Monday, September 29, 2008

Did rare pearly crocodiles survive Hurricane Ike?

This wire story caught my eye the other day:

Aging Cuban crocodile from NYC arrives in Miami
MIAMI - A Cuban crocodile who spent the past four decades at the Bronx Zoo will live out her remaining days in Miami.
The crocodile, named Maria, boarded a plane to Miami this week as she nears the end of her life expectancy. She has had several children and lost her mate, Fidel, years ago. She's at least 40 years old.
Her new home is the Miami Metrozoo.
Zookeepers say crocodiles like Maria are an endangered species and are only found in the wild on Cuba's Isla de la Juventud and in the Zapata Swamp.
I wonder how all the crocs in the Zapata Swamp and on the Isla de la Juventud are faring now after Hurricane Ike tore through the region.

Cuban scientists are respected for their efforts to protect the pearly crocodile, one of the world's rarest specimens. Here's a video of an American scientist talking about the Cuban crocodiles. Also: a 2007 YouTube of some of the crocs at Zapata Swamp.

I interviewed U.S. and Cuban scientists for a story about the crocodiles several years ago. Among those Cuban scientists I met was Damarys Lopez, who kissed a small crocodile at Zapata Swamp while I took pictures.
"I love these animals," she told me. "I don't want them to go the way of the dinosaur, and that's why I work to protect them."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Quinceañera bashes making a comeback

Some Cuban families begin saving for their daughter's 15th birthday celebration practically from the day the child is born, according to a mother interviewed by Youth Radio, an Oakland, Calif., media education and production company.

Fifteen-year celebrations - or quinceañeras - are popular throughout Latin America, but declined in popularity in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. But quinceañeras "have been making a comeback" in Cuba, Youth Radio said in this report.
In socialist Cuba, big, extravagant quinceañeras were held in disdain for years as a pre-Revolutionary bourgeois cultural vestige. But the showy, ostentatious affairs have been making a comeback, driven in part by shifting cultural attitudes and Cuba’s emerging dollar economy. Some cash-strapped families now save for years to lavish their daughters with expensive parties, rented Mercedes-Benzs, and bright, flowing gowns.
When I worked in Cuba, my office was on the fifth floor of the Lonja de Comercio building in Old Havana, a floor down from the Associated Press office. From my office windows, I could see quinceañera celebrations taking place in and around the Plaza de San Francisco down below. Brides and their grooms also streamed into the plaza to have their picture taken with the pigeons, who cared more about the bread crumbs and frequently tested their marksmanship on the fancy dresses (no worries - it just falls between the frills).

The Youth Radio report asked a 14-year-old what the quinceañera meant to her.
People here say different things about what it means to have your quinceanera. Some says it means it’s OK for a girl to have sex. Other people just see it as another excuse to have a big party. For me, it’s a little different, like something I know I’ll always look back on.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fidel's happily not-so-famous "other brother" is almost 84

Fidel Castro's older brother is Ramon, who for decades has worked in the countryside, content to be out of the national spotlight.
In less than three weeks, on Oct. 14, 1924, Ramon will celebrate his 84th birthday. He is older than Fidel, whose official birth date is Aug. 13, 1926 (although some biographers are convinced Fidel was actually born in 1927 and claimed to be a year older to get in to Belen prep school when he was a teen-ager).
Sarasota Herald-Tribune staff writer Michael Braga profiled the oldest Castro brother in 2004.
From the story:
With his white beard shaved at the chin, dressed in an old cowboy hat gray from cigar smoke, a short-sleeve check shirt, black slacks and black shoes, Ramon Castro resembles an Amish farmer.
"I'm just a guajiro," he says, a word that translates roughly into "hillbilly."
Ramon's good-natured humility and aura of spirituality cause people to gravitate toward him. Those who recognize him realize he's a national treasure, someone who has fought for the principles of the Cuban Revolution without getting his hands dirty.
"He's very clean," said his sister, Juanita Castro, who lives and works in Miami and has been a persistent critic of her more famous brother, Fidel. "Ramon is a wonderful man."
Not long after that story came out, Naples businessman John Parke Wright IV was kind enough to invite me to lunch with Ramon and a few others. Ramon was celebrating his 80th birthday. Wright played the harmonica. Ramon sang, told stories and snuffed out the candle on his cake with a clap of his hands.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Famous Cuban dog learns to shoot pistol, also barks at President Bush

