rockers, whose profanity-laced songs have become popular among some young people in Cuba, inserted their faces instead in a logo that must infuriate some of Cuba's socialist leaders.

Cuban punkers say they have more sex than security agents

Members of a provocative Cuban punk band named Porno para Ricardo released a communique today, accusing authorities of jailing their leader for no reason, simply because "they feel like it and that's it."
Gorki Aguilar, 39, is pictured above in a band photo. His red t-shirt says: '59 - Year of the Mistake.
Ouch. That was the year Fidel Castro and his supporters defeated U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Aguilar was arrested Monday at his home. He and other members of the band were about to begin rehearsing for their new CD, to be called Geriatric Central Committee.
Band members writing on say Aguilar is going to go on trial for "dangerousness" on Aug. 29. Dangerousness means that you have a propensity for crime. You are arrested because authorities believe there is a high probability you'll commit a crime in the future. Such a charge is punished by up to four years in jail.
Aguilar, the father of an 11-year-old girl, has been accused of dangerousness before and served two years of a four-year sentence. Band members say on their web site:
En realidad, el delito de Gorki es solo uno: tener los cojones necesarios para denunciar los atropellos de la tiranía contra el pueblo cubano y la ilegitimidad del régimen heredtario impuesto a Cuba.
My translation:
In fact, the crime of Gorki is only one: to have the cojones to denounce abuses of tyranny against the Cuban people and the illegitimacy of the inherited regime imposed on Cuba.
In today's communique, band members say Aguilar's father has been allowed to see him in jail and he is doing OK. But he was upset that officials made references to his daughter, who turns 12 on Sept. 1.
Despite the seriousness of Aguilar's case, band members crack jokes about it on their web site. They say security officials are just jealous because the punk rockers get more women in bed than the officials do.
The Cuban-American National Foundation has offered to pay for a lawyer for Gorki, which one dissident leader said would be the kiss of death for him - at least in Cuba. And such anti-Castro politicians as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida have condemned Gorki's arrest and urged the international community to take action.

Former Cuban officials want reforms

Cuba's socialist system "could come apart suddenly" without democratic reforms, according to an unusual document written by former Cuban diplomat Pedro Campos Santos. 

''The majority of Cubans are frustrated, alienated and hopeless, and the new generations -- unmotivated -- do not feel the same commitment as previous generations towards this socialism that is poor and without perspectives..." said the document, which was posted on Aug. 17 on the web site, Kaos en la Red.

The document, which urges a transition to "democratic socialism," claims to represent the views of "various Cuban communists and revolutionaries," according to an Aug. 26 story by El Nuevo Herald.

The document has drawn passionate comments of support and rejection. Supporters say it could be a starting point for debate over the future of the socialist government. Others criticize the author, Campos, calling him a "worm" from Miami. 

The web site says Campos is retired, but doesn't make clear where he resides. He describes himself as a member of Cuba's Communist Party. 

Monday, August 25, 2008

New Cuba background notes

The U.S. State Department has updated its Cuba background notes, according to Cuban Colada. The background notes give a snapshot of the U.S. government's current view of Cuba and include details on the economy, government, human rights conditions and more. They also list the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section. His name is Jonathan Farrar and he's a Los Angeles native who has served in Uruguay, Paraguay, Mexico and Belize, according to his bio.

Olympic medals per capita: Cuba kicked butt

The 2008 summer Olympics is old news by now, but I'd like to point out that Cuba had the second-highest number of medals per capita when compared to the top 12 medal winners.

Of the top 12 finishers, only Australia had more medals per capita.

Cuba's performance is impressive when considering that it competed against much wealthier nations. The Caribbean nation is a world power when it comes to sports, despite some of the defections that have hurt some Cuban teams, including boxing.

Below is a quick, rough and decidedly unscientific calculation, but you get the idea. The lower the population per medal, the higher the number of medals per capita.

Country                 Pop                    Medals    Pop per medal

1 U.S.                301 million        110       2,736,363
2 China           1.321 billion         100        13,210,000
3 Russia            141 million          72         1,958,333
4 Britain             60 million         47         1,276,595
5 Australia           20 million         46           434,782
6 Germany           82 million         41          2,000,000
7 France              61 million         40          1,525,000
8 S. Korea           49 million          31          1,580,645
Italy                 58 million          28          2,071,428
10 Ukraine         46 million           27        1,703,703
11 Japan           127 million           25        5,080,000
12 Cuba             12 million 24         458,333

The LA Times did a much more scientific analysis that compared all of the competing nations, not just the top 12. It showed that the Bahamas finished first in medals per capita. Cuba was eighth in the world and the United States was 46th.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Artist's Tribute to the Five Cuban Spies

Cuban artist Jose Fuster, above, is building yet another sprawling sculpture at his art studio/home in Jaimanitas, west of Havana. Fuster, sometimes called the Picasso of the Caribbean, is a famous artist who has sold paintings and sculptures to buyers in the United States, Europe and Latin America. He told me that after a lot of soul searching about the five spies, he came to the conclusion they should be freed and decided to make the sculpture as a tribute to them. The sculpture, above left in the photo, wasn't quite done when I saw Fuster in July 2008. Also shown above is a scan of the cover of the latest book about Fuster.