If you've been to Old Havana, you've probably seen dogs wearing funny hats and costumes, usually aimed at shaking loose tips from passing tourists.
Some dog owners demand a Cuban peso for every picture taken of their pooches. But one man actually gives tourists a show for their money.
Roberto Gonzalez, the owner of a dachshund named Pillo Chocolate, has taught his dog to talk on the phone, bark at President Bush and shoot a gun. See YouTube video (mostly in English) and this profile, which describes the dog as a sports fanatic who likes riding on motorcycles and has been photographed 80,000 times (in Spanish).
Pillo Chocolate knew how to distinguish Cuban pesos and American dollars when I saw him a few years ago.
The trick went like this:
Gonzalez showed Pillo Chocolate a Cuban peso. We're not talking about convertible pesos, which are now worth more than U.S. dollars, but regular Cuban pesos, worth less than a nickel each.
Seeing the near-worthless currency, Pillo Chocolate growled, barked and even snapped at my fingers when I held a Cuban peso.
Gonzalez then asked me for a dollar and Pillo pawed it with approval, which of course was good for a tip.
When the Cuban government stopped allowing U.S. dollars to circulate freely on the streets in 2004, Gonzalez changed his trick.
"Before, Pillo would reject any currency that wasn't the dollar," Gonzalez told the Associated Press. "But in the last week I trained it to accept the convertible peso. It knows it has to adapt, too."
I haven't seen Pillo Chocolate for a while. He'd be about 11 if he's still around. Gonzalez also had a back-up dog - a younger dachshund named Coco Perro, who loved coconut milk.

Shaking off those Cuban communists. Not as easy as you might think.

Politics and animosity continue to entangle efforts to send aid to Cuba, still reeling from hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which the Cuban government describes as the most devastating storms ever to hit the island.
Current U.S. policy on hurricane aid is tied to the idea that the socialist government is about to crumble. Predicting that kind of thing is not easy. Just ask Andres Oppenheimer, author of the book, "Castro's Final Hour." It was published in 1993.
Fifteen years later, American officials don't want to loosen economic sanctions to make it easier for Cuba to buy such things as construction supplies because the end of the socialist regime may be near.
"We don’t want to give them a lot of breathing room at a time where we believe change will happen," U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said during a Q&A after he spoke Monday at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
On Sept. 20, Fidel Castro wrote that Cubans shouldn't take U.S. aid that is funneled through non-governmental organizations that also accept money to try to undermine the socialist government.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque says the U.S. government currently has budgeted $46 million for "mercenary groups in Cuba, with the aim of promoting internal subversion" and $40 million for "illegal, anti-Cuba radio and television broadcasts."
"This is not even taking into account the CIA and other agencies," Granma quoted Perez Roque as saying.
The hurricanes caused at least $5 billion in damage, Cuban officials estimate. At least 444,000 homes were damaged and 63,249 were destroyed, according to a Cuban government preliminary damage report published Sept. 15. Some 200,000 Cubans remain homeless.

Fallout from the hurricanes affects the entire nation of 11 million people. Cuban officials expect a "food crisis" that will last at least six months, the Associated Press reported.

Meantime, Cold-War politics dominate the debate over hurricane aid, a Chicago Tribune editorial said.
In the twisted exile logic that has long dictated our policy toward Cuba, letting them go hungry is something we do for their own good. They'll thank us later, after they shake off the communists and see the light. Not likely.
When the Castro brothers are history and the Cuban people contemplate what comes next, what they'll remember is that in September 2008, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin were their friends. And we weren't.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Please speak clearly into the coffee cup

Boy, did I get into the wrong business. If I had gone to work for a defense or military contractor, then maybe I could have gotten rich selling millions of dollars in high-tech spy and defense equipment to oil-rich Hugo Chavez.
Earlier this summer, Wikileaks published a memo from Phoenix Worldwide Industries to Venezuelan Brig. Gen. Pedro Ali Barrios Zurita, giving the general a quote for a range of spy and surveillance equipment.
Wikileaks claims the memo is authentic. I can't verify that, but I find the 44-page document to be intriguing nonetheless.
The Feb. 23, 2000, memo, if genuine, sheds some light on ways that Chavez is spending some of his oil riches. It may underscore his concerns for his own safety.
Then again, who knows? The memo could be a fake.
And even if the document is genuine, that doesn't mean Chavez bought any of the equipment.
Or maybe the Venezuelan military bought the equipment and sent at least some of it to their allies in Cuba. Wouldn't that be wild? A nifty way to get around U.S. economic sanctions. 
(In case you doubt the close Venezuela-Cuba ties, check out the poster above, showing Chavez welcoming Cubans to a July 26 celebration in Santiago de Cuba. In the U.S. that would be a little like going to a July 4 bash in New York and being welcomed by the British prime minister).
Whether or not the Phoenix Worldwide memo is real, it does conjure up images of a president who loves high-tech toys and is willing to spend top dollar to get them.

The vehicles and mobile systems listed in the document caught my attention. They included:
* Mobile detection system for weapons of mass destruction, explosives and other hazards - $1,706,650
* Mobile system for jamming and countermeasures - $1,492,650
* Vehicle with ballistic protection - $669,660
* Command and control vehicle - $658,585
* Mobile vehicle for SWAT and assault team - $529,650
* Operations vehicle, 4x4 - $476,685
* Covert pickup with camper top, equipped for tech support - $177,085
Another high-dollar item was the satellite intercept system, which must snatch satellite phone calls out of the air. It was listed at a cool $809,455

Other trinkets included:
* Covert shirt camera, color - $1,065 to $1,707, depending on the model (and you always wondered why Chavez looked a little beefy)
* Coffee cup cam - $1,065 (ideal for those breakfast meetings with foreign dignitaries)
* Pager-cam - $1,065
* VCR-cam - $2,884 (you're watching it, but it's watching you)
* Cell phone cam with audio - $3,419
And here's my favorite: Covert sunglasses with color camera. Price: $1,921. Or $3,205 for wireless model.

Scanning the document, I found it strange to see $315 digital handheld metal detectors and $6,580 secure fax machines listed along with $1.7 million mobile detection systems for WMDs.

I don't have a clue what many of the items are, like the pink noise generator, listed for $177, and the special countermeasures tool kit, a bargain at $423. Sounds like something out of a Spies like Us movie. (Video clip from the 1985 movie here).

But it is an interesting list to examine, particularly if you're in the market for a surveillance system that will capture and record your neighbor's cell phone calls. Price: $101,645. If I could only come up with the cash...

Goose step wars: Cuban recruits vs. ex-Monty Python star

José Ramón Machado Ventura, vice president of Cuba, visited New York's Central Park over the weekend and placed a wreath beneath the statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí, Granma says.
José Martí is revered in Cuba, of course, and his remains are in Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city.
Martí was killed in combat on May 19, 1885, and buried at Dos Rios. Since then, his remains have been moved at least five times. His remains were:
1. Exumed on May 22, 1885, and Martí was taken to a placed called Remanganaguas and reburied "only with his pants on," as a Cuban Foreign Ministry web site put it.
2. Dug up again and taken to Santiago de Cuba.
3. Exumed again in 1907 after the niches at the cemetery were destroyed. The remains were then placed inside a mahogany-encased lead cage.
4. Exumed once again in September 1947 and stored in a temporary tomb while a spiffy mausoleum was built.
5. Taken from the temporary tomb and placed into the Mausoleum of Santa Efigenia.
After all that indignity, José Martí can rest easy knowing that young Cuban recruits guarding his tomb do some of the best goose-stepping around.
That's right, Cubans don't do any old ordinary, run-of-the-mill goose-stepping. As one travel writer put it: The Cuban technique is "not the standard up-down goose step." Cubans, he wrote, lift their leg higher and hold it there longer.
Well, it looked painful when I saw three young recruits doing the goose step earlier this year outside Martí's tomb. But they looked proud of what they were doing. Click here for a 5-minute, 23-second YouTube video of the goose-steppers.

Naturally, we are taught that goose-stepping is evil. Says a blog called Contra Revolución:
Bad guys goose-step. It’s the international equivalent of a black hat in an old western. The good guys never goose-step.
Slate magazine called goose-stepping "the dance craze of tyrants." And George Orwell said it was "one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber."

Orwell wrote:
It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is "Yes, I am ugly, and you daren't laugh at me." … Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.
In any case, former Monty Python star John Cleese got plenty of laughs doing his goose step during an episode of Faulty Towers. It's called "the Germans."

The Cuban recruits I saw took their job very seriously, as you can imagine. But they've got competition. Don't John Cleese's steps look higher?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

La Bodeguita: A famed Hemingway watering hole

Yahoo! Travel calls Havana's Bodeguita del Medio "one of the most famous Cuban restaurants in the world."
In this tiny space, with hardly enough room to move, the walls are covered with the signatures of luminaries like Nat King Cole, Brigitte Bardot and Errol Flynn, followed by Julio Cortázar, Joan Manuel Serrat and Jack Lemmon, just to name a few.
To be sure, la Bodeguita is a piece of history and entrepreneurs are eager to cash in on its name. The family that founded the restaurant in Cuba moved to Miami after the 1959 revolution. When I interviewed the family for a story in 2003, Meri Martinez told me the Bodeguita name rightfully belongs to her family. And as you'd expect, her restaurant in Miami is called the Bodeguita del Medio.

“If you come into this restaurant, there’s one requirement," Martinez told me. "You’ve got to hate Fidel Castro.”

Employees of the Bodeguita del Medio in Havana shake their head at that kind of talk. They say what's done is done. Castro's rebels won and there's no turning back, they say.

Politics aside, the food at la Bodeguita in Havana isn't bad. Yahoo! Travel continues:
On the menu are such local delicacies as roast suckling pig, fried plantain, black-eyed beans, tamales and cassava in a special dressing. The house drink is the "Mojito," made with rum, soda, lemon juice and a sprig of mint; once the favorite tipple of Ernest Hemingway whenever he dropped by for culinary inspiration.
In case you're curious what the place looks like, here is a short video tour:

High-level Cuban delegation heads to Big Apple (updated)

Cuban Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, seen above during a meeting over coffee in Havana, plan to visit New York on Monday Sept. 22. They will press for the release of Cuban agents known as the Cuban Five, above, who were arrested 10 years ago and remain in American jails.
It's the highest-level Cuban delegation to visit New York since Fidel Castro's trip in 2000.
Fernando Remírez de Estenoz, head of international relations for the Communist Party of Cuba, will also be part of the Cuban delegation.
In 1998, Remírez attended a conference that the Dallas Morning News sponsored. I helped organize the conference along with several others, including Alfredo Corchado, now a Niemen scholar at Harvard University.
The conference was called Cuba in Evolution. It took place in Dallas and brought together top U.S. and Cuban diplomats together in a public forum for the first time in many years.
At the time, Remírez was chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. His U.S. counterpart - Mike Kozak, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana - also attended. He and Remírez sat next to each other and talked - something that doesn't seem to happen all that often with U.S. and Cuban diplomats.
I don't know that this kind of dialogue has taken place in the 10 years since then.
Just weeks before the conference, the FBI broke up a Cuban spy ring. The Cuban delegation traveling to New York is expected to call for the release of five agents arrested back then.

Update: Here's Machado's speech to the United Nations.

Photo (s) of the Week

Once again, it's Saturday, so here's your Photo (s) of the Week - carnival in Santiago de Cuba

Friday, September 19, 2008

My dreams were shattered: Wife of Cuban agent (Part II)

This is the second and final part of an interview with Adriana Perez, wife of convicted Cuban agent Gerardo Hernandez. Marc Lacey of the New York Times and I interviewed Perez in Santiago de Cuba. Olga Salanueva, wife of another accused agent, joined Perez in the hotel where the interview took place. When Perez says “we,” she is referring to herself and Olga.

In the first part of our interview, Perez said she hadn’t seen her husband in 10 years.

In the final part of our interview, Adriana Perez said the jailing of her husband changed her life forever, leaving her “without hopes and without dreams.”

“Life has changed a lot…your plans, your hopes, your future were totally cut off,” said Perez, who never got the chance to have children with her husband.

“They took away our dreams of living as a married couple, of sharing a family. They took away all those illusions and that future.”

“We always say that we hold out hope that they’ll return and we’ll be able to put back together our marriages, to put back together our lives.”

But she said she’s 38 and her time for children may be running out.

Interview continues here

End U.S. travel restrictions, Cuba expert says

Phil Peters, an expert at the Lexington Institute, a private research organization, took aim Friday at U.S. travel laws restricting family visits to Cuba, saying they were a “major foreign policy mistake” and had “no strategic benefit.”
"At the heart of the policies that helped win the Cold War was a belief that American openness was an element of American strength,” Peters told the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight.
(Transcript of his remarks).

U.S. regulations “unreasonably limit” Cuban-Americans and anyone else who wants to give “direct, effective aid” to Cubans recovering from the devastation of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, said Peters, who blogs at The Cuban Triangle.
“Surely no American would wish today to see Cuba plunge into a humanitarian crisis, in the hope that acute suffering would somehow force the Cuban people to act. The likely result would not be political change, but a Florida Straits migration crisis that would be our crisis too,” he said.

Many others - including some who favor U.S. sanctions against Cuba - also testified at the hearing, including:
Bill Delahunt, Jo Ann Emerson, Ray LaHood, Thaddeus G. McCotter, Marlene Arzola, Luisa Montero-Diaz, Hector Palacios, Blanca González, Francisco J. Hernandez, Ignacio Sosa, Ninoska Pérez Castellón and Sylvia Iriondo. For more information, see the subcommittee's web site.

Should Fidel Castro, columnist-in-chief, start his own blog?

Fidel Castro has not appeared in public for more than two years, but stays busy as Columnist-in-Chief. His newspaper columns, dubbed Reflections, appear regularly in Cuba's state-run media. (Reflections in English; Reflexiones in Spanish).

In one of  his latest Reflections, Fidel comments on the financial meltdown on Wall Street:
The hurricane winds of financial Ike also threaten all provinces of the world. The weather forecast is uncertain…
It is very difficult to monitor and understand the fabulous sums of new money that are injected into the global economy…
Inflation is inevitable in consumer societies and disastrous for emerging countries…
Fiscal paradises prosper; people suffer. Does that by any chance ensure the well-being of humanity?
As usual, the former Cuban president signs off with the exact time and date. In this case: Sept. 18, 2008. 8:46 p.m.

Obviously, Fidel Castro is a detailed-oriented guy. I once attended a speech of his that lasted more than six hours. I thought his talk was interesting. And yes, it was detailed, although a few foreign diplomats missed some of the minutia because they chose to doze behind sunglasses and Panama hats.

That wasn't even Fidel's longest speech. In 1986, he spoke to the Communist Party Congress for seven hours and 10 minutes, according to the Independent newspaper. And he holds the Guinness World Record for the longest speech at the United Nations, a paltry four hours and 29 minutes. (A four-part transcript of that 1960 speech begins here).

So it's not as if Fidel Castro doesn't have an opinion or two. And judging from his Reflections, he stays on top of things. He is well informed. He has experience (nearly a half century as a statesman, president and revolutionary has got to count for something). And I'm sure he's Internet savvy. 

So I think he ought to start his own blog. Why not? Whether you love him or hate him, Castro has been at or near the center of many momentous events - the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion and more. I'll bet he could write a helluva blog.

Then we could do a little experiment: Put his blog next to Generación Y , hook up the hit counters and let's see which blog gets more traffic.

What do you think? Should Fidel Castro start his own blog? And what should he call it